How Does Play Change Reading And Writing?

There are many things that I really appreciate about my teaching partner, Paula, but one of the biggest ones is that we connect at the end of every day to discuss our observations, share reflections, contemplate changes, and make future plans. We engage in a lot of “kid talk” and “program talk,” and these conversations often inspire my professional blog posts. I had an epiphany during our discussion on Friday, and as I said to Paula at the time, this thinking would definitely make its way into a blog post. This is that post

For the first time ever, all of our academic skills are taught and reinforced through play. I’ve come close to this change over the past couple of years, but this year, it actually happened. I know that this comment is going to make some people uncomfortable, and at first, it made me uncomfortable too. I definitely see the value in this approach for our students. Here’s what we do, and don’t do, in regards to reading and writing.

    • We don’t do guided reading, or at least, not the typical guided reading. There, I said it! We don’t pull students to a special horseshoe table and work through the same text with each child. We do read and write with our students every single day, and engage in focused mini-lessons that target the next best step for each child. We discuss what these mini-lessons may be, and then we look for opportunities to insert them into play. Sometimes they happen outside. Sometimes they happen on the ground in the midst of block play. Sometimes they happen in dramatic play. And sometimes they happen around a table. Sometimes we just work with a student or two at a time, and sometimes we invite other children to come and join us. Working with students in the midst of play, also means that other children tend to come around, hear what we’re saying, chime in with their own thoughts, and even extend this learning in a different way. Students also see the connection to the play that they’re doing, so when the mini-lessons are over, they are more apt to continue to explore what we were working on. It’s amazing to see, and I don’t know how else to describe it to you, but it truly works!

    • We try to link reading and writing. Just because a child wrote something down, doesn’t necessarily mean that he/she can read it back to you. Having children read their own writing, and the writing of their peers, helps them practise blending sounds in meaningful ways. It allows us to work with them on sound patterns. We still have levelled texts in the classroom, and students still read them — sometimes with us, sometimes with a parent volunteer, and sometimes at home — but the children often focus so much on the picture cues and the predictable pattern that they don’t pay attention to the words. Having students read their writing, our writing, and the writing of their classmates, has them working with letter-sounds more and decoding far higher texts than I’ve had many Kindergarten students decode in the past. 

Today we switched up this little table. We still have magnetic letters, but added chalk and black paper. A few students saw it when they came to before care this morning and started writing. Selina started with the alphabet in the middle. She sang her way to each letter and wrote by memory. When she got to a J, she said, “I don’t know how to make that letter.” Avery offered to help, but Selina persevered and said, “I can try.” She looked to the documentation on the shelf facing the little bench. She said, “Is there a J in here?” She started to point out the letters she saw. Then she looked down on the tray (on the floor beside her) and said, “There’s a J!” She looked at it and wrote her own. “I did it!” Avery started with “at” words on the left side of the alphabet. She then experimented with writing other words phonetically, including silly ones. She then said, “How can I read these? I know!” She blended the sounds together and read even her silly words aloud! I invited Brayden to join in on the right side of the alphabet. He wrote some “at” words. I love how he isolated each letter-sound and wrote down what he heard. He initially wrote “mat” without the “a,” but when prompted to listen for the sound in the middle of the word, he figured out that the A was missing. Then Selina said, “I wrote some of those words yesterday.” I said, “Can you read what Brayden wrote?” So she sounded out each word and read it! Love these quiet learning opportunities that happen before school starts! 💛❤️💙💜💚 #teachersofinstagram #iteachk #ctinquiry

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    • Reading and writing happens everywhere. About three weeks ago, I sat down one day with a group of students eating their lunch. I brought over a clipboard and a marker. I decided to write a lunchtime story. We wrote the story together based on what the children were eating. Other students heard our story and came over so that they could add to it. A JK student even decided to extend our story and add her own couple of sentences. The next day, students requested that we write another one, and we’ve continued with this story time routine. We have the stories on our bookshelf, and a few weeks ago, I caught a couple of students reading one together. This has happened more since then. Some children even bring the older stories over to the snack table to read while they eat.

I share the points above because they’re what led to my first epiphany and later led to a second one. As Paula and I noted in our conversation yesterday, since all of our students write through play, none of them seem to use pattern sentences. There’s voice in their writing. I think about my time as a Grade 1 teacher, and the “I see …” and “I like …” sentence starters that I used all the time. I know that these sentence starters can be a great way to reinforce sight words and encourage some struggling writers to write, but it can be a challenge to have students move beyond these pattern sentences. I remember this struggle when I taught Grade 2. The student writing was often stagnant and lacked voice, but encouraging students to experiment with word choice and extend their thinking was hard, as conventions always seemed to trump ideas. Writing through play is all about ideas. It’s about capturing these ideas in writing, and extending student thinking. Sometimes in Kindergarten, that’s done through writing down more ideas, and sometimes that’s done through artwork, building, drama, music, dance, or conversations. Writing is about communicating, and when we teach and support writing through play-based learning, I think that we also show students the power of the written word and the voice that it carries. 

It was then later on last night that I had my second epiphany. When we teach and reinforce reading skills through play, we produce readers that understand that reading can happen anywhereI’ve noticed that a lot this year. Our students read everything. They want to find out what things say, what they mean, and how they might share similar messages: linking the reading and the writing. This point was driven home yesterday afternoon. It was a beautiful day in Southern Ontario, and we were outside for most of the afternoon. When we went outside, one of our students noticed a new sign on the other side of the gate. He wanted to read it. He asked me if he could go out and have a look at it. A JK student joined him out there, and together, they read the sign with very limited help from me. We then discussed what it meant. What I love about this particular example is that the SK student started the year telling me that he could “only read a Level 2 book” and the JK student started the year just learning the letter-names and sounds. Neither one of them would have considered themselves capable of reading a sign on their own, but now they do. They’re not the only ones! I think that part of producing good readers is helping children believe in themselves and seeing just how much they can read. They need more than levelled texts to do this.

I know that the updated Kindergarten Program Document supports reading and writing in this way, but what about beyond Kindergarten? What have educators and parents tried in other elementary grades? What are the benefits and/or drawbacks to this approach? As the year quickly comes to an end, I think about what play-based learning has done for all of our students, and I wonder about what else is possible. Play doesn’t mean ignoring academics, but approaching it differently. I think there’s value in this beyond Kindergarten. What do you think?


Do We Let The Smurf Rescue Missions Happen Or Do We Save The Day?

Grit. Perseverance. Growth mindset. There are lots of different words to describe similar actions, and all of these words definitely fall under the category of “popular edu-jargon.” I’ll admit up front that “grit” is not my favourite word, and I have some concerns about the “growth mindset,” but two experiences in these past couple of weeks, have me thinking about these words from a different perspective. 

It started on Friday, at the end of the Before School Program. The children were over in the gym, and one of our students brought a plastic Smurf play set with her. Somehow one of the Smurfs fell down behind the heating unit. This student was incredibly concerned because another child mentioned that the heat might be on and the Smurf might burn to death. We decided to go back and have a look at the unit together. After seeing where the Smurf was located, my initial thought was to get it out for her (I had a couple of ideas about what might work), but I decided on a different tactic. I mentioned a student in the class that likes to tinker, and I suggested that she talk to him about some possible Smurf Rescue Options. She liked this idea, and this is exactly what she did. The Smurf Rescue Operation took just over 40 minutes to complete and a total of six attempts. As you can see in the documentation below, these two Kindergarten students did not give up!

I share this story because as much as these students persevered, there were many times (and reasons) that I almost stopped them.

  • They kept having to go back to the classroom to get more materials. They were both excited about this rescue mission, and I knew that they were bringing up the volume of the other children in the class.
  • This mission began as “one step forward, two steps back.” As I listened to their discussion and observed these two students in action, I noted the problems, and I wondered if they would ever get the Smurf. Would we just lose more items in the heating unit?
  • Timing was a factor. I couldn’t leave the students alone, and there was a phys-ed class in the gym after lunch. We were running out of time, and I was worried that we would have to leave the mission incomplete. How would this child feel if this was the case?
  • They started to argue. While these two students worked well together in the beginning, they started to argue more with each new attempt. They both had ideas, and while many overlapped, some were different. I worried that their arguing would get in the way of them accomplishing the task.
  • It was lunchtime. Even though we don’t observe the nutrition breaks as a class, I usually leave the classroom over these break times. I worked during most of first break and I had more work to do over this break. I still hadn’t eaten my lunch either. I’ll admit that I was eager for a break, but I decided to compromise: I ate in the gym, and uploaded documentation as I watched these two work.

I think of this list of reasons because I know that in the past, I would have used any one of these reasons to stop the problem solving. The Smurf would have been rescued, but I would have been the one doing the rescuing. What message does this send to kids?

I thought of this question again as we were tidying up yesterday. It was our Monthly Awards Assembly Day, and we all had to be in the gym at 2:40. One child had a presentation to share with the class, and we had a lot to tidy-up in the room. It was at this very moment that I noticed that one of our shelving units was missing a shelf. I asked my teaching partner, Paula, if she knew anything about this, and she didn’t. Just when I was wondering where the shelf might be, I looked closely, and saw that some students put blocks on the bottom of one shelf, lay the shelf that had fallen out on top of the blocks, and then piled more blocks on top. Some wonderful problem solving, but maybe not the safest of choices … I was about to tell the children this, when one child in the group noticed that the shelf “wasn’t stable,” and said to the other students, “We need to fix this!” Here’s what happened.

I share this story because at the time, a good friend of mine (who also happens to be a retired teacher), was in volunteering. She asked me, “When are you going to help them?” The timing factor almost led to me fixing the shelf, but I kept walking away and resisting the urge. Why? 

  • Because they had such wonderful thinking.
  • Because there was so much real world math, particularly measurement, in what they were trying to do.
  • Because they were working well together and building off of the ideas of their peers.
  • Because my teaching partner was there, supporting me in this decision.
  • Because this is what problem solving is all about, and what do the kids think of themselves and their abilities if I stop them from solving this problem?

Once again, I’m brought back to the idea of grit/perseverance/growth mindset. I think about two-year-olds that I’ve met before, and one of their favourite sayings: “I can do it myself!” When does this thinking change then, and are we the ones that cause this change to happen? Thinking about my past actions — and even some of my current ones — I’m starting to wonder if the problem with “grit” is not that students don’t have this stick-to-it-ness, but that we intervene too quickly. Could we be a part of the problem? How could we change this? I’m wondering if I need a few more “Smurf rescues” and “falling shelf fixes” in my life — maybe with slightly better timing. 🙂


Getting Giddy, And Now Exploring Why

My grandmother always used to call me, “giddy,” and I actually thought of her — and this comment — at our Staff Meeting on Thursday. The Staff Meeting started off as most Staff Meetings do, but it was when we started travelling and discussing the work of other groups, that the laughter started. Now, days later, I’m starting to view this laughter through a different lens.

Let me explain. During our meeting on Thursday, we were asked to brainstorm ways that we used self-regulation and outdoor learning to meet the needs of our target students. Our principal, John, gave each group a piece of chart paper, and we recorded our thoughts on this paper. After brainstorming as a group, we moved to another table and read some of the ideas that they shared. The thought was that we could add to their discussion, ask questions, and help further the thinking and learning. 

It was when we moved that I started to lose control. Thursday was a really rainy day in Ontario, and we actually had a thunderstorm during our Staff Meeting. I always get terrible headaches when the weather changes, and I was starting to get a horrible one right before our Staff Meeting. I often take my glasses off when I have a headache, and that afternoon, I happened to be wearing my glasses on the top of my head. I don’t need my glasses for reading, but I do need them for distance. When we moved to the next table group, I was too far back to read the words clearly, but just looking at the writing, I asked aloud, “Is that list written in cursive?” Our group members said that it was, and that’s when I put on my glasses. Sure enough: the entire list was in cursive writing. At that moment, I was brought back to the #summerofcursive many years ago, and I couldn’t hold back the laughter. 

I jokingly made a comment to my teaching partner, Paula, that this cursive writing must have been a stressor for me, and looking back now, I think that it was. Based on where I was standing, this list of points was actually upside down. I can read printing upside down, but it’s more of a struggle to read cursive. I realized that I really had to think about what the letters were, and then how they blended together to make words. All of a sudden, I felt like our students do when they’re learning to read, and I was using humour to combat my stress response. I was quickly becoming the “problem child” in this Staff Meeting.

  • I was loud.
  • I was laughing so much that I actually had tears rolling down my face.
  • We were discussing the merit in have spaces under the table for children to sit and work, and I jokingly (or not so jokingly) said that pretty soon, I was going to be under the table too. (I honestly considered the option. 🙂 )

Then when my laughter was truly out of control, the discussion ended, and we had to return to our initial table groups. This is when we had to fill out a form about our target students and next steps. Our principal, John, knows about my aversion to paper (and the fact that I never carry a pen), so in the nicest of ways, he always makes these forms available in digital and hard copy. My iPad wouldn’t open the digital copy properly though, so I chose the hard copy. This is when, at the point of which I was most certainly too up-regulated, I faced another cognitive stressorprinting on paper in a small space with no lines. This is like the ultimate spatial awareness task, and I had no idea how I was going to do it. 

Since I didn’t have a pen, I used a marker to fill out the form. We’re not talking about a small marker here, but a big, thick, smelly marker (the smell of which was its own biological stressor, and likely helped get me up-regulated in the first place … I’m the worst person with scents, especially when I have a headache). I think that I got about three words in the box that required about four sentences … and boy did I have a lot to say about this, in again, a very loud voice! Bless the heart of my incredibly patient teaching partner, who let me laugh, but calmly talked me down, and even suggested alternating colours to help with the readability of the form. The room was quiet except for us, but now, days later, I’m incredibly thankful for the staff that never once moved to silence me, even though I was most certainly disturbing the peace. 

By some sort of miracle, I managed to complete the form with Paula’s help.

  • The printing merged between both boxes.
  • I drew lines to help organize my incredibly large writing.
  • I may have even included an arrow or two.

I almost felt embarrassed handing it to our principal, but John must have sensed my concerns, and even began his feedback with a compliment: thanking me that he would not need to use his glasses to read my sentences. 🙂 And strangely enough, just like that, I felt better. 

  • He never yelled at me, and truthfully, never yells at anyone.
  • He never made me feel as though my work wasn’t good enough.
  • He helped me laugh one more time, but with his kind words and gentle tone, also come back down again. 

I couldn’t help but compare my feelings on Thursday to how students may have felt in the past. My behaviour was the result of some stressors: could theirs be too? I needed some support to calm down. Self-regulation didn’t work for me on Thursday: it was all about co-regulation. 

  • How do we support our students in helping them calm down?
  • How do we identify the stressors that may be triggering their behaviour, and then help reduce these stressors? 

As Doug Peterson commented on in a recent blog post, it’s hard for me not to view almost everything through a Self-Reg lens, but I wonder if we all need to have these challenging experiences to understand what our students may also be experiencing. I think this helps us see and support their behaviour differently. What do you think?


“Surprise Mother Trucker” … And Other Unlikely Learning Opportunities!

I have two, 40-minute nutrition break duties a week, and without a doubt, they always make me think. This was definitely true of Wednesday’s duty.

The bell just rang, and I was letting the children come in from outside. This was when one student came up to me. She told me about what another child said to her during the line-up time. I thought that his words were worth investigating, so once I did a quick walk through each classroom, I called the child out into the hallway. I explained that one of his classmates came to see me, concerned about what he said. He quickly commented to me, “All I said was, ‘Surprise, Mother Trucker!'” Okay … now what? I decided to reply with, “I can see how your words might have been ‘misconstrued’ (yes, this was my word choice when talking with this primary student, as it’s never too early to develop vocabulary skills) for another phrase. What could we do?”

He thought that maybe he should tell her what he actually said. This seemed like a good start, but I decided to push things a bit more. I said, “But your teacher might also want to know what happened. What if another child mentions it too or what if the principal asks you about it? How could we tell everybody the same message?” He thought that he could say it again and again, but I said, “This could take a lot of time. You might also forget exactly what you said to the person before, and you want to make sure that your message is the same. What if you wrote it down?” He thought that this option made sense, so he went into his classroom, grabbed some paper and a pencil, and started writing. 

I continued to circulate through the classrooms, and a few minutes later, this child came to me with his paper. He phonetically wrote, “Surprise, Mother Trucker,” on the front of it. I said, “Thanks for writing this! I know that this is what you said, but when did it happen? Who did you say it to? If you’re writing down this kind of important information, you need to include all of the details.” We spoke about what these details might be, and then he went back to class to write more. 

About five more minutes passed, and this child found me in another room. I got him to read me his note, and he tracked the words as he read each one of them. We then looked at a couple of the words he used. I noticed that he forgot a few consonant blends, and sometimes he just used an R instead of an ER at the end of words. I decided to do a little mini-lesson, and we played with a few blends and a few ER words. This is a child that does not like to write, but happily experimented with writing over the nutrition break. 

This got me thinking about various learning opportunities that have happened recently over the nutrition breaks.

  • On Tuesday, a child told me that her Grade 1/2 class went inside at the same time as the Speech and Language Class. She asked me, “Did you send us in together?” I said that I did. Why? She explained that there were too many children going through the door at the same time. “Miss Dunsiger, maybe next time, you want to just send in one class at a time.” I replied with, “A great idea! Can you write me a note to remind me about this? I do better with reminders.” And so she did, and on Wednesday, I worked hard at remembering to just send in one class at a time. Meaningful writing and problem solving during recess!
  • Then there is the milk flipping, the shoe flipping, the coin flipping, and any other flipping opportunities that children can think of for some lunchtime fun. Last week, I showed a group of Grade 1-3 students how they can use a tally chart to keep track of results and reflect on them. This is what the children did! I then had students talking to me about totals, differences between the highest and the lowest scores, and why there may have been certain results. Think data management, number sense, probability, oral language, and thinking all rolled into one! (And, as an aside, I do one mean milk flip! 🙂 There are a few Grade 1/2 students that can vouch for me on this.)
  • Every day, students in the primary classes sit down to read while they eat. They love to come up to me and read me funny parts of their books or explain what’s happening on a certain page. Sometimes they even read aloud to each other, which is a great way to work on fluency. So many decoding and comprehension possibilities over lunch!
  • Then there are the students that hand out the milk each day. One of the Grade 2/3 classes counts out the number of chocolate and white milks needed for each class, and then each individual class needs to follow the list to hand out the milks. This includes reading student names, interpreting data (following the chart), and problem solving (if they are short on milks). In Kindergarten, we also have some students write their names on their milk containers with a Sharpie marker, which is a meaningful way to practise printing without a worksheet.

The Kindergarten Program Document has us look for and extend these learning opportunities through play. It has us really concentrate on and celebrate the learning in the everyday. But why must this only be for Kindergarten? Noticing and naming is possible for every student in every grade, as seen in the four bullet points above. I wonder if part of it’s about viewing these break times differently and extending the scope of the learning that’s likely already happening during these times. 

I’m thinking back now to the “Mother Trucker” anecdote that started off this blog post. There are many ways that I could have responded, and have responded in the past.

  • I could have sent both students to the office to figure out which story was accurate.
  • I could have spent the recess talking to both students and seeing if either story changed.
  • I could have just let him explain what he said to the other child, and if there were no more problems, left it at that. 

But I know this child, we’ve connected before, and I realize that a silly, and somewhat funny comment, like “Surprise, Mother Trucker!” is something that he probably did say through play. Why assume the worst? Is our intention to ‘punish’ or to ‘teach?’ I know that recess time is not “instructional time,” but as the new Kindergarten Program Document has shown me, there are so many curriculum connections to everyday interactions, and it’s amazing what happens when we view learning through this complex lens. I had to make this nutrition break comment into a different kind of learning opportunity, with literacy and social connections. I’m now left wondering …

  • What if mini-lessons happened anywhere at any time?
  • How might we support the learning of any child in any classroom?
  • How might we communicate this learning to home room teachers?

I’m not sure that there are easy answers to these questions. I think about the Kindergarten Program Document, and the complexity in figuring out how prep coverage teachers support assessment when there are Four Frames with overlapping expectations instead of six individual subject areas. Coordinating an even bigger sharing of observations across all grade levels might be a Utopian ideal, but I continue to wonder what’s possible. Maybe just having opportunities to discuss our observations and dialogue more with colleagues from all grade levels could be a starting point. What do you think? 


Could “Reading” Start With “Relationships?”

This morning, I read this wonderful blog post by Tracy Sims and Cheryl Emrich. There are many things in this post that resonated with me, but it was the video they included that inspired this post of my own. 

As Tracy and Cheryl noted in their post, I know that this video seems exaggerated in order to make its point clear, but I think that the message is one that we really have to consider. 

Our Board has a goal to have “all students reading by the end of Grade 1.” We know the link between reading, communicating, and even, graduating, and having worked with many students in the past that struggle with reading, I want to see this goal met. But what I love about this video is that it gives another lens on how we might meet this goal.

  • Does it start with building relationships with students?
  • Do students have to feel safe and loved in order to take the risks involved in reading?
  • What role does oral language play?
  • Could one of our best approaches be to develop a child’s vocabulary first?
  • What about giving children multiple experiences to help develop their schema? For students that may have fewer of these experiences, how do we help level the playing field? What value might there be in doing so?
  • Does this kind of nurturing environment get students to school more often, and does this make a difference in helping them learn to read?

I’m still working through the answers to these questions, but I think that discussions around these topics matter. Yes, quality programming matters, and having more supports in place, would surely help as well. But is learning to read about more than this, and thinking about my “one word goal” for this year, is this about changing our “perspective?” Our Board’s Transforming Learning Everywhere (T.L.E.) Model explores transforming classrooms, relationships, and learning opportunities. I wonder if all three transformations will impact on the success in meeting this reading goal. What do you think?