The Power of Portfolios

"I did this today!" Preschoolers and kindergartners take pride in date stamping each addition to their portfolios. Later these timely records provide easy reference points as children reflect on their growth.

  • Grades: Early Childhood, Infant, PreK–K

As early childhood professionals, we know that the use of standardized assessment instruments, such as intelligence, readiness, and achievement tests, are not the best way to evaluate the progress of young children. Preschoolers vary from moment to moment and day to day in their ability to concentrate on what they are interested in. Because we want to understand the development of the whole child, your observations about children's growth provide a much more individualized, accurate, and up-to-the-minute picture. These insights, along with samples of children's work, can be used to create valuable portfolios. Portfolio assessment offers a variety of benefits, including:

A Record of a Child's Ongoing Development Over Time. Portfolios contain examples of children's work at different time periods in a school year. For instance, you can take a photograph of a child's completed block structure in the fall, winter, and spring. Or a child can draw and file a series of self-portraits.

Information to Help You Design Instruction. Portfolios help you begin to construct a well-rounded and authentic picture of each child so you are better able to plan your program to build on individualized strengths and support each child's growth.

Children's Involvement in Assessing Their Own Work. As children participate in the portfolio process, they begin to reflect on and understand their own strengths and needs. This, in turn, helps them feel responsible for their own learning. Children also enjoy comparing examples of their past work with what they are doing in the present. You can help your children recognize their own progress by asking questions and commenting as they compare such things as drawings or photographs of math manipulatives, block structures, or writing samples. You might ask: "What can you tell me about your work?" "If you were to build this again, would you do it differently? What might you change?" "What was the hardest part?" "What was your favorite part?"

A Method of Communication. Portfolios are a collaborative effort involving teachers, children, parents, and often other family members too. They are great to share at family-teacher conferences. (You might want to involve individual children in these sharing times and together use the portfolio to illustrate efforts, progress, and achievement.) Some early childhood programs sponsor "Portfolio Days," a special time when parents and other family members come in to look at and enjoy portfolios.

GETTING STARTED

Talk to your children about portfolios. They need the same kind of explanation they would about any new material or procedure in your setting. Explain what a portfolio is, why everyone is going to keep one, and how much fun it will be to put one together. Give children time to ask questions. Afterward, ask children for their ideas about creating these important personal "files."

Before you begin, there are some practicalities to consider. Start by asking yourself these questions:

1 What will I use to organize and contain children's work? The answer to this question might be as simple as a designated space, shelf, or cubby where children stack work samples of what they write, draw, and find interesting. Better still, you might use individual oversize file folders, pocket folders, accordion files, ring binders, or shopping bags. Whichever you choose, try to make the container large enough to hold most art and work samples without your having to fold them - along with a wide variety of materials, including audiotapes and videotapes and sturdy enough to withstand frequent handling by you and your children. If the portfolios are too small to safely contain pieces of art, take photographs of the work. And, to develop a strong sense of ownership, allow and encourage children to personalize their portfolio holders by decorating them.

2 Where will I keep the portfolios? Because you want portfolios to be integrated into your daily program, they need to be within children's easy reach. Children enjoy looking back through their work, and browsing and reflection are important parts of this process. Consider storing portfolios in more than one learning area so that when it's time to get them out, children won't be crowding into one space.

3 What developmental areas will I be assessing? Portfolios need to illustrate growth in all developmental areas, so you'll need examples other than concrete products. In addition, young children engage in many activities that do not result in a product that you can hold in your hand. For example, when a child counts cups for snack, we know she is developing one-to-one correspondence skills. By taking a photograph, or recording this learning in an anecdotal note, we are able to document the child's mathematical thinking and include this important step in her portfolio.

Here are suggestions for recording children's development in several different and important areas: 

Gross-motor: Take photographs throughout the year of individual children on an outside climber. You can also include parent communication about things such as the child's climbing up and down stairs.

Fine-motor: Keep a checklist of when a child learns to button, zip, and tie his shoes. Include cutting and pasting art samples as well.

Social-emotional: Include a survey you do with a parent or other close family member on each child's interests at home. Write anecdotal notes on how individual children take turns and share. Consider using a weekly checklist that records which centers children choose to spend their time in. Take a periodic inventory of the child's three favorite friends in the room.

Cognitive: Throughout the year, take photographs of block structures. Save drawings of the results of science discoveries.

Literacy and Oral language: Save examples of the way a child writes her name. Include children's illustrations of stories they love and stories they write themselves. Take an inventory of each child's favorite books a few times during the year. Include a list of songs the child sings. Make audiotapes of story retellings or conversations during circle time.

Creative expression: Videotape a creativemovement activity. Photograph a clay creation. Audiotape songs the child sings. Include samples of easel paintings and artwork from home.

MANAGING PORTFOLIOS

The more you and your children work with portfolios, the better you'll become at important organizational skills. Here are a few hints to get you on track:

Create a system. Skilled observation is an essential component of compiling meaningful portfolios, and this takes time and practice. To maximize your effectiveness, you will probably need to try several methods of observing and recording before you find a method that reflects your personal style.

Develop a plan. As part of your weekly planning, decide on a focus for your observations. For instance, you might decide to observe two or three specific children a day; the same group of six children for a week; or one particular developmental area, such as fine-motor development or creative expression.

Be prepared. In addition to honing your observation skills and developing a system for recording them, prepare a variety of tools to help you carry out your observations efficiently and effectively. Here are some suggestions:

  • Preprint labels. To help record observations in various learning areas of the room, make a set of labels for each one. (You can print these up on a computer or have them printed.) Attach a sheet of labels to a clipboard and place it in the appropriate learning space. Then, using a looseleaf binder, create a separate page for each child. As you observe children in a particular area, jot down your notes on a label, date it, and put it on the child's page in your binder.
  • Color-code index cards. Designate a color for each developmental area you're assessing and then store children's cards by color on a (continued from page 26) ring or file them in a box.
  • Mount photographs. Write anecdotal notes on the back or encourage your children to review the photographs with you and dictate their comments.
  • Organize. It's helpful to keep the contents of each portfolio in chronological order. And since all information is dated, arranging interviews, work samples, and checklists should be simple.

As you work with portfolios, you may also decide to further organize contents according to areas of development.

Make sure children are always involved. As you know, to feel a strong sense of ownership, children need to be able to examine and enjoy their portfolios and to select and discuss the work they include. So build time throughout the week for you and your children to meet and talk about their portfolios. Most children will look at a work sample and remember the experiences that led to its creation. At first their explanations and commentary may be simple: "I like this one." "I made something big here." Help them develop evaluation skills by asking open-ended questions, such as: "What does this sample of work show that you can do?" "What did you do well?" "What did you learn?"

As you create portfolio collections, you will learn about children's personal styles, thought processes, accomplishments, strengths, and difficulties. More important, you will get to know, love, and remember your children through the portfolio process. And they will get to know themselves better too.

  • Subjects:
    Early Learning, Assessment, Child Development and Behavior, Communication and Language Development, Professional Development, Parent-Teacher Conferences, Educational Policy, Learning and Cognitive Development, Parent and Teacher Communication, Teacher Tips and Strategies, Parent Involvement
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