Wednesday, June 1, 2011

My return to the 4s and their literacy learning

I've had the notes for this blog post on my desk for nearly a month.  I won't make excuses.  It just is.  My note to readers is simply that this reflection is a little less "real time" than some of the others.  It's still worthwhile to me to write it, however. 

As I walked back into the four-year old classroom, after three months away, I noticed a marked difference in my confidence.  The nerves were gone.  I smiled easily at the teachers, called each of the children by name, and walked immediately to a group that was playing with magnetic letters.  As I knelt, one boy asked, "Mrs. T, what does this spell?"  He had assembled a series of Bs and Os, with a few Ms mixed in.  I started moving letters around, forming real words.  He wasn't interested in my efforts and nearly as soon as I sounded out the words for him, he moved them back into his formation.  "But what does this spell?" he inquired again and again.  So I went with it.  "It spells, bmoombbmoobb."  Satisfied, he added some more letters, and we repeated the process of my trying to show him real words and his rejecting my attempts.  Was it enough, I wondered, that he was interested in what the letters spelled?  That he knew that letters make up words?

My time at the preschool has taught me that name recognition is an early skill, and names are often the first sight words children acquire.  The four-year-olds had moved to last name recognition when I visited in January.  During my May visit, I watched as one child searched methodically for his name during the morning circle.  The teachers had chosen last names that day, but it was clear that the child thought he was looking for his first name.  He paused as he passed his surname, clearly finding it familiar but rejecting it all the same.  When he stood, lost in the center of the circle, the teacher prompted him to look for his last name.  He immediately found it with no outside help.  I could see schema theory at work in this young boy's literacy development.  Without the frame, he could not recognize his last name.

The letter of the week was "M", and as the teacher listed M words, called out by a chorus of young voices, she reminded the children that certain words need capital letters.  In grammar textbooks we call them proper nouns.  Smith and Wilhelm, who write for middle and high school English teachers, argue that when teaching usage and style, in most cases we should use words that are more descriptive of function, rather than formal grammatical terms.  They suggest that we can get away with using the word "name" in lieu of "proper noun."  Preschool teachers already know this trick.

As my mentor teacher capitalized the "names" on the M word list, I pondered how this issue of capitalization, which is so clearly taught in preschool, continues to plague educators of all levels.  High school teachers blame middle school teachers.  Middle grades pass the buck to the elementary teachers.  But actually, I think, all  of us are teaching capitalization.  It's one of those prescriptive rules that just doesn't stick, perhaps because, as Sterling suggests in a NY Times article, capitalization is sometimes redundant, and quite frankly, omitting capital letters does not impede comprehension.  That said, it's a traditionally taught convention - and it's teaching begins in preschool.  I will be sure to stress this fact to the high school teachers who complain that their students don't know how to capitalize!

I could see growth in the individual students in the four-year-old class.  They were developing early literacy, and I could see how the structures of their classroom had been facilitating this process.

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