Sharing Early Literacy Learning Journeys

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Starting School Series, Part 7: How many ways did I read today? A child’s perspective

Perhaps I was spurred on by my husband’s question, “So how many times do your children read on the first day? Have you ever done a tally?”

Maybe I was nudged by Frank Smith’s powerful words, “A child can only learn to read by reading,” (1975).

Or was it spending time with our first grandchild, developing in so many ways, so rapidly, that all I want to do is stop and gaze in wonder. She gives me a second chance to see the early years again – and to grasp how precious and fleeting those first years really are…  She inspires me to take another look at what parents and teachers do with children to build their oral language and later, their written language in reading and writing. 

So how many times do the children read on the first day? I count each opportunity to read in the previous two blogs and find 28 (15 in the morning, 13 in the afternoon). The number sounds like a lot but doesn’t give any other details. Ah! Why not describe the reading opportunities through the eyes of a child? To find out not just how many times s/he reads, but who was reading (individuals or group), what was being read and when it was read. After all, I’ve lived that first day with children for many years as a teacher.

There’s no time to waste. Let’s walk through the first day in a child’s shoes and read through a child’s eyes…

How many ways did I read today?

1.When I found the class list on the message board and read my name, I knew I was in the right room

2.I read my first name tag and stuck it on my shirt

3.I read my second name tag and stuck it on the backpack shelf

4.I read labels of things I played with in ‘activities’, Stickle bricks, Our Block Area…

First day, boy playing with stickle bricks

5.I read ‘Mrs Swan’ after watching her write her name on the whiteboard

6.I read my name on the name cards and stood up so kids would know me

7.I read the names on the big class list on the whiteboard, with the other kids

8.I read rhymes with the other kids after Mrs Swan read four action and nursery rhymes to us

9.I read my name on my name card again, then drew a picture of myself on it

10.I read the ‘class rules’ with the others after helping make the list and watching Mrs Swan write the list on the whiteboard

11.I read signs around the school like Boys and Girls at the toilets and Library

12.I read the titles of Little Critter Goes to School (Mercer Mayer) and Spot Goes to School (Eric Hill) when the teacher pointed to the words before she read the stories to us. She said that when we start ‘home-reading’ next week, we can take these books home to read with our families

13.I read action rhymes with the other kids and then we got to jump up and down in the Jump rhyme

14.I read the class news with the others after helping make the sentences and watching Mrs Swan write the sentences on the whiteboard

15.I read a new rhyme with the other kids as Mrs Swan put the words in the pocket chart for 1, 2 buckle my shoe

We had lunch

16.I read the book titles of No David, Boo to a Goose and Where is the Green sheep? when Mrs Swan pointed to the words before she read the stories – these books are for ‘home-reading’ too!

17.I read the days of the week with the class when the teacher told us how the ‘calendar wall’ works. She said we’d do the calendar first thing each morning morning

18.I read action rhymes with the others and got to stretch in Tall as a House

19.I read my name on a prepared name page and then drew a big picture of myself on it for Our Class Book of all our names

20.I read the names in Our Class Book with the other kids

21.I read the class rules (or ‘behaviours’) with the others before activity time. I read some books and then played with the teddy bear counters

22.I read the ‘Teddy Bears’ label on the maths shelf with my friend Harry and put the ‘Teddy Bears’ container in the right place

First day, girl drawing

We had afternoon tea

23.I read the titles of six easy books with the teacher and the class. I read some words in the easy books like ‘is, I, piggy and horse’ – more ‘home-reading’ books

24.I read my name after I wrote it on my ‘journal’ paper then drew my dog and wrote some words about playing with him at home. I like drawing and writing about my dog so I hope we do journals again tomorrow

25.I read my writing about my dog to the others in sharing time

26.I read the ‘Insects’ label on the maths shelf after the teacher told me, and then put the container of toy ‘insects’ in the right place

27.I read the names in Our Class Book again with all the others

28.I read the words and sang All the Fish…with Mrs Swan and the kids just before my dad came to pick me up


I can’t wait to come back tomorrow to play in the Block Area, to sit on the big red cushions with a book in the Reading Corner, to start drawing and writing in my ‘real Journal book’, to see if I can read the Shared Writing that’s still on the whiteboard, to read the new message on our Message Board, to read Our Class Book again, to begin writing the letters on our small, individual ‘whiteboards’ and to see how the Calendar Wall works first thing in the morning.

Quiet reflections

Reading – still something of a mystery. How did I learn to read?

I remember sitting on the floor in the first grade classroom at Hopetoun Primary School, reading sentence cards: long, white, cardboard cards with black print and small coloured pictures. The sentences were about a small boy ‘John’, his sister ‘Betty’ and their pets, a dog ‘Scottie’ and a cat, ‘Fluff’. I remember that the sentences on the long, white cards were the same as the sentences in the first Reader: ‘This is John.’ ‘This is Betty.’ ‘John can jump.’ ‘Scottie can jump.’ And so on.

I remember the day in the group when I boldly said, “John can run,” for the card that looked like this: John can run. Mrs Tidey smiled and called me a “good girl”. So this was reading!

Soon, I was allowed to take home the real book that had all the sentences in it – the thin, reddish-orange, soft cover book with off-white glossy pages. I read my ‘John and Betty’ book – but I have no recollection of special delight or praise from anyone. This is so unlike my students today with whom I celebrate loudly and lavishly when a child realises s/he is really reading.


Co-operative Show and Tell comes to Bushland Primary School

Guess what happens during Co-operative Show and Tell in Ms Squilley Squirrel’s Year One classroom at Bushland Primary School today.

Charlie Chipmunk brings a freshly-chewed apple core that he finds in the grass at the base of a red maple tree. Ms Squilley Squirrel doesn’t see anything interesting in a chewed up, old apple core. But it’s the most exciting thing that’s happened to Charlie Chipmunk this morning and he can’t wait to talk about it – and that’s all that matters.

Charlie Chipmunk and Doris Dove choose to share with each other. Often her students choose friends. Ms Squilley Squirrel doesn’t know why Charlie and Doris choose each other, they just go together. And that’s okay. Doris doesn’t bring anything – and that’s okay too – Doris talks about how she likes to sit on a telephone wire at sunrise and coo peacefully.

Black-eyed Susan and Black-eyed Sarah sway closer together, petal-to-petal, ready to talk and make black-eye contact. First thing this morning, Susan excitedly tells Ms Squilley Squirrel about a black and yellow bumble bee that visits her yesterday. And now, Susan can’t wait to tell Sarah about it .

Hetty House Finch and Chucky Chickadee get ready to turn to each other. Hetty is bursting to tweet about her close encounter with a red-tailed hawk and Chucky is excited about how he flew away fast and escaped the wrath of a Red-breasted Nuthatch at the bird feeder this morning.

Lucy, Larry and Lola Leaf make a group of three for their co-operative show and tell because, coincidentally, they all want to talk about their exciting falls to the ground.

Canada Geese waddle together and make a group of four. Glenda Goose asks Gloria Goose which way her family will fly as winter approaches. Gloria replies they’ll fly straight south. Gregory Goose chimes in that his family is going to Georgia then Gladys Goose adds that she is heading to Mexico with her cousins.

Woolly Bear, who rarely talks in front of the others, is happy to talk when the animals are in small groups. He talks to his friend Golden Woolly Bear about his favourite food, sedum leaves and to his surprise, he learns that Golden Woolly Bear loves sedum leaves too!

Some students finish co-operative show and tell. Charlie Chipmunk can’t wait to draw and write about the apple core he had shown Doris. He races to the flower pot and digs up his journal. Soon, everyone is drawing and writing in their journals. Ms Squilley Squirrel calls it Journal time.

But that’s another story…

Teachers need inspiration…

An e-mail this morning, from a teacher friend in Australia, captures my attention. She alerts me to a request for help from another P-2 teacher.  It’s the beginning of term 4 and Yolanda, (not her real name) is running low on ideas and inspiration regarding topics for her children’s talking and sharing times.

I want to act immediately, get something out that could be useful right away – a talking/sharing strategy I call Co-operative Show and Tell –  and as you’ll see, it’s not the traditional ‘Show and Tell’. 

Teachers don’t have to search for topics when children provide a myriad of topics themselves. More interest, and more meaningful sharing, listening and writing for the children.

I decide to extract the Co-operative Show and Tell strategy (just two pages) from my book, Teaching Strategies for Literacy in the Early Years and share a free PDF download with Yolanda and interested others.

Here is your free download:  Enjoy!!

P.S.  I’ve also updated my website with the free download of Co-operative Show and Tell.

P.P.S.  Click here for more about Co-operative Show and Tell as a valuable pre-writing time. (An article I wrote for Practically Primary,  2010 and later wrote as a blog called ‘Please don’t ask me…’).

Alphabet Letters in Nature

Creating a nature photo story An April Alphabet got me thinking. Since being on leave, I’ve had the luxury of more time to explore my natural surrounds–to walk and wander on nearby beaches, fields, forests and trails–and to become more aware of letters (and numbers) in nature. I’m reminded of the times children brought in a curled up witchetty grub that looked like an ‘o’, a caterpillar lying straight on a leaf that looked like an ‘l’ and a stick in the shape of a ‘t’.

Finding letters in nature is a fun way for children to learn the look, names and sounds of letters.

Questions arise…
Some letters seem to appear more often than others, such as c, j, l, o, t, v and y. And I wonder why?

What are some of the letters made of?


The stick ‘r’ was found on the beach

An ‘f’ was found on the beach sand, too

This ‘E’ was a special find on the beach


A gum leaf ‘c’ became a common find on treed paths and walkways

Plants and plant pieces:

‘l’ or ‘i’ was a frequent find after high tide

A ‘v’ spread onto the beach sand


‘Y’ is easy to find in trees

And now for something different: worms

After rain, worms wriggle onto the driveway

What letters or numbers have you seen in your natural environment?

Back to school…for the last term

Holidays have a curious habit of flying by. It seems like only yesterday I was writing about loading my bags on the early morning shuttle to the airport.
In the blink of an eye, it’s back to school – October 3rd, the first day of the last term. Reality hits home. There’s an initial reluctance in starting work. I push aside fleeting thoughts of just one more week!  There’s no gradual transition, no time to ease in gently. The first child arrives and I’m into it.

Monday. Professional Development for teachers. We collaborate on aspects of reading, spelling and explicit teaching.

Tuesday. A significant milestone for the children, their parents and me – Year One students return for their last term. In just ten weeks they will finish and head into Christmas holidays, then Year Two in February,  2012.

8:15 AM. The first children trickle in. They come into my room early—it’s an important part of our day when children and parents have opportunities to interact and share informally—I call it a ‘staggered start’.  It’s even more important the first day of term to make sure the children have extra time to talk and share about events and experiences of their past two weeks. The children’s energy and enthusiasm is contagious, it renews me. This is the best way I know to make an effective transition from holiday to work mode. Cobwebs clear, gears click back into motion, the passion returns.

Bounding up the stairs, Terry calls from the doorway, “Good morning Mrs Swan.” He walks over and stops before me… as if to give me a hug. “Good morning Terry.  Hey, you look terrific with that new haircut. How were your holidays?” Words gush out excitedly as he recounts his stay in a nearby resort.

Striding in, Donny greets me with his big, wide grin. I compliment him on his sporty new haircut that suits him so well. He seems taller. Has he grown in the two weeks away?

Quietly entering the room, Zack whispers, “Good morning.” I comment on his new, bright-white and red running shoes – adding that I got new running shoes on the holidays too.

More children and parents come in and mill around, asking about holidays and chatting happily with all and sundry. It’s wonderful to see everyone again.

Several boys come in with new games and proceed to show their friends how to play Chess and Uno.

Rex teaches Clay to play chess

Henry teaches Terry to play Uno

Two crickets arrive. In a plastic container carried by Kerrie.

A shiny, colourful leaf appears. Misty found it on her walk to school. Adults and children admire nature’s contributions.

Misty brings in a shiny, colourful leaf

...and I bring in freshly-washed covers for the reading cushions!

What a thrill – children voluntarily writing out of school…

Annie walks in smiling, hands me two pages of writing on pretty, blue paper and says, “Good morning Mrs Swan. Yesterday at my nana’s, I wrote my journal.”

Esther walks in quietly, smiling and firmly gripping an exercise book in her hands. “This is my journal about my holidays,” she says happily.

Later, Annie and Esther read their journal entries to the class: family trips, outings and holidays. Other children chime in and discuss their holiday activities – camping, fishing, ice-skating, movies, swimming in resort and home pools, riding bikes, building sandcastles and going to Grandma’s.

As Esther reads her journal, Molly says, “It’s like the Diary of a Wombat, with the short sentences.”

Molly thinks Esther's journal sounds like the writing in 'Diary of a Wombat'.

Key words on the board. During our pre-writing talking time of  co-operative show and tell, some children request key words to be written on the board – new words they may need in their writing: camping, movies, water-slide, sandcastle, Granite Gorge, Port Douglas Resort, Kurrimine Beach, Cairns Central Shopping Centre, Cairns Esplanade Lagoon

Visualising. Before moving to their writing I ask the children to visualise what they are going to write about and to put possible sentences in their heads. I remind them to think about adjectives they could use to describe objects, places or events and words to tell how they feel. Finally, I add Natalie Goldberg’s advice: Be specific! Not car, but cadillac. Not tree, but sycamore.   ‘It is much better to say “the geranium in the window” than “the flower in the window.” “Geranium”  – that one word gives us a much more specific picture… It immediately gives us the scene by the window—red petals, green circular leaves, all straining toward sunlight’ (Goldberg, 1986, p 77).

A few weeks later…
It’s great to be back. Children help each other with ideas, words, spelling. There’s quality writing from all. One of the children writes a seven page story in her journal. I realise how far their writing has come since starting the year in February and I can’t wait to see how far they can go by the end of the year.

We’re going to the zoo, zoo, zoo…

 Harry is the first to arrive. Then Jack and Rowena. Jack’s mum says he’s been awake since 5:30. “We can’t be late,” he says. ” The bus leaves at 9.”  More excited Year 1s come to the classroom as they arrive at school. They wear school uniforms, including closed shoes and hats.  Lunches and drinks in plastic bags are placed in the plastic tub according to the adult who will care for that group of five children on our class trip today. We are going to the Tropical Zoo.

This is part of our unit of work on Australian Animals. Individual ‘studies’ of a self-selected animal and a ‘What am I?’ writing task are well underway. Paintings of animal habitats are awaiting animals. Seeing live animals at the zoo is special. 

And… off we go on the bus! Past houses, shops and shopping centres. Past creeks, cane fields and paddocks of playful horses. We go over bridges, through roundabouts and on highways until we reach the zoo.

We leave the containers of lunches at the large undercover picnic area then head up the hill to the Bird Show.  A young zoo worker provides an informative and humorous commentary as we see the birds: a quiet lesser sooty owl, a beautiful Major Mitchell cockatoo, a black and red cockatoo, a sulpher-crested cockatoo, a cheeky magpie that puts a tissue paper into a bin, a barking owl and a serious white sea eagle – spectacular!
PS How long did it take a zoo worker to train the magpie to put paper into the bin? 
3 days? 3 months? 1 day? 50 minutes? 20 minutes? 1 hour? 4 hours?

A fascinating lesser sooty owl

The beautiful Major Mitchell cockatoo

Next, we go to the kangaroos and then to the crocodiles.  Unexpectedly, we see zoo workers moving a large crocodile. The crocodile’s snout is bound with rope and about ten strong handlers hold him. It looks like hard work… We move on to see crocodiles warming up in the sun and an occasional crocodile opening its mouth to cool down. Other crocs keep cool under water.

Is the crocodile opening its mouth to keep cool?

A kangaroo is nicely camouflaged

After lunch, the adults and small groups of children walk  through the zoo. We see three striped lemurs, a red panda, a well-fed dingo, a resting wombat, a pacing cassowary, numerous sleeping koalas, several long, sleek snakes, green tree frogs, American alligators, eastern water dragons, a blue-tongue lizard, a glorious iguana and dozens of colourul birds. We read the notices giving us information about the animals. We all learn lots!

Koalas can sleep 75% of the day

An eastern water dragon heads towards water

It is a wonderful walk… and slowly we head back to the bus for the return to school.
Tomorrow the children will talk, draw and write about the trip as we re-live the real-life experience.

What excursions does your class take out of school?

Building bushland and crocodile habitats in a Year 1 classroom

A branch stands in a bucket and sticks, leaves and gumnuts litter the floor in the ‘bushland’ area of the classroom. A koala, kookaburra, ring-tailed possum and sugar glider sit and hang in the branches. Kangaroos are on the ‘ground’ along with assorted snakes, ants and insects. By the windows, a green tree frog sits on the rafters looking down at the hanging vines, sand, ‘mangroves’ and crocodiles who live in the ‘crocodile habitat’ below. The geographical areas and animals reflect our unit of work this term: Australian Animals.

A possum hangs from a branch

A glider hangs hangs on for dear life

Kangaroos look for grass amongst the leaves

The green tree frog looks for a damp area

Crocodile habitat – with turtles and frogs in the mix.

The children choose one animal to study. They write a ‘What am I?’ for a class big book – and they learn interesting facts about that  animal. For example, did you know that:

  • really hungry crocodiles will eat bats?
  • most kangaroos can only move both back legs together and not one at a time?
  • green ants can carry up to 20 times their weight?
  • wombats have backward-facing pouches so dirt does not get over the young as wombats dig?
  • koalas sleep about 75% of their time?
This koala is awake!
How are your units of work refelcted in your classroom?

Crocodylus johnstoni

Chloe’s mum came into school today carrying a dark, dark box.
And in that dark, dark box was a soft, white towel.
And in that soft, white towel was a soft, black towel.
And in that soft, black towel was a hard, white skull … of a crocodylus johnstoni.  A freshwater crocodile.

A crocodile head. "Look at the eye holes."

Crocodylus, what big eyes you have on the top of your head.
All the better to see you with (when I am largely submerged in the murky water).
Crocodylus, what big nostrils you have on the top of your head.
All the better to breathe with (as I remain still, like a log in the water). 

Crocodylus, what sharp teeth you have in that long, tapering snout.
All the better to grab you with and swallow you whole, my dear!

"Look at the sharp teeth and how they fit together."

There’s a crocodile in the next room too so I borrow it to show the children. It’s a young crocodylus johnstoni prepared by a taxidermist. We look closely and see the five toes on the front feet and the four webbed toes on the back feet. We observe two lines of spikes along its back that become one line of spikes along the tapering tail. Children comment on the browns and blacks of the hard scaly body and the ‘glassy’ appearance of the  eyes. “I feel like it’s watching me all the time,” said Thea.

"Look at the four toes on the back feet."

Later we move on to Internet information and detailed big books with wonderfully clear photographs. The children draw and label their crocodile pictures. Today, we learned lots about crocodylus johnstoni… and it was fun.

Crocodiles I have seen on my walks through Argentea and Cairns Tropical Zoo…

I am cold-blooded so I warm up by basking in the sun.

I like lounging in the water, too

Lastly, a video of crocodylus johnstoni…

Have you seen crocodiles in the wild? Or in a zoo?
What more can you share about freshwater crocodiles?
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