Having taught first grade for five and a half years, I’ve had the privilege of watching many students blossom into successful young readers and writers. However, I have never seen them grow as much as I have in these past two years.
I attribute that extra “blossoming” or growth to the balanced literacy program we began implementing here at H.G. Olsen Elementary School in the 2010–2011 school year.
Last year, all kindergarten and first- and second-grade teachers began attending training sessions led by Danni Brown of Collette Consulting. During our training days, we learned more about research based “ best practices” for teaching writing, phonics, reading comprehension and guided reading lessons.
We are fortunate enough to have our reading consultant available for on-site visits at our school. When she comes, we have different lessons demonstrated or get feedback on the lessons we taught.
I think I can speak for the K-2 team when I say that we are much better teachers as a result of the knowledge we’ve gained through this professional development. I believe we would all agree that we are seeing more from our students.
Each day, all grade levels spend at least 45 minutes on a writer’s workshop. We have been working to focus students’ writing to one “small moment,” or mini topic, thus building a focused foundation for more challenging writing assignments to come later in their school careers. In addition to working to hone their craft of focused writing, we also are supporting their conventions of writing, teaching spacing, letter formation, punctuation and more.
After striving to implement this very focused writing curriculum last year, then passing our students on to the next grade level, we saw huge results at the start of this school year. I was able to say to our kindergarten teachers, “I am so impressed!” Our students were more advanced at the beginning of the year than in previous years. This year, I have watched our students grow more due to their solid foundation.
Another portion of our day is focused on phonics’ principles, which help to support our young readers. Through our balanced literacy training, we were introduced to Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell’s phonics lessons for each grade level. These lessons support our readers by helping them understand basic principles about words and word structures.
Each grade level has specifi c lessons to support readers. Through these hands-on, often very tactile activities, students begin to grasp many important concepts about our hard-to-decipher English language. While using phonics lessons, which incorporates poetry and songs, we have seen our students’ understanding of word concepts grow exponentially.
Not a day goes by in my classroom when a student isn’t pointing out some aspect of a word that we have learned about. It’s amazing how well these lessons translate into understanding and recognition.
Then, of course, there is the all-important reading and comprehension instruction. Our daily read aloud (a time where we dig deeper into books) and work station/ guided reading time is just about everyone’s favorite. Through our balanced literacy instruction over the last year and a half, each kindergarten through second-grade teacher has learned how to take students’ comprehension deeper and teach reading through the most effective research based strategies. We have been using trade books and guided reading sets, both fiction and nonfiction, to help students increase synthesis.
This year, through purposeful instruction, my students are writing more about reading (eagerly wanting to get their thoughts down), talking fervently about books and making connections that I hadn’t made myself! Never underestimate the power of young students to comprehend text in ways that will amaze you.
I haven’t even mentioned the amazing progress that they have made in actual reading ability. I am astounded at how students are growing through very direct instruction and observation regarding their reading skills. Our balanced literacy training sessions have allowed me and the other teachers to look at reading instruction through so many different lenses, such as fluency and meaning making, that we are better able to instruct our young readers.
I am so impressed with the abilities and growth of my students after implementing the balanced literacy program. It is now being expanded through sixth grade, and I believe, whole-heartedly, will continue to challenge both teachers and students in the years to come. So, hooray for balanced literacy and all that it has helped our students to accomplish.
Meghan Smith is a firstgrade teacher at H.G. Olsen Elementary School.