Developing Early Reading Skills: It All Starts with Sounds

The more we learn about how children develop reading skills, the more we understand that it all begins with sounds. In fact, a child’s ability to play with the sounds within a word (rhyming, inventing rhymes, adding or removing the sounds within a word) is a key indicator of a child’s future success in developing reading skills. This skill is called Phonemic awareness. It is the ability to hear the individual sounds within spoken words. When we think about what it takes to be able to read, it is easy to see why phonemic awareness is so important. In print the sounds within words are represented by letters. These letters can be taken apart and put together in different ways to create different words. A child who is already familiar with the idea that words are made up of separate sounds that are blended together will have a much easier time making the leap to associating sounds with letters and blending those letters to sound out words.

Exploring the sounds within words is something that anyone can do with a child. It requires no special materials and the child doesn’t need to know anything about the letters of the alphabet (learning which letters go with which sounds will come later). Families, caregivers and teachers can help even the youngest preschoolers begin to develop phonemic awareness just by being silly and playing around with words. Here are a few ideas:

  • Read a lot of nursery rhymes or other rhyming text
  • Sing rhyming songs or songs that emphasize initial word sounds (Baa Baa Black sheep for little ones, and “Apples and Bananas” is a great example for older preschoolers)
  • Say the child’s name then change or remove the initial letter sound (Tommy becomes Ommy or Lommy)
  • Say a word and invent a string of rhymes (Hi there cutie, futie, lutie, putie…)

Phonemic awareness “lessons” can and should be fun, simple and short. It is all about sounds and spoken word. Identifying letters to match those sounds is the next step, and this next step will be a lot easier for kids if they have a solid understanding of the concept that words are made up of individual sounds that are blended together. WoWKit activity binders for preschool and downloads for toddlers are full of activity ideas for developing phonemic awareness. You can check them out at www.wowkits.com.

For more info on phonemic awareness and guidance for educators, check out the resources posted on the University of Oregon Center for Teaching and Learning.

Can a Standardized Test Measure Skills in Preschool?

Standardized tests and young children are not a good mix. Head Start tried it for five years (from 2002 until 2007) and the results were not good. According to Samuel Meisels, president of the Chicago-based Erikson Institute, items were timed, had cultural bias and were only given in English and Spanish when 98 other languages were documented as being the home languages of children enrolled in Head Start across the country. All of this was in direct contrast to what we know is important for early learning, namely children’s need to feel safe and supported, to work at their own pace and the importance of the development of the home language. The format and values of standardized test  are not a good fit if our goal is to have a clear picture of what our children are capable of.

But with more and more states looking for ways to trim the budget, early childhood programs are feeling pressure to find a way to measure the progress of very young children. What is the answer? In a recent article in Tulsa World, Meisels points to observational assessments.

“As you work with kids in a sandbox or in other parts of the classroom, you can learn their abilities,” he said. “In observing, you have to learn how to do it – observe without bias, while in action with a child and how to take yourself away from a child for observation.”

To do this well takes some training, support from staff or even parent volunteers so that teachers can be freed up to do these observations. Teachers also need a process for documentation and a program that supports hands-on, experiential activities that allow children to learn, grow and show off all they can do. Young children cannot be successful in a one-size-fits-all evaluation structure, but, as any adult who has looked up when a young child shouts, “Watch me!” all children can show us what they can do through play.

5 Ways to Help Children Love Learning

With so much focus on accountability and test scores, much of a child’s time at school is spent focusing on his or her weaknesses. If a kindergartner is having trouble learning letter sounds, teachers make sure extra time is spent practicing letter sounds. Makes sense, right? The trouble is that even very young children begin to see school and learning as an experience that makes them feel frustrated and bad about themselves. So what can teachers and parents do to help build important skills without turning children off to learning? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Make sure your expectations are developmentally appropriate– Remember, all children develop at their own rate. Some preschoolers may be ready to sound out simple words, while others are still working on matching the correct sound to a letter. These developmental differences exist into early elementary school. Know the child you are working with and don’t push a skill that the child isn’t ready for!
  2. Build a positive relationship with each child– children are more willing to take risks and persist with challenging tasks if they feel safe and comfortable with you. Get to know children as individuals and let them know as often as you can that you appreciate them for who they are.
  3. Teach a weakness through a strength– If a child is having a hard time learning letters, but loves to move about, create a hide-and-seek letter game or scavenger hunt. Look for letters already out there in signs when you walk around the neighborhood, school or classroom, or hide letter cards around the room or playground.
  4. Create opportunities for positive experiences– Pair a struggling first grade reader with a preschool or kindergarten child who is learning letters and sounds. Give them a chance to be an expert in an area where they struggle. Encourage a child struggling with number identification help you with counting jobs around the room (Can you help me make sure I have 10 pencils in my pencil box?)
  5. Let children take the lead– if you notice that a child is really interested in dinosaurs (or any other topic), let the child lead the learning. Find out what he might want to learn about these creatures and help him to explore. As you do, encourage him to count the teeth in the T-Rex skeleton or identify the first letter sound in that big dinosaur word. The child can take the lead with the topic and you can insert skill development.

WoWKit Activity Binders can help you to reach and teach every child. Each binder is full of skill building teaching ideas for preschool and kindergarten that enable you to teach children through their strengths and interests and tap into their natural curiosity.

Invest in Early Ed and Care- The Video

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. This video is worth so much more! Through the voices of 4 children (an infant – 4 years old) we hear and see the effects of poverty and a lack of a positive environment in the early years. The video clip is targeted to New Mexico legislators, but the facts and statistics presented apply to every community across the country. We can invest in children and save money. It’s a win-win!

Watching 2 Natural Playgrounds Part IV

It has now been a year since the professionally installed playground became open to the children at this child care center. It has changed very little since it was first installed. An outdoor water fountain was removed. One teacher told me it was a hazard, the way it stuck out in the middle of an area that got a lot of kid traffic. Another said it was removed because a pipe burst (New Hampshire winters do that to pipes!). Other small changes include, more rungs added to a steep wooden ramp heading up a small hill, and flat rocks embedded into a high-traffic section of another hill where the grass was quickly warn away.

The teachers and children are as enthusiastic about their natural playground today as they were a year ago. One preschool teacher described it as “a nice, peaceful place to be.” I have visited a lot of school playgrounds, and I haven’t heard many teachers describe the playground experience in that way! Here are some of the reasons these teachers love their playground:

Fewer child conflicts- it is easier to redirect children and children are more likely to walk away and find a space of their own in the varied terrain of this playground

More outdoor time- because it is so easy to link the curriculum to the playground (reenacting stories, science exploration, math activities with natural materials) teachers take the children outdoors more often. One teacher said, “we used to go for walks to find things in nature, now we don’t even have to leave the playground.”

Children use their imaginations more- the uneven, exciting terrain of the playground with its caves, hills, tunnels, dips, rocks, ridges, and trees encourage all kinds of imaginative and cooperative play with children.

While the teachers didn’t mention this, I can’t help but think that this playground has also enhanced their teaching. Research shows that when children can get out and experience math and science concepts, or act out stories, they are learning content in a variety of ways, learning it faster and learning it better.

More of the Natural Playground series:

Watching 2 Natural Playgrounds Part I

Watching 2 Natural Playgrounds Part II

Watching 2 Natural Playgrounds Part III

What is RTI and How Does it Work in Preschool?

Response to Intervention (RTI) is a term that is being used a lot in schools across the country. Basically, it is an effort to give children a more customized educational experience. Over the past decade schools have found that an increasing number of their students need special education services. This is costly for schools, and because the special education referral process can take a lot of time, it is also costly to the children who have to wait to receive the support they need to succeed in school.

As a response to this issue, many states and school districts have begun exploring teaching techniques that can be used in elementary classrooms, with all of the children. The hope is that this effort to meet children’s individual needs early will help prevent the need for intervention services down the road. Because many children are referred to Special Ed for reading or or behavior issues, many schools’ RTI initiatives revolve around support in these areas.

While much of the RTI efforts across the country are in elementary schools, the approach can also be very successful in preschools. The earlier we can catch issues that may cause a child some difficulties in school, the easier it is to address those needs and keep that child learning at the same level as his peers.

According to the Center for Response to Intervention in Early Childhood, the hope is that RTI in preschool will provide:

  • General Pre-K instruction that is more individualized, more responsive to children’s needs, and that can be implemented without long delays
  • An increase in the percentage of children ready for Kindergarten
  • A reduction in children that need special education services
  • A coordinated system of care and education that finds children, and brings services to them at appropriate speed

There are some challenges that come with bringing the RTI model into preschools. For example:

  • RTI assumes coordinated teamwork between general and special education to carry out screening, progress monitoring and to implement tiers of intervention. Many preschools do not have special educators on staff.
  • RTI models assume a high level of expertise to carry out interventions in three tiers. Again, finding teachers with that expertise at the preschool level is not easy.
  • Few evidence-based curricula and interventions are available and widely implemented, especially at Tier 1

I have been involved with a team implementing RTI at a local preschool and going through the process of meeting our state’s desired preschool outcomes has been very beneficial for the staff and the children. It has created a better program. I am also happy to say that the WoW Kit curriculum was used to help meet tier 1 and tier 2 learning goals and we met that challenge with great success!

Summer Skills Series: Early Reading and Writing

Unlike walking, talking or even problem-solving, reading and writing are not skills that develop naturally in children. Both the right-brain and the left-brain have to work together to decipher an image, connect it to a particular sound and then string several of these picture-sounds together to create a word. It’s complicated, and takes practice!

That is why every teacher will tell you, once your child has begun to blend sounds together to either read or write words, keep up with it all through the summer. Some kids love it! They’ll take every opportunity to sound out signs, read you simple books or write lists and labels for everything. Other kids need a little more encouragement. Here are some fun and simple ideas to squeeze a little reading and writing into summer:

Get organized! Encourage your child to make labels for toy bins, book shelves or anything else you’d like to organize. Don’t worry about correct spelling. The important thing is working matching the written letter to the sounds your child hears in each word.

  • Invite your child to help you write a grocery or other list. Again, correct spelling is not important.
  • When you’re out and about, ask your child to help you find things (stores, menu items, landmarks, etc.) by looking at and deciphering signs.
  • Encourage your child to keep a summer journal to remember fun events or keep track of backyard adventures. The journal can be mostly drawings. Ask your child to tell you about the drawing, then write a sentence or two of what he says. Encourage him to do some writing too, even if it’s just a word or two.
  • Incorporate signs into children’s make-believe play. Invite them to create a sign for their club house or lemonade stand. Have them write a menu for their restaurant, etc.
  • Ask your child to help you sound out a word or two as you read a story out loud.
  • Invite your anxious reader to read to a pet or younger sibling.
  • Create a weekly reading chart- across the bottom of a paper, label the date of the week, then every time your child reads a book that week, let them make a check mark or add a sticker to the chart. See which week has the tallest check mark tower!