“Sight reading” in preschool: A Nest educator responds to a parent’s concern

This is an email exchange between Nest educators Rachel Clark and Kalei Fowkes and a parent at the school regarding anxiety about her child’s readiness for the transition to Kindergarten. Rachel and Kalei’s well-informed, thoughtful response is a wonderful reflection on the values we hold dear at The Nest and the efforts that Nest educators make to understand child development and to give children the best possible foundation for long-term success in school. 

Rachel, 
Just some feedback – in looking at Kindergarten they are telling us that sight words are key even in Kindergarten.  Is there a way to integrate for the kids moving into Kindergarten?
Thanks.
Susan 

Hi Susan*, 

Thank you for your patience with this response! We really wanted to make sure we addressed all aspects of your inquiry. It’s a big (& exciting!) transition we have all had in our minds for some time now, so we are happy to get down to the nitty gritty. The work – through playful experiences of authentic learning – we have been doing together all these years has fostered in Mary a disposition toward learning. We believe an ability & will to problem solve, a resilient attitude, & a well-stocked toolbox for life’s constant socio-emotional encounters are the keys to kindergarten. Even more broadly- keys to help lead a vibrant, meaningful, & participatory life as a citizen. 

Having known Mary the better part of 4 years now, we can say with confidence that her curiosity and eagerness to learn and “read” the world around her is healthy and vast. She can spell, write, & recognize her own name as well as some of her friends’. She is adept at tracing & comfortable writing freehand. We often sound out words together, or she does so with her peers. She reliably identifies letter-sound relationships, is very familiar with the alphabet, & recognizes that letters string together words to form items of unique meaning. She has a bold interest in narrative, is consistently expressive, & possesses a natural inclination toward the visual arts. She loves fantasy but is equally versed in logical reasoning. Additionally, we believe she is intelligent & comes from a well-educated, caring family; her foundation for formal education is strong! When it is developmentally appropriate for her to receive direct instruction in reading & writing, we have confidence in her readiness. 

In the Blue Room, Mary has access to about a hundred books, at least a dozen different mark-making tools, a variety of paper, & other unique literacy tools like computer keyboards & our light marquee. She takes the opportunity to utilize these language building materials throughout the day, every day. She creates signs, writes books, spells out her name, labels things, & lately, writes out letters to experiment with word formation (i.e. “‘EIXHL’ Is that a word – does it say anything?”). The use of invented spelling, a technique she has been using for nearly two years now, is frequently regarded as one of the foremost prerequisites for strong literacy learning. Because it focuses on letter-sound combinations, it requires the child to use their own knowledge to produce a meaningful word. Meanwhile, a sight word such as THE relies on memorization; there is no obvious reason to a developing reader why that E is necessary. It is far more important she understands that “the” is a connecting word, & that the logical TH sound is recognized (“THA” is a popular, reasonable invented spelling solution). This ability to understand letter sounds to create meaning is lasting & generative, while memorization is just that – memorization. 

Unfortunately, the expectation that such young children come into kindergarten already “knowing” sight words is misguided. Learning sight words relies on rote memorization rather than the making of meaning. It’s a developmentally inappropriate practice that is seeping into normalcy because of the enormous pressure put on teachers to produce high standardized test scores. This curriculum push is not guided by what we know about how children learn, or how their brains develop, but is peddled by politicians concerned with global competition. It’s a top-down approach that undermines the profession & value of teaching, & disrespects the rights of children. I feel comfortable asserting that these kindergarten teachers do not want to teach in this rushed way but are pressured to do so. And it is a lot of pressure – we are feeling it too! – but it’s vital we as fellow teachers & families advocate for developmentally appropriate learning. 

We have found and read a few articles that support our belief that learning sight words is unnecessary. The article below offers a little insight on this: 

https://www.parent.com/sightwords-are-so-2016-new-study-finds-the-real-key-to-early-literacy/

Additionally, here is some information regarding developmental milestones via the Georgia Early Learning & Developmental Standards (GELDS): http://www.gelds.decal.ga.gov/Search.aspx – check the 48-60 month box to just see the milestones for Mary. Mary is exhibiting all of the milestones for her age group, such as “copies letters from signs and labels,” “draws lines and squiggles across a page and asks her mom to ‘Mail this letter to my friend, Aisha.’,” and, “recognizes words in repetitive books.” We would even say that Mary’s participation in these acts of early reading and writing goes beyond those listed in the GELDS.  

If it will alleviate anxiety, you may elect to offer Mary workbooks & printable worksheets to do together at home. However, we only recommend this if she seems to truly enjoy these kinds of activities. As soon as it becomes an enforced practice, we worry it could have a negative impact on her love of learning. We know alumna who really enjoys them at home, but it definitely depends on the child!

Truly, we believe that we all lean toward the same notion: that Mary is an extremely competent child who will develop (and has already begun to develop) literacy in an organic and timely manner, over a process full of wonder and genuine interest. Balancing the truths we know about the learning process of children with the sometimes inappropriate expectations the public school system places on children is the task we are faced with as advocates for the rights of young children. 

Your inquiry regarding this has led us to consider hosting some sort of evening social Q + A between recent Nest grad families and soon-to-be Nest grad families. This idea has come up again & again – it’s time we work it out! Nest alums have gone on to be successful in diverse public pre-kindergartens, public elementary schools (including charters), & private schools. We would like to welcome these families to join us to share their experiences. Would you be interested in such a program? If so, we’d love help organizing!

Lastly, we wanted to say thank you for reaching out about this! Not only does this show your dedication to Mary’s well-being, but it also got us thinking. We are excited to continue researching and studying theories of early literacy – not just for our own professional development, but also to better address – with confidence – these types of questions which inevitably will come up time and time again as Nesters continue on to pre-K and kindergarten. We’re also hoping to schedule a parent-teacher conversation in the next few months to check in.

Thank you again for opening up this line of communication!

Best,
Rachel & Kalei & the Blue Room Team

*In the interest of privacy, we have changed the names of the parent and child who are mentioned in Rachel’s email response.

For more information, we recommend the following readings about early literacy and research-proven approaches to facilitate children’s development of reading and writing skills and to encourage an inherent love of reading and writing.

Teach Kids When They’re Ready

Reading Too Soon

Landmark Study Finds Better Path to Reading Success

4 Things We (Really) Know About Learning to Read

 

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