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Beyond "Preparing for Kindergarten" (The Council Chronicle, March 05)

Honoring the Literacy Experiences that Children Bring to School

Early literacy experts would like to see less focus on "getting kids ready for kindergarten" and more emphasis on understanding children's literacy lives to build on what they already know about language.

As Irene Fountas, professor of education at Lesley University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, puts it, "I would be more inclined to say that the kindergarten should get ready for the child."

Fountas, who is co-author of Guided Reading: Good First Teaching for All Children, explains that educational programs shouldn't assume all children will bring the same skills to the classroom, but should aim to meet children where they are. "Competencies in oral language and knowledge of literacies" will vary among any group of 20 kindergarteners, she says.

"This notion of getting the children ready is a difficult concept for me because I think what all families try to do is to give children as many language and literacy opportunities as their lives will allow, but then it's up to the school to be sure that the kindergarten experience builds on differences and therefore levels the playing field for children. So, if they do bring things that are different--for example, if they haven't been read to a lot, don't know a lot about letters, or don't know how to write their name--the kindergarten experience will offer all children the opportunity to develop those abilities."

High Expectations of Print

Gay Su Pinnell, professor emeritus at Ohio State University, Columbus, and Fountas's co-author on Guided Reading, explains that "a visual discrimination of letters, awareness of sounds in words, and the language of stories" are three important things to work on in terms of early literacy.

She says students who know these things will have an advantage when it comes to school literacy, but she too would prefer that people "stop thinking about getting ready for kindergarten." For her, the ideal is making literacy a part of children's earliest memories. This includes "participating in stories and the incredible power that comes from taking a crayon or a marker and actually making a mark on a piece of paper."

If children also have ample opportunity to do such things as spell words using refrigerator magnets, she says, "they'll be ready for kindergarten because print will be meaningful and they'll have very high expectations of it."

Pinnell suggests capitalizing on students' out-of-school lives by working their familiar environments and the print they encounter into schoolroom play. This might mean creating "little house corners with menus, places where students can pretend to read the newspaper, [and] giving books to dolls in cribs."

The idea, she says, is to use whatever is in the neighborhood or familiar to kids and then call attention to the letters, words, and numbers. This will help children notice them more when they're out in the world. "I think incorporating literacy into play is so easy to do and so different from those drill computer things where you just drill on the sounds. I'm not against computers, but the more kids can see literacy as part of everyday life, the better."

Multiple Forms of Literacy

Jean Anne Clyde and other members of NCTE's Early Childhood Issues Committee likewise stress that young children are highly capable literacy learners who are often underestimated. Too often, the other "teachers" in their lives are also underestimated.

Clyde, who chairs the committee, says her group believes it's vitally important to honor the various forms and styles of literacy teaching and learning that occur outside of school. This means working to understand children's home cultures and using that understanding to build bridges between home and school.

A committee member, Cari Buckner, who is a first- and second-grade teacher at Bloomington Elementary School in Saint George, Utah, explains, "A good teacher will build upon the knowledge and expertise that a child brings with him or her into the classroom. The curriculum should be determined by the needs of the child instead of something found in a teacher's manual."

Laura Westberg, another committee member who is a senior project manager for the National Center for Family Literacy in Louisville, Kentucky, says educators should "be careful of making assumptions about what families know or don't know." It's crucial, she believes, to establish personal relationships with families through family visits or informal conversations to provide insight into children's interests and strengths.

Committee member Susi Long, associate professor of early childhood education at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, emphasizes that, "while story-reading is certainly helpful, we should be careful not to deify the bedtime story at the expense of other ways that children are supported as literacy learners. We see children emerging as literate through engagement in a wide range of literacy acts that accompany their purposeful interactions with others: passing down oral stories and traditions; interactions and rituals in church, mosque, and synagogue; engaging in community functions; and so on. When we do not learn what is happening in homes and communities, we miss important understandings that can help us transform our work in classrooms."

Speaking on behalf of the committee, Clyde summarizes, "We're troubled that rather than viewing kindergarten as a time where young children can learn about literacy, schools are now expecting kids to have mastered literacy 'skills' as prerequisites for kindergarten. We're advocates of a broader perspective on literacy, one that recognizes and values multiple paths to becoming literate."

Clyde believes an overemphasis on testing and isolated skill instruction send confusing messages to young children about what's important related to literacy. "We want to make sure the kids enjoy literacy and that they understand its many purposes and its power." She says the committee champions a literacy "where kids have choices and their voices are respected, where they learn literacy skills while they use literacy to take action on problems and issues, where they understand that literacy is a tool for impacting the world."

Finding What's Important

Vivian Vasquez, assistant professor at American University, Washington, D.C., and a former elementary school teacher of 14 years, says the problem with the focus on "readiness" is that often it's code for focusing primarily on phonics instruction.

"This," she explains, "is very different from building a curriculum based on the issues and questions that are important to children. Children need to be able to do more than break the phonics code."

Referring to the work of Allan Luke, Peter Freebody, and Hilary Janks, she says in addition to "understanding the codes of language and culture," students need to "participate with texts, use texts in meaningful ways, and engage in rich analysis of texts that includes taking up issues of diversity, domination, access, and design, which are elements of a critical literacy curriculum."

Vasquez, whose books include Literacy as Social Practice: Primary Voices K-6; Negotiating Critical Literacies with Young Children; and Getting Beyond "I Like the Book": Creating Space for Critical Literacy in K-6 Classrooms, also contends that the first step toward building meaningful literacy experiences for young children is finding out what's important to them. This requires "taking note of their talk, the everyday issues and texts they bring to the classroom, keeping an eye on the questions they ask, the connections they make, and then finding ways of negotiating these into the curriculum.

"I believe doing the work I'm suggesting here brings the curriculum to life, and a curriculum that is alive with the issues, topics, and interests of children would more than likely result in producing learners who are able to use their literacy skills to do important life work."

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A Professional Association of Educators in English Studies, Literacy, and Language Arts