Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Moving Beyond Letter of the Week

When I first began teaching kindergarten 20 years ago letter of the week was my primary focus. I loved my weekly letter routines and planning read-alouds, cooking, and art activities centered around the letter.

Over time and through workshops and professional reading, I began to implement shared and interactive writing and to teach all of the letters everyday. However, for many years I continued to hold on to parts of letter of the week- brainstorming words that start with a certain letter, reading books all week that start with the same letter and switching center activities out and planning craftivities based on the letter of the week.

Eventually, I broke away from letter of the week completely and begin teaching all of the letters in a way that was relevant and meaningful to all of my students. For those of you who are still clinging to letter of the week in any capacity, here are a few things for you to consider.

Research and Background
In their book, Literacy Beginnings: A Prekindergarten Handbook, Fountas and Pinnell state that the practice of "letter of the week" implies that letters are what child learn first and in a specific sequence and then they learn to read. When in reality, children learn the letters and how to read all at the same time. In fact, research indicates that the more connections children make between the multiple understandings necessary to read, the faster they learn the letters and how to read. Letter of the week may actually slow down how children learn letters and it does not help them make meaningful connections.

Supporting Young Children as They Learn about Letters
You can support literacy development in your classroom through a wide variety of authentic and meaningful experiences. Here are a handful of alternatives to letter of the week.
1) Read Books (read books with lessons in all content areas)
2) Write (take dictation from students, shared and interactive writing, use interactive writing to write simple sentences about student's lives, have students sign-in daily and write their names often)
3) Name Games (sort student's names based on the first letter or how many letters they have in their name, place several charts with student's names on the walls of the classroom, incorporate poems that lend themselves to inserting student's names, cut-up sentences with student's names, and name puzzles)

4) Alphabet Books (read and incorporate alphabet books into your centers- students can use the books to point to and say letter names, match large letters in the book with plastic, foam, or magnetic letters, make a class alphabet book, or make individual alphabet books)

5) Letter Sorts (children need to learn to notice the unique features of each letter and to notice what makes it unlike any other letter- letter sorts help students focus on how letters are alike and different and what shapes they are comprised of (examples of ways to sort letters: by uppercase and lowercase, letters with holes and letters without holes, letters with straight lines vs. letters without straight lines, etc. )

6) Sing Songs Related to the Alphabet
7) Environmental Print (have students bring in pictures that represent stores and places around town that they recognize, then use the print in centers, for sorts, etc.)
8) Alphabet Chart (display clear and simple alphabet charts in several places in the classroom, students can use the charts to read letter by letter, to read the picture, to quickly find a letter or picture, and to read letters or pictures as you point to them)

9) Tactile Experiences with Letters (magnetic, plastic, and foam letters are great tools for helping students learn the alphabet, students can sort and match letters)

10) Play Games Involving the Letters (letter bingo, letter matching games, letter memory, etc.)

11) Incorporate Student Names (have students find their own names in charts, poems, and sentences, "read" the name chart, find letters that are alike, name the letters in their names, talk about the first letter of their names, talk about the last letter of their names, count the letters in their names, select magnetic letters to make their names in sequence, write their names, notice one of "their" letters in another word, or "sign" their drawings and stories with their names

When you spend a lot of time on letter of the week, many of your students work on letters they already know, while others see and study letters out of a meaningful context. In some cases, student's forget the letter from the previous week while they are learning the new letter because they are only looking at one item at a time.

Closing Remarks
In the book, The Intentional Teacher, Epstein writes that research has shown that there are four specific abilities that young children need to develop in order to become speakers, readers, and writers. Those abilities include: phonological awareness, comprehension, print awareness, and alphabet knowledge. Letter of the week does not engage young children in all of these areas, but reading books with rhymes, pointing out concepts of print as you read big books, providing students with opportunities for conversation, using student names for class books, name charts, and games, and drawing students' attention to the way letters are formed through letter sorts or verbal path directions does.

I encourage you to examine your schedule and ask yourself these questions. How can you integrate literacy skills throughout your entire day and in all content areas?How can you weave literacy skills throughout your day to make your instruction more effective (through read alouds, reading and writing materials in every center, add props to centers to facilitate conversation, language learning, and alphabet knowledge)? Are you still teaching the letters in isolation? If so, how can you integrate their names into your instruction?

I know many of you might be thinking that letter of the week and drill and practice activities are effective instructional strategies because you have used them for years and your students leave at the end of the year knowing the alphabet and its sounds. Keep in mind that just because a student can memorize something does not mean that they truly understand it or that they can apply it beyond rote memory.

For those of you who are still hesitant or who are completely resistance to the idea of doing away with letter of the week, I give you this wonderful quote from Maya Angelou to consider "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better."

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Writing With Young Children

Since my daily sign-in post, I have continued to receive lots of comments, emails, and questions concerning writing with young children, so I thought I would write another post concerning writing.

In this age of accountability, increased "rigor," and testing, it seems that "writing" has come to mean one thing and the same thing across all grade levels and for all children. There is the misconception that teaching writing to young children means handing them paper and writing materials and sending them off on their own to write. When in fact, teaching writing to our youngest learners includes fine motor skills, an awareness of the purposes and functions of the written word, letter and word writing, and modeling... lots and lots of modeling.

Fine Motor Skills
Writing, like reading, is dependent on children having certain perceptual motor skills. In order to write, young children need to be able to grasp writing materials and have the hand-eye coordination to make certain types of marks in specific places on a writing surface.

Fine motor development is, to a great degree, maturational. However, early childhood teachers can provide materials and opportunities for their students to practice developing their fine motor skills.

Early childhood teachers can provide materials in all areas of the classroom to develop children's dexterity and hand-eye coordination. Some examples include: beads and string, dress-up and doll clothes with various types of fasteners, moldable materials such as play-doh, paper for children to manipulate and transform using scissors, a stapler, a hole punch, and tape, interactive technology that uses a touch screen, puzzles, etc.

For more ideas on ways to incorporate fine motor development into centers, small group instruction, and lessons, take a look at my "Fine Motor Activities" Pinterest board. Here are just a couple of great ideas I have pinned from others onto my board.


In addition to providing materials for developing children's fine motor skills, teachers should provide writing materials of all kinds throughout the room and in all center areas, encourage children to play simple games such as throwing a bean bag at a target, model how to hold writing tools and scissors, and pair students with a buddy for help. Young children oftentimes learn dexterity and coordination skills better by watching and imitating their peers rather than from direct instruction from an adult. 

**In early childhood, providing opportunities for young children to develop their manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination are part of writing. They should be incorporated all throughout the day and considered part of the daily writing routine. 

Awareness of the Ways and Reasons People Write
Young children need to understand that writing is done for functional reasons such as to communicate an idea, to remind oneself to do something, or to give directions and also for pleasure such as to tell a story, extend and invitation, say thank you, or preserve a memory. 

Provide contextualized examples of print such as material and center labels, rules created by the students, a daily schedule, cookbooks in the pretend and learn center, lists of children's names, anchor charts created with the students, to do lists, morning message, and authentic student writing. 

Letter and Word Writing
Like letter knowledge, letter and word writing are highly dependent on explicit instruction, but to be effective, it must be provided in relevant and developmentally appropriate ways. 

Call attention to how letters are formed, specifically the lines and shapes that make them up. I posted the other day about how describing the directional movements aloud is helpful. While your students, especially ELLs, may have a difficult time with these directions as first, you can have them practice by sky writing the letters. In some cases, you may want to stand behind the student and guide his or her hand and finger as he or she says the directions with you. Just as you build vocabulary in other content areas, you will have to build in when demonstrating for students how to form letters. 

Engage children in writing and reading their writing through dictation. Write down what the student says, read the words back yourself, and then ask the student to read back the words you wrote for them. 

Engage students in writing each day. Examples might include daily sign in, to do lists, morning message, and literature response activities. 

Using Shared and Interactive Writing to Develop Emergent Writers
How do children learn to see themselves as writers? They learn from demonstration and participation and by trying it out for themselves. Shared and interactive writing, with the whole class or in a small group, allow young children to participate in the writing process with a high level of support. As children are given more and more opportunities to experience the writing process, they will begin to want to write for themselves. 

In shared and interactive writing, you and your students compose and write a text together that is then available as reading material. The two processes are similar in that you are composing the message together as a class or small group. In shared writing, the teacher is the only one using the pen and in interactive writing you "share the pen," occasionally asking a student to come up to the chart or dry erase easel and write a known letter, place a hand to "hold" a space while the next word is being written, write a letter that is connected to a sound students heard in the word, write a known word, or write his or her name.   

In both shared and interactive writing, spell words aloud as you write them, make comments to highlight writing conventions as you read and write them such as "This is a new sentence, so it begins with a capital letter", and use punctuation while writing with children. As children observe what you write, explain the marks and their significance. 

**Consider the amount of time you are asking your little ones to sit still while you do this. Start with one sentence for your youngest writers. Be quick and simply expose them to the writing process and conventions. Over time and as students develop, you can begin to write more than one sentence together. 

Writing Tools and Materials 
Provide a wide variety of writing tools and materials throughout the classroom including materials for making marks such as pens, pencils, and paper
Ways to transmit those ideas to others such as envelopes and stamps
Chalk and chalkboards or dry erase markers and boards
Book making materials such as unlined paper, colored construction paper, notepads, sticky notes, stickers, ink pads and stamps, tape, staples, yarn, and hole punches

Positive Reinforcement- Creating Writers
Comment positively no matter how children go about writing their names. Regardless of whether a child writes with up and down strokes, continuous linear scribbles, partial letter-like units, inverted letters, or conventional print, find a way to make a positive comment about the child's writing. For example: I see you have written the A at the beginning of your name, Abby, I see you have written your name A-b-b-y, You wrote your name using lines and dots, I see your name has two n's in it, etc. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Tracing Letters, Names, and Words

Last week I made a post about morning sign-in. It prompted a few teachers to ask me why I said young children should not trace their names, but write them on their own. Here is what I believe is the answer to that question.

It requires very little thought for a young child to trace letters or words on a page. He or she does not have to consider left to right directionality, how to form letters, or how to make connections between letters and sounds. Tracing letters and words also fails to provide young children with a purpose for writing, it does not represent an attempt to communicate an authentic message, and in most cases, it is not considered an enjoyable task.

Verbal Path
When young children are beginning to learn to write letters. learning the specific directional movements for forming the letters can help them make efficient, legible letter forms. Pairing the verbal path descriptions with the motor movements helps little ones form letters more easily. Eventually, the child will internalize the language and the actions will become automatic.

By verbal path, I mean the directional motions that demonstrate how to form the letter. For example, as you make an "a," you can say, "pull back, around, up, and down." Children can initially make the letters in the air using larger movements.

Be sure to use the same language each time you give directions for letter formation. Consistency is very important.

Help children notice the letters they form well.

Be careful not to overdo letter formation prompts when children are first learning to make marks, lines, and scribbles on paper. Young children first need opportunities to explore and experiment with making marks on paper without pressure or restraint. 

Early attempts at writing are valuable experiences for young children. Through likeness and demonstration, they steadily gain a complex understanding about communicating through writing.

For the young child, writing for oneself is an opportunity to solve problems and with appropriate adult support, he or she can learn a great deal and also feel the power of writing.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Establishing a Morning Sign-In Routine

In my district, we ask our PK teachers use some type of student sign-in as part of their morning routine. I was in a classroom the other day and the class sign-in chart caught my eye. I was amazed at how well the students were already writing their name when just 5 weeks earlier they were only drawing lines and scribbles on the sign-in chart. That experience is what prompted this post.

Young children come to school with a wide range of ability levels when it comes to recognizing and writing their names. The differences may be due to the length of their names and which letters are included in them, a difference in age, varying rates of development in fine motor skills, and even a varied interest in writing.

One way to address this challenge with preschoolers and make the most of your instructional time is to implement a sign-in system as part of your morning routine. Begin by teaching your students that each day as they arrive their job is to sign in. You will have to do a lot of modeling and reminding, but eventually your little ones will rely on the predictability of the routine and remember to sign in on their own.

There are a variety of ways to have your students sign in each morning.

This example came from Not Just Cute: Intentional Whole Child Development. Amanda uses photo holders and index cards to have her students sign in. She writes the child's name at the top of an index card. The children locate their name card when they arrive, then write their names on their cards. Amanda dates her cards each day and keeps them as a way to track her students' progress.

This example came from Teach Preschool: Promoting Excellence in Early Childhood Education. Deborah has her students sign in each morning using a clipboard. When students arrive, they find their name on the printed list and write their name in the space next to it. 

Here is another example of this same idea. This example is from a classroom in my district. This teacher uses a picture of the student instead of their name and has the clipboard lists grouped by who sits together at a table. 

I suggest using the student's name and their picture. Students need a well printed model to look at when learning to write their name and their picture gives them a visual as they learn to recognize their own name and the names of  others. This example is from Rainbows Within Reach and it incorporates both names and pictures for student sign-in. 

This example came from Learning and Teaching Preschoolers. Tami uses two notebooks so that two children can sign in at one time. I like this example because it allows you to keep the sign-in pages from week to week so that you can show growth throughout the school year. 

Here is another example I found on Pinterest. Unfortunately, it did not lead back to a webpage or website. 

This example uses a dry erase board and comes from a model classroom in my district. There are student names and pictures on both sides of the board. This same idea can be recreated on poster board or chart paper. Create the sign-in adhering the name/picture cards onto a couple of sheets of poster board or piece of chart paper. Then laminate the poster board or chart paper. Students can use dry erase markers to write their name each morning and you can wipe it off each afternoon after they leave. This method does not allow you to track their progress, but it saves time and paper for you. 

Regardless of how you choose to implement an arrival sign-in routine, there are a few important points to keep in mind:

1) Provide students with a model of their name to look at when writing. In the beginning, I highly recommend including their picture with their name. 

2) The model of the child's name should be written so that the first letter is a capital letter and all of the other letters are lowercase letters. 

3) Do not include last names until after Christmas.

4) Give students plenty of space to write their name in. 

5) Do not have them trace their name.

Encourage and validate any marks students make for writing. Give instruction within the Zone of Proximal Development. When needed, choose one aspect to correct or offer instruction on. For example, letter formation. You might choose to do this during small group instruction while the students are in centers. 

Point out all of the positive aspects you notice when looking at their names. Your students will grow as writers when their work is praised and when they have a good model to follow. Don't weigh them down too much with corrections. This can make the task of writing frustrating and unappealing. 

I found this unit on TPT. It is a pack of editable student sign-in sheets. You can easily go in and add your student's names and their pictures. Find this unit, by Keeping it Captivating, here for $5. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Letter Walls

Learning About Letters, Sounds, and Words
Learning about letters, sounds, and words is important to developing young readers and writers. Through games, finger-plays and songs, and other playful experiences with letters, young children develop a strong foundation in literacy learning.

Learning a letter is not a simple matter of saying the letter name and singing the alphabet song. Rather early childhood teachers must support literacy development through a wide variety of authentic literacy experiences in their classrooms. For example, they can add images and print to a letter wall based on classroom explorations and curriculum themes, make use of environmental print, and show children letters in meaningful places throughout the classroom everyday.

Systematic instruction in letter learning means planning short lessons throughout the day that show children how to look at letters, learn their names, and, over time, connect letters to the sounds in words.

Creating Interactive Letter Walls
Interactive letter walls are wonderful tools for supporting children as they learn about letters. There are several ways to create an interactive letter wall in  your classroom. Here are a few examples:

Create am interactive letter wall using two long pocket charts. Every word on the letter wall should have a picture to go with it. In my district, we suggest that only their names and pictures go on the letter wall the first six weeks. We suggest adding vocabulary words related to the month, the theme, and books you are reading beginning the second six weeks. This example came from a model classroom in my district. 

Create am interactive letter wall by sectioning off a large sheet of bulletin board paper using colored tape. After laminating the sectioned off paper, add small pieces of sticky-back velcro to make the wall interactive. This example came from a PK classroom in my district. 

Create an interactive letter wall using paper plates and ribbon. Students use clothes pins to attach the word cards to the ribbon. This example came fromThe  Kindergarten Center: Sweet Spots of Teaching Kindergarten. 
This example came from Simply the Middle. 

Create an interactive letter wall using a large magnetic oil pan or magnetic paint. This example came from KinderTastic

No matter how you decide to create your interactive letter wall, there is one key step to making it truly interactive. IT HAS TO BE LOW TO THE GROUND AND EYE LEVEL FOR THE STUDENTS. YOUR LITTLE ONES HAVE TO BE ABLE TO REACH ALL OF THE WORDS ON THE LETTER WALL TO TRULY MAKE IT INTERACTIVE. 

Letter walls should be displayed near your carpet/whole group area. The letter wall needs to be easily seen and accessed in order for you to be able to use it as an instructional tool. 

Supporting Children as They Learn About Letters
Letter walls can be used to provide young children with tactile experiences with letters. 
Students can use interactive letter walls to: 
* sort and match letters and words 
          Here is an example of matching tactile letters such as magnetic letters or letter cards to the letters on 
          the letter wall. 

          Have children learn to notice the distinctive features of a letter: what makes it different from every       
          other letter. Students can pull letter cards from the letter wall and sort them intro groups such as      
          letters that have holes and letters that don't, letters that have straight lines and letters that don't, etc. 

* match their names and other words to the first letter of their names

* match picture word cards to the letter the word starts with
          Here is an example of a letter/picture sort. You can download it for free here

* point to the letters and name them
           Students can use special pointers to do this, take turns by handing off the pointer to each other, or                take letters up and add them to the wall as they name them. 

* match their picture/name cards from the letter wall to the letter they start with or sort them by a letter they 
          have in them. This example came from Mrs. Bremer's Class: Sharing Ideas for Your Classroom. 

* read the letters and pictures 
          Students can do this using pointers or as they take letters and words off the letter wall or add them to 

* find a letter or picture quickly

* match upper case and lower case letters using the letter cards on the letter wall 

Using Letter Walls During Centers
Students can also use an interactive letter wall when they are working in centers. They can remove letter and word cards from the wall and use them as a reference when making letters and words using play doh, making names using tactile materials, for letter sorts and matching, and for writing.

**You will have to model and teach students how to remove letter and word picture cards from the letter wall, use them in their center, and return them to the proper place on the letter wall. This will take lots of modeling and practice. Eventually, students will be able to do this with ease. 

Supporting Children as They Learn About Words
Word learning, too, can happen naturally while children are expanding language through learning letters. Young children should not work on words in isolation before kindergarten because it is a meaningless task. Prekindergartners will often begin to notice words in their environment. For example, young children are naturally curious about print in their environment and love to "read" it. Often, you will find they do not recognize the word or letter out of the context in which they usually see it. Nevertheless, they are noticing print. 

Tips for Helping Children Notice Words:
1) use language that is clear that you are talking about a word, not a letter
2) tell children to look at the beginning of the word, show them what that means, find words that start with the same letter, etc. 
3) read the words to children as you run your finger under the word left to right
4) help them connect their knowledge of names to words using the names of their classmates
5) have children locate words on the letter wall using letter and picture clues

Letter walls can also be used for posting environmental print- words from cereal boxes, etc. that children bring into the classroom. This example came from A Place Called Kindergarten

Letter Wall Resources
Here are a few letter wall headers I found on Teachers Pay Teachers. I like these examples because they have the picture to go with each letter. Using letter wall headers that contain pictures will help you when assisting your slower learners in finding words and letters on the wall. The pictures can be used as helpful clues. 

KidsParkz has vocabulary picture cards you can print for free here. Vocabulary picture cards do not stay up for the entire school year like words on a word wall. These words change with each theme and/or season, holiday, or unit of study. 

Check out my ABC Activities Pinterest board here and my Letter Walls board here

Points to Remember
When creating a letter wall in your PK classroom, you need to remember a few important ideas:
1) don't overdo it (put the children's names on the wall and then stick to a few words that children use often and that relate to the unit of study)

2) take cues from students when deciding which words beyond their name to include (words from units of study, words related to the month, the season, or a holiday, words from repeated readings of read-alouds, etc. )

3) display the wall near the whole group carpet area and eye level to the students

4) make the wall interactive

5) always include a picture with student's names and words displayed on the wall

Monday, September 22, 2014

Rethinking Calendar Time

I recently read an article about calendar time for young children. It was first published in the May 2008 issue of Young Child (an NAEYC publication). You can read the article in its entirety here.

The article made me think of my own calendar experiences and how maybe it was time to rethink some of the calendar routines that I had used for so many years. 

Calendar time/math circle time on the carpet can be a very important part of your day or it can be a dreary and difficult time to manage. It all depends on what you do and how you do it. 

Keep it short and keep children moving. Calendar routines and math circle combined should take no longer than 15-20 minutes. Offer plenty of opportunities for action and involvement- songs, fingerplays, and hands-on opportunities are just a few ways to keep children moving. 

According to Friedman (2000), when looking at the development of young children there is little evidence that calendar activities which mark extended periods of time (for example: a month or a week) are meaningful for children below first grade. Friedman (2000) also noted that the ability to judge time from a past event or until a future event in terms of the calendar year is not in place until sometime between the age of 7 and 10. I know from personal experience that many of my kindergartners had trouble conceptualizing yesterday, today, and tomorrow and what day of the week or month of the year it was. 

What Should we Teach Using the Calendar? If Anything at all?
So then... with this information in mind what concepts should we teach using the calendar. Numeracy, vocabulary, patterning, or sequencing?? 

Math Concepts
Young children need opportunities to explore and and experiment individually with math concepts, using concrete materials and with a teacher who can respond to their questions and guide their learning. For example, a teacher can help children notice patterns in the environment and on the calendar, while also modeling and thinking out loud while making patterns with children in small groups. 

Other Knowledge and Skills
Oftentimes, teachers use calendar time to teach unrelated skills to math, such as colors, letters, emergent writing, and social skills. While each of these skills is important for young children to learn, the calendar may not be the best place to teach these. Teaching these skills at calendar make the time on the carpet lengthy and whole group time does not allow for individualized instruction. 

Alternative Concepts to Teach at the Calendar 
Picture Schedules
Although young children have difficulty judging the length of time between events, they can understand sequence of events. A pocket chart or poster illustrating the day's schedule in sequence can be helpful and meaningful to young children. 

Here is an example from a classroom in my district. This teacher used real photographs. 

The example came from Rainbows Within Reach. You can use real photographs you take of the students during the daily activities. 

Here is an example of daily picture cards using clip art. I found these from Pocketful of Centers on Teachers Pay Teachers

Documentation Displays and Classroom Journals
Post or display photographs of classroom events, projects, field trips, etc. Display them in a designated place to clearly reflect the sequence of events. As you add new pictures of events with the students, you can revisit and discuss past events with them. You can encourage students to tell their peers and other adults the story of the events, this will strengthen their understanding of how events unfold and build up their oral language skills. This same idea can be used with classroom journals. Students can draw pictures and dictate sentences about class events. Then they can tell others about what happened during the activity.  

Here is an example from Science Notebooking. 

This example is from Paper Zip.

Linear Representations
Linear representations can help young children begin to understand and conceptualize that a day is a unit of time and talk about it with increasing clarity. A good example is counting the number of days you have been in school by adding a link to a paper chain each day, a number pattern of colored post-it notes placed in a line across the wall, or adding a unifix cube to a stack of cubes (I did this in sticks of 10).

This picture came from Rainbows Within Reach. Check out the great post Debbie made about different ways to count the days in school here.

Young children can observe, record, and predict daily weather changes. The teacher can lead discussions on the weather and changes in the weather such as what to wear when the weather changes.

In my classroom, I used this weather pig from Poco and Pop.

We charted the weather various ways over the years. Here are a few examples of things I have used. 

I used weather graphs similar to this one. I found this example from Andrea Mason on TPT. You can check it out here

Meeting the Needs of All of Your Learners
Some younger or less mature preschoolers are not ready for whole-group activities. If you insist that they join the class on the carpet, they are likely to disrupt the activities you have planned and diminish the quality of calendar/math circle time for the whole group. Providing an alternative to circle time for those children may be in everyone's best interest. You may choose to let the child look at a book or work with play-doh in another part of the room. By making calendar/math circle time active, engaging, and enjoyable for the other children, not-yet-ready children will eventually want and be ready to join in.