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Going Authentic: University City’s Elementary Schools Get Real with Early Reading and Writing

Elementary school literacy instruction has come a long way from the mundane days of reading Dick and Jane.

By Nancy Cambria
Director of Communications

Photo: Students reading

Research finds appropriately challenging assignments, deep engagement in subject matter, high expectations and unique experiences facilitate student competency – even with younger children in subject areas like literacy, often associated with rote learning.

In kindergarten, students still learn to form basic letters. They still sound out basic words and spell phonetically. They still practice reading and writing through repetition. Even so, they crave to read and write with real information, rich stories and tools for genuine expression. In this way authentic texts challenge our earliest of readers and writers to communicate their place in the world.

It’s a far more natural and relevant way to teach reading and writing, said Ian Buchanan, Ed.D, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction services. It also helps close learning gaps with young students who enter kindergarten with varying levels of literacy, particularly exposure to vocabulary.

“Research shows vocabulary gaps across socioeconomic lines. Kids already come to us with a significant gap and less familiarity with words,” Buchanan said. “We try to resolve that by providing a broad range of experiences for all of our students. We understand early literacy is one of our greatest opportunities.”

The stakes are high. Research finds that youngsters who do not test at proficiency by third grade have learning deficits throughout their schooling, hindering graduation and post-secondary rates of education.

The situation is concerning for African American students, whom, once behind, experience widening deficits as they move through school. This is often due to a lack of challenging, grade-level appropriate instruction and low expectations.

Proficiency gaps like this should never happen. University City educators and administrators are acutely aware these deficits exist. That’s why the District has doubled down on its early literacy efforts through authentic texts and other innovations.

Young Authors

In April, kindergarten classes in every school in the District deeply researched a specific biome, or natural environment. Students had three choices: the desert, the ocean or the forest. Each child did research with the goal of writing and illustrating a book of about eight pages.

“Research shows vocabulary gaps across socioeconomic lines. Kids already come to us with a significant gap and less familiarity with words....We try to resolve that by providing a broad range of experiences for all of our students. We understand early literacy is one of our greatest opportunities,” said Ian Buchanan, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction services. 

In Melissa Klopstein’s Flynn Park kindergarten classroom students worked together at round tables, grouped by the biome they were researching. Each table had baskets stocked with early-reader and picture books on their topic.

Coached by Klopstein, the students read and sight-read through the authentic texts to gather more facts for the drafts of their books and add stronger details and layers of information. Students were encouraged to give one another writing feedback as they worked.

“It gives them choice and voice, and that’s a big thing for kindergartners,” Klopstein said.

The writing isn’t perfect – nor should it be at that age. Students spelled words like they sounded. Penmanship was crunched together or sprawled apart. Yet still, the students were engaged in the process of writing their own book as real authors invested in the process of communicating.

In May, every kindergarten class in the District had completed a book. Students presented their final research to real audiences during festivals in their schools. With parents and grandparents on hand, the young authors read their books aloud. They answered questions about their topics, which included details on desert poppies, Gila monsters, monkeys and sperm whales. Then they were given feedback from their guests – including applause and big hugs.

Instructional Support

Rigorous literacy activities like these need intense instructional support. The District knows that teachers can’t go it alone.

So, in 2018 District administration committed to hiring eight full-time teachers instructional leaders or TILs, two for each elementary school. Their job is to build teamwork between teachers through a unified curriculum and instruction within the district’s elementary classes, particularly at the early literacy stage. The TILs use classroom data to analyze curriculum effectiveness and provide professional coaching and feedback to teachers on how to increase rigor and cater instruction to particular students.

“As TILs, we see the data firsthand. Our job from a coaching lens is to help teachers be better equipped with instructional concerns,” said Deitra Colquitt, a TIL working in Pershing Elementary School. “We really try to better equip the teacher with the needs of the students.

The TILs also provide backup support in the classroom by working individually with students and in groups. This hands-on support helps ensure classroom instruction is rigorous and just slightly above student competency to accelerate learning, Colquitt said.

Connecting with Movement

The TILs have also been particularly important in coordinating the District’s decision to focus heavily on phonemics instruction in the early grades to close potential learning gaps between students. Phonemics is the identification of sounds through oral and auditory exercises and the ability to connect them to the construction of words. It is considered an essential building block of literacy.

TILs have been particularly supportive in helping teachers integrate Heggerty Phonemic Awareness curriculum into their classes. The Heggerty method is designed to ensure all students have a way to access phonemics in fast, easy and fun ways that utilize body movements to put together and break apart words.

Colquitt said the kinesthetics “give all kids, regardless of resources at home, an entry point and includes kids who don’t always learn in a traditional way.”

The method takes some artistry on the part of the teachers and the students.

On a gray spring day in Emily Desloge’s kindergarten class, Desloge guided her Pershing students through hand chops as they broke the syllable sounds in words like up-set, un-der, un-lock, and un-button. Then they waved their hands like maestro conductors to blend the sounds back together into complete fluent words. Later, they “rollercoastered” other words, raising their hands up in fluent arcs at the dominant syllable in a word and then gliding down at the quieter sounds.

“It helps them to separate the sounds and identify them in both isolation and in context of the whole word,” Desloge said. “So when it comes time for writing, it makes more sense because they can recognize building blocks for words through sound. It just gives them a really clear baseline for all of them to work from.”

Reading Buddies

The District has further invested in leveled reading libraries for each of its elementary schools. The libraries contain hundreds of fiction and nonfiction books categorized by reading levels. This enables teachers and TILs to match a book with an individual student’s level of ability and interests. There are multiple copies of the same title in each library, so students at or near the same reading level can read collaboratively and grow together.

The District’s elementary school teachers understand that literacy takes all hands. The schools each host volunteer programs for adults to read regularly with students, sometimes in cozy reading nooks set up by their teachers. Students also meet with visiting storytellers thanks to libraries, arts groups and bookstores.

Classroom guests this past year included Jacqueline Woodson, who read from her New York Times bestseller “The Day You Begin;” Natasha Tarpley, who read a selection of her children’s books to the students at IKEA; Nic Stone, a nationally recognized young adult author who tackles race relations in America; and Lynn Rubright, who came to Jackson Park thanks to the St. Louis Storytelling Festival.

“We are excited about the work our teachers do each day,” said Superintendent Sharonica Hardin-Bartley. “They are providing students opportunities to engage in diverse, culturally relevant texts; going deep regarding the early literacy foundation skills. Students are seeing themselves as authors and readers, and it’s very exciting.”