By Liane Brouillette, author of Arts Integration in Diverse K–5 Classrooms

Many educators in the United States have long been puzzled by the fact that countries like Finland and Estonia can wait until the age of 7 to teach children to decode words, yet remain among the top-performing nations on the international PISA test (OECD, 2015-2016; Sharp, 2002). Finland did establish a one-year preschool class for six-year-olds in 1998, in an effort to help children transition from home or day-care to first grade (Kupiainen et al., 2009). However, this class is not meant to teach reading.

In most Western European nations (with a few exceptions, such as the U.K.), children learn to read at the age of 6 (McCarthy, 2018). Even in the U.S., the practice of teaching children to decode words at age 5 is fairly recent. Teaching reading in kindergarten became popular with the rise of standardized testing. This was based on the assumption that early reading would give children a head start, allowing them to do better on the standardized tests they would take in the upper elementary grades.

Did the strategy work? Do the U.S. students who take the PISA reading test at age 15 score better than students from other countries? In 2015, U.S. students ranked 24th in the world on the PISA reading test. Students from the U.K. (where children also learn to read at the age of 5) ranked 21st. In contrast, Finnish students ranked 4th in reading and Estonian students ranked 6th.  What happened to the presumed head start that U.S. students received, based on learning to read at the age of 5?

Bedard & Dhuey (2006) showed that, because of the use of a single school cutoff date, the “oldest” children in a U.S. kindergarten cohort were 20% older than the youngest. These initial maturity differences were found to have long-lasting effects on student performance. The youngest members of each cohort scored 4–12 percentiles lower than the oldest members in grade four and 2–9 percentiles lower in grade eight. Data from Canada and the United States showed that the youngest members of each cohort were also less likely to attend a university. Bedard & Dhuey (2012) found that state-level changes in the age of kindergarten entry translated into real benefits; moving the age‐of‐entry cutoff date back one month increased average hourly earnings by 0.6 percent among males ages 30 to 54.

Cuhna, Heckman, Lochner, and Masterov (2006) argue that skills accumulated in early childhood are complementary to later learning. Relative age differences at the start of formal schooling may therefore have long-lasting effects if relatively older students are better positioned to accumulate more skills in the early grades.  For example, the “4th grade slump” (Chall & Jacobs, 2003), which shows up in the reading performance of many U.S. children as they move from “learning to read” to “reading to learn,” may be worsened by the current U.S. norm of learning to read at age 5. The effect does not show up until fourth grade, when students are expected to derive new knowledge from textbooks, but many students lack the vocabulary needed to understand the academic content the textbooks offer. These students are able to decode familiar words, but they cannot decode words they do not recognize.

The older children in a kindergarten cohort, who might have spent almost an additional year in preschool, may have acquired a broader vocabulary and understanding of grammar, making them less vulnerable to the fourth-grade slump. If this is true, how can we help prevent the younger children in a kindergarten cohort from being left behind? One way is to focus on oral language skills. What would that look like?

Those familiar with the work of Vivian Gussin Paley (Cooper, 2005) will be able to visualize how early literacy skills might be taught to kindergartners who are not yet ready to decode words. Children dictate stories, based on their experiences or imagined adventures, while the teacher acts as scribe and writes their stories down. The young authors choose classmates to act out the roles of the various characters. Then the teacher reads the story to the class in order to alert the actors and audience to the plot. When the story is read again, the actors step into their roles. This is an informal process, with the teacher acting as director and offering prompts such as: “How could you show us that you were surprised?”

The kindergartners’ stories are usually short, no more than a single page dictated while the rest of the class is engaging in free play or center time. Personal involvement helps children to create inner pictures of the meaning of the sentences they are hearing, enabling them to visualize what is happening in the narrative. Visualization evokes feelings that make the narrative—and any new vocabulary words it contains—more memorable. Later, students’ visualization skills will be transferred to making meaning of written sentences. In the upper grades, this will come to be called “reading comprehension.”

But what about teachers who have large classes and lack an aide to help other children while the teacher is taking dictation? Whole-class drama activities are an alternative (Greenfader & Brouillette, 2013). One example is “Going on a Bear Hunt.” (Please click to see video.) In this lesson, a teacher or teaching artist reads the story to the class, which mimics the teacher’s voice, using appropriate tone and volume. When an action occurs in the story, the teacher stops and asks students what the action might sound like. The teacher then models the sound effect and has students mimic it or come up with their own sounds. This activity is part of a series of lessons available online, free of charge.

In the lesson above, student participation was limited to echoing the teacher. Students may also be prompted to call on their own experiences to help them envision the gestures and voice of a character who is experiencing a specific emotion. When retelling “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” several students might be coached to play the same role. Then, as the story is read again to the class, all of the children can participate in bringing the tale to life. A lesson plan for this activity is available on-line (as a downloadable pdf at the top of the webpage).

Nor is classroom drama the only way that stories can be utilized to expand children’s vocabulary and oral language skills. Playing with antonyms can be great fun. When reading a picture book such as Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon (1987), a teacher might point to a picture and ask: “Why are these people wearing warm clothing?” Such a question not only causes children to think more deeply about the story and the significance of its setting, but may also lead to further questions. What is the opposite of warm? Why are the people walking at night? What is the opposite of night? Through such simple questioning techniques, the teacher amplifies students’ understanding, encouraging them to think about how the story’s setting and context shaped the events in the story. The discussion of antonyms also doubles the number of vocabulary words potentially learned by children participating in the discussion.

These and other strategies for building oral language skills through arts integration in grades K-5 are available in Arts Integration in Diverse K-5 Classrooms: Cultivating Literacy Skills and Conceptual Understanding.

Featured Image: Children reading; public domain via Pixabay.