You may already have many routines established in your early childhood classroom, but do you know why you’re doing each thing? It’s an important question to ask yourself (and possibly the teachers around you). Some of the traditions and routines we’ve used for years just aren’t developmentally appropriate and can, therefore, be a waste of extremely precious and valuable time.
However, studies show that all children - especially those who struggle with building academic skills - need to be exposed to information routinely, consistently, and repeatedly in order to learn. Some (although few) children learn new information the first, second, or third time they are exposed to it.
On average, it usually takes someone six times to be exposed to the information, while children with learning differences may need it repeated hundreds of times in order to fully comprehend information.
Students need that daily interaction with much academic information to commit it to their long term memory. Some things are not areas that need to be mastered until kindergarten or first grade and are not developmentally appropriate for pre-kinders, but they need to begin hearing the vocabulary and having guided practice with the information now to create what will be “background knowledge” for them to build on in future semesters or grades.
Another important thing to remember in exposing students to information repeatedly is that in order for students to truly have a chance to connect with the information and recall it later, the connection has to be meaningful and strong.
A good rule of thumb is to offer the information in as many modes as possible: seeing, hearing, speaking, and moving. Let’s use the letter Mm as an example. You would:
- display the letter visually
- either speak, sing, or play someone else speaking/singing the letter sound and name
- students would speak/sing the sound and name
- you would all perform some sort of movement - examples:
- everyone rubs their tummy while saying “mmm, mmm”
- tracing, writing independently, writing in the air, or making the letter with their bodies alone or with partners
Flashcards can be fine, as can some rote memorization (within reason), but you need to have students using as many of the four modes mentioned above as possible to create those pathways in the brain that encourage long-term memory.
In addition, remember that information has to be developmentally appropriate, and students have to have some “connection” to the information. They have to have a “hook” of prior knowledge to attach new information to. Some students will grasp information much more quickly than others, so offering a range of levels is okay, but remember to spend most of your time directly targeting the average level of development.
Phonics and Phonemic Awareness Instruction
Phonics instruction should be a daily task in pre-k. Remember, phonics instruction is making the connections between phonemes (the smallest units of sound in words) and graphemes (the written expression or representation of phonemes).
Every day, students in pre-k should be working to connect phonemes and graphemes. Each phoneme and grapheme they work on needs to be done using as many of the four modes listed above as possible.
One thing that may be useful in this area (among others) if you don’t already have one in place is to have a running log for each student upon which you track the number of times the information is presented to each student, which of the four modes used to present the information, and record when mastery is complete.
This is helpful not only because you’re keeping track of where the student is in the memory process, but also because it gives you a record to notice patterns and trends among students who struggle.
If you’ve presented the information 15 times to Hermoine and she still doesn’t know that the letter is Mm and makes the /m/ sound, you need to have that information for Hermoine’s future teachers. Chances are increasingly possible that she has a learning difference.
In addition, you’ll notice other patterns, like the fact that Harry only seems to truly understand that the letter is Mm as he is writing it or doing a certain movement. However, when you make the /m/ sound, Harry is clueless as to what letter would represent it.
As your students improve in phonics, you can start using flashcards and rapid-fire, “rote” memory routines to assure all of your students are maintaining the information they’ve learned. By the end of teaching 26 letters, though, you may find it best to break up the review into smaller sections and the amount of time spent all at once because reviewing capitals, lowercase letters, and sounds for all 26 letters can take quite a while.
You don’t have to do rhyming daily, but once a week, set aside two or three minutes to work with the whole group on rhyming tasks.
Remember, with rhyming, you start with asking yes or no questions (do “cat” and “bat” rhyme?), move to giving multiple choices (which word rhymes with “cat”: bat, cow, alligator), and finally, asking students to produce rhymes (who can tell me one word that rhymes with “cat”?).
**Rhyming note: recently, scientifically based reading research has started encouraging teachers to drop the idea of “word families”. Many teachers actually teach letter combinations (like -at) as phonemes. They are not! Each letter makes its own unique sound. Teaching students to look for “families” may be confusing, as you really want those individual sounds to stand apart for future writing and reading development.
Alliteration is also important (repeating the same onset - or beginning- sound, but gradually add it in toward the end of pre-k as most pre-k students are not quite ready to name alliteration yet. It’s also harder to create alliteration for many children.
Orthographic awareness has to do with handwriting and letter formation, spelling, capitalization, hyphenation, and punctuation. Many teachers cover these written skills that are connected with speech when they write a morning message and correct it as a class.
Anytime you do something like this, provide a copy for the students to correct on their own as their peers correct a larger copy one by one. Children love to participate using the “big paper” that’s displayable, but everyone really needs to have a copy so they are able to pay attention and practice those skills daily.
Children need to be speaking daily in order to practice their syntax (as well as vocabulary, phoneme articulation, among several other skills). Syntax refers to the order and structure given to words and phrases within spoken and written sentences that provide the clarity needed for the listener to receive the same mental picture the person speaking is creating in their mind.
Many children come to pre-k unable to speak in complete sentences, ask questions, answer questions, or converse with other students or adults. Purposeful and intentional practice is the best way to correct this deficit.
This aspect isn’t often built into curriculum because the research supporting the necessity of such practice intentionally is newer and curriculum hasn’t had the opportunity to catch up yet. Although we’ve always known it was an important aspect in early childhood, we haven’t always approached it intentionally.
Try to focus on one area each day: brainstorming a specific type of word one day each week (naming, doing, and describing words, for example) and practicing placing it in a sentence frame would be a good idea. For example, if you’re thinking of nouns (naming words), challenge students to think of something that “rides a bike”.
After you issue the challenge, hand each student a small sticky note. Have each child draw their answer, write their answer (the first letter is fine - accept whatever writing they produce), or dictate their answer for you to write. Allow each child to come to attach their sticky note where it belongs (ask them, “Should we put the naming word first or last in this sentence?”) and “read” their sentences.
The next day, you might alter the activity to include questions. Have students generate a word or a couple of words to change the sentences from yesterday into questions, like altering “The monkey rides a bike.” to “Can the monkey ride a bike?” Changing “rides” to ride” is an important syntactical change to make, and may not be either acknowledged or changed outside of intentional and repeated practice in context.
Conversation and Social Communication
Just as there are rules for spelling and grammar, there are rules for conversation. These also need intentional practice.
Have children practice conversational skills routinely in planned conversations with peers in the classroom, peers on the playground, peers pretending to be on a playdate, adults at school, adults pretending to be family members or other members of the community, and even baby dolls and stuffed animals (we speak differently in each of those situations).
Give them the opportunity to do the following in a variety of pretend or real situations:
- practice speaking impolitely (always fun and hilarious) and, comparatively, politely
- discussing a topic and staying on topic
- practicing using and understanding noverbal cues
- practice telling or retelling stories using visual cues (two to three, and very simple stories)
- using an incorrect, and, comparatively, correct tone, volume, and pitch of voice (speaking like a robot, talking “like a baby”, whining, or speaking in a very shy, quiet voice as opposed to speaking with their full, confident, yet appropriate volume)
- using an incorrect, and, comparatively, correct speed when speaking
- commenting on other people’s shared thoughts
- making requests
- asking and answering questions
- greetings, goodbyes, and responses
- exchanging names with a new person
- initiating a conversation
- ending a conversation
- taking turns in a conversation
- using improper, and, comparatively, appropriate eye contact
- responding to teasing
- responding to someone being unkind
- using and responding to sarcasm and figurative language (idioms, similes and metaphors - you don’t have to talk about the vocabulary, but just using the techniques and talking about funny things people say that may mean something other than the literal translation is great language practice)
- changing to a new topic
- apologizing and receiving apologies
Each of the above skills can become daily routines in a 10 to 20 minute daily language circle time. If you create spreadsheets or use an app to track introduction of skills, times taught, and mastery, you can quickly check off skills as you go, saving you time and effort down the road.
Pre-k students are particularly eager to work on things as a whole or small group. Structuring your whole group instruction time to include these skills as often as possible (daily, whenever possible) will build your students' language skills and lay a firm foundation for the rest of their academic career.