By Kindergarten Teacher Christine Pierce Inglis
Our early childhood program lays a foundation for writing and reading but does not begin formal instruction until the children are in first grade. What do we do in the kindergarten to prepare our children and what practical things can you do at home to further this process? Let’s take a look at some of the important skills and abilities involved in the process of learning to write and read:
Language Skills, including Speech Proficiency
Physical and Sensory Development
Social and Emotional Intelligence
The richer and more varied the child’s vocabulary, the more clearly he differentiates sounds and words, the better foundation he will have when he needs to translate these sounds into symbols. We immerse the children in poetry and songs everyday at circle time and we use the important element of repetition to reinforce the learning. It is well known to linguists that a child needs constant repetition of new sounds and words before he is able to reproduce them himself. Unlike physical objects which the child is free to pick up and examine at will, as often as he likes, a sound or word is transitory; it is there for a brief moment in time and then gone again. If it is not repeated enough, the child has no way to grasp it and learn about it.
For this reason we continue for several weeks with certain poems and songs at circle time, and we repeat our stories and puppet shows many times in a row, to familiarize the children with the language, imagery and concepts. As teachers we have many techniques to ensure that the circles do not grow stale or over-familiar while at the same time keeping the repetition of the words. We can expand and add new gestures or imagery, add costumes or turn the song or poem into a game. And as teachers we know the importance of delving deeply into the imagery and meaning of the fairy tales and stories for ourselves to keep them interesting and fresh for us, which is the key to keeping them alive for the children.
Experience has shown that the child must have reached a point of maturity with regard to oral language before beginning to read. This is known as the “speech age” of the child and is determined by the child’s use of phonemes and his ability or inability to form a particular sound. It has been estimated that by the age of seven the average child is able to correctly articulate the consonants and consonant blends ninety percent of the time. The learning of the alphabet of sound is an important prerequisite to learning the alphabet of letters.
Children with reading difficulties frequently have problems in speech. Therefore, by helping children to overcome their speech defects one can assist them in their association of sound and letter/word, and their capacity for oral reading. The best situation would be to help the child to learn to form his speech correctly before he begins to write and read.
In a study made by Sonenberg and Glass, forty children with reading problems were tested for speech and auditory defects. All but two of the children had speech problems and nearly half had problems with auditory discrimination. The children with difficulties in auditory discrimination frequently made the following sound reversals: K to G, P to D, W to WH, F to T, T to L, P to M, P to G, B to D, T to K, M to S, D to T, T to unvoiced TH, F to unvoiced TH, F to V. These substitutions often show up as reading reversals.
Van Riper and Butler have set outlines for phoneme teaching that stress the importance of identifying each sound with a sound in the child’s environment, giving the sound a name, and identifying the sound with a picture. For example, “S” is described as the whistling sound of the teakettle. For our young children, it is enough to identify the sound without naming it; although on occasion I make an exception (Pattacake, or the folk song BINGO).
Speech Proficiency Tip:
Sing to your child! Sing songs that you remember from your childhood. When choosing a fairy tale or story for your child, think about the complexity of the conflict in the story. For a preschool child, a simple story about a child searching for, and finding, her cat can be enough of a conflict and resolution. For older kindergarten children, a story with more complex tasks or difficulties to overcome (such as three tasks to be performed to break the enchantment) can be considered. Always look at the level of conflict and tension within the story to guide you.
Three to four year old children are still coming to terms with their own bodies and the everyday life and world of objects and nature. (Also a primitive “animism” is still alive in the child, and there are many delightful folk tales that reflect this…the door speaks, the table speaks, etc.) Putting on boots and mittens, walking in the woods, helping mother knead bread dough or sweep the kitchen floor; these everyday activities are special events for the young child, and opportunities for learning. Watching the postman or the farmer at work, observing how grown-ups do things, are all very important at this age. Therefore stories which center around daily life, home or work activities are well-loved, and at circle time young children love to mime these activities in connection with the poems or songs. Try singing “Here we go ‘round the mulberry bush” with its endless verses of “this is the way we wash our hands” (or brush our teeth, or put on our boots) when you are doing these activities with your child. It is a great way to get happy compliance! Nursery rhymes are also wonderful and you can use them to accompany certain routine activities. Everyday when the children come in for lunch I stand at the door, holding it open and making a sort of bridge with my arm that they walk under, and I often sing “London Bridges”. Or when I pour the water into each of their cups at lunch it reminds me of “Jack and Jill” who went to fetch a pail of water and I sing that song each day as I pour the water. It is a simple little ritual but the children often like to join in, and the repetition gives them a chance to become very familiar with the sounds and rhythms.
At age five and six the children have developed to a different stage and their drawings are indicative of their awakening consciousness. The sky and the earth are now often separated on the page, the child is no longer living completely “at one” with the world but is beginning to connect to the concept of separation in a new way. This shows his readiness for slightly more complicated plots, such as some of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. These creative pictures feed his imagination developing a capacity for rich imagery. The children are now less dependent on the visual props of the puppet show (we do mostly puppet shows with the younger nursery children) and can listen and independently picture the happenings in the story.
Speech Proficiency Tip:
All children love to hear stories about what their parents did as little children. Try to remember some – it doesn’t matter how mundane they are, your children will be delighted! Also, it is great to observe something in nature and share it with your child at mealtimes. I store up memories of things that I have seen on the way to school that morning, for example, a cardinal flying across the road, or a bunny hopping into the bushes, and of course endless stories about my cat, Kippy, which children love. (“Tell us about Kippy!”). Once I have shared a short story/observation from my day, the children quite naturally follow my lead and often will take turns telling things that they have seen. It is a nice way to begin a mealtime conversation, and these conversations are a great place for the children to practice their language skills.
The eye becomes structurally complete at about eight years of age. Before that time, the eyes are still in a process of development. The unnatural hand and eye movements required for writing and reading must be learned. In writing, the hand must be able to move across the page from left to right in a controlled manner. In reading, the eyes must be able to make this same movement, over and over. In daily life, one would rarely (if ever) move one’s eyes in such a way for any length of time. Instead, the eyes would be constantly moving back and forth, up and down, near and far, in a very different pattern. Emerald Dechant (author of “Improving the Teaching of Reading”) asserts that the child of six is usually too farsighted to see objects as small as a word clearly and with ease. Some authorities have even suggested that children are made myopic (nearsighted) through premature attempts to adapt to the demand of close vision.
Visual Proficiency Tip:
At the end of clean-up time I ask the children, one at a time, to use their “eagle eyes” and find anything that is out of place. You can do the same at home, and make a little game of it.
Unless the child is able to differentiate the sounds that make up a word, he will not be able to form the proper association of spoken sound to graphic symbol. In fact, it has been found that listening is generally more effective than reading as a learning device for children under eight years.
Listening is the first language art that the child develops. This power of mastering new sound discriminations decreases as one grows older. A baby will easily pick up the language with which he is surrounded and imitate the precise intonations necessary. Contrast this with the adult trying to learn a foreign language; it is much more difficult for him to master, partly due to a fixation of the speech organism, but also in a large part due to an inability to distinguish sounds. Often an adult retains an “accent” in the foreign language because he doesn’t perceive the subtle difference in the phonetics or cadences of the new language as compared to his native tongue.
Research has shown that good listeners rated higher than poor listeners in intelligence, reading, socioeconomic status, and achievement, but not on a hearing test. This indicates that the activity of listening is not necessarily bound up with a person’s physical, auditory acuity. Listening occurs only when the child organizes and remembers what is heard. It requires the active engagement of one’s thinking processes. Obviously, a hearing impairment would create difficulties for a child, but clearly, the physical capacity only provides the basis for the activity of listening to take place.
The ability to listen is basic to the learning of reading. It is generally recognized that this ability must be consciously fostered, as children enter school with quite varied degrees of listening ability. Dechant names several ways in which listening can be taught: through storytelling, conversation, dramatization, singing of songs, reading of poems and reading or speaking rhymes. Some schools have so-called “listening centers” with pupil-operated devices consisting of a CD player, earphones and response sheets which are filled in by the pupil. It has been noted that the listening center equipment does little to improve empathic listening, reactive listening, projective listening or interpretative listening which seem to be better fostered in face-to-face situations, which is what we emphasize in Waldorf Schools.
Auditory Proficiency Tip:
Find a stringed instrument such as a lyre or guitar, or a chime bar or xylophone that rings. Play one tone (by plucking the string or chiming one bar) and have your child tell you when they can no longer hear it. Or get a big conch shell and hold it to their ears to see if they can “hear the ocean” in it. Or go outside in the woods and listen for the birds calling. And when you despair that you have to call them at least ten times before they come, start training them to come the first time you call them (let them know that you are going to call them and you will only say their name once – then go get them silently and take their hand if they weren’t listening. Eventually they will get it, and then you can give them a lot of praise!)
Physical and Sensory Development
In addition to what has already been mentioned in the way of physical development, there is a great deal of new information available in the area of brain research. As Carla Hannaford, Phd., says in her book “Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All In Your Head”: “The notion that intellectual activity can somehow exist apart from our bodies is deeply rooted in our culture. It is related to the attitude that the things we do with our bodies, and the bodily functions, sensations, and emotions that sustain life, are lower, less distinctly human…Thinking and learning are not all in our head. On the contrary, the body plays an integral part in all our intellectual processes from our earliest moments right through to old age. It is our body’s senses that feed the brain environmental information with which to form an understanding of the world… And it is our movements that express knowledge and facilitate greater cognitive function as they increase in complexi…”
Einstein once said: “Learning is experience. Everything else is just information.” So much of what we learn is taken in through our senses, especially as young children. The more we can give our children hands-on learning, the more we are allowing them to learn through experience. If we are constantly talking at them, and explaining, we are robbing them of the possibility of learning through observation.
Physical and Sensory Development Tip:
Children often ask: “What are you doing?” or “What are we going to do now?” or “What are you going to use that for?” Often adults feel that they are obligated to explain what they are doing. Try saying: “Watch and you will see.” And then carry on with your work. When the child sees that you are not going to tell him, he starts to pay attention and his interest shifts to a whole new level. It is very satisfying for him when he figures out what is going on through his own observation. Sometimes a child will ask “what are we having for snack?” I might say “what do you smell?” or “what did we chop together this morning?” If I just quickly answered “bread” or “soup” they haven’t been encouraged to pay attention to their own senses. When we quickly provide very detailed and complete answers to all of their questions we are training them to be inactive and always look to someone else, rather than trying to find their own answers. Of course, there are certainly times when you want to use the “teachable moment” to explain something; but don’t be too quick to jump in or too detailed at first. They need time to take it in and process the information. Start with simple, pictorial explanations. The child will continue to mull it over and think about it more if you leave something for them to discover.
Physical and Sensory Development Tip:
Since children don’t get to move as much as they used to (it is popular and sometimes easier to take them everywhere in the stroller or the car) give them as much time walking as possible. And if your child missed or hurried through the crawling phase, play crawling games with them! (Mama Bear and Baby Bear, or Papa Turtle and Baby Turtle, etc.) Walking over varied ground (such as hikes in the woods) is fantastic. Go to the beach in the summer and let them experience walking barefoot on the sand.
Physical and Sensory Development Tip:
Games to play for developing sensory awareness…Place three familiar objects under a cloth. Ask your child to reach under the cloth and identify the objects through touch alone. (This is a great game to play when you are waiting – in a doctor’s office, or a restaurant, or an airport.) Another game for the sense of hearing is to have your child close his eyes and then you play different instruments (for example a flute, or bell, or drum) and have the child identify the different instruments. Another game for the sense of smell is to put three pungent substances in three containers and (with eyes closed) have your child identify them (for example, lemon, ginger, cinnamon). You can keep the same objects and do them over and over, every time you play the game, so that your child can get confident in the identification. They love repetition! When you have done it many times you can change to new objects. Just remember to keep these games light and playful rather than “instructional”.
Physical and Sensory Development Tip:
Any songs or games with “body geography” are helpful, such as “Heads, shoulders, knees and toes” or the finger game “Two Fat Gentlemen”.
Social and Emotional Intelligence
Although research has shown that a mental age of six and a half years is the optimal age for beginning reading, intelligence is not the only factor that should be considered. Emotional and social maturity is also important. Mason and Prater found that: “…younger children make less progress than older ones of the same intelligence when they are exposed to the same program…” Although many studies have shown that it is possible to teach children under the age of five to read, it is important to consider whether this is desirable. Research has shown that the teaching of reading in the kindergarten tended to increase negative social behavior among the boys, and that learning was a much slower process than with first grade children.
It would therefore seem unwise to push children beyond their emotional or social maturational level, since reading disability is often caused by starting a child in a reading program before he is ready. As Dechant asserts: “Such a child cannot handle the day by day learning tasks and finds himself farther and farther behind as time goes by. He becomes frustrated and develops antipathy toward reading. He actually learns not to read.”
The relationship between reading disability and emotional and social maladjustment is often a “vicious circle”. If the child has difficulty reading this leads to a loss of self-esteem and a stigmatization which can become a tremendous social difficulty. But it is equally true to say that if a child comes to school with emotional problems or social handicaps, it is very possible that he or she may experience difficulty in learning, and this includes writing and reading.
In her book “Is Your Child In The Wrong Grade?” by Louise Bates Ames, Phd., of the Gesell Institute of Child Development, the author makes the point that a large proportion of school children are being forced to perform at levels beyond their ability, thus creating behavioral problems, and antipathy toward school and learning. Ames asserts that a high I.Q. can give the illusion that a child is ready for more advanced work at a higher grade level, when in fact, the child’s emotional and social behavior is not capable of more demands. Clearly, it is important that a child’s emotional and social behavior be considered in deciding when to begin writing and reading; and any activities which foster this maturational development would seem to be beneficial to the development of the child’s reading capabilities.
Social and Emotional Intelligence Tip:
Young children are constantly learning through their play. They learn a great deal when they play on their own: including working through and digesting many sense impressions and emotions and reflecting on things. Children also learn an enormous amount when they play with others: how to interact, how to share, how to stand up for themselves, how to be compassionate. It is a constant give and take. Provide opportunities for both solitary, creative play and creative play with others. Don’t overschedule your child with school all day, and then provide constant, structured activities and playdates after school. They need time to digest their school experiences. But if your child is having social difficulties it can be helpful to invite another child over for a playdate so that social skills can be practiced in a relatively quiet, focused way, in a familiar and secure setting.
Some basic social skills include:
- Learning to say “No Thank You” to someone who is bothering them (pushing, taking a toy, speaking rudely, etc.)
- Learning how to enter into other children’s play, for example, knocking at the door of their “house” and saying “knock, knock, knock, may I come in?” and conversely, inviting in friends who want to come in and play.
- If two children are fighting bring them together rather than separating them. If one has hurt the other, let him go and get a tissue and cup of water for his friend. Let them take hands and say “sorry, friend” then give them a task to do together.
A shortened version of this article was published in the Spring 2012 Mosaic Newsletter of the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School (PDF).