The Myth of “Falling Behind” in Preschool

New Shoots The Myth of “Falling Behind” in Preschool.jpg

Imagine a father coaxing his five month old on the mechanics of walking. Or how about a Mum teaching vowel sounds to her 3 month old infant.  You would say that they were wasting their time – right? Imagine these parents fearing that their children were “falling behind”. It’s obvious that these things are clearly outside of their developmental abilities.

When we, as educators, are asked for advice regarding “school readiness” what parents are often referring to is reading and writing.

Whilst we understand the desire for families to want their children to be a literate member of society, we need to convey that reading and writing are formal learning behaviours best left until school (or for some children until 7 years of age).  

Whilst some children’s brains (typically the oldest child and/or girls) may have brain pathways mature enough and be intrinsically motivated enough to read and write before seven,  for others they are simply just too young (their brains aren’t mature enough).

American play advocate Teacher Tom states:

“It seems that the powers that be in our respective nations have decided to sell parents on the snake oil that if your child isn't starting to read by five-years-old she is "falling behind."  They are telling parents and teachers that children are "falling behind" despite the fact that every single legitimate study ever done finds that there are no long term advantages to being an early reader, just as there are no long term advantages to being early talkers or walkers. In fact, many studies have found that when formal literacy instruction begins too early, like at 5, children grow up to be less motivated readers and less capable of comprehending what they've read. That's right, if anything, this "school readiness" fear-mongering may well turn out to be outright malpractice” 

In early childhood the dispositions that drive the desire to be a lifelong learner and gain experiences at being successful and motivated to learn  are the focus (Mikaere-Wallis, 2017).  We want our children to develop an image of themselves as a successful learner.Early childhood needs to be full of experiences of being successful as a learner.  Introducing formal instruction of literacy too early has the potential to be stressful and damage your child’s imagery of themselves as a learner. 

As Nathan Mikaere-Wallis, researcher and educator states:

“Pushing 3 to 7 year olds towards early reading, writing or maths will not improve their long-term chances of success”.

Nathan states, and we agree, that the focus for early childhood needs to be on fostering positive emotional and social skills. This is not to say that literacy and numeracy are not a part of the curriculum, it just means that we don’t formally instruct children through skill and drill activities ie: worksheets.  Rather, we foster literacy and numeracy through a range of playful experiences, interactions, and provocations.

Here are some things we do at New Shoots to promote literacy, you can try them at home:

Bring literacy to life within your environment

  • Point out stop signs, speed signs, letter boxes and price tags
  • Make signs, or a calendar to count down days till a birthday or a special event
  • Make a make a list to take with you to the supermarket and let the child hold it

Oral language

Children need an in depth understanding of language before they are able to read and write. Oral language development is a critical foundation for reading, writing, and spelling, and it is the “engine” of learning and thinking is vital for later formal learning and this is a huge focus here at New Shoots. 

Share conversations, using rich and expansive language. Our meal times and care routine times are importance rich language moments. Here’s some ways to encourage oral language at home: 

  • Encourage your child to listen to sounds in nature (being able to listen is important for differentiating sounds when reading and writing) 
  • Use normal language (don’t baby talk to your child ie: “vroom vroom car car”, “doggy” “eggy” “pee pee”). Just use the correct terms for things.
  • Introduce a wide range of language to your child, instead of calling something ‘big’ use ‘humongous’ or ‘gigantic’ children with a larger vocabulary tend to do better.  A larger vocabulary base builds children’s understanding of the meaning of a larger number of words, which is a crucial ingredient in their later ability to comprehend what they read.
  • Encourage your child to practice engaging in conversation and ask questions (teach your child how to take turns in a conversation)
  • Encourage your child to ask for things they need (rather than just giving things to them)
  • Encourage your child to articulate their feelings (it is so important for our children to be able to be in touch with, articulate and have their feelings validated). 

Being playful with language

  • Use rhyming words “Ruby duby scooby zooby”
  • Emphasise sounds  “sssss snake” “I wonder what else starts with that sound?”
  • Make up songs/rhymes 
  • Make funny sounds “eeeeee”  “oooooooo” see if your child can imitate you (this will encourage them to listen to the subtlety of language)
  • Play ‘I spy” something beginning with (sounds).
  • Compete to hunt out things that start with certain sounds 
  • Introduce words such as “stomp, stalk, slither, pounce” or descriptive words such as “smooth, gentle, rough, enormous, flat” in relation to their body movements/positions. Emergent literacy and a love of language are being fostered before our eyes! 

Have access to a variety of utensils to scribble/draw with

  • Provide access to pencils, crayons, markers, pens, paint (if practical) to express themselves. When tamariki have access to a variety of different media they learn, and gain confidence in a variety of different forms of communication and expression.
  • The first stage of drawing is scribbling (typically lasts up until 3 years of age) at this stage your child is not drawing anything so don’t bother asking  “What is it?” It is the process not the product that we can comment on. “Look at the lines you are making—there are so many of them!
  • Avoid closed questions such as  “What colour is it?”, instead just ask “Tell me about your picture”, then see if your child is interested in sharing more.  Closed questions in early childhood restrict divergent thinking and tend to make children less likely to take risks with their language.

Use your child’s name and their portfolio book as a literacy artefacts

  • When your child signs in at New Shoots let them do as much as they are capable of doing  for themselves. Talk about the letters in their name.  Talk about how many letters are in their name. Compare their names to others names.  Your child’s name is often the most meaningful literacy artefact in their world.
  • Bring your child’s portfolio home and read it with your child.  Write down what they say when they read it (write it in their book)
  • Have their name at home in a variety of places – make a puzzle out of the letters of their name and help them put it together in order
  • Contribute to their portfolio book with pictures, writing or stories

Tell stories and read books

  • Storytelling is a fantastic way to build your child’s vocabulary, imagination and literacy foundation.
  • Nursery rhymes and fairy tales are a fabulous tool for building literacy.
  • Read books (make it like a tennis match - a back and forth exchange)
  • Ask questions to develop comprehension and critical thinking. The best questions are the ones you do not know the answer to, ie: authentic questioning.  “I wonder why the fox tried to eat the ginger bread man?”   “Would you have eaten it?”  “Why not?”  “How could we change the story to make the ending different?”
  • Develop book knowledge by discussing aspects of the book, ie: turning the page, the spine of the book, front of the book, back of the book,  reading from left to right and top to bottom
  • Relate the pictures to the words “What’s happening in that picture?” or “What can you see?”  “What could happen next?”
  • For older children ask them to retell the story while you listen

 “Being a ‘literate child’ involves more than just a narrow focus on being able to ‘read and write’ successfully”. (Hamer and Adams, 2003, p. 47)

Get physical

“The most powerful tool for fostering the growth and development of neural connections in your child’s brain is physical movement. That’s right, MOVEMENT” Gill Connell

Without good balance and stability children may struggle with latter formal learning such as reading and writing, because they are still trying to keep their body in balance.  There is simply no energy left over for them to focus on writing and reading! Read some tips about getting physical here.

So the next time you worry about your child being “left behind”.  Remember that the age your child learns to read and write, know their colours or memorise counting to 20,  has no bearing on their long term development or success.  

As Magda Gerber quotes: Childhood is not a race to see how quickly a child can read, write and count. It is a small window of time to learn and develop at the pace that is right for each individual child. Earlier is not better.

Check out these other links:

What does your 3-7 year old need to learn?

When should my child learn to write?

Check out our  blog regarding the importance of play in early childhood

PreschoolJoanne Whyte