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April 24, 2017 Pre-Reading Activities: Signs and Symbols By Elaine Winter
Grades PreK–K

    STOP! It’s not unusual to hear a parent announce proudly that his 2-year-old recognizes every stop sign on the way to school or that his daughter points out the small white person in the traffic signal as they wait to cross the street. Is she ready to read? they wonder. While the process of symbolic thought and its subset, symbol recognition, is old news to most educators, it seems to receive short shrift in parent circles.

    As young children begin keying into symbols, they are making a huge conceptual leap; they’re learning that a “picture” can convey a message. They can decipher it on their own and put to use. With this dawning realization (I know what that says!), their interest grows. They begin the process of decoding. A symbol can tell them to stop or walk, for example, indicate what is behind a door, or show which activity is coming up next. The following anecdotes track practical, purposeful applications of this realization and children’s interactions with symbol-reading and sign-making in our preschool community.

    Recently, Three/Fours teacher Cathy wrote the following in her weekly parent newsletter:

    “Time after time, a book read during our morning meeting sparks an intense interest in the children. Using photographs of common signs and no text, I Read Signs, by Tana Hoban is one such book.”

    “After reading the book, a question was asked: So, what exactly are symbols?

    •    A thing you can read without words.

    •    Symbols don't have any words.

    •    To tell when we go or stop.

    •    Shows which way to go.

    •    Tells us something not to do.

    •    You can read them when you can't read words yet.”

    This spurred a flurry of sign-making, the most popular being, Don't Touch! On Friday, we walked around the block in search of symbols and the children were excited to find many that were included in Hoban's book.”

    “The children's interest in signs/symbols has not waned and they continue to work on writing and drawing signs to label their work. One rainy morning, we took a walk around our building in search of signs and the children couldn't help but notice how many Exit signs they found!”

    On a subsequent rainy day, I noticed the class, split into small groups, touring our school building with their teacher Maite in search of signs. Children tallied the number of Exit signs. They called out the green and yellow arrows on our stairway indicating which side is up and which is down.

    They paused as Maite pointed out picture labels on a bathroom door. I jumped in to ask about the outline of a person in a wheelchair. Everyone knew that it was a wheelchair, but when I asked, “Why do you suppose there is a picture of a wheelchair on this bathroom door?” they looked at me blankly. I was able to explain that wheelchairs require extra room. A bathroom has to be big enough to accommodate a wheelchair. Unfortunately, I had recently broken an ankle and was wheelchair bound for a few months. I was able to relate how I had had to search for a bathroom with this picture on the door before I could go in.

    At roughly this same time, a dramatic incident took place in the Full-day Fours class. Its members, 18 now-5-year-olds are avid, ambitious block builders. Their structures are tall and complex and connect one to the other.

      

    Because they productively return to their block buildings day after day, and because space allows, the buildings remain in place throughout the week. Then, one mid-week morning, teachers arrived to find all the buildings toppled and blocks strewn across the floor.

    Their first thoughts were of their children’s disappointment on finding their buildings no longer erect and functional; their second was the massive cleanup that would necessarily occupy much of the morning. When classroom doors opened and children gathered on the rug, I joined teachers Nancy and Jean to tell them how much I respected their building efforts and how very sorry I was. We spoke about ways it might have happened:

    •    Maybe the cleaners knocked them down.

    •    Maybe a baby came in here, or a toddler.

    I replied that, sadly, this appeared intentional and we would need to investigate by asking for help from those in the larger music school division.

    I asked children what role they could play in preventing this from happening again, and we detoured into speculation about what the word “prevent” meant. Finally, Austin said, “It means make something not happen.” Savvy crew that they are, they first suggested: “Put up a video camera,” then, “Build doors and a roof. Put a lock on the doors,” and, finally, “Make a sign like, ‘Don’t touch my building!’” Aha!!!

    I’d been hoping someone would have this idea, and was waiting for them to discover it on their own. “What else could you say in a sign? I asked.” “Please don’t knock down structures. Do not touch. Do not enter the block area. Be careful — Please clean up!” Suddenly, a class of builders became a class of writers. With teacher support, they worked hard to create big bold words of warning that they would affix to future buildings. Personal and purposeful, the notion of preventing future block disasters provided strong motivation for every member of the class. Not only could they interpret signs, now they could send messages of their own.

      

    It’s true. Symbol decoding and sign-making are effective pre-literacy exercises. They can also be deeply personal and empowering activities. The non-reader can read. The builder can protect her building. A child and his mom can cross the street.

     

     

     

     

    STOP! It’s not unusual to hear a parent announce proudly that his 2-year-old recognizes every stop sign on the way to school or that his daughter points out the small white person in the traffic signal as they wait to cross the street. Is she ready to read? they wonder. While the process of symbolic thought and its subset, symbol recognition, is old news to most educators, it seems to receive short shrift in parent circles.

    As young children begin keying into symbols, they are making a huge conceptual leap; they’re learning that a “picture” can convey a message. They can decipher it on their own and put to use. With this dawning realization (I know what that says!), their interest grows. They begin the process of decoding. A symbol can tell them to stop or walk, for example, indicate what is behind a door, or show which activity is coming up next. The following anecdotes track practical, purposeful applications of this realization and children’s interactions with symbol-reading and sign-making in our preschool community.

    Recently, Three/Fours teacher Cathy wrote the following in her weekly parent newsletter:

    “Time after time, a book read during our morning meeting sparks an intense interest in the children. Using photographs of common signs and no text, I Read Signs, by Tana Hoban is one such book.”

    “After reading the book, a question was asked: So, what exactly are symbols?

    •    A thing you can read without words.

    •    Symbols don't have any words.

    •    To tell when we go or stop.

    •    Shows which way to go.

    •    Tells us something not to do.

    •    You can read them when you can't read words yet.”

    This spurred a flurry of sign-making, the most popular being, Don't Touch! On Friday, we walked around the block in search of symbols and the children were excited to find many that were included in Hoban's book.”

    “The children's interest in signs/symbols has not waned and they continue to work on writing and drawing signs to label their work. One rainy morning, we took a walk around our building in search of signs and the children couldn't help but notice how many Exit signs they found!”

    On a subsequent rainy day, I noticed the class, split into small groups, touring our school building with their teacher Maite in search of signs. Children tallied the number of Exit signs. They called out the green and yellow arrows on our stairway indicating which side is up and which is down.

    They paused as Maite pointed out picture labels on a bathroom door. I jumped in to ask about the outline of a person in a wheelchair. Everyone knew that it was a wheelchair, but when I asked, “Why do you suppose there is a picture of a wheelchair on this bathroom door?” they looked at me blankly. I was able to explain that wheelchairs require extra room. A bathroom has to be big enough to accommodate a wheelchair. Unfortunately, I had recently broken an ankle and was wheelchair bound for a few months. I was able to relate how I had had to search for a bathroom with this picture on the door before I could go in.

    At roughly this same time, a dramatic incident took place in the Full-day Fours class. Its members, 18 now-5-year-olds are avid, ambitious block builders. Their structures are tall and complex and connect one to the other.

      

    Because they productively return to their block buildings day after day, and because space allows, the buildings remain in place throughout the week. Then, one mid-week morning, teachers arrived to find all the buildings toppled and blocks strewn across the floor.

    Their first thoughts were of their children’s disappointment on finding their buildings no longer erect and functional; their second was the massive cleanup that would necessarily occupy much of the morning. When classroom doors opened and children gathered on the rug, I joined teachers Nancy and Jean to tell them how much I respected their building efforts and how very sorry I was. We spoke about ways it might have happened:

    •    Maybe the cleaners knocked them down.

    •    Maybe a baby came in here, or a toddler.

    I replied that, sadly, this appeared intentional and we would need to investigate by asking for help from those in the larger music school division.

    I asked children what role they could play in preventing this from happening again, and we detoured into speculation about what the word “prevent” meant. Finally, Austin said, “It means make something not happen.” Savvy crew that they are, they first suggested: “Put up a video camera,” then, “Build doors and a roof. Put a lock on the doors,” and, finally, “Make a sign like, ‘Don’t touch my building!’” Aha!!!

    I’d been hoping someone would have this idea, and was waiting for them to discover it on their own. “What else could you say in a sign? I asked.” “Please don’t knock down structures. Do not touch. Do not enter the block area. Be careful — Please clean up!” Suddenly, a class of builders became a class of writers. With teacher support, they worked hard to create big bold words of warning that they would affix to future buildings. Personal and purposeful, the notion of preventing future block disasters provided strong motivation for every member of the class. Not only could they interpret signs, now they could send messages of their own.

      

    It’s true. Symbol decoding and sign-making are effective pre-literacy exercises. They can also be deeply personal and empowering activities. The non-reader can read. The builder can protect her building. A child and his mom can cross the street.

     

     

     

     

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