Text Levels– Tool or Trouble?

 

By Irene Fountas, Author and Director of the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

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This post was originally published on October 23, 2013

When my colleague Gay Su Pinnell and I created a gradient of text for teachers to use in selecting books for small group reading, we were excited about its potential for helping teachers make good text decisions to support the progress of readers.

Our alphabetic gradient is widely used by teachers for this purpose and has become an essential tool for effective teaching in guided reading lessons.

With every good intention, the levels may have been applied by professionals in ways we would not have intended. We did not intend for levels to become a label for children that would take us back to the days of the bluebirds and the blackbirds or the jets and the piper cubs. Our intention was to put the tool in the hands of educators who understood their characteristics and used it to select appropriate books for differentiated instruction.

We are well aware of the importance of communicating student progress accurately to families. Rather than the use of levels in reporting to families, we have encouraged the use of terms like “reading at grade level expectation” or “reading above grade level expectation” or “not yet reading at grade level expectation” on report cards along with other clear indicators of a student’s processing abilities such as understanding, word-solving abilities, accuracy or fluency. In addition we have encouraged the use of indicators related to amount and breadth of independent reading.

Students actually experience a variety of books at varied levels in a rich literacy program. They may experience complex texts as read aloud or shared reading selections and a range of levels in book discussion groups or independent reading. Highly effective teaching provides a range of opportunities with different texts for different purposes.

In our best efforts to use assessment indicators, we want to be sure that our purposes best serve the children we teach and give families the important information they need. This may not mean using labels such as book levels that hold more complexities and are intended for the use of the educators as they make day-to-day teaching decisions.

The Most Important Part of Strategy Instruction

By Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris, 2018 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speakers

With the publication of Mosaic of Thought by Ellin Oliver Keene and Susan Zimmerman
in 1997, ideas about comprehension instruction began to shift towards teaching students  to be strategic. Since then, powerfully influential books–such as Strategies that Work by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis and The Reading Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo–have helped us understand how to consider the strategic work of reading as a collection of processes that work together to help children comprehend text. While we agree that strategy instruction should be an instructional mainstay, we invite you to consider some of the more subtle aspects of teaching students to be strategic.

LFA2018-Kim-YarisLFA2018-Jan-BurkinsHere are five things to think about as you are working to develop strategic readers in your classroom:

  1. You can better teach reading strategies if you understand the reading processes of students.

    Listening to students read, talking to them about their understanding of texts, and knowing how they idiosyncratically approach and process text is quintessential to knowing which strategy will be most helpful to them. As a teacher you can know 1,000 reading strategies, but if you don’t know your students well enough to understand them as readers, you will not be able to effectively match the strategy with the reader.

  2. Students do not need 1000 strategies to be successful, in fact this may make them less successful. 

    The value of knowing a lot of strategies as a teacher is that we can then differentiate our instruction to meet the individual needs of students. Teaching lots of strategies to all of your students, however, will likely produce a cognitive overload. In the moment of figuring out the tricky part of a text, having three very-versatile strategies will prove more beneficial than having 15 specific strategies. In the moment of reading, problem solving must be on the run. Having too many strategies to sort through slows the whole process, which interrupts comprehension. Sometimes, less is more.

  3. It doesn’t matter how many strategies students know, if they don’t actually use them. 

    The real value of reading strategies is in their application! If students don’t–independent of teacher reminders and prompting–use a strategy, then it is of little value. The reading rubber meets the literacy road when you evaluate strategy instruction through the lens of student transfer–Do students know when, as well as how, to use strategies, and are they doing so independently?

  4. Isolated strategies are not the end goal. 

    The ultimate purpose of strategy instruction is that students integrate new strategies into their larger reading process. Knowing how to infer (or question or predict or clarify, etc.) is not enough. Proficient readers integrate strategies, flexibly using them in fluid ways. Putting all the strategies together is the ultimate goal.

  5. Not all students need explicit instruction in specific strategies. 

    Students who have balanced and integrated reading processes, who are already strategic and agentive as they work through text, probably need little (or even no) strategy instruction. They simply need more time to read. Their reading processes are already what Marie Clay referred to as “self-extending systems.” Be careful about one-size-fits-all strategy instruction, particularly if it replaces actual reading practice for students.

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My First Favourite Year

By Allyson Matczuk, 2018 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

As the school year moves into first term, I have been thinking about my all time favourite year of teaching.  Over coffee with a couple of close colleagues it all came back and I felt that pleasant rush of excitement as I walked home later.
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We had a district early years team with one or two reps from each school.  The meetings rotated from school to school and were held after school hours with a pizza dinner served. Even though I had four children at home, my husband was accommodating enough to take over and give me that one evening a month free to indulge my appetite for all things “teaching”. Our early years team got to visit each other’s teaching environments and every meeting opened with a little “tour” of the classroom we were meeting in.  While the equipment and the organization of the room was always of interest, the ‘why’ of the room looked as it did was a richer conversation.  We all had the “same stuff” but how it was used and why we had made the decisions we had was fascinating.  We found that we were able to personalize our contexts so that others could understand that what mattered about the experiences we created for the individual children we worked with.  The team from my school consisted of myself and my teaching colleague.  We carried the things we had discussed at the team meetings back to our own school where we couldn’t stop talking about the possibilities.  It led us to arrange to do recess supervision together — twice the amount of time on the playground but also twice as much time to talk with each other and with the children.  We found that our plans about how to implement the curriculum were coming from what we knew about our context… our students.

In a radical move, we proposed a change to the principal.  We would combine our classes and our classrooms and teach together. My classroom was a blended first- and second-grade and my partner’s was a blended second- and third-grade class. We were convinced that we would more than double our enthusiasm for teaching and not double the duties each of us had.  Much to our shock, he agreed and the next year we were a team with open doors between our adjoining classrooms.  The next year was my first “favorite-year-of-all-time”.

During that “favorite year” one girl in first grade stands out.  Within the first day or two of school she informally demonstrated she could tell tall tales better than anyone…ever! Rather than stifling her enthusiasm for story-telling by suggesting she was making things up and grumbling about her sense of honesty, my teaching partner and I embraced her skill and built our plans around it. The year revolved around stories of tall tales, legends, and fantasies.  By contrasting them with narrative non-fiction and informational texts, the students learned to distinguish reality from make-believe and everyone had a favorite they liked to think and talk about. They may have been in grade one, but they had taught each other about genre. We all were fanatical about reading and writing in different genres and trying new ways on for size. First grade students were able to classify the little stories they heard, wrote and read.  The older students motivated the younger ones to read more, to listen more, to write more, and to find others who enjoyed the same types of text as they did or suggest different texts to each other. All the while, they were all having fun and the amount of time-on-task was amazing!

As we welcome new students into our schools, I wonder how much we still are able to do that.  Are we able to wrap experiences around the students? Do we greet the new immigrant student, or a student whose home life has changed, or a student who has just moved across the country, or a student who is differently abled with the same respect for their individuality, their diversity and their hidden expertise as my partner and I did with the students in my first favorite year of teaching?

As P. David Pearson says, “Children are who they are.  They know what they know. They bring what they bring. Our job is not to wish our students knew more or knew differently. Our job is to turn each student’s knowledge and diversity of knowledge we encounter into a curricular strength rather than an instructional inconvenience.  We can do that only if we hold high expectations for all students, convey great respect for the knowledge and culture they bring to the classroom, and offer lots of support in helping them achieve those expectations.”  I’ve had other favorite years since, but I’ve learned that harnessing the power of diversity makes teaching my “favorite” thing to do!

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Research Says Celebrate Invented Spelling in Beginning Readers

By J. Richard Gentry PhD, 2018 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

Can you read this story written by an end-of-year kindergartner?

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When I see a beginning writer’s story with invented spelling like this, I know it’s time to cheer. This child is well on the way to reading success. Research in a number of studies from Canadian cognitive psychologists Gene Ouellette and Monique Sénéchal has convincingly championed the positive outcomes of invented spelling showcasing the writing/reading connection. They undergird their research with two long-standing independent lines of research: 1) research in tracking developmental phases of word reading (Ehri, 2000) and 2) research in developmental phases of spelling (Gentry, 2000). In a carefully crafted longitudinal study Ouellette and Sénéchal (2017) followed over 170 kindergarten writers from kindergarten to the end of first grade and found invented spelling to be “a unique predictor of growth in early reading skills.” Far from being nonacademic, harmful to traditional values, or a deterrent to conventional spelling they found use of invented spelling to be a boon to learning to read, phonemic awareness, and learning the alphabetic principle.

This study and others including neuro-imaging studies are helping map the beginning pathway to successful reading with a powerful observational tool called phase observation. It’s based on my many years of research on phases of developmental spelling which perfectly align with Linnea Ehri’s remarkable contribution in a separate line of research based on phases of word reading.

The Gentry phases and Ehri phases are essentially one and the same—or two sides of the same coin representing observable outcomes of the developing architecture of the reading brain’s word form area. Remarkably, neuro-scientific imaging demonstrates the development of this critical part of the proficient reader’s brain from non-existence in Phase 0 non-readers and writers to its presence in the brains of proficient end-of-first grade readers and writers (Gentry & Ouellette, in press).

Today, exemplary kindergarten teachers across the nation and cutting edge staff development resources such as the New York City Department of Education Framework for Early Literacy: Grades Pre-Kindergarten—2 (NYCDOE, 2018) tout phase observation and use of the Gentry developmental spelling phases and Ehri word reading phases as important for promoting early literacy development.

How Phase Observation Works

Here’s a Close Look Writing Assessment (adapted from Feldgus, Cardonick, & Gentry, 2017) of the “Earth Quakes” story. If we analyze each invented spelling we get a measure of what phase the kindergartener is in from this small sample.

You can analyze each invented spelling using this guide:

Mark each invented spelling as Phase 3 if it has a letter for each sound.
Mark each invented spelling as Phase 4 if it has logical phonics patterns consolidated into chunks. (There are no Phase 0-2 spellings.)

Invented Spelling

Phase

Phase Strategy

Rth (earth) Phase 3 r for the r-controlled vowel; he knows the digraph th.
qhaks (quakes) Phase 3 qh for /kw/, afor /ā/, k for /k/, and s for /s/
log (long) Phase 3 l for /l/, o for /ä/ and typical omission of a preconsonantal nasal before g
tim (time) Phase 3 t for /t/, i for /ī/, and m for /m/
mac (make) Phase 3 m for /m/, afor /ā/, and kfor /k/
kel (kill) Phase 3 k for /k/, i for /ě/, l for /l/
pepl (people) Phase 3 p for /p/, e for /ē/, p for /p/, and l for /l/
Sanfrinsiskou (San Francisco) Phase 4 syllablechunks for san-frin-sis-kou
hapin (happen) Phase 4 Syllable chunks for hap-in

There is a lot to celebrate here! What immediately jumps out is that this writer is advanced for kindergarten and making progress for becoming a proficient reader. He is likely moving from Phase 3 into Phase 4 as both a writer and a reader. While celebrating his meaning making and other strengths, this sample helps us target instruction for CVC short vowels, the long vowel CVCe pattern, digraphs qu and ng, and eventually r-controlled syllables and the idea that every syllable needs a vowel.

We can celebrate when science confirms discovery of best classroom practices for beginning reading teachers. Over three decades ago Marie Clay, the revered world-renowned, late, theorist and founder of Reading Recovery called for educators and scientists to capitalize on the early writing/reading connection. “It is probable,” she wrote, “that early writing serves to organize the visual analysis for print, and to strengthen important memoric strategies. The child’s written work also provides us with objective evidence of what the child has learned.” (Clay, 1982, p. 210) Today, Clay’s hopeful prognosis has revealed itself in phase observation. Let’s use invented spelling to set beginning readers on a pathway to conventional spelling and better end-of-first-grade reading scores. Science has spoken!

References

Clay, M. M. (1982). Observing young readers. London: Heinemann Educational Books.

Ehri, L. C. (2000). Learning to read and learning to spell: Two sides of a coin.” Topics in Language Disorder, 20, 19-36.

Feldgus, E., Cardonick, I. & Gentry, R. (2017). Kid writing in the 21st century. Los Angeles, CA: Hameray Publishing Group.

Gentry, J. R. (2000). A retrospective on invented spelling and a look forward, The Reading Teacher, 54(3), 318-332.

Gentry, J. R. & Ouellette, G. (in press). Brain words: How the science of reading informs teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse Publishers.

Ouelette, G. & Sénéchal, M. (2017). Invented spelling in kindergarten as a predictor of reading and spelling in grade 1: A new Pathway to literacy, or just the same road, less known? Developmental Psychology, 53(1), 77– 88. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/dev0000179

New York City Department of Education. (2018). Pre-K—2 Framework for early literacy. New York City: NYCDOE Publication.

 

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Purposeful Pedagogy Creates Joyful and Independent Readers

By Lindsey Moses, 2018 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker 

LFA2018-Lindsey-MosesIn the current state of accountability measures, it is sometimes hard not to get bogged down with what feels like a long checklist of requirements and things that need to get accomplished. While this reality is inescapable, some of the strongest teachers with whom I am lucky collaborate have shifted their thinking from “I can’t get to the instruction I know my kids need because of…..” to “How can I prioritize what I know my students need in my current context?” One of the best ways to do this is developing purposeful independent learning experiences that are representative of real-world reading practices. This is often where teachers have the most freedom in their instruction.

In a typical reading workshop model, approximately 50% of students’ literacy experiences are spent without direct support of the teacher (this is often referred to as independent and/or partner work). The options for this time are endless, but when planning these experiences, I always ask myself, “What do I want my readers to do/know/experience?” and “What purpose does this serve in their reading lives?” Years ago, these questions helped me shift my thinking about independent work experiences. The answer to these questions for me (regardless of grade level) is that I want my readers to read, to love reading, to share reading experiences with others, and to explore, question, learn and grow through experiences with texts. I think the purpose of these goals serves to create life-long readers and inquirers. Purposeful pedagogy helps us work toward that goal.

What does purposeful pedagogy look like in practice?

I spent a couple of years researching and learning alongside an amazing first-grade teacher, Meridith Ogden. When we first started working together, she identified pedagogical goals related to her literacy instruction. Together we developed instructional ideas and a plan for how we would address and research the progress toward these goals. The goals were (1) to have students develop a love of reading; (2) to have students understand that the ultimate goal of reading is to construct meaning; (3) to have students independently applying comprehension skills across a wide variety of texts; and (4) to engage students in meaningful discussions about literature with interpretive responses. Our instructional plans for addressing these goals involved whole-group, small-group, and conferring practices. However, we decided to really focus on supporting those goals and students’ reading experiences by enhancing the purpose and meaning during the independent work time of the reading workshop.

As we discussed how to maximize independent workshop time to meet our goals, we reflected on what we believed was most important. We agreed that we wanted to prioritize engaged reading and talking about reading. So, we did. Kids had choice independent reading and partner reading and talking EVERY DAY! We began thinking about purposeful learning experiences to foster independence, and we removed any “activities” that were not things that real readers do. Here are some ways to think about what purposeful learning experiences are not and what they could be:

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Table from What are the Rest of my Kids Doing? Fostering Independence in the K-2 Reading Workshop (Moses & Ogden, 2017).

We just kept going back to…what is the purpose of this learning experience? If it didn’t serve the most essential purposes, then we tossed it out. We didn’t have enough time for busy work, worksheets, or meaningless activities (we also just don’t want these to be part of our practice). These types of activities often keep children quiet, but quiet means compliant- it is NOT a measure of literacy learning and development. One of my favorite end-of-year quotes from an interview with a first grader was, “We’re a little loud. That’s because we like to read!” Part of our purpose involved creating a community of readers who read, shared, and talked about texts with peers.

Below is a model we designed to support purposeful independent learning experiences.

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We start with establishing routines that help students shop for books they love and are able to engage with during independent reading. This takes time, getting to know kids and their interests, as well as books that are a good fit. We also focus on establishing routines for what we do during independent reading and why- all of this is grounded in what real readers do. We modeled how we shop for books (browsing, looking at the cover, reading a few pages, getting recommendations from friends, etc.). Next, we introduced strategies that would help students be able to read independently and with partners (both fix-up and comprehension). Students could use these strategies as a response opportunity to document their thinking and prepare for discussions with partners or discussion groups. While reading informational texts, students had the same option for documenting strategy use in preparation for conversations, but they also had the opportunity to design their own inquiry projects based on a topic of interest. Finally, we move to collaborative “independent” experiences. We believe there is nothing more powerful than young readers being able to independently collaborate with partners and small groups of peers. We build on the routines, strategies, and response opportunities to prepare them for meaningful engagement with reading and their community of readers.

For us, the key is purposeful pedagogy. We design and support independent learning experiences with a clear purpose that mirror the real work and social interactions of readers. Yes, it is a little noisier and messier than traditional independent seat work, but it is worth it because it allows young readers to develop a love of, connection to, and confidence in reading.

The Importance of Doing the Laundry: Maintenance Matters

by Kate Roberts, 2017 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

A little while ago, I attended a keynote on the importance of innovation in our schools, classrooms, and nation. It was a rousing speech, and I agreed with all of it. Of course, we need fresh, inspiring ideas to help solve some of our most pernicious problems in education. Of course, we want educators who are able to think in new and creative ways about how to best reach and raise our children. I left energized and rearing to go.

Kate RobertsAs I began to implement these innovative ideas, I hit wall after wall of reality. I didn’t have the resources I needed. I didn’t have the experience to truly teach or guide the new ideas I had, so that when my students had trouble, I was not sure where to go. I still had my old, “un-innovative” curriculum to contend with, plus the assessments that seem unmovable, plus the grading system of my school. My foray into innovation gave me a few days of shiny new practices, but they soon gave way to the gravitational pull of normal.

I was tempted to say, “This just doesn’t work.” (Ok, I did say it.)

I was wrong and, at the same time, right. Many innovative ideas can work – as long as we are able and supported in devoting great amounts of labor to them for the long haul.

Innovation needs maintenance. So does normalcy. In fact, without maintenance, the whole thing (our classrooms, our homes, our world) just falls apart. But there are few keynotes given or books written in praise of the need to carry on and keep things going. There are few PD sessions on the power of grinding away at the same old stuff making sure things are working well enough.

But there should be.

In their Aeon article “Hail the Maintainers,” Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel make a case for the importance of supporting the maintainers in any profession. From the fall of the Iron Curtain to the inequity arising out of Silicon Valley, they point out that while novel ideas are integral to our evolution, these ideas wind up really taking on a very small percentage of the actual work.

Russell and Vinsel argue that the hard (and mundane) work of maintenance opens up the space for innovation to exist:

“…focusing on infrastructure or on old, existing things rather than novel ones reminds us of the absolute centrality of the work that goes into keeping the entire world going. Despite recurring fantasies about the end of work or the automation of everything, the central fact of our industrial civilization is labour, and most of this work falls far outside the realm of innovation.”

I would argue we do not spend enough time talking about and celebrating the labor of teachers – all the maintenance it takes to get great and innovative ideas up off of the ground and into the world. And we do not spend enough time helping each other to find sustainable ways to practice that maintenance and keep it going.

If innovation requires the essential and mundane work of maintenance, we must carve out ways to support and nurture this unglamorous work. Here are a few ways that we can support the maintenance that takes innovation going:

  1. Consider the systems and structures first.

When an innovative idea comes along, create systems in your classroom to maintain and support that idea, keeping it accountable for you and your students. For example, you go to a workshop on student blogging and expanding their intellectual social network. Great idea. Now, how much class time per week will you devote to this practice and when will that happen? Wednesdays for 20 minutes? Every Friday? Without repetition, innovative ideas will stay flashes in the pan.

Next, ask yourself, where will they do this work? What platform will they use and how will you make sure your kids know how to use it.

Finally, what is the expectation for the outcome? How will you hold them accountable?

When creating a system to maintain innovation, lean on the building blocks of reality:

TIME: When will students practice this innovation and how will they be         reminded?

SPACE: Where will students practice this innovation and how will you know?

MATTER:  (Ok, this is a stretch in the science metaphor) How will the work    take shape, as in, what is the accountable expectation in your classroom.

Without these systems in place, any new idea will be a flash of something promising, yet struggle to take root.

  1. Listen when it feels like too much work.

If you are listening to a speaker or reading a book and begin to feel overwhelmed (like, what is being presented is way too much work for you to actually get up and going), then, honestly, it probably is, at least completely. The answer to innovation cannot be that teachers just take on more and more work into infinity. And yet that is often the implied suggestion behind every professional development session, every new idea, every exhortation to “lift the level of …”

I am not suggesting that you shut down when things feel like too much work. But when you feel like you cannot do it, I am suggesting that you pause, step back, and realize that you will not be able to get everything in place – at least not right now. Ask yourself, “which part of this do I feel like I can tackle right now? Which part feels like it will take some work, but not so much work that my sliver of work/life balance won’t be obliterated?”

This way, you can begin.

  1. Focus on what matters and be willing to let go of the rest.

Innovative ideas can often come packaged in ideals. And yet, as often quoted, perfect is very much the enemy of the good. We can strive to always ask ourselves, “what is truly important about this work? What is the heart of it? Often, when we name what the most important work is, it helps us to set priorities or to simplify the work ahead of us. We can always work on perfecting things, but let’s get the good stuff going first.

When I was in my 20’s, it felt like I was innovating my life. New relationships, new jobs, new cities and friends. But with each new huge life changing experience, I noticed things were falling apart around me. Heaps of dirty clothes piled on the floor. Stacks of bills to be paid. Unreturned phone calls. Before long, the new things  – relationships, jobs and experiences – paled in comparison to the need to maintain. I realized then that the only way I could create this new life for myself was to keep up the day-to-day stuff; this behind-the-scenes maintenance helped me create the headlines in the newspaper of my life.

We can be innovative. But in order to do so we must also maintain.

References

Russell, Andrew and Vinsel, Lee. “Hail the Maintainers.” Aeon.com. https://aeon.co/essays/innovation-is-overvalued-maintenance-often-matters-more. (Accessed August 6th, 2017).

Singing: A Joyful and Meaningful Bridge to Literacy

by Renee Dinnerstein, 2017 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

Renee Dinnerstein“Look Renée, it stopped raining!” Akhira pointed to the window and twenty-four pairs of eyes followed her finger. Sure enough, the incessant rain had stopped and we could, at last, have outdoor play. But for my kindergarten children the ceasing of the rain also meant that at our morning meeting we would all happily sing Blue Skies.

Singing together infused my classroom with good feelings. When Vicky had a problem separating from her father one morning, we all solemnly sang our Comfort Song – “What should I do if my best friend is crying? What should I do? I don’t know what to say. I take my friend in my arms and I hold her.” Of course the children then wanted to continue singing verses for their daddies, mommies, uncles, aunts, sisters, cats and puppies. Eventually Vicky too forgot her separation anxieties and joined in the singing.

I believe that singing is a powerful tool for building community, and not only in classrooms. During the civil rights movement, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, group singing helped freedom fighters hold onto their courage in the most difficult of circumstances. “The freedom songs are playing a strong and vital role in our struggle,” said the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., “they give the people new courage and a sense of unity. I think they keep alive a faith, a radiant hope in the future, particularly in our most trying hours.”

Community building in the classroom is probably our first goal as teachers. When we form a cohesive, caring community, class rules seem to easily fall into place. Children help and support each other, bullying becomes practically a non-issue and maintaining discipline is not the teacher’s priority.

Before I continue writing about the importance and joy of singing with children, I must address the issue of voice. Many teachers have told me that they really cannot sing in school because they don’t have good singing voices. Truth be told, my voice is somewhat flat and I have difficulty carrying a tune. However, that never seemed to bother the children in any of my classes.

We sang every day and for many different purposes. As we studied bridges, we sang Love Can Build a Bridge, which led to an interesting discussion of metaphors. Maggie described a kiss as the bridge of lips between two people and Nils noticed that a rainbow could be a bridge from our earth to the sky. During the years that I co-taught with Connie Norgren, combining her first grade class and my kindergarten class each day for Choice Time, Inquiry Studies and group sings, Connie, a wonderful guitarist and folk singer, taught us many ecology songs (Think About the Earth; The Garden Song), freedom songs (Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around; Rosa Parks; This Little Light of Mine) and songs from different cultures, (Des Colores; Que Bonita Bandera; Santa Lucia)

Many literacy skills can grow out of the joyful experiences of singing together. Here are but a few of them.

Phonemic Awareness

When children sing and clap out songs, they are also playing around with sounds. They segment them and then put them back together again.  They tap and clap out rhythms. Consider the song Baby Beluga where the rhythm spaces the song into syllables, “Ba-by Be-lu-ga, in the deep blue sea” or the chant Miss Mary Mack:  “Miss Mar-y Mack, Mack Mack. All dressed in black, black, black. With sil-ver buc-kles all down her back, back, back.”

Rhyme

Because there are so many rhyming songs it’s almost difficult to know which ones to highlight. For starters there’s Down By the Bay, Jenny Jenkins, and This Old Man (which is also a counting song). Singing songs that mix up initial consonants such as in Willoughby, Wallaby Woo bring out lots of giggles but also involve children in thinking about the sounds of the consonants in addition to the rhymes.

Alphabetic Awareness

Besides the old standby of the ABC song, don’t forget about A You’re Adorable. My class loved to sit in a circle and write the letters on each other’s back as they sang. Then they rubbed their hands across the back that they wrote on to erase the letters, turned around and re-sang the song as they wrote in upper case! It was a non-threatening way for children to practice writing the alphabet and it gave me the opportunity to casually walk around the circle, singing and noticing who was still having difficulty with letter formation.

Phonemic Awareness and Spelling Patterns

A song that opens up opportunities for the engaging activity of going on hunts for spelling patterns is I Can’t Spell Hippopotamus.  After we’ve had many opportunities to sing that funny song and come up with some simple spelling patterns (can, man, pan or bet, let, set) children set themselves up in partnerships, get sticky-notes and pencils, and peruse the classroom looking for spelling patterns on charts and in books around the room. Then we get back together and sing again, incorporating their notes into the song. It’s a game, it’s a song, it’s a spelling lesson, and it’s fun!

One to One Word Recognition

After children know a song really well (“by heart”), put the lyrics on a chart and the children will begin making connections between the words that they have been singing and the words that are written on the paper. Children can then take turns being the teacher and, with a wooden stick (I’ve used a chopstick), point to the words as the class reads and sings along. Children might take turns looking for sight words on the song chart and underlining them. Then they might put circles or boxes around words in the song that keep repeating. The key importance here is to wait until the children have internalized the words of the song aurally before making them visual. When you do that, the print is meaningful to the reader.

In June, I often celebrated our year of singing by recording the children singing together, making copies of the tape (would it be a CD today?) for each child and adding a sing-along songbook.  I recently met a former student, now a college graduate, who told me that for years after kindergarten she listened to the tape and that the family played it when they went on long trips so that they could all sing along together, karaoke style!

I like to keep in mind the words from an African spiritual that encourages us to “sing when the spirit says sing,” and to bring spirit and joy into each school day. Joyful singing can become a bridge to many joyful literacy learning experiences!

 

Renee Dinnerstein is a featured speaker at our 2017 Literacy for All Conference, October 22-24th.  She will be presenting on Monday and Tuesday of the Conference.  Click here for detailed information on all of our workshops.