Inspiring children who are resistant to writing or drawing

yodaSome children LOVE to write and draw. And some don’t. My middle child was passionate about it, and was competent with pencil, marker and crayon by about 18 months. (Part of that interest was probably due to having a sibling who was 3.5 years older, and was working a lot on writing and drawing skills.)

Our youngest shows no desire at all to write or to draw, which is not uncommon amongst boys. (And honestly part of this may be due to environment. He virtually never sees the people around him write anything. We type on our laptops and phones and mobile devices, but rarely put pen to paper.)

We’ve found three ways to motivate him. First, follow his interests. Since he’s wild about Star Wars, it’s easy to engage him with things like “Hey, you want to learn how to draw Yoda?” (See above.)

Second, make writing a powerful tool for getting what you want. If he wants something that I don’t care whether he has or not, I make him do a written request. The first one was “Kiss” when he wanted a Hershey’s kiss. Later on, he was begging for white cheddar cheez-its. We found him a picture of the box online, and he had to copy all the words down before we gave him any crackers. We’ve made writing worth while.

[Note: I work with parents of toddlers. Sometimes a parent will voice concern to me that their child is slow to learn to speak. The same principles apply: follow their interest – talk about what they are looking at or doing, not about what YOU are interested in at the moment. Make language powerful. If they point at juice, don’t give it to them. Say “Do you want milk or juice?” You’ve just given them the words they need, but they need to SAY juice to get juice.]

Third, offer interesting media / sensory experiences. You can pour flour or salt into a dark-colored dish, and let them write and scribble in there. You can give them a stick and encourage them to draw in sand or dirt. Offer bath tub crayons at bath time. Or finger paint anytime. Or a paint brush and water to write on the sidewalk on a hot day. If your child likes to use apps on your mobile device, most allow them to use their finger to draw with – but you can also purchase a stylus for them to use to practice holding a pen.

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When should kids learn to read?

readThe Alliance for Childhood and Defending the Early Years just released a report called Reading Instruction in Kindergarten – Little to Gain, Much to Lose, discussed in a Washington Post article titled “Requiring kindergartners to read — as Common Core does — may harm some.” This post looks at what we know about children and early literacy learning.

When I was a child in the 60’s, I came into kindergarten knowing how to read – I could easily read any picture book. I was the only real reader in the class – but I came from a big family of early readers. By the end of the year, my classmates were all expected to have their alphabets down, and more kids were reading. By the end of first grade, most kids were reading. Those who weren’t got a little extra help in second grade and were caught up by the end of the year. That may reflect the normal range in developmental capabilities.

But today’s kindergartners are being taught to Common Core standards. In kindergarten, there are over 90 standards kids are expected to meet, including:

  • Recognize and name all upper- and lowercase letters of the alphabet.
  • Associate the long and short sounds with common spellings (graphemes) for the five major vowels.
  • Use the most frequently occurring inflections and affixes (e.g., -ed, -s, re-, un-, pre-, -ful, -less) as a clue to the meaning of an unknown word.
  • [And, by the end of the year:] Read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.

Is this do-able for some kids? Absolutely. My kids all read before kindergarten. My youngest just turned 4 and has already mastered the standards I just listed. (And believe me, it’s not because we drilled him with flashcards or worked with worksheets for hours… we’re much too lazy as parents to do that! We just did simple things to create a good environment for literacy learning, and he took it from there.)

But NOT ALL KIDS are ready to read at this young age!

Kids develop in predictable patterns, but not at exactly the same rate. And they’re stronger in some areas at any given time than in others. For example, although my kids were early readers, they also each had areas they were “behind on” for their age, which were the challenges they needed to work on in kindergarten.

Dr. Arnold Gesell found that all children go on the same path of development; however, some go faster, some go slower, and all have spurts and set-backs
along the way. The obvious example is the age that children learn to walk. Some children learn to walk as early as nine months, some as late as 15 months. But that is all normal and we all agree that the early walker is not a better walker than the later walker. … Some children learn to read at age three or four years, others not until seven years or later. That range is quite normal. The most compelling part of the reading research is that by the end of third grade, early readers have no advantage over later readers. Some later readers even go on to become the top in their class. Reading early is not an indicator of higher intelligence. In fact, children at the top of their class in kindergarten only have a 40 percent chance of being at the top of their class at the end of third grade.

When we focus on academically based standards, it’s hard for kids who aren’t developmentally ready for that, but it’s also hard for kids like mine who needed skills that weren’t necessarily on the list of things a teacher is now “supposed” to teach. “In a survey… of early childhood teachers… 85% of the public school teachers reported that they are required to teach activities that are not developmentally appropriate for their students.”

And when teachers are asked to teach non-developmentally appropriate content, they have to do it in non-developmentally appropriate ways.

We hear increasing reports of kindergartens that use worksheets and drills, rely on lengthy whole-group lessons, and require teachers to frequently pull children out of the classroom to administer assessments. A parent recently wrote: “My 5-year-old son started Common Core Kindergarten this year in California. Even though it’s only been two months he is already far behind. … [W]e are required to do … [worksheets] four nights a week. It’s the same boring thing over and over again… I know he’s not stupid but I’m being told in not so clear terms that he is. It’s very disheartening.”

Drills and worksheets are not the way kids learn.

Well, in the short-term, they can be. Direct instruction CAN help children memorize specific facts and learn specific skills, but it doesn’t foster the curiosity and creativity that can be beneficial for learning in the long run. (Learn more in this article on “Why Preschool Shouldn’t Be Like School.”) And, the “boring” work can drain the passion for learning from our kids, which I believe is key for long-term academic success. And, for kids who aren’t developmentally ready for the work, it can make them feel stupid. I know of boys who weren’t ready to read at age 6 and 7. They learned at that age that they were “stupid” in school subjects and continue as young adults to think of themselves that way.

The report states: “We could find no research cited by the developers of the CCSS [Common Core] to support this reading standard for kindergarten… of the people on the committees that wrote and reviewed the CCSS, not one of those individuals was a
K-3rd grade teacher or an early childhood professional.”

What does the research show?

 There is no solid evidence showing long-term gains for children who are taught to read in kindergarten. In fact, by fourth grade and beyond, these children read at the same level as those who were taught to read in the first grade.

So, what is developmentally appropriate for preschool and kindergarten? Play-based learning.

Children learn best when they are engaged in activities geared to their developmental levels, prior experiences and current needs. As they construct their ideas through
play and hands-on activities that make sense to them, children’s knowledge builds in a gradual progression that is solid and unshakable. They build a foundation of meaning that provides the basis for understanding concepts in language, literacy, math, science and the arts. In active learning, their capacities for language development, social and emotional awareness, problem solving, self-regulation, creativity, and original thinking develop, transforming them into effective learners.

Being able to read well will also depend on the strength of a child’s oral language development. Active, play-based experiences in the early years foster strong oral language in children. As children engage in active learning experiences and play, they are talking and listening all the time. They attach words to their actions, talk with
peers and teachers, learn new vocabulary and use more complex grammar. As they build, make paintings, and engage in imaginative play, they deepen their understanding of word meanings. As they listen to and create stories, hear rich language texts, sing songs, poems and chants, their foundation for reading grows strong.

What’s the evidence that play-based preschool and kindergarten works in the long-run?

In one study, in the third grade there was little difference between students who had been in play-based preschools versus academic achievement programs. By 6th grade, the kids from the academic preschools earned lower grades than those who were in play-based preschools. A German study in the 70’s compared kids from play-based vs. academic preschools. In fourth grade, those from play-based programs excelled “on all 17 measures, including being more advanced in reading and mathematics and being better adjusted socially and emotionally in school.” So, they’re not only successful academically, but also socially. In an American study from the 60’s, children from impoverished households were assigned to either play-based preschools or to a scripted, direct-instruction approach. There were similar short-term gains for all children in the first year. But at age 23, there were significant differences. 47% of the kids from the direct instruction classroom needed special education for social difficulties versus 6% of the play-based alumni.

When looking for preschool or kindergarten for your child, you can look for play-based options. If they are in a kindergarten that follows Common Core standards, you can look for ways to balance that out at home with lots of child-directed free play. You can create a literacy-rich home environment without pushing reading. If your child is ready to read young, they will do so. If they’re not ready, they won’t feel stressed or stupid.

If you are the parent of a toddler, don’t feel any pressure to teach your child to read. But, you can create an environment full of literacy materials that show reading is exciting and fun.Read my ideas on this or follow this lead:

[In play-based settings] Teachers employ many strategies to expose children to rich oral language and print —without bombarding or overwhelming the child. These may include telling stories, reading picture books and big books, singing songs and reciting poems, reading from posted charts (using pointers to read along), drawing and writing with invented and conventional spellings, taking dictation from children, and helping children write their own stories. In organic and meaningful ways, teachers often use print — labeling block structures, cubbies, and interest areas, writing recipes, transcribing the children’s stories, and making charts for attendance or classroom jobs.

photo credit: ThomasLife via photopin cc

Story-Telling – Narrating Wordless Movies

If you’re looking for a great way to build language and literacy skills, as well as observation and interpretation skills, try this. Find an animated short movie with no words. Play it through once, just watching. When your child says “Again, again” as all children do, play it again. This time, you narrate it – just describe what you’re seeing and what’s happening in the movie. Then, when they say “Again!” say “OK, but this time you have to tell me what it’s about, and what you see.”

You’ll notice that at times, your child uses the same words you did to describe the scene. Sometimes she will mix in her own descriptions and interpretations of things you commented on. Sometimes something completely different catches his eye, and he tells the story of some element you barely noticed the first time.

It’s a fascinating insight into what your child notices and what they ignore, and good practice for future reading, and for farther-in-the-future book reports or movie reviews.

I’ve linked to a Glen Keane video above, which is where we discovered this technique. There are also some fabulous Pixar shorts (think about For the Birds, with all the birds on a wire…. or Geri’s Game with the old man playing chess with himself, or the Blue Umbella or the opening sequence of Up where it traces the history of Ellie and Karl’s marriage). Or think of Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 from Disney. Or there’s tons of YouTube videos that your friends post on Facebook every day showing cute animals doing entertaining things. Show those to you child and ask him to explain what he sees.

Story-telling about your child’s life

storyWhile older children may love stories of fantastic creatures in faraway lands, younger toddlers often prefer stories grounded in the real world. Books about getting up in the morning, getting dressed, eating breakfast, going for a walk. All those familiar events that they recognize for their real lives. Your toddler may like even better hearing stories about his own day, told storybook style…

On her Clear Parent blog, Cate Pane recently shared a post titled Please Tell Me a Story about how her husband would “spin a yarn” for their child – making up stories that include details from the child’s own life. I shared with her about “Ben stories” and she suggested I share them here…

So, I read a lot of books to my son. Really, a lot. It’s a good thing we’re walking distance from a library full of free books. But my bedtime rule is only two books at bedtime. That’s it. Not negotiable for more. (I don’t want to establish a habit for negotiation with him… I know lots of parents who get caught up in this and suddenly end up with hour-long bedtime routines they can’t break out of.)

But sometimes, I can see that 2 stories wasn’t enough to settle him, so I ask him if he wants a Ben Story. He always say yes!

All I do is review events from his day, or tell him a story of a recent event, like a trip or a class or a play-date with a friend. But I tell it story-book style: “Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Benjamin. And he lived in the town of Kirkland, in the state of Washington, in the United States of America, on Planet Earth. One morning, he woke up and put on his swimsuit and guess where that little boy went? He went on a short journey, out the door, down the sidewalk, past the magical Bee Bush, across the street with the walk light and into the park until he arrived at the swimming pool. And what do you think he did when he arrived at the pool?”

What do I like best about these Ben stories?

  • Ben stories can be as short or long as I want them to be, based on how much free time I have, how long I think it will take him to settle, and so on.
  • They can serve as a nice settling down routine. (Many experts recommend doing a ‘day in review‘ with your child to help them let go of the day and move into the night.)
  • They help him feel knowledgeable and competent as he recognizes the things we talk about
  • They can reinforce events and people I want him to remember. “Ben’s aunt Jamie was visiting and she read him a bedtime story…”
  • They can reinforce new learning. For example, the other day when I told him the story of our hike in Big Finn Hill park  I reminded him of how he helped us figure out which way was left and which way was right, and I had him show me again how the fingers on his left hand make an L shape for left.
  • They honor that he is special and his story is special – it’s not just people in faraway land who have stories worth telling.

Some times I use finger puppets when telling Ben stories.

When he is in his bedroom, supposed to be napping, I often overhear him with the puppets, using them to tell the story of his day.

Games and Activities that Build Literacy Skills

[This is my fourth post on early literacy. Check out my other posts on how to get your child excited about reading, and  info on developmental literacy and what types of books are best at each age, and how to read to a toddler.)

Other ways to help kids learn about reading and writing

  • Make books together – make photo albums, or cut pictures out of magazines. For older kids, they can dictate a story – they tell it, you write it out, then they can illustrate the pages.
  • Look at photo albums together and tell stories about the people and activities shown.
  • Talk about symbols – you could make a calendar and come up with symbols to remind them of what happens each day. Or a weather chart. Or a chores chart.
  • Practice writing, drawing, painting, writing with a stick in the sand or the mud. Make letters with play dough or pipe cleaners. Have them work with puzzles made of letter shapes. Play with alphabet refrigerator magnets. Look for apps for your touch screen device (tablet or phone) that let them practice tracing letters. Draw letters on paper and have your child trace them (see picture at bottom of the post for what this looks like when my 3.5 year old does it… )
  • Act out stories that you have read, or do puppet shows. Tell the story as written, or imagine what would come next, or what other adventure characters could have.
  • Sing songs and play rhyming games – these slow language down so it’s easier to understand, and are easy to memorize. Later, try memorizing a story and telling it over and over.
  • When they ask you a question, show how you would look up the answer.
  • Visit the library often. Make it a special time in your week’s schedule.
  • Take them to story time at the library or bookstores. It’s typically free, weekly or monthly, and lasts 30 – 45 minutes. Expect to sit on the floor with your child and help him stay focused on the stories. This is great for literacy and language development – seeing other kids and parents excited about books, listening to the librarian’s voice (kids learn language better when they hear a variety of people speak it), and singing songs together. It’s also great practice for school – having to sit still and pay attention to an adult other than your own parent is important. Before going, let your child know what to expect, and what behavior you expect of her (sitting down, being quiet) to increase your chances of a good experience. Learn more here: http://www.peps.org/ParentResources/by-topic/early-learning/why-story-time-rocks

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How to Read to a Child

[This is my third post on early literacy. Look here for how to get your child excited about reading, and here for info on developmental literacy and what types of books are best at each age, and here for other ways to build literacy skills.)

How to read to a toddler or preschooler

  • Turn off the TV or radio, and settle in to read.
  • Often we snuggle next to our kids for reading. Make sure that sometimes you sit face-to-face. Your child can learn more from you and the book if he can see your expressions.
  • Show them the cover before reading – ask them to guess what the book will be about.
  • Let them turn the pages – don’t stress if they miss a page.(Note, younger toddlers do best with board books. By three years old, they should be able to manage turning pages in a regular book.)
  • Run your finger along the words as you read – that reinforces that print goes from left to right.Or point to the words that they might recognize as you read. If you’re reading a book that repeats some of the same words on every page (“but where’s the cat?”) point them out on each page as you go along.
  • Define new words and explain new ideas as you come to them.
  • If a book has no words, or you don’t like the words, make up your own! Tell a story based on the pictures, or point to pictures on a page and ask your child to tell you what’s happening.
  • Talk about the pictures. Label what’s in each picture (“there’s a pig and a cow in front of the barn”). Talk about what’s happening in the picture (“the duck is splashing in the puddle”). Point out familiar things (“he has a toy train just like you do” or “her bedroom has some of the same things your room has… see. there’s a bed, and a table, and a teddy bear.”)
  • Make it sound dynamic: Use different voices for different characters; read at different speeds (some stories are slow and gentle, others fast and rollicking); play up the emotional tone – are characters happy? Scared? Silly? Angry? Show it with your voice.
  • Try singing a book. Some books are perfectly designed for singing.
  • Ask questions about what’s happening in the story, ask how characters are feeling, ask them to guess what will happen on the next page. Later in the day, ask them about the book you read, and talk about experiences your family has had that are like what you see in books.
  • Think of a book as a conversation starter. Beyond what’s on the page, you can ask about other things in the book, or help your child connect what’s in the book to her everyday experiences.
  • It’s OK if toddlers wander around while you read – they can still listen while moving.
  • Enjoy reading – let your joy shine through!

Resources:

Collection of fabulous articles on building literacy skills at www.zerotothree.org/child-development/early-language-literacy/tips-tools-early-lit-and-lang.html