Making learning an option – The “Principle of Choice” at work!

After first reading Marv’s DWS book more than ten years ago, I started to become conscious of the importance of deliberately planning for “choice” in my teaching.   Certainly, as I took on a job at a local Alternate High School six years ago––working one-on-one with sullen, illiterate and often, ashamed teenagers––providing choice was a major consideration in any lesson.  There, the first choice always offered was simply “Would you be interested in a reading lesson today?”  Darlene, my teaching partner, and I quickly (and painfully) learned that without at least some tiny initial buy-in from these students, we were going nowhere fast––and it wasn’t gonna to be pretty!

Now this year, back in Kindergarten full time, choice is still an important consideration.  Like others who use DWS, whenever possible I try to ensure my Kindergarten students have choices when we do projects, play games or have story time.  In discipline situations I try not to back any child into a corner and instead endeavour to make sure they feel they have some freedom of choice with regard to their own behaviour and its consequences.  Yet, the most powerful teaching experience I’ve ever had with “choice” wasn’t planned at all.  It developed gradually over a period of about 3 months and all quite unintentionally.  I’d like to tell you about it!

Although the Kindergarten mandate in my province is to provide a play-based learning environment, just before Christmas I realized that a couple of students were ready for more formal reading instruction.  They already knew all their alphabet sounds, they could automatically and correctly write a letter symbol for each sound and their oral phonemic awareness skills were excellent.  One child, Mary, was especially eager; I decided to start with her.

Although I’ve taught nearly 300 grade one students to read in a regular grade one classroom setting, I’ve never before taught a Kindergarten student to read within a play-based environment.  The main reason I chose to move to full day K when Darlene retired last June was to be able to continue to develop the beginning reading program we created in our grade one classroom and used successfully with older struggling readers in the alternate school system in our district.

Although I had a pretty good idea of how I wanted to approach reading instruction in Kindergarten when I started in September, this year is an experimental one for me.  I’m testing out ideas, lesson formats and activities in order to find out which might work best, and in which sequence.  Currently, many First Nations students in our province are not successfully learning to read well over the course of their schooling.  I want to do my best to provide good beginning reading instruction for all my 14 students, but I’m especially concerned that 11 of them are already statistically at-risk––even before they start!

Over the Christmas holiday, I considered how I might go about teaching, first Mary, and then eventually others, to learn to read.  Since I personally find individualized instruction more productive than small group work, I knew I wanted to keep each child’s learnings recorded in some individual way, for their own reference.  I debated how best to do this and finally decided to use a notebook. But I wanted this notebook to be different than the others we use in Kindergarten––I wanted it to be somewhat special.  After all, learning to read is very exciting!  The dollar store had a sturdy black notebook for sale so I bought a few and taped a name tag on for Mary.

In my school, eating times are supervised by teachers.  The procedure I’ve taught is that after eating and cleaning up lunch things, students are to get organized back at their table spot for “Book Look” time.  I spotted an opportunity to begin working with Mary on her own because it just happens that she typically eats her lunch more quickly than all the other children.  When I quietly suggested that we could use the remainder of eating time to start learning to read, she was all smiles.  I showed her the notebook and we began.  Each following day after her lunch, Mary and I would spend five minutes or so to practice the words and sentences in her “Key Book.”  Then we would add a new phonetic pattern that would allow her to tackle more words.  Because Mary is so keen on learning to read, it’s a delight to work with her.  We have a lot of fun together!

Lunchtime seating in my class is determined by small named placemats.  As students wash their hands, I put out plastic placemats at three tables.  Because I move the mats around––to different tables, with different companions––each day Mary sat with a new group of children.  As others at her table wondered aloud what the two of us were doing, I would explain and invite them to listen in to Mary’s reading lesson if they were interested.  Eventually, the two students who were near ready to read themselves, asked if they could have a reading lesson––just like Mary.  Happily, I was able to show them that I had already purchased Key Books for them too.  Since they were interested, I could certainly give them a little lesson.

Things progressed well and I went back to the dollar store several times to buy more black notebooks. Every couple of weeks, another child would ask if they too could have a reading lesson.  Generally students didn’t seem to ask to be taught to read until they had acquired a certain skill level with phonemic awareness and alphabet sounds.  This was perfect!  Our Book Look times just naturally started to increase in length.  More and more kids automatically started to go to the bin and retrieve their Key book when they finished their lunches. Without any suggestion from me, they would practice reading the familiar pages, while waiting for a turn with me to add the next concept to their books. Then one child had a new idea.  Each day after reading, he began getting a pencil to spell three letter words, write the names of classmates and copy favorite words from book titles into his own notebook.  Soon that idea caught on too and I developed a procedure; pages on which I taught reading concepts were just for the teacher, any other empty page could hold student writing.

Eventually though, a couple of students who did not have the necessary foundational skills to easily learn to read began to ask if they could also have lessons with a Key Book.  My heart fell as the first thought to cross my mind was “But you’re not ready yet.  This will be too hard for you!”  Luckily, biting my tongue (as a result of diligent practice with DWS Principle, Positivity) saved me!  Instead of blurting out my first (and very negative) thought, I forced a bright smile and said (without a lot of inner confidence,) “Sure!  Any student who wants to learn to read can do so!”   What else could I say?

But then, pretty quickly, I remembered that years ago I went to individualized instruction for a reason!  My less ready students did not yet have the ability to actually blend letters into words to read but I could have them practice more basic skills that would move them to that point.  I could use their Key Books to review alphabet sounds.  They didn’t need to know that others in the class were working on more advanced skills.  To date, 12 of my 14 students have Key Books and two students have not yet asked for them.  Not surprisingly these are the two students that I have recommended to my principal as candidates for another year in Kindergarten.

Here’s what I experienced first hand this year:  When learning to read is a choice, motivation is high.  When motivation is high, every lesson is welcomed.  When lessons are welcomed, learning fuels further motivation.  This experience may have developed accidentally for me this year, but next year I will deliberately plan to make learning to read a “choice!”