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Sunday, September 16, 2012

About teaching two Rs, and moving a donkey

Exploring the shape of 4. I didn't say
a single word. This is self-directed
Pushing down the curriculum is a hot topic in Early Childhood circles at the moment. Developmentally speaking, it's quite clear that young children learn through self-directed play- and that hounding them to sit down and learn their alphabet and their numbers is actually counter-productive. (Don't mention worksheets. PLEASE, don't mention them. And if you mention homework for preschoolers, I may have to block you.)

Honestly, the way some education authorities are behaving, it's like they've decided that children's academic progress is some sort of donkey that they have to get moving against its will. They push the donkey driver in the back, and the donkey driver looks scared and whips the donkey, and the donkey looks around stubbornly as if to say "I'll go when I'm ready" and stays right where it is, and the donkey driver gets blamed. Pushing a donkey is idiotic and ineffective, and so is pushing down the curriculum so the teachers have to try to force all little children to learn their letters and numbers whether or not they're ready.

But that doesn't mean that we can't expose our children to literacy and numeracy in the early years. In fact, even in EC facilities where play-based learning is at the fore of programming, teachers are required to provide literacy and numeracy experiences.

So, how do we do that without pushing down the curriculum? Is this yet another tightrope we have to walk along?

Julie, one of my readers, has asked:

"I would love to hear your opinion on introducing children

 (2-4) to the alphabet in hands on/other ways? Do you see 

benefit, drawbacks, necessity?? Thanks in advance for any 

insight or information you might be willing to offer!"

That question immediately reminded me of my mother. She used to tell me how she'd taught my brother to recognise letters when he was just a toddler. She bought him some wooden blocks with the letters of the alphabet written on them, and a little wooden trailer in which to cart them about. Every so often, one would fall out, and she'd say "Pick up the B- it's fallen off." Or he'd be building, and she'd say "Do you want me to pass you the M to put on top?"

That's not pushing. That's just casually identifying the letters in the course of play; my mother didn't interrupt my brother's block-carting or tower-building to make him repeat "it's a B!" or "it's an M!" like a parrot until he got it right. There was no pressure, just a tiny piece of information dropped into his play. He was ready, so he picked up the information along with the block.

And that's really what we're aiming for when we program literacy and numeracy experiences for very young children- a relaxed, cheerful and supportive play experience which puts some information out there so that the children can pick it up if they're ready. I did a similar thing with my son using fridge magnets, naming the letter or number that had fallen off the fridge and asking him if he could put it back, but never asking him to feed the information back to me. Or he would hand me a letter, and I'd say "Oh, thank you! I'll put the Z back."

The initial idea is to make letter and number shapes familiar to children before you even start to name them. So for a toddler, you could enhance literacy or numeracy by putting out an alphabet or 1- 10 jigsaw without pushing the issue of what order the letters and numbers come in or what they're called; that really isn't important now. What's important is PLAY, because play sets the stage within the child's mind for a positive mindset and self-directed interest in learning, and RELATIONSHIP, because a child will usually absorb more information when it arrives in the context of a loving and caring external atmosphere. In that secure, non-pressured setting, the child can feel and see the shapes of those letters. That's literacy. They can struggle over and over again without a feeling of failure to fit them into the same-shaped holes. That's geometry.

You can play with literacy and numeracy in so many ways if you have letter and number shapes available. Pressing shapes into playdough with letters and numbers, for example, gives you an opportunity to name them in a way that can be integrated seamlessly into play. Put some letter blocks in the block box. Put some number stamps with the cute butterfly and cow stamps. Now get down on the floor or sit at the table with the kids and join the play, referring to those letters and numbers by their names as you enjoy the relationship with them.

Parents of multiple children often notice how the younger ones seem to pick up these academic concepts more quickly than the oldest one did- it's because they're exposed to their siblings (relationship) talking about them and using the concepts in their play, without pressure to know or recite anything themselves. Hold that thought, and drip some information into play without any pressure on the child to perform.

Preschoolers love finding their own
name on a list.
Once a child starts to show interest in their own name and age, of course, it opens another avenue. My preschoolers used to love trying to make 'their' letter (the initial of their Christian name) with the big blocks. That's a literacy experience, as is making 'their' letter out of playdough or trying to write 'their' letter on paper or on a chalk board. Don't correct them- bite your tongue. Just let them try, and narrate their efforts in a positive way. "Jennie is trying to make her letter. Look, she's using a straight block and a curvy block."

The curve goes the wrong way? Shhh. Too soon. Criticise, and you risk killing an interest by creating a sense of failure.

I often hold up the cover of the books at story time in a preschool room and asked the children if they can see 'their' letter anywhere on the cover. The responses are always enthusiastic, and usually tell me a lot! Some children will be able to identify their own letter, and some will find the letters of their friends as well. Others will hang back and say nothing. Shhh. Too soon. Don't push.

Naturally, books are a rich source of playful literacy experiences, and the more you read to children the more literate they'll become. (Mem Fox, the author of 'Possum Magic', has written a wonderful book for parents on this subject called 'Reading Magic'- highly recommended.) Just reading a familiar story over and over at the child's request- perhaps with your finger following the words as you read, once the story is well known- can be enough to encourage an early reader. Yes, I know, if you read 'Dear Zoo' one more time you'll scream. Shhh. By the fiftieth time, your child may be able to read "so they sent me a..." all by herself.

Once you've got the finger following the words, you can play games like 'reading' the wrong word and letting your child correct you- that's play!- or stopping when you get to a crucial word and letting your child 'read' that word for you- that's play! If reading times are playful and if they are part of a close, loving relationship with you, a child will learn to read by osmosis. They'll just suck it in without knowing they're learning.

The more the written word is present in a child's environment, and the more interest respected and loved adults show in words, the better the child's chance of becoming literate. Read the paper in sight of the children- read some of it out loud to them, if it's appropriate. Sit down with a book of your own to read. Have books available and visible all the time for both children and adults.

Write by hand in the presence of your children. Tell them what you're writing; read it to them, even if it's only a shopping list, the moment they show interest. I used to write up observations of the children in the preschool room at 'quiet time'; the kids were always asking me what I was writing, then trying to identify the capital letters. Some would be able to identify their own name and ask me to read what I wrote about them (which I did).

A story by a group of preschoolers
Help the children make up their own stories, and write them down for them as they watch. To young children, this is like magic- their own words, written down! Wow! Ask them about their drawings, and write down what they say. More magic! Understanding the function of the written word is half the battle towards them wanting to learn to read and write. The more you demonstrate that function in a way that involves the children personally, the more they'll crave literacy skills.

As for counting- again, if you drop number skills into everyday activities and play, they'll get sucked up by osmosis in a meaningful way. I can remember asking my son if he'd like one biscuit or two (showing him the numbers with my fingers) before he could walk- which places the event somewhere before 11 months of age- and him giggling and replying 'two' with two fingers raised. By four, he was multiplying by two, and I never taught him that at all. Yes, sure, he's gifted; but the point is he taught himself, because the atmosphere was conducive to it. I was always commenting on the numerical properties of his playthings, like the number of wheels on his toy trains. "How many do you need?" is a very useful question to promote numeracy. It makes the child want to think about number.

Setting the table is an exercise in one-to-one correspondence if you play it right (matching the number of forks or plates to the number of people). Counting to ten or twenty is less meaningful in terms of numeracy than having a grasp of one-to-one in the early years, so stay away from rote counting unless it's fun and in the context of play- go for the matching experiences instead, and make it as fun as you can. "One spoon for you, one spoon for me, and- oh-oh! We haven't got a spoon for daddy! We need three spoons, not two. Can you get me another one please?" If a child helps set the table every day, and if you make it a time of fun and positive attention rather than a test of some sort, numeracy will come along in leaps and bounds.

Again, it's all about the presence of numeracy in the everyday, and how much fun you make it seem, and how functional you show it to be, and how positive your relationship is with this child. Even preschoolers will learn functional things about fractions if you're cutting up a cake to share and talk it cheerfully through with them so they have agency in the decision-making. Use practical, meaningful experiences to talk about numbers- not rote recitation and worksheets.

But back to Julie's question. Do I see benefits? Absolutely. Demonstrating the function of literacy and numeracy, making it fun and making those experiences a time of connection with your children will prime those children for academic learning without destroying their vital social learning processes, which are the real 'work' of early childhood. And yes, I believe that this sort of learning is every child's right- it is a necessity for children to be exposed to literacy and numeracy in the early years.

There are NO drawbacks to teaching literacy and numeracy like this, but there are very real drawbacks to pushing down the curriculum by sitting small children at desks and making them learn about letters and numbers through being told. (For a start, that is a highly ineffectual way to teach a 4-yr-old. That's really not how your average 4-yr-old learns ANYTHING.)

Do we really want to be creating a sense of failure in a 4-yr-old, or (heaven forbid) an even younger child? Do we really want to give an older child burnout, because they've had formal learning pushed down their throat for too long? Do we really want our children to start school able to recite the alphabet and count to thirty, but unable to get along with their peers?

No, we do not. Get the learning environment right, get the teacher-child relationship right, get the activities right, and children will learn the basics without even knowing it. Get it wrong, and many will simply turn off; others will learn at the expense of more vital life skills.

It IS like moving a donkey, really. Dangle carrots. Never push. The donkey will move when it's motivated.


  1. Well said! Children do have to be ready and not pushed. I agree very much. Carolun

  2. This is really helpful and reassuring. I've been fretting because it doesn't feel right to be pushing numbers and letters on my just 3 year old. But I feel I ought to expose him to them. You've given me some great ideas, thanks

  3. Thanks, you two! I'm glad this is useful.


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