Layered Learning

 by Kim White

As a first grade teacher, I am responsible for teaching many concepts within our Literacy Workshop Model, such as:

  • Guiding students through multiple reading levels.  Within this reading path, students must learn to independently use visual, structure, and meaning cues.  In order to accomplish this, they must be aware of letter-sound relationships, grasp the difference between letters, words and sentences (“a” can be both a letter/word), recognize varied punctuation and how the author uses it to teach the readers how to read the sentence (“Look out!”), link new learning to something familiar (“feed” has a part like “see”), and make strategic decisions that are necessary for problem solving. It’s crucial that they understand that print contains a message.
  • Teaching weekly spelling words and phonics lessons that will strengthen students understanding of letter sounds within words (c-a-t), the multitude of relationships between words (cat-mat; cat-can; fish-ship), and again, link new sounds or words to something familiar (such as a classmate’s name).
  • Choosing enriching texts for whole group read a-louds that intentionally provide ample opportunities for rich discussion, extend comprehension skills and support a deeper understanding of print, bolster student interest and conversation, and encourage positive student debates. Students learn to make text to self, text to text, and text to world connections….all of which relates to previous knowledge.
  • Implementing mini lessons based on different genres, such as non-fiction, opinion and narrative writing.  All types of writing are linked to something students already know.  They write about small moments from their lives, teach about something they know how to do, share personal opinions of what they like or don’t like, or write fictional stories using their knowledge of letters, words, punctuation, and what published authors do to make their stories great.  Everything they learn to do in writing, is based on something they have already seen or heard….previous knowledge.

These lessons all occur at different parts of the morning during my 150 minute literacy block. However, the same concepts are often repeated in each component of the workshop.  This is what I’ve come to call “Layered Learning”.

Why do I feel layered learning is so important?  Well, in early June one summer, I decided to take a class on how to use the smart board.  I had just had one installed the previous year in my classroom and wasn’t especially confident in the way that I had been using it (basically as a whiteboard).  I was pretty excited for this class and I ended up “learning” how to do so many cool things!  I just knew I would use all of these great ideas when I got back to school.  Well, I’m sure you can guess what happened instead.  By the time school rolled around in August, I had forgotten how to do so much of what I thought I had learned.  I was pretty disappointed.  Something to think about here is that even though I was truly excited and wanted to learn about this specific topic, paid attention in class (received an A) and had planned to do it, I couldn’t remember.  Why?  Because I hadn’t practiced it enough on a regular basis to make it actually stick!  I had a book from the class and notes, but what I didn’t have at this point was time to learn it all over again.

This caused me to do a great deal of thinking about the way I taught my students.  Was I just giving them standard lessons during a specific time frame, testing them, feeling satisfied that they learned it and moving on?  I decided I really needed to think long and hard about how often I was teaching concepts.  This, for me, is when my “light bulb” moment occurred…I knew I needed to do a better job making sure that what I was teaching my students would stick. My goal then became to carefully link my lessons throughout the day, week and even months in order to facilitate the likelihood that my students would absorb knowledge in a more purposeful way.

So…how did I decide to do this?   

Over 20 years ago, when I was obtaining my elementary degree, we were expected to create themed bulletin boards that went along with specific lessons.  It was cute and fun, but it was not the same type of connecting that I am going to share with you now.  This is not about making everything in the room match (although I will admit I have a monkey theme in my room going on).  This layered type of learning is not about reading a book to students about pumpkins, having them work on a phonics sheet with a pumpkin theme and providing a fun bulletin board filled with cute pumpkin cut outs and sayings.  Although these things can be fun and interesting to children and could most definitely be a part of it, layered learning goes deeper!

It’s about deliberate, skilled, and purposeful planning. It’s about reaching deep into the core of what you not only need your students to learn, but to absorb in order apply to future learning.  I have seen clear evidence of how layered learning empowers students with the brain tools to remodel their own learning as the school year progresses. Just think about the educational classes you’ve had and when you’ve truly learned information that stayed with you enough to have an impact.  What was it that occurred that allowed this to happen, possibly before, during and after the class?  I believe infinite learning takes place through explicitly planned interactions that persistently link with each other.  Layered learning involves initiating background knowledge, promoting discussion and debates, providing multiple opportunities to learn the same concepts through various avenues, and continued use of vocabulary and previously learned concepts in order to keep student learning fresh and constant.

I’d like to share an example of a typical morning in my 1st grade literacy workshop that demonstrates this type of learning.

Current Unit of Study:  Apples (plants)

Comprehension Skill:  Cause and Effect

Word Study: Letter Clusters (sh, ch, etc.)

Writing:  Non-fiction Teaching Books

Language Workshop (40 Minutes)

I begin the day with two short read-alouds. The first text is a non-fiction, teaching book on apples.  After reading about the life cycle of an apple tree, we have a discussion on how this text may give us ideas for writing our own teaching books in Writing Workshop.  I ask students what this author did that helped us understand and learn about apples (bold print, fun facts, ellipses, zoomed in photos, labels, diagrams, etc.) I then casually lead the students into a discussion about different examples of factual cause and effect through what the author has shown us in his text (seasonal changes and apple growth, etc.)


I move on to read a fictional text about a little girl visiting an apple orchard with her family. This character shares many things in her story that also teach us about apples.  I ask students if this is a teaching book and why or why not. They bounce their thoughts around with each other on what we’ve learned by reading this book (there are many kinds of apples, special tools to pick apples, different foods may be made from apples, etc.) I then prompt students into a discussion that this is another type of teaching book, using small moment fictional writing, and that it is also a mentor text that they may choose to help them write their own teaching books. I ask students for examples of cause and effect in this text and quickly jot them on the easel (they went to the orchard for apples so Grandma could make a pie, they had to choose a certain kind for baking, the orchard was packed with people because it was harvest time, etc.).

We move on to phonics.  We are working on letter clusters.  I do a short mini lesson on different letter blends called clusters.  Students write down words they know that start with clusters. I emphasize clusters in student names.

Each grade level at our school has a set group of spelling words that must be covered during the year.  I have made sure to pick groups of related words with the short “a” middle sound  that also contain initial cluster sounds (flat, glad, stand, black).  We play a quick spelling game with this week’s words.

Reading Workshop (70 minutes)

At the start of the mini lesson, I pull the 2nd text I read earlier and we flip through it to find words with clusters (such as orchard, bruised, climb, stand).  I encourage students to find clusters in words during their station time (in books, task cards, technology, etc.) and record them on post it notes.

During the new book meeting with my guided reading groups, I find opportunities to ask students to point out clusters and their sounds and show them how knowing those sounds can help them solve tricky words.  After students read, I ask them to share examples of cause and effect in their new story and if it reminds them of anything that’s happened to them (have they ever been lost, moved to a new house, felt scared, etc….depending on the specific text being read).  After I meet with my guided reading groups, students join me for whole group time and share words from their post it notes.


Writing Workshop (40 minutes)

During my mini lesson on writing teaching books, I offer a quick reminder that the texts we’ve read earlier may be used for ideas.  I also ask for suggestions of other teaching books they like, ones that we’ve read or that they personally enjoy. I prod them to explain why.  As I meet with students for individual conferences, I encourage them to use a known book to help generate ideas they could use, such as fun facts or diagrams and I carefully observe to see who is already doing this independently.  I also reinforce what they’ve learned about clusters and the short “a” sound to use in their writing. During our end of the workshop share time, I asked the students I’ve worked with or observed to share what they did as writers that day.  This shared learning consists of students talking about using mentor texts, as well as how they used clusters/short “a” sound/ spelling words in their writing.












If you look back through each lesson, you can see how the same concepts have been woven in layers within each other. Our Unit of Study was integrated by reading two books about apples with factual information.  I used these books to discuss cause and effect, clusters and as examples of what two different types of teaching books may be.  I reinforced clusters and short a words, as well as cause and effect with guided reading groups.  Students were encouraged to explore on their own to find words with clusters.  Students were encouraged to find similar texts to use to help them find ideas for their own writing. Students were directed to think about cluster and short “a” sounds in their writing. Current background knowledge was utilized as well as building knowledge for future learning.

I enjoy planning this way every day!  It’s the greatest feeling when my students take over their own learning by coming over to me, their voices filled with excitement, as they proudly explain to me connections they’ve made while reading independently or how they’ve helped themselves figure out a word by using a known word or when they’ve noticed something in a book and use specific terms like cause and effect to describe it.

I’ll leave you with this thought.  A one layered plain cake tastes fine, but it won’t be something people will remember.  Blending a layer of frosting on top will improve its flavor and interest.  Each layer of cake and frosting that’s added will enhance the richness and deepen the flavor that one layer by itself cannot provide.  This is the cake that takes patience, perseverance, planning and care.  This is the cake everyone will rave about.  This is what our students deserve!

Kim White has been teaching 1st grade at LeRoy Elementary for 9 years. Additionally, she teaches summer school lab, tutors year round, and is a certified Reading Recovery Teacher.


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