As a kindergarten teacher, some of my most satisfying moments have come from working with children in the beginning stages of their literacy. I feel privileged to share their Joy and excited sense of achievement when they realize for the first time they are actually reading.
Recently, though, I’ve also been feeling mounting anger and frustration over the policies and directives that come to us from the MPS Central Administration about how to teach reading. I believe the way we are asked to teach reading is ineffective at best and potentially detrimental to the cognitive development of the young child.
Early Childhood educators have long held that children learn best through concrete, socially relevant experiences.
For years, successful kindergarten teachers have limited their use of workbooks and other mechanical “paper and pencil” tasks, focusing instead on such activities as art projects, stories, games and songs to develop pre-reading skills. We know that a strong oral language base, along with an understanding of the larger world based on concrete experiences, will help children become better readers.
Recently, the nation’s most renowned experts on linguistic development and the study of reading have not only reaffirmed the value of experience-based learning, but have argued that mechanistic approaches to reading are a major cause of many students’ lack of success in school. (See Peter Murrell’s review of Becoming a Nation of Readers in this issue.)
Yet the administrators in MPS (and many school systems across the country) are responding to pressures to improve our schools by pushing these flawed, mechanistic methods even more! Thus they are extending the questionable basal reading program downward to the kindergarten. Apparently, their theory is that the earlier we begin the workbooks, the earlier the students will read, and the earlier they will be “on level.”
The Scott, Foresman Reading Program that kindergarten teachers are being asked to use essentially consists of worksheet after worksheet that children are supposed to complete in order to learn the “skills” of reading. In many schools, teachers are finding that they can only devote the required amount of time to the workbook pages by abandoning activities which are more beneficial and developmentally appropriate for their students.
Consider a child, Molly, facing the first of a series of workbooks she will be asked to complete in kindergarten. One of the early pages in the book, designed to teach her visual recognition of the letter “A” directs her to circle all the A’s in each row. In these early months of school, Molly may not entirely understand the concept of a row, and her limit-ed small muscle coordination may give her difficulty in making neat circles around small printed letters on a page. Chances are she doesn’t .really understand what letters are “for” and feels no intrinsic interest in this activity. Molly does the page “wrong” in the eyes of her teacher. She experiences failure and, over time, may develop a strong dislike for letters, reading, or even school itself.
Molly and her classmates would better learn to recognize the letter “A” through a variety of activities that call on all their senses. They could pick out A’s on their own name cards, mold them out of playdough, build them with domino blocks and paint them on the easel. They could learn which of the objects in the room begin with the letter–A. They could.*’hunt’ for A’s on all of the charts and posters in the room. The children could make sentences of their own with A words and watch as their teacher writes them down. My students like “reading” the poem “The Apple Tree,”and picking out all the A’s as they appear. Later, when we make applesauce, we again discuss the words that begin with A, and “swallow” each one with a delicious bite.
This concrete approach helps, children learn to recognize their letters, and begin to understand the connection between oral and written language in a variety of contexts — including their own thoughts. lt allows every child to experience success and discover that learning can be fun.
It concerns me that in many MPS schools, the reading curriculum in the kindergarten is taught almost entirely through the workbooks; the basal reader is the only method being used. Workbooks do not promote the natural tendencies in children of this age to question, to experiment, to experience the world around them. They do not enhance the child’s desire to read, write, or communicate with those around him. Workbooks do not encourage the exchange of ideas among children, or provide for the individual needs and interests of the child. In fact, I believe the basal reading system does just the opposite! When worksheets and isolated phonics lessons are given to children, all initiative comes from the teacher. When this happens, teachers unintentionally prevent children from developing their own initiative. The approach encourages children to be mentally passive and prevents them from developing an appetite for intellectual adventure. They learn to wait to be told what to do and think. A curriculum based on a workbook of this type may be far simpler to use across the system, but it also bores both student and teacher and may even damage young minds.
As public school teachers, however, we have to face the reality that many administrators see “real learning” only when students are bent obediently over such workbooks. For now, we have to cope with the Scott, Foresman program and help our students pass the “end of book” tests. This does not mean that our classrooms have to turn into dreary worksheet factories. The school system still allows Kindergarten teachers some flexibility in deciding how to use the basal. We can balance the workbooks and drill with activities more appropriate for five and six year olds.
What follows is a description of some of the approaches I use in setting up a program to enhance the children’s learning and prepare them to become good readers.
- Oral language development is extremely important! We take time to talk, discuss and problem-solve orally, to analyze the words they use. Our daily conversations cover everything from why we do or do not. need more rain, to observation and discussion of how a spinning top works, to how to relate to a big brother who wants to become part of a gang. All these conversations increase their vocabulary and understanding of the world. The time we spend talking and listening together is of great benefit in the long run.
- The idea of “direct instruction” has an appealing ring for those who are concerned about the quality of our schools, but it is essential to allow time each day to be spent on “indirect” instruction. Young children need time to “play”, to experiment, to manipulate their environment, to discover alternate uses for commonplace materials. This helps them learn about the rules and relationships that govern material objects, human interactions and sequences of events. Making collage sculptures from odd bits of material, pretending to be airplane builders, or carrying on extended “telephone conversations” that mirror real life, children learn more about the workings of the world. Extending the range of their life experience in this way gives them personal access to the ideas they will encounter in books.
- It is critical that children discover the connection between the oral and written word. I give them time to ‘read’ to each other, to write the words they know. I print their thoughts for them on their artwork, write down the stories they dictate about the flannel board dinosaurs, record their group narrative of a walk we took, or chart the steps we go through as we make cinnamon toast.
- I believe workbook pages should serve as reinforcement material instead of as a method of instruction. Certain pages can be used as informal “tests” to see if the child understands the concept. The workbook page should be the last step in learning a skill, not the first — and certainly not the only step. I take the skills that need to be taught and .utilize a variety of methods and my own creativity to get the ideas across. A skill, for example, like “following directions” can be taught through an art project or listening game rather than on a worksheet.
As teachers we need to work together to promote policies that are good for young children — policies that allow and encourage various methods of instruction, and allow teachers the flexibility they need to do the very best for the specific children they face.
The push for accountability in our schools is growing stronger, as well it should. Children should be expected to learn to read and write, and teachers should be expected to help them do so. Yet, however enticing the uniformity and testability of the basal reader may be, current research and our own experience as teachers clearly show that the basal reader is not the answer.
As those persons who work directly with young children, we “know best their needs and abilities. We deserve to be consulted — and listened to — before system-wide policies are defined and implemented. As the process of evaluating the Scott, Foresman series begins this year, it is essential that those of us who feel strongly about a child-centered curriculum for the kindergarten make our feelings known and our voices heard.