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Pre-reading skills in a play-based curriculum

Pre-reading skills in a play-based curriculum

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July 18, 2017 | Carmen Choi

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early childhood education.“


INTRO: On episode 53 of the show, we interview Ruth Rumack, creator of Alpha Mania Adventures, a 5-part story book series that teaches pre-reading skills in a play-based curriculum. Ruth is also the founder of Ruth Rumack’s Learning Space in Toronto and she’s passionate about creating inclusive learning environments. In our conversation, we learn about the impact of developing pre-reading skills on the life-long ability to read and understand the written word. Ruth emphasizes that reading is not just a skill for academic success, but is directly correlated with success that goes well into adulthood.

If you are a teacher looking for practical tips on how to teach pre-reading skill in your preschool classroom, then stay tuned to this episode of the preschool podcast.


Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Ruth, welcome to the Preschool Podcast.


Ruth RUMACK: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure.


SPREEUWENBERG: It's so great to have you on the show. And it's also awesome because you're one of the very few guests that we've had in Toronto, which is where we are. So that's pretty cool!


RUMACK: Way to go Toronto!


SPREEUWENBERG: Yay Toronto! So we're here to talk to you today about your work, which a lot of it focuses on phonological awareness. Can we start off first with what that is?


RUMACK: Absolutely. Phonological awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate sounds within spoken language. So it's really an oral skill that children develop very early on. We start with babbling as babies, as infants, and we learn what sounds are appropriate in the language that we are learning, or the language that we hear around us. And in English, understanding the individual parts of a word will lead to stronger reading skills and stronger spelling skills in the future. So the stronger your phonological learning skills are as you develop – let's say before Grade 1 – the higher success rate you have to be a strong leader going forward.


SPREEUWENBERG: And so is it fair to say that phonological awareness becomes quite important into what we would call the preschool age of three to five?


RUMACK:I really think that's your critical age. It's definitely something you can develop – you can continue developing your phonological awareness skills as you age, as you get older. And you can certainly remediate for children who do not have strong phonological awareness skills if they're after age five. But those really critical years are age three to five because they're playing with language, they're having fun, they're enjoying. And their ears are like little sponges. Our brains are like sponges at that time and we're really taking in everything that's around us and processing it as we go along.


SPREEUWENBERG: So is it fair to say that phonological awareness is kind of like the formative part of reading and spelling before you may actually be at the point where you are doing more complex reading and spelling?


RUMACK: Yes. There is a huge bank of research that tells us that having strong phonological learning skills and phonics skills – and phonics skills where you are so seeding a symbol with a sound, sound-symbol correspondence or letters-sound correspondence – having those two pieces in place before you start to read are really critical, really important for that child's development as a reader later on.


SPREEUWENBERG: Very cool. And so you have a read-aloud, play-based storybook series called Alpha-Mania Adventures, and it focuses on the different phonological awareness skills. Can you tell us a little bit more about each of those skills?


RUMACK: Absolutely. So the Alpha-Mania Adventures books are based on the phonological skills of rhyming – which is recognizing that the endings of words are the same, like “at, cat, bat, sat,” they all end in the same sound “at” – at as well as blending. So you're taking individual sounds and squeezing them together. For example, if I said “map” really slowly I would ask the child to squeeze it together and say it fast, and they would come up with the word “map”. Again, oral skills, these are things that you can do just by talking and playing, even in a circle time or in transition times. It's not necessarily something formal that you have to sit down with a paper and pencil to do, because as I said they are oral skills.

So we've got rhyming, we've got blending. We have alliteration, recognizing that the beginning sounds of words are the same. If we had a silly sentence like “Marvelous monkeys make muffins,” we would want that child to recognize that each word starts with the same sound “M” at the beginning. We have rhyming, blending, segmenting, we have alliteration. Blending is squeezing the words together, segmenting is pulling them apart. So it's where we would take one word, like the word “sit”, and ask the child to hear each sound that they can notice. So, “S-I-T.” And in that mental gymnastics of being able to pull words apart and squeeze them back together and recognize the beginnings and the ends, these are the pieces that create strong phonologic awareness.

And when you've got all of that together then we get to the last developmental stage, which would be manipulating sounds within words, and that would be something like taking the beginning sound away and recognizing what would be left, or manipulating a sound in the middle. So for example, if I said to you, “Say ‘jet’ without the ‘J’”, what would you say?


SPREEUWENBERG:“Et.”


RUMACK: Excellent! “Et.” What would you say if I said, “Take the word ‘bit’ and change the middle sound ‘I’ to an ‘A’”?


SPREEUWENBERG:I would say “bat”.


RUMACK:You would be correct! So it's that idea of playing with language and being able to manipulate it that creates those strong skills for the future.


SPREEUWENBERG: That's kind of a fun game, I kind of wanted to keep playing.


RUMACK:I've got lots more – so many more. So what we did is we took those skills which we know are, as I said, decades and decades of research that tell us that those are the skills that students need in order to be strong readers. And we created not only a series of books that plays with those ideas and those skills within the books, but we also have a full, ready-to-use phonological awareness classroom program that infuses those skills throughout the day so that kids are practicing those skills in a really fun, enjoyable atmosphere.

So our books in particular, [in] each of these we have our characters, Alex, Eddie, Izzy, Olly and Umber, and they live in the Letter Lagoon. Now I'm going to see if you're on the ball. Can you notice anything interesting about their names, Alex, Eddie, Izzy, Olly and Umber?


SPREEUWENBERG: They all start with a vowel?


RUMACK:Very good, very good! And they all start with a short vowel sound, too, which is really important at the beginning stages of that phonological awareness, and that early reading stage or pre-reading stage, is to practice those short vowel sounds.


SPREEUWENBERG: Cool.


RUMACK: So [in] each of our books, the five kids, they're fun, they're lovable, they solve problems, they're great teamwork members, and they solve a different problem each book. So in the first book they meet up with Captain Ray and the Rhyming Pirates. And these are really fun pirates, but they're bumbling – they don't really know how to be good pirates. So the kids teach them how. And in the process the kids realize that the pirates speak in rhyme, and so they not only have to identify the pirates’ rhyming couplets but they also have to generate their own rhymes. So we are modeling through these characters how to use the skill of rhyming.

In the second book they meet up with Slomo the Sloth, and he speaks very slowly. And the kids learn how to squeeze his words together in order to decode what he's trying to say, to get the message of what he's trying to say. So each book they meet up with a different creature. In the segmenting book they meet up with the Splitter Critter, who splits words apart in order to make magic on the island. And in one of the last books they meet up with the Switcheroo, who switches sounds within words in order to manipulate those sounds to get new words, and the kids have to solve the riddles in order to figure out where the treasure is hidden.

So what we've tried to do is create a really fun, enjoyable, energetic book that teaches the children how to use these skills in a way where they don't even realize that they're learning how to use the skill. So it's something that is underlying in the story, but at the outset the story is just a fun, read-aloud story that educators can use to promote these skills.


SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah, sounds really fun, actually. So you mentioned a little bit about a program that also helps with infusing this into our programs throughout the day. And as we know a lot of early-childhood education programs are moving more towards a play-based curriculum, an emergent curriculum. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?


RUMACK: Absolutely. When we look at play-based curriculum we want the children to be exploring. We want them to be curious. We want them to find things that they're interested in and go with that. And it's our job as educators to be aware of it, to observe that, and then to provide them with opportunities to explore that skill or that newfound love. The thing about phonological awareness and phonics is that it needs to be taught explicitly, in that the research tells us that a child doesn't just come to these skills on their own necessarily. Some will, who have really strong language skills, will pick things up as they go along. But we know that overall these skills need to be taught in a way that is more direct. So in this age of play-based education we need to find ways within the day to infuse that into our daily routine. So a lot of our suggestions center around circle time, where we're playing sound games, we're playing games with different activities.

So for example we do one called “Silly Soup”, where you take a big bucket or a big bowl with a big wooden spoon and you throw all kinds of items into that silly soup. And you might have an array of items on the floor or on the table that all start with the same sound that also have some decoys in there. And you're going to ask the students in the circle or the children that you're working with to find something that starts with the letter, let’s say, “M”. And we're going to make a soup that starts with the sound “M”. So we want to find, maybe you’ve got a mushroom there. Maybe you have a monkey that you want to put in the soup. Maybe you want to put… remember it's “Silly” soup, so anything goes.

But what you're doing is you're trying to attune that child's ear and have fun and play with it at the same time. And then you mix it all up and we can sing songs about that particular sound, anything that we're really enliven that moment. But we're still taking that teachable moment and they're active in their participation.


SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And would you say that would be the most challenging part of delivering a phonetics or phonological awareness into programming in a classroom setting, is that a way that you've recommended where you infuse it – and I really like that word? Or [are] there other challenges with implementing this in the classroom?


RUMACK: Well, when you are in a busy classroom and you've got a lot going on and you've got lots of different needs – you've got different attention spans, you've got different interests – there's always the challenge. I think if you can for certain add it your story time and finding books, rhyming books, is quite easy. Finding books even that have alliteration, so looking at the rhythm of words and finding books that all start with the same sound in each sentence, that's not too much of a challenge, either. I think finding books that work on segmenting – pulling sounds apart – or the blending, pulling them together, squeezing them together, that's more of a challenge. And that's really why we created the book series, because we wanted to give educators an opportunity to use the developmental stage that that child was at in a continuum and make sure that it was easily accessible.

So story time as a great time to add these different skills. Transition times are a great time to add these skills, because a lot of phonological awareness games and activities don't need any preparation. You can do it while you're standing in line to go outside. You could do it as a way for children to leave the circle. So for example, you might say, “I'm going to call your name. If you hear your name – and we're going to add another word that adds something to your name, so I might say ‘Ravishing’ Ruth – you may go and get your coat on. Or let's say ‘Perfect Penelope’, you may go and get your coat on. Or you can use that skill in a variety of ways throughout the day that doesn't even really need any preparation at all.


SPREEUWENBERG: And what about from the children's perspective? Are there certain areas where research or studies have shown where they're struggling with phonological awareness?


RUMACK: Well, when we look at the research, 42% of Canadians and 52% of Americans have lower literacy rates, and that means that they may be able to read at a maybe Grade 1 or Grade 2 level. But beyond that they struggle, which means that, moving ahead in society, getting a better job qualifying for the next bracket as you want to move up in life, becomes very, very challenging. Even taking care of your own personal health becomes challenging – reading instructions for medications or being able to understand instructions at a higher level. Those individuals that struggle with low literacy, [it really] has a negative impact on their life. And we even know research that says that their life expectancy is decreased because of the correspondence with low literacy rates.

So it's definitely something that is challenging. And when we recognize that a child has low phonological awareness skills we can remediate. We can do a whole host of things that will help that child gain those skills. Even children who have been diagnosed with particular reading challenges or a dyslexia diagnosis – in Canada we don't call it dyslexia anymore, it's now called a reading challenge in various ways – even if you have been diagnosed with something that is said to be pervasive and lifelong we know that we can give children and adults skills that will help them in becoming stronger readers. And so it's something that, if you recognize that your little ones, these three- to five-year-olds, are not catching on to reading or are not catching on to, let's say, rhyming for example, one of the pre-reading skills, we can work with that child. We can practice; we can work in a systematic way that will actually give them that skill which will allow reading to be a much easier task for them in the future.


SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah, and that's a really interesting point that you raise about the impact that your reading capabilities have on your daily life, in addition to maybe your career or professional life, because you're absolutely right. I mean, as consumers in today's world we get a lot of complicated stuff thrown at us, like with medications and legal documents, and they're pretty complicated stuff in there. And being able to read through that effectively obviously has an impact on you, which is something I never really thought of. But it's a very good point.


RUMACK: I talk a lot about impacting a generation, impacting the next generation. And I strongly believe that as early-childhood educators we have an opportunity and almost… it's imposed on us that we must do everything that we can do to create a successful generation of readers. And we have that opportunity, we have that in front of us, because we have the skills, we have the resources. And if we just implement this pre-reading activity, something that’s even five-to-ten minutes a day, it goes a long way to making that a successful generation of readers.


SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah, and I think it reiterates the point of being proactive with your programming and your planning, and thinking about, “How am I going to incorporate phonological awareness into my program today, for example?” And the benefits of spending that time to do that thinking in advance, while also keeping that open mind and flexibility to infuse it throughout the day when you're following that more play-based and emergent curriculum.


RUMACK: You know, you can be sitting at the play center at your drama center, and one of the children maybe is really into “restaurant”. So they're playing restaurant, a group of kids playing restaurant, and you might say, “Oh, could somebody find something in the fridge that rhymes with ‘Wilk’?” And then maybe they're going to open the fridge, they understand what a rhyme is and they're going to find the thing that rhymes with ‘Wilk’ which might be ‘Milk’! Or you might say, “Could you please pass me the ‘Bup’?” And they look at you and they say, “What? Pass you the ‘Bup’?” And you [say], “Can you find something that rhymes with the word ‘Bup’?” And maybe they'll pass you the ‘Cup’. So those little pieces can be put to almost any part of the day, at any part of your center.


SPREEUWENBERG: Absolutely. And if I’m listening to his podcast I want to learn a little bit more about your work and Alpha Mania, where would I go to get more information?


RUMACK: You can find more information at Alpha-Mania.com. You can also find information at RuthRumack.com. And we also have a third website: RumackResources.com, where we have all sorts of things available for educators.


SPREEUWENBERG: Well thank you so much for coming on the show today, Ruth. You've certainly enlightened me to the importance of phonological awareness and the impact it can have in our lives, and also how we can implement that in an early-childhood setting. So thank you again so much for coming on the show today.


RUMACK: It has been my pleasure.


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