There are many things that I really appreciate about my teaching partner, Paula, but one of the biggest ones is that we connect at the end of every day to discuss our observations, share reflections, contemplate changes, and make future plans. We engage in a lot of “kid talk” and “program talk,” and these conversations often inspire my professional blog posts. I had an epiphany during our discussion on Friday, and as I said to Paula at the time, this thinking would definitely make its way into a blog post. This is that post.
For the first time ever, all of our academic skills are taught and reinforced through play. I’ve come close to this change over the past couple of years, but this year, it actually happened. I know that this comment is going to make some people uncomfortable, and at first, it made me uncomfortable too. I definitely see the value in this approach for our students. Here’s what we do, and don’t do, in regards to reading and writing.
- We don’t do guided reading, or at least, not the typical guided reading. There, I said it! We don’t pull students to a special horseshoe table and work through the same text with each child. We do read and write with our students every single day, and engage in focused mini-lessons that target the next best step for each child. We discuss what these mini-lessons may be, and then we look for opportunities to insert them into play. Sometimes they happen outside. Sometimes they happen on the ground in the midst of block play. Sometimes they happen in dramatic play. And sometimes they happen around a table. Sometimes we just work with a student or two at a time, and sometimes we invite other children to come and join us. Working with students in the midst of play, also means that other children tend to come around, hear what we’re saying, chime in with their own thoughts, and even extend this learning in a different way. Students also see the connection to the play that they’re doing, so when the mini-lessons are over, they are more apt to continue to explore what we were working on. It’s amazing to see, and I don’t know how else to describe it to you, but it truly works!
- We try to link reading and writing. Just because a child wrote something down, doesn’t necessarily mean that he/she can read it back to you. Having children read their own writing, and the writing of their peers, helps them practise blending sounds in meaningful ways. It allows us to work with them on sound patterns. We still have levelled texts in the classroom, and students still read them — sometimes with us, sometimes with a parent volunteer, and sometimes at home — but the children often focus so much on the picture cues and the predictable pattern that they don’t pay attention to the words. Having students read their writing, our writing, and the writing of their classmates, has them working with letter-sounds more and decoding far higher texts than I’ve had many Kindergarten students decode in the past.
Today we switched up this little table. We still have magnetic letters, but added chalk and black paper. A few students saw it when they came to before care this morning and started writing. Selina started with the alphabet in the middle. She sang her way to each letter and wrote by memory. When she got to a J, she said, “I don’t know how to make that letter.” Avery offered to help, but Selina persevered and said, “I can try.” She looked to the documentation on the shelf facing the little bench. She said, “Is there a J in here?” She started to point out the letters she saw. Then she looked down on the tray (on the floor beside her) and said, “There’s a J!” She looked at it and wrote her own. “I did it!” Avery started with “at” words on the left side of the alphabet. She then experimented with writing other words phonetically, including silly ones. She then said, “How can I read these? I know!” She blended the sounds together and read even her silly words aloud! I invited Brayden to join in on the right side of the alphabet. He wrote some “at” words. I love how he isolated each letter-sound and wrote down what he heard. He initially wrote “mat” without the “a,” but when prompted to listen for the sound in the middle of the word, he figured out that the A was missing. Then Selina said, “I wrote some of those words yesterday.” I said, “Can you read what Brayden wrote?” So she sounded out each word and read it! Love these quiet learning opportunities that happen before school starts! 💛❤️💙💜💚 #teachersofinstagram #iteachk #ctinquiry
Milla wrote a sign to go with her outside art, and these boys worked on reading it. A little mini-lesson outside. Ian and his friends … pic.twitter.com/4WVZYr7giS
— Aviva Dunsiger (@avivaloca) April 24, 2017
- Reading and writing happens everywhere. About three weeks ago, I sat down one day with a group of students eating their lunch. I brought over a clipboard and a marker. I decided to write a lunchtime story. We wrote the story together based on what the children were eating. Other students heard our story and came over so that they could add to it. A JK student even decided to extend our story and add her own couple of sentences. The next day, students requested that we write another one, and we’ve continued with this story time routine. We have the stories on our bookshelf, and a few weeks ago, I caught a couple of students reading one together. This has happened more since then. Some children even bring the older stories over to the snack table to read while they eat.
We wrote this story together with those eating at the time, & then M. decided to extend it. Led to a mini-lesson. https://t.co/E0iijnFH7y
— Aviva Dunsiger (@avivaloca) April 7, 2017
When I was on lunch duty, M. finished writing the sentence in our collaborative story (that we wrote while eating today) on her own. When I came back, she realized she forgot a period and the final quotation marks (called them that), so she added them in. Part of our mini-lesson today. #ctinquiry #iteachk #teachersofinstagram
J. requested we write another one of these stories today. They did so with Mrs. Crockett. Reading it as I came back from lunch. pic.twitter.com/TqjOmfPn7l
— Aviva Dunsiger (@avivaloca) April 13, 2017
Missed part of this. Zayd and Ian were reading this lunchtime story that we wrote last week, & had on the bookshelf. pic.twitter.com/mtYVgviol9
— Aviva Dunsiger (@avivaloca) April 13, 2017
I share the points above because they’re what led to my first epiphany and later led to a second one. As Paula and I noted in our conversation yesterday, since all of our students write through play, none of them seem to use pattern sentences. There’s voice in their writing. I think about my time as a Grade 1 teacher, and the “I see …” and “I like …” sentence starters that I used all the time. I know that these sentence starters can be a great way to reinforce sight words and encourage some struggling writers to write, but it can be a challenge to have students move beyond these pattern sentences. I remember this struggle when I taught Grade 2. The student writing was often stagnant and lacked voice, but encouraging students to experiment with word choice and extend their thinking was hard, as conventions always seemed to trump ideas. Writing through play is all about ideas. It’s about capturing these ideas in writing, and extending student thinking. Sometimes in Kindergarten, that’s done through writing down more ideas, and sometimes that’s done through artwork, building, drama, music, dance, or conversations. Writing is about communicating, and when we teach and support writing through play-based learning, I think that we also show students the power of the written word and the voice that it carries.
The notice that different students made to ask for a small stuffed animals for our vet office. The “y” is used in “please” because Milla knows that Y sometimes makes the E sound. I wrote the list of animals that students wanted, but a few added others, like turtle and mouse. Annabel went through the list and check marked those pets that she thought were a good idea and Xed those ones that she didn’t. A couple of students even estimated how high the animals should be based on their cage dimensions. 💛❤️💙💜💚 #literacythroughplay #maththroughplay #playbasedlearning #engagemath #ctinquiry #iteachk #teachersofinstagram
Harrison made his play plan on PicCollage this afternoon, and he decided to email it to his mom. He remembered how to do so from earlier today. He first wrote her a sentence about what he did, and included a heart instead of a period “because I love her, Miss Dunsiger.” ❤️ #purposefulwriting #teachersofinstagram #iteachk #ctinquiry
It was then later on last night that I had my second epiphany. When we teach and reinforce reading skills through play, we produce readers that understand that reading can happen anywhere. I’ve noticed that a lot this year. Our students read everything. They want to find out what things say, what they mean, and how they might share similar messages: linking the reading and the writing. This point was driven home yesterday afternoon. It was a beautiful day in Southern Ontario, and we were outside for most of the afternoon. When we went outside, one of our students noticed a new sign on the other side of the gate. He wanted to read it. He asked me if he could go out and have a look at it. A JK student joined him out there, and together, they read the sign with very limited help from me. We then discussed what it meant. What I love about this particular example is that the SK student started the year telling me that he could “only read a Level 2 book” and the JK student started the year just learning the letter-names and sounds. Neither one of them would have considered themselves capable of reading a sign on their own, but now they do. They’re not the only ones! I think that part of producing good readers is helping children believe in themselves and seeing just how much they can read. They need more than levelled texts to do this.
Harrison really wanted to read this sign. Milla joined him. Reading & comprehension can happen anywhere. cc @john_gris @mannyhwdsb pic.twitter.com/3INPG5D0K2
— Aviva Dunsiger (@avivaloca) April 28, 2017
I know that the updated Kindergarten Program Document supports reading and writing in this way, but what about beyond Kindergarten? What have educators and parents tried in other elementary grades? What are the benefits and/or drawbacks to this approach? As the year quickly comes to an end, I think about what play-based learning has done for all of our students, and I wonder about what else is possible. Play doesn’t mean ignoring academics, but approaching it differently. I think there’s value in this beyond Kindergarten. What do you think?
This post makes my heart happy! But it also makes my brain spin a bit. There is a lot of value to reading simple texts with young children. However, the genuine engagement in play is so valuable and important.
I absolutely believe that balance is key in how we approach all learning. This year we have worked towards 2 short small group times where all students engage with and practice something that they need. We have seen this simple practice greatly impact their engagement with these skills in play.
Lots of thinking to do. Thanks for the reflective post!
Thanks for your comment, Tracy! I do wonder if a piece of it also comes down to knowing our students and what they need. We do read some simple texts (levelled readers) with kids, but not necessarily in a more traditional/common guided reading format (i.e., around a horseshoe table with a small group). We do sometimes bring simple texts into play. Sometimes we may invite multiple students to read a certain text together or work on a specific skill together. We spend almost our full day, 1:1 or in small groups working with kids, both inside the classroom and outdoors. I still think this small group time is important, but have definitely seen the value in linking the learning to the play. The longer block of play also seems to allow for deeper/richer play and more inquiry.
All of this said, our approach definitely varies depending on students and needs, and if students are struggling (for whatever reason), we constantly look at what else we can do and what we may need to add or change. I think that this constant reflection — something I know from your blog posts that you and your partner do as well — is so important. Maybe it’s what matters most and ultimately leads to the most student success.
I moved schools since last year, and our student make-up is very different at this school than my last one. I continue to wonder if our approach this year would be as successful with my students from last year. I’m not sure. But I think there’s something to be said for the language-rich, vocabulary-rich learning environment that is an important part of a play-based, inquiry-based classroom. Combined with purposeful opportunities to read and write, and mini-lessons targeted to meet the needs of each student, I think that the value of play will continue to surprise us. I’m curious to hear what others think and what they’ve found. Thanks for continuing the conversation!
I think you’re absolutely right about “knowing our students” and what they need. Even being at the same school, the children are so different in terms of needs and dynamics every single year. We adjust our approach and strategies each year.
That being said, I think you are doing what the program truly seeks to “be”…play based. You’re engaging students academic needs in the service of their intellects.
Thanks for always pushing me to think about tweaks to my own practice.
Thanks Tracy! The updated program document was really the push that my partner and I needed to make this change, and we both believe in the tremendous value of play, which helps a lot. I continue to think about different students I’ve taught over the years. Would this approach work for all of them? If not, why not, and is there something we could do to change that? I wonder if more opportunities — building schema, so to speak — could help those students that maybe don’t have all of the experiences that our current ones do. Oral language is key as well. While our instinct may be to provide a more structured program for these struggling students, I continue to contemplate if this is really the answer, or if the vocabulary, oral language opportunities, and purposeful reading and writing opportunities, could help them most of all?
Another key point there…oral language! It truly is the foundation to everything. And I would argue it may be one of the most overlooked skills that we support as educators.
Do we take time to value the back and forth conversations we have each day? Are we aware of how we are developing language with children through conversation?
I also appreciate when you mention, why is it that some children have struggles? And our job as detectives and educators really is to think about why or why not…and then how. Often the answer remains being present with students.
For us, less structured groups and more natural small groups during our open ended play has really supported our students.
What message do we send when we pull students from their play? Come learn with me, I am where the learning happens?
Lots to think about!
So much to contemplate here, Tracy! Often with a focus on reading scores, I wonder if we forget about the importance of oral language. Maybe the student that’s struggling the most in reading, actually needs the oral language and vocabulary development even more.
I totally agree with you about the “less structured, more natural” small groups during play. While Paula and I talk daily about students and next steps, we don’t formalize groups. We find opportunities during play to extend learning and target these areas of need. Sometimes we invite other students to join us, but often, kids see us sitting down and working with others, and they come over on their own. And if that doesn’t happen, we find another opportunity later to work with them. With these big blocks of play, there’s always lots of time to connect with kids.
What we’ve noticed lately is a couple of students that have actually started teaching other students in the room. It’s like they’re running their own little mini-lessons. We love this! It’s an important reminder that we’re not the only teachers in the room.
Thanks for continuing this very important conversation!
Aviva, your stories really get me thinking. I’m teaching grade 5/6 and every time I read your posts I want to move to K but then I think, “What could this approach look like in the junior grades? What can I do to make learning more meaningful, purposeful and natural for my big kids?” Still thinking on it… thanks for the inspiration.
Thanks for the comment, Kerry! It was actually teaching Grades 5 and 6 that led me to appreciating play-based learning. I applied a lot of FDK thinking when teaching these grades, especially Grade 5. If you ever want to chat about ideas, just let me know. I always love connecting with others.
P.S. Check out https://rurfey.commons.hwdsb.on.ca/ to see some interesting play-based, inquiry-based learning opportunities for other grades. Rhonda teaches Grade 3, and shares some fabulous examples!
Oh, yeah! I feel like the best way that I could learn about inquiry, and play-based learning, and how to apply it in intermediate would be just to have the chance to marinate in kindergarten for a while. I know this is the kind of student- directed learning I want for my students! So much seems to get in the way, and I know some of that is my own preconceptions. But there’s so much joy in what you’re sharing!
Thanks for your comment, Lisa! I think that this joy in teaching and learning is so important. I do believe it’s possible in all grades — and I even applied some of it when teaching Grades 5 and 6 — but the curriculum expectations do make things more challenging. I do wonder what others have tried though and what is possible. We really can learn so much for other educators, regardless of the grade they teach. Your comment is a great reminder of that!