One spring day Alicia, teacher of 24 pre school three and four-year-olds noticed that Tjaard, who had just turned four, was starting to sound out the words on the message board, when he came in each morning. When she gave him a few Early Reader books to see what he could read, Tjaard became excited. When he read his very first book, he had to do it over and over, and Alicia let him take it home to read to his Mom and Dad.
Alicia encouraged Tjaard to read to his friends, and noticed that some of his older buddies who were going to kindergarten in the fall were a little surprised that Tjaard knew how to read before they did. Before long the five-year-olds were having Tjaard read them a book every morning. Tjaard read; they memorized. Then they “read” to other children. Before long there was a reading frenzy in the class!
Gladys, a teacher in another class of four-year-olds had a similar experience with writing. One day she told me:
“A writing epidemic broke out in class today. It happens this time every year. You know how we always label the kids’ work? They make a picture; we ask them about it, then write what they say on a strip of paper and put it under the picture when we hang it on the wall? Or if they create something with blocks and want to save it, we write their name on a sign saying: PLEASE SAVE?
“Well, today, when I was starting to do that for Isabella, she stopped me and said, ‘No, wait! I want to do it.’ And she did. She not only wrote “Isabella,” but she also copied PLEASE SAVE from the sign on another structure. In no time, other kids saw what she was doing and wanted signs on their own structures. They read her sign and then made one for their own buildings. Then Mia, who had just finished a painting, asked for a marker so she could put her name on her painting. It went on like that all day, until about half the kids had at least written their own names.”
In today’s anxious climate the purpose of pre-school is increasingly understood to be preparation for kindergarten. This focus on preparation will not only fail to produce better “results,” but will also have a negative impact on the learning ability of at least half the population of five-year-olds—in fact it’s not really good for anybody.
In a literate environment all children are motivated to learn to read, but readiness timetables vary enormously. Just as some children can speak by age one while others don’t till after three, so some kids can read by three and others not until nine. Only half of all children are physiologically capable of reading and writing by six-and-a-half.
The brain can’t work on everything at once, so one child will learn how the physical world works while another focuses on language. It’s not about ability, it’s about timing. Acceleration through skill development retards brain development—like trying to accelerate a car to 60 miles-per-hour before it’s out of first gear.
Parental anxiety about kindergarten readiness drives teacher anxiety, and community leaders have their own motivations. But decisions driven by anxiety are usually bad decisions.
Those who want to invest money in the problem (and I am all for that) want to see measurable results. But unfortunately this motivation predictably results in direct teaching of those measurable results. This approach results in anxious people who are drawn to cheating on tests, rather than producing children who are better readers and writers.
The purpose of preschool—actually any school through 12th grade—is optimal brain development with literacy as a subset. Focusing on brain development will have children reading as soon as they can, but benchmarking skills won’t serve anyone well—not even the donors.
When everyone focuses on skills that really matter: focus, self-control, creativity, connection, communication, collaboration, critical thinking, perspective-taking and problem solving, and when professional educators create benchmarks like: asking questions, welcoming challenges, making guesses, changing your mind, building on other’s ideas, etc., then kids will not only learn to read, write and calculate, but will also grow brains that will stand them in good stead throughout their lives.
If we keep our eyes on the right benchmarks then school can be glorious in the here and now, and preparation for the future will follow apace.