Pre-Kindergarten Readiness
by Laura Berquist

Questions we are asked for the early years, pre-school years, are often ordered to school readiness:

First, one is teaching children from the moment they are born. The question here really is: when are they ready for formal schooling? We are always ‘schooling’ our children, and that is actually important to remember when confronted with a ‘late bloomer’. Formal schooling, though important, is not the only or the first kind of schooling. It is best, nevertheless, to undertake formal schooling once the child is ready (knowledge is a gift and there is so much one can learn once he has the tools). There are ‘pre-school’ activities that can help one assess a child’s readiness for formal schooling, and help prepare him for it. Our new Pre-K program has a number of these activities in it.

One thing students need to do to learn in a formal setting is to sit still and pay attention for (at least) short periods of time. So the fact that a child can sit still and listen to a story is a good sign, and therefore, obviously, reading aloud is a good preparation activity.

Obedience is key in school, as in life, so one needs to work on obedience. A child who will (usually) come when called, and take up an activity when instructed to do so, and can follow directions is ready to do some formal school. To prepare for this, activities with young children should involve directions to follow, starting from single commands and moving upward. A child who can follow three separate directions, keeping them all in mind until they are completed, is probably ready for more formal instruction.

The directions should be followed (reasonably) cheerfully. Now, one’s own attitude is often responsible for the child’s response. So make sure when working with a pre-schooler that you are cheerful, and encouraging, and patient. If your child, however, even when you are pleasant and encouraging in telling him to do something (“Time to pick up your toys!”, or “Let’s read a story now,” or “Let’s do a puzzle”) is uncooperative, then you need to work on cooperation before beginning formal schooling.

Just as is the case with older children, you will need to target unwanted behavior. Even though there might be many areas you could concentrate on, pick one. If your 3 year old won’t cheerfully pick up toys, tell him that obedience is important, and you expect when he is asked to do something, he will do it, cheerfully. Then give him one instruction. “Pick up one toy.” Praise him when he does it. Tell him that is exactly what he needs to do. Tell other people in the house what a good child he is (in front of him). Give him lots of positive feedback. Then do it again, later, and ask him to pick up more. Be consistent. Have him pick up toys at intervals during the day, and over the week. Praise him continually, make sure you are asking for something the child can do (don’t start with picking up a roomful of toys), and give him the opportunity to develop a habit. Don’t let him get away with not doing what you ask. Then branch out, do this in other areas. He will learn how to be obedient, and he will develop a habit of self control.

Example is also helpful. One can also introduce some of the stories from the Moral Compass. The stories are short, easy to listen to, and many of them speak to the issue of obedience. Saint stories also provide excellent models of behavior, and open the child’s mind to the truly noble.

Some other good activities for little children, that are preparatory in nature and also diagnostic as regards readiness, are: puzzles, mosaic boards, Duplo building, sorting toys, finger plays, working with clay, cutting and pasting. Puzzles and mosaic boards exercise the spatial imagination, as well as help  children recognize same and different,  all key elements in reading. Duplo building does the same but on a three dimensional level, so in some ways it is an even better exercise. (By Duplo building what I mean is you build a relatively simple structure using Duplo blocks and ask your child to make an identical structure.) There are some excellent sorting toys available. Lakeshore Learning has Scoop-A-Bug and Creative Toys has a great toy called Sort n’ Shapes. Sorting is important for children to help them develop their memory and imagination. They can’t match like shapes without comparing the objects, and that requires making images. In a game where the child needs to match a physical object with a picture of the object, he will have to keep the picture in mind while he searches through the available shapes. This is excellent preparation for school in general and the visual component of reading in particular. Finger plays are also excellent for children because they exercise fine motor skills, and they work on auditory memory, something absolutely key in reading. Working with clay exercises fine motor skills, and one can have the children make numbers and letter with clay to help them become familiar with those key elements. For those of us who know WRTR or Sound Beginnings, we can even introduce the sounds of the letters this way.  Cutting and pasting are good skills to work on as well. They involve both fine motor skills and following directions. All of these activities need to be repeated. Children learn from repetition.

There are other key activities. Reading is primarily an auditory activity. If the children can’t remember the sounds that are associated with those ‘squiggles’ on the paper they won’t be able to read. Little children should listen to children’s songs, poems, stories (songs such as Wee Sing provides, and Mother Goose poems, as well as texts like Glory Stories and Once Upon A Time Saints, or The Children’s First Bible, and all the lovely children’s stories that are available) and they should learn prayers, including the Rosary and Mass prayers, to exercise auditory skills. Listening to classical music and learning to identify the different instruments can help with auditory skills, as well.  Having the child repeat random sequences of numbers is also a pre-reading skill, and can be fun. Start with a small string of numbers, though. You don’t want to be discouraging.

There are good outside activities that prepare children for formal schooling. Games like “Captain, May I?”, “Rover, Rover, Come Over”, “Duck, Duck, Goose” all exercise a child’s attention, self control and ability to follow directions. They all involve an auditory component as well.

Of course, going on walks, going to the zoo and the beach are good pre-school activities. They involve observation and arouse wonder.  These are both essential to education. One has to learn how to truly observe to read, as the differences between p, d, q, require close attention to directionality. Wonder is simply essential to all learning. One wonders ‘why’ and that leads one to think about the causes. If you don’t wonder, you won’t care to know.

There are also pre-writing skills that can be introduced. Working on coloring between the lines, tracing letters and numbers, and doing mazes can all help with fine motor control, observation skills, and following directions.

As the child gets older, the right kinds of workbooks with activities involving (especially) same and different, and recognizing relationships, can help, too, as can science kits and books that encourage observation and the introduction of basic physical principles. 

My own experience is that if you do these kinds of activities with the children when they are 3-5 years of age, they learn the key skills for formal schooling. They are obedient, pay attention when asked, follow directions, are able to process an auditory command, can distinguish between different letter and sounds, and have the necessary fine motor control for seat work. Now, children are on their own internal timetable, so they are not all going to be ready at the same time. But they will all profit from these kinds of activities.

What about the situation where the child is clearly ready, but I am too swamped to get to school with him?

There are a number of  considerations here. First, if you are so swamped, and you are a homeschooling mom, chances are good that you are swamped with older children.  Get them involved in the education of this young child. Give them direction, and some training, and get them involved. It’s a win-win situation.

Now, it may be that you are swamped with other work. In that case, I think you need to find some time. There is no more important work in the world, for you, than your child. Re-arrange your schedule. A small child, who is truly ready, won’t take more than 45 minutes for school, and that can be broken up in to three 15 minute increments.

It may also be that the child is ready, in the sense that he could do formal school, but it would still be a stretch, and take more time than it has to, or then you have. Most five year olds, for example, won’t be hurt by doing more of the pre-school activities listed above. In fact, in many cases they will be helped, and be more truly ready in a year.

I have told you about this before, but it is truly important to remember. In Ruth Beechik’s book, You Can Teach Your Child Successfully, there is a concrete example of the inefficiency of doing something children are not ready to do. Two groups of children were tracked for four years. The first group concentrated on learning to read in kindergarten. That was the primary focus of their time in the classroom. The second group had no reading instruction at all in kindergarten.  There was an alphabet strip around the wall of the classroom, but no mention was made of it. These children did not learn the sounds or names of the letters. The primary focus of the instruction of this group was hands-on projects. They planted beans and watched them come up. They took long walks and observed nature. At the end of the year the two groups were tested. Of course the first group did better, because they could read the questions on the test. For the next three years these children were kept together in their respective groups. They were, from this point on, instructed in much the same way. At the end of first grade the ‘reading’ group was still ahead of the other group on their standardized tests. At the end of second grade, however, they were at parity. And at the end of third grade the ‘non-reading’ group had pulled significantly ahead.

This story illustrates two things. The first is that we should concentrate on what children are ready to do at any given point. The ‘non-reading’ group spent their kindergarten year sharpening their observational skills, which is what they were ready to concentrate on. It wasn’t that they couldn’t have learned to read, it was that learning to read at that point would have taken so much of their time that they wouldn’t also work on the skills more appropriate to their level. Since they worked on those skills at the right time, they were in fact ahead of the game in the long run. This is very important for the mother of many children to remember. Work on the right formation activities at the right time, and you reap the most benefit educationally. Second, we shouldn’t be anxious to move ahead. Moving ahead may actually slow us down in terms of our ultimate goals. So, in determining what to concentrate on in your curriculum, or when to start ‘formal’ schooling, don’t be too anxious to move ahead.