Preschoolers learn sound, shape of language

The Education Beat

Literacy: Before they set foot in a kindergarten classroom, pupils participate in activities that bring words to life.

November 07, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

I DIDN'T GO to kindergarten when I began formal schooling in the late 1940s. But by the time my younger sisters came along, the German-born idea of educating 5-year-olds had spread across the United States.

Now, our grandchildren have two years of formal education under their belts, or in their heads, before they set foot in kindergarten.

That's not all that's changed. Schooling for 3- , 4- and 5-year-olds is no longer the haphazard baby sitting it was for my sisters. With the new emphasis on literacy from a child's first day out of the womb, children begin the journey before they learn their names -- and long before they "learn to read" in the first grade.

Educators have a phrase for it that sounds like the birthing process it is. They call it "emerging literacy."

The teachers of these children might have the hardest jobs, physically and mentally, in all of education. I realized this one morning last week as I watched two master teachers at Campfield Early Childhood Center in northwest Baltimore County.

They sang and danced and crawled on their hands and knees and wore silly hats. They called on all of their pupils' senses, inviting them to imagine and to predict and to demonstrate and to sing and laugh.

All of this with a plan in mind. In Baltimore County's "Word Identification" program, a pre-kindergarten teacher has to teach a sequence of 14 skills, such as "sees likenesses and differences in letters and words."

Kindergarten teachers, who are nudging their children into the fluency they'll need to be proficient readers, teach a sequence of 17 skills. That's hard to do with a class of 20 kids beginning formal schooling with widely differing knowledge.

The teachers start with sounds of the language ("phonological awareness"), then move to the shape of the language -- the alphabet -- and eventually to meaning, or comprehension. Along the way, they do a lot of writing and speaking.

The teacher, Kristina Haley-Class, was on all fours with her 3- and 4-year-olds -- who call her "Miss Class." From a bag of common items she brought from home -- clothing, a tennis shoe, an apron -- each child was invited to choose one and construct a simple sentence describing it, using word cards spread on the carpet. Each card had a simple word printed on it with a color or textured object representing the word -- the color pink, for example, with the word "pink," or a swab of cotton beside the word "soft."

Amelia, 4, chose one of her teacher's jackets and spelled out her sentence, using the jacket as the subject: "The jacket is soft and pink." The children repeated the sentence and then sang it to the tune of "Farmer in the Dell."

Haley-Class wasn't conducting a reading lesson. Children aren't expected to read "soft" and "pink" at 4. Indeed, the printed words were almost incidental to the lesson, which was intended to demonstrate that spoken words are used to describe, that they have meaning. But the children must have noticed that each of those words, pointed to repeatedly by the teacher, has a set of symbols -- letters -- representing it.

Around the corner and down the hall, Jane Vanko was teaching the kindergartners. Here were similar exercises in phonological awareness, but the maturity difference was striking.

Vanko's pupils had been taught last year by Haley-Class, and all of them by now know their names and the rules of behavior in public school. (Vanko estimated that by the end of the school year, all of her 18 pupils will have mastered phonological skills and about half will be beginning readers.)

Unlike other schools, Vanko explained, Campfield teaches letters in alphabetical order.

Last week it was "g." In one game, several children's first names were printed on the chalkboard, and the first letter in each name was changed to a "g." There were gales of laughter when "Matthew" was pronounced "Gatthew."

There was method in this game, though. Rhyming is one of the primary ingredients in the phonological awareness recipe, and the most powerful words in a kindergarten classroom are the names of the pupils. It's also useful to learn, Vanko said, that some rhyming words have meaning -- "dog" and "frog" -- but some are nonsense, such as "Gatthew-Matthew" and "Gara-Sara."

Vanko, a 12-year veteran of early childhood classrooms, said it's the hardest of jobs and the most joyous. "There's always a miracle by the middle of the year, but many times I take all of them home with me figuratively and worry about them. And when I wake up, they're lying heavily on my chest."

Neighborly reading effort to be held at libraries

"Neighbors' Night at the Library," they call it, and the first two of four get-togethers are scheduled for 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Waverly and Walbrook branches of Baltimore's Enoch Pratt system.

Organized by a new and promising organization, the Neighborhood Congress, Neighbors' Night is an effort by the city's literacy and community groups to promote reading. Events at the libraries include orientation tours, Internet demonstrations, "stoop reading" (though the stoop will be inside) and library card registration.

Two more Neighbors' Nights events are scheduled, at the Patterson Park and Cherry Hill libraries Nov. 16, at the same hours.

"This is the first in a long series of attempts that we hope will improve reading scores in Baltimore City," said Odette Ramos, one of the Neighborhood Congress founders. "Another long-term goal is to improve city school libraries. There's a strong correlation between the quality of a school's library and its reading scores."

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