“Islands of Certainty” – Learning Sight Words

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Sight words. Flash words. Fast words. Word wall words. Popcorn words. High frequency words. Dolch words. Fry words. Whatever you want to call them – they are the words that appear most often in printed materials. Having a solid core of automatically recognized  sight words makes a huge difference in fluency and comprehension. It allows readers and writers to navigate text more easily, and spend more energy focusing on constructing meaning, problem solving and writing more complex words.

Marie Clay referred to words that children know instantaneously as “islands of certainty, in a sea of print”. She writes that, “in the familiar story the child locates a word he knows and builds a response around it.  Then the child’s reading of text comes to be controlled by particular words even though he can only recognize one or two words” (Clay, 1991). This reminds us of the importance of making sure that everything we do is in the service of meaning. We can’t simply teach kids lists of words to memorize or put these words on flash cards. We have to focus on teaching these words in meaningful text and show our readers how these known words can be “islands of certainty.” We have to help our readers and writers see how to make these words theirs, and how they can use that knowledge in their reading and writing.

Once I’ve determined which words are already known and automatic for each child, I plan the words to introduce for each student and/or group. I typically introduce a new word at the end of a guided reading group, or during interactive writing, but occasionally I do this in a one-on-one reading conference. Regardless, I always make sure it is introduced within the context of meaningful text – either a book we are reading together or a piece of interactive writing.

Selecting a word to teach:

-look at your pre-assessment to determine which word to teach

-choose a high frequency word (four-letter words are easier to learn, don’t start with two-letter words – Marie Clay speaks of this in Literacy Lessons, II. She states that the four-letter words that are frequently used, like: “‘come’, ‘look’, like’, ‘here’, and ‘this’, provide a better introduction to how words work in English than two-letter words like ‘to’, ‘is’, ‘at’, ‘on’, ‘up’, ‘it’ and ‘me’. In some ways, two-letter words are hard, exceptional, and they do not contribute much to dealing with the sequencing or clustering of letters in the language.” (p.41) Also, two-letter words are often visually confusing (on/in, is/si, no/on))

-look for one that occurs in a book the group has read (connect to the known, keep meaning first)

Teaching a new sight word:

Breaking a word into letters:

-teacher quickly assembles a word with magnetic letters on a board on the right hand side of the board

-the teacher demonstrates, with deliberate movements, breaking out the letters – sliding the letters, one at a time, from first to last, to the left on the board – building the word again – then read the word while running finger under the word

-invite a child to try building the word, carefully observing and supporting the left to right movement – then reading the word together

Tracing a word:

-teacher writes word with dry erase marker, then reads the word

-invite child to trace over the letters with her finger, ensure left to right tracing

Connecting to meaningful text:

-look back in the book you’ve read to find the word, search and locate the word on several pages

Connect with writing high frequency words:

-explain that we can learn to write words by learning to look at them carefully when we read

-tell the student to look at the word (either written or the magnetic letters) – run your finger under the word and read it slowly

-ask the child to read it slowly and/or run his finger under it – “Look at it carefully.” – ask the child what they notice about the word

-ask the child to take a picture of it in their brain – ask the child to close his eyes and see the word in his head.  “Can you see the first part? The next part? The last part?”

-ask him to open his eyes and look again at the written word – “run your finger under it and say it slowly”

-invite the child to write the word without looking – if he is hesitant, tell him he can look where you have it written, if he needs to

-the child should say the word slowly as he writes

-compare the word in the book to the one with magnetic letters and to the one the child has written again, reading the words – talk again about what they notice

-remind the child that this is one of their words now, it’s in their brain and they will be able to read and write it from now on and forever!

 

What’s most important is that kids have time to then practice reading these new words in the books they read. They need to see how reading these words fast will allow them to pay attention to other challenges in the books they read and the books they write. They need to have time to read, talk to others, and make meaning from texts that are just right for them. This is when knowing the sight words has the most power – allowing the reader to focus on making meaning, problem solving and constructing a reading processing system.

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Exploring Identity: How do I see myself? How do others see me?

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Exploring identity, and beginning to understand who we are and who we are not as individuals and as a community, is a huge part of my teaching. I start this inquiry on day one and continue it throughout the year. One big project we do is with skin color.

When it started to come up in our conversations, I read a few books that explore skin color. The Colors of Us, Shades of People, The Skin You Live In, Chocolate Me and All the Colors We Are, are a few of our favorites. We learned about the science behind skin color and played around with mixing paints that match our skin color. Based on the beautiful language in The Colors of Us, we chose our words for what we would call our skin color. We made up colors like, “whipped cream peach” and “cocoa caramel mocha” and “honey gingerbread”. We mixed the paints and made our self-portraits.

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Our big questions that guided this inquiry were:

Why is our skin different colors?

How do I see myself?

How do others see me?

Who am I? Who are we?

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We read books, had lots of conversations, made art and played around with self-portraits in many different mediums – using paint chips, buttons, empty picture frames, ribbons and assorted loose parts. We interviewed our friends and asked them, Who am I to you? and How do you see me?. In our completed self-portrait paintings, we wrote the answers to these questions. We also created and drew a symbol that represented who we are in the world.

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This exploration into skin color and self-identity was a celebration of who we are and who we are to our friends and to each other. It made our community even stronger and helped us explore, appreciate and celebrate the differences and the similarities that make us special. We will continue to go back and revisit our thinking, revise our thinking and celebrate who we are as a community this year.

Building a Conversation

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I’ve been playing around with hands down conversations as part of our morning meetings. Inspired by my friends and brilliant thinkers,  @kassiaowedekind and @TeacherThomp and the work they are doing with talk, I’ve really enjoyed this new start to our day.

As the kids come in each morning, I listen to what they are chatting about. I get a sense for what is interesting to the kids that day and use that information to start our hands down conversation. After our morning announcements, we gather together on the rug and I invite someone to start our conversation around that topic. The conversation may (and often does) change topics, but I help them get started with a common topic. For now. Yesterday, everyone was talking about the upcoming tornado drill.

“We have to go in the basement!”

“Tornadoes don’t happen here. They never do.”

“It’s raining now, are we really having a tornado?”

“Is this a practice or real?”

“What is a tornado?”

I could sense that this was something we needed to talk about before going into the hallway for the drill. The kids took the topic and had a great hands down conversation, answering each others questions, talking about worries, and putting each other at ease. I joined the conversation a little, sharing about my experiences as a child in Michigan with real tornadoes and super scary drills in the basement of our school. But I wasn’t the center of the conversation in any way. The kids respectfully listened to each other, added on to what others said, asked questions and jumped into the conversation when there was that natural opening. They are starting to monitor each other for interruptions, often reminding friends to, “please don’t step on my words”.

We’ve talked a lot about how we “build a conversation”, something I first read about in Maria Nichol’s wonderful book, Comprehension Through Conversation. When we first started these conversations, there were about four kids who dominated every conversation. The rest of the class listened (usually), but rarely jumped in. I brought that up to the kids and we talked about how we build a conversation when different people add to the conversation. I used blocks to show how building a conversation by adding new people is a lot like building a structure by adding new blocks. They got it. I was really amazed at how that shifted our conversations and how more kids participated.

Starting our day with authentic, hands down conversations, with opportunities for all children to talk, has been a wonderful shift away from the structured, very school-based, “share time” when one child shares and then picks a few friends to comment or ask questions. I’m looking forward to exploring this more and to reading about the thinking that Kassia and Christy do on their new blog.

 

Reading Magic

Thursday was picture day. The kids arrived in their beautiful dresses, tiny bow ties and an air of excitement. Spring pictures are always fun as they get to pose together as a class and then take the individual pictures. I passed out the individual cards for the photographer and then waited as the kids went up one by one.

“I’m not a principal. I’m not a teacher. I’m a student! Please give this card to the photographer. I’m going to give it to him when I get there!” 

I heard these words coming from a little guy standing next to me, holding his card. Huh? I looked closely at the card he was holding and realized he was reading the words on the card! There was a checklist that listed, “principal, teacher, student”. He was reading the checklist and making meaning from it. The words “please give this card to the photographer” were printed at the top of the card.

But here’s the thing. This little guy has been struggling learning to write his name. He’s been struggling with getting 1:1 solid. He’s been reluctant to read with me in his guided reading group or in conferences. He recently tested at a level 2 on the DRA assessment.

After our pictures, we went back to the classroom and started readers workshop. I asked my friend to come over and read with me. I pulled out a book about a giant gingerbread man who actually chases after the old man and woman who made him. I invited him to read it with me, telling him it was a crazy twist on the other gingerbread man stories we had read. He devoured it, reading fluently, laughing and making predictions, connecting it to the other stories we had read. It was clearly an easy text for him. It was a level 10 book. He wanted more books, so I let him pick some more to put in his book box and sent that happy, excited reader off to enjoy his reading. He was absolutely glowing.

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That 10 minute conference left me with much to think about. Was I holding him back as a reader? Did I have him locked into a level instead of constantly looking for what he was doing well? Was he bored with the level 2 and 3 texts? Did he not see any value in this reading thing? Did he not see himself as a reader? Was he reluctant because he preferred building in the block area instead of reading with his guided reading group during Explore? Were my expectations too low? Was I not looking at him closely as a reader? Did I not really know him as a reader? It gave me much to reflect on, and a renewed commitment to knowing each and every reader in my classroom at an even deeper level than I already do.

Thank you, reader friend, for letting me hear you read that picture card and for reminding me of the importance of looking closely, listening carefully and celebrating the magnificent work our young readers do.

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Day 11

Our Environment

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“In order to act as an educator for the child, the environment has to be flexible: it must undergo frequent modification by the children and the teachers in order to remain up-to-date and responsive to their needs to be protagonists in constructing their knowledge.”

Lella Gandini (1998)

 

One of the “big kid” visitors who stops by our classroom every morning before school asked me, “why do you have so many cool things in your room?”. It was a question that has stuck with me. Why do I have so many “cool things” in our room?

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I’m a firm believer that the environment is the third teacher, responsive to both teachers and children creating learning together. We co-construct and negotiate the curriculum together. My classroom can’t look like a cookie cutter model, identical to the one across the hall or identical to the classroom from last year. It must grow and evolve based on who is living in the space right now. I believe that our classroom environment can help shape the identities of the children in that classroom and their relationships with each other. Our space gives power and agency to the children in our room.

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As I look carefully around the room, I see reflections of the children everywhere. The rainforest was created by them, planned, designed and brought to fruition by the kids who took on this challenge. The block area was redesigned by moving it into a bigger space to allow for more children to build – again, initiated by the children. The huge kidney shaped table is a large collaborative work space for art projects – not a reading table with the teacher at the center. The linear calendar reflects important dates for this class – important events, birthdays, field trips, learning experiences that keep track of our shared journey through this school year. One of our bookshelves became an engineering center to store the marble run, the legos, and other building tools because this year the kids are avid builders. Our storytelling kits reflect dances we’ve done (like our baby beetle dance) and books we have read, with tiny toys to retell the experiences we’ve had. There is a basket of Pokemon cards and Pokemon toys that kids have brought in. The kid’s book boxes are overflowing with books that have been chosen by the reader of each individual book box. The classroom library is arranged and labeled by these kids, in a way that works for them. The chandelier that hangs in the center of our room has pieces of art that each child created that is representative of who they are. The photos scattered throughout our room are of children and their families and shared experiences we want to remember. And because I am also a member of this community, my small teaching table has a few things that bring me joy and that I want to share with this community – a picture of me and Judy Blume, a unicorn tape dispenser, a peacock feather, a bowl of shiny rocks – but it is also a work space for children. The mandatory teacher desk I’m required to have in my room serves a great purpose as a stand up work space for provocations and displays that the children create. Currently, it houses materials to build Calder-inspired mobiles and sculptures.

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So why do I have so many “cool things” in our room? Because I have a lot of cool kids. The classroom a reflection of who they are – as individuals and as a community. They own it, and more importantly, they know they have a say in it. Their voices are heard and they are encouraged to contribute and create. They help negotiate what is in the classroom, what goes on our walls, what the space looks like and what is available to explore and create with. Their lives and interests are reflected in the space and it evolves as the children evolve. It’s a collaborative experience of many identities brought together in a year of learning.

 

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Day 10

 

 

Leprechauns and Jaguars

It’s Friday afternoon Explore time in my kindergarten classroom and we have a lot going on. The room is buzzing with the happy sounds of children learning, talking, playing, negotiating problems and enjoying each other. It’s how we begin and end every day.

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A group of kids are working intently on building a leprechaun trap. They are debating ways in which to catch the leprechaun without hurting him. Or “her”, as the conversation turns to deciding what gender leprechauns are, because, “leprechauns can be girls, too…it wouldn’t be fair if leprechauns were all boys, right? Fairies can be girls or boys and leprechauns are the same way.” They decide that having a whole lot of tape on the walls, floor and ceiling will make the leprechaun stick no matter where it runs around in the trap. They then contemplate what will happen if we do catch a leprechaun. Will we build it a house…or maybe it can just live in the fairy house? That one is still up for debate.

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At the art table, two kids are carefully constructing masks to be jaguars in our rainforest dramatic play area. They are looking closely at a picture, talking about the teeth, counting the number of whiskers, picking out materials that will make the mask look and feel like a jaguar and making big plans for the jaguar play that will begin next week. (ummmm…that may be my SOL on Monday…yikes.)

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Meanwhile, a group of kids are building a structure with MagnaTiles and unifix cubes. The unifix cubes are Minecraft people who live in the structure made of squares, triangles and rectangles. The kids talk about what shapes they are using, how to make the structure stronger and deciding roles that each person will play as they go in and out of this structure. To be honest, I don’t really understand the Minecraft play, or the significance of 3 unifix cubes as a person, (and believe me, it HAS to be 3!) but the five kids deeply engaged in the play do. And that’s all that matters.

Finally, a few kids are making mobiles and sculptures inspired by Alexander Calder and our visit to the National Gallery. They are building their art and talking about what the shapes look like, what colors they are and how they could fit together. They are cooperating, collaborating and so very proud of their art.

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I stop and take it all in. Kidwatching. As I watch and listen, I am in awe, yet again, by the power of play. The thinking and creating that happens during our Explore time goes way beyond any standards or curriculum. It’s kid created, meaningful, authentic and deep.  I am grateful to be in a school where play is allowed, honored, encouraged and respected as a critical part of our early childhood classrooms. I wish all schools, and all children, had that gift.

Nothing without joy.

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Day 9