Years ago we worked with a student named Alex. One day a delivery truck arrived and parked along the playground fence.
“There’s my name,” said Alex as she pointed to the truck. The outside teacher at the time looked but could not see Alex’s name written anywhere on the truck. Was Alex pulling the teacher’s leg, or did she mistakenly believe that any text he saw represented her name? Rather than correcting Alex, the teacher looked again until suddenly the name appeared: It was a FEDERAL EXPRESS delivery truck. (How long does it take you to see the name?)
Environmental print is often the first text that many children begin to independently read. Without instruction or recitation, children observe the world around them and naturally feel compelled to make sense of the symbols that decorate signs, windows, vehicles, buildings, etc. This curiosity about the meaning of words is latent in all children. Unfortunately, the path to fluency in school all too often becomes increasingly fraught with the pressure of benchmarks and the expectations of anxious adults. The child’s natural desire to understand the meaning of words is eventually supplanted with distaste for the act of reading itself. Learning to read becomes a task to be performed for the satisfaction of adults rather than an adventure of discovery and imagination.
At Progress School, children are not required or pressured to read at any age. It has been our experience that children can and will learn to read for the simple fact that they intrinsically recognize its necessity and value. Even more, in a school where the teachers support the child’s genuine interest in reading without unwanted instruction or adult agendas, a life long love of reading takes root. Children at Progress School learn to read when they are ready so that they are ready to learn whatever they want.
In order to support this process at Progress School, the learning environment is decorated with various types of text. Whether it is wooden signs constructed and hand painted in our woodshop or silly cartoon captions added to the pictures in the building, every opportunity to work with words in a relevant and engaging context is a step further in a child’s road to reading. Teaching moments present themselves where teachers may demonstrate specific letter-sound correspondence, rhymes, or spelling patterns, but the fun and function of words is never sacrificed for a checklist of instruction.
In addition to the signs and labels we create, the school is routinely decorated with educational posters that relate to the current theme of study and various student interests. Whether it is a poster of the parts of an insect body or an inspirational photograph with a poetic caption, the children are surrounded by text for the pleasure of their own curiosity.
The various examples of environmental print found throughout Progress School point the way for each child on their own road to reading. For teachers and other adults, the trust in a child on this journey demands patience and confidence. They are in the driver’s seat and we are the passengers. We know where we are going, but we don’t always know how or when we are going to get there, even with the most detailed of maps. We may look for signs along the way to reassure us that we are not lost, but if we look too hard we may not see the adventure and the beauty of this wonderful journey.
We carefully prepare the environment to provide students with resources that pique their interest in a variety of subject matters. To that end, we keep our shelves stocked with all manner of objects: books, math manipulatives, and natural specimens. One day recently, a student picked up our dried starfish specimen from the shelf and began to examine it. “How do starfish eat, anyway?” he pondered. Let’s find out…
The encyclopedia revealed this explanation, as retold by the student:
The starfish uses its arms to grab its prey and pulls it apart and closer to the hole in the middle. It has this part of its stomach that comes out and surrounds the food and pulls it inside its body to eat it.
This website yielded a similar explanation.
We found this video to watch a starfish eating.
We decided to draw a picture to explain to others how starfish eat.
It is within this inquiry-based framework that much of the learning at our school (and in the child’s world!) takes place. From this single question, sparked from a child’s natural curiosity about his surroundings, so much learning took place: we utilized a variety of resources to gather information, the student had the opportunity to practice reading and writing for a relevant purpose, and the student rephrased and summarized information for his peers. And it was fun!