Preparing kindergarten children for school

Basic literacy knowledge is an important issue
Basic literacy knowledge is an important issue 

A study's surprising findings may lead educators to rethink how they prepare children for school. Prep children believe they should be taught to recognise numbers, letters and the sounds letters make before they start school.

A study examining the opinions of preps reveals that children rate prior knowledge of the alphabet and other basic academic skills as crucial in helping them adapt to school.

The findings are likely to cause educators to rethink how they prepare kindergarten children for school.

The study's author, Dr Kay Margetts, an expert on transition to school, says previous research that surveyed parents and teachers about the challenges children face starting school had not identified basic literacy knowledge as an important issue.

None of the adults in my research have expressed concern about children knowing the sounds of the alphabet and numbers before they start school. But in children's minds it seems to be a very big deal, says Dr Margetts, an associate professor in early childhood studies at Melbourne University's Graduate School of Education.

Children rate prior knowledge of the alphabet and other basic academic skills as crucial in helping them adapt to school.

Even now preschools and schools are not aware of how significant it is to a child to know these things. There's been a tradition in early childhood education to move away from that to a play-based curriculum.

Preschool teachers often say, "We're not about teaching children to read and write". But teaching children the letters and sounds of the alphabet is not the same as that. It can be done informally in a play-based curriculum. There needs to be a strong focus on early literacy and numeracy so that children feel comfortable when they start school.

The findings of Dr Margetts' study were presented at the European Early Childhood Education Research Association's conference held in Norway in September.

Fifty-four prep children from Victorian government and private primary schools were interviewed for the study. They were asked about what children needed to know about starting prep and what the schools could do to help them settle into their new routine. Their responses in small group discussions were recorded and analysed.

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The most frequently mentioned issues were knowing how to find and make new friends and get on well with their peers, followed by the need to know academic skills such as the alphabet, basic phonics and numbers. The third most frequently mentioned issue raised by the children was knowing the school's rules and procedures.

Children also focused on the importance of knowing how to avoid being physically hurt or bullied in the playground.

They often felt anxious and threatened in the playground, especially when using the climbing equipment or moving beyond designated prep play areas.

Dr Margetts says schools often underestimate the extent of the culture shock preps experience when they move from a familiar kindergarten playground with high staff to child ratios to a schoolyard with much lower levels of adult supervision. In Scotland, schools have tried to overcome such problems by hiring part time playground supervisors to boost the number of adults on yard duty.

There's a clear sense from the children that the playground is a threatening place, Dr Margetts says. Schools need to realise how difficult this can be for children and provide more support for the inevitable conflicts that occur.

And sometimes the wording of school rules can be difficult to understand. Rules about using the climbing equipment, and waiting turns, need to be made more explicit so everyone understands what they're meant to do.

Other research by Dr Margetts suggests schools should host at least five transition visits for incoming preps before they start school.

Preschoolers who attended seven or more transition sessions adjusted to prep better than children who had fewer visits or none, according to her research findings.

Australian and international studies show children who have trouble settling into prep are at a higher risk of learning difficulties as they progress through school and are more likely to drop out.

Dr Margetts says the findings of her latest study show children's opinions about how to improve their adjustment to school should be taken into account by those developing school transition programs.

A State Government taskforce is investigating school transition practices at primary and secondary school level as part of the Brumby Government's blueprint to improve education.

The education department committee, known as the Transition Project Advisory Group, is examining whether to establish guidelines for schools to ease the transition for students entering primary and secondary school.

EASING THE MOVE

What new prep pupils want to know when starting school:

- How to make new friends.

- The alphabet, letter sounds, numbers and how to write letters.

- School rules.

- How to be nice, help and include others.

- What to do if someone hurts you.

SOURCE: DR KAY MARGETTS, GRADUATE SCHOOL OF EDUCATION, MELBOURNE UNIVERSITY.

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