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Education Lab is a project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

May 15, 2014 at 1:07 PM

Guest: Here’s what quality pre-K looks — and sounds — like

matthew o'connor2

Matthew O’Connor

People in Seattle like to make noise — and the most recent NFL season proved it. The record-setting decibels produced by fans at CenturyLink Field are a point of pride in our city.

When opening the door to my pre-kindergarten classroom, a visitor is met with a similar wall of sound. A group of children in the classroom library is performing readers’ theatre, generating the “next chapter” of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

“Maybe Goldilocks writes a letter to the bears saying ‘I’m sorry for eating your food!’” says Sydnie. A separate group is constructing what the students have decided is a food-stirring machine out of wooden blocks. “Make sure the button says ‘start’ on it!” shouts Emile, calling across the classroom to Mekhi at the writing desk, who furrows his brow and places pencil to a scrap of purple paper, saying the word start to himself slowly to parse the sounds he hears. Mekhi later tapes this scrap to the food-stirring machine, and the group declares it complete and fully functional, although its purpose and product is still up for heated debate.

It is a frenetic scene to witness — some might even call it chaos. But it is a carefully orchestrated chaos, a barely restrained madness that, when all parts are moving just right, can result in powerful change for these students. This change is rooted in something so simple: words.

Studies have shown that students from non-linguistically stimulating environments enter kindergarten having been exposed to 30 million fewer words than those in linguistically stimulating environments. This is a very large, very impactful and very real gap. Thirty million fewer words to explore. Thirty million fewer words with which to experiment and theorize. Words like “estimate” and “constellation.” Words that spark interests and hobbies. Words that can turn passive students into active advocates of their own passions.

A quality pre-kindergarten program can do much to address this word gap by deliberately immersing students in language. Ideally, students are initially exposed to new and rigorous vocabulary through teacher-designed experiences. Repeated read-alouds related to areas of interest for the students at hand, for example, help provide learners with new words, increasing the chance that in any given situation, students will have the right word to communicate their thoughts clearly.

Students are then given ample opportunity to explore this new language through methods of their choosing. The adults in their life — both at home and in school — support this exploration with conversation and extended discourse, building deeper understandings and more complex linguistic structure.

Just because Seattle’s youngest learners are its smallest doesn’t mean their voices should be. As the city continues to navigate its way towards universal pre-K, I would urge all involved to ensure a critical underlying component of any program is that students have the chance to talk — a lot.

These are, after all, the next generation of Seahawks Fans we’re raising, and we want them to be able to make noise.

Matthew O’Connor is a pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teacher at South Shore PK-8 in Seattle. He is in his fourth year of teaching and got his start in education as a Teach For America corps member in Houston.  

Comments | More in Guest opinion, Opinion | Topics: early education, early learning, Matthew O'Connor


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