Teaching Literacy in the Early Years

Practical ideas, strategies and resources for teaching literacy skills in the classroom

Teaching Literacy in the Early Years

Explicit Teaching

While the concept of “explicit teaching” is not new or revolutionary, my school has been focussing on it heavily over the past couple of years. The emphasis is that it’s not just our instructions that should be explicit, but our class discussions, small groupwork and one-on-one teaching moments with individual students needs to be highly explicit and focussed.


To teach explicitly, I believe: Lessons are focussed, strategies are reinforced, connections are made, examples are provided, language is direct and consise and students are encouraged to reflect on their learning. The original goals of the lesson are always in my mind as I work with small groups and conduct roving conferences during activities. If I feel that the purpose of the lesson is becoming a little lost, I will stop the students and ask them “what are we learning about today?” This helps the students and me to refocus and concentrate our attention to the aims of the lesson. 


Importantly, when I teach explicitly, I try to only have one main focus and stick to it. I also give my students multiple opportunities to practise the skills I am reinforcing.


My team teaching partner, Kathleen Morris, and I regularly evaluate our teaching and determine how to get the most out of our students, and we both agree we have never taught in a more explict fashion. When we sit down to plan, we work out what our focus is (we often have a weekly focus in Literacy) and how our students can best achieve the learning outcomes. If we feel an idea or activity is a little vague or indirect, we scrap it. We really feel that most of our teaching hours need to be spent on explicit teaching and learning.


Some examples of how I teach Literacy explicitly are shown in the presentation below. 



Of course, sometimes a less explicit approach is necessary. It is important to remember that students need to also direct their own learning, and they benefit from “self discovery” and independence.  It is sometimes helpful for students to learn on their own without being guided through the process by their teacher. This allows students to focus on what they choose, and explain their learning, strategies and discoveries in a less structured and focussed environment.


I enjoy and see the rewards of explicit teaching and I’d love to hear how you teach explicitly in your classroom.

How do you teach explicitly?


The Google Teacher Academy 2011

GTA logo

I was lucky enough to be selected to attend the Google Teacher Academy in Sydney, Australia on April 20 and 21. The Google Teacher Academy (GTA) is a free professional development experience designed to help primary and secondary educators from around the globe get the most from innovative technologies.

Educators who wish to attend the GTA completed an online application and 54 classroom teachers, ICT specialists, administrators and librarians from around the world were chosen to attend the Sydney event. Upon completion, the educators are classed as Google Certified Teachers (GCT).

Most of the Google Certified Teachers (GCT) from GTA Sydney

GTA group photo

We were told to prepare for a huge day and a half of learning, and that certainly proved to be true! We were taken on a fast-paced journey through Google’s free products and other technologies and my head is still spinning from the experience! It would be impossible for me to blog about everything I learnt, so I have decided that this post will be a brief overview of the GTA program and I will blog about specific Google education tools in the coming weeks.

 Google border

I was really impressed with the leaders at the GTA. They are clearly experts in their field and they presented the tools in a logical, practical, interesting and entertaining way. Here’s a snapshot of three tools we learnt more about:

1. Google Search – We learnt how to use the Google search engine more effectively, the key being to maximise the chances of finding what you are after quickly. A few tips included using Related Searches, the Wonder Wheel, Google alerts, Google Squared for research, Advanced Searches, being specific in Google Images, Similar Images, Google News Timeline, Readability, Google Books, Google Custom Search, Google Curriculum and Google Scholar.

2. Google Apps for Education – We learnt the differences between Apps (inside a domain) and apps (outside a domain). Schools can set up a domain for a year level/school (more appropriate for younger students) and individual accounts (for senior students) to store their own information, collaborate with friends or publish for the world. Students, teachers and staff can share ideas more quickly and get things done more effectively because they have access to the same powerful communication and sharing tools.

3. Google Sites – This is Google’s version of a wiki. Google Sites is a free and quick way to create and share a website. You can embed content, add gadgets (similar to widgets) and there is a big storage capacity. Schools can create class webpages. Click here for some ideas for how Google Sites could be used for teachers.


Other tools we learnt about include…

Google tools


It is difficult to summarise such a huge day and a half of learning succinctly, but here are four really positive elements from the GTA that stood out for me.

 GTA reflection


We also got a giftbag with lots of cool Google freebies!

Google gift bag


I had a great time at the GTA and feel very privileged to now be a GCT! In a way, the learning has only just started and I look forward to further investigation, reflection, collaboration and experimentation to realise the full potential Google tools and products can offer our students. So stay tuned for future GTA posts!

For Google Certified Teachers: What did you enjoy most about the GTA experience?

Other readers: What Google products do you use?

What Google tool would you like to know more about?


How Has My Teaching Changed?

I am currently in my eighth year of teaching. In that time I have taught Grades Prep, One and Two and have taken on a variety of different leadership roles within my school. I have learnt so much about children, education, schools, leadership, teaching and learning in the past eight years, and I feel I am a very different person and teacher now, compared to when I started teaching. 


One of my favourite elements of blogging is the opportunity for reflection. I am constantly thinking about how I can improve as a teacher, but recording my thoughts, ideas and opinions takes that self analysis and growth to a higher level. I thought I would reflect on some of the ways I have changed in teaching Literacy over the past eight years.


 2004 2011 Literacy comparisons 1

2004 2011 Literacy comparisons 2


When reflecting on the changes I have made over the past few years, the increased use of technology is obvious. There were no interactive whiteboards in my school when I first started teaching, and now I would really struggle to teach without one. I also use my time much better now than when I first started teaching. Prioritising is so important! When I look at graduates now, I wonder if they feel as overwhelmed as I did in my first year. It is always interesting to reflect on how we first started and how much we’ve grown. Of course, after only eight years, I’m sure there is plenty of professional growth left for me yet!

How has your Literacy teaching changed over the years?

How do you think your teaching may change in the future?


Classroom Helpers Program

Part of my role as the Literacy co-ordinator at my school is to run the classroom helpers program. The course comprises of three one hour sessions, focussing on how parents can help with oral language, reading and writing in the classroom.

This year there were around 30 parents who participated, the majority being parents of Prep children. The goal of the program is to ensure that the parents learn basic skills to effectively help children in the Literacy block, and also so they can help their own children at home.

It can be challenging to know exactly how to pitch the presentations, because I don’t want to overwhelm the parents, but it is obviously important they have some strategies to assist young children who are beginning the learning journey. Here is an overview of what I focussed on in the three sessions.

Classroom helpers


I used PowerPoint presentations for each session and gave the parents a handout of the slides. Below is the slideshow I made for the “Speaking and Listening” session.



I had the parents complete feedback surveys for me. It was very pleasing that everyone gained a lot of information from the sessions and they all commented that they feel more confident they’ll be useful in the classroom now. A few of them said things such as “I thought you should just tell kids the words they don’t know when reading” and “I didn’t know that letters should be written a specific way”.  As teachers, it’s important we don’t assume parents know a lot about how to help children learn. As we all know, having good parent helpers can be very valuable in the classroom, so I enjoy helping them build their skills to feel comfortable and confident working with young students.

 Do you run a classroom helpers program at your school?

What makes a good classroom helper?

Term 1 Wrap Up

Schools in Victoria, Australia begin their holidays next week. It’s been a ten week term for us and although it has gone very quickly, I feel I achieved a lot with my students. I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect on the teaching and learning that has happened so far this year.

Highlights of Term One

1. Setting up the Daily 5 - I have really enjoyed researching and refining my Literacy Block this term. Modifying the Daily 5 program is going really well in my classroom, and I look forward to continuing the journey. The most exciting aspect of the Literacy Block is feeling like I can really target my students’ needs.

2. Blogging with my students - I have been blogging with students for the past few years and this year Kathleen Morris (my teaching partner) and I have a combined class blog. It has been wonderful seeing the students’ enthusiasm grow and their commenting skills improve over the past few weeks.

3. Assigning reading goals for my students - Setting up and displaying my students’ reading goals on the CAFE board has been great for reminding the students what they need to focus on. Hearing my students discuss their goals and reading strategies has been excellent!

4. Having a class mascot - The 2KM and 2KJ class mascot, Leo the lion, is a very popular member of our class!

5. Communication with parents - Sending out fortnightly newsletters to parents has been popular with the parents and the feedback is very positive. We also had a Family Blogging Afternoon where students invited a family member along to teach them about blogging.

6. Learning and sharing with my PLN on Twitter - I love learning from others and sharing my thoughts and ideas with my PLN. Follow me @kellyjordan82

7. Team teaching - I team teach with Kathleen Morris and our Grade Two classes do everything together. Kathleen and I have very similar educational philosophies and shared beliefs about teaching and learning, so we work extremely well together. We are always bouncing ideas off each other and reflecting on best practice, so our teaching is enrichened by working together.

8. Making the teaching and learning so purposeful - Every time we sit down to plan, Kathleen and I always ask ourselves “is this meaningful?” or “what will our students gain from this?”. Our teaching practice is very explicit and we are always trying to move our students along with their learning, while providing a safe and fun learning environment.

9. The Flat Stanley Project - We did this project with Judy McKenzie and her class B4 in New Zealand. Read about it on my class blog here.

10. Having a student teacher - It has been great having two student teachers this term. Passing on my knowledge, showing them how to integrate technology into the curriculm and learning from them has been most rewarding.

literacy post 1

Things I will focus on in Term Two

1. Refining my Daily 5 Literacy Block - I will continue to reflect on how the Daily 5 is going and how I can tweak things to improve student learning. Conducting individual conferences and strategy groups will be a focus.

2. Introducing Words Their Way into my Literacy program - I look forward to seeing how this program can improve my students’ phonemic awareness and spelling skills. I plan to introduce the word sorts as a whole class initially, and then students will work at their specific spelling stage using the word sorts during Word Work in the Literacy Block.

3. Keep on Learning! - I am looking forward to attending the Google Teacher Academy in Sydney during the holidays, it should be great! I also hope to inspire others to blog with their students when I present at the ICTEV and DEECD Innovations Showcase conferences with Kathleen.

What has been your teaching and learning highlight so far this year?

What goals are you setting for yourself for next term?


Choosing “Good Fit” Books

As I have previously blogged about, I am implementing a modified version of the Daily 5  in my classroom this year.

After reading the two books (The Daily 5 and CAFE) by “The Sisters”  over the summer holidays, completing lots of online research and having many online discussions via Twitter, I am still learning! One aspect of the Daily 5 that is needing lots of work is helping my students select a “good fit” book. An important part of becoming a successful independent reader is being able to choose “good fit” books for yourself. That is, a book that is not too easy or too difficult, but “just right”.

Using the model developed by The Sisters, I introduced the IPICK strategy to my students and made the following poster. 

 Good Fit Books poster

Kathleen Morris and I constantly refer to this poster and we are supporting and coaching our students through the process of choosing books that are right for them. In addition to this, we have “5 Finger Test” bookmarks that the students use. I got this idea from colleague Deb de Vries, and we explicitly modelled how to choose a book using this method. The idea is that the students choose a book and start reading a page. Each time they come to a tricky word, they raise a finger. See the bookmarks below for details.5 Finger Test bookmark

One great activity we did when discussing how to choose a “good fit” book was The Sisters “good fit shoes” lesson. The idea being that choosing a good fit book to read is like choosing a good fit pair of shoes. It is a powerful and clever analogy, and the kids loved it! They particularly enjoyed watching Kathleen try to put on her two year old nephews pair of runners, clearly not a “good fit”! Unfortunately we didn’t think to film our lesson, but here’s a YouTube clip featuring The Sisters demonstrating the lesson.

For our weaker readers, we have limited the choices that they can make. We have a box full of books that are around the reading level of these students. They can still choose books that interest them, but we know they are able to practise their reading strategies using appropriate texts. Our more competent readers have boxes full of junior fiction and non-fiction books that are more challenging.

We are supporting our students through the process of selecting “good fit” books and they are finding it really enjoyable and quite empowering to read what they are interested in. My students love telling me about their “good fit” books at the beginning of each conference and it’s great to see them really enjoying their independent reading time. At the moment we still have some students who are not choosing appropriate books, the main problem being that they select books that are too difficult. It is a learning process for myself and my students, so we’re learning together!

At the moment students just choose one book at a time, but I know many Daily 5 classrooms have book boxes or bags for each child and they house a collection of “good fit” books. We will look to adopt a similar approach later in the year.

Do you have any other ideas for helping students choose “good fit” books?

How have you overcome challenges with having students select their own books?

Guided Reading and Individual Conferences/Strategy Groups

I have been blogging recently about the modified Daily 5 program that I have implemented in my classroom. Along with the Daily 5 activities that my students complete each day, we are also introducing and explicitly teaching a variety of reading strategies from the CAFE (comprehension, accuracy, fluency, extending vocabulary) model.

Last week I blogged about how I had started individual conferences during reading time. I have been conducted Guided Reading sessions for the past seven years, so beginning the conferences is a learning experience and I am continually reflecting and refining my new Literacy Block structure.

I have had a few conversations with teachers about why I am not doing Guided Reading in my Literacy block at this stage. For some, it is a bit of a shock and it seems to be a controversial topic, given that Early Years training has dominated how Literacy has been taught for many years in Victoria. For this reason, I thought I would blog about the differences between Guided Reading and strategy groups.

Guided Strategy Groups

This week, I identified students who are working on the same goal and who would benefit from working in a small strategy group. I noted this in my CAFE recording folder and we’ve set up a meeting for next week. Running conferences and strategy groups requires a lot of organisation and careful planning, but when you know your students, it is all fairly straightforward to implement.

The main reason I am now running individual conferences and strategy groups is because I believe it targets individual needs better than Guided Reading. During strategy groups, the teacher is working on a specific goal with a small group of students, and all of these students have the same goal (eg. checking for understanding, blending and chunking words, pausing at punctuation etc). Traditionally children are placed in Guided Reading groups because of their reading level, not the reading strategies they use. This means you could have a group of students who are all reading around a certain (instructional) level but present with very different reading behaviours. (I understand and appreciate that Guided Reading groups are designed to be “fluid” and of course kids may move groups at various times during the year.)

Of course there are advantages to Guided Reading too, and students will benefit from reading teacher selected books at times. I am not saying I will never do Guided Reading again, but I like to constantly think about best practise. Knowing your students as learners is the most important aspect here, and as long as you use methods that are backed up by sound research, you are doing your job as an educator.

In no way am I trying to convince people they should be doing things “my” way. I am simply presenting my thoughts and experiences so you can make up your own mind about how you can best cater for the needs of your students. While the Early Years model was intended to meet the needs of individual learners (and it certainly does in many areas), my experience and research shows that there can be other ways to achieve this personalised learning approach.

Remember if you want to know more about the Daily5 and CAFÉ model I suggest you purchase and read the books. They really are a wealth of information and include research behind the benefits of these approaches.

I would love to hear your thoughts!

What are your thoughts on Guided Reading and Strategy Groups?

How do you run your Strategy Groups?

How do you cater for individual needs during Literacy?


Individual Conferences during my Literacy Block

Last week I blogged about how I have implemented a modified version of The Sister’s Daily 5 literacy model. Read about my two hour Literacy Block here. It is still a work in progress and I will continue to review how things are working to meet the needs of my students.

Last week we introduced the strategy “Check for Understanding” and this week we covered “Cross Checking”. The explicit teaching of these important strategies worked really well. Hearing the students use this language and independently demonstrate the strategies has shown me what a great model CAFE is. Having a specific focus during reading sessions is so important, otherwise the message just gets lost.

This week my students enjoyed working in their reading groups completing the following activities:

- Read to Someone: Students paired up and read to each other. The reader asks their partner questions about the book once read.

- Listen to Reading: Students listened to a StoryHome story on the iPod while visualising and drawing the story in scrapbooks. (At the beginning of the year we asked parents to purchase a pair of headphones/earphones for their child).

- Work on Writing: Students wrote blog comments on our class blog, often replying to comments we had received.

- Spelling: Students practised their spelling words writing them on the mini whiteboards.

- Word Work: Students used the blend cubes in their group. They roll 2 cubes and if the prefixes/blends they roll make a word, they get a point. I had my student teacher work with this group.

While all of these groups were engaged with their activities, I spent the time conducting individual conferences. It was quite refreshing to spend one-on-one time with my students, rather than a group setting like Guided Reading, in which some students dominate and the learning needs are often varied.

During Independent Reading time I conferenced with two students and I read with about five students during the group activities. During my conferences I:

- Asked each student what their individual reading goal was. I was very pleased that all my students were able to tell me their goal straight away!

- I had them read their Independent Reading book with me. I thought this was best because then I could see whether they had chosen a “good fit” book. Most of the books were at an appropriate level for the students, however a couple of students were reading books that were a little difficult. We used that time to go over the process for choosing a “good fit” book and then began conferencing.

- The student read a few pages, while I noted their strengths and weaknesses on my individual recording sheets. Like The Sisters, I have organised a “pensieve”, a binder which holds all of the documents needed for my individual conferencing.

- At times it was difficult to just focus on the reading goal I had assigned for each student, but it is important to have  “big picture” of each child as a reader, so I monitored other reading behaviours too.

- I recorded what the “next step” for each student was and told the students what we would be working on next time. As I’m just beginning the process, all students will continue to work on their current goals.

When I read The Daily 5 and CAFE books by The Sisters, they often referred to their “pensieve” as their bible for collating and recording information about their students’ reading. I have set up a folder with tabs to separate each students’ recording sheets. The goals are also there for me to glance at quickly, and I have a checklist in which I note down the date that I see each child.

 Individual conferences folder

It was a successful beginning to my conferences and the students really seemed to enjoy the individual attention they received. The next step is to set up strategy groups for students with like needs. I will identify which students have similar goals/learning needs and we’ll work together at specific times during the week on the relevant reading strategy.

How do your individual conferences work?

How do you document your findings during your conferences?


My Literacy Block – Modifying the Daily 5

After hearing a lot about the Daily 5 last year, Kathleen Morris and I purchased the two books, The Daily 5 and The CAFE Book, by Gail Boushey and Joan Moser. Better known as “The Sisters“, they have developed a literacy structure that aims to build reading stamina, foster independence and develop a love of reading in students.


There are many online forums and websites dedicated to providing you with information about the Daily 5 and CAFE, so I won’t go into too many of the details here. Rather, I’d like to share how I have decided to use and modify the program to suit my Grade Two class.


The Daily 5 consists of five key elements: Read to Self, Read to Someone, Listen to Reading, Work on Writing and Word Work. Each of these foundations are introduced and students work at building stamina, by practising each skill over a period of time, until they become independent.


After completing start of the year assessments with each child, Kathleen and I (we team teach) sat down to plan exactly how we would structure our Literacy Block this year. We had to consider the following things:

1. It was already approaching week 6 and we felt we really had to get started on teaching literacy, rather than assessing.

2. Our students have already had quite a bit of practise at “listening to reading” as they’ve been listening to stories on the iPod touch for several weeks.

3. We only have two hours to complete both reading and writing each day.

4. We have integration aides to support students during our Literacy Block.

5. We want to incorporate computers into our Literacy Block.

6. We want to include our class blog into our Literacy Block structure.

7. We had already started “Read to Self” but we were calling it “Independent Reading”.

8. As we are not doing traditional Guided Reading, we can have mixed ability reading groups.


Based on these thoughts we developed the following structure.

Literacy Block structure


During Reading Groups, students complete one activity per day. We have used some Daily 5 components and modified others to suit our needs at this stage. We have the following activities each week:

1. Listen to Someone – Students listen to a story on the iPod touch. They have scrapbooks to draw pictures of the story as they listen.

2. Read to Someone – Students pair up and sit EEKK (elbow to elbow, knee to knee) and read to each other.

3. Work on Writing – We are using the computers for this element, as we want to involve technology into our Literacy Block. Students are required to go onto our class blog or one of our blogging buddies’ blogs and write a comment, following our guidelines for writing quality blog comments.

4. Word Work – Students practise their spelling words in a “fun way”, eg. rainbow writing, triangle words, using magnetic letters, writing on mini whiteboards etc.

5. The last activity is interchangable and will be planned according to our students’ needs. It may be a word game, an activity about comprehension, punctuation, specific blends or word families etc.


Last week we set goals for each student, using the CAFE (Comprehension, Accuracy, Fluency, Expand Vocabulary) model. We have set up our CAFE board and displayed the student goals.



** Last week we covered the “Check for Understanding” strategy and that card is now displayed on our board.**


We will begin our individual conferences this week and we are looking forward to working with our students to help them work towards their goals.


Considerations for us to think about:

1. How will we include the Words Their Way word sorts into our program? This will most likely occur during Word Work, perhaps alternating with the students M100W words (high frequency words) each week.

2. Are we doing enough writing each day? We are used to spending an hour or so on writing, so we will determine whether the alloted 35 minutes is meeting our students’ needs.

3. Are the students consistently choosing “good fit” books to read during Independent Reading?


I want to reinforce that we are in the beginning stages of our revised Literacy Block, so we may change things as we learn more. The focus is ensuring we are meeting the needs of our students and helping them to work towards reaching their goals.


Next post – Individual conferences during our Literacy Block.


What are your thoughts on our Literacy Block?

How have you modified the Daily 5 to suit your needs?


Spelling Programs

In my eight years of teaching, spelling is the area of literacy teaching that I find the most contentious. I have found that there isn’t a lot of consensus about the best way to teach our young students to spell. Teachers tend to change their preferred method of incorporating spelling into their programs and each new year brings new philosophies, programs and ideas. It can be difficult to decide what actually works best!

 Some teachers like doing spelling tests every week, some prefer to teach spelling daily in their classrooms, some integrate it into their writing lessons, some adopt commercial programs, some send word lists home…and the list goes on!


M100W and M200W


At my school, we use the Magic 100 Words (M100W). It is a list of 100 of the most commonly used words. There is also the M200W list which is another 100 words. Students begin learning these words in Prep and continue learning the high frequency words through their junior primary school years. Generally, it is expected most students should be able to spell most of the M100W and M200W words by the end of Grade Two, but of course there are students who still need to work on them beyond that.

In my classroom, I test students on the M100W. If they correctly spell around 90+ words, they are then tested on the M200W. I then highlight words students spell correctly on either/both tests and send the list home for students to practise, but photocopy it for school practise too. I do not conduct weekly tests, as I believe students need regular and consistent practise before correct spelling is embedded. I re-test students on their words again later in the term. Some students are able to correctly spell the M100W and M200W, so I give them an extension spelling challenge list which Kathleen Morris developed.


Words Their Way

Words their Way

This year, our school has also started implementing the Words Their Way program. Students are tested on a list of around 26 words (there are three different lists depending on the age of your students). Each child’s test is analysed at length, with specific inital sounds, final sounds, blends, diagraphs etc recorded. Based on the results, each student is categorised into a stage of spelling. Teachers then provide students with word sorts, compiling of lists of words featuring spelling patterns that each child needs to work on to develop their individual skills.

I have analysed by students’ results and I’m at the stage of deciding which word sorts each child will receive. I plan to use these word sorts during the “Word Work” component of the Daily 5, which I will be implementing in my classroom soon.


I think having students working on either the M100W/M200W/Spelling Challenge lists PLUS their own Words Their Way word sorts will be challenging to manage at times, but I can see the merit of both programs. It is important students are able to spell high frequency sight words correctly, and it’s also essential students are skilled in learning about different combinations of blends, diagraphs etc. Stay tuned to see how it goes!

Do you use M100W or Words Their Way at your school?

What is your preferred method of teaching spelling?


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