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
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
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.
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
Sing and Sign by Jack Hartmann
What do the Letters Say by Have Fun Teaching
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!
Welcome back to our balanced literacy series! Today the focus is on the essentials of workshop model teaching. This post is meant to build a collective understanding of the workshop model used for readers and writers workshop. If you haven’t read the first two posts of the series, take a minute right now to read about the framework and the components. Don’t forget to stop by every Tuesday to gain a better insight on using a balanced literacy framework within your classroom!
Workshop Shifts In Understandings
One of the major shifts in moving to a balanced literacy framework is the role the teacher plays and the role the student plays. The role of the teacher used to be to have all the knowledge and dispense that knowledge to students. The teacher was the expert in the room and the students trained to catch as much of that expert knowledge as they could. This is style of teaching is often referred to as a sage on the stage. If you were to peek into a classroom often we would see students sitting around a teacher probably at their desks and the teacher standing in front of the classroom for the majority of class time. The focus was on the teacher giving information to the students. This teaching style doesn’t match best practices anymore and it doesn’t work for developing 21st century learners.
In a workshop model the teacher is often seen sitting one on one with kids thinking about all that this child knows and pushing their thinking slightly further in one area or another. Think back to the zone of proximal development post. A teacher knows where each child is in the continuum of learning to read or write. She can then analyze student errors, miscues or self corrects (in reading) and then guide the child with teaching directly targeting a skill in their zone of proximal development. A teacher in this model is a guide on the side. Instead of having children spend the majority of their time listening to the teacher dispense knowledge they spend the majority of the time practicing skills that their teacher had taught them. In a workshop model the teacher only gives whole class direct instruction for 10 minutes. Then the role of the teacher shifts to coach as she walks around and guides each student individually or in small groups.
This shift in how time is spent in the classroom allows students time to practice their craft. What good does it do if one day I teach you all the ways to decode multisyllabic words and then I give you 5 minutes to practice it at the end of class through a worksheet? It doesn’t help you at all. What if I teach you two ways to decode multisyllabic words and then give you 35 minutes to read a book and try it there? Not only letting you try it on your own but I spend a few minutes with you listening in and then coaching your specific need. That sounds like it is extremely beneficial for students. I can tell you from experience that it is. The workshop model allows students more time to practice skills through authentic situations.
As I’m sure you’ve gathered differentiating using this model of teaching is extremely easy. First of all, each child will be reading or writing on their own at their own level. Then the teacher is pushing in and coaching 1:1 or in small groups to target the ZPD of each student. Each student is getting exactly what they need. It doesn’t matter if in your third grade class you have a child reading at a fourth grade level and one at a first. Both students are receiving the instruction they need to move forward as a reader.
The workshop model also promotes independent problem solving in students. The role of the teacher is not to provide right answers but to guide students to right answers. Through workshop I teach my students many independent life skills. My little gems are taught how to staple in writer’s workshop. What do I do if my pencil breaks? What if I finish reading all of my books? These are situations where students traditionally might come and ask a teacher what they should do or sometimes as for permission to do things. In a balanced literacy framework a lot of responsibility falls on the students. This is a good thing! It helps to create independent thinkers. Kids in your class don’t need to ask you for permission to do everything. Supplies should be accessible to them. They should know how to problem solve on their own! We want our students to be independent thinkers and doers. Workshop helps to foster those skills.
The workshop model is designed to use one hour of instructional time. This means that if you are teaching reading and writing workshop you would need two hours of time. Now, I don’t have this amount of time in my classroom and I only ever have had it once. At one school they had enough time in the schedule carved out to implement workshop with fidelity. I’m going to explain the ideal circumstances here and then let’s talk real world.
Workshop begins with all students called to the gathering area for a mini-lesson. This means that you’ll want to create a gathering area in your classroom if you don’t have one there already. At my first grade gathering area kids sit at the carpet. When I taught third grade kids were allowed to drag chairs with them but they had to be sitting at the same level as their reading/writing partner. Teachers do this in different ways to meet the different needs of their students. I will say that kids should be gathered close and in one area. Kids sitting around the room at desks doesn’t create the atmosphere desired for workshop.
Once the class has gathered the teacher begins a 10 minute mini-lesson. Here she goes through a format that is predictable to both the teacher and the students. During the mini-lesson a teacher has one teaching point. Only one! She models how to do the teaching point, she has students try out the methods on their own and then she says the magic words, “off you go!” Once these words are said all students get up off of the carpet and go off to work. There aren’t a million questions asked. The teacher doesn’t start giving a million reminders. It is quiet and calm as readers and writers go off to try new things and grow into even better readers and writers.
After the words off you go, I currently go off to read or write for the first three minutes myself. I started this practice when I was teaching third grade in the States. I began one day sitting next to a reader who typically would try his best to avoid books during workshop. I say next to him for 5 minutes reading before going off to confer. In those five minutes he didn’t pick up a book but he watched me as a reader. He said things like, your face is smiling right now or why do you look confused? He started picking up on my facial expressions. When he tried to interrupt I simply stated, “I’m working on my reading right now and you should be too.” I started doing this again in my grade 1 writing classroom. I have some students who can come up with a million questions they want to ask right after I send them off. Now I get my writing folder and find a spot to write. During the three minutes I might move around the room, calming kids with my presence and encouraging that they write. If someone attempts to interrupt I calmly state, “I am working on my writing right now and you should be too.” Then once I go off to start conferring the kids are already working independently.
After the magic words off you go, a teacher gets to work on meeting with students one on one or in small groups depending on student need. During this time the students are working independently. While conferring the teacher is studying the student and watching to find what they can do, what they are almost doing and what they can’t do yet. The teacher then makes a powerful choice and teaches the reader/writer one skill or strategy that fits within their zone of proximal development. The students continue working even if the teacher doesn’t meet with them. If they encounter a problem, they solve it on their own. The students are trying out all of the various strategies that the teacher has taught. The teacher continues the important task of coaching in and guiding each student forward on their journey.
After about 40-45 minutes work time it is time for share. Share is sometimes the most neglected piece of the workshop model but it is very important. The students gather again in the gathering area of the classroom. Sometimes they bring something with them as prompted by the teacher. The students then share out what they are trying, what they are succeeding in, and what they are struggling with. The community of readers or writers comes together to give advice, compliments and ask questions. The share is carefully planned by the teacher. Sometimes share might be a quick turn and talk. Share ties the lesson together and brings it to a close. During share the teacher will reference the teaching point again and now ask for student voices to share what happened when they tried things out.
What do I need to Get Started?
Here’s a list of things you may want before diving into the workshop model.
- A gathering area within your classroom
- An easel to hang things on
- An organizational system for tracking student notes and records
- Assessments of your students as readers and writers. Do you have a general idea of where kids are in your classroom?
- Books for kids to read during reader’s workshop and paper for them to write on during writer’s workshop
- Start to look at your schedule and your language arts time blocks. Do you have 1 hour to carve out for reading and 1 hour for writing? If you don’t, do not panic. Next week we’ll be talking about scheduling and what to do if you don’t have the perfect amounts of time.
- Write all of your questions, comments, concerns in the comments of this post so I can help you out along this journey.
We’re going to stay with workshop a while so we can really get into all of the pieces together. Hopefully you’re starting to feel like taking on workshop and balanced literacy won’t be such a large task. We’re going to break it down into manageable chunks. Start to shift around things in your classroom to prepare for workshop. Let me know all of your questions too so I can help you out.
Each Tuesday a new post will appear giving you more insight into the life of a balanced literacy teacher! Next week our post will center around scheduling. Maybe you’re realizing that you don’t have enough time in the day for this, neither do I. We’ll talk all about what to do about this next week.
Use the comments section to ask any lingering questions or leave any comments so I can better help you on this journey to implementing a balanced literacy framework within your classroom.