A literacy environment should be cultivated by its curriculum. Learning how to read and develop literacy skills is a process that will benefit a child their entire life. It is the foundation for other subjects, and a manner in which students learn to communicate and learn about their world, near and far.
The process to teach the required skills necessary is complex, and varies depending on the needs of each learner. In my experience, literacy teaching and learning should be a “dream”. A dream in the sense of literacy learning being a priceless gift—and a dream in the sense of having curriculum and teaching practices which address Diversity, Relevance, Engagement, Access, Motivation (D.R.E.A.M.).
D.R.E.A.M. Literacy focuses on practices being implemented into instruction by educators, as well as encourages at-home support and partnerships in using diverse texts, popular culture and technology, and multimodal resources. D.R.E.A.M. represents several pieces necessary to address and provide quality and equitable literacy instruction for all. When planning literacy lessons, assignments, and making curriculum decisions educators and parents should consider the following elements:
Diversity brings about a wide spectrum of issues that educators can be faced with. Willingness to learn, accept, and apply the culture (VERY IMPORTANT: Culture does not just mean ethnicity or race) of students to instructional practices is key. Here are some ways to address diversity in literacy:
Inclusion and representation of various backgrounds (An array of genres, using texts and curriculum by authors of color)
Diversity of resources (types of texts, authentic sources)
Use of books and resources that have a balance of representation in protagonists
Students need to know how to apply the knowledge being taught, and how it applies to them. Students want to feel like they are included and are represented in a learning environment. Students want to know why it’s important, and how it is useful. Students need to know why they are developing literacy skills and where they will encounter them in their future. Making content relevant includes:
Connecting books to the interests of students
Fostering a culture of literacy being all around/environmental print (various types of text on signs, products, television, digital literacies)
Letting students explore non-fiction texts (real-world relevant texts, local and regional texts, etc.)
Exploring cross-curricular connections (Math, Science, History, Fine Arts)
Engagement starts with learning the interests of the students, merged with the academic knowledge needed. Engagement also involves educators utilizing multimodal approaches in their lessons and work with students. Some great multimodal literacy strategies include:
Interviewing or conferencing with students about what they read or write
Acting out texts
Creating visuals or artwork to accompany work
Ease of access to resources and empowering parents/guardians to help build literacy skills at home is necessary for growth. Not all students have the opportunity to have access to books in their home. If books and reading are left out of the home environment, is it really that important for a child and their family? Insight on how to continue a child’s learning outside of the classroom doors is crucial. The following ideas are recommended:
Collect donated books (bookstores, sales, retiring teachers, etc.) and hold regular “book swap” events with students and parents/guardians
Provide regularly updated virtual lists of digital literacy resources (games, apps, videos, activities, etc.)
As far as motivation, our role is to grow our students’ skills and learn what makes them excited to learn—this is very important with students who have so many unique needs that are changing as society changes daily. The main ingredient for motivation in a literacy classroom is choice.
In closing, a literacy environment should thrive on partnership between the internal and external learning communities. Parents and educators are the essential component that provides students the opportunity to see literacy as a tool of advancement and an escape— teamwork makes the “dream” work.
Most students either really love to read and find joy in growing and sharpening their literacy skills, or they feel the opposite. Their experience depends on two things- the instructional decisions made and the environment in which they learn. Educators are often told to create a “literacy rich” or “print rich” classroom setting, but what does that really mean? R.I.C.H. should address four different aspects: Relevancy, Inclusiveness, Creativity, and Hands-On approaches.
Students, younger and older are often disconnected from the literacy skills and expectations that are required in standards-based instruction and assessment. This is because they don’t see the “bigger picture” of learning the skills and strategies that are often taught in isolation. The foundational stages of literacy involve building word sense, concepts of print, and lots of repetition and practice—but educators shouldn’t stop there. The students who often struggle lack the connectedness and relevancy of the materials shared. To gain sense of relevancy and what resonates with students, conversations, bookstack cultivation, and surveys should take place.
Relevancy and inclusiveness go hand in hand. Whether planning the instruction or the “look” of a space, students need to see themselves in the materials presented. Not only do students need to see themselves, but they need to see others who are not like them as well.
When thinking about inclusivity and literacy, one might think of diversity, and the representation of various racial and ethnic backgrounds and perspectives. This is crucial, but just a starting point. Representation can be present in literacy settings, and students still not understand the importance or value of a concept or idea. Therefore, it is important to know that in addition to representation, students need to be exposed to an environment that allows them to feel safe (with learning new skills and contributing), and take risks (with new strategies, with new resources), and be inclusive of families (inside and outside of the classroom).
Literacy learning is often repetitive and can be boring for some. The more creativity that is sparked within lessons—the better. Creative ideas for literacy learning involve using traditional skills and practical, everyday materials and happenings to get students to understand.
Example: Connecting technological and popular culture terms with academic literacy terms
We want students to read, but don’t give them enough opportunity to write (or see the correlation between the two). We ask students about other writers and authors’ ideas, but don’t challenge them to see themselves as authors. Writing centers, blogging opportunities, and spaces where students can critique and explore all facets of literacy (listening, speaking, reading, writing) is a climate that would provide hands-on learning in a “R.I.C.H.” classroom.
The literacy environment has evolved, just as education has changed. Teachers often create themes at the beginning of a school year, and it is to get students excited about being in their class. The literacy environment needs a R.I.C.H. environment that is tailored to the needs of the students who are being served, and the learning community as a whole.
When was the last time you wrote or received a handwritten letter? For thousands of years, handwritten letters have played a critical part in our lives. In this age of digital communication, handwritten letters are becoming a lost art. Emails and text messages can be sent instantly; however, the impact of a good old-fashioned handwritten letter can bring a lifetime of benefits and memories.
Encouraging children to write and read letters will improve their literacy and communication skills, as well as their social and emotional development. Writing can reduce anxiety and stress, as well as decrease depression. It’s especially important during this time of virtual learning and social distancing to provide opportunities for handwritten letters. Let’s explore the academic and mental benefits of being PenPals!
Handwritten letters improve writing skills. We know that reading and writing go hand in hand… but did you know that writing by hand is just as important as reading? By definition, literacy is one’s ability to read and write. Research confirms that integrating reading and writing automatizes those skills. From kindergarten standards of using a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose informative/explanatory texts to twelve grade standards of producing clear and coherent writing, all learners must be able to write to communicate ideas.
Handwritten letters improve reading skills. Research confirms that writing by hand activates reading circuits in the brain that promote literacy. Additionally, research by McGinley and Tierney in 1989 confirmed that integrating reading and writing instruction leads to a higher level of thinking than when either process is taught alone. Providing opportunities to read a letter from a teacher or loved one will lead to improved reading achievement, better writing performance, and increased awareness of self, others, and the community.
Handwritten letters improve communication skills. It’s an old saying, but it’s true: Practice makes perfect. By habit, we mimic the voices around us – which is sometimes not the best grammar. Our speech is a direct reflection of our writing. Writing forces thought and articulation of main ideas while exploring main feelings. Letter writing provides an opportunity to improve vocabulary, knowledge, and sentence structure; and better writing creates a better speaker. What better way to practice and improve communication skills through writing than writing to someone you trust?
Handwritten letters improve self-awareness. Mental health and well-being are the core of who you are. Writing helps to clear the mind, recover memories and organization of thought, and refine ideas. Research confirms that a person can better understand his/her feelings more clearly when it’s written. Writing is a creative way to improve mental recall and well-being.
Handwritten letters improve relationships. In times like these, opportunities to connect with teachers and loved ones are important. Handwritten letters confirm the importance of relationships between educators and families with children. Daily writing opportunities provide deep connections while addressing reading, writing, and social development skills. Addressing the whole child is vital.
Use a dated notebook, versus loose paper, to keep track of how the conversation evolves. This notebook can serve as a journal, mental wellness check-in, calendar, planner, and keepsake for life (or not).
Do not edit children’s’ writings in the journal; however, provide additional opportunities to teach correct sentence structure, etc.
Always begin and end with something positive.
So go ahead, grab a pen and notebook, and begin creating memories while positively impacting literacy, communication, social, and emotional development, simultaneously.
August and September traditionally serve as the months for Meet the Teacher nights. Families file into school buildings to check out classrooms, admire bulletin boards, and inquire about policies and procedures. I am suggesting that parents make a detour on their way to classrooms this school year. Visit the school library. Yes, it’s true. School libraries often don’t receive many visitors on Meet the Teacher nights, and they need our support more than ever in 2021. Here are three ways that we can show our appreciation for school libraries and school librarians this upcoming school year.
Many school libraries operate with a certified professional and without a dedicated assistant or with an assistant and without a certified professional. Either way, those books don’t shelve themselves! An indicator of a healthy, happy library is high circulation numbers. Checking in books and getting them back on shelves can feel like an endless task, and most libraries welcome volunteers to assist with this work. Volunteering to shelve books is a great opportunity to see what kids are reading, interact with young readers, and unplug for an hour or two.
Since school libraries don’t have supply lists, they often run low on tissues, table wipes, and pencils. Ask what they need. Maybe the librarian organizes Birthday Books or Friends of the Library fundraising programs. With a cash donation, kids can select a book to insert a bookplate with their name. As a former school librarian, I can verify the joy kids experience when opening the inside front cover of a book to spy a friend’s name. It’s also likely that at some point your kids’ school will host a book fair. Some libraries rely entirely on book fair profits to acquire new materials. Debating whether to add the light-up pen or an eraser shaped like a smartphone to your stack? Go for it! Your shopping very likely helps fund new books for the library.
Despite the compelling evidence pointing to the correlation between strong school library programs and student achievement, we still see school library budgets and school librarian positions being cut nationwide. Is this happening in your community? Write an email or a letter to the School Board and Superintendent voicing your concerns. They need to hear from families about the positive outcomes associated with thriving school libraries. A school library can and should be the heart of the school. That’s not possible without the support of all stakeholders, including families.
Many parents won’t be able to volunteer time or donate resources, and that’s fine. Next time you’re in the building for a Meet the Teacher Night or another event, pop in the library. Meet the school librarian. A warm hello that says “I see you” is often more than enough.
Something that I’ve learned in my time as an educator is the power in providing students with choice. Choice to explore their learning, choice to figure things out on their own, choice to learn new things in a variety of ways. Literacy skills are the foundation of learning, and something that educators should get excited about, because there are so many ways to create and mold literacy instruction in the classroom.
The formative years for a child, let’s say ages 2-6, are critical for literacy development. Reading, rhyming, talking and singing are all ways in which children interact with both written and spoken language. When they are provided with experiences in literacy during those formative years, they are developing the foundation for their relationship with reading and writing that will continue throughout their lives. Healthy development of the brain requires children to have these experiences.
So, how do we give children in the classroom these rich, meaningful experiences that will shape their relationship with literacy?
Research and studies have shown time and time again that children learn best through exploration and problem solving, opportunities to work things out in a way that makes sense to them. So, what does this look like and how can educators incorporate choice into their literacy programs? One way to do this is designing structured, engaging centers that provide students with multimodal learning opportunities. While students may have specific “work with teacher” time, other time can be spent exploring other centers. One center could focus on consonants, having students use a stamp, sticker or other tool to indicate which consonant letter a picture starts with. Another center might have students create a pretend grocery list and find items that start with certain letters. A third center might be a letter-sounds listening game, where students listen to a word, and decide which sound they hear at the beginning of the word. Another center might be working with syllable cards, where the students look at a picture (ex. dog, banana, etc.) and match it to the number of dots – or syllables – on a card (ex. 1 dot for dog, 3 dots for banana). A final center could be a simple picture rhyming match.
That’s 5 interactive, differentiated center ideas! The point? Choice. Allow students to choose which center interests them. Create structured, timed rounds for students to explore each center, before going to a new center. Giving students the power of choice and the opportunity to explore a variety of ways to learn a concept is key to building a child’s relationship with literacy and promoting lifelong learning.
How do you get kids excited about books? Over my 25 years of teaching, I’ve discovered many ways to spark excitement. Here are 10 to get you started:
Start an After-School Book Club
Invite a guest reader from the community to kick off the meetings. After the read-aloud, the kids spread out to read independently or with a friend. You can also invite a high school sport team or club to buddy read with the kids.
Be a “Book Fairy”
Use your points from Scholastic book clubs or grants to gift books to kids. Try to give every student a book by the end of the year. Kids love the surprise and owning their own book is more special than borrowing, so they treasure it.
Invite Guest Leaders as Readers
Leaders in schools and the community love to be a part of this and your students will be inspired to see what some of their role models read. Invite the football coach, the mayor, chief of police, a local veterinarian, and others to share a favorite book.
Encourage Kid-Created Contagious Book Reviews
When a student reads a book they love, have them create a book review to share with the class. You can do these live, or have kids create a video. You can even take the videos, create a QR code for them, and adhere the QR code inside the cover of the books!
Hold a Reading Marathon
The day of the “marathon,” have kids wear running gear, create paper running bibs, allow healthy snacks and water bottles, and read all day! Have kids read independently, in pairs, Zoom in guest readers and authors, and YOU should read aloud to them too.
Kick off the Year with a Book Tasting Event
Use tablecloths and place settings and serve a pile of books on plates. Provide wish lists for your students to jot down the books they are interested in reading that year. This is a great way to get kids familiar with your classroom library and excited about what they get to read! (Use their lists to get ideas for book fairy visits too!)
Host Book-Bartering Days
Kids bring in a book that they’re willing to part with in exchange for another book from someone in the classroom. Students give a 30 second pitch on what they loved about the book they’re offering. Arrange the books on tables and allow students to make their selections.
Get Your Own Little Free Library
As a class, write a grant for a Little Free Library for your school. Your class will love this service project and visit it often! To fill the library, send home a request for gently used books as a donation to the Little Free Library. You will be surprised at how many books come in!
Host Chat and Chews
Choose a book you have multiple copies of. You can make book marks with the dates for each meeting and what chapters need to be read each time. On assigned dates, enjoy your lunch and discuss the chapters of the book together!
Have an Author Visit!
I may be biased, since I’m a children’s book author who LOVES to do author visits, but I truly believe in their power. Kids love to meet authors in person and have a renewed passion for reading and writing afterward. From hearing the story behind the stories, or special secrets the author shares, it is a memorable experience.
When kids see you make reading a priority and a treat to be enjoyed, they are on their way to becoming life-long readers.
The young students frantically waved their hands high in the air. They couldn’t wait to run to the front of the gym and participate in a game I call, “5 in Ten!”. I recently spoke with hundreds of students in different settings (urban, rural, and suburban) and they all enjoyed “5 in 10’!”. The gist of this interactive game is to name 5______ in ten seconds.
The catch is that the students do not know what I will ask them until I say, “go!”. For example, I will call someone up to the front of the class, gym, auditorium, etc. and immediately say, “Name 5 dances in ten seconds…go!”. I typically will have the audience be my shot clock and provide a whisper countdown…10…9…8….7…6…..5…4….3…2..1…Short Buzzer sound! The choices one can use are endless. I can ask participants to name 5 dogs, 5 birds, 5 pizza toppings, 5 songs, 5 movies, 5 shoes, 5 cars, 5 words that start with the letter “A”, etc.
I use “5 in 10” as an ice breaker for students, staff, parents, and families of all ages when I present. Similarly to “5 in 10”, I also use “3 in 5” and “1 in 3.” These are variations of the same “5 in 10” game with the exception that you have to name 3____ in 5 seconds and 1_____ in 3 seconds. Even in virtual environments, students. staff, and parents are excited to play these games!
It was a breath of fresh air to many who were struggling with the remote learning options that were very rigid at times. These fun games get students to speak in front of others. I use it to enhance listening. I use it to help with the correlation between listening, speaking, writing, and reading as well. Before I tackle reading, I typically get students to listen. Historically, stories were told orally (speaking) and the hearer had to “listen well” to pass the story on. Many of these stories were written and these words were read from papers and books. The correlation between listening, speaking, writing, and reading must be leveraged more.
Below are a few ways you can leverage the fun to get some reading gains!
Try “5 in 10”, “3 in 5”, and “1 in 3”
Tell a story and have your students continue where you left off. For example, “It was the first day of school for Anthony. He was so excited he ran out the door and forgot….” Have a student “continue” until you have a complete story! You can interject at times to get the story to keep moving.
After the students finish their collective story, have them write down the story on paper. Allow them to change up certain parts as they see fit.
Collect the stories and make a list of words that you want to highlight for vocabulary improvements.
Encourage students to take these same ideas home and have their families do similar activities!
So here is my call to action for you! At the very least, please try “5 in 10”, “3 in 5”, and “1 in 3” with your students, colleagues, and families. Let me know how they enjoyed it! Remember to leverage the fun as you learn!
Journaling is a common way to encourage young learners to express themselves while also supporting the academic skills of reading and writing. As a reflective tool, journaling is popular among therapists as the therapeutic benefits of journaling are well-established. It’s not surprising that journaling can also be an effective way to help children enhance self-awareness, one of the 5 core competencies of social emotional learning as defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).
What is self-awareness?
Self-awareness is the ability to assess one’s own strengths and limitations. It includes identifying and understanding the different aspects of oneself, such as emotions, traits, behaviors, and achievements. Self-awareness is important for children because it sets the stage for greater academic and social success. Children who have a better understanding of themselves tend to make better choices to help them be successful in and out of school.
To attain increased self-awareness, it is necessary to focus attention on oneself. While we are born with a rudimentary sense of self-awareness that continues to develop as we mature, it is a competency that children can improve even more through purposeful reflection and introspection. Journaling, specifically guided journaling, is an effective strategy for this.
What is guided journaling?
Guided journaling involves providing meaningful writing prompts to which the child responds. The prompts give the child a specific starting point that guides them to a particular place and help the child explore their feelings. In some instances the prompts necessitate a full page response, while other prompts may require just a few words.
The goal is to provide young learners a unique opportunity to reflect about themselves and their experiences in order to achieve gains in self-awareness. While the same information can be shared verbally, the physical act of writing deepens the reflection and enhances the learning. The addition of prompts helps guide the student to look inward to examine and understand the many aspects of themselves.
When should guided journaling be used?
The starting point for social emotional growth is an understanding of self. That requires looking inward. Students are not often asked to proactively look inward in a meaningful, consistent way. They are more likely to be asked to examine their emotions and identify their personal qualities and achievements in response to a problem. Integrating guided journaling into the curriculum as a weekly practice can help support the social emotional development that every child needs.
A good place to start are prompts that ask students to recognize personal qualities. I typically ask students to journal about their hobbies or subjects they enjoy at school. I sometimes ask them to describe an achievement and how they feel about it.
After spending time reflecting and responding to these types of prompts, students are likely to discover that they have many positive qualities, including qualities they may not have given much thought to in the past. Examples of comments from students after this type of journaling experience include, “I’ve done a lot!” and “I’m not boring!”
To a child, this process is empowering.
Other journaling prompt ideas that support self-awareness include:
Prompts that identify personal qualities or achievements, e.g. Describe a situation when you helped a peer at school.
Prompts that help students identify and respond to emotions, e.g. What are some things that make you sad?
Prompts that help students set goals, e.g. What are some goals that you have at school?
As a result of the simple yet powerful practice of guided journaling, students will realize gains in confidence which is a sign of increased self-awareness. When guided journaling for self-awareness is practiced regularly, the social emotional learning gains are more likely to be lasting.
We want our kids to reach for the stars, dream big, think for themselves and grow up with a life and career that they happily built. But how when the winding path to achieve such goals involves so many variables and, sometimes, challenges that may be out of our control? Well, there is a way, and the path is actually straight forward. I’ve walked it myself with the many students I’ve had the honor of teaching. It’s a ticket that our children can take anywhere and it opens all doors no matter the variables. It’s Reading to be a Critical Thinker.
In education, all roads converge with Reading. Reading is key to becoming a Critical Thinker. And Critical Thinkers reach whatever stars they set their eyes on. Simple Reading strategies to obtain Critical Thinking Skills are easy and exciting.
The technical definition of Critical Thinking is to utilize data, decipher fact from fiction, gather information to synthesize, reflect and find resolution. Because our kiddos are not quite ready to knock out a dissertation, it’s easy to swat the entire concept away. After all, we want them to enjoy reading. Not to fret. The real-world, enjoyable, application of Critical Thinking that I teach is much smoother: Emphasize conversation not curriculum.
Two simple strategies reap indispensable rewards:
Set a comfortable reading routine; 20-30 minutes daily and if the child wants to read longer, then great. However, never allow reading to be a chore or punishment.
Check in with your child by asking about what they read; a 5-10 minute conversation twice a week can accomplish this and when you can do more, then great.
Yet, there isn’t always time to read every word your child read. So how will you know what to ask? Simply ask anchor questions like the examples below and keep the conversation lighthearted. When a child has this consistent interaction, they naturally find deeper meaning as they connect to the story and build a greater awareness of the world around them.
Ask about any fiction book:
Before you read, glance at the pictures. Can you predict what the story will be about?
Have you had a similar experience to that of the characters?
Did you read about an idea or situation that surprised you?
Where did the story take place and how did it eﬀect the problem in the story?
Can you tell me in your own words what you read about today?
Describe a character’s personality? Do you agree with their actions? Why?
Ask about any nonfiction book:
Before you read, take a brief glance at the pages. Can you predict what the text will be about?
What is the main purpose the author wants to share? How do you know?
Did pictures, maps, graphs or visuals help you better understand the information?
Did a person share information about the subject? What did they say?
Did you learn a new fact?
Do you think combining the diﬀerent pieces of information is helpful?
Playing an active role in a child’s reading is nothing less than exceptional. Encourage them and you will engage them. Have fun involving your child in book selections, yet also expand their palette by seeking a variety of fiction and nonfiction. Soon, it will be second nature for your extraordinary child to read beyond the page. Critical Thinkers are lifelong learners, reflective, more responsible, innovators and their opportunities are plenty. They pave their own road ahead and won’t just reach for the stars, they will probably find and name a few new ones. So begin sharing the joy of reading today.
Is everyone really ready for all of the faces hiding behind the computers to return to the brick-and-mortar classroom?
Jose’s alarm rang. He rolled over and turned off the alarm on his cell phone. He was used to his new routine of rolling out of bed and opening his computer, as he sat up in bed. Who needed breakfast?
He rubbed his eyes as his day got started and he stared at 16 other black boxes with letters inside of them. It was the usual math lesson with his teacher doing most of the talking as she flipped through her Nearpod slides. Jose toyed with the idea: Do I stay in this class or roll over and drift back off to sleep?
Then his teacher shared that all students would need to return back to school next week. All Jose could think was: What? Am I ready?
The landscape of public education has undergone a seismic shift, as school systems scrambled to reinvent public education after Maryland schools closed on March 16, 2020. Some systems provided their first wave of support via paper copies that were shipped or picked up by families for about two months. No one believed that it would last beyond two months, and then it did.
The second wave lasted for the remainder of the school year and into the summer with the central office curriculum teams working around the clock to create online resources for students who were attending four synchronous instructional blocks with one asynchronous day, with four classes each day. Every Sunday, these curriculum resources were delivered (from the central office team) to teachers so that they could provide instruction as they figured out how to master their Google classrooms or Canvas online instructional platform.
The third wave lasted from the beginning of the school year, in September 2020 and lasted through March 2021. Many Maryland teachers struggled to develop daily lessons using all of the technology tools that were needed to make their lessons come alive for students. Tools like Nearpod, Pear Deck, Zoom, Screencastify, and Kahoot. Regardless, many teachers watched so many students become disengaged in instruction and there were so many phone calls home. Eventually, some parents stopped taking their calls.
When schools began to open again in March 2021, we moved students back into schools in phases with some grade levels beginning first: elementary school students and students in Special Education programs first and secondary students later. Even when students began to come back, schools had to figure out how to balance their classrooms to comply with social distancing guidelines and maintain buses at 50% capacity. It all worked out because over 60% of the students were kept home by their parents and continued to attend virtual school.
Over a year and a half later, the next leg of the journey will be all about how parents and schools will be able to navigate the learning journey to make sure that students can be accelerated towards grade level expectations in reading, mathematics, science, social studies, and other curricular areas. Many districts are exploring various intervention programs. However, they are also exploring something new: expanding tutoring support for students to individualize instruction to get back on track.
Some of the recent research by Brown University emphasizes the benefits of establishing effective tutoring supports for students, emphasizing the importance of small groups (3-4 students), frequency (at least three times a week), focus (aligned to the grade level curriculum resources), and scheduling (tutoring during the day has been found to be more effective). Time will tell as school leaders, teachers, parents, and students figure out how to navigate the shifting world of teaching and learning, as more people are vaccinated and the learning space shifts back to a normal brick and mortar setting. Who knew that schooling could be reinvented after doing school, basically the same, for over 200 years!