Is recognizing patterns important for little kids?

I was working with a rising first grader over the weekend, using a hands-on parts-of-speech activity to help kids learn nouns, verbs, article adjectives, etc. The student’s job was to manipulate the parts of speech words over the appropriate words in printed sentences. For example, in the sentence, “The stinky dog farts,” the student put the word “article adjective” over the word “the,” “adjective” over “stinky,” “noun” over “dog,” and “verb” over “farts.”

Young boy sorting buttons.

Click graphic to enlarge it.

In a few minutes, however, my student did what all my students seem to do: she organized piles of the word “noun,” piles of the word “verb” and piles of other parts of speech. “That’s not important right now,” I told her, but she persisted as if the organizing of like words became as important to her as identifying parts of speech.

So what?

Recognizing patterns is a skill all human beings do. When doctors listen to the complaints of patients, they hope to find patterns to identify ailments. Quilters repeat sizes, shapes and colors to create pleasing arrangements. Mozart repeated patterns in his music for harmony and to tie elements together. When I was a three-year-old, I would sort my grandmother’s box of buttons by color, or by size, or by the number of holes in each button. There is something about being human being that seeks out patterns.

Finding patterns in groups of words helps children to read. I was working with a four-year-old this weekend, using letter tiles to construct letter sounds which when moved close together, created words. I said the sounds for “c,” “a,” and “t,” slowly moving the letters representing those sounds closer and closer until the child could say “cat.” When I took away the “c” and put a “b,” the child quickly said “bat.” For other words—“hat,” “rat,” and “sat,” she was even quicker. She had recognized a pattern in those words and realized she didn’t need to figure out the middle or ending sounds because they stayed the same.

Later a child will learn how patterns are important in alphabetic order; or how words with the same roots show a pattern in meaning; or how most words which end with –ly are adverbs. He will learn that stories show a familiar pattern—beginning, middle, and end, or that in fairy tales with princesses, “they all lived happily ever after.” He will learn that pronunciation of words follows patterns as do spelling rules most of the time.

If you are looking for fun pattern-building activities to do with your child, I recommend you check out the Reading Rockets website which suggests four easy activities to do with your preschooler to develop pattern thinking. This site also lists and describes five picture books which focus on pattern thinking. While you’re there, look at some of the other great information Reading Rockets provides for parents and teachers of young children learning to read.

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