Sometimes, Less Is More

How technology has transformed the art of teaching, and things from our “past” we should keep with us today and carry forward to tomorrow…

Technology is amazing, and teaching has come a long way because of it, especially since this pandemic. A year ago, who would have thought we could simultaneously teach remote and in-person students simultaneously through livestream technology? Not many of us, and definitely not me! But here we are. We can do hard things.

And while I have done everything in my professional mindset to embrace the new technology (and I have…I’m its biggest advocate!), lately I keep going back to the golden rule from my tech-ed classes in college: Technology is a tool to enhance instruction, not a tool to replace it. So I write this post not to deter those of us who are all-in with the technology during these unprecedented times, but to softly and gently remind us of the best practices that we know are still best practices. And to caution us to not let those best practices fall into the abyss of nostalgia as we suddenly and ferociously navigate this new territory.

Here’s my short list of tried and true practices that I am begging all teachers and parents to remember as we adapt to these new times:

Books. Kids need to handle books. Printed, bound, and published books. REAL BOOKS.

I cringe hearing about schools who are not distributing books due to the pandemic. I get the germ factor, but relying solely on e-books and virtual reading activities is detrimental to an emerging reader’s development. Especially the littlest – kindergarteners and first graders. Don’t get me wrong, publishers and educational companies (well, most of them) have been nothing but helpful and generous in opening up a lot of their books and resources in a remote capacity for teachers to take advantage of. But there is no way to replicate true concepts about print that emerging readers need to learn in an e-book. (Or if there is, I haven’t rationalized it yet…). Let me illustrate with an example. One of the early concepts about print kids begin to pick up is text directionality. Text directionality has several components. Some of those components don’t change with an e-book, like the fact the we read left-to-right on a page. Other components of text directionality DO change, or are absent all together. Like the fact that a book has a cover whose open end is on the right and bound end is on left, like the idea that we turn pages when we get to the end of a page (not scroll up or down like some online programs or e-books!). I’m not saying that e-books, online subscriptions, or online libraries and databases are bad. I’m saying they shouldn’t take the place of print books entirely. They should be supplemental.

Learning is socially constructed. Kids should still be interacting with the teacher and interacting with each other.

I’m really trying to let go of the past and embrace the present in order to come to terms with the future. But guys, there’s a reason teachers used easels and chart paper for MANY years. There’s a reason teachers and students share the pen, the real, physical pen, in interactive writing. There’s a reason kids come to the big book and use the teacher pointer to practice 1:1 correspondence. The safe learning community that is established when a teacher gathers her/his students together at the carpet and invites them in to enjoy a big book in front of them is 1000 times more effective than presenting a big book on the Smartboard and asking kids to interact with the text from afar. The literate brain connections that are established through kids actually using a marker to try it out on chart paper, use fix-it tape when they make a mistake, and write it correctly when they gain new knowledge, are light years more concrete (and developmentally appropriate, I might add) than asking kids to type a story on a computer. I know the mitigation strategies surrounding COVID prevent a lot of this from happening right now, but I promise you there are ways to do this still, without having to resort to hands-off learning from a distance, even for the kids who are learning at home! Two simple, quick tricks for doing this are getting real books in their hands, and getting real paper and pencil/marker/crayons in their hands.

Sometimes, less is more.

Things look so much cleaner when we use a computer to create everything we need for teaching. Yes, it looks cleaner when we type up a worksheet to use for writing. It looks cleaner when we have kids publish their story by typing it up and adding clip art. Yes, it looks cleaner when we use a publishing program to create a poster or a brochure or a flyer as part of a school project. Yes, it looks cleaner when we buy a phonics game from Teachers Pay Teachers (definitely nothing against Teachers Pay Teachers here…lots of blood, sweat, and tears go into the resources teachers decide to share with others on that platform). But let me ask you this. It looks cleaner, but is it better? Does cleaner work mean deeper learning? I’d argue no, at least not always. Sometimes those fancy, typed up worksheets are a crutch for students…do they really need to fill in the blank? Or could they have written the whole sentence all along? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for scaffolds when kids need it. But not all kids need all scaffolds, all the time. That becomes extremely limiting and in fact constraining, inhibiting a student from reaching their full potential. It’s like asking them to stay inside the box, rather than think outside of the box, or rather than telling them there’s really no box at all. Of course, there’s a time and place for fancy and published – if the purpose calls for it, it is needed. But I’m telling you, I’ve noticed some AMAZING student work hung in classrooms and hallways in the school I work that came from a piece of paper and a pencil, and that’s it. (Take a look at some of the pictures! I mean, come on! How good are these?!) Let’s take the artist metaphor and run with it. You wouldn’t give an artist a half started canvas and expect them to come up with a masterpiece, right? Because then it wouldn’t be their masterpiece, entirely. Instead, you give an artist an empty canvas to create a masterpiece.

Sometimes we have to give our students an empty canvas too. I think we’d be surprised at some of the masterpieces they come up with.

It’s In The Name

This post is a little tricky for me because it’s hard for me to paint the whole picture of literacy when I start talking about things in isolation. As in, I would never want someone to think activities I suggest are random and disconnected. All of my activities have context, and are done as a piece of a bigger picture. Think of the literate child as a giant puzzle. There are lots of pieces that go into that puzzle, and those pieces work together to create the masterpiece. Each individual puzzle piece doesn’t have a lot of meaning on its own, and they don’t have a lot of meaning if they aren’t put together correctly.

One of the pieces of the literate puzzle is letter recognition and formation. (I’ll do a different, more detailed post on this later and I’ll also do a separate post on language development and the foundations of reading.)

One of the ways I’ve begun work on letter recognition and formation with my own kids is through their name. In fact, I’ve done and still do a lot of informal and casual work with my toddlers around their name. Why? Well, two reasons. The first is more philosophical, the second more practical.

  1. As you begin to teach toddlers letters, you want the letters to mean something. Think about it. Toddlers are in an extremely egocentric stage of life. There is NOTHING more meaningful to a toddler than their name. And you don’t just want them memorizing symbols with no understanding of what they actually mean. As toddlers get older and pass through the stages of emergent reading, they’ll build a foundational understanding that letters (graphemes) are the symbols we use to represent sounds (phonemes) in our language, and sounds are put together to form words or chunks of words with meaning (morphemes).
  2. As a parent, god forbid my kids are ever in a situation where they’d need it, I want them to know their personal information. Start with first name (recognition and formation), then move to last name, then address, town, phone number, etc. Remember though, all of this takes months and years of work – you’re not just teaching a kid his first and last name, address, and personal information in the span of a week or two. Go slow. You want it to last.

Where To Start

Not sure where to even begin? Start with talk, start with modeling it, start with environment, start with recognition. Talk. Talk about your child’s name with him. Talk about the letters in his name, talk about the sounds the letters in his name make, especially the first one. Show his name to him, write it for him. Point out when you see his name, point out when you see the letters in his name…around the house, in the car, at the grocery store, anywhere! Noticing print in the environment is fun and peeks curiosity, and also helps kids begin to understand that letters and words have meaning. Once you make this type of talk more of a habit, you’ll notice it just kind of embeds itself into your daily conversations and play, making it a naturally occurring part of your child’s life. And as your talking about it, casually help your child begin to recognize it.

“Oh my gosh, I found your name on your art project! Let’s look. Do you see any place with letters? What letter do you notice? L? I notice L too and I know Luca starts with L. Yup, you found it, that’s your name! Now let’s read your name. Oh my gosh you can read! Look at that, you just read your name. Do you know any of the other letters in your name?”

The best part of name recognition activities is kids don’t have to know the other letters in the alphabet yet. Here are some examples of some more formal (but not very fancy!) name recognition activities.

Before you write it, build it.

Once you’ve noticed your child more successfully finding and recognizing both the individual letters in his name and his name as a whole, you might start building the bridge between recognition and formation. Before you jump to formation, consider the middle ground. Provide lots of opportunities for your child to build his name before he’s forming it independently. There are so many good toys and tools out there that allow for this type of work. But you don’t need anything fancy either. Most of the time either I make the materials we use for name building or the kids help me make the materials. We’ve used everything from painted rocks to popsicle sticks to cut up squares of paper to foam or magnetic letters. I’ve been dying to get my hands on some letter beads lately too! (And these are all the same things you might use for word building later on down the road.)

A couple things to keep in mind when helping your child navigate the building phase: At first, provide a model. Have your child’s name written and displayed in a place where they can see it while they work their way through building it, matching and checking each letter as they go. As they get better and better, you can remove the model slowly so they are building it on their own. Also consider only giving them the letters from their name at first (i.e. if I want Luca to build his name, I’m only going to give him an L, U, C, and A first – I’m not going to mix in any other letters of the alphabet yet). Each time they build their name, have them tell and touch each letter in order, and then run their finger under the entire word while saying it. (L, U, C, A, Luca.) “Tell and touch” and “Run your finger under it and say it” become good strategies down the road for reading other words too, not just one’s name.

One At A Time

When you’re ready to move from building to forming, aka writing, go slow. Introduce one letter at a time, beginning with the first letter and going in order. Provide lots of different opportunities for your child to practice that same letter again and again over multiple days and even multiple weeks. Scaffold for your child if needed. Scaffold means to provide your kid with a just-right amount of help (not too much so it’s too easy, and not too little so it’s too frustrating) for them to be able to start connecting the dots on their own. Examples of scaffolds for letter formation include providing a model for them to refer to, doing hand-over-hand letter writing, tracing, giving start dots, and using the same verbal path every time when describing how to write the letter (the verbal path for L might be “big stick down and little stick across”). Make the opportunities as kinesthetic as possible – don’t just use pen and paper every time. Use chalk, paint, play doh. Write with your finger in sand, in play doh, in shaving cream, in dirt. Write with pencils, write with crayons, write with markers, write with sticks. Be creative. It doesn’t get boring if you’re changing it up constantly, and the research behind kinesthetic writing is SOLID.

Maintenance

It’s so important to not just “one and done” it. When he’s mastered a letter or he’s mastered his name, you’ll want to revisit it often. Like the saying goes, “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.” [Side note…is that how the saying goes? I’m not sure I got that right and if I didn’t, well it’s my saying now.] And also don’t be surprised if, as you begin to introduce other letters, you see regression. (N?! That doesn’t look like an N and you were just doing N’s perfectly last week!!!!) That’s ok! Think of how many things that little brain is trying to keep track of. As you add new things, other things get squeezed and moved around. Everything needs ongoing practice to not get rusty or smushed out! Lots of ways you might do maintenance activities, from quick rainbow writes all the way to fun crafts and art projects involving your child’s name.

Accountability

Once you’ve considered a certain letter or word (in this case, your child’s name) mastered, you now should hold them accountable for reading and writing it regularly. In a sense, accountability is just another strategy for maintenance. And remember, you only ever hold a kid accountable for something you KNOW he knows and can do easily. Right now, I hold my 4 year old accountable for his first name because he knows it and has mastered it, even if each letter isn’t formed perfectly every time. I don’t hold him accountable for his last name yet because he hasn’t mastered it. He has mastered the first letter, but still sometimes mixes up other letters and has trouble remembering proper formation of all the letters. So if he has to write his full name, I hold him accountable for writing his first name, then I jump in and write his last name for him. We’re at the point now where I’m beginning to hold him accountable for the first letter of his last name, then I fill in the rest from there.

Ultimately, you should be able to see how a lot of these suggestions go for any letter learning. You might see some of these things show up again in future posts. If there’s one thing you remember, it’s that we start with names because names have meaning. If you’ve ever taken a biology class or a cognitive psych class, you may remember Bartlett’s famous experiment. Anyone? Bueller? Anyone? Well, long story short, Bartlett helped us (or maybe just me) understand “schema”. Schema are a set of preconceived ideas that your brain uses to perceive and interpret new information. While schema are better known in terms of how one views the world, they apply to learning too. Your toddler is literally being pummeled by a million bits of new information on a daily basis. How your toddler’s brain decides what sticks and enters his schema and what bounces back (to be absorbed hopefully on another day) is based on what has meaning to him. How do we begin to make letters stick? Start with a name because NAMES HAVE MEANING!