All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.
One of the most magical experiences about teaching young learners is to watch them become readers and writers. Few things in life that will provide us with such a sense of freedom and empowerment.
Reading and writing is a human feat. Language, becoming literate and having the ability to communicate thinking orally and in writing are distinctive human traits.
Every piece of the developmental, cognitive and environmental puzzle has to be in place for a child to be able to learn to read and write.
The brain has to be developmentally ready to take in this most difficult and complex system. Few children are ready to make sense of the fact that sounds are represented by symbols at around 4 years old – most children are ready between 5 and 6 years old and some are ready between 7 and 8 years old.
In some cases, children are not able to begin to master these skills until much later due to cognitive impairments. For these children, reading and writing might become an almost unattainable goal.
The environment is another major factor in how and when children learn to read and write. In homes where parents are able to dedicate time to the practice of these skills and surround their children with “text”, children are more equipped to handle the challenges of learning to read and write. In homes where parents work two jobs or where a single parent is taxed by life’s demands, it is much harder to dedicate time to developing these skills. In cases where practicing to read and write is not an option, where it is a luxury, a privilege and not a right, mastering these skills is an aspiration that will never be realized.
Part of my research in South Korea was to observe public and private kindergartens. As I have written in previous entries, literacy is not the focus at this early age. The kindergarten curriculum is play based – a time to learn through exploration, to get used to the rules and routines of a scholastic life and to become part of a community of learners.
However, many families in Korea make a point of teaching their children to read and write before or while the children are in Kindergarten. Many children attend private academies, which are academically rigorous for young children. Many children learn to read and write at home and many are given the time to develop these skills as they become more mature.
Kindergarten classrooms are inhabited by children who are at different levels of reading and writing – some will have reached our “benchmarks”, some will have surpassed them and some will be far from doing so. Once in first grade, reading and writing become a serious endeavor and most children seem to be ready for the challenge.
Other countries such as Finland also have a play-based approach to Kindergarten and even first grade. It is not coincidental that both countries rank among the world’s five best in education, as per the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). This approach is an indication that waiting for a child to become developmentally ready to read and write is beneficial for educators and parents, but most fundamentally, for the child. Countless hours of frustration in school and at home are avoided when children are pushed to accomplish a task that they are not constitutionally ready to do.
It is my personal experience that a number of our students are not developmentally ready to acquire these literacy skills. Most of my students know the names of the letters but many of them struggle to recall and write the sounds that correspond to each symbol. They come to school already able to sing the ABC song but there is a long developmental trajectory between knowing the names of the letters and being able to process the sounds, symbols and sequence letters must follow to make words.
Although many students still reverse letters when writing, like /s/, /b/, /d/ and /p/, most of them are able to form the shapes of the letters. Writing in phonetic or inventive spelling is the way most kindergartners write. I watch my students as they sound out each letter, looking for the matching symbol inside their heads or on the alphabet charts. Each sound becomes a separate entity as they try to spell the words, sometimes mixing the order as they sound out and write what they hear first –brfkts for breakfast or simply bt. As they try to write a sentence, they are consumed by the energy and effort that is necessary for them to figure out if they leave a “finger” space between words or if it is all one long string of sounds. Once they can master these concepts – and many will not be able to do this for a while – their letters will become words, their words will become sentences, and their sentences will communicate strings of thoughts.
Many of the Korean students that join our classrooms are literate in Hangeul or Korean. They are able to write words in an alphabet that requires not only knowing the sounds but also understanding that words have “blocks or units” making up one syllable with two or three symbols. These units follow rules depending on whether the vowel in the unit is horizontal or vertical. It is complicated and even more so if you are a child. It is rewarding to observe them as they begin to understand and write in English as well – two different alphabets and ways of putting sounds together. They are becoming bilingual and bi-literate – a gift and an incredible accomplishment at such a young age! A large number of these children are one year older than our kindergartners – a small age difference but a profound one in terms of accomplishment and the development of a sense of self.
Kindergartners work very hard every single day at learning how to socialize with peers, to follow rules and procedures and to acquire the foundations of life in school. The time I spent in South Korea, gave me the chance to experience another way of teaching young learners. I was constantly reminded of the phrase “ the gift of time” at this grade level. This gift is also the gift of success or failure – if children are developmentally ready, they will embrace reading and writing. If they are not ready, they will struggle and become frustrated. The joy of being able to read and write will erode the magic of Kindergarten and will cast a shadow on our greatest feat, becoming literate to enjoy a lifetime of learning.