Preschool curriculum uses stories and art to build a love of books

November 27, 2002

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Preparing preschoolers to read -- and to love reading -- means more than minding their Ps and Qs.

It means nurturing excitement about stories, sparking the imagination, "really building a whole history of positive experiences around books," says Susan Fowler, a professor of special education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Especially for kids who may later have trouble "unlocking the code" of reading, it may determine whether they give up or keep trying.

One way to make sure they don't quit, according to Fowler and Beverly Lewman, co-developers of a curriculum for preschoolers, is to read good stories again and again. Even five days in a week.

Contrary to common belief among many teachers, children don't get bored or impatient with the repetition, said Lewman, a special education researcher at Illinois. Instead, through the daily repetition, "It becomes their story. By the end of the week, they can practically tell it themselves. They go home and tell their family about it. They just love that same story every day."

The story-a-week approach is at the center of Lewman and Fowler's curriculum, called SPARK (Skills Promoted through Arts, Reading and Knowledge), now being used by more than 50 programs in eight states, with a curriculum and training guide published in the fall of 2001 (Redleaf Press).

Also central to the SPARK approach are activities in art, music and make-believe -- all natural interests for preschoolers -- used to reinforce a different concept each day, drawn directly from the story.

Lewman and Fowler started work on SPARK almost 10 years ago, with a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Another DOE grant five years ago, after field-testing in area classrooms, gave them the means to duplicate the model around the country.

"We wanted to figure out a way that we could convince special education teachers to teach more like regular early childhood teachers, so that children who were slow learners could be included with other children in typical classroom activities," said Fowler, also dean of the College of Education at Illinois.

"Children whose learning is delayed often need repetition in order to really begin to recall and to relate what theyÕve learned," Fowler said. The curriculum provides that, but in a way that still engages children without disabilities.

In all parts of the curriculum, from the story reading to the creative activities, the emphasis is on open-ended exploration, rather than on pass or fail. The activities provide a means by which teachers can not only reinforce concepts, but also address specific disabilities in individual children.

Even during the story time, children are not told to "just sit still and listen," but are encouraged to be active participants. "You often don't realize all the things that can happen for a child while you're just reading a book," said Tweety Yates, the program coordinator for SPARK.
More information on SPARK can be found at


University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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