As part of our Reading Specialist professional development, we’ve been reading and discussing, Shifting the Balance. I actually read this book back in September when I applied to the Reading Specialist team, as I wanted to gain a better understanding of the Science of Reading. I’m grateful that I did read it then, as re-reading it now — especially after being in this position for over 7 months — allows me to think more deeply about the information shared and re-visit some of my previous learning.
At our last Reading Specialist Meeting, we got into groups to discuss some of our reading and reflections. I was in a group with another educator, who spent many years teaching kindergarten. One point that we both commented on was the focus on the value of oral language and vocabulary building. Students need schema, and it’s through rich play opportunities and wonderful inquiries that we can help build this schema, introduce new and subject-specific vocabulary, and provide lots of talking and listening time with kids. When we’re thinking about the Science of Reading though, a lot of time is spent discussing phonics. At every Reading Specialist Meeting that we’re at, we’re reminded that phonics instruction should probably only be about 20 minutes a day. I know that I’ve shared these words with the educators at my school, and it’s a wonderful and important message. A shift though in how we teach reading, definitely seems to have more of us — myself included — thinking more about phonics, and even this book on reading instruction, is reminding us that there’s more to reading than that. This then comes with a big question and one that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently: If I were to go back to the classroom as a kindergarten educator, what changes might I want to make?
This blog post is inspired by this question. Before I share more, I need to say a couple of things.
- This is some of my initial thinking. Yes, it aligns with the Board messaging around reading instruction, but no, it is not the way that I’m telling anyone to teach reading. It is a way that helps to ensure some targeted, systematic instruction around phonics, while holding to the pedagogy in the play-based Kindergarten Program Document that I love so much. It also aligns with the flow of the day that my previous teaching partner, Paula, and I had in our classroom before, so I know that it would have worked for what we had in the past. Connecting with teaching partners, looking at student strengths and needs, and planning together as a team are so important. These are things that I would need to do again if/when I go back to the classroom.
- There is not one right way to do things. This year, we’ve been told to dabble. Experiment. Try something new. We are still learning about the Science of Reading, and we’re waiting on the release of a new Language Document, which might include a Scope and Sequence for reading instruction. Professional judgment is so important. The things that might work for me and my students, might not work for you and yours … and that’s okay. I want to write about this because by blogging my thinking, I will remember it, and I can return to it at a later point. Doug Peterson taught me this value of blogging, and it’s why I’m writing this post today.
With this in mind, here are some shifts that I might consider making in kindergarten (but only after having conversations with my teaching partner to see what they think and what else they might add, remove, or change).
- Maximize transitional times for Phonological Awareness activities. This year, the educators at my current school are using UFLI for phonics instruction. Every UFLI lesson includes some phonological awareness work. Instead of doing this sitting as a class on the carpet, I wonder about doing it during transitional times. What if we played with segmenting and blending as we get ready to line up and move to another area in the school or as we clean up? Maybe this could even be done as students are coming into the classroom each day or getting ready to move somewhere else. As the educators, we would say the sounds in the words and they could blend them or we could give the class a word, and they could give us the sounds. We could also do this when walking in a line somewhere. If we gave the students a word, they could give us the sounds as they step: one step for each sound. I even tried this out this year when connecting with a student in the hallway.
- Try out the visual drill during line walking times. Each UFLI lesson includes a visual drill, where you show students a letter and they give you the sound(s). If you’ve ever had younger students walk in a line, you’ll realize what a challenge this can be. It’s really hard for them to stay focused on what’s in front of them. Almost 20 years ago, I used to put a stuffed animal on the end of a long stick, and they would watch the stuffed animal as we walked in the hall. This worked. I haven’t used this approach in years, and I have some mixed thoughts around the need to walk in a straight line, but regardless, often this is the expectation in a school. Why not print out the letters in the visual drill, and hold them up high for students to see? They can tell us the sounds as we flash the cards. Many might enjoy this little game, and then we can use this time walking to also support instruction.
- Do the auditory and blending drills during transitional times, as students come to the carpet. There are usually a couple of times a day that kindergarten students gather as a group. What if we did the auditory and blending drills from UFLI during these transitional times? We could have some students write the letters on whiteboards or clipboards, and we could have others use their fingers to form the letters on the floor or in the air. One educator could lead the blending drill as another one assists students that are still getting ready. We could transition students in two groups (almost), so that those that are most ready for this reading instruction, would be there to participate in the majority of it. Again, it comes down to knowing our students. A few students that need a challenge, could even have a clipboard and make a list of as many of the words that they recall in the blending drill. This could be a differentiated piece for kids. If some students are stressed by this instruction, maybe they could help the other educator with some of the set-up in the classroom, and could then hear and see the lesson but still be slightly removed from it.
- The new concept could be introduced in a smaller group or during a meeting time. Depending on the students, a smaller group might be better. One educator could always sit around a writing table or in a book nook area with the UFLI presentation loaded. The educator could invite students to join as play begins. Others might listen in, and that’s great! Then the educator could run different lessons for different students, so everyone is receiving the instruction that they need. If we decide to do the lesson with the full class, this could be done during a meeting time. The lesson itself is shorter, but it’s the word work, writing, and decodable passages that take longer. This though leads to my next bullet point …
- Do the word work, writing, and decodable passages (if applicable), during play. This could easily be done in a little reading area space or around the writing table. Then students that are ready for this instruction, can receive it, and others can always listen in and/or join in from afar. As more students are ready, more groups can happen. We could always support other students with the letters and sounds introduced by making them out of play dough or plasticine, writing them on a covered table, or even printing them with paint or in the sand. Educators playing alongside students could support the learning in this way, and then extend this learning with reading and writing opportunities for students that are ready.
This is not something that I’ve ever done in this way before. It does align with some past practices that Paula and I had, but it also varies from some. I think it would be a case of trying, reflecting, and trying again. My hope though would be that in this case, there would still be lots of opportunities for rich play and inquiry, while targeting reading skills, but in a developmentally appropriate way. As kindergarten educators, what does this systematic phonics instruction look like in your classroom? What’s working? What’s not? What might you consider changing and why? There’s still time to try something new, and as this school year is coming to an end, maybe we can all learn a few different approaches from each other. Thanks to Shifting the Balance and a great book club conversation for shifting my thinking, shifting practice, and re-thinking a bit of both.