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The Competent Parent: Kindergarten readiness

Headshot2011Welcome to our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Kindergarten Readiness

Dear Dr. Debbie,

I’m anxious about my four-year-old’s readiness for kindergarten next year. She doesn’t know –or seem to care about – the names of the letters and I have heard from neighbors that kindergarteners are given “sight words” to memorize from the first week of school. How can she do that if she doesn’t know the alphabet?

Behind Before We Begin


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Dear Behind,


The reading technique of recognizing the overall shape of a word does not depend on knowing individual letter names and phonics. However, “letter recognition” is one of many skills for pre-readers to be working on. Pre-K skills in the Maryland Curriculum for English Language Arts can be found at mdk12.org.

If your daughter is attending a preschool program, there should be activities to cover all of these skills. If she’s at home with you, there are infinite ways you can be providing similar experiences so that she is on par with her kindergarten classmates.

Do you use shape names in your everyday activities? Basic geometric shapes – circles, lines, curves, and angles – make up our letter shapes. You can go on Shape Scavenger Hunts around the house. Start with circles since they seem to be the first recognized shape. Find them in: pots, plates, buttons, door knobs, etc. Then move on to triangles and squares. Rectangles are harder to discern, but add them when she’s ready. (Note: squares ARE rectangles – see how tricky it is?) Shapes are all around – furniture, architecture, plants and animals, clothes, food. Many typical preschool activities use objects that have distinctive shapes including building with blocks, completing puzzles, stringing wooden beads, and printing with sponges that have been cut into circles, triangles, and rectangles. The concept of size is also related to letter recognition because many capital and lower case letters differ by size; so make note of size comparisons when you separate the family’s laundry, roll balls of play dough and collect beautiful fall leaves together.

Do your model how print is used in everyday activities? For example, in the grocery store you can read aloud to her: the Hours the store is open, where the Produce section is, the price of Bananas, your scribbled list to remind you to buy Pasta Sauce, your husband’s text (and your calendar) about making a Vet appointment for the dog, the ingredient lists on pasta sauce cans to avoid Corn Sugar, the Closed sign at one clerk’s checkout counter prompting you to move to the next one, etc. At home, start printing her name on her artwork and say the letters aloud as you do. It’s amazing how quickly children learn from what we say, so be sure to take advantage of a natural learning method – hearing you talk and repeating what you say – to teach her how print is used as well as many other important things. It’s an easy habit to develop if you don’t already do this.

Do you share story books with her as part of the daily routine? More important than letter names and phonics – which will be covered in kindergarten – is the meaning of what she reads. Reading aloud is believed to be the single most important thing families can do to assure success in school. But it’s more than you sounding out the phonics on each page. Pick good stories. A children’s librarian is a great resource or check out these websites:

Bed time is a great time for books, but before she gets drowsy, use story reading to actively engage her mind in following a plot, making associations with her own experiences, and opening avenues of discussion between you. After all, we read to gain information, stimulate thoughts and emotions, as well as enjoy a good story.

The Reading Rockets webpage from WETA (Washington Educational Television Association – a PBS station) tells us that: “Research has demonstrated that the most effective read-alouds are those where children are actively involved asking and answering questions and making predictions, rather than passively listening.” The article demonstrates how to read a book at least three times together, engaging in relevant conversation as you turn the pages of the story. What’s going on in the illustration? What about the objects and actions are familiar to your child? What new vocabulary words does she need you to define for her? By the third reading, she can predict what is coming next, if not tell you the whole story from beginning to end.

Back to letter recognition. Challenge her to chomp pieces off a pretzel to match the letter you have made out of yours, or fish certain noodles out as she eats her alphabet soup to try to pique her interest. But try not to stress out about it. Beyond the above suggested activities, let her lead the way to reading readiness. It’s a child’s interest and excitement to decode the written word that will drive her to be a lifelong reader.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy @jecoannapolis.com.

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