Reading your way to kindness Two male graduate students on crutches hobble into a room where preschoolers are hanging out and “accidentally” drop a pen. The children recently read a book on helping others, but will they step up? That’s one of the ways two Marquette professors are trying to gauge whether exposing urban, low-income preschool children to books and activities about certain themes makes a difference in their social competence. “If you want children to exit K-12 and be leaders, you need to start early and build capacity in preschoolers,” says Dr. Kathleen Clark, associate professor of educational policy and leadership and director of Marquette’s Hartman Literacy and Learning Center. “People underestimate the importance of early childhood education,” adds her collaborator, Dr. Maura
Illustration by James Steinberg
Moyle, an associate professor of speech pathology and audiology and co-director of the Wisconsin Reading Acquisition Program. “It’s a huge time for language development.” The idea behind their latest project is to build empathy through literature. Children are given books designed to elicit a response — multicultural stories in which children can identify themselves in relatable circumstances — and learn to enhance their vocabulary with “feeling words” as they discuss the characters and their challenges. On the reading list: Molly Bang’s When Sophie Gets Angry — Really, Really Angry, about how the title character responds when a sibling grabs her toy; Ezra Jack Keats’ Pet Show, about a boy’s tough decision after losing his cat; and Juanita Havill’s Jamaica’s Find, about a girl who initially keeps a toy she finds at a playground. The children are asked: “How would you do this differently?” “We’re using the stories as a vehicle, to get to those emotions and develop the ability to identify empathy and respond,” Clark says. But it’s about more than just developing good citizens. “There’s only so much time in the school day,” Clark notes. “Teachers have to maximize time for learning and not sacrifice teaching time. By focusing on empathy and pro-social behavior, will we see changes in literature comprehension and social competence?” The teacher reads the story aloud first, and then the children develop their narrative skills by retelling the story later in the week. The post-testing after the four-week intervention showed no overall difference in curriculum vocabulary and pro-social/empathy behavior between the control and experimental groups. But boys in the experimental group showed significantly greater growth in both measures than the boys in the control group. “These very preliminary results suggest that the boys benefited from this intervention, which could have interesting social implications,” Moyle says. Researchers hope to pursue funding for a larger study next year. Eventually, they hope to expand the study to older students. — NSE
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