Using Robust Practices to Nurture Successful, Engaged Readers

By Judy Wallis

We have so much research to show that many factors contribute to the growth of capable and confident readers: a coherent curriculum, robust teaching practices, the volume of reading, access to high-quality, engaging texts, productive talk, and a supportive classroom context (Duke & Pearson, 2002). All of these provide the very foundation upon which exemplary teaching and student success rest. There is also wide agreement that teachers who differentiate instruction ensure greater student success. Because students differ in their knowledge, skills, and cultural background, individual differences present challenges for both readers and teachers. While teachers and students faced unprecedented challenges during the past year, both continued to learn and grow. One of the most important things I learned from working over the years with Regie Routman (2007) is a whole-part-whole approach results in greater gains for learners in all areas but particularly in the area of comprehension. The challenge, then, is to ensure that students have instruction that ensures they develop the “flexibility and adaptability of their actions as they read” (Afflebach, Pearson, & Paris, 2008, 368) so that they move from effortful and deliberate use of strategies to automatic use of skills in the service of understanding.  

Gradual Release of Responsibility

We know from years of research, planning teaching using the gradual release of responsibility is most successful in teaching comprehension (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983). There are three regions of responsibility within this model. The first region is mostly the teacher as modeler and demonstrator; in the third, the responsibility shifts mostly to the student; and in the middle, teacher and student share responsibility. For students to arrive successfully at full responsibility, shifts in participation occur that include increasing participation by the reader and well-planned scaffolding by the teacher (Au & Raphael, 1998). The teacher’s role is to determine when and how these shifts occur and what support a reader might need.

Too often, the middle region is either skipped or shortened, which results in students’ lack of long-term success. When this occurs, teaching is often planned around a narrow, isolated skills approach that makes learning harder rather than easier. To ensure success, teachers need to consider learners’ potential independence with a task and the probability that learners can transfer that learning to a new and similar task (Cambourne, 2001). 

Two Approaches to Supporting Students’ Growth in Comprehension

The challenge for teachers supporting striving students is finding the best way to approach gaps in learning. For example, one approach is to take an isolated or part-to-whole approach in which the teacher focuses narrowly on one skill at a time. This parsing approach has enormous appeal in that it uses the premise that it is more manageable for students, and they will put the parts/skills together taught over time to become successful readers. However, the skills may not make sense to the reader in the absence of the whole (Perkins, 2009). Too often, using this approach results in never demonstrating how the parts “look” in a whole task/performance. The other approach to learning is first situating learning within a whole task/performance, focusing on the part, and finally demonstrating the part within the whole. As Routman (2018) notes, whole-part-whole teaching needs to become part of our beliefs system about teaching and learning. 

Using this approach, along with the gradual release of responsibility, results in much more successful teaching and learning and is actually more efficient. 

If, for example, students are striving to be more successful making inferences, we could explain what an inference is and then send them off to make inferences in a text. Students may understand what inferring is, but they may lack the procedural (how) and conditional (what) knowledge needed to actually apply the strategy within the performance of reading a text.  On the contrary, we would likely be more successful using a whole-part-whole approach by situating inferring in the “whole” performance of reading. Too often, we try to teach an isolated skill (e.g., determining character’s feelings) without identifying it as an inference and what it looks like and sounds like when we read a text. Duke and Pearson (2002) suggest students need explicit modeling of strategies to become skilled readers followed by a great deal of time reading. Here’s an example of what whole-part-whole teaching might look like. It foregrounds inferring but nests it in a real text, includes explicit modeling, and offers students opportunities to engage in collaborative use.

Teacher: We are going to be reading a terrific book today. The title of the book is Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes. As readers, we do many things to make sense of and monitor what we read by listening to the thoughts inside our heads.  Today, we will focus on one particular strategy as we read—inferring. Inferring is when the author doesn’t tell us everything, and we as readers must combine our own background knowledge (BK) with the clues the author provides in the text (TC). So, inferring is really like teamwork or partnering with the author. I’m going to start reading and making inferences as we go. But before I begin to model my thinking, turn and talk with a thinking partner about what you understand about what a reader does to infer. 

Students: Turn and talk—teacher listens in. 

Teacher: Let’s have a couple of you share what inferring is. [Students share.] So, we all agree that inferring is using our background knowledge along with text clues to understand a text.

Teacher: (Begins reading) Ah, the text says that Chrysanthemum’s name was “absolutely perfect” when she was born, and as she grew, Chrysanthemum thought so, too. I am inferring she was pretty happy her parents named her that. [Reading on.]

(Teacher may record inferences on an anchor chart.)

Hmmm . . . I’m inferring things are changing when Chrysanthemum goes to school. Her friends start making fun of her name, and she’s feeling pretty unhappy about her name. [Reading on.]

Let’s talk about what the author says and what we can infer from the text clues: “She walked as slowly as she could. She dragged her feet.” Turn and talk about what you are inferring using the text clues and your own background knowledge and experiences.

Students: Turn and talk—teacher listens in. 

Teacher: As we read on, I’m going to give you opportunities to turn and talk about the inferences you are making. 

Teacher: Before we read on, let’s look at some of the inferences we made as we read. In every one of them, we used our background knowledge and the text clues to help us understand the story. So, inferring is an important strategy that readers use in everything they read. We make inferences when the author leaves a gap for us to fill. But, we always use the text to support what we are inferring. 

Teacher: Continues reading the remainder of the text and providing opportunities for collaborative use through turn and talk.

Teacher: Let’s review all the inferences we made. We found places in the text where we as readers had to fill gaps the author left. As readers, you will do the same thing as you read independently today; think about what you are understanding and when and why you need to be partner with the author. As readers, we are aware of our inner conversation that helps us monitor our understanding.

This example shows how we start with the whole (reading a text), focus on a part (inferring), and then refocus on the whole (reading a text). The reminder to use what was learned is essential as is “daily access to irresistible books” (Harvey & Ward, 2017, 88). Teachers often use a part-to-whole approach with striving students, which leaves them on their own to understand how the parts fit together. While an atomistic approach sounds like a time-saving one, it is actually inefficient and results in learners waiting to put the parts into the whole performance of reading. Perkins (2009) calls this principle of learning: “play the whole game” (8). One important idea to keep in mind is that we watch for the hard parts to foreground them to strengthen learners’ potential for independent use. 

Scaffolding and Talk

Scaffolding and talk play key roles in working with students both in accelerating learning and addressing gaps. In the previous classroom example, we can imagine places where scaffolding and additional opportunities where student-teacher and peer-to-peer talk might be both necessary and productive. While originating from Vygotsky’s (1978) zone of proximal development (the gap between what the learner can do independently and with assistance), the term scaffolding comes from the work of Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1978). Scaffolds are temporary. Pearson (personal communication) suggests that we always have a plan for taking down a scaffold. The point of a scaffold is not to make the task easier but rather to create just the right conditions for a learner can be successful. That means we have to be “in tune” with learners. Often, we provide too much support, resulting in learned helplessness. I think of scaffolding as climbing a rope ladder. As teachers, we move one knot/scaffold at a time, providing only the necessary support.

When working with readers, and particularly striving readers, instead of identifying specific gaps, too often we use a checklist, part-part-part approach. Research has demonstrated that reading is a complex process, and there’s little evidence to support that teaching the single components of reading one-by-one leads to gains (Oakhill et al, 2019). Another important consideration is the extent to which a student has initially engaged in modeled instruction and had opportunities for supported practice. The gradual release of responsibility is key here because too often students move from teacher-focused instruction to independent use, skipping the valuable area of shared responsibility and coached performance. When this occurs, learners don’t have the value of those temporary supports that ensure they will later be able to successfully carry out and transfer learning to new situations. 

Scaffolding is largely dependent on talk—both that of a teacher to student and also peer to peer. Vygotsky (1978) and Johnston (2004, 2012) demonstrate how individual thought is created through the process of thinking, talking, and acting together with others. We know that when learning is scaffolded through talk, students’ understanding of both the process (procedural knowledge) and the product (comprehension) are strengthened. Teachers use talk to facilitate and support learning, and students use talk in exploratory ways (Barnes, 1992) to develop and revise their thinking. Instead of defaulting to the traditional Initiate, Response, Evaluate (IRE) pattern (Cazden, 1988), teachers can shift form an interrogational stance to one that incorporates much more student talk. Allington (2002) found that exemplary teachers encouraged and modeled this type of talk. Not only does talk support and promote learning, it also offers teachers valuable opportunities to gain insights into students’ understanding and their gaps and misconceptions.

We know that reading is complex, that teaching reading is complex. However, when we implement practices and structures that we know make a difference, we uncomplicate our teaching and increase our students’ potential for success.  Some years ago, I wrote an op-ed about not forgetting joy. As we strive to support learners in these challenging times, we must stay focused on what we know works and the exemplary practices that help our students grow into strong, successful, and engaged readers . . . and the joyful experience of being present to witness extraordinary moments of learning. 


Afflerbach, P., Pearson, P. D., & Paris, S. G. (2008). Clarifying differences between reading skills and reading strategies. The Reading Teacher, 61(5). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Allington, R. L. (2002). What I’ve learned about effective reading instruction. Phi Delta Kappan. 83 (10), 740-47.

Au, K.H., & Raphael, T.E. (1998). Curriculum and teaching in literature-based programs. In T.E. Raphael & K.H. Au (Eds.), Literature-based Instruction: Reshaping the

Curriculum. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishers.

Barnes, D. (1992). From Communication to Curriculum, Second Edition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Cambourne, B.L. (2001). Why do some students fail to learn? Ockham’s Razon and the conditions of learning. Reading Teacher, 54 (8). Newark, DE: International Reading Association. 

Cazden, C. B. (1988). Classroom Discourse: The Language of Teaching and Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Duke, N. K., & Pearson, P.D. (2002). Effective practices for developing reading comprehension. What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction, Third Edition. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Harvey, S., & Ward, A. (2017). From Striving to Thriving: How to Grow Confident, Capable Readers. New York, NY: Scholastic. 

Johnston, P. H. (2012). Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers. 

Johnston, P. H. (2004). Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers. 

Oakhill, J., Cain, K., & Elbro, C. (2019). Reading comprehension and reading comprehension difficulties. In D. A. Kilpatrick, R. M. Joshi, & R. K. Wagner (Eds.) Reading Development and Difficulties: Bridging the Gap Between Research and Practice. New York, NY: Springer.

Pearson, P.D., & Gallagher, M.C. (1983). The instruction of reading comprehension. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8, 317–344.

Perkins, D. N. (2009). Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Routman, R. (2007). Teaching Essentials. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Routman, R. (2018). What You Need to Know about Professional Learning. Heinemann Blog.

Wallis, J. (2013). Teachers, don’t forget joy. 

Wood, D., Bruner, J.S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines. 17(2). https: //

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Children’s Literature Cited

Henkes, K. (1991). Chrysanthemum. New York, NY: Greenwillow Books.

Judy Wallis has spent the past five decades as a teacher, literacy coach, university instructor, and staff developer. She served two large and diverse Houston-area school districts as director language arts and provided leadership support to literacy coaches for 21 years. Her professional work focuses on reading comprehension, writing, and whole-school/district change through robust literacy instruction and shared beliefs. She has also worked to link research and practice and to nurture and celebrate the strengths in others. In addition to the “Blue Pages” in Conversations with Regie Routman and Comprehension Intervention with Steph Harvey and Anne Goudvis, Judy has authored a number of book chapters and articles. 

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