Thursday, 27 August 2015

My Literacy Block

I've been asked a lot lately about what my literacy block looks like. I've toyed around with it a lot to find out what works for me and is easily-adaptable for occasional teachers who come to my classroom. I found something that I had high yields with, incorporates several elements of my style and philosophy, and accommodates a variety of learners (differentiated, behavioural needs, etc.).

I like having my Language block in the middle of my day. In the morning, students are often dropped off late. This is a common complaint from a lot of Kindergarten teachers I know - "Little Suzie is always 30 minutes late to class! She always missed Language!" Why don't you change it to the middle block, then? Or how about how school assemblies are always in the first block? This can wreck havoc on your plans!

My middle blocks (at the 3 schools I've taught in) are usually 100 minutes long - provided there's no planning at that time, leaving tons of room for a variety of activities and integration of other subjects. Students are awake, fed, and (hopefully) tired from recess.

Here's what my typical block looks like in the Grades 1/2 classes I've taught. I'm moving to SK/1 this year, so will be tweaking it a bit.

1. Welcome Back From Recess

Welcome back from recess. One year, I had a very high-energy class with a ton of behavioural needs and often lots of recess issues needing to be dealt with. They had nutrition break before recess. Students came in after recess and sat or lay down on the carpet and watched "Super Why" on NetFlix (I had no technology in my classroom, so I bought my own projector and iPad to facilitate this).

Last year (new school), I had a small country class of 16 students. They came in from recess, grabbed their lunchbags, and ate in the cafeteria. When I picked them up from the cafeteria - while still in line, I told them what they needed to do to prepare for class - usually: put your lunchbag away, get your literacy bin and put it on your desk, and wait quietly on the carpet. This was routine and they could recite it by heart within a week - very helpful for occasional teachers!

2. Ready to Begin

How do I start my Language block? Students are at the carpet and I am at the easel. Every week, we have a new poem to close read. Close reading is a skill typically taught in intermediate grades and in high school - reading the text several times with difference focuses: vocabulary, connections, inferences (much like how we, in primary grades, have a read-aloud that's the same every day but each day focuses on a different skill).

On the easel, I have a zoomed photocopy of the poem. I tell students I will read the poem once and their purpose for listening is to listen for pleasure. I read the poem out loud in a natural voice. Then, I read it again and tell the students their purpose for listening. However, unlike in older grades, our focus is on decoding skills and expanding vocabulary (if you use CAFE reading strategies, the A and E skills!).

For example, on Monday, I will say "Now, your purpose for listening is to find words you don't know. When you hear a word you don't know, please [clap your hands, touch your nose, stick your tongue out...]." On Tuesday, they may look for the /k/ sound - and so on. As the year goes on, we move on to blends, digraphs, long vowel patterns, and maybe prefixes and suffixes like -ed and -ing. I base what decoding skills to look for by my information from guided reading, Words Their Way assessments, Sound Skills assessments (syllables, sound segmentation, rhymes, etc.), reading levels, and running records.

A student fills-in-the-blank with a sight word for this particular poem.
This is a good chance to explicitly teach penmanship and proper letter formation!

After the second reading, I invite one student at a time to come up and mark up the text. For example, on Monday, we circle unknown words and draw pictures to help show us what it means. I tell them what it means (strategy: ask someone) and later in the year, model how to use dictionaries or the Internet to find its meaning. The phonemes throughout the week are highlighted in different colours - for example, Tuesday's /k/ sounds in yellow, Wednesday's /ch/ in green, Thursday's "ing" in purple, and Friday's /ee/ in orange. I've also taught punctuation with our weekly poems (capitals, ending punctuation, quotation marks, etc.).

After that, students go to their own desks. In their literacy bin is a poetry duotang. Every Monday, they receive their weekly poem. Time saver: spend a few days to explicitly teach them how to put their new pages in the duotang. This will save you aggravation and also save your thumbs - as well as teach them independence and develop fine motor skills. On their own copy, students do the same as what we marked up on our master copy of the poem.

Kill two birds with one stone by integrating - Science, Social Studies ... even Math!
Also, you can see we found "words within words" (including compound words) and circled them.
Quick note: on Mondays, when we find unknown words, I also make them add the words into our "Word Collector" - which I photocopy on coloured paper and place in the front of their duotang. One made specifically for primary grades is available for free at my TPT store at As always, feedback is greatly appreciated.

Early finishers can read the poem to themselves then to a friend (or two - or three). This helps them build reading fluency and holds them accountable to learn how to read. By Friday, even the readers who struggle most are able to read the poem - even if they've just memorized it. I also give them the option to go back and read their favourite poems from earlier weeks.

An example from June's weekly poetry close read in a Grades 1/2 classroom.

Where do I find these poems? There are a few TPT sellers who have them for sale, but I prefer using phonics poetry resources - usually by Scholastic. I borrow the books from the Queen's University Teachers' Resource Centre (my school board has a partnership with the local Faculty of Education and we're allowed to borrow!). Experienced teachers often have a few of these books lying around, too. On Remembrance Day week, I teach them the first few verses of Flanders Fields. We learn Oh Canada's lyrics - and during celebrations/holidays, we learn poetry and lyrics to do with that celebration, holiday, or season.

3. Daily 5

Students clean up (put their poetry book back in their literacy bin and put any markers/crayons away) and meet me on the carpet. I assign Daily 5 stations. I like the idea of choice - but it never worked for me in a Grade 1/2 classroom.

Details of how I assign centres can be found in this blog post: Students stay on the same station for the whole time - so really, it's not "Daily 5." However, students practice each skill at some point during this block. I do not include "Read to Somebody" as I've never had very much success with it - and have built time into the poetry lesson to accommodate it.

Our time at the centre is usually 15-20 minutes long. Obviously, we practice building stamina and begin at 1 or 2 minutes. One students are able to do it independently, I am able to have guided reading meetings and conferencing with students. I won't get into extreme detail about guided meetings - but I use a variety of resources - including Reading A-Z, commercial guided reading resources, Sound Skills games and lessons, Word Their Way games, and other meaningful, highly interactive gems I've come across. I have a binder with a section for each student where I write anecdotal notes about their progress, including: reading level, strengths and needs (The CAFE book by The Sisters is impeccable for this - especially for those new to teaching Primary!, and other useful information. This is great when it's time to talk to occupational therapists, speech pathologists, educational psychologists, parent-teacher nights, collaborative inquiries and staff meetings, student support teachers and writing report cards.

My Word Wall is a hybrid: on rings and stapled onto the corkboard. On rings, I have Dolch words ( I have them colour-coded by level. They're available for purchase at a very reasonable price at my TPT store. They've been laminated and hole-punched and put on a shower ring (usually a dozen in a package at Dollarama). This helps students with Work on Writing and Word Work stations.

Words that change with the unit (Math, Science, Social Studies) are stapled for quick-access (and removal after the unit) in the appropriate spot on the word wall. Students usually end up writing these words in their personal dictionaries.

I've chosen to use Words Their Way in my classroom. I assess students at the beginning of the year (end of September - maybe October), after Winter Break, perhaps around March Break, and at the end of the year (to show growth). This information is not only useful in-class (and to help know what to do with the poetry decoding and guided reading), but to share for IPRCs and on IEPs.

This is the base of my Word Work program. I've chosen to give spelling tests every Friday - typically, I have 2-4 groups of students based on levels they achieve  (consonants, short vowels, blends/digraphs, and/or long vowels, usually - through the span of the year). The resource is great - word lists (helpful for choosing your weekly spelling words - I focus on 3 and move to 5 in the last month or two ... kids love it). I don't even keep track of how they do - as spelling is a minor component of our Language (Writing) curriculum in Ontario. However, I don't assign homework - but gives parents/guardians who love the idea of homework something to do other than "just read."

4. "The Lesson"

Look how much learning has already been done! This part of my day varies - depending on our learning goal.

This is when we have our read-aloud. Teacher tip: read the same book every day of the week! For example, on Monday - don't even read it! Make predictions and make a schema (prior knowledge) chart. On Tuesday, read the book (or even stop in the middle and ask students to say/write their prediction about the end). On Wednesday, practice retelling then read the rest of the story then do an after-reading follow-up. On Thursday, play a YouTube video of the story's reading - or find it on EPIC! For Educators (a free app on the iPad), TumbleBooks, or another media site. On Friday, have students do an extension activity - act it out, make connections, an Art activity, et cetera.

This should be your entire block. As you can see, students have the opportunities to practice a variety of skills, move around, and aren't on one task for too long (less risk of tuning out, behavioural issues, giving up, and just plain not having fun while learning). Early finishers can complete unfinished work or have their choice of a Daily 5 station.

What's in their literacy bins?
- personal dictionary (I like this freebie:
- poetry book
- any other folders and duotangs you use (novel studies, book studies, Sound Skills, word/sound sort books)
- sometimes, I put at-level books from Reading A-Z or guided reading resources (especially for lower-level readers)