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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 5, March 2005

Literacy–The way it was meant to be

by Sheila Stokes

Increasingly, primary teachers in our province are being pressured to turn away from developmentally appropriate literacy instruction and assessment in order to box children into categories. The most disturbing of these categories is the "at risk" label we are being asked to apply to four- to eight-year-olds in terms of their intellectual development, specifically, the acquisition of literacy.

Literacy assessment and evaluation of our youngest learners is intended not to lump children into an at-risk category but to provide the youngest learners with a variety of experiences in a print-rich, active environment, where there is a healthy balance of instruction and play.

It is vital that we remind ourselves that the Primary Program is still the mandated document that provides the foundation for instruction, assessment, and evaluation in our classrooms. There are still five goal areas on which to focus, only one of which is intellectual development. One branch of intellectual development is the acquisition of literacy skills.

One way we can assess the growth and development of reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills over time, is to use the B.C. Performance Standards: "The B.C. Performance Standards have been developed for voluntary use in B.C. schools... [they] are intended as a resource to support ongoing instruction and assessment." These performance standards were written to provide an example of behaviours that may have developed in most learners by March or April of the school year.

Unfortunately, the four categories of the performance standards—exceeds expectations, fully meets, meets expectations, and not yet within—are beginning to drive the categorization of the youngest learners and are the unsubstantiated basis of a 4–3–2–1 numeric equivalent. These numeric equivalents are now being collected electronically by school districts and the Ministry of Education and used to reflect student achievement in literacy. The quantification, collection, and misuse of this data is causing many teachers concern.

How do we defend the rights of young learners to have the time they need to develop literacy and a love of learning? First of all, we remind ourselves that the Primary Program is our document and that we have the responsibility to continue to practise using it. We need to remind ourselves that there are three basic principles of learning:

  • Learning requires the active participation of the student.
  • People learn in a variety of ways and at different rates.
  • Learning is both an individual and a group process.

What does a rich language arts program look like, when built upon these three basic principles? It takes many forms in many classrooms and is delivered by a variety of talented primary teachers.

In 27 years of teaching, I have developed a variety of ways of working with children, learned from observing master teachers, team teaching, reading, and attending workshops. I am responsible for being familiar with the curriculum and intimately familiar with the Primary Program. I constantly assess and change my methods of instruction according to the needs of my learners, but my main goal is to deliver a program that moves each child along the continuum of her or his own learning. Language arts occurs in my multi-aged, Grade 1 and 2 classroom, with abilities ranging from gifted to developmentally delayed but integrated for 90% of the school day.

We usually begin the day with a whole-group literacy focus. It may take the form of a cloze message whereby I systematically deliver phonics instruction. We may have a guided writing session where I share the pen and have children write on a particular topic on chart paper. It may be theme related or take the form of special person’s news. Again, systematic phonics, grammar, and punctuation instruction take place at this time.

Each day, we interact with books as often as possible. For at least 20 minutes a day, each child reads individually. Some children choose their own books, and some require my guidance. Each child is aware of her or his own instructional reading level and is encouraged to read within a range of two or three levels. After each child has practised a passage, the children read aloud during reading circle where we break into three or four multi-ability groups, each facilitated by one child who is responsible for inviting each individual to read and then later thanking them for reading. Reading materials are sent home for home-reading practice.

Children also borrow books from our class library and visit the school library once a week for sign-out and every two weeks for a story with the teacher-librarian.

Individual writing often occurs in journals and is either on a topic of choice or is assigned by me reflecting a current science or social studies theme. Spelling in the first draft is phonetic, and each child practices one or two words I have chosen from her or his writing to create an individual spelling program. Some children write and publish their own stories, using standard spelling and literary form.

My children have 45 minutes of activity time daily. Our class has a sandbox and a painting easel, literacy centres, a home centre, and a variety of other centres and activities from which they freely choose. Children have the right to play.

To protect the rights of the child to learn actively, socially, individually, and in a variety of ways, we need to remember that we are professionals who believe in and deliver a first-rate primary program. We must protest reporting on the rich and varied growth and development of our youngest learners by boxing them into 4–3–2–1 slots.

Sheila Stokes teaches at Kay Bingham Elementary School, Kamloops, and is president of the Kamloops-Thompson Primary Teachers’ Association.

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