“I feel like [kindergarteners] are reading sooner then they have in years past,” said teacher Grace Avirett. “They do know their alphabet sooner.”
Starfall Kindergarten is a research-based, field-tested curriculum which aligns with the new Common Core standards. Students interact with the curriculum online, in books and through a variety of materials which include posters and stuffed animals.
Grace Avirett and her team of fellow kindergarten teachers at Stuart Elementary initially used Starfall as a free online program. Rebecca Link, Avirett, Natalie Killian and Brandi Beard incorporated the online games as a supplement to their lessons.
Mini-grants received through the Bradley Cleveland Public Education Foundation allowed the teachers to purchase the curriculum.
It is hard to determine who is more excited, the teachers or their students.
“They have little decodable books. I was so excited to send home books with the kids right away,” Link said.
Decodable books are told through the kindergarteners high-frequency words and pictures. For example, Link said one page might read, “Back Pack Bear sees a” and end with a picture of a book.
“From the beginning of the year they feel like they are reading,” Link said. “It is pretty amazing. They read it in class, they read it with a partner or they can take it home and read it with someone else.”
Added Beard, “They can keep the books at home. They do not have to return them to us. It is something for them to keep.”
Avirett said the students are learning material earlier than in years past.
“Prior to this year, we taught one letter a week. So that is 26 weeks of school, but we only have like 34 in the [school] year. We were only learning one letter a week until April and we hadn’t even covered vowels, short sounds, or word families.”
She said while Starfall’s phonics program is more challenging, the material is still fun.
“This year we did the whole alphabet in the fall semester and then this semester we are working on more of word families and short vowels,” Avirett said.
Students are learning more than just their vowels and how to read in their classes. Starfall integrates social studies and science in their stories. The incorporated material provides students with well-rounded lessons.
“I have taught more science and social studies in the last semester than I have in the last two years,” Avirett said.
Added Link, “That has always been a struggle, because reading and math are so important — especially in these early years. Science and social studies have often been pushed to the side. These books integrate the materials through the subjects of the books.”
Several books read this year include, “America the Beautiful,” “I am Your Flag,” and “Come Vote with Me.”
“We did voting in the classroom and they had a little book were Back Pack Bear went to vote,” Killian said. The election was a big deal to them.”
The young students are also partial to the toy stuffed animals introduced with each new vowel. So far they have met Starfall’s main mascot, Back Pack Bear, and Zac the Rat, the character for the short ‘a’ sound. They have seen the other characters online, but have not met them “in person.”
Avirett said the best part of Starfall is how well lessons are communicated to the blooming scholars.
“It is not like we are teaching it and it is way over their heads. Last semester, we learned about the water cycle, and fourth grade heard about that so they came and reviewed us on the cycle. They loved it,” Avirett said.
Writing, speaking and listening are also encouraged and incorporated into the lessons.
“They come up weekly before the class to share what they have written in their journal, read their sentence they wrote and explain their picture,” Beard said.
According to the teachers, the program incorporates special reminders for teachers with English Language Learners.
“In our notebooks it has techniques as we get to certain sounds in our English language. It will say, ‘This sound does not exist in this language. You can support the students in this way ...’
“It has whole sections on how to help students who are learning English whether they are learning from Chinese, German or Spanish.”
Aside from the excitement and ease of teaching, the teachers agree the best part is how the students are grasping the material.
“It pushes them along and then the kids who are not prepared are maturing and you can keep them going. You can keep pushing them,” Link said. “Starfall does a good job of closing the gap between students who are ahead and those a little behind.”
A hearty thanks was offered by the teachers to BCPEF.
“I would just say we are very, very grateful to the Bradley Cleveland Public Education Foundation,” Link said.
Added Avirett, “This would not have happened without them.”