Douglas Elementary 23-24




As we began the year, we sought to identify skills that our twenty-first century learners would need for success, not only during their years at school, but beyond.  Each group of learners is unique, but as we identified the strengths of our current students, we also began to wonder if there were specific areas of growth and learning that applied to many students within our classrooms.  These musings became the focus of three specific inquiry projects throughout the year, focusing on numeracy, writing, and reading.  


Can students share evidence of their learning using a variety of strategies to explain and justify their mathematical ideas and decisions?


How does the use of student generated goals improve the quality of student writing?

Which instructional strategies contribute to students doing better with goal setting?

  • Is it self-assessment?
  • Is it peer-editing?
  • Is it the use of mentor texts?


How does teaching decoding strategies and using decodable texts help students develop oral reading fluency and accuracy?


Children arrive at school with intuitive mathematical understandings. A teacher needs to connect with and build on those understandings through experiences that allow students to explore mathematics and communicate their ideas in a meaningful dialogue with their teacher and peers.  This past year, we implemented a variety of strategies that allowed students to find success in math at their own level.  Our goal this year has been to help students become flexible in their thinking and to use a variety of different approaches to solve math problems.  In order to do this, we implemented specific approaches to use while working through a problem. By applying these approaches, we wanted to demonstrate to students the flexibility of math.   Many students often think math is only about finding the correct answers.  When we illustrate to students that there are multiple approaches to problem-solving and encourage flexible thinking, we empower them. This enables them to view math as a creative subject and provides them with the opportunity to interpret math in their own unique way.  We continued working through rich math tasks and problem solving. Students continue to learn to apply mathematical strategies, analyze and interpret data, and make informed decisions so they can explain their thinking and understanding of the problem.

As a team, teachers collaborated to develop a plan focused on nurturing critical thinkers by encouraging students to use a variety of strategies when solving problems. Math is a subject where even adults often fear taking risks. To ensure student engagement and buy-in, we need strategies to help students feel comfortable taking risks without fear of judgment or failure when working on problem-solving and rich math tasks.

To explain their understanding of problem solving and math tasks tasks, our grade 3/4 students communicated math ideas and understanding in oral, written, and visual forms. We documented growth of students during this process. Teachers also recorded observations during group work, conferenced with individual students, and students reflected on their progress. Students focus was to recognize and use different approaches and strategies to solve problems.   One quote that resonated with the teachers “we want our students to move away from a classroom of “mimickers” to build a classroom of “thinkers” (Peter Liljedahl).

Some of the strategies we implemented to engage students in the problem-solving process:

  • Students worked in groups of three
  • Used vertical boards
  • One marker per group
  • Random groups

Observations from the strategies used:

Vertical Boards
Vertical boards allowed the teacher to easily monitor group progress and understand their thinking, especially when they were off track or if they misunderstood a concept.
Vertical boards have also helped so students can see how other groups are working successfully. The vertical boards allowed them to see how other groups approached problem-solving, promoting strategy sharing and collective learning.

One marker per group

This strategy encourages students to communicate before committing to the problem.
We implemented the rule: "If you are doing the thinking, then you are not doing the writing." This helped in two ways: Students uncomfortable with sharing their thoughts got a chance to write on the board. Confident students had to explain their thinking to others, promoting verbal articulation of their ideas.

Random Groups
Creating random groups generated excitement as students didn't know who they'd be paired with, reducing the tendency to stick with friends and fostering a stronger class community.

By working together, students can discuss their reasoning, share strategies, and consider multiple perspectives when approaching problems. This collaborative process/group work encourages them to justify their answers and analyze the reasoning behind different approaches. It also challenges them to re-think and evaluate their understanding.


The grade ¾  class worked on using strategies to explain their mathematical thinking.  By implementing the strategies working of: groups of three, vertical boards, one marker, and using random groups - our students exhibited increased engagement with the different problem-solving formats by applying new mathematical concepts and understandings in a format that offered repetition. By working together, students discussed their reasoning, shared strategies, and considered multiple perspectives when approaching problems. This collaborative process/group work encouraged them to justify their answers and analyze the reasoning behind different approaches. It also challenged them to re-think and evaluate their understanding.  While the content may introduce new mathematical concepts, the predictability of the activity removed any element of surprise. Rather than viewing it as traditional math problem-solving, students approach it as a competitive game. There's a collective buy-in from everyone, eagerly awaiting the final answer.

Transforming math into a game has effectively turned problem-solving into an enjoyable part of the week.

The grade 4 class used the same strategies but focussed more on success criteria by having the performance scale on the assessment: this allowed for individuals to take more risks and challenge themselves because they could specifically see what was required for proficiency and extending.

Initially, when students tackled word problems, the teacher would circulate the room to identify groups that effectively demonstrated their thinking, there would be a class discussion as to why a group was proficient. This prompted them to articulate the reasons. This approach emphasized the importance of showing their thinking.  The class co-created a criteria, and they called it the 5-mark system:

This system encouraged students to move beyond simply arriving at the correct answer and to clearly demonstrate their thought processes.  By the end of the process, groups would assess the work of their peers, giving a score out of 5.  It was notable how stringent they were with each other, focusing intently on ensuring that everything was logical and well-explained.

An example of a student explaining how they assessed another groups problem using the class generated criteria



At every grade level, students engage in various writing practices for different audiences and purposes. They develop their communication skills by utilizing proper language conventions such as spelling, punctuation, and so on. As students’ progress through the grade levels, their writing skills evolve as they learn to craft logical sequences, incorporate details, and increase sentence complexity. Despite these improvements, students often require specific, measurable, achievable, and realistic writing goals to enhance their writing abilities. We wondered whether this approach would enhance students' self-confidence in writing. If students set writing goals collaboratively with their teacher and track progress over time, would this motivate them to achieve their goal? Throughout the year, students explore different writing components and language conventions through whole-class lessons and units. However, we questioned whether providing individual students with a tailored writing goal, such as using conventions effectively, including more details or adjectives, and diversifying sentence starters, would result in improved writing skills. 

How does the use of student generated goals improve the quality of student writing?

“My writing goals help me improve my work every year and by make me a better writer." Grade 3 student.

Through the implementation of two 'sprints', we have found that student-generated writing goals have significantly improved student writing. In writing conferences held each term, students collaborate with the teacher to review their writing, highlighting their strengths and identifying one specific area of focus. With one focused goal, such as mastering the 'show, don't tell' technique, students remain engaged without feeling overwhelmed. They have resources in their writing folders tailored to support their goals, including word banks, transition words, and mentor text examples that provide concrete models to emulate. This personalized approach enhances motivation and engagement by giving students a sense of ownership and autonomy over their learning. Students also take on responsibility and accountability, knowing they will work on their goals throughout the week in writing workshops and review their progress with the teacher at the end of the month. This continuous monitoring and adjustment of goals foster self-improvement and learning. Additionally, students develop criteria awareness, knowing what to look for in their writing. The ability to identify and verbalize areas for improvement is crucial in nurturing lifelong learners.

“One thing my writing goals have helped with is learning how to use all the different connecting words, like and, also and because – I used to only use the word “and”. My goals have also helped me learn how to use different punctuation to make my writing more interesting.” - Grade 3 student

Which instructional strategies contribute to students doing better with goal setting?

After we began our first sprint, we observed that students struggled with self-assessment due to a lack of understanding of evaluation criteria and their own writing skills. To address this, we found it essential to incorporate guided writing conferences with the teacher. This approach proved effective as it allowed for real-time assessment and feedback, which students could immediately apply to their work. These writing conferences, held at least once per term, provided crucial one-on-one time for students. During these sessions, they could clearly identify their strengths and areas for improvement with support. Furthermore, comparing their current writing with earlier samples enabled them to visualize their progress and set personalized writing goals. This repetitious process of feedback and reflection significantly enhanced their learning experience.

“One thing that my writing goals help me with is learning how to do new things and to get better at them so I can move onto new goals." Grade 3 student

Is it peer-editing?

How can we enhance the effectiveness of peer editing in our writing program? We observed that traditional peer editing, where students reviewed each other's handwritten work, was not effective because students didn't know what to look for. However, when students used laptops to type their writing, the built-in features that underline errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar significantly improved their editing process. This approach helped students understand their own writing errors and learn how to reframe sentences correctly. When students reviewed each other's typed work and focused on the underlined errors, peer editing became more useful, providing immediate feedback. Student reflections during conference time consistently indicated that this method helped them identify and address recurring mistakes, such as issues with dialogue and run-on sentences.

My writing folder keeps me organized. When I finish my draft, I love typing up my stories on the computer because it underlines my mistakes and it shows me how to fix them." Grade 3 student

Is it mentor texts?

How did the use of mentor texts contribute to students' goal setting and overall writing improvement? We found that incorporating explicit teaching with mentor texts significantly enhanced our student writers' abilities. Analyzing concrete examples in class and small groups allowed students to see how authors crafted their writing. By examining various elements such as introductions, setting descriptions, and characterization, students gained a clearer understanding of effective writing techniques.

Having these mentor texts printed out and included in their writing folders encouraged students to take ownership of their writing by mirroring the strategies they observed. Guiding questions, such as "How can I use similar vocabulary in my own writing?" or "How can I enhance my introduction?" prompted students to reflect on their own work.

In our writers' workshop, we initially analyzed a mentor text in pairs, then as a whole class, sharing our observations. We would highlight key elements on the whiteboard, such as the who, what, where, when, why, and how, as well as descriptive language and show vs. tell examples. This process improved students' sentence fluency, led to stronger openings, and helped them sequence their ideas more effectively. Additionally, it exposed them to new vocabulary and demonstrated its correct usage, thereby enhancing their overall writing skills.

Using Mentor Texts to teach Characterization

The implementation of writing folders has led to notable progress in student writing across all levels. These folders have served as effective organizational tools, allowing students to monitor their writing goals consistently. Additionally, the introduction of ongoing writing conferences with teachers has significantly enhanced accountability. These conferences provided students with valuable feedback, highlighting their strengths and identifying areas for improvement, which motivated them in their writing journey. Furthermore, the use of mentor texts has substantially enriched student writing. Exposure to various genres and writing styles encouraged students to experiment with their introductions, employ more descriptive language, and take creative risks. The practice of analyzing texts with peers and then incorporating similar techniques into their own work proved to be crucial. Mentor texts offered concrete examples that inspired students and guided them toward achieving their writing goals. By maintaining these resources in their writing folders, students had continuous access to inspiration, which contributed to their overall success this year.

The results demonstrate an increase in students being proficient and extending.


How does teaching decoding strategies and using decodable texts help students develop oral reading fluency and accuracy?

As our early primary teachers observed the development of our young readers, they noticed that many students were using ineffective methods, such as depending on picture clues or guessing a word based on the initial letter. This not only made it challenging for students to read words accurately but also negatively impacted students’ confidence in their ability to read, as they did not have effective strategies to rely on. To address these needs, the early primary team decided to focus on explicitly and systematically teaching students strategies that would help them to decode words. Throughout the year, some of these strategies included:

An understanding of letter-sound relationships

Physically moving letters helps make the abstract process of learning to read more accessible to students.

Students use Elkonin boxes to support them in identifying the individual sounds they hear in a word, and then write the corresponding letter in order to spell a word (encoding). Students are required to listen to a word, count the number of sounds they hear, and then write the letters that represent each sound.

Using an understanding of letter-sound relationships to then blend sounds together and decode a word

In this video a student is decoding an unfamiliar word by slowly uncovering each letter and blending the letters together.

Changing a singular sound at the beginning, middle, or end of a word, to make a new word (word chaining)

In this picture students are practicing the skills they have learned through a word chaining activity. The student will change the first, middle, or last letter to create and read a new word. This strategy gives students multiple exposures to a concept, while also revealing patterns and connections between words.

Using decodable texts that include specific letter-sound concepts that had been explicitly taught

This student is reading a decodable text. A decodable text is a book that contains only the letter-sound combinations that students have already been taught. This student approached an unfamiliar word, but because she knew what sounds all the letters/letter combinations made in this text, she was able to decode the word. Decodable texts allow students to practice their skills using the strategies they have learned, while also building their confidence as they are able to accurately read most words in the text.

Students practiced these skills through a variety of hands-on activities, in order to give increased exposure to specific phonetic concepts. Through the use of different games and word work activities, students began storing letter-sound concepts in their long-term memory, supporting their recall and success when it comes to reading grade level passages of text. As students gain familiarity with specific letter-sound combinations, they are able to further apply this understanding to their writing and spelling.

As students worked with these strategies, they were able to first apply their learning to nonsense words (words that have no meaning in the English language but follow the phonetic rules studied in class), real words, decodable passages, and then ultimately, to grade level passages. These grade level passages provided students with the opportunity to solidify their understanding of concepts they had learned in small group and large group lessons. When comparing the average words read per minute in a grade level text in September and then again in May, the average words read correctly by grade 1 students increased by _____ words per minute and grade 2 students increased by over 30 words per minute.

While teaching decoding strategies and using decodable texts supported students who were emerging classroom learners, giving them additional exposure and practice with foundational reading skills, it also proved to be beneficial for all students, providing them with the “why” behind how words are made in the English language and how to apply this knowledge to multisyllabic words. Emerging, developing, proficient, and extending learners all showed growth in their ability to decode and articulate an understanding of the A graph of a student  Description automatically generated with medium confidenceEnglish language.



Moving forward, we will continue to provide explicit instruction and utilize group strategies for solving math problems. We will introduce the skills and strategies that will help guide students to be more flexible in their mathematical thinking by using number talks, esti-mysteries, would you rather, which doesn’t belong and three act tasks. Our goal is to provide students with highly engaging thinking tasks such as these, so they are excited and willing to take risks. 

Our goal is to encourage students to extend their thinking by solving problems using multiple strategies. To achieve this, we will:

  • Begin the year by establishing collaborative math groups and developing problem-solving skills in Term 1.
  • We will introduce collaboration strategies early on which will ensure they become habitual.
  • To support this, develop collaboration rubrics that highlight the competencies necessary for success in a thinking classroom. By setting clear success criteria from the start, students will understand the expectations when working in groups when solving math problems.
  • Once students have developed a routine and are able to explain their thinking. The next step would be to incorporate a performance scale on the assessment as this will provide students with a clear visual understanding of how they will be evaluated.
  • As a class we will have math conversations and use math journals to reflect on learning.  By having math conversations after they have completed their task will give students the opportunity to share strategies, consider others’ thinking, and justify their own thinking, they can make connections that build their understanding. This will allow students to use what they know and think in their own ways, and they can reflect on this process in a math journal.  
  • Once students are ready to move on to more challenging tasks, another strategy we implement, would be to give the answer upfront.  This is so students don’t feel the pressure of the right answer but are working on strategies to get to the answer.  Additionally, by focusing on the process rather than the result, students become more willing to take risks and try out different problem-solving techniques. This method can also promote collaboration, as students explain their reasoning and learn from each other.


Over the past three years, we have observed and our data has shown students are intrinsically motivated to achieve their writing goals with the use of:

  • a writing folder that clearly reflects the student goal and contains work showing the student’s writing growth over time.
  • Using mentor texts to explicity teach what good writing looks like.  By studying mentor texts, students can analyze how an author uses language (word choice), structure and literary devices (alliteration, similie, metaphor) to convey their ideas well.
  • Conferences with the teacher to allow for personalized feedback allowing the students to understand their strengths and stretches.  Teacher conferences provide an opportunity for targeted instruction based on each student’s writing goals.
  • Assessment tools (rubrics and checklists) that are catered to individual writing goals

Moving forward, we will continue to provide explicit instruction on the writing process, types of writing, as well as model effective writing strategies and techniques. There still needs to be work done in self and peer assessment.  Our students are still developing their writing skills and do not have enough practice and require more exposure to different writing genres, on a weekly basis, to effectively self assess and peer edit.  Our plan is to continue using mentor texts, and teacher conferences to explicitly teach the peer editing process and to help with self assessment.


This year we observed that explicitly following a specific scope and sequence and teaching strategies to help students decode words gave students the tools that they needed to break down unfamiliar words in texts they were reading. This type of instruction was beneficial for students that were reading at or above grade level, as they were able to apply the strategies and concepts to multisyllable words, but absolutely essential for students who were developing readers. All students had repeated exposure to literacy concepts and were given opportunities for challenge at their level.

Moving forward, the primary teaching team will work together to create and follow a specific scope and sequence from one grade level to the next (providing cohesion between instructional practices). This scope and sequence will build in complexity as grade levels and reading levels increase and enable transitions from one teacher to the next to occur seamlessly. At each grade level, students will continue to have repeated exposure to research-based strategies for reading, including letter/sound relationships, blending and segmenting, word chaining, open/closed syllables, etc. A common assessment platform will be implemented throughout the year in order to assess the continued success of these classroom practices. Beyond the consistency across primary classrooms, the possibility for a reading information night to support parents and home reading will be discussed and implemented. This would allow teachers to communicate the tools that are being used in the classroom and invite parents to continue reinforcing these same strategies at home when reading with their children.

Surrey Schools

Formed in 1906, the Surrey School District currently has the largest student enrolment in British Columbia and is one of the few growing districts in the province. It is governed by a publicly elected board of seven trustees.

The district serves the cities of Surrey and White Rock and the rural area of Barnston Island.

Surrey Schools
14033 - 92 Avenue Surrey,
British Columbia V3V 0B7