Literacy is a natural part of a child’s development. Children want to understand the letter symbols they see us adults utilizing every day. They want to unlock that mystery and become readers too. Setting up interest areas and provocations containing literacy all support children’s need to understand this abstract concept. I have two jars with capital and lowercase stamp letters. Small ones like these are great for small hands to use with ease.
The alphabet is a staple in learning and every child will learn all about these abstract symbols as they interact with their peers, their environment, and the teacher during their school journey. The way in which it is introduced does not have to follow the traditional letter of a week format. Each child is at a different point of understanding with literacy development. Each child enters the classroom with a portfolio of words they know and recognize and those vary from child to child. And every child has their own interests, so learning the letters as a whole and not so isolated is a developmentally appropriate way in which children learn their letters. Think of it as another approach to teaching and learning that supports a child’s early years of literacy foundational development.
When a child has an experience or story to tell me, I become their scribe, I write their words for them. They see me, model writing each time and they are an interactive part of the process. Every child I have taught in this way makes sure I write exactly what they say, so they are very interested in writing and pay close attention. I read back what they’ve said to me and each child adds more to the piece of work. The stories or experiences I scribe can become short one time pieces or pieces in which the child returns to for illustrations or more of the story or experience. The very act of sharing and retelling a story or experience is an interest in literacy and is part of the process in which children assimilate and form an understanding of letters, and how they create words. No, they do not understand all the mechanics yet, but the base, the foundation is being built. Every time I scribe for a child, or they interact with a literacy provocation the literacy foundation becomes stronger and more complex. Yes, complex.
Learning letters and how to read is not a one-time process or a shoe that fits all. Learning the alphabet and how letters have individual sounds and form words is a complex process that takes years to develop. I see too many traditional programs touting how their worksheets and letters of the week enabled the kids to read quickly. That is just not true. There is a much more complex cognitive process taking place in each child’s brain as they grow and learn, that enables them to be able to write and read. The more exposure to the alphabet the more a child understands what each letter means. However, that is a process that takes years and a lot of the learning for understanding comes directly from the child’s life experiences and interest.
The literacy interest areas and provocations I set up are diverse ways in which I attract a child’s attention to enable them to learn the alphabet, about letters, sounds, words, and the meanings behind words. Each time I evaluate my curriculum the curriculum emerges with that child’s level of understanding and interest. I provide many static opportunities for children to continue to expose themselves to letters. Their interest is natural and appropriate. And with a mixed age class of children, I make sure that the provocations and interest areas I set up are open so they enable each child to interact at the level they understand. When a child is interested in looking at and talking about the alphabet that is wonderful and again shows their internal interest to learn how to decode, decipher those symbols they observe us adults using.
I do not believe in pushing children when they are not ready. I believe in supporting children’s internal desires to understand letter symbols. Challenging their abilities has to be in a way that doesn’t tip the equilibrium too far to the north or south. Young children should be challenged in a way that they can actually work to meet that challenge. If the child feels the task is too difficult he/ she feels hopeless, incapable and anxiety emerges. If a child can handle the task and face the challenge that means not only was the challenge appropriate for them, but they were developmentally ready for the challenge to learn new information. Both a mixture of internal and external motivation are factors that played a role in that child gaining more understanding of the alphabet.
Praise is also something that I only do if a child shows me he/ she has worked hard and are proud of their own work. When children are praised all the time or at a time when they do not feel the work they did is good enough for their standards, the praise is meaningless and can sway a child away from their interest in literacy. So I like to pay attention to the facial expressions, words, and body language of each child before I praise their efforts.
I also like to add quality picture books to my classroom to keep children interested and continually questioning. I love the library for its huge range of children’s literature and on occasion, I add a permanent title to my collection. Reading stories is one of the absolutely best ways to keep children interested in literacy or to get the mind interested in learning about the alphabet! Discussions about letters have often happened as a result of quality stories and attractive pictures. Discussions about letters is also a huge part of how children form the foundation for literacy development. Please never think that when you are discussing the way letters look or feel, that that is a waste of time! It most certainly is not a waste of time! Any interest in letters a child shows is that child communicating a need and readiness to understand this complex and abstract concept.
One more factor in how children assimilate an understanding of the alphabet and words is every time they ride in the car and see store adds and signs. Every time they ask you what that says, they are showing and communicating a desire to learn literacy. Support your child when he/she shows interest because they are telling you that at that moment their brains are ready to learn this specific information. 🙂
Heidi Scott, BA & MIT
The Marigold School of Early Learning