How do you make learning “stick”? It was the end of my third year teaching kindergarten. My eyes were resting on several letter a’s in student writing. They consisted of a circle with a little line attached. How many times had we gone over the letter “a” in Rainbow Writing? How many times had I taught how to make “a” correctly without picking up the crayon?
Yes, those incorrect a’s in April drove me crazy, but why? Because they made me feel like I had wasted my time. The last thing I wanted to do was waste my time or my students’ time on something that wasn’t working. I wanted my students to have time each day for painting, blocks, and the class guinea pig. I also embraced the teaching of academics in kindergarten, but I wanted it to be effective.
The quest for how to make learning “stick”, and what is most effective and efficient, has been at the heart of my teaching ever since I got my head above water that third year. (The first two years were about survival). It’s not always more time that is needed on academics, but more time well spent. Then our students will be succeeding and we will have some time for art, music and play as well.
Over the next few years I figured out how to introduce the letters in groups so that students were practicing the same beginning hand motions for a few weeks at a time. I found that this helped their muscle memory. I started having a group lesson every day where they watched me model how to form the letters before doing it themselves. They also got to watch me make mistakes and to determine which letters were correct. I had never spent so much time doing this kind of instruction (which I later learned could be labelled as “explicit” or “direct” instruction). My biggest surprise, however, was that they loved all of it, even the 10 minute silent practice! What I thought would be a tedious time of the day was relaxed and fun because everyone was succeeding, and they knew it. I started wondering how every aspect of writing could be successful for everyone.
During these few years, our school hosted a writing expert and held several trainings, one in Six Trait writing and one in Step Up to Writing. These were always centered on skills that were far above kindergarten. My teaching partner and I would end up looking at each other and rolling our eyes at several point during the training because it was so irrelevant to us. One of us would raise our hand during the training and ask the question, “But what do you do in kindergarten?” The answer was always simple: “Oh, just have them draw pictures and label them.” It always seemed like someone should have more to offer than that.
Because, in reality, having students draw pictures and label them looked like this: 8 kids actually drawing and labeling, 3 scribbling, 5 goofing off, 1 crying because the picture doesn’t look right, and 4 waiting for me to help with letter sounds so they can label the picture. Not exactly a writing lesson where everyone is succeeding.
After I started learning how to break down the handwriting skills, things started to change. When students were finished making their letters and correcting mistakes, they could turn their paper over and draw. By this time, everyone was feeling successful, the room was calm, there was no trying to force a skill such as labeling (which many of them weren’t ready for), and drawing was calm and relaxed. I realized some kids who had goofed around in previous years needed help just learning how to draw. From there, I had fun developing lessons that started from where 5-year olds really are, not just where some expert thought they should be.
By the time I moved up to first grade in 2007, the workbook format was in place. First grade opened up so many new concepts and challenges. The amount students could write that first year was so exciting, but I soon realized that quantity doesn’t equal quality. I put a lot of thinking and research into teaching punctuation and helping young writers learn about different genres instead of writing about the same topic over and over.
Now I teach second grade, and the fun continues. The focus skills here are on longer sentences and writing more detailed descriptions.
To me, K-2 are the most important years in writing, just as they are in reading. But whereas reading instruction has been exhaustively researched, early writing instruction hasn’t been studied very much. The common belief seems to be that “real” writing starts later and that students are just sort of playing with writing in these younger years. I hope to change this by showing what good solid instruction looks like in K-2 and what a difference it can make for students!