The world has changed. Our understanding of what matters most is evolving to meet new realities. This is as true in education as anywhere.
Since “school as usual” isn’t an option, how can we chart a course forward, particularly for our youngest learners in kindergarten and first and second grades? How can we continue to cultivate the critical foundation for a lifetime of learning?
We are both former elementary teachers, and it’s clear that what we would do in our physical classrooms (with access to books, instructional materials...and students!) isn’t realistic right now. We are watching and listening to the teachers and students we know—including our own young children and those of friends and colleagues. No one’s experience is the same, and it’s become evident that some sense of clear priorities would be helpful. We believe these priorities must stay grounded in the high academic expectations we hold for all students and acknowledge that learning is happening very differently for each student.
Prioritize essentials for early learners
In the past few weeks, we’ve been approached by fellow parents and colleagues asking us what we think K–2 learning should look like right now. There isn’t a “right” answer, but below we offer our best advice of where learning time and attention should be focused in early grades—in whatever mode of instruction is possible.
- Focus on the most essential mathematical ideas for each grade. For young learners, create opportunities to strengthen their concepts and skills in addition and subtraction and their understanding of the place value system.
- Kindergartners can use toys, cereal, or pieces of mail to count up to 20, solve addition and subtraction word problems within 10, and investigate the numbers 11–19, seeing them as 10 1’s and additional 1’s.
- First graders can use household objects and drawings to add within 100, solve addition and subtraction word problems within 20, and extend their counting up to 120 starting from any number.
- Second graders can spend time investigating the place value of numbers within 1,000, read and write numbers, name the number of 1’s, 10’s, and 100’s in each, and compare them using place value understanding. They can also solve addition and subtraction word problems within 100 and measure items around the house.
- Early learners can also focus on practicing their addition and subtraction facts. In kindergarten, they can add and subtract within 5. In grade one, they can add and subtract within 10. And in grade two, they can add and subtract within 100 and knowing single digit sums from memory.
- Strengthening fluencies can be done with games, fluency routines, flashcards, and a slew of online activities, such as those found on Zearn or Khan Academy. Whether students are practicing their facts, playing games with family, or working on math facts will pay off when they return to the classroom.
- Prioritize quality over quantity. Within the topics that matter most, students can investigate just a few, rich math problems to work on each day. Check out Illustrative Mathematics for free, high-quality problems for K–2 students. Encourage students to capture their thinking on each problem. They may display it in words or pictures, discuss it with someone in their home, or record themselves using different platforms.
- Talk about math. Pose math problems that encourage students to share their mathematical thinking and that engage them in conversation around questions like: How else might you show that? What are you noticing? What do those numbers represent? What are some other strategies you might try? (For more ideas, see this post on “Putting Math Ideas Into Practice.”)
- Excite students about the math all around them. Whether students are playing games, building blocks, writing with chalk, or helping in the kitchen, there are times throughout the day young learners can experience mathematics as a way to make sense of the world and practice their skills. For example, students can compare the number of windows in their home or building to the number of doors and tell which is larger or count the number of shoelace holes in their sneakers. A younger student can use subtraction to determine how many toys they have if they give a certain number to a sibling or to count the remaining minutes they have for screen time. These are ways to continue to nurture, encourage, and elevate young learners’ sense of themselves as mathematical thinkers.
In English language arts and literacy:
- Reinforce foundational reading skills as you are able. Teaching students the foundations of reading is technical stuff. It is not realistic for most parents and other caregivers to have that specialized skillset, nor is it possible for our earliest learners to teach themselves through independent work. So what can happen? Now is the time to reinforce what students have learned about sounds, letters, and words.
- Try some games and activities from this list of free practice resources (sorted into those that need teacher/adult support and those that can be done independently by students) that can help ensure our youngest students continue to build upon the foundation they’ve started. For example, talk like a robot by breaking words into syllables, play rhyming games like I Spy (“I spy something that rhymes with hair!”), or practice writing words containing the patterns students have learned.
- Read and reread texts to build confidence and fluency. Consider choosing one text to practice over the week, culminating in a performance for the family.
- Another easy, research-based way to promote children’s reading prowess: Turn on the closed captions on TV shows and videos. Students listening to the words and seeing them flashed up on the screen is a way to model fluent reading and connect spoken language to print.
- Read aloud twenty minutes a day. Public and school libraries are closed, so getting your hands on new books to read aloud to kids may be a challenge. But we can think creatively about how to still provide students with opportunities to expand their vocabulary and knowledge through exposure to texts they can’t yet read themselves. Don’t feel limited to traditional children’s picture books. Try reading aloud older siblings’ books, a newspaper, or a magazine. If digital devices are available, there are lots of opportunities to access recorded read-alouds (made available so that students can watch them on a schedule that works for their families) or texts online that can be read to younger students by parents or other caregivers. Sources of free texts include CommonLit and Newsela, or for stories read aloud, try Storyline Online and finding books that interest your students on YouTube.
- Learn a lot, about a lot…and write about it, too! The more we know, the better readers we become. And sources of knowledge are everywhere! Storytelling, reading aloud, sharing experiences, dramatic play, cooking, making music, observing in the neighborhood, and exploring history and science websites and videos built for kids are just a few of the ways to learn about the world and each other. What interests your kids or students? What do they want to know more about? The things that top our children’s lists: the history of Legos, Megan Rapinoe, macaroni penguins, and smokejumpers. Whatever your topic selection, research tells us an effective approach to building knowledge and vocabulary is to engage with several texts and media resources (e.g., photographs, charts, and videos) on a single topic. This approach immerses all learners in a volume of reading about science, social studies, and other high-interest topics. Students can write and draw (or dictate their ideas so a caregiver can support with writing) about what they know and what they’ve learned. Showcasing this knowledge can take any form: illustrations, letters, journals, stories, posters, or simply sentences on the page. Knowledge building that takes place through any medium—reading, writing, viewing, talking, doing—will help students when they return to school.
Listen to students and families, and adapt
To prioritize this essential learning and meet the varying needs of students and their families, we first need to understand who we’re serving. This has always been true, but now more than ever if we are to make instructional decisions equitably. The stories we’re hearing offer important windows and information to make decisions. A kindergarten teacher from Baltimore calls students’ homes once a week to check in. She learned that one parent now works a night shift, so she and her children sleep during “school hours.” A parent from New York is an essential employee and works 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., taking the only mobile device with internet access with her to work. In a rural district in North Carolina, teachers learned that tablets won’t function in remote mountainous areas because it is impossible for some communities to get a signal. A first grade teacher in California is learning a new translation service to keep ongoing communication with families, as most of them speak Spanish and she is monolingual. And the stories continue.
The instructional resources, digital platforms, and even the times that students learn vary dramatically, not only from district to district or school to school, but within one teacher’s class. Conditions continue to change. But we do know that flexibility, creativity, and empathy—and above all else, knowing what our students and their families are facing—are key to meeting varied and evolving instructional needs equitably.
While some schools and districts may be able to continue student learning with their existing curricula and even engage in synchronous learning time with teachers, others have not yet begun, and may never. Even when technology or connectivity is not an issue, school days do not directly convert to an online environment—particularly for younger learners—and priorities have to be set.
These are challenging times that call for flexibility and communication beyond anything else. The more we’ve listened, the more we’ve heard the variety of circumstances that exist from home to home, from students, parents, and educators themselves. The current situation shines a spotlight on this need in new ways. Despite the challenges, we have a significant opportunity as we continue to make decisions and recommendations about what school looks like. We—as educators, policymakers, and parents—can listen to families and students, recognize the assets they bring and the specific needs they may have, and adjust accordingly and frequently. We can simplify, eliminating as much clutter as possible. And we can radically prioritize the content that matters most, ensuring that our efforts have the greatest impact possible for the youngest students we serve.