A boy sits in a cozy chair while reading a select novel choice

The journey of the emerging reader is a transformation much like that of caterpillar to butterfly. As news headlines and legislative actions focus on the science of reading, Spring Lake Park Schools is in its third year of implementing new resources aligned with practices to help more butterflies take flight.

During the summer of 2020, a team of Spring Lake Park Schools elementary teachers spent 1,500 hours completing a curricular review that brought Wit and Wisdom and FUNdations to grades K-6 for the 2021-2022 school year. That review was the culmination of extensive work to align the latest research in the science of reading to the district’s instructional frameworks.

Fast forward to May 2023. The Minnesota legislature passed the Minnesota Reading to Ensure Academic Development (READ) Act requiring schools to adopt "evidence-based" instruction aligned to ensure student mastery of five components of reading – phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, reading fluency and reading comprehension.

“I was part of the team that studied the components of reading. We brought together a lot of different stakeholders – special education, homeroom teachers, academic specialists – to analyze and align to the science of reading,” says Katrina McCarthy, academic specialist and reading lead who works most directly with kindergarteners. “We did this four years ago - so we were ahead of the game.”

A visual of a reading rope that shows how students learn to read

Credit: The image originally appeared in the following publication: Scarborough, H. S. (2001). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. In S. Neuman & D. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook for research in early literacy (pp. 97–110). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Over the last several years, teachers have been working to strengthen practices in each of the five components of reading.

“We often reference a ‘reading rope’ to show how those work together,” says Kristen Sorenson, academic specialist. “It's a visual that helps people see how the elements come together for students learning to read.”


“K” is for Kindergarten

While some kindergarteners come to school reading, most begin by learning letters and letter sounds. Katrina likens phonics and phonemic awareness to learning the brush strokes in painting or drills in basketball. These are the foundational elements all readers need to be successful.

By the end of the year, the K’s will be reading and writing CVC words – consonant, vowel, consonant – like cat, mat, sat. The Minnesota state benchmark is reading CVC words. Spring Lake Park Schools students will also be working on digraphs - two letters that make one sound - like sh, ch, ck.

“Prior to FUNdations, we had struggled with teaching phonics explicitly and systematically both in small groups and in core instruction,” says Kristen. “FUNdations gave us more of a systematic approach to teaching phonics - what skills, when. Having a resource that helps us do this well has been really beneficial.”

Having the sequence of learning mapped out means teachers don't guess what kids have and haven't learned and mastered. Teachers can assess and see where gaps are as they continue learning. The intentional sequencing has also been beneficial for students who need more targeted support, including students who qualify for special education services.

Phonemic awareness – the sounds the letters make – is often a key indicator of student success in reading.

“If I say my word is cat, what sound do you hear at the beginning?” asks Kristen. “Phonemic awareness is all auditory. We can do it in the dark. It’s really breaking down the pieces of the letter sounds.”

In kindergarten, students say all of the pieces of a word like “cat.” Often, they tap out all the letter sounds in the word. ‘I spy something that sounds like r-e-d . . . that's red’ where the r-e-d are tapped with their fingers to map the brain connection. 

“Just after January, when we are tapping out the words in phonics,” says Katrina, “Kindergarteners start to realize they have been learning all the letters and letter sounds and they get excited – ‘I CAN READ!’ Even kids who came in being able to read, are now learning how to write. They realize they can send a note!”

Big questions, vocabulary

In addition to the foundation of phonics and phonemic awareness, young students are building vocabulary every day.

Wit and Wisdom has a lot of interesting topics and students are exposed to lot of powerful vocabulary. Topics can be more mature, and a lot of times students rise to the occasion,” says Kristen. “There are some rhyming books, but it's also more sophisticated with entry points for all kinds of learners. Discussion questions about the text can engage all students - no matter where they are.”

A visual of a farm that students created as they learn about settings in a book

The Northpoint kindergarten pod has been transformed into a farm. The unit for reading is asking the big question: What makes a good story? The setting is a key element, and this pod has turned into a farm. Kids dress up like farmers and learn about farm animals. In science, the focus is on the seasons and how animals and people change in the seasons. The connection between the content areas helps students learn more deeply.

“It’s so fun how the reading unit and science unit are aligned,” says Katrina. “One student also noticed a math game they were using showed foxes in dens in the different seasons! It’s fun to see how all the learning comes together for these kids.”

There’s also a lot of writing. Students practice writing on dry erase boards – large format in kindergarten and using smaller format in later grades as fine motor skills develop. They practice printing letters using a skyline, grass line, and worm line to understand scale. Teachers model how to write, then the class does it together before students practice on their own. 

“It’s exciting to share this with parents,” says Katrina. “They see it coming home in backpacks or on Seesaw. They can see what kids are doing and the progress they are making.”

Not too long from now, those K’s will be in first grade. Jenny Zimmermann’s first graders just wrote their first paragraphs. They read and researched different features that animals use to protect themselves. They collected details on Post-It notes and then used those to write an informative paragraph together. It’s easy to see how they will be able to write like fourth graders one day.

A writing sheet where a student learns to write paragraphs
A writing assignment shows the letter "C" with a cat and different scales of the letter

Tales of a fourth grade reader

By fourth grade, most students are continuing to develop vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. This year’s fourth graders were in kindergarten and first grade – critical years for phonics – during the pandemic.

“In addition to fluency and comprehension, we’re focused on closing gaps for some students in phonics needs,” says Catie Russell, who teaches fourth grade. “It's about consistency – reviewing multisyllabic words and fluency, and I've already seen huge progress.”

Justine Tschida, who also teaches fourth grade, has seen the same thing in her classroom. Half of her class is getting focused small group instruction in phonics.

“I'm focused on accelerated growth,” says Justine. “Gain as many skills as possible in a short amount of time. While it’s not a sprint but a marathon, when you're in fourth grade, focusing on phonics feels like more of a sprint – it feels harder to catch up. And, we see a lot of growth this time of year.”

Writing their way

In addition to continuing to strengthen their reading skills, fourth graders write – a lot. At the beginning of the school year, Justine shows students her diary from the fourth grade.

“I want to show them they can write every day,” says Justine. “We are demanding a lot from them, and I want them to know they can do it.”

Students are writing multiple paragraphs and learning about higher literary elements like ‘a hook’ and a good ‘closing.’ They are looking at poetry and working on comprehension. Then, writing their own poetry – learning and applying their learning.

“I ask our students at the end of trimester one - Raise your hand if you feel like when you go to fifth grade you can write a strong paragraph? They all raise their hands,” says Catie smiling. “At the beginning of the year, they complain about how much they have to write. Mid-way through the year, 90 percent of my students love to write.”

Catie’s fourth graders have just started a unit on extreme environments. The big question is: How does an extreme environment change a person? They are beginning an informational book about mountains. Through this text, they will learn important background for their next fictional text called “Hatchet,” a book about a 13-year-old who survives a plane crash in the mountains.

“The first thing we did is a picture walk of the mountains book,” says Catie. “Then, we read the first eight pages and filled out Post-It notes with details, questions, vocabulary. Then, we started talking about ‘boxes and bullets’ or main ideas and details.

Filled out Post-It notes with details, questions, vocabulary

Students read to pick out key vocabulary and build comprehension as they select main ideas, and for each main idea, find three supporting details. They use these to go back and write an informational paragraph. At the end of their learning about mountains, in small groups, they will create a visual display of a mountain range and present the poster to peers. Last, after they read the fictional text,  “Hatchet,” they will write a full survival story of their own.

“They do so much writing,” chuckles Catie. “We have been practicing writing exploded moments - taking one moment and exploding it with details. It's so fun to see what they write. They start simple and we introduce a thesaurus. They pick moments to write and explode, and they are just doing an amazing job. It's one of my favorite things to teach because it is fun to see them grow.”

Catie has one student in her class working at a kindergarten level. He shared his exploded moment verbally and Catie wrote it down. He then copied it. He loved taking it home to show mom.

“He shared his idea beautifully,” says Catie. “I so appreciate that there are entry points for having and sharing ideas for every student. And, EVERY student has written something this year.”

Both Catie and Justine love sharing student writing examples with parents to show how much their student has done and can do.

“Fourth graders write four paragraph essays,” says Justine. “When I show parents, I always say - THIS IS INCREDIBLE. I didn't do this until high school.”

A student writing example of an exploded moment with lots of detail

Confidence and joy

At the end of fourth grade, students will move on to Westwood. Both Catie and Justine want similar things for their fourth graders as they take their next steps – confidence and joy.

“I want to send them to fifth grade with piece of mind that they have these skills,” says Catie.

“The main emphasis in the fourth grade is the informative writing....they do it a lot, and if they can carry it with them to fifth grade they will be successful with skills and actually enjoy it.”

Catie emphasizes with students that it’s not about perfection but making improvements every time.

“It's a lot of instruction and then they go write - come back for feedback, go again. We sit and conference about their essays and they are just beaming and glowing - because they know they can do it.” says Catie. “The real joy in it is that they LIKE it. ‘Please give us 20 more minutes - I want to keep going.’ I love hearing that.”

Finding genres and texts students enjoy reading is a priority for Justine. Her room is stocked with graphic novels. (Gotta have them around!) Sometimes, there is a fireplace blazing on screen, to make a cozy environment the class has requested to help them want to read. Justine introduces students to audiobooks, and they do book clubs to make the reading more applicable to life.

“I hope when our fourth graders move on, they continue to read books they love,” says Justine. “I want them to see books that teachers ask them to read as something to learn from – whether they like it or not, and I hope they read outside of those books. I also hope parents know teachers are resources. Come to us as a place for recommendations. We can make things that seem inaccessible, accessible.”

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