The transition from Kindergarten to Primary 1 is a huge milestone and one that many parents understandably worry about.
No longer are school days short with a great deal of variety. No longer do students have help in packing up their things or in organising their supplies. Teacher to student ratios are higher and more independence is demanded from our little ones.
In pre-school we encourage the development of creativity. We try to develop routines in the classroom and the following of rules. We foster students’ confidence in speaking aloud, asking questions when they do not understand, and reading more systematically.
However, once our young students reach Primary 1, we expect these skills to be solidified. We assume students are able to focus on a task and have the attention span to complete it. We presume they will follow instructions and generally operate within the rules and confines of a classroom environment.
Specific challenges that Pre-schoolers face during their transition to Primary 1
As young Kindergarten students, children are just beginning to learn to read. For many students this means phonetically sounding out words and getting to grips with tricky morphology. This 'decoding' of language – breaking down words into sounds and then putting them back together to form whole words – takes time and a great deal of effort. Students must think about all of the phonics rules they have learnt and apply any exceptions to these rules, to be able to read the text. With a great deal of practice, they may reach the level where they can read fluently, but many still struggle to make the jump between decoding for sound and understanding meaning at the same time.
Another challenge for new Primary 1 students is writing. We ask our Primary 1 students to be able to write words or even sentences to answer questions. This is a higher order task where they must first find the answer and then be able to apply all the spelling rules and fine motor skills to write the answers. As with reading, many students when leaving Kindergarten, are just solidifying their ability to write – as in putting words into their written form. When we add the additional task of putting their thoughts or answers into words and then into written forms, students can become frustrated with the higher challenge and give up or go off task.
The last challenge is less academic and more about students’ maturity and motivation. School can be hard. Primary 1 is very hard when students are accustomed to the variety and support offered in many kindergartens or preschools. Days are often longer in Primary 1 and there is a lot of work that students are expected to do. Standards of learning are also very high and time for recess or rest can be short. Students must make this 'life skills' jump at an early age.
So, how do we help our children mentally prepare for the change?
Most parents that I meet are keen to help their children with reading. They practise at home and put their kids into extra tuition to ensure that they are strong readers. As parents and teachers we often focus on this decoding skill or phonics. What we often miss in our push to promote fluent and strong 'readers' is the emphasis on meaning when we read. As adults we rarely read for the sake of sounding out or saying words. We always read for a purpose – to learn something, to understand the story, to find out information. Asking our children to read for this same purpose will help them read more fluently and read with the idea of understanding the text. The added benefit is that they might also enjoy it!
To do this, pick a story to read with your child. Focus on the title and the pictures. Do a 'story walk' where you look at the pictures and verbally tell the story without looking at the words. Talk about their expectations for the story. All of these 'pre-reading' tasks will focus the child on the meaning of the story which, remember, is why we read stories! This will also provide context for children to guess unknown words and give them another strategy besides decoding. Finally, read the story and discuss whether your expectations came to pass. Discuss what was surprising or new. Continue to focus on the meaning of the story so that children understand that reading is about meaning, not just a puzzle to be solved where letters are pieces that build to a word.
Similar focus on meaning can be done with writing tasks. Ask students to write for a purpose, maybe one sentence a day about their favourite activity of the day or writing a card to granny for her birthday. This idea that our thoughts can be put into words will eventually lead students to be able to answer questions, from forming the answer in their mind to converting it to the written form.
Lastly, when we ask our students to achieve a task, we must make activities engaging and purposeful for our children to be motivated to do them and to finish them. We develop these 'life skills' of maturity and focused attention that transition students effectively from pre-school to Primary 1 by showing students that these activities have a reason – they tell a story or they answer a question, they solve a problem or describe something. When students understand why they are doing something they are keen to do it.