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Using Puzzles in Early Childhood to Develop Prereading Skills

I was an inner-city classroom teacher in a new, open-space school, part of a 4th grade team consisting of 4 teachers and 100 students. Sixteen of our students could not read even at the 1st grade level. They were all boys, and of course, these students were the ‘behavior problems’. Within the first two weeks of school, many of them were spending more time in the office for behavioral referrals than in their classrooms. The instruction was not differentiated according to reading levels, so these students were learning very little in materials geared toward a 4th grade reading level.

My background was Alternative Education, and my passion was working with students who were ‘slipping through the cracks’. I suggested to the other three teachers on the team, that if they were willing to increase their class sizes, I would take the 16 non-readers. The other teachers jumped at the opportunity, and the administrator approved. By the third week of school, I had been relocated to a small, self-contained room with the 16 non-readers.

I used some strategies that had proven successful in the past. This included going ‘back to basics’… checking to see what each child DID know, and what the specific gaps were for each student. All of the boys knew the letters of the alphabet and had some beginning knowledge of consonant sounds. Each could read just a few words.

We started there, at their instructional level, with games and activities that I created as I tried to teach words with the CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) short vowel sound pattern. I was amazed at how difficult it was for these 10 and 11 years old boys to put letters and sounds together in this simple CVC pattern.

Now, coincidentally, during this same time period, I was pregnant with my first child. As many first-time mothers-to-be, I bought an over-abundance of things in anticipation of the arrival of my first child.

One evening, I had purchased some simple inset puzzles… the ones that don’t have interlocking pieces. There was a puzzle with vehicles, each cut to fit in its own separate cut-out space, each with a little red knob for small hands to manipulate. Another puzzle had animals, while a third had people.

I realized when I arrived at work the next morning, that I had forgotten to take the bag containing the puzzles out of my car. Because my school was located in a part of the city were car break-ins were common, the administrator had directed staff to leave nothing of value in our cars during the day. I carried the bag of puzzles into the classroom and put it on the floor beside my desk.

The day proceeded normally. It was a rainy day, with an indoor recess, and an educational assistant came to my room to monitor the class while I took my 15-minute break.

When I came back at the end of my break, the educational assistant was nowhere to be seen. The boys were all clustered near my desk, sitting on the floor, actively engaged with something. I quickly realized they had torn open the bag from the toy store, opened each of the puzzles, and had the pieces scattered all over the floor.

I was upset… at the assistant who was supposed to be monitoring my class, and at the students, for getting into my personal items and opening puzzles intended for my as-yet-unborn child. I sternly demanded that the boys put the puzzles back together!

And then I watched in utter amazement, as I realized that not one of these 4th grade boys was able to put the pieces of a simple inset puzzle back in place!

This was one of the Ah-ha! moments of my life. If these children could not take apart and put together concrete objects as basic as simple inset puzzles, how on earth could they take apart and put together abstractions, such as letters and sounds.

Our classroom changed. I kept those opened puzzles in the classroom, and I bought more simple inset puzzles for my students, as well as easy interlocking puzzles with only a few pieces. The students became adept at taking these puzzles apart, then putting them together again to create a predetermined whole.

I bought blocks for the classroom, which they put together, then took apart, then put together again in different ways, creating a wide range of things, similar to what we do with letters when sounding out words.

I created time in each day for the boys to explore and work with these manipulatives, helping them learn to do with these concrete objects, that which reading requires them to do with the abstractions of letters and sounds.

Some of the boys made several years of growth in reading that year. However, I may have learned the most, as I came to realize the essential nature of ensuring that children are exposed to developmentally appropriate materials.