ELA in Primary

I’m pretty sure, if you were to survey the general public about which they think is the most important part of academic instruction in the primary classroom, you would have half the people say Math and the other say Reading.  Truth be told, I really enjoyed teaching both subjects when I was a classroom teacher (funny, I enjoyed teaching reading more when I taught first and I loved teaching Everyday Math when I taught kindergarten).

Currently I have been thinking about phonics instruction and teacher knowledge related to letter sound correspondence.  This old saying, you don’t know what you don’t know until you know, is a great way to sum up what some teacher know about phonics.  They don’t know what they don’t know.  Moats in her article “Still Wanted: Teachers with Language Knowledge” writes about how teachers with less know are over confident in their knowledge–they really don’t know what they don’t know.

I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know!  My undergraduate program did not prepare me to teach reading, especially phonics.  That’s surprising as you think when you go to college it is to help you learn to teach.  It wasn’t until I started teaching first grade reading and phonics when I realized my undergrad classes didn’t prepare me to teach phonics.  At least, the classes didn’t give me enough knowledge about the English spelling system so I would be able to teach it to others.  To help overcome this lack of knowledge, I sought out professional development in the area of phonics, emergent reading, and word study.

While working on my dissertation I came across the Moats article mentioned above.  The concept that many elementary teachers lack knowledge regarding the English spelling system was alarming but also got me thinking about how I could help.  A PLC, Professional Learning Community, seemed to be the answer.  I’m excited to announce that this school year myself and almost 12 other primary teachers will be expanding our knowledge of teaching phonics.  We had our first session this past week.  It was interesting to hear others say that they don’t remember much of phonics instruction when they were in school or in undergrad.  As the year continues, I’ll try to share some of the topics we discuss and links to any online sources I use.  If you have time, I strongly recommend reading “Still wanted: Teachers with knowledge of language” by Moats.


I’m the Reason, Part II

Recap from Part I-my district has purchased two new reading interventions (LLI and Wilson Fundations), in elementary school I was an awful speller and had a difficult time decoding multisyllabic words, making me the reason why my classmates didn’t get popcorn on Friday or extra recess because I rarely (like never) got a 100% on my Wednesday pretest or Friday final test.

Now onto Part II

So you might be wondering how all the above is related to the title…

Like stated earlier, I had a real spelling problem in elementary.  I also was placed in Title reading every-other-year from 2-5 grade.  Why was I placed in Title reading?  Because placement in Title in that district was based on the CAT (California Achievement Test) results.  I guess you could also say I wasn’t really great at standardized test.  I loved to read, I read a lot and lived in a home filled with books.  There was just something about the CAT that had me doubting and second guessing myself on all the reading comprehension questions.   Because the district I lived in only gave the CAT every-other-year, I was placed in Title every-other-year.

When the Title teacher would pull us to go work in her little room, the work we did was on reading comprehension, as much as I can remember.  We would read aloud a text, mostly in round robin style, and then answer questions orally and in a workbook.  At the end of the school year the Title teacher would recommend that I not receive Title the following year because I could discuss the text we read and I could answer the questions.  My reading problem wasn’t comprehension based but because the district I grew-up in only had a comprehension based intervention that’s what I received.

Fast forward 30 years and now I’m the Reading Specialist deciding what intervention to use on which kids.  I know some of the classroom teachers in my building are very excited about the new interventions we have and some of stated they would like all the students we pull from them to receive a certain intervention.  I think it is great that the teachers in my building are knowledgable enough to know the difference in the interventions and to want their students to receive the same experience.  But, then I think about my time with the reading teacher and how she only used one intervention.  That intervention didn’t work for me.  She, and I, would have been better off if she went back, checked to make sure I had mastered all levels of phonemic awareness and then had a systematic way of teaching me phonics.  That would have been more helpful.

Soon I will have to have the conversation with teachers who only want a certain intervention.  I know exactly how I’m going to start that conversation.  “I think it’s great that you want your students to experience this great program but I want to share something with you.  I’m the reason that’s not a good idea.  I’m the reason we’re going to look at what the students are missing that is keeping them from becoming fluent readers.   Not all students need a comprehension based intervention.  Maybe they’re missing an understanding of the alphabetic principle and need more systematic phonics.”  I will continue to say that I’m the reason we’re doing this because I don’t want one of those students, thirty years from now, writing a blog post similar to this one.

I’m the Reason, Part I

I know, what a strange title, whatever could it mean?  This year I am a Reading Specialist in the school district I was a kindergarten teacher in for 10 years.  I am excited about the change but still not 100 percent sure what I got myself into.  It is an exciting time for my district as this school year two new reading interventions were purchased.  One is an intense comprehension intervention, LLI, and the other is a systematic phonics program (that can be used as an intervention), Wilson Fundations.


Both programs are amazing.  I’ve been a fan of Fountas and Pinnell’s work for almost 15 year, when I first saw them at San Antonio for the first train the trainers workshop on their phonics program.  I haven’t had a chance to teach an LLI lesson, but from the training I had, LLI includes all the components of  the Literacy Collaborative Framework I so enjoyed when I was teaching first grade.  In many ways, LLI reminds me of Reading Recovery but on a larger scale (groups of 3).

Wilson Fundations reminds we of Saxon Phonics.  Saxon Phonics is a systematic phonics program that is very scripted and teaches many phonics rules (some of the rules that are taught are things that many other programs do not teach until second or third grade).  Saxon included coding homework every night, which was difficult for families to help complete because the parents didn’t know the coding rules.  Teaching Saxon Phonics to the whole class of first graders, as a first year teacher, was frustrating.  I didn’t have the skills to differentiate the lessons that first year like I do now nor the student engagement strategies.  I was very glad at the end of the year that my school had chosen to switch to a different program, one that leaded itself better to differentiation, didn’t feel like I was always teaching the to middle, and connected to real reading and writing.  That’s not to say I didn’t learn a lot while teaching Saxon.

Now here’s where the title of this post comes into play.

While teaching Saxon, I finally learned some of the spelling rules I never really understood.  Back story time…  I was a struggling speller when I was in elementary school.  I felt bad for my class as I was the reason they never got the spelling popcorn party at the end of the week.  I was the reason we didn’t get extra recess on Friday–the teacher had to give the spelling test to those that didn’t pass the Wednesday pretest.  Spelling was just hard for me.  Oh who am I kidding, spelling is still hard for me.  Now I understand why spelling, and decoding multisyllabic words, was so hard; I did not have a solid phonemic awareness base.  I didn’t have enough opportunities to practice hearing and manipulating sounds in words.

To be continued…

Back at it?

This, starting to write on the blog again, is like getting back to an exercise plan, you just have to start again!  I haven’t done much writing since this late winter/early spring when I was trying to finish my dissertation.  I wrote the last two chapters of my dissertation in about 2.5 months while it took me over 3 YEARS to write the first three chapters!  Now that my fingers have rested up, similar to a marathon runner’s legs resting up after a race, they’re ready to get back to writing.  Also similar to getting back into an exercise routine, this post is going to be short as I build my stamina for writing.  I don’t want to strain or sprain a muscle (finger or brain).  It is my hope to return soon and share some of my thoughts on what I am reading right now.

Just Finished Reading an Amazing Book

from amazon.com

from amazon.com

Like many students, I experienced difficulties when it came to reading and especially spelling.   My parents were great in trying to get me all the help I needed (even requesting that I be tested for learning disabilities).  The assessments did not show I had a problem, but later on was discovered I had a vision issue.  I don’t remember much about how I was learning to read in 1st and 2nd, but I do remember how stressful spelling was for me from 1st grade to 5th grade.  A special, public, thank you to my family for helping me complete the evil Spelling Workbook pages each week and especially to my younger sister who would do the word finds for me.  The spelling patterns never made sense and I don’t think the teachers spent a lot of extra time teaching the patterns, or giving extra practice time in school to overlearn the patterns.  I just remember doing the workbook, usually as homework, writing my words 5xs, and using the spelling word in sentences.  But for many of my friends, spelling was easy for them and they couldn’t understand why I kept missing so many on my tests.

I wish this book was around when I was in school.  Not because Ally and I had the same struggles, we had similar struggles, and because Ally is a character I think the 12 year old Sarah would have liked. The book I’m talking about is Fish in a Tree.  Take a few minutes and go read some of the reviews on Amazon.  I think this should become required reading for anyone in a literacy program, administration program, or special education program.

Ally is a student who thinks she’s dumb because she has a hard time reading and writing and therefore has some struggles in school.  Ally is very artistic and carries a sketchbook around with her.  She calls it the Sketchbook of Impossible Things because to Ally, many of the things she has sketched seem impossible to her because of her hard time with reading.  I’m not going to give much more away because it is such a wonderful story but I will add this.  If you have a hard time reading Patricia Polacco’s Thank You, Mr. Falker, (because you start tearing up) you’re going to LOVE this story.

Please share the title of this book with anyone you know who has struggled with learning, has had thoughts of being dumb or stupid, and with all the teachers you know.  This books needs to be in the hands of many so let’s get the word out and get people reading Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.

As a side note, October is Dyslexia Awareness Month and this would be a great read aloud for this month.

What not to write

I came across a blog post on Two Writing Teachers (if you haven’t read this blog, you need to).  The post was a collection of tweets related to writing.  They’re great.  You really should take some time and read them.  I’m looking forward to next month’s installment.

There were a few that catch my eye. I might write about those another time but tonight I wanted to write some of my reactions to

(these really are reactions and not at all focused–I did not do an outline, Mom)  How much time do people really spend on writing things that shouldn’t be put down somewhere?  I think it depends on the purpose of the writing.  I think about the many blog posts I’ve written but never published.  Would those things be considered pieces of writing that should not have been written?  I don’t think so.  Just because I didn’t publish them doesn’t mean they didn’t fulfill their purpose–mind dumping.

After thinking about myself and the personal writing I’m doing, I start thinking about the writing that teachers are asking students to do (and I think about the writing I did as a student).  Do the teachers know what is important to write and ask their students to do that writing?  Are some teachers not sure what is important for their students to write?  I think the answer would be yes to both questions.

There is lots of excellent writing taking place in classrooms all over but then, right down the hall, there are classrooms where the students are writing what some would call things that they really don’t need to write.

I’m a big fan of Lucy Calkins and have kind of used her Units of Study in my classroom since the books came out. I say “kind of” because I really believe the lessons she has outlined in those books are really a suggestion for teachers to get started and not to be considered a scripted program.  Reggie Routman is another author I’ve use as a base for my writing workshop.  One of these wonderful women talked about when modeling stories to students, the stories need to something that the students might actually do, or have done.  I shouldn’t write about my trip to London because many of my students will never leave the country.  Instead, I should write about something that they might do–like have a HUGE black snake cross the road.  I’m asking them to write true stories that have happened to them so they are able to think about a beginning, middle, and end to their stories. I’m not asking them to rely on an imagination that is ever changing, which means there’s a greater possibility for an ever changing beginning, middle, and end.

How does this connect to the tweet?  I think we teachers ask students do write about things that are beyond their comprehension and therefore the final product is not going to what we want.  Yes there’s a place for creative writing, but students need to write memoir, reactions to the texts they are reading, options, and other informational texts.  The students have the background knowledge to write something really well instead of just relying on their imagination to write something that is just ok.

One last ramble on this tweet and then I’ll be done.  I know I was just talking about the product of writing and that is not were the focus should be in a writing classroom.  I think this tweet would be great to include on a class graffiti wall when students are revising their writing.  It is hard for any writer to think that part of their great work needs to be removed because it hurts the piece as a whole, instead of helping.  The writing is like a piece of them and removing some text is like removing an arm, leg, finger, lips…

Now it is time for me to practice what I preached and go back and revise this piece (or at least edit it).  I hope this tweet makes you think and reflect about the writing you’re doing in your classroom.  I hope it helps others think about what writing doesn’t need to happen so there’s room for the writing that needs to happen.

Slice of Life Tuesday–Living with Toddlers

Two Writing Teachers

Today I’m adding to the Slice of Life writing community.  For more posts from other bloggers, head over the Two Writing Teachers.  If you have time, look at some of their other blog posts.  I was just introduce to this blog this summer and plan on checking in for ideas to help enrich my students’ writing.

And now, the story.

As some of you know (my regular readers–aka family members), I share a house with my husband and two toddlers (ages 3 and 2).  I’m sure many of you are living in similar situations OR you lived in a similar situation so what I write might bring back memories.

As a mother, I try to find ways to have my little ones help out around the house so they start to develop a sense that people in a family help each other and rely on each other.  One way I’ve found is to have them help set the table.  Usually, they put out just the silverware–I like my dishes.  So a few nights ago I ask Charlie, my daughter (2), to put the spoons on the table.  We were having soup and so the spoons were pretty important.  Chuck, my son (3), was to put the forks out.  We all come to the table to eat, each place had a fork but the spoons are NO WHERE to be found.

First mistake, asking the 2-year-old where she put the spoons.  She is pretty vocal and understandable, but not this time.  Either she was telling us and we didn’t understand her or she didn’t know either.  We ask Chuck, he doesn’t know.  Everyone is hungry so instead of going on a hunting party to find the 4 missing spoons, my husband just gets new ones.

After dinner, we’re cleaning up and still the spoons are no where to be found.  It was starting to feel like they completely disappeared into thin air.  We go on with the rest of the night knowing they will turn up some time.

The next morning, everyone is getting ready for their day.  The husband took the kids to daycare as I had a meeting that morning.  As I’m getting my things together I go in our hallway to pick up my computer bag, which was on the kids’ play kitchen.  There, in the sink, were the missing spoons!  Why Charlie decided to put them in there?  That’s a question for the ages, or at least for our family.  The lesson I’ve learned would be: when you give the toddler the most important eating utensil, watch her to make sure she puts them on the table.  Or maybe Charlie was trying to teach me this lesson: if you want something done right, do it yourself! (I really hope that was not the lesson)

Happy Tuesday and look for the slice in your life to share with the world so you too can become a part of this wonderful opportunity.