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April 23, 2008

Rewriting Literacy

I have written often here about the benefits of technology and Web 2.0 elements in the early childhood classroom. Recently I’ve been thinking about literacy and how our teaching methods also need to change to keep up with the pace of 21st century learning. If we expose our students to the latest technology through our teaching of other types of curriculum, shouldn’t the same be true for literacy instruction? The same emphasis should be placed on advancing our literacy instruction that has been placed on technology; in fact, the two should go hand in hand.

Why then, are so many pre-k programs still clinging to antiquated literacy approaches such as letter of the week? Often it’s not the teacher who is choosing to use letter of the week, it’s the pre-k program that is mandating it. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again;

If there are 36 weeks in a school year and 26 weeks are spent teaching the letters one at a time, valuable learning time is wasted.

I’m puzzled why so many pre-k programs across the US, both public and private, still use the letter of the week method as their main source of literacy instruction when research has shown it to be ineffective at best.  It’s time we shed this outdated method in favor of more research based best practices to give our students the best literacy instruction.

Some of the arguments for leaving letter of the week behind are:

  • The students who struggle the most with learning the letters are the ones who are least helped by teaching letters in isolation.
  • Young children need something to help them make connections - isolating letters doesn't do that.
  • Teaching with letter of the week slows readers down, yet it's too fast for others, it doesn't meet the needs of all learners and there is no room for differentiation.
  • It is more meaningful to introduce letters as they become meaningful to the students, they will retain more this way.
  • Children who are taught letters in isolation often have difficulty placing that information into literacy activities (Wood and McLeMore, 2001)
  • Removing letters from their meaningful context removes the meaning and purpose from the letter.

In place of letter of the week pre-k teachers should embrace best practices such as:

  • Interactive Writing
  • Writing Workshop
  • Reading Workshop
  • Teaching letters through fun student name activities
  • Incorporating environmental print
  • Implementing name/word walls
  • Phonemic awareness

When best practices are used in the pre-k classroom the results are phenomenal.  Students learn their letters and letter sounds much more quickly and thus there is more time to focus on other equally important skills such as phonemic awareness and concepts of print.  By the end of the year in my full-day pre-k classroom most of my students:

  • Recognize all upper and lowercase letters
  • Know all letter sounds
  • Can identify characters, setting, events, problems, and solutions in any given book.
  • Can make inferences and predictions in any given book using the skills they have learned in reading workshop.
  • Can identify the beginning, middle, and end of any given story.
  • Can write stories with a clear beginning, middle, and end.
  • Can write a story that makes sense and uses phonetic spelling- or the sounds they hear in the words.
  • Can identify the basic conventions of print and use them in their writing. For example; their writing reads from left to right, they use spaces between words, and they use punctuation such as periods, question marks, and exclamation points.

All of this has been accomplished in very developmentally appropriate, engaging, and fun ways.

I can only surmise that teachers and programs that still use letter of the week do so because it provides a clear and easy path to follow- start with A and end with Z.  It’s easy for administrators to hold teachers accountable when they know what letter is supposed to be taught when. It’s also easy for parents to know what their child is learning when the letters are introduced one at a time. However, it’s not our job as teachers to do what is easy, it’s our job to what is best for our students.  We must educate parents and administrators about the best practices and why they are more beneficial.

Comments

Bravo, and thank you for advocating a for necessary (and no, NOT too terribly painful) and developmentally appropriate paradigm shift!

You go girl! I am soooo thrilled to read this post-it is a must read for all early childhood educators. We have got to rethink, letter of the week and other elements of "crayola curriculum" as Mike Schmoker would say. I am sharing this with my teachers ASAP!

Thank you both for the encouragement. Also, thank you for posting about Mike Schmoker's Crayola Curriculum, I googled it and I LOVE his article- a must read!

Vanessa, thanks for posting this. We have been down this road together. I totally agree with your observations. I think the reason teachers do not change practice has to do with how teachers see themselves and teaching.

You said, "I can only surmise that teachers and programs that still use letter of the week do so because it provides a clear and easy path to follow- start with A and end with Z. It’s easy for administrators to hold teachers accountable when they know what letter is supposed to be taught when. It’s also easy for parents to know what their child is learning when the letters are introduced one at a time. However, it’s not our job as teachers to do what is easy, it’s our job to what is best for our students. We must educate parents and administrators about the best practices and why they are more beneficial."

I always think of PK as the Rodney Dangerfield of education. "We don't get no respect." Mostly because sometimes we don't deserve it. Many see pre-k as baby sitting and we are not out there changing their minds, we just smile and nod. I have had Kindergarten teachers tell me all we do is play. When she saw the look in my eyes she said, "Oh I know thats not all YOU do..." But the damage was done. I knew she didn't respect me. Some of us pre-k teachers haven't been effective teaching with letter of the week for 20 years and we still haven't reflected on our practice enough to change it. If more teachers were as passionate as you are about teaching and reflecting we would have more teachers using best practices.

Love the Rodney Dangerfield analogy John- it's so true! It's good to know I'm not alone in this.
Would love to hear what you think about Schmoker's Crayola Curriculum. I can't stop thinking about it; it really hits home.

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