Building the Content Knowledge we Need as Teachers of Writers

By Amy Ellerman, CCIRA Past President

“How did you know to do that?” 

This is the question I am asked most often as I work side by side with teachers and kids in writing workshops. And while I appreciate the unspoken implication that the instructional move that prompted the question is remarkable in some way, it typically isn’t. 

My ability to respond so naturally to writers in the moment comes from deep content knowledge I have built over many years—nothing magical about it. 

Awesome, you’re probably thinking. Is that all? 

Yes, and. . . Underneath that original question is another, more important question, at least from my point of view as an instructional coach: How DO we build the deep content knowledge we need as teachers of writers?

Teaching writers is complex. It can seem overwhelming to contemplate the expertise necessary to teach writers effectively. The more we learn, the more we realize we have to learn. . . And yet, we all start somewhere. (Even Ralph Fletcher started somewhere, or so I tell myself when I’m feeling a little overwhelmed.) We all make intentional decisions to invest in ourselves as learners, as well as to the writing lives of the young writers in our class(es). 

Penny Kittle describes the impact a skilled teacher has on young writers in her book, Write Beside Them

“I’ve been fascinated by the teaching of writing for years. I’ve read many books and listened to many brilliant people, but sometimes I feel I’ve learned only one thing: If you want better writers, all of the power lies within you. It’s all about teaching. In study after study when researchers took all of the factors that can impact student achievement—from parental income to school resources to parental support to per pupil spending in a school district—the factor that had a greater impact than all of the others combined was the effectiveness of the classroom teacher. By saying that, I do not discount the impact those other factors do have on our classrooms and our students, but simply to remind you that your skills and expertise are more powerful” (Kittle, 2008, p. 2-3).

There are no shortcuts. It does take time and effort to build those powerful skills and expertise. But there are ways to be strategic in how we build content knowledge, so that we can see evidence of our learning on student writing as soon as possible. As we know, it is seeing evidence of growth that motivates learners of all ages to continue learning. 

Screen Shot 2020-02-26 at 10.40.03 AM
Photo courtesy of Ian Schneider at Unsplash

#1: We can read. 

It is an investment to seek out content knowledge, and it is a choice. And as much as it is true that we learn by doing, we also learn by reading. In this busy world, it can be tempting to say things like, “I don’t have time to read.” When I hear this, I cringe—I can’t help it. We are professionals, and professionals read. As George Couros said at #CCIRA20, “Learning is [our] job. It is literally [our] job.” 

That said, there are a myriad of options for how we might read. We can read professional books, blogs, and articles. We can listen to podcasts. We can tap into eduTwitter, where links to reading material are right there on our phones. It’s not about reading everything cover to cover—there’s way too much out there for that to be possible. But we should know the work of the foundational leaders in our field as well as the leaders and practitioners who are adding new thinking to the research. We will never be able to stay in the loop with everything, but our young writers are depending on us to try.

In addition to the wealth of professional resources available, building reading lives that extend beyond professional reading supports our developing content knowledge as well. If our writing workshops reflect the kinds of writing that exist in the real world, then we need to be well versed in the kinds of writing that are out there: the fiction and nonfiction that our kids are reading, literature and informational text that tap into our own passions, examples of real people (of all ages) communicating for authentic purposes. . . We need to be noticers and collectors, seeking out examples of different forms and genres that our writers might find relevant. 

One recent example for me came from a traveling exhibit in Denver this fall called the Empathy Museum. A colleague visited it with her son, and as we discussed what made it such a powerful experience for them, the connections to possibilities for writing were immediate. (If you watch the linked video, you’ll be able to envision what we’re envisioning. . .) It is through “reading the world,” feeling the impact that different forms of communication have on us as we encounter them out in the wild, that we discover authentic reasons to read and write. 

Beyond reading, we seek out opportunities to learn more. We take classes and attend conferences. Every year at the CCIRA Conference, I’m in multiple writing sessions that knock me off my feet in the best possible way, challenging me to think differently or to dig more deeply into the way I teach writers. This year it was Matt Glover and Colleen Cruz, both of whom are making similar, innovative connections between reading and writing instruction with writers of very different ages. Being open to new thinking creates opportunities to continually connect to and refine what we understand about writing instruction. 

#2: We can write.

I know this one makes some educators uncomfortable. . . but it really is the key to developing deep content knowledge in writing. There is something about doing the work we are asking our students to do that builds a bridge. Being writers ourselves allows us to shift our stance—to move from being “the teacher” to being a fellow writer, side by side in the workshop. 

Kids are much more likely to take the feedback or strategies we offer when they are coming from our experience, rather than just our curriculum. It’s similar to how kids can tell if we really read the books that they are reading or if we just pretend to. . . They’re super savvy—they can smell authenticity. 

Ralph Fletcher is right on when he says, “Our classrooms are filled with students desperate for adults who care about writing and books as much as they do” (Fletcher, 2013, p. 10). When we (read and) write, we become those mentors for kids. We also develop empathy for the work of writers that is challenging. We begin to anticipate those challenges, which impacts the ways in which we plan for writing instruction. 

Katie Wood Ray describes this shift from writing teacher to teacher who writes in Study Driven

“Teachers who have empathy for the work of a writer are able to teach more than just process; they can help students understand what it’s like to be a writer engaged in the process, and that’s so different. For example, it’s one thing to know, in an intellectual sort of way, that people who write often have to rewrite and rework a draft over and over to get it right. It’s quite another thing to understand, in an emotional sort of way, how hard it is to actually do that. When what you know about ‘people who write’ becomes what you know ‘as a person who writes,’ what you know changes” (Ray, 2006, p. 32). 

When we bring our own writing into the workshop, it opens a window into the thinking work of a writer for kids. We can be transparent about what makes writing complex and how we work through it. This way, student writers expect to encounter obstacles, and they have mindsets and tools for solving problems. 

Most importantly, as long as we are side by side, genuinely engaging writer-to-writer, we don’t have to be the experts. In an inquiry-based writing workshop, we can study great writing together, noticing and naming what makes the writing work. If we position ourselves as the experts, then the learning our writers do will be limited by what we know. When we adjust our stance, positioning ourselves as writers right in the work with kids, we are fellow learners—we are authentically seeking understanding. This stance opens us up to the kind of learning that builds content knowledge. 

#3: We can collaborate with other teachers of writers. 

As John Dewey said, “We don’t learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” It is essential for teachers of all content areas to have structures in place to support deep collaboration. When teachers have regular opportunities to share and to reflect on instructional practices (especially with student work on the table), content knowledge deepens and instruction is strengthened. Making space for this type of conversation—where we can dig into the nuance of the teaching, not simply skate over the surface—this is how we get better for our writers. 

Building relationships with colleagues where it is safe to take risks and reflect in this way takes commitment. There is so much we can learn from each other when we trust each other enough to describe instructional moves in detail, comparing our intentions with the outcomes of actual student work. Investing in instructional collaboration is a powerful way to accelerate the building of content knowledge. In my experience, teams who prioritize time for this complex work grow their skills more quickly and create a long-lasting support system.

#4: We can recognize that we will never be “finished” learning how to teach writing. 

Wait! Before you close your laptop in frustration, thinking, “That is not at ALL where I thought she was going with this,” consider these words from Katie Wood Ray: 

“Writers have to manage so, so many different decisions to get writing done. That’s one of the most fundamental things about writing—making all these little decisions along the way. Anyone who doesn’t understand that writing is a complex, recursive, ever-shifting kind of thing you have to decide about, hasn’t written very much or hasn’t listened very well when writers have explained how they do what they do” (Ray, 2001, p. 90). 

I would argue (and I’m certain Katie would agree) that this is equally true about the teaching of writing. The power lies in all the little decisions we make along the way in response to our writers, and there is no recipe to follow. As teachers who understand the thinking work of writers, we must draw on both deep content knowledge as well as writing experience. We must embrace the complexity, never pretending to have (or believing anyone who claims to have) the magic formula for teaching writing. Instead we read, we seek new learning, we write, we collaborate with others, and we maintain an inquiry stance. 

We have been trusted with making decisions that lead to powerful writing experiences for kids. It will always be a little messy, and there will always be more to learn as we grow alongside our writers. Letting go of that elusive finish line (that does not exist) might help us to revel in our own learning experience along the way. 

Bibliography

Fletcher, Ralph. (2013). What a Writer Needs. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 

Kittle, Penny. (2008). Write Beside Them. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 

Ray, Katie Wood. (2006). Study Driven. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 

Ray, Katie Wood. (2001). The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hard Parts). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English. 

Amy Ellerman is an Instructional Coach at Maple Grove Elementary in Golden, Colorado. She is a Teacher Consultant with Colorado Writing Project and a Contributing Writer with Two Writing Teachers Blog. Amy blogs at Running to School (amyellerman.blog) and can be found on Twitter @sanderling12. Amy currently serves as Immediate Past President of CCIRA. 

 

An Essential Tool for All Readers

By Gail Boushey and Allison Behne

Reading good-fit books is essential if students are to progress as readers. Children must spend the majority of their independent reading time engaged in books which they can decode and comprehend at very high levels. 

We need to teach children to choose books that are a good fit for them; books they enjoy. Regie Routman (2003) says, “A just-right book seems custom-made for the child— that is, the student can confidently read and understand a text he finds interesting, with minimal assistance. These are books that make students stretch—but just a little bit—so that they have the opportunity to apply the strategies we’ve been demonstrating (and they’ve been learning), as well as become familiar with new vocabulary, genres, and writing styles” (93).

Screen Shot 2020-02-10 at 11.04.18 PM
Courtesy of Cesar Carlevarino Aragon at Unsplash

Allowing student to choose their reading leads students to engage with reading, increase comprehension, and build capacity for encountering complex texts (Guthrie & Klauda, 2014). The real challenge is teaching children how to do this. We teach children the simple method of I PICK when choosing books, so that each time they go to the library, bookstore, or classroom book area they are empowered to overcome that difficult statement, “I can’t find a good book.” 

I – I choose a book

P – Purpose. Why do I want to read this book? (Learn something new, pleasure, try a new genre, explore a specific author . . . )

I – Interest. Does it interest me? One aspect we must not overlook when helping children select good-fit books is their own interest level. The extensive focus on choosing the correct readability level frequently engulfs our thinking and teaching. Often we forget that children, like adults, need to be interested in what they are reading. A high level of interest allows children to engage in reading the volume of material necessary to progress from being a survival reader to becoming a life-long reader. 

C – Comprehension. Do I understand what I am reading? The goal of reading is to derive meaning. Without comprehension, readers are just following words on a page without meaning. After reading a small piece of text, the reader should check for understanding to help determine if it is a good fit.

K – Know the words. Do I know most of the words? To gain meaning, readers must be able to read the words. When selecting a book, readers view a sample to check if they can read most, if not all, of the words they come across. 

If the answer to any of these questions is no, it is likely not a good-fit book and the reader should select another book and ask the questions again. If the answer to all questions are yes, then it is a good-fit book. 

It is crucial that we teach students how to make their own reading choices and empower them to do so. The ability to choose a good-fit book equips readers with the lifelong tool to enjoy, understand, and learn in any environment at any time.

Good Fit Bookmark

Click to access IPICK_Bookmark_Color.pdf

Resources:

Guthrie, J. T., & Klauda, S. L. (2014). Effects of classroom practices on reading comprehension, engagement, and motivations for adolescents. Reading Research Quarterly, 49(4), 387-416.

Routman, R. (2003). Reading essentials: The specifics you need to teach reading well. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

 

Browser History

By Donalyn Miller, 2020 Conference Speaker

Recently, my husband Don and I went back to our old neighborhood to eat lunch at our favorite Tex-Mex place. After lunch, we spent two hours wandering around Half Price Books. We couldn’t recall the last time we had roamed a bookstore; we had forgotten how much we enjoyed it. We ambled down every aisle—taking our time. We pulled books off shelves for a closer look or commented on beloved favorites we recognized. We chatted with other readers—sharing reading memories and swapping recommendations. 

On the way home, we discussed a few books we bought—Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, which I bought because several friends recommended it and a copy of America’s Test Kitchen: Cooking for Two Don found for his already overflowing cookbook shelf. We talked about the joy of lingering in the stacks—holding books, looking at covers, reading dust jackets, skimming chapter headings and back matter, dipping in to read a few pages or examine an illustration. 

Thinking about our bookstore trip later, Don and I realized that our book selection behaviors have changed dramatically in the past ten years. Gone are the days when we entertained our daughters with afternoons in the public library or flipped through crates of new releases at the comic book store.

We still read a lot of books, but we discover, evaluate, select, borrow, and buy them almost completely online now. I read reviews and critiques from publications like School Library Journal and The ALAN Review. I trade recommendations with colleagues on social media. I discover books on lists like NCTE’s #BuildAStack or the ALA Youth Media Awards. I keep track of books I have read (or want to read) using Goodreads. Readers can research almost anything about authors and their books online these days. I appreciate the benefits of online resources and platforms that have opened up the world of books and reading to so many, but I don’t think these tools can fully replace the gift of time to browse through shelves of books—at your own pace and for your own purposes—driven only by your own interests and desires. It reminds me of a former student, Hailey, who told me once after a visit to the library, “I don’t find the books, Mrs. Miller. They find me!” I understand what Hailey means—the delicious feeling of discovering a book you didn’t know you wanted to read. 

Screen Shot 2020-02-04 at 6.42.31 AM

Thinking about my students over the years, I know that many have never wandered a bookstore or a library for any length of time. In some cases, they lack access to bookstores or libraries in their communities. Even when students can access well-stocked school and classroom libraries, we often don’t give them enough time to preview, share, and talk about books they might read. According to Scholastic’s bi-annual, Kids and Family Reading Report, a national survey of thousands of school-age children (ages 6-17) and their caregiving adults, kids consistently report that their parents and teachers underestimate how hard it is for them to find books to read. We presume a fourth grader knows how to find a book in the library. Not always. We presume an eighth grader knows. Not always.

Truly independent readers can successfully self-select books for themselves (Miller, 2013). I imagine most adult readers feel reasonably confident that we could walk into a library or a bookstore and find something that we could read with some level of comprehension and would be interested in reading. We didn’t pick up these skills overnight. Book selection skills come from years of examining, evaluating, selecting and reading books.

Students with wide reading experiences show more confidence and success with their book selection abilities. Students who frequently abandon books or seem disengaged may not possess the book selection skills they need to identify and evaluate books they might read. Kids need encouragement and support for their book choices and lots of low-risk opportunities to explore and self-select reading materials. Take any group of readers, and you will find a variety of methods for selecting books. How can we value what our students know and can do while determining what book selection skills and resources they still need?

When students choose books to read during library visits and classroom book shopping opportunities, they want to talk with their classmates about the new books they’ve discovered and picked to read. Set aside a few minutes before you leave the library or when returning to class. Invite students to share the books they found and also share how they settled on that book instead of others. 

I recently led this discussion with a class of eighth graders in Long Island. After selecting library books, Ms. Jones, their teacher, and I invited kids to chat with each other about their book choices and how they picked their books. 

I begin with my own example, “Folks, I just finished reading How Long ’til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin. The author is a multiple award winner for best fantasy and science fiction, and I have read some of her other work and liked it. I heard about this book of short stories on Twitter. I would say I picked this book because of its author.”  I write “Ways to Find and Choose a Book” on the white board, and scrawl “author” as the first bullet. “You may have chosen your book today because of its author, too. You may have chosen it because of some other reason. Spend a few minutes talking with your table groups about the books you picked today. How did you learn about the book or discover it? How did you decide you wanted to read it?”

After students talk for five minutes or so, Ms. Jones and I invite students to create a list of the resources and skills they used to find books in the library. You will recognize many of their ideas from your own browsing history.

Ways to Find and Choose a Book

Author/Ilustrator

Recommendations (online and in person)

Cover

Title

Genre

TV Shows and Movies

Series

Awards and Lists

Topic

Length

Mood

Reading the blurb or jacket copy

Reading a few pages

Skimming the book (looking at chapter headings, illustrations, back matter)

Most adult readers have used all of these resources or strategies at some point in our reading lives! Students with fewer reading experiences and practice self-selecting books may depend on one or two strategies for finding books and use them again and again—relying on covers or a quick skim to lead them successfully to a good book. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

After creating and discussing students’ suggestions, you can fill in any resources they may have missed by referring to other books you know they have liked or resources you have shared like library databases. Elementary students may have a less-extensive list more appropriate for their age and reading experiences. Revisit your chart with students before your next library visit and use this list during conferences to support students who struggle with book selection. Challenge students to seek out recommendations, read a few pages, or read outside of their genre preferences. As students practice different methods for finding books to read, their book choices will become more consistently successful and personal. 

Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas. She is the author or co-author of several books about encouraging students to read and creating successful reading communities at school and home including, The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass, 2009), Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013), and Game Changer! Book Access for All Kids (Scholastic, 2018). Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer and holiday reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter @donalynbooks.

 

3 Reading Response Categories to Genuinely Engage Students with Texts

by Marilyn Pryle, 2020 Conference Speaker

If you walked into my classroom, you would see students who voice their opinions, who freely ask questions, and who make all kinds of connections; you’d see students who focus on language and craft, who examine texts through the use of literary devices and archetypes and even formal literary criticism, and who constantly refer to the texts as they discuss. They do these things consistently, organically, and always in variety, based on their own inklings, curiosities, and interests.

         It wasn’t always this way. I used to assign a reading and then give students comprehension questions to check their understanding. But the use of Reading Responses has transformed my entire approach to teaching textual analysis. With the Reading Response system, each student can—and is expected to—bring his or her real self to the table.

         By writing and sharing Reading Responses, instead of simply “finding the answer,” as one would with a set of comprehension questions, the goal is to contribute to the discussion. What’s the difference? When your only goal is to contribute to the discussion, you can be wrong. You can ask a “dumb” question. You can give your opinion freely. You can use your life—your outside reading, your knowledge about TV and movies, your family stories. You care about your groupmates’ thoughts, perhaps, and not just “what the teacher wants.” Will you arrive at “The Right Answers”? Some, for sure. But more importantly, you will meander along the path of deep thinking, the road that leads to evidence-based interpretation rooted in personal experience, prior knowledge, and engagement. The road, perhaps, of personal growth. And isn’t that why we all teach in the first place? If we can get students to be present for their own education, we have succeeded. I call this reading with presence: reading with your whole self, your true self, your memories, your opinions, your willingness to learn and grow.

         Writing Reading Responses (RRs) is a daily or almost-daily practice of having students craft brief, structured responses to whatever text they have read. There are four rules to writing a Reading Response:

  • Choose a category of response, using the list of possible categories, and write the category name at the top of the response.
  • Develop an original thought within that category and write out the thought.
  •  Find, copy, and cite a line, paragraph, or page from the text that relates to the original thought.
  •  Keep writing and thinking for at least five sentences.

         I usually give my students a list of 15 categories to start the year, and add about 15 more as the year goes on. These categories range from topics such as Give an Opinion, Spot the Setting, and Mind the Mood to more advanced topics such as Archetype Alert and Feminist Criticism. The RR categories are meant to be a vehicle to help students think more clearly and deeply about a text; they are the scalpels students can use to dissect the text. I give students a sheet of the category titles and some thinking prompts to go with each. The rest is up to them.

Examples of RR Categories

  • Give an Opinion
  • Ask a Question
  • Make a Connection
  • Language Recognition
  • Theme Recognition 
  • Tell the Tone
  • Mark the Motivation
  • Cite the Claim
  • Interesting Intro 
  • Archetype Alert
  • The Joy of Genre
  • Note the Narrator
  • Feminist Criticism
  • Gender and Queer Theory
  • Critical Race Theory

         Here are three of the most popular categories in my class with their prompts, and student examples of RRs for each:

  1. Give an Opinion: Tell what you think or feel about a certain part, and why.  You could react to an aspect of character, plot, theme, language, tone, style—anything in the text. But you must be specific.      

Give an Opinion for The Eye of Minds (J. Dashner) by Noelle

I think it is really sad that Michael doesn’t miss his parents. In the book it says, “Between school, the Virtnet, and Helga, he hardly had time to miss them” (location 307).  This is depressing. It’s like he doesn’t even know his parents. Every kid should have the chance to love and bond with his or her parents. Michael is completely fine with not connecting with his. It’s almost like he’s taking them for granted, which is something no child should ever do because parents are the ones who provide for the children. 

  1. Make a Connection: A certain point in the text reminds you of another story, poem, movie, song, or something in “real life.”  How are the two alike? Be specific.

Make a Connection for “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” (Li Po) by Callie

Li Po’s poem “The River Merchant’s Wife” reminds me of Taylor Swift’s song “Come Back… Be Here.” Po’s poem tells of a young girl who at first resists her marriage, but then learns to love and depend on her husband (“I desired my dust to be mingled with yours / Forever and forever and forever” lines 12-13). So when her husband leaves for business, she feels isolated and old. Likewise, Taylor Swift’s song is about how at first she didn’t want to be attached to her partner, but she did. So when he left her, it ruined her. Swift sings, “And this is when the feeling sinks in / I didn’t want to miss you like this / come back… be here.” Both the poem and the song show longing for a partner that is gone. 

  1. Language Recognition: You notice some engaging sensory details, a simile or metaphor, some onomatopoeia or alliteration, some parallelism, or something else. Whatever you notice, quote it, and explain how it adds to the text. Does it contribute to the mood or characterization? Does it relate to a theme? Could it have a deeper meaning? What would that be?

Language Recognition for The Young Elites (M. Lu) by Isabel

I think the description of Gemma’s laugh is a beautiful description that gives powerful insight to her character. On page 185, paragraph 6, the laugh is described as “a bright ringing sound, the laugh of someone who’s loved.” The sound of the laugh suggests to me that Gemma is an optimist, as well as surrounded by friends and family. Also, this is amazing personality expressed in this laugh is probably going to draw Adelina and her closer. As well as this, the wording in this description was so well done, one could almost hear the laughter for themselves. Gemma could be well analyzed by her marvelous giggle.

***

         Once students have written an RR or two about a text, they have something to say in class.  It may be a minor point, or it may be a major point, but it is a concrete thought and it is tied to a specific part of the text. No longer can a student say, “I don’t know” when asked to react to a reading. When given time to write, and a list of choices to scaffold their reactions, all students can come up with something.

         With Reading Responses, class time becomes a time of meaningful discovery. Students do not passively ingest information but actively create it through their own thinking and discussion. The role of the teacher becomes one of backstage facilitation, expert clarification, and joyful encouragement. RRs are like cinder blocks—small and concrete, manageable for one person to carry. But when used together, all manner of building becomes possible.

Marilyn Pryle is a tenth-grade world literature teacher at Abington Heights High School in Clarks Summit, PA. She is the author of Reading with Presence (Heinemann) and 50 Writing Activities for Meeting Higher Standards (Scholastic). Her work centers around giving students the tools to find their own voices in reading and writing. She was recently named Pennsylvania’s 2019-2020 Teacher of the Year. Find her at marilynpryle.com and @MPryle on Twitter.

 

 

Innovation Matters

by Regie Routman, 2020 Conference Speaker

When one thinks of innovation, what comes to mind? Imagination, ingenuity, courage, careful study and reflection, questioning the evidence, a new way of doing things, a willingness to fail, ground-breaking thinking, the thrill of discovery. All of these. In education, specifically, innovation must go beyond inventive actions and increased student achievement to include students’ growing self-reliance, confidence, competence, and optimism for what’s possible in their learning lives—in and out of school. Perhaps, most importantly, innovation must be connected to equity. Is the innovation creating greater opportunity for all our students?

Responsible innovation requires us to be responsible educators who view ongoing, high level professional learning as a necessity. As such, we carefully read, study, reflect, and collaborate with colleagues. We take a leadership role in our schools to speak out and ensure that careful study and reflection underpin all innovative decisions and actions. Based on deep knowledge and application of credible research and principled practices—as well as knowing our students well—we teachers and administrators then create, often with student input, actions and lessons and projects that engage students’ hearts and minds as well as the prescribed curriculum and standards. Teachers are not just “making up” cute projects that keep students busy. Through trial and error and deep knowledge and experience, we work to figure out ways to ensure expert teaching and assessing—which includes responsible innovation– focus on students’ strengths, interests, and passions before tackling students’ needs.

My first major innovation came about more than 30 years ago when I was working as a “pull-out” reading specialist in a high poverty school where 90% of the students were African-American and where the majority of first graders were failing to learn to read with commercial “basal” texts, skills-in-isolation lessons, and worksheets. Feeling distraught and frustrated, due mostly to educators’ low expectations and lack of urgency to do better for students, I took a leap of faith and submitted to the superintendent of schools a thoughtful, research-based proposal. That “First Grade Book Flood” detailed a radical departure at that time—teaching reading and writing through the best of children’s literature and daily journal writing in a classroom where a rich, relevant, and accessible library formed the centerpiece. No commercial reading texts, no worksheets, no scripted teaching. Lots of reading aloud of great fiction and nonfiction literature, shared reading, shared writing, book talk, celebrating students’ stories, and publishing children’s writing. As co-teacher for each morning in a first grade classroom, we deliberately and systematically embedded systematic and explicit phonics and skills work, throughout the day, primarily using the familiar real-world texts we and our students were creating, writing, reading, and singing–together and on their own. As is true today, the pressure to raise test scores on required standardized tests remained unrelenting.

The overwhelming success of that literacy and learning story, which resulted in myriad, positive outcomes—including high test scores in reading–is detailed in my first book, Transitions: From Literature to Literacy (Heinemann 1988.) I have now written about twelve books for educators, and all include innovative practices that I developed based on knowing and respecting students, their backgrounds, and their cultures as well as avidly reading and reflecting on current research and “best practices.” Just as I do today, we connected curriculum requirements and standards to real-world learning, always with the ongoing intent of bringing more meaning, relevance, and joy into teaching and learning. And, as has always been true, high test scores became a by-product of engaging, excellent, and equitable teaching and learning in a healthy, trusting school culture.

My heartbreak today is that decades later, for a whole host of reasons, we are still dealing with “reading wars”, educational inequities, segregated schools, scripted programs, too much testing and test prep, over-identification of and labeling of students for intervention, overwhelmed teachers suffering from learned helplessness—all amidst random acts of professional development for exhausted teachers. We must shift our priorities from focusing on quick results on superficial content to favor deeper learning on significant topics, which have real-world application. There are no shortcuts here. Excellent, embedded professional learning, what I call Professional LITERACY Communities, are a schoolwide necessity. Although the political landscape has always been perilous when it comes to learning to read, if we are knowledgeable and courageous we can individually and collectively take action–now. If we are a part of changing even just one student’s life in a positive and lasting way, that is a success of which we can be proud.

Screen Shot 2020-01-12 at 6.30.39 PM
Courtesy of Kristopher Roller at Unsplash

Innovation is what all expert teachers do each time we are responsive to students’ strengths, interests, and needs– before, during, and after instruction and assessment. Innovation results when we thoughtfully adjust, create, and modify our instruction so students learn more. Innovation is not about “buying new stuff,” having everyone “on the same page”, or finding quick and required ways to “measure” achievement. Innovative teaching is also not about mastering skills or passing tests or following a program with fidelity. Innovation in schools is about creating, re-creating, and sustaining a thriving culture that promotes deep thinking on important topics and makes learning more engaging, assessable, meaningful, and equitable for all students. Responsible innovation introduces better ideas, processes, and products that ensure every student finds a way into learning that respects and upholds their dignity, strengths, and intelligence.

Consider using the following questions to self-reflect and speak out, as necessary, before adopting any new innovation, including technology:

  • Will the innovation substantively enrich, improve, and/or accelerate efficiency, effectiveness, and excellence in teaching and learning?
  • Does the innovation promote equitable access to all learners?
  • Who benefits from the innovation? Who might be hurt or disadvantaged by it?
  • Does the innovation lead learners to become more competent, self-reliant, reflective learners?
  • Does the innovation meaningfully enrich students’ lives and increase joy in teaching and learning?
  • Do the benefits of the innovation outweigh any problematic issues or outcomes?
  • What are you and your colleagues doing to make responsible innovation an integral part of teaching, learning, and assessing?

The innovations described in Transitions and in my subsequent books and resources flourished in classrooms—and continue to succeed today– because they are grounded in a deep knowledge of literacy and learning, a respect for the dignity and potential of all learners, and because we create a safe and intellectual culture that allows for “productive failure” for full-out efforts. You can do this too! In spite of mandates, restrictions, and too many requirements and tests, it is still possible to find innovative ways to put students first, to maintain some sanity, and put common sense and joy back into teaching and learning.

For much more information—and practical application–on innovations, attend Regie’s 2020 CCIRA session: “INNOVATION MATTERS: How Bold Thinking Saved My Teaching, My Students, and My Life—and how that can be true for you too.”

Regie Routman works side by side with teachers, administrators, and students in underperforming schools and districts to raise expectations, accelerate reading and writing achievement, and bring joy and authenticity into teaching and learning. She is the author, most recently, of Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for AllLearners (Stenhouse, 2018) For full information on Regie’s many books and resources and to contact her go to www.regieroutman.org and @regieroutman on Twitter and Facebook.

Deliberate Practice Makes the Reader

by Gravity Goldberg and Renee Houser       Gravity Goldberg is a 2020 Conference Speaker

Your weekly planner is all mapped out and includes daily time for whole class read alouds, minilessons, small group instruction and independent reading. The promise of a new week makes you smile. “This week I’ll get to it all,” you say to yourself. And then the week begins- unplanned for parent meetings, a fire drill, the student who threw up in class and the fact that you didn’t plan for any of these interruptions means you feel

Screen Shot 2019-12-17 at 5.36.17 AM
Courtesy of Kelly Sikkema at Unsplash

seriously behind. What’s the first thing you let go from your plans? For most, it is independent reading. We tend to believe that the minutes where we are in front of students talking are the most effective, yet research doesn’t necessarily support this. 

 

We argue that independent reading, when supported by conferring, is actually the most important part of a reader’s day. While there is research to support the power of independent reading in terms of choice, volume, and motivation (https://www2.ncte.org/statement/independent-reading/), when coupled with conferring it also aligns with the research on deliberate practice. It is the daily practice itself that makes independent reading so effective at cultivating a reader’s mindset as well as developing reading skills. 

Dr. Ericsson, a prominent psychologist in the field of performance, has published widely and his research reveals several key findings about what sorts of practice lead to expertise. In the following chart we connect some of his findings about deliberate practice to independent reading and conferring.

Characteristics of Deliberate Practice

Connection to Independent Reading/Conferring

Most practice should happen independently and not with others. Independent reading is time spent reading on your own.Conferring supports the solo practice of reading by focusing on the reader not the book.
There needs to be clear goals. Independent reading is a time when students get to know themselves well and can reflect on the goals that can help them continue to grow. Conferring can be a place to set goals with students about the kind of reader they want to be and the kind of reading they want to do.
The practice itself needs to adjust for difficulty level. Across the year during independent reading, students read different genres and for different purposes so they continue to experience opportunities for growth. Conferring helps students adjust by taking on more challenging texts, strategies, and deeper thinking than they could do totally on their own.
Learners need immediate feedback and reflection. Independent reading has a built in process of reflection that readers get better at with experience. Conferring is a time to give student readers feedback about what they are already doing and how it is impacting their reading right now.
Learners need a coach for individualized practice with opportunities for repetition and gradual refinement. Independent reading is not a time to leave students totally on their own without support. Teachers serve as coaches who help students practice the kind of thinking that is helping them make meaning of texts and evolves along with the student reader across the year.

(Supporting Independent Readers, by Gravity Goldberg and Renee Houser)

We encourage you to keep independent reading time sacred and reflect upon how well you and your student readers are capitalizing on its power. Consider reflecting on the following questions:

  • How often are students reading on their own? 
  • Do students have clear goals about themselves as readers?
  • Are students getting supported regularly with instruction that challenges their thinking and process?
  • How often are students getting feedback, as they read, about their reading process?
  • How are you positioning yourself as a reading coach who gradually does less so students take on more?

References

Ericsson, A. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. New York, NY: Eamon 

Dolan.

Goldberg, G. & Houser, R. (2020). Supporting Independent Readers: 25 Answers to the Most 

Frequently Asked Questions about Conferring. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse. 

NCTE Statement on Independent Reading https://www2.ncte.org/statement/independent-reading/ 

 

Screen Shot 2019-12-17 at 5.31.31 AM

From the start of their collaboration, Gravity Goldberg and Renee Houser have been
deepening their ideas about
how teachers personalize instruction for students. In the years since they worked together as staff developers at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, they have each gone on to found organizations focused on supporting the ongoing professional learning of educators – Renee’s on the west coast, Gravity’s on the east coast. The constant in all their work is to model for teachers how to develop classroom communities where the unique individuality of students is at the center of each instructional decision so that classrooms are brimming with the fullest of possibilities that both teachers and students bring to classroom communities.  They are the authors of the What Do I Teach Readers Tomorrow? books (Corwin Literacy) and Teachers Toolkit for Independent Reading (Stenhouse).

 

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).

Screen Shot 2019-12-03 at 10.33.25 PM

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.