Monday, April 9, 2012

Reading into Toys and Play

Were you allowed to take toys to your elementary school? Many schools ban toys from classrooms because they are distracting to students who should be doing their academic work. This might result in children bringing toys to school without their parents' or teachers' knowledge and hiding their play from adults.

What if, instead of banning toys, teachers encouraged and provided them? If this were the norm in elementary classrooms, students would have no reason to hide play - one of the most important and meaningful parts of their lives - from their teachers. Teachers who incorporate toys and play into their academics are helping their students interact with popular, cultural texts. After all, toys are texts - items to be "read," interpreted, and critiqued in different ways by different people.

Including toys in the classroom during reading and writing workshops can provide focus and inspiration to students. We never know what might be the key to unlocking a child's love of literacy, and giving students the opportunity to work with toys, stories, or characters they already know and love gives them more chances for personally and culturally meaningful literacy experiences.

Rather than fear distractions caused by toys at school, teachers should embrace the opportunity for students to play into literacy. Teachers will learn more about their students and students will learn to navigate through a complex literacy world outside of leveled readers and generic texts.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Books: Mirrors and Windows to Our Lives

"Mirrors let people see reflections of their own lives: windows let them see others' lives. Seeing oneself represented in literature engenders a sense of pride, it encourages a reader to take more interest in a book and feel a sense of involvement in literary discussions that follow a reading selection. Books that act as windows allow readers to see experiences that are different from their own lives and stretch the range of experiences that we have had." -Junko Yokota

We read to find meaning. But what is meaning? Meaning is making a connection with a text - connecting to ourselves, another text, or the world. Meaningful books are the ones we fall in love with, that we want to read again and again. According to Junko Yokota, books allow us to better understand ourselves, as well as to better understand other people and the world.

Part of teachers' and parents' jobs is to introduce children to meaningful books. Reading out loud to children is one of the best ways to model enjoyable reading and to show children possibilities for connecting with a text. Through shared reading, children can learn observation skills and inference, as well as phonological awareness. Encouraging children to talk during a read-aloud encourages them to think more deeply about a text and to make it personally meaningful to them. Ask questions to show children that it is okay to ask questions. Talk about why the author might have written what he or she did, and think out loud about how the children might be able to write similarly.

Books act as a mirror to show you parts of yourself you were not aware of; or they act as a window or doorway can take you on a trip around the world or back in time. This is the magic of books that we need to share with our young students, children, and friends. Children who have experienced the magic will be much more likely to enjoy reading for the rest of their lives, and we, as teachers and family members, have the joy of helping them begin this journey.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Literacy as a Routine

"Literacy choices" are common in elementary school classrooms. Children might be assigned or choose individual or small group literacy activities which they work on for a set amount of time. This part of the day has the potential to be incredibly enjoyable, educational, and productive for students and teachers. When students are independently engaged in activities, teachers have the opportunity to do individual student conferences, or circulate to observe and facilitate activities. If a teacher teaches the routine of literacy choices from the beginning of the year, the students will become pros at making choices and staying on task throughout their work time. It is also important to keep the choices interesting throughout the year. Teachers might provide variations on familiar choices every once in a while.

Some literacy choices might include:
~Listening to a book on a CD
~Doing a free-write (working on a story, a letter, a book, etc.)
~Writing on the chalkboard, dry-erase board, or in a sensory material
~Using magnet letters to write words
~"Writing the Room" - Looking for specific categories of words around the classroom (such as colors, names, words starting or ending with a certain letter or sound)

Families can encourage independent and collaborative literacy work at home by giving children time to read or write on their own, and working on literacy activities as a team. Teachers can send home a list of the literacy choices available to students at school so that families are aware of their children's routines. These choices can also be demonstrated at a Family Literacy Night or during parent-teacher conferences. Literacy choices are a great way for children to gain literacy independence because they are activities that can be done with little or no assistance. However, they can also be worked on collaboratively so that students can build teamwork and communication skills.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Human Learning: The End Product of Meaning-Making

"Why so many competing theories of learning?" This question started off the webinar tonight with Dr. Brian Cambourne of University of Wollongong in NSW, Australia.

As diverse people living around the globe, we have very different "ways of knowing, thinking about, and understanding the issues associated with learning and learning to read" because we have such varied world views. Dr. Cambourne says that we can look at theories of learning through two lenses: psychological (knowledge comes from outside and is stored in the learner) and biological ("learning is a special kind of knowing made possible by constructing meaning-making using abstract symbol systems"). He argues for the biological lens, saying that young children learn through experience and meaning-making. Language is just one of the systems we use to make meaning of the world, and language learning certainly fits into Cambourne's Conditions for Learning:
  • Immersion - We are immersed in language from the time we are born. We are able to see and hear language being used from the very beginning of our lives.
  • Demonstration - Because we are immersed in language, we see countless demonstrations of language use, and we begin to understand what rules are followed in various settings.
  • Expectation - We hold expectations for children's language usage - namely, that they will use language successfully. When we are young, we do not see language as an option; it is simply the communication we dive into when we begin to interact with others.
  • Responsibility - Based on these expectations, we assume the responsibility to use language in the appropriate ways we see modeled in our society.
  • Use - Learning occurs through experience; children need time and opportunity to practice language.
  • Approximation - Mistakes are necessary for learning to occur. Providing a risk-free environment for children to approximate, or "have a go," is essential for them to feel comfortable using language and practicing despite mistakes.
  • Response - The way we respond to a child's approximations can have a huge affect on their desire to experiment with language. If we respond positively to children's approximations, as well as model conventional language, children will eventually drop their approximations and use what we consider to be proper language.
Through these always-connected conditions, Cambourne argues, humans know how to learn language. It is part of our biology, and every person is capable of learning language, although we learn at different rates. As teachers and families, it is important to remember this. When a child is struggling to use language conventionally, it should not be an immediate cause for alarm. By pulling students out of a classroom for remedial work, we are interrupting the natural process of language development. Instead of taking this approach, we need to give students times to develop and make sure that we are constantly providing meaningful, real-world language experiences for each individual child.

Shaping Classroom Literacy through Self-Awareness

How do kids learn to read and write? Wouldn't it be easiest if we just sent them to school, the teacher did some basic lessons, and all students left reading and writing at the same level? Unfortunately and fortunately, literacy learning is much more complicated than that. Fortunately, literacy learning can be very exciting because all children develop in unique ways, and they bring their personal experiences and habits into the classroom. When children are assisted in developing literacy skills using the best methods for them individually, reading and writing become fun and personally meaningful. Unfortunately, the fact that children are so different from each other can make it difficult for teachers to address the unique needs of each student.

The enjoyment and success of literacy in an early elementary classroom can very much depend on the teacher's discourse - the way the teacher views the children's literacy achievement according to his or her beliefs about literacy learning (Wohlwend, 2009). If a teacher views students as young people who are not ready or able to write, or as robots who follow generic instructions in order to learn, he or she will not be allowing the children to develop their full potential, or to show how much they already know about literacy. On the other hand, if a teacher sees students as creative, social beings who already have so much to offer in literacy work, he or she will be likely to promote a classroom environment where student work is shared and valued every day. This environment encourages children to love reading and writing, and gives them confidence in their abilities.

It is important to understand our own literacy discourse as teachers, parents, and caregivers because it is our own self-awareness that shows us how we can help our students improve their literacy skills. When we know how we view our students and believe that we are doing our best work for them, we will be able to see the necessary next steps for their literacy development. In today's world, teachers are bound by standards and testing, but we should not let this completely drive our teaching. We alone can see what is best for the children in our care, and we should plan instruction based on their interests and development. When children are given the opportunity to experience literacy through developmentally appropriate but challenging social activities, they will enjoy learning as well as perform better on standardized tests.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Filling in the Blanks

It is sometimes hard to know how to help a child who is completely stuck on a word when reading. As I mentioned in a previous post, our go-to strategy seems to be "sounding it out." I would like us to challenge ourselves to find other ways to help children solve unknown words.

One of these ways might be to pretend unfamiliar words are blank spaces for students to fill in. In Debra Goodman's The Reading Detective Club, she gives an example story of the three little pigs in which several words are smudged and unreadable. In this book, a detective says he thinks he can figure out the missing words. The readers use context and background knowledge to fill in the blanks. Often, we will be able to think of several words that might fit in a single blank, but we can use our understanding of the rest of the story to choose one that fits best. Try this strategy with young readers by encouraging them to cover unknown words with a finger and to think about the possibilities. Then have them back up to the beginning of the sentence and try a possible word in the unknown word's place. In the end, we should be more concerned with students' meaning making and comprehension than their ability to read every single word perfectly.

Encouraging young readers to use various strategies to figure out difficult words themselves empowers them to read more and independently. When children know that they have options when they come to an unfamiliar word, they will be more likely to try to solve the word on their own. As always, our goal is to foster a lifelong love of reading. So support your young reading detectives as they solve these tricky cases.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Letting Go of Leveling

Leveled reading means assigning students to reading levels based on a general assessment. (Each level is represented by a letter or number.) In many elementary settings, students will read only books in their assigned level.
I would argue that this assignment of leveled books to young readers can be inauthentic, irrelevant, and boring. I recently spoke to a kindergartner's parents who said that their daughter was becoming increasingly uninterested in school and literacy homework because of the leveled reading taking place in her classroom.

Leveling seems like a simple, convenient way for teachers to organize a classroom or grade into reading groups. They can track students' reading abilities through basic assessments, and move them through the levels as they progress. But ... teaching and learning to read isn't simple or convenient all the time. Trying to force early readers into a pre-constructed organization means that we are narrowing children's options at a time when we should be allowing them to explore all kinds of literacy. Many children who are told they cannot or should not read books outside of a certain group will begin to believe it, and this is setting them up for future literacy failure.

As teachers and parents, we need to give children access to a variety of texts and literacy opportunities. Children need to experience books they can read independently which also stimulate their thinking. If using leveled readers is a requirement in your school, supplement children's reading materials with books that relate to children's personal interests. Make reading a meaningful experience, not simply an exercise in phonics.

So, let's try to let reading be a little complicated. Give children a voice in their reading choices now and will be much more likely to read for pleasure in the future.