Sharing Early Literacy Learning Journeys

Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

Why did it take so long…?

At the breakfast table, my husband looks at the book. It’s Mary O’Neill’s poems about colours, Hailstones and Halibut Bones  (1961, Tadworth, Surrey: The World’s Work). I was reading it after a dull, rainy yesterday to remind myself of O’Neill’s ‘grey’ words.

He says, “It’s not a ‘good fit’ book for me.”
But, when he looks at the blurb on the back cover flap and starts reading, something changes. He stops. Re-reads. Reads the words aloud to me.

‘Never let a thought shrivel and die
For want of a way to say it…’

I stop in my tracks. He reads again. I listen. We savour her words, look at each other and wonder, “Why did it take so long for us to discover this?”

‘Never let a thought shrivel and die
For want of a way to say it,
For English is a wonderful game
And all of you can play it.
All that you do is match the words
To the brightest thoughts that come in your head
So that they come out clear and true
And handsomely groomed and fed –
For many of the loveliest things
Have never yet been said.”

(O’Neill, M. 1966. Words Words Words).

May you and your children enjoy these inspirational words to spur budding writers.

A new bird on the block…reminds me of classroom life

Early Monday morning. Cool 10C. Cloudy. Dull. Grey. Intermittent light rain. Slow start today.  Curl up on the living room couch. Sip vanilla hazelnut coffee. Gaze out the picture window at a small wood bird-feeder in the front garden. Framed by two dwarf Alberta spruce trees. Chickadee arrives. A black-capped chickadee with ‘black cap, black bib and white cheeks’ (Peterson, p. 119).

Chickadee feeds. On niger seeds. And a mixture of other small seeds. Feeds again. Zings to a big, blue spruce tree nearby.  Another small bird lands on the cedar perch.

Pecks at seeds. Red-orange breast feathers – some might say cinnamon. Blue-grey back and wing  feathers. Black and white stripes at head.
New bird on the block! What is it?
Flies frantically  fast over the roof of the house. Chickadee returns. Leaves immediately when the ‘new’ bird appears. Heirachy is established.

Reach for the bird books. In the old, black, barrister bookcase – handed down through the family. Part of our large home library. Organised. Know exactly where to look. Second shelf from the top. Next to wood heat, wilderness and trees. Open the bird book. Look for the name of  the ‘new’ bird. In the chickadee family? Wren family? Finch family? Search the index.

Reminds me of classroom life. Searching for information about Harry’s frog. A green frog. Children observing and describing the frog. Sharing what they know. Getting frog books from the frog ‘basket of books’. Thinking aloud and demonstrating ‘finding information’. Going to the index. Looking up names. Green frogs. Tree frogs. White-lipped green tree frog.  That could be it. Turning to p.25. Reading headings. Finding out…

Do the same with the bird book. Search the index. Look up names. Examine colourplates and written descriptions. A nuthatch?

A nuthatch is a ‘small, chubby tree-climber, with a long bill and a stubby tail’ (Peterson, p. 120).  Is that a long bill? The bird nudges the small seeds around with his pointy beak as if he’s searching for a particular seed. Many seeds drop to the green grass below.

More information. Reddish breast. ‘Black line through eye’ (Peterson, Plate 44). Definitely a black stripe through his eye. Is that it?  A red-breasted nuthatch?

This nuthatch is skittish. He pecks and quickly turns his head from side to side. Constantly looking round… for enemies, I suppose. Blue Jays? Red-tailed hawks? Humans?

In the next half hour, we see two black-capped chickadees and the red-breasted nuthatch taking turns at the bird-feeder. Two small, brown sparrows also come and go. We take photos – but the birds are fast! Chickadees peck, peck, peck and flit, flap, fly fast to the protection of the big, blue spruce. Hide in the thick, prickly boughs. Sparrows quickly disappear over the house roof. Nuthatch returns. Eats.

A rare moment. Nuthatch and chickadee are at the feeder at the same time. Nuthatch eats with his tail in the air. Chickadee hides at the side.

My favourite part in learning about a bird is to look at the illustration and immediately check for similarities on the real bird out the window. It’s like a puzzle. Find a clue. Does it fit? Double check. I love this way of learning – reminds me of classroom life. I’ll know this bird forever…

Peterson, R.T. (1947).  A Field Guide to the Birds: eastern land and water birds. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

10for10 Special Picture Books


What are ten of your favourite picture books for your classroom or library? Thanks to @mandyrobek and @CathyMere we can share ten favourite picture books on Blogs and Twitter today: #PB10for10. Here are ten special books that I love to share with children – in no particular order.

 Jamberry by Bruce Degen (1983) is a hugely enjoyable book with rollicking rhyme and rhythm – I can’t help but ‘sing-a-long’ to the words. Children pick up on the rhythmical language and join in. Colouful, clear illustrations and expressions of the characters add to the fun. A book to read and re-read!


Boo to a Goose by Mem Fox (1996) is also rhythmical, giving children a sense of rhyming words – great for beginning readers. Bright, clear illustrations add clarity to the sentences and a repetitive refrain invites children to join in. The big print enables children to easily see the text and participate in shared reading.


All by Myself by Mercer Mayer  (1983) is one of Mercer’s many delightful, kid-friendly books that are funny and easy for developing readers. The clear, expressive illlustrations enhance the simple language and messages. All by Myself is valuable for beginning readers with the repetitive sentence starter of ‘I can…’ and child-like actions. A funny book to also help children’s writing!


Pickle Things by Marc Brown (1980) is a funny rhyming book.  The bold pictures illustrate the crazy sentences as in: Pickle things you never make… like pickle pie and pickle cake. Pickle donuts, pickle flakes. Children laugh out loud at the absurdity of the pickle suggestions and uses. Big print and few words per page also help developing readers. A one-of-a-kind book!


More Spaghetti, I Say by Rita Golden Gelman (1977) is loads of fun for children with its child-like antics and responses. The rhyme, rhythm and enlarged text make it a sought after book for developing readers. Clear, expressive illustrations add to the hilarity of the story. Laugh out loud!


Handa’s Surprise by Eileen Browne (1994) is a superbly illustrated storybook with bright colours, fruits and animals of hot Africa. The simple and thoughtful story in words is enhanced by clear illustrations that tell another story… which is indeed a surprise. A real gem!


little blue and little yellow by Leo Lionni was published in 1959, but notions of friendship, co-operation and tolerance are still relevant.  The message is clear – told in direct sentences and accompanying sparse ‘blobs’ of colour.  A delight!


A Fish out of Water by Helen Palmer (Suess Beginner Book, 1983) is a favourite with children because they identify with the boy’s actions that cause the problem –  starting small and getting bigger all the time. Children are enthralled by the unfolding catastrophes – in words and illustrations!


Mr Archimedes’ Bath by Pamela Allen (1980) is a funny story that makes children think, wonder and try to solve the water problem. It’s a good book to include in any unit of work or study on ‘Water’. The animals in the illustrations keep their skin/fur on but Mr Archimedes is naked, which adds to children’s guffawing and laughter. A literary book for ‘integration across the curriculum’.


Everybody Needs a Rock by Byrd Baylor (1974) is a favourite of mine – although a bit long for some children. Baylor gives ten apt and often amusing rules for finding your own special rock. The poetic words are accompanied by Peter Parnall’s sparse, expressive illustrations that perfectly depict the rule. An absolute joy!

On reflection, I see that many of these books are ‘old’ favourites – but still exciting and memorable picture books to enjoy with young children. Maybe you can find some of them to enjoy too!

Unexpected Visitor, Number Three

“When a pine needle falls in the forest;
the eagle hears it,
the deer sees it, and
the bear smells it.”
…an old First Nations saying.

“Look! Down the end of the road,” shouts our neighbour.
Straining our eyes and peering into the distance we see a smudge of brown against the grassy slope.

Suddenly a car noise. The deer turns sharply to take off back into the forest.
It’s hard to focus the camera.

A few minutes after the car passes, the deer reappears. Crosses the road towards the opposite green belt, stops.

A long way away. Three hundred metres at a guess. I steady the camera against the big, blue spruce at the front of the house. Try for another photo. Digital zoom. Focus.
Not perfect. But the best I can do. The deer moves off. Into the trees.
I walk down the road. Quietly. Slowly. Optimistically. Hoping the deer may stop to browse on willow leaves.
No luck. No deer. Maybe she saw me, smelled me, heard me.

Later that day, a neighbour asks if we saw a fawn running up the greenbelt next to our house and I wonder if the fawn belonged to the deer we saw earlier at the end of the road.

No. Missed it. I was inside folding laundry!

An Unexpected Visitor

“Hey, Honey. Get your camera. Come out here. Quick!” my husband calls.

I grab my camera and race out the sliding doors onto the back deck. In the middle of the right hand side of the back lawn sits a snapping turtle – about a foot across the shell.

A rounded, grey head protrudes from her shell – not tucked within as I have seen with other turtles – and her triangular, spiked tail sticks out the back.

Old neck folds wrinkle and gather between her head and shell.

Four grey, scaly legs protrude from the shell and get lost in the grass – ready to be cut. In fact, Bill was cutting the grass when he saw her…

We look. From front, back and sides. Grey, muddy shell. Almost smooth. Unclear markings. Round head. Not pretty. Pre-historic. Zig-zag edge at the back of her shell, from which a ‘dinosaur-like’ scaled, tail protrudes.

She is plopped on the ground – and looks at us. Alert. Wary. Sand is in her right eye and she rubs her right front leg across her eye as if to clear it: “All the better to see you with, my dear!”

Why is this snapping turtle on our back lawn?

Where has she been?

Where is she going?

We assume she laid eggs (in the greenbelt woodland area behind? under our back cedar trees?) and is now returning to the lake 200-300 yards in front of us… in an easterly direction.

I stop taking photos and retreat to the back deck. Give her space.

Soon, she rises slowly and walks. Lumbers really. In a straight line between our house and a neighbour’s house – no fences here. Makes it easy for her… slow and steady wins the race.

Seeing the snapping turtle heading for water reminds me of Lynley Dodds’ book (1985), The Smallest Turtle  when turtle babies hatch on the beach and hear the water calling: “To the sea! To the sea!” with illustrations of hatchlings racing, stumbling and scrambling over the hot, white sand to the cool, clear sea… racing to avoid being picked off by seagulls overhead.

I run to the front of the house and peek around the corner. She’s lumbering with a steady gait, rhythmical, almost swinging. Not ungainly. Each time she sees me, she plops and stops.

I hide. She continues walking on the grass. Two neighbours come to look. She plops again. Head moving. Watching us. Each time we move out of sight, she walks – but the minute she sees one of us, she plops!

How wide is her peripheral vision?

Finally, we let her go. To get on with her task. Her walk. I hope she accomplishes her mission and reaches her destination…  but first, there’s a road to cross.

From behind a low juniper tree I watch her traverse the ditch by the side of the road and go onto the road.  Steadily, rhythmically and safely she strides across the bitumen, with speed it seems – no cars come along at the time. Maybe the hard surface is easier to walk on than soft grass and ground?

She goes up the ditch on the other side of the road, onto a neighbour’s grass. I watch her until she’s out of sight; swallowed by shadows of distant trees. Three more lawns to go, a small road, woods and then the lake…

I hope she makes it!

No wonder these signs are on highways around here.

This is the first snapping turtle I have ever seen, so I want to find out about it. ‘Just in time learning’ I call it – learning when one needs it. When information is meaningful and relevant.

How much learning in your classroom is ‘just in time learning’?

When children bring tadpoles, caterpillars, a green tree frog, a butterfly, a bird’s nest or almost anything from nature, we take the time to look, talk and share – both knowledge and experiences. Sometimes, the shared item grows into a ‘mini-unit’ or a ‘short study’ with drawings, photos, sentences, vocabulary, sounds, word work, writing and reading. And, there’s always research… books, charts and internet. ‘Strike while the iron’s hot’. ‘Just in time learning’ occurs for children and adults. We learn interesting things together.

Later, I find out that a snapping turtle’s plastron is ‘yellowish, small and cross-shaped: legs and underbelly are not well protected’ (http://torontozoo.ca).
But I had to look up the word, plastron: the under portion of the shell of a turtle or tortoise that is made up of several, often hinged, bony plates joined to the carapace by bridges located between the animal’s legs (Encarta Dictionary).

Learn more about snapping turtles: http://torontozoo.ca/AdoptAPond/turtles.asp

Tell me about a turtle you have seen.

A find: two more ‘Grug’ books

Saturday afternoon. I’m in the shopping centre to meet friends for coffee at Myer’s. To talk teaching. We do this periodically. I’m early. I bypass pots, pans and platters. I gravitate to books. Children’s books. I’m amazed at the increased number of ‘early learning’ books that are tightly packed onto the shelves.  Books about the alphabet. Numbers. Colours. Shapes.

Spot a familiar character. Grug, face out on the shelf. But I don’t know these two books: Grug Abc and Grug 123 Numbers. I pick them up and turn the board pages.

Aahh… Ted Prior’s simple, colourful illustrations in the alphabet book. Clear, black text. Perfect for beginning readers! A Christmas gift idea?

Grug Abc is new to me!

Number book. One big red apple. Two yellow flowers. Five balancing rocks. Eight tall trees. The colourful, precise and thoroughly delightful Prior illustrations are familiar. Perfect for counting by ones and one-to-one correspondence. Another gift idea?

The familiar 'Grug' is on each double page

I immediately think of our basket of Grug books at school.

Our basket of Grug books - accessible all year.

I love Grug books

I love Grug books because of the simple, humorous story lines and the appealing, uncluttered illustrations. I love reading them to my Year Ones. We have fun. And the children laugh out loud!

There’s another reason I love Grug books; they are ‘easy’ to read for children who are on their way to reading. There are challenging words in these books but children’s familiarity with the stories and the clear illustrations make it easy for them to read the picturesread the words and re-tell the storiesGrug Goes Fishing is one of the funniest – and one my favourites.

A page from the book...'Grug began to fish.'

A book for all seasons

Grug books were first published in the eighties. Each Year One class I’ve had since then, loved Grug books. Our basket of Grug books stays in the classroom all year because children who enter Year One as readers, can read Grug.
And as other children grow into readers, they read Grug. A book for all seasons!

My 10 ‘must have’ picture books

Grug is on my list of 10 ‘must have’ picture books for my Year One classroom. You’ll find my top 10 list and synopsis of each book here.
Print the list off, put it on your fridge and share it with your friends.

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.

Up, up and away… for holidays

It’s 3am, dark as I leave for the airport. Suitcase wheels on concrete break the silence. Waves on the beach across the road, barely murmur. I’m off:  A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step (Lao Tzu).

School holidays. Visit family in USA. Strengthen ties. Broaden horizons. Expand minds.  Break routines. See, smell, hear other places.  Taste other foods. See with different eyes: Who lives sees much. Who travels sees more.

On three planes. Read (Talking about Jane Austen in Baghad, A House Somewhere). Write (my journal). Complete crosswords (without looking at the answers – mostly).  Look out the window. Clouds above and sea below. The coastline of San Francisco looms ahead and we dip low over the water to come into land (tomato bisque in sourdough soup bowl).

Another plane. Smaller this time. Big sky. Clear views. Brown, orange and beige land lie below. Blue rivers slither across the dryness. Patchwork quilts of crops appear. Sworls of green. Very different from the wheatfarms of the mallee all those years ago. “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page,”  said St Augustine.

Arrive. Open arms and wide smiles. Hugs all around. In the car. Thankfully, not driving. On the other side of the road. To the house. More welcomes. Look around. What’s the same? What’s different? “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things,” said Henry Miller. No school concerns here. Travelling stimulates and refreshes me as I drink in myriad experiences.

A road trip

A short stay

A foothills trek

Keep going...

On the way, see, smell and taste different foods.
Idaho trout and ratatouille. Blueberry muffins. Raspberry muffins. Zucchini sticks. Sri Lankan chicken. Alaskan halibut. Huckleberry pancakes. Moussaka. Huge sandwiches from The Blue Moose Cafe with crystal clear water in mason jars. And lastly, strong, aromatic filtered coffee!

Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind (Seneca). That’s true for me. I’m stimulated, enthused and refreshed by travelling. When parents say they are taking their child out of school for a trip I send them off with a personalised ‘Travel Book’ for the child to record experiences (drawings, writing, tickets, pamphlets) and say, “Enjoy… I can’t give Tim or Tam those experiences within these four walls!”

Samuel Johnson explains, “The use of travelling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.”

What do you do to refresh and invigorate at the end of a week, end of a term, at the end of a year? 
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