Tuesday, 23 June 2020

The Road Home: Celebrating Children Reading Independently

“We are what we’ve learned to be and we care about what we’ve learned to care about and we do what we’ve learned to do. So when we see instances of violence or injustice…these are all products of how we’ve been shaped, programmed to think and care and learn and act…A family is a huge learning system that shape us so significantly."   Elizabeth Dozois

This is the 30th and final blog post entry of the 2019-20 school year. Last blog entry, I reflected on how my understandings of 'home reading' have changed in the face of school closures, and the transfer of learning to read from being a primary responsibility of schools to a parental responsibility necessitated by the pandemic lockdown. Today's blog entry offers insights into developing joy in reading at home with children and includes some suggestions for summer reading that are long-time favourites of me, my family and some of the students I have encountered and been privileged to read beside and with over my 30-year teaching career. Thirty blog posts in my 30th year of teaching - that is pure coincidence yet highly serendipitous!

Becoming a reader who builds relationships with and inside texts, who loves to be immersed in the story and has great trouble setting the book aside in favour of a good night's sleep - these are the goals I aspire to for every reader in my life circle!

I've been generally content as a teacher for many years to assume the role of teachers and schools is to offer technical support in the learning to read process, striving in my professional role to enhance my own awareness of how to best teach technical reading skills successfully to young learners. Accepting this role has also allowed me to vaguely assume teachers and parents are also working somewhat in tandem to share the joy of reading as well. As I have travelled the pandemic journey in much closer proximity to families than ever before in my career, it has become clear to me that somehow the balance of this relationship has tilted somewhere in the past couple of decades until most families now perceive the role of schools to be the 'teacher' of reading altogether. More importantly, I believe we have, as educators, inadvertently promoted this thinking by turning reading at home into 'home reading', a trackable, levelled experience whose importance has become unintentionally attached to technical reading expertise rather than the enjoyment and risk once associated with cracking open a new book full of different ideas and challenging words.

As I move forward into the next school year, I am determined to try and re-shape the purposes and procedures associated with home reading. To celebrate the joy and challenge of reading at home as a non-technical experience, an opportunity to try new strategies, find new words, sample new genres, explore new vistas without worry over technical success or teacher 'approval' - either implied or directly applied. To acknowledge the joy of reading happens at home as well as in school, as does the technical practice and improvement of reading overall.

It is truly a joy for me to be jolted into recognizing reading at home for enjoyment, to pique curiosity, to learn a new skill, to share new ideas is exactly what we should be celebrating most! It has nudged me into remembering myself as a childhood reader and the excitement I would feel every Saturday morning coming home from the library with a new armload of 'good reads'.  I have also reflected on my own children as readers, how each of the five of them made known their individual adventures in reading through the stories told around the dinner table, the posters they pinned to their bedroom walls, the books they chose to share as birthday gifts for friends, the excitement of lining up at the bookstore for the midnight launch of the latest "Harry Potter" novel, the negotiating for space in suitcases for both favourite titles and their latest 'new reads' as we packed for summer vacations. These are the true milestones of being a successful, joyous reader - those that bring us pleasure whether we can identify the phonological elements, decode fluently, infer, question or summarize like everyone else in our 'grade or age group'.  In writing about home reading, I have come to recognize the experiences of learning to read has come full circle and returned 'home' - where being technically correct is only one small part of reading independently.

I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to write 30 blog entries this past school year - coincidentally my 30th year as a teacher :)  To have written and responded to queries and situations from students and parents that questioned, guided and celebrated the work of children as readers. It is an extraordinary experience to have your thinking reversed and tumbled unexpectedly - it is even more extraordinary to begin to reflect on your own personal experiences and recognize the importance of memory and experience as a lens for understanding the world of young learners too. 

As a close to this 30th blog of this unusual school year, I would like to honour the remarkable celebration of children enjoying reading independently by recommending a few familiar favourite titles, as well as some newer ones that might prove to be most enjoyable for our students reading at home this summer. A beach is not necessary for a 'beach read' to be loved by both adults and children (although it certainly helps!) this summer - the best part of being a reader is indulging in the time and space to celebrate a brand new story!

Happy Summer to all our families - hope you are all safe and healthy through the coming weeks of summer and I look so forward to welcoming everyone back to school in September - for real!

Lorraine Kinsman, Principal

Recommendations for Summer 'Beach Reads' or Read Alouds 
1. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling (or any of the 'Harry Potter' titles)
2. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (my personal favourite!)
3. The Hobbit  by J.R.R. Tolkien
4. The Magic Tree House by Mary Pope Osborne
5. National Geographic Little Kids First Big Book of the World by Karen de Seve
6. Camp Tiger  by Susan Choi
7. How to Be An Explorer of the World: Portable Museum  by Keri Smith
8. How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery 
9. Clarence's Big Secret by Roy MacGregor
10.  Everybody's Different on Everybody Street by Sheree Fitch

Sunday, 7 June 2020

What I Have Learned About Home Reading Through This Pandemic School Closure

"Our online reporting systems, as amazing as they are, have one key limitation. They can’t think. Now more than ever we require teacher professional judgment to mediate whatever limited evidence they are able to obtain about what students know and can do. Professional judgment is so important that it is even listed within the TQS. Now is the time to highlight its value..."  - Alberta Assessment Consortium, April 21, 2020

This is the 29th blog post entry of the 2019-20 school year. Last blog entry we explored the roles of Peace Education and reading as pro-active, critically important elements for raising children with a clear sense of both social justice and compassion. Today's blog entry is written as I contemplate how my understandings of 'home reading' have changed in the face of school closures, and the transfer of learning to read from being a primary responsibility of schools to a parental responsibility necessitated by the pandemic lockdown. It has been a tremendous learning curve for all of us!

A little background information...
For about 25 years, I have laboured under the perception that 'home reading' is a strategy teachers use to encourage families to have their children read at home daily, particularly in the elementary grades, to gain practice time for reading when there are not enough minutes  throughout the school day for independent reading.  When 'home reading' first began emerging on the teaching landscape it was intended mostly as a support for new, young readers just beginning their learning to read journey. At the time I taught grades 5/6 and could certainly see the merits of practicing new reading strategies at home; before long, 'home reading' had become an engrained practice for most elementary school teachers since all of us were grappling with bloated curricula and the challenges of juggling instruction with independent practice. 

I recommended, as did most of my elementary colleagues, that children read at home for 20 - 25 minutes per day to reinforce reading skills and strategies learned at school. As part of that recommendation, when I first introduced this expectation for my students and their families, a recording sheet for practice times that needed to be signed by a parent was part of the expectation. Within a couple of years, this expectation had morphed into brief, written student summaries; eventually I removed the expectation for parents to supervise reading completely as students gained more confidence in themselves as readers and read willingly without parental supervision - at least, most of the time. I recalled when I was a young reader myself I read willingly at home without any parental oversight, just because I loved to read - and developing readers who loved books became my primary goal as a literacy teacher. 

 Although my perspective on parental supervision with older readers changed as a result of these experiences, I continued to support teachers of our youngest students with their home reading programs that typically required parental supervision, mostly because young children may not yet have established strong relationships with books and reading they would be anxious to sustain. Children need practice time to develop and hone reading skills; curricula continues to be jammed with concepts to be taught that leave little time for practicing reading in school, even with the best of intentions and organized planning. And this is pretty much where my mindset resided when the pandemic struck, classes closed and learning moved to students' homes.

Three and half months into pandemic-initiated, emergency teaching that has placed unprecedented demands on parents in ways I would never have dreamed possible just a few short weeks ago, I am thinking about home reading in a whole new way.

What have I learned...
I wonder if we need to consider championing the learning to read journey from a different perspective? I am wondering if we have unbalanced the learning to read process by relying too heavily on schools for reading instruction, support and growth without recognizing the value of our parents as partners in this process? I wonder if we should celebrate milestones on the learning to read journey as part of a child's growth, similar to other milestones like losing teeth, riding bicycles or moving through swimming, music or basketball lessons? I think the most important thing I've learned is that maybe - just maybe - we've pulled focus so much towards reading being a technically precise set of skills and strategies to be learned that we overlooked the tremendous importance of connecting reading to living in our families.

So, what does this mean?
Reading does require technical precision - there is no doubt about that - and most often the technically precise skills are most successfully acquired in orderly sequences. But reading also requires time, connection, risk-taking and investment by the reader, and these are not technically precise skills - they are usually elements students need to be invested in at home. Reliance on technical precision detracts from these additional elements to the point where they are sometimes not clearly evident at all as a child travels the learning to read path, struggling to find the time, make sense of the text, attempt books that might be interesting but will be tough to interpret within a family that understands 'learning to read' to be primarily the responsibility of schools. What this means is that home and school need to move beyond the somewhat adversarial relationships that occasionally exist when home reading becomes the topic of conversation to establish a deeper appreciation and understanding of the efforts both home and school must invest in a child to ensure a successful reader emerges. 

I believe it also means we all need to develop greater clarity around what successful reading means for it is so much more than just decoding, recognizing meaning, using expression and developing fluency. Successful reading is also getting lost in a story, asking questions and seeking answers, recognizing qualities of yourself in a character, asking for the sequel so you don't lose the relationship you have developed with the story. 

Being in this pandemic and building deeper connections with families as they have supported their children in so many myriad ways to ensure their children are meeting the expectations of teachers has led me to question the whole experience of home reading and whether reading at home could become a more natural experience if we supported parents in fostering a love of reading rather than practicing reading with parental oversight? 

What I have learned is to question my assumptions - some that I have held for a very long time - about the learning to read journey and how families and teachers might work together to best support children as they find joy in being readers as well as technically strong readers. This is something I need to mull over for awhile - another lesson from this pandemic time that is still forming, gathering strength and will most likely once again precipitate changes for the better for children who are taking their initial steps on the learning to read journey. 

Lorraine Kinsman, Principal
Eric Harvie School 

Sunday, 31 May 2020

"Considering Justice Issues & Peace Education During Home Reading”

"...all kids benefit from reading books that represent people of different backgrounds, ethnicities and social situations. “The world is diverse and even white kids, who are most represented in books, need to read books about children of other cultures and other races..." (Andrea Janus, locallove.ca)

This is the 28th blog post entry of the 2019-20 school year. Last blog entry we explored some of the experiences families are encountering through this stay-at-home phase of the pandemic as the routines and experiences that once framed our lives shift and change dramatically, influencing our experiences with reading at home as well. This blog entry has been framed by a week of social unrest following the untimely deaths of  both an American citizen at the hands of police, and a Canadian citizen in the presence of police, that have caused great social chaos and turmoil. While most of our students are young enough they will not understand fully these situations or their implications, they have caused me to reflect on the roles of Peace Education and reading as pro-active, critically important elements for raising children with a clear sense of both social justice and compassion.

I am not quite sure how, but it appears to me there is a strong resurgence in the world just now of 'right' and 'wrong' thinking, with apparently limited evidence of awareness of the vast continuum of possibility of thought that actually exists across every society in every corner of our planet. 

This is not a new phenomena - I believe it could be argued that the concept of a spectrum of opinion, thought and action is as old as mankind, to be honest.  However, throughout history the need to loudly proclaim 'right' or 'wrong' thinking within any society does seem to ebb and flow, often as reflection of political actions such as wars, invasions, natural disasters or significant international events. And perhaps what seems to be this latest swell of intense public reaction is a typical, cyclical trend - one that may be exacerbated by the current pandemic and the tragedies that have resulted from the spread of COVID-19 in the world.  

Whatever the reason, it has highlighted, for me, the absolute necessity of preparing our children from earliest ages for understanding the vast diversities of experience human beings might encounter in this world, so they are able to respond with the greatest levels of respect for human life and embrace the need for humans to care for each other with kindness and honour.  One certainty in life is that there is no way a human being can survive without experiencing a whole realm of encounters with nature, with each other, with the social structures other humans have created, and it is, in my opinion, imperative we all understand the uniqueness of each other's human experience as we strive to survive successfully together on this small planet. This is what empathy is; empathy is what we need to thrive together.

Empathy is not necessarily, however, a naturally acquired ability for every person; for most of us, empathetic thinking must be fostered and developed fully over time and through experience. Empathy builds capacities for understanding the actions of each other and helps us respond from a position of support rather than judgment. Empathy does not excuse inexcusable behaviours but it does help us understand the reasons for behaviours and actions, and encourages the offer of proactive solutions that will most likely result in more positive outcomes for everyone. 

Peace Education
Peace Education does not have all the answers to the world's ills, including racism - but it is rooted in kindness, care, believing every human has value and helping each other. This is a hopeful beginning for children and why we teach 'building peaceful communities together' as the foundation of our school's learning. 

At our school, we champion Peace Education as a loose set of strategies that promote kindness, care and value for all the differences that exist across human experiences. We include the Roots of Empathy program as part of our approach to Peace Education, embracing that program's emphasis on how humans literally cannot survive without care, attention, kindness and support from birth forward. Understanding these essential relationships from early ages emphasizes the critical importance of engaging with each other with attitudes of helpfulness, acceptance and care - qualities essential to advancing Peace Education.

From this essential foundation of humans needing to care for each other, our goal with Peace Education in elementary schools is to foster values of empathy that support children with developing positive actions, attitudes and skills to be able to live harmoniously with others and the environment, as well as with themselves. Included in this development are conflict resolution skills and a deep respect for human rights and freedoms. As children become aware of the vast diversities of background experiences, cultures and perspectives, they also build confidence in their abilities to successfully and safely navigate the world as they promote and support joyous living for all humans. 

We gain these awarenesses of diversity through literature, through shared experiences, through stories, through encounters with multiple aspects of culture, events, thoughtfulness and perspectives. With young children we are able to expand ideas of possibility while their neural pathways of perception and judgment are still developing, before they become entrenched and closed to other opportunities. Acceptance, understanding, possibilities for proactive change become their empathetic, automatic responses and assist children from very young ages to be able to envision different responses that result in greater fairness and positive outcomes during interactions with others - particularly in instances of disagreement or unexpected disruption. 

We know from many years of experience, research and anecdotal stories that Peace Education has a profound and long-lasting impact on children as they grow into adulthood, with continued influence on opinions and actions later in life. We know, too, that the stories ture with the greatest influence on children's perceptions of the world are often encountered in children's stories from their very early years. An example of how, as a school, we access literature to help children build empathetic understanding of the authentic human condition is reflected in our school's approach to our design thinking challenge "Rise of the Super Student!' developed around the UN online picture book, "My Hero is You" located on our school YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMG4wles_2I&feature=push-sd&attr_tag=UGggypL1Hxm0bOCR%3A6   

The overlap of promoting understanding of Peace Education principles with home reading is easily recognizable, as literature offers a simply accessible platform for helping children begin to appreciate and understand diversities within the human experience. 

Home Reading Connections 
Depending on the age of your child, there are numerous and beautiful stories that can be shared through the home reading experience - both as a read aloud opportunity as well as occasions where children are able to attempt to read independently. Why parents might choose specific titles to share with their children through home reading with a focus on developing deeper appreciations for the human experience with children is clear: this strategy encourages the development of empathy while promoting self-confidence in approaching challenging situations with care and positive intentions. It enhances the home reading experience, promotes conversations, shapes opinions and support the development of flexible neural pathways in a child's brain development. Home reading takes on purpose beyond building reading skills to provoke thinking and reflection. These connections between peace education, literature and the home reading experience are significant and profoundly meaningful for children.

For the remainder of this blog entry, I am going to offer some suggestions for beginning to promote appreciation of diverse human experiences with children through home reading, including literature ideas that offer read aloud opportunities as well as prospects for building independent reading skills and strategies. These suggestions are all choices I have used many times myself and feel confident in recommending to provoke thinking as well as strategic independent reading.

1.  Whoever You Are by Mem Fox - a beautiful, simple example of considering how children are alike everywhere in the world with simple, predictable text for beginning readers.

2. Happy to be Nappy by Bell Hooks - another simple, rhyming-style story about being happy with the features that are unique to ourselves with easy, repetitive text.

3. Full, Full, Full of Love by Trish Cooke - a lovely story of extended family embracing a child, especially the grandmother - slightly more challenging text for early readers.

4. A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara - for more advanced young readers to try independently, or for a rhyming, introductory read aloud for younger children. Introduces terms discussing ways to address social justice issues with alliteration and rhyme.

5. Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story by Arun Gandhi, Bethany Hegedus & Evan Turk - a heartfelt story of Gandhi's village and the negative impact of wastefulness as seen through the eyes of a young child, confirming Gandhi's words to 'be the change you wish to see in the world'. An accessible read for mid-level readers and an engaging read aloud. 

6. I Have the Right To Be A Child by Alain Serres - a more advanced text with beautiful illustrations summarizing the United Nations' Declaration of the Rights of a Child.

7. It Takes a Village by Hilary Rodham Clinton & Marla Frazee - detailed, rich illustrations depict a multicultural world where people care for and work with each other.

8. Malala's Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai - a whimsical story of Malala's childhood where she imagines ways to change the world; Malala won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 for her activist work on behalf of universal quality education for the children of the world following a violent attack in her home country. This story will make an excellent read aloud for young children and a readable text for more skilled elementary readers.

9. My Two Blankets by Irena Kobald - a heartwarming story of moving to a new country and making a new friend and finding comfort in similar ways. Perfect for reading aloud or for more skilled elementary readers.

10. Listening With My Heart: A Story of Kindness and Self-Compassion by Gabi Garcia - building emotional resilience and self-acceptance can be a difficult topic to discuss with children - this story explores the benefits of kindness and compassion for ourselves. Excellent for reading aloud, a strong book choice for more skilled elementary readers.  

11. A is for Awesome! by Eva Chen - An alphabet-style book introducing 23 women who impacted the world in a wide variety of ways - from athletes to artists, scientists to activists. An easy-to-read introductory text to provoke interest in the many ways people can influence social structures and events. A strong read aloud, an accessible read for early readers with building skills. 

Home reading offers a seamless way to bring in interesting and provocative topics for your child, including literature that encourages thinking about social issues and ways even young children might help each other and themselves to make the world kinder and more peaceful. And perhaps to make the world a more congenial and accepting place in our children's future. 

Lorraine Kinsman, Principal
Eric Harvie School 

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Home Reading During the COVID-19 Pandemic

"Students are learning how to reset the rhythms and structures of their days. They are learning different patterns and modes of communication. They may be taking on different roles in their homes and learning how to complete new tasks, engage in new games and develop or sustain new and different activities.
Some are learning from the outdoor world on walks that go slower and last longer than before. Others are watching nature change day-by-day out their window, in their gardens, and along trails and bodies of water. Some are spending more time in their imaginations because it’s the only place to go, but this is not unimportant work."   - Rachael Gabriel

This is the 27th blog post entry of the 2019-20 school year. Last blog entry we explored possibilities for the long term relationships children might develop with literature as they progress and begin to see themselves as readers who appreciate the significance reading may hold in their lives as they grow into adulthood. This blog entry I am reflecting on some of the things I've noticed with readers through these long days of the COVID-19 quarantine as teachers and parents alike continue to support the steady practice of reading skills to ensure children become both proficient and joyous readers!

It has been 9 weeks since classes were cancelled and we entered this COVID-19 pandemic state of emergency teaching and learning. 9 weeks that have changed the world, our memories and how we cope in a world that suddenly has very little predictability. Routines that once governed our every step have fallen by the wayside and all we once counted on to mark the milestones of our days have changed so drastically they are barely recognizable when compared to 10 weeks ago! 

I once spent my days in the company of children and adults keen on exploring every possible learning activity from as many perspectives as possible - the days flew by in a flurry of stories, investigations, research, questions, building, taking apart, walking, running, smiling, laughing and occasionally crying as frustrations and celebrations co-mingled in the typical, daily milieu of the elementary school experience. Now I spend my days in virtual meetings, trying to make decisions that used to take 5 minutes and now take upwards of an hour to a day or two by the time we investigate questions that arise from simple conversations. Occasionally I drop in on a google meet and say hello to children and wonder if they remember who I am; sometimes children walk by the school as I am arriving or leaving and wave enthusiastically and shout hello! and my heart breaks because we are so far apart in so many ways.  A few times a week I am able to work one-to-one with a few students, offering a little extra support with children just on the brinks of becoming successful readers. These are the most joyous moments of my days - and they help me understand why I came to this profession in the first place - to spend my life in the company of the most interesting people in the world: children!

As I go through these strange and somewhat awkward days, I also communicate frequently - usually virtually or digitally - with teachers, parents, community members. And gradually I have begun to notice some fundamental changes on the home reading front - changes that I believe are not only notable but also will change the lives of our earliest readers forever.  

I've noticed families are taking time to read together. Sometimes they are just sharing the stories we've sent home to be practiced, or assigned to be read in Epic Books, Raz Kids or Book Flix, but more often, families are sitting down together to read. Big brothers reading to toddler sisters. Big sisters sharing favourite stories with their younger brothers. Moms, Dads and grandparents bringing or sending books to each other through the mail or dropping off on doorsteps. Kids telling stories about the read alouds they are sharing at home with their teachers, or families also listening to the novel read alouds being shared by classroom teachers.  In the first week we posted our Reader's Theatre version of the UNICEF online story 'You Are My Hero!' read by our teachers, it was viewed almost 250 times - an unheard of number of views for our school YouTube channel!  Reading has taken on value again in a way that was not as visible just 10 short weeks ago. This is an enormous event in the lives of families, it changes the children's experiences of reading and of books and elevates the importance of reading as they see the value of reading escalate for their parents. 

It's also been interesting to note the interest parents are taking in their children's daily progress as they travel this learning to read pathway.  When we practice our sight words together, parents are watching and echoing these practices at home when reviewing the sight words recommended by teachers. When we model supporting children as they make sense of text - encouraging them to look at the pictures, supporting decoding when it makes sense and suggesting alternative strategies when it does not, reinforcing persistence when it pays off with decoding a word, double checking for meaning, asking questions to provoke thoughtfulness and reflection in the student - parents are noticing and beginning to work some of these strategies into their support for their child's continued success in learning to read. There is a new, collective understanding learning to read is a process, one that takes time and patience and a willingness to try whatever works, not only rely on what is familiar and comfortable from parental childhood memories of learning to read. And we teachers are being asked to recommend titles for children they can borrow or order online. This means, to me, that children are beginning to determine their own preferences as readers and are able to suggest genres or ideas they would like to read independently.

I've been noticing increased patience on behalf of both parents and students as children travel their own reading journeys.  Kids are not so anxious to be 'good readers' right away; they are willing to struggle a bit more with making sense of text, muck about in a story and try at least a couple of strategies to figure out a word. Parents are more willing to wait and give them time to make sense of a word, but also to jump in before frustration hits and offer a suggestion before giving the child the word. As parents sit beside their children as they read, they are nodding and smiling, understanding the effort and time their child is taking to develop reading skills and realizing the 'help and praise' phrases teachers use so frequently are not trite but useful in encouraging greater risk-taking and, ultimately, success for early readers.

It's spring and springtime is always a time of 'reading miracles' for our youngest readers - the efforts of the fall and winter, coupled with some developmental growth and maturity - so often is clearly demonstrated in the spring as children begin to display greater independence and success as readers. Fluency improves, decoding improves, sight word awareness grows exponentially. Little skills kids floundered with for seemingly weeks suddenly blossom and are used effectively every time. Children take huge leaps on the reading journey, demonstrating strengths as readers that were invisible for so long. I was worried, in the beginning of the shut down of classes, that those children who were just on the cusp of becoming stronger readers on the road to independent reading would begin to slide without the daily supports and interventions classroom teaching offered, and we would see children begin to lose some of the confidence and reading successes they had already experienced. It is here that I am so pleasantly surprised to see the opposite happen!

With support from parents and older siblings, with several targeted, intentional and brief meetings per week focused on building reading skills, I have noticed kids are not losing ground, not falling further behind. Students are making progress and improving every day; they are eager to come to meets and share their successes. Each day there are small, almost invisible improvements that yield easily traceable successes and their smiles over their reading successes are huge!

Finally, I've noticed an increased interest in online reading materials - kids are navigating book sites easily and choosing reading materials successfully as teachers have introduced them to materials on Epic Books, Raz Kids, Book Flix, Scholastic, Unite for Literacy and other sites. These are all free as a result of the pandemic; the interest generated in them has resulted from this as well but it is also a thought-provoking turn of events for the school - something to consider as we anticipate next school year will be whether or not we should subscribe to one of them as an alternative source of both home and school reading materials. This has not been on the horizon for consideration in the past - from every unexpected turn of events, a little sunbeam may be found!

From my own experiences as a mother and grandmother, I have not forgotten the panicked guilt I used to feel when it was bedtime and I realized we had not done the assigned home reading; when I would try and encourage a tired and cranky child to 'just try to read this page' of whatever read aloud they had selected for bedtime reading so I could sign off on the daily home reading chart without a guilty conscience, even if the book sent home was not the one we were reading. I remember taking the home reading book in the car on the way to a hockey game, trying to get a child to read it in the car, and looking frantically for the home reading book and the record book I needed to sign off almost every Sunday evening for what seemed like an eternity.  Home reading was not always fun at our house - even though we loved reading together and we somehow managed to raise a house full of independent and successful readers in the end. It is important and valuable to read at home; practice is essential on the learning to read journey.  That does not mean it was always a fun experience at our home...it might not always be a fun experience at your home either...

And so times change again. As hockey, karate, skating, swimming, dance, etc. lessons have all faded into the past and we no longer book end our days with schedules, play dates, meetings and 'events', reading becomes a bit slower, a bit easier to fit into our daily lives, a way of visibly seeing our children continue to grow as learners even as we wonder whether they are missing too much learning. The journey to learning to read hasn't changed - every child will still follow in it their own way, will stumble and succeed in different places and times, both leaping ahead and slowing down without warning. The process of learning to read has not been accelerated not stalled. There will always be a rhythm to learning established by each child that is uniquely their own. One benefit of the pandemic seems to be that we have a bit of time to pause and appreciate the complexities and nuances of each child's journey in a way we might have skipped over or not noticed necessarily in the past. 

Like a snapshot from the past, this COVID-19 awareness makes me smile and acknowledge there is still joy in learning in the world that is appreciated by families coming together in celebration and recognition of the learning to read journey. Whatever else this pandemic has offered, being able to notice this with our families has been a true and valuable gift.

Lorraine Kinsman, Principal
Eric Harvie School


Monday, 18 May 2020

When Books Become A Child's Best Friend

"I never feel lonely if I've got a book - they're old friends. Even if you're not reading 
them over and over again, you know they are there. And they're part of your history. 
They are about your journey through life." - Emilia Fox

This is the 26th blog post entry of the 2019-20 school year. Last blog entry we took a look at the possible milestones that might occur as each child takes their own, idiosyncratic journey towards becoming a reader.  This blog entry we begin to explore long term relationships children might develop with literature as they progress and begin to see themselves as readers and appreciate the significance reading may hold in their lives as they grow into adulthood.

Learning to read independently is often a slow and meandering experience that does require dedicated, ongoing support - much like learning to cook, or engage oneself in any craft. Classes may be cancelled, but teachers and parents alike continue to support this steady practice of reading skills to ensure children become both proficient and joyous readers!

As a parent, I have frequently experienced moments where I’ve thought “Do as I say, not as I do!” whenever a child has clearly demonstrated a behavior I have verbally outlawed but practiced myself – such as watching a child toss their jacket onto the same chair as mine, rather than hanging it in the entry way closet as I repeatedly reminded them to as they came through the front door.

Accompanying a child on their ‘learning to read’ journey can seem a lot like this – as children stumble through an unfamiliar text, it may seem like it’s a very long journey indeed, but it is their journey, not ours, to take at their own speed and in their own meandering way. As adults, we’d like things done in a hurry, if you please, and get onto the next stage. However, as noted in last week’s post on ‘growth markers’ along the reading pathway, next stages are not neat, tidy, nor predictable as children move towards reading independently. And the catch is that they are watching us, their own particular grownups, all the time, trying to emulate what we do as readers too.

We say things like ‘reading is really important’ or ‘pretty soon you’ll be reading books all on your own’ or ‘I think you will like reading this book’ yet how often do our children see us doing those things? Do they catch us reading every day because ‘it is important’? Do they see us reading on our own with natural enthusiasm? How do they know we like or dislike a book ourselves? How we model ourselves as readers is most likely how our children will shape their own reading habits as well. It isn’t just what we say; it’s what they see us do that matters.  And if we frame ourselves as avid readers with favourite books, that is the lens through which our children will see themselves as readers too.

One of the most important things I believe we can do as adults for and with our children is begin to read novels aloud to them as they are just barely beginning to demonstrate independence as an early reader – or perhaps even before there is much evidence they are on their way to reading independence. Children’s novels are short with necessarily short chapters so it is not onerous to read them aloud, and they lend themselves beautifully to questions and discussions. “What do you think will happen next?” is a natural end-of-chapter question when the reader is unsure what will happen next in the story. It is this incidental conversation that leads children towards appreciating the nuances of a story and builds a desire in them to become readers of novels in their own right.

A key indicator of growth as a reader is evidenced when children begin to develop particular interests and tastes for books and want to build their own collection of favourite books and stories. This is a significant milestone, not a notification the guided journey has ended but rather a strong indicator your child is ready to begin rooting his/her own reading habits in the gathering of specific well-loved titles or topics.  Favourites will definitely include picture books or non-fiction picture books in the beginning, as well as early novels. As children begin turning repeatedly to these much-loved titles, they are not stagnating or being repetitive but are establishing their own reading independence as they silently shout to the world ‘these books are my best friends’! 

Building Early Collections
Early collections of children’s favourite books frequently include many eclectic titles – I remember when our youngest daughter claimed, at age 6, that her ‘most favourite book of all’ was a rather inane book (in my view) titled Sir Small and the Dragonfly and refused to read or listen to virtually any other book for several months in a row! Her next favourite became Laura Charlotte, a story about a much-loved stuffed elephant that looked very much like one she owned as well - and promptly named ‘Charlotte’ in honour of the book.  And that is how collections of favourite stories begin – with real-life affinities between books and readers.  Our older son was a huge Dr. Seuss fan as a young child and we have a grandson who fell in love with the “Piggie and Elephant' books at an early age. Another grandson loved any book that had a space ship in it J

Early Novels
Early readers fall in love with characters in books and thereby become ‘best friends’ with novels. There are numerous series of early novels that captivate children, including such favourites as the Nate the Great series, Geronimo Stilton series, The Magic Tree House series or ThePrincess in Black series, as well as many others. These are short novels with simple story lines and predictable patterns, and that is why children fall in love with them. Their reading skills grow, their understanding of story lines expands and their proficiency at decoding and understanding new vocabulary blooms as well – all while in the great company of ‘best friend’ characters in books. When a child begins asking for books in a series, one can be comfortably confident the learner in question has turned a corner towards becoming an avid, skilled reader!

Somewhere between Kindergarten and early grade 3 (ish!) students will begin to demonstrate greater proficiency as readers as well as becoming skilled ‘choosers’ of what they really want to read.  It is in the establishing and naming of book choices and preferences that a child on the journey to learning to read successfully begins to demonstrate an understanding of what reading for enjoyment and purpose may really mean in their lives, and initiate enduring relationships with stories, novels and non-fiction texts. This is a considerable milestone – one well worth noting and celebrating too!

Lorraine Kinsman, Principal

Monday, 11 May 2020

A Growth Chart for Documenting the Learning to Read Journey

"The goal of all reading is the joyful, independent, and meaningful processing of a written text. The key to independent reading is making an explicit connection between all other instructional contexts...and the reader's own independent work... All teaching, support, and confirmation lead to the individual's successful, independent reading." - Fountas & Pinnell, 2019

This is the 25th blog post entry of the 2019-20 school year. The last blog entry explored the journey of learning to read as NOT a magical event but the result of a lengthy, multi-faceted journey of learning that results in the magic of loving to read.  This blog entry we peruse some of the possible highlights parents might notice as their child ventures along the learning to read path.

Learning to read independently is a unique journey and requires dedicated, ongoing support. Classes may be cancelled but teachers and parents alike continue to support this steady practice of reading skills to ensure children become proficient and joyous readers!

Parents are often frustrated by how slowly the learning to read journey may take as their child enters school and formally begins the process of becoming a joyful and successful reader in their own right. Sometimes a sibling or a family friend of similar age may seem to be making much greater or speedier progress in developing reading skills and strategies, or a parent may remember their own learning to read journey not being as challenging or taking as long. And sometimes it's just because it seems to take forever and so much support for a child to get through what seems like the simplest text possible!

While these are often the realities of our experiences with young children, the most prevalently true reality is that learning to read is like a long, slow journey across the plains - it takes a long time to get there and there is no direct, predictable route that might eliminate potential pitfalls or sidetracks. Every child's experience is somewhat different than every other child's, and it is important not to get caught up in the differences - regardless of whether they are significant or hardly noticeable. Just like learning to walk or talk, every child eventually has the potential to become a successful skilled reader in their own time frame and in their own way.

However, there are some fairly visible markers along the learning to read journey that parents and children alike might find interesting to note or even celebrate. If I think of the learning to read journey as one similar to a child's physical growth, I can envision a 'growth chart' for learning to read, quite similar to the physical growth charts we often post in a child's bedroom (or perhaps even make note of on the door frame - a mainstay in many Maritime homes when I was growing up - including my own!).  Here are some of the notable 'growth markers' that will most typically make an appearance throughout a child's learning to read experience - over several years of learning!

Recognizes a book as something to enjoy
This happens, quite often, when children who have been read to almost from birth, sometime during their second year of life - it may manifest as being delighted to turn the pages as a toddler when a parent sits to read a book to them, or when a toddler chooses a book from a toy selection to 'read' on their own, looking at the pictures or naming specific pictures in the story. Sometimes it is a child about the age of three who begins 'reading' a book independently, repeating the text from memory that has been read to them many times in the past. A parent or grandparent might note a very young child comes running for story time and snuggles in willingly while picking their own choice of story to read. All of these indicators are significant because they clearly note a young child who is aware of books and reading as something interesting and important to do. It also likely indicates a child has already been exposed to positive interactions between voice and text, the cadence and nuances of the language and some new vocabulary. A joy for reading as a young child is a strong direction point towards an adult book lover!

Understands words have meaning and connection
Young children begin to make connections between words and things they name in a variety of ways. Sometimes they will recognize environmental print - such as the symbol for a place like McDonald's and the giant golden M or the sign for Toys R Us. Often they will recognize their name when they see it in print before they go to school and may even be able to print it themselves. Children may be able to point to words in alphabet books that apply to pictures or play matching games with letters and pictures. This is a time of recognizing words represent things and carry meaning - it is an exciting time for children.

Recognizes letters and sounds are meaningful for reading
As children begin to associate meaning with symbols to represent meaning, recognizing attributes of letters occurs more frequently (are they round, how many lines do they have, etc) and they may be able to identify some specific sounds for letters, particularly for familiar consonants. This is a time when rhymes and chants become popular for children; learning rhymes and chants are great fun but also key to helping children begin to learn words can sound the same and therefore become predictable. This is a key milestone on the learning to read journey.

Begins to develop sight words, sounding out words
Recognizing letters and learning rhymes come together for children gradually as they interact with stories and texts, both through read alouds and story telling with parents or other trusted adults in their circle of influence. This will lead to recognition of words that appear frequently in children's texts, particularly familiar short nouns such as mom, dad, cat, dog, hat, etc. in the consonant-vowel-consonant patterns - although children may not recognize them as such since they typically associate the whole unit of the word with a specific meaning. As they continue to interact with texts both at home and in school, they will be introduced to academic aspects of reading like patterns of spelling or high frequency words (the, said, and, etc) that help bring words together to create a sentence with meaning. Children will begin to learn some decoding strategies during this stage, identifying the first letter to sound out the word initially and eventually considering the last sound as well. Some children in these early stages will quickly grasp the idea of predictable spelling and word families while others will seem to take much longer to understand these nuances, and still others will develop these understandings slowly and then all of sudden make great gains in sight words and sounding out strategies. This is a foundational development stage for early readers as they begin to understand the key roles of phonemes, phonics, etc and it can be a story of spurts of learning with long, challenging sections in between where children seem to make not much progress in recognizing new words - and then suddenly seem to pretty good at it! It is something to really celebrate as children are beginning to read independently. 

Using Reading Strategies Intentionally
There are probably in excess of 100 fairly straightforward reading strategies we could introduce to young readers in their early years of school, but the truth is that a reading strategy is pretty meaningless unless a child understands it so well that they can use it independently and successfully without prompting or support. Typically, young readers will use 4 or less reading strategies consistently for a rather extended period of time. They will often practice decoding sounds, look at pictures, look for small words inside big words (compound words) or look at beginning/ending sounds for clues to what the word is they are trying to read. When you notice a child consistently trying out these different strategies, this is something to celebrate!  It means children recognize they don't always have to the same thing over and over again to read a word/sentence/book.  And, once they have four or five 'tried and true' strategies integrated into their every approach to reading, they will begin to add new strategies that make the greatest sense to them. As a teacher or as a parent, it might seem frustrating to show a child how to use a reading strategy and then they just never use it again to help make sense of reading text. However, if the strategy doesn't make sense - yet - to them, then they are not able to integrate into their thinking system how to utilize what doesn't make sense, especially when they are trying to read. They will gradually integrate new strategies into their repertoire but it will always be when it 'makes sense' to them, not necessarily to anyone else!

Reading Expressively
As readers are about to read sentences that are increasingly complex and longer, they begin to test out reading in a variety of ways, often mimicking the phrasing, intonation or voices they have heard others use in school and at home during read aloud experiences. When I am working with early readers, one of the first text features I introduce them to are the quotation marks, explaining these are extremely important because they let you know there are characters in the text with something to say! And when there is something to be said, there are always particular ways to say something in a specific kind of voice to bring your characters to life on the page. Little intonation strategies - like raising your voice at the question mark sign - are often subliminally acquired by  many children; others require some explicit instruction and practice. Recognition of phrasing, intonation or use of 'voices' when reading text is a distinctive milestone that warrants honouring with early readers :)

Making Reading Connections
The ultimate goal of reading is to make sense of text to learn something new, become engrossed in a story, answer a question, etc. The connections children make to specific stories or information helps them build increasingly complex systems of thinking and making connections between multiple concepts in sometimes highly varied situations. Making text connections might mean finding similar information between two sources, or it might mean comparing, contrasting or questioning information found in one text with another text. Often we encourage children to make three kinds of connects: connections to self (previous experiences or knowledge), connections to text (other books/stories/information or videos) or connections to the world (experiences they have heard about, seen or witnessed in a setting outside their typical circle of influence).  A tell-tale sentence might start with 'This reminds me of...' or 'This must be a dream because...' and these are signals they are developing into a successful, lifelong reader!

Reading complex text fluently
As children grow, their reading skills improve exponentially - albeit not at predictable rates or patterns. It often seems like they are stumbling over text one day and completely fluent the next, because eventually all the years of practice truly do pay off and an beautiful, fluent reader emerges! This is a magical time for young readers as they discover different genres and reasons for reading these different genres. These middle year readers are able to  read complex text fluently, ask questions, employ several reading strategies seamlessly, identify favourite genres, authors, plots, characters, etc. and wonder 'what if' when they finish with a text, make predictions about what could reasonably happen next and move between multiple texts at different points in a day or week without distractions or errors in comprehension. Readers at this stage will begin to collect favourite sets of books, arrange favoured texts in particular ways or offer to lend stories to friends - they have truly bloomed into successful readers.

Reading purposefully
Flourishing readers are typically in the age range of middle-school learners and are becoming very aware that purposeful reading expands their understanding, their perceptions of why and their abilities to make sense of new ideas. Readers in this stage often read more non-fiction in school but may prefer fiction at home - or not! They are reading to informed, entertained, provoked, questioned, surprised, shocked - reading evokes emotion for them, even when it is negative. Middle years readers want to feel something as a result of being a reader, even if that is to feel wiser or more confused or to have an idea happily confirmed. These readers love to share their ideas with adults in their circle, or their friends and will often make grand pronouncements of their newfound information to provoke conversations - or writing, drawing, designing, building. They use many strategies to make sense of text and share their new ideas and understandings appropriately and will seek out information in texts or digitally to better understand concepts. When a child begins to use reading purposefully, this is a definitive indication the learning to read journey is ready to transition into refined reading such as analysis, synthesis, interpretation, evaluation, etc typically associated with older readers - an accomplishment most definitely worth acknowledging :) 

I have worked with hundreds of children over the years, supporting the learning-to-read journeys of young readers through to their middle-grade years of school. Some have learned to read swiftly and with apparent ease while others have struggled with specific learning disabilities, memory concerns or processing issues. Most children travel the learning-to-read path somewhere between these two positions on the reading journey continuum. What I have come to understand is that learning to read requires patience above all, and the willingness to not seek out accomplishment as a reader so much as making the most of the journey - smiling through the challenges, making games of the difficult, acknowledging and empathizing when there is frustration or exhaustion. These are, it seems to me, qualities associated with any kind of learning journey. The most important thing I have learned, however, is that every child who has traveled this journey with encouragement, perseverance and a willingness to keep trying has the capacity to be a successful reader in their own way, at their own pace and for their own purposes. The journey matters - as all journeys do!

Lorraine Kinsman, Principal