By Kym Reinstadler
The Grand Rapids Press
HOLLAND (MI) We have heard, “It’s All Happening at the Zoo.” But the Apple Orchard Early Childhood Center is a total “Zoo Ta-Do.”
Teachers Sandy Stielstra and Nancy Crane started using a new method of teaching pre-reading skills called “Zoo-phonics®” this semester with students in their Young Fives classes. The teachers are wild about it. The kids are, too. Students are learning to read, write and spell so briskly that “it’s actually eerie,” the teachers say.
With results that good, Principal Ellen Westveer decided to have teachers and assistants in Holland Public Schools’ 4-year-old program trained to teach Zoo-phonics®, too. Joining them Thursday for training were 30 other early childhood teachers from throughout West Michigan.
The enthusiasm of workshop participants climbed almost as high as the excitement Stielstra and Crane experienced during recent parent-teacher conferences.
“Our parents are thrilled,” Crane said. “All of a sudden, their kids are reading signs and spelling and feeling so confident in themselves. It’s amazing. And it’s more than we anticipated.”
One shy student surprised his teacher by whispering in her ear that he could now read a book. Then, with her permission, he proceeded to read a beginner’s book cover to cover to the whole class. Another mother told the teachers that, thanks to Zoo-phonics®, she and her husband can no longer spell words out loud to communicate things they did not want their 5-year-old son to know yet.
The mother said she was telling her husband that she had purchased something for the boy, and his ears perked up from the next room. It was not a T- O-Y or C-A-N-D-Y.
“Wow!” the boy exclaimed. “You got me a motorcycle!” No spelled secret is safe from a kid who can make meaning out of a 10-letter word.
Stielstra and Crane had taught the alphabet the traditional way — introducing one letter a week — for more than a decade, but they say they were never delighted with the results.
Letters are abstract symbols of sounds, and some young children don’t easily grasp how letters are grouped together to make words, and can be shuffled to make other words. Zoo-phonics® makes abstract letters concrete and interesting by giving them a personality of an animal that is kind of shaped that way. The Zoo-phonics® alphabet stars Allie Alligator, Bubba Bear, Catina Cat, Deedee Deer, Ellie Elephant, Francy Fish, Gordo Gorilla, etc. The sound of each letter comes through the initial sound of the animal name. Students learn a body signal that represents each animal, and this movement helps young children lock in the learning.
This multi-sensory approach presents the alphabet as one thing with 26 parts. Students learn to decode letters (read) and encode letters (spell and write) all at once to songs and what looks like dancing.Zoo-phonics® sucks the stress out of building phonemic awareness, which is why the 5-year-olds seem to be learning so quickly and retaining it all, teachers said.
“Three-fourths of our students in Young Fives are boys, and boys love to move,” Crane said. “Zoo- phonics is a kinetic way to learn. It’s movement, music, animals and nature, which are naturally fun.”
Many teachers using Zoo-phonics® collect a menagerie of plush animals for their classroom to represent the alphabet. Because sounds are taught before the animal merges into a letter, Westveer said the center’s English as a Second Language students are picking it up faster than other methods of teaching reading.
Zoo-phonics® was developed by Charlene Wrighton and Gigi Bradshaw, two teachers in Northern California, during the mid-1980s when whole language approaches to teaching reading lacked a strong phonics component. The program is used widely in preschool and primary grades.
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