AS YOU ENTER THE LARGE HEAD START ROOM IN THE basement of Trinity Lutheran Church in Allentown, Pennsylvania, it's immediately apparent that exciting things are happening. The walls of this center sing out with interesting displays of letters and words. A list of the preschoolers' favorite movies, a graph of their body measurements, and a poster in both Spanish and English with the center's rules developed by the children are caringly displayed. Giant sponge letter prints painted in beautiful pastel colors and cheerful alphabet charts hang at the children's eye level for instant reference.
Although helping to develop preschoolers' language skills has always been one of the important goals of the National Head Start Program, there has recently been strong emphasis on incorporating specific standards for reading, writing, listening, and speaking into the curriculum. The staff members at Trinity Head Start Center which is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, weave these new mandated language initiatives into the children's daily experiences in very natural ways. On a typical morning, here's what you might see and hear:
After the children have been warmly greeted at the bus and brought inside by their teacher, Rose Fitz, they join assistant teacher Sandy Bauder and help to prepare a family-style breakfast. As he folds a napkin, Kemuel makes a wonderful surprise discovery-he creates a "triangle!" Then, Sade shares how to make a "rectangle." Serving as facilitators, both teachers encourage this spontaneous vocabulary building and experimentation.
The morning continues with a balance of freechoice activities, some inspired by the children and others planned by the teachers. With great pride, Antonio, continuing an activity from the day before, invites Sandy to watch him paint his name at the easel in BIG letters. Working side-by-side, Heather and Amber stretch out homemade "putty" on the table to form "silly" shapes and some of the letters of their names. Rose extends the experience by asking relevant open-ended questions about the shapes and letters.
In the dramatic-play area, Essence reads to her dolls from a spiral-bound booklet of recipes dictated by the children. She decides to make cupcakes for them. Meanwhile, at the writing center, Oscarina independently makes a series of round O's on sheets of paper with colored pencils. Then she sits on the floor with Sandy so they can discuss her writing samples.
Referring to a name card prepared by her teacher, Olivia enthusiastically "practices" typing the letters of her name on the computer Rose and Devon talk about the large molded letters Devon has created in the sandbox with Sade and Kemuel. They think it's "pretty funny that M is an upside down W!"
A small group of children enjoy putting together picture and letter puzzles with a parent volunteer. Abigail and Thalia beam when they find the appropriate upper- and lowercase letters to place alongside the picture of a ball.
Seizing a "teachable moment," Rose gathers the small group to read the book Storms by Susan Canizares and Betsey Chessen (Scholastic Inc.) after hearing several children discussing a tornado warning from the day before. The girls decide to become "twirling twisters." They chant these words as they spin around and around expressing the words in their movements. Chelsea tells Rose she wants to draw a picture for her own story. After she illustrates her story, this serious young author dictates, "Tornadoes seem to eat up people." Together, they share the exciting knowledge that Chelsea's spoken words can be heard and then written down and read by others.
Examples of emergent literacy are everywhere. In this child-centered program, filled with countless hands-on experiences for preschoolers, learning to read, write, speak, listen, spell, think, and create is fun. The process seems to occur effortlessly, disguising the hard work and preparation of the staff, who, guided by the National Head Start Standards for Emergent Literacy, make the experiences relevant to the children's daily lives.