The following is an excerpt from an NAEYC online author Q&A event with Judith Schickedanz on the book Increasing the Power of Instruction: Integration of Language, Literacy, and Math Across the Preschool Day. The Q&A took place March 21-25, 2011. To view more highlights from 2011 online Q&As, click here.
I find the concept of children's learning sequences quite interesting. What are some of the most misunderstood learning sequences that teachers can pay attention to or communicate to families?
It’s interesting to think about learning sequences in terms of those least understood. I think the hardest sequences to understand are those in which, to an adult’s eye, the child goes backward, not forward, or exhibits behavior that the adult has never modeled. I’ll provide a few examples of what I mean.
Example 1. When learning how words are created, or why a specific letter sequence is used to spell a word, young children will typically first create letter strings that look like words. The child uses about five or six letters (the average length of words seen in the environment), uses a variety of letters (three-year-olds know that HHHHH cannot be a word, because, “you can’t have them all the same”), does not place more than two letters of the same kind in succession, and so on. Children ask adults, “What word is this?,” thinking that each letter string is indeed a word. Of course, very few of a child’s letter strings are actual words, because children have no idea, at this point, that letters used to spell each word match the sounds (more or less) in the spoken word counterpart. During the time when children are creating “words” using a letter string strategy, they are also typically interested in their names and begin to use whatever marks they can form to write them. They line these up (usually) and the marks bear some resemblance to the actual letters in their name. Meanwhile, children gradually begin to realize that there’s a relationship between the sounds in a spoken word and the symbols used to write the word, but they can at first only detect syllable segments in spoken words. They cannot yet detect sounds at the phoneme level.
At this point, when creating words, children begin to use one mark for each syllable they say (e.g., “I Love You, Mommy,” might be written with the letters AADDA, formed in very rudimentary fashion). Notice the complete lack of a match between the sounds these particular letters represent and any sounds in the message the child has written. But when we know that the child’s name is Adam, we realize that he just used the letters from his name to write his “I Love You, Mommy” message. He is detecting a beginning level of sound in spoken words, but he has no idea of any relationships between sounds in spoken words and the sounds assigned to specific letters. Then, a few days later, let’s suppose that Adam wrote his own name, using just two letters, an A and a D, even though, for many weeks previously, he had used four rudimentary characters that he named “A” “D” “A” and “M.” When asked to “tell about the two letters he had written,” he said, “That’s my name, A-DAM,” breaking the name exactly into its two syllables.
Parents and teachers have difficulty accepting this kind of child behavior because they think the child is losing ground. I’ve heard both parents and teachers say to a child who has behaved in this way, “Oh, you can write your name better than that!” They did not realize the child had made a tremendous leap forward in his or her conceptual understanding about the relationship between printed words and their spoken counterparts. A child who behaves in this way cannot yet detect sounds at the phoneme level, which is the level (more or less) at which spoken words are coded in alphabetic writing systems. Nevertheless, the child has made a very important first step toward beginning to understand how a sound-based writing system works.
There are many other examples of this kind. All have in common the child’s movement forward conceptually, while seeming to disregard some “surface” features.
Example 2. A child who counts, “20, 21, 23, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, ‘twenty-ten’” is behaving conceptually. Given that some of the decade names in English, such as “twenty,” “thirty,” or “fifty,” are hard to remember because they do not match the sound structure of their single-digit counterparts (i.e. two, three, five), children sometimes create a rule-based name and use it for a while to fill in these slots. In this case, adults might have counted with a child many times using the term “thirty,” but when counting on his or her own, the child uses “twenty-ten.” From a conceptual point of view, the child is right on target: 30 is 20 and 10 more.
Interestingly, first grade teachers in this country spend considerable time helping children understand the base ten organization of our number system, after having treated it as having a “one more” structure from 1 to 100 when teaching children to count, and having viewed “twenty-ten” as incorrect. Of course, on the surface, it is wrong, because we use the word “thirty.” Conceptually, though, the terminology is not wrong, and our response to such an error should not be the same as a response to a child who, for example, mistakenly calls a spoon a fork.
Example 3. Children’s learning of vocabulary also follows an interesting sequence. A colleague shared with me the example of a preschool child who had learned about transparent, translucent, and opaque objects during explorations of objects to make shadows. A week or so later, she was looking at a book about birds and saw on one page a bird in a bird cage. She shouted to her teacher, “Hey, a bird cage is transparent!” The teacher explained, “Yes, we can see through the spaces in between the wire rods of the bird cage, but we use the word transparent only when we can see through something concrete—some material substance. If something is open, we don’t use that word." Children typically, at first, both over-extend and under-extend words, because they have not yet learned the limits of each word’s meaning. For many words, learning these limits takes years.
Young children are truly remarkable thinkers and learners. We can only appreciate this when we look beneath their surface behavior and try to figure out the “why” for what they say and do. This question reminds me of just how important it is for early educators to have a deep understanding of child development. I’m reminded of how much there is for us to learn about children.