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.
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.
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 National Association for the Education of Young Children and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics put out a joint statement detailing the importance of STEM in elementary, and even pre-school education . The American Association of School Librarians and the International Society for Technology in Education both integrate information literacy standards that include STEM learning.
Standard #3, ISTE Standards for Students
Explore Foundation, AASL Standards Framework
How to Integrate Literacy and STEM
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:
Nonfiction + STEM
Whether you are reading them aloud or providing independent reading time, nonfiction texts are a great way to integrate literacy into your STEM classroom.
Speaking + Presenting
Speaking and listening are Common Core Standards and are also life skills needed in all occupations, including STEM careers. Here are a few ideas:
Regardless of which strategies you choose, integrating literacy and STEM will strengthen your curriculum and improve teaching and learning.
 McClure et. al; https://www.joanganzcooneycenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/jgcc_stemstartsearly_final.pdf
 NAEYC https://www.naeyc.org/sites/default/files/globally-shared/downloads/PDFs/resources/position-statements/psmath.pdf
Every single day we are tasked with ensuring that our students are entering into our building safely, that they are to learn wholeheartedly, and that they get to experience a wide variety of knowledge along the way. In doing this, as educators one of the pivotal roles we play is to promote classroom conversations. These discussions, these special moments of discourse, are necessary to allow students the time to pull apart their own ideas, formulate their own opinions, and better understand others. We have seen the world swiftly change in the past year, more than we ever thought it would. We want to be sure to do our part to provide a forum of opportunity for our students to speak about real-world events. In doing this effectively, there are three main approaches that should be taken into account across grade and content levels:
Classroom rules and norms are a regularly occurrence, but we want to be sure we revisit them before conversations. Our students need safe community spaces to process information, so having set expectations for when students can speak, how they can address each other respectfully and mindfully, and how it can foster a positive classroom culture are all critical.
Role as a Facilitator
The classroom teacher needs to take ownership of the facilitator role. No matter what age your students are, it is easy to want to jump in and help a student clarify their own thought. But as a facilitator, as furthering this classroom conversation, it involves taking a big step back and not influencing or exerting an opinion or stance. Allow your young people to take the mic, to process their thoughts, and use their own words to inform you. This should be a big moment as they work through their own pieces of information, their own views, and find their footing.
As you wrap up these conversations, we want to be sure to tie back to those classroom norms and expectations. We are all growing, we are all learning, we are all evolving, from students to adults. Reassure them that while differences exist, it is the power of understanding one another and having respectful conversations that allows us to make change.
These necessary conversations establish and support the classroom community. They allow for relationships to thrive, for inspiration to occur, and for student engagement to be accelerated. It shows students that we know they are aware of what is going on in the world today, and we want to be there for them in any capacity that we can. It shows students we care.
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.
All children like to read things they can relate to or that make them feel good. And the best children’s stories I “read” were those on the laps of my parents.
In order to write books for children of a different mold than our own, we need to know them. I grew up in a homogeneous environment. When my junior high social studies teacher inadvertently opened my eyes to the fact that youth around the world had many things in common, my interest was sparked.
My first goal achieved was learning the importance of communication. Not only in English, but in Spanish. I lived and studied in Spain, where I achieved fluency. It has served me well!
I taught Spanish and used Spanish language children’s books as motivators for my students.
I worked for the employment/unemployment office in Iowa’s capital. We had many Latino clients. I did much translating and interpreting to help communicate a concept difficult for many people in their native language.
Aside from this, I had many stories in my memory that I wanted to share with children and those reading to them. That is where my dream launched.
I wrote my first picture book, Mommy and Mikel Go for a Walk. It was a memory from the mid-1980s with my son Mikel. After writing it in English, I decided to tell it in Spanish, too. Working with many Latinos in the USA has taught me that Spanish in Spain is not the same as Spanish in the rest of the world. I was glad to know alternative words to use that would be more neutral help me communicate better.
I learned that not only native language readers liked each language, but learners of the other language.
My second book, Surprise in Auntie’s Garden! made me pause. I am blonde, as is most of my family. Many young people would not relate to blonde people in every book. I decided to use different race and ethnic characters in each book to include other young readers and parents. This time I used Latinas as the characters. My messages are universal, so this merely allowed different readers to see themselves in my books.
My first three books were published in pairs. One in English and the other in Spanish. I had requests to try publishing the stories as bilingual stories to include both languages in one book. I did this with Do It Again! and Lexi’s Special Tooth Fairy Pillow. The reception was wonderful.
During this time of writing, I also began working with Royal Promise, a mission that works with underprivileged children in Anun-Asikuma, Ghana, West Africa. This opened the door even wider. My new friends and the students loved my stories because they knew me and were eager for new literature. I feel very connected to them and feel the need to assist with their literacy opportunities.
It is important to include many aspects of childhood in the characters as well as the stories. Literacy is important to all people and gives them the confidence and initiative to seek and achieve new and unforeseen goals in life. Invest in our future and include everyone, at home and abroad.
How reading helps children learn social emotional skills
I am a lover of all things book and the written word. As a child, I was precocious and very curious. Thankfully, my father had a great passion for reading and ensured that I, along with my siblings, understood the importance of literacy and that it was something never to be taken for granted. “Many of our ancestors gave their lives for the right to read,” my father would often preach. I wanted to know what he was talking about. Why and how could this happen? In addition, my brain was alive with princesses, dragons, and secret gardens I got to meet often through what remains one of my greatest and most enduring loves, books.
Much of my advanced vocabulary, ability to articulate my thoughts and feelings, empathy for others, and sharp view of the world around me was a direct result of the abundance of books afforded me. I was a proud card-carrying member of the library! I loved checking out Puff the Magic Dragon with its accompanying record tucked in the back (yes, I am proudly dating myself), The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor.
These books and many others whisked this little Black girl from small city Portland, Oregon to unknown lands of epic trials and triumphs. The ability to read, write, comprehend, and decode the written word was just the beginning. The pure enjoyment of reading was the vehicle that aided me and will ultimately do so for our students today; expanding their minds to the immeasurable possibilities for connection with each other and the world around them.
As the Director of Content Development for Friendzy, a Social Emotional Learning (SEL) program for K-8 students, I continue my literacy evangelizing. After all, I am the daughter of a preacher! Research has shown that reading supports SEL. At Friendzy we frame our SEL literacy supports through five distinct frameworks:
Learning social-emotional skills.
Reading helps children gain a greater understanding of emotions, which can help them understand their own emotions and those of others.
Reading a story creates space for kids to imagine themselves inside the story. This allows them to develop empathy as they experience the lives of other characters and can identify with how they are feeling.
Reading allows children to learn about a wide array of people, places, and events that they may not otherwise experience.
Improve cognitive development.
Reading provides children with a deeper understanding of the world and fills their brains with a wide range of knowledge. They then use this acquired knowledge to make sense of what they see, hear and read.
Builds relationships and connections.
Reading brings a classroom of students together for a shared adventure. It also provides parents with an opportunity to have dedicated time with their children. Reading together provides kids with feelings of connection, attention and is nourishing to the soul.
These key components shift the literacy lens from simply learning to read to reading to learn with great enthusiasm. As an author and educator, I tell my students and the students I meet at school visits when you open up a book, you open up the world. I was given this gift early on and my job is to pay it forward!
For more information about Kids Read Now, contact us.
During meetings, are you a notetaker? I often find myself scribbling down notes throughout a meeting only to never refer to them again, simply because I remember what is on them. The act of writing down the information helps my brain convert it to long term memory. The same thing happens when children write. Even more importantly, it helps teach their brains HOW to remember. This is called the “Retrieval Effect” and it’s why practice tests work to help you study for the big test in school.
When you write about a topic, it strengthens your memory and helps you make connections and have deeper thoughts about the subject. As you write, and you think about what you want to write, you begin to weigh the importance of different aspects of the topic. Professor Steven Graham of the Arizona State University Teaching College found—after compiling over 56 studies—that writing “reliably enhanced learning” in science, social studies, and math.
When you ask a student to write about a topic, it helps them demonstrate their comprehension on that topic and reveals gaps in their knowledge. Low stakes writing exercises are a great way to allow free flow thinking and encourage those connections to come to the surface. A low stake writing exercise has no right or wrong answer and is not about spelling or grammar. You are just trying out new ideas. When you remove the pressure of being “right”, you encourage students to find their voice and see the value in their ideas. Ask questions like, “What do you notice?” or, “What’s one thing you know and one question you have?” to help develop an inner dialogue.
MyStories is a writing prompt book developed by Kids Read Now as a fun and engaging set of low stakes writing exercises. Each page has a colorful picture and an area for writing. There’s no right or wrong way for students to use these books. It’s the perfect activity to get students’ creative juices flowing. Visit kidsreadnow.org for more tips on engaging with your children through reading and writing!
Emotions. We all have them. We’ve felt the good, the bad, and the ugly. Happiness, sadness, anger, disappointment, guilt, love. Even though kids are small they can feel some huge emotions, and they should be normalized and discussed.
Building a Support System
Your child should feel safe to discuss emotions and feelings with family, friends, teachers, and other trusted adults like coaches and mentors. This forms your child’s support system. Sharing positive feelings can reinforce good behavior and help your child celebrate accomplishments. Sharing negative feelings can help take some of the burden from your child to allow him or her to be able to process and form a deeper understanding of him or herself.
Emotions are NORMAL
Having emotions is completely normal! It’s important to understand why we’re feeling what we’re feeling so we know how to move forward positively. Have you ever been angry? Did you ask yourself why you’re angry? Did you acknowledge your emotion as valid and real? How did you move forward and release that anger in a healthy way? You can ask and answer these same questions with joy and sadness, too. Girls and boys have big emotions, so don’t let society tell them their feelings are invalid. Girls can be tough warriors and boys can cry, so forget any societal norms that limit or stunt your child’s emotional growth.
Celebration and disappointment
Celebration and disappointment can be two of the hardest emotions to process. Celebration, you say? Yes! So often we don’t take time to celebrate achievements and small victories and go right on to setting the next goal. Take time to celebrate your child’s accomplishments and acknowledge his or her hard work! Celebrations, whether a huge family party or a mini dance party in the car to a great song, reinforce goal setting, hard work, and discipline. On the other hand, if you have a sensitive child, feelings of disappointment can feel all-consuming and overwhelming. It’s important to let your child know that as unpleasant as disappointment is, it’s a normal emotion to feel and it will pass. Disappointment doesn’t have to ruin everything.
Don’t repress emotions
What happens when you shake a pop bottle? The carbonation fizzes and if shaken hard enough, it could explode. There is a time to hold it together and a time to let it go— a time to be strong and a time to be vulnerable. Many adults have trouble knowing the difference, so our children absolutely deserve our support when dealing with big emotions. As adults we know that it’s not always appropriate to have our big feelings in public places, so reinforce your child’s emotions and set expectations for how to deal with those big feelings.
Positive ways to express and release emotions
- Reading – read books with your child and discuss how the characters handle emotion, diversity, and conflict
- Art – have your child draw, paint, collage, or sketch how he or she is feeling
- Writing – have your child start a journal and write down how he or she felt throughout the day
- Music – have your child pick a song that describes how he or she feels and turn the volume up
- Talk – create a safe space at home where your child can tell you exactly how he or she is feeling, ask questions, and help him or her feel in control by coming up with a plan
- Take a break – sometimes it’s best just to take a break and let your child’s mind calm down so you can have a thoughtful discussion when the time is right