Learner-Based Language Arts Part 1: Introducing Skills

How to plan for the greatest growth! 

This blog accompanies Rooted in Podcast S3E1: Learner-Based Language Arts Part 1: Introducing Skills. We recommend referencing the blog while you listen to the podcast on iTunes, Podbean, YouTube, or our website!

Language Arts is often taught in separate parts. Like a pie, we tend to break language arts into pieces, assuming that all the pieces fit back together to make a whole subject area. Thus, a typical language arts plan might look like this:

pie chart of literacy skills

Such a plan has little regard for a student's particular learning needs, and it allows little flexibility within a school day. To bake the perfect LA pie, we need to understand that reading and writing consist of entwined skills, rather than separate skills, and that all the pieces are not of equal size. Rather, the proportions (pie pieces) need to vary and eventually combine as the learner grows.

When we prioritize the learner's needs and abilities, we are engaging in what we call "learning in relationship." The educator teaches along side the student, constantly modifying what is taught so the student experiences both a manageable challenge and a successful outcome.

Think of language arts pies with proportional pieces based on focus areas, rather than slices of time. This frees us up to adjust (on a daily basis) for individual learner response and success. In addition, a plan based on focus areas gives us reassurance that our students are receiving appropriate instruction—acquiring skills that lead to literacy.

We have even greater freedom when we broaden our time frame from days to weeks, or even months. Thinking proportionately allows the educator to make adjustments for when the student learns, not just what the student learns.

For example, a student who needs more time to work on sound processing may not advance to grammar instruction as quickly as another student, but over the course of a year will still achieve the overall language arts goal of understanding a particular grammar concept. For some students, a month-long immersive unit-study on grammar is more effective than teaching it for so many minutes a day. Likewise, a huge writing project in history for an older student may double as language arts learning. Thinking proportionately gives freedom to all: educators have more autonomy, skills are practiced across curriculum, and students have a voice in their own learning.

A learner-based approach to planning uses these parameters:

  • The student's learning level (learner needs and abilities)
  • The skills to be acquired (literacy goals)
  • The student's learning rate (challenge + success)
  • The student's tolerance for or attention to the task (learner response)

The proportions of each learner-based pie chart vary based on language arts goals and student response, focusing on how much attention is available for a task, rather than how much time has been allotted. These proportions shift as students progress.

In summary, planning proportionately means:

  • Focus on the student's amount of effort versus number of minutes
  • Plan across weeks rather than days, or months rather than weeks
  • Broaden the view of language arts, realizing that reading and writing can be practiced throughout the learner's day, everyday

Use the following pie chart to help you create a positive language arts program for your student. Each chart represents a different stage in reading and writing development.

Literacy introducing skills pie chart

When students first learn to read and write (typically in Kindergarten or age 5), everything is new. The priority is making the sound-to-letter connection, practiced in tiny bits of reading and writing. Reading and writing are always taught in tandem.

Learning games are emphasized to help students listen and notice sounds in words, attaching those sounds to letter symbols. Phonics is the primary mode of teaching at this stage, and research supports using this method. Early reader stories initially contain only controlled text—text that only uses phonics symbols that are typical for the sounds learned by the new reader. Common "non-phonetic" words are also introduced, such as: a, the, want, etc. (We call these "Caution Words.") Students are encouraged to always track across sounds as they read, segmenting sounds (sounding out) and blending them together again. True reading does not involve guessing!

Handwriting is practiced so students can gain automatic control over letter formation. Letters are paired to their common sounds as students begin early spelling training. Students practice basic rules (spelling) and how words are built (word study) as they engage in writing. Invented spelling is encouraged, so students can successfully create original writing, translating from thought to hand, all the while pairing sounds to letters as they write. At this early stage, letter reversals are common, but typically resolve within the year.

Fun is a part of the learning process for most students learning to read and write.

All new readers and writers acquire these skills at their own pace, so thinking proportionately becomes a tool for success. In particular, the struggling learner may resist engaging in literacy practice. They may only be able to tolerate small chunks of time due to the huge demands on the weak sound processing system.

Using these proportions with a struggling learner helps the educator spread sound and letter practice throughout the day, in both the morning and in the afternoon, so the student can engage in needed practice, but in small, manageable chunks.

To continue with part 2 of this series, please read the blog and access the accompanying podcast for Learner-Based Language Arts Part 2: Gaining & Practicing Skills.

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