Monday, June 11, 2012

We don't teach reading and writing here.

No really, we don't.

Yes, we call ourselves an accredited preschool childcare program. But if you walk into our classroom, you will not see brightly coloured cartoon alphabet banners adorning our walls. The books on our shelves are chosen purely based on their relationship to the children's current interests. There is no drilling of letters and sounds, no singing the alphabet song unless the children initiate it, and well... almost no direct instruction, except music and the "advanced drawing class" that some of the older children choose to attend.

And yet, our children are remarkably literate (with the possible exception of a couple of kids with differing learning needs and one whose first language is not English and does not use our alphabet).

To be fair, we accidentally taught the oldest preschooler how to write last spring. Oops. He was doing some drawing exercises for his advanced drawing class, including making lines, points, angle lines, circles, and curvy lines. Susan pointed out that everything he would ever draw was made of those elements. I then made the mistake of mentioning that all the letters and numbers are made from those basic shapes as well. Oops. Over night, he unlocked the secret to writing. He started by copying out all of his classmates' names over and over again. He wrote his name and his best friend's name on anything he could get his hands on. He asked how to spell the name of his favourite Pokemon character. Now, he has the tidiest, most compact printing I have ever seen from a five-year-old (it rivals that of some nine-year-olds) and in the ensuing year, I have spent countless moments telling him how to spell the things he wants to write down, letter by letter.

I suppose we may have accidentally given some of the children other literacy tools. Just this morning, a group of children at the art table discovered an amazing thing. It all started when the newly-returned 4-year-old asked one of the soon-to-depart Big Kids how to spell her name. He wrote every letter as she dictated, until the final letter, where he misheard "T" and instead wrote "P".

"Wait a minute! That's not how you draw my name!" exclaimed the name's owner.

"Melissa, what does this say?" asked the writer, turning to me.

I wasted no time in reading the name he had written, emphatically pronouncing the P at the end. Hilarity ensued. That could have been the end of it, but the boy's analytical mind went immediately to work, and he wrote his own name, replacing the final letter with a P. "What does this name say?" I obligingly read it, again being sure to pronounce the final P.

I could see the wheels turning in his head, and all but heard him thinking "Oh boy, if changing one letter makes a name say something different and silly, I wonder what happens when I add letters, or change more letters..." and all of the sudden, I was being bombarded with pages of coloured paper with felt-marker letters scrawled across them: "What does mine say? What does this say? Read mine now!" The boy had unwittingly stumbled across one of the most important pieces of knowledge that are Top Secret to children who are too young to go to school: Letters stand for sounds, and sounds combine to make words. And by drawing them into his joke, he shared his forbidden knowledge with not one, but two of the Big Kids! Why, one of those girls handed me a page reading "ACHHHHO" to read, and then fell over laughing when I told her it said "ach-OOO!" and THEN she had the nerve to write it again on another page! And she read that page to her friends, without any teacher to decode it! Kindergarten won't know what hit it in September.

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