During a recent Skype conversation with my young grandson, Ben, he asked me, “What is your favorite letter?” He was serious. I had to think about letters of the alphabet and how I would determine which most appealed to me. I asked him, “Do you mean which one is my favorite to write or which letter shape do I most like?” He said, “Just which is your favorite.” His sister, Olivia, chimed in, “Mine is the letter “O.”
I love having conversations with young children and eavesdropping on their conversations with each other. You can learn a lot about them and how they think. What you learn is that they think much differently from adults and older children. Their priorities are different and their curiosities are too. Their openness makes anything possible. They view life as artists and approach life as scientists.
Moving on from the favorite letter conversation, Ben began to tell me about his new school materials. “Would you like to see them?” He ran to the next room and came back with 4 folders and a workbook. He described the purpose for each folder, and then opened the workbook to show me the illustrations. “There’s a cat named Nugget and a robot named, Rigolo.” He described to me in great detail, how they were dressed, their colors, and what he liked about them. He pronounced their names with both the English and French pronunciations (He attends a French school in Quebec, Canada).
Because Ben loves and owns cats and is very interested in robots, the illustrations drew him in, obviously the intention of the textbook company that created the workbook. In addition, there were animal photographs scattered throughout. Ben held the workbook up to the computer camera, pointed to each animal, and named it. The workbook was meant to be a language arts teaching tool but, for Ben, it was a book about a cat named Nugget, a robot, named Rigolo, and animals that are found in the wild. He never once mentioned the “exercises” that filled the pages.
It is only the beginning of the school year but soon Ben will have to complete the exercises. I suspect the illustrations and photographs will take a back seat to the prescribed tasks on each page. I cannot help but wonder how much more learning would take place if Ben and the children in his class were allowed to pursue their own questions and interests, like those animals and robots—the stuff that matters and makes sense to them.
- The adults listened to Ben’s questions, comments, considerations, and thoughts about the illustrations and photographs that seem to pique his interest?
- He dictated his own, made-up story about one or more of them?
- He and his classmates acted out that story?
- The teacher engaged Ben and his classmates in a conversation about how robots and cats might live together. What would they eat, where would they sleep? How would they play? What would they need? (I am basing these questions on what I know about young children and their concerns)?
- He and his classmates had the opportunity to design a living space for these two characters and then build it with blocks or other materials, perhaps measuring and calculating what would be needed to provide a comfortable space?
- The teacher recorded all the beautiful vocabulary words Ben used as he eagerly described the characters and animals?
Of course, what I am advocating is to build on what children already know and what interests them. This, it seems to me, is the key to learning, for all of us, but especially for young children because they do not view the world as we do and their frame of reference is different. It is for this reason that preschoolers and primary aged children are so often baffled by school expectations. They are very good at orally repeating back what adults want to hear, without truly understanding. As the beloved scientist Richard Feynman reminded us, there’s a difference between naming something and knowing something. It should be the knowing something that we go after, the real learning. Unfortunately, schools place too much emphasis on the naming.
What if the teacher heard Ben’s question and suggested he do a survey in his class, asking his classmates to name their favorite letter of the alphabet? What would be gained from this experience and what might he learn? He would see that reading and writing have a purpose and that they are strongly connected. He might, with help, tally the numbers and make a graph of the results. There might follow some interest in creating fancy letters of the alphabet to display around the room. Perhaps the class could create a book for the library, containing all the letters, as well as text that children dictate to the teacher. There’s a strong likelihood that they would read and re-read this book together because it is theirs, created by them, about them, and for them. They could form the shape of letters with their bodies—either standing up or lying on the floor and then photograph them to use as a display or projection. They might research different letters in different fonts. They might each make their own letter book, listing favorite words that begin with each letter. These are simply possibilities. The teacher might have these ideas in mind, but the children’s ideas and interests would guide the course of the letter study. Who knows what might come out of conversations about the illustrations in the workbook?
There is absolutely no need to fill in blanks or finish sentences that have little to do with what young children are thinking or feeling in order for them to learn. In fact, it goes against everything we know about how people learn. It’s counterproductive and takes the joy out of learning.
I have no doubt that Ben’s initial question would surely have sparked further questions for the entire class. It is the teacher’s responsibility to support the children’s curiosity and make clear that she values their thinking. That’s when learning gets exciting and the possibilities are endless. And the children’s ideas and questions will be unlike any a teacher could imagine. The children will “get” it because the subject matter is relevant to their way of thinking. Once hooked on the idea, the children will be propelled to seek out more knowledge and make more discoveries.
So, what is your favorite letter?