Becoming a Reader: Kindergarten at Atrium
In Kindergarten (and in Pre-Kindergarten), children are already deeply involved in the complex task of becoming readers, which will continue for many years to come. Metaphorically, some have compared the process of learning to read with learning to drive, though learning to read well takes many more years to develop. In the same way that a driver must integrate and practice many separate skills, understandings, habits and awarenesses, so readers must do the same. It requires growing attention, stamina, working memory, self-direction and self-monitoring, and a healthy amount of independence, risk-taking, and confidence.
In Kindergarten, then, there are many lessons going on in any given day, from book choice, to building reading stamina, to responding to and talking about varied texts in depth, to sharing the experience again and again. Each day, from the first to the last day of Kindergarten, is full, as children learn to read together–with a constant sense of celebration along the way. To become real readers, children in kindergarten need well-integrated instruction that focuses on three core aspects:
- Word Study: identifying words, using sound-spelling correspondences (phonics), sight word recognition, and a growing sense of spelling patterns (word families);
- Comprehension Strategies: using previous knowledge, vocabulary, and comprehension strategies to read for meaning, and
- Reading Fluency: accessing a text accurately, and with meaningful phrasing and expression while reading aloud (and, later, while reading silently), with increasing automaticity.
When children enter Kindergarten, their skill levels and experience always vary widely. By the end of the year, all have a solid and growing familiarity with the structure and uses of print, the format of books, and the exciting and wide variety of texts that exist. By then, they are also familiar with sentence-by-sentence, word-by-word, and sound-by-sound analysis of language, having achieved basic phonemic awareness and the ability to recognize and write most letters of the alphabet. At the same time, they have become very comfortable with learning from print and using texts to collaborate and problem solve together.
Word Study - Letters & Sounds, Sight Words, and Word Families
At Atrium, Kindergarten students learn how to read and write using different programs and methods. In the fall, using Wilson’s Fundations Program and Explode the Code, students practice upper and lower case letters and learn keywords (for example, “Bb says b as in bat!”). At the same time, students begin to memorize very common words that may not follow typical words (such as “the,” “is,” “one,” “blue,” or “here”). Through continued practice, they learn to recognize letters and sounds, as well as how letters work together to form words. Little by little, students then begin to recognize words in books (or in the classroom or outside).
Understanding the sound-spelling correspondences (phonics) plays an important role in learning to read and write. Kindergarten teacher Merry Murray explained, “When we do the phonics work, many children notice, ‘So that is why that letter does that!’” (In yellow, for example, y represents the ya- sound,” but, in silly, the same letter represents an e sound.) It is certainly a challenge for most. “Many strong readers,” Merry Murray added, “ struggle when they write because they know the words they are trying to write don’t quite match up to the way they have seen words written in books. And many children who easily write struggle with reading because the vowels (and other such letters) can make many different sounds depending on which letters they are paired with.”
To expand and stretch children’s understanding of letter arrangements, teachers Merry Murray and Jaleesa, begin each week by noticing word patterns that are found in their weekly “just right books.” Students generate a “word family” and then work on a “word machine” for practicing at home. “The word family work helps students see how letters work together,” said Merry Murray. “Then they start noticing patterns in the text and grow up quickly as readers.” (After all, once you can read cake, you can read bake, brake, flake, lake, make, quake, rake, and snake!) As children become more and more familiar with spelling patterns like these (word families), as well as sound-spelling correspondence (phonics) and sight words, they become increasingly confident, automatic, and independent as readers–and the excitement begins.
For instruction, students are grouped flexibly in small groups, with each child taking on a reading level that is appropriate for them. In groups, students continually learn new words, practice sight words, and pick up speed. As time goes on, groups naturally change and one-on-one conferencing with students strengthens each individual’s skill and understanding. “At first, the children are mostly memorizing the text from multiple reads with teacher support,” Merry Murray noted. “Then mid-year, when we switch from individual letters to word families, they start really looking at the words and finding words that they know. That’s when, suddenly, we notice children often asking nearby friends and trying to read independently, coming to us only for the really tricky words.”
While students are learning to identify words, they also must deepen their comprehension. Merry Murray cautioned: “Some readers who may seem to be ‘ahead’ tend to do something we call ‘word-calling,’ which means that they can read words without attaching meaning to them as they speed along.” She added that for some fast-paced readers, “We must work with them on pacing and following the story for understanding. We work on what the punctuation means to the reader. We talk about authors using punctuation to help us read books the way they intended them to be read.”
Jaleesa and Merry Murray also guide early readers to regularly activate their background knowledge, set a purpose for reading, make predictions, create mental images (and put them on paper), and ask good questions. This happens in reading groups, but also happens whenever they read to the class and hold discussions and book talks: “What do you notice?” “Is there rhyming?” “Is it factual?” “Is it a page turner?” “What do you think happens next?” These questions and strategies are first introduced with teachers and then become practiced and internalized when students read independently and in pairs.
This, of course, takes practice–and Kindergarten students practice reading a lot–in the context of meaningful reading and writing work that happens in tandem on a daily basis. Students read and write every day, many times a day.
On Mondays, students shop for books in bins of “just right” books. As children progress and as their reading improves, teachers add higher level books to each child’s collection. By the spring, children themselves are able to tell when they are ready to move onto the next level. In kindergarten, students read four or five books, several times each, every week. This kind of practice helps develop a critical level of fluency–accessing a text accurately, and with meaningful phrasing, expression, and pace. Increasing levels of fluency also produces confidence and competence that is worth celebrating–by the whole group on Fridays, when children choose books to project and read aloud, when they meet with older reading buddies to read together, when they visit the school library for new books to enjoy, and every time they see that they are surrounded by a community of readers at Atrium.