16 April 2008

Debrief and Reflection on Kindergarten {Part III}

To me, kindergarten isn't much more than reading, reading, reading. If the child doesn't know how to read himself, then I would try to teach him in kindergarten. In our case, the child was already proficient, and so part of the day was often spent with the student reading aloud and the rest of us listening.


Reading and Building Vocabulary

The real question here is, Why reading?

Because the early years are meant for gathering the basic building blocks upon which everything else rests. These blocks would include skills of self-care {like getting dressed, eating with utensils, putting on shoes, etc.}, gross motors {like running, jumping, skipping, climbing, etc.}, fine motors {using a pencil, buttoning a shirt, etc.}. We can find this out just by watching what a baby naturally does.

One of the most overlooked and yet most basic of building blocks is vocabulary. Oh, sure, when Baby is very little we will teach them the names of their body parts. We touch her hair and name it, touch her toes and name them, and so on. We will also name objects around us. This is a chair, this is a tree, this is a garbage truck, and so on.

And then the children's books come to a screeching halt.

See Spot run.

I'm sorry. What? See Spot run? They have got to be kidding. I mean, yes, I understand that early readers will feel a sense of triumph when they are able to read the first Bob Book on their own. Mat sat, they read, and they jump for joy that they did it themselves.

I get it.

What I do not get is why we, as a culture, insist on reading books of limited vocabulary to children when we read aloud. After all, the purpose of Bob Books is to feed the children tiny scoops of words that they can actually read themselves. But when we are reading to them, there is no reason for limiting their vocabulary in this way. They don't have to know how to read the words, because we, the teachers, are reading the words. Moreover, they don't always have to know what the words mean.

After all, how did they learn every other word they know? By inference. And in a well-written, rich story book, children will usually be able to infer the meaning of the bigger words.

Have you ever seen a teenager struggle to describe something? We think that they can't speak because that is how they are. I, personally, think that they can't speak because they can't think. And they can't think because they have too small of a vocabulary, a vocabulary that isn't suited to great and important thoughts.

If we want our children to think great thoughts, to enjoy great ideas, we must, must, must expand their vocabularies.

We are big believers in the Trivium of classical education. The "first" stage of learning, called the grammar stage, begins around ages eight to ten. Think about grammar. This would be when children begin to learn the basic rules of every subject.

Before learning the rules of a subject, they must know the vocabulary of a subject. Knowing the language precedes any sort of understanding of a subject, even the most basic.

What to Read

Reading aloud to our children is one of the easiest ways to build vocabulary. We are constantly shocked at the gigantic words that escape our son's lips, and 99% of the time, these words were introduced to him in the pages of some book we once read. Books give us the opportunity to learn words that are outside our daily experience. For instance, if we only learned about birds while looking at the birds in our yard, we would only know of starlings, robins, mourning doves, and killdeers, with the occasional Western scrub jay thrown in. But because we have a birding field guide, we know the names of many, many more birds than this!

I would highly suggest starting to read chapter books aloud at the earliest age possible. I am hard-pressed to read to my children for hours each day if each book is only 20 pages long with three to ten words per page. Plus, when reading a number of short books aloud, we end up skipping from subject to subject. A chapter book allows us to linger on one subject, one character, for a longer period of time.

I don't yet own it, but a book I intend to acquire someday is Hand That Rocks the Cradle: 400 Classic Books for Children by Nathaniel Bluedorn. The book contains summaries of 400 books that are divided by age-appropriateness. When I begin to run out of ideas for additions to the family library, I intend to buy this book!

In our house, preschool really means that Mommy sits down and reads The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh, Beatrix Potter: The Complete Tales, and The Wind in the Willows just for you. Before, these books were for your older sibling. Now they are for you.

These are always the first chapter-type books we read aloud.

We read nonfiction. We are learning a lot about pioneers by reading all the books in the Little House on the Prairie series. We are reading tons of historical biographies {written for children, but with a big enough vocabulary} from the Signature Series. This has included The Story of Davy Crockett, The Story of Benjamin Franklin, The Story of George Washington, and The Story of Daniel Boone, just to name a few.

We have read silly little books, like Mr. Popper's Penguins, and more serious books like Five Little Peppers and How They Grew.

Expelled

Some books, we began only to decide that they didn't belong in our school, at least not right now. I had to expel one of my own favorite books from our school in the first few weeks.

Another one of my all-time favorites, my own childhood copy {hardback and beautifully illustrated} of Johanna Spyri's Heidi, ended up being dropped before completion. The first half went well. E. loved Peter the Goatherd. This was where we first developed our infatuation with all things goat. However, in the middle of the book, Heidi is moved to the city, where she spends lots of time crying and being homesick.

Let's just say little boys get bored with this. Where is Peter? he wanted to know. Where are the goats?

I put the book away. Even I began to think Heidi cried too much. And I learned that it is okay sometimes to change direction and leave a few books unfinished.

Coming Tomorrow

Because I keep going on and on. Oh, when will it end? When I'm done thinking it all through, I suppose. The natural place to head tomorrow is to what ended up being seasonal. What I mean was, what did I think we would do all year, but we really only did part of the year, but which I foresee picking up and doing again in the coming year, in the same season? {Hint: part of it has to do with nature.} And also, what did I totally flake out on for no good reason?