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Beyond snacks and naps: District 833 kindergarten students stepping up

Brady Drkula, working on words, puts a template over a piece of paper and completes the words. When he removed the template, he checked his work and make corrections. Bulletin photo by Judy Spooner

A lot has changed in District 833 kindergarten classes in recent years.

The emphasis on the importance of literacy in all grades has changed the direction of the kindergarten curriculum from letter recognition and socialization to more advanced reading and writing skills.

In one half-day and four all-day kindergarten classes at Cottage Grove Elementary School, all students were reading by winter break this year. The successful change is not just at Cottage Grove but at all district schools, according to Dave Bernhardson, district assistant superintendent for elementary education.

Getting children ready for kindergarten has never been more important than it is now, he said.

Two preschool programs for 4-year-olds will be offered at all elementary schools next year. Free programs will continue at Pullman and Newport elementary schools because of high numbers of children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, and there will be fee-based programs at the other schools.

Cottage Grove kindergarten teachers are embracing the changes and the results.

"I never thought I would be asking students to write three sentences by the end of the year," said Cindy Benjamin, kindergarten teacher for 33 years. "We keep upping the ante and they keep stepping up."

When she started teaching, the whole class did everything together. There was a lot of coloring and play time, Benjamin said, while discussing the kindergarten changes with other teachers in a recent interview.

Kindergartners are very impressionable and are eager to learn, teachers said.

Readers and writers

Last week, there was a soft humming sound in Kelly Thurme's class during the activity called "Daily Five."

The sound was children reading aloud.

At the start of the school day, students put their names in pockets posted on the teachers' office door indicating which of the five activities they want to do. They include: reading to self; reading to others; listening to reading; work on writing; and work on words.

"They love it," Benjamin said, "because they get to choose. They think of themselves as readers and writers."

At the beginning of the year, three to four students coming to kindergarten are already reading, teachers said.

Although there is not an expectation that children will read when they leave kindergarten, most students, with varying degrees of proficiency, are reading when they get to first grade.

Most children can print their names. But if teachers had a chance to coach parents ahead of time, they prefer that children not write their names in all capital letters because they need to learn to distinguish between capital letters and lower case.

Independent and

in small groups

The year starts with shapes, colors and numbers.

Students don't compete with each other at this age, teachers said, but they want to be able to do what other students are doing.

They learn books have covers, there are spaces between words and periods at the end of sentences.

Today's kindergarten teachers are not "hooked on phonics."

While parents, because it's how they learned, tell students to sound out words, it actually slows them down, according to education research.

"You would never get to 'butterfly' if you sounded it out one letter at time," said Kristi Parah.

A more efficient way is to have children learn "chunks" of letters they can build on. For example, learning the chunk "ot" leads to pot, trot and hot."

During Daily Five work on words, there is an exercise where, using a board, children place letters on it to spell words with the "ot" sound. They also print a list of words on a separate sheet of paper.

Pictures in books are critical to reading, Thurmes said.

Teachers often teach in small groups while other students are directed to independent activities.

"They don't get stuck in one group," said Laurie Schmillen. "As they progress, they move to other groups."

During small group sessions, Thurmes starts by reviewing the book's pictures. "What is going on here?" she asks.

Then the children read the book aloud, each at their own pace, so she can judge their progress.

Kindergarteners are exposed to various levels of reading so they know what's next.

The books they listen to on compact discs are harder than what they are reading in books. Teachers also read harder books to the children.

Books are sent home with children and parents sometimes comment that the books are too easy.

Reading at home should be easy and fun. "We do the hard stuff at school," said Benjamin.

All kindergartners strive to read "chapter books," Benjamin said. They also want to use bookmarks.

Teachers also keep copies of student work throughout the year for student's memory books.

They are surprised when they see how far they have come.

"They say, 'I couldn't do anything back then,'' Benjamin said.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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