Beneath a laminated label that read “easel,” Jaxs Jewell was drawing wild spirals in black dry-erase marker Thursday morning.
Crouched just to his right, Lupe Chararria, a graduate student and clinician, asked if Jaxs could explain what he was drawing. He replied with two incomprehensible syllables.
“Can you say it again, can you say ‘circles?’” Chararria asked before receiving the previous syllables enunciated a bit louder.
Jaxs, alongside five other students, is part of a specialized language-literacy pre-kindergarten program housed within the Speech and Hearing Center at the University of North Texas.
The program is headed by Theresa Kouri, principal lecturer and clinical director for speech-language pathology at UNT. Students are between the ages of 3 and 5, and each has a personal clinician to help personalize the program to the needs of the individual.
A speech pathologist is also in tow to help when needed.
Kouri arrived at the university roughly three years ago. She’s run the pre-literacy pre-k program for the past two summers after success with a similar model at the University of Northern Iowa.
Four of the six students enrolled in the course, two were absent, were constantly practicing language Thursday morning, and mostly while under the impression that everything was just fun and games.
“This is pretty intense work,” Kouri said. “During the course of a morning, we are really hitting it hard with our kids in terms of the particular activities that we create.”
In a typical day, children might be faced with any number of learning games, including spelling the names of toys they have, going on a scavenger hunt for words beginning with certain letters or even following basic recipes to illustrate the real-world applications of reading.
By making much of the learning fun, she and her clinicians are able to take students who are generally resistant to improvement and bring them at least to the level of their peers.
“[Some kids] will resist, at all cost, reading,” Kouri said. “And one of my biggest jobs here, and it’s probably one of my biggest successes, is I get kids over that hump.”
Thursday morning, one young girl was busy at work drawing a tiger on a whiteboard when Kouri approached. The casual activity for a young child quickly turned into another game: Do you know how to spell “tiger?”
During “circle time,” a group learning portion of the day when students gather on carpet squares for a more structured lesson, Kouri laid out laminated pieces of paper with days of the week and the young scholars wracked their brains to determine which one of the words corresponded to what day it was, and in what order it was meant to fall among the others.
When the class realized that “September” is a pretty long word, Kouri had them clap out each syllable to break it into manageable chunks: “Sep-tem-ber!” rang off the walls with each syllable articulated by a chorus of claps.
Even with two fewer students than normal, the room was boisterous Thursday morning. Eventually, Kouri would like to expand the program to help more students. For the time being, the eyes, ears and mouths present seemed like enough.