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Tempe Early Reading First Partnership

May 21, 2006
This feature is the second in a series of features highlighting the recipients of the 2006 President’s Medal for Social Embeddedness.

On a Monday evening a diverse group of preschool teachers, assistant teachers, faculty from Arizona State University and the Arizona Literacy and Learning Center (ALLC), and mentors from the Tempe Elementary School District (TESD) gather in the library of Frank Elementary School. The educators socialize, sharing stories of recent successes in teaching preschoolers early reading and writing skills. A few minutes into the proceedings, Dr. Shelley Gray, an ASU assistant professor and researcher in the Department of Speech and Hearing Science, calls the meeting to order.

“Can any of you tell me how you learned to teach?” she asks the group.

Her question sparks a lively discussion as mentors and preschool teachers offer their ideas about how teaching skills are acquired and the best ways to instruct children. As these educators from both the university and public school arenas share their knowledge with one another, it becomes clear that this professional development meeting of the Tempe Early Reading First Partnership (TERF) is just one example of how this partnership between the community and ASU is helping set community standards for what constitutes quality, research-based early childhood education.

For the past two years, TERF has been combating Arizona’s literacy crisis by helping preschool teachers serving low-income students develop curricula for enhancing a child’s phonological awareness, vocabulary, alphabet and print knowledge, and expressive language skills. Such skills help children read, write, and communicate better as they grow older. Funded by an Early Reading First Grant from the U.S. Department of Education, TERF members combine their expertise to create the needed curriculum.

Many members experienced growing pains early in the program. “Our first year it was like ‘what are we doing?’” reminisces preschool teacher Chris Zuniga. Fellow teacher Darcey Ryan agrees, comparing the process of creating a new curriculum that could overlap their existing one to being in a “lion’s den.” Gradually the teachers found ways to implement the new curriculum, using games such as bingo to improve a child’s alphabet knowledge, and putting on class plays that make children use new vocabulary words to improve their reading and expressive language skills.

Three times a month, a professional development team of ASU and ALLC staff members provides courses and training sessions for mentors and preschool teachers, sharing the latest research on reading and early literacy curricula. Mentors from TESD pair up and spend a minimum of eight hours a week with preschool teachers from two other TERF participants – Tots Unlimited, a for-profit daycare center, and Maricopa Head Start, a comprehensive program for low-income families. Together, mentors and teachers work in their preschool classes to translate ASU and ALLC research into lesson plans and activities that will fit the needs of their students.

The mentors emphasize that earning the trust of teachers is vital to TERF’s success, as they must critique each teacher’s performance in the classroom. Mentor Rachael Learn finds that modeling teaching skills in front of children helps develop this trust because, “it shows them I’m not going to ask them to do anything that I’m not willing to do myself.” While their support has strengthened teachers’ skills, the mentors also feel that their experience with teachers has honed their mentoring abilities.

With over three hundred and sixty children benefiting from their teachers’ increased expertise, as well as the monetary investment in early literacy materials that have enriched their classrooms, preschoolers gain immensely from TERF. Educators burst with stories about their students’ success and the class walls display many examples of student writing projects. TERF research data confirms this success – test scores show TERF children are “at” or “above” expected bench marks for kindergarten while a high percentage of special needs children no longer require special education services.

As TERF completes the second year of its three-year project, it continues to make an enduring impact on preschool education. To date, eleven preschool teaching teams and administrators have received more than 100 hours of professional development through ASU classes accompanied by 300 hours of in-classroom mentoring. Many teachers will mentor other preschool teachers in the new curricula once the project ends. Teachers also earn undergraduate and graduate credit through TERF by taking ASU professional development courses, inspiring many to pursue a degree and increase their teaching skills. Likewise, the relationships fostered by TERF allow ASU students to volunteer in preschools by assembling teaching materials and assisting students, something that has inspired undergraduate Linda Shadly to become an advocate for early literacy.

“I could not have paid for this experience,” raves Shadly.


ASU Team Members:

Shelley Gray, Speech & Hearing Science

Catherine Otto, Speech & Hearing Science

M. Adelaida Restrepo, Speech & Hearing Science

Linda Shadley, Speech & Hearing Science

Suzanne Stellino, Speech & Hearing Science

Mary Towle-Harmon, Speech & Hearing Science

Catherine Wennerstrom, Speech & Hearing Science

Jacquelyn Williams, Speech & Hearing Science

Eleni Yiangou, Speech & Hearing Science

Randi Schechter Retkinski

Community Partners:

Terry Doolan, Arizona Department of Education

Marjorie Jones, Arizona Literacy and Learning Center

Deborah Kendall, Arizona Literacy and Learning Center

Maria Munoz, Maricopa County Head Start

Andrea Colby, Tempe Elementary School District #3

Kim Burch, Tots Unlimited