There is a push for kindergartners to learn to read without focusing on picture books and opportunities to speak and listen naturally, verbalizations critical for this age and development. Instead, vocalizations are now highly scripted with primarily phonics instruction.
It’s well understood that speaking and listening are critical skills at this period in a child’s development, but when are children allowed to freely vocalize and listen to conversational speech if they are constantly reciting scripted sounds?
Children may recite what they’re told well, but what meaning do they derive from the experience? They might learn sounds and words and remember a few rules, but how are they learning to comprehend, and is reading interesting?
Some teachers and parents appear hesitant to read or to give children picture books to examine until they learn how to sound letters and words, but exciting picture books and being read to often are precisely what children need to work on sounds and comprehension.
What’s highlighted in kindergarten and earlier includes regimentally teaching children letter sounds and words with phonetic rule instructions.
There’s also an assumption that children who aren’t reading by the end of kindergarten are deficient, but the first grade was when formal reading instruction used to begin. NCLB changed that, and for years kindergartners have been made to master developmentally inappropriate standards.
Kindergarten used to include activities like Show and Tell so children could freely talk and be heard. And hearing stories and being allowed to discuss what those stories mean to them and how children interpret characters and actions not only give children foundational phonetic and comprehension skills but they excite children about reading.
Today’s kindergarten, even the classroom ambiance, seems designed more for adults, not children. Are four and five-year-olds curious about walls filled with phonetic charts showing long and short vowels, consonants? This is abstract for any child especially for a child with disabilities.
Teachers struggle to teach about irregularities like BEAR and BARE. It’s hard to believe children learn best that way. Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear or Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See by Bill Martin, Jr. would generate far more interest to young children.
In Theresa and Frank Caplan’s signature The Early Childhood Years: The 2 to 6 Year Old, they explain how vital this association is to a child’s development. Even one-year-olds who may not understand what’s being said will respond to word rhythm, variations in vocal expression, parental interest, and the notion that the reading experience is exciting and important (p. 46).
Speaking is also critical, and when children talk, not just reciting words or letters they are being told to say, but practicing the formulation of words and sentences they wish to say they are learning to associate sounds with visual symbols. If they simply respond to rote repetition of a scripted letter and word sounds, they will never get this critical practice.
To speak, the child learns a vocal symbol for a concept. Children associate visual symbols with previously learned vocal symbols. Reading instruction should be given only when the child indicates real interest and is able to hear and speak the language with success. Then the child may be encouraged to move on to the visual symbols of language (p.47-48).
Consider the stage a child goes through when they appear to endlessly speak and ask questions.
Listening, speaking, reading, and writing happen in that order, but there’s also overlap. One of the best exercises is letting a child dictate their own story, write it down in big letters, and have it shown to them.
Talking about what they see in picture books and dictating what they learned with their words placed on paper, pull together sounds, pictures, and writing. This leads to comprehension better than just sounding out letters and words.
As children begin to master some words, content takes on added significance (p. 47). When parents discuss stories with children, comprehension and other verbal abilities increase.
The Caplans cite another book Blueprint for a Brighter Child by Brandon Sparkman and Ann Carmichael, who talk about the importance of three variables to reading readiness, in order:
Interest: Children like to hear stories and look at pictures.
Visual Discrimination: They can differentiate shapes, colors, sizes, etc.
Auditory Discrimination: They can distinguish between different sounds (p.48).
Note that interest is first on the list. Children have to be interested in learning to read to be good readers. Teachers should determine what is currently making children interested in books and reading.
If the focus is only on sounds and repetition as children are learning to read, without allowing children to speak, listen, and share their experiences, students are missing out on valuable experiences that could determine whether they comprehend or care about reading in the future.
Caplan, T. & Caplan, F. (1983). The Early Childhood Years: The 2 to 6 Year Old. The Princeton Center for Infancy and Early Childhood. New York: Bantam Books.