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5 Research-based Practices for Kindergarten and First Grade

Here's what every kindergarten and first grade teacher should be doing.

[Note: In this guest post, two renowned former kindergarten teachers who wrote about the extraordinary literacy successes of children in their classrooms (Feldgus & Cardonick, 1999) show how today’s cutting-edge research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience supports the best practices they and their colleagues have advocated and honed for three decades. What they discovered intuitively and through reflection and collaboration is now cutting-edge best practice in 21st century kindergartens.]

5 Powerful Research-Based Techniques for Exemplary Kindergartens Today

By Eileen Feldgus PhD and Isabell Cardonick MEd

The recent high-profile spotlight on a landmark study in Developmental Psychology has drawn attention to research by Canadian cognitive psychologists Gene Ouellette and Monique Sénéchal (2017). In some respects Ouellette and Sénéchal discovered what we, Eileen and Isabell, have advocated for decades: a powerful connection to improved end-of-first-grade reading scores through the use of early writing and invented spelling. The study’s title, “Invented Spelling in Kindergarten as a Predictor of Reading and Spelling in Grade 1: A New Pathway to Literacy, or Just the Same Road, Less Known?”(Ouellette and Sénéchal, 2017), reflects what exemplary kindergarten teachers have known about the powerful writing/reading connection for years—kid writing is a pathway to reading success. But this work is still not well known or universally practiced. This less-known pathway is the one we traveled. Starting out as passionate kindergarten teachers in the 1960’s and 70’s, we were ardent about creating classrooms that worked for children. We devoured the research of that era and became life-long learners throughout our careers. Early on we discovered better outcomes for children as we focused more on writing, encouraged invented spelling, developed innovative strategies for teaching phonics and eliminated boring worksheets. Today in 2017 five best-practice techniques we discovered in our practice are now wholly supported by research and recommended for today’s kindergartens and first grades.

1. Use Invented Spelling (Ouellette & Sénéchal, 2017). We found invented spelling to be joyful, motivational for our students, and wonderful in terms of providing opportunities for scaffolding and systematically teaching almost all important aspects of the kindergarten literacy curriculum including phonics, phonemic awareness, knowledge of the alphabet, writing conventions, and vocabulary development. But perhaps the most amazing discovery throughout our journey was that kids had remarkable capacities to make meaning if we supported them in the process and allowed their creative juices to flow. Early on we learned as we had read in Don Graves’ research (1983), that kids write best when we step back and allow them to choose their own topics and give them ownership and autonomy. We called our teaching model, “Kid Writing” (1999). Our model fit perfectly with a growing model now called Guided Reading for differentiated reading instruction (Fountas & Pinnell, 2012) and we put in a whole layer underpinning Lucy Calkins work (2003) by showing teachers exactly how to get started and how to move forward with writing workshop and formative assessment. Here are a few samples that illustrate kids’ capacity to grow and flourish as writers in kindergarten:

Hameray (2017) Used with permission.

When I was born my mommy and daddy used to pay a lot of attention to me. But now they don’t pay a lot of attention to me. They pay a lot to Conner.

Source: Hameray (2017) Used with permission.
Hameray (2017) Used with permission.
Spiders spin webs to catch insects so they can eat them.
Source: Hameray (2017) Used with permission.
Hameray (2017) Used with permission.
My grandma fell. My mom screamed so loud my uncles and my dad dropped their beer and ran in the house. When I looked at her I thought she was dead but she wasn’t. I was relieved.
Source: Hameray (2017) Used with permission.

2. Abandon teaching “Letter of the Week (Reutzel, 1992, 2015). Teaching one letter per week was standard practice in kindergarten when we began teaching. We tried our best to jazz up our teaching of the alphabetic principle because we knew it was essential to breaking the code and reading. Our students sang for the letter, danced for the letter, cooked for the letter, and cut and pasted for the letter. We took elaborate measures to teach the alphabet and sounds because we knew it was important. One fond memory was our “P” Party:” we served foods beginning with P—pizza, pretzels, popcorn, pepperoni, and the like. But with letter of the week the pace was too slow, and as far back as 1992 researchers were noticing the same problem and cautioning teachers to “break the letter-a-week tradition.” (Reutzel, 1992)

So in our classrooms we began to use children’s names on the first day of kindergarten—from Albert to Zoie—and learned to focus on all the sounds and letters from the very beginning. In contrast to when we were using letter of the week our students mastered letters and sounds far sooner.

Today, as reported by Reutzel (2015), “research has identified six evidence- based alphabet letter learning orders through which young children may acquire knowledge of alphabet letter names and sounds (Justice, Pence, Bowles, & Wiggins, 2006 ).” And guess what? “The first learning order is called the own-name effect.” (Reutzel, 2015) We got it right before the research proved it!

3. Use Invented Spelling and a Developmental Writing Scale to monitor progress (Gentry, 2006, 2000). Even before we published the first book on Kid Writing, we were collaborating with Richard Gentry on how to use a developmental spelling/writing assessment along with a developmental rubric to show how young children’s progression through five phases of developmental spelling revealed—among other things—the individual child’s understanding of phonics and his or her invented spellings as evidence of what the child knew or did not know. We found this work to be much more powerful for targeting instruction and monitoring kindergartners’ progress than traditional spelling tests or even measures of phonemic awareness and alphabet knowledge. Progress monitoring by phase observation is now supported by empirical research! (Ouellette & Sénéchal, 2017)

When we started out as neophyte teachers, kids were simply memorizing words that we gave them on a list. We learned to scaffold what they were using in their invented spelling and to show them how English spelling works. Our teaching went from giving lists of what to spell to showing kids how to spell and invented spelling was our vehicle! Without getting into the particulars of an analysis, look at the following samples that show one kindergarten child’s remarkable progress from fall to spring of her kindergarten year.

Hameray (2017) Used with premission.
September Sample
Source: Hameray (2017) Used with premission.
Hameray (2017) Used with permission.
June Sample
Source: Hameray (2017) Used with permission.

September sample: It was a sunny day.

June sample: Tuesday my tooth was wiggling. When it was in my mouth, it bled. When it fell out, it stopped bleeding. My mom gently pulled it out with a paper towel and I was happy that it fell out.

4. Let go of worksheets! (Palmer & Invernizzi, 2015). We found that teaching and learning in our classrooms improved when we abandoned worksheets. Remember those nonsensical work sheets where children were to write the letter that the word for each picture would begin with? When we first began teaching we remember students who squirmed with sit-at-the-desk busy worksheets and struggled over the Y is for Yak worksheet wondering why Y was the match for the first sound in “goat” which is the picture they saw on the worksheet.

5. Teach children to stretch though a word with a moving target. (Feldgus, Cardonick, & Gentry, 2017) Research by Ouelette, validated our Stretching Through a Word with a Moving Target teaching methodology. Their research, “confirmed that facilitating invented spelling within a Vygotskian teaching approach can bring about benefits in learning to read and spell, and these benefits go beyond the expansion of alphabetic knowledge and phonological awareness.

Our stretching through technique, for example, helped kids move from l for lady in Phase 2 to lad in Phase 3 to ladee in syllable chunks in Phase 4 on the way to conventional lady. The stretching through technique met kids where they were and supported them in moving to higher levels of spelling sophistication from phase to phase.

Keep the Faith—Keep the Passion—Keep Your Kids Writing

One thing that hasn’t changed over the years is our passion for literacy-learning classrooms for beginners. Today as staff developers and authors, we continue to encounter kindergarten teachers all over America and beyond who share our passion, devotion to children, and vision for joyful, play-based, academic kindergarten and first grade classrooms. We believe implementing these five research-based strategies surrounding kid writing will be transformational in America. It is the answer to reversing the decades-old trend of flat-lined first grade reading scores!

For details on these five strategies and creating joyful kid-writing classrooms that work, check out our comprehensive guide for kindergarten and grade 1 teachers: Kid Writing in the 21st Century: A Systematic Approach to Phonics, Spelling and Writing Workshop (Hameray, 2017).

Link to Kid Writing to learn more.

Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers, How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write–From Baby to Age 7. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website.


Calkins, L. M. (2003). The Nuts and Bolts of Teaching Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Feldgus, E., Cardonick, I. & Gentry, J. R. (2017). Kid Writing in the 21st Century. Las Angeles, CA: Hameray Publishing Group.

Fountas, I. and Pinnell, G.S.(2013). The Reading Teacher. 66 (4) 268-284.

Gentry, R. (2006). Breaking the code: The new science of beginning reading and writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Gentry, R. (2000). A retrospective on invented spelling and a look forward. The Reading Teacher. 54 (3) 318-332.

Graves, D. H. (1983). Writing: Teachers and Children at Work. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Justice , L.M. , Pence , K. , Bowles , R.B. , & Wiggins , A. ( 2006 ). An investigation of four hypotheses concerning the order by which 4- year- old children learn the alphabet letters. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 21 ( 3), 374 – 389 .

Ouelette, G. & Sénéchal, M. (2017). Invented spelling in kindergarten as a predictor of reading and spelling in grade 1: A new Pathway to literacy, or just the same road, less known? Developmental Psychology. 53 (1) 77– 88.

Palmer, J. & Invernizzi, M. (2015). No More Phonics and Spelling Worksheets. Portsmouth NH: Heinemann.

Reutzel, D. R. (2015). Early literacy research: Findings primary-grade teachers will want to know. The Reading Teacher. 69, (1), 14–24. DOI: 10.1002/trtr.1387 © 2015 International Literacy Association

Reutzel , D.R. ( 1992 ). Breaking the letter- a- week tradition: Conveying the alphabetic principle to young children. Childhood Education, 69 ( 1 ), 20 – 23 .