Today I sat with small groups of kindergartner. We were playing a game to practice sight words. As I played the game and reviewed the words with each small group, I ask: “Why are we learning these sight words?” Several times I got blank looks. A few said, “So we can read them.” Or “We are reading sight words.”
“Why?” I asked again. “Why are we learning to read these sight words?”
One girl answered, “So we can move up a level.” Okay. A reason, a specific and generally accurate reason.
I talked with each group about learning sight words. “If we learn these words, we can read them when we see them in books. We can spend more time working on other words. We can understand better what we are reading.”
“Sight words are in books,” one boy told me. Yes. We want to know them because we will see them again.
“We can read better and better,” another said. Yes. Knowing this helps us improve.
In the book Creative Schools, Dr. Ken Robinson discusses eight competencies that teachers should help students (of all ages) develop. One of those is criticism. Criticism means generally to analyze information and evaluate ideas. Children should be able to reason and form arguments about things they are reading or hearing.
I think often we forget to help children ask WHY. We tell them something, teach them something, but don’t help them think through something. This can go back to curiosity – helping children wonder about things and think about things beyond the surface.
Another competency is communication. We want to help children express their thoughts and feelings clearly by speaking and writing. They should be able to use different media and a variety of forms to communicate. Sometimes we don’t help children express their thoughts or even give opportunities to practice talking and listening.
Create a classroom that supports criticism and communication.
Model giving reasoned arguments, or at least support for what you are doing or saying. As you read a book, comment on the main character. “He seems to be angry. I see that he is shouting and this says his face is turning red. Those things are things that could happen when someone is angry. I wonder why he is angry?” Allow children to talk about what they have reasoned has made the character angry.
Talk about why you are learning about a particular subject. “Today we are learning more about the life cycle of butterflies. When we understand butterflies we know more about the world and how to take care of it.”
Include times of communication, speaking and listening. Each day include a group time when children can express their ideas and listen to the ideas of others. This time can be informal, simple conversation that leads in random directions. This could be talking about a book or other subject that you have read or studied that day or earlier. This could be more formal “show and tell” or presentations. But it should help children practice listening to the words of others, asking questions, and communicating their ideas.
Provide a safe environment for communication and criticism. Accept the ideas that children share. Encourage them to give support for whatever they say. After a child makes a statement, say "Because..." to encourage more elaboration. "Because" gives the child a bridge to offer more thought and information. This usually works better than asking why a child thinks that. If you say, "Why?" it may seem like you are challenging the child's idea - that the idea may be incorrect. "Because" asks for more information and isn't challenging.
Provide other communication opportunities. Children may want to draw or write their ideas. They could use technology to type, record video, or take pictures.
Include dramatic play and other activities that have communication elements to them. Taking on different roles allows children to practice communicate as others, and expand their own knowledge of how to share ideas.
Criticism and communications skills are real-world skills that can be developed from an early age.