As the year begins, we often set new goals for ourselves and experience a renewal in our outlooks and dispositions. At this halfway point in the school year, I also tend to reflect on the goals my students have for themselves, their developmental milestones, and the goals parents and families have for their children. I sometimes re-evaluate previously-set goals and add new ones.
Over the years, I have learned that families want the absolute best for their children and they want their little ones to be their best selves, just like I do. In my experience, the way educators and families quantify intelligence and success in early childhood differs significantly, particularly in literacy learning. There seems to be a chasm – a disconnect between what parents and caregivers might believe is a “smart” three-year-old and what an educator like me might think.
I think the reasons for this, like most things related to family, tend to be diverse and rooted in social ideology. Our thinking about education is often deeply impacted by our upbringing and our own schooling. There is also the reality that children’s developmental milestones are most well known to professionals who work with them.
There seems to be an anxiety around literacy learning. In my casual conversations with family members, they articulate a desire to have their children be as ahead or advanced as possible. Many have relayed feelings of inequity regarding children of color or children in low-income neighborhoods alongside children of other races (or children in wealthier parts of the city). We have also discussed the idea that the anxiety comes from fervently wanting a fair shot at economic stability since this often equates success to many of my students’ families who may struggle financially. And as much as these hard-hitting truths put a knot in my throat and make me want to agree that our children need additional support, I rely on my graduate education to push me into strength-based advice.
Our children need to be taught and guided in ways that are developmentally-appropriate and relatable to them. Pushing them into loads of significantly advanced, inaccessible academic content can actually have an adverse effect because we are deterring them from the meaningful organic exploration of our world which will build critical thinking and problem solving skills, autonomy, and leadership. We tend to think effective education is one thing (i.e. strict alphabetic knowledge like tracing letters and writing them a hundred times) when it’s really many times quite the opposite.
I often have family members ask with genuine concern and a dash of bewilderment “Why aren’t they reading yet?” or “When will they write?”
In sifting through conversations with family members sparked by these inquiries, I first like to ask where they were three or four years ago, and where the child was. I usually get a look laced of perplexed frustration and we work through to the conclusion that the children in question were not yet in existence. I attempt to bring about a different perspective there— my point is to bring some understanding that we are asking a person who was not even on this earth a few years ago to make cognitive and literary connections complex enough to produce reading and writing. It is a monumental challenge we ask of them – to make sense of the world and then read and write about it as if it was a nominal thing only several years after being born.
Learning literacy is complex and humans need precious time to develop the skills and grow. It is cumulative and it is a process, where the stages of development rely firmly on the step before in order to leap to the next.
It is important to bring continuous awareness to parents and caregivers – that reading and writing will happen – but it happens most productively in later childhood when our brains can make the appropriate connections between social constructs like alphabetic and phonemic awareness. It is also a better time because curiosity for literacy concepts piques and a need for increasingly sophisticated forms of communication such as reading and writing begins to arise.
Recently, there has been a push for more standardization, assessment, and more traditional ideas of tangible productivity in young children regarding literacy and learning in school as a whole. This does not help our roles as progressive educators. If anything, it enforces families’ thinking that young children should be increasingly proficient in reading and writing in preschool.
In my class, literacy is a three-year-old making a letter from manipulatives, often by chance, and then recognizing it. It is reading pictures in a book – constructing a story, playing with characters and sequencing, and making sense of what they see to begin forging the complicated mechanisms of reading with meaning in their brains. How many times have we as adults read something emptily – not understanding a word and not getting the bigger picture? Well, I want students to read with a purpose because they are curious and love literature and want to learn the things books can offer us.
I want students to write with meaning and understand that their words on paper accurately and eloquently depict and evoke whatever feeling, thought, or image they wish to convey.
This may happen more readily when young children are encouraged to love books and the process of writing by attaching positive, nostalgic memories with literacy learning (that was the case for me). My sisters would read to me before I could speak, and I grew up watching them read because they loved it. Bookshelves filled with every genre were mainstays at home – books in both Spanish and English were welcome adventures to other worlds.
So today, aside from making parents and caregivers aware that developmentally, young children may not yet be ready to take the advanced steps in literacy learning we have made the gold standard, I try to point out the amazing strides their children are making. Engaging in deeper conversations with peers and adults, thinking critically about ideas, successfully solving problems, taking steps in self-regulation, forming close, intricate relationships, connecting ideas in their world, role-playing, experimenting with increasingly complex vocabulary, scribing, and making letter-like formations – all of these things are incredibly important parts of literacy. These are the markers of success and we have to let these things happen first before they can read and write.
It is also important to be in the moment of our child’s growth and focus on what they are currently interested in and making the best of it. If the child is suddenly preoccupied with scribbling on anything and everything (walls, floors, etc.), it’s time to encourage their steps in writing by guiding their enthusiasm to appropriate materials like a large chalkboard or chart paper and offering lots of varying writing utensils.
Let’s celebrate their markings!
For more information on literacy and development, please take a look at the following articles: