• by Hilaria Bauer, MA • IDRA Newsletter • April 1997
In his latest State of the Union Address, President Clinton proclaimed, “Every child in America should be able to read by third grade.” The statement was an echo of statements he made throughout his 1996 electoral campaign. Other officials have issued similar decrees such as, “All kindergarten students should be able to read by the end of the school year.” Nowadays, it seems that whoever wants to obtain public approval and support has to demonstrate that he or she holds high education expectations for all children. Yet is it enough to provide a deadline for when students must be able to read in order for this to happen? Those who have taught children to read at many different levels know that it requires more.
Some of the responses to these proclamations have included school restructuring, implementation of more technology, and public service announcements using popular television figures to promote reading, staying in school and academic achievement. School districts have turned to the business world for ideas about setting goals, embracing a unified philosophy and developing mission statements. Teams of educators, parents and community representatives gather together periodically to revise these established goals, philosophies and mission statements in order to ensure that a solid education is imparted within their district or campus. However, many children are still not reading, and many teachers and parents are still frustrated.
After some analysis, it is apparent that even the best-intended resolutions do not hold their weight in practice. Thus, if we believe certain educational maxims, we must implement practices that correlate with our philosophical views regarding education.
One of the most popular phrases included in these views is, “All children will start school ready to learn.” This phrase has become synonymous with positive attitudes and “good” teaching. Assuming that “all children should be ready to learn,” many schools have converted pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classrooms into junior versions of first and second grade. Many parents have embraced the idea by pushing their children to learn to read as early as possible in order to be “ready” for school. The emphasis on academic skills such as identifying letters and knowing how to count before starting school has prompted many to believe that those children who are not able to perform those “readiness” skills are not guaranteed success in their educational experience (McCollum, 1994).
Consequently, this notion has prompted a movement led by those who believe that readiness can be measured. According to Elizabeth Graue, readiness has often been conceptualized in the literature and policy arena as a characteristic of a child that must be assessed to determine whether that child can benefit from certain school experiences (1992). Thus, those who are not able to perform within certain levels in readiness metrics need remediation and are deemed unready (McCollum, 1994). So, in practice, schools say that, “All of those children who are ready to learn can learn.” The implication is that the other children need remediation. But do they really?
In my experience as a teacher, I have found that all children can learn, and all children do learn. Some children learn about the wonderful world around them, about how smart they are, and about adults who guide them in their inquiries and interests. Other children learn that there is something wrong with them. They learn that school is not ready for them. They experience school as a foreign place, where they feel alienated and uncomfortable. Some children learn very early that they need to be pulled away from the rest of the class because they are unable to identify this letter or that number. I have always been fascinated by young students who tell me they are in tutoring because they “still don’t know the letters.” They know exactly what it is they cannot identify.
Children construct meaning from their experiences. The work of Piaget and Vygotsky posits that development occurs as a result of the child constructing meanings through interaction with the environment (McCollum, 1994). Children learn what they experience.
In the area of literacy, successful programs have proven that children who experience reading and writing become literate (Beach, 1996). Learning to read and write does not seem to be an issue of whether the child is ready or not. Some of the students I taught in first grade who tested low in readiness metrics were able to pick up reading and writing as they experienced these activities in class. One of the girls who could not memorize the alphabet told me that to her reading was like putting a puzzle together. Once she was able to figure out the clues, she was one of the better readers and writers in the class.
When children are given the opportunity to experience literacy activities in the classroom, they learn that language is represented on many levels. Children who read and write in pairs or small groups realize that “breaking the code” requires creativity and persistence.
What kind of program prepares children for literacy activities? A developmentally appropriate pre-kindergarten and kindergarten program does this. In such a class, students interact with each other. They ask questions, negotiate meaning and solve their own problems. Consider children involved in dramatic play. They create their own plot, develop their own characters and find their own predictable solutions. All of those behaviors are the foundations of understanding reading. Kindergarten students who are allowed to write in any kind of media begin to understand that language can be represented graphically. Another clever student of mine said the following on the first day of first grade: “I’m so glad now I’m going to learn to write with words, drawing pictures takes too long.” I wonder if this is how humankind transformed from using pictures to using hieroglyphics and then letters.
This young student had made a very powerful connection: Words reflect the real world and they serve a practical purpose. The context created in the classroom allows students to experience a high degree of literacy activity, enabling children to utilize language for many different purposes.
Different types of environments lead to different ideas of what it means to be literate (Dahl and Freppon, 1995). Children who experience literacy activities take on the tasks of reading and writing as they relate to their own purposes, connecting them with their personal experiences. On the other hand, some classrooms are centered on literacy skills, where the emphasis is placed on children learning to use the conventions of spelling, word recognition and mechanics. I have seen whole hallways plastered with papers that show the same grammatically correct, properly punctuated sentence in all of the 20 proudly displayed papers. Yet, when these students are asked to give their version of the story in their own words, they cannot.
Researchers Dahl and Freppon found that children are more motivated to engage in literacy activity experiences than in literacy skills (1995). Classrooms that provide opportunities for literacy activities allow children to learn not only to express their thoughts and interests, but also to acquire the conventions of language usage by focusing on children’s interests as they read and write.
I overheard the following comment in a second grade class while peer tutoring was going on: “You can’t write that because it doesn’t make sense. Try to write your sentence more clearer.” And, yes the young man said “more clearer.” These two children were experiencing the art of writing. Children need to experience linguistic rules in a meaningful way.
The key to creating an environment conducive to the acquisition of literacy is to design a classroom that is not only rich in print, but that also provides children with the opportunity to interact and use language in a meaningful way. A print-rich environment should include object labels, pictures, language experience charts, posters, signs, thematic displays, literature selections and other opportunities for children to interact with print on their own terms (Penny-Velázquez, 1994).
An environment conducive to literacy experiences is designed to provide meaningful reading and writing activities that appeal to the interests of the students. Children are allowed to read and write on their own terms at first and then are guided through developmentally appropriate tasks to identify the conventions of written language.
All children can learn, and all children do learn. As educators of the very young, we need to provide the environments that enable children to become literate and biliterate. Providing linguistically meaningful and developmentally appropriate activities for all young children will ensure high literacy levels for all children without monitoring a cut-off date.
Beach, Sara Ann. “‘I Can Read My Own Story!’ – Becoming Literate in the Primary Grades,” Young Children. (November 1996) Vol. 52, Number 1, pp 22-27.
Dahl, K.L. and P.A. Freppon. “A Comparison of Inner-city Children’s Interpretations of Reading and Writing Instruction in the Early Grades in Skills-Based and Whole Language Classrooms,” Reading Research Quarterly. (1995) 30: 50-74.
Graue, M.E. Ready for What? Constructing Meanings of Readiness for Kindergarten. (Albany, N.Y.: University of New York, 1992).
McCollum, Pam. “Examining the Three R’s: Readiness, Redshirting and Retention,” IDRA Newsletter. (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, April 1994).
Penny-Velázquez, Michaela. “Encouraging Emergent Literacy: A Guide for the Early Childhood Educator,” IDRA Newsletter. (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, April 1994).
Hilaria Bauer, MA is an education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development.
[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 1997 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]