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.
It’s all about the hook. Find what is inspiring to the youth and you find the hook into reading. Take baby steps even if needed. Not interested in reading a book? Start with a graphic novel. Even the old school Baby Sitters Club books are coming back with a vengeance in graphic novel form! Boys! Who doesn’t love adventures about a dog!? Try Dog Man! The goal isn’t to read MacBeth in first grade. The goal is to simply love reading.
Why? Well, let’s start with imagination. We tend to quickly lose the essence of imagination as we grow older. Those dreams you used to have as a kid, gone. Now you dream you are at work, even when you aren’t at work!
Second, you gather information. Yes, you in fact can learn from reading. Try the Who was/Who is/Where is collection. Going out of town? Find out if an inventor came from the area you are traveling. Going to the Grand Canyon? Yes, there is a great Where is the Grand Canyon book full of facts geared towards kids, but in fact, adults can learn a great deal too!
Third, reading is an escape from the real world. I don’t know about you, but TV shows just aren’t the same these days. However, Wild Kratts is pretty phenomenal. Books can take us on some pretty outstanding adventures.
What’s next for you? Maybe take your book to the park, sit on a swinging bench and enjoy nature at its finest. Have a hammock? What better way to spend the afternoon far off in your imagination swaying away in your backyard.
Try it sometime. Your kids might even want to join in on the fun when they notice your joy!
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.
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.
Early Childhood Education is a vital foundation for children of tender age. Not only are they introduced to various experiences, but they are also taught how to form and maintain positive social relationships, a sense of belonging, and developing specific skills to reach their full potential.
We see regular acts of racism, sexism, and prejudice being displayed among people of all ages in society. The need for greater diversity, inclusion, and equity is becoming more evident, from videos we see on social media to news headlines.
Raising a tolerant, accepting, fair and empathetic child should start from an early age. Incorporating equity and inclusion into the early childhood curriculum is one of the best ways to do this.
Equity is simply displaying the quality of being fair and impartial. On the other hand, inclusion is incorporating people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those who have physical or mental disabilities and members of other minority groups.
Educators incorporating equity and inclusion in the classroom will help them to combat prejudice and racial discord by supporting positive behaviors among students, fostering a sense of belonging for all students and their families, and teaching respect for everyone.
How Do Children Benefit from Incorporating Inclusion and Equity in Early Childhood Curriculum?
The benefits of inclusion and equity are numerous for all children. Schools including these vital lessons into their curriculum can help children to reach their developmental potential. We have compiled a list of some of the many benefits of successfully incorporating inclusion and equity.
Improved problem-solving skills
Develop positive self-image
Respect for others
Being accepting of differences
Being more understanding
May reduce bullying
Being able to recognize unfair and discriminatory scenarios
How Can your School Incorporate Inclusion and Equity in Early Childhood Curriculums?
It is no secret that children are more comfortable, grounded, and able to learn more when their school, classmates, and instructors respect their diversity.
Strategies that schools can use to successfully incorporate and promote inclusion and equity in early childhood curriculums include:
Use a multi-tiered system of support
Using this strategy involves Collaborating with early childhood special educators and other allied education and health professionals when needed. Facilitate each professional establishing a relationship with each child to maximize potential.
Provide high-quality early childhood learning resources that demonstrate a commitment to equitable outcomes for all children.
Schools can arrange budgets within their means to equitably meet the needs of children and staff. Recognize that high-quality programs will positively reflect the values, beliefs, and practices of specific children, families, and communities.
Develop opportunities for multiple voices with different perspectives to participate in decision-making.
Recognize that unspoken biases have often resulted in limited opportunities for members of marginalized groups.
Prepare current and prospective early childhood educators to provide equitable learning opportunities to all children.
Schools can ensure that educators understand the historical and systemic issues that have created structural inequities in society, including in early childhood education.
Involve children, families, and the community in the design and implementation of learning activities.
Involving children, families, and the community in learning activities will help children to embrace the idea of inclusion and equity. This will also help to build a sense of belonging with those involved.
Introducing and incorporating equity and inclusion into early childhood curriculums will benefit children and the instructors, family, and the wider community. This strategy will also help build a better future where people will practice more accepting and respectful lifestyles.
When it comes to STEM and literacy, one can’t exist without the other. STEM teachers emphasize the Engineering Design Process and computational thinking, as well as technology tools. But the work of engineers and scientists goes much further than the traditional STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering, and math. They are also communicators, collaborators, writers, readers, and global citizens.
“The work of engineers also involves collaboration, communication, global citizenship, and literacy skills.” – Jorge Valenzuela, education coach and author.
STEM initiatives abound, from the Department of Education to the National Science Foundation. And for good reason; recent studies show a correlation between early STEM experiences and success in school in later grades . Also, exposure to STEM relates to more students pursuing careers in STEM fields (an important factor in global competitiveness). Probably most importantly, STEM comes naturally to most children. Experimentation, problem-solving, and creativity are traits we see when we watch kids at play.
The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) indicate for K-5 students, there should be a 50-50 balance between nonfiction information texts and fiction. STEM and English Language Arts teachers can communicate and collaborate so that the standards are implemented across the curriculum. Interdisciplinary units can be developed and co-taught so that skills are reinforced in multiple ways.
Fiction + STEM
Work with your English Language Arts teacher or school librarian to find a high-interest novel that connects to your content. You can also find recommendations on the School Library Journal Website. Here are a few ideas:
In 1994, my 6-year-old son Nicholas failed first grade. Testing revealed he could read ten words, showed no strengths, and had a low IQ. The prognosis was dire, his future bleak. Finally, the diagnostician called him: “The worst child I’ve seen in twenty years of teaching.”
I had the option to remove my son from school for six short months. Teaching him myself, I began by using a recommended standardized set of books, titled Success for All. Their focus was on decoding of isolated words. They too, were an abject failure. Nicholas appeared to have no memory for letters, sounds, or words.
It was at this point, I was given some unforgettable advice from my mother-in-law: “Lois,” she said, “make learning fun.” Now I have no books and a son to teach. I felt totally responsible for his learning. Having a blank slate forced me to examine my son’s learning. What can he do? Does he have strengths? I recalled some previous successful learning activities. He can see patterns and he can rhyme words.
Poetry. Write a poem. But I don’t write. I, too, am dyslexic. Despite this being an enormous challenge for me, I felt pushed – no, driven to try something—anything.
Putting rhyming words together into a simple poem was easier than I imagined. The act of writing a poem transformed our little classroom, as I read the poem to him. Nicholas laughed. We found more rhyming words, illustrated the poem, and finally, he recited the poems from memory to his family.
Every day, I had a new poem waiting for Nicholas. He blossomed. Instead of panicking about learning, he recalled the words in the poems. Poetry provided a cocoon for letters and sounds. Illustrating the poems engaged us in multi-sensory activities and in reciting and performing words as we searched for deeper meanings.
But it was the poem to learn the oo sounds as in book, look, and cook which metamorphosed our learning. Instead of talking about cooking, I wrote about Captain James Cook, one of the last great explorers. Through poetry, we explored the changing map of the world to which Cook contributed greatly.
“Who came before Captain Cook?”
“Who came before Christopher Columbus?”
His questions stumped me. I could not answer many of them and I thought these were not the questions that come from a child with a “low IQ.” Using my son’s learning, I became a literacy specialist, teaching children who failed to learn to read in normal settings. I developed the knowledge and skills to turn around children’s lives.
What can parents do?
Turn fictional texts (books or short stories) into plays or dramas. Why? The child is connecting the text with actions. Book language varies from oral language. By re-writing the story, the child is now the “author” and can change the words in the text to use their words.
Read and recite poems. Poetry is the foundation for phonemic awareness. (Phonemic awareness is the ability to play with letters and sounds.) Building on rhyming poetry, the parent enables the student to hear the rhyming words and sounds.
Sing and enjoy songs, rhymes, & limericks. Use the beat and the words to engage the child with words and actions.
Show language as “dynamic.” Find, read, and tell jokes and riddles. Jokes and riddles often depend upon wordplay. Many students with learning disabilities see the world “concretely.” They struggle with the abstract nature of language. Enjoy the language and wordplay and teach children how to “look” for additional meanings.
Use audiobooks! Audiobooks or reading to a child is the most powerful way to engage the child in literature.
Above all, enjoy learning. Make it a game. Find time to enjoy learning together. When children “fall in love” with books and learning, it becomes an activity they want to do. That’s when learning happens.