Bringing academics to kindergarten

Places of play become centers of instruction across Maryland, U.S.

March 06, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

When Jane Sundius' daughter Katie attended kindergarten at Sparks Elementary School a decade ago, the children had lengthy breaks for naps, snacks and recess.

But when her younger daughter Annelise went off to kindergarten at the same northern Baltimore County school last year, the naps and snacks had disappeared. And recess was a sometimes thing.

"From the minute Annelise walked in the door, she was engaged in literary activities," says Sundius. "It was very much more like the first grade of Katie's day."

The very different experiences of the two children at Sparks are emblematic of a big change in education -- and beginning reading instruction -- that is taking place across Maryland and the nation: Kindergartens are being transformed from places of play and development-oriented activities to centers of planned instruction, mostly focused on literacy.

And in Maryland, the new emphasis on reading instruction for 5-year-olds corresponds with a 30 percent increase in full-day kindergartens in the state's schools since 1997. The vast majority of programs remain half-day -- kindergarten has been mandatory since 1992 -- but most educators say only limited resources dictate against major expansion.

In kindergartens these days, children commonly read on their own or to each other, sometimes only days beyond their fifth birthdays.

"There's been a dramatic change," says Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "It's the most exciting thing that's happened in education in a long time. It's thrilling."

Twenty years ago, the focus in kindergarten was on preparing 5-year-olds emotionally and socially for the academic challenge of first grade. But recent studies show that children are capable of more formal learning as early as age 2, and many parents insist that their children are developmentally ready before first grade.

Betty Morgan, Baltimore's chief academic officer, agrees. "We needed more academic rigor in kindergarten. The curriculum was too babyish."

Whittier Elementary, a 2-year-old school on the outskirts of Frederick, operates under the new, more structured approach to kindergarten.

Exercises in reading and pre-reading -- planned to the minute -- fill the 2 1/2-hour daily schedule. Children are grouped and regrouped as they move from a "discovery lab" to a small bank of computers to the school library and back. The kids have a "quiet center" where they can sit and read the books they've checked out.

Learning and play

In the "play center," it's hardly pure play. In a "Mexican restaurant," complete with a play stove, tables, cash register and plastic tacos, children take orders, make change and issue receipts. They learn rudimentary Spanish.

Next door, taking up the Spanish theme, teacher Robyn Ackerman leads a small-group discussion comparing books she's read aloud, "The Three Little Pigs" and "The Three Little Javelinas."

"Should we write that the pig tricked the wolf?" Ackerman asks. "What's the meaning of `tricked'?"

Children might later be asked to retell the stories -- one of the literacy skills they're expected to master in kindergarten.

In keeping with the recent swing to more phonics in many Maryland elementary school classrooms, Whittier's kindergartners use rubber bands to stretch the sounds of words such as "pig." They sing nursery rhymes to help learn the sounds of the language and improve their phoneme awareness, recognized as the critical step in learning how to decode words.

The kindergarten rooms have "word walls," formerly seen only in higher grades. The first words on Whittier's kindergarten wall are the children's names. Vowels are colored red, consonants blue. And there's homework: Children take home a "reading pouch" and read with their parents a book introduced in class.

Children's writing is everywhere on display.

"We didn't do a whole lot of writing in the kindergarten of 20 years ago," says Carolyn B. Strum, the principal at Whittier. "Children would dictate words, and we would write them down for them. But now we know that children pick up the writing piece even before they pick up the reading piece. They start writing by drawing, and they write all the time."

A purpose to everything

To everything in Whittier kindergartens there is a purpose.

"Before, blocks were blocks," says Susan Delaney, one of three teachers who work together (with an aide and occasional parent volunteers) in the school's three kindergarten classes. "Children piled them up and knocked them down. And sand was for pouring. Today we use blocks and the sandbox to work on skills in language arts, math and science."

The purposefulness extends to Strum's office, where she presses a few keys to display a computerized record of every Whittier kindergartner's progress in learning to read. On this February morning, she knows that all but a handful of her school's kindergartners know the 26 upper-case letters and that a larger majority have mastered rhyming, a necessary precursor to reading.

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