Not a debate,
let them read.
We had just returned from our monthly walking field trip to a local park, where we had found a fallen log and spent some time investigating and talking about what might live there. I was reminded of a book I had, A Log’s Life, and went over to our nonfiction book bins to look for it. The kids were waiting patiently on the rug, (as patiently as kindergarteners can wait), as I was looking furiously through the many nonfiction bins we have. I finally found the book – just after one of my kids said,
“We need to organize this library better! You can’t find anything in here! Why don’t we make it like the big library?”
Yes! She was right. The books that we had sorted in September as “learn about the world” or “stories” – were ready to be sorted again, with all the book knowledge that my kindergarteners had gained this year. I invited anyone who wanted to help with this project to gather on the rug during Explore time and we would organize the library better.
Several kids were interested and started working together, sorting the books into piles and having such wonderful conversations!
“We should keep all the dog books together. And all the monkey books in one place. And the snake books….wait, there’s a lot of books about animals. Maybe we can keep all the animal books together. But there’s a lot of books about dogs. I think dogs need to be on their own or there would be too many mixed in the animals. Then we couldn’t find dog books.”
“We have books about people…like farmers and nurses and Native Americans…Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Obama. We can make one place for books about people.”
“Here’s a book about colors. We read this book when we were making art and learning about colors. People use colors to do art, so it should go in the people place.”
I listened carefully and was amazed at how the kids negotiated the task, the organization and the labeling to make sure the library worked for them. Their conversations were so authentic and I loved listening to how they talked about where books belonged. They spent over two hours on this task and then proudly shared their accomplishment with the rest of the class.
It’s been one week and I’ve noticed how books are being returned to the correct bin and that this part of our classroom library has been revived – more kids are getting books from here and sharing new finds with each other. Ownership, pride, persistence, problem solving…these five and six year olds never cease to amaze.
We live in a time right now when professional resources are abundant. We have endless access to lesson plans, problem based learning projects, activities, ideas, blog posts, professional books, teachers sharing with teachers, curriculum guides, programs, etc… I can Google any topic and find a wealth of resources. Teachers are not at a loss for what to teach and ideas for how to teach it. But there’s something that I keep coming back to:
Are we being thoughtful with what and how we teach?
There are now scripts written out for literacy workshops, charts to copy or simply post, literacy “cookbooks” of sorts with specific lessons for exactly what your students might need and other resources to make our lives easier and to save time. These are good things, for the most part. Don’t get me wrong. They are based in research, carefully thought out by expert educators who know how kids learn best, tested in real classrooms with real kids. I own most of these resources and use them as I plan – (as a resource, not as a script). And these are WAY better than any basal textbook series I’ve ever seen. These resources have definitely lifted the quality of literacy instruction in many schools. They’ve provided a scaffold for implementing literacy workshops.
But are we thinking deeply about the kids we are teaching?
Years ago while teaching in Florida I was at a required basal textbook training for a series my county had just adopted. The representative said, “Look! Everything is written out for you. Even the teachable moments. You don’t even have to think!” And that’s when I walked out of the meeting. I didn’t go into teaching to not think. And I value my profession way more than to accept the idea that it would be a good thing if I didn’t have to think. It’s offensive and degrading to be told you don’t have to think.
It’s easy to flip open a book and have your lesson plan written out for you and ready to go. And chances are, with many of these resources, you would be teaching a good lesson. We get ideas from each other – that’s what teachers do. We don’t have to constantly recreate the wheel. But I hope that we are still thinking. And reflecting. And connecting with OUR kids – the ones sitting with us in our classrooms at this very moment. I hope we are not taking exactly what’s handed to us and teaching it blindly because we were told to “teach with fidelity”. We need to think and question. We need to teach our kids to think and question. We need to continue learning as teachers and understand the WHY behind what we are doing. We need to be responsive and reflective as teachers.
A teacher leader in my county once helped me reflect on the idea of fidelity vs. thoughtfulness. I keep coming back to that. Perhaps we need to be implementing new structures, programs, etc. with “thoughtfulness”, rather than “fidelity”. We need to look at the programs, curriculums and expectations our district and administration give us with a critical eye. We need to be very careful with resources we find online. We need to tweak the “recipes” in these literacy “cookbooks” to meet the needs of our students. We need to use the pre-printed anchor charts as a temporary scaffold for us as teachers – and replace them with kid pictures and drawings and our own students’ words as soon as we feel solid in that teaching. We need to deconstruct these things together with our team, be thoughtful in our implementation, question and reflect on what works and what doesn’t. As one of my former principals always says, “the answer is in the room”. Talk, reflect and think together – don’t just blindly follow something from outside. We need to use the abundance of resources we have as departure points to launch our own best teaching. We need to keep talking, questioning and thinking with our team and on our own. As I’ve said before, we teach children, not curriculum, programs or standards.
Be thoughtful. Question. Be willing to change your thinking. And as Lucy Calkins once wrote in my copy of The Art of Teaching Writing,
“Be a brave learner. Be brave enough to outgrow your own best teaching.”
I often say, “I teach children – not the curriculum, program or standard”. I can’t remember where I first heard this statement, but I love it and I truly believe this. My children – the ones I’m teaching RIGHT NOW – are first and foremost in my mind as I plan, set up invitations and provocations and determine the next steps in my instruction. I use a wide variety of resources provided by the state, my county, my school, my colleagues and my own professional library – but I believe they are resources, not a prescribed script to follow. My plans are constantly changing and evolving, in response to the five and six year olds in my classroom. This doesn’t mean that I wing it. Not at all! I spend a lot of time planning the framework of our day, looking at individual students and where they are in their ZPD and making instructional decisions based on my research, beliefs and philosophy of how children learn. But I don’t consider myself a “Responsive Classroom” teacher or a “Units of Study” teacher. You will see much of the philosophy of Responsive Classroom because I believe in a constructivist approach and that the social curriculum is at the heart of what we do; you will see a balanced literacy approach and you will see Writer’s Workshop and Reader’s Workshop because I believe (and have believed and taught this way for 24 years) in a framework of time, choice and response. But within that framework, every year looks a little different – based on the kids in our room that year. It’s kind of like building a house. The framework stays the same on most houses, but what’s inside is different depending on who lives there. The framework of my teaching is the same – a workshop approach, balanced literacy approach, constructivist, inquiry-based learning – but the details of how it looks each year is different, based on who lives in our classroom that year.
I worry that in today’s climate of one-size-fits-all instruction, with increasing kits, units and books that pre-plan lessons down to the minute being hailed as the “answer” to educational problems, that teachers aren’t being challenged to think. Are we reading the script or lesson that another teacher used with her kids, blindly following what “the experts” say to do?
Or are we reading the lessons carefully, reflecting on how it will work in our classroom, with our students, discussing and collaborating with colleagues about the lessons, and then planning a lesson that we own, along with our current students? I hope we are. I hope we are trusting ourselves and supporting each other. And I hope our schools are providing the time and support for all teachers, and especially our new teachers, to think deeply about instruction.
We can’t stop thinking, reflecting, questioning and challenging our own best teaching – and the resources we use. And we can’t forget that we teach children – not a curriculum.
Many teachers are beginning to realize that, although “sound it out” often comes to their lips, it isn’t necessarily the best response. The English language is not consistently phonetic so it is not helpful, or even fair, to tell a child to “sound out” words like said, night, or know, just to cite a few familiar examples.
A better strategy is to give your child a little support by saying, “Hmm, what would make sense there?” or point to the picture. Sometimes encouraging the child to go back and reread the sentence from the beginning helps as well. It’s important for story time to remain stress-free, so if your child is getting frustrated by too many unfamiliar words, just give her the word or read the entire book to her.
Here are some answers to other common concerns parents have about their child’s reading:
My child memorizes books, instead of reading them. Is this OK?
This is not unusual for very young readers, but we don’t want them to get the wrong impression about reading. We want children to understand that reading is not about memorizing books or lists of words, but rather about making the story make sense. Figuring out the words, attending to the print, and making the sentence make sense are all part of reading. If you run into this problem, maybe your child is ready to move on to books where the pattern changes. It is OK for her to do some real work while reading.
My child seems to know a word one day, but then she forgets it the next day. Should I put the words on cards and drill her on them?
Kids need to see the same words many times in a variety of settings to get to know that word. It’s better for her to see a word in an actual book than on flash cards, out of context. She may come to think that reading is just about accurately calling the words and not about understanding the full story or book. It’s normal for beginning readers to have words that are only ‘partially known.’ The more they encounter those words in authentic reading and writing situations, the more familiar the words will become. Eventually those words will become fully known and instantly recognized.
Should I give my child prizes for every book she reads?
It is great to encourage a child to read more, but reading should be its own reward. When we offer kids pizza or stickers for reading a certain number of books, we are actually sending a message that reading is something unpleasant so we have to resort to prizes to get them to read. Also, when kids are counting the number of books they read in a race for a prize, they often sacrifice quality for quantity. When you take your child to the library or a bookstore, spend some time finding books she enjoys. Ask her what she wants to learn more about or what kind of books she likes to read. Make a special time each evening for you and your child to sit down and read together.
How do I know my child understands what she’s reading? What should I do when she finishes a book?
While she’s reading, you can tell if your child understands if she laughs at the funny parts, talks about what the characters are doing, or connects to an experience of her own. Encourage these responses. But if your child pauses or reads the punctuation wrong, these are hints that she might be losing the overall meaning of the story. Encourage her to slow down and reread those parts; talk together about what’s happening in the book. Just talking naturally will help you know whether your child understands the story. You can start a conversation with some questions like “What was your favorite part?” “Did it remind you of anything?” or “What did you think of that book?”
If my child is struggling with reading, should I take her to one of those learning centers or buy a kit to teach her how to read?
Talk to your child’s teacher if you think she is struggling. Learning centers and expensive computer programs might help your child pass a test, but they won’t help her build good reading strategies in the long run. A reading tutor who can support what is going on in the classroom and work together with your child’s teacher is a much better option.
Note: If you are a teacher reading this post, feel free to duplicate it to use in one of your parent newsletters or to give out at parent conference time. Also look in Chapter 11 of Catching Readers Before They Fall for more Q/A for families.
This week I read an article citing a report saying that forcing kids to read before they are ready could be harmful. The report specifically references Common Core Standards in Kindergarten and says “there is no evidence to support a widespread belief in the United States that children must read in prekindergarten or kindergarten to become strong readers and achieve academic success”. While it was surprising to me to hear that there is “no evidence”, it was not surprising to read the other findings the authors reported. I hear over and over about blocks and dramatic play stations taken out of classrooms, recess taken away, and endless inappropriate assessments being given (an “online, practice quiz for kindergarten” should never, ever happen). Our children deserve better.
I agree completely with what the authors of the study share in the report. Children need to play – it is how they learn (and research does support this). But I also think it’s important that we give our kids every chance to get that important school literacy piece as soon as possible – with developmentally appropriate practices. It is tragic that, as the article states, “teacher-led direct instruction in kindergarten has almost entirely replaced the active, play-based experiential learning that we know children need”. I don’t think that we should force children to read, but I do think we can immerse children in rich literacy experiences early on and ignite an interest in learning to read and write. We don’t need to have hours of drill and kill and teacher-led direct instruction. We don’t need worksheets and mindless one-size-fits-all instruction. We don’t need hours of assessments. We don’t need to make kindergarten (or first, second..or any grade, for that matter) full of these things.
My classroom is a play-based kindergarten classroom, with a great deal of authentic and meaningful literacy experiences offered each day. We read aloud, we have choices throughout the day in curriculum, content and activities, we have a daily Writer’s Workshop, we play, we learn letters, sounds and links, we have 2 recesses each day, we have snack, we read pictures and words in books, we build things with blocks, we learn how to read, we dress up in the drama center, we play in the kitchen/spaceship/laundromat, we put on puppet shows, we learn how to form our letters, we discover things in sensory boxes, we have guided reading groups, we explore things we are interested in, we read charts and poems, we wonder, question and grow and we do it all in an active, playful, meaningful and developmentally appropriate way. And at the end of the year, some of my kindergarteners are reading at the county-wide benchmark. And some aren’t. But they can all tell you a favorite author and what kind of books they like. They can all read books they’ve written and tell you what author/illustrator they see as a mentor. They all see themselves as readers and writers. That is ultimately my goal.
I’m reminded of the phrase from medicine, “first, do no harm”. This needs to hold true in education. The last thing any of us want is a child refusing to go to school, locking himself in his bedroom, and hiding under his bed. We want children excited about learning, passionate about topics they are discovering at school, talking about favorite authors and illustrators, questioning, wondering and eager to learn, empowered because they know they have a voice in their learning. We don’t want to harm our children. If we are being asked to do things that we know are not developmentally appropriate and that may harm some children, then we need to speak up. It’s worth fighting for the blocks, the recess and the dramatic play. It’s worth fighting for our children. Thank you to the authors of the Defending the Early Years project study for giving us another tool to fight with.
“When I suggest that we need to “teach with a sense of urgency” I’m not talking about teaching prompted by anxiety but rather about making every moment in the classroom count, about ensuring that our instruction engages students and moves them ahead, about using daily evaluation and reflection to make wise teaching decisions. Complacency will not get our students where they need to be. I am relaxed and happy when I am working with students, but I am also mindful of where I need to get them and how little time I have in which to do it. I teach every day with a sense of urgency.” – Regie Routman
These wise words have stuck with me since 2003, when I first read them in Regie’s wonderful book, Reading Essentials. This year they came back to me loud and clear. I have a group of fabulous students. They are kind, loving, thoughtful, fun, curious, passionate, inquisitive and they need A LOT in the area of school literacy and academics. Our beginning of the year assessments made it very clear to me that intentional teaching, with a sense of urgency, was essential for this year to be a success.
Urgency doesn’t mean that our classroom is a stressful, rigid place full of drill and skill activities. Do we have fun? YES! Do we play? Absolutely! (It’s how children learn!) Do I keep in mind that they are 5 and 6 years old and make sure that my practices are developmentally appropriate? Of course! Do I enjoy each day with my learners and do they enjoy being at school? For sure. Do I stay true to the belief that I teach children – not standards – every day? Indeed. Do I make sure my children have every opportunity to learn the necessary literacy skills to be successful? That’s my job.
Teaching with a sense of urgency is happy, relaxed, purposeful teaching. It’s making every moment count. And that makes an impact on student learning.
Here are a few structures I’ve put in place that are supporting my young learners and helping them make great progress in the area of literacy.
-A stronger focus on letters, sounds and other “item-based” things in the context of meaningful literacy work. One example is our daily morning message. It’s a 10 minute, highly focused, literacy event that kids love. I highlight a letter and how to correctly form it, we find words that start with that letter and say the sound the letter makes, we find that letter in the message and we look for other letters and words we know. We talk about words vs. letters, capital vs. lowercase letters, spaces between words, what letters are first and last in a word, and punctuation – just to name a few things that come up during morning message. This is all done through a meaningful message – keeping in mind that meaning making comes first. This message goes home with the kids to share with their families. I print a copy before we do our work together and then another copy that shows the work we did – I copy it 2-sided and send it home. I plan my focus each day based on where my children are and what they need next in their learning.
-Guided reading groups with all children 3-4 times each week. Our kindergarten team is reading and discussing Jan Richardson’s book, The Next Step in Guided Reading. We looked carefully at the pre A – emergent lesson plans and structured our lessons around her framework. When I meet with my pre-A emergent groups (currently, 14 of the 18 children in my class – students who know fewer than 40 upper and lower case letters and hear few, if any, sounds and are lacking in early concepts of print), we go through a fast-paced, engaging lesson that includes working with names, working with letters, letter formation, working with sounds, a shared reading lesson where each child has a copy of the book and an interactive writing lesson. I have a record of where each child is in their letter, sound and link acquisition and can teach directly to their needs within the small group lesson. I love that these groups have the necessary item-based components AND the meaningful reading and writing piece that is so important. I reflect and assess often, changing the groups and the activities within the groups to make sure that they are matching the needs of my learners.
-Daily letter tracing books with my instructional assistant. Jan Richardson talks about tracing alphabet books in her book. I made paper ABC books with upper and lowercase letters and a picture and started by tagging the letters in their name with a Post-it. The students take their finger and trace the letters using the correct formation path, then say the link. (A a apple) As they learn the letters, we add new letters for them to learn – tagging those letters with Post-it notes. Each day, our students have a 3-5 minute session with an instructional assistant or a volunteer, tracing and saying the letter names and links that are tagged. Eventually, they will have all 26 pages tagged with Post-it notes and will be able to trace, say and identify the link for all the letters. We have seen remarkable results in letter identification through daily use of the letter tracing books.
These are just a few of the ways I’m teaching with urgency this year. This is all in addition to many read-alouds throughout the day, rich discussions and purposeful talk in the classroom, a daily writer’s workshop, shared reading, community writing, inquiry based projects, listening to and responding to interests and wonderings that the children have, and building a strong community of learners.