Ah, the happy years before school, the carefree time before that dreaded day when the young child becomes, as Shakespeare put it:
The whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.
For children who are ready for the school experience, kindergarten and first grade can be exceedingly happy and absorbing times. No creeping unwillingly for them! But that certainly isn’t true of children who are not ready. Usually they will not enjoy the challenging early years of schooling. And even their futures might be compromised, since researchers have determined that children who have fallen behind in first grade tend not to catch up academically. As a consequence, the educational importance of the early years, from 2 to 5, has become increasingly well-known by psychologists and policy makers, and recently by the general public. State legislatures are beginning to offer universal preschool programs, available to all children.
What Parents Need to Know about School Readiness
During the past twenty-five years, however, there has been a barrier to effective preschooling, whether at home or at a school. That barrier has been a set of romantic ideas about early childhood, ideas that are widespread among some early-childhood experts and the general public. An American parent who picks up this book may have heard things like the following: that teaching pre-literacy and pre-math skills to preschoolers is unnatural, premature, and developmentally inappropriate; that such exposure distracts from healthier, more natural learning experiences; that it can be injurious to the child. These romantic ideas about early childhood have exerted a huge influence in American thought, but they are now thought by leading psychologists to be misleading and oversimplified. There is, in fact, great benefit and great fun to be gained by engaging young children in suitable educational activities.
In the United States today, some children do come to school ready to learn; generally, they are fortunate enough to come from privileged and educated families that understand the importance of these early formative years and have the capability to make the most of them. Many, many other children, though, are not ready when they enter kindergarten. While they may come from loving and well-intentioned families, often their parents have neither the financial resources nor the free time to ensure that their children engage in educationally productive experiences, either at preschool or at home. These children enter kindergarten under a severe academic disadvantage. They do not know the words and things they need to know in order to thrive in kindergarten and first grade. They do not understand things that other children understand, and they fall further behind with each passing grade.
Research on the Important Preschool Years
The significance of this early disadvantage and its deleterious consequences cannot be overstated. One study (Hart and Risley, 1995) followed children from infancy through the elementary grades. Researchers meticulously examined everything that went on in the children’s homes during the early years, then evaluated the children during their preschool years, again in kindergarten, and in third grade. Here are some highlights of their findings:
The number of words spoken to children throughout infancy and early childhood varied tremendously from family to family, and the amount of language children heard directly correlated to family income level. For example, children from the poorest families heard less language than children from working-class families. And children from both these groups heard far fewer words than children from families in which parents were professionals.
Based on these findings, researchers were able to extrapolate that, by the time children entered school, those from the professional families would have accumulated experience with nearly 45 million words, while those from the poorest families would have had experience with only 13 million words—a 30-million-word gap! Not only was there a difference in the sheer number of words that children heard, but also in the variety and the complexity of the language heard.
The number of words and the richness and complexity of the language that a child heard in his family setting, this study found, was predictive of the child’s own vocabulary and early academic skills when they were evaluated in preschool and the early grades. Briefly put, children who heard more words had more words in their own vocabulary. Furthermore, the children with stronger language skills learned to read more easily and effectively than the children with weaker vocabularies.
Other studies (Jager-Adams, 1990) found that a child’s reading proficiency at the end of first grade is highly predictive of:
• Reading ability in later grades
• High school graduation
• Financial income as an adult
Combine the two studies, and you have the picture of how important school readiness is to a child’s future. Those children to whom parents read, speak, and present language describing the world of things and ideas begin school more ready to absorb all that they will be offered, and it promises to make a difference to them—and to their society—for the rest of their lives.
Despite such findings, the record shows that the children of America are not getting the most out of the public education that this nation offers. Perhaps most staggering of all, reading proficiency tests administered nationally throughout the country have recently shown that as many as 78% of the children tested fall below the proficiency level at the fourth-grade level. This figure suggests that all families, not just those in dire poverty or with little education, could be doing better at helping their children enter kindergarten ready to learn.
The good news is that we do know ways to prevent these dire consequences. Thanks to years of research, observation, and practice, we know what children need to learn and what experiences they should have before entering kindergarten. Now we just need parents and preschools to put this knowledge into practice.
What is Core Knowledge?
Core Knowledge is an educational program designed to provide a guided, direct, and effective way of providing all children the knowledge and skills that only the favored few have possessed in the past. The program has been developed over many years and with the contributions of many experts, under the auspices of the non-profit Core Knowledge Foundation, and all proceeds from the program go back to the foundation to help more and more parents and children.
The Core Knowledge Foundation has developed educational guides from preschool through grade eight. The preschool program, on which this book is based, has been in use for over a decade among children from all social groups and in many settings across the country; it has been field-tested and refined over the years. The research evidence for its effectiveness is now overwhelming, and can be viewed at www.coreknowledge.org.
The Core Knowledge School Readiness Program
The Core Knowledge preschool program was developed after consulting the most distinguished developmental psychologists and observing the most effective practices throughout the world. The rationale behind the selectivity and sequence of the Core Knowledge materials, now well accepted, was first developed in my 1987 book, Cultural Literacy. Intrinsic to the Core Knowledge Preschool Program, whether for schools or for home, is its careful sequencing of social and academic skills, with a strong emphasis on the knowledge that is most useful and productive for children living in American society today.
Granted, you will find plenty of other read-aloud books that are well illustrated and attractive individually. So what do the Core Knowledge preschool family materials have that others on the market do not have? Unlike other pre-kindergarten home education products, the Core Knowledge Home Preschool books are based on an overarching set of goals for learning at the preschool level, for children aged three through five. Only the Core Knowledge Home Preschool Program offers a package of readings and activities, totally coordinated to follow a cumulative sequence of essential knowledge and skills, derived from sound research. These readings and companion workbooks follow a month-by-month pattern that has been vetted by international researchers and tested over many years, with proved effectiveness. In this read-aloud book and the activity book materials accompanying it, you will find a coordinated set of simple and fun activities that family members can share with children, knowing that they are working together to get their children ready for kindergarten.
There are already more than a thousand Core Knowledge preschool classes operating across the country, following exactly this sequence of lessons and activities. The number of Core Knowledge Preschools continues to grow rapidly as their rationale and efficacy become more widely known. We at the Core Knowledge Foundation believe that all parents should also be offered this opportunity to prepare their children for a happy, productive time in school—and for the rest of their lives.
((From the ‘Songs” chapter))
Young children seem to be irresistibly drawn to music. It is a form of communication, a means of creative expression, and an emotional outlet.
Listening intently to music, children are sharpening their sense of hearing and paying attention to rhythms and harmonies that are fundamentally mathematical. What’s more, they enjoy music of all varieties.
Look at preschooler faces and bodies when they are engaged in a musical activity. They convey eagerness and enthusiasm–in a word, the sheer fun of music!
We encourage you to share a wide range of musical experiences with your child, from silly songs to classical symphonies. Lose your inhibitions (and concerns that you are not musically inclined). Sing songs together, listen to all kinds of music, have a parade, dance and enjoy!
Open, Shut Them
Model this hand dance so your child learns to do it as you recite the poem together: For the first stanza open your hands flat or shut them into fists. For the second, walk your fingers up your chest to each part of your face. For the third, end up by covering your eyes; then peek out.
Open, shut them, open, shut them,
Give a little clap.
Open, shut them, open, shut them,
Put them in your lap.
Creep them, creep them, creep them, creep them,
Right up to your chin.
Open wide your smiling mouth
But do not let them in.
Creep them, creep them, creep them, creep them,
Past your cheek and chin.
Open wide your smiling eyes,
Repeat first verse.
Excerpted from What Your Preschooler Needs to Know by Edited by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., and Linda Bevilacqua. Copyright © 2008 by Core Knowledge Foundation. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.