Parents have a responsibility to help decide if their children are ready for first grade. They should not be frightened by terms like emergent reading and phonological awareness, and phrases like knowledge of the alphabet is the single, best predictor of academic success upon entry to grade one.
Educators must inform parents of the skills that children need to develop and why they are important. Educators must also design programs that give parents the tools they need and can use in the home. The programs must include as many skills as appropriate. They must be easy to use. They must be interesting to the parent and the child. They must be available at reasonable cost.
At no time are parents more willing to help their children learn than when they have a child in Kindergarten. Most Kindergarten teachers don't have extra material to give to parents. Even if they did, they don't have the time to teach parents how to use the material to advantage. The parents are told to read to their children. It doesn't take them long to understand that reading and arithmetic are teacher areas. The enormous goodwill of the parents could be put to advantage if the teacher had a program for parent use.
What does knowledge of the alphabet mean? What does it involve? What do I, the parent, teach? How do I promote the thinking skills that help my child meet the learning requirements of the first grade? What is it that the teacher expects the children to be able to say and do when they enter Grade One? Knowledge of the alphabet means much, much more than we think it might, on first glance.
Is it to sing the alphabet? To recite it by rote? Does the teacher expect the children to recognize the letters and to call them by name when they are presented out of order? Does the teacher expect children to know the sounds usually connected with each letter? Does the teacher expect the chilldren to be able to hear the individual sounds that make up the word dog and cat, and to provide rhyming words like fog and bat? When a word is spelled, can the child remember the letters and point to the word in a short sentence? Do the children know the words we use to order things in time and in space? Words like first, second, third, before, after, and then. Do they really understand what they mean?
References to government publications, early childhood publications and professional journals have specific suggestions on how to prepare children for learning. Essentially, they say the same thing: All of the above, and more.
To prepare a child for learning is not as costly, and takes less time, than remedial work. After more than 20 years of teaching first graders who are at risk and who are unable to recite the alphabet, three things are very clear:
- Parents play an important role in preparing their children for first grade during the kindergarten year.
- There is a strong need for a low-cost program of
activities that parents could and would do, if only they knew.
Ideally, the activities should be able to be done in 20-30 minutes.
- Program materials must work toward teaching the children what the teacher expects them to be able to say and do when they enter the first grade classroom.
What is it that contributes to a child becoming a good reader?
- To learn to read, all children need to be brought into the reading code. Entering first graders need to be able to recite the alphabet. If they can recognize the letters individually and name them accurately, they have an additional advantage. If they know what word boundaries are and why they are useful, they demonstrate knowledge of what a word is. That is also a decided advantage.
- A good reader recognizes words instantly. Once an unknown word has been figured out, it must be committed to memory. Memory cannot be taken for granted. Many young children have selective memory. They remember that the family is going to a favorite restaurant while they ignore the oft repeated direction to pick up toys. Because of that, academic memory has to be trained and developed, carefully and deliberately. Children who demonstrate good memory for words enjoy the learning tasks presented in the classroom.
- Students who can think, academically, are noteworthy to the teacher and go to the head of the class. Most often the children need to be taught that skill. They have to be taught specific strategies to process information they receive through their senses. They have to learn to hold information in their minds and to refer to that information when the teacher asks a question. If they can't, they won't be able to give the correct answer. Specific and systematic training contributes to that ability.
- Teachers use concepts when giving instructions that young learners must understand if they are to do what is asked of them. They may use these same words when they speak. Far too often, their work shows that they really don't understand. Parents and teachers have to make sure that the children really know what the words mean. The child who enters first grade with a good sense of concept is set up for success.
- Finally, students have to keep up with the teacher's pace of instruction. If Joey is always two or three steps behind his buddies, he will not be able to keep up. He will become frustrated and discouraged, especially if his friend learns quickly.
Careful development of the skills that prepare a child for a lifetime of academic success involve a large number of related skills. Publishers offer many materials that are delightful but lack in how useful they are.
Faced with the task of spending limited funds on materials that might promote one or two of the skills needed, it seemed more useful for me to design the program that I needed. If it worked well, children would be able to benefit from their classroom instruction. The program had to have a good enough base to allow for more skill needs as they came up.
Paul Lamarre, Ph.D.
Remedial Reading Teacher