The other night we went to Open House for Bean’s new preK program that he starts this week. I knew that preK would be awesome, but I was blown away by all the things the kids would learn. Things like reading small words, counting to 100 in 5′s, 10′s, and 20′s, counting money, how to tie his shoes, and a plethora of other really great things. I am excited for Bean to start preK for those reasons and a lot of others, but mostly I am excited for him to start because he is just so stinking smart! He soaks up information and loves to learn, so this is going to fill his days with all of his favorite things.
During our Open House, the teacher suggested that parents begin working with their kids at home on active learning, if they hadn’t already. I think Chris and I have an unfair advantage on this because I am actually a teacher, and so it’s easier for me to incorporate learning into Bean’s daily life because that’s my job. I thought I’d share a few things today that have really helped us teach Bean and Gracie over the past year or so at home. Some are just learning tricks we have picked up or made up as we went along, and some are actual teaching strategies that work well inside a classroom or at home.
1. Phonetics. Teaching kids to learn sounds of letters is the building block to teaching them to read and write. But the hardest part of teaching kids about letters, spelling and words is getting them to understand how those things are all related. They have to understand that a letter makes a sound, and then they have to learn that those sounds all go together to form a word. If they can learn this basic, and yet very complex, thought process before kindergarten, then they will have such a leg-up on learning to read.
We started doing this little activity because Bean asked us to. He came up with it, and we have just gone with it. He likes us to help him spell things. So, he’ll give us a word and I’ll make the sounds for each letter and he has to identify which letter makes the sound. This summer, since he has learned how to write all the letters, we added the writing part. Now, he has to spell the word AND write it out.
2. Answer questions with questions. This is a Common Core teaching strategy, and if you are familiar with the public education system at all, then you have probably heard something about Common Core lately. This is the system of education that most states are adopting to ensure a standardized level of education across the country. Common Core does many things, but one of the best things it does it shape how students think by teaching them to become problem solvers. Your children will be learning this way in kindergarten and beyond, but I have noticed that I can even start it at Bean’s age now.
The basic idea is that every time they ask a question, you ask them another question which prompts them to think through and answer their own question. You may have have college professors who used this method, known as the “Socratic method.” It forces the child to explore their own possible explanations and answers to problems and questions. In my classroom, I try to answer EVERY question this way (which really irritates my students, but by the middle of the school year, they are depending less on me for answers and figuring out more things on their own – which is ultimately what you want students to be doing.) For my four-year old, though, I try to only do this with questions that I know Bean can answer or figure out for himself. For example, when it’s cloudy outside and he asks me, “Mom, is it going to rain?” He already knows the answer to this question, or if he doesn’t, he knows enough about weather to make a good prediction, so I answer with a question. “What do you think, buddy? Do you think it’s going to rain today?” And when he answers, I then probe him further. “Why do you think it’s going to rain?” And then we talk about clouds and sunshine, and before I know it, Bean has taught himself all about weather patterns and predictions, using information he already knew. This is such a critical skill for children of any age to acquire – how to use what they know to answer questions about things they don’t know.
3. Reading chapter books. This is a new one for us. I recently pick up a copy of “Stuart Little” to start reading with Bean at night before bed. It’s a small chapter book, and probably not what you would picture a four-year-old reading at bedtime. The goal is not for Bean to be able to read this book. He is years away from being ready for that. But books and stories without pictures are such great ways to encourage imagination and creativity in kids. Without the pictures being provided to them, it forces them to create the images in their minds. It is also really great for building stamina in the thought process. We will probably only read a few pages every night, but that little bit every night will encourage Bean to use long-term memory to recall where we left off, it will help him start to predict and infer in plot lines (with help from me and Chris, of course), and it will give him some ownership over the reading process. Longer books like this with more substances also provides for better conversation as we read. I can ask him reading comprehension questions as we go to see how much he is understanding, and we can stop and talk about things he doesn’t understand, too. (Note: If you’re going to try this, you might want to avoid the classic, “Charlotte’s Web,” at this point. Preschool might be a little early to explore things like the death of Charlotte at the end…)
4. “I do, we do, you do.” If you are a teacher, then this phrase is probably second nature to you. If you’re a parent, you should commit it to memory. This is a method of teaching known as “scaffolding.” It’s where you slowly release children to do things on their own. So, when we are trying something new with Bean, I do it first to show him, then I do it with him a time or two, and then I let him try on his own.
It is fairly basic common sense, but where most parents (and teachers) give up is the “you do” part because it’s easier and faster to just do it for them. This little system is how we taught Bean to write all his letters. First, I would write them out for him (“I do”). Then he would trace what I drew (“we do”). And when he was ready, he wrote them out himself (“you do”). The “you do” part is really frustrating at the preschooler age because it takes them FOREVER to do things sometimes. But we try as often as possible to give Bean the time it takes to do things himself. For example, he is now in the “you do” stage of making his bed and getting himself dressed in the morning, and it is a PROCESS, let me tell you. But the process is part of the learning. So, I get up a little earlier so that we can build time into our morning routine for Bean to do things himself.
Another thing that is tempting in the “you do” phase is to do it for them when they ask you to. Bean does this a lot. He knows his numbers, but sometimes he’ll whine and ask for me and Chris to count something out for him. As tempting as it is to just do it, we try to always make him do things if he is capable of doing them. That reinforces what they have learned, but it also teaches him personal responsibility.
5. Putting shoes on the right feet. This was a doozey for us. When Bean was about 2 1/2, he learned to put his shoes on by himself. Gracie is learning how to do it now, too. But the problem was getting the shoes on the correct feet. Always a challenge. I solved the problem by drawing dots on the inside of the kids shoes with black permanent marker. The dots are small and on the inside, so you don’t see them if you’re just looking at their shoes. But the kids know that the dots have to be touching for them to be on the right feet. It has saved us HOURS of changing shoes around.
6. Spelling with rhythm or song. We taught Michael (and are currently teaching Gracie) how to spell his name at about 2 years old because we put his name to a rhythm. I noticed that he could sing all these words to songs, and I wondered if maybe spelling his name like a song would help him learn it. He learned it in one afternoon. For a year, he could spell his name, even though he didn’t really know what the letters were yet. It made a huge difference when he started learning letter recognition. As soon as he learned letters, he immediately could spell his name because he had known how to spell it for so long.
(Clearly, some kids are more cooperative than others…)
Raising children is very different from teaching a classroom full of them, but in some ways it is very similar. In a classroom, the basic principle is that everything should be a learning experience. Games, activities, lectures, notes… students should be learning through all of it. Parenting a toddler or preschooler should be the same way. Everything we do is an opportunity to learn, and the more we maximize on that, the smarter our kids become!