From Mother Goose to ABCs Focus on reading skills begins in kindergarten -- or even earlier.

November 25, 1997

CHILDREN HAVE a better chance of becoming good readers when they learn at an early age to decode the words and sounds of a language. There is absolutely no reason to wait until first grade to make sure children know the letter "P" is the first sound in "pumpkin," or to teach them to spell their names and to recognize the names of classmates in writing.

Fortunate children begin the reading process at home, where parents are the first and best teachers. For others, instruction starts in pre-school. But Howard County schools have come to realize that for whatever reason, an increasing number of students arrive in kindergarten each year who cannot associate basic sounds with letters. These children suffer when kindergarten is all play and the critical first step in learning to read is postponed until first grade.

Pupils who remain poor readers by third grade have a high risk of remaining poor readers throughout their lives. If they are to read well by age nine, they can't afford to go through kindergarten without starting to learn how language works.

Mamie Perkins, head of elementary curriculum in Howard County, notes the importance of instruction in the kindergarten year. "We can't assume that every child is going to come to us with a literacy-rich background," Ms. Perkins says. "This may not have been an issue years ago, but it's time to rethink things."

It makes sense that Howard schools are squeezing time from other "socialization" activities to make time for reading lessons. Schools have begun testing incoming kindergartners to determine how well they know numbers, letters and words. Pupils in four county schools with large numbers of at-risk children have full-day kindergarten classes, with most of the extra class time spent on reading instruction.

The answer isn't necessarily all-day kindergarten for everyone, even aside from the issue of paying for it. But even half-day programs are shifting to a more determined focus on reading. There's a recognition that more children need a quicker start to become good readers for life.

Pub Date: 11/25/97

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