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Comprehensive literacy instruction woven through day at East Harlem school
New York Teacher

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Kindergarten teacher Caitlyn Duffy reads a book with her students that they co-wrote as a group.
Miller Photography

Kindergarten teacher Caitlyn Duffy reads a book with her students that they co-wrote as a group.

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Miller Photography

Kindergarten teacher Fatima Orellana uses the Wilson Fundations phonics program and Sounds in Motion to teach the sound of the letter D.

In a kindergarten classroom at PS 112 in East Harlem, six children are gathered on the rug with their teacher, who is holding out a handmade book that they’ve written together as a group.

“We counted four words, so our mouths have to say four words when we read this page,” she reminds them. “Do you see any sight words on this page?”

Down the hall, another group of kindergartners is repeating the sound of the letter D, pairing it with a swoop of their arms for emphasis.

“What part of our mouth helps us make the sound of the letter D?” their teacher asks. On the other side of the room, a second teacher meets individually with a student; together, they leaf through a book of pictures illustrating D words and then practice writing the letter on a whiteboard.

Upstairs in a 1st-grade classroom, students are busy filling in bubble maps that illustrate what the characters in their books do, think, feel and say. Across the hall, 2nd-graders in a dual-language classroom are reading independently as their teacher calls them one at a time to conduct a sight word inventory in both English and Spanish.

At PS 112, a K–2 school where more than a third of the students have special needs and nearly a fifth are English language learners, teachers strive for thorough, comprehensive literacy instruction.

“It’s not just one period,” says Keren Zarom, who teaches kindergarten. “It’s woven together throughout the school day. When we do social studies, we’re also doing word work. We’re always thinking about how we can accommodate literacy.”

In kindergarten, where more than half of the students who enter PS 112 are unfamiliar with most letter-sound associations and basic concepts of print — like how to hold a book correctly or the difference between letters and words — this means tapping into students’ interests to get them excited about reading as well as conversations to strengthen oral language skills. To build phonemic awareness, students form letters in sand and Play-Doh. They also use Sounds in Motion, a kinesthetic program that associates letter sounds with movement.

Each classroom at PS 112 — which includes five dual-language classes and nine Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) Nest integrated co-teaching classes — is scheduled for a 120-minute literacy block in which teachers integrate reading workshop, writing workshop, shared reading, word work, read aloud and word study. In addition to the Columbia University Teachers College Reading and Writing Project curriculum, teachers incorporate the Wilson Fundations phonics program (and its Spanish equivalent, Estrellita) and Fountas & Pinnell Leveled Literacy Intervention, a research-based program for struggling readers. Teachers assess frequently to determine which students require targeted instruction through the school’s Response to Intervention (RTI) process. Two out-of-classroom teachers provide full-time Reading Recovery services to the school’s most at-risk students, meeting one on one with students daily for a 30-minute lesson that incorporates guided reading, vocabulary, word work and running records.

“But it’s not just a matter of choosing the right programs,” says Tom Roepke, a Reading Recovery teacher. “It’s about how to use them flexibly to support best practices.”

Teachers use students’ independent reading time to conduct individual conferences with students and meet with small groups for strategy lessons or guided reading. Most students are in integrated co-teaching classrooms, which allow for flexible grouping: Students who need extra phonics instruction, for example, can work in a small group with one teacher while the other reads aloud to the rest of the class.

Reading intervention teachers push in to the school’s general education classrooms so that not a single teacher in the school is alone in the classroom during reading workshop.

“Small groups are the key to differentiation,” says Dana Wattenberg, who provides Special Education Teacher Support Services (SETSS) and is the school’s Individualized Education Program teacher. “We might be working on the same exact teaching point, but the way we’re teaching it is different.”

Data in the form of running records, spelling assessments and sight word inventories drive their instruction, and teachers rearrange their groups frequently to match students’ progress.

“We’re always deciding, Do we want a mixed group of learners so they can push each other, or do we need to hone in on a skill and meet with everyone at that level?” says Zarom.

Another key issue, teachers say, is a social-emotional component to instruction at PS 112 that gives the school its calm atmosphere.

“We’re not just teaching curriculum and skills,” says Roepke. “We’re teaching children.”

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Miller Photography

A chart in a 2nd-grade classroom offers students strategies for monitoring their reading.