Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Independence and the Joy of Reading

Beyond any technical skill or exercise in inferential comprehension, our literacy program strives to bring a sense of joy and wonder to the process of reading. We hope that our students will nurture an appreciation for a story well told, for a powerfully engaging depiction of history, for an evocative verse, for an eloquently presented memoir, for a legend that captures the essence of a cultural value, and for all the other gifts that reading brings.

December 12: Loving the Words

On Tuesday morning, a group of second grade children gathered around the world rug in the library’s story room, engaged in a lively conversation about Cinderella with Mrs. Cirillo. They have heard several variations of this fairytale from different times and places, and Mrs. Cirillo asked the children what they expected to hear in the new book she was holding. Their informal discussion touched on many of the elements of the archetypal story of an outcast who is saved from a life of hardship through magic and a lost shoe. As Mrs. Cirillo began to read, the children noticed that this story was unusual because it featured a boy as its main character. A few pages later, one of the children called out, “Oh! He won’t lose a glass slipper; it’s a boot!”

Story time in the library is a singular form of literacy instruction for our primary school children. Every week, children in Pre-K through 2nd grade spend time listening to wonderful books read with joy by our librarian. While there is certainly conversation about the stories, and while the books often include new vocabulary words or interesting ideas, story time is not about formal instruction. When asked to describe her approach, Mrs. Cirillo is quick to point out that for her, these times with the children are about a love of literature, a love of story, a love of illustration, and a love of words.

Picture books occupy a special place in children’s reading lives. Most of these books are not mean to be read by children; the size of the type, the complexity of the words, the sentence structure, and the form of writing are often beyond early readers’ abilities. Instead, these books are designed to be read to and with children. Although Mrs. Cirillo does not follow a specific plan, her choices for each grade provide wonderful guidelines for sharing books with children.

As you consider gift ideas for the children in your lives (from our Book Fair or elsewhere), consider these suggestions:

In Pre-K and K, Mrs. Cirillo looks for books that feature fun and engaging topics. She’s found that Pre-K children love stories about babies!
In K and 1st, she focuses on early literacy skills such as rhymes and repetition so that children can participate and anticipate the words in the stories.
In 2nd grade, she reads folk tales and fairy tales to expose children to universal themes and classic works.

December 19: The Moment of Excellence

Of all the books and stories you have read, which ones truly drew you in? Which ones presented a moral dilemma or a difficult choice that left you pondering the alternatives long after the last page was turned? Which ones created such a vivid image in your mind that you felt that you had visited a real place? Books like these are not only a pleasure to read, they are also a tool for learning and for expanding our thinking about challenging issues. In every grade, our teachers make literature selections to encourage this type of critical thinking and connection. Often, book choices are made specifically because they will lead to conversations about choices or “big ideas.”

Our 7th graders have just completed such a book: The Giver, Lois Lowry’s Newbery Award-winning novel about an adolescent boy living in a tightly controlled “perfect” society. One of the central themes that the 7th graders are examining this year is that of the individual versus the group, and The Giver’s plot focuses on this theme. The ending is deliberately unclear, prompting deep discussions about what really happened. The level of connection to the text within the class and the compelling issues raised by the story created an ideal environment for reflection and creativity.

Ms. Jorgensen and Mrs. Sher arranged an exhibition for the students to demonstrate their understanding of the themes raised by the book. Some chose to create a three-dimensional map of the setting; they did not just build a model of a place, they made careful choices about color, texture, and their use of three dimensions to express their interpretation of the insider/outsider tension in the story. Other students wrote and performed scenes to expand on pivotal events, emphasizing the significance of the theme to the dialogue they presented. Some students chose a third option and wrote epilogues, matching the style and tone of the author and carrying the theme forward into a “what happened next” chapter. After Mrs. Sher instructed them to look for the moment of excellence in the presentations, students evaluated their own work and that of their classmates, using a detailed rubric to assess both their process and their product. Perhaps the most remarkable moments of excellence occurred in the discussions after each presentation; the students discussed concepts such as acceptance versus rejection, the need for love, and how societies operate.

April 3: It’s a Family Thing

“Dear Parents…Once again, you have homework,” began the letters that went home to 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grade families last month, announcing the 6th annual Literary Tea program, the brainchild of Mrs. Listfield and a tradition beloved by everyone. For each grade, Mrs. Listfield and the teachers have selected a book for adults and students to read together at home. This week and next week, Coolidge Hall is the setting for a series of gatherings where parents and children have been coming together to share their questions and thoughts about the books. Accompanied by a treat of tea and cookies, families meet around our lunch tables to discuss small details and large issues raised by the stories.

For our third graders, Wednesday morning was their first experience with a Literary Tea, although their novice status was not at all obvious. The group had read Pam Munoz Ryan’s book Riding Freedom, a historical novel about a woman who becomes a stagecoach driver in the American West. Discussions ranged from the challenges of being a woman during this time to definitions of freedom, to questions about perseverance and true happiness. “I think this book is bittersweet,” commented one child. “She was happy that she could do some stuff, but sad that she couldn’t be herself.”

The fourth grade class read Walking to the Bus Rider Blues by Harriet Gillem Robinet. This story takes place in the segregated South during the bus boycott. It centers around a young African-American boy and his family dealing with difficult circumstances. Although a work of fiction, the book includes authentic details about acts of racism during the time period. Parents shared their own thoughts about discrimination and recollections of the civil rights movement. Many conversations centered on the concept of courage: what sort of bravery it would take for a white person to participate in the boycott on behalf of black people, and the kind of confidence required to stand up for yourself in the face of a racist system.

The fifth graders read Lauren St. John’s novel The White Giraffe, in which an 11-year-old girl moves to Africa to live with her grandmother on a game preserve. The book raises questions about the idea of “home,” and what it means to protect vulnerable creatures. Sixth grade families read Roland Smith’s novel Elephant Run, World War II, when a boy moves from his home in England to his family’s teak plantation in Burma (now Myanmar). The book raises questions about courage, adventure, and a respect for the environment. Though the issues raised by all these books are not easy, our students and their parents approach them with respect, interest, and an appreciation for good stories.

May 22: Metamorphosis

“Silent reading and butterflies: two signs that the school year is almost over,” said Mrs. Chait the other day. She glanced at the large net holding the cocoons for the Painted Lady butterflies that will be emerging soon, and then her gaze traveled around the room to observe the students, each of whom was settled into an independent reading book. “They couldn’t have done this at the beginning of the year,” she added, with a note of pride in her voice.

How do you measure growth when it happens in tiny steps? When we are with children every day, the small changes are not always noticeable, but every now and then we are struck by the transformations that are occurring in their minds and bodies. At home, many of us have a door frame, or a spot on the kitchen wall, or a chart mounted inside a closet to mark our children’s height; how many times have you suddenly discovered that your child is an inch taller than the last time you measured?

Progress in reading happens in a similar incremental way. As the first grade year unrolls, inch by inch, new skills are developed. More complex words are introduced, longer texts are mastered, more words become recognized automatically, oral reading becomes smoother and more fluent, and suddenly, like the marks on the kitchen wall, we find that children are reading with significantly greater mastery than they could months before.

On this day, the first graders spill into the classroom from recess, ready for silent reading time. They find quiet spots at the tables, or sit cross-legged on the big rug, or sprawl on the pillows and carpets in the classroom nook, their books spread out on the floor in front of them. The literature choices are as varied as the children themselves: picture books, chapter books, early readers, classic stories, non-fiction selections, and popular series. One boy flips through a plastic bin, looking for something new. “Read it already; read it; read it; read it,” he says, ticking off each title. He moves to the next bin and grins as he finds a story that he hasn’t read yet. Twenty minutes later, when Mrs. Chait softly asks the children to put away their books, one student exclaims, “That’s the most I’ve ever read in DEAR time!”

Deep into the month of May, we look back over the school year and realize how much learning has occurred, and how much that learning will serve as the foundation for future growth. The butterflies about to hatch out of their cocoons, metaphorically as well as in reality.

May 29: What’s In Your Pile?

When asked about her summer reading plans, Mrs. Zamore laughed. “I can tell that we’re almost finished with the year when the pile of books that I’ve been saving topples over.”

For the past few weeks, this column has described many signs that the end of the year is fast approaching. We now release the results of an informal survey conducted among a cross-section of faculty and staff. The survey consisted of a single question: “What books are you most looking forward to reading this summer?” The results of our survey reveal evidence of many piles of books, and a vast range of interests, humor, talents, content knowledge, curiosity, hobbies, and personalities. The common thread among everyone surveyed was the sense of relaxation and pure joy of reading— how, what, and whenever we choose. Mrs. Zamore reflected on the luxury of time to read a long book, and Mr. Chaves quipped that he loves summer reading because he can read at a time of day when he won’t fall asleep.

Some respondents fall into a broad category best summed up by Mr. Chaves, who said, “I’ll read anything that’s good.” He likes to share his favorites, and Mr. O’Neill is the happy recipient of a whole stack of Chaves-approved selections. Ms. Rochford said that she reads whatever grabs her interest, and Mrs. Holman also described herself as a generalist. Mrs. Beaudoin, certainly speaking on behalf of all the associates, said, “I can’t wait to read something besides textbooks!” On the other hand, Mrs. Brissenden noted that she saves her summer reading time to focus on educational theory and philosophy.

Other people prefer specific categories and genres—Mr. Spencer likes myths and folktales, Mr. Sucich seeks out the sports section of the bookstore, and many people (including Mrs. Leana, Mrs. Zamore, and Mrs. Cirillo) named mysteries among the titles on their summer reading lists. Ms. Atwood alternates fiction and non-fiction. Ms. Isler, Mrs. Fell, Mr. Downing, Ms. Moriarty, and Mrs. Scholes talked about historical fiction. Mrs. Listfield loves to read children’s books, and she subscribes to many magazines. Some of us read about hobbies or interests: I love to read cookbooks as well as biographies and non-fiction history books, and Ms. Atwood is engaged in a book about doubles tennis strategy.

The survey’s timing was deliberate: summer reading lists are included in this week’s Friday Folders, and our spring book fair will take place next week. While it is important that students read the recommended books for their grade levels, it is even more important to find time to heed Mrs. Cirillo’s advice to “read a lot, read for pleasure, and read what you like.”

Genre Studies

Our curriculum places a strong emphasis on literature—our students read widely and deeply from many types of texts. Our reading classes make rich use of the wide spectrum of literary styles, and our other disciplines often include readings and examinations of relevant literature. We emphasize many ways of communicating a message—through story, narrative, poem, or other forms. We examine the structure and form of different works, and we encourage students to write in multiple styles.

March 6: Talking History

How did people learn about their history before there were history books? The fourth graders have been grappling with this question as they embark on a hallmark experience of the Belmont Day School curriculum: the study of ancient Greece. Last week, Mrs. Holman introduced Homer and the ancient tradition of epic storytelling. She has been reading Blackships Before Troy, a version of the Iliad, to build the students’ historical knowledge of the cultures of the Mediterranean and immerse them in the real and apocryphal events of the Trojan War.

The students are completely absorbed by the action-packed epic, which one of them described as “40 days when Achilles was pouting and the Trojans were winning the war.” Some students are excited by the engaging battles and war scenes. Another student commented on the amazing way that the whole story fits together. “There are no random things popping up,” she noted admiringly.

One of Mrs. Holman’s goals in this project is for the students to learn about the memorization strategies and performance methods used by the bards of the age. She compares the process to a game of “telephone,” in which each storyteller learns the main events of the story, then adds his own embellishments and individual flair. The students have learned about the importance of rhyme, the use of music to keep a melody and pattern in the performance, and the “power of three,” which refers to the technique of repeating significant actions three times.

As they listen, the students take notes to track the sequence of events of the story. They debate which events could have been real and which have probably been exaggerated over time. When they have heard all of the stories in the collection, they will become the storytellers themselves. In small groups, the children will choose their favorite episode from the epic, prepare their own retelling, and share their story with the class. Usually, Mrs. Holman says, the groups distribute themselves in such a way that the class ends up telling the entire Iliad from beginning to end. The challenge will be for them to find a way of using only their narrative skills to engage the audience—no acting or props are allowed. For the past few years, Mrs. Holman has used a video camera to record the final performances. This year, however, she and Mrs. Brooks are planning to produce a webcast of the adventures, creating a 21st century version of an ancient language art.

April 10: Feeling the Words

April is National Poetry Month, and our first and second graders are in the midst of reading, hearing, studying, and especially, writing poems. Although the lessons and activities in each class are different, both grades has been engaged in an ongoing conversation about what makes poetry different from regular writing.

Investigating words through poetry creates many opportunities for language study. In first grade, the children have been reading daily “chart poems” all year, attending to rhymes, patterns, images, or silly ideas. Sometimes, interesting words from these poems appear in other selections, expanding the children’s vocabulary. Recently, a student noticed the word “wailed” in a story. “I know that word! It was in our poem. It means to cry loudly!” she exclaimed. This week, the first graders are taking their poetic study to a new level: they have begun a two-week poetry unit in their reading groups, which focuses on writing their own poetry. The children are noticing that in poetry, the “just right” word or combination of words is important. Mrs. Chait explained that the students’ first efforts are based on structural guidelines, such as self-descriptive “I” poems. As they gain confidence with this new writing style, they will move onto more abstract forms. Selections of their work will appear in the Lambs’ Gambol later this spring.

Second graders are also focusing on both structure and word choice in their study of poetry. Mrs. Fell says that a goal is for the children to get a sense of poetry as a different kind of writing, one that emphasizes the expressive power of language. The children are observing that poetry has a rhythm or a beat that you can sometimes actually feel. In a good poem, the “right” words are in the right order; the sounds and the flow of the words are sometimes exciting, or silly, or serious. The teachers have chosen certain structural poems for the children to compose: this week, each child wrote a cinquain (5-line poem) describing a classmate. The exercise reinforced the children’s knowledge of parts of speech, while also giving them a chance to think about self-descriptions and compliments for themselves and others. Mrs. Fell says that the entire class has been gripped by this unit, which has allowed so many children to show their language skills in a new way. “The enthusiasm is infectious!” she said.

The teachers are enjoying this study as much as the children. In both grades, they have brought favorite poems, shared their own examples, and delighted in the results that the children have produced.

May 15: Enchanted Reading

Do you believe in magic? Our third graders (and the characters in the books they are reading) are asking themselves the same question. This week, the teachers and children have immersed themselves in a collection of fantasy stories that have led to conversations about make-believe and the incredible power of imagination. These books comprise one of several genre studies that the class has pursued over the course of the year.

Mrs. Moriarty and Mrs. Listfield offered three choices to the students: James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl, The Search for Delicious by Natalie Babbitt, and Half Magic by Edward Eager. The children ranked the books according to their own preference and were assigned either their first or second choice for the unit. Although the plot and setting of each book are unique, all of them include main characters who come face-to-face with fantastic situations or creatures. These books demonstrate the importance of making the right text selections to meet our learning goals, which balance fluency, comprehension, and literary analysis. The fantasy unit provides countless opportunities for the students to practice oral reading, hone their inferential skills, and reflect on the uses of language to convey an image or a scene.

Visualization is an important skill in comprehension, and it was in full evidence this week. At the beginning of Half Magic, odd events happen whenever someone makes a wish out loud. “I wonder,” Mrs. Moriarty mused, “What possible explanation might there be for this?” Several hands shot up as children eagerly suggested ideas. In James and the Giant Peach, James and his aunts are astonished when a peach suddenly grows to enormous proportions right before their eyes. The children delighted in the humorous portrayal of James’ horrid aunts. Ms. Milligan stopped the reading for a moment and encouraged the children to envision the scene in their imaginations. In Mrs. Listfield’s group, the main character in The Search for Delicious is taken to the top of the forest by a magical creature. Mrs. Listfield paused thoughtfully and asked, “could you see that in your minds?” She re-read the passage, emphasizing the descriptive language and the details in the text.

Conversations abounded as the teachers and students discussed the possibility of a real peach growing to that size, or of conjuring half of what you want by wishing on a coin, or of a creature to be visible only to those who believe in him. Along with the literacy skills they demonstrated, children also found themselves entranced by the wonderful stories—an equally important goal of our reading program.

Media Literacy and Content Area Instruction

A great many language arts skills are taught and reinforced outside of our reading classes. Comprehension is critical when students are reading texts, locating resources for research, and analyzing the validity of statements they read. Interpreting data, finding cultural references, appreciating the language of other disciplines, and an ability to engage with text in a critical way are all necessary for becoming truly literate.

October 17: Decision 2008: A Matter of Critical Literacy

Although they’re not old enough to vote, our 8th graders are participating in the upcoming election. For the past several weeks, their Literature Study Group classes have been focused on the issues at stake in the campaign. Ms. Gerner has enrolled the class in a wiki (an interactive website whose content is created as a collaborative effort). The site was originally conceived by a teacher at the Noble and Greenough School and involves students from many other schools.

Our students’ involvement in this web community is an excellent example of learning about media literacy. Ms. Gerner described the interdisciplinary activity as a combination of social studies, humanities, critical thinking, and writing. The students are researching a variety of topics (global warming, the privatization of social security, energy policy, and education, are among the ideas being discussed this week). As they read articles about these issues, the students are alert for areas of bias, misleading information, reliability, and accuracy.

As a component of their research, the students completed an on-line survey to find out how their own views compared with those of the presidential candidates. The multiple-choice options prompted questions, reactions, and further investigations about such issues as the mortgage crisis, the death penalty, and ethanol subsidies.

After gathering and reading their source material, the students will prepare their own explanations of the topics to add to the entries on the wiki site. Their challenges are to keep their writing balanced, to avoid inflammatory statements, and to enrich the site for readers. These sophisticated literacy skills involve careful analysis, strong comprehension, and an understanding of the subtleties of language.

Thomas Jefferson believed that a democracy could not exist without an educated populace. "Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government,” he noted in a 1789 letter. In 2008, his words still ring true, and our teachers and students are doing their best to be both well-informed and respectful.

December 12: Reading for Livestock

An exciting community service project has turned our fourth grade students into agricultural experts, avid readers, adept researchers, and committed humanitarians. Guided by Ms. Rochford, Mrs. Holman, and Mrs. Deoras, the class has embarked on an educational and philanthropic mission to help children around the world through Heifer International. The program provides sheep, goats, chickens, cows, and other animals to needy families as a way of increasing their income potential as well as their nutritional resources. The children were introduced to the program through a book about a young girl in Uganda whose family fortunes are improved when they receive a goat from the organization. The class discussed the ways in which a single animal could make such a difference to a struggling family.

Each fourth grader selected one of Heifer’s animals for further research. Ms. Rochford helped them navigate the web site and a collection of books and print materials to gather information. To demonstrate what they have learned, the students will choose among several options for final projects. Some children will create picture books about the animals. Others will write their own informational books, and some will prepare simulated interviews with children who have received animals. They are also building their vocabularies and spelling skills with relevant terminology from their studies; this week’s spelling list included the words agriculture, international, heifer and adaptation.

A final component of the project is the class’ participation in Heifer’s Read to Feed program. Last week, the students brought home pledge forms to raise funds for Heifer International. Donors can choose to pledge a certain dollar amount for every book, chapter, or page that a participating child reads over the winter break. The children keep a log of their reading, and earn money with each book they complete. When we return to school in January, the class will decide how best to allocate the resources raised and will buy a selection of animals from Heifer’s catalog. Ms. Rochford emphasizes that a major goal of this effort is to raise awareness of micro-finance projects such as Heifer, and that the children’s Read to Feed efforts are part of an important lesson in global citizenship.

January 23: The Stories We Tell

“If you tell stories during the daytime, your cattle could die.” This Maasai adage was the subject of a lively conversation in Mrs. Sher’s 7th grade class on Wednesday.

“What does this mean? Why would cattle die if their herders tell stories while they work?” The students suggested a variety of explanations to answer the questions Mrs. Sher posed. It soon became clear that the Maasai prohibition on daytime storytelling was not related to a superstition, but rather as a means of preventing distraction from the vigilance of herding. The conversation then turned toward the inherent value of storytelling, both in the nomadic culture that the class has been studying and as a more universal element of human nature.

The 7th grade has been analyzing both the content and structure of Maasai legends as part of a larger study of animal and human societies. One of the focal points of Wednesday’s lesson focused on the importance of storytelling as a form of cultural transmission—the values, rituals, and customs of a people, and the methods by which these elements are passed on from one generation to the next. The students observed that the Maasai stories are relatively simple in terms of plot and characters, making them easy for a child to comprehend and retell. These qualities are essential in a society that depends on oral tradition and on a set of core images and natural resources.

Four images that are core to Maasai culture are the snake, the river, a stool, and the calabash (a type of gourd). These concepts are central to a set of riddles told among children in the society: “What can move freely without legs?” “What can flow freely without legs?” “What has legs but cannot walk?” and “What holds its milk without drinking it?” Mrs. Sher reminded the students of these riddles, which they had learned in an earlier class, and then returned to the question that had begun the discussion: “If you tell stories during the daytime, your cattle could die.”

Why, Mrs. Sher asked, are Maasai dissuaded from telling stories, but encouraged to share riddles while they work? The students spoke about the intense focus of both the storyteller and the listener in contrast to the quick and humorous exchange of a riddle. The distinction between these two types of oral language and their different social contexts became a rich topic of discussion about the pleasures and benefits of language as a source of entertainment, keeping the mind facile, and participation in society.

January 30: Listen, My Children…

Patriots Day is still nearly three months away, but our fifth graders are immersed in the history, science, and excitement of the first days of the American Revolution. How can a discipline like history, with its emphasis on dates, names, and battles, be presented as a lively and compelling pursuit for middle school students? One answer to this question was demonstrated this week, when Mr. Downing and Mr. Sucich teamed up, using elements of theater, astronomy, live flames, literature, and modern technology to enhance their teaching.

At the heart of the lesson was good storytelling. Although much of the information presented was new to the class, the teachers were impressed with the level of prior knowledge that the students brought. Some of their knowledge came from the award-winning novel Johnny Tremain, written in 1943 by historian Esther Forbes. This work of realistic fiction incorporates countless accurate details about Boston in the 1770s. Real-life events can be just as dramatic, if not more so, than fiction, and the events of those days and nights in April 1775 are an ideal example of high drama, which the teachers maximized throughout their lessons.

An interactive map on Mr. Sucich’s SmartBoard created the backdrop for the presentation, which began with a retelling of the famous story of Paul Revere’s ride. As the narrative progressed, Mr. Sucich used different colors to represent the routes taken by Paul Revere, Billy Dawes, the Minutemen, and the British troops. Along the way, he stopped to share points of trivia and clarify common misconceptions. The students were completely engrossed in the tale, listening and watching intently.

Mr. Downing provided a scientific perspective, illustrating and expanding on the story. To highlight the tense moments while Revere rowed across the harbor, trying to avoid being spotted by the British, Mr. Downing explained that the full moon that night was shining at an angle, keeping Mr. Revere’s boat in the shadows. Later, after Mr. Sucich described the weapons used by the soldiers and Minutemen, Mr. Downing demonstrated the use of flint to start a flame burning.

As the discussion turned to the exact moment of the “Shot Heard Round the World,” Mr. Sucich posed the question, “who do you think fired the first shot?” One of the students responded, “no one knows.” Mr. Sucich agreed, but pressed the point further. Based on the information they had, and their own ideas and interpretations, he encouraged them to consider the question again, “Who do you think did it, and why do you think so?” The students paused, took possession of the story—and history came alive.

March 13: How Big is a Queen Sized Bed?

Rubber bands, colorful footprints, picture books, and lots of words have been at the heart of kindergarten and first grade math classes this week, a sure indication our students are engaged in a study of geometry. Perhaps a bit of explanation is necessary. In the earliest grades, abstract mathematics concepts are introduced through experience, hands-on manipulation, stories, and observation, giving students a meaningful context and a narrative basis for the skills they are learning.

Our kindergarteners are exploring measurements and the tools that we use to measure objects. Last week, they traced their own feet, then cut out and decorated the shapes to use as their own personal measuring units. On Monday, Ms. Chu read Rolf Myller’s book How Big is a Foot? which tells the story of a king who wants a bed made for the queen, and sends his royal orders based on the size of his very large feet. Confusion ensues when the carpenter’s apprentice uses his own tiny feet to construct the bed. The students eagerly followed the events of the story, making predictions and calling out their reactions when a tiny bed is delivered to the queen. They explained the problem and offered solutions for making a “queen-sized” bed. In the course of their discussion, the children demonstrated their understanding of concepts such as relative size, standardized measurements, and the importance of clear language in describing quantities, distances, and lengths.

The first graders have been examining polygons—shapes that have straight sides, corners, and no “crossovers.” The math/language connections in this unit involve labels such as quadrilateral, hexagon, and octagon, as well as conversations that involve different ways of describing these shapes. The children are exploring geometry through a hands-on, individualized experience using geoboards—specially designed pegboards on which the students stretch rubber bands to construct a variety of multi-sided figures. Making and copying shapes on the geoboards is both fun and challenging, as the children have discovered. To reinforce the concepts further, Mrs. Chait read the book The Greedy Triangle by Marilyn Burns, in which a deep-thinking triangle visits a shape-shifter to escape his recurring sense of ennui. When the shape gains an angle and a side, new opportunities present themselves for him, but he soon finds himself bored with his circumstances and returns to the shape-shifter for more. The story presents many examples of polygons in everyday life and encourages the children to search their environments for triangles, squares, and other common shapes.

Comprehension and Vocabulary Building

Comprehension and Vocabulary Building

True reading requires a reader to understand the meaning of the text being encountered. Comprehension, therefore, is an absolute and ultimate goal of our reading program at every level. It is not sufficient for readers to be able to pronounce the words they are decoding; they must be able to extract the message from the passage as well. Our teachers and students build word knowledge together, adding vocabulary words and meanings, dissecting parts and origins of words, and finding multiple ways of defining and describing new and known concepts.

September 19: Mono-. Di-. Tri-.

Ask a BDS 6th grader what these prefixes mean, and you’re in for a lesson in Greek. This week, the 6th grade class began a yearlong study of etymology, the study of word origins. Their first unit is an investigation of the Greek roots related to numbers (mono is one; di is two, and tri is three). Mr. Spencer and the students reviewed a list of words that include numeric roots from one to ten. Familiar and unfamiliar words gained new significance as students learned the root words (oct means eight, and pous means foot in Greek, so an octopus is, quite literally, an eight-footed creature). The students analyzed meanings, made connections, and discussed word-based mysteries: If oct means eight, then why is October the 10th month? Ask a 6th grader!

On the same day that the 6th graders were learning about decathlons and heptameter, the Kindergarten class conducted an in-depth investigation of alphabet books. Ms. Isler, Ms. Chu, and the children looked carefully at the different shapes of the letters, shared words that they know using those letters, and learned some new words that begin with the letters (do you know what a kohlrabi is?).

These two lessons represent critical points on the continuum of literacy. From the earliest stages of letter recognition to the ability to decode and define the word decahedron, reading involves the process of connecting symbols, sounds, and words to make meaning. The Belmont Day School literacy curriculum is an excellent model of best practices in reading and language arts instruction. As the year progresses, we will share continued highlights and examples from our Road to Reading.

October 10: Reading to Learn

There is an adage in elementary schools that until third grade, children “learn to read,” and after third grade, they “read to learn.” The implication is that reading is primarily about correctly pronouncing words in print. However, true reading is more than connecting letters and sounds. A good example of this distinction is the experience many of us have encountered in “reading” a language we don’t speak. We may be able to pronounce the items on the menu, but we’re not sure what we’re ordering.

Our third graders are expanding their true reading skills to make meaning from text. They are reading Stone Fox, a story about a boy who decides to enter a sled-dog race. Mrs. Moriarty’s and Mrs. Listfield’s classes provide a powerful illustration of what reading instruction looks like after children have learned to decode most words.

In Mrs. Moriarty’s group, a child read a passage that included a conversation between the main character and the mayor. He didn’t miss a word. “Wait a minute,” Mrs. Moriarty said. “Let’s go back and notice how many people were talking. How can you use your voice to show the differences between Willy and the mayor?” When the child re-read the passage, attending to the quotation marks, the meaning of the text was much clearer. In Mrs. Listfield’s class, a child paused after reading the phrase “hair tonic.” “What’s that?” she asked. This type of self-monitoring is a critical skill in true reading. A few minutes later, another student encountered the word “amateur.” Many of the students had heard the word, but its precise meaning was not clear. As they discussed the word and re-read the paragraph, the children became more engaged in the story and in their own ability to make sense of the text, demonstrating the balance between learning and reading.

October 24: What Am I?

What looks like orange flat circles, sounds quiet, smells like something sweet, feels squishy and sticky, and tastes sweet and good?

This is a riddle written by a group of pre-K students for their classmates to solve. For the past several weeks, the children have been learning about the five senses. More recently, they have begun an investigation of riddles, specifically the kind of riddles that give clues about the identity of a person or thing.

What is that orange, quiet, sweet thing? Maybe it’s an orange, suggested one child. No, it couldn’t be an orange; oranges aren’t flat, said someone else. What about a pancake? A pancake is flat, but it’s not orange. Could it be a lollipop? Perhaps, but lollipops aren’t squishy. After much deliberation, the children decided that they needed more clues.

The children’s conversations and the experiences surrounding these riddles provide a marvelous example of the power of language as a tool for precise communication. The ability to interpret and to generate descriptive language is a critical literacy skill, and the size of a person’s vocabulary is an excellent indicator of success in reading. Throughout their lives, children’s receptive vocabulary (the words they recognize and understand) and their expressive vocabulary (the words they use in their own communication) expand through experiences, exposure to literature, and direct instruction. Our pre-kindergarteners’ riddles are an exercise in expressive language.

So what is that mysterious object? Here’s a clue. Every morning, Pre-K children and adults are welcomed with an activity that encourages them to explore the classroom, learn about each another, and practice new skills. Last week, people arriving in the room found plates of dried apricots, bowls of pretzels, apple slices, kashi cereal, raisins, and sliced radishes. The children were asked to describe how each food looked, sounded, smelled, felt, and tasted. One of the sample foods is the answer to the riddle.

October 31: Reading Between the Lines

Have you ever found yourself connecting with a character in a book whose life is entirely different from yours? What sort of thinking is involved when you analyze the plot or consider the world from that character’s point of view? Our fifth graders are reading Esperanza Rising, a novel about a young Mexican girl in the 1930s. After a family tragedy, she and her family are forced to leave their country to find work in the farms of California during the Depression. The teachers are using this deeply emotional book to encourage the students to think beyond the basic elements of the plot. After the class re-read a passage where Esperanza and her mother talk about the life they’ve left behind, the students tried to determine what Esperanza missed the most. Since the text does not provide this information directly, the students relied on their inferential skills to form their answers.

Children begin making inferences early in their literacy experiences. In the primary grades, they use contextual clues to deduce a character’s mood or intentions. Good questions are at the heart of this type of comprehension. In a second-grade reading class, students have been writing their own questions about the book that they’ve just finished. We have introduced the idea of a “thinking question,” which is aimed at inferential comprehension. When asked to describe what a thinking question is, one child explained, “It’s when you can’t find the answer right there in the book, but if you read that part again, you can figure it out.”

As they get older, children’s inferential comprehension expands to include metaphors, symbolism, and broad themes. In fifth grade this week, both Mrs. Listfield’s group and Mr. Sucich’s group have been discussing the concept of imagery in the text. The teachers are guiding the students to discoveries about the characters as well as the author’s purpose in including certain recurring images. Achieving this level of comprehension is a long process, and it is an important component in a lifelong love of reading.

January 16: Martin’s Words

A comprehensive literacy curriculum addresses skills in four key areas: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. As our school has prepared for the sharing assembly to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it seems particularly relevant to consider the meaning and power of words and spoken language.

Among the words and concepts that have been addressed this week are fairness, power, discrimination, status, and civil rights. In eighth grade, where the class has been immersed in a study of the civil rights movement, students watched the film Warriors Don’t Cry, about the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. After watching news footage and listening to the personal accounts of people who lived through the events in 1957, the students talked about the nuances of language, and the way certain words can be construed. Governor Faubus sent the National Guard to Central High to “preserve the peace and avoid violence,” but students wanted to know, what was his true intention?

The sixth grade has been reading the classic novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, which takes place in a racially charged community in Mississippi in the 1930s. As the class reviewed a particularly tense episode in the book, students read aloud passages that they found especially meaningful. A central theme in their discussion was the importance of standing up for what is right. This theme was echoed by the second grade, who have examined the idea of “standing up” in the context of bullying and unfairness.

In third grade, words and labels took on a technical as well as a whimsical nature, as the children learned about melanin, the chemical that gives each of us our unique pigmentation. After reading a book called All the Colors We Are, Mrs. Moriarty brought out an assortment of colored spices from her kitchen so that the children could concoct customized mixture to match, and then name, their own skin colors.

In many grades, Dr. King’s speeches and his call for nonviolent protest have been focal points of lessons and conversations. The fourth grade has been reading a book of brief biographies of individuals who have changed the world through the power of their words. These profiles have led to discussions about what it means to be a hero, and how a peaceful protest can have a profound impact. First graders watched a video of the “I Have a Dream” speech, and read many books about Dr. King. Mrs. Chait shared an observation that resonated throughout the school this week: our classrooms are a safe place to discuss difficult words, events, and issues. The power of language is palpable here.


Literacy involves skills in both decoding and encoding printed language. As children learn to connect letter symbols with the sounds that those letters make, they also begin to create their own printed messages. In our language arts program, early writing emphasizes the ability to hear and record the sounds of the words that the writer wants to record; conventional spelling is taught and reinforced gradually as children become more and more fluent in their reading and writing. As their skills develop, our students' writing becomes richer and more complex, reflecting not only their knowledge of spelling and grammar, but also their deep understanding of the structure of written form.

November 7: Wild Chipmunks and Cinderella’s Belly

“I vodid this morning with my mom and the lien was so loing,” wrote a first grader during Writer’s Workshop on Tuesday.

There is great power in this statement, aside from the obvious excitement of participation in the election. This seven-year-old and her classmates have reached a level of early literacy where they can record their thoughts and describe events in a form that is readable (albeit with a bit of effort) by others.

Emergent spelling can be varied and occasionally entertaining at this stage. Our first graders’ writing includes high-frequency words that are spelled accurately, as well as other words that are spelled phonetically. Sometimes these efforts are known as “invented spelling,” but this label is misleading; the children’s messages reflect their growing knowledge about sounds and symbols. Because many reading and writing skills are developing simultaneously, we want to see how the children hear and encode words, and we encourage them to write as much as possible. As their spelling skills expand, we see them including first sounds, last sounds, vowel sounds, consonant blends, and irregular letter combinations.

The children write about everything in their lives, from the mundane to the thrilling. They are not inhibited by doubts about accurate spelling; if you read carefully, you’ll find all the sounds you need to get the message. Tooth loss is a big topic: “I lost my tooth! I lost anutther. It was my 6 on eating tumatose,” wrote one child. Another noted, “Wen I was in the car going to Mane I was eating a cracr. I loost my tooth. I cudint fiend it.” They write about unexpected guests: “I have a wiyeld chimuck in my howse. It can bit. My sister screemd.” They write about playdates and outings: “On Sunday I went to see Cidarella the Belly, ” someone else reported, most certainly referring to the ballet, not the princess’ abdomen.

Literacy is one of the most fundamental areas of education, and the independence of writing is a cornerstone of this foundation. Our first graders are well on their way to becoming full participants in a literate world.

February 13: What Do You Know?

How many steps are involved in feeding a dog? How do you describe the looping process for tying shoes? How do you fold a paper boat? Are there instructions for defending yourself against an annoying little cousin?

Our second graders have been carefully preparing the answers to these and many more questions. During Writers Workshop this month, the class has been learning about a very specific literary genre: the “How-To” book. In the words of one student, a how-to book is “when you become the teacher and you tell people how to make something or how to do something.”

Before they began writing, Mrs. Fell and the children looked at cookbooks, sewing manuals, and origami instructions to gather ideas about how a “how-to” is written. Next, they generated a list of possible subjects for their individual projects, based on their own skills and interests. Who knew that we have experts in “Madden ’08” for DS, making box rockets, holding falcons, designing word search puzzles, and making chocolate birds’ nests? As they discussed their own abilities, the children realized that being good at something doesn’t always mean that you can teach it easily. For example, one student noted, “I’m good at reading, but that would be hard to teach someone.”

Theories of teaching often divide knowledge into two general categories: procedural (the ability to do something) and declarative (the ability to recall facts or information about a topic). Writing a how-to book involves both of these cognitive domains as well as important higher-order thinking skills such as sequencing, attention to detail, and precision of language. As the students discovered, it is a great linguistic challenge to describe an action in words in a way that someone else can understand.

Mrs. Fell described this style of writing as “taking a big thing and breaking it into steps.” The students agreed, and emphasized the importance of putting the steps in chronological order, providing clear illustrations, being specific, and checking with someone else to make sure that the directions make sense. The next time you make yourself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or glide onto the ice in your skates, think about how you might describe your own procedural knowledge. Explaining what you know may be harder than you think!

February 27: A Thousand Words

The pre-kindergartners’ study of sculptures has taken them inside the adventures of sledding penguins, and the third graders’ author studies have opened up a curious portfolio of drawings. Odd as it might appear, both of these projects focus on a form of storytelling, and when Mrs. Moriarty and Ms. Andrick ran into each other in the hallway earlier this week, they were amazed at the similarities in their students’ activities.

The pre-K students were literally and figuratively drawn into composing their own stories as a result of their investigation of the flowing lines in wire sculptures. Mrs. Zamore and Ms. Andrick began reading the Harold and the Purple Crayon stories, encouraging the children to draw their own line-based adventures. This unit was so successful that the teachers expanded it with Three Topsy Turvy Tales by Anne Brouillard. The children eagerly engaged with the whimsical illustrations in the wordless book, generating their own storylines for the animals depicted on its pages. One of the stories, “Snowfall Downfall” was such a favorite that the teachers reproduced the pictures and created a challenge: choose any four images, put them in any order so that they tell a story, and then dictate the story to a teacher.

Meanwhile, the third grade class has been absorbed in an author study of Chris Van Allsburg. The students have read a wide collection of Mr. Van Allsburg’s books and have developed an understanding of his particular style. As a culminating project, Mrs. Moriarty brought out The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, a strangely compelling set of illustrations, each of which is accompanied only by a short caption. With just the picture and the caption as prompts, the students wrote their own stories to explain the images.

The results of these endeavors are extraordinary, demonstrating the children’s creativity and joy, as well as their understanding of how stories are constructed. Writing a good story requires knowledge of the “deep structure” of narrative. Elements of character, tension, setting, and sequencing are essential, as is a mastery of language. Third graders demonstrated a flair for phrasing with openings like “It all started on a sunny Sunday,” and “Well, it was just one of those days.” The pre-K authors dictated familiar phrases such as “once upon a time” and “they lived happily ever after,” but they also ended their stories with such comforting conclusions as “It started snowing so they dug a hole,” and “they all went home for hot chocolate.” Stop by the hallways and classrooms of these storytellers to see their wonderful narratives.

May 8: The Presses are Rolling

A sure sign of the approaching end of the school year is the process of selecting student work to publish in Lamb’s Gambol and Clips. These two publications represent both tradition and innovation at Belmont Day School, and collectively, they are a wonderful showcase for our students’ writing and creative expression throughout the grades.

Just how long has Lamb’s Gambol been a part of BDS? A bit of investigation around the school turned up some interesting information. Heather Atwood, our Lower School Reading Specialist, who has served as the coordinator of the flagship journal for her 13-year tenure, said that the Gambol had been around for years before she arrived. Next stop was the library, where Carol Cirillo pointed out a collection of bound editions dating back to 1965. Finally, this reporter arrived at the office of Susan Smart (’61), Assistant to the Head, who has fond memories of the days when the submissions to Lambs’ Gambol were chosen as the result of a student writing contest (and she herself won the 6th grade poetry contest with an entry called “Over the Sea”). These days, the magazine includes work from every student in pre-K through 6th grade. “It’s wonderful that each child has a piece now,” Ms. Smart commented.

Two years ago, the middle school team introduced Clips, the 7th and 8th grade literary magazine. The decision to start this new publication came in response to the length and sophistication of our oldest students’ writing, and in recognition of their independence in choosing and editing their work to share with a wider audience. During the next two weeks, students will submit their work to the teachers for review, and then revise, format, and prepare their work for final publication. This year’s edition of Clips may include stories, poetry, descriptive writing, and student artwork.

Submissions to both magazines vary from grade to grade; in some of our younger classes, the teachers determine the genre or category of work. Often, the choices reflect a language arts theme or an area of content, and may include poetry, stories, non-fiction pieces, or captioned drawings. Ms. Atwood remarked that the Lambs’ Gambol provides many children with the opportunity to think of themselves as authors. Look for your copy of Lambs’ Gambol or Clips in your end-of-year materials!

Fluency and Oral Reading

Reading aloud with efficiency and understanding is one of our literacy goals. We provide a wide variety of opportunities for children to read to other people in different settings and for different purposes. Practice, repetition, and reinforcement are important components of our language arts program. Our teachers work together to identify situations where children can read and recite texts to develop their oral language skills. Dramatic productions, presentations of research projects, and group activities encourage children to find their voices and their own sense of presence.

September 26: ‘Just Right’ Learning

The first graders’ book bags are here! The annual debut of these canvas bags, carefully decorated and boldly labeled with the children’s names, represents much more than a simple means of carrying items between home and school. For our first grade students, the bags are a symbol of newfound independence. The book bag program is a central element of our early reading curriculum, focusing on the skill of fluency—reading smoothly and comfortably with thorough comprehension of the text. To accomplish this goal, the teachers help the children choose a “just right” book that allows them to read with greater than 95% accuracy. Though such proficiency might suggest that the task is not challenging enough, it is precisely at this level that children can focus their attention on comprehension rather than on decoding, which is the ultimate goal of reading. The book bag program illustrates a core idea in education: learning happens at the edges between what we know and what we don’t know yet.

To teach at the edges requires deep knowledge of both the students and the curriculum. All through the school, classes are beginning the year with this kind of “just right” teaching and learning. Our teachers frequently engage the students in a process of guided discovery, first uncovering the knowledge that children bring, then leading them to build knowledge by making connections, asking questions, and observing carefully.

The fourth graders have been studying seeds as part of their science class. Ms. Rochford introduced the unit by asking the children to share ideas, facts, and questions about plants. With this discussion as their foundation, the students engaged in a detailed series of observations. They used hand lenses to investigate dry lima beans, opened newly sprouted seeds, and made predictions about the conditions for seeds to grow well. Ms. Rochford presented additional information about types of seeds and different ways that seeds take root. She then presented a challenge: apply the knowledge you have gained to design your own seed, build a model, and explain the way that the seed would take root. Using plastic bags, plastic wrap, pipe cleaners, straws, rubber bands, tape, beans, balloons, and cardboard, the children built 3-dimensional models of their seed designs and prepared specimen cards to present the details, grounded in accurate biological concepts, of their creations.

Connecting the known and the new does not always happen as part of a multi-week project; sometimes it happens in a brief exchange between teacher and student. Earlier this week, a second grade student came across the word “porcupine” in her reading book. She looked at the word, made a guess, hesitated, and then looked at the teacher. “The last four letters are a word you know,” suggested the teacher. “Pine,” the student read. “Now look at the first three letters,” the teacher prompted. “Por-,” read the child. She paused, looking at the whole word, then smiled. “Porcupine!” she shouted, with a look of great satisfaction. This moment of success prompted a short discussion among all the children in the reading group about how to read big words. Each child in the group described a strategy: looking at the rest of the sentence, finding a small word inside the big word, or sounding it out one letter at a time. The most striking aspect of this conversation was the confidence of the children: they were certain that they would be able to decipher these as-yet unread words. These children know the spaces between what they know and what they don’t quite know yet, and they know how to learn in those edges.

February 6: DeLovely

“A lot of serious things start silly.”

This line summarizes one of the key themes in the 5th grade play, The Search for Delicious. The story revolves around a dictionary, a definition, and a disagreement over what is truly delicious. The main character, a young boy named Gaylen, is sent on a mission throughout the kingdom to record each citizen’s vote for the most delicious food. Along the way, he is confronted by foolishness, wisdom, and an overwhelming list of people’s favorite foods.

Drama teacher Susan Dempsey wrote the script, carefully adapting Natalie Babbitt’s 1969 classic book, and using her musical talents to incorporate her own arrangement of Cole Porter’s song “DeLovely” as an added treat. Mr. Downing and Mr. Sucich have been reading the book to the class, reinforcing the students’ knowledge and appreciation of the story. Mrs. Dempsey’s rendition maintains the whimsical nature and clever wording of the original text, and provides an excellent example of how language instruction occurs throughout the curriculum here at Belmont Day.

As the production moved from the script to the stage, the students focused on the nature of the language in the play, and made observations about the differences between a book and a play. One important difference is the value of action over description, and the importance of clear expression. The students practiced different ways of using their voices to emphasize specific words—and since words are central to the plot in this play, enunciation was of extra importance.

The students were drawn to the old-fashioned nature of the story and its language. During their final rehearsals, they were eager to discuss the upcoming performance and the unusual ways that words are used. They noticed how often opposing ideas came together: “What an uproar! Calm down!” says the mayor at one point. Students praised one other’s ability to express the meaning of their lines through action, facial expression, and posture, and they described the subtle humor as well as the tension that permeates the story. One student repeated a line from the play: “It’s nothing to you, but it’s much to me.” The student paused, and thought for a moment. “It’s partly funny, and partly serious,” she said, describing the type of conflict that can ensue over something as seemingly insignificant as a definition.

March 20: The Play’s the Thing

Literature study in 8th grade has taken a dramatic turn. On Monday, the class gathered in the kiva for an opening lesson about Romeo and Juliet. In small groups over the next few weeks, we will study the tragedy in its entirety, marking the first time for many of our students to read a whole Shakespearean play. Teaching and learning Shakespeare in middle school is a rewarding experience, and we approach it differently from most of the other books and stories we have read before. As we began our discussions this week, it became immediately clear to the students that the plot is not always the most important focus. Although there may be specific characters or details that are unfamiliar, the main points of the play are well known to everyone. However, the specific language, the arc of the story line, and the timeless relevance of the work are critical elements of cultural literacy.

The language of Shakespeare appears daunting at first. For this reason, we have chosen a version of the play that provides excellent page-by-page summaries. Students read a few scenes each night, using the summaries to help them interpret the original text. In class, we take the scenes apart, sometimes acting them out, sometimes re-phrasing the characters’ lines in modern speech, and sometimes analyzing the historic or cultural significance of a particular reference.

As they become more comfortable with the material, the students gain confidence in applying analytical skills that they have developed through years of critical reading. They question the characters’ motives, evaluate their flaws, and debate the plausibility of events: How is it that Romeo can claim to be so desperately in love with Rosaline at the beginning of Act 1, only to have his heart swept away in the very next scene when he catches a glimpse of Juliet across a proverbial crowded room? Is Tybalt really so arrogant and hotheaded that he would try to start a swordfight at his uncle’s party? A group of students acted out this scene for their classmates, interrupted by commentary, laughter, and clarification of language. Through these relatively informal small group exchanges, our students gain an appreciation for the classic work, while at the same time identifying humor and modern connections. “This is just like a soap opera!” one of them observed. And so it is.

June 5: In Their Own Words

A celebration took place in Kindergarten this week—the publishing of everyone’s first book from Writer’s Workshop. After the children carefully chose a favorite story from their writing folders, the teachers typed the selections, leaving plenty of room for illustrations on each page. Before adding drawings, each student sat with a teacher to listen as the words were read aloud. After confirming that the text did indeed match their original stories, the children sat down with colored pencils and crayons. The final products will feature laminated covers and “about the author” biographies.

Down the hall, a group of first graders bounded into the classroom from their reading class, beaming with excitement: they had amassed 100 words on their word rings! Since the beginning of the year, our first graders have been adding colored cards to the large binder rings on their bookbags, building a repertoire of words with irregular spellings that they can recognize and read automatically. The 100-word milestone, celebrated with high-fives and shouts of glee from classmates and teachers, represents only a portion of the words that the children have learned to read this year. Our first grade reading curriculum emphasizes words with regular phonics patterns (fondly known as “word families”), which the children have also mastered.

Even more words were the focus of attention in second grade, where the entire Word Wall (more than 400 spelling words!) was removed from its place of prominence for the final spelling test of the year. Ms. Morin selected 20 words from the entire list, focusing on those that involved irregular spelling patterns or that couldn’t be sounded out easily. From the children’s responses, this end-of-year assessment might as well have been a well-earned party. Their enthusiasm and motivation to succeed were contagious, and the teachers were delighted with the results of the quiz.

In each of these scenarios, we see the results of a year of concentrated work as well as a progression of skills that begins early in primary school. What does it mean for a reader to “possess” a word? It means familiarity with the sounds, meaning, appearance, and formation of the word. It means the ability to recognize it aurally and in print, to use it appropriately, and to write it independently. Through this sequence, the connections among listening, speaking, reading, and writing are obvious. The foundations of literacy are strong at BDS—in the lessons taught, the books read, the stories written, and in the words that the children make their own.

Decoding and Phonemic Skills

Identifying individual sounds in our spoken language is an essential first step in emergent literacy. From infancy, children are surrounded by the sounds of speech, and they begin vocalizing these sounds within their first year of life. Early linguistic activities such as songs, rhymes, and other wordplay help to build children's oral and aural repertoires. By the time they arrive in our primary school classrooms, children are speaking in full sentences and articulating most, if not all, sounds. Learning to recognize the symbols for those sounds is one of the next elements in their path toward literacy. Our primary school language arts program focuses on sounds, symbols, and the meaning and purpose of language, in both spoken and written form.

October 2: Don’t Miss The Morning Message

Have you ever attended a morning meeting? Your idea of such a gathering might be a bit different from our Kindergartners’ experience. The agenda includes reports on attendance, weather, and calendar, and a morning message. The meeting also features community-focused activities woven together with a great deal of math and literacy. Often, these lessons begin with a question of the day, from Ms. Chu and Ms. Isler.

A recent message focused on letter-sound correspondence. “Good Morning, Friends! Today we have music and math. How many M’s are in this message? Love, Ms. Isler and Ms. Morin,” the message said. The teachers guided the children through the message, emphasizing the mmmm sound. This type of repetition reinforces both oral and visual language skills. When they discovered an M, children came up to the white board to circle it and repeat the word.

Last week, the children and teachers made a bar graph to show the range of ages in the class. This week, they “clapped out” the syllables in their names and made new graphs of the data they collected about themselves. Syllabication is a component of phonemic awareness (identifying the individual sounds in a word), an important stepping stone on the road to reading. Most of the students’ names had between one and four syllables. As the children reviewed the graph, one person commented that no one had a name with zero syllables. “A person couldn’t have a name with no syllables!” exclaimed his classmate. To elaborate, she clamped her lips tightly shut and made raised her eyebrows, simulating a soundless word. “Their name would be like that!” she said. This type of joyful discovery is what we strive to achieve in our primary literacy classes. As you can see, there is quite a bit of business in morning meeting!

January 9: Close Encounters with Words

Are you aware of the graphomorphological features of the words you read?

Before we address that question, let’s step into the lower school reading room. On Tuesday, a group of first graders sat on Ms. Atwood’s rug while she shared a new big book called Hairy Bear. Before she began reading, Ms. Atwood encouraged the students to look carefully at the cover illustration. Even though the children could not read all of the words in the book, their observations became important predictors of the events in the story. Later, they added a new word, “if,” to a growing list of words that they could read independently.

Our balanced approach to reading combines rich stories with specific phonics instruction. The word “if” is one in a series of short-I words that the children have been learning. They are able to blend the sounds of letters to read this and many other short-vowel words, and they can locate those words within the texts of the books they are reading.

Most of the words that we encounter in our day-to-day experience are familiar enough that we don’t actually stop to look at each letter; we recognize and read them as whole units. Words that have reached this level of automaticity are referred to as “sight words.” The more competent our reading becomes, the more sight words we accumulate in our reading repertoire. Every now and then, however, we come to an unfamiliar word that requires a bit of concentration. You may have had such a moment when you came across the word graphomorphological.

There is a poster on the wall in Ms. Atwood’s reading room that provides a list of six strategies for figuring out a new word. The first one is “look for picture clues;” this skill certainly helped the first graders make sense of the story. Another strategy is “look for a pattern.” In Hairy Bear, a rhyming and repetitive pattern helped the children predict the last word in each line. The very last strategy on the list is “sound it out.” The strategies you used to decode graphomorphological probably involved a combination of approaches, including sounding it out and “looking for a word inside a word.” The roots “graph” (writing) and “morphology” (form and structure) helped you figure out this linguistics term, which refers to both the meaning and structure of words.

March 27: From Acquaintance to Friendship

An essential aim of our literacy program is to instill a love of reading in our students. We approach this goal in many ways—by sharing engaging stories, by modeling our own literary interests, by finding “just-right” books for our students, and by creating opportunities for focused independent reading. We also take our time to explain to the children how and why we teach reading, and we discuss the benefits of different reading strategies. When the students are able to value these strategies for themselves and when they approach reading as a satisfying, self-directed experience, we know that they are on the way to a lifelong relationship with literature.

The relationship begins early. In kindergarten this week, a small group of emergent readers made their way through a story about a puppy and a duckling. Each child took a turn, round-robin style, stopping to decode unfamiliar words and using the illustrations to help them interpret the events. There was a great sense of shared purpose in the process; when one child got “stuck” on a word, other group members eagerly offered suggestions, and the teacher provided guidance and instruction for everyone. As they read, the students gleefully hunted for “popcorn” words scattered through the text. “Popcorn words” is a whimsical term introduced by Ms. Chu and Ms. Isler earlier in the year. It refers to high-frequency words, sometimes known as sight words, such as “the,” “he,” “of,” “and,” “in,” and many others, which “pop up” all the time and which the students come to recognize instantly. Their knowledge of these words – and the reinforcement of seeing them and reading them multiple times – builds the students’ confidence in their literacy skills.

Reinforcement and repetition are critical components of good reading instruction, and we provide creative and varied opportunities for students to develop word recognition skills and build fluency. On this day, after the children had read the book as a group, they broke off into two’s so that they could read in turns with a partner. They talked about why we read a book many times in reading class and how repeated readings help us practice our skills and get to be better readers. There was a pause in the discussion, and one child piped up, “It helps us become friends with the words!” His excited comment illustrates exactly what we hope for our learners—the familiarity, comfort, and ease of a friendship is the way that we want our students to embrace knowledge.

April 17: Muesday

Tuesday’s morning message in Pre-K began, “Good Morning, Mogs! Moday is Muesday.” For Ms. Andrick’s group, fondly known as the “Dogs,” the colorfully written note was an exciting invitation to find the “letter-of-the-week” in the words that form the greetings, daily schedule, and questions of their first business of the day. “M” is the fifth letter to achieve letter–of-the -week status in Pre-K (following D, B, L, and T), and its presence is readily visible in the classroom. On Monday, as in previous weeks, the children and teachers generated a list of words beginning with the “M” sound. A large sheet of poster paper hangs above the morning meeting area displaying the dozens of words that the class recorded.

As Tuesday’s meeting progressed, the children located the M’s in the message, carefully considering the correct sounds, and the corresponding letters, that belonged at the beginning of the familiar words “dogs,” “today,” and “Tuesday.” These letters are building blocks in the children’s reading repertoire. Learning letter-sound correspondence is an essential first step in emergent literacy. In the primary grades, we emphasize the auditory nature of language while gradually introducing literacy skills. It is essential for children to recognize the individual sounds of words that they hear and say: initial sounds, ending sounds, and medial (in-the-middle) sounds. In pre-K, the teachers are emphasizing initial sounds with the letter-of–the-week and the reinforcement of frequently-used words in the morning message. Changing the initial letter in these words provides an opportunity for the children to observe which sounds stay the same and which sounds are different.

In addition to decoding skills, our literacy curriculum focuses on encoding and early writing. Our program offers an ideal balance between direct instruction in phonics and the “whole language” approach, which places great value on authentic language and the children’s own words. The pre-K children have been making “sound books,” devoting a page to each letter-of-the-week. Following Monday’s letter exploration and creation of the word lists, each child chooses four words (from the list or from their own ideas) to include in his or her book. They write the word, sometimes with help from a teacher, and draw a corresponding picture. The books have been a highlight of the class. Ms. Andrick says that the children “feel such a sense of accomplishment and ownership” of their new literacy skills, and they are eager to share their books with visitors and friends.

The Road to Reading

Best Practices: The Road to Reading

What does it mean to read? What strategies and skills do good readers possess, and how do we teach them to children in a meaningful way? How do we respond to differences in children’s development, their interests, their cognitive approaches to text? How do the various elements of language arts: reading, writing, listening, and speaking, come together as children gain competence?

These questions are at the heart of our literacy curriculum, and they drive our decisions and choices about teaching strategies, materials, and literature selections. In 2008-2009, the “Best Practices” column of our weekly newsletter presented brief descriptions of ongoing learning throughout the school. Of course, a few dozen anecdotes cannot possibly convey the entirety of teaching and learning that occurred between fall and spring, but each story represents one small step on our children’s literacy journey.

I have organized the columns into seven categories of literacy, although there are obvious overlaps and cross-references. Each collection is posted as a separate blog entry.

Decoding and Phonemic Skills

Fluency and Oral Reading

Comprehension and Vocabulary Building

Content Area Reading and Media Literacy

Genre Studies


Independent and Joyful Reading

Monday, August 10, 2009

Welcome to the Best Practices Blog!

What makes a good school great?

There are as many answers to that question as there are great schools. One of our answers is that great schools happen when teachers have opportunities to work together and share their ideas with each other.

Sharing ideas sounds like an easy, commonplace activity. However those of us who work in schools know how difficult it can be to find time outside our own classrooms to watch our colleagues, to seek advice, or to offer support and suggestions. We don't know about the terrific lessons that happened down the hall or across town or in another far-off location, and we don't have a forum to communicate our own good work.

In an effort to open one small window on the great teaching that happens in our school, the "Best Practices" column was born. Each week, we present a brief snapshot of a lesson or unit of study that demonstrates excellence in teaching. Examples come from every grade level as well as from our specialist teachers. Every year, we identify one academic strand as our focus. In 2008-2009, we followed our literacy program. In 2009-2010, we are highlighting the social studies curriculum.

We invite you to join us. Read our stories, add your comments, and be a part of the Institute for Excellence in Teaching.