Literacy learning in the garden classroom, like in any classroom, is most successful when students engage in tasks that promote authentic language use. What does that look like, exactly? Evidence supports activities that provide opportunities to read, write, and talk in the ways actual gardeners do.
Reading in the Garden
Of course, teachers can always read aloud books that build background knowledge about topics under study in the garden. I love picture books, but I find that reading aloud is best done in the confines of the classroom because the garden is so full of surprises and distractions. Outside, I prefer to engage students in reading tasks that enable them to do what gardeners do.
Scavenger Hunts provide a great way for students to notice what’s growing in the garden. Giving a student an image (e.g., a tomato) and having them find a matching related image (e.g., a tomato plant label with a tomato picture on it, placed next to the actual tomato plant) is a great way to have early readers match pictures and words. They also build plant identification skills, just as gardeners do when they read the plant names at a nursery.
Seed Packets are a very useful form of text. I’ve been gardening for many years and I’ve noticed that packets from different seed companies can differ dramatically. Comparing the types of information that is on a seed packet can itself be a useful reading lesson. The better students are at interpreting planting information, the more independent they become at completing garden chores.
How-To Signs provide references for students about procedures in the garden. At the very least, most school gardens have a sign stating the rules for behavior, but signs that tell how to start seeds, where to put away tools, or what kinds bugs are okay to touch, give students a reason to read for a real purpose. These signs are especially effective if created with or by the students as an equally authentic writing task. Pre-made signs can be ordered from Life Lab.
Writing in the Garden
Writing in and about the garden facilitates learning about science, nature, nutrition and the nuances of printed text.
Plant Labels: Whether planting seeds or starts, I always make students write out the signs to label plants in the garden. After listening to the oral folktale of the “Three Sisters” garden, students in second grade or above can be explicitly taught to read seed packets of large seeds such as beans, corn, or squash as they prepare to plant them.
Journals: I like to use journals for students to do uninhibited writing. When they first start to use journals, I treat them like any other writing task: first I model the kind of information I write about in my garden journal and provide some ideas for topics. Before long, students get accustomed to the routine of garden journals and look forward to recording their thoughts. I also keep a master journal where each class records what they do in the garden and where parents sign in for garden work parties.
Talk in the Garden
The best garden talk happens when the teacher skillfully promotes language of observation coupled with curiosity and wonder. Over the years, I’ve overheard numerous conversations between children marveling at nature and regulating each other. For instance, when on child find a Crane Fly and mistakenly calls it a “mosquito,” s/he can count on a peer to say, “That’s not a mosquito. It’s a mosquito eater. It’s a good bug.” Although not altogether correct, the children confidently assert their partial understanding of animal relationships. Other times, I’ve caught students using very accurate evidence-based thinking about plant-animal interactions. For instance, consider the child who points to a leaf that appears to have been eaten and exclaims, “I knew it!” When prompted, he explained that he saw a leaf with the bite marks and then saw a snail, so he figured out that the snail made ate the leaf.
When strong instructional practices guide the talk and text that happens in the garden, they support language and literacy just as much as in the walled classroom. In fact, the garden is often a more enticing context for authentic reading, writing, listening, and speaking because children are so interested in what happens there. To really promote garden-based learning for literacy and language, the teacher must think like a gardener and provide opportunities for students to do the same.