The Lower School Language Arts curriculum gives students the tools necessary to be actively literate students. Through a balanced, literature-based approach, which combines systematic teaching of phonics and phonemic awareness (primarily in grades K-1) with the use of authentic children’s literature, students learn not only the skills to read and understand a variety of texts, but also develop a lifelong love of reading and writing. Beginning in Kindergarten, students are taught through a workshop format which includes whole-class and small-group lessons as well as independent work time. This format motivates students by giving them choice and the ability to connect their reading and writing with their lives. Through emphasizing independence, students develop the confidence to succeed and continuously stretch themselves as readers and writers. Teachers are able to match the teaching of reading and writing skills to the developmental needs of the students which allows all students to be actively involved in the learning process. Children read, write, speak, and listen by immersing themselves in meaningful experiences and in this way they learn the diverse purposes and a love for developing and using these skills.
Research has revealed that the single most important activity in early childhood for building understandings and skills essential for reading success is reading aloud to children (Wells 1985; Bus, Van Ijzendoorn, & Pellegrini 1995). Our Early Childhood teachers read to children daily and actively engage children in each story read by asking predictive and analytic questions to build children’s vocabulary and comprehension of stories. Children talk about the pictures, retell the story, discuss their favorite actions, and request multiple readings. It is the talk that surrounds the reading that gives it power, helping children to bridge what is in the story with their own lives and helping build their love of literature.
A central goal in our reading program during these early years is to develop children’s concepts about print. Teachers use a variety of high quality texts to help children distinguish many print features, including the fact that print (rather than pictures) carries the meaning of the story, that the strings of letters between spaces are words and in print correspond to an oral version, and that reading progresses from left to right and top to bottom.
Through a workshop approach to reading beginning in Kindergarten our teachers model real reading behaviors and provide instruction on how to read strategically. Children learn through shared reading experiences, teacher directed lessons, small group guided reading experiences, and partner and individual reading. Over time, students feel confident and excited to pick up a book, knowing they have plenty of tools to read and construct meaning from a text.
Books chosen by the teacher and shared with the class expose children to a variety of genre of children’s literature (such as folk tales, historical fiction, poems, plays, biographies). These whole class experiences offer an opportunity to teach comprehension skills through discussions centering on story elements, vocabulary, making inferences, using prior knowledge, summarizing, and asking questions. In addition to whole class instruction, small guided reading groups are used by the teacher to focus on specific reading strategies or fluency practice. Each group’s lesson is tailor-fit to meet the needs of those students.
After shared reading experiences and strategy instruction, students practice reading strategies independently with books of their own interest and on their level. For students to truly become proficient, sophisticated readers, they must be given time to read in books that are a perfect fit. This is a time of active reading, when students use the strategies taught during mini-lessons. Each student spends time deeply exploring texts and connecting them to their own lives and the world around them.
During independent reading time the teacher conferences with individuals and may pull small groups to practice a reading strategy and/or to assess student progress. During these conferences the teacher assesses each child. The teacher learns about students’ reading interests, observes strategies used while reading, listens for fluency, and assesses comprehension. Through these conferences the teacher determines teaching points for future mini-lessons.
The expectation is to have all of our students read on or above grade level. Children are routinely assessed by their classroom teacher with the help of the Reading Specialist. Using the results of these assessments, a child may be referred by the classroom teacher, with the approval of the Lower School Director, for a reading evaluation by the Reading Specialist. Results of the evaluation, which assesses reading level and gives guidance for instruction, may be used to place a child in a small group for reading instruction. The goal of small group instruction in reading is to provide highly structured, intense reading instruction to children in grade levels K-4. At the lower grade levels, instruction involves training in phonemic awareness and strengthening a child’s mastery of sound-symbol relationships. This is combined with the building of a basic sight vocabulary and the reading of many simple phonetically based and sight word oriented readers. In grades 3 and 4, comprehension strategies, vocabulary building and writing skills are added.
In the early grades, spelling goes through different stages, depending on a child’s developmental readiness. This spelling progression often goes from random letters, beginning consonant sounds, ending sounds, experimentation with vowels and blending, working toward the final goal of conventional spelling. Children discover the differences and similarities in words through use of big books, charts, word walls, daily news, labels, and other reading opportunities throughout the day.
In Kindergarten and the beginning of First Grade students use “invented spelling”. They phonetically sound out and write the letters they hear. Invented spelling is an auditory experience of spelling which becomes increasingly accurate as children’s reading skills are learned. Auditory, tactile and visual memory experiences help young children become aware of conventional spelling. It is taught progressively from beginning, ending and middle consonant letters to short and long vowels. These experiences help children make the transition from invented spelling to conventional spelling. Children also work in small groups with games to practice phonics skills and sight words.
In Kindergarten through Fourth Grade, children develop their knowledge of words through a program called Words Their Way: Word Study in Action. This hands-on program teaches students how to look closely at words to discover the regularities and conventions of spelling. The heart of Words Their Way is the process of sorting sounds and words into specific categories. Students learn to look closely at words to discover letters, vowel patterns, syllable structures and spelling-meaning connections in English Orthography. The sorting activities include teacher-directed instruction as well as paired and independent learning. Through these activities students develop essential elements of reading including phonological awareness, phonics and word recognition, and vocabulary.
Our writing curriculum teaches students to be proficient writers for a number of purposes. Whether students want to tell a story about something important that happened to them, write a letter, make a list, record an observation, or report facts learned from research, students learn to become fluent writers that convey meaning through writing.
Our Early Childhood Program helps children learn the functions of writing. It is important for children to understand that writing is a way of sharing one’s ideas and knowledge; it is a method of personal communication and conveys a message that can be read at a later time. Each early childhood classroom environment provides meaningful writing opportunities daily. These opportunities may include having children sign-in each day, providing an observation journal for each student in the science area, and having writing materials be part of the “props” in the dramatic play area. This can include pads for making shopping lists, index cards for writing recipes, or large paper for making posters advertising a class play. Early Childhood teachers ask children to dictate or write stories to go with their artwork. They provide alphabet letters (for example, charts, magnets, books) as reference tools and display them where children can easily see or reach them.
Through writing workshop beginning in Kindergarten students spend time daily writing about things that interest them. Students learn about and experiment with a variety of genres including opinion/argument writing, narrative writing, and information writing. Students learn the craft of writing through practice, conferring, and studying the craft of other authors. The ultimate goal of a writing workshop is to empower students with the skills and the understanding of purposes of writing that allows them to develop as life-long writers. The writing workshop includes a lesson, a work time with conferring and a sharing time.
Collaboration with peers and teacher is inherent in this model. Process writing focuses primarily on what children want to communicate. Writing Workshop differs from other forms of writing instruction because students are writing individual stories based on their own experiences. Students are also writing at their own ability level. Students are encouraged to use the strategies that we have learned to write at “their personal best”. That level is different for every student. As students work independently, the teacher is conferring with authors individually or in small groups to address the needs and strengths of the students.
Incorporated within these units of study, we constantly reinforce the Traits of Good Writing: ideas, organization, word choice, sentence fluency, voice, and conventions. Students study the works of published writers as well as examine student writing as they learn about the format of each genre as well as the conventions that make writing strong.
While the writing process looks slightly different at each grade level, students are learning to use the writing process which includes Prewriting, Drafting, Revising, Editing and Publishing (see Appendix 1). In the earliest grades the emphasis is put on Drafting and expressing ideas clearly, and as students become more fluent and sophisticated in their skills, they put more emphasis on the revising and editing part of the process. No matter what age the student is, there is an emphasis on publishing work because we believe that the purpose of writing is communicating with others. Students are motivated and excited by seeing their work in a final form, and they learn the importance of following standard conventions in the process.
Besides sharing their writing with their classmates, teachers and parents, Lower School students have the opportunity to share with students in other grade levels. Several times a year students in Kindergarten through Fourth Grade meet in small author sharing groups to read their writing. The groups are comprised of boys and girls from every grade level and the group members remain constant throughout the year.
Much like adult writing circles our author sharing groups provide children with the opportunity to share stories, reports and poems they have written with a small, supportive group. The students also share illustrations they have created and receive positive and constructive feedback from the group members. After a child has shared a piece of writing, group members frequently comment on particular strategies the author has used when crafting the story (Your use of dialogue really made me feel like the two characters were arguing; The detailed way you described the setting helped me to clearly picture it in my head).
In addition to sharing finished pieces of work, the children are encouraged to share story ideas and writing strategies and solicit help and feedback from the group. For example, a child might read a finished story and ask his/her group members for ideas for a good title. Another child might propose several stories ideas and ask the group which idea might make the most interesting story.
Beginning in Prekindergarten students learn the basics of proper pencil grip, body awareness, posture and proper letter formation through a formal handwriting program, Handwriting Without Tears. The goal of Handwriting Without Tears is to make legible and fluent handwriting an easy and automatic skill for all students.
The HWT curriculum uses multi-sensory techniques and consistent habits for letter formation to teach handwriting to all students—Preschool through Cursive. In our early childhood classrooms (PS-1) before the students write the letters using pencil/paper, they are building letters with wooden pieces, writing them on a small slate board with small sponges, small pieces of paper towels and small pieces of chalk. In the older grades students learn and practice correct letter formation through easy to use workbooks.
The program’s unique methods and materials alleviate problems with:
- Letter formation
- Sentence spacing
- Cursive connections