What Early Literacy Can Look Like

Ellen Galinsky in her book Mind in the Making shares a list of concepts that she feels are important in early literacy. She writes:

It’s about expression. Catherine Snow says it’s important to remember that a central purpose of literacy is to communicate. That means not losing sight of the forest for the trees and putting excessive emphasis on mechanics such as sounding out letters or learning the alphabet at the expense of focusing on children expressing themselves.”                                                                               

Our mornings in the early K are devoted to literacy, and really what this looks like is children expressing themselves all morning, every day, in so many different ways. Our students are learning to communicate their thoughts, their feelings, their joys and frustrations, their ideas about things in the world and about other people’s ideas, and, of course, their stories. Students express themselves in many materials as well – in paint and drawing and blocks, in dramatic play, in collage, clay, and writing. They also, often and even with these other languages of expression, express themselves orally with their words. This is the intention of this post – to pay attention to  children’s verbal expression and consider how it is in relation to literacy.

The first chunk of our day, most days, is Story Workshop.

Students choose an area of the room or a material that they would like to use to find, work on or tell a story.

Many stories come alive in the block area, what strikes me over and over in this particular material, is the element of negotiation that happens – that needs to happen as children build and create together. These 4 and 5 year olds are savvy negotiators walking lines of friendship, their own wants and needs and the expectations of the classroom all at the same time.

This day, three students have chosen the block area as the place they would like to work on a story. They are wanting to work together and two of the boys want to tell a Pikachu story – a topic they have worked on together before. They are all trying to figure out who the third friend will be in the story, and how his ideas can become a part of the story – they are working on the art of negotiation and compromise.

CC: We can be Pikachu’s that turn into skunks.

SP: No. But, you can be the only Pikachu that turns into a skunk.

SP: Will you be the guard (for their Pikachu house)?

CC: I don’t want to be the guard.

AW: The guard goes ‘hut, hut, hut, hut (marching sounds), and sprays bad smells – all the things you like.

CC: (Thinking it over.) OK.

10 minutes later:

CC: I want to be a real skunk.

SP: We will make a Pikachu and a skunk house all together.


This is a tiny tidbit of a half hour of building and talking, negotiating the story and their roles over and over, and at the same time – stories of skunks, and pikachu’s and guards and bad and good guys were being built with blocks and with words. The understandings that come out of this type of daily experience are so rich: seeing oneself as an author of ideas, practicing sharing those ideas aloud and giving them life through voice, knowing that ideas are flexible and can change with new information, being able to be empathetic and respect another’s point of view.

Reader's Workshop – the next big chunk of our day…

Ellen Galinsky highlights two more crucial aspects of early literacy:

Talk, Listen, Discuss, Imagine. Snow writes about providing children with meaningful experiences with books by reading aloud and then talking about books so that children can think about, relate to and interpret what they've read. Strickland notes that children also need experiences in listening attentively.

Encourage children to talk about their ideas. Snow goes on to say that while having a strong vocabulary is crucial, children also need to share their ideas by talking to others.

                                                                                        -Ellen Galinsky, Mind in the Making


Nicole read a fabulous book this week called How to Heal a Broken Wing, by Bob Graham. This books has many complex ideas to chew on and is even more interesting in that much of the story is told in illustrations only. The students heard this book four times last week and were riveted everytime. They were focused on listening, making meaning, interpreting and creating understanding. They were very excited to talk and ask questions, make connections, share ideas and infer meaning from the illustrations. 


After a few days of reading, Nicole introduced a new structure to the class called knee to knee, eye to eye. After expereincing a few pages of the book, students would turn knee to knee, eye to eye with a classmate sitting next to them and they would share their thoughts about the pages. 



It took some practice to be able to look at a friend from such a close seat and stay in one's ideas and thoughts without getting silly, but, once the children realized that they were really going to be listened to by a friend and were really going to get to have a window in to someone else's thoughts, they settled in and shared incredible thinking. The verbalizing of the thoughts here helps us to realize and bring to life thoughts that flit through our brain as readers, but that we may not even truly notice if we don't slow down and pay attention to them. Having to notice one's thinking and then share it verbally is a great way to slow down and connect with the work our brains are doing as we read. It is also just so fun to share ideas and have one's thoughts acknowledged.


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