Friday, August 19, 2016

Early Literacy: Balancing the Old and New

You know when you read a text and find yourself nodding along, confirming some of your thinking while also challenging you to be reflective? THOSE are our favourite types of books.

Miriam Trehearne does a beautiful job of encouraging readers to think critically about their approach to teaching literacy. So often, we jump on board and embrace "new philosophies", "new strategies" or the latest trends in education without actually understanding them, sometimes without thinking through our current practices.

We get excited about new things, it's so natural! We have personally done it many times. We can become quickly dismissive of "old practice" when sometimes it isn't about "removing" but rather about "rethinking".


“The bottom line is that new or different is NOT necessarily better…improve teaching by building on best practice, on what is working, rather than looking to implement yet another innovation” – Miriam Trehearne

When you visualize the pendulum that swings, Cheryl and I have absolutely been on both extremes in terms of how we approach literacy. We have lessened our focus on small group to engage more in play and we have heightened our small group instruction often missing what was happening in play. Finding the middle grounds of that "swing" can be tricky!

When Full Day Kindergarten programs rolled out, many educators began to lessen their focus on guided reading and literacy instruction opting for literacy to be engaged with solely through play. While other educators have held on solely to more traditional approaches to engaging with literacy.

There is no "right" way, but research and lessons from educators in the classroom provide a great foundation in Miriam's new text. Miriam "connected the dots" for us in this rich and insightful text with the support of many inspiring Canadian educators:


(Twitter: @MiriamTrehearne)

For more information or to find her book on Amazon, follow the link below:


After reading this text and having a number of rich conversations about literacy this year with colleagues and as a team, we have come to our own conclusion:

Children are unique in how they learn. They respond differently to the various approaches, contexts, and methods depending on a number of factors. There is NO "how to" when approaching literacy. But there are many good practices that will support educators in finding focus and moving forward!

There is value in all of the approaches that we take to providing literacy rich classrooms with great learning happening through play, outdoors, through small group instruction, and in a large group.

 Ultimately, children need explicit teaching AND ample opportunities to practice using their knowledge in authentic contexts.

With this in mind, we shared our experiences and our learning through our Early Literacy workshop this summer. This was one of our key messages through our discussion and presentation.

What is "GOOD" for ONE, may not always be "GOOD" for ALL...
Being mindful that NOT all children will need this instruction (some are not ready developmentally, some are beyond letters/sounds). Also being mindful of that balance - using games and activities to explicitly and intentionally focus on letters/sounds...but then following up with opportunities for children to authentically engage in their everyday interactions and play.

During our Early Literacy workshop we had the opportunity to brainstorm with the passionate group of educators some short, simple literacy based games that support children in their development in one component of Early Literacy (letter/sound knowledge).

Honouring all of the educators ideas we compiled the below list.
Always keeping in mind ways that we can adapt/extend/alter to make these ideas work for our particular children or school:


Letter Activities - for intentional, direct, small group instruction:
  • ·     Parking Lot (write letters, sounds or words in parking spaces and students drive vehicles when the letter or word is called out)
  • ·     Password at the Door: letters, sounds, words (tell students the password and they tap to enter/exit)
  • ·     Zoom: create a deck of cards with letters or HF words and a few cards that say “ZOOM”, pass the cards out one at a time. If student reads the card, they keep it. If they get the “Zoom” card they get everyone’s cards.
  • ·     Candy Land: create your own cards to match the game board (put HF words or letters on different colours, if student reads the word/letter/sound they move to that colour)
  • ·     Letter BINGO
  • ·     Building letters with playdough
  • ·     Writing letters on whiteboards
  • ·     Alphabet puzzles
  • ·     Matching activities: with magnetic letters, cards
  • ·     Spot It: Using a students name, take away a letter and ask other students to “spot” what is missing (could provide the actual full name to scaffold)
  • ·     Slap the Letter/Sound: using fly swatter (or hand), one person calls and students swat (can be played in teams)
  • ·     Hot Potato (using letters/sounds)
  • ·     Alphabet Soup: create a recipe with small group and have students help add in the “ingredients” (letters)
  • ·     Alphabet Actions: songs, coordinating actions
  • ·     I Spy: finding letters, sounds in the room, school
  • ·     Letter Dice: roll and graph, roll and print, roll and build words
  • ·     Sensory Printing: sand, gel, wikki sticks, playdough
  • ·     Name Games: using name cards (give clues, show some letters, students guess)
  • ·     Lock and Key: upper and lower case letters matching with lock and keys
  • ·     Create an Alphabet Book: using iPads, children can take photos of letters or pictures in the environment
  • ·     Letters on a Beach Ball (roll and say)
  • ·     Foam Squares with Letters (kinesthetic – students can jump to the letter)
  • ·     Graphing Letters: which have lines? Curves? Both?
  • ·     Mystery Sound: “I’m thinking of a mystery sound” – share pictures or objects and students guess the sound
  • ·     Memory Game, War: Sight words or letter (students flip over cards to find matches)
  • ·     Alphabet Bags: put magnetic letters in a bag, students pull out a letter and then can graph, stamp it on a chart, print it etc.
  • ·     Don’t Get the Red Dot: pull sticks with sight words or letters (if you read it you keep the stick, if you get the red dot the game ends)
  • ·     Picnic Game: “I’m going on a picnic and I am bringing a _____” (educator chooses a word like alligator, students have to guess that they need to bring an “a” word)
  • ·     Creating Letters: using objects, blocks, children’s bodies, ropes, scarves, ribbons



What might this look like authentically in play?












The biggest learning we walked away with this year (and one that seems to always be an underlying theme) is that balance is key. It always seems to come back to that. 

Don't let yourself always be swept away with new trends and ideas. Think carefully about what needs to be taught, take time to learn what each student needs the most and then zone in your instruction as a team.

Be critical of what you plan and teach in the classroom, but also honour where you are in your journey.


We have more to add to our journey through literacy this year, so stay tuned for more blogs on this topic!

Past Literacy Connections for Further Reading: