Saturday, 30 September 2017

An Update on Play

I feel quite well into my journey now.  The combining of our Mantle (Planet Protectors) into the same responsible team as our Number Agents worked incredibly well and I now have an effective model I know I can go on with next year.  The combining of these two areas meant that I could do justice to this side of my teaching, while still ensuring children have three decent blocks of self-directed play.

What I have been extra chuffed about is the feedback I have had from parents about Number Agents.  A selection of comments emailed to me are here, but I also get a lot of feedback face to face with how much my children love it. 

"Totally happy for  _____to be apart of this she absolutely LOVES number agents it's a fantastic concept wish it was around when I was lil"

" what an exciting and super fun way to learn! ____loves it."

"I think number agents is amazing and has really helped ____with her numbers etc this year. She is always talking about it and loves all things maths related now as a result, I think, of number agents!!

Hope your awesome idea can help many other children around the country and you should be very proud of yourself for creating this learning approach!!

A huge part of my learning about play this term has been around brain development.  Over the year I have been constantly reviewing and tweaking how I do things to better match them with what I have learned about brain development.  Our home/school goals have always formed a big part of how our class works, but they have not always matched as effectively as they could have the sequence of brain development and have perhaps pushed kids into learning that they were not ready for.  This mismatch is something I have worked really hard on and along with this is trying to slowly change the expectation of parents that children will begin bringing a reading book home as soon as they start school, or in that matter that they will be expected to do anything related to goals at home for a good while, is something we are also working hard to slowly change.

What I have quite decisively learned over the last three terms is that expecting children to learn something they are not ready for is not only a waste of precious time, but it can be quite damaging for them as a learner.  I have been quietly observing and squirreling away thoughts and have come to the absolute conclusion that when a child is ready for the learning we are presenting them with, they will show us they are by developing understandings quite quickly.  They are ready to take it on, so they do.  An example of this is phonics.  One of our goals is around learning the main sound a letter makes.  If this goal is presented to a child that is ready, and they practice five sounds for a week, the next week they will come back to us at check in time knowing them quite confidently and will probably have learned some others.  A child that is not ready, will often struggle to take on these five sounds, even if practicing at home and school and will not be confident when it comes to check in time.  Now, the old me, would have probably kept plugging away with this goal, the new me, pushes pause and just issues a challenge like learning the monkey bars, or learning to skip or ride a bike or balance along a beam...something that will challenge and grow their brain.  We will come back to that goal when they are ready.

This alphabet related goal used to be presented to children quite early on, so it is no wonder they struggled.  This goal now appears well after gross and fine motor skills, working memory and early rhyming.  The rationale for me is that by the time children have worked their way through the sequence of these goals, they should technically be ready to learn these cognitively based goals.  If not, once again I will push pause and issue a challenge.  For your information I have included a copy of this goal sheet.  It is one in constant flux, but you can see that I do not introduce reading or number goals till quite a way down the track.

Goal Sheet Here

Another thing we have been working on is delaying reading until children are ready.  This I think is the most challenging thing for us to do because a real expectation of parents is that children will start learning to read as soon as they start school.  They expect a book and see it as evidence that a child is being 'taught' at school.  We are working on this expectation by talking to parents openly about what we do and why we do it, sharing information at parent evenings and including it in our starting school pack.  The reality is that some children will, very quickly be ready to read with us.  They will enter school 'ready' to do this. The other reality is many won't.  Pushing these children to learn to read only serves to put them off, and from my observations and reflections, these children are the ones that stay on emergent and never appear to move, they appear on target lists and are often giving reading recovery or a similar programme.  Miraculously, these children suddenly get to the end of Year 2 or start of Year 3 and start to move...really this is not a miracle, it is simply that they are now ready to move because their brain development allows them to be ready.  We are not adding any value by trying to read with them too early on.  Once again, if they are cognitively ready, it will happen, in fact I would go as far as to say they would probably teach themselves when they were cognitively ready. 

There are a lot of our own assumptions and beliefs we need to get rid of here and I have them just like any other teacher.  I see that time at school chart, and the see that child still on emergent after a year and it causes me to inwardly panic.  This is part of the old me I am still discarding, because the new me knows that this child simply is not ready by the stupid ridiculous markers our system has imposed and no part of me panicking and worrying is going to change it.   What I can do is work on areas that are developmentally appropriate for that child and trust that if this is done, they will be ok. 

Right, so now you know where I am up to in terms of my thinking about brain development and how I cater for it.  As children are all on individual 'goals' we can check in with them individually during play-based time and really direct our teaching where they are at.

PBL has continued to go from strength to strength in our class this year.  What I have really noticed is the growing diversity of relationships that children have.  They no longer have one or two friends, but a multitude of different relationships based on interests.  They each understand these individual interests because they get an opportunity to explore their urges and to find children with similar interests and urges to themselves.

I can't stress this enough actually, I have been astounded at the relationships I have seen develop between children who I would have thought had nothing in common.  Simply beautiful for our developmentally delayed children to feel so accepted, our class is based on interests and children, it is not based on a place like this there are no differences, they are all just children, doing what children do best and enjoying each others company because of it.  No judgement, no barriers, just play.  In agency they are equals, all experts, what a fantastic environment to work and learn in!  To prove this point I have actually started transitioning older children who I think may not have had a play rich environment through my class this year, or kept children for longer than usual. So we have 5 - 7 year olds in the one space and it is fantastic, some will have been in our space for well over a year now.  No one notices, no one cares.

Another thing I have noticed is their growing ability to sustain play for longer periods of time and my growing ability to let them 😝.  Last Tuesday and Thursday we basically had a day full of self-directed play, not once did I have a child ask me to direct them, not once did we have an 'I'm bored.'  We had no invitations out, they just played.  Watching and interacting with children allowed me to see that most engaged in at least four different types of play in the day, with a real range of personalities.  What amazing learning!

Children that start school quite dependent on teacher direction grow quite quickly to understand that they have the power to direct themselves, it is truly wonderful to watch.  The transition to school is easy. 

Trust is something else that has grown.  In the beginning it can be hard to let go of the control of a single learning space.  This has been a real area of growth for me.  As we have developed children have come to understand they they are trusted.  They know that if they do something to challenge our trust in them that we will have to define their areas of play, but this hardly ever happens.  Our play area is huge now (on a fine day) Children have a kitchen beside our room, a courtyard, and then the area our the back of our class, a small native bush, pole hut, monkey bars,  a large area of grass, and a bike track.  When our back door is open they know they are free to be out there.  When we oink the pig (our squeaky signal for mat time)  It is the most delightful thing to see children run from all directions.  Last week we introduced some cowboy hats (thanks Shell) and the play changed completely.  Their demeanor changed, they had a real swagger....out there in the bush were no longer children, but cowboys and cowgirls on the hunt for baddies.

We have girls and boys out there hunting wild pigs and all sorts of other creatures (however they are quick to remind me that it is just imaginary.)

Learning wise they are doing remarkably well.  Levels are probably about the same, but depth of understanding is much better.  What is remarkably different is the most important point.  Their dispositions towards learning are hugely improved from years where we were not PBL.  They are resilient and are developing growth mindsets.  They have stamina when we do require them to come for directed teaching and they appreciate the importance of mistakes.  They talk quite openly about learning and what they notice and I guess number agents has a big influence on this as a lot of what we do is through talk.  If we ever do require them to attend to a directed session for a longer period, they are quite happy to, it is a novelty almost.  The taking of photos and being able to reflect on the play and the learning that was going on in the play has been an absolute winner.  We have used this poster to help us talk about emotions and how to cope with emotions, it has been awesome as a visual to help, and very good also for parents.

We have had a few children who because of their learning needs become obsessed with a certain type of play and have found that by directing them into another choice from time to time has helped to expand their horizons and relationships.  

Another big winner has been our journals.  This year each child has a journal,  this is where we keep up with their individual progress. It has been a work in progress, but we are finally finding a collection of items that need to be in these.  Some sheets we thought we would use, but they have been of little use.  Basically the journal allows us the ability in a team situation to know where every child is at.  I will post more about these another time :)  They are nothing remarkable, but are simply fantastic when it comes to reporting time.

Next term we split into two homerooms as we will have 45 children.  The idea is that we will still play together freely, but when we do have specific mat time, we will have the smaller group.  We will still be agents together and continue with mantle together.  This will guide how we start 2018.  

A small selection of photos

Bike riding freedom :)

Kitchen fun

Diverse relationships :)

Loving the guided drawing books
Making masks in our group of ten on a Thursday

Making tea for the teachers

Making obstacle courses and challenging ourselves has been a favourite this term

Great self-invented game, there is a gap in that tree, the challenge is to kick the ball through the gap

pig hunters

 hut builders

My Timetable At the Moment
9.00am - roll and a song hello song in Maori, or a growth mindset song
9.10 - 9.45 - Self-directed play (individual check ins and reading at this time)
9.45 - 10am - Phonics
10am - 10.40 - Self-directed play (individual check ins and reading at this time)
10.40 - 11.00am - Some sort of writing focus
11.25 - 12.30 Number Agents - Teacher Led Play
1.25 - 1.50  - Mantle if required or some other teaching focus
1.50 - 2.30 - Self-directed play 
2.30 - 2.55pm check in and pack up

This is approximate, we weave growth mindset songs, emotions learning, play reflections etc into the day and do a lot of just in time teaching as children's play drive this.  Sometimes Number Agents will not happen if the play takes us this way.  We try to timetable day so one of us is roving and interacting during play.

And just a last word, because as you know I am not short of them....if you are currently testing new-entrants on entry, or even using a wide range of diagnostic tests with them in their first year, please consider challenging your thinking on this, ask yourself why?  I hate testing in general, and am doing everything I can to eliminate any testing that is unnecessary or can be done in different ways right up to year six.  I have blogged a lot about this, so will not bore you again.  Feel free to flick back through my old blog posts if you are interested.

I hope everyone has the opportunity to enjoy a well deserved break.  I know I will be.  Term 4 is always madness and we will need to be prepared.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Slow Down Now - Join A Growing Movement

There have been a few triggers for this blog post, which has actually been going around and around in my head for the last few weeks, but I have been pushing it back, in the hope that we would be given the ability to once again embrace our fabulous NZ curriculum.

So there are several triggers for this post:

1) A post on facebook about data walls (horrific things)
2) The debate that resulted around the need for children to be able to see where they are going and reflect on their process and the need for this to be visible. (through the narrow lens of literacy and mathematics.)
3.A discussion as a staff about the slow school movement
4. Last but not at all least, the very real likelihood that we will be stuck with another National Government who, bless their cotton socks,  have worked tirelessly to narrow our curriculum, undermine teachers and increase anxiety and competition in our learners and promote shallow, fast learning.  Hey they have even coined the horrid phrase 'accelerated learning.'

What have these things triggered, well they have triggered a hugely emotional response in me.  A fear for all I hold dear and hoped for education over the next three years and a real reluctance to continue working under such a system.

Many say you can not blame National Standards, they say that it is up to schools to work with them and frame their own curriculum, and many schools, like us have done just that.  Worked around them, given them as little attention as possible while still being compliant.  However I talk to and hear from enough teachers to know this is not common.  From what I hear many schools have truly narrowed their curriculum, they are overly worried with assessment, they are causing great anxiety for the children they work with and go completely against what the research tells us to do.  They test children from the moment they step through the classroom door, to the moment they leave.

I am left wondering now, with the proposed National Standards plus, how schools like ours will be able to continue to give them as little thought as possible.

Let me be clear, this testing culture is destroying learning for our children.  They learn to define themselves by their test result, and  this is then how they see themselves going forward.  Children learn to work within the system, they like to please, they may even appear to be happy with the constant measurement.  The reality is that they know no different, and we do!

These horrid data walls people have been speaking of make my blood run cold.  This public shaming is bad enough, but I ask you what happens to that child who has always been at the top, how does their perception of themselves change when they drop back, when someone else is ahead, when dear I say it, they struggle? Research tells us they are inclined to give up, to sit within their comfort zone, and only do those things they know they can achieve at (I refer to what I have read in Jo Boalers books.)  Is that the type of learner we really want to produce from our education system?

Ok, so we could take the measurement line away and make learning visible in other ways.  That sounds great, but does it not still narrow what children see as learning?  We all know learning does not happen in a bubble...authenticity of learning is crucial, if we are going to make up displays, surely these displays should be showing learning in an authentic context.  Children need to see themselves, their talents, their urges displayed.  Children need to see how what they are learning relates to the real world.   The quiet truth that is not spoken about enough is that children are natural learners, they are mimics, they want to learn, they are naturally curious, their brain is designed that way.  They will take in learning around them and naturally want to improve, they don't need us to push them, what they do need from us is help with developing the dispositions to make this possible.  We will not create these dispositions when children fear being wrong, or judged.  When they see us as the fountain of all knowledge and a display on the wall as the high water mark.

My ultimate goal would be for all schools to embrace a slow school movement.  A notion that has been around for while now.  This is a good starter article. 

To allow children time.
To truly listen to their voice and allow them opportunities to just go with it.
To have time to revisit, to engage in authentic learning situations, to give children more control of what they are learning and how they are learning.  Our senior classes quite often spend a few days or even a week solving a problem in maths, and believe me, the results are so rewarding, the learning is deep, challenging and real.
To construct programmes that give the teacher time to sit and talk to children, to give them individual feedback, to praise the process of learning.  I would love our system to stop squeezing everything and the kitchen sink into what we have to do in a day.
To embrace a more play-based approach.
To embrace brain research and allow children outside to move more often than they are inside.
To reward teachers that allow children to follow their learning urges with our trust and respect.
To set six and seven year olds free of a prescribed line that they must meet.  Timed tests, would be gone, blanket assessments for everyone would be gone, we would use assessment to benefit our learners, not to measure them.

Over the last couple of years I have come to realise that by slowing down, children will come to their next learning steps in their own time, in fact I have found that they are often ready far earlier than I would have previously thought for their next learning steps.  Do you have to be a great teacher, have deep pedagogical understanding, of course,  in fact far more than in a narrow prescribed system that dictates what you do.  But this also happens naturally, just like the children we are natural learners, I have never been more interested in learning about how children learn, than I have in the last two years.

It is no secret that I am a huge fan of play-based learning for all ages, it is also no secret that I love Mantle of the Expert, these two approaches have re-defined learning at our place, they make slowing down possible.

It is also no secret that I am a massive fan of the education system of Finland.  I believe many of the answers to our issue lie in this system, and just wish that someone in power would choose this path rather than the narrow, test driven one we are currently on.

And as a last bit of food for often do you write?  How often do you compare what you have written to a sample that is better than yours?

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Breaking Through The Perfectionist Barrier

I often blog about the progress of boys in writing and how we can break down some of the barriers for them in achieving success.

In this blog post I would like to reflect more on an affliction that often affects our girls...perfectionism and a fixed mindset.  Not to say that boys can not be equally afflicted with this disposition, but in my experience it mostly affects girls and it has the most impact on early writing  success (and maths, but you will already be aware of what we do through Number Agents to help with that.)

Perfectionism is something I hypothesize that we see in girls that have been encouraged to be 'school ready' in the way that people often think of as school ready.  This may look like knowing their alphabet, recognising words and being able to record words.  In my experience these children (usually girls) are first born and have clearly been given the message that school is about the 3 R's.  They come in with skills that are great cognitively, but lack the emotional and social dispositions that will allow them to be a successful learner.  It is like they have been fast forwarded through their natural sequence of development.

Now, if you have read my blog, you will know that this form of academic readiness is not what I believe we should be after, and it would be my opinion that this term of readiness actually forms a barrier for these girls as it defines for them what 'learning' looks like.

These girls are often people pleasers, they are quiet, love to sit safely in activities like colouring and crave and often specifically need teacher direction.  They love step by step instructions and often struggle with any form of independent or creative thinking.  They lack learning resilience and their confidence is easily knocked.   They have been told they are smart, and when they first meet a struggle or find something they can't do yet, they then believe they are dumb.

Sadly these girls often get through the first couple of years in an overly academic environment feeling successful and enjoying success.  Their safe sitting and people pleasing is rewarded in an overly  environment that praises and rewards these dispositions.  It is not until things get harder and they begin to struggle that barriers become apparent.

These girls are usually perfectionists.  Their writing will usually be pinpoint accurate, with patterns repeated over and over because they have had success with these early attempts and therefore repeat the same type of story over and over again, alternatively they may spend the whole writing session on one word as they do not know how to spell it.  

 At some stage this perfectionism in any environment will become a problem for them and when it becomes a problem it is a barrier, and when it is a barrier they struggle, and when it is a struggle they give up.

So what can we do to help these girls?

I have several ideas that I have tried this year that I have found particularly useful.

Play-Based Learning
In a play-based environment these girls become apparent straight away.  They are no longer the golden goose.  They are the children who struggle socially and emotionally, in this environment these dispositions are challenged and they learn to embrace new ones quite quickly.  They struggle straight away with self-direction and have to quickly develop dispositions that allow them success.  They develop their creative side and begin to be more resilient.  They begin to step out of their comfort zone.  In a self-directed play environment there is little direction from the teacher other than invitations or reflection.  These girls learn to self-direct, they discover their talents and passions, they explore their urges.  They also get the opportunity to see how their understandings about literacy and numeracy can help them and they begin to expand on these without the worry of being wrong.

Growth Mindset
This has been huge for us this year.  The power of yet is incredible.  Helping children and coaching them about the power of mistakes and the importance of the challenge from day one has been transformative for our learners.  By rewarding and praising the process of learning, rather than praising the product, we give these girls (and all children) the understanding that it is what we do, the dispositions we use that are important, not the finished product.
There are loads of growth mindset songs on youtube and my class particularly love the class dojo big ideas.

This year our writing is been about storytelling.  It is out loud and in picture form, long before it is written down.  We spend a lot of time retelling, loads of time describing, they are rewarded for creativity, taking their time, having a go, generating their own ideas.  There are no story starters, no inane sentences that children begin to use out of habit ...the good old "I went to the beach" is gone.  Out of that children begin to add the written word naturally, without being asked, they learn that those earlier skills they have are of benefit to them now, but it need not be perfect.

Inventive Spelling
Whilst this is something I have always encouraged, I have never used the word inventors with children.  This year I have given the status of 'inventor' high priority.  Children learn early on that I just want them to invent words using what they currently know about letters and sounds.  This is liberating for children, the success is focused on having a go and using the letters and sounds they know.  The power of really working away at 'nutting' out what a word may look like gives the brain an absolute workout and can not be underplayed.  Alongside our phonics teaching we encourage inventing and we have a special time in the day for it.  The reward is in the inventing, not in the spelling.  Children are more capable than ever of writing stories that can be read and are not hung up on spelling.  For those perfectionist girls they have learned that their is more success in being an inventor, at having a go at tricky words than there is in producing a perfect sentence.  They are much more inclined to write more.  In fact one lovely girl, just today took our eggs from the planet Rong (from our mantle) for a walk.  She then sat down and wrote two pages about lovely to see.
At no stage do we make a mark on their writing and we do not correct their invented spelling.  We will use common patterns we see for further reflection if needed (just in time teaching.)

I feel like the changes we have made this year have greatly assisted the girls that would have previously been seen as perfectionists.

Now we just need to transform what parents see as school ready, so we don't have anything to 'undo' in the first place.  Now that is another blog post. :)

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

A Glimpse Into Our Agency

Over the next few weeks I am going to post videos that show the different parts of agency.  I will post each new video as I get to them.  This first video shows how we check in.  This is what happens at the beginning of each session and is used to help move children from the real to the imagined world.

There are many ways children can check in and this is just the way we do it.  It is a little noisey... we have 42 agents now :)

This next video shows the next step and come straight after our chant.  We do different things for warm up and professional development obviously, but this gives you an idea.

This next video also shows another way we warm up.  This is a dot talk.  We have used our agent eyes for visual images all year, but we have not done many of these dot talks (three tops) The agents have come a long way in a short time.

This next video follows on from our professional development today (professor led the same concept again today, tally mark, to tens frames, agents were much better today and we will repeat again on Thursday, I think the key is revisiting a session many times to allow them to build on understandings)  The alarm went off and we got a notification from the Teacher ...well you can see what happened from there.  Today was the first day an agent has had a go at going in to role as the villain.  I think he did well for the first try at this.  A little hard to hear.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Brain Development - Informing Teaching

Deeply understanding how we can best teach and facilitate learning in a new entrant room is one of my professional goals and one I have been working at for some time, in fact this is probably not a goal that will even have an end. I found this poem on twitter this week and it really reinforced my desire to help all children believe in themselves and best assist them based on their individual need.

Using a play-based approach was one of the first steps in my journey, but certainly not the be all and end all.  I think if we are to really 'get it right' in those first couple of years at school we need to have a deep understanding of the process of brain development so we can cater for children on an individual level.  Simply because all children are different, they all enter at different stages of development and require programmes that cater for this.  They also have different interests, passions and urges that we need to understand a whole lot better, simply by taking more time to get to know them.

In our new entrant room we have been working on a sequence of foundation skills that will assist our children's learning, ensuring they have a strong foundation and also ensuring that we are not foisting learning upon them that they are not ready for.  These are home support goals that parents can assist us with and the sequence has been one we have been playing around with.
Document so far
We have tried  and will continue to try to align the individual goals we have for children with the sequence of brain development outlined in these diagrams.  You will have seen these if you have listened to Nathan Wallis speak.  I love his work!

This diagram is one I have modified and played around with also, it is one I share with parents and it is a document we can use to help children appropriately according to their individual development and is based on the sequence of the diagram above.

My journey so far has seen me transform my own beliefs about learning in a new entrant room, rather than believing I have to start feeding in cognitive knowledge straight away 'teaching' them to read, write and 'do maths.'  I now see how these are aspects some children are simply not ready for, and can come to in their own time when they are ready.

This does not mean I don't provide a learning rich environment, I just provide it in a very different way that is much more fluid, individualised and flexible.  It is also an environment that allows children to follow their urges.

I also find I am in a state of constant reflection about learning and the process of learning, which I love!

Building parent understanding is also a big goal.  It can be difficult for a parent to have a child start school, expecting one experience and then getting a goal home that says "I am learning to hop, crawl, skip etc"

Part of my new entrant information evening is now dedicated to talking about brain development and what we need to be doing for children in the first couple of years at school.  I also take this opportunity to share the values of play-based learning.

Further Implications For My Current Programme

I have arrived at a place where I am happy with writing in my classroom.  Developed mostly through play and based on urges, along with a strong focus on oral language and specific phonics teaching in bite sized amounts, I feel that children are allowed to develop in their own time and have noticed huge gains in this area.

I am also happy with maths.  Number Agents is an absolutely gorgeous way to expose children to mathematical ideas, vocab and content in an imagined world that children naturally slip into.  There is no burden on them to develop understandings that they are not ready for and it is all about materials and experience.

It is reading that is still my challenge.  We read individually with children and this is fantastic.  However taking into account research on brain development even trying to read formally with some seems to go against what I believe in terms of readiness.  At the moment we allow them a month or two to settle, but then do start reading with them, even if it is just alphabet books.  After trying this for almost three terms I see I have added little value to those that are not ready, and my time is probably better spent facilitating other learning with these children, learning that they do need, perhaps related to movement skills.
What I think I will do, perhaps from next term is to wait until children have worked through the first seven learning goals we have identified before leaping into individual reading.  This should see children much better placed for this cognitive learning.  These goals (which we monitor closely through one to one time) should be useful indicators for us in terms of children being ready for this type of learning.

My greatest wish at the moment is for National Standards to go, for new entrants year 1 and 2 to be able to use ECE curriculum along with our own gorgeous curriculum, to be given the chance to slow down and ensure children are given time to develop readiness so that from the age of 7 or 8 they are more ready and able to take on further cognitive learning.

I believe in doing this we can greatly improve our children's wellbeing and sense of self, along with giving them a healthy learning esteem which will serve them well in the future.

There is nothing average about a child, what is average is how our current system treats them...together I think we can do much better!

Friday, 1 September 2017

Storytelling Should Come Before Writing

Writing is something I have been giving a lot of thought to this year.  In my discussions with a range of teachers and principals this year, the one thing that comes through is that writing levels are a concern.  Particularly in Year 3 and 4 with many of our struggling children being boys.

Part of my reflection this year has been on this, why?  Why do some children struggle to get started with writing, why does it become hard, and why are boys in particular struggling?

I believe there are several components here that need to be dealt with separately.  Very briefly these things include:

*Fine motor skills, if holding and using a pencil is an issue for me, then I am not going to want to write, it will be hard for me, and that will be a major barrier to my progress.  These fine motor skills need to be addressed early on.  We need to look at each child individually and assist them each to develop these skills.  Fine motor schools can be linked to hand and arm strength.  Some children will need some specific activities to grow their abilities in this area.  Imagine trying to write if your fine motor skills and hand strength were a real area of difficulty for you?  I compare it to typing skills.  How easy is it for you to create a word document quickly if your typing skills hold you back?  Is it fun, is it a quick process, or is it something you need frequent breaks form or causes you great frustration?  Is it something you choose to do?

The good news is a lot of these fine motor skills and activities to grow hand strength can be incorporated through play. It is also no surprise to me that it is often boys that lack these early motor skills, or hand strength.  Along with balance and crossing over these can be huge barriers.

There are many awesome resources on youtube that give great ideas for assisting with the development of these skills.

*Awareness of the code and phonemic awareness.  
Children need specific phonics teaching, for many, their foundation in phonics is the barrier.  Spending a lot of time going over the very basic short/dominant letter sounds is a real benefit to children.  They need to be explicitly shown that the letter is just a symbol for the sounds that we can hear.  There is a strong connection here to the acquisition of mathematics here.  Encouraging children to see patterns, shape, make their own patterns etc will directly help their understanding of letters and numbers.
  I believe we need to be wary about how early we introduce more complicated blends etc, and once again this needs to be approached on an individual level.  Confusing some children by moving on too quickly is one of the biggest mistakes we can make. Once children understand that the letter is just a symbol for a sound, they can start to see how words are just these sounds joined together.  Understanding of rhyme is vitally important as well and this needs to be woven through and checked individually.

*Vocab, this is one of the biggest barriers,  If you do not have the words to describe what you are trying to say, how on earth can you write it down?  Once again a play-based class is the perfect place to learn about my world out loud and to have loads of opportunities to talk.

So that is just a cursory summary of some of the things that I believe are barriers for the writing progress.  
Writing is an intricate and complicated process and very sadly sometimes we fail to see how complicated this process is for children and don't allow them the time they need to put all of these skills or understandings together.  It is easy for some, it seems to come naturally, yes, because these children have those early foundation skills in place, in essence they are writing ready.

In my opinion this is where play-based learning comes to the fore, by its very nature play-based learning allows us the time to get to know children very well at a foundation level, it allows us to provide them with invitations to develop these skills and it allows us to give them the time to grow these skills before they associate them with barriers to writing.

Getting back to the point of my post.  Storytelling. 

Sadly we have come to believe that by writing daily, children will somehow miraculously make progress.  That by sitting down, scribing a story ourselves, even giving them a sentence starter, or scribing something for them to copy, they will make the link to their own writing.  

The reality is if children do have the foundation skills in place that are listed above, they will.  If they don't, they wont.  The danger here also is that children will begin to believe that "I went to the beach" is a quality piece of writing. They will repeat this over and over again because it is what they know, often they struggle to move past this stage.

The reality is that the children with these foundation skills in place will acquire the writing process and develop their own understandings without us deliberately setting aside time in our day.  From what I have seen, these children will find pleasure in writing because they understand it is a way they can convey a message and will actually spend far more time writing than we would have ever allotted.  They will make signs, posters, write letters, copy from books, make cards....they will use writing for an authentic purpose.

Even more alarming is that many children by being 'forced' to write in an allotted time, will begin to see writing as 'hard' early on, this is a barrier we will struggle to remove for them, but one that I believe is easy to prevent if we really think about writing as the complicated process that it is and allow for this in our classrooms.

In my programme I allow for the foundation skills through my daily activities, I don't present them to children as writing, but allow them to build up these skills without ever attaching any difficulty to the writing process.  I do however explicitly show them how these skills will help them with their writing.  When we do have a formal writing session (once a week) I make sure that the children who do not have these foundation skills yet, just draw a picture and talk about their story out loud.

In my opinion the beginning of writing in our junior rooms should be about and through storytelling...

I always begin our year with writing through pictures.  All we do is talk about our picture.  I teach my children that the writing that they see me write down, is just they way I can record my picture, so that I can create a picture in the reader's head.

We spend a lot of time just telling stories out loud.  

I use little videos like this, to show how storytelling happens out loud and can be done through pictures, long before we turn it into words.

The more time we can spend talking about ideas, the better.  I do show them what it looks like written down, but if they are not quite up to that yet, that is ok.  If they ask me to write a word for them to copy, I do.  

I wanted to share with you a fun session we had the other day, that was writing, but perhaps not quite as you'd know it :)

We started off by everyone having a blank piece of paper.  I told them I had written a story down, that I was going to read each sentence and I wanted them to draw my idea onto their paper. 

I started reading my story, one sentence at a time.

1)One day I went to the beach.  (children drew me at the beach)
2)The sun was shining in the sky.  (the children drew a sun)
3.) I saw three little fish swimming in the sea. (the children drew the fish)
4) Beside me was a sandcastle with a flag on the top.  (they drew the sandcastle with the flag)
5)In the sky were three wispy clouds.  (they drew the clouds)
6) I was startled by a crab scuttling along the sand. (they drew the crab.)

You get the the end I turned my paper over and showed them it was blank.  I told them that my story had been in my head, and now it was on their paper, because words paint a picture in the listener or readers head.  These words can be written down into a story.  I showed them what it would look like written down.

We took some time to retell my story.

That was it.  

Next time we will draw our own pictures to tell a story from these.  Some will go away and write the story down, some won't.

The idea here is that children start to see the role extra detail plays in stories, long before they are up to that level in writing.  This will mean that when they can write, their stories will hopefully be much more than, "I went to the beach."

Ultimately I think to deal with the current struggle children have with writing, we have to slow down.  We have to understand how complicated this process is and break it down into its parts.

Don't expect children to do, what their current foundation skills don't allow them to do.   Help them have a growth mindset, but allow them to go at their pace.  Understand that by allowing children to acquire writing in this way, we can prevent barriers being put up.

Storytelling is what cultures are based on, it came long before written symbols.  Therefore it is the logical place to start when we are 'teaching' children to write.

In my opinion anyway :)