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The ABCs of academic success: A focus on early literacy

The ABCs of academic success: A focus on early literacy

By Joni Wackwitz
November 22, 2019

Research shows that kindergarten students who struggle with literacy development are more likely to experience academic difficulties in later grades. In Illinois, data on kindergarten language and literacy development also reveal gaps by household income levels. Our Midwest Early Childhood Education Research Alliance (MECERA) in Illinois is tackling these issues by focusing several new projects on early literacy, with the long-term goal of improving children’s grade 3 reading proficiency.

MECERA brings together Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest researchers with early childhood practitioners and policymakers across multiple agencies in Illinois. Members include representatives from Illinois school districts, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), the Illinois Head Start Association, and the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services, among others.

Past alliance projects have focused on children’s kindergarten readiness and social-emotional development. These projects include a REL Midwest study on the first statewide administration of the Kindergarten Individual Development Survey (KIDS), the state’s new kindergarten entry assessment. In addition, REL Midwest conducted a series of workshops and train-the-trainer workshops on KIDS data use and developed an infographic on integrating a focus on equity into social and emotional learning.

This work provides a strong foundation for MECERA’s new focus on improving Illinois children’s early language and literacy development. REL Midwest researcher Billie Day, Ph.D., who facilitates MECERA, noted, “KIDS has provided Illinois districts with valuable information about children’s literacy skills at kindergarten entry. The alliance’s new focus on early literacy enables us to dive into the data a little deeper with districts.”

New MECERA projects under way address early literacy as well as providing continued support for KIDS:

  • An applied research study is analyzing data from two Illinois districts participating in MECERA to identify the characteristics of students who struggle to read in kindergarten and grade 1. The results will help Illinois educators better target interventions, particularly for students at risk of failing, to reach grade-level reading proficiency milestones. Learn more
  • A workshop series is guiding Illinois kindergarten teachers in collecting data for KIDS by observing children in the context of developmentally appropriate instruction, something teachers had reported was a challenge. The first training was held at Chicago Public Schools in September.
  • A second workshop series will provide Illinois prekindergarten teachers and providers with a primer on KIDS, including the use of readiness indicators to inform literacy instruction, crosswalks between KIDS and other common early childhood assessments, and how to analyze district KIDS data.
  • Also in 2020, MECERA will be developing communication tools that practitioners, parents, and others can use to build children’s early literacy.

REL Midwest senior researcher Jill Bowdon, Ph.D., one of MECERA’s research liaisons, explains that “REL Midwest is working intimately with districts in Illinois to provide research, training, and connections to resources, all with the aim of increasing early literacy. As a researcher, I feel privileged to collaborate with district leaders in a sustained way to address the problems of practice that they face.”

Related resources

  • To learn more about MECERA and its work, visit the alliance’s page on the REL Midwest website.
  • To learn more about MECERA’s study on the results of the first statewide administration of KIDS, read the report. In addition to the full report, a one-page snapshot, a four-page brief, and a companion infographic are available at the same link.
  • For resources on early literacy, see our roundup of resources from across the REL network and the What Works Clearinghouse.


Illinois State Board of Education. (2018). KIDS fall 2017 data for planning and instruction. Retrieved from

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Author Information

Joni Wackwitz Staff Picture

Joni Wackwitz

Senior Communications Specialist | REL Midwest


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