Teaching Phonics: The Importance of Analyzing and Decoding Words in Isolation

By Heidi Anne E. Mesmer, Ph D

Learning to understand how words work is hard. A young child must focus on multiple visual symbols and then recall what each symbol refers to orally. Each part of the word must be understood in order. Effective phonics instruction isolates individual words so that children can study them. A purely embedded approach to phonics instruction is not effective. (Embedded means that phonics is taught only within the context of a book, during reading.)

In 2000, an experienced first-grade teacher, Johnston, did a very interesting study. She taught words in predict­able big books using three different approaches: (1) reading the books repeatedly; (2) using sentence strips; and (3) analyzing the words in isolation, individually. The repeated readings involved reading the books about ten times. Students learned the least number of words by listening to words read in books and the most words in isolation (Johnston 2000).

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The idea of this study was not that context and big books are bad. In fact, reading books and charts to young children, pointing to words, and showing them print in a connected, contextualized way are all essential practices, but teachers need to understand what shared reading accomplishes.

Shared reading usually helps children understand how letters are used to form words, how an alphabetic script encodes meaningful messages, and how we read connected texts (e.g., left to right, top to bottom). However, at the beginning stages, repeatedly reading words in a big book should not be the only approach to learning to read words because it does not specifically focus on the architecture of words and how they work. Learning words only through a contextualized approach will not lead to high levels of word learning for most children. Learners must carefully analyze each part of  individual words. They must think about why the words can and cat are different.

Analyzing the letter-sounds in words is a form of metalinguistic awareness, a way of thinking about language. It requires children to suspend focus on the word’s meaning temporarily, in order to focus on features of the alphabetic system. To learn the system, students need to be freed from trying to balance both the meaning demands and the mechanical demands of words.

So, if you are teaching phonics make sure to give words their own time and space. Don’t be drawn into a forced choice about word analysis. Ignore people who say that it is “wrong” to analyze words out of context or people who say that all children need is out-of-context phonics instruction. Research simply does not support either of those positions, especially for beginning readers.

Heidi Anne E Mesmer is professor or literacy at Virginia Tech. She is coordinator of the Reading Specialist Program and the author of Letter Lessons and First Words: Phonics Foundations That Work. Her research has appeared in Reading Research Quarterly, The Educational Researcher, The Journal of Literacy Research, The Reading Teacher, and other books and journals. She has written and directed eight training grants in two states aimed at improving reading instruction in K-5 classrooms. Find her on Twitter @haemesmer.

Twitter: @haemesmer

References Cited

Johnston, F. R. (2000). Word learning in predictable text. Journal of Educational Psychology92(2), 248.

Problem Solving the Reading Rut

By Christina Nosek

Like many of you, in my fifth grade multiple subject, self contained classroom, reading is our number one priority. In addition to our afternoon reading workshop, we focus on reading in multiple ways throughout our day and week. Since August, we have engaged in daily independent, choice reading as students start arriving each morning. Ever since I learned of this practice, soft starts, from Sara Ahmed and Smokey Daniels in Screen Shot 2019-11-11 at 9.35.33 PMUpstanders, I’ve never looked back.  Along with our reading soft starts, we also engage in daily book talks, keep track of our reading with book stack photos, have discussion around books, write book recommendations, and offer picture book & novel read alouds in which we often draw connections to our independent reading. Every single day, we are living a reading lifestyle in the classroom.

However, even though we are prioritizing reading, trouble still arises.  This past week, after a couple days of observation, conferring with students during independent reading time, and analyzing book stack photos for trends, I realized a few of my students have actually fallen into a reading rut. Whether a student was hopping from book to book without commitment, rereading the same exact book over and over, or simply not picking up a book to read at all, I knew something had to be done. 

I immediately recognized these different ruts because as an adult reader, I have experienced all of them myself at one time or another… 

Hopping from One Book to Another

After a couple days of observation from a distance, I noticed that Minh held a different novel in his hands while his eyes often roamed the room during every independent reading time. I’ve always been one to read multiple books at a time, but flipping through five different fantasy novels in a two day period without settling in to one equates to a rut of sorts. At first, I wanted to see if Minh would find his own way out of the rut, but eventually I knew he needed support.

Reading the Same Book Over and Over

During a conference later that day, Elsa wearily told me that she was rereading a certain book for the third time because she just didn’t think she would love a new book in the same way. She was just not willing to give a new book a chance. I completely understand that thought. When I finished Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind a few months ago, I found that I had the same feeling. I was overcome with sadness when I realized I was no longer able to look forward to immersing myself info Ruiz Zafon’s 1945 Barcelona. My deep love for one book prevented me from seeking out another. Finding a new book that I would equally love was just an unthinkable thought. So, when Elsa professed her love of this one particular book and hesitation to read anything else, I knew she had fallen into a rut and needed help to find her way out.

Having a Hard Time Picking a Book

Once I ended my conference with Elsa, I noticed Alex was spending quite a bit of time in the classroom library pulling a book off the shelf, flipping through a few pages, gently placing it back on the shelf, and then repeating the process over and over.  Watching him go through this process reminded me of myself as a young reader. For years, I was a student who would just not pick up a book. Similar to my current student, I knew how to read, always scored well on every single measure of reading at the time, and loved hearing stories read aloud. However, I was just not interested in independently reading on my own. Teachers would give me books and tell me to “just read this one,” but that never worked. Each time the teacher wandered off, so did my mind, away from the book forced on me. Back then, I needed a special kind of support to fall in love with a book, and I knew Alex needed that same kind of special care.

Falling into a rut is actually not uncommon for many readers. Rather than telling students what to read, calling for an outside intervention, or throwing my hands in the air in frustration, I knew the most effective way to address these reading ruts was to problem solve- and, not to problem solve for my students, but to do so with them. So, I set off to tackle the reading rut alongside my students. 

Screen Shot 2019-11-11 at 9.35.46 PMWhile I firmly believe that sitting down side by side with a student to confer is the most effective way to problem solve, because a few students in my class had fallen into a rut while many others had found consistent success in sustaining reading during our independent reading time, I thought it might be helpful to start with a mini lesson enlisting the support of my readers who were happily settling in with a good book each day.  As we sat down for the mini lesson that day, students’ eyes and minds fell on the chart seen here. A few started whispering to each other, heads began nodding, and one even stated, “Oh good! I really need this today!” before we started. 


After my readers read the phrases on the chart, I asked them to raise their hands if they either can relate or have ever experienced anything like this before. Slowly, one reader raised a hand. Then another. And another. Since I am a part of our reading community, I raised my hand as well. Eventually, all hands in class ended up in the air. I continued the session.

“Fifth graders, as you can see, falling into a reading rut is a normal part of being a reader.” I went on to explain that when we find ourselves in a rut, one way to help ourselves come out of it is to problem solve. Sometimes we can problem solve on our own, while other times, we need to turn to a fellow reader to help us get through it. And, what works for one reader, might not work for another. Sometimes, we have to try multiple strategies to help work our way out of a reading rut.

I then turned the lesson over to my class. I asked students to share what they had done in the past to overcome a reading rut. So many great suggestions were offered. 

“I came out of a rut once by thinking about a book I read and really liked, and then decided to read another one from the same author.” 

“I did the opposite! I decided to shake it up and try something completely new! I actually found a new series I loved when I did that.”

Screen Shot 2019-11-11 at 9.35.57 PM“When I’m not sure what to read, I look at our class recommendation board. That is always so helpful. I actually found my current book that way” 


Idea after idea from students just kept coming in.  Once the lesson ended, and students were invited to go off to try some of these new ideas to overcome their ruts, even more notes with ideas from students were added to the chart. 

Before I settled in to confer for the period, I stood back and just observed. I was interested to see what students would do on their own without my intervention. As students started slowly settling in to read on the bean bags or cozy up with a book at their tables, I noticed that Minh started conferring on his own with another reader. As I listened in, I heard the two students problem solving together to help Minh find his way out of a rut. So, I decided to move on to confer with another student. 

I sat down on the floor next to Elsa, my reader who had a hard time letting go of her recent beloved book. Her beloved book was sitting next to her on top of her reader’s notebook while she was reading the preview blurb on the back of another book. “May I join you?” I asked.

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“Sure. I’m thinking I might try out this book. Lenny recommended it, and she and I usually like the same books, so I’m going to give it a try. The back sounds really interesting” 

I smiled, gave her a nod, and affirmed her decision to seek out advice from a friend to try to move herself forward as a reader. Then, I turned my attention to Alex. 



Alex still found himself in the classroom library going through the ineffective process of pulling a book off the shelf, flipping through a few pages, gently placing the book back on the shelf, and then repeating the process.

“Hey Alex, how’s it going?”  Alex looked up at me, slowly shook his head, and said, “I think I’ve tried everything. I still can’t find a book.” 

What Alex didn’t yet know, and what I hadn’t yet offered was that earlier that day, I spent a few minutes gathering a preview stack for Alex to peruse. I first learned about this idea in Donalyn Miller’s Reading in the Wild. Offering a student a preview stack of books that reflects their interests is a strategy that I have called upon many times in the past. I offer the stack based on a student’s interest, and the student now has a more curated selection of books from which to choose. 

So, I invited Alex to walk over to the back counter where the stack was sitting. Directly taking a line I once heard Donalyn Miller say at a conference, I picked up the stack, looked at Alex, and said, “These books made me think of you.” 

Alex took the book stack, and after a little more conversation about each book, he found a comfortable spot, picked up the first book in the stack, and started his preview. 

Like adult readers, student readers find themselves in ruts from time to time for different reasons. To find a way out of the rut, what works for one reader may not work for another. 

The important thing to keep in mind is that working out of a rut is usually not a one-time fix it kind of situation. It’s an ongoing process. Sometimes, all it takes is a problem solving conversation. Other times, it takes much more. Did my readers work their way out of their ruts? I’ll find out next week when we’re back in class and go from there.


Ahmed, Sara K. and Harvey Daniels. 2015. Upstanders: How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Miller, Donalyn. 2013. Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
With a little over 20 years in education, Christina Nosek has worked as a special education instructional aide, classroom teacher, K-5 literacy coach, K-5 reading specialist, and staff developer. Along with Kari Yates, she is the coauthor of To Know and Nurture a Reader: Conferring with Confidence and Joy from Stenhouse Publishers and the Conferring with Readers Quick Reference Guide from NCTE. Christina currently spends her days as a fifth grade teacher and staff development provider in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can follow her education Tweets at @ChristinaNosek,  classroom literacy stories on Instagram at @ChristinaBayArea, and longer thoughts on her blog at cnosekliteracy.com


Read-to-Write-to-Read: Texts as Sources. Texts as Mentors.

By Morgan Davis, 2010 CCIRA Presenter

When I first started teaching about mentor texts, it was for an audience of teachers whose first question was, “What’s a mentor text?”  Now, more than a decade later, our collective learning allows for a different entry point: Because while we might call a text we are using for instructional purposes a “mentor,” not every interaction with a text is intended to apprentice us to the craft and content of writing. 

When a text inspires a story, further research, an editorial or any other dialogue about the topic, whether written or discussed, when it compels us to move the ideas beyond the text and make them into something new, it is a source, not a mentor.  

This distinction is the heart of work that JLA—Jeffco’s Literacy Association—is doing this month in a book study using the Global Read Aloud picture-book text set from Yuyi Morales.  

We began our “Books and Brews” book club seated between two pool tables in the back room of a bar in Lakewood.  A round of introductions, appetizers, and a crack of a book-spine later, and we were immersed in Yuyi’s portrayal of Frida Kahlo in Viva Frida.  

Texts as Sources

Upon our first read of Viva Frida, I gave my Spanish skills a much-needed workout, alternating between the printed English and scripted Spanish text on each page.  Less than sixty words altogether, we let them and the book’s combination of illustrations and photographs wash over us. We shared our first reactions, which ranged from wanting to see the pictures up close to conversations about whether this was a work of fiction or nonfiction to our initial “gist” of the story’s message. 

Our second reading, which began with us all reading it aloud together, allowed us to take a closer look at the author’s decision-making, to clarify ideas that had been sparked by our reading.  We followed characters across pages, analyzed the evolution of the artists’ media, and made inferences about the woman portrayed in the pages. 

Screen Shot 2019-11-05 at 6.13.49 AMWith our third reading, I asked everyone to independently make a list of five-to-ten key words from the text, words that were either stated explicitly, like “dream” or “live,” or
those that were implied, like “playful,” and “discovery.”  Sharing these allowed us to make connections, generating new ideas, like “innocence,” and “coming-of-age.”
Quick-writing to one of these words became equally generative, as we explored our understandings of what this text was really about.

Through this process—reading, thinking, talking, and writing—we learned things about Frida Kahlo, from the text and from each other.  Things that were confirmed or clarified in the author’s note.  

Things that allowed me—in the week that followed our first meeting—to appreciate the scenes in Coco that show Frida Kahlo as an unapologetic and creative spirit, even in death.  Things that made me connect as I sang (and danced) along to the song “This is Me” from the Greatest Showman as the chorus describes being bruised and brave, and making no apologies for being who we are.  

Things that allowed us to connect to the human experience revealed in the book’s poetry.  Things that lingered in our consciousness long after our time together was over. Things that brought us to the page to write about Yuyi Morales and about the topics and themes in her books.

We charted what we noticed about ourselves as readers and writers when content is the focus, the inspiration, the topic of conversation and of our learning. 


Texts as Mentors

Screen Shot 2019-11-05 at 6.16.53 AMThis conversation about topics became a perfect segue to our next venture into Yuyi’s books.  We started with the first of Katie Wood Ray’s three questions that can guide immersion in any writing study: What kinds of topics does Yuyi address with her picture books? (Study Driven, page 125).  

We listed topics we had explored in reading these books as sources and then—and here is the shift—we began to apprentice ourselves to her work:  We brainstormed what topics we might choose.  Topics that could be handled in the kind of ways that Yuyi’s are.  Topics that capture specific aspects of an author’s culture, like the lifestyle of Lucha Libre in Niño Wrestles the World, the biographical sketch of Frida Kahlo, and the experience of immigrants.  Topics that convey universal themes, from finding home in unlikely places and explaining natural phenomena to the experience of wandering, discovery, and imagining a different life.   

Overall, we recognized that Yuyi’s books do what we have come to expect of picture books: they express what it means to be a child, providing a space for children (and adults) to make sense of the world within and around them through story. 

We next read Yuyi’s Dreamers to help us expand our noticings through the lens of Katie Wood Ray’s other immersion questions: What kinds of work does it seem like [Yuyi] must do to produce this kind of writing? and How does Yuyi craft these books so that they are compelling for readers? (Study Driven, p. 125).  We annotated the text with our noticings and added things to the list that we had noticed in other books in our stack. 

Of all the things we noticed, I chose the structure of her text to model a “close study” and then a “try-it”:

First, we noticed Yuyi writes:  

“We became… We became… You and I became… Someday we will become… but right now…We are…”  

Then we worked to name what it was that we noticed.  In this case, a pattern revealed in repetition of a phrase using the word “became” before a break in the pattern that shifts to present and then to future tense. 

Finally—and I think this is my favorite part—we put pen to paper and simply gave it a go:

We became students before we were old enough to ride bikes.  We became graduates that couldn’t imagine leaving the classrooms we’d called home for so long. We became teachers who had their own classrooms before we were teachers who turned our classrooms over to our students. Someday we’ll become people who leave the walls of our schools behind, but right now, we fill them with magic and watch as our students become our future.  We are teachers. 

And just like before, we charted what we noticed about ourselves as readers and writers when considering texts as mentors; we reflected on the process of pairing writing with reading when craft is the focus, the inspiration, the topic of conversation and of our learning. 


We write about things we read to build and share ideas.  We write like what we read to get better at building and sharing ideas with the world. 

Despite our tendencies to define which comes first—text as source or text as mentor—let’s not allow this to become complicated.  I have spent time with students who, during a study of the art of opinion writing, have found authentic purpose in seeking sources to validate and elaborate their claims. I have seen students who were inspired by their excitement for an article about dung beetles come to the page to demand action and evoke social change.  

This work has great potential for informing units of study that bring reading and writing workshops together.  And while there may not be a single entry point, there is a difference. Let’s notice it. Let’s name it. And let’s continue to encourage the exploration—in ourselves and our students—of authentic ways that readers and writers interact with text as sources and texts as mentors.

These ideas began percolating after a session with Ruth Culham (aka The Writing Thief) at #CCIRA16.  Read the original post here. 

Morgan Davis is a literacy consultant and K-6 Instructional Coach in Jefferson County, Colorado.  She regularly presents at CCIRA and is currently piloting this book club about texts as sources and texts as mentors with JLA, Jefferson County’s local literacy council. You can join in the conversation @MorganDavisLit on Facebook and can follow Morgan as she explores teaching and learning, slices of life, and her own writing processes on Twitter @melizdav and through “It’s About Making Space.” Also, watch for literacy classes based on these and other topics coming to the metro area next summer.


Literacy: What Comes To Mind?

By Teresa Brown

What comes to mind when you think of literacy?

Most dictionaries use “the ability to read and write” to define literacy.  As I’ve grown in my instructional practice working with gifted learners and learners with challenges, literacy has come to mean much more.  My own working definition is this: 

Literacy is the ability to learn using multiple modalities and communicate in a variety of ways so that one’s ideas are understood by an audience.

Our staff participated in a book study a few years ago to help improve our literacy instruction in all subject areas and determine common agreements about our work with students.  We used Mike Schmoker’s Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning as the springboard for our work. He identifies four critical instructional components which teachers should consider as they develop learning opportunities:

  • Reading
  • Writing 
  • Discussion
  • Movement

I’ve found that these are a great foundation for literacy instruction that reaches beyond simply reading and writing and integrates the idea of social-emotional skill development as well. When I coach teachers, we talk about intentionality in integrating all four components into each class period, regardless of the level being taught. 

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Courtesy of Tim Mossholder @Unsplash

Cooperative Learning Opportunities

Use learning opportunities in your classroom that require students to read, write, discuss, and move with intention to build their capacity in interpersonal skills they’ll need as they grow. Here’s an example: 

Provide a reading task before beginning and ask students to quietly develop some ideas around it.  Group students in a way that makes sense (assigned groups, number off, etc.) for your group. Have students move to each posted open-ended question and discuss their ideas with their small group, jotting down responses to the questions about the reading using complete sentences, moving from question to question after a specified period of time. Have a member of each group share out what is jotted down on their page. Then discuss as a class or use the jotted notes to create a class-created written response. 

This can be used in all subject areas and can be modified for younger learners as well as older learners by changing the reading task, the response format, or the discussion framework itself.  Using structures such as a jigsaw, variations on pair-share, stand up-hand up-pair up, structured research, and other cooperative learning opportunities are intentional ways to get students to read, write, discuss, and move in every lesson, every class period.  

Explicit Listening and Speaking Instruction

This is an area we often forget requires specific instruction, assuming students have figured out how to listen to learn, can talk with one another, and speak on a topic.  

PPIRA hosted a literacy conference in Colorado Springs a few years ago where Erik Palmer, author of several books on speaking and listening instruction and digital literacy (pvlegs.com), was one of the speakers. His session set off a string of instructional ideas that a colleague and I implemented the week after the conference. 

We began to embed explicit instruction in speaking and listening skills throughout the day using distributed practice. We saw wonderful growth in our students’ ability to communicate with one another and present their ideas to an audience as the year progressed. Our intentional instruction impacted student writing too, for when we gave students the opportunity to orally write before drafting, their ideas became more fully formed after receiving specific feedback from their peers on their initial ideas. 

We encouraged specials teachers to teach speaking and listening skills explicitly in their classes as well while students were presenting their music or dramatic compositions, reflecting on their art pieces, providing post-game commentary in PE, and discussing language-based learning experiences. Our experiment showed that speaking and listening skills are critical to literacy across the board.

Common Agreements

Develop common agreements among your staff or even just your teaching team about how you will incorporate literacy instruction in every class, every day using common vocabulary and strategies.  Determine specifics around reading, writing, discussion, and movement. Discuss how you’ll incorporate specific speaking and listening instruction and what social-emotional needs could be addressed.  This intentional planning will enhance learning for the students you serve.

The bottom line is this: Literacy is about learning how to gather needed information and communicating information to others. Providing intentional opportunities for students to connect to their learning while practicing literacy skills makes for richer learning experiences that they will transfer to other areas of their lives as they grow.

Teresa Brown is the Dean of Student Support and Director of the Center for Gifted Resources at Academy for Advanced and Creative Learning, a K-8 public charter school in Colorado Springs, Colorado with a focus on gifted education.  She has presented on topics related to supporting gifted learners in the classroom for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, Colorado Association for Gifted and Talented, CCIRA, and at Denver Comic Con.  Teresa also serves as an officer in PPIRA. She practices self-care by fly fishing, practicing yoga, and listening to a variety of podcasts and audio books.


By Elisabeth Bostwick, 2020 CCIRA Featured Speaker

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It always fascinates me that perception really is in the eye of the beholder. Although some people consider our youth to be unmotivated or lazy, I want to challenge that perception and make the claim that our youth are remarkable. They’re capable of greatness–– just look at this list of the 25 Most Influential Teens compiled by Time. We have young entrepreneurs and activists making waves and creating an impact in our world. Shouldn’t every child be provided with the opportunity to connect with their strengths and interests, along with learning experiences that support their success? Additionally, our youngest learners are insatiably curious. But, that sense of wonder seems to diminish the older our students become. When we spark curiosity and create meaningful learning experiences, we increase the desire to learn. All of this is possible through inspiring creativity and incorporating Design Thinking within learning.

As an educator myself, I know that many of us seek to create experiences that empower learning, spark curiosity, and inspire creative thinking. It really is an amazing time to be in education because of all the capabilities we have at our fingertips. We can connect with experts who contribute to deepening our understanding, collaborate globally with other classrooms, and have the potential to leverage technology to accelerate learning. We can also share our learning and outcomes with authentic audiences, and gain feedback to grow.

Culture is the Springboard for Every Successful Classroom

Of course, it’s the foundation of relationships and a culture of thoughtful risk taking that foster the conditions to empower learning. Culture has to always be on the forefront of our minds, it should never be an afterthought. Culture is the springboard for every successful classroom. To explore how you can foster a culture that supports thoughtful risk-taking and innovative thinking you may be interested in reading Promoting Empathy in Learners: Develop Deep Connections, Fostering Communication Skills to Deepen Learning, and Proactive Approaches to Support ALL Learners: Moving Beyond the Behavior Chart.

Nonetheless, due to various reasons, it’s not uncommon for teachers to fall back on what is most comfortable to them. Due to time constraints, mandates, and even our own teaching and learning experiences, we may have the tendency to engage in more direct instruction as opposed to inquiry-based learning–– fostering both agency and curiosity. We may push the pause button on opportunities to infuse creativity or amplify student voice and choice into learning because it feels like ‘one more thing.’ With that said, I want to clarify that direct instruction certainly has its time and place. As educators, our classrooms are like a canvas; we and our learners are the artists who can mix and match colors and techniques to create colorful masterpieces of learning and discovery together. We can incorporate teaching and learning strategies as needed to enhance learning. It’s essential that we ensure we’re responsive to each individual and not relying heavily on any one approach.

We Can Create Cultures Where Creativity and Innovation Flourish

However, all too often our learners are still positioned to go through traditional models of school ie. teacher is the beholder of all content, content is siloed, students rotate based on a bell schedule, and they complete work to be assessed by their teachers for a grade–– often without useful feedback. 

Don’t our learners deserve more?

Don’t our learners deserve opportunities to connect with their inner ideas and topics that are meaningful to them, sparking deep curiosity and fostering passion?

When we create authentic learning experiences and empower student voice and choice, we begin to inspire intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is essential when it comes to learning to persevere through failure. We cannot hold back any longer when it comes to fostering the conditions where creativity and innovation flourishes.

From my book, Take the L.E.A.P.: Ignite a Culture of Innovation, I share: 

“The disconnect that often occurs between traditional school and the world in which our children are growing up leaves students ill prepared for life outside the classroom. In bright contrast to education’s slow rate of change are companies such as Uber and Lyft, which offer peer-to-peer ridesharing in answer to the challenges of public transportation. Behind these companies—and so many other innovative companies like them—are creative entrepreneurs who look at problems differently, then find ways to revolutionize entire industries. It may very well be a learner sitting in your classroom who has the next big idea that will contribute to significant improvements in our world. Every single child deserves the opportunity to unleash inner potential. But that kind of innovation will only come from people who are encouraged to explore ideas, try new things, and to challenge the status quo.

“Our schools ought to be places where students explore, inquire, and create new-and-improved ideas within a supportive, collaborative environment. Of course, our learners require all the basics to be successful, but the approaches we employ are what foster empowerment.”


One step we can take is to encourage learners to look at things differently. In education, we often place emphasis on convergent as opposed to divergent thinking.

  • Divergent thinking promotes the creation of multiple solutions to various problems and is characterized by diverse and creative thought.
  • Convergent thinking is defined as seeking a single correct answer to a question and is necessary for engaging in critical thinking and being able to analyze problems using information and logic.

Although both are critical to the process of learning, fostering divergent thinking promotes the creation of new ideas or unique wonderings. If we place emphasis on finding one right answer by primarily focusing on convergent thinking through frequent multiple-choice assignments, students are eventually influenced to stop considering all of the possibilities. They learn, instead, to focus on mastering specific skills or facts to memorize. I’m certain that we can all think of that one student who just wants to know the ‘right’ answer.

What if, instead, we created opportunities for learners to think of multiple possibilities rather than simply one correct answer?”


We can foster creativity by developing divergent thinking in learners and employing structures that encourage creative thought. In our schools, we need to be creating experiences that encourage learners to consider and explore new ideas within a culture where all individuals are supported in developing new ways of thinking, promoting more in-depth learning.

Foster Creative Thought in the Classroom

Divergent Thinking Within Literacy

The goal is to spark curiosity in our learners and shift from asking ‘right there’ questions or questions that yield only one correct answer. We want to encourage learners to dig deep and ask questions themselves. As teachers, we can also pose questions that would generate multiple solutions or various responses. Through divergent thinking, learners generate many ideas or solutions.

Divergent thinking includes:

  • Drafting ideas independently.
  • Combining and building on ideas with others.
  • Growing and taking create risks to share wild ideas.
  • Developing unique or alternative solutions to problems that may differ from what was written in the text.
  • Creating alternative extensions to stories or imagining what would might have happened if ______ occurred instead?

We can incorporate questions such as:

  • Reflecting on [book/passage], what might have happened if [character] decided to [verb] earlier in the story?
  • Imagine that [event] never occurred, what might have occurred to [the environment/life/relationship] as a result?
  • How might we design a better experience or find a solution to [the problem] for [character(s)]?
  • What if [the character’s] trait, setting, conflict, etc. changed? How might it affect the entire outcome of the book?
  • How would you rewrite the ending if the conflict within [the book/passage] changed?

Within literacy it’s important to pose questions that encourage making predictions, using information, summarizing, making connections, inferring, critiquing and analyzing. From my experiences, educators tend to place emphasis on convergent thinking, which is definitely an important skill. If we can carve out time to also incorporate divergent thinking, we encourage learners to think of other possibilities and generate unique ideas that inspire creative thinking. Imaginative thinking can lend itself to developing greater problem solving skills through considering multiple solutions to problems or scenarios.

Wonderwalls Can Inspire Curiosity

Dedicating wall space as a ‘wonder wall’ in the classroom can serve as a platform to inspire student generated questions. The purpose of a wonderwall is to encourage learners to post and share questions they ponder. You can opt to have wonderwalls that are specific to content or one that is dedicated to anything learners wonder, in general. Or, you may have space to do both. For example, if in connection with literacy, you may have a wonderwall that connects to a mentor text or trade book. Learners would pause as they read to post their individual wonderings or perhaps craft a question in connection with a specific passage. Often, we request our learners to respond to questions in connection with the text rather than encouraging them to pose questions. Student-generated questions put learners in the driver’s seat, fostering autonomy. Encouraging learners to ask questions also helps to develop greater metacognition.

Incorporate Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a systematic process that encourages individuals to create new, innovative solutions or ideas. It is human centered and places the needs of the user first. Within Design Thinking, learners formulate questions to help guide their understanding. For instance, ‘How might we…’ questions are often used within Design Thinking to foster empathy for the user. When we can connect with the needs of others, we are able to connect through empathy and create solutions or products to meet their needs. Design Thinking also inspires Divergent Thinking as individuals are required to ideate. Later, during the prototyping and testing phases, learners shift to think more convergently to analyze their ideas and retool their work.

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Design Thinking can be interdisciplinary; we can combine literacy and STEAM by empathizing with a character and the problem or conflict they face. From there, we can engage in divergent thinking to ideate. Learners could be empowered to consider how they might design a solution to a problem that the character is facing or even ideas for creating a product that may have helped them in a situation. Learners then shift to convergent thinking to analyze and narrow down ideas to create prototypes. Following ample time to consider various ideas, learners then benefit from reflecting and retooling their work, which again, entails convergent thinking. 

We Can Empower All Learners to Explore Possibilities

As demonstrated, one type of thinking is not better than the other. Rather, we just need to remain cognizant that we are indeed fostering divergent thinking leading to creative thought processes in our learners. Doing so has the potential to help learners see that they can be both problem finders and solvers–– not learners who are just complacently seeking the right answer day in and day out. We want to foster the mindset that every single individual has the potential to create change. That change begins with asking frequent questions and considering possibilities.

As a teacher myself, I understand the need to foster all skills required to develop literacy. All elements of english language arts are critical. We just need to ensure that we also create experiences that encourage learners to think differently in all areas of learning. The more we nurture a sense of wonder and place learners in the driver’s seat to generate questions and ideas, the more we will empower learning. More than ever in today’s world, we need to empower learners to explore new possibilities and ideas by fostering divergent thinking, thereby expanding on creativity.

Elisabeth Bostwick is a multi-award-winning educator who is passionate about creating the conditions to spark curiosity and unleash creativity to empower learning. She is the author of Take the L.E.A.P.: Ignite a Culture of Innovation and co-author of Education Write Now, Volume II: Top Strategies for Improving Relationships and Culture. As an instructional coach supporting K-12 teachers, Elisabeth works alongside colleagues to deepen learning leveraging highly effective strategies that engage and empower all learners to maximize growth. Find her on Twitter @Elisabostwick


The Power of Little Creations

By George Couros with Katie Novak

Excerpts from Innovate Inside the Box: Empowering Learners Through UDL and the Innovator’s Mindset, Chapter 10, “Creators.”

GC: Here is a little confession: I have a gigantic #ManCrush on Ryan Gosling. I think he is amazingly talented and love his range in so many roles; La La Land is in my top ten movies of all time! He is one of my favorite actors in the world and has been for a long time. And he is Canadian!

That is why I laughed hysterically when I saw a series on the Vine app (I miss you so much, Vine!) called “Ryan Gosling won’t eat his cereal.” In segments no longer than six seconds each, someone would find clips of Ryan Gosling in movies and try to feed him a spoonful of cereal by standing in front of a screen and slowly moving cereal to his mouth—that he would ultimately deny. It was amazing how many different ways Ryan Gosling would deny the cereal (he is so versatile), from making faces of disgust to actually making movements to swat the cereal away from his mouth. Every six-second video would bring me to tears as it was so random yet funny.

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Image courtesy of Fast Company

The mastermind behind the videos was Ryan McHenry, a Scottish film director. With each short creation, he brought joy to the world and smiles to a ton of people. Ryan Gosling even acknowledged in an April 2015 tweet that one thing people didn’t know about him was that he actually loved cereal, a little nod to the meme created by Ryan McHenry. 

In 2013, Ryan McHenry was diagnosed with a form of cancer, osteosarcoma. Through his diagnosis, chemotherapy treatments, and remission, he continued to make short videos that connected a community to his story. The cancer eventually returned, and McHenry passed away in May of 2015. I didn’t even know about McHenry’s passing until I saw a strange video of a bowl of cereal on Vine, with Ryan Gosling taking a spoonful of cereal, making a slight nod, and eating cereal in front of the audience. Gosling actually created a Vine account just to take a moment to eat cereal and acknowledge McHenry.

Gosling then followed up with a tweet: “My heart goes out to all of Ryan McHenry’s family and friends. Feel very lucky to have been a part of his life in some small way.” Seriously, Ryan Gosling? You have to be gorgeous, talented, and sweet?

I share this story of Ryan McHenry and Ryan Gosling often as something that seems so ridiculous and minute, but actually has a very powerful underlying message. Little creations that may seem insignificant can have a big impact on the world. In education, we talk about developing the next person to create “Facebook,” but the little cereal videos McHenry created brought smiles to so many people in a time when it seems we need more light in the world.

When my daughter was born, I played a song titled “Growing Up” by Ryan Macklemore on repeat. My favorite lines from the song are:

Don’t try to change the world, find something that

you love

And do it every day

Do that for the rest of your life

And eventually, the world will change

What McHenry shared in his short twenty-seven years embodied this lyric to a tee. What we create doesn’t have to be “big” to have an impact. Small gifts continuously shared over time can make an incredible difference in the world.

Why the Word “Create” Is So Crucial to Education in Our World Today

A quote from Thomas Friedman has shaped a lot of my thinking: 

The world only cares about—and pays off on—what you can do with what you know (and it doesn’t care how you learned it).

In other words, it isn’t what we know that matters; it is what we do with what we know—what we create—that matters. I believe that to be true, and yet I remember reading a Wikipedia article on “Internet Culture” that said only 1 percent of people online create content, and 99 percent consume. I have no idea the validity of that statistic, but let’s think of it in terms of school. How often do high school students in school consume information from Wikipedia versus contribute to a Wikipedia article, in a serious manner? Even in classrooms, we confuse regurgitation of information with creation.

Chris Lehman, the CEO of the Science Leadership Academy Schools in Philadelphia, makes this point brilliantly: 

If you assign a project and get back thirty of the exact same thing, that’s not a project—that’s a recipe.

 Are our students clamoring to “create” in schools? Maybe in kindergarten. But too often the need to create gets “schooled” out of them before they leave elementary school. I have worked with students in schools where their own mobile devices are not allowed in classrooms, and I ask them, “If you could bring your device, how would you use it in the classroom?” The typical answers I hear over and over again are “to Google stuff” and “as a calculator.” 

It’s always disheartening, because I know there is so much students can create with technology! Information searches and calculations don’t even scratch the surface of what they could do with even a device as simple as their smartphone. But when they aren’t encouraged to create or to explore the possibilities for creation, “to Google stuff” and “as a calculator” are the best they can come up with—at school. The story might be completely different at home.

KN: Embracing Student-Centric Creations

In Universal Design for Learning (UDL), we want all students to be creators and makers. I asked my second-grade daughter what she wants to learn to make in school. Her answer: “I want to learn how to make robot puppies.” Now, how many classes are providing her with the skills to make those robot puppies?! In all seriousness, our kids have passions and interests, and when we align our goals and standards with personalized assessments, magic happens. Assessments need to move beyond worksheets, essays, and presentations to more authentic applications that include student-centric creations.

We are much more likely to persevere when we know our goal and are empowered to choose what we create to reach it. One of the UDL guidelines reminds educators to “optimize choice and autonomy.”

Provide choices. Options and choices are often used interchangeably, but they are not always synonymous. Too often, teachers give students options, but they do not give them choices. Students know what their options are. They know they can write blogs, produce videos, create projects, or work alone or with peers, but often they don’t have a choice in what they create. After you have your why, consider taking the time to tell students, “This is what you’ll be learning about in the next week. That is non-negotiable, but you get to decide what you want to create to show me that you met your goal. Let’s list four possible options together, so you can make a choice about how to best meet your goals.” (Innovate inside the box!) In a sixth-grade science class taught by the brilliant Caitlyn Morris, students had the following choices to express their understanding of the similarities and differences between solar and lunar eclipses:

  • Create a poster (use any art medium you wish or graphically design on your Chromebook)
  • Create a sketchnote (by hand or on Google Draw)
  • Create a slideshow
  • Create a Flipgrid video demonstration, and the link will be posted on Google Classroom (this could also be in homage to the Ryan Gosling cereal videos!)

Innovators need to be creators, not just consumers. With that in mind, teachers need to provide numerous opportunities for students to create by providing options and choices for students to collaborate, examine exemplars of creativity, find solutions to problems, use non-traditional formats to consume new information and content, and have the flexibility to put the ideas together to create and express new and better ideas.


George Couros is a leading educator in the area of innovative leadership, teaching, and learning. He has worked with all levels of school, from K-12 as a teacher, technology facilitator and as a school and district administrator. georgecouros@gmail.com

Katie Novak, Ed.D., is an internationally renowned education consultant as well as a practicing leader in education as an Assistant Superintendent of Schools in Massachusetts. katie@novakeducation.com


Setting Intentions: Student-driven Goals in Word Study

By Pam Koutrakos

Pledges and missions set our sights on something big yet imply a certain worthiness that can also feel… daunting. Goals (AKA learning intentions) feel a bit more accessible and possible. When we create next-step-goals based off what we feel is already going well, we gain vision for what can be attained through consistent, focused effort. Dynamic classroom word learning is student-centered and driven by the readiness of each child. Therefore, it makes sense that the goal-setting, reflection, celebration loop would be in place and for these processes to be generated and inspired by the students themselves. 


Goals reflect our priorities and intentions. When goal setting is new for students, tools (like checklists) can provide needed clarity. Here is a flexible process that can be used to guide students toward naming their own learning priorities:

  • Review previous conversations, read alouds, or personal anecdotes around working toward something challenging. Reflect on the knowledge and processes that helped make growth and success attainable. 
  • Do the same for word study. Envision the end goals of word study. Name out the content knowledge and learning habits that might make these goals a reality. OPTIONAL: create a tool, like the checklists shown below, as a reminder of these actions. 
  • Review the list and ask students to consider where they feel most confident. Then invite learners to prioritize 1-2 areas that feel challenging, but also interesting …and like worthwhile next step(s). 
  • Draft a simple action plan. Add in checkpoints for when and how to reflect on and celebrate progress toward set goals.

Here is a quick glimpse into what some of those different “habits” and “concepts” checklists look like across grades and settings: 

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Above charts from Word Study That Sticks, Best Practices K-6 (Koutrakos, 2018)

…And a couple of the subsequent goals/action plans students created using those checklists:

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These tools spotlight success and help learners identify the places where they want to grow. 

Tip: The magic ingredient in using tools effectively is the teaching that happens around the tools. When we hand students a tool (or better yet co-create that tool with students), we also need to teach and support the processes inherent in thoughtfully using that tool.

Reflection may be the most underused tool in teaching. Goals may propel learning, but alone will not carry us through the finish line. We also need to make space for reflection. Consistent and ongoing reflection enables us to figure out how things are going and what might need to be adjusted. Here are a few time-efficient invitations to help students build a habit of reflection: 

Look back and your goal/learning priority. Then…

  • name something you did today that helped you work toward that goal. 
  • put a post it on one page of your notebook that shows evidence of your progress toward this goal. Share and celebrate with a partner. 
  • ask yourself, what part of this work has been challenging? Brainstorm realistic solutions and workarounds to get past these challenges and continue to make progress. 
  • ponder, what wrong turn have I taken? AKA: what’s something that you thought would help… but didn’t? Celebrate that risk taking and think about what else you might try so that your progress doesn’t stall out. 

Tip: When reflecting is brand new for students, it can be helpful to have a tool to clarify and support the process. Simple numerical scales, emoji continuums, and succinct reflection forms are all options. Once reflection has become a habit, students will be better prepared for in-the-moment reflection- no tools necessary! Here are a couple of examples of students reflecting: 

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Meaningful reflection can happen with and without the support of a formal reflection tool.


Celebration seals the deal, boosting motivation, focus, and willingness to persevere through challenges. Although celebration is very worthy of our time, we don’t always need it to be a big production. Here are 3 ideas that can be used across grades: 

  • Buddy Day: Invite another class in for word study. Quickly create cross-class partnerships. Students teach their buddies a favorite word study routine and then complete the routine together.
  • Reflection Celebration: Students note recent progress and celebrate these efforts by creating personal statements like I used to… but now I… and posting them on digital or traditional classroom bulletin boards. 
  • Show Off Routine: Students quite literally show off recent learning by publicizing it. This may mean quickly sharing with a partner, leading a brief conference with a caregiver and/or teacher, jotting a few sentences, creating an infographic, or “flipping” the learning and teaching peers. In the past, Ed Camps, Flip Grid, Screencastify, Powtoon, Show Me, Wevideo, and Scratch have been student favorites for showing off. 
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Students enjoy using digital tools like Powtoon to “show off” their learning and teach classmates about different Greek and Latin roots.

Tip: This printable chart provides additional guidance in finding festive ways to incorporate the celebration of all that’s happened in word study. 

Thinking these ideas sound “nice” in theory, but there is simply no time in the day? I respectfully challenge that idea. Remind yourself that a little goes a long way! Although implementing these ideas does takes time, the engagement, investment, and momentum that result yield a more efficient and productive use of each subsequent minute spent exploring words.  By zooming out and looking beyond a period, day, or week, we are more likely to see the long-term value and benefits these practices produce- both in the classroom this year… and in students’ lives for years to come. 


Pam Koutrakos is an educational consultant with Gravity Goldberg, LLC where she works with students, teachers, and administrators PreK- grade 8. She recently published Word Study That Sticks: Best Practices K-6 (Corwin, 2018) and The Word Study That Sticks Companion: Classroom-Ready Tools for Teachers and Students, K-6 (Corwin, 2019). Both include ideas, lessons, resources, and tools for teachers of all subjects. Connect with Pam on Twitter @PamKou and on LinkedIn.