In this episode, we interview Dr. Ali Lewis, director of University Primary School at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and talk about integrating early literacy in a Reggio Emilia–inspired program.
Intro: Thanks for joining us for a podcast from the Illinois Early Learning Project. Our project is part of the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and funded by the Illinois State Board of Education. On this podcast, we share information about how young children grow and learn as well as strategies adults can use to help them thrive. My name is Natalie Danner.
Natalie Danner: Welcome to the Illinois Early Learning Podcast. Today, we are talking about building literacy through Reggio Emilia inspiration. Today we are joined by Dr. Ali Lewis. Dr. Lewis is the director of the University Primary School at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and also teaches classes in the College of Education. She’s been the director of University Primary for 13 years. Prior to directing the school, Dr. Lewis taught in kindergarten through second grades for over a decade. Thank you so much for being with us today.
Ali Lewis: Thank you for having me.
Natalie Danner: Great! Well, today we are eager to hear from you as a leader of a Reggio-inspired school because our listeners want to hear the unique ways that Reggio-inspired programs teach and promote literacy to young children. So, let’s get started. Could you describe the Reggio Emilia approach?
Ali Lewis: Sure. I think of the Reggio Emilia approach as an approach rather than a method. I think that’s one of its distinguishing characteristics. And when I think of a Reggio Emilia approach, I think of an approach that’s really looking at all of the aspects of a human. And that human is often a child, but also might be a teacher or a family member. In Reggio Emilia–inspired schools, we really look at the competencies of children. We really look at how they are approaching their thinking, and the world, and their questions. How they organize themselves, how they interact with others, and how their questions lead them to bigger discoveries.
What we’re not really interested in is teaching children something that they could discover on their own given time, given thoughtful provocation, given rich opportunities alongside adults to consider big ideas and to think together with others. And so, in a Reggio Emilia–inspired school, you’re really working with adults who, year after year after year build their own competencies around listening, around reflecting, around making learning visible to themselves, to the children, to the families. And for many educators, this is an approach that fits really well for them.
Natalie Danner: Great! I’m hearing a lot of things about kind of self-directed learning and exploration. And that’s amazing for children to experience as well as educators as you mentioned too. I noticed your school website describes your school as Reggio Emilia inspired. Now I know parents are curious about this, too. What does that really mean?
Ali Lewis: Yeah, so we have “Reggio Emilia.” It is a municipality in Italy. And so they themselves have their own environment, and they are the “Reggio Emilia school.” So, we are the “Champaign-Urbana, Illinois school,” and so we can be inspired by the schools in Reggio Emilia but we are not them. So, we are not the schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy. We’re a school in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. And so that means we can only be inspired by the schools in Reggio Emilia. We have our own context, and it’s unique and special. We’re right here on the prairie. We’re in a small urban community connected to a university. We have many ideas and inquiries related to our own environment and our own context, which makes this place a really special place to be Reggio Emilia inspired.
Natalie Danner: Great. I think that really answers that question and gives parents and educators a sense of what Reggio Emilia inspired means. So, when we talk about what Reggio Emilia means, parents really have this sense or this wanting to know what it looks like. So, if you could describe what a preschool classroom looks like, how would you do that? What does a typical Reggio Emilia–inspired preschool classroom look like?
Ali Lewis: Yeah, I think that, you know, one of the ways a lot of teachers and families and educators enter Reggio Emilia inspiration is through the environment. And so, because the look of a Reggio Emilia–inspired school is rather unique, there are some characteristics that are fairly common across Reggio Emilia–inspired preschools in the look. One of the things that most people notice is a use of natural materials. So rather than plastic manipulatives and toys, there are a lot of natural materials from the environment—sticks and stones and shells. It’s wonderful to have the children bring in collections of their own things—leaves and other items like that. Items that you might find in the everyday.
And a Reggio Emilia–inspired preschool classroom would be highly curated. It would be curated by the teachers and the children, so that you’re really looking at and inspired by objects and activities that are specific to the learning context in those moments. As soon as you introduce a different kind of material, you might introduce and welcome, a different kind of inspiration. So, if I’m curious about the way that children are looking at seeds in the fall in a milkweed pod, maybe I also that next day bring some oranges and apples and cut them in half and have them on a table.
And the children might be looking at those seeds. But maybe the next day I’m gonna bring some celery and carrots, and cut those. And maybe the children are wondering, where are the seeds in those? And they might say, well, let’s cut it. What? How could we find out? We often use the words, “how can we find out,” that phrase. Well, you could cut it some more. We’ll cut it some more. Keep cutting it, keep cutting it, keep cutting it, they might say.
You know, they really are demonstrating a competency, for “it’s inside there somewhere,” their theory is. So, you would see, also teachers and the role of a teacher be different than maybe a more traditional preschool. You would see teachers alongside children sitting with them, listening to them, writing down the words that they are using, offering some questions, probably documenting with some photographs, and maybe even recording.
And I think the look of Reggio-inspired schools are only one way, and often the first way, that people enter into the Reggio Emilia inspiration. But much more important and far beyond the look is the way that you think about the child. So, the image of child for us at University Primary is central.
Natalie Danner: Thank you, I think that gives a real insight into how the classroom operates and what is key to those classrooms. And, it paints that picture for both the parent and the educator of what it really looks like. Because it’s hard to understand that unless you really have an opportunity to visit one of these classrooms, which sounds like, if you have a Reggio-inspired classroom near you, it sounds like it would be a really good idea to try and visit it if you have that opportunity.
Ali Lewis: I love visiting Reggio-inspired classrooms. I didn’t even talk about things like lighting and color and all the rest of that. But there’s so much online as well. The look of the classroom, though, is really just the entry point. If you stop there, I wouldn’t say that you’re a Reggio Emilia–inspired classroom. I would say you’re inspired by the look of a Reggio Emilia–inspired classroom.
Natalie Danner: So, for our next question, how is the Reggio approach different than other educational approaches?
Ali Lewis: I think some of this, again, relates to the context of the specific school and what they are most inspired by. For us at University Primary School, one of the ways that we’re most inspired is by the interdisciplinary look and feel of the Reggio schools, that the child is learning much more than one thing at the same time and that we, as a grownup, can be paying attention to that. So, sure the child might be working on one-to-one correspondence between objects. But what else are they working on? We’re interested in how they space those objects. We’re interested in how they communicate to others about what they’re doing. We also are interested in if they start building with those objects, and they’re doing something very different than the task that we might think is the more desirable adult task.
In our school we’re also really interested in the interdependence that children have. So, rather than being independent on your own, doing your own thing, day after day, hour after hour, we’re really interested in the way that children have developed their own proclivities, their own interests, their own ideas, but in relationship with others.
And so, this idea of difference and that there are multiple perspectives, and that there are multiple ways of understanding is really inspiring to us and is really interesting to us, because it means that learning never ends. You just keep growing, and you keep going. And that is so exciting as an educator, because it means that we continue to develop our own practice. It’s not static.
Natalie Danner: And we were talking a little bit about this before, too, in kind of relationship to parents who may be familiar with maybe the Montessori approach or other approaches, too, and say, “Hey! I was looking at the Montessori school down the road.” And based on my background in Montessori, and you know, just visiting University Primary and seeing how it works, I would say it, it’s a little bit different based on my knowledge of the Montessori approach in that the Montessori approach has a very structured approach in the curriculum. And it’s just very different in that way. And how you’re describing the Reggio Emilia approach, it’s much more, I would say flexible, maybe more art-spaced, self-directed, exploration, curiosity-based. Although that’s, you know, both of them a little bit more.
Ali Lewis: Montessori is a method, you know. It’s the Montessori method, you’re trained in that method, you use the materials in that method, you use the materials in a certain way in that method. And so, in Reggio, you would use Montessori materials, but you wouldn’t necessarily use them in a Montessori way. They’re both Italian, though, so.
Natalie Danner: Yes, that’s true. They did have some carryover. I mean, there are some similarities, too. I mean the multiage approach. I mean, there’s some things with that. There’s exploration. There’s a lot of independence given to the children, and the children choosing a lot of what they want to study. I mean, a lot of that is very similar too. So, there are some definite similarities as well.
So, I wouldn’t say that they’re absolutely different approaches, either. And there’s a lot of focus given to the respect of the child in both approaches. So, let’s move on to the next question, which is, how does the Reggio Emilia approach specifically support literacy development like oral language, written language, and reading when it comes to preschoolers?
Ali Lewis: This is a great question. I think I will go all the way back to the founder of this approach, who is Loris Malaguzzi. And he wrote a wonderful poem that I won’t be able to read during this podcast, but I would encourage all the listeners to look it up, and the poem is titled “The 100 Languages,” and it’s about the 100 languages of children. And in the 100 languages of children Loris Malaguzzi explains that the child has many, many, many ways of knowing, of being.
And when we are thinking about literacies plural, we’re thinking about the many languages by which children express themselves. Spoken language and written language are the most privileged types of expressive language. And young children, preschoolers, don’t always have much written language developed. They might be mark making on their way to a more conventional language. And mark making is extremely important for its own enjoyment and for future writing that’s more conventional.
Spoken language is absolutely privileged in terms of, you can get what you want when you can explain what you need. And so, I think in a Reggio-inspired school, we are very interested in developing and supporting children’s interest in literacies, but always in a meaningful context, always with a purpose that is connected to the child’s real purpose. Not making the adult purpose the only reason. And enjoyment is part of a true Reggio Emilia class, when the kids are really loving school, and so are the grownups.
So, I think when you go into a Reggio Emilia–inspired classroom you’re gonna see, you’re gonna feel a vibe that’s quite different. And around literacies, you’re gonna see kids really activated. They’re very interested. And they’re speaking with one another about their ideas. They’re listening to one another so that they can really start developing the skills that they need to do in order to assess that person’s ideas and their ideas. Some preschoolers are putting ideas together, and some children are only able to listen to their own ideas, and some children are seemingly just listening to other people’s ideas.
But hopefully, over the years, children develop aspects of all of those and a deep interest in the written language as a tool by which many, many grown-ups and then older children have to access information. We also would say that literacies in music and dance and mathematics are important. So, we wouldn’t be thinking of literacies as only reading, writing, speaking. There’s a literacy to music and math and arts and dance and nature, and even play. The social literacies children need in order to make and keep a friend.
So, I think of a Reggio Emilia classroom as expansive, as a classroom that’s really developing a web that’s expansive rather than singular. So, there are a plurality of ways of knowing, there are plurality of ways of doing. And the teacher’s role is to help make that learning visible to children, to families, to one another, so that we’re not missing something really important. Like the child is doing one-on-one, but look at how they’re spacing the objects. Well, that’s spatial awareness as well.
Natalie Danner: Wonderful, and you touched on this a little bit already, but could you tell our listeners about that role of documentation and display of learning that the teachers and the children cocreate in the Reggio Emilia–inspired classroom?
Ali Lewis: I really appreciate the word cocreate there. I think that that is what is quite delightful to me as the principal of our school, that cocreation, and that co-decision-making. Of course, I wanna say tangentially that the children understand we’re adults, and they are looking for us to hold boundaries of safety and well-being for them.
So, it’s not a do whatever you want, kind of approach at all. It’s be who you are, and be who you are in relationship with others, and be who you are in relationship with content. Sometimes others are content, sometimes others are the activities at hand. But the documentation is a really special way that teachers can offer a metacognitive insight into what’s occurring with and for a child.
So, through documentation, we build theories about why or how or what might be happening. What might be first thought of as very obvious, might not actually be true. So, through documentation, we can work alongside one another as a teaching team, and we can look at our own theories, but also test those with one another, and then put those out there back to the kids. We can use a photo to say, oh, you know, yesterday I saw this happening. And here’s the photo. Can you talk with me about what was going on in this picture?
And that’s, actually, sometimes a pretty hard task for kids, right? To go back and think about what they had been doing. And you know, they might at first just say, well, I was playing. Well, what I’m noticing is—then you offer something to the child—what I’m noticing is you’re playing with so and so, and you had said that you weren’t ready to be friends with that person yet. So, what was going on yesterday? “Oh, well, they were playing the game I wanted to play.”
Oh, so it’s okay for that person to be friends with you when they’re playing what you want to play? “Yes.” I’m just making up what a, you know, preschooler might say. How does it feel when the person wants to play a game that you don’t want to play? Well, then, I don’t want to be their friend anymore.
Well, that gives us a lot of insight into where that child is developmentally, and it’s not inappropriate developmental understanding. And actually, it would be very articulate. And children have said things like this to me. I’m not quoting verbatim what a child has said. So, documentation really gives the chance to go back and revisit ideas and revisit theories with children. It also lets us capture the story of what’s happening. So, I really appreciate the chance to look at a short video clip, or even a longer video clip, and to really relook at what’s occurring and all the different dynamics, and we’re not looking at the whole day over and over again. That would just be way too much.
But you can really see, you can catch, very small but important glimpses of what might be happening at a child’s development or a child’s story of learning through documentation. And then we take some of that documentation, and we make it more public for families. Some of the documentation’s just for ourselves and just for the children.
But some of it becomes a greater work and a greater story, and we might share that through what we have at University Primary which is a project studies event, or exhibition. Sometimes we just have display boards in the classroom, so that families can see the story of the birthday cake being made in the mud kitchen or the birthday cakes being made in the mud kitchen. So, it’s a way to make learning visible. And, Reggio, they’ll talk a lot about making learning visible and through documentation that is one of our most important opportunities to do that work.
Natalie Danner: Yes, I think gathering first-hand experience of what the children are doing is so critical. I’m just thinking back to portfolio documentation of the children’s work as I was a teacher way back when and just gathering that information on a child from the beginning of the year and the end of the year, and looking at the progress that the child would make, even in drawing a picture of themselves. You know, self-portraits, that can be some of the most amazing progress that you see in a child. And you’re like, wow! They’ve come a long way.
Ali Lewis: And then, when they can see that, too, and they can articulate what it is that they see that’s progress, or what was harder for them before, or what they focused in on it. Self-portraits are such an interesting provocation to look at what kids are focused in on. You know, they spend much of preschool really focused in on, they can do eyes, and then they add ears. But you know, you see the hands coming out of the head. That’s a very typical spot for them to come out, but you give a child a mirror and you have them look at their body and you have them draw what they see.
And then you say, and then maybe you take a photo, too, and then you put it next to it, and you let the child say, “Oh, I didn’t make a neck.” Oh, how could you do that? So you don’t have to tell them. They could see that themselves. But you might need to invite them to see in another way, which is part of this idea of provocation that’s important in documentation as well.
Natalie Danner: Very interesting. So, as we get on that subject of literacy, what are some of those literacy skills that the children are building on as they document their learning?
Ali Lewis: I think the ability that they have to articulate why they think what they think through documentation is very important. It’s a higher-level thinking skill. It’s a critical thinking skill. Rather than just saying “because” or saying “I don’t know.” We really want to offer them an opportunity to build a literacy around their own understanding.
I think the other thing that they, by helping to select part of the documentation that gets displayed to families, they have a literacy skill there of being able to, maybe they can’t read the writing but they could read the picture, right? They can read what’s happening, and then they can talk about that. And so, writing children’s words is very important to us. Helping them see that we’re writing what they’re saying, and then we say it back to them.
And we don’t change what they say or how they say it. We might ask them to resay something if we don’t understand. We might ask them to say more about something if they have an idea that we’re trying to really help them dig into. And I think that’s one of the ways we can be an example for literacy, but they can also borrow some of the literacies that we have developed as grownups, and they haven’t yet developed.
Natalie Danner: And our final question, which is, where can listeners go to learn more about the Reggio Emilia–inspired approach?
Ali Lewis: I think your suggestion to visit a Reggio Emilia–inspired idea is a wonderful one, and the one of the go-to websites that your listeners should visit is the NAREA website, which is the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance, and I love the name alliance. And on that website, there are certain schools that have registered themselves, it’s just a self-registration, that indicate that they’re a Reggio Emilia–inspired school. And so there may be some schools around you that you can visit. And I would really encourage you to do that.
Educators typically like to visit other classrooms anyway, we get lots of inspiration. But the other thing that starts to happen is that you have some solidarity with other educators who are committed to this type of approach and committed to their own growth. And I think that’s really important. That’s been really important to my growth in my heart. Through the NAREA website, you can also see some of the conferences that they hold. And they typically hold, you know, summer, fall, winter conferences.
Sometimes they do some online workshops, and at those conferences you can find other educators, and you can think with them. And then you also learn from the educators from Reggio Emilia proper who come and speak with you in Italian, and it’s translated, and they show you a bit more of their schools and their projects and their documentation, and those are really important conferences to attend. I’ve found by attending the conferences time after time, I just learn more and more and more. My heart and my head are ready to receive more and more, and the intellectual work is very stimulating. So, I really would encourage listeners to look at that website.
And then Reggio Children is also another website that I would highlight. And on Reggio Children they have different links to some of their own exhibits and some of their own professional development. There are podcasts you can listen to. There are different videos, you can download, some of that is also for purchase. And then they also offer books. So those are those are places I would go to as the go-to places.
And then, of course, there are different blogs and web, you know, Pinterest boards and all of that. But I think that there’s a real, there’s a real meat to Reggio Emilia. There’s a real deep philosophy that a lot of educators are very turned on by. Like really, your light bulbs are going on. And kind of the spirit of the work really matches your own spirit for your work. So that NAREA website, I think, will help connect people, especially to other educators.
Natalie Danner: Oh, we will have both of those websites at the bottom of this page. So, if you are listening to us from the Illinois Early Learning website, if you scroll down, you’ll be able to find those links and get to those websites and get more information there and connect with those resources. So, I wanted to thank you, Dr. Lewis, for being our guest on the Illinois Early Learning Podcast, it’s been a pleasure.
Ali Lewis: Thank you. It’s been wonderful to talk to you and to think together about this work.
Natalie Danner: Great. Well, until next time, thank you, and keep early learning at the forefront.
You have just heard a podcast by the Illinois Early Learning Project. For more information, please visit us at illinoisearlylearning.org where you can find evidence-based, reliable information on early care and education for parents, caregivers, and teachers of young children. Thanks for listening and for helping the children in your home, classroom, and community have a strong start in their early learning.