What I Learned About Kindergarten By Teaching Second Grade

 

What do kids REALLY need to learn in Kindergarten to do well by the time they get to second grade in reading, writing, and math?  What can teachers do in Kindergarten to make sure that their students can be successful in the classroom of today?  What K/1 level skills sometimes come up missing when kids reach second grade?  The importance of some of these skills was a surprise to me!  I never would have guessed that a few of them made such a big difference… although others were no surprise at all.

As a side note, I would like to make it VERY clear that I am NOT making ANY type of comment or “slam” here about my school or ANY coworkers- current, past, or present!  I have never looped with and taught my own Kindergartners when they reached second grade.  They may have wound up with the very same issues that my second graders had!  I just don’t know for sure.  Some kids forget things that we may be “sure” they knew; I saw this myself when I volunteered in a friend’s first grade class at my old school, and worked with a few of my former students.  And other children may have come from other schools, have moved often, have had poor attendance, could have an undiagnosed learning disability, or any other host of issues!  So this is NOT about what other teachers are not doing well enough; this is about what I myself intend to make SURE I DO WELL in the future!

As many of you know, I spent 20 years teaching Kindergarten.  But before that, I taught first grade for five years, and then after taking a two year leave of absence to do some traveling and speaking, I decided to return to my first love:  teaching children in a classroom setting!  And when I went back, I was placed in… (gasp!) a first/second grade combination class!  This was not my… uh… first choice.  LOL!

 

 

But do you ever wonder WHY things happen?  I do believe that God is always in control, but it is pretty hard to see beyond the dashboard sometimes when things don’t seem to be going the way we plan.  Why is this happening to me?  What am I supposed to be learning from this?  Is there a child here that really needs me?  There must be a reason for this!  What is going to happen next year?  Will I EVER go back to teaching my beloved little ones again?  Should I just quit and go back to traveling and doing teacher trainings again? All of these questions kept running through my mind.

 

 

I eventually realized last year that I was learning a LOT about what is very important to cover WELL in Kindergarten (and first grade, too!) just by working with older students.  I also realized that I the skills I had developed as a teacher of early literacy skills were of great value to a few of my second grade “babies” that were still struggling with these beginning reading skills.  I also wound up doing reading interventions with a group of struggling readers from the rest of the second grade classrooms.  And then I knew for sure why God placed me there, in second grade.  ALL of those kids really needed me and my skills, specifically.

So here are a few of my thoughts on what just a few (certainly not ALL) of my kids were missing, and what might have helped them improve, if they had had more practice in these areas early on.  These missing skills seemed to separate the average kids from the low kids, at least in my class last year.

 

 

 

1. Verbalizing Their Thoughts in Complete Sentences and Explaining Their Reasoning

At my current school, children are expected to answer questions in complete sentences from the time they start Kindergarten moving forward.  This is an excellent practice and helps a LOT when we ask older children to write in complete sentences!  Most of the children who were enrolled at the school since TK or Kindergarten are used to this routine and do it automatically, but the others who come from outside the district tend not to do it, and are often puzzled by this request.

A related problem is that kids need to be pushed to simply SAY what their thoughts are aloud, no matter what the sentence type or phrase might be! After that, THEN they can be asked to restate it in a complete sentence. Some of my students simply could not express themselves when asked why or how they got a certain answer and had to write it down.  So perhaps they were not raising their hands to participate in those math talks, etc.  When I called on them and they did get the right answer on paper, they usually would not say anything more than, “I used my head.”  Or, “I kept trying.”  Other common answers were, “I know because my teacher said so,” or “I’m a good listener,” “I’m smart and I don’t give up.”

In short, they learned to cover themselves by saying anything at all other than explaining their thinking.  These were children who normally were quite talkative, so it definitely wasn’t shyness, LOL!  It took me quite a long time before I realized that I should not have accepted these types of written or oral responses from my students, because they really weren’t explaining their thinking at all!   So start early, folks!

 

The Bottom Line:

Don’t let kids “hide” and say nothing by not raising their hands.  If they don’t know what to say, have them repeat what someone else said in their own words, or have them explain it in a different way.  Encourage complete sentences, but don’t let that be a reason not to speak.  ELD kids can repeat exactly what someone else said if needed, but don’t let them say nothing!  Use name sticks (equity sticks, or an app, etc.) to make sure that everyone gets called on.

 

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2. Developing Number Concepts

I can hardly believe how important math fluency is to nearly every part of daily math practice.  The children that have learned their math facts fluently in both addition and subtraction and have them MEMORIZED (with no finger counting- they pull the answers instantly from their heads) do SO much better at just about everything in math!  They are quicker at finishing nearly any worksheet and generally have much more confidence overall.  Kids that know their math facts have more brain power to devote to multi-step problems, such as two and three digit addition or subtraction with regrouping.  Kids like that are usually able to tackle the two-step word problems, too! 

For the child that does not have these facts memorized, a worksheet with 20 three digit addition and subtraction problems can seem like an insurmountable obstacle.  Others finish it in less than ten minutes and are on to the more fun, optional activities that those that are struggling with math facts almost never get to do, because the independent practice portion of every math lesson JUST TAKES SO LONG.

Check out this post if you need some ideas to help young children learn to count on.
 

Also, counting on (and counting backwards!) is IMPORTANT!  Otherwise, kids must always start at one and usually use their fingers to do so, and this takes much longer!   Children that cannot count on by one or two numbers often cannot even do the “plus ones” or “plus twos” without their fingers!  So, they may see a problem like 15-2, and be completely stuck because they don’t have enough fingers and don’t know how to count on or back. I must admit that I was very surprised to find that some children simply do not pick up this skill without intentional, planned, and specific practice led by a teacher- even by second grade.  It seems like an obvious, but some kids just don’t pick it up.

So what should we do?  Build sturdy, unbreakable number concepts! Use those manipulatives to count and use them as often as possible!  Make SURE that those kids can absolutely subitize just by looking at a picture, and then have them practice counting forward one, two, or three more.  Then have them COUNT BACKWARDS from there also!  Play counting on and backwards games to make it more fun! I used to have my kids in Kindergarten practice counting backwards from 20 during the third trimester, and it’s tougher than you might think!

 

The Bottom Line:

This is obvious, but true: number concepts are NOT built upon kids counting objects on a worksheet and writing the correct number.  This is a follow-up activity, and should be done ONLY if you have already finished doing it with concrete objects and have time to transfer the knowledge to the symbolic level (pictures of objects on a paper), and then the abstract level (numerals on a paper.)  The real objects form the basis of the learning.  Figure out how to MANAGE that lesson with the manipulatives until you get the cooperation you need to make it happen.

 

It’s essential that this happen in Pre-K, TK, and K, because it’s sure to happen less and less in first and second grade due to the sheer volume of math problems kids are generally expected to work out, and the size of the numbers.  (It takes a very long time to count out 15 objects and then eight more, but it doesn’t take as long to count out four blocks and match it to a number four flash card.  Make sense?)  And if you have a math curriculum that has “a worksheet per day” in Kinder or younger, be SURE to read the teacher’s manual to find out if it is really REQUIRED- because it’s probably not.

 

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3. Knowing ALL of the Short Vowel Sounds is CRUCIAL

All of our first and second grade students take the Beginning Phonics Skills Test (BPST) at the beginning of the year.  I found some students were missing basic words such as “nut” and “met,” even though I could see that they were fluent readers!  They were giving the wrong short vowel sounds.  I was simply astounded!  This was one area that I did not expect deficiencies in at all, and I was truly puzzled.  Unfortunately, these miscues were pervasive, habitual, and hard to fix while trying to cover the second grade curriculum.  It interfered with decoding in many ways, and undermined their confidence as readers and writers.

Click here to learn more about how I combine HeidiSongs with Zoo Phonics.
 

This is something that I am going to make doubly sure that I cover WELL next year in TK, because obviously they are harder to remember than I thought!  If you have trouble teaching these sounds, I highly recommend Zoo Phonics, because when we add a MOVEMENT to the sound, I think it helps children distinguish between what they are hearing because there is a motor-visual cue.

Click here to read my best advice on helping kids learn the alphabet- even those that struggle with it.
 

My routine for teaching the alphabet in Kindergarten was to flip through the Zoo Phonics cards (with the motions) every single day, mixing up the cards so that the kids saw them in a different order frequently.  After a while, I started showing them plain alphabet cards, but having them still do the motions.  This routine worked extremely well for me!  As I said before, I never looped with my kids to know if they retained the vowel sounds into second grade, but I am hoping that they did.  They sure seemed to know them completely halfway through the Kindergarten year, that’s for sure.

 

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4. Developing Good Habits From the Beginning

If there is one thing this year that I have learned, this is it: it is MUCH harder to correct bad habits that are already formed than to help children instill good habits from the very beginning!

Click here to read about how I get my Kindergartners started writing- even when it seems impossible!
 

This is SO true of spelling! Kids may learn to spell a word correctly on a spelling test, and then never think about using that spelling again when it comes to actually APPLYING that skill in their writing. I really think that this is the key:  just singing the sight word spelling songs is not enough.  We must show the children how to use the songs to help them recall the spellings, and then hold them accountable for using that knowledge when writing.  Beyond that, they need plenty of time to PRACTICE writing.

 

Ask children to write simple sentences using the words that you are learning to spell in song, and make SURE that they spelled them correctly!  If they cannot visualize the word in their head, then have them sing while they find it on a word wall or flash card, and then copy it.  Then AFTER they have done this, THEN they may write whatever they like!  BUT… if they write a sight word that you have already taught a song for, they are responsible to spell it correctly.  If my kids forgot, I had them erase it and fix it- (ONLY the words that I knew that they could spell correctly.)

Click here for an easy way to work your way up to getting your little ones to write a simple paragraph about themselves.
 

The same thing is true of capitalization.  Children that get used to mixing capitals with lowercase letters interchangeably have a hard time breaking this habit.  And by the same token, forgetting punctuation at the end of a sentence is a given!

Click here to find out what I put in a fine motor skills kit! This is inexpensive, fun, and makes an EXCELLENT center!
 

Another example?  PRINTING. Oh, those fine motor skills!  As our Kindergarten curriculums have moved away from those developmentally appropriate activities such as play dough, painting, finger plays, and arts and crafts, the children’s fine motor skills have suffered!  And the more pencil work/worksheets that they do before their fine motor skills are ready for them, the worse we will probably find their printing to be.

My second graders that failed to leave spaces between their words felt that these “One Finger Spacers” were far too babyish for them to use. 😉
 

Spacing between words and letters is also an issue, (as well as the general size of the print) and I was surprised to find this, even after children are already fluent readers and writers!  I assumed that when children saw that even THEY couldn’t read their own writing back again due to poor spacing, they would fix the problem themselves. Not so!

Click here for some great tips on getting kids to print well, right from the beginning!
 

After quite a bit of coaching, we were still not seeing much progress, so I created the papers you see below to help them understand what the appropriate spacing would look and feel like.  These writing papers had individual boxes for each letter and space, shown in the photo below.  I had them staple this paper to any worksheet they were doing and write their answers out on it instead of the actual worksheet.

 

This paper didn’t fix everything of course, but it did help little by little.  And after a while, I realized that I was seeing more and more legible printing, even on the regular paper.  Hooray!  You can download this paper here if you would like to try it out.

 

The Bottom Line:

With these skills especially, I am planning on trying a little bit harder to make sure that I cover them well, because now I know that they really MATTER long term.  Not only that, the habits that we instill in Kindergarten are LASTING habits that children take with them on into their school careers, even much more so than I even thought!  Children don’t have to master every skill in Kindergarten, but I’ll bet that many of them can improve a little bit in some of these areas more than we might care to admit.  So I am going to try to think about teaching each and every child as if I were going to be looping with that same child for the next few years, and beyond.

 

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Heidi Butkus

About Heidi Butkus

Heidi Butkus has been teaching in California public schools since 1985. She has somehow managed to stay in Kindergarten all of those years, with the exception of five years in first grade, and also taught a parent participation preschool for a short while! Combining a strong knowledge of brain research with practical experience, Heidi has created a wealth of fun and engaging teaching techniques that work well with diverse populations. She has presented at conferences nationwide, and is the owner and founder of HeidiSongs.com. Heidi has also created fourteen original CD's and DVD's for teaching beginning reading and math skills, three musical plays designed especially for young performers, and has written some picture books and many other teaching resources. Heidi's multimedia workshops are filled with fun and motivational educational activities that have been classroom tested and revised for effectiveness with all types of learners.
    • Good! I think that once my kids saw that they really could write smaller and stay within those boundaries, they were more willing to try to do so on regular paper.
      ☺️
      Heidi

  1. This is an excellent post and so helpful. This is information that I want to know as a kindergarten teacher but, as you mention, no one wants to imply that others aren’t doing their jobs. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thank you for reminding me that God has a plan for us and He knows us best. Your see, I’m being moved from kinder to 2nd grade and I’m nervous about it. After reading this pist, I am much more at ease. Thank you for sharing all of your wonderful experiences. I’ve been teaching fir over 15 years yet I ALWAYS learn something new from you.
    Take care,
    Esther

  3. Apparently, though, I need to learn to proofread my comments before hitting the “reply” button. Lol!
    Esther

  4. That must have been so interesting for you! What a great way to find out what kids really need to know as they grow. I absolutely agree with many of these items, such as the numeracy skills, bad habits, etc., but don’t you feel some things are not “sticking” in Kindergarten because they’re not developmentally ready to learn them? I’m thinking the finger spaces and punctuation – they’re just learning about text, letters, sentences, etc., and expecting them to know some of these things might be too much too early. We should definitely introduce it, and model it, but spend more time on the speaking skills, the numeracy, etc., that will need to be mastered in Kindergarten for success later on. I’ve taught K for a long time, and it’s common for them to struggle with the short e, finger spaces and putting periods in, no matter what we do. To me, that signifies that we’re expecting something that may not be achievable for the majority of the students (yet). Yes, some get it and are ready to learn it, but many of the other skills you mentioned ARE definitely within the K’s developmental wheelhouse, and I feel it’s a better use of my time to emphasize those and make sure they’re strong in those skills.

    • I’m sure you are right in many cases! I think that this tells us that we should go back to a more developmentally appropriate kindergarten curriculum, and also provide more support at the first grade level, where they are more likely to be ready for those skills.
      Heidi

  5. When I tutored a few my former students from Kindergarten when they were First Graders it really brought into focus the need to develop deep Number Sense with my Kindergarten students. Thanks for some great insight!!!!!

  6. Thanks for sharing your learning! You are right on the mark, IMO…and find it true for kiddos that are even in the higher grades…missing info from the beginning of school training can have a dramatic impact on how learning is acquired for many years to come. I continue to use your suggestions and “bump them up” for my upper elementary kiddos. They love your directed draws!

  7. Oh my word, Heidi!!!! Every single word I read had me thinking, “YES, YES, YES!!!!” I have been a second grade teacher for 7 years and these are consistently my thoughts. So many of these issues are much more pervasive in my Title I school, where so many of my little friends come to school with little to no background knowledge. I am so grateful that you wrote this because it validates that it’s not just me. It takes so much more for us to correct those misconceptions along with teaching the second grade standards all while ensuring we are getting them ready for the high stakes testing in third grade. Thank you for putting it all so eloquently. I love your blog. 🙂

    • Thank you, Lori!!!
      I also work in a Title I school. The skills children learn in Kindergarten are just SO IMPORTANT! I wish everyone knew this as well as we all do!
      Heidi

  8. I love your blog. I am a veteran kindergarten teacher finding myself with the daunting task of mentoring the three new to kindergarten teachers at my school. I recommended they read this article, and sign up for your blog.
    Thank you so much for your tremendous resources!

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