What do 5 year olds need to learn?

There are high expectations for pre-primary students these days. Since 2013, it has been compulsory for parents in Australia to send them to school, and the new Australian Curriculum includes the Foundation Year documents specifically for this year level. This focus on starting earlier is research-based, and stems from findings in many studies (eg the WA Teaching for Growth study) that early literacy and numeracy skills need to be developed more carefully.

Parents of pre-primary children can expect to see more rigorous programs as a result. This, however, does NOT mean a formal program where students are expected to sit down for long periods of time doing worksheets or other formal tasks. These are inappropriate for kindy and pre-primary students. When children are forced into formal education too soon, their social-emotional development suffers. Many of them also become switched off school and learning.

Play-based learning within a rigorous program is expected. This means planned play activities with a definite purpose. To understand how to make play activities more purposeful, we need to have sound teaching knowledge about the content and sequence of learning. The Australian Curriculum provides much of this information, and there are, of course, many other supportive resources.

Here’s an example of play-based activity with a definite purpose:

We begin by using mat time to introduce students to some of the different forms of text that exist in our everyday world.

Lists and captions are two age-appropriate text forms that are easy to start with. We show examples, and highlight and explain the features that make these unique. Over time, the children learn to recognise lists and captions when they see them in real-life contexts. The different purposes for these texts are also discussed, and the children are frequently asked to talk with a partner about where they’ve seen a list or a caption, and what it was used for.

In the class writing corner, we add long strips of paper and a variety of photos. The children are encouraged to write lists for their own purposes and captions for photos or drawings. Those who choose to do this are invited to share their writing with another student or with the whole group. This encourages others to have a go.

These activities are not formal, yet they have a definite purpose, ie to educate the students about some of the different types of texts. Children who do not use the writing corner during this teaching focus have still been involved in the other activities, and can identify lists and captions.

It’s important to understand that scribble and letter-like symbols are an important part of early writing and should not be condemned. Gradually, as a child develops her awareness of sounds and letters through other literacy activities, they will start to appear in her writing, and the scribble and symbols will start to disappear. She should not be made to write words correctly letter by letter, even if she knows many sounds and letters. This is far too stifling. Of course, it’s fine to help her spell one or two words if she asks, or encourage her to fix the spelling of one or two words that you know she can spell, but it’s important to realise that many, many children are switched off writing at an early age simply because the significant adults in their lives focused predominantly on spelling, rather than on celebrating the message or content of the writing and the effort that went into producing it. Young children’s writing develops over time and each stage should be valued. Spelling in writing improves through other literacy activities, such as phonics and reading. Letter formation improves through handwriting lessons and practice.

It is far more important to focus on developing your five year old’s speaking and listening skills than on pressing her to apply letter and spelling knowledge that she doesn’t yet have. There is growing concern among educators that screen time is playing a far greater role in young children’s lives than talk time. They are being talked at rather than talked with. There is global evidence that kindy kids are starting school with increasingly poor oral language skills. Good speaking and listening skills are essential for normal social-emotional development as well as for literacy and numeracy development. Create some balance, and keep the iPad apps to a minimum. Spend lots of time talking together. Read lots of stories and talk about them with her. Build her phonological awareness by teaching her about oral sentences; oral words as part of oral sentences; oral rhyming words; syllables within oral words; and beginning sounds in oral words. Teach her about sounds and letters informally when talking or reading to her.

There are many resources that will help you get your young child off to a great start. The Early Childhood Australia website, for example, has the Everyday Learning Series, which shows how to create positive learning environments for young children, whether at home or at school. The Early Years Learning Framework also has good examples of play-based learning activities.

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