Changing Our Thinking: Allowing Productive Struggle

Changing Our Thinking: Allowing Productive Struggle

There are many practices from long ago that we need to rethink as teachers. This series looks to bring up those practices and offer alternate ideas that are more relevant in today’s classroom. Today we’re discussing allowing productive struggle.  

What is Productive Struggle?

I’m going to tell the simplified story of how I learned to ride a bike. First I had a tricycle when I was young. I learned how to pedal and move it with the handles. I started to grow out of that tricycle and my younger brother could have used it so my parents got me a two-wheel bike with training wheels. Once I got the hang of riding it around with training wheels they made the training wheels uneven so I would tip a little back and forth as I rode. This helped me start to learn balance. One summer both of my cousins who were my age were not using training wheels and I decided that I no longer needed them. My dad took them off and I put on my helmet, determined to master riding a two-wheeler. My dad gave me directions and started running while holding on to the seat of the bike. I begged him not to let go but he did anyway. I moved forward a little and then fell to the ground. My dad came over and calmed me down and told me I needed to do something. I needed to steer or pedal it wouldn’t work if I didn’t do anything. So we tried again. My dad ran and let go of the bike and a steered a little and then fell to the ground. My dad again came over and helped me up. This time he wanted me to pedal. I wasn’t so sure about pedaling. That meant I would keep going and I might even go faster than I wanted to go. We tried again. This time I pedaled and steered and managed to go farther than before when I hit a rut in the ground and fell over. Again and again, my dad patiently helped me up and we tried again. Soon he wasn’t running over to me every time I fell. He was having me bring my bike back to him. Slowly I started to gain more and more independence. Finally, I could steer and pedal and not fall over for long periods of time. I was riding a two-wheeler. My dad allowed me to struggle forward. At no point did he take my bike away from me and do it for me. That wouldn’t have worked out and seems silly to actually think about.

Productive struggle is allowing students time to fail forward just like I had on my bike. Productive struggle is so important and too often as teachers we swoop and save instead of letting students fail forward. 

Why Is Swooping A Problem?

Imagine a classroom where kids are learning about place value. A student builds the number 23 with five tens instead of two tens and five ones. The teacher looks at the child and says, “no remember twenty-three two tens and three ones.” The child then fixes their number and now they understand place value… uh… no. Now they got this one problem right but because they were basically told the answer. 

A child is reading a book and they get stuck on the word like. The teacher says remember this is a silent e so the i says its name. L-i-k, like. The child mumbles along with the teacher and the teacher says, “good you got it!”

A writer is writing a story with no punctuation and the teacher comes over and adds punctuation with a pen to the child’s’ writing. 

The examples can go on and on. So often when children make mistakes teachers fix the mistakes. The problem with doing that is that we are robbing children of learning moments. When I swoop in to solve all the problems a student could encounter how do they become stronger? What did they learn this time that will help them solve the next problem? 

What to do Instead

For a long time, the role of the teacher was to help students fix mistakes. I’m not saying this isn’t the role anymore but the role is more of a facilitator of learning. If all of my students don’t understand a certain skill or strategy it isn’t my job to correct them so they no longer have mistakes. It is my job to help them recognize their mistakes and continue to fail forward unit they understand. 

Let’s go back to the base-10 example. This happens quite frequently in the grade 1 classroom. This child doesn’t yet see 10s and ones. If they start counting by ones then they continue to count by ones. If they start counting by tens they continue to start counting by tens. They don’t yet see the longs and cubes as worth different values. What if, instead of correcting him I asked him a question that would push his thinking forward. What if I asked, “how much is this worth” holding up a long. He could count the individual squares and determine that it is 10. Then I could ask, “so how many do you have here?” He could count by ones or tens and determine that he had 50. After that I could ask, “now what can you do so that you have only 23?” I could then let him go back and try again. Maybe this time he grabs 5 cubes. Maybe he goes back and gets three tens and two ones. Even if he just groups his tens into a group of three and a group of three he has begun to fail forward or productively struggle. If he continues to productively struggle I allow it. Productive struggle is good and it is so important. 

When a struggle becomes frustrating I would come in with some intentional teaching and modeling for the student. Then we could work together to solve a few problems then the student could try on their own. As long as a struggle is productive and the child is getting bit by bit more correct each time they’re wrong I should allow it. I’m allowing students to build understandings and develop a conceptual understanding on their own. 

What I've Learned

It is really easy to swoop and save or to remove all obstacles from a child’s path but it just isn’t helpful to them. I work hard to allow productive struggle in all of my students. I still haven’t mastered it yet but I too continue to productively struggle forward as a teacher. 

Let me know your thoughts and questions regarding productive struggle in the comments below! I would love to hear from you! 

Letters & Sounds Hooray!

Letters & Sounds Hooray!

A few weeks ago during science we went outside to trace our shadows. On the shadow we wrote the day and time. As kids wrote with chalk I said the letters in Monday aloud. M-O-N-D-A-Y. I looked around at my diamonds to see many, many incorrect spellings of Monday. I had some Muntew, Nondei, Mondaw… I mean the list goes on. Later that morning we played a game called write the letter I say as we tested to see which markers needed to be thrown away. As I said the letter names they wrote down the letter and then checked their marker to decide if it was a keep or a toss. I watched as they wrote incorrect letter after incorrect letter. We needed to do something about letter names ASAP! …but what?!

Last year was my first year teaching grade 1. Previously I had never taught lower than 2. I know, I know. It might seem like there isn’t a big difference between grade 1 and grade 2 but there is. There really really is. A HUGE difference.

These are some of my classroom favorites for teaching letter names and letter sounds. Remember that this is taught in cooperation with reader’s and writer’s workshop. Although these are isolated activities they are brought out of isolation during workshop. Kids need to learn within a context as well. 

My Favorite Letter/Sound Activities

Class Name Chart

These are not the names of my students. Fake names have been chosen to demonstrate a class name chart.

If you use Fountas and Pinnell Phonics then you probably have a class name chart in your classroom. We made our class name chart the first or second day of school. The name chart is a great way to get to know your students and to find out what they know about their own name. Starting with the name is a powerful choice. Students take great pride in their names… actually, I think everyone takes pride in their name. If you haven’t read this post about names, please check it out! Having their names up on the wall is so exciting. I once read somewhere that a child should be able to find their name at least 7 places in your classroom.

While creating this name chart I can see who knows the first letter of their name, who can spell their name, who knows about ABC order, who knows what sounds different letters make, and so much more. I just love this activity! We then use our name chart throughout the entire year.

This year we also added a people at our school name chart. This was inspired by this video. The kids love having the different people at our school up on the wall and it brings our whole school community into our classroom.

Once the class name chart is completed it is the gift that keeps on giving. We use this all the time during word study or interactive writing. Sometimes I call a kid up to write a letter if they have it in their name. “Kuba can you please come up to the board and write the last letter in your name?” Or “Oh my goodness! This word starts with the same letter as Filip!” 

The Alphabet & Alphabet Linking Chart

Yeah.. I always forget to take pictures so here is a sort of blurry one of the alphabet. I recently learned that it is not ok to have igloo as the I because it is offensive to Native Americans so I have changed it to an iguana. BUT... of course I don't have a picture of that one.

This year I switched my alphabet and made one intentionally thinking of letters and letter sounds. I don’t think you can create an alphabet without thinking of letters actually! 😂 In the past, I had an alphabet that had only animals or one that the kids and I made together. After reflecting upon how I use the alphabet in my classroom, it’s importance in our word study program and problems I’ve had with my previous alphabet I made a change.

This year all of the pictures in my alphabet were chosen because they made a certain sound. This way each time a child looks at the picture they hear the sound I wanted them to hear. All of the vowels are short vowel words (apple, egg, iguana, octopus, umbrella). I learned that elephant is not a good short e word to use because it sounds like the letter l.  Letters like c or g that make different sounds have a hard sound (cat, girl). X doesn’t use x-ray or xylophone both make a sound of x but not the one I wanted my children to hear. X instead uses box. The only word in the alphabet to end with the letter sound. I thought it was very important for them to hear that /x/ sound.

As a class, we then made an alphabet linking chart. Here I printed only the lowercase letters and a black and white version of the picture for each letter. The kids and I colored our cards together while discussing the letter sounds. Then we glued them onto a large piece of chart paper and hung it next to the easel. When I first taught second grade, each teacher had the alphabet hanging (usually up high), an alphabet linking poster at the easel and a smaller alphabet linking poster at the guided reading table. I don’t have a specific area in my classroom for guided reading so we just have the large alphabet and the alphabet linking poster for now.

The personal alphabet took the place of the small alphabet linking poster at the guided reading table. As I worked with small groups kids were able to color in the pictures of the letters they knew the sounds for on their alphabet. Each child now had a small alphabet linking chart that could be used for many different things. Some friends keep their letter offices out during writer’s workshop to determine sounds. Some use it during writer’s workshop to determine how to make the lowercase letter they are looking for. Sometimes we bring it to the carpet with our letter looker to find what letter sound I am making. There are just so many different ways to use a personal alphabet. This alphabet will also transform into a personal word wall for some of my friends.  

Click here to purchase my alphabet set! 

Handwriting and Letter Sounds

In our Grade 0 (kindergarten) kids learn both upper and lowercase letters but many students leave only knowing the uppercase letters. In many cultures in Europe the way writing looks on a page is valued higher than the ideas and the story. Many cultures also teach cursive from the very beginning so print can be looked down upon. I know there has been a fairly large shift on this thinking in the US but I don’t teach in the US. When our parents see our children’s writing they focus on how it looks, not what it says. We are working to build in parent education around this but you can’t change cultural values through parent education. In class, we place more value on what we are writing and how we are saying our message but culturally we also need to focus on how the letters look.

My assistant teacher and I focus heavily on lowercase letters in grade 1 and try to de-emphasize uppercase letters. Our children are learning to write in many different scripts all at the same time. Some students might be learning Polish and English at school but Korean at home. The Polish, French, German, English, Czech, and Korean (just to name some) scripts all make their letters in different ways. In many of the languages, they are learning cursive but we are teaching print. So in grade 1, we spend a lot of time on handwriting and on lowercase letters while trying not to lose the essence of the writer’s workshop and word study. It is a tricky balance but after children start making their stories “look nice” parents start to understand the importance of the other parts of writing.

Each Letter Makes a Sound (Farmer in the Dell)

There are so many ways to take the traditional songs we might know and change the lyrics. This song goes to the tune of the Farmer in the Dell.

Each letter makes a sound

Each letter makes a sound

High-Ho Here We Go!

Each letter makes a sound

The a makes a sound

The a makes a sound

/a/ /a/ /a/ /a/ /a/

The a makes a sound

I think you get the picture! This song is so engaging. We sing it while we are lining up. We sing it as we are coming to the carpet. We sing it as we are cleaning up. The kids just love this song! The grade 1 reading interventionist at my old school taught this song along with the next one to me long ago. Sometimes I let the kids call out the letters. Sometimes I pull magnetic letters out of a jar. Sometimes we go in ABC order or in reverse ABC order. The song is great for practicing letter sounds.

The Letters on the Bus

This goes to the tune of the wheels on the bus.

The a on the bus goes

/a/ /a/ /a/

/a/ /a/ /a/

/a/ /a/ /a/

The a on the bus goes

/a/ /a/ /a/

The letters make a sound.

This song is also great just like each letter makes a sound. There are so many different things you could do with this song. I even made a little letter bus to help kids use on their own. 

Click here to get a letter bus FREEBIE

Letter Looker

This is an idea I borrowed from Dr. Jean. You might know Dr. Jean from her Guacamole video but she has so many educational ideas to share with everyone. The letter looker is a pipe cleaner that is twisted into a magnifying glass shape. When we have our letter lookers I call out a letter and everyone tries to find that letter. The kids have a blast. Some of them only feel comfortable going to the letters on our alphabet linking chart right now. That is completely fine! As they learn more about letter names and sounds they will start to move away from the alphabet linking poster and go out into the room. This is a reason why Interactive Writing is so important in Grade 1. If we didn’t produce any writing together the kids might not have places to look for the letters. 

I also use the letter looker with some of the videos I will share below. Simply pause the video and have the kids search for the letter the video paused on. I honestly didn’t think that this would be as engaging as it was! the kids have a blast!

Youtube Videos & Go Noodle

We use Go Noodle and on Go Noodle there is a Youtube Channel. Teachers can add videos to their channel and I add all of these videos. It is much more fun to dance and sing to a letter video when your champ is going to earn points to level up! 

Here are the videos I recommend

ABC Kickbox by Dr. Jean

Phonercise by Dr. Jean

Go Letters by Dr. Jean

A to Z by Jolly Phonics

LeapFrog Letter Sounds

Sing and Sign by Jack Hartmann 

Vowel Bat 

What do the Letters Say by Have Fun Teaching

Thoughts?

What are your favorite letter and letter sound activities in the classroom? How do you work with your students who don’t know their letter sounds? I would love to hear from you, please leave a note in the comments below! 

What’s the Deal? Word Walls

What’s the Deal? Word Walls

I remember the word wall was one of the most confusing pieces in my classroom my first year teaching. In fact, it was left empty until the 3rd quarter because I had no idea what to do with it but I knew that we were required to have them. I didn’t know what to do or when to put up words or what words to put up! Let’s try to clear these up.

This new series, What’s the Deal? works to demystify some of the most confusing and sometimes contradictory pieces of information in education. I’m not going to say I’ll always piece it together correctly here but I will try. 

Should I Have a Word Wall?

Yes. Yes, you should.

A word wall is a designated area in the classroom set aside to help young writers with tricky words. Every grade level in elementary can have a word wall catered to their needs. Even older grades can use a word wall! A word wall is designed to help students make connections between words and provide a scaffold when spelling tricky words. Word walls need to be interactive and created with students not created for them. Students should not walk in to find new words suddenly up on the wall but it should be built together. If a word wall is already put up in a classroom then students are using it as a crutch when it should be a scaffold. A word wall should assist students in spelling words and they should begin to make connections to the words on their own. 

How Do They Work?

The teacher adds words with the students to assist in spelling. This is not a place where the teacher puts up all the words kids don’t know so they can just copy them. If you do that kids will either ignore the wall or be overwhelmed by it. Adding words together allows students to have ownership over the wall. It lets them know what words are on the wall and it becomes a tool. 

I put up the word and recently. When adding the word and we said it and clapped it and spelled it out loud and traced it on the floor. Some teachers even sing a song. Then we added it. A few days later (actually I think later that day) we made connections using the word and. If you know and then you know sand. If you know and then you know hand! The kids got so excited and found many more examples. Now if a child were to wonder, “how do you spell hand?” They could look to the word wall and see if they could use a word to help them spell. 

The word wall should help kids spell the words that are there but it should also help them spell words that aren’t there. If kids aren’t taught how to make connections between different words then they will only be able to spell the words that are already up on the wall. 

What Words Do I Add?

High-frequency words should be added to the wall. I put up words that my students are using a lot like Poland, the name of our school, vacation, etc. During word study, we add exemplar words to the wall. We just added the word at and if you know at you know so many other words! I use the 500-word list in the Fountas and Pinnell Word Matters book as a guide but I adapt to meet my students’ needs. It’s all focused on what they need. Last year we added the word a to the word wall, this year we didn’t need to.

To determine which words to add next I generally walk around and read my students writing. I pick some words that are spelled wrong and jot them down. While looking at all the students I create a sort of a tally chart. I determine which ones are within the class’ zone of proximal development and then we add those words. 

How Many Words Do I Add?

We should add between 4-5 words a week to the wall. We shouldn’t add any more because then our students will forget what words are on the wall and it just becomes wall decoration instead of a tool for learning. I generally have a running list of words to add next. Now, the point of adding words is so that students spell those words correctly but it is also so that they spell more words correctly. I choose the words I put up intentionally some words like because and about go on my word wall every year. These words are used a lot by my students and they don’t yet have the strategies to spell them. Other words don’t go up every year. 

Once words are up on the word wall they might not need to stay up all year. Remember the word wall should meet the needs of your students. The wall should be interactive. Words should be going up and coming down as needed. This means the wall shouldn’t become overwhelming where students can’t find the words they need anymore. 

When Do I Add Words?

I add words in a few different times. Sometimes I call my students to the word wall as a mid-workshop interruption during writer’s workshop and we’ll add a word right then and there. Sometimes we will add a word to the wall during share. At times we add a word to the wall during morning meeting. Once we added a word to the word wall during math. I try to plan which word will go up on the word wall and then see where it naturally slides into my day. Adding a word to the word wall shouldn’t take too long, no more than 5 minutes typically. 

How Can I Differentiate It?

Word walls are meant to be for all students and I am sure that you also have a wide range of abilities in your classroom. One way to differentiate is to use those pockets that used to be in the back of library books. In the word wall pictured above, I used those for the letter card and more challenging words were placed in the cards. Words that I didn’t expect everyone to spell correctly but I did expect some kids to spell correctly. We added those words to the wall the same way as the other ones. This way anyone could use that card. In the past, I have lined those up on the bottom of the chalkboard for students who need them. 

I also create a words we know board when we remove words from the wall but some students still need them. I don’t always call it words we know depending on how my class would react to that with some kids still needing them. I’ve called it a retired word wall before as well. Together we move words like I or the from the regular word wall to the other word wall. Then eventually it might be taken down from that space. It might also stay up all year depending on what the kids need. 

What do I need to Start?

The word wall should be in a space where students can see it and reach it. We might not all have this space available in our classrooms. My word wall last year was in such a terrible place because it was the only wall space we had large enough. Do what you can. 

Alphabet cards– Currently I use lowercase only on my word wall. I needed a way to display only the lowercase letters and remind them that we use lowercase more than uppercase. I do have uppercase letters displayed in the classroom in many other areas so I felt the word wall was a place I could use only lowercase. In the past, I have used upper and lowercase on the word wall. Do what’s best for your class. What do they need? 

Magnet Tape– I use this if my board is on a magnetic surface. Last year I couldn’t use magnet tape. This way students can come and get the words and put them back. They aren’t permanently stuck on the wall. 

White cards and a black marker– research has shown that it is best of the words are written in black ink on a white or light surface. We all like colors in the classroom but keep color away from the word wall. You can type your words or write them out. I usually just choose to handwrite them. 

Highlighter Tape– Highlighter tape allows you to call attention to a particular part of a word. In the picture above I highlighted to vowels. Right now CVCe words are highlighted on the wall. Highlighter tape will go up and come down depending on what you are drawing their attention to. 

Click HERE for a word wall freebie! Included are lowercase letter cards and a few high-frequency word cards to help get you started. Enjoy!

Using a word wall can be such a powerful tool for the writers within our classroom. Let me know what questions you have about creating a word wall in the comments below. Please share any tips or advice about the word wall as well! 

Conferring Tips

Conferring Tips

Last week we discussed how a basic reading conference goes. This week we’re discussing tips to help make conferring a bit easier.

Conferring Tips

What are some other tips for teachers conferring? What questions do you have about conferring? Let me know in the comments below. We can learn so much from each other! 

Balanced Literacy: Planning for Teaching During Independent Work Time

Balanced Literacy: Planning for Teaching During Independent Work Time

Welcome back to our balanced literacy series! Today the focus is on planning for teaching during independent work time. What happens after you’ve sent the kids off the carpet? You know, when they’re all reading different books and writing different stories?  Let’s talk about different options you have and how to know when to choose what. 

Don’t forget to stop by every Tuesday  to gain a better insight into using a balanced literacy framework within your classroom! 

Off You Go!

You just taught a fabulous 7-12 minute mini-lesson and ended with those three magical and inspiring words. Your readers or writers leap off the carpet ready for action but… you linger in the chair. What now? What is your off you go? There are so many variables that could happen next for you and there is no coach in your classroom everyday to guide your choices. Let’s talk about them and ease your mind a bit so that the next time you say off you go you can go off with just as much confidence as your students! 

Reading: Now What?

First things first before you can work with your readers you need to know where they are. Perhaps your school uses F&P BAS to assess readers throughout the year. Maybe your school uses DRA. Hopefully your school has some sort of system in place to assess readers. If not, it’s your lucky day because now you can become the advocate for your school. Research the systems available and determine which one would work best for your students. I advocated to switch from DRA to BAS at my current school and it took two whole years to do the convincing but now we switched and wouldn’t look back! 

So before you can begin teaching readers you need to assess readers. You need to know exactly where they are. What is your baseline? What do they know and can do independently? What do they partially know but still need teaching on? What do they not yet know at all? You need to be able to answer these three questions for each reader in your class and the class as a whole. Then you need to determine what is the critical next step in teaching that they can work to take on independently and how you’re going to teach them. Let’s go! 

One on One Instruction

Conferring is the primary mode of one on one instruction in reading. There are many different types of conferences you can have with your students. I usually begin my year or my unit with compliment only conferences. This reinforces the skills that students know while I jot down everything they’re going to need to work on within the unit. Then I choose what students I will confer with to meet goals and what students I would prefer to use a small group for.

Some years I have conferred with all readers and done no groups. Some years I have conferred with a limited amount. It all depends on your readers and you. 

Group Instruction

Small group instruction in reading can come in two different forms. Guided reading groups or strategy groups each have their own purposes and structures. It is up to you to decide which is best for your readers. If your readers are grade 2 or above you might also consider book clubs. We won’t talk about book clubs today and instead focus on the other methods. I am going to say this right now so that we’re all clear. Ready to listen? THERE IS NO ROUND ROBIN READING IN ANY OF THESE GROUPS. None. Don’t even think about it. Don’t. Ok, now that you know, let’s talk about each one. 

Guided Reading

During a guided group all students will be at the same level and will all read the same book. Guided reading lessons last for 15-20 minutes. During the lesson the teacher will introduce a new text, students will read the text at their own pace and the teacher will listen in, afterwards the teacher will lead the students in a comprehension conversation. Sometimes a guided reading group also includes word work.

Strategy Group

During a strategy group all students might be at different levels and reading different books. They will be practicing the same strategy or skill. Strategy groups don’t last very long maybe only a week or two, sometimes less. The teacher will teach the skill or strategy and each child will practice in their own text at their own level. Sometimes the teacher will provide the text sometimes students choose what text to bring. Strategy groups will last 10-15 minutes. 

Conferring

Conferring is one-on-one with just a student and the teacher. The teacher typically follows the Research, Decide, Compliment, Teach method. First the teacher will observe and research the skills the reader has and does not have yet. The teacher will decide what teaching is best for this student next. Then the teacher will compliment the reader to reinforce a skill they have. Next the teacher will teach a new skill and practice it a few times with the reader before the reader is left on their own. This lasts about 5-7 minutes. 

Writing: Now What?

One on One Instruction

I would have to say that this is the form of student & teacher work that I engage in most often in writing. I do small group instruction from time to time but have found that writers need more one on one instruction. This is just my personal experience. Take it with a grain of salt because you know your writers better than I do… I don’t even know them at all. Conferring is the name of the game. 

Group Instruction

Sometimes there is a need to pull a strategy group together. When I taught grade 3, I pulled a strategy group on using paragraphs once. Last week I pulled a strategy group on putting spaces between our words when we write. Group instruction should be between 10-15 minutes and should be short term. 

What Now?

Create a document that shows what your readers know and what sort of know and what they don’t yet know. Similar to this one I’ve created below. Please know that these are made up children and are in no way based on actual students in my class currently or in my class previously. I believe it is really important to keep all student data private. The example listed is just for reading. 

 

In looking at this data I might want to do a whole class mini-lesson on 1:1 matching. I realize that we don’t all have a class size of 10… I don’t have a class size of 10! 

Depending on the students I could pull Amari, Ania, Filip, and Oscar into a strategy group on fluency. Since these are just made up children we don’t really know much else about their fluency. As the teacher of your class you would know more details. 

Michael and Rick might get pulled into a guided reading group together. They can work to build high frequency words and work on their 1:1 matching skills. 

Kuba and Piotr might work well in a guided reading group. Kuba might do more of the work during a text introduction while Piotr might do a little more of the work during the conversation that follows reading. Victor could also fall into this group if his needs were similar. Victor could also be a candidate for conferring. 

Randy would be a good candidate for conferring because he needs to work on skills that don’t necessarily match the other readers. 

Knowing your students is the key to responsive teaching. Try to make a chart like this for your class. You might want to add columns to reflect the zone of proximal development. One column could be for known skills, one for skills within the zone of proximal development, and one for unknown skills. This will help you start to look at your class. You might notice that you need to add in a whole class mini-lesson on something. Knowing your readers and writers is essential to teaching. Take the week and get to know your kids! 

What's Next?

Each Tuesday a new post will appear giving you more insight into the life of a balanced literacy teacher! Next week our post will focus on conferring during independent reading or writing time.

Use the comments section to ask any lingering questions or leave any comments with things I can do to better help you on this journey to implementing a balanced literacy framework within your classroom.

How do you look at student data? How do your observations guide your instruction? What questions do you have about planning for instruction?