Should every child read in their first year of school?
Misty Adoniou (Senior Lecturer in Language, Literacy and Teaching, English as a Second Language, University of Canberra) sets out some realistic expectations for what children can achieve in reading and writing in their first year of school.
The Foundation year of school goes by a different name across Australia. It is Kindergarten in NSW/ACT, Prep in QLD/ VIC/TAS, Pre-primary in WA, Transition in NT and Reception in SA. Whatever the name, it is an important year for the children, for their parents and for teachers. Children and parents are nervous and excited about big school. Increasingly, it seems, a lot is riding on this year and Foundation year teachers feel their responsibility heavily. They know how important their work will be in giving children a positive attitude to school and learning. They know how anxious parents are about their children's welfare. And increasingly they feel a pressure from their schools to have children performing at a certain level by the end of the first year.
However, it is unrealistic to think that all 5 year olds will achieve the same benchmarks at the same time, and within the first year of school. When it comes to reading and writing there will be a huge range of skills in the classroom. Some children will finish the first year able to read simple books and make a good attempt at writing comprehensible sentences, and some children will only just have understood that those squiggly black lines on the paper say something. Not only do they say something, they have to be organised in a particular way so that any person who looks at those squiggles can make sense of them. We call that having a ‘concept of print', and it's a pretty abstract concept to get your head around so it's not surprising that it takes some 5 year olds a little bit of time.
We should expect that all children will finish their Foundation year with that concept of print. Most importantly, all children should finish their Foundation year with a belief that they will be clever readers and writers. Unfortunately, many children don't finish their first year at school with that self-belief. Too many young children move into Year One already describing themselves as not good at reading and writing – and unfortunately it is their teachers and their parents who give them this message.
When children hear reading being talked about in numbers (e.g. Go pick a book from the Level 2 box) then they equate being a reader with getting through levels of readers. For them, being a good reader isn't about meaning or enjoyment or a fascination with learning new things from books; instead being a good reader means filling in all the spaces on your take-home reader sheet. This is a message we give our children that is both wrong but also very damaging to the child's attitude to school and themselves as learners.
So, in the Foundation year of school we need to carefully reflect upon the messages we may unintentionally be giving our young children about who the good readers and writers are. Too often, schools describe reading in terms of levels and set ‘level' targets for the end of the Foundation year, not on the basis of any research, but apparently on a stab in the dark whim or the declaration of a commercial publisher, Teachers assign children to groups on the basis of ‘levels', and children's reading material is determined by those ‘levels'. And then there are the parents waiting around for the 3 o'clock pickup comparing their children's performance by discussing reading levels, or asking for a Level 16 book for their child because they are sure the Level 10 readers they are on are far too simple. When did reading become about numbers and not about reading beautiful books?
Becoming a good reader starts with loving books and believing you will be a good reader. Of course there is teaching involved as well, and it is complex and specific, and it is why our Foundation teachers need to be our best teachers. But it is very hard to teach a child to read if they already believe reading is something other kids are good at, not them.
Give children real books to read, there are plenty out there! Talk to that endangered species – the children's librarian – at your school or at your local library and stock your homes and classrooms with children's literature. There are many quality books with predictable and repetitive sentence structures that support young readers, whilst also telling entertaining and engaging stories, and that makes teaching young children to read a joy for everyone involved.
I Can Read Centres are here to help. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for a free assessment at your nearest centre or visit /australia to find a centre near you.