Teaching Littlest Kids To Read, Or Not?

child reading

Littles say the funniest things. The other day I asked “What’s your Mommy’s name?” Reply- Mommy.” Get what you ask for, right?

Childhood is a precious time. What’s the rush?

I’m back at school, year two, one week in, hired under a Literacy Grant, a good thing and not so good. What’s great is I have an opportunity to fine-tune teaching littlest learners, emergent readers. I was really winging it last year.

Students who returned are lots bigger, now the “biggers”, having moved up the ladder.

They still ask what’s in my lunch, check out my pockets for little surprises, and give me so many slimy hugs I already have my first cold. Littles are germy, but so darn cute.

Not so great, academic expectations put on these tiny children. It’s one thing to level the playing field by giving needy, underserved kids a head start on their learning.

Can’t neglect to mention feeding kiddos breakfast, lunch and two healthy snacks a day, food in their tummies they might not get at home.

However, on my third day back, our Directors handed me the first stack of assessments for the kids. The three of us have batches to complete. We are of course, watching and listening, anecdotal observation still the best way to see where kids are, in my opinion. The rest, a waste of time at this age, maybe every stage.

A big believer in formative assessment, for littles, we look at motor skills, affective domain, basic Maslow needs and Dewey interests. Some children do not know how to hold a pencil, much less write with one.

We know children learn through play, cooking, arts, crafts, gardening and extensive outdoor education. Sensory tables, maker spaces, centers, library visits and field trips. No different than older kiddos, really.

Our children clean their messes, say please and thank you, are polite, generally well behaved and so loving in our school family. They are indeed rays of sunshine and fill our buckets with joy each day.

The students also do community service, performing at several nursing homes. Developmentally appropriate activities are highlights all day long. As it should be.

We still do Show and Tell, have amazing Circle Times each morning, create meaningful child-centered, self-selected activities throughout the day, as well as small group instruction, mini-lessons on basic skills that make sense.

Now my concern. What should basic skills be and look like for youngest learners? How serious should we be about teaching reading for littlest kiddos, when I already feel it’s way too academic in Kindergarten, and now down to preschool. Good question for us all to ponder.

Our school serves kids coming to us from several programs, making this diverse, inclusive school a wondrous place to be. Older kiddos graduated to kindergarten in May, so this year we serve littlest litttles, ages 2-5, a lot of three and four year olds.

I’ve been teaching reading at one level or another, including University credential reading courses, for forty six years, including during my Principalship, Pre-6. I am pretty sure I know what we should be teaching and how to create meaningful learning experiences for emergent readers. But I question myself now, I admit.

Yesterday our kids were fixated on a spider walking on the ceiling, a ladybug and worm at recess and how to build a tower with blocks and legos. They also love books; reading is a big part of our day, but not necessarily the skills-driven curriculum we need to “cover”. Is it really ok to teach a sequential skill set when the kids are already all over the place in schoolhouse requirements?

I started working nearly immediately on the literacy grant curriculum standards, very advanced for our children. Then I happened to read an article on Facebook from Huffington Post, by Gaye Groover Christmus, “4 Things Worse Than Not Learning To Read in Kindergarten”. Much earlier I had blogged for BAM, “Dick and Jane Go To Kindergarten. Yikes!”

So this is not my first rodeo commentary about what youngest learners should know and do in reading.

I am clueless why in the U.S. we are forced ‘to the core’, putting terrible pressure on teachers and kids. We are all aware some children do not get reading until later, maybe seven or eight, then it all clicks in. Some children are ready, many are not. I’d better not hear about another boy being held back in Kindergarten for his immaturity, nearly always boys, and being a non-reader. Think “Leo the Late Bloomer.” All our little flowers in our garden of reading bloom differently, at different times.

Retaining children not reading at the end of Kindergarten makes one question the wisdom, or lack of, in pressuring teachers, parents and children when reading is a natural evolution, not revolution. Children all learn best their own way, own pace, so it’s pretty ridiculous to say all kids will read by such and so date.

If we really want to encourage joyful, lifelong readers we really need to take a look at expectations and invite policymakers to teach with us, spend a day, maybe two to get a better understanding of what’s going on with kiddos today, and what we need to teach. Get a grip, people. We’re pushing young children beyond what’s developmentally appropriate. And that can backfire, creating dislike or even hate of reading.

I decided a long time ago that doing Keynotes and training was great, but it was far better to Walk the Talk, then Talk the Walk, so back into classrooms I went, leading me all the way back from High School English to preschool. What an adventure.

Here’s where I start with emergent readers:

1. Book Handling: What a book is, looking at front and back covers, pictures, photos, how to gently turn pages. Left and right, a big deal at this age. Print goes from left to right in English.

2. I look for lefties: It may make a difference how I teach tracking print.

3. Concepts of print: Print awareness. Thought can be written. Print is interesting, sounds make letters, letters make words. There are spaces between words. Words make sentences.

4. Phonemic awareness is fun to teach. We play with speech sounds, manipulate letters to make words.

5. Rhyming is perfect at this age, think “Brown Bear”, Jesse Bear, etc.

6. We sing, chant, move, play instruments, clap beats. Reading is rhythmic. Alphabet! “Chicka Chicka abc”.

7. Our print and language rich environment includes dramatic play, environmental and functional print, the three biggies.

8. Our books feature rhyme, rhythm and predictable patterns. Picture books are wonderful for young readers, as well.

9. We read in increments all day. Lap reading, small group storytelling, reading nook before rest time, sharing books with each other.

10. Reading is a celebration. Books tell stories about new friends and places, interesting animals, like sharks, interesting people.

I also use language experience, encourage vocabulary, teach beginning comprehension through making predictions, retellings, summarizing, basic story grammar and sequence, as “Mouse A Cookie”. I think that’s all darn good, appropriate stuff.

We write, using inventive spelling. Through play activities, our kiddos learn to first identify sounds, then write corresponding letters, sound-symbol correspondence. They are not ready for cueing. I work on writing their name as soon as they recognize the alphabet has meaning, not just singing it. Names are important to start with. I read the book “Chrysanthemum”.

I also love teaching the book “Yo! Yes?” Not only is it perfect for encouraging friendships, sharing and caring, basic punctuation is easy and fun to teach with this story.

My point is, I believe our school is teaching at a very high level, with high expectations in a variety of necessary emergent reading behaviors, and corresponding low threat.

Using reading manipulatives such as magnet letters on cookie sheets is a super way for us to learn our language, hands-on. Painting, drawing, clay, dough, puppets, fun!

So I know I lucked out learning from our outstanding Directors, and I understand there are strings with any grant money, of course. But I believe it’s also important to take a step back and see what outcomes are supposed to look like, what standards need to be met.

So, seriously, let’s look at our grant standards in one area, jumping right in for emergent readers with “Phonological Awareness and Emergent Reading.” They are simply not ready at two-four years old, with ‘special’ needs, Spanish speaking, to master these skills. Check out this list from our grant assessments, due shortly:

H. 1. Demonstrates phonological awareness skills.

1.1. Uses rhyming skills.

1.2. Segments sentences and words.

1.3. Blends single letters and syllables.

1.4. Identifies same and different sounds at the beginning and end of words.

2. Uses letter-sound associations to sound out and write words.

2.1. Writes words using letter sounds.

2.2. Sounds out words.

2.3. Produces correct sounds for letters.

3. Reads words by sight.

3.1. Identifies letter names.

Etc. Phew.

You tell me. Is this where we want to go as a nation of readers teaching and encouraging young learners and readers? Skills driven, outcome based preschool readers? I think not.

Modeling love and joy of reading fairy tales, classic stories, adventures, fiction and non-fiction, oh that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Leaving footprints on your reading hearts, Rita

One comment

It’s up to parents. Every child is different and someone can be ready in three, and someone even in five can’t understand what we want from them. So, we shouldn’t equate children and only parents can define whether their child is ready. But we can help them to develop essential skills, like letter knowledge, improving short term memory, listening comprehension etc.

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