There is a major push in early childhood education to build literacy skills — the skills necessary for children to read, write, think critically, and access knowledge. But this push begs the questions, Exactly how do children learn to read and write? and How do we best prepare our children for a life of learning? No doubt parents and teachers are under enormous pressure to mold the minds of their young ones earlier, more fervently, and with more insistence on demonstrating growth than ever before. Two decades ago, the thought that a child could learn to read before entering school was preposterous, but more and more, preschool teachers and parents of young children are being told that with enough enrichment, children can develop these literacy skills at younger ages. Advertisers have this niche market figured out — all parents want their children to be successful and to have the strongest chances in this competitive world, and with claims that appear to guarantee “success”, we’d be fools to look the other way, right? After all, research does prove that the seeds of early literacy are sown as early as infancy. What are we to do? I’ve been re-reading Einstein Never Used Flashcards and WOW, is it ever good! The authors do such a wonderful job of meshing research with best practice and making it all practical! Here is some of what the authors share:
1. Younger is not always better. In fact, rote types of skill building at earlier ages have no effect at best, and a damaging effect at worst. Studies have compared children who come from academic preschool settings to children who come from child-directed, play-based environments. The two sets of children entered kindergarten with a different skill set; it was not uncommon for the children coming from the academic preschools to have an apparent cognitive edge, but within a couple of years of school, the two sets of children were indistinguishable in their cognitive abilities. The difference that persisted came in the form of the non-cognitive skills – the “soft” skills. Children who are allowed more time for open-ended play in a rich and supportive environment learn skills necessary to make and keep friends, regulate their emotions, choose a task and persist with it, generate creative solutions to problems, and bounce back when something becomes difficult. In short, children from the child-directed, play-based preschool group entered school with the skills to be lifelong learners.
2. The idea that enrichment is essential for growth is a myth. Just to be clear, “early enrichment” differs from providing high quality, intentional experiences for children in the early years. The idea behind early enrichment is that as parents and educators, we bolster our children cognitive development through such things as classes designed to teach foreign languages or through tutors promising to teach them to read. Somewhere, we have absorbed the idea that unless we intervene with young children, they will not learn the skills they need to be successful. If left to their own devices, children will end up twiddling their thumbs, their brains wasting away into uninspired mush. As discussed in Einstein Never Used Flashcards, this idea comes from a famous science experiment involving several groups of rats. The first was put in solitary confinement with no interaction whatsoever. The second group was put in a nice large cage with a bunch of other rat friends. The third group was put in a sort of rat fantasy land – a roomy cage and the latest and greatest in rat toys. Scientists then studied the development of the three groups. As you can guess, the rats in the third group did better than the first two groups. From this study came the idea that enrichment was essential for growth. This is the point at which merchandisers flaunt their wares, selling games, DVDs, educational toys, and other “must haves” to guarantee lifelong success. But, there was a fourth group of rats. Rats who were left in their natural environments with no interference from the scientists. Guess what? They did *far* better than the rats in the first three groups. We don’t hear much about those rats, do we? Advertisers wouldn’t sell much to us if we took the lead from this fourth group.
What does this mean for us? There is some real concern in the scientific community that all of the early enrichment is actually creating overcrowding in the brain and blocking our ability to develop critical thinking skills and other skills that develop later in life.
So what can we do to help our children develop literacy skills? Should we sit down and teach them to write their letters? Should we celebrate a letter of the week? Should we teach them to sound out the letters of a book?
The Right Start
1. Read, Read, Read! The one activity you can do that will prepare your children in all of the right ways is to read. Read all the time. Read all kinds of books, in all kinds of situations. Follow their lead in engaging the book – if they ask questions throughout the whole book, roll with it! If they want to point and name objects in the story, name away! Use their interest to guide literature selection. Recently, the crew and I were reading A Color of His Own by Leo Lionni. Questions arose about chameleons, so off to the library I went. The next day, when the crew arrived, I had gathered a small collection of non fiction books about chameleons. By now, we have read them so many times that the crew has memorized the text of some of the simpler picture books. They can then “read” the books to each other independently — talk about building a love for reading! When reading is contextualized like this, children have a great motivation to read. Plus, when adults read with children, it builds attachment which makes the activity even more meaningful.
2. Write, Write, Write! Children need to learn that the spoken word can be written. This is one of the emerging literacy milestones. If your child begins to tell a story, ask, “Would you like me to write this down?” — and grab a piece of paper! Transcribe word for word, and then read back to the child what you just wrote. At Abundant Life, each child has a journal, and whenever they feel the need to tell a story, I pull it out and transcribe. Have the kids help compile a grocery list or sign in at the dentist. Last week, the crew began building a boat out of blocks. They asked if I wanted to take the trip with them. “Sure, but I need a ticket. Does anyone have a ticket?” With that small suggestion, we ran to go make boat tickets. If I were teaching the letter B abstractly, just because it happened to be the letter of the week, it wouldn’t hold much meaning for the kiddos. Boat tickets, however…now that is immediately relevant!
3. Tell stories. All the time, about everything. Children quickly pick up on the basic elements of what makes up a story: plot, characters, and setting. A few months ago, we were telling stories at lunchtime, and one of the crew asked for a lizard story. “Make sure to start the story, ‘Once upon a time’ and then you should say, ‘One day…'” I guess I use the same language to signal the movement between the story elements!
4. Talk, and use big words. The larger the vocabulary, the more children can access and use language. This doesn’t mean we should spend our time teaching children large words just for the sake of memorization. However, in the context of everyday interactions, it isn’t necessary to dumb down our vocabulary.
See? Nothing fancy. No need for specialized equipment, DVDs, or products…just real, intentional interactions with children. Watching for organic opportunities to extend a child’s literacy awareness becomes part of the joy! For example, on Friday, some of the kids were playing doctor. Two children were at an impasse about whose turn it was to get a shot. So we got a clipboard and a pencil, and we made a list of names. We are building literacy! Also, on Thursday, someone opened an ice cream shop, and we got out a notepad to being writing down the orders. We are building literacy again! Lately, a game has surfaced that revolves around hot lava, so this weekend, I checked out some books on volcanoes at the library. Literacy! We have a mailbox in our space, and children write and receive letters from each other and from loved ones. Literacy! After we finish a drawing, putting our names on it identifies it as our own. Can you guess? That’s right…literacy building again! In each of these situations, the learning is immediately relevant.
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