“There is all the difference in the world between having something to say and having to say something.”
So wrote John Dewey, Founding Father of progressive education, in 1915. 102 years later, his statement still guides our approach to literacy development in the early years.
I’ve used this space over the past three weeks to touch on cornerstones of our school’s educational theory: using curiosity as a pedagogical resource; seeing children as competent; developing emergent curriculum (past Notes are archived here if you're falling behind!). This week and next week, I’ll be moving into how, with those pillars established, our teachers work on early academic development in the classroom. This week will cover Language and Literacy; next week I will focus on Mathematics and Numeracy. Both Notes will include three areas:
-Overview of how our educational theory leads to academic development
-List of specific areas of learning for each age in the school
-Tips for following through on this at home
Literacy learning revolves around having something to say, in contrast to being told by a teacher that it is time to say something. This is a core element running throughout progressive education. Children do not learn to read and write in order to later employ these skills in meaningful situations; they first need to experience meaningful situations that call for reading and writing. And while in those situations, they need to be seen as competent and capable of contributing to literacy efforts.
John Holt wrote that to teach literacy, “start with something worth doing.” For my three year old students, years back in Classroom 8, “something worth doing” was declaring to their classmates which Peanuts character each playmate was. Dramatic play came to a grinding halt one day as several children, wrapped in fabric and accessories, took out notecards and scribbled down Snoopy, Linus, Lucy, Peppermint Patty, and of course Charlie Brown. They fixed the make-shift nametags to their costumes using clothespins, and were off playing again. No more confusion over who was who. This activity is repeated in every classroom, every year. Writing menus, traffic signs, instructions, tickets, prescriptions – all of these activities “worth doing” occur during play time and are intentionally embedded and emphasized in our emergent curriculum.
Lev Vygotsky continues this line of thought, as he writes, “reading and writing must be something the child needs.” Our three year old classrooms use name cards on tables to denote places for snack and lunch time. This moves recognizing your name from a theoretical activity (which we prize as adults but children do not yet understand why) into an activity grounded in reality - name-recognition is needed to take part in classroom routines. Likewise, when children of any age ask their teachers to help make sure nobody knocks down their block structure, our teachers ask the children to use writing materials (stored on a shelf in the block area, not all the way over in the writing area) to jot down a “Do Not Touch” sign. Literacy in this environment is a valued tool in the moment, not an abstraction to learn now and use later.
Language and Literacy learning occur as part of a long journey; nothing is learned in isolation. Each skill builds on previous skills, which means there is no clear answer to the oft-asked, “When will you teach my child to [write his name] or [learn to read]?” We babble before we talk; we scribble before we write. The journey into fully literate students can be captured as follows:
Thought + Speech = Language
Language + Symbolic representation = Literacy
Our babbles and scribbles are protolinguistic elements, the first signs that thought is turning into speech and language is turning into literacy. Scribbling on paper with intent and meaning – is writing. Pretending to read a book to a baby doll – is reading. Both of these activities provide the child with the foundational understanding that marks have meaning, that symbols are connected to linguistic interactions. Stop by my office and take a look at the frame above my computer, with thirteen samples of my students’ writing that trace the growth from scribbling to writing. All of the papers were “written” with meaning and intent.
This trajectory is carefully attended to in our classrooms. Several years ago our teaching staff wrote an in-house document, “The Developmental Framework for Young Children”, that outlines opportunities for learning at each age. Please note that the word “opportunities” is used intentionally here instead of “milestones.” Each student reacts to these opportunities in a unique fashion and each student learns these skills at his or her own pace. The list below is excerpted from the “Language and Literacy” section for each age group; this is only a small sampling of a longer list of literacy skills at each age group found in the Framework. Following the list, I will outline some tips for using this information at home.
2s turning 3
Use language to express needs and communicate verbally with others
Begin to engage in symbolic play (use a block to function as a pretend telephone) with and without accompanying words
Sing and repeat simple songs or rhymes and finger-play
Develop a listening stance (sitting calmly to hear a story, stopping movement to listen to a teacher or friend)
Participate in group meetings for short periods of time
Explore books and know how to care for books
Use writing tools to make marks on paper
3s turning 4
Describe personal actions (“I am painting”)
Use language to resolve problems
Begin to use appropriate syntax, increase vocabulary and speak in full sentences
Begin to use “question words” such as who, what and when
Recite a familiar story from memory while pointing to the book (using the book as a prompt while acting as a “reader”)
Master directionality when holding a book and turning pages
Use pictures in books for information and to make predictions (“This book will be about a dog because there is a dog on the cover”)
Recognize own name in print and begin to recognize names of classmates
Understand the use of print for communication and begin to express an interest in functional print (print that they see around them in their environment)
Tell “what is missing” when one out of three objects is removed
Begin to use “pretend writing” to express ideas and thoughts
Begin to write some upper case letters (especially the letters in their name)
4s turning 5
Express opinions, share knowledge of immediate environment and world at large, and develop a narrative voice when working one-on-one with an adult, in small groups and during a class discussion or meeting
Differentiate between a question and a comment
Participate in extended dramatic play both individually and as a member of a group, using props such as hollow blocks, puppets, costumes or just imagination
Dictate invented stories or non-fiction narratives
Tell jokes and understand jokes told by others
Provide definition of words
Use more complex sentence structures
Identify and express opposites
Complete analogies (an apple is red and a banana is __________)
Interest in longer stories and/or chapter books and ability to follow more complex plot
Develop left-right and top-bottom progression of print in English when looking at books
Begin to develop phonetic awareness (letters are associated with specific sounds)
Attempt to sound out words by emphasizing beginning and/or ending sounds
Strive to communicate ideas through writing and drawing
Use of invented spelling when writing
Copy letters and words to create signs, labels, journal entries and other forms of documentation
Deeper understanding of functional print; recognize connection between a picture and text, both when reading and writing and drawing
How can you support this learning at home? You probably already are, just by exposing your child to a rich verbal and print environment. Here are some ways you can heighten your child’s literacy learning at home:
Leave a small cup or container in your child’s play area with a few crayons and a notebook, note cards, or loose paper. Help them incorporate writing – and making marks – into their play. For younger children, you’ll be doing the writing for them – which is fine – you are modeling literate behavior; for older children, encourage them to start by just writing the first letter to represent the whole word and work your way towards inventive spelling (sounding out words, no need to get accurate spelling just yet). In our living room, this means we leave a few small notepads and a handful of crayons out next to Jonah’s play “muffin shop.” When he called it a “bad guy shop” in play, we paused briefly as I wrote “BAD GUY SHOP” and taped it to the kitchenette; when he takes orders from his “eager” customers for coffee or bagels, he makes squiggly lines in the notebook.
Emphasize “functional literacy” throughout daily life. This refers to signs, directions, lists, maps, etc. While waiting for the train, talk about the 1, 2, and 3, and get excited as the train arrives and you see which one it is. In the grocery store, bring a paper list (hand written!) and have your child help you cross of items as you collect them.
Use techniques while reading books that promote “metalinguistic awareness.” This is the idea that books do not simply “contain” stories but instead include many components that together create a story. A few ways to do this:
While reading to your child, begin with reading and labelling the title, author’s name, and illustrator’s name (“The title of this book is…The author of this book is…the illustrator’s name is…”). Talk with your child about the idea that the author decided what words to put down and the illustrator decided what images to include. Stories don’t just exist; they are created through the choices of literate individuals. During the story, ask, “I wonder why the author/illustrator decided to use that word/include that picture?” You’re not only asking about the story, you’re asking about the literate people who made the story.
Follow the text with your finger as you read (like a bouncing ball on TV captions). This promotes directionality – left-to-right and top-to-bottom. You know your eyes are moving in those directions, but your child has no idea unless you show them. After doing this for months (years!), you can start to ask your child, “Can you help me by finding the first word on this page? Where should I start reading?” For younger children, this begins by asking them to help you turn the page, learning left-to-right.
Point out highlighted print and tell your child that it lets you know how to read it. An example in “Elmer” is the “BOOOO!”, written in large, bold, graphic letters. It stands out from the plain font the rest of the story is written in, and alerts you as a reader that you should read this suddenly and loudly. This shows the active relationship between the literate reader and the text.
Importantly, create a positive, intimate environment for reading with your child. Tell your child how much you love reading with them. Snuggle and cuddle while reading a book. Laugh. Hug. Kiss. Pedagogical strategies aside, children find success when they are in a warm, safe, loving space.
If you’re still with me, I’d love to hear your thoughts, feedback, and questions on how this looks at school or at home.