Reading is all it’s cracked up to be: 10 tips for an early childhood classroom!

This post almost didn’t get published. It almost fell through a crack into the never-never. But just in time the safety net sprang into action and saved it from obscurity.

That may matter more to me than it does to you, but as an educator I hear too often about children who ‘fall through the cracks’, who fail to thrive in the school system, who miss out on the inspiration and timely support that would empower them on their journey to life-long learning.

Like those children, this post was an also-ran. It didn’t quite get it, didn’t quite reach the expectations. But then I read something that confirmed for me the importance of sharing my message.

You see, the love of reading is contagious. It can be caught from anyone, anytime.

However, it can just as easily be extinguished; and the danger of that happening seems to be lurking in school systems packed too tight with lists of must do, must learn and must achieve expectations.

I consider it imperative that teachers prioritize time for children to develop a love of literature and reading that will expand their horizons and create a worthwhile companion on the journey of their lifetime.

owl_books
Here are 10 easy tips for keeping the love of books alive in an early childhood classroom:
  1. Read aloud to children every day, ensuring that a variety of books and genres are being read and shared.
  2. Have a great supply and variety of children’s books available: picture books, fiction and non-fiction, collections of poetry, beginning chapter books, funny books, sad books, books about animals, space, people . . .
  3. Display books with covers facing out and give them pride of place. Make a display of ‘favourite reads’.
  4. “Sell” books to children (you won’t have time to read them all) by showing the cover and some illustrations; by telling what they are about, what happens, and what the children will enjoy about them.
  5. Make a reading corner with carpet, pillows and bean bags that invites children to get comfy while they read.
  6. Provide time for children to choose and read independently.
    • This can occur during quiet times set aside on a daily basis in which everyone, including the teacher, reads for 10 – 15 minutes. e.g. D.E.A.R. (drop everything and read) or U.S.S.R. (uninterrupted silent sustained reading).
    • It can also be integrated into reading group or literacy centre activities.
  7. Share the enthusiasm for books by providing time for children to excite each other about the books they are reading in a sharing circle.
  8. Display books written by the children and allow access to them for independent choice. Include them in the sharing and ‘selling’ sessions also.
  9. Make a time to visit the school library for reading and borrowing.
  10. Invite other adults to the class to read to the children e.g. teacher-librarian, administrators, support personnel, parents and grandparents.

Let me know in the comment box a favourite tip of yours.

This week I have read some fabulous posts by teachers who are making sure there is time for joy and independent choice in their literacy classrooms. I will share these with you below.

The article that convinced me to share my thoughts was one that was not so joyful.

Written by Alexander Nazaryan, a first-year teacher, the article appeared in the Opinion Pages of the New York Times on July 6, 2014. He talked about not being able to meet the needs of his students and explained that it was not the fault of the students though, the fault was that they were mostly of poor and immigrant families.

He felt that asking these students to write about their own experiences did not have ‘the pedagogical value of a deep dive into sentence structure or a plain old vocab quiz.’

I was immediately struck by the similarity of a statement made to me by my son’s teacher thirty years ago. At the time I was leading an in-service workshop about teaching writing. I would have been talking about ways of engaging students in the writing process by giving them opportunities to write at length about things of interest to them; by encouraging the writing of a first draft to get the ideas down; by providing opportunities for redrafting, rewriting and editing; and opportunities for feedback by sharing their writing with peers; and by making the most of teachable moments through individual conferences with each student.

This teacher exclaimed that there was no way the children would be able to write anything of length as not one knew what a paragraph was, or indeed what a sentence was. The students were ten years of age and in their fifth year of school. I believe the statement to be more an indictment of the teacher’s inability to appreciate what the children could do, rather than an accurate estimation of their abilities. I knew for a fact that at least one student was more than capable of writing at length with a variety of sentence structures and correct paragraphing. I was certain he wasn’t the only one.

I am inclined to agree with Nazaryan that ‘Expecting children to independently discover the rules of written language is like expecting them to independently discover the rules of differential calculus.’

However trying to teach the skills of literacy through a barrage of meaningless drill and practice exercises in a joyless classroom is doomed to failure, and the children, sadly, will fall through the cracks.

What the children need, in my opinion and unlike that of Nazaryan, is a balanced approach. The skills of literacy need to be taught in a meaningful context.

That article and others, like this one from HuffPostParents about a year one girl who had to sit on the floor for weeks while her classmates sat at desks make me want to cry.

However it is not all bad, and there are some wonderful things happening.

Below are links to posts by or about teachers who are being far more inspirational to their students and other teachers on a daily basis.

very inspiring blogger

Tracking back to my post of July 9 The Very Inspiring Blogger Award (nominated by Geoff le Pard) I hereby nominate them for A Very Inspiring Blogger Award:

Vicki Vinton, blogging at To Make a Prairie

Matt Renwick at Reading By Example

This article by Brett Vogelsinger and posted on the Nerdy Book Club

Steven Peterson at Inside the Dog

Julianne at To Read To Write To Be

Carrie Gelson at There’s a Book for That

Used Books in Class

Three Teachers Talk

 

This brings me back to the reason that got me thinking about cracks, and children falling through the cracks in the first place. This week’s flash fiction prompt set by Charli Mills at Carrot Ranch Communications was to In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that involves a crack. 

Here’s my response:

The Crack

She willed the earth to open up and swallow her whole. But it didn’t. She just stood there trembling, attempting to hold back the deluge that threatened to engulf her.

She strained to remember, knocking her head with her fist. Quick. Try. Try. What’s the rule: i? e?  

She stammered an answer.  Wrong again!  Too many rules! Stupid rules! Broken – just like her.

She fled, eyes stinging, mouth twitching; and as she passed, with one hand grasped the confiscated unicorn sitting askew the teacher’s desk.

Away they flew, the assault of mocking laughter fading far below.

 

 

Thanks for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post, including my flash piece.

 

 

29 thoughts on “Reading is all it’s cracked up to be: 10 tips for an early childhood classroom!

  1. lucciagray

    Wow! This post is so full of marvellous information and insights that I don’t know where to start commenting! Firstly thank you for commenting on your ‘cracks’. Secondly, children should be read to at all ages. I read picture books to my grandchildren as soon as they can hold their heads up! I fondly remember Sister Catherine reading Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn to my class in year 6, when I was 12! I’m sure that’s why and how I became a reader first, and a writer later. Inspiring post! Teachers hold a valuable key, but parents, and grandparents, etc. Should carry the torch into their homes and hearts. I agree with everything you said!

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    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Luccia, Thank you very much for popping by and adding such an encouraging comment. I agree with you about the parents and grandparents carrying the torch. They, after all, have the greatest influence in their children’s lives. If they don’t read it probably won’t matter much what the teacher says. How wonderful it is that you developed your strong love of reading and writing. :)

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      1. lucciagray

        Thank you for your wonderful post. Reading (and writing) is the only thing that makes us different and unique as a species. Animals can manage any other type of communication to a degree. And it’s increasing with digital technologies.

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        1. Norah Post author

          Thanks Luccia, That is a very interesting and valid point. A few months ago I listened to a TED talk (can’t think of any details at the moment) which also listed cooking as an area of differentiation between humans and other animals. The suggestion was made that cooking in a way ‘predigested’ our food or made it easier to digest allowing humans greater freedom to spend time doing other things (e.g. thinking and creating, reading and writing) rather than just eating; and that it was cooking that enabled our greater development. Writing ‘doing things other than just eat’ made me think about the amount of time we spend doing just that though. It is one of life’s greatest pleasures. We couldn’t live without it! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and making me think a little more. :)

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  2. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

    Another great post which had me thinking back to childhood and the approach to books in schools. It was virtually non-existent. We had some kind of school reader which I can’t remember the name of off the top of my head and that was about it. We didn’t have a school library until 4th class up and apart from kindergarten I can’t remember anyone reading to us. How I would love to return to school now and how lucky I was to come from a family of readers. It must have been very difficult for those whose parents didn’t read.
    Your flash followed on from this perfectly and I empathised with the little girl and was thrilled that the unicorn saved the day.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Irene,
      Thanks for your comment. Although you now live in Queensland, I’m not sure if you grew up here. When I started school, we had the ‘Queensland Reader’ which was a compilation of stories and poems for each year level. My brother, who is two years younger, had ‘The Happy Venture’ series about Dick and Dora. The Queensland Readers were far more inspiring than Dick and Dora. Like you, I have little memory of being read to but must have been at home. My family was, and is, a family of readers and I am grateful to my parents for encouraging a love of reading also. Books were always given as gifts, and a visit to the local library was a Saturday ritual. There must have been a library at primary school, but I don’t remember one until high school. Thanks for sharing your memory and perspective. :)

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  3. stephie5741

    It’s so wonderful that you encourage reading in your students. I think as a child, what made a big difference for me was that I was allowed, even encouraged, to read what I wanted to read in my spare time. My mom wasn’t forcing me to read the classics or telling me I shouldn’t be reading certain things. I was reading Stephen King and V.C. Andrews on summer breaks as a teenager. If I’d been told I shouldn’t read those, I might have been a TV addict like everyone else of my generation!

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you for your supportive comment, Stephie. I’m pleased that you are a reader and were given choices about what to read.Your taste is reading is different from mine, but that is a good thing. There are loads of different genres and books to delve into, it is far better to be able to read what appeals to you.I’m pleased you are not a TV addict! :)

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  4. Annecdotist

    Loved this post and your flash and the interesting and informed comments. From your list of sensible ways to engage children in reading, the one that stood out for me was having the teacher also read (presumably according to his/her own preferences). Unfortunately, some of those children will have come from families in which the adults don’t read so seeing someone in authority take pleasure from their own reading would surely be inspiring.
    The comparison made between learning to write and learning calculus is one I’d like to turn on its head. It’s a long time since I did half of my first degree in mathematics but, as far as I remember, at that level it’s quite a creative process as the learner is led through the rediscovery of the rules for themselves. But in the early years of education the emphasis is on arithmetic, which I found both boring and difficult (still don’t really know my times tables). So I wonder if mathematics teaching at primary school level could learn from the creative ways you’ve suggested regarding reading? Perhaps this is already going on?

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    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Anne,
      Thanks for your thought-provoking, as usual, comment. Your point about the teacher reading for pleasure is well taken and I should have expanded upon that perhaps. The teacher’s reading material of his or her choice is part of the modelling process. If teachers mark work or see the quiet reading time as time for preparation or other tasks, it sends the message to kids “Do what I say, not what I do”; it devalues reading as a worthwhile activity and is counter-productive. The students will just turn off and not engage with the process. The teachers need to look forward to this time to catch up on their own reading; they need to share the enthusiasm. I always did!
      I also appreciate what you have said about learning mathematics. I think there are some excellent ways of turning kids on to maths and encouraging learning through exploration and discovery. You have inspired me to seek out and share some of the wonderful things I have seen or heard.
      Thanks for continuing the discussion. :)

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      1. Annecdotist

        Interesting and positive that the teacher’s reading got management support. Would be easy to imagine something like that being cut in a bungling attempt to increase efficiency.

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        1. Norah Post author

          That’s true, Anne. I think it has been squeezed out in many places. Also many teachers feel the pressure of having not enough time to fulfil all expectations so find it difficult to drop everything and read as well. However I think modelling is a very important aspect of teaching and is a very powerful tool. These sessions are usually about 10 – 15 minutes in duration. I feel similarly about these as I do for read aloud sessions: they should not be sacrificed for out-of-context drill and practice sessions.

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  5. Pingback: Revealing Cracks « Carrot Ranch Communications

  6. Charli Mills

    So glad this post did not fall through the cracks! I feel so blessed that someone so well-thought of in her profession would seek creativity in a weekly flash fiction. I feel exposed (in a good way) to the pulse of what is going in in education, literacy and childhood learning. I read the article you linked to and have to agree with you that a balanced approach is needed. Not all students respond equally and having multiple options such as the ones suggested in the reading classroom help. Personally, I loved daily reading time in school.

    As to your flash, the unicorn features again in such a way that it is almost symbolic of child advocacy. I’m loving this development and hope it provides an outlet to explore and resolve issues in education. Great post, great flash!

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Charli. You are very kind. I am pleased you were able to find something of interest in the articles I linked. Of course, as an educator, they mean a lot to me. How fortunate you were to have daily reading time in school, and that you enjoyed it!
      I’m pleased you liked my use of the unicorn in the flash. It wasn’t how I saw the story ending when I started writing, but then it just seemed right.I’m not sure that the character in each story has remained consistent, but the reliance on the security of the unicorn and the ability to use it as an avenue of escaping the harsh reality is. I like your suggestion of using it as a symbol of child advocacy. I’ll have to think more on that. :)

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  7. Bec

    Great article Nor – as you have emphasised in many contexts children want to learn and explore, and making reading fun really is a nice way to do that. Writing as a form of exploration and creation can be fun, too, and when there is the motivation for writing, learning the rules will be part of the balance you describe ! The story about the humiliation about the wee girl made to sit on the floor is horrible. Your FF, too, is very well done! I felt like I was there experiencing the anxiety and embarrassment.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and encouragement Bec. While I think we live in an enlightened humanitarian age, articles like the one about the girl seem to indicate that some of us, sadly/horrifically, still live in the Dickensian era (as mentioned by Geoff le Pard). I like that you describe the writing process as one of exploration and creation. Sometimes we don’t know what we think until we say it. Sometimes we don’t know what to say until we write it down. Writing helps us find out who we are (the exploration) and helps us find who we are (the creation). I’m sorry you felt the anxiety and embarrassment. No I’m not – that was my intention! :)

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  8. TanGental

    Why oh why in sophisticated countries do we still hear about Dickensian treatment of children (which is topped by Bolivia deciding to reduce the working age of children to 12!)? Thank you for the post Norah. I might add one twist to you 10 steps; the lawyer, when at that stage when reading might grab hold found listening to books much easier; his dyslexia, mild as it was, wasn’t diagnosed until he was at university and so took time to get into reading. But he loved books, albeit they started as audiobooks (and me reading to him which I Loved). Eventually at about 15 he found a way to the printed page and hasn’t looked back but he hadn’t missed out on the joys of literature in the meanwhile. And that brings me to the flash and a little tear in the eye. Get that unicorn!

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks Geoff, I really appreciate your comment and sharing the Lawyer’s story. How wonderful that you and he were able to share a love a story and literature through your reading to him. He had all the knowledge of books and reading he needed by the time he decided to tackle print on his own. Reading aloud to kids is one of my favourite past-times. Although my children are grown now, I never pass up the opportunity when the grand-kids stop by. Working at age 12!!! My Dad’s generation did that. I wouldn’t like a return to those days. I am a great lover of audiobooks. I listen while I drive to work. I think I have mentioned that to you before. I’m currently listening to one you recommended “The Better Angels of Our Nature”. Pinker makes some very interesting points, but it is a looooong read! I’m pleased you enjoyed my flash!

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  9. jarhartz

    Wow, your words cut to my heart. So much here to comment on. I’m so glad this didn’t slip through the cracks. Such a worry, slipping through. The things that could and unfortunately do slip through are valuable!
    First, thank you for expressing your beliefs in reading and writing so beautifully. They are the reason I teach. The reason I love what I do. The forces that say “they can’t,” that enforce mind numbing work on students and teachers, that reinforce that can’t do belief make me crazy. But we lift our voices and say no, actually they can and here’s how. That is the power of blogging about our work. If it wasn’t for the world of support I get from others, I would feel all alone and not be able to be the teacher I try to be. And that leads me to your wonderful nomination. To be mentioned by you in the same breath as the educators you have listed here is a huge honor. I am humbled. I love these folks, they are my people. They keep us teachers going.
    Finally, thank you for sharing your fiction piece. Perfect. Don’t we all know that feeling of wanting to be swallowed up, to escape. I’m glad she had a unicorn to help escape the rules. At least for a moment. In the best of worlds, when she came back she could write about that adventure.
    Thank you for finding me so I have found you!

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    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Julieanne, Thank you so much for your encouraging comment. Your commitment to positively encouraging the development of children’s reading and writing is evident on your blog. We share the same passion. Though I am not in the classroom at the moment, my grounding and thoughts are never far away. I like that we can lift our voices together in recognition of what children can do. With each voice added, the message gains power. Thank you for accepting the award. You are one of a great bunch of teachers. In you I see hope for the future of education.
      I’m pleased you enjoyed the story. In the best of worlds there would have been no need for escape. :) Thanks for sharing.

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