Sarah-Jane Atkins is a beginning teacher at East Devonport Primary School. In this interview she describes how she structures her literacy block for her Grade 3/4 class and outlines her classroom routines in reading, writing and spelling. Sarah-Jane combines an integrated approach to learning with teaching about specific genres, texts and authors. She provides many opportunities for her students to reflect on their learning. Structuring the literacy block: Classroom routines – reading: Classroom routines –writing: Classroom routines – spelling: Resources: Using ICTs: Advice for other beginning teachers: Structuring the literacy block: I start with trying to create a context for learning because I think that this is of primary importance. Students shouldn’t be doing work simply for the sake of doing work. They need to feel that it is purposeful and to assist with this I try to always have two main units on the go. One is an integrated unit (LINK TO http://www.discover.tased.edu.au/english/integrated.htm) which tries to cover the whole curriculum; the other is a literacy-focused unit on a specific genre, visual text or an author study. All the learning activities and experiences come from these units. East Devonport was formerly a PASS school (the Program of Additional Support and Structure) so we still have a structured literacy block. During this time I use a ‘whole - small - whole’ structure so I begin the session with a whole group teaching experience. I focus on a specific teaching point which might have a writing focus, a reading focus or a spelling focus depending on the context at the time. I then break the class into smaller groups. I usually have two main teaching groups; one is taken by a Flying Start support teacher and the other by me. The teaching groups are usually ability and needs based, and centre on guided reading and developmentally important literacy concepts. If students aren’t working with a teaching group, they independently work through a set of meaningful reading and writing tasks and learning sequences so that they can choose the order in which they do them. There are compulsory tasks that students have to do each day and then they can choose from a range of tasks. I have a checklist on the wall where students tick off the tasks as they complete them. I find this easier from a behaviour management and motivation perspective because students can choose what they want to do at the time rather than having to do a certain task. Students who complete all the set tasks for the week become an achiever. They get a star on the achiever’s chart, which also helps with motivation. I then finish with a whole sharing session, usually with students sitting on the mat in a circle. I don’t get every student to share his or her achievements because it is too time-consuming and can become repetitive. I randomly choose students by spinning a little token I’ve made up. Alternatively, I have a reflection time where students write in their journals in response to stimulus points that I put up on the whiteboard. For example, ‘Something I found difficult today is…’ or ‘Something I am really proud of today is…’ Classroom routines – reading: I try to incorporate four main approaches to reading in my classroom. I read aloud to students and try to create a love for reading. I read novels to the class and really try to bring the text to life. I also read a range of other texts such as letters, poetry or magazine articles. I don’t do any sort of analysis with these texts; they are purely for enjoyment and modelling. After lunch each day we have twenty minutes to half an hour of quiet reading. Sometimes it’s silent reading but I have found that just asking students to read silently after lunch every day can easily be for a behaviour management purpose rather than a learning purpose. So I’ve adjusted that a little. Students have something called a Book Brag, which is simply a sheet in the back of one of their books. The Book Brag helps students to focus on reading different types of texts and different genres. They write down the title of the book and the date that it was read. I have a column for magazines, comics, puzzles and another one for procedural texts and fiction authors. Students write down the material they read during this time in the appropriate category. I do this to give reading time a greater focus. To develop reading aloud skills, at least once a fortnight and generally once a week, we read with our buddy class. Students get to concentrate on trying to animate the book to bring expression to what they are reading aloud in order to create enjoyment for the person they are reading to. We also have reading with set partners within the class during our after lunch reading session. Students are levelled on texts and, privately, I order them from the lowest to the highest reading ability. I then split the class in half. Students at the top of the lowest half read with the top readers in the best half. The weakest reader reads with a partner from the lower half of the top group. I think that this has been instrumental in bringing huge gains for students, especially for those in the lower group. Working in pairs, students read aloud the guided reading text that the weakest reader has previously been introduced to. They read the text to each other and sometimes I ask them to focus on the structure or features of the text. I also use shared book experiences for instructional purposes. During the whole class time at the start of the literacy block, I may have a focus on editing for example. I read through a text, highlighting an aspect of punctation, grammar or structure. I analyse text structures and the conventions of print during guided reading in the small group time where students are reading levelled texts. Classroom routines –writing: I focus my writing program around the three areas of audience, purpose and structure. I always ask students: Who are you writing for? Why are you writing? How are you going to structure it? I focus on different writing genres that either relate to a specific literacy unit of work or form part of an integrated study. I also focus on different authors as well. I think that’s important because so often students grab hold of one author such as Roald Dahl or somebody that they really enjoy and don’t broaden their experiences. As well as writing genres, I place a large emphasis on the editing and proofreading process because so often students finish a piece of writing and think that’s it. I encourage them to go back over their writing and to edit and proofread carefully. I ask questions such as: Is the structure right for the purpose that you are writing for? Have you proofread for capital letters and full stops? Are your sentences interesting? I use what I call a Writing Conference Booking Chart and students have their own booking card. When students think they are ready for a writing conference they write their name on their card to show which piece of writing they want to have a writing conference about. They simply place the card in a pocket in the booking chart. I have found from a classroom management point of view that this works well. I know when students are ready for a writing conference and they are accountable in that they must be prepared for it. If they book a conference and for example haven’t edited their writing correctly, they get charged for it. (I use plastic money as part of a reward system where students get to buy small things.) I find writing journals very useful. I use a personal journal where students write about their own experiences. We do our journaling on Fridays to make sure that students have something to write about and don’t feel pressured if they didn’t do anything in the weekend. I also use a reflective journal quite a lot. I often use them at the end of the whole literacy block where I ask students to reflect on their writing or their learning. I also use journals for reflection on some of the issues that come up in the classroom. For example, there might be a challenging class meeting that the students are wound up about it. I ask them to write what they think or feel about the issue in their journal, which can be a very valuable exercise for them. For further information about strategies on reflection see Reflection (LINK TO http://www.discover.tased.edu.au/english/key.htm#reflection0) I have found it very useful to explain writing structures using graphic organisers. For example, I have found that in an integrated unit research topic such as ‘Space’, students often just copied down many facts and had difficulty grouping and rewording their information. Providing students with a mind map stem was one way to help students organise their information. It’s an idea that works really well. Classroom routines – spelling: I use the look, say, cover, photo, write, and check model for spelling. I have a parent who largely runs this program for me. Students have a folder which has a levelled spelling list in it which incorporates words from the TLOs. The list is glued on the inside cover of the folder and students highlight words that they have spelled correctly in their test. Words that students can’t spell become part of their personalised list in the spelling folder i.e. their look, say, cover, photo, write and check words. The parent who helps to run the spelling program, writes in seven words each week, sits with each student and makes sure that they can read the words and explain their meaning. Students then complete the look, say, cover, photo, write and check process four times for each word. This is followed by a test with the parent who notes if they get the words right or wrong. Students repeat this process throughout the week and have a partner test each day. I test the students at the end of the week. I really reinforce the whole process because I found at the start of the year that students would just race through it. Students treated it as two minute task to get out of the way and there was very little retention of the words. Every five weeks I go back over and retest the lists that students have been working on or the words that they have recently learned to spell to see what retention there has been. I also use a ‘have a go’ sheet which is on the back of the students’ spelling folder. They have a go at the word and bring it to the teacher or another adult in the room who writes the correct spelling next to it. These words are also added to students’ personal spelling list. Additionally, I focus on blends, phonemes, word studies and spelling strategies each week. I identify students who have specific needs, whether it might be word endings, plurals or simply not implementing spelling strategies appropriately. I work with these students during the small group teaching time. I also use spelling focused writing conferences, so that I can go through students’ work with them and identify particular areas of need. I also use a home spelling program for students whom I believe are ‘at risk.’ Each week they take home a pocket that has five flash cards with words that they have been spelling incorrectly. I reinforce with the parent that their child needs to able to recognise these words, understand what they mean and learn how to spell them using the LSCPWC process. Sometimes I send home a memory game with students so that they can play spelling games with their parents. For more information on spelling see Spelling (LINK TO http://www.discover.tased.edu.au/english/spelling.htm) Resources: I find the Parent Help Program very useful. Three parents come each week and they work with a small group during the structured literacy block. This means that there can be three groups working with an adult, which is really effective. It is excellent that parents are prepared to do that. I use a word wall, a display board that I have covered that looks like a brick wall. Students clip up words that they think are a bit tricky. These words are connected to a theme, usually the integrated unit theme. At the moment there are space words on the word wall. Students often use the word wall. For a more detailed explanation on word walls see Implementing Spelling (LINK TO http://www.discover.tased.edu.au/english/implementing.htm#walls) I also use desk dictionaries, which are mainly for students who find looking through a normal dictionary far too intimidating. Desk dictionaries are made up of simpler words that are written in larger font that students can sort through by themselves. We have made up word blend dictionaries as well. Students have created these around the different blends that are important to them. I have also catalogued our library, an idea that came from the students. They thought our library in the classroom should be like the school library. I have grouped the books and this also helps with Book Brag reading. I try to avoid buying too many resources personally because it can easily be a bottomless pit. I use the Discover Website a lot and I am lucky in that the school’s resources are very good. I also make a lot of my own resources so that they are tailored to students’ needs. Using ICTs: I use computers a lot as a learning resources and it’s usually for a literacy focus. We use computers for three main processes and outcomes: for publishing, for research and as a communication tool. Students publish their work using such programs as Word and Power Point. I find Power Point really motivating for students, especially for those students who are reluctant writers. They can create something that looks impressive and they don’t have to write a lot. Students also research using the Internet and CD ROMs. When using the Internet I find it is really important to give students web addresses to start with, otherwise they just roam endlessly. We use email through the school intranet and students often email their buddy class, particularly when we are working on the same integrated units. Students email questions to each other, information that they have found out or websites to check out. Next term we will complete an integrated unit on the local community. Students will create Power Point presentations that explain and showcase the Devonport community and then we will email them to our buddy class in Melbourne and they are going to do the same about their local community. I find the computer is highly motivating for students. Advice for other beginning teachers: I found I came out of University after spending four years acquiring and collecting ideas and theory to discover that it’s really the practical application of the ideas and theory that you most need to work on. Don’t be afraid to approach effective teachers and ask them how they are doing things. Visit classrooms to see the organisational structures that other teachers have implemented that have worked for them over many years of practical experience. This gives you a good starting point and certainly saves you from reinventing the wheel. And experiment! I find that action research is the most effective means of creating a successful teaching and learning environment.