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School Readiness - Social and Emotional Development, Oral Language and Pre-Reading Skills

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School readiness refers to the extent to which a child exhibits the behaviors, skills, and knowledge necessary to be successful in elementary school. These can be grouped into four categories: social and emotional development, oral language development and prereading skills, oral mathematics development and pre-mathematics skills, and general knowledge. Because individual schools vary in the timing with which they introduce academically demanding reading and mathematics instruction in kindergarten and first grade, the skills and habits recommended below are only approximate goals, to be attained to the greatest extent possible during the preschool and kindergarten years.

Social and Emotional Development

To be ready for school, the child must develop the social and emotional maturity to participate appropriately and learn from classroom activities. This requires adequate nutrition and health. It also requires that any hearing or speech deficits have been reduced to the greatest extent possible. Physical maturity may also be important and may be interrelated with social and emotional development. For example, the child must be able to care for her own toileting needs without supervision. Other self-help behaviors that must be developed include the ability to locate and care for personal belongings, to feed oneself independently, to get on and off the school bus with minimal supervision, to avoid obvious dangers, to put on and remove outer clothing within a reasonable length of time, to recognize problems and try strategies for solving them, and to communicate one's own needs and wants.

Beyond self-help, the child must also show appropriate group-oriented social behavior and classroom conduct. He must separate from parents and accept school personnel. The student must learn appropriate means for expressing emotions and feelings and properly play the role of an individual within the group. This includes showing respect for others and their property, playing cooperatively, and sharing and taking turns. The student must initiate and maintain peer interactions, and do so without aggression, while defending himself as needed. The student should be able to play both independently and with the group. When required, he should imitate peer actions, such as lining up and waiting appropriately. The student should be willing to try something new. The student should follow classroom rules, including voice control. He must respond to warning words (e.g., "No," "Stop") and modify his behavior when given verbal feedback.

Finally, the child must have sufficient maturity to successfully engage in task-related behaviors. This includes finding the materials needed for a task, holding and manipulating the materials, and doing so without disrupting other students. The student must be able to stay in her "own space" during the activity, work on the activity for an appropriate amount of time (e.g., fifteen minutes) with minimal cues and supervision by teachers, and complete the task on time and at a satisfactory performance level. If help is needed, the student should ask peers or the teacher for assistance in an appropriate manner (e.g., raising her hand). She should also replace materials, "clean up" the workspace, and follow classroom routines in the transition to the next activity.

In sum, to be socially and emotionally ready for classroom participation and learning, the child must be able to learn classroom routines and comply appropriately with teacher instructions. The child must maintain appropriate focus on the group's activity, learn from the activity, make choices, and generalize the knowledge gained to future activities.

Oral Language and Pre-Reading Skills

The child's understanding and production of oral language is the principal mechanism by which she communicates with others. To be ready for school, the child must be sufficiently skilled in both receptive and expressive language, and in verbal reasoning. In this regard, it is helpful if the child speaks Standard English, including the use of Standard English grammar. Vocabulary knowledge is also important. The child's transition to schooling is facilitated by already being familiar with the words and concepts employed by the teacher. In addition, such vocabulary knowledge can be critically important in learning to read. The size of a child's vocabulary on entering school has been shown to be one of the key predictors of the ease with which the child learns to read.

A rich oral language environment in the home and/or preschool provides the best preparation for schooling. This includes extensive conversation with adults, in which the child uses language to answer questions and discuss issues. The parent should interact with the child in a way that assists the child to develop reasoning skills and to understand and express more complex ideas.

By being read to and engaging in other print activities, such as playing with magnetic letters, puzzles, games, and so on, the child should have developed a variety of "concepts about print." These include the purpose of reading, the structure of written text, how stories work, what a word is, how words are composed of letters, and what spaces signify. The child should be able to show the front cover of a storybook and open it to start reading. He should know that one goes from left to right and top to bottom when reading English text. He should be able to identify a few words by sight. He should already have had some practice identifying and writing the letters of the alphabet. This practice, along with related activities in drawing and coloring, should be developing the child's fine motor skills to prepare for more systematic and demanding writing exercises.

A particularly important aspect of the child's oral language skill is her phonemic awareness. This is the ability to consciously pick out and manipulate from spoken words the smallest sound chunks that make up those words. These chunks are called phonemes. Learning to consciously pick these out of the sound stream of spoken language is a form of "ear training" that is very useful for the child's first major task in school–learning to read. This is because phonemic awareness involves identifying the spoken sound units that correspond to the letters or letter groups in written words. This helps the child to understand the "alphabetic principle"–that any combination of written letters can be "sounded out" and may represent a word that has meaning in the child's oral vocabulary. That is, groups of letters written together constitute a "code" that can be "decoded" by sounding out and listening for meaning. Another aspect of this principle is the idea that spoken words are composed of sounds that can be represented by letters, which can be written down to "encode" the spoken language into its written form. Thus, reading involves going from written to spoken words, whereas spelling involves going from spoken to written words (or at least to the letters required to write the words). The two together illustrate the one-to-one correspondence between spoken and written language.

Because speech is heard naturally as a continuous stream of sound, and short words and syllables are heard as one sound, children must be taught how to segment these sound chunks. For example, children and adults hear the word mat as a whole, even though it is made up of three phonemes. Teaching phonemic awareness to preschool children begins with the ability to hear and reproduce rhymes and alliteration, as in nursery rhymes. It then moves on to the ability to do oddity tasks (which first sound is different in the oral words big, hill, and bit?; which last sound is different in ball, pop, and mop?; or which middle sound is different in words such as pin, fun, and sit?). This skill may also be practiced by asking the child to repeat the first or last sound in a series of words spoken by the teacher or parent. It may help to prolong beginning sounds when pronouncing them for the child–for example, "ssssat" or "mmmmat."

With kindergarten-age children, one can begin to teach the ability to orally blend separate sounds (what word do the sounds /m/, /a/, and /t/ make?). This is a key skill that will be needed when the child first tries to read by sounding out words. A related ability is phonemic segmentation–skill at breaking a spoken word into its separate sounds. Instruction can begin by having the child tap out the separate phonemes, progressing to having the child actually reproduce the separate sounds after the instructor has said the word (for example, mat becomes /m/,/a/, /t/).

Oral vocabulary knowledge and phonemic awareness ability have already been discussed as keys to success in the most important first-grade task–learning to read. Other keys include knowing the names of the letters and the sounds they are associated with. Children should be able to identify most letters of the alphabet upon request and to indicate what sound the letter makes. They should be able to write the letters on request. Kindergartners also can begin to write some easy words. At this point they should begin to fully understand the alphabetic principle underlying the language, that letters combine to make words and that words, properly pronounced, carry meaning.

Oral Mathematics and Pre-Mathematics Skills

To be ready for first-grade mathematics, preschool and/or kindergarten children need skill, knowledge, and experience with mathematical ways of thinking and performing. It is helpful if children have been involved in games and activities in which they sort and classify objects by size, shape, and function. They should be given practice recognizing sets of objects and identifying items that belong and do not belong in a given set.

Children should learn to use concepts such as "the same as," "more than," "less than," "most," and "least." They should know the first ten or twenty numbers, being able to recite them and use them to count objects. They should recognize these numbers when they are written down and should be able to write them upon request. They should be able to orally respond to simple adding and subtracting tasks. They should understand simple geometric shapes and be able to copy them and answer simple questions about them. (What are their names? Which are alike? Which are different? In what ways?) They should be able to copy more complex geometric figures, such as a star or parallelogram, and be able to answer questions about them. They should know the parts of a whole and be able to identify half of a region, object, or set of objects.

In sum, to succeed in first-grade mathematics students should have as much experience as possible with numbers, counting, and simple geometric concepts. They should be able to count at least to ten, and perhaps to twenty or thirty, both forward and backward. They should be able to identify written numbers and to write down the first ten numbers on request. They should be able to apply this knowledge to simple counting problems. They should know the symbols "+" and "−" and be able to do simple addition and subtraction problems, as well as play games involving pattern recognition and strategic choices. The student should be prepared for first-grade work in both computation and problem solving. She should also be able to copy and identify simple geometric figures (square, triangle, and circle) and discuss their properties.

General Knowledge

To be ready to be successful at school, children need sufficient general knowledge to orient them properly within the school and the world at large, and to correctly respond to teacher requests. They should be able to tell their full name and age and be learning to write these. They should be able to identify the colors by name. They should know the names of their parents and the city or town where they live. They should be able to draw simple pictures, such as of people, animals, and places.

Children should know that objects have properties, such as length, weight, and capacity. They should have played hands-on games involving counting, comparing, sorting, and ordering objects. They should recognize pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters. They should have some experience with measurement, using a ruler, a scale, and a thermometer. They should be able to orient themselves in time: morning, afternoon, tomorrow. They should be able to tell time to the hour using a clock face. They should know the days of the week and the months of the year. They should know their left and right hands and be able to explain such contrasts as top/bottom, on/under, and in front/behind.


To be ready to be successful in kindergarten and/or first grade, a child must demonstrate adequate social and emotional maturity, oral language and prereading skills, oral mathematics and premathematics skills, and general knowledge. Where maturity is concerned, the child must have adequate self-help skills. He must also show appropriate group-oriented social behavior and classroom conduct, including the ability to successfully engage in task-related behaviors. Regarding oral language and pre-reading skills, the child must be skilled in both receptive and expressive language and in verbal reasoning. He should be familiar with "concepts about print" and be developing phonemic awareness (the ability to hear and manipulate the separate sounds in spoken language). For oral mathematics and premathematics skills, the child should be able to understand and use simple arithmetic and geometric concepts. Where general knowledge is concerned, the child needs sufficient command of information to be properly oriented within the school and to correctly respond to teacher requests. When these behaviors and skills are in place, the child is ready to take his place as a member of the learning community in the classroom and the school.


ADAMS, MARILYN. 1990. Beginning to Read. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

BARR, REBECCA; KAMIL, MICHAEL L.; MOSENTHAL, PETER; and PEARSON, P. DAVID, eds. 1996. Handbook of Reading Research, Vol. II. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

HIRSCH, ERIC D., and HOLDREN, JOHN, eds. 1996. What Your Kindergartner Needs to Know: Preparing Your Child for a Lifetime of Learning. New York: Delta.

SNOW, CATHERINE; BURNS, M. SUSAN; and GRIFFIN, PEG, eds. 1998. Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

STEUART, WATSON T., and GRESHAM, FRANK M., eds. 1998. Handbook of Child Behavior Therapy. New York: Plenum.


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