- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 3, 2005

Four-year-old Elwyn Yount was still in his swimming trunks and T-shirt from summer camp, immersed one day last week in figuring out the middle word in the phrase “the big dog.”

“Dog,” he said.

His tutor, Devin Durham, told him to try again. Elwyn squirmed in his chair and tried again: “Big.”

Elwyn got the remaining phrases correct on the first try during his one-hour pre-kindergarten tutoring session at Sylvan Learning Center in Columbia, Md.

The national tutoring chain has expanded since January to include students as young as 4 as pre-kindergarten students — part of an increase in tutoring nationwide that analysts attribute to parents eager to push their children to the front of the class.

“The earlier we can develop a love of reading, which is the basis of all learning, the earlier we can help them build a foundation for future learning,” said Richard Bavaria, Sylvan’s vice president of education, who led development of the program. “The biggest benefit of early tutoring is the building of confidence when they get into school.”

Sylvan’s pre-K sessions target basic reading and math skills, such as identifying the beginning, middle and end of a phrase; what sound each letter makes; how to hold a pencil properly; and identifying numbers.

Mr. Bavaria said that in the past five years, parents have been asking what they can do to help their 4-year-olds improve their chances of success at school. Sylvan developed the program in response to inquiries and more advanced kindergartners.

“Educators recognized that children were coming to kindergarten with the skills schools didn’t teach until first grade,” Mr. Bavaria said.

Sylvan, which is owned by Educate Inc. in Baltimore, spent about $500,000 in two years to develop the pre-K program for 4-year-olds. Since the program was implemented in January, about 1,000 children have enrolled nationwide.

Half of Sylvan’s 1,200 locations offer the tutoring now, and all will have it by year’s end, Mr. Bavaria said. Fees vary, but $45 per hour is the average.

Peg Yount, a retired elementary school teacher, enrolled Elwyn, her grandson, two months ago when he began picking up letters when she read books to him.

Elwyn and Mr. Durham meet weekly for an hour to review skills such as the sounds of letters, how to spell his name and the alphabet.

“He recognizes some letters, and we know what he’s working on next so we can reinforce it at home,” Mrs. Yount said.

Score Educational Centers, owned by Kaplan Inc., and Tutor Time Learnings Centers, based in Novi, Mich., also hold pre-K tutoring sessions. Other tutoring companies, such as Huntington Learning Centers, don’t accept students until they start kindergarten.

Tutoring is a $4 billion market that is expected to grow 10 percent to 12 percent per year, said Kirsten Edwards, an analyst with ThinkEquity Partners in San Francisco.

Ms. Edwards attributes the growth to more accountability in schools, especially the importance of standardized tests, which has made parents more comfortable with playing an active role in their children’s education.

“There is increased anxiety among parents that their child may be unfairly penalized early in life from not scoring well on an exam,” she said.

ThinkEquity Partners does some banking business with Sylvan’s parent company.

But some researchers suggest that 4 years old is too early to begin formal learning.

Mariaemma Willis, author of the book “Mid-Life Crisis Begins in Kindergarten,” said that formal instruction for most children younger than 7 is “ridiculous” and that pushing them when they’re not ready will prompt a sense of failure.

“If we would pay attention to their development and learning styles, they would all be all-stars,” Ms. Willis said.

Mr. Bavaria from Sylvan stressed that only some pre-K students have the self-motivation necessary for formal tutoring.

Children go through an assessment before tutoring starts to determine their attention span and skills. If a child isn’t ready, Sylvan tells parents to try again in a few months.

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