There's a lot in here- probably more than anyone wants to read pre-Christmas with all the excitement in the air- a quick summary:
1) Neuroscience research on the importance of phonemic awareness/ socio-economic status & predicting future reading ability
2) The difficulties of teaching rhyme & phonemic awareness to children who were not exposed to language until K
3) What should we be teaching in K?
4) Is what we are currently doing negatively impacting our future readers?
5) How do we use our very good assessments and still meet our readers' needs?
1) ResearchOne of the assigned readings for my neuroscience class was the 2005 article, Neuroscience Perspectives on Disparities in School Readiness and Cognitive Achievement*1. Many different aspects of the article struck me and I ended up making copies of it for many of my co-workers at the think-tank. I'll spare you my entire 8 page reaction paper, but one of the very first aspects the article touches on how brain development varies in children from different socio-economic backgrounds. Brain imaging technologies have revealed that the regions of the brain that differ dramatically are the left perisylvian region (a language region) and the pre-frontal cortex where executive functioning takes place. The specific language region of the brain is developed based on phonemic awareness, not exposure to print.
What Nobel, et al's study went on to find was that children's phonemic awareness and phonological development serves as a predictor of reading success later in life.Children from lower socio-economic status are more likely to be successful readers if they have a strong phonemic awareness, where as poor phonemic awareness in children from higher socio-economic status is not an indicator of future reading ability.
2) When kids can and cannot rhyme
What this says to me is that we need to start ramping up the rhyming and phonemic awareness skills. The minute my amazing co-teacher read it she emailed me, wondering if we should crank up the rhyming activities. (I LOVE the think-tank) Another study I read this year found that neurological changes in children's brains in the region responsible for rhyme do not change after the age of 7. *2. But if this is an indicator of success in reading then we'd better start working our buns off teaching these kids to play with words.
Most of our kids are not able to rhyme. Many of them were not exposed to oral language at home- they were cared for, fed, clothed, and changed, but were not sung to or even talked to. Some of our kids come in not knowing their own name. If you haven't heard much language it's likely you're not going to be successful playing with language, which is all rhyming really is. Playing with words.
Have you ever tried to teach rhyming? It's painful. Kids tend to get it or they don't. It's not like teaching kids to point to each word on a page- they get that quickly and if they don't we can quickly figure out what they are doing wrong. We can work with those high frequency words enough that we get them into their long-term memory, and we can teach good reading skills- how to hold a book, turn the page, check the picture and the first letter of a word, get your mouth ready, quite easily. Rhyming is a whole different ball game because it's happening inside their heads. They either smile and name rhyming words or they look at you like you're crazy and just say words hoping you'll leave them alone.
Rhyming requires a level of word manipulation that does not come naturally to some children. And to be honest, it's not something we focus on too much. We do assess their rhyming skills, but in the grand scheme of things we're looking at their ability to read simple texts. The assessment that matters at the end of the year is the DRA, and our kiddos need to be reading a level 3. It's a cold, hard number and we teach our hearts out in order to make sure they meet that goal.
But you don't have to be able to rhyme to read the level 3 book. You don't even have to know all your letters and their sounds. You need to know high frequency words like 'like, and, the, you, me,"- words that we memorize- and you need to understand that books have patterns, that words have spaces between them, that we read from left to right, and some simple strategies to use when you get stuck on a word.
In first grade we move on to teaching more decoding skills, but decoding and word families are different than rhyming. We play with words and make new words from the same group of letters: cat, rat, sat, hat. But when we're manipulating those letters it is all visual- the kids don't always recognize that cat, rat, and sat sound the same. I found that in first grade, my kiddos with special needs understood how to make word families and could recognize that the 'at' in a word said 'at' but for the life of them they could not come across the word 'cat' and read it even though they knew that putting the /c/ sound in front of it made cat. They could not blend the sounds together to produce one word.
3. What should we be teaching?
So here's the thing- and I don't know the answer to this- our kindergartners leave kindergarten reading. Many of them make benchmark- they meet the level 3 requirement on the reading test. When their first grade teachers get them they are happy knowing their scores are pretty good- level 3. But do those kids have the background to support reading past a level 3? If we didn't teach rhyming, or play with words and manipulate sounds are those kids going to be successful in second grade? Will they quickly understand the way words work or will they agonize over a set of letters trying to blend sounds together to produce words? If their brains haven't mapped the neural pathways to understand rhyme in kindergarten will they be successful as readers in second and third grade?
Nobel's research indicates that no, they will not be.
4. So what do we change?
My awesome co-teachers and I have sat down and are ramping up the rhyming games- directly teaching the phonemic awareness skills we'd hope our kiddos would enter kindergarten with. But since we know we need to get everyone to a level 3- since we know our scores are compared and the value of our success is placed on the test scores and not phonemic awareness- will we give it the time it deserves? By doing that are we cheating the second grade teachers out of kids who readily understand how to manipulate words?
5. Which test is best?
I don't want to imply that we teach to the test- we do teach our hearts out and we do pay close attention to how we measure our kids. Of course we're always measuring our students- and if we know what the end benchmark is, of course we're working towards it. So do we add rhyming in as well and hope we get kids to a level 3 and improve their rhyming and word manipulation skills? Do we focus on rhyming and hope that the strong foundation of phonemic awareness will catch them up with their peers when they go to first grade? Do we keep doing what we're doing and throw rhyming in when we can?
coming up- ways we're teaching rhyming
*1 Kimberly G. Noble; Nim Tottenham; B. J. Casey, The Future of Children, Vol. 15, No. 1, School Readiness: Closing Racial and Ethnic Gaps.(Spring, 2005), pp. 71-89.
*2 Coch, D., Grossi, G., Coffey–Corina, S., Holcomb, P. J. and Neville, H. J. (2002), A developmental investigation of ERP auditory rhyming effects. Developmental Science, 5: 467–489.