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Three students with differing characteristics commence school. How do they fare?

Dr Kerry Hempenstall, Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

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Sarah is looking forward to beginning school next year. Her preschool year was fun, but two hours or so was not enough time to do all the things she wanted to do and learn all the things that schools can teach over a whole day. Of course, she has already learned so much – she speaks clearly in well-constructed sentences, she relates well with her age-peers, having worked out or been taught the rules of games, sharing, listening, when to behave and when to "let go".

Sarah is especially keen to learn to read and has been primed by her parents. Since before she could remember, her parents have read to her for about thirty minutes each evening – nursery rhymes and fascinating stories. She pores over alphabet books, never misses Sesame Street and regularly records it on preschool days – spending nearly an hour a day watching, answering and singing along with them.

Sarah loves creating ridiculous rhymes and word games (especially when on car trips) and speaks to her friends in a strange tongue called Pig Latin that only she and her friends seem to understand. It involves systematic intentional word mutilation that creates a secret code. The initial consonant(s) of a word is shifted to the end of the word and followed by /ay/. So junk becomes unkjay, person becomes ersonpay.

She makes up words with magnetic letters on the fridge, she copies letters on butchers' paper using crayons, and she teaches her dolly how to hold a book and run her finger under the words from left to right. Sarah's interest in letters has increased even further since she began learning how to use the keyboard on the family's computer so she can enjoy the games it can provide. Sarah will have spent several thousand hours on experiences important for the development of reading skills before she even steps over the formal education threshold.

Johnny is the same age as Sarah. He is healthy, active ("Active? Are you kidding?" says his mother) and can only be found indoors when he's asleep, in trouble, or when his action heroes are on the box. He loves activity, whether riding his bike over home-made obstacles, shooting baskets, or playing football with friends. His parents did read stories to him, but he was always asleep within two minutes, or was too distractible, or complained about them reading him "baby stuff". So the reading routine gradually faded out, and "Besides", said Dad, "He's just a happy healthy little boy; he'll have plenty of time to learn stuff like reading at school".

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