My son and I started a kindergarten letter campaign this summer. Not a political protest kind of letter campaign, a learning-his-letters campaign designed to prepare him for kindergarten.
The current Texas public school curriculum has moved what used to be first grade expectations down to kindergarten. For boys especially, this is a bad fit. Many of them don’t have the fine motor skills to do the handwriting. Beyond that, what is expected in terms of reading and math skills is far beyond anything kids used to be asked to do: reading multi-syllabic words, memorizing sight words that are the exceptions to phonics rules, counting to 100 by 1’s, 2’s, 5’s and 10’s, solving word problems, and being able to write a full page with words written correctly in upper and lower case letters.
Cavanaugh had not shown much interest in learning his letters or in the sounds they made. He’d randomly remember letters and always skip or rearrange numbers when he tried to count to twenty. At the preschool he’d attended last year, they’d practiced handwriting. He came home saying he was bad at writing, that he couldn’t do it and would never be able to do it. I knew that wasn’t the message he was getting from his preschool teacher, but he’d always been super hard on himself about trying to write or draw anything. He’d ask his dad or I to draw something rather than attempt it himself. If he was being so hard on himself about handwriting in what I knew was a supportive environment with an encouraging teacher, what would he do in a classroom with up to 22 kids, in a higher pressure environment, with a teacher who might not be so positive.
If he was going to have a voice in his head, I wanted it to be a kind one. I wanted it to be mine–saying, “It’s okay if it’s not perfect. You’re just learning. That’s what practice is for. Keep trying. You’ll get it.”
So we started our letter campaign. I didn’t want drill and kill. I didn’t want to turn letters, reading, or books into work or a power struggle. Reading and writing are two of the most exciting things in the world. They enable you to visit other times and places, to get to know people, to visit worlds and to make worlds. I wanted learning to read and write to be a ticket to great adventures, a way to escape, to dream, to learn. I wanted it to be fun!
Worksheets weren’t going to do that. Neither was teaching him phonics rules and running memorization practice. Still, Cavanaugh turned in his Word Wall list before Thanksgiving break. He had to know all of the words by sight without having to sound them out. He was so proud of himself when he checked off the last word and is excited to get the next list of harder words. I don’t think we’d be here (yet) if it weren’t for Leapfrog videos. You no screen folks probably won’t like this, but for all the people I’ve been talking to whose kids are struggling with reading, here’s the post I’ve been promising you, hopefully in time for some holiday sales, in case you’d rather order the videos than try to check them out from the library.
In the same way I wondered how Cavanaugh could write letters before he knew letters, I was sure he couldn’t start sounding out words until he knew what the letters sounded like. Luckily, my friend Ava told me about LeapFrog: Letter Factory. The frogs’ dad works at a letter factory and when the kids go to help make a presentation, the youngest, Tad, feels frustrated because he can’t help. He’s too little. He doesn’t know the letters. Professor Quigley says that’s not a problem because Tad can learn them all easily. He leads Tad through the factory where each room is dedicated to a letter. Whether it’s P’s popping like popcorn or K’s kicking, the letters each have such a specific association that’s easy for kids to remember and easy for parents to remind them about. After we’d watched Letter Factory, when Cavanaugh would try to sound something out, I could say, “Which letter swings through the air?” or “Which letter falls asleep?” and he was able to tell me the letter and the sound it made.
After Letter Factory comes LeapFrog: Talking Words Factory. It teaches the rules for silent E, vowel digraphs, long and short vowels, and “sticky vowels,” all that stuff that parents don’t remember the rules for or how to explain. These are the first building blocks to putting the letter sounds together to sound out words. The next video in the series is LeapFrog: Word Caper with more rules and strategies for sounding things out. They don’t feel like rules and strategies though. It’s just a game with machines that aren’t working properly and crazy adventures that engage kids. Cavanaugh remembers everything he learned so much better than if I had been trying to teach him rules or get him to memorize letter sounds.
The next in the series is LeapFrog: Learn to Read at the Storybook Factory. It teaches kids how to chunk words into phrases rather than sound out each word separately. With this video, kids start reading instead of just merely sounding things out.
We also watched WordWorld, Superwhy (all of which is on Netflix Instant Play), and Sesame Street alphabet videos. They were helpful for exposure to the world of reading, but I found none so helpful as the Leapfrog videos listed above. There are other Leapfrog videos too, but the ones I’ve included are the ones I recommend. Cavanaugh’s teacher is sending home DRA level 8 books already even though he’s only required to be at a level 6 by the end of kindergarten. It’s November. He didn’t know all of the alphabet in July. The videos weren’t the only thing that got him here so fast. Having been read to his whole life, loving stories and books, spending tons of time at the library, and listening to audiobooks in the car all set the stage for him to learn to read. Having encouraging parents and a great kindergarten teacher are also a huge help. But those videos made it easy. They took the fight and frustration out of learning to read. They are most certainly on the list of things I’m thankful for this year.