Happy Student
“Let us remember: One book, one pen, one child, and one teacher can change the world.” – Malala Yousafzai

There is little quite so beautiful as the curiosity that early learners inherently bring to their classrooms. They are unabashedly inquisitive, asking copious questions about the world around them. For early learners, every book, exploration, and experience is another opportunity to ask “Why?” or “How?” Unlike older peers, they aren’t yet burdened by what others might think of their wonders, their drawings, or their attempts at learning. Instead, they steadily engage with the world around them in joyful and unhindered ways. 

Since the early 80s, with the publication of “A Nation at Risk”, and the subsequent growth of standardized testing across states, we’ve seen a trend emerging of kindergarten becoming the new first grade, and preschool the new kindergarten. Developmentally inappropriate expectations have become the norm. For many educators, it feels daunting to lean on what we know to be pedagogically sound: as Jean Piaget wrote, the work of childhood is play. But with so much pressure for five-year-olds to read, how can we possibly trust that they will “learn enough” by collaborating, by exploring, by discussing, by doing? 

What if there was a way to encourage play, follow students’ interests, and meaningfully engage in literacy structures that foster deep learning? Project Based Learning provides this very opportunity. By co-creating a literacy-rich environment that is specific to the focus content of a project unit, teachers can guide early learners down a path of learning experiences that are also developmentally appropriate and fun. Let’s look at four ways we might curate a literacy-rich environment for any PBL unit. 


Consider expanding the definition of literacy. Often literacy is most closely associated with reading, writing, speaking, and listening. We tend to think of literacy as explicit phonics instruction, Guided Reading, or Daily 5. Thankfully, literacy is so much more. Rich literacy experiences include debates/discussions, interviewing experts, students sharing their questions, new learning, and reflecting on what and how they learned during a unit. As the National Council of Teachers of English suggests, literacy is a tool for meaningful engagement with society. Rather than merely hoping rich literacy experiences happen during a project, plan intentionally. Ask yourself:

  • How can I provide experiences that deepen students’ capacity to read, write, listen, and speak across a range of contexts and disciplines?
  • How often can I tap into the different ways students show who they are or what they are interested in? 
  • How can I build opportunities for learners to reflect and share through singing or dancing, through drawing and painting or role playing? 
  • What are the different technology tools students might use to express themselves?

Draw on your deep knowledge of who students are and how they learn to inform your planning. 

Co-Create Literacy-Rich Environments

One of the ways we can empower early learners and increase student agency is to thoughtfully and intentionally co-create a literacy-rich environment. To begin, take a step back and survey the classroom with an objective eye. 

  • Where are the posters? Are they way above children’s heads or within students’ reach? 
  • Are students’ names printed next to their contributions? 
  • Are student-created sketches next to words or phrases to help them make meaning of the print? 
  • Do the charts represent students’ thoughts and ideas? 
  • Do the anchor charts and project wall look like students’ had input, or do they look more like something displayed on Pinterest? 

The goal is for learners to feel a part of every aspect of the project work, and in a literacy-rich environment, students actually use the print around the room. They bring friends to posters and share connections during station rotations or choice times. They offer new wonderings based on what others have added to the word walls or Need to Know lists. While it can be tempting to want anchor charts to look and feel professional, this level of curation risks becoming visual white noise for learners. These displays become more about how other adults perceive us than how learners engage with the resources. 

Create Mini Libraries

 Involve learners in creating a mini library during the first days of a project launch. What might happen if you collaborated with the media specialist/ librarian and brought students to the library as one of the first field experiences of the project? How might students engage with books differently if they were part of collecting resources to use during centers or read alouds? It brought me intense joy to witness students attempting more advanced texts because they had been a part of choosing them. This is a fantastic chance to expand students’ experience with print, be sure to take advantage of it! Once the mini-library is assembled, look through the authors and characters represented. Are any additions needed to include a diverse array of BIPOC authors, characters, and voices? Be intentionally inclusive of faces, authors, abilities, and experiences, ensuring that all students see themselves in the collection. 

Learning Across Disciplines

 How might station rotations, choice times, and centers further the skills (e.g., collaboration or communication), dispositions (e.g., perseverance), and knowledge you hope students develop throughout the course of the project? One of the key goals throughout school is that students begin to transfer their learning across disciplines. If we only teach subjects in isolation, this task becomes extremely difficult for learners. Use the structures and strategies you have in place to enhance the project work you’ve invited students into. Reflect with students about what they are learning, and how they are learning, and connect that back to the questions they shared on the Need to Know list. Help them make explicit connections to the various experiences they are provided throughout the project by carefully planning stations, centers, and choice time options tied closely to the project’s learning goals. For instance, let’s say students were engaging in The Storytime Channel Project. Station materials might include microphones and Flip for students to play with voices and video recording, costumes for Reader’s Theater, and puppets for dramatic play. Each of these activities provides students with opportunities to use the knowledge and skills they are learning in the project. 

It is truly amazing what possibilities exist within a literacy-rich PBL experience. As you embark on refining current projects or planning new ones, look to incorporate literacy in its fullest measure to help students make connections, deepen their learning, and have fun along the way. 


  1. https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/kindergarten-new-first-grade-without-doubt-say-researchers
  2. https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/01/08/462279629/why-kindergarten-is-the-new-first-grade
  3. https://notjustcute.com/2013/10/30/the-cost-of-ignoring-developmentally-appropriate-practice/
  4.  https://www.pghtoys.org/why-play-matters
  5.  https://ncte.org/blog/2020/03/literacy-just-reading-writing/
  6.  https://www.pblworks.org/blog/4-equity-levers-project-based-learning
  7.  https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED588867.pdf
Erin Starkey, Lead National Faculty - South
Erin has enjoyed teaching across multiple grades, subject areas, and socioeconomic levels. Her passion is coaching all learners to succeed through the use of PBL!