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An Interview with Learning at the Primary Pond

Can we talk with the K–2 teachers for a minute?

Hear us out. What if, instead of empty praise, we gave early education teachers actionable resources that created more positive outcomes for their students? Moreover, what if those tools enabled teachers to take a little free time back so that they can focus on what truly matters in the classroom and beyond?

Alison Ryan, the brains behind Learning at the Primary Pond, is well aware of the very real needs of K–2 teachers. And, if we do say so ourselves, we think she’s done a darn good job filling the gap. A veteran teacher herself, Alison develops reading and writing curriculum that simplifies teachers’ planning.

But that’s only half of it.

After spending countless hours wading through one-size-fits-all literacy instruction, she found a way to make customizable material that met her students’ unique needs. And now that she offers those impactful tools to enhance literacy and social–emotional learning, K–2 teachers can take their weekends back.

In our interview with Alison, she reveals why she created Learning at the Primary Pond and how early educators can use her literacy programs to help their students grow academically, socially, and emotionally.

Learning at the Primary Pond serves early educators, from kindergarten to second grade. What is unique about K–2 teachers’ needs? What sets them apart from the intermediate grades?

We love our K–2 teachers, and they absolutely have unique needs! The students they teach are still working on basic social skills like how to interact appropriately with other people. Social–emotional skills are important at every grade level, but they’re especially essential for K–2 students. K–2 teachers need access to materials that not only teach the curriculum, but also address skills like following classroom procedures and working with a partner.

[K–2 students need] explicit instruction in phonological awareness, phonics, high-frequency words, and so on. Effective decoding must happen in order for text comprehension to happen.

K–2 teachers also have the big and important job of teaching students to read. When students reach the intermediate grades, the focus shifts toward reading to learn content and to improve comprehension. But before all of that can happen, the foundation needs to be laid through explicit instruction in phonological awareness, phonics, high-frequency words, and so on. Effective decoding must happen in order for text comprehension to happen. And learning to decode doesn’t happen easily for all students! K–2 teachers need the professional knowledge and tools to provide effective reading instruction so that students can be successful with the higher-demand reading tasks they’ll encounter in the intermediate grades.

Learning at the Primary Pond provides such robust literacy solutions for K–2 teachers. How did you come up with the idea? What issues in the classroom and beyond do you seek to solve?

When I was a few years into my teaching career, I noticed that there was a big gap between research and classroom practice. I would read books or attend trainings and learn about teaching literacy, but I didn’t have step-by-step lessons or ready-made materials to help me implement the concepts. I was creating almost everything from scratch, which, as you can imagine, is exhausting to do on top of teaching! (It’s really two full-time jobs in one.)

I wanted to make it easy for myself and other teachers to follow best practices without working tons of overtime to create materials.

I was creating almost everything from scratch, which, as you can imagine, is exhausting to do on top of teaching! (It’s really two full-time jobs in one.)

As we’ve seen recently with the teacher shortage crisis, the demands of teaching can very easily lead to burnout. So, our “micro-goal” is to provide materials that are practical for teachers and engaging for students. But our “big goal” is to help teachers feel confident, empower them to spend less of their personal time working on schoolwork, and positively contribute to the teaching profession as a whole. When teachers are engaged in their jobs and they stay in the profession, everyone wins — especially the students.

Learning at the Primary Pond splits itself into two camps: phonics and writing programs. What are the key differences between the two solutions?

Our phonics program, From Sounds to Spelling, covers pre-reading and reading skills, including: phonological awareness, phonics, high-frequency words, spelling, word attack strategies, plus a bit of vocabulary and comprehension. There is also an optional handwriting component.

Our writing program, Primary Writing Success, covers writing and grammar. Students not only learn the mechanics (i.e., sentence structure), but they also learn writing content skills like how to generate topic ideas, add more details, and write interesting introductions.

I like to think of early literacy as the foundation of a house being built. Without the foundation, the “reading house” will be unstable and likely collapse.

Although the programs differ in terms of what they cover, they are structured similarly. For example, they both include professional development training videos inside the teacher login portals. These videos give teachers guidance in implementing the programs all year long.

From Sounds to Spelling and Primary Writing Success are best used in conjunction because reading and writing are reciprocal processes. This means that growth in one area helps drive growth in the other!

Here’s a loaded, but open-ended question: Why is early literacy so crucial?

I like to think of early literacy as the foundation of a house being built. Without the foundation, the “reading house” will be unstable and likely collapse. (And, I would also argue, the “academic house” as a whole will fall down, too.)

Our ultimate goal is to get students fluently reading texts and learning about the world from texts. You can think of these skills as the walls and the roof of the house. These skills are important, but again, without that foundation, the house is not going to be stable. Without mastering early literacy skills, you’re not going to be able to build the entire reading house and get to those more challenging reading tasks!

And of course, this extends to other subjects as well. Need to solve a word problem? Got an assignment to read a textbook chapter about the Civil War? You’re going to need to have mastered the literacy basics first!

Let’s also think beyond school and academia and talk about adulthood. Reading is an essential part of life that allows us to access important information in our daily lives. The long-term impacts of reading struggles can be devastating. For example, many people who end up incarcerated have low levels of literacy. Struggling readers also earn hundreds of thousands of dollars less over their lifetimes when compared to stronger readers.

Our students deserve the very best early literacy instruction, so that they have every opportunity for success in the future.

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