Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Rethinking "Letter of the Week" and Our Approach to Early Childhood Instruction

I was just visiting with a friend of mine, Molly King, a new employee at our local quality care enhancement provider here in Huntsville, AL. She was sharing a few ideas with me about how important it is to "relate to the level" of our students and not instruct like the elementary school teacher. Wow, it was a "light bulb", "what a great idea" moment.

Here are a few thoughts from that conversation:

1) Whenever we think "teaching" and "learning" on the preschool level, it should always be integrated into real life interaction and play. Please no flashcards or black master worksheets! Those may make teaching easy for you but they are not an effective way to approach true learning with preschool children.

2) All over the Internet is the latest, "greatest" fad - teach your baby to read. Expecting an infant to be able to do more than "parrot" back to you is ridiculous for this reason: it ignores the developmental spectrum through which children must travel before they are ready for a complex mental process like conventional reading. Reading, after all, is not word recognition, although that might be a part of it. Reading is gaining meaning from text.

Would you take a baby who had never been near the water and throw it in the 6 foot deep end of the pool? Of course not! That's what you do when you throw a baby into "reading" without the foundational concepts so critical and integral to becoming a conventional reader.

3) Instead, think conversation, reading aloud and sharing stories, and play (intentionally planned and encouraged by you but seen by the child as a simple, fun interaction with their world). Children learn best through play and, as preschool educators, we can dive in with them, be attentive to natural opportunities for teaching to occur and see the light bulbs go on.

Here's an example: the other day I was observing in a preschool classroom. An unfamiliar noise (the sound of a tape player bleeping) went off in another part of the room. The child in front of me said, "What's that?" I said, "Let's go investigate!" She looked at me as if to say, "I don't know what you mean." So I expanded my language to say, "The word 'investigate' means to closely inspect, check things out, find out what is behind, in our case, the noise we heard." When I saw the hint of understanding, I continued, "what could we use to investigate that sound? - our eyes, our ears,our brain?" We quickly grabbed a funnel (for cupping to our ear for better hearing) and a pair of toy binoculars (for closely looking) from the science center where we were. We were off to see what the noise was and where it came from.

In just a few seconds, we were exploring new vocabulary, searching out tools to help us solve the mystery, and using hands-on methods for solving the puzzle. I encouraged the teachers to continue to use that word "investigate" as they interacted with the children that day and to read nonfiction picture books so they can explore more types of investigating.

Read a terrific article by Lillian Katz on the Clearinghouse for Early Education and Parenting website that extends these concepts and talks about a basis in developmentally-appropriate practices and research. It is entitled Child Development Knowledge and Teachers of Young Children. Excerpts from this Internet site would be a great read for individual preschool teachers or as a center for group discussions among staff members during a staff meeting.

Also, there is a great guest blog on I.N.K.which includes several picture books recommended for investigating the natural world. It also includes an important thought from the well-known environmentalist, Rachel Carson. She said, "It is not half so important to know as to feel when introducing a young child to the natural world.” If that link doesn't take you to just the right spot on I.N.K., you can look under their category "youngest readers" and it will take you right to it.

Now, when the pressures to turn preschool into kindergarten into first grade are so great, remember how children learn best and rethink your approach. It's a question of short-term benefit (pleasing over-anxious parents who may not understand the development of their children and going against what you know is best for the children) or long-term benefits, which are the only kind that will make a better future for our children and our world.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Teaching Vocabulary

It's easy to think that having children say the definitions of words over and over is the best way to learn. Absolutely not in preschool especially. So how do we help young children grow vocabulary? Here are two ideas:

1) recognize that your everyday conversations are a primary source for growing vocabulary. Talk with your children throughout the day, during read aloud time, at lunch, outside. No preschool teacher should be at her desk or standing to the side during center or free play time.

Get down on the children's level and inquire, investigate, draw in those words from your read aloud that may be new to your children. When you teach on themes, this is easy. Have a new word to celebrate each day or each week and use it often, in different circumstances and contexts.

Don't be afraid to use big words with them. But use them as naturally as you are able. Even if you aren't used to talking that way, be purposeful in your use of those words with them. Connect them to synonyms that your children already know. I love Ogden Nash's Adventures of Isabelle because in the midst of teaching children to be confident, he uses great words like "cavernous" and "ravenous". Here are a few other titles that are excellent for growing vocabulary (did you know you can do that, even if there are few or no words?). You'll be able to find a complete list of such titles to build conversation in my upcoming book for teachers, Before They Read: Language and Literacy Development Through Conversations, Interactive Read-alouds and Listening Games (to be released in November, 2009). Here's a taste, but stay tuned!

Actual Size by Steve Jenkins
Bear Snores On (and other books by Karma Wilson)
Dear Zoo: A Lift-the-Flap Book by Rod Campbell
Fuzzy, Fuzzy, Fuzzy by Sarah Boynton
I Like Black and White by Barbara Jean Hicks

2) Share those same words with your families that you use during the day so they can talk about those big (and not so big) interesting words too and use them in conversations with their children. Do you know what "decontextualized" language is? That's speaking in the future or past tense, rather than just the here and now. Talking in that way not only encourages vocabulary but also more abstract thinking skills. You may already do that when you talk in circle time about what the children had for breakfast or plan together what you will do later in the day. Be sure to remember to send those books with great vocabulary home so the children can explore them with Mom or Dad, big brother, Grandma or a neighbor.

Oral language is the basis for written language. When your preschool children are ready to learn to read conventionally (either before or after they go to kindergarten -- either might be normal for them), their strong vocabulary will make reading easier. They'll listen to the word as they sound it out and blend it, it connects to that word they know in their oral language and BAM! they've got it. Ask thinking questions to expand their language; use scientific terms like "document" instead of "write down" or "experiment" instead of "try it out." With a little thought, you'll have a great impact!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Storytelling in Preschool

Today I received an inquiry from an author who wanted to talk about storytelling and its impact on literacy in preschoolers. What a great topic!

Anyone can tell a story. Young children's oral language development, vocabulary and their ability to communicate with confidence grow during the preschool years more than any other time in their lives. Tap into the natural opportunities in your classroom to encourage this skill of storytelling. Here are a couple of ideas that you can use in the classroom tomorrow:

1) Especially if you work with 2-3 year old children, you hear often "read that story again!" Children are learning about the structure of stories, that there is a beginning, middle and end, as they listen to familiar books. They are also learning how just the right word choice makes a story lively and communicates what they feel. Place a few props (felt or laminated pieces representing the main characters in a story, or objects that appear in the story) to help children remember the proper sequence in the story as they retell it in your "book nook" or storytelling center. Incorporate that into circle time where the children are actively engaged in helping tell a familiar story when you prompt with "what happens next?"

2) Busy parents need ideas for how to encourage their children's growing literacy and storytelling is one of the best. Our children love to hear about the day they were born, their mom or dad's life when they were a child, etc. First ask them to share a few of those stories with their children, taking time to elaborate and give good details. I still remember stories from my childhood like that. It also gives children a sense of belonging and personal history. Also remind families that letting their child tell stories (the one they heard in the family or one from school) help children learn to use our language effectively. They will also learn incredible things about their children when they listen. Teach your parents how to expand on what their children are saying, reflect back to them and ask for more!

3) Model good storytelling. To do that, you need to watch some great storytellers in action. There are storytelling festivals all over the country. In my own neck of the woods, there's an annual Athens (AL) Storytelling Festival with lots of different styles (funny, entertaining, sentimental, and thought-provoking). Check out the storytelling festivals in Jonesboro TN (The International Storytelling Festival), Three Rivers in Pittsburg, PA or The Toe River festival in my own native state North Carolina.

Don't forget that children tell stories when they talk about what they are doing in centers during free play time. Expand on what they say, encourage them to share through language and create great stories there too (a few of which you can take down in dictation and share with the world!)

Enjoy the story!