SHIPPENSBURG - Education has changed quite a bit over the years, and children today have many skills to learn before their first day of kindergarten.
"There’s a lot more rigor in the curriculum today," said Greg Herb, a kindergarten teacher at Nancy Grayson Elementary School for the past 11 years. “What I taught in kindergarten last year is easily first-grade material that I learned in school.”
Grace Hockenberry, who teaches first grade at Nancy Grayson, agrees.
“The expectations have definitely changed in all of the grade levels,” she said. “People are expecting more of their children at a younger age.”
Each year in the Shippensburg Area School District, children are screened during kindergarten registration to determine their skill levels in several areas. Herb said kindergarten readiness screenings help teachers “know what to expect in the fall.”
Hockenberry said kindergarten students should be able to identify the letters of the alphabet, recognize shapes and count.
During the kindergarten readiness assessment, said Herb, children are asked to identify a circle, triangle, square, rectangle and oval. They are asked to count to “10 or 20 or beyond,” and to name the letters of the alphabet.
“All 52 letters are written on paper in random order,” he said. “If they are able to read all of those letters, we do a very brief reading screening of about five words. There are some kids who come into kindergarten who are able to read right away.”
Children are also asked to draw a picture of themselves. Herb said this activity reveals a child’s “experience with writing and drawing, which are often indicators to the exposure children have had in other areas, such as whether parents are reading with them, and their ability to correctly hold a crayon.”
He said beginning-of-the-year skills include rhyming, hearing the beginning sounds of words, writing their names, writing letters and providing sounds that go with the letters. Knowing the sounds of letters is important, he said, “because sounds are the real vehicle for reading and writing.”
The goal is for kindergarten students to be reading and writing by the end of the school year.
Schools also hold workshops for parents of 4- and 5-year-olds. The workshops offer a variety of tips that parents can use to reinforce the school curriculum at home.
Hockenberry said topics include “How Many? How Much?: Number Sense for Young Children,” “A is for Apple: Understanding Sounds,” “Self Help Skills and Self Confidence,” “The Reading Routine and How Children Learn to Read” and “Kid Writing.”
Cheryl Slattery, associate professor of teacher education at Shippensburg University, said these topics are important keys to learning. At SU, courses for future teachers focus on “conceptual areas of learning how to read, including phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, language and word study,” she said.
“They are also taught evidence-based instructional practices to be used with all children as well as those who struggle in the area of literacy.”
They also learn to “match instructional research-validated literacy interventions to the specific needs of children” and to “identify children who may benefit from additional instruction,” she said.
Slattery said future teachers must understand that “reading depends on language proficiency.” As teachers, they are encouraged to create “a literate classroom environment,” she said.
Preschool programs are also becoming more popular today.
Adrianne Crider, director of Good Shepherd Preschool in Shippensburg, said she believes the trend is because “kindergarten expectations are high, and every parent wants their child to be prepared.”
Crider said preschool students learn many skills that make the transition to kindergarten much easier.
One key, she said, is being able to separate from their parents at school. She said it’s a “minor issue” that doesn’t happen very often or last very long, but it is important to address problems early.
“I’d say out of 60 children, we have at least one who encounters some type of separation issue,” said Crider. “I think providing preschool helps alleviate the problem.”
Preschool also helps children develop skills like socialization, compromise and cooperation, she said. In addition, children are introduced to letters and numbers, and they learn to write their names.
Crider said she works with the Shippensburg Area School District and uses its kindergarten readiness assessment as a tool in planning her curriculum. Parent volunteers are also involved in the programs.
“Parents play a big role in our preschool,” she said. “They are their children’s first teachers.
“We do a lot of learning through play and fun activities. We emphasize making learning fun.”
Ginger Schelander, a kindergarten teacher at James Burd Elementary School for the past six years, agrees that preschool is beneficial. She said she believes most children attend some type of preschool program today.
“I think preschool is something that really helps prepare a child for kindergarten because of the expectations of kindergarten being higher today,” she said. “There are parents who opt not to send their kids to preschool, and that’s fine, but they would be very wise to work on things like writing their name, reading and counting.”
Schelander said kindergarten teachers can usually spot students who attended preschool because they are often “more socially prepared.”