Little Joey was a bit young when his parents enrolled him in kindergarten. Despite the teacher’s best efforts, he struggled to master basic concepts. The teacher developed a wonderful relationship with him, but noticed he was very emotional and unsure of himself because of his academic struggles. At year’s end, I had multiple difficult meetings with Joey’s parents — Mom tearful and scared, Dad trying hard not to be — to discuss if Joey should be retained. Retention is an absolute last option in our district, as we prefer to intervene and support students rather than have them repeat a year.
In this child’s case, not one of us knew the “right” answer. We thought he would benefit academically from another year in kindergarten, because we knew how difficult reading and writing were for him. Yet, we worried about Joey’s adjustment socially, knowing he would be devastated to stay “back” in kindergarten while his friends moved on to first grade. We used a standardized retention scale that indicated retention was a good option, but not overwhelmingly so. It was a very, very difficult decision to make.
Ultimately, we determined it was best for him to repeat kindergarten. Thankfully the second year Joey was older, more ready, and confident about school routines. His teacher was able to help him master his letters and basic reading words. He could more easily comprehend basic text. He adored his teacher, and would do anything for her. With her love and support, he worked harder than we thought he knew how.
Now he is in first grade, and he has shown no need for further reading intervention; in fact, he is reading on grade level, and even above at times. He knows he’s smart. He is a good writer and comes up with wonderfully creative ideas.
The combination of two loving teachers — Joey still says, “I love both my kindergarten teachers!” — is what made the difference for Joey. He knows it, too: this is the card he made for his teacher at year’s end. When a little boy gives his teacher a dollar, you know she’s loved.
The experience proved to me how important kindergarten is in developing a lifelong literacy foundation for readers. I see my own son, just starting kindergarten, flourishing as a reader. He adores “Book in a Bag” days, proudly opening his backpack and waving around the latest treasure. “Mrs. Hubert has perfect books,” he enthuses. He’s shy in class, but at home, talks frequently about what he’s reading and writing at school. “Mrs. Hubert taught us a trick about using our fingers between words!” “I learned more word wall words today!” “Look, Mommy, I can spell all these words!” Just last night, he read his whole Book in a Bag to his little sister. She was thrilled and asked him, “Jack, can I sleep with your book?” He let her, and when she woke in the morning she was still clutching it. This explosion of excitement for literacy is pouring directly into our home because of his teacher.
How can kindergarten teachers foster the love of literacy? Here are several ways:
- Lap reading
- All-class all-day “read-in.” Skip other subjects for a day and just read!
- Put stories to song. In groups, students can create a song and even an accompanying dance to present to the class.
- Classroom “PJ Day” upon meeting a reading goal. Young children love wearing their pajamas to school. Add a snack, and your students will talk about it at the dinner table as “the best day ever!”
- Confer with students individually about their reading. Convey enthusiasm, pride, and encouragement when students share about their books.
- Have students create skits to “act out” favorite parts of their books.
- Read a story to the class without showing pictures. Ask students to dress up like the character, however they imagine this character to look. On the appointed day, read the story again, this time with pictures. This is a perfect chance to talk about how differently we can interpret a character based on words alone — and, better yet, a great model of author’s purpose!
- Videotape students talking about their books and show to the class. Children adore seeing themselves on screen.
- Invite parents for a “Book Share” day. Give parents a list of questions they could ask their child about the books that have read, along with a list of positive responses.
- Have each child create a book journal. As students finish a book, add it to the journal. At year’s end, the student can take the journal home — it will be a record of the literacy year.
- Do circle-time reading in nontraditional places: the playground, a colleague’s classroom, a warm and grassy area outside. Students adore a change of location!
- Pair each child with a buddy in an intermediate classroom. Have the two read to one another. Make it extra special by serving hot chocolate or popcorn.
- Pull a child a day to stay after school (or come early), for just ten minutes to read with you. Read a special book of the child’s choice.
These are just a few ideas to increase enthusiasm for our youngest readers. There are countless other ways, of course. The most important thing is that the teacher shows how much he or she cares about the child.
We know we need to support our students, and we know how important it is to select appropriate instructional strategies. We also know to focus our energies on classroom management, good resources, and differentiation. What we can never, ever forget is the impact of a warm lap and a loving smile. Students will fly to the moon for us, book firmly in hand, if they feel how much we care about them.