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Preschool Images From Korea

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"Pay attention and listen. Would you all please pay attention and listen to me? I won't be able to go on until you pay attention and listen. O.K., no story today. Pay attention and listen. I won't be able to go on until you pay attention and listen. O.K., no recess today. Now, would you all please pay attention and listen to me?"

We ask very young children to "pay attention and listen" as if doing that were simply a matter of choice or free will; we punish them as if failing to listen or pay attention were acts of disobedience. In fact, if children frequently fail to listen and pay attention, teachers and even parents request that the child be labeled, medicated, put in special classes. But in focusing on children's "disabilities," we fail to recognize that attention management and listening and comprehending are complex skills that develop over time and need appropriate support and opportunities for practice to develop.

Discussions in this country of the proper goals for early-childhood education rarely mention helping children develop these kinds of skills. Yet the years between ages 3 and 5 are a crucial period for their development. My observations in South Korean preschools show ways teachers can support and foster this development.

As a society, we have come to accept in America that there are children who are "destined" to do poorly in school despite there being no evidence of any disability. These children can be described as being "demographically at risk." Essentially, they are children from low-income families whose parents did poorly in school. Why are they at risk? Why and how do our schools and teachers consistently fail in their responsibility to educate them? To those children who are poorly served by formal education, we are now adding an increasing number of children being labeled as deficient in the ability to "attend."

Extensive data collected over the past 30 years by a number of scholars working within different research traditions show substantial social-class differences in language skills. Many scholars have concluded that these differences are the underlying cause of social-class differences in school achievement. The conclusion has seemed plausible because language plays a central, crucial role in schooling--language is the medium of reading and the medium through which academic content is most typically transmitted and assessed.

I began to wonder about the nature of the link between language development and school success when I learned that Korean children excel academically even though Korean culture does not emphasize the types of language skills that American scholars have assumed are necessary for school success. Korean children receive much less encouragement to express themselves using language than North American and European children. If Korean children did poorly in school, their "underdeveloped" language skills might be used as an explanation. But, in fact, Korean students excel on precisely the skills that Westerners value, namely literacy, math achievement, and overall school success.

With the support of a Fulbright Fellowship and a grant from the Spencer Foundation, I spent five months observing early educational practice in South Korea, practice which is deliberately "nonacademic" in nature. My goals were to understand the foundations of the high levels of school success in that country and to gain a fresh perspective on issues of language development and success in school that could inform my work with demographically at-risk American students.

Once in South Korea, I spent many days observing in a variety of different preschool classrooms and also observed for shorter periods in public and private elementary school classrooms. Virtually all the Korean preschools had essentially the same structure--a 90-minute period of "child directed" activities in small peer groups, a 30-minute period of large-motor activity (recess, dancing), a 20-minute art project, and a 40-minute period of what I have called "teacher talk." The child-directed component of the Korean program is very similar to that found in high-quality American preschools; recess is also similar across cultures. But the teacher-directed portion of the Korean preschool differs from what is typically found in either child-directed or teacher-directed American classrooms.

For approximately 40 minutes each day, 40 children sit in neat rows while the teacher reads a story, presents a lesson (I observed lessons on chickens, bats, nutrition and eating with chopsticks, the role of the post office, and types of buildings), and leads the children in songs, games, and thinking activities (for example, make up a story about a sequence of pictures; figure out how to get a ball out of a hole too deep to reach into).

Compared with American classrooms, there is a lack of emphasis in Korea on children's talking. The teacher there talks more, talks in ways infrequently heard in American preschools, and uses routinized ways of helping children manage their attention. I saw only one occasion in which children were required to talk, and this was a very structured situation, with children standing up when their name card was selected and saying, "My name is ____ and I am a member of the Peach class."

There were frequent opportunities for children to volunteer to come to the front of the group to talk; often the eager volunteers found themselves speechless once they were selected and were sent back to their seats with a gentle smile. These opportunities for children to decide if they are ready to speak contrast with my observations in American preschool classrooms, where children often are required to take a turn even if they clearly feel uncomfortable and have nothing to say.

If Korean children are talking less in preschool than American children, what are they doing instead? They are listening and learning how to listen. In terms of "how to listen," they are learning both how to attend and how to comprehend. Not only do Korean preschool teachers talk much more than American teachers, but during this talk they convey a great deal of information and ask many questions that help children learn to think.

In one lesson, part of a unit about mammals, the Korean teacher talked for 16 minutes about bats. She provided many facts, helping the children develop an extensive knowledge base that could serve as a foundation for helping them attend to and understand later lessons about other types of animals. During the lesson, the teacher asked many questions. These were directed toward the entire group, and individual children were free to choose whether to respond aloud (sometimes only a few children responded, sometimes the majority did). As the following exchange shows, the teachers' questions were not meant to find out whether the children were listening to information that had just been presented (American teachers often use questions to recall or test attention: "Johnny, what did I just say?"), but instead directed the children's thinking by requesting that they make predictions, draw inferences, compare what they were hearing with something they already know, and so forth.

Teacher: Don't you wonder what kind of food bats like?

Child: They are always hanging upside down. Teacher: Do you know why?

Teacher: Some kinds of bats have really long tongues. Has everyone here seen frogs catching flies with their long tongues? It's just like that.

In short, the teachers' questions modeled the "meta-comprehension" skills used by capable readers. Even if an individual child did not respond aloud--or even silently--to a particular question, she had an opportunity to learn both from the type of question asked and from the answers her classmates generated. The overall discussion that resulted provided children not only with experience in using high-level comprehension skills but also with the rich knowledge base that is a crucial foundation for attention management.

I was at first startled to see Korean preschool and elementary teachers and students burst into song in the middle of lessons. The singing was accompanied by hand gestures and ended with the teachers and children sitting with hands folded in laps. I learned that this was a song traditionally used by teachers when they notice that children's attention is flagging ("My eyes are for watching, my ears are for listening ... "). It is considered inappropriate for a teacher to use it too often because that means that she is not maintaining the children's interest through other means, but the song was likely to be used about once every 10 minutes by most teachers I observed.

This "attention-management song" offers students a nonpunitive reminder that attention is valued and a routine way of recalling their attention. Implicit in the use of the song and in the criticism of teachers who use it too frequently is an assumption that the teacher shares responsibility for maintaining students' attention.

My observations in Korea confirmed my conviction that good language skills are a central component of school success. They also convinced me that American scholars and educators have by and large overlooked the components of language development that are most important for school success, while focusing on less important components. Almost all of the research that has looked at language-based predictors of school success has focused on expressive language measures--telling stories, recounting past events, describing picture sequences, describing activities during show-and-tell sessions, defining words and so forth. Scholars have overlooked receptive language skills. I suggest that these receptive skills are much more central to the language demands encountered in school than are expressive skills.

All normally developing children have basic receptive language skills and can understand simple language input, participating in simple conversations, and following short directions. But participation in school requires higher-order receptive language skills, such as relating what is being heard to what is already known, organizing and interpreting the incoming information, detecting ambiguities or disjunctions with already known information, predicting what might be said next, and so forth. A child who lacks these higher-level receptive language skills will be essentially unable to gain information and knowledge from language and hence unable to learn the types of things that are presented in school.

Even if the child masters the basics of decoding, he will be unable to gain information from text, that is, unable to read to learn. How can children possibly learn to read, to extract meaning from written text, if they do not have the skills to comprehend an equally complex level of spoken language? Underdeveloped listening skills--which may be manifested as a difficulty in maintaining attention--are likely to be a major, and largely unrecognized, source of school difficulties.

How are the skills for comprehending language input developed, and why might they be particularly underdeveloped in the group of children considered to be demographically at risk? Many children develop excellent receptive language skills at home because their parents talk with them, respond at length to their questions about the world, and perhaps also read to them. Research shows that low-income parents are less likely than middle-income parents to either converse with or read to their young children. This does not mean that the children from low-income families have a disability in attention or receptive language skills. It does mean that it is important for teachers to provide ample opportunities and support for the development of higher-order receptive language skills in preschool and elementary school.

Appropriate activities are easily incorporated into classrooms, but teachers are unlikely to do so unless they are aware of their importance. In fact, research shows that most preschool and kindergarten classrooms provide children with very few language-learning opportunities.

The ongoing debate about whether early-childhood education should be child-directed and play-oriented or teacher-directed and academically oriented needs to be refocused to take into consideration the developmental challenges faced by preschoolers. Between these two approaches lies the possibility of designing programs that will foster the development of skills that can provide an essential and strong foundation for later school success. These genuinely "preacademic" skills include developing (1) a coherent knowledge base sufficient to support comprehension, (2) self-management skills such as attention management, comprehension monitoring, and persistence, and (3) higher-order language skills that include a growing ability to "inter-translate" between language and knowledge, so that knowledge and thoughts can be expressed in language, and knowledge can be acquired from incoming language.

If these preacademic foundations were to become the focus of early-childhood education and if we were certain that they were well-established before introducing children to reading, far fewer children would experience failure during the early elementary years.

Although it might not be possible or even desirable to replicate the Korean approach to early-childhood education in the United States, knowledge of how Koreans approach instruction in these years provides a fresh perspective from which to view American practice and assumptions. At a time when Americans are concerned about an "epidemic" of children who appear to be suffering from attention deficits and a "national crisis" of functional illiteracy, these images from Korean preschools offer a model of how teachers can support the development of the preacademic foundations children need to successfully meet the challenges posed by formal schooling.

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