Supporting Early Literacy Skills with KidDesk

by Carol Bell and Joyce Johanson

Placing my jacket on the hook of the coat tree, I take a look around the room and begin to actively make decisions on what the most appealing activity might be to start my day. Pulling out a chair at the computer, I decide this is the best place to start before moving to the resource center for research and then perhaps the kitchen area for a light snack.

After starting the computer, I check the calendar and make some additions. I change the desktop to reflect my mood, leave a voice mail message for a friend, and then send some e-mail messages. While working, friends from other areas drop by to talk, ask questions about my work, and suggest some changes. After sending my e-mail messages, I open the notepad, change my font size, write a letter to a family member, print the letter, and walk over to pop it in my briefcase. Oops! Make that my bookbag.

A bookbag? Yes. And this particular bookbag belonged to a 4-year-old attending an early childhood program. Thanks to the features on KidDesk, this child and her classmates were able to use software as a tool for developing literacy skills.

Originally designed and marketed as a child-friendly desktop protection and management program, KidDesk has developed into something that offers teachers and children much more. Its many clever and child-appealing features entice children to explore and experiment with tools they see their teachers and parents using. At the same time, they begin to develop literacy skills which can be built upon through other classroom activities.

KidDesk is special because it makes each child special. Each child has differing likes, abilities, and needs. KidDesk takes that into account by allowing desktops to be customized for individual children. Sandi's desktop may contain a picture of her dog, while Tasha's has a picture of her mom on it. Todd's desktop has a picture he has drawn and saved. A teacher can also customize the desktop to allow each child access to certain software programs or to set up scanning for a child who needs to use a switch instead of the mouse.

Desktop Accessories Contribute to Literacy Development
KidDesk's many desktop accessories encourage the development of emergent literacy skills. Children read environmental print when choosing the accessories or software programs on the desktop. They develop concepts of word and story when they
KidDesk features that support emergent literacy include the picture frame, address card file, phone/voice mail, mailbox/e-mail, note pad, calendar, and the name plate.

The picture frame contains an image that may be a child's photograph, an icon, or a picture drawn by the child. The photograph guides younger children as they manipulate the program. The young user can choose his/her own photograph to access his/her individual desktop and accessories. Icons or images drawn by children can also be represented in the picture frame. Children click on the picture frame and use the drawing tools and a palette of colors to make an image. Drawing is a precursor to emergent writing. Hutinger (1998) suggests that making marks relates to a child's ability to deal with representation and progresses to literacy skills. Over time, the meaning of a mark changes from an experimental scribble, to a house, a person, a mock letter, an identifiable letter, then a word.

Children have been observed using the KidDesk address card file to record their name and classmatesı names along with special notes written using invented spellings. By encouraging such use, teachers put into practice recommendations from The Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children (1998): "Once children learn some letters, they should be encouraged to write them, to use them to begin writing words or parts of words, and to use words to begin writing sentences...Beginning writing with invented spelling can be helpful for developing understanding of the identity and segmentation of speech sounds and sound-spelling relationships."

KidDesk's phone/voice mail accessory can be used to record messages when a microphone is attached to the computer. Voice mail messages can be relayed between friends in a classroom. Oral language is as much a part of early literacy skills as reading and writing and is thought to develop concurrently. By offering children access to communication tools such as those used by adults, KidDesk promotes oral language in a purposeful context.

The mailbox/e-mail accessory lets children write and send e-mail messages within the classroom environment. Other children's photographs and names appear when a child prepares (and receives) electronic messages. Children select the photo icon of the intended recipient then, after composing a message, click on a 'send' button to mail the message and---just like any e-mail program, the message is gone! Providing such opportunities for written communication is important as early childhood professionals strive to structure an environment that offers children exposure to literacy-stimulating experiences. The following example portrays the thought, work, and motivation that young children bring to the writing experience. Sitting down at the computer one day, four-year-old Danny selected his icon in KidDesk to access his personal desktop. Choosing the e-mail icon, he proceeded to type a letter using "invented spelling." After a few sentences, he clicked the 'send' button, then chose the picture icon representing the classmate he wanted to communicate with. This scenario, although time consuming, was repeated over and over. After each message was sent, a new one had to be typed and sent. At the end of the day, closer inspection indicated that Danny had selected and sent messages to every girl in both the morning and afternoon sessions!

The KidDesk notepad accessory offers similar writing experiences. The notepad contains stationary that can be customized with icons, pictures, and photographs. The child's name appears on the stationary, and a child typing a note can select from four different font sizes. A printer icon offers a 'print' choice and an 'erase' or 'unerase' option. Although children use the notepad to communicate with peers, we often see children compose and print a message and then place the note in their bookbags or lockers to give to family members. This type of writing and communication with family members is often seen in classrooms where teachers use the computer for communication between school and home.

Many adults consult a calendar at least once a day. Providing children the same type of tool, KidDesk offers an easy-to-use calendar that can be printed. Clicking the calendar icon takes a child to a screen that offers icon choices for illustrating a calendar and a message box for typing a corresponding message. Some children visit the calendar each day to choose an icon to place on the calendar; others add a few letters of invented spelling, while others begin to type names onto the calendar. Young children have varied reasons for using the calendar. For example, Jennifer diligently searched for the icon of a birthday cake. After finding and choosing the cake, she typed a few words and printed the calendar. As she picked up the calendar from the printer, she looked over at the early childhood teacher and said, "This is for my grandma's birthday."

The name icon found on KidDesk is a form of environmental print. Children who do not recognize their names begin to associate the spoken name with the written word. Children who recognize their names but do not know how to spell them have a resource to come back to as they match the letters of their names with the letters of the keyboard. And for all children, the desktop is a personalized desk that belongs to them, a place where each child has the tools he/she needs for personalizing a work area---just as their parents and teachers do.

Advantages of Using KidDesk
KidDesk offers versatility to the classroom. First, it offers hard disk protection---something important to the adults responsible for maintaining the computer center in the classroom. Secondly, and most importantly for the children, it offers interesting activities for building emergent literacy skills. By offering children opportunities to draw and write (picture frame, address card file, e-mail, notepad, calendar), to communicate orally (phone/voice mail), to listen (phone/voice mail), and to read (address card file, e-mail, notepad, calendar, name icon), KidDesk supports a variety of skills which form the basis of literacy. It also puts into practice research which shows that both oral and written language are best learned when used in purposeful contexts and when children have opportunities to observe and interact with others who write and read (Clay, 1975; Harste, Woodward, & Burke, 1984; Sulzby, 1990).

Clay, M.M. (1975). What did I write? Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Harste, J.C., Woodward, V.A., & Burke, C.L. (1984). Language stories and literacy lessons. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Hutinger, P. (1998). Expressive arts outreach. Macomb, IL: Macomb Projects, Western Illinois University.
Snow, C.E., Burns, M.S., and Griffin, P. (Eds.). (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Sulzby, E. (1990). Assessment of emergent writing and childrenıs language while writing. In L.M. Morrow & J.K. Smith (Eds.), Assessment for instruction in early literacy (pp. 83-108). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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