Can Play And Reading Instruction Co-Exist? A Closer Look At This School Year.

Recently, I saw a conversation on Twitter. A kindergarten teacher was sharing her reading score data, and mentioned how a structured literacy approach was allowing all of her students to meet with success. A.trustee replied to this tweet and commended this teacher on prioritizing reading instruction. Then she added in a comment about “no more play based learning.” While the teacher replied to this tweet thanking the trustee for her support, and explaining how play and structured literacy can both occur in a kindergarten classroom, I would like to go even further with this idea and say that the two can co-exist.

As many of my blog readers know, my teaching partner, Paula, and I are strong proponents of play. In fact, our day is divided into long blocks of outdoor and indoor play — all free and child-led — but with provocations and the restricted access to open-ended materials that allow for deep learning to happen. By knowing the Kindergarten Program Document, we can also link the play with program expectations in order to extend the learning. As I mentioned in a blog post back in April, even following two years of a pandemic and school interruptions, this has been our most successful year yet. There are many factors that we think contributed to this. While we were noticing this success back in April, in June, I did a more formal reading assessment on all of our SK students. Here’s a look at the results.

  • All of the students are decoding text in some way, with 11/12 (92%) of the students decoding and comprehending text at or above grade level. Every child can sound out at least three sound words, and use these reading skills when presented with new text. (I should share here that we do not have any students this year with English as their second language, but we do have students with different learning needs (e.g., speech and language difficulties and autism).)
  • Of our 12 SK students, nine of them (75%) are reading text above grade level. Eight of these students are reading text significantly above grade level: reading and comprehending fluently at mid-to-late Grade 1 level, and even late Grade 2 level in one case.
  • Students are thinking about text as they read. They are connecting to other books that they’ve read before, reflecting on what the text is telling them, and even ensuring that what they are reading makes sense. This has never happened as frequently as it did this year. I wonder if our focus on comprehension — now that decoding has become more fluent — has allowed us to see this more frequently.
  • Students are re-reading more than they have before. We use this re-reading approach a lot in class to help build confidence and fluency, while also supporting comprehension. In the past, I rarely had students choose to re-read a sentence during a formal assessment. I had many students choose to do so this year. I have to wonder if this helped more with both the comprehension and fluency that I saw during this assessment.
  • Students are self-correcting errors more than they have in the past. Since Paula and I have taught kids explicitly about different sound combinations and chunking strategies, we find that they are looking to us less to figure out unknown words. While I occasionally gave students the word to help reduce the impact on fluency and comprehension, the decision to do this, rested more with me than with a request from the child of, “What does that say?”
  • Students are more confident readers. Standardized reading assessments might be “standardized,” but there’s still an element of professional judgment. Sometimes students read slower than we expect, but we wonder if they are feeling nervous, so we give them the level. Sometimes the same mistake is made multiple times, and we wonder if we should count this error more than once or not. I often found myself questioning decisions when doing a standardized assessment in the past, but this time, I did not. Kids really knew that they could read the texts in front of them, and I knew that if another educator did the same assessment, the students would do just as well. Maybe the multiple opportunities daily to read orally in the classroom, made a difference.

Yes, our small group and individual reading instruction might not look the same as it has in other years. Guided reading is embedded in play and with a variety of texts, but the instruction is still targeted. Not one of the SK students that we have this year was reading above grade level last year, and only one of the twelve students started JK recognizing all letter names and sounds. Home support, peer support, and planned instruction from both of us made a huge difference for kids … when each of them was truly ready to read. But play was not sacrificed, and for this we’re also grateful, as we wonder if play helps students see a purpose for reading and writing. We can then form connections with kids while targeting academic skills.

As someone who does not do a ton of formal assessment, I was deliberate when doing this reading assessment.

  • I brought the books outside to read with the kids.
  • I found a space on the hill for us to read together. We arranged to have this space slightly away from where the rest of the students were with Paula. This helped reduce the stress of other students listening in.
  • We sat outside in nature and we took a few moments to connect together before reading. Self-Reg was certainly a consideration here.
  • I made sure that none of the students could see the reading level, so it was never a case of comparing numbers.
  • I also gave them a few different books to choose from, and asked students to have a look and “choose the hardest book that they thought that they could read.” They loved having control over this choice, and they all chose the best fit book for them.

Data is very intriguing to me, and these numbers show me that play and targeted daily reading instruction can co-exist. With COVID restrictions, this year was different. We are already thinking about what next year might look like, and now I’m curious to also see how we can maintain and grow this reading instruction through an inquiry- and play-based approach. What do you do? Maybe we can share ideas that will help support all of our learners.


Is It Time To Bring In The Ants?

This week, Paula was away one day, and a supply who’s been in our classroom before was thankfully able to come back again. There’s so much that happens in our room, which we’re both accustomed to by now, that it’s interesting to hear insights about our program from someone on the outside. On Wednesday, it was her comments about “ants,” which inspired this post.

As many of my blog readers know, outdoor learning is an important part of our day. We love to connect the outdoor and indoor learning environments, and this seems to happen most frequently as students explore habitats. Over the years, and through various grades and different schools, I’ve been host to many creepy crawly class pets: from worms to spiders to bumblebees to centipedes, and now, to ants. With more classes outside in this warmer weather, our class has been going to “the mountain” each day. You can find numerous living things on this mini-mountain, but currently, ants seem to be around in high numbers. On Wednesday, a group of children found some ants, and created a habitat in a plastic bucket. They wanted to bring the ants inside. Our rules for bringing in bugs/insects/assorted creepy crawlies are that …

  • You need to have a way to keep them safe.
  • They need to become part of your classroom learning for the day (e.g., drawing about them, writing about them, creating items for them, etc.).
  • They need to go home with you and/or be released at the end of the day. For this last point, we’re incredibly grateful to our amazing families, who will happily bring home everything from worms to ants often to release in their garden spaces.

The students agreed, and so they brought in their ants. In the afternoon, they started to create a house for the ants. There was a lot of excitement as the ants appeared to “eat” the grass.

With Paula away, I captured and shared far less documentation than usual. I share this post though, as it was shortly before this moment that Paula’s supply went to look at what these students were doing with the LEGO. She came back to me and said, “Do you know that they have ants in the classroom?” Actually, yes, I do. I think this surprised her at first, but then we spoke about how these ants link with learning, from creating the Ant Books (which they both made, even though I never got to capture the process) to building a creation for the ants, and even linking this building with some reading and writing opportunities. Ants become more than ants, when there’s a longer period of time to settle into play and explore these creatures more.

I thought about this again yesterday, when students created another ant habitat to bring inside. This time, the ant play, conversations, creations, and problem solving, extended for almost three hours, and included a combination of different students throughout the day.

Watching this play and other play throughout the day yesterday, had Paula and I returning to this blog post that I wrote for The MEHRIT Centre. While this post might be focused on worms, it’s easy to extrapolate and make it about more than that. There was this wonderful feeling of calm and independence in the classroom yesterday. We’re now nearing the end of the school year, and it’s understandable why some kids and adults might be dysregulated. Could a little more connecting, creating, problem solving, and exploring with a variety of bugs/insects/creepy crawlies make a difference in these final weeks of school? I have to wonder. Maybe a few unconventional pets is something that many kids could benefit from right now. What do you think?


What Might Our Re-Think Include? Thinking Ahead To A New School Year.

I’ve been thinking about this post for a while now, but with the school year slowly coming to an end and more conversations happening about next year, I decided to finally write it. Unlike a lot of my blog posts, I write this one with more uncertainty than certainty. I also write it with the hope that others will share their thinking.

Back in March, I blogged about some decisions that my teaching partner, Paula, and I made as restrictions in schools began to loosen. While at times we felt like a bit of an island, we made the decision to make very few changes for the remainder of this school year. Our play-based program was working well. Kids were connecting with each other and meeting with success, and the reduced restrictions meant that we could more easily make small changes to support those that needed them. As the room began to run itself and students showed such incredible independence, we didn’t want a case of “September in March,” even if it is still hard to look at rows of desks. With parental and student support, we really felt confidently that these choices were the right ones for us and our classroom family. That said, we have no intention of keeping things the same next year, and so we continue to look ahead with what else might be possible.

Now with just weeks left of school — I don’t know the exact number of days, as countdowns are too stressful for me — Paula and I have been talking a lot about classroom design. While there was initially some thought about “going back to how things were before,” we can’t help but think about Doug Peterson‘s March blog post and the desire to imagine something different — or imagine something better. We’re still not sure exactly what this will look like, and we will probably not know until we get into the classroom at the end of August and start creating this space as a team, but here are some things that we have been discussing.

The need for independent spaces. This does not necessarily mean desk spaces, but maybe we’ll need to re-look at some shelf spaces again. Maybe a few desks or smaller tables could also work well. These independent areas might not need to be for every child all at the same time, but there’s a different amount of focus, stamina, and overall classroom calm that seems to come from these areas. Now to explore creative ways to make them in a “normal kindergarten room.”

The connection between sensory and dramatic play. In the past, we’ve supported this by adding baking items to a sensory bin, but watching what happened this week, makes us think about some different options. In kindergarten, almost all cooperative play seems to become dramatic, and it can be dysregulating at times. Never would we have ever put a dramatic play space into the middle of the classroom, but this worked this week, and we wonder if the sensory component made a difference. Did the writing, sign making, and pre-planning also make a difference? What about the smaller number of students involved? This last point is a perfect segue to what comes next.

Small spaces for smaller groupings. Paula and I have never limited the number of kids in an area, and I can’t see us doing so next year. We have noticed though that even cooperative play seems calmer when the groupings are smaller. The stress involved with problem solving and negotiating as part of a larger group, often becomes overwhelming for kids. Looking and listening to this play on Thursday, reminded us that small areas for smaller connections can make a big difference. Does this mean that we might need similar materials in multiple places around the classroom? We are really trying to think about what this might look like.

The need for floor spaces. I am not suggesting a big carpet area here. In fact, it’s the open, giant carpet space that seems to lead to more running. Trying to re-think a carpet might be one of our biggest discussion points of all. But what I do mean and what we have seen is that kids are looking to create and connect on the floor. Confined areas within these floor spaces seem to also help. This year, it’s been all of the desks and tables that provide these restricted spaces. What could they be next year? It would be great if we could have tire tables again. If not, what might be some equivalent options? Even with desks and tables, almost all of our kids still end up on the floor.

It will be interesting to see the impact that these thoughts have on our classroom design. For those that have made changes to their classroom set-up this year, what did you do that was the same as before and what did you do that was different? Paula and I would love to hear your thoughts as we reflect more together. Maybe next year, our sensory painting dreams will come true, and this could truly be the greatest change of all! πŸ™‚

How absolutely awesome, and totally amazing, is this?! It’s like a mark making, creative, sensory dream!

Minds Moving … For Adults And Kids Alike!

Yesterday, I started my day as I always do by reading Doug Peterson‘s blog post. This post happened to be another one that he’s written about Wordle and other similar online word games. I was going to add a comment on his post, but instead, tweeted this reply.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the post that I wanted to write in response, and I think that I’m finally ready to write.

It took me a long time to get started with Wordle. I saw the never-ending tweets about it in my timeline, but every time that I searched to find out more, I never really understood how to play the game. Then during one of my weekly Zoom calls with my nephew in the States, he asked me if I played. I said, “No.” So he explained how it worked and convinced me to give it a try. This seemed like something else that we could chat about each week, so how could I refuse?!

At first, I stuck with just playing Wordle. I never started with the same word, and tended to use words with lots of S’s and T’s in them instead of worrying about vowels. S’s and T’s are common letters in words, or so it seemed to me. Then somebody told me about beginning with arise because of the three vowels. This made sense to me, so I’ve stuck with this word. I tried adieu a couple of times, but I usually have more luck with arise. As someone who loves to read and loves playing with words, I actually have a lot of fun with this game. I’ve never gotten the answer in one, but occasionally have managed to do so in two guesses — this is very exciting for me. Four is more of the norm for me though, as I tend to get caught up in the word family rabbit hole, and I always choose the wrong letter combinations … or so it seems. My mom, who also started playing Wordle thanks to my nephew, is better at waiting, thinking, and returning to the game. I’m not. I’m committed to coming up with an answer before I read Doug Peterson’s blog post at 5:01 each morning. This means that all of my guessing is happening pre-coffee and usually before 4:30 am. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that I don’t have a very long success streak, but each time, I get a little better.

Doug also tweeted about Wordle 2, which has now become Word Hurdle, and is my second word game of the morning. There are a lot of Word Hurdle game options. I stick with the six-letter word one, but sometimes, I go back and do the four- and five-letter ones. It depends on how much I can do before 5:01 am. πŸ™‚ Knowing that arise works well as a starter word in Wordle, I use arisen as my Wordle 2 word. Then depending on how the vowels work out, I try to come up with an OU word for my second guess. Sometimes I need to guess an answer that I know is incorrect, just to uncover more letters for a correct guess. I’ve started also guessing words that end in a Y or that include a W or V because these are always the letters that trick me. With a second Wordle choice, if I’m stumped on the original Wordle, I can leave it for a bit, open a new tab, and try Word Hurdle.

Then I do Byrdle. I can’t remember which person that I follow shared this one, but now I’m hooked. This is the surprising one for me, as I know absolutely nothing about choral music. Usually I need to Google search what the word each day means, but shockingly, I often uncover the correct word in less guesses than Wordle. My starter guess for this one had to change, as now it’s six letters. I used to always use choir. As I’m writing this post, I’m asking myself why I didn’t think of choirs for my new guess, but I didn’t. Instead, I use string. This guess will never be a winning one, but strangely always uncovers just the right number of letters to help me win. Then I also use an OU guess second, depending on how many vowels I find. This game is all about guessing, checking, hoping and praying for me, but it’s still a favourite of mine.

Thanks again to Doug, I also learned about Canuckle. It’s a Canadian edition, and I quite enjoy it. I use maple as my first guess, and it’s either really good for me or leads to finding no letters. Then I use a word like sound next, and hope for the best. I often reflect that I need to think more Canadian, and then I would get the word earlier. This is usually another four- or five-guess game for me, but I usually manage to uncover the word within the six guesses, which makes me happy enough.

While Canuckle is the end of my word games, I can’t resist some math games as well. My sister, whose background is in bio-statistics, introduced me to Nerdle. I then found Mini-Nerdle and usually do it first. It’s one of my favourite games, and I’ve even gotten it in one guess a couple of times. I first started with 5+7=12, but when that was a solution, I changed it to 5X8=40. I probably should go back to addition or subtraction, as multiplication is not as common with this game, but I feel like sticking it out. Depending on the purple squares, I adjust my answer accordingly. Usually I can get the answer in 2 or 3 guesses, which makes Mini-Nerdle my best game yet. Nerdle for me usually requires four or five guesses, depending on what my initial addition response uncovers. I never start with the same guess for Nerdle, but I always start with addition. Sometimes Nerdle involves multiple operations, negative numbers, and decimals, so my brain seems to be stretched the most with this game. Did I mention that this is all pre-coffee?! πŸ™‚ I still get so happy when I solve it though.

Needless to say, my Wordle experience which extended to many more games than that, tends to have me up at 4:20 each morning, but I’m okay with that. I like getting my mind moving. It also made me reflect on the classroom. Every day, when my duty begins at 9:00, our students come into the room, and Paula greets them. This started at the beginning of the year, with a need to separate cohorts, and it’s continued since then. Since this is before instructional time begins, and students are just getting settled into the room and unpacking, we usually put on Alphablocks. Students love to read the words and tell the stories that they’ve seen so many times before. Slowly though, our morning routine evolved, as the Fairies of Dundas left students notes for water, chalk, and other supplies that they put out each day. Paula started to support some small group reading, as a handful of kids rushed inside to read the notes. Then in the past couple of weeks, we’ve left out some books on the ledge to align with provocations for the day. Now other students are selecting books to read and talk about together. Sometimes the Fairies of Dundas leave other notes around the room, so kids read and discuss them. This week, a few students have started drawing and writing. As I looked back at these posts from recently and thought about Doug’s blog post, I had an epiphany: we all need different ways to settle into the day and get our minds moving.

I love how kids are deciding what works for them. Just as my morning Wordle routine has slowly evolved, so has this morning entry routine. Will it evolve even more? What have you noticed might get minds moving, kids thinking, and students ready for the day? Our students might not be ready to tackle Wordle yet, but they are definitely developing their own options that work for them.