A Class Gratitude Activity

A Class Gratitude Activity

Tap Someone WHo

Has your class ever had a moment (or several) where it seems like they just can’t get along? Does every little moment turn into a small tiff? When that happens, it is best to pause the academic learning and work on some social-emotional learning. It’s time for a class gratitude activity! Tap Someone Who is the perfect one. I learned this activity at summer camp, and I have played it with adults, teens, first graders, and everyone in between.

Summer Camp

When I was a junior in high school, I was a counselor in training at the summer camp I attended as a camper. It was so exciting and so overwhelming. We spent a few weeks at the camp, pretending we were the real cool camp counselors we had looked up to since we were kids. BUT so much time with such few people in the woods can lead to a bit of drama. We were at each other. We argued about everything and anything; it was not good. After attempting to get us to work through training, our counselor lost it! I don’t blame her. We were really pushing the limits. So, she kicked us all out of our cabin. We were sent to different parts of the camp with our notebooks to sit in reflection. This was serious. We scattered all around and were eventually called back to the cabin.

I was nervous walking back, what was going to happen? When we returned, it was a calm environment. We didn’t get yelled at. We got to reset as a group by playing Touch Someone Who. It was such a wonderful experience. A chance for all of us to show the appreciation that we weren’t showing earlier. A chance to reset together and remember that we do care about one another. Since this experience at camp, I’ve played this game in many different settings, both as a participant and a leader. It is always such an enjoyable and powerful experience. 

Preparing for the Activity

This class gratitude activity is perfect when your class is about to have or is already having a meltdown. It is also the ideal activity for right before or after a break. It is also an excellent activity for Valentine’s Day. Isn’t Valentine’s (not Valentimes!) Day all about showing appreciation?

Before you begin, you’ll also want to plan out which students you’ll call up together. Ideally, it would be between 3-5 students depending on the size of your class. I try not to call friends up together because then they get a little rowdy, and they might not know who to tap. It’s always good if kids have a go-to friend that they can tap if they aren’t sure who to tap. Once you plan out your groups, write the students’ names on the transition cards. Please know that the first group goes on Direction Card 8.

I have included a color copy of the transition cards. You might want to print them out on colored paper, so they stick out in the pile.

After you’ve planned out the groups to call up together, read through the different descriptors, and pick which ones are best for your group. Use the blank cards to add in additional ones specific to your class or school and eliminate the ones that aren’t right for you. If you have any additional suggestions, please email me or comment below! I like to plan that each group starts their tapping with lighter statements and then moves into deeper statements. The last statement of the game is always “tap someone who touched your heart,” and I make sure I tap every student for that card. 

See how many descriptor cards you’ve picked and how many groups you have. Stick the transition cards in between the Tap Someone cards, so you’re all set. I like to hole punch all the cards and put them on a binder ring; then they’re easier to manage during the activity.

I really like to set the mood a little bit. You don’t have to do this, but it does make things feel a bit cozier, a bit more comfortable. I like to dim the lights or turn them off entirely, depending on how dark your space gets. I also play some relaxing music softly in the background. I’ve found that sort of touch calms down the environment and sets the tone for the activity.

Keep in mind that you know your students the best. There have been years I didn’t do these things because it wasn’t right for my class.

Gather Your Class for A Class Gratitude Activity

Gather your class at the carpet and have them sit in a circle to explain the directions. I ask that all students hold questions until the end. I have scripted out direction cards in the set. Know that you may need to make changes to fit your teaching style and your class. Do what’s best for you! 

Possible DIrection Script

“We need to sit in a circle.”
-wait for your kids to get into a circle
-make sure that kids are sitting next to someone who will allow them to focus on the activity.
-have students face inwards for the directions and then turn around when the game is about to start.
-I usually dim the lights during the directions to help set the mood.

“Today, we’re going to do a gratitude activity. Gratitude means showing appreciation or giving thanks. Today we’re appreciating our community. We work together every day, and it is nice to pause from time to time and let others know that you notice good things about them, and you’re glad we’re all together in this class. I’m going to explain the directions of our activity now. Please save your questions until the end because I might answer them as I explain.

In this activity, you will face the outside of the circle and gently close your eyes. We won’t turn around until the directions are finished. I will call students to the center silently, so no one knows who is in the middle of the circle. If you are tapped, you’ll have to be extra quiet. Then I will read out statements, and the people in the middle will gently tap people in our community who match the statement.

When you are picked to come to the middle, you will get a chance to show gratitude for the different members of our community. If you are sitting around the circle, you will receive appreciation. If you get tapped after I say ‘tap someone who…’ you’ll stay in your spot and quietly reflect on why someone appreciates you. It might be for something you knew you’d get tapped for, and it might be unexpected.

I might read a card that says, ‘tap someone who makes you laugh.’ If you’re in the middle, you’ll gently tap people on the head or shoulder who make you laugh. Sometimes you might respectfully tap a few people. Sometimes you might only tap one.
When someone taps you, don’t turn around to try to figure out who it is- accept their appreciation. It isn’t about who gets the most taps or who is tapping you- its that you’re an important member of our community, and we’re glad you’re here.
People in the middle with get to show appreciation for a few statements before we switch.

Sometimes it can be tricky to remember if a tap means I appreciate you or if a tap means to come to the middle.
If I say, ‘tap someone who…’ and you get tapped, you stay where you are.
But if I say, ‘when I tap your shoulder, please come to the middle,’ you’ll come to the middle. If you’re not sure, pause, and I will repeat what I said. Listening closely will help us be successful.

For everyone to feel safe during this activity, the taps must be gentle. You can tap someone on top of the head or the shoulder. You must tap them gently and with respect. The point of this activity is to build appreciation and show gratitude. If we aren’t safe, people won’t feel appreciated.”
-Demonstrate acceptable touches.

“What questions do you have?”

“Please turn and face the outside of the circle. When I tap you on the shoulder, please come to the middle.”
*Tap the students who are in the first group*

Possible Trouble

When Do I Go In The Middle?

Sometimes groups struggle to understand when they come to the middle and when they don’t. It may be nice to ring a chime during the transition time. Explain that if they hear the bell once and they are tapped, it means to come to the middle of the circle. If they hear the bell twice, that means stay in your spot. It is also helpful to repeat those directions several times before tapping anyone during the transition and after the transition. It may also be beneficial to practice the transition a few times before turning around so students can see how it will go. 

Students Without Many Taps

Some students might receive fewer taps than other students. Please watch for these students and ensure that they are tapped from time to time. There are some statements that I tap each student in my class. Sometimes I also play a sneaky trick where I change up how I’m tapping students, so they don’t always know it’s me. Maybe I’m not fooling anyone, but I like to think I am. 

Tapping Too Hard

Some students might tap too hard. Please review that tapping is to be kind and gentle. Students should feel appreciated when they are tapped, not injured. Make sure you explain exactly where the tap can be placed on the body. We usually do tops of the heads and shoulders. 

discussion

The discussion is one of the most valuable parts of this class gratitude activity. It is so important to conclude with a discussion and a brief reflection. Sometimes there’s so much energy that I prompt students to turn and talk with a partner about their experience. Sometimes there’s a calm feeling as students turn around, and then I dive right into the prompts. Feel the room and decide what’s best for your group. 

“When you are finished, please sit down.”

*Wait for participants in the middle to sit down and then take a few seconds to pause before calling everyone back*

“Take a moment, open your eyes, and turn back to face the middle of the circle when you’re ready.”

*During the conversation, no one should be forced to share. If no one wants to open up about their experience right away, that is ok. Let participants share when they are ready.*

Here are some possible discussion questions. There are additional blank cards if you need to add any questions to fit the needs of your group. 

I do try to steer the conversation away from how many taps people got and try to guide it towards how do you feel? Why was this class gratitude activity important? 

  • How did this make you feel?
  • Why is it important to show each other we care?
  • How did it feel when someone tapped you?
  • Were you surprised by any of the taps you got? 
  • Were there any statements you wished I had said?
  • How did it feel when you got to tap someone? 
  • Why do you think we kept our eyes closed, so we didn’t know who was in the middle? 
  • How did you feel at the beginning? How do you feel now? 
  • How can we continue this feeling of appreciation for the rest of our day? 

Depending on the flow of the conversation, you might only use a few discussion questions, or you might use a lot of them. 

Download Tap Someone Who

Click here to visit the resources page of Ms. Natasha Theodora and download Tap Someone Who.

Please come back once you’ve completed the activity with your class and share any tips or comments that will help others along the class gratitude journey! 

Friday Five: Building Community Through Morning Meeting

Kids standing together to build community in morning meeting

Morning Meeting- Building Community One Morning At a Time

One

Good Morning, Sunshine!

Morning meeting begins with a greeting. The greeting helps build community because it allows students to say hello to each other and to settle into the learning space for the day. We, as teachers at meetings, also like to have time to say hello to each other before we begin the work we have at meetings. Kids want the same opportunity, and it isn’t tough to facilitate it.  

Greetings can be opportunities to get silly with your class. Just a few weeks ago, we did a greeting in different silly voices, and some kids laughed so hard they cried. The greeting can also be a time to reaffirm one another through compliments or to catch up on our weekends. Coming together as a group is a great way to begin the day. 

On the first day of each new week, our class shares one smile and one frown from the weekend. These smiles and frowns help kids make connections with one another. Oh, you fell when you were skiing this weekend and hurt your arm? Once that happened to me. I went to a birthday party too! Did you eat cake? Through smiles and frowns, we build connections as a class. We also work to develop empathy as we hear about different events in each other’s lives. Now, not everyone is forced to share a smile and a frown because that would take away the safety of the space created through morning meetings. Kids may also share two smiles if they don’t have a frown. The rules are flexible.

Two

Routines Are Life

Kids thrive in routines. Kids knowing exactly what is going to happen first thing in the morning creates a calm start to the day. Usually, around October, kids in my class start to go through the motions of morning meeting all on their own. When I taught first grade a few years ago, a parent needed to speak with me at the start of the day. As I was in the hall, the bell to start the day rang. When I stepped back into my classroom a few moments later, the kids were just finishing up the greeting. Routines are life!

Three

Conflict Resolution

Morning meetings can solve so many of those little issues in the classroom. We frequently have community problem-solving time at the end of the morning meeting. Sometimes kids make small announcements like, I had to pick up ten pencils yesterday that kids just left on the floor. Can you please remember to put your pencils back? Other times I’ll use the activity time of morning meeting to build each other up when we’re having a tough time getting along. Doing a quick compliment chain can change up your classroom environment. Creating a strong community makes a world of difference in the classroom, and conflict resolutions is a large part of that.

FOur

Build Conversation Skills

During morning meetings, we don’t do hand raising (*usually*). We learn how to have conversations together. We’re learning life skills like two people cannot talk at the same time because neither one is heard. We learn how to add on to someone’s ideas. We learn what to happen when two people begin talking at the same time. Knowing basic conversation skills is essential, and morning meeting is the perfect time to practice them and work through the tricky parts.

Five

Do What Works For You

I know the morning meeting format is greeting, share, activity, and morning message. I don’t follow that format exactly. When I taught first grade, we did the greeting, School Tools TV, schedule, and Daily Dendrite Challenge. We also had a feeling word each week that we discussed in depth. Now that I am teaching third, we do it a little bit differently. We typically do a greeting, School Tools TV, and then an activity. On Tuesdays, we always have some sort of quick check-in or lesson on the Zones of Regulation. 

Don’t be afraid to customize morning meeting to fit your style. At the end of the day, our goal is to connect as a community and create a strong bond together. There are many different paths to the same outcome. Do what works for you! 

Do you use morning meetings in your classroom? What benefits do you see? Do you stick to the Responsive Classroom structure or make it your own? I’d love to hear more in the comments below! 

Student Independence from Day One

Student Independence from Day One

The Big Goal

Student Independence

Student independence is key. In fact, my whole goal for my students is to be able to do whatever I teach them on their own. Without me. This independence applies to everything. I want them to connect mathematical ideas on their own. Those decoding skills I teach during conferring, I want them to do it once I walk away. I want them to know what to do when the fire alarm goes off. I want them to know what to do if they make a mistake or need to go to the bathroom. My goal for them is independence. I’m not going to be with them every step of the way. They need to be able to function without me

Independence is a life skill. Employers don’t want employees who ask what to do every single step of the way. That’s obnoxious. They want employees who can complete tasks independently and ask for help when they need it. Independence is a crucial life skill, and we can begin teaching it when kids are young like first grade (and lower). I taught first, but I have also taught second and third, and I have successfully created independent learners in all three grade levels. Some years with more success than others. Here’s how I do it. 

Fostering the Student Independent Spirit

Eventually, students leave our classrooms, and we want the skills they attained within the school to stay with them. To do this, we must create a culture of independence in our classroom and instill independence in each student. Developing student independence is not an easy task, and there are many struggles and bumps along the road. If we persevere as educators, we are creating a better future.  Here are some of the ways I help foster the independent spirit in my elementary classroom.

Let them do it

If students can do it by themselves, they do it by themselves. There is no task that I do for my students if I know they can do it on their own. For example, sometimes tying your shoes is hard, but if you can do it, then you do it. 

Create an Internal Dialogue

Asking questions back to students that they should already know the answer to- in a POLITE way. Not sassing a student when they ask to sharpen a pencil. Place a thought in their head and letting them solve the problem. If I hear, “Ms. Rice, can I sharpen my pencil?” I ask them, “What are the rules? Is now a time for pencil sharpening? How could you solve this problem?” I then see the wheels turning. They have been prompted to think of the classroom procedures and then decide for themselves.

Let’s be real, sometimes the wheels aren’t turning (we all have those days) and then I direct them to the place in the classroom where they can find the answer. 

Don’t Answer Their Every Question

Yes, part of our role as teachers is to answer questions, but we don’t have to answer every single question.  A few years ago, a few kids were gathered around our globe, and they were wondering why earthquakes exist. I could have just answered their questions right there, and then they would know. If I did that, they wouldn’t learn anything other than the information I share. Instead, if I ask questions back to them and lead them in the right direction, they might learn a few transferrable scientific or research skills. So I said, “Wow! That’s an excellent question. What do you think we could do to figure that out?” They were so excited! Kids ran off to see if we had books about earthquakes. Another group wanted to go to the library to search; some wanted to send an email to older kids to see if they knew. Next time they had a question, they knew what they could do to find the answer all on their own.

Connect Them

Let them lead each other. Kids learn best from each other anyway, so why not let them. What a better way to develop student independence? When a kid comes to me and asks about using quotations in stories, I can say, “You know what? Have you asked Tyler? He knows all about it.” Recently I did this with Seesaw. Some kids weren’t putting anything in folders, and some had everything in folders, and one recommended new folders to me when assignments didn’t seem to fit the ones given. I connected the folderless ones with the folder ones for about a month. Now everything is in folders, and I don’t have to worry about it at all. Connect them to each other. 

Consider Your Environment 

Think about how your classroom is set up? Is it student-friendly? Can your students access the supplies that they will need? Can the kids move easily around the room? Are the math manipulatives available? Are books accessible? Paper? Pencils? 

Make your supplies available to the kids. In my classroom, all of our books are available in the classroom library. All of our math manipulatives are in an organizer that kids have access to all of the time. Kid supplies are available and are at a kid-friendly height. 

How Do You Include Student Independence?

Independence is an essential life skill. One that if we work at it right away, students will improve daily and continue to grow even outside of the walls of our classrooms. If students can be independent in our hallways, they can be independent at Target, at the movie theater, or even while walking home from school. Transferable skills should be the main focus of our teaching. If it doesn’t transfer outside of our classrooms, what is the point?

How do you work to foster student independence in your classroom? I would love to hear from you in the comments below! 

Brag Tags- I tried them and I didn’t love it

Brag Tags- I tried them and I didn’t love it

What's a Brag Tag?

Brag tags hit the world of teaching a few years ago. Although the concept, providing students with a token for doing something, wasn’t anything new, they were redesigned and better than ever. I was teaching second-grade and kept getting passive-aggressive feedback about how my teaching wasn’t cute. When I switched grade levels, I decided to become a cute teacher, and I hated it! 😂It’s just not my style.

Here are a few examples of Brag Tags I handed out in my classroom. Of course, I purchased a few bundles from TPT, but in true Natasha fashion, I ended up making my own to fit the needs of my class better. 

What's the Problem?

I know there are many brag tag lovers, and in the short term, they work beautifully. My assistant teacher and I handed them out and praised students and felt like we were building such a little positive community. What we were doing was bribing kids into good behavior. Now, I am not above a bit of bribe now and then. 😉Sometimes you need kids to behave in the short term, let’s say during a special event, and it works. But I don’t show up to school every day focused on the short-term. I am focused on assisting in the development of awesome little humans for the long haul. 

I'm Bad at Passing Stuff Out

After the beginning of the year, when the joy of our brag tags was wearing off, I started to forget to pass any out. See, our class had already learned expected behaviors, and they were following them without anything. I didn’t need to give hundreds of reminders to sit at the carpet or not touch people in line. They were doing it, just as I expected they would. I found that when kids are following expectations, I don’t think much about behavior, and I would forget to pass them out. I quickly realized if you don’t need the bribe a few weeks into the school year, you probably didn’t need it in the first place. Sometimes as teachers, we set up scaffolds that our students don’t need! This was one scaffold that I thought students needed, but they didn’t.

They Wanted to Barter

While most students were content to follow expectations and pitch in for the greater good of our community, some wanted rewards for everything they did. I had a few students coming to me all day long, sharing all of the things they had done that they felt earned them a brag tag. This was a side effect that I didn’t want! The goal of using brag tags wasn’t to have students only do good things if they got something for it in return. I had to make a rule that if you ask for a brag tag or share the good stuff you did hoping to get a brag tag, you wouldn’t get it. To earn one, my assistant teacher and I had to notice it all on our own, so you never knew when you were going to get one. I had to restate that rule over and over again.

Coming to a Slow Stop

Gradually, over the first quarter, I started handing out brag tags less and less until I completely stopped. My assistant teacher and I would remind each other to pass them out, and we wouldn’t. Then students would say comments like, “Wow! No one has gotten a brag tag in a long time.” My assistant teacher and I would make eye contact across the classroom 😳, and we’d carry on. We would go long periods without handing any out because they didn’t need them.

We’d eventually have a conversation with our class explaining that we didn’t need brag tags, and we would only hand them out on special occasions. The students understood. Brag tags were like training wheels on a bike. We used to need them, and now we didn’t- except, did we ever actually need them?

How DO They Behave Without a Reward?

But Natasha, how do they behave if there isn’t a reward? Honestly, sometimes, they don’t! Listen, I am not saying it is easy in the least to get students to follow expectations. I haven’t used brag tags at all this year. I work in a school that believes in investing in students for the long term, so we don’t use short term supports like extrinsic behavior motivators on a regular basis. I’m currently in a book study for Classroom Management Matters, and in the first or second chapter, it discusses extrinsic rewards. I fully admitted in our conversations that sometimes I want to give in and provide extrinsic rewards because it does work short term, and it’s easy. We discuss expectations at the start of the year and revisit them all the time.

What I do Know

I don’t have things figured out entirely, and I don’t know if anyone does. What I do know is that Brag Tags aren’t for me. I would rather put in the exhausting work to create students who can self-regulate without bribes and rewards. Some days I am confident in this choice and other days not so much!

What’s your experience with brag tags been? Any advice to share about non-reward based experiences?

Am I Wrong? Balanced Literacy and the Science of Reading

Am I Wrong? Balanced Literacy and the Science of Reading

Teachers Need Reflection Too

In international teaching, I’ve noticed the conversation of phonics comes up much more with parents than it does in the US. Especially considering the British system (that I admittedly don’t know much about) places a lot of weight on phonics. So, when I saw this debate light up again on Facebook and Instagram this fall, I wanted to learn more. My background with dyslexia, phonics, and guided reading is really skewed, and I’ve never really known what to think about the whole debate. I never really believe that something is 100% the right way and something else is 100% the wrong way. I think things are more on a continuum. I’m going to share my background story with dyslexia and balanced literacy with you so that you know where I am coming from- a very confusing place. I’m not the most credible and knowledgeable voice in this debate. 

My Background

During the beginning of my teaching career, a new reading specialist came into our building. She was studying dyslexia and would share the information she learned from time to time. I found it interesting because I didn’t know a lot about dyslexia and I LOVE to learn!

She would come into my classroom and tell me that in my class of eighteen, at least five students had dyslexia. Or she would come in to share a quick thing she learned about in an article. It felt normal, and our second-grade team liked our morning chats with her until suddenly things weren’t so normal anymore.

The App Diagnosis

One day she found a fantastic app ever that could diagnose dyslexia in children. I was skeptical of this app at best. I don’t believe that it is our job to diagnose children, and I don’t believe a new app is how to do it. She came in unannounced to test it out on my class during reader’s workshop. Not only was she extremely disruptive to the flow of our classroom during this time, but she also ended up diagnosing my entire class with dyslexia. I brushed this off and continued teaching, surely my whole class didn’t have dyslexia, right?

She then started printing off worksheet after worksheet and dropping off stacks in my classroom to help with my 100% dyslexic class. I was overwhelmed by this. This interventionist was known to blow up at teachers, so I always accepted the worksheets, and they found their way to the recycling. I didn’t want conflict (type 9 enneagram here!), but I did not want all of these resources. My kids were showing growth using balanced literacy, and if they were showing growth, I didn’t see a need to change.

Working Together

Later on that year, we decided one of my students who was reading at a level K in mid-March would benefit from some time with a reading interventionist. They needed to work on decoding longer words and deeper level comprehension. They weren’t too far behind grade level, so the team figured a short term intervention would give them the boost they needed. We also knew they would thrive in a 1:1 setting, and short-term interventions like this had helped them in the past.

The interventionist that worked with our grade level was all booked up, so this student went to the dyslexia researcher. After one session, she came into my classroom screaming (when my whole class was enjoying snack) that the kid couldn’t read at all. She was yelling and blaming me for being a lousy teacher by teaching balanced literacy in front of all of my students!

No teacher wants to hear they’re not doing a good job- especially in front of their whole class. We’re all doing the best with what we have. I was following our district curriculum, and there wasn’t anything else I could have done. What she was ranting about was super confusing to me, too, because they were reading Frog and Toad and loving them. They could decode at a level K and comprehend for the most part. Something happened when they tried an L, and they needed a bit more help. This student was reading Nate the Great and solving mystery after mystery how were they unable to read? What does that even mean? They were reading every single day with me.

What Was the Reading Intervention?

When she started working with them, she focused on teaching them phonics instead of doing the intervention that we had discussed as a team. During our class phonics lessons, they did reasonably well. I’m not sure what work they were doing with her because whenever I asked, she talked in circles and threw out names of programs. She would argue all the time that she was Orton Gillingham trained. I didn’t care about her training. I knew Orton Gillingham and had seen it work wonders with kids. I wanted to know what their intervention consisted of so that I could support that work in our classroom. I would try to ask more specific questions, but she would not break down the 30-minute lesson and explain what she was doing. It was beyond frustrating. 

How Can I Support This Child?

Soon, they had slipped back to a level J and then to a level I. One day I handed them our story during guided reading, and they declared that they couldn’t read books and gave the book back; they asked for a list of words. I didn’t understand what was going on. How could this kid who loved books suddenly refuse to read books? I had my literacy coach come in and observe because let’s be real- I was panicking. I needed to figure out what to do next. My literacy coach was also confused. She was their reading interventionist the year before and said she was shocked by some of the things she saw them doing. 

As I worked with my literacy coach to try to figure out what I could do to support this little diamond, she was also stumped. She asked what they were working on in intervention. I filled her in on all the strange conversations I had and that I didn’t know what was happening. She said that she’s sure dyslexia is underdiagnosed but is also confident that my whole class probably doesn’t have it. And even if this diamond does have dyslexia, this intervention isn’t working.

It Kept Getting Weirder

Even stranger things happened after this. The interventionist went into one of my colleague’s classrooms and took all the Mo Willems books declaring that students should read dumb stuff. She started trying to start rumors about our literacy coach, even coming and asking me if I was being treated ok by her. She went low and said that the lit coach’s daughter had dyslexia, and that’s why she was anti-dyslexia. Our lit coach wasn’t anti-dyslexia but got accused of a whole bunch because she was leading us in balanced literacy. She went into another room and told the teacher classroom libraries were dumb and unnecessary. She launched attack after attack on our literacy coach via Facebook posts. I unfriended her because I don’t want to be associated with teachers who attack each other on Facebook. More things happened, but you get the gist.

To be honest, I never understood why dyslexia and balanced literacy were at war. Why was she so anti our balanced literacy framework? The way I understood it was dyslexic students needed something different than what was provided in a balanced literacy framework. There are, of course, kids who need different teaching than the teaching happening in the classroom. Shouldn’t we accommodate them? 

More Than A Little Confused

As you can imagine, that experience left me more than a little bit confused about dyslexia. All I knew was a kid who was doing well in reading got an unofficial dyslexia diagnosis by a teacher who wasn’t the most stable, and then he got worse and worse as a reader. His reading level at the end of the year was lower than at the start of the year. 

Logically I knew that this was an odd case, and she wasn’t the greatest, but it was tough to get past all of her irrational and abrasive behavior. After this incident, I didn’t think about dyslexia for a long time. 

Phonics P.D.

Then, a few years ago my school (a different one than the school above) had professional development with the principal from a school that specializes in dyslexia. She talked a lot about the importance of phonics. We reviewed phonics rules and I met with her one on one to discuss the teaching of phonics. We had just switched to Fountas and Pinnell Phonics and it was the first time our school had a phonics/ word study program. We talked for a long time about what rules to teach kids and what rules not to teach, how to build in phonics support into the reading and writing workshop. If I could work for this principal I would. She was so knowledgable and I left her session with millions of ideas to pull into the classroom. It didn’t seem as though there was a huge disconnect from what I was doing in my classroom using balanced literacy and the phonics PD that I attended. They seemed to work in harmony which was the opposite of what I had always been told. 

Phonics is a Part of Balanced Literacy

I feel there is a misconception that phonics is not taught in a balanced literacy framework. That isn’t true (if things are happening correctly- I know sometimes they aren’t). Phonics is taught in part of the program, often referred to as word study. The way phonics is taught depends on what program or philosophy a school is following. I’ve used Fountas and Pinnell Phonics, which follows the workshop approach and teaches in on one specific phonics piece each lesson. I’ve also used Words Their Way and Word Journeys to teach phonics through sorting and making connections between other words. I would say the whole goal of word study in balanced literacy is for skills to transfer back into reading and writing. We might not teach all of the cute phonics rhymes we learned as kids. This is usually because the cute rhymes tie in with the exceptions, not the rules. Perhaps people behind the Science of Reading would like a more rigorous phonics component to balanced literacy. I’m not opposed to that, and I don’t think many are. We want to teach transferrable phonics skills to our kids as phonics knowledge is needed for decoding. 

M,S,V and the Science of Reading

Last year I led our school in learning Fountas and Pinnell’s Benchmark Assessment System, and part of that system is MSV. If you don’t know, MSV stands for Meaning, Structure, and Visual. These are considered the three cueing system readers use as they read. When readers encounter an unknown word and attempt to decode it, they ask: Does this make sense? Does this sound right? Does this look right? Often in a balanced literacy approach, more weight is placed on meaning than on phonics for the in the moment decoding while reading. 

While preparing for that training, I came across research that MSV wasn’t valid, and I read it. I knew that there were teachers extremely frustrated by B.A.S., and they would find this research. I also think it is good practice to read things that you disagree with. It furthers your reflection and your own ideas. What I found was fascinating. Researchers show that the English language is much more decodable than we’ve been led to believe. It is a topic that I would like to learn about more. I do notice that children who come into our schools from the British system are much, much better decoders but have limited comprehension skills.

I recently joined a Facebook group for teachers who support the Science of Reading. Currently, I’m disappointed I haven’t learned more from the group as it is right now focused on bashing balanced literacy programs and leaders and less focused on sharing information on the science of reading. Hopefully, I can begin to learn more from them as a teacher.

So, Am I Wrong?

It isn’t a good feeling to think that you’re wrong about your core beliefs on a topic, but it is a good time for reflection. Am I wrong? Should I stop using a balanced literacy approach and focus more on phonics? The Science of Reading people say yes. I don’t know, but I don’t think so at this moment. I want to learn more and strengthen my phonics instruction, and I don’t believe that kids in younger grades should just read decodable texts, BUT I do think decodables are beneficial for some readers. 

Could we include more decodable reading within the phonics portion of balanced literacy? What compromises could be made to support both? I don’t know but I am sure there are some.

This whole debate reminded me of a conversation we had with a literacy consultant at the start of the year. We were providing a scaffolded support tool that the majority of students actually didn’t need. We removed that support from the kids who didn’t need it and kept it for the kids who did need it. I feel like giving all kids decodables instead of the books they currently have would be similar. We would be putting up supports for all kids that they might not need. Dyslexia is underdiagnosed, and teachers need a lot more support and education in this area. I am sure that what works for dyslexic students will work for all students, but is it what’s best for them? I don’t know. I’m going to continue to research and listen to both sides of the argument. We’ll see what I discover. 

Additional Resources

The Science of Reading

Please know that if you’re using a balanced literacy approach some of these may be hard to read because of the teacher-bashing in them. I’m not about that. Couldn’t we have this debate without bashing teachers and name-calling? 

What is the Science of Reading?

Beyond the Reading Wars: How the Science of Reading Can Improve Literacy

The Science of Teaching Reading

The Science of Reading- A PowerPoint Presentation

Timothy Shanahan Blog

 

Balanced Literacy

I’m only including the responses from Lucy Calkins and Irene and Gay Su Pinnell because they’re the only responses I know of right now. If you know of additional responses please share them in the comments.

No One Gets To Own the Term “Science of Reading” -Lucy Calkins

A Word on Phonics with Fountas and Pinnell

Thoughts?

Let’s build a productive conversation around this topic in the comments below. 

What are your thoughts? What does your education and experience lead you to? 

Just a forewarning, any teacher-bashing comments will be deleted. That isn’t productive for either side. Try to figure out a way to phrase your comment in a way that doesn’t bash the teacher but teaches.