Of cats and cows and wolf sharks

by SarahRook

With all the learning-to-read posts, I couldn’t help but throw my two cents in, too.

I have one parent who is upset that his daughter is not reading, and feels that she will be behind next year if she does not learn to read, say, now.  She is 5 years old, and will go into first grade in the Philadelphia public school system in the fall.  I have one other student who will go to first grade, and many who will be heading into kindergarten.  Only a few will stay at my school for another year of preK/preschool.

I’m trying to put this in perspective with my own learning-to-read.  I know that I was 5 years old, and it was the summer before first grade, I believe.  My Mom sat me down on our old green couch and waved the Chronicles of Narnia in front of my face.  I had my books that I had memorized, she knew, but giving me a brand-new story?  And not reading the whole thing to me at once?  And forcing me to read a page, and then a few pages, and then a whole chapter, out loud, before she would read some more to me? Oooooh, it got me going.  (I needed the prompting.  But by the time we were halfway through, I was stealing the book and reading more and more ahead of our reading together.  I finished before my Mom did.  I haven’t stopped since.)

We have the first part of that in my class.  When we have our circle time, I’ll sometimes pick up a book that the whole class knows and loves.  There are some that were simple for everyone to memorize – a version of Humpty Dumpty, the Very Hungry Caterpillar.  But then there’s some that show just how bright these kids are.  I’m not sure if any of you have read Fireman Small – if you click on the ‘look inside’ link in the upper left, you can read about a third of the story – but my kids have that entire book memorized.  They love to read-and-repeat, to get the rhythm of words under their skin, to be the ones telling me the story.

For some of my class, yes, I think they could be reading.  I pull those kids as often as I can to work on reading – even if it means cutting into their center time, or their free play time.

I did something a little different this week.  I wrote down words on notecards, strung them together on a metal ring, and sent them home with the older students.  Our theme was farm animals this past week, so the words were the different animals that you’d hear the class pick out for Old MacDonald* and I sat down and drew little pictures for each of the animals.  I can’t say they were good pictures – yup, I’m an artist, but I’m quite happily a ceramics and photography person, so my animal drawings are cartoonish and similar – but the kids were able to figure out what they were.

Only four of my 17 kids got these notecards to take home.  And I got to hear about them – the parent who is upset that his daughter doesn’t read came in, shaking his head, grumbling about how she is running around all over the house spelling out the names for things.  The girl who’s mom works in the next room?  Her mom talked to me about how excited she was, how she wanted to fight out the sounds, even the complicated double-lettered ones like the ‘ch’ and ‘ck’ in ‘chicken’.  Somehow, these notecards are making parent communication blossom.

I can’t say I’m sitting down and teaching my whole class to read – the mix of ages isn’t making that easy – but we are working our way through the alphabet, talking about the sounds, working on our penmanship – and I have a little group of kids who are so excited to see me in the morning.  “Cat  spells C-A-T, Miss Allison!  Come see the cat I drew!”

And having just walked in, I get to see the cat, with its pointy ears and little tail attached to a circular body.  In wobbly letters, next to the drawing, I see “C-A-T”.  Sometimes it’s “T-A-C”, written out in the right order but the wrong direction.

I love their excitement.  I love their pictures.  I love getting to read to, and with, my kids.

*and in this case, we’re limiting it to the ‘normal’ farm animals.  Sometimes Old MacDonald has “ninja turtles” and “wolf sharks” on his farm, but not for this activity.  (Have you ever come up with a sound effect, on the fly, for something as awesomely esoteric as a wolf shark? I love it.)


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