Literacy remains a key focus in the Lower Division. Despite challenges posed by remote instruction this past year, teachers were able to make useful pivots that allowed them to continue to use the best, data-driven practices for teaching young students reading and writing, and sustain their commitment to teaching a balanced approach to literacy.

Students learned phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension, and writing with equal emphasis, ensuring students had a well-rounded introduction to language. With classrooms capped at a 12:1 student ratio, teachers were able to tailor instruction to meet each student’s needs. They adopted a multi sensory approach and new technology that allowed them to make reading and writing instruction both effective and enjoyable, even from afar.

To teach phonemic awareness (the ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds), lower division teachers focused on games, movement, and back-and-forth auditory exercises where words and sounds were repeated or completed aloud by students. Teachers taught students to distinguish syllables with movement activities—clapping or tapping out words on their laps or desks.

Vocabulary was a focus at every grade level. New vocabulary words were often introduced in morning meetings. Students spent the day engaging in lessons that included the vocabulary word, and then each word was revisited at the day’s wrap-up, or “Closing Circle.” In Book Clubs in later elementary grades, when students were divided into breakout groups for reading activities, one student was assigned to be the “Word Wizard.” This student looked up any words they didn’t know in the material and brought the new terms back to their group, challenging classmates to use the word in sentences or conversation.

To teach fluency via Zoom, teachers spent a significant amount of time reading aloud. They modeled pacing and expression, demonstrating to students what reading should sound like. They also encouraged students to read and re-read their favorite books, since familiarity promotes fluency. To tackle the challenge of being far from each student, Teachers used Seesaw, a platform that allows children to record themselves reading aloud. Teachers monitored each student’s progress, then addressed individual needs as the year progressed. Finally, some classes  participated in “Virtual Reader’s Theater.” Students were assigned parts, like in a play, and performed for their classmates on Zoom, which helped them build fluency and practice public speaking skills.

Small breakout groups were essential for teaching reading comprehension. Students read stories, then had small breakout group discussions that boosted their understanding. Useful activities included drawing connections between the stories they read and their own lives, or trying to predict the end of a book before they’d finished reading it.

Finally, Lower Division students studied writing via a workshop model. Teachers taught specific writing strategies via a mini lesson and mentor texts, then gave students long periods of time (on Zoom) to write using the new tool. This helped increase their stamina as writers and allowed them to regularly implement new, exciting techniques. Also, each student was invited to publish or share a piece that they wrote once it was finished. Students read work to a virtual audience, which helped them develop their ability to craft a complete, polished piece and to keep an end result in mind as they wrote.

Mary Charles Collett, dean of the lower division, sums up RLS’ successful approach to early literacy during the past year of remote instruction, saying, “We have passionate, skilled teachers who understand and implement best practices in the multisensory approach and small group differentiated instruction. This inspires a culture of confident and motivated readers.”