Structured Literacy in Kindergarten: Empowering Students with the Right to Read

In today's rapidly evolving world, literacy is more important than ever. The ability to read and write is a fundamental skill that opens doors to knowledge, communication, and opportunity. In this article, I will share my experiences and insights gained from a recent webinar I attended titled "Structured Literacy in Kindergarten: Five Key Changes That Made All My Students Readers." This webinar not only provided practical advice and resources for implementing structured literacy in the classroom but also highlighted the importance of recognizing the right to read as a basic human right.

The webinar began with an acknowledgment of meeting on aboriginal land and the significance of recognizing the contributions of indigenous peoples. It featured a kindergarten teacher, Kate Nguyen, who shared her experience in applying structured literacy in her classroom, resulting in all her students learning to read. Additionally, Chief Commissioner Patricia Deguire from the Ontario Human Rights Commission discussed the importance of the right to read and the Commission's efforts to address reading disabilities in Ontario's public education system.

The Right to Read report, a vital resource stemming from the Commission's work, combines the lived experiences of students and parents, research, and expert guidance to provide recommendations on early learning curriculum, screening, interventions, accommodations, professional assessments, and systemic issues. The report emphasizes the importance of early screening for reading disabilities and underscores that the right to read is a basic human right.

Background and Professional Development in Structured Literacy

Kate Nguyen, the kindergarten teacher, shared her background and professional development in structured literacy, as well as her advocacy work in literacy. She provided context for her class demographics and shared the first shift in teaching: an intentional focus on phonological and phonemic awareness. Nguyen explained the definitions of these terms and highlighted the importance of starting with phonemic awareness from the start of kindergarten, rather than focusing solely on larger units like syllables.

She also emphasized the use of phonics and letter-sound correspondences from the beginning, without the need for mastering oral phonemic awareness first. Nguyen shared that she used the Hegerty pre-K program for daily work in phonemic awareness but modified it throughout the year as she learned more.

Teaching Phonics in Kindergarten

Nguyen discussed her experience in teaching phonics in kindergarten, sharing that she started using a sound wall instead of a word wall, which turned out to be a valuable tool for her students to connect speech and print. She also mentioned using slideshows for phonics lessons and embedded mnemonics to help students with phoneme-grapheme correspondences. Nguyen used a heart words approach for high-frequency words with irregular patterns, which involved putting a heart over the letters that students needed to remember by heart.

She also shared a few ideas for teaching phonics, such as using index cards to form new words and using visual aids for reversing letters.

Balanced Literacy vs. Structured Literacy

The difference between balanced literacy and structured literacy was discussed, emphasizing the use of decodable texts in structured literacy. Leveled books, which require guessing strategies, are not effective because they activate the wrong areas of the brain and form bad habits. Decodable texts are helpful in building reading skills, and parents and educators can access online resources, such as decodable books, to support reading instruction.

Nguyen also discussed connected writing, including printing practice, dictation, spelling rules, and content writing. The use of sound walls is also helpful for differentiation in the classroom. Examples of writing activities were provided, such as word chains and estimated spelling. The importance of using decodables and structured literacy to build a strong foundation in reading was emphasized.

Five Key Shifts in Teaching Reading, Writing, and Vocabulary

In this section of the webinar, Nguyen shared her five key shifts in teaching reading, writing, and vocabulary to young children. She emphasized the importance of modeling and sharing writing with students, using mentor texts, focusing on real words rather than nonsense words, using whole group instruction, and creating a balance between play and targeted small group instruction. She also stressed the importance of rich read-alouds and chapter book read-alouds at snack time to build vocabulary and knowledge. Nguyen provided numerous examples of activities and resources that she found to be successful with her students and encouraged other educators to find what works best for their own classrooms.

Integrating Science and Social Studies into Literacy Instruction

Nguyen advised teachers not to neglect science and social studies while trying to increase English language arts time, as a lack of a strong knowledge base and vocabulary in these areas can harm students in the long run. She suggested weaving content areas with literacy and using units like the five senses and plants from CKLA, which provide interactive reading lessons with great visuals. Nguyen also mentioned that they have a tradition of singing happy birthday to the birthday child, doing the GoNoodle birthday hooray song and dance, and allowing the child to pick a birthday book from a gift bag. She noted that even books with commercial characters like Fancy Nancy or Minions can have great vocabulary and language to work with.

Linking Classroom Shifts to the Right to Read Inquiry

Nguyen continued to link the shifts she made in her classroom to the recommendations from the Right to Read inquiry in Ontario. She highlighted the importance of foundational skills, vocabulary, and structure. Nguyen also addressed misconceptions about screening and emphasized its importance in identifying students who may need additional support. She mentioned an upcoming IDA Literacy Leaders series on screening, which she encouraged teachers to sign up for. Nguyen emphasized that explicit instruction can still be incorporated into a play-based program and that teachers should not be afraid to provide their students with knowledge through explicit instruction. She also suggested being creative with games and activities, such as the "wand game," to make learning fun for students.

Question and Answer Session

The rest of the webinar focused on answering questions from the attendees. Some of the topics covered were how to deal with students who already know how to read, the order of presentation of sounds, lesson plan templates, and resources for structured literacy instruction. Nguyen emphasized that her approach is a tier one approach to prevent reading challenges, not an intervention for students with learning disabilities. The webinar ended with the announcement of the winners of the book and scholarship giveaways. Finally, the hosts thanked Nguyen and the attendees for their participation and encouraged them to visit the IDA Ontario website for more resources and volunteer opportunities.

The "Structured Literacy in Kindergarten: Five Key Changes That Made All My Students Readers" webinar provided a wealth of valuable information, practical strategies, and inspiring ideas for educators seeking to implement structured literacy in their classrooms. It emphasized the importance of early intervention, explicit instruction, and a strong foundation in reading skills to ensure that all students have the right to read. By attending this webinar and sharing my experiences, I hope to contribute to the ongoing conversation surrounding literacy education and the critical role it plays in the lives of our children.

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