To Label or Not to Label

Q: Dear Randi,

In setting up my 3 year old classroom, I am struggling with something, and I am hoping you don’t mind helping me. I am labeling certain areas of the classroom (mostly on shelves) with words and pictures to help the children when it is clean up time (i.e. blocks, toy food). The pictures will hopefully help them know where to put things, and the words seemed like a good way to reinforce literacy at the same time. Do you think it also makes sense to label other things around the classroom that would not require a picture since they never move (i.e. plant, computer)? These labels would be much more exposed. On one hand, having words around seems wonderful. On the other hand, it seems like it could get out of control and be a bit visually overwhelming, and is that necessary for 3 year olds who cannot read. I keep going back and forth in my mind on this, and I would love your opinion.

Label-maker

A: Dear Label-maker,

This question comes up often, and it can be quite confusing.

Everything you place in your room, and the placement of every item in your room should be intentional. When it comes to labeling, the first question to ask yourself is why are you labeling things? What is the purpose of the label?

As you said, you are labeling the shelves and baskets to help children know where to put things away, therefore, this labeling serves the purpose of managing materials (social-emotional development), and organization (approaches toward learning). It also reinforces emerging literacy skills, with the picture and word. This is called functional print. It serves a specific purpose and is intentional by design.

We often hear the term “print-rich environment” for early childhood classrooms, yet rarely do we hear what that exactly means. A print-rich environment is one in which children are encouraged to develop emerging literacy skills. This involves having “environmental print” in the classroom, authentic opportunities for reading and writing, and other examples of “functional print.”

Environmental print means words/ phrases that would typically be found on common objects. Examples of environmental print include “STOP” on a stop sign, the “EXIT” sign by your outside door, the big arch for McDonald’s, the Target bull’s eye, “Cheerios” on a box of cereal, “Quaker Oats” on an oatmeal container. Environmental print includes logos and font styles that help with brand recognition. Environmental print can also be the universal symbols for hospital (H), or bathrooms, or other road signs and symbols.

Functional print, as mentioned above, is intentional and serves a purpose for children (and adults). So the shelf and material labels are functional print. Functional print also includes class rules, the daily schedule, documentation or labels included with classroom displays, and children’s names when used for a purpose such as attendance or center choice. Functional print also includes the words “Science journal” on the outside of the composition book you place in your discovery area. It includes the words/pictures you place on index cards and slip onto a ring binder, related to each of your centers. For example, in the dramatic play area, you have a ring of index cards with words/pictures of house, mom, dad, sink, phone, refrigerator, post office, etc. Note that these words are not taped to pieces of furniture. Why you ask? Because when children begin playing, they are not paying attention to those words. It is just visual clutter. As children’s play matures, they start to recognize that there are words they use all the time in certain areas of the classroom. If you as the teacher are modeling and encouraging children to write about their play, they will gravitate towards those word rings and use them to write or draw about what they are doing. (Note that this may not happen until March or later!)

So, where do those labels for the computer, the plant, the window, the door, etc. fit?

Ask yourself these questions:

1. What is my intention in putting up these labels?

2. Is this word environmental print?

3. Is this word functional print?

If you can answer question 1, and say yes to question 2 or 3, put up the labels.

If your answer to question 1 is that you want to support emerging literacy skills, but #2 and 3 are NO, then find another way to support literacy. I would suggest taking photos of objects in the classroom (maybe even include a child in each photo). Place one photo on a page, add your label to your photo page, and create a class book to put on your bookshelf. Continue to take photos of children, everyday activities, special discoveries, etc. and create more class books. This is the best way to support budding readers.

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