Learning about letters

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Excitement is evident on this child’s face as she reveals that she wrote MOM on the present  she made for her mom.

I do not believe that teaching children a “letter of the week” is a very effective way of teaching children about letters. In fact, I believe it is probably the most teacher-centred, didactic practice that exists in kindergarten these days.

Didactic:  in the manner of a teacher, particularly so as to treat someone in a patronizing way.  “slow-paced, didactic lecturing”

Imagine for a moment that you are 4 years old. You enter kindergarten knowing all the letters. In the third week of school, your teacher says that “A” will be the letter of the week. You spend all week on A. But you know A. So you complete the worksheets, raise your hand every time they ask, and the teacher seems to like the fact that you know “A” because she keeps telling you how smart you are. There are people that don’t know “A”. In fact, they don’t even care to know what an “A” is. The teacher spends a lot of time during the morning routine telling them to “stop wiggling”, to “sit up”, to “pay attention.”

Now imagine you are the child that doesn’t know any letters. You don’t understand why the teacher wants you to know what an “A” is. “We ‘re going to learn all the letters this year,” they say. But you don’t know what these “letters” are for. But you know that the teacher likes if you know them, and they smile at the people that do and tell them how smart they are. Are you smart? You know about lots of things, but this “letter” thing is new. You’re not good at tracing the letter “A”. You take longer than everyone else to do your work. The teacher seems disappointed.

Now imagine you are the child that knows 15 letters. You know M, A, C, K, E, N, Z, I, and E. That’s 8. You know O and D because they are in MOM and DAD. You also know B, S, T, L, and Y. Those letters are in your dog’s name BEASTLY.  You know there are more letters to know and you want to know them. But it’s been a few weeks now and your teacher is still talking about the letters you already know. Why is school is so boring? When are you going to learn some letters you don’t know? You thought school was supposed to be fun.

I think you may be starting to see why I think this “letter a week” thing is bad practice. Here’s what else I think this practice teaches children:

#1. That teachers value right answers above everything else and that if you are not sure you have the right answer, you should not speak.

#2.  That school and learning happens at a pace that teachers decide. What you know and what you want to learn is not important.

#3. That there are smart kids and not-so-smart kids. Teachers like smart kids a LOT. 

These are NOT the things I want children entering school for the first time to learn. In fact, in an ideal school, I don’t think children should EVER learn these things.

So, what do I WANT children to learn about letters in kindergarten?

#1. I want them to know that there are letters in their name and that writing their name is a way to tell that something belongs to them, a way to celebrate who they are and what they can do. 

#2. I want them to know that some letters look like others, that they are made up of shapes, and curves, and lines. That Es have 3 sticks coming off and Fs have 1 less or  2. That some letters are easy to make and others are hard, and that learning to make the harder ones is something to be proud of, especially if it is hard. 

#3. I want them to know that they can use these letters to make the names of people they love, to tell people to STOP doing things, to say who messages are for, and to share their thinking. 

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“I should probably put my name on my water bottle before I put it in the fridge.”

Learning about letters while engaged in real-life activities and  PLAY enables children to see letters as they are intended to be used, as symbols to represent language.

Language and literacy are so much more than a letter a week. Early literacy is about encouraging children to WANT to become readers and writers because it is fun, and important, and life-changing, and necessary. It is only through the context of their own lives that this is possible.

Letters in isolation are only letters.

But letters in the context of children’s lives, their own reading, their own writing, mean SO MUCH MORE.

Cathy:)

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Cathy Baker View All →

Dedicated teacher for the past 15 years. Lifelong learner. Newbie blogger. Follow me on Twitter @Baker1973Cathy

4 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I 100% agree with this. This is my first year doing K and I have been teaching letters in isolation. Although most of my students get it, I know some don’t and I don’t feel it to be a very rewarding practice. I am going to start going with their names! Great ideas!

  2. “But letters in the context of children’s lives, their own reading, their own writing, mean SO MUCH MORE.” LOVE THIS!
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and ideas. I honestly believe you are doing a fantastic job !!

  3. Thanks for your comment, Aviva. The pressure that teachers feel to improve scores is real. However, are the scores actually improving? And are they improving long-term?

    That’s the real question.

    Is this letter a week plan something for children or something for teachers?

  4. I totally love your focus on teaching letters in a meaningful context, and with kids in mind. I wonder why a “letter of the day” approach is still popular. Could a focus on reading scores spur this kind of approach? Maybe it’s the kind of conversations that come from blog posts like yours that help start a deeper discussion around what literacy in Kindergarten can look like.

    Aviva

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