For kindergartners, it's catch as catch c-a-n
CHAMPAIGN – The kindergarten students at Garden Hills Elementary School were learning two new words at the beginning of a recent week of school.
The children clapped their hands as they recited the letters to spell "can" and "take," practiced drawing the shape of each letter in the air with their fingers, and found the new words in a story their teacher was reading.
Then their teacher, Angela Kleber, used flash cards to talk about words that sound the same – man, fan, van, pan – and those that don't – fan and pen.
Many of the things these children will do in their first year of elementary school are the same things their older siblings or their parents likely did. They'll need to know what letters look like and sound like, recognize certain words, and know their shapes. They'll play with blocks and puzzles, understand concepts such as bigger and smaller and above and below, and learn to follow directions and take turns.
But they also will be expected to be reading at a certain level by the time they reach first grade – and to be able to write a simple story of a few sentences.
Expectations have changed "incredibly" since Anne Roth first began teaching in 1979. Roth has taught kindergarten since 1987. The Bottenfield Elementary teacher said kindergarten is "probably much more similar to first grade now."
The state board of education announced new, voluntary learning standards specifically for kindergarten earlier this fall. The Champaign school district already has standards that Roth and other teachers say closely resemble the new guidelines.
The state standards were developed in response to kindergarten teachers who were concerned that expectations for their students would resemble those more appropriate for older children rather than those in preschool, said Kay Henderson, early childhood division administrator for the state board.
"They have always had the feeling that kindergarten is the bridge between preschool and 'real' school, and it was kind of in no-man's land in how it was defined," Henderson said. "They were very interested in having kindergarten defined as part of the early childhood continuum."
Roth said kindergarten used to be focused more on child development than on academics. Children would learn about letters, sounds and concepts they needed to be able to read. But reading is the expectation now.
"Fifteen years ago, (students) learned how to walk in the halls, how to be in a group, how to enjoy school," she said. "Now we have to get that in the first quarter because we have to move on to reading and math groups."
Roth said children are farther along in reading and writing now when they enter first grade, and that prepares them better for achievement tests. But she is concerned about putting academic pressure on children at a younger age.
Henderson said kindergarten standards, based on research on early childhood learning, take the state K-12 learning standards "and bring it down to what is appropriate for children 5 to 6 years old to be learning and knowing in this area. It's a powerful tool for teachers who are feeling that pressure."
But while children need a developmentally appropriate environment, with play and exploration, "it should not be assumed those kids are not going to come out of kindergarten reading," she said. "The role of the teacher is to be actively involved with kids, to have planned strategies for play environments they are creating.
"What we're going to get ... is an environment that is really friendly to the way kids learn, but we're also going to get a teacher who understands ... how to support children in their learning, so the academic outcome is there."
Kleber works with her students as a class for the first six weeks of school, talking about the differences between letters and words, the spaces between words and reading from left to right. She slowly introduces reading centers, where students work on various activities, then starts meeting with small reading groups.
"The expectation for the whole district is to end at Level 3," she said, explaining a Level 3 book is one with a storyline and perhaps some repetitive text. "But when you have kids coming in knowing all their letters, starting to read, they are going to be way past the first-grade level by the end of kindergarten, whereas if they come in not knowing their letters, it makes it much harder to get there.
"I'd love it if they could all write their name when they come in. That would be wonderful. But it doesn't happen."
Her students do activities such as matching letters and using letters to build words. She works with small reading groups. Some are still learning to write their names; others are finding words in books. Some are reading on their own.
On a recent morning, Kleber was working with a group of students who used small magnetic letters to spell the word "is." They practiced writing the word, talked about the sounds the letters make, and found the word in a book they were reading.
Later another group of children practiced identifying and sorting letters. They read a book together, then practiced writing the letter "I."
While Kleber worked with the small reading groups, the other children worked on activities around the room. One girl sorted words by the number of syllables they had. A boy practiced writing the words "and" and "are."
Some other students practiced using letters to make words listed on the room's word wall. Two children used a computer to identify capital and small letters and to find certain letters in words.
"I think parents, especially new parents, are always surprised at what their kids are doing," Kleber said. "I show them the books we're going to start reading in October, and what we should be reading in May, and they look at me like I'm crazy."
It can be a big step for the children, too – especially those who didn't attend preschool.
Prudence Runkle taught kindergarten for 28 years before retiring last year from South Side Elementary, and she has witnessed the higher expectations in kindergarten.
"When I think about the number of kids I had reading 20 years ago, not just recognizing a few words but understanding the meaning and being able to tell you back, a lot more children are reading (now)," she said.
Full-day kindergarten makes it possible to do more during that first year, and she said more children are attending preschool and parents are providing them with more experiences to build on.
"There is such a variety when they come in, and it so depends on what happens at home," Runkle said. "I hope they can communicate appropriately and can be somewhat self-sufficient when it comes to zipping and tying and opening chips and knowing when they have to go to the bathroom ahead of time, taking care of their own needs. If you can't do those things, why would you start teaching them letters and numbers?"
In her last year of full-time teaching, Runkle said she had the highest-performing class she had ever taught, with a number of children who already were reading.
"What's exciting about that is the other children are challenged in a way that is friendly. They want to read, too," she said. "Then it's important for the child who didn't to realize he is still doing a good job."
It's important to have standards for children to meet, Runkle said, but she believes creative play is also extremely important in teaching young children.
"You can teach math using building blocks or manipulatives," Runkel said. "I think it's really important for 5-year-olds to manipulate things. They are free to take risks. If they make a shape and it tumbles, it's OK. They can try again."
With paper and pencil math instruction, she said, "if there is a right or wrong answer, it's easy to feel defeated."
For Runkle, the greater focus on academics "means playing with a different goal in mind."
Henderson agreed, noting that young children work better in a classroom with hands-on activities that spark their curiosity.
"We don't want to see little desks all lined up with kids sitting at them doing worksheets," she said.
Roth has a "housekeeping" area in her classroom with a play kitchen and dress-up clothes. She said the children love it.
"That really is an important part of drawing and writing and creating stories," Roth said. "It's also wonderful for social skills. That's where the fights happen that they have to work out: 'I don't want to wear that dress today,' or 'You always get to be the mom.' "
By the end of the year, though, Roth needs more space for academic work, so the housekeeping area will give way to other activities where her students can use reading in their play. For example, she may set up a museum and let the children put labels on displays.
"Now there are so many standards and expectations that you really have to strongly defend having housekeeping and blocks and all the social aspects," Roth said. "It would be really easy to lose those because there's no time."
Kleber's students have two 10- to 15-minute play periods a day, outside of recess, in which they can choose puzzles, blocks, other building toys or the play kitchen. As the year gets busier, lessons may reduce some of the free time.
But Kleber says her lessons, like Roth's, involve learning activities that don't seem like work.
"The kids don't know they are working when they are in literacy or math centers," she said. "It's like play because there are little games to go with it."
Her classroom lessons also include work on social skills. Kleber discusses sharing and building community. The class talks about books together.
"We teach them how to have a conversation about a book, so they are not interrupting a person and are listening. We're doing social skills through academics," she said.
Kindergarten helps children build independence, and along with that, their self-esteem, she said.
"The first week I help them open their milk, and that's it," Kleber said. "After that, they have to figure out how to do it or they don't get milk, and they all do."
Roth surveyed the parents of her kindergarten students before the year began, asking what they hoped their children would learn. Reading and writing were important to them, she said, but many also mentioned social skills such as being independent and respectful.
Roth's goal for her students at the end of their kindergarten year: "I want them to still love school, to see themselves as learners and have the confidence to go into first grade – and to feel like they can do school because they were successful in kindergarten."