Category Archives: literacy development

Once Upon a Time…

Posted December 21, 2016


by Sarah Sivright

Years ago, while living in Chicago, I had the good fortune to teach with Vivian Paley at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. Vivian is a giant in the world of early childhood education, known as a master teacher and author (check our library shelves in the living room). While her close observations and theories about young children’s development are still read and studied, maybe her most important legacy is Story Telling and Acting. (ST/SA for short) I have planted the seed for this activity in every school where I have taught, and All Seasons parents know it well. Briefly, each child has a story journal in which the teacher writes a story told, and usually illustrated, by the child. At group time these stories are acted out by the whole class. We act the stories out in the order in which they are dictated, since they tend to build on each other as children listen to and are inspired by each other.

Part of the magic of this activity is the way life in the classroom and at home is reflected in the stories. Currently, a small dog named Tiny is featured in many of the children’s stories. Tiny is a dog owned by one of the Inver Glen residents and well known to the children, though, by now, he has been transformed well beyond the original.

Story telling and acting have multiple literacy opportunities and benefits, as well as being powerful in creating and nurturing community. Ask Amy or me for more information if you’re interested.

Our fairy mailbox

Our fairy mailbox

You may have been following the Fairy Saga, involving both preschool classrooms. Mysterious evidence of fairy life in the woods began to appear several weeks ago, much to the delight of everyone. The teachers took photos and recorded the childrens’ ideas about the who/what/when/why of it all. A display board took shape and the teachers brought writing and drawing tools outside, thinking the children would like to draw the fairy encampment. But instead, they chose to write stories about them. I loved that turn of events and it brought me back to every time I have introduced ST/SA to children. They understand the idea with little explanation, and the story table is crowded with eager tellers. The acting requires a few simple directions, and they’re off.

In Vivian Paley’s own words:
Amazingly, children are born knowing how to put every thought and feeling into story form. If they worry about being lost, they become the parents who search…Even happiness has its plot and characters: “Pretend I’m the baby and you only love me and you don’t talk on the telephone.”

I sent a description and photos of this latest development of ST/SA to Vivian, knowing the delight she takes in news of the All Seasons children. Long retired, she misses the classroom, and corresponds with many teachers all over the world who use her books and ideas. She is especially cheered by our use of ST/SA in light of the changes to the preschool curriculum over the past years that make it mostly unrecognizable to us old-timers. Now she is dreaming of writing a book for young children “as good as Runaway Bunny [by Margaret Wise Brown].”  I will keep you posted!

We got a nice surprise last week; more mail and wisdom about our storytellers from Vivian Paley…

“How wonderful your chidlren’s fairy stories are! As you and your staff deepen your awareness of the gifts given to you by the little ones, the storytellers become more inclined to listen to themselves telling and acting in stories. They know that their words are being admired, enjoyed and studied, and they begin to value themselves more. They value their classmates more and listen more closely to their stories.”


Posted October 21, 2015

by Jenny Kleppe


Here at All Seasons Preschool, teachers practice “Repeated Readings.” This is exactly as it sounds; a story is read to the group several days in a row. As parents and teachers know, children love to hear their favorite books over and over (and over) again. Repeated readings help young children master the storyline, content, and vocabulary of a story.
When I was a new teacher, I taught preschool and early childhood family education in Head Start classrooms in a large, diverse city. I wanted to expose my students, many from underprivileged backgrounds, to many wonderful stories with full and rich language. Every day, I read a different story. Even when children requested a story we had already read or wanted me to tell them a story over again, I insisted that everything they heard from me be new. I thought this would be more interesting than repeating something they had already heard. I thought I was helping them by exposing them to more vocabulary and more stories. I had never heard of repeated reading practice, and if I had, I’m sure at the time I would have disregarded it as not right for my students. The results? I had many children who did not sit still at story time. Many appeared disinterested and unengaged from the books I read and stories I shared.
Now I know better. While I had the best of intentions, I was naïve about what young children needed to internalize the meaning and vocabulary in stories. All children benefit from repeated readings. Hearing vocabulary and story themes multiple times facilitates comprehension, and makes new vocabulary part of a child’s own working vocabulary. Most young children, and especially children with special needs or English language learners, are not able to comprehend all of the story the first time it is read. Hearing it multiple times allows them to fill in the missing pieces each time they hear the story repeated.
Several studies have borne out the multiple benefits of repeated reading. Some advice for using repeated readings at home: use books that are age-appropriate and interesting to your child. Read these books repeatedly over the course of a couple of weeks. While reading, encourage your child to actively participate by reinforcing his/her comments or gestures concerning the book (such as pointing to a picture). Provide explanations in response to questions or new vocabulary words, and ask open-ended questions about what is happening in the book or what is going to happen next.

Once while teaching at Head Start I agreed to read a popular story several times over a few weeks. The book was “Pinkalicious” by Victoria and Elizabeth Kann. The quality of this story didn’t match that of a classic fairy tale or folk story, but it was a favorite. I found that after reading the story many times, the students didn’t lose interest as I assumed they would. The entire class said the words with me as I read them! They learned new and complex vocabulary! They laughed every time the character turned pink, and they predicted parts of the story! They played ‘pinkalicious’ during free play and asked how to make cupcakes. That book had become meaningful to them. And isn’t that what we’re aiming for?
Sometimes what children ask us for is intuitive and expresses what they need. Repeated reading fills a social and emotional need; the comfort of a familiar story, but it also fills a cognitive need; predictability and a deeper understanding of that story.
A practical how-to guide for repeated readings can be found here:

Trivette, C.M., Simkus, A., Dunst, C.K., & Hamy, D.W. (2012). Repeated Book Reading and Preschoolers’ Early Literacy Development. Center for Early Literacy Learning: Cell Reviews, 5 (5), 1-13.

The Power of Stories

Posted July 16, 2015

by Sarah Sivright


Story Dictation

I had the good fortune to be mentored by two extraordinary women—Vivian Paley and Gillian McNamee. I taught with Vivian at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools and was introduced to story dictation and acting in her classroom. Gillian was my professor and advisor in graduate school, and later, a parent of one of my preschool students. Both women continue to be dear friends and mentors.
Gil has recently published a book titled, “The High-Performing Preschool; Story Acting in Head Start Classrooms.” In her book, she presents a powerful case for the use of story dictation and story acting (SD/SA) as the centerpiece in early childhood classrooms, particularly those serving low-income and ESL students. Paley’s presence accompanies Gil through the book’s pages, along with Lev Vygotsky, a Russian developmental psychologist, who, in his brief life (1896-1934) developed theories about early childhood development that have had a powerful impact on our understanding of how children think and learn. These two giants in the educational world help steer Gil’s course, offering theories, stories and wisdom.
At All Seasons Preschool, we teachers frequently bemoan the “missing the mark” quality of current early childhood education. We know that dramatic play and SD/SA “work” in these settings. Children are eager to engage in these two particular activities and they grow and learn from their experiences. We KNOW this. Happily, McNamee doesn’t just wring her hands and cry.  Along with extensive research, she documents her years working with teachers and children in Chicago’s Head Start classrooms, to build a realistic case for the use of story dictation and acting as a curriculum that can satisfy national and state standards and move all children along the path to becoming readers and writers.
She describes the power of this simple activity:
“When a teacher writes on a piece of paper, he or she models and the child experiences up close what it looks like to say a word and draw a configuration of symbols to represent what was spoken. As the teacher echoes each word being written, the child can see it constructed in print conventions: ‘When—parrot—gets—a—shot—he—doesn’t—cry. There. Your first sentence reads, ‘When parrot gets a shot he doesn’t cry.’ What happens next?’ Children see and hear concepts of print; every mark on the paper is put there for a purpose…to record and affirm their thinking.
As McNamee points out, readers’ and writers’ workshops, and guided reading groups are attempts by educators to “seize hold of emerging verbal skills to strengthen and expand them toward written language.” (p. 88) But children’s understanding and use of language is so much more than this. “Language learning is a community enterprise to communicate goals and expectations in satisfying needs, to inform, persuade, delight, and console each other.” (p. 35) The community piece is essential here. “…children build concepts about characters, events and phenomena in the world with each other before and while they are building these understandings as individuals….In scope and sequence, it [story dictation and acting] is the perfect all-inclusive comprehensive curriculum and method of teaching that encompasses all children in learning.” (p. 38)
As I I read Gil’s book, I marked up and flagged dozens of pages, some to share with teachers and some with parents. While I can’t include every wonderful, useful, enlightening idea I’d like, two powerful conclusions are important to emphasize. First, we as teachers knew we were onto something great when we started SD/SA, and now we can be even more sure of its value. (We’re doing story dictation now with the grandmas and grandpas, with the children acting out the senior’s stories!) Secondly, both teachers and parents can support our children’s language development in powerful ways. Reading aloud is one you already know to do, but taking story dictation is one you might not have tried yet. Dictation alone might be satisfying, but if you can find a way to act out stories, even better!


Story Acting

I couldn’t resist—one more powerful passage that expresses a truth we see and try to nurture at All Seasons:
“Vygotsky and Mrs. Paley teach us that assembling children in a group and presenting lessons does not make a community. …Community means recognizing the interdependence of participants; children want and depend on one another’s help in growing up. Dramatizing ideas provides the necessary structure for such a learning community, as it requires words to portray and examine ideas under a teacher’s direction. Dramatizing stories provides the unique opportunity for children to show one another and their teacher what their thinking looks like, and to serve as one another’s lifeline in their next steps growing up in school.” [Emphasis mine]

Sarah Sivright