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.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Moving Beyond "Sounding it Out"

Chances are, if someone asks us how we learned to read, we say "I learned how to sound out words" or some variation of this. "Sound it out" is a go-to phrase used by parents and teachers to tell children how to attempt reading a word. But, do we believe that this is the best or only way to support children in their early reading?

Sounding out is not a foolproof method for figuring out unknown words, or for making sense of a chunk of text. Some people might say that sounding out words actually hinders, rather than helps, readers comprehend a text because many words cannot be "sounded out." Also, by focusing only on the individual parts and sounds of a word, the reader is not thinking about what the word means, or how it fits into the context of the whole story.

Children do need to have phonemic awareness, but there are other strategies that could be more helpful in understanding a text as a whole:
~ Use the visual information (pictures) surrounding the text to generate ideas about what an unknown word
might be.
~ Tell students to think about the context of the sentences
they have already read. See if there is a pattern in the words that might help them figure out the unknown word, or come up with possible words that fit into that part of the story.
~ Rather than sounding out an entire word, look at the first letter and think of a word within the context of the story that begins with that sound.
~ Continue to give students more strategies throughout the process of learning to read. Every child learns differently, so what works for some may not be the best strategy for others.

The conclusion here, it seems, is that the best strategy for early reading is to use a variety of strategies which work together to help young readers understand texts. Instead of focusing only on sounding out words, let's encourage children to solve words using multiple strategies.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Decoding the Literacy Language

Picture a world full of symbols and signs that you do not recognize or understand. (Maybe you have visited a country in which they speak a different language, so this is not difficult to imagine.) For a child who does not know how to read, this is how the world looks. Imagine your frustration if everyone around you seemed to make meaning from their environment based on a sign system you could not interpret. Learning to read
and write is an exciting time in children's lives; they are gaining a path into an adult world. They will use this skill for the rest of their lives, and the way they are introduced to the reading world can have a significant impact on how they view reading for many years to come. Although there are challenges that can accompany learning to read, families and teachers should focus on positives and give children plenty of opportunities to practice pre-reading skills.

The building blocks of words are individual letter sounds - phonemes. A crucial skill for learning to read is phonemic awareness - the understanding of letter sounds and the ability to use them to create or break apart words. (For example, the sounds in the word back are b, a, k.) Studies have found that children who have stronger phonemic awareness tend to have better early reading skills than those who do not understand letter sounds. These children will also be more skilled in spelling based on letter sounds they hear within words.

There are many ways for families and teachers to support children in their journey toward fluent reading and writing. Children often gain phonemic awareness naturally, through hearing songs, rhymes, and word plays. Families and teachers can encourage this by singing, reading poems, saying rhymes or using alliteration in their daily activities.

When children begin to write, it is important to remember that they are making their way through a long process that will last well into elementary school. It takes time to learn to write the "right" way, which we call conventional writing. Allowing children to write independently, spelling words as they choose, gives them the opportunity to explore language and learn through experience. Resist the urge to correct children when they use invented ("made-up") spelling or write letters backwards; this is an important part of the process of learning to write conventionally. Children are making their way into our complicated system of communication. It is important for families to understand that "success" is relative to the environment; "successful writing" at the kindergarten level is very different from what we consider to be successful for ourselves or for older children.

Just remember to continue to support and encourage the children in your life as they begin their lifelong journeys into literacy. Realize as you help them through these potentially challenging beginning stages that you are helping them become successful and confident readers and writers, roles they will fill for the rest of their lives - what an exciting job to have!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Digging into Literacy

One very important aspect of literacy development is recognizing that literacy is all around us. An excellent way to help your child or class learn this is to take them into their community to find literacy. We often hear about classes going on field trips, but I would like to introduce the idea of "field work" for elementary classes. Using this term helps children see that, even though leaving the school is a fun break from the regular routine, they will also be doing important learning.

One idea for literacy field work is to create a scavenger hunt so that children have specific items, letters, or words to search for. The children would become "literacy detectives" and would carry clipboards with checklists so that they can check off found items and make notes about their discoveries.

Another way to explore and observe literacy in the world is to do a community literacy dig. The class visits a location in their community, such as a store or city building, and children work in teams to record observations about the environment. Roles in each group might include:
~making a map of the environment ~describing the surroundings
~observing people and activities
~observing and recording talk
~recording vocabulary unique to the location
~collecting print samples ~taking photos and video

If a class is unable to go into the community, a teacher might do a community literacy dig on his or her own and bring back as much information and sample literacy as possible so that children can experience a part of the location in their classroom. I recently went to a local store where I found an incredible amount of literacy:
~labels ~price tags ~advertisements ~signs ~books
~cash registers ~employee aprons
~carts and bags

Bringing back samples, photos, and videos of these things helps children understand the print environment, even if they were not in the store.

Literacy field work gives children a chance to explore the scope of literacy in their world. It provides a chance for a new kind of meaning-making by showing them that literacy exists outside of the classroom and outside of books. So head out into the community with your kids or students and see what kind of literacy you can find!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Literacy as a Lifelong Process

What is literacy? How is it learned? At what point in our education have we mastered it?
Is it when we can read a whole book? Is it when we can write a story or a letter? Is it when we finish school; are we then done with literacy?

Literacy is all of these things and more.
We are never finished with literacy...
It is a lifelong process.

Literacy is about learning to read and write. But it is also about communication - expressing ourselves to others, and listening to others in order to understand them. When we define literacy as a process of communication, it broadens our previous understanding of literacy.
Now we can see literacy in everything:
~conversation ~word games ~television shows & videos
~environmental print ~music & nursery rhymes
~photographs & cartoons ~gestures & facial expressions
~graphic novels, such as The Arrival, by Shaun Tan

Any process intended to communicate can be seen as literacy. Often we overlook these parts of our daily lives and do not identify them as literacy learning. What makes these natural processes noticeable is when they suddenly become different than what we are used to. This is certainly the case for second-language learners. When children move to a new country with very different customs and school practices, they might shut down and seem entirely uninterested in learning to adapt to the new culture. Children who could read and write in their home country are suddenly unable to express themselves or understand others; this can be extremely frustrating and frightening.

What we as teachers and families need to do is try to find a common ground - create a third space, or some kind of universal literacy - that can be used to bridge the gap between what a child knows and what the new culture expects. This might come in the form of a wordless picture book, a video or video camera, a book on tape, or a sharing of literacy from a home country. When children use some process to create meaning and expression, they are learning literacy. Teachers and families who work together to learn about each others' usual practices will likely help children adjust to the new culture while continuing to value their home culture through continued literacy learning and sharing. Building trust, earning and giving respect, and working at the pace of each individual student are essential for creating a comfortable literacy learning environment.