Wednesday, February 18, 2015

At Home Preschool: Approach

I wrote this more than four months ago and never published it. I had ambitious intentions of citing/linking all the Early Childhood journal articles, Teacher of the Year Essays, and research based findings I studied that helped me form this philosophy. Buuuut, I never got around to that, and now it's been four months since I spent those late night hours, engrossed in the research that supports this philosophy. So, you'll just have to trust that what I discovered was based on reputable sources. I know I relied heavily on findings from the National Association for the Education of Young Children, and I've also borrowed ideas on letter learning from The Measured Mom and a specialist at our local library. As far as my philosophy that themed based learning is better than letter based learning, I give credit to personal friends for that one: the two moms I did preschool co-op with and an old college friend I really admire.

After writing my blog post on how I organize our at home preschool, I felt I needed a post that explains why I don't think letter of the week preschool curriculum is the most effective way to teach literacy. That may seem strange, since I organize our preschool by letter, but hear me out as I explain the amazing things I've learned while researching early childhood education best theories and practices.

I've been amazed by the pressure to teach kids the alphabet so early on. I had a friend who was certified in Early Childhood Special Education once say "I'm not sending my kid to preschool without him knowing how to count up and down from 1 to 10, spell his own name, and recognize all the letters in the alphabet. He's got the counting and his name down, but sometimes I'm not sure about his letters." At the time our boys had just turned two.

I remember thinking something like "Reid will shout blast off if he realizes you are counting backwards, and he knows most his shapes and colors ... but I'm not sure I'll put a lot of effort into your list. Shoot, should I? Wait, isn't that what preschool is for? Are they really suppose to know all that stuff before?"

The pressure to know the alphabet so early on has got me asking, why? Why is there so much focus on letters? Isn't it more impressive that a four-year-old can describe, in great detail, how the archer fish catches spiders? Shouldn't I be more focused on play?

But I still find myself wanting Reid to recognize all his letters. It'd be awesome if he could write his own name, but surely our first family portrait brings me much greater joy? So why the push for letter recognition?

I think a lot of this comes as people mix old methods with hopes of consumer based goods. I still remember my own letter of the week Education. Every Monday in my Kindergarten class, way back in the 88-89 school year, each student was given a new work book which focused on a new letter. There was cut and paste activities, phonetic activities, coloring and more -- all about that one letter. It was exciting; I always loved learning, and I kept those books for years and years.

Then, sometime in the 90's people in search of lots of money started selling parents the idea that kids could read as early as 18 months old. You just needed to buy the right product. Inundate babies with the right technology and you'll have a genius.

Well, current research tells us the 80s method of learning literacy (letter focus) isn't the most effective way to approach literacy. It also tells us that kids who read at age 3 or earlier aren't fully literate, but the companies pushing these products are making loads of money convincing you they are.

So what are kids capable of learning at such a young age, and how should we teach them literacy? I am no expert on this matter, but the research I've done has shaped my approach to our letter of the week preschool lessons. Both the ones I created for our preschool co-op last year and the ones I created for our ABCs of Fall.

What we do know is kids have to learn shapes before they learn letters. You cannot talk to a preschooler about the letter Dd without discussing straight lines and curves (or bends). I did not know this until I attended an early literacy class at our local library. It makes complete sense though.

We also know kids don't learn letters well in isolation. If you teach b and d separately and weeks apart you'll have confused kids. If you look at b, d, and p all together and focus on similarities and differences kids will better understand each letter.

Also, kids are more engaged in learning when lessons are organized by topic rather than a single letter. They'll learn more about the letter R if you design a short unit of study on robots than if you spend a full week exploring every R word you think a preschooler might enjoy. While you study robots you can (and should) give kids opportunities to identify and create the letter R. But the overall lesson plan should focus on the learning theme: robots; not the letter: r. Letter identification and literacy will flow naturally as kids learn about themes and topics that intrigue them. The letter R in and of itself is not that thrilling; robots are! (Reid loves discussing all things nocturnal, and I totally credit the awesome letter N lesson one of the moms in our preschool co-op group did).

Exposure is another important way kids learn letters. When they recognize letters in their everyday environment they will begin to understand the alphabet and its function. We talk about letters on road signs and businesses all the time. We read together multiple times a day and occasionally notice some of our letters in the stories we're reading. "Hey mommy, look, that's the letter H. See it has two straight lines and a line in the middle."

So even though the preschool co-op I was part of and the ABCs of Autumn unit I did with Reid each focused on a letter of the week/day activity, neither of them truly were letter of the week curriculum. I so prefer it this way. You've probably noticed that in our ABCs of Autumn unit we take time to practice forming the letter (not tracing it, handwriting practice only comes once a child can identify all letters), but we spend just as much time creating crafts, playing games, and reading stories about our topic.

Letter formation, not tracing, is so vital to learning the alphabet. Just as seeing letters in their everyday environment enriches kid's learning, so does tactile exposure to letters. Kids need to touch and shape letters. The more they feel letters in their hands, the more they can understand them.

Because I know all of the above mentioned approaches are the best way to learn letters, I do have to remind myself that it is okay if Reid goes into preschool not knowing all his letters. Some kids are going to need more exposure than others. Sticking with one letter until they know it will not lead to success. Creating a rich learning environment where kids can engage in alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness, concepts of print, and oral language will lead to success.

Unfortunately, the research I've done has me so engulfed I know I'll be a little turned off by our local school if it uses a letter of the week approach to learning over a thematic, literacy rich approach. Yes, on back to school night I am going to be *one of those parents* that asks for the thematic sequence for the year (or yearly roadmap, or list of units of study, whatever the teacher wants to call it). I won't be so annoying I'll hold them to every date and transition (I was a teacher myself once upon a time), but I'm already eager to get my hands on the yearly overview of our local preschool.

Learning is so fun!


Charles and Carolyn said...

I can always count on your blog to interest me.

Troy and Lisa said...

And this is why I haven't found a preschool for my daughter next year. They all do the letter of the week or other strict academic curriculum :( And thanks for the blog link. I Feel honored. I've neglected it since I didn't teach this year, but keep meaning to update with more info and articles on how play based preschools work. Hope you find a good one for Reid! I also wanted to add that not only are kids ok going to preschool without knowing all their letters, they'd be fine in most kindergartens too. They'll get it.

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