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Elementary education program goes back to basics

Elementary education program goes back to basics

To teach a child, learn like one!

October 19, 2020 at 10:56am


Think about how you just read that word. Did you sound it out?


It’s both a flower and in the sea, a simple invertebrate that stings. It is also one of the most mispronounced words in the English language. When reading it, most people will try to sound it out, battling the letter/sound relationships to find a combination that sounds right. Botanists, marine scientists and Finding Nemo screenwriters are usually confident in their pronunciations. The rest of us are reminded of what it was like to first learn to read as a child.

fo-un-day-ti-on. foun-day-ti-on. Foundation!

Learning to read is a major milestone for children. As an adult, learning to read like a child can be challenging. Counterintuitive. Feel almost unnatural even though we still practice the fundamentals from time-to-time. uh-NEH-muh-nee.

Most people think learning to read is easy, because they can already read. Learning to read like a child requires the mental challenge of actually remembering what it was like to be a child in the moments of learning. But when a teacher can learn like a child, they are much more effective at teaching. This idea is a core principle of how FIU is preparing teachers for the modern elementary school classrooms. They don’t start with edgy trends or complex algorithms. They start with the basics, the proven methods of giving children the foundation they need to become lifelong learners.

cuh-uh-at. When a child is learning to read, they struggle at first with reading words they already know how to say. They can say cat. They most likely know what a cat is. But now they’re seeing the word ‘cat’ for the first time. The reward is in the discovery. CAT!

When Helen Robbins teaches her college students how to teach reading in FIU’s School of Education and Human Development, she makes them learn the process of learning to read all over again. The senior instructor begins the course by sounding out simple words, just like a kindergartener.

buh. buh-ih. buh-ih-ig. BIG!

“This is what a child has to learn,” Robbins said. “You have to have a deep understanding of what it means and how it works.”

They move on to rhyming words. Cat. Bat. Hat. Big. Fig. Jig. Then comes phonics, connecting words to the sounds they make. There is lots of practice and repetition. As the lessons sink in, the college students start reading books. Think The Cat in the Hat and How to Be a Big Kid. They progress to more difficult books. And then more difficult ones still.

Eventually, they visit elementary school classrooms in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. They assess reading abilities of students in the classroom. They develop individualized plans to help those struggling more than others. They tutor for up to two semesters.

“The children learn to read and my students learn how to teach reading,” Robbins said.


Read more from
Arts, Sciences Education magazine.

Reading is a key predictor of future educational gains and life success. Each year, more than 1 million public school students arriving in fourth grade are added to the nation’s ranks of nonreaders. Two-thirds of those are black and Hispanic struggling in the face of an inequitable education system. Yet, children in Miami-Dade County Public Schools have scored first in the nation compared to their counterparts. With many of FIU’s elementary education graduates staying and working locally, FIU education faculty believe their unique degree program is helping Miami-Dade County children buck the national trend.

“We all ask tough questions of ourselves, of our programs,” said Maria Tsalikis, a senior instructor who leads the elementary education program. “What will make these college students be the best teachers out there, not just with our district but in our nation?”

The efforts are working, and others are taking notice. Earlier this year, FIU’s undergraduate elementary teacher preparation program was named one of the top in the United States by the National Council on Teacher Quality. The program was recognized for its strong commitment to evidence-based reading instruction and is one of only 15 undergraduate elementary programs in the country to earn an A+ for exemplary coursework. U.S. News & World Report also ranks FIU’s online education graduate program among the Top 50 best online master’s degrees in education. The program climbed 21 spots in just one year.


Maria Tsalikis

ex-peer-ee-en-sss. Experience!

Science lessons are a whole other challenge. Building a foundation with the basics of biology, physics, earth science and chemistry requires tapping into a child’s curiosity. To do that, science class can’t be tedious and it definitely can’t be boring. The same is true for science classes in the elementary education program at FIU.

Assistant professors Emily Dare and Joshua Ellis keep lectures brief to allow more time for active learning. They teach science by doing science, preparing their students to do the same in their own elementary classrooms someday.

Dare gives students a light bulb, a piece of foil and a battery. She asks them to find a way to power the light. No clues given. She tells them to figure it out. They usually do. And they have fun doing it.

When Ellis teaches conduction — the transfer of heat from one object to another — he relies on spoons and ice. He gives one student a plastic spoon and places an ice cube in it. Drip. He hands another student a metal spoon, also cradling an ice cube. Drip. Drip. Which will melt first? As little puddles form at their feet, the ice shrinks along with the students’ apprehensions about teaching science. The metal spoon-holder notices their hand is getting cold, while their plastic counterpart seems totally comfortable. That’s because — spoiler alert! — the metal spoon is better at transferring the holder’s body heat. Drip. Drip. Drip.


Emily Dare

“I think one of the biggest challenges is to have these teacher candidates understand what it’s really like to be a teacher,” Ellis said. “Our program stresses a lot of field experiences so they are actually in the classroom of a veteran teacher. And they come back to class at FIU so we can reflect on what that means. It all comes back to making the experience relevant.”

Rel-eh-va-ent. Relevant!

Children live in the same world we live in and they are very curious about it, points out Assistant Professor Rebecca Christ.

Social studies builds a foundation for later lessons in history, civics, political science and geography. It’s about the past and current events. It helps children learn about the world they live in and how to process experiences such as a hurricane or global health pandemic. Simply put, social studies teachers teach relevancy.

Christ teaches her college students about the media, how information is vetted and how news outlets cover different types of events. She wants her future teachers to anticipate underlying narratives that could pop up even though they aren’t part of the curriculum because, after all, they are current events.

For historical events, students do more than read. Take a recent lesson on civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks. The college students explored her life through journey boxes — a treasure trove of literature, photographs, news articles and other items about her, the movement and the court cases she ignited. Students can explore these items on their own and as part of a group, discussing and debating the life of times of historical figures. When the content can be a bit heavy, Christ assigns the students to express how they feel through art projects. It’s a great tool for her students, but more importantly, a great tool for children in their future classrooms.

It’s all about tapping into a child’s natural curiosity and readiness to learn, said Laura Dinehart, senior associate dean in FIU’s College of Arts, Sciences & Education and executive director of the School of Education and Human Development.

“Watching a child have those aha! moments, whether it’s putting the sounds together to read, or recognizing how numbers come together to add, is what teaching is all about," Dinehart said. "For children, learning is like uncovering a mystery. Once they solve that mystery and recognize that these are keys to a whole world of mysteries, learning becomes exciting and it only makes them want to learn more.”

At FIU, lessons come alive. Future teachers are taught to experiment, develop basic skills and be fun. The School of Education and Human Development's program is a scalable model for teaching that can work anywhere – one that not only helps children to learn, but cultivates a life-long love of learning.


Joshua Ellis