Thursday, March 25, 2010

Not More Professional Development - Ugh!

Do you ever feel this way (or get this response from teachers you supervise?) 

As awareness of the importance of early childhood education grows and we understand the need to share more information about how young children learn and what they need to be learning, everyone in early childhood is focusing more on improving the quality of teaching and so we should.

However, as this becomes a "hot topic", it becomes more and more challenging to find QUALITY training that supports teacher growth and results in improved outcomes for children.  Why spend your money and time if it's not helpful?  How do you find the resources that fit?

First, search out training not just based on availability but also on its impact on your bottom line (does it improve your reputation, does it mean real results in school preparedness with real children, and in the overall development of the children in your care, are you or your teachers positive about the training after experiencing it)?  If you hear "this was a waste of time", don't take it as an empty complaint.  Listen and pass it along to the decision-makers.  In fact, give feedback on every training you attend.


I encourage all of you to find ways to expand your knowledge.  My area of focus is language and literacy development, but here's a checklist to help you select professional development that fits you (and your staff if you are a director) best in any area.  Also remember that effective training is all about adding value to your organization and to teachers as growing, competent professionals:

#1.  Does the professional development address an area that I or my staff need a stronger knowledge base in? (don't choose training simply because it "fits the required numbers" - that's a waste of time) - think the five domains of learning 

#2.  Is the training offered by a qualified trainer/organization and are they willing to work with you on funding your training event? (hint:  there are a number of inappropriate "heavy on the sales pitch" companies and individuals out there who promote their own agenda without a strong, independent research base - BEWARE!)  Also, free doesn't always mean quality so build your community, state and national collaboratives to fund quality training.  Ask for recommendations from others who have used the trainer you are considering and find out what difference the training made.  If the training is coming from a "mandated source" (such as a state voluntary PreK initiative or resource provider), we sure to give your input to improve the quality of what you receive.

#3.  Does the training involve an opportunity for me (or my staff) to try out and explore, rather than simply overwhelm with information?  This is an essential question to ask before you decide who will provide your training.

#4.  Will there be "take back to the classroom tomorrow" ideas and strategies included?

#5.  What kind of follow-up (internal or external) is provided to assure that the training "sticks"?

Now a few specifics for literacy training:

A Caveat:  Emergent literacy is essential but we can focus too much on it to the neglect of other areas.  Make sure that any literacy trainer you hire understands how young children grow and develop on a broader scale and that they incorporate learning in an "up to your eyeballs, rolling around in the experience" approach..  Balance quality training in this area with training in the other domains.

#6.  Does the training provide you with an integrated rather than "isolated skills" approach?

#7.  Can you envision your children having fun with the recommended approach? (see an example of children learning and having fun playing Rhymin' Simon).

#8.  Are all the strategies and activities tied to a specific learning objective that has at least three research-based foundations?  (this will help you avoid the "fly by night", "fix alls" that really don't work).  Do they address the essential foundations of reading and writing readiness?

#9.  Are there opportunities for the participants to ask questions and get additional information or access additional resources?

#10.  Does the trainer offer you an opportunity to extend the training into a comprehensive implementation plan or just offer an "in and out" workshop?

Now that you know what to ask - go for it!

You'll be making much better decisions about your training plan and budgeting plus you raise the likelihood that you will see meaningful changes as a result of the interaction. 

Don't forget that opportunities for families to learn (in conjunction with teachers or as separate events) are also important.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Getting A Perspective on Literacy as A Part of the Overall Growth of A Child

Certainly literacy is an essential and often focused upon topic when it comes to early childhood. Whether we are reading favorite books like Nancy Carlson's Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come! or exposing children to rich conversations about language and letters, we are building important skills. However, as I travel the country and visit preschools, I sometimes see an out-of-balance, isolated instruction focus that concerns me.


Young children learn best in exploratory, playful environments.  The guidelines from the findings of the National Early Literacy Panel can be used within that context and that's how you will gain the best results.

This group met first in 2002 and was charged with identifying from a review of high-quality research the areas essential for later reading proficiency. These guidelines were released in 2009 and can help us focus on what will bring identifiable results and pave the way for children to learn to read at their prime time.

Six Early Skills Predictive of Later Literacy Achievement

Alphabetic Knowledge
Phonological Awareness
Rapid Automatic Naming of Letters and Digits
Rapid Automatic Naming of Colors and or Objects
Writing or Writing Name
Phonological Memory

Let's look at the first one. ALPHABETIC KNOWLEDGE.

See the girls to the right? They aren't readers yet in the conventional sense but they are exploring that book. The girl on the left is pointing to a letter and they are discussing it.

Don't think strict lesson, sitting at tables or responding to flash cards while children squirm because they are being asked to sit longer than their natural attention span allows.

Instead, think of how you can teach these skills in a playful environment.  These girls just sat down with a book and, in fact, had just been prompted by the teacher to look for letters they knew.

Learning the alphabet can really be facilitated through such positive experiences and games.

Explore the shapes in sand or with sponges on the sidewalk.

Let children feel the letter as they draw their fingers over them.

Sing the ABC song with them while hopping from one letter to another on the floor or ground.

Have a game where children can walk quickly to the other end of the room and pick up a letter that they know, bring it back to you and tell you the name (it can be a race but be careful of untied shoes!)

As you take dictation for them, on artwork or notepaper or wherever, show them how you write that letter of focus and allow them to try the same.

Consistently point out letters you want to emphasize when they appear in print you are sharing with the children (big books, individual or circle time stories, posters on the wall, street signs, and print throughout your center).

As children become more familiar with more letters, you can have all kinds of hunting and finding games to reinforce their rapid recall and identification.  We want them to be able to quickly name any letter we point to eventually and they will be able to do that when they reach a level of automaticity (quick delivery) of the names of letters.

Letter of the week is fine but make sure you aren't drilling the children.  Think of this cool progression: FRIG

Familiarity and exposure to seeing the letters in lots of different contexts
Recognition - children begin to associate the letter shape with its name
Identification - children can point out the letter when you say "show me" or "where is the A?"
Generation - children can look at a letter and say its correct name

This progression from strong support and modeling through limited support to independent mastery is evident in most anything your children learn.

Next time we'll talk about phonological awareness.

Have fun!