No Magic Bullet

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

So how do children move from being unable to control their body movements and functions to reading and writing in five to seven years?

If you look at it purely like that, it is a spectacular feat that we witness within every child - the development that occurs within the brain, and acquisition of enough knowledge and cultural information to begin to join a larger society as a functioning Literate Member.

One of the first things babies notice - and react to - is patterns. We are wired, as a species, to notice patterns. From the mobile above the crib, to the repetition of words in Good Night Moon, we instinctively seek out patterns. They please us. They make sense. They are also laying the foundation for literacy and numeracy (thats math in fancy educator speak).

Honestly, all curriculum areas,  reading, writing, math, science, music, art - they all come down to patterns. Patterns recognized, Patterns decoded, Patterns reversed and solved.

Some of these are things we seem to do intuitively with children. We describe the rhythms of their day, which we try to keep as routine and predictable as possible. We read the same books over and over ( and over and over until you are compelled to hide the damn book because you simply can not take it ANYMORE), and listen to the same music tapes. We do finger games with rhymes like "5 Little Monkeys".

We recoil in horror when our child begins to shout out things like "McDonald's" or "Ben and Jerry's" - but really they are just expressing what is called "Pre-Literacy" skills. In other words, they are decoding the common everyday things they witness. They can look at a Cheerios Box and tell you it has Cheerios in it. It is indeed a type of reading.

Between ages 3 and 7, children start to become aware of - and then decode the symbols we have designated as "Letters" and "Numbers".

Now here is where I want to point out that while this system may seem perfectly logical to You - literate adult - it is , in fact, really Random. Someone, thousands of years ago, decided that certain scribbles equated to specific sounds or specific amounts.  That these scribbles, when lined up with other scribbles make a specific word - which is meant to project a specific image in the contents of your mind.

So Cat becomes not merely the word Cat, but the specific sounds "C", "A", and "T" - and that "C" and "A" can have different sounds depending on what other scribble next to which  they are lined up. Furthermore, Cat becomes both a genre of animal of the feline family, but also individual types of Cats - pets, family friends pets, pictures seen in books, animals seen at zoos etc. One word is allowed to stand it for a vast amount of information.

Pause. Extrapolate this out into every word and concept we expose our child to on a daily basis. Think about how much they are storing and retrieving and testing out and discarding in any given day. This is one of the reasons we must protect their sleep so zealously. We are finding, through research, that it is during a child ( and later, teenagers) sleeping cycles that this information is "cemented" into place. One of the reasons teens start to require so much sleep is because they are experiencing the second and final massive brain development phase before adulthood.

Here I will admit that I am a biased teacher. I was trained in both Phonics based and Whole Language based language arts teaching. I prefer Whole Language. For about 75% of children, it is what I saw as working best for their development as readers and writers. A Whole Language Classroom, rich in words, writing, reading and language surrounded the child in a environment where language WAS everywhere. This being said, I do recognize that for some children a phonics based system works better. They need to learn the structure and rules of grammar in a different way - a way which a Whole Language classroom does not always address specifically.

So, you have a child heading into a Kindergarten Classroom. They may know their letters (alphabetic principle), but they may not. They may be able to tell you what sound each letter makes (phonemic awareness), but they may not. And it's OK.

A child's experience in Kindergarten should be one of playing with these concepts with Peers and Trained Adults.  They should be read aloud to frequently, and have their attention drawn to "sight" words - small words they can pick out on "sight" in any given text. Teachers should be exposing the children to concepts about print, as in, some books give us information ( non-fiction) and others tell us stories. Books open a specific way and we read the pages from left to right. They should be exposed to the Sounds of language (linguistic awareness) through songs and fingerplays.  Sensory input should be used. Drawing letters and numbers in sand, for example, provides a different feedback to the brain.

{An aside - I used, and later her teacher adopted the Handwriting without Tears curriculum for help with the sensory processing end of how to write. It was developed by an Occupational Therapist for children with fine motor issues and is a tremendous way to help ALL children learn to write letters. Emily still uses it for cursive!)

Teachers should be introducing unfamiliar words to encourage vocabulary development. For instance, I had a group of K's who loved talking about each "Hypothesis" they were making.  I had another group who could map the Protagonist, Antagonist, Setting, Problem and Resolution  for each book we read.  I knew when one Mom came to me and told me how her daughter had overheard the television news the night before about a war and asked who was the antagonist and who was the protagonist that they had the concepts down pretty well.

What shouldn't you be seeing? Worksheets. Drills on letter sounds/letter naming. I am particularly disdainful of the "Letter of the Week" approach. In my experience, it really doesn't help a child understand the concept of a letter, but provides the teacher with an easy out for his/her curriculum planning.

A more thorough read is the National Association for the Education of Young Children Position on Learning to Read and Write. On pages 15 and 16 of the document, it lays out specific goals, determined by age, as to what teachers and parents can do to assist their child

It lays out all the things I have talked about here ( and more) with the research references to back it up. NAEYC also points out that learning to read and write go on well into Grades 2 and 3.  In fact, in some educational systems, children are not asked to academically begin reading/writing until Age 7. Of course they are exposed to language and literacy well before then, but they are free from the pressure to perform that Americans often place upon their children.

And Guess What? Those places have literacy rates Americans could only currently dream about.

On pages 15 and 16 of the document, it lays out specific goals, determined by age, as to what teachers and parents can do to assist their child. I only copied the K portion, but the recommendations go on into Second Grade:

Phase 2: Experimental reading and writing (goals for kindergarten)
Children develop basic concepts of print and begin to engage in and experiment with reading and writing.

Kindergartners can
• enjoy being read to and themselves retell simple narrative stories or informational texts
• use descriptive language to explain and explore
• recognize letters and letter-sound matches
• show familiarity with rhyming and beginning sounds
• understand left-to-right and top-to-bottom orientation and familiar concepts of print
• match spoken words with written ones
• begin to write letters of the alphabet and some high-frequency words

What teachers do:
• encourage children to talk about reading and writing experiences
• provide many opportunities for children to explore and identify sound-symbol relationships in meaningful contexts
• help children to segment spoken words into individual sounds and blend the sounds into whole words (for example, by slowly writing a word and saying its sound)
• f requently read interesting and conceptually rich stories to children
• provide daily opportunities for children to write
• help children build a sight vocabulary
• create a literacy-rich environment for children to engage independently
in reading and writing

What parents and family members can do:

• daily read and reread narrative and informational stories to children
• encourage children’s attempts at reading and writing
• allow children to participate in activities that involve writing and reading (for example, cooking, making grocery lists)
• play games that involve specific directions (such as “Simon Says”)
• have conversations with children during mealtimes and throughout the day

6 Baleful Regards:

Cagey (Kelli Oliver George) said...

I love these posts, Dawn. Thank you for writing them! My kid is on the cusp of Kindergarten next fall, so these posts really resonate with me. I appreciate you taking the time to write them.

Dawn said...

You are more than welcome Kelli - I sometimes worry I get too ramble-y - Part of it is that there is a ton of information racing through my brain - all shouting "ME!!! DON'T FORGET TO MENTION ME!!!" so I get led down side paths.

My best friend has her son in K right now, and she had a worksheet sent home with a note saying that her son needed to work on a skill which was no where Near age appropriate. It was more of a late 1st grade, early second grade skill.

Of course, I blew my stack. I know this kid. He is a bright, curious kid. There are no issues with his literacy- he is well on track. However, because this teacher was using worksheets and falling victim to the "Lets get them ready for a test they shouldn't even be taking" mentality, my Friend was seeing what we call "Push Down" curriculum. Meaning Kindergarteners are now being expected to do the work of 2nd graders, with the wrong headed notion that if we cram this into their brains now they will do better later on.

However, the result is that kids never properly learn how to read - all they learn is how to memorize and repeat answers. It is what I often challenge people who tell me that they "taught" their 3 year old to read with some system.

There is memorization, and there is understanding. These things are not necessarily the same thing. Memorizing the multiplication table does nothing if you don't understand that multiplication is grouping sets of numbers.

Mary_Flashlight said...

As I said in the last post, the J-man DID learn to read before he was 3, but it wasn't because we tried to teach him. He just learned. It was a way for him to help order his environment. (Hey, some autistic kids line up trains. Mine reads the instructions.) He doesn't look at the pictures on the pages - if you say, "Where's the butterfly?" he will find the word "butterfly" and point to it, completely missing that there are 27 butterflies pictured in the illustration.

On the multiplication tables: I memorized them in 3rd grade, and made 100s on all the tests and such. I was in 6th grade when I realized that multiplication is just a fast way to do addition!

Unknown said...

My son is in kindergarten and our first parent teacher conference is coming up next week. I wish we could talk on the phone because I have been horrified by kindergarten so far. We have had him in a play based child care center and now his class does as many as TWELVE worksheets a day. My son is SO ready to read and he has figured out multiplication on his own. I won't overstate it and say he's bored or he's being squashed... yet. But he has definitely noticed the difference between child care and kindergarten. His preK year they used Handwriting without tears and we really thought it was good.

Dawn said...

Mary, I do believe that there are some children - your son being one of them who catch on to the "patterns" encoded in letters/words MUCH faster than other kids. His brain needed to create order from chaos and so he did - because he wanted to...I should have clarified that it is usually people who tell me their 3 year old can "read" because they successfully recite words on flash cards isn't so much reading as reciting. I've seen alot of kids in phonics based programs too do similar things, ie Painful sounding out of each letter over and over until they figure out they are saying a word. It isn't really "reading" but a mechanical process.

And Rayne, sigh. I am so sorry. It sounds like you went from a preschool who knew what they were doing into a public school who well, My guess is that the K position is being held by a 3rd grade teacher who views this as punishment...It may be that she has had no actual training AS a kindergarten teacher, but rather it was assumed the same skill sets apply. And you may be seeing the foundation stuff layed in preK - Kids who have a firm understanding of patterns in all things pick up on the patterns in words and numbers Much more quickly. I think of it as a Pay it forward kind of event.... A kid is plugging along and all of a sudden everything just clicks - all of the play, clapping out patterns, and working with tangrams and doing grouping of objects - well it just explodes in their brains and they GET IT.

I wish I could hug you and go to the conference with you. Feel free to email me your questions, I'd be happy to help you with your list.

yarnwhore said...

I was one of those kids who spontaneously read at two. My mom didn't believe me so she took me to the library, found some books I'd never seen before and made me read them to her. That started my journey through the MacGuffey readers. I was so glad she found a real Montessori program for me that did the "learn at your own pace" thing, or I would have been bored stiff. Then I hit regular school. Blech. Most everyone caught up to a level playing field down the road, though. This hyper-competitive teaching is way too much stress for a kid, IMHO.

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