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The A-B-Cs of Early Literacy

In two classrooms, just a few minutes walk from each other, a JK and a Grade 8 student are putting the beginning and ending touches on their literacy journeys. 

In the JK classroom, Rachel is meeting another new friend — Oscar Orange — who is introducing her to the letter sounds that will later translate to reading and spelling. In addition to travelling to Letterland, Rachel will also play games with Oscar and the other Letterland characters whom she’s met. While Rachel has fun with her new friends, she is developing her phonemic awareness, an essential foundation for reading and writing. 

In Grade 8, Jacob is working with a partner to explore the vocabulary he needs to understand a complex text. In this case, it’s the class novel, The Hate U Give. As you’d expect, he has a different mission from Rachel, as he’s spent almost ten years building on his Letterland learning. Now that he’s in Grade 8, his language teachers have integrated vocabulary instruction in a variety of ways so that Jacob can develop the knowledge he needs for higher level critical thinking and reading comprehension.

At Bialik, our students spend ten years working on two main literacy objectives — first, students form strong foundational skills in reading and writing, and secondly, along the way, they develop a love of reading. 

Parents often ask us questions about how their kids’ literacy skills are progressing and in this blog post, I’ll try to answer some of these questions. But first, I’ll outline the core reading and spelling skills that our students develop between JK and Grade 3. 

The early literacy process is anything but linear and straightforward. While fluency and comprehension are taught in every grade, just because a child has reached a particular grade level doesn’t mean that their specific areas of growth line up with that grade’s core program. They might be ready for more challenging goals based on their own personal readiness. Here is where our incredible teaching staff comes in; they meet the needs of each student through planning and differentiation, ensuring that every child is being met at their most pressing need.

In JK, students learn to identify, organize and manipulate the individual sounds in spoken words — we call it “phonemic awareness” — and they also learn to identify and produce the sounds represented by letters.

Transitioning to SK and Grade 1, phonics instruction is a priority, as students develop the skills to decode (read) and encode (spell) three-, four- and five-sound words. As decoding skills progress, we increase our focus on developing fluency and simple comprehension so that students can transition from learning to read to reading to learn.

In Grade 2, our students continue to develop more complex phonics skills. Our emphasis on spelling means that students are writing more efficiently for creative and detailed writing. The heavier dose of spelling instruction also benefits their reading, as recent research has shown that the skills required for spelling are fundamental to accurate and fluent reading.

Once students have mastered decoding and encoding at the foundational level, Grade 3 offers a significant transition. Students are tasked with tackling their texts with appropriate speed, accuracy and prosody (sound.) Students have the opportunity to practise repeated reading through activities like “Readers Theatre,” and I’m sure they would love to share their scripts with you!

Woven throughout all the literacy steps, we are establishing in our students a passionate love of reading. When you see our early years students being read to by their teachers, this is very intentional, as they’re developing the love of reading. Read-alouds and novel studies ensure that students have access to more complex content and language delivered in an engaging way by their teachers. 

With all this in mind, you might still have questions! Here are some of the most common ones:

My Kindergarten-aged child is already reading well ahead of their grade level. What can I do

Not so fast! It really depends on what they are reading. In the very early years, children might memorize a bank of high frequency words (also commonly known as “sight words”). However, relying too much on memory and pushing kids to tackle more complex texts before they are ready can encourage them to tackle reading at the whole word level instead of decoding sound by sound. Talk to your child’s teacher about their decoding skills before jumping ahead with purchasing any new books. We want to ensure your child has mastered the skill of decoding before being tasked with reading patterns that they aren’t ready for.

My child makes a ton of spelling mistakes at home. How do I support them?

Not all mistakes are equal. First, take a look at the kind of mistakes that are being made. Are they spelling “backpack” as “bakpak,” without using “ck” for the /k/ sound? Are they choosing the wrong long vowel spelling for a word such as “paint,” spelling it as “paynt?” These are very natural errors that simply need feedback and practice. Highlight the specific sound that is spelled incorrectly, and reminding your child of the alternative spellings for that particular sound is the best way to help them grow. Now, if a child is presenting difficulty identifying the number of vowel sounds in a word or missing sounds altogether, that might be evidence of a more complicated issue. A child’s ability to segment words into individual syllables and sounds is a key skill for spelling. Depending on the grade, if they are unable to identify the number of syllables or sounds, more intensive instruction might be required. Reach out to your child’s teacher for more information on how best to support your child with these skills.

I want to read more with my child. What should I be reading?

Any time your child has the opportunity to listen to well-modeled reading, they pick up new vocabulary, internalize strong fluency and perhaps, most importantly, have fun while reading. Reading any grade-appropriate text aloud with your child is great, especially when the content encourages discussion during and after reading. Epic! has a wide range of texts that are great for reading together. If you’re looking to practise the phonics skills covered in class, be sure to speak to your child’s teacher before doing so to ensure that what’s being practiced at home is in line with your child’s current phonics progression.

Early literacy at Bialik has been a priority for us as we return from two interrupted years of teaching through the pandemic. Our teachers have worked exceptionally hard to ensure that the needs of each child are met . Like any initiative, the partnership between home and school is essential for ensuring our students get everything they need to succeed!

Blake Enzel
Associate Director, General Studies