Category Archives: Literacy

Milk Shop

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One day this spring, my students took it upon themselves to organize an especially elaborate play scenario. It began when a student brought me a cup of (imaginary) milk. I playfully asked, “What is this? A milk shop?” to which she replied, “Yes, it is!” Soon, most of the class was participating. This sort of thing happens all of the time, of course. But this particular episode was remarkable for its complexity and for the extent to which students organically incorporated lessons from throughout the school year.

For one thing, everyone behaved with outstanding kindness. The usual leaders emerged, as expected, but they were welcoming of their peers’ ideas. I didn’t hear anyone reject anyone else’s suggestions. At one point, I heard a student ask, “Do you want to make a sign?” Often, children are inclined to make more commanding statements like, “You make the sign.” But our students are gradually learning to use more considerate language. In another instance, a student realized that one of her friends is allergic to dairy and therefore decided that she should sell almond milk, too.

But I was most surprised by the ways that students skillfully incorporated academics, often without any encouragement. For example, students naturally took to negotiating the price of milk (something that we practice regularly). They also began counting coins and plastic chips while making their purchases.

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Then one student decided that the shop needed a sign. A few others agreed and they headed off to grab some art supplies. If this had happened back in the fall, each of these students would have asked me how to spell ‘milk’ and ‘shop.’ But this group has become so much more independent and confident since then that they made their signs without any support.

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When the children decided to close the milk shop for a short while, another group of signs told customers that the doors would reopen at 4.

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As promised, when the (toy) clock struck 4, the doors opened once again.

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I have been feeling quite nostalgic recently, as I’ve recently announced that I am relocating to Washington, DC. I am going to miss my students, their families, and my coworkers quite a lot. This is but one example of the many memorable days I’ve had. I wish I had time to write them all down.

The Five Senses: A Writing Activity

Early this year, we spent some time learning about the human body. For one activity, I asked students to write and then draw things that they like to see, listen to, touch, taste, and smell. They enjoyed it, and it provided a nice opportunity to practice phonics skills. What they came up with made me laugh, so I thought I’d share it. Can you guess what each one says?

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Our Writing Center

I regard the writing center in my classroom as one of my biggest long-term successes. My students write often, they enjoy it, and they do so relatively independently.

I redesigned my writing center many years ago. The first step was to create a space in the classroom just for writing. I acquired an extra table, tucked it into a corner, and covered the wall with letters and sight words. As soon as we had a space dedicated to writing, students began to write much more.


I explain to each of my students that the writing center is for writing letters, words, and sentences; if children want to draw and color, that’s great, but I ask them to do so in the art center.

The content of students’ writing, however, is entirely their choice. I regularly suggest new words and/or sentences, but students usually have their own ideas. I attribute the success of my writing center largely to the degree of choice that students have.

I make a variety of materials easily available. Hundreds of small cards that have pictures and accompanying words (foods, jobs, colors, body parts, number words, clothing, and much more) are always on the table in small trays. Another container has word strips that have a student’s first name on one side and his or her last name on the other side. Paper and writing implements are on the table, too, of course—we usually use pencils, but sometimes markers, crayons, and other things.


Often, students will choose to make lists of individual words by copying the words on our cards. That’s fine, especially when students work hard on long lists, as they often do. My goal, however, is to get students excited about communicating ideas with written words. To do so, I set out groups of simple words that can be used to create sentences. Some simple examples are “I like [color, food, etc.]” and “I am [age, adjective, etc.]” As the year goes on, I introduce more complicated sentences, such as, “I want to be a [job].” or “Today is [weather] and yesterday it was [weather].”

Suggesting different sentences such as these serves a second function: students are introduced to a variety of basic sight words. Writing meaningful sentences is a rich, natural way to learn words. Without flashcard-type memorization activities, my students learn to use a good number of functional words.

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We also use the writing center to practice phonics skills. When children want to write words that aren’t readily available, I ask them to write the letters for all of the sounds that they can hear in the words. Then, I get to act like detective and try to figure out what they wrote. It’s fun. Try deciphering these:

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Finally, as is the case with most of our classroom activities, I urge children to be silly in the writing center. I try to make students laugh with my sentences, and I encourage them to make each other laugh. Sometimes, all it takes is an extra word. Instead of writing, “I like broccoli,” I might write, “I like blue broccoli.” Not every student chooses to write silly sentences, but the ones who do often turn into the best early writers.




Unraveling Developmental Standards

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I recently took the time to unravel some developmental standards. I often share a list of standards with my students’ families, so that they know how their children compare to expectations. With a round of parent/teacher conferences approaching, I decided it was time to revise what I had been passing along.

As a pre-kindergarten teacher in Illinois, there are two main sets of standards that I regularly reference: the Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards (IELDS) and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for kindergarten. Much of the IELDS is below the level of my average students, whereas the kindergarten CCSS contains many standards that are very challenging. I try to be mindful of both, because my students generally fall somewhere between the two sets, and because I want my students to be prepared for what they will encounter after my class.

Reading through the standards is valuable but difficult. Doing so reminds me of areas I could better address with my students, and topics I should more deliberately incorporate. But the standards are lengthy, sometimes repetitive, and often difficult to navigate. The CCSS is on the Common Core website, but not as a single document; one must navigate various links to gather all the information. The IELDS is a prodigious 134 pages (pdf); I would not expect many educators to read it, much less parents.

To make things more manageable, I compiled the text of the standards into single documents (which took much longer than I anticipated). Next, I made a page on my website where that text can be viewed (or downloaded as Microsoft Word documents). Then I pared down and compiled the standards into a list of benchmarks that I want my students’ families to be most aware of. I also provide links to the full lists, for those ambitious and curious parents who want to read all of the standards.

Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards

Common Core State Standards – Kindergarten


Reading Activity: “Draw A…”

Last summer, I created a simple drawing activity to encourage my students to practice some literacy skills. I offered a variety of pages with the words “Draw a…” followed by another word or a combination of words. It got my students clamoring for a turn in my reading center, so I decided to expand upon it this year. Again, it was a hit.

The first pages that I made available contained a few simple words, but I soon offered bigger challenges. I selected the words somewhat carefully, incorporating various literacy skills we had previously addressed, such as silent ‘e’ words, digraphs, and sight words. I included some humor, as well. I find that silliness is one of the best ways to engage children with literacy activities.

To kick things off, I briefly introduced the word ‘draw’ as a sight word. Students then did their best to read the remaining words. It wasn’t always easy. Most students required support with at least a few words. However, after struggling to get through each sentence, they were rewarded with a chance to draw. I think this balance between a challenging activity and a fun, relaxing creative activity is in part what has made this lesson successful. Often, when children begin to read sentences, they are overwhelmed by the length of content they encounter, in books and elsewhere. They labor and succeed in reading a whole sentence and the reward is… the subsequent challenging sentence. This drawing activity helps by breaking it up a bit.

Another useful characteristic of this activity: it served as a simple but useful assessment of my students’ literacy skills. I saved what they drew, looked at them after class, and reflected upon which words they needed support to read. I was able to record some rich information.

You can view and download the 11 pages I used for this activity by following this link (pdf).
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Tip: ask a child to draw a sad sheep and you’ll probably end up with something adorable.

Measurement With Wacky Units

We spent a couple of weeks this summer measuring the lengths of various objects in our classroom. We had previously tried a number of measuring activities with simplified inch rulers. My students already understood that longer objects have bigger numbers associated with them. But I want to foster an early understanding that a measurement of length implies some number of equally-sized units stretched end-to-end, and that the number we end up with depends on the size of those individual units.

That’s a pretty abstract concept for a young child, so we made it more concrete. Instead of using inches and centimeters, we measured lengths with crayons, pennies, cups, paper clips, legos, cards, and toy turtles.

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Incorporating Literacy Skills

Because I’m always looking for ways to incorporate literacy skills, we also wrote the words for what we measured. We used this simple page (pdf) to write the measured object, the number of units, and the type of units. It took a little bit of scaffolding at first, but the kids caught on fast.






Inches and Centimeters

Late in the week, we pulled out rulers and tape measures. We looked at how much bigger inches are than the centimeters. That means it takes more centimeters to get from one end of an object to the other, just like it takes more pennies than crayons. With that in mind, we measured a few objects the old fashioned way.

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Writing Practice With Silly Labels

My classroom’s writing center is usually fairly open-ended. But I often offer specific activities that I hope will spark my students’ interests. Encouraging creativity and silliness is one of the best ways to make writing enjoyable.

A few weeks ago, I took some time to start making silly labels to hang up around the classroom. First, we read “This is a…” together. I introduced those three words as sight words, explaining that we’re going to try to remember the whole words, so that we don’t have to sound them out anymore. By this time of year, most of my students could already easily recognize ‘is’ and ‘a’ with ease, and about half knew ‘this’ as well.

Then, as a group, we chose some classroom objects and thought of some silly ways to misname them. The children helped me figure out what letters we would need to write the words we chose to write.


Do you need a place to sleep?


You didn’t think this was a globe, did you?

The following week, I made these simple labels (pdf) available in the writing center. The children came up with their own ways of labeling things in the room, and they did their best figuring out how to write their chosen words. Most of the labels were goofy, but some were literal, and some were pretty clever. For example, one student labeled a chair as “anteec” (antique). Below are a few of the sillier examples.


This table has a family of baby tables to care for.


It looks like a door, but knock too hard and you might get scratched.


No wonder this thing is so heavy.

By the end of the week, my students had gotten some good practice with phonics skills and writing skills, while making each other laugh. As an added bonus, they are now likely to recognize the word ‘this’ when they see it. It was a very easy activity to put together, well worth the time.