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I have watched in fascination how a five year old can build a sophisticated tower out of blocks but cannot write his name. The thought process of putting the tower together usually involves a sturdy base, one that can hold up a lot of weight, and then a gradual hierarchy of other blocks, one on top of the other in varying sizes and shapes. With practice, the five year old learns that if the base or foundation is not sturdy enough the entire tower topples down. Block by block the child constructs the fortress and smiles when the final piece is in place – that satisfied smile that comes with success. Literacy is built in the same way, block by block.
One student comes to mind every time I think about literacy development – Brian. Brian entered my Kindergarten classroom with very little background knowledge, no experience with letters or numbers, but he had a big heart and a bigger smile. He was eager to learn but struggled with the printed word. Brian, however, was a master of construction! He built some of the sturdiest block structures in the class. The other students looked to him for guidance in how to build towers taller than they were and keep them standing. Brian understood the need for a strong foundation! He taught the other students that the base of the building needed to be wide enough to hold the weight of the entire structure and that the top of the building should be the smallest part – tapering to a pyramid. Although Brian continued to need support to learn how to read and write, I often wonder if Brian is now an engineer – I certainly hope so.
Brian taught me a very valuable lesson that year, the foundation of any learning needs to be strong enough the hold the more sophisticated skills. Building a foundation of author’s thinking is the key to literacy development in the kindergarten and first grade classroom. It begins with an understanding and working knowledge of genre and author’s purpose using literature and informative texts. Students need to recognize, from an early age, what kind of book they are reading or listening to. They need to build an awareness of concepts like, how to summarize a story or text, the structure each genre of writing takes, and how to recognize the genre of any text. These concepts are the foundation upon which the inherent skills and strategies of each genre are built. Before ever putting a pencil in the hands of a kindergarten or grade one student they are learning how author’s create writing and will ultimately learn to imitate them successfully. Block by block literacy is developed upon a strong foundation.