The Language Arts curriculum at Blue Mountain School incorporates listening, speaking, reading and writing by taking a balanced approach to literacy. The Language Arts curriculum as a whole leads children to become strong verbal communicators, to develop the reading strategies and skills needed to derive meaning from text and to enjoy great literature, and to learn the strategies and skills needed to communicate their ideas to others through writing. For Preschoolers through Middle Elementary students, it is based on standards for developmentally appropriate literacy instruction set by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. For Middle Elementary and Upper Elementary students, these foundational standards are furthered by those recommended by the National Council of Teachers of English.
Research has shown that the most effective early literacy education is balanced; children need instruction and experiences that help them develop an increasingly complex understanding of language as a whole. At BMS, speaking, listening, reading and writing are interwoven as aspects of the same basic activity – the communication of ideas. By engaging children in the meaning of what they are expressing or taking in, teachers motivate and support them in the acquisition of the speaking, reading and writing mechanics skills that they need to become independently literate. At each age level activities include: learning language through conversation and discussion; individual and group experience with literature; learning reading strategies; practice for fluency; comprehension work; and the writing process (writing rough drafts, revising, publishing).
At the same time, balanced literacy education must include instruction in particular skills that children will need to be fluent readers and writers. Some children absorb and integrate these skills quickly, but others require lots of direct instruction and practice to achieve mastery. Language Arts instruction at BMS includes for all children age-appropriate instruction and practice in phonemic awareness, phonics, whole language and word work, and spelling. Children who need extra practice in these areas are offered small-group work or individual support. Age-appropriate writing mechanics (first using pictures, then working on handwriting, grammar, punctuation, paragraph-writing, and finally writing papers) are also taught at all levels.
As Early Childhood students navigate the new social setting of school, they rapidly begin to understand the necessity, power and pleasure of communication. Our Early Childhood program is play-based, and the Language Arts curriculum at this age focuses on developing the speaking and listening skills needed to get one’s individual needs met as well as to be active members of a group. Preschool is also the time to introduce children to some of the fundamental building blocks of literacy. Experience with great literature includes daily read-alouds and exposure to poetry and songs. Teachers nurture students’ phonemic awareness with games and activities around rhyming and sounding out simple words and names. Children who are interested and ready are supported in retelling favorite stories and drawing pictures to accompany them. Some children may begin to use inventive spelling to describe their pictures or tell stories. All children experience the joy of good books and the thrill of communicating their ideas to others through pictures and words.
In the Early Learning classroom, many children are interested in learning to read and write, and some are dismayed to discover that it can be hard work. Teachers weave verbal and written communication throughout daily lessons and activities, increasing the richness and complexity of the literacy environment.
Circle and meeting times incorporate sharing, questions and group discussions. During literacy workshop children participate in shared, guided and independent reading and writing experiences to learn skills at their own paces and in accordance with their particular strengths and needs. Basic letter recognition and phonemic skills are introduced to the uninitiated. Some children recite memorized texts while others tackle decoding. All children learn and practice handwriting. They write stories, poems, letters, and books using inventive spelling, some children representing a word as a single letter and others writing long, involved stories. All begin to feel ownership of their voice and to proudly consider themselves authors.
For six- and seven-year-olds, speaking and listening become even more critical to living together in a group and learning successfully. Skills such as active listening and public speaking are intentionally modeled, taught and practiced. The literacy program begins with shared reading and writing experiences. The children read big books together, recite poetry, sing songs while following along with the words, and write group stories and poems. Guided reading and writing activities are teacher led and incorporate experiences, instruction and practice in areas such as discussing literature read aloud or together in groups, or mini-lessons in specific reading or writing techniques or skills. Handwriting instruction and practice continue, and students do a great deal of word work for phonics and spelling. In individual reading and writing, the children independently apply the skills they have learned, reading books of their choosing and answering comprehension questions, or writing, editing and publishing their own stories and sharing them in Book Shares.
For eight- and nine-year-olds, planned and spontaneous listening and speaking activities, combined with daily reading and writing workshops, form the structure of the Language Arts curriculum. Meetings, social skills lessons, listening and responding to stories read aloud, and frequent class and small group discussions provide routine opportunities for working on listening and speaking skills. Reading workshop may begin with a mini-lesson about a particular reading or writing skill. There is usually a period each day for individual silent reading. As readers become more independent, there are book groups in which students build their abilities to respond to and discuss literature with peers. The core of the writing program is learning to write in a variety of forms (letters, stories, essays, poetry, and short research reports), and using the writing process to revise, edit and publish their writing. All students at this level learn cursive handwriting.
For ten- to thirteen-year-olds, language takes on critical new dimensions, becoming the key tool for expressing independence and identity. In class discussions and lessons, students practice the skills of articulating a point of view, debating, compromising, and solving problems. Oral presentations of research give students practice in public speaking. Participating in dramatic readings helps develop skills in memorizing, projecting the voice and understanding a story through dramatization. In the reading program and through the study of novels, students continue to read independently for pleasure and together in reading groups. Comprehension skills are taught and practiced, including vocabulary, scanning for specific information, discriminating between fact and opinion, and taking notes.
In writing at this level, using cursive, printing and typing on a keyboard become easier and more fluent. An understanding of the basic rules of grammar is achieved so students write more consistently in complete, grammatical sentences with the appropriate punctuation. Students learn how to organize their thoughts into paragraphs, to write topic sentences, and to sequence their ideas. Standard spelling is gradually mastered. As the older students become more facile with the mechanics of writing, issues of style are introduced. The expression of ideas, targeting writing to an audience, mood, tone, and other literary techniques are taken into account. The students are truly authors, and at an age where self-expression and communication are vital, writing helps students to find and to develop their individual voices.
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