On The Same Page

Preschool parent Elena Thurstrum struggles with making sense of her daughter Courtney's reading readiness. She finds little comfort in Courtney's teacher's reassurances and continued focus on social issues. Eventually, Elena begins searching elsewhere for solutions.

Elena observes her daughter’s preschool class and reflects on her progress.

Elena Thurstrum hesitated at the classroom door and listened to the quiet buzz within. As usual, she was amazed that anyone could keep a large group of preschoolers settled and focused. Peeking through the partially open door and watching the carefully placed observation mirror, she saw her daughter Courtney and another little girl sitting quietly in the reading corner sharing a book. This was Elena’s second classroom observation, and she was pleased to see her daughter interacting with another student. The two girls were reading Courtney’s current favorite book, Angelina Ballerina. Not that Courtney

Courtney enjoys a book at school.

could really read, but as she and her friend turned the pages of the book, Courtney retold the story with the same expression her father Gerry used when reading before bedtime. A proud smile played across Elena’s face, but was quickly replaced as a third girl snatched the book from Courtney, yelling, “Hey, I wanna read, too!” and plunked down on an adjacent pillow. Just as Elena would have suspected, Courtney reacted by looking wounded, gazing at the place were the book had been, and slipping her thumb into her mouth. Her friend just shrugged and scooted over to get a better look at the pictures. After a few minutes, Courtney got up and moved toward another student who was playing with blocks. She hovered nearby, thumb in mouth, until her teacher Susan approached and gently coaxed her to get a set of the red and blue blocks for herself. Just when Courtney got settled, the music teacher arrived to relieve Susan so that she could meet with Elena.

Susan greeted Elena at the door. “I’ll be in the office in two minutes. Just let me grab a drink.” Their conference was scheduled for 11:15 and Elena needed it to be prompt. She had to be back at the office by noon for a client meeting.

Wandering back to the director’s cramped office, Elena found a spot for herself on a chair near the desk. The computer monitor caught her eye, and just as she leaned closer to take a peek at what looked like a helpful web site on young readers, Susan entered, water bottle in hand. Feeling as if she’d been prying, Elena quickly leaned back into her chair, crossed her legs, and smoothed her skirt.

Elena did not consider herself a typical mother. She’d entered parenting after twelve years of practicing law and becoming a partner in her firm. She had gone back to work fulltime after just three months. The difficulty of doing this had surprised her.

She’d always imagined that she would easily manage a career and child, but heart wrenching images of Courtney had floated through her head on her first day back at work, and she’d actually found herself crying in the bathroom stall many times during those first few weeks. Since then, she’d become used to their separation, but the intensity of her feelings for Courtney still surprised her. Elena constantly worried about her daughter. Was she warm enough? Eating enough vegetables? Getting the proper amount of sleep? Developing fine motor skills? And now she was concerned about her progress in school. In less than two years Courtney would be starting kindergarten at a prestigious private school. With a price tag that rivaled what she’d paid for law school at a public university, it set very high standards for academic excellence. Would Courtney be ready?

She and Gerry, her husband, had read to Courtney as an infant, or at least tried to. Courtney hadn’t shown much interest in books. Instead, she’d chewed on them or, later, tried to wriggle out of Elena’s arms when she sat her in her lap for book time. Elena knew from parenting magazines how important it was to read from infancy, but Courtney simply hadn’t liked it, so they’d let it slide a bit. Finally, at about twenty months, Courtney had begun to sit still for a before-bed book and eventually had reached the point where she regularly requested books, had favorites, and settled into a nightly reading ritual, usually with Gerry.

Their nanny was on strict orders that Courtney was only allowed one TV show per day, and that it had to be an educational one, like Reading Between the Lions or Sesame Street. They hadn’t started Courtney in preschool earlier because it seemed like a play group (which she was already in) rather than an education. To make up for that, they had ” ‘puter” time most nights for several months, and one of them would sit with Courtney and interact with any of the educational CDs that they’d purchased. Courtney loved to point out the various animals as they popped out and would sing along to the catchy jingles that identified concepts. But she didn’t seem to get the concepts, just seemed to have fun. While she recognized a “c” for Courtney, and could sing the alphabet song, she didn’t seem very consistent when they were practicing with flashcards.

Elena was worried.

Susan and Elena discuss Courtney’s growth and have different reactions to her progress.

On the other hand, Susan was pleased with Courtney’s progress. This was Courtney’s first year at school and she was the youngest in her class. It showed. She’d been reluctant to speak up and had some trouble following routines. She got frustrated quickly when she couldn’t do a task her peers seemed to find easy, like cutting paper or buttoning clothes.

She’d come a long way in just a few months: her fine-motor skills were improving, she understood the class routines, was a wiz at following directions, and she now even had a couple of friends. Despite these new friends, Courtney still often played alone – quite happily – on the playground.

Susan smiled at Elena as she joined her and began their conference. “Courtney is such a wonderful child and is doing really well here at Cloverlane. She’s really settled into our routines, and I just couldn’t ask for a better helper.”

Elena smiled back. She really did like Susan and had picked her class after observing at four other preschools in the area. But she felt like they were never on the same page and figured that Susan probably got along better with the stay-at-home mothers who volunteered in class or brought in homemade bread and made crafts with the children. “I know,” said Elena, “she’s really helpful to us at home, too. She’s always been eager to please. I’m not really concerned about that. What really concerns me are her academic skills. We just don’t see her getting any closer to reading. And I haven’t seen any evidence of her math progress.”

Inwardly, Susan groaned. Parents, she thought, put way too much pressure and emphasis on academics these days. That would come. This was the time for their nurturance. More than anything, Susan wished more parents could just delight in watching their child’s personality and intellect unfold naturally.

Outwardly, Susan responded calmly. She was used to dealing with these high-achieving parents; it was the clientele the school aimed to attract. “Well, at her developmental stage we’re really looking at social development and laying the groundwork for intellectual growth, along with academics. The students do math and language arts work every day.” Susan crossed her legs and leaned forward. “The red and blue rods you saw Courtney using today help introduce the concept of addition. And now that Courtney’s eye-hand coordination is progressing, we’ll start working on letter formation.” Susan could feel herself getting defensive, and she stopped to take a breath.

Elena interjected, “But will she be ready for kindergarten? Will she be reading?”

“I can’t answer that.” Susan shrugged her shoulders slightly. “She is showing signs of emergent literacy. She recognizes concepts of language, like what words are and that letters make up words. She ‘writes’ stories now and even writes some letters. Every child progresses towards reading at a different pace. We provide the environment that supports her growth, but it’s not going to happen until she is developmentally there, if that makes any sense.”

“But other kids her age are reading.”

“Some are, but not many. She will get there, I can promise you that. It’s just a matter of time.”

Elena wasn’t satisfied, but a glance at the clock showed that she only had five minutes before she had to leave to make it back to her office on time. “Is there any way I can observe a reading lesson?”

“Sure! I’d love to have you back for another observation. We don’t do specific reading lessons, but we work on many prereading skills during circle time. You should come and observe during that. When do you want to come in?”

Pulling out her trusty Palm Pilot, Susan began scrolling through her schedule. “I usually take Wednesdays off. Would that work for you?”

Click here to read about the red and blue number rods Elena saw Courtney use.

Elena and Gerry discuss Courtney’s reading progress before a bedtime story.

Elena plopped down at the dinner table between her husband and daughter. Thankful for the deli around the corner, she dug into her pasta and began to catch up on the day’s events with Gerry. In between feeding herself, assisting her daughter, and rehashing the case she’d been working on, she managed to also touch upon her conference at Cloverlane Preschool. She and Gerry had an unwritten rule about discussing topics like this in much detail in front of Courtney, but Elena managed to address the major points by spelling out key words, saving a more detailed discussion of Courtney’s progress for later.

Courtney had little interest in her dinner even though noodles were among her favorites. “Mamma, can I have a cookie and go play?” she asked as she slid off of her chair and wandered toward the kitchen.

“How about eating a little more dinner first?”

“But I’m not hungry.”

“OK, then, go play in the living room while we finish dinner, but no cookies.”

Courtney and her father enjoy
a bedtime story.

Courtney spun around, attempting a wobbly pirouette, and headed toward the rug, her doll Sally, and Polk, the family hound. There she busied herself dressing up Sally and engaging in a streaming monolog with the doll while Polk looked on, blinking. Satisfied with Sally’s latest look, she turned her attention to the dog and placed a cotton bonnet on his head, to little reaction.

“Bath time!” Elena announced, “Come on, Sweetie.” Elena enjoyed this evening ritual with her daughter. She usually handled the bath and Gerry took over for bedtime reading. They’d settled into this routine rather accidentally, but found it allowed each of them a little quiet time to themselves.

After Courtney was bathed she insisted on putting on her favorite stripped shirt and a purple tights despite Elena’s best attempts at persuasion. After handing her off to Gerry for a story, Elena spent a little time researching reading readiness articles online. She was hoping to find the reading screening tool she’d seen that morning before Courtney’s conference. She wanted a little more information before she visited Cloverlane again.

Click here to see the online screening tool for parents that Elena found.

Click here to see the home literacy checklist that Elena found.

Elena visits another preschool so she’ll have something fresh in mind to compare with Cloverlane during her next observation.

She wasn’t exactly sure it was a good idea to switch Courtney’s preschool, but after reading those articles and thinking about her conversation with Susan, Elena wanted to at least refresh her memory on what else was offered in her community. So, she arranged another visit to the school that had been second on their list. Elena felt a little devious visiting under the guise of a possible transfer, but she reasoned that schools like these were used to visitors. Besides, what could be more important than Courtney’s education?

After checking in with the school director, Elena was led by the secretary to a classroom in which the children were all seated in a near perfect semicircle on their reading rug. “Eyes on me,” their teacher chimed. And, they were.

Elena scanned the room and found it neat, orderly, and brimming with books and letters. There was no dress-up corner, no kitchen, no art nook with its brightly colored paints. There were plenty of books, paper, and pencils. Items that didn’t fall into these categories were labeled with cheerful cards proclaiming what they were: computer, chair, desk, table, pencil sharpener, cubby.

After several familiar songs and calendar time, the teacher did some alphabet work. The routine was clearly a familiar one, and the students waited for their cues and eagerly chimed in when prompted.

See lesson plans the teacher used below:

As Elena listened to the lesson, she eyed some of the math papers stacked neatly on the counter next to her. Now that’s more like it, she thought.

See the math papers Elena admired below:

Elena walked out to her car shaking her head. On one hand, she was impressed by the no nonsense approach she had seen. On the other, those kids seemed a little young for so much structure. Shouldn’t there be a little more play? She wondered which approach would be best for Courtney.