Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Making Mistakes... It's a Good Thing

I'm a firm believer that every student comes to us with strengths. Those strengths just won't be as evident in some students as others, but that doesn't mean for a minute that they don't have them.

Here's a way to get some early informal literacy assessment in with your kindergarten through second grade students and discover those strengths early.

I like to start the school year with the walls basically empty in my classroom. There's a new calendar on the wall, bare and ready to begin on the first day. None of the calendar wall components are up until they are introduced, usually one or two each day. The alphabet headers are up for the word wall.
That's it. Usually, I don't even tape the students' name tags to their desks, cubbies, or coat hooks. We do that together, so I can watch them find their names and/or respond to questions about their names, like "Whose name starts with R?", "Whose name starts with the same sound as banana?", "Who has a name with 2 claps (syllables)?", etc.

We use shared writing to make many of the reference charts on the classroom wall. Sharing the pen
definitely takes longer than doing it yourself, but the value of that time is immense.

Here's an example of a little piece of shared writing we created together during the first week of school.

My struggling first graders often came to me unwilling to take risks, because they had so often been wrong in the past. If  kids aren't willing to take risks in their reading and writing, their progress is often stalled. They have to be encouraged to take a step out and try something that they've not yet mastered, knowing that it's okay to make mistakes because that's part of learning.  I spent a fair amount of time making intentional mistakes of my own, to help build their confidence in the fact that mistakes are common and totally forgiveable! In fact, "It's okay - everybody makes an 'oops"!" became one of our class slogans.

After reading  Oops! Made a Mistake, by Kirsten Hall,  we talked about the fact that everyone makes mistakes. This led to the little learning opportunity you see in the picture above.

Usually, we'd work on white paper, so we could make an "oops!" disappear through the magic of white tape, the very forgiving first grade version of white-out. Actually, working on yellow turned out to be great this time, so we could "display" the errors and make nothing of them!

This mini-chart was made with the whole class, but let's pretend that you observed as just one student wrote it independently. (We'll assume that you'd be helping on some of the tougher words.) What strengths do you see in this student's writing?

Here's a starter list:
The student began at the top of the paper.
The student wrote from left to right.
The student was able to write some sight words independently. ( a, is, to)
The student used return sweep on multiple lines of text.
The student used appopriate spacing between the letters in words.
The student used appropriate spacing between the words in the sentence.
The student heard and recorded first sounds/letters in several words.
The student started the sentence with a capital letter.
The student used the appropriate ending punctuation.
The student formed many letters correctly.

Weaknesses? Well, formation of the letter c would be pretty much it.

This piece of writing, and the abilities of the writer, show many more strengths than might first meet the eye, don't they?

Of course, we know that what we see in this writing may only be tentative control rather than mastery, and will need reinforcement. In spite of that, it's evident that this student has already learned many, many things!

Just think about what you'd learn about this child's literacy by having him read his writing back to you!

This may not be something you have time to do with all of your students. But if you can, take a few minutes with each of your strugglers and try it. It will guide your instruction, but will also guide your attitude in seeing that each and every one of your students has strengths. Focusing on what they can do, and celebrating their achievements, will help you keep your instruction at the cutting edge of each child's learning.

Do you see other strengths in this writing?

Long but heartfelt post. Thanks for sticking with me.
Happy Teaching!


  1. A nice reminder! Great post!

    The student was also able to successfully copy the letters from the book to spell "mistake." That's a tough skill for many to do. Using what's available to them is so important but not so obvious to some kiddos at the beginning, is it?

  2. Good observation, Lisa! And if copying letters from side-by-side text is difficult for some, imagine how challenging it is to copy from a wall chart or Smartboard! I've read that little ones eye muscles are often not yet well enough developed to handle the focusing, refocusing, finding their place, etc. Thank goodness the practice of "copying from the board" has diminished!
    Thanks so much for your great comment, Lisa!



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