Although research indicates that early childhood literacy programs
can be effective for preschoolers, little is known about the effects of
programs on college student mentors. This study explored the beliefs of
college students about literacy development in preschool children and
whether these beliefs change after their involvement in a yearlong,
intensive mentoring program intended to facilitate at-risk
preschoolers' literacy development. Survey data from a large-scale
national service program and a smaller local Jumpstart program were
analyzed. Surveys from the national program investigated college
students' beliefs about developmentally appropriate literacy
practices. Sample surveys further investigated the nature of the
students' beliefs, i.e., constructivist based versus skill based.
Results indicate that a yearlong mentoring program positively impacted
college students' beliefs and understanding about developmentally
appropriate literacy practices.
The educational community has long recognized that academic success
requires at least on-grade-level reading with fluency and comprehension.
Yet the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data
consistently report that many of our nation's fourth-graders are
reading below basic levels (Perie, Grigg, & Donahue, 2005). In fact,
while the average score increased two points for fourth-graders from 217
in 1992 to 219 (based on a possible 500 points) in 2005, "there was
no significant change in the percentage of fourth-graders performing at
or above Basic [levels]" (Perie et al., 2005). To remedy the
situation, many schools have implemented programming aimed at improving
reading instruction for their at-risk populations (Adler, 1999, 2002;
Implementing Schoolwide Programs, 1998; U.S. Department of Education,
2005). Much of the funding throughout the past decades has been
concentrated in the primary grades. More recently, "No Child Left
Behind" legislation has raised the stakes for schools and has
introduced federally funded programs, such as Early Reading First, for
at-risk preschoolers ("No Child Left Behind," n.d.). Once
again, more than two generations since the 1960s War on Poverty that
introduced Head Start, serious consideration and program development are
focused on preschoolers and their literacy development. Based on its
extensive review of existent research, the National Research Council
recommends that "all children, especially those at risk for reading
difficulties, should have access to early childhood environments that
promote language and literacy growth" (Snow, Burns, & Griffin,
1998, p. 320).
In efforts to achieve maximum instructional opportunities for their
struggling readers, schools have increasingly relied on a volunteer
force (such as college students) to supplement their instructional
programming. Research from K-3 tutor studies can provide insights into
the efficacy of these programs and their impact on not only the children
but also the tutors themselves. Research supports the use of college
students in early reading interventions (Juel, 1991, 1994, 1996;
Reisner, Petry, & Armitage, 1990; Shanahan, 1998; Wasik, 1998) and
is consistent with the research on service learning. This research
suggests that college students' involvement with volunteer service
learning projects positively impacts their academic development,
leadership and conflict resolution skills, self-concepts, understandings
of diversity, and sense of responsibility to others (Astin & Sax,
1998) and that these effects are long lasting (Astin, Sax, & Avalos,
Many agree that tutoring can be effective (Cohen, Kulik, &
Kulik, 1982; Shanahan, 1998), particularly if tutors are well trained
and provided with instructional support (Shanahan, 1998; Wasik, 1997).
Adler (1999) found that the college students in one university program
were able to carry out tutoring with minimal training. However, they
trusted their own intuitions about literacy development instead of
seeking expert advice. Many came into the experience with preconceived
notions about becoming literate that changed over the course of their
working one-on-one with struggling readers. More research, however, is
needed to better understand what college students consider to be
important for the literacy development in young children.
Placing college students with at-risk preschoolers in order to
effectively promote their language and literacy development requires
that the college students implement best practice strategies. The
research community acknowledges that literacy emerges through
language-rich interactions with others who guide and facilitate its
development (Teale & Sulzby, 1986; Vygotsky, 1986), that is, using a
child-centered constructivist approach. Yet within the general
population, there is an acceptance of a teacher-directed, skill-based
approach as a means to develop literacy in preparation for school
(Delpit, 1995; Heath, 1983; West, Hausken, & Collins as cited in
Stipek & Byler, 1997).
It is our contention that by examining notions of literacy
development held by college students working as literacy mentors in a
well-designed structured mentoring program, we have the opportunity to
gain a better understanding of how best to prepare adults working with
young at-risk children and additionally benefit the reading
This study examines college students' beliefs about literacy
development and best practice as they are trained and guided to work
one-on-one with at-risk preschoolers. Using national and sample pre- and
post-survey data, this study asks two questions: (1) What preconceived
beliefs do college students have about literacy development in
preschoolers? and (2) Does experience with a yearlong mentoring program
for at-risk preschoolers affect college students' beliefs about
Description of Preschool Literacy Mentoring Program
College students in this study were members of Jumpstart, founded
in 1993 at the intersection of two national trends--the public need for
high-quality early childhood programs and the emerging national service
movement recruiting thousands of college students to community service
(Our Story, 2006). This program, funded through Americorps, annually
recruits college students to work individually with preschool children.
Children participating in the Jumpstart program are considered at
risk for academic failure and attend Head Start or early childhood
programs for low-income families. These state or federally funded
programs are culturally diverse. Children are recommended by their
preschool teachers and are matched by the national Jumpstart researchers
to a control group. An evaluation of the Jumpstart Program (Jumpstart
Evaluation Executive Summary, 2003) reported that the children enrolled
in Jumpstart initially scored significantly lower than the non-Jumpstart
children on all three subscales of the School Success Checklist, a
modified version of the Child Observation Record (High/Scope Educational
Research Foundation, 1992). By the end of the year, Jumpstart
children's gains on the language/literacy, social, and initiative
subscales were significantly greater than the non-Jumpstart children
(Jumpstart Evaluation Executive Summary, 2003). The Jumpstart program
continues each year, involving more preschoolers and college students.
The program pairs a college student mentor with an at-risk
preschooler. In 2-hour, twice-weekly sessions, the college student
conducts developmentally appropriate activities with the child to build
language and literacy, initiative, and social skills. A team leader, a
college student with some additional training or experience with
children, plans and supervises the sessions. In addition, each college
student works in the child's classroom for two 4-hour sessions per
week, assisting the preschool teacher and other children in the
classroom. College students work with the children throughout the school
year, with most spending a total of approximately 300 hours, 25 of which
include community service, such as helping at family and community
events or making materials for the classroom or school. The college
students also have several team-building experiences (e.g., whole group
training, end-of-semester celebrations, and the wearing of Jumpstart
The national Jumpstart organization requires that all college
students in the program receive 40 hours of training in child
development, literacy development, and the management of young
children's behavior. They are also given training in active methods
and strategies to interact with children to promote language,
communication, literacy, problem solving, and social skills. National
Jumpstart trainers or site coordinators, trained by the national
organization, conduct the training (Jumpstart Education and Training
College students receive further training in weekly meetings,
during which they plan developmentally appropriate activities to conduct
with their assigned young children. Throughout the year, team leaders
observe the college students and provide feedback regarding their
interactions with the preschoolers. In addition, the college students
receive ongoing training and guidance from the preschool classroom
teachers through observation and supervision.
The training, based upon materials developed by the National
Association for the Education of Young Children, the High/Scope
Educational Foundation, and the Stony Brook Reading and Language Project
(Jumpstart Education and Training Team, 2003), treats literacy as a
developmental process that is guided through child-centered,
constructivist interactions. According to the Jumpstart training manual,
a high-quality session with the child would have the following
 ... adults use a variety of strategies to encourage and support
child language and communication ... [e.g.,] adults observe and listen
before entering conversations with children, ... share control of
conversations, ... converse ... in a give and take manner, [and] ask ...
 ... adults demonstrate effective reading strategies ... [e.g.,]
... share books by giving children the opportunity to hold the book and
turn pages, ... emphasize conventional book handling, ... use an
engaging reading approach, ... [and] frequently use dialogic reading
prompts. (Jumpstart Education and Training Team, 2003, p. 146)
In sessions with individual children, students are instructed to
facilitate print knowledge, linguistic awareness, and emergent writing.
In addition, when working in the child's classroom, participants
are instructed to provide children access to reading, writing, and
manipulatives that promote language and literacy development. The
primary activity of the program is dialogic reading, where college
students are expected to engage their children in reading and talking
about books one-on-one during shared book reading (Lonigan, Anthony,
Bloomfield, Dyer, & Samwel, 1999).
The National Study
Subjects. Participants, whose surveys were made available to the
researcher, were the 1,317 students attending 41 colleges and
universities across the United States who participated in the 2003-2004
Jumpstart program. Of those colleges/universities participating, the
majority were large (22, 54% over 10,000 students) public (26, 63%)
institutions in urban areas (35, 85%). The 941 students who completed
both the pre-survey and the post-survey were the subjects of this study.
Eight hundred and ten (86%) subjects were female, and 131 (14%) male,
ranging in age from 18 to 56 years old, with a mean age of 21 years. Six
hundred and sixteen (65.4%) subjects participated for 300 hours of
service, 192 (20.4%) participated for 200 hours, 81 (8.6%) participated
for 525 hours, and 52 (5.5%) did not respond regarding participation.
Seven hundred and twenty-four (76.9%) were first-year Jumpstart
participants. Of those identifying their race, 435 (46.2%) were White,
251 (26.7%) were African American, 101 (10.7%) were Hispanic, 63 (6.7%)
were Asian, and 85 (9.0%) indicated other or did not respond. The
majority (767, 81.5%) reported English as their first language.
The subjects varied widely in their major program of study in
college; the two programs with the highest number of subjects were
education (250, 26%) and human services (244, 25.9%). On the post-survey
315 (37.3%) students reported having taken one or more college-level
courses in child development, and 252 (26.8%) reported having taken one
or more courses in education. Subjects also varied according to college
class levels (283, 30.1% freshmen; 280, 20.8% sophomores; 211, 22.4%
juniors; 145, 15.4% seniors; with the remaining having graduated or not
reporting). When surveyed about prior experiences with preschoolers, a
small percentage of the participants indicated parenting (57, 6.1%).
Other ways in which participants had worked with children included
experience in preschools (357, 37.4%), in elementary schools (338,
35.9%), and in religious education (236, 25.1%), as well as camp
counseling (226, 24%) and mentoring (134, 14.2%). Participants expressed
a variety of personal reasons for joining Jumpstart; these included
experience with children (839, 89.2%), in an outside-of-school program
(804, 85.4%), in community service (801, 85.1%), with teaching (714,
75.8%), in teamwork with peers (735, 78.2%), and working with a national
organization (694, 73.7%). Many (592, 62.9%) chose Jumpstart as a
Participation in the study was voluntary, and written permission
for inclusion was received. Subjects were given individual ID numbers,
and subject names did not appear on the surveys.
Instrument. For the national study, the Jumpstart Corps Member
Survey Fall 2003 and the Jumpstart Corps Member Survey Spring 2004 were
used. Both surveys were developed, piloted, and refined by researchers
in the national Jumpstart organization. These surveys queried subjects
in a number of areas, including demographics, reflection on attitudes
and abilities to be an engaged citizen, early childhood practices,
literacy development and practices, communication and leadership skills,
and satisfaction with and reasons for joining and completing the
The section of the survey used in this study focused on knowledge
and understanding of literacy development in young children prior to and
after their experience in the program. Subjects were asked to respond to
questions using a 5-point Likert scale with 1 as "not at all
important" and 5 as "very important." Six questions
regarding literacy were asked (Jumpstart Corps Member Survey, 2003,
When working with young children, how important do you think it is
* have conversations where adults and children take turns and
listen to each other?
* follow a child's lead in talking about topics that
don't relate to the lesson plan?
* ask children questions that have a definite, one-word answer
(e.g., asking them to identify colors, shapes, etc.)?
* have children pretend to read books to adults?
* have children attempt to write (e.g., copying letters they see in
the room, scribbling, making letters in their name)?
* help children learn about rhyming (e.g., through games and
In addition, subjects were asked whether they agreed, disagreed, or
were not sure about the statement "Play helps children develop
language skills" (Jumpstart Corps Member Survey, 2003, 2004).
Procedure. The Jumpstart coordinator at each of the colleges or
universities distributed the surveys to the subjects. Jumpstart
coordinators were instructed to administer the pre-surveys prior to
their first mentoring training sessions. Subjects completed the surveys
prior to and after their one-on-one experiences with the preschoolers in
the program. Surveys were returned to the Jumpstart coordinator and then
submitted to the national office. The national office released the raw
data to the researchers for the purpose of this study.
National Study Results
Subjects' responses to the literacy questions on the
pre-survey and the post-survey were scored and compared. Subjects
responded to the items, except "play helps children develop
language" question, using a 5-point Likert scale (1 = not at all
important to 5 = very important). Question items were scored with the
highest score of 5 given to the response of "very important"
descending to 1 given to "not at all important" for the
questions regarding "conversations with adults,"
"following child's lead in talking," "child
pretending to read," "child attempting to write," and
"child learning about rhyming" (Jumpstart Corps Member Survey,
2003, 2004). For the question "how important do you think it is to
ask children questions that have a definite, one-word answer"
(Jumpstart Corps Member Survey, 2003, 2004), responses were recoded with
a score of 5 for a "not at all important" response descending
to 1 for "very important."
Pre-survey responses were compared to post-survey responses. The
means and standard deviations on the pre-survey and post-survey for all
but the "play helps children develop language" question can be
found in Table 1. The means were high on both the pre-survey and the
post-survey for all except for the "ask questions with one
answer" item. For this item, there was greater variation in the
responses on both surveys and a low mean.
Means were compared for each question using a two-tailed paired
sample t-test (Table 1). On all of the items, there was a highly
significant (p < .001) pre-survey to post-survey increase. The most
amount of change from the pre-survey to the post-survey occurred on the
questions regarding the importance of "follow the child's lead
in talking about topics that don't relate to the lesson plan"
and "have children pretend to read to adults."
For the "play helps children develop language" question,
subjects were asked whether they "yes" agree, "no"
disagree, or were not sure about the statement. On this question, there
was also a pre-survey to post-survey positive change. On the pre-survey,
791 (84%) subjects agreed to the statement, and on the post-survey, 918
(97.5%) agreed--a change of 13.5%.
The data were further analyzed to determine whether subjects
enrolled in an education program responded differently from subjects
enrolled in other programs. There was not a difference in mean
responses, with the same pattern of means for the pre- and post-survey
The Sample Study
In an effort to better understand the national study, we examined a
local sample of Jumpstart mentors during the 2004-2005 school year,
asking the same research questions: (1) What preconceived beliefs do
college students have about literacy development in preschoolers? and
(2) Does experience with a one-year mentoring program for at-risk
preschoolers affect college students' beliefs about literacy
Subjects. Twenty-four public university students completed the
yearlong Jumpstart program and participated in the sample study. Both
demographics and training for the sample group mirrored those in the
national study, with the exception of program of study. In this sample,
45.8% were majoring in education.
Procedure. For the sample study, college students were given pre-
and post-surveys developed by the authors, which included open-ended
questions. For the purposes of this study, only one open-ended question
was analyzed: "What should adults do to prepare children to
read?" The same procedure for survey administration for the
national study was followed, with one exception: Completed surveys were
returned directly to the researchers and not to the Jumpstart
These data were transcribed and coded for responses that would
indicate either a skill-based or a constructivist-based approach when
working one-on-one with at-risk preschoolers. Those that described
teacher-directed activities that emphasized the learning of discrete
skills, such as practicing letters of the alphabet, were coded as
skill-based. Responses that described activities that were interactive
and child centered (e.g., "choose books that interest the
child") were coded as constructivist based. A small number of
participant responses were mixed (i.e., both skill-based and
constructivist-based activities were included in the same response).
Sample Study Results
An analysis of the three sets of responses (skill based,
constructivist based, and mixed) revealed that on the pre-survey, 45.8%
of the college students indicated skill-based approaches. The mention of
skill-based activities dropped to 16.6% on the post-survey.
Constructivist strategies were listed by 58.3% of the respondents on the
pre-survey; this percentage increased to 75% on the post-survey. Five
(20.8%) on the pre-survey had mixed responses (i.e., both skill based
and constructivist based), with only three (12.5%) on the post-survey.
Table 2 lists examples of subjects' responses. Reading to
children and activities involving reading were the most frequent and
consistent responses from all students on both the pre- and
post-surveys. The range in variety of constructivist responses increased
on the post-survey, with the addition of comments such as allowing the
child to read to the adult. The range in variety of skill-based
responses also decreased on the post-survey, with only
two--"teaching letters/sounds" and "using flash
While research indicates that early childhood literacy programs can
be effective for preschoolers, little is known about the effects of
programs on college student mentors. This study attempts to understand
what beliefs college student mentors hold about literacy development in
preschool children and to determine whether these beliefs change after
involvement in an intensive mentoring program. The college students in
this study participated in Jumpstart, a national program designed to
facilitate literacy development among at-risk preschoolers, using
strategies that are theoretically grounded in developmentally
appropriate (i.e., constructivist and child-centered) practices.
This research was conducted in two parts, with an analysis of pre-
and post-survey data from a national sample and a local sample of
Jumpstart participants. Both pre- and post-surveys investigated whether
a yearlong mentoring experience changed college students' beliefs
about developmentally appropriate literacy practices and literacy
development among preschoolers.
National surveys asked students to rate the importance of six
literacy practices: (1) having conversations with children where they
allow for turn taking and listening as the children talk, (2) following
a child's lead in talking, (3) asking questions requiring only
one-word answers, (4) allowing the child to pretend read, (5) allowing
the child to attempt writing, and (6) engaging the child in rhyming
(Jumpstart Corps Member Survey, 2003, 2004). An additional question
asked students to rate the value of play as a vehicle for language
The college students' responses indicated that, prior to their
experience, the students held some beliefs consistent with recognized,
research-based practices that promote literacy development among
preschoolers. These beliefs were strengthened throughout their yearlong
experiences with the preschoolers, with the greatest gains in
understanding being on the practices of taking a child's lead in
conversation and allowing children to pretend read to adults. The
results of the national study provide an initial insight into the nature
of the potential for growth toward a constructivist view of literacy
The local sample results give further insight into the nature of
the literacy beliefs of college mentors. Pre-survey results from the
smaller local sample revealed that many college student mentors also
held skill-based views (e.g., using flash cards). These views changed on
the post-survey after their yearlong mentoring experience, with
constructivist perspectives increasing and skill-based approaches
This study is significant in that it is the first analysis of a
national dataset of college student mentors working with at-risk
preschoolers in an effort to facilitate their literacy development.
Results from this study indicate that one-on-one mentoring programs can
have an impact on the mentors' beliefs about literacy development
and practices. This study indicates that the mentoring experience
benefits college students.
The strength of the national study is its large sample of students
who represent the diversity of colleges/universities from across the
country. That the majority (60%) of the college students participating
in the program were in either their first or second year is noteworthy.
Given this fact, even those enrolled in education programs would have
had limited field experiences such as was provided by the Jumpstart
program. It may be that field experiences with children who are emerging
into literacy would be particularly important for understanding literacy
Typically, the preparation of elementary education students does
not include field experiences with preschoolers. While these firsthand
experiences play a critical role in helping preservice teachers learn
about teaching literacy, most field placements are in kindergarten
through eighth grade. This study suggests that preschool placements may
be of value for students to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of
literacy development, which is an essential component in education
methods courses on reading and literacy.
The study has a few limitations. Because program administration
occurred in so many diverse sites across the United States, there may be
some intervening variables (e.g., the timing of training and the
administration of surveys) influencing the results. Because the purpose
of the Jumpstart program is focused on service and not necessarily on
research, the requisite controls for research may be somewhat
compromised. Also there was no control group for the college student
mentors in the study.
In conclusion, this research focusing on college students suggests
that an intensive mentoring experience can positively influence their
beliefs about literacy development. Future research should consider
using a control mentor group. In-depth interviews and/or surveys
investigating theoretical understandings about literacy development as
well as the efficacy of field experiences with preschoolers should be
conducted. This study and subsequent research have the potential to
benefit future mentoring programs and the field of teacher education.
The researchers acknowledge Dean Elson, director of assessment for
Jumpstart, who so graciously shared the national data, and the national
Jumpstart organization, an Americorps program, without which this
research would not have been possible. We also acknowledge the members
of our own University of Michigan-Dearborn community, in particular,
Patricia Skelly, site manager of Jumpstart, and Judith Hoeffler,
executive director of Child's Hope, both of whom supported this
research and made it possible for the administration of sample surveys.
We would also like to acknowledge Julie Taylor of the University of
Michigan-Dearborn for her contributions to the data analysis and Lia
Simpson of the University of Michigan-Dearborn Child Development Center
for her assistance in data input and manuscript preparation.
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Martha A. Adler is an assistant professor in Reading and Language
Arts and the coordinator of the English as Second Language Endorsement
Program at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Dr. Adler's
research focuses on literacy, professional development, and public
policy. Over her career, she has been involved in literacy education as
a teacher, teacher-educator, curriculum developer, and researcher.
Mary Trepanier-Street is the associate dean and professor of
Education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Dr. Trepanier-Street
is also the director of the Child Development Center, the university
early childhood and teacher preparation center. She has been involved in
research and study of early childhood curriculum and the preparation of
early childhood professionals for over 30 years.
Martha A. Adler
University of Michigan-Dearborn
School of Education
19000 Hubbard Drive
Dearborn, MI 48126-2638
Comparison of Means on the Pre-survey and Post-survey
[N.sup.*] Pre M
1. Conversations, take turns, listen 837 4.67
2. Follow child's lead in talking 833 3.86
3. Ask questions with one-word answer *** 836 2.18
4. Child pretend to read to adults 835 3.99
5. Child attempt to write 835 4.64
6. Child learn about rhyming 841 4.41
SD Post M
1. Conversations, take turns, listen 0.607 4.79
2. Follow child's lead in talking 1.067 4.51
3. Ask questions with one-word answer *** 1.076 2.45
4. Child pretend to read to adults 1.022 4.58
5. Child attempt to write 0.575 4.81
6. Child learn about rhyming 0.802 4.58
1. Conversations, take turns, listen 0.475 5.238
2. Follow child's lead in talking 0.702 16.715
3. Ask questions with one-word answer *** 1.153 5.954
4. Child pretend to read to adults 0.65 16.669
5. Child attempt to write 0.451 7.303
6. Child learn about rhyming 0.632 5.681
1. Conversations, take turns, listen 836
2. Follow child's lead in talking 832
3. Ask questions with one-word answer *** 835
4. Child pretend to read to adults 834
5. Child attempt to write 834
6. Child learn about rhyming 840
* Not all subjects responded to each question.
** All t-values were significant at the p <.001 levels.
*** Responses were recoded with a score of 5 for a "not at all
important" response descending to 1 for "very important."
Examples of Skill-Based and Constructivist-Based Activities Listed by
Type of Response Pre-Survey Post-Survey
Skill Based Teach letters and/or sounds, Review letters and/or
or the alphabet sounds
Practice word recognition Use flash cards
Teach concepts of print
Use flash cards
Constructivist Read to them Read books
Based Talk Talk
Allow child to select They [the children]
books can read to the
Follow up a book with Choose books that
activities interest the child
Get children to be active Make available all
with the story forms of written
Allow children to
pretend and talk
about the stories
they listened to
Allow child to select
action with books
Listen to them