Tuesday, August 11, 2009


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!

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