Using Inquiry-Rich Invitations to Ignite Word Learning Across ALL Grades

By Pam Koutrakos

Looking to counteract the current level of stress in the classroom? Wondering about ways to reinvigorate spelling and vocabulary learning? Try extending an invitation… specifically, an invitation for students to actively explore and investigate words! Teachers can use open-ended questions to invite students to discover more about featured sounds, letters, patterns, parts, and words! The playfulness inherent in student-directed exploration acts as “learning mise en place,” setting the conditions for word learning that sticks. These joyful opportunities are not only beneficial for young word learners. Playful, exploratory learning makes sense and matters for humans of all ages! Through this stance, teachers are able to use inquiry-rich invitations to:

  • spark curiosity
  • jumpstart engagement
  • build momentum 
  • nurture creativity and critical thinking

These practices are substantiated by researchers and practitioners. Zaretta Hammond’s work teaches that the brain craves and needs students to be active constructors of learning. Peter Gray’s researched insights highlight the vast cognitive and socio-emotional benefits of play. Ellin Keene’s work around engagement echoes the importance of open-ended and student-initiated learning experiences. Kristi Mraz and Stephanie Parsons remind us of how we open access when we build the structure and framework for learning through discovery. 

What follows are actionable ideas for infusing inquiry-rich invitations into word study. Each creates opportunities for students to feel invested in learning more about sounds, letters, patterns, parts, and words themselves! 

Emerging Word Learners 

Emerging word learners are often found in preschools and primary-grade classrooms. They are naturally curious and need little encouragement to wonder and explore. Creating inquiry-rich invitations for these learners usually involves curating open-ended materials (loose parts) and providing opportunities to manipulate, tinker, contemplate, and create. Common examples of open-ended materials include readily-available resources found outside: sticks, pebbles, acorns, and shells. Additionally, other “loose part” options can be found in most early childhood and elementary classrooms: beads, buttons, counters, blocks, and more. For certain word-themed invitations, teachers might also set out images, letter manipulatives, word cards, etc. Prompts and questions (like those listed below) invite students to contemplate ideas and construct learning by purposefully and creatively using the materials that have been set out. Follow-up instruction and feedback then builds upon and enhances all that was initially learned. Balancing opportunities for discovery with explicit teaching results in deeper and more nuanced understanding. 

Sample Invitations:

These inquiry-fueled questions encourage learners to explore sounds, letters, names, and resource tools. 

  • What do you notice about the sounds you hear?
  • What can you discover about these letters?
  • What can you make with these letters?
  • How could you sort these… (letters, sounds, words)?
  • What’s the same? What’s different? (letters, sounds, words)
  • When do we see these words? Where could we use them? 
  • Why, how, and when would these tools be useful? 

In this classroom, content-aligned Reggio-styled provocations are set out to spark discovery. Students are welcome to explore materials independently or with peers. 

Tip: There’s no need to purchase anything new. Utilize and repurpose readily available loose parts and/or natural materials. These are perfect for word-themed invitations. This Reggio Routines mini-chart (Koutrakos, 2019) is a student-facing tool that can be shared after introducing this kind of learning to students. 

Developing Word Learners 

Very often, students in mid and upper elementary grades are actively developing their word knowledge. Since student-initiated discovery builds interest, motivation, and investment, it makes sense that teachers in these settings would also incorporate inquiry-rich invitations into word study. For example, instead of handing students a list of vocabulary words or directing them to look up definitions, students can instead jumpstart meaningful learning by investigating words/word parts and then sharing their findings with classmates. In as little as ten to fifteen minutes, students can explore sounds, recognize patterns, and begin to develop theories. Additionally, these efficient experiences offer the chance to delve into multiple meanings of words, synonyms, antonyms, cognates, and more. In the days that follow, teachers can then capitalize on this momentum by following-up with explicit instruction, guidance, and opportunities for additional practice. 

Sample Invitations:

These thought-provoking prompts intend to help students actively investigate prioritized vocabulary, words, spelling patterns, and processes for learning: 

  • How will you explore these (letters, patterns, parts, words)? 
  • What similarities and differences do you see? What could this mean? 
  • What theories can you create (and support) about the letters, sounds, and parts of these words?
  • What words “go” with this topic? How are they connected? Which are most important? 
  • Are there any more interesting and precise words with very similar meanings? Which words have very different meanings? 
  • How could these discoveries help you as you read? Write? 
  • How could you share what you discovered? 

This remote-classroom artifact was created as part of a mini-inquiry that intended to jumpstart initial ideas around inflected endings. First, students had the opportunity to explore ideas and share knowledge. Then, the teacher guided the class as they delved further into learning about these affixes.

Tip: Strategically design prompts: ideally, these invitations are flexible enough to be used — and reused— with a variety of patterns and words. Open-ended questions (like those listed above) encourage students to investigate and discover more about words and word parts. Over time, these often become “habit of mind” questions students ask themselves. These two mini-charts: Sort It! Alike or Different and Question Craze (Koutrakos, 2019) are student-facing tools that can be shared after an introductory lesson on mini-inquiries. They remind students of their role in activating their own learning and supporting peers’ understandings. 

Extending Word Learners

Although time is always a consideration, perhaps the creative use of each minute is most essential when working with middle schoolers and high schoolers. When teachers have one period to integrate all aspects of literacy, high-impact efficiency matters! Content area teachers are also often looking for ways to support understanding and use of domain-specific vocabulary. Authentically embedding word work into all that’s already being done is an effective solution. One example of how to do this is turning “regular” learning stations into conver-stations. For example, in many classrooms, teachers set up different learning experiences, AKA-stations. As students rotate from station to station, small groups actively investigate content area topics by viewing, listening, reading, writing, discussing, building, problem-solving, or creating. With minimal effort, teachers can easily turn these “regular” stations into conver-stations. By doing so, students have repeated and authentic opportunities to infuse domain-specific lingo as they discuss prioritized content— and related wonders, ideas, and takeaways. As an alternative, one station may also simply be presenting an inquiry-rich invitation with some accompanying words to investigate. Less is more: embedding joyful opportunities to explore words never needs to be an extra or add on!

HELPFUL HINT: If the station-rotation model of learning is new for you, check out Dr. Catlin Tucker’s work. Her researched suggestions are incredibly smart and especially helpful during times of remote, hybrid, and blended learning. 

Sample Invitations:

Extending word learners also benefit from delving into word-themed inquiries. Often, these center around affixes, roots, tone, mood, and content-area vocabulary. 

  • How many ways could you strategically sort and categorize these… (patterns, affixes, parts, words)? 
  • What theories can you create about the patterns and parts within these words? How might you clarify, substantiate, or extend these theories? 
  • What other “related” words can you discover? How are they connected? What similarities and differences do you notice? 
  • Where and when will you use what you discovered? 
  • What feelings did you get as you read this piece? What words helped to create that feeling?
  • What words are closely connected to this topic? What words keep coming up in your conversation/reading/writing? Why? 
  • How do you want your reader to react? How could you create this tone? What words will you choose?
  • How could your discoveries contribute to the learning of your classmates? 

 “Which One Doesn’t Belong” is a playful critical thinking routine where students choose which option they believe does not fit – and explain why. It’s important to note that each option represents a correct answer because there are reasons why each could be the outlier. This reading-themed “Which One Doesn’t Belong” conver-station was used to help students collaboratively explore different genres and formats of texts… and the academic language aligned to each. 

Tip: Use ongoing, embedded collaborative inquiry to build community and collective capacity. This Talkin The Talk mini-chart (Koutrakos, 2019) provides a basic understanding of what students do at conver-stations. This Show Off mini-chart (Koutrakos, 2019) is a student-facing tool that can be shared with students after introducing different ways for classmates to teach others what they have learned. 

Essential Follow-up for All Word Learners

Student-driven discovery changes the tone of a classroom. The engagement, excitement, and investment that result from this kind of word play are hard to replicate. Gained insights are vital contributors to overall success. However, please know that these inquiry-rich invitations don’t stand on their own. Teachers also need to strategically nurture, nudge, and deepen initial discoveries. This happens through modeling, direct instruction, and loads of along-the-way feedback. It is the combination of discovery, explicit teaching, and guided learning that yield a deep understanding of the why, what, and how of words and the know-how in how to apply and transfer word knowledge. A commitment to shared ownership recognizes that all members of a class community have the right and responsibility to contribute to collective learning. 

A Final Note

Celebrate the synergy and spirit created through inquiry-rich, collaborative classroom experiences. Widen your lens and reimagine the possibilities for word study. When teachers highlight joy and center students as activators of learning, they simultaneously bolster understanding and create more long lasting success. 

Pam Koutrakos is an educational consultant with Gravity Goldberg, LLC where she works with students, teachers, and administrators PreK- grade 12. She authored Word Study That Sticks: Best Practices K-6 and The Word Study That Sticks Companion: Classroom-Ready Tools for Teachers and Students, K-6. Both include ideas, lessons, resources, and tools for teachers of all subjects. Her third professional text is slated to be released in the coming months. Connect with Pam on Twitter @PamKou and on LinkedIn.

Reflection and Discovery: The Power of Reading Identity in Independent Reading

by  Dr. Jennifer Scoggin and Hannah Schneewind

Over the course of our careers, we have always found reflection a valuable tool in our efforts to match our beliefs to our actions. As young, idealistic, energetic first year teachers, we would often stand in our empty classrooms at the end of the day and reflect on each part of the day.  After a particularly challenging day, our reflections included questions such as: “How did I react in the moment when things went awry? How do I want to handle those moments? What can I do differently tomorrow?”  After a particularly successful day, our questions shifted to: “What did I do that worked today? How can I do that again tomorrow?” As classroom teachers and now as consultants, regardless of how the day goes, our reflective work centers around three key questions of identity:

Who am I as a teacher?  

Who do I want to be as a teacher?  

How do I get there?

Our identities as teachers and learners play a powerful role in how we define (and redefine) ourselves in our work and in the world. Our identities are influenced and shaped in part by those with whom we surround ourselves as well as our school and classroom environments. Our sense of identity guides us to make decisions, to evaluate those decisions and to grow. Our process of becoming the teachers we are today (and the teachers we hope to be tomorrow) is a continuous process of discovery and creation.  

We invite you to take a moment and reflect on your teaching identity.  Think about who you are as a teacher, who you want to be as a teacher and how you are working on getting there.  

Let’s move from thinking about ourselves to thinking about the students in our classrooms. It stands to reason that if our identities as teachers play a key role in our decision making, goals and sense of self-efficacy, the identities of our students must also have a profound impact on their decision making, goals and sense of self-efficacy as readers.

Our readers walk through our doors with literate lives that began before their formal schooling. They have reading identities that are actively developing. Readers’ identities refer to their understanding of what it means to be a particular type of reader, the value they place on reading and how capable students feel as they work to comprehend texts, the value they place on reading (Hall, 2012).  A positive sense of reading identity can inspire more joyful independent reading (Ripp, 2020).  How students learn and how flexibly and confidently students use a range of strategies is influenced both by how they view themselves as readers as well as how they want to be identified by others in the classroom (Hall, 2012, Hall 2010).  Research on students’ academic self-concept delves further into the role of perceptions of competence and difficulty and reveals the ways in which these components are shaped significantly during elementary school (Chapman and Tunmer, 1995).

Reflecting on all of this research and our own experiences, we realized that we wanted to become the kinds of teachers who observe and uncover students’ reading identities and who also are able to talk to students about and nurture their identities. We knew that to get there, we would need more concrete ideas to pursue and a more nuanced working definition to help us name just what we are talking about when we refer to “reading identity.” How did we decide to get there?  By turning to students themselves and asking them to tell us more about themselves as readers.

Over the course of hundreds of reading conferences with students from kindergarten through fifth grade, we listened as students told us the story of their identities as readers.  Using prompts such as “Tell me about yourself as a reader,” and “Who are you as a reader?” to initiate the conversation, we received every response imaginable from shrugs to detailed recounts of a student’s history with the written word.  Over time, we began to notice patterns in students’ responses. We took the words of students and categorized them to develop the a working definition of reading identity.

We define a students’ reading identity as comprised of five aspects: attitude, self-efficacy, habits, book choice and process.  Below is a chart that briefly defines each aspect.

A Working Definition of Reading Identity

AspectDescriptionExamples of what students said
AttitudeA student’s attitude toward reading may be positive or negative. “Reading takes me to different places.”“Sometimes, reading is boring.”“I love reading!  I read all the time!”
Self-efficacyA student’s sense of self-efficacy encompasses how confident they feel in their own abilities. “I’m really good at predicting what is going to happen next.”“I’m bad at reading long books.”“I’m good at remembering everything I learned in a nonfiction book.”
HabitsWhere, how long and with whom the student reads both in and outside of school.“I read at school mostly; at home, I mostly play video games.”“I find the quietest place in my house to read. Sometimes I have to move around until I find a quiet place.”“My older sister reads to me every night.”
Book choiceWhat a student considers when choosing books, such as genre, topic, book length or recommendations.“I like mysteries and fantasy books.”“I chose this book because the librarian recommended it to me and I love astronauts.”“I look at the back to see if the book interests me.”“I flip through the book. If it is too long, I put it back.”
ProcessProcess is the work a student does independently to solve words, read fluently, and comprehend.“I feel sad about the main character’s fight with her best friend.”“When I get to a word I don’t know, I just skip it and keep going.”“I read with gusto. People like to listen to me read.”

Reading identity is not fixed, but fluid and dynamic. As the school year evolves, so might a student’s reading identity. For example, the child who started the year feeling confused when they read chapter books ends the year with multiple strategies for tracking plot. The child who picked only nonfiction books in the beginning falls in love with fantasy. 

As literacy educators, we believe that one of our roles is to uncover the reading identity of our students. We combine what we learn about them as readers with what we know about skills and strategies in order to create relevant, engaging and transferable reading instruction for each child.  Our role is to uncover, reinforce, expand, and in some cases reframe all aspects of students’ reading identities, with the goal of boosting their motivation and, therefore, their success. 

So how do these beliefs and understandings of reading identity transfer to the classroom? To begin incorporating reading identity as a centerpiece of our instruction, we can introduce students to this concept during a whole class inquiry.  As we discuss who we are as readers, we can invite students to think about their identities during these whole class conversations. During independent reading, we can hold individual conferences, which we call Discovery Conferences (Scoggin and Schneewind, 2021), in which we prompt the student to reflect on and share aspects of their reading identity. Finally, we can pick read alouds that encourage conversations about reading identity, such as how students feel about themselves as readers and what makes them feel connected to a book.

Whether we are in person or virtual, nurturing students’ reading identities is a key component for successful, joyful instruction as well as the development of lifelong readers.  As a teacher recently reflected after collaborating with us to host Discovery Conferences, “I learned more about these students in five minutes of those conferences than I have the entire year.” When we invite students to reflect on how they construct themselves as readers, we give them the space to reveal insights that we can leverage into powerful possibilities for instruction. 


Chapman, J.  and Tunmer, W. (1995). Development of Young Children’s Reading     Self-Concepts: An Examination of Emerging Subcomponents and TheirRelationship With Reading Achievement. Journal in Educational Psychology, 87(1), 154-167.

Hall, L.A. (2012). The Role of Reading Identities and Reading Abilities in Students’ Discussions About Texts and Comprehension Strategies, Journal of Literacy Research, 44(3), 239-272.

Hall, L.A. (2010). The Negative Consequences of Becoming a Good Reader: Identity Theory as a Lens for Understanding Struggling Readers, Teachers, and Reading Instruction. Teachers College Record, 112(7), 1792-1829.

Ripp, Pernille (2018).  Passionate Readers: The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every ChildRoutledge: New York, NY.

Scoggin, J. and Schneewind, H. (2021).  Trusting Readers: Powerful Practices for Independent Reading.  Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH

Dr. Jennifer Scoggin has been a teacher, author, speaker, curriculum writer, and literacy consultant.  Jennifer’s interest in the evolving identities of both students and teachers and her growing obsession with children’s literature led her to and informs her work. 

Hannah Schneewind has been a teacher, staff developer, curriculum writer, keynote speaker and national literacy consultant. She brings with her over 25 years of experience to the education world. Hannah’s interest in student and teacher agency and her belief in the power of books informs her work with schools.

Together, Jen and Hannah are the co-creators of Trusting Readers (@TrustingReaders), a group dedicated to collaborating with teachers to design high quality literacy opportunities that invite all students to be engaged and to thrive as readers and writers.

In the Zone: Time for Independent Reading

By Lynne R Dorfman

There are many reasons why we should give our students daily time to read on their own. Daily independent reading time provides the opportunity for students to experiment with and develop the skills and strategies that teachers demonstrate during the minilesson. Try to block out twenty minutes of independent reading daily, especially for upper elementary grades. You can always start with a smaller amount of time or adjust the time according to grade level needs and what might be sustainable for your students. If you begin with ten minutes and everyone is still reading at the end of that time, try giving the class an additional five minutes. This block of time allows students to enter what Atwell calls “the reading zone” – that space in time when students get “lost in a book” and are not aware of the passing of time (The Reading Zone: How to Help Kids Become Skilled, Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers, 2016). 

Establishing the Reading Habit

It is during daily independent reading time that students build stamina and endurance for reading. This is particularly important for our striving readers. Of course, opportunities to read across the day include guided reading lessons, science and social studies time and more. Many teachers assign some amount of independent reading as homework each night. Our challenged readers do not rush home from school to curl up with a good book. We cannot be sure they are actually doing any reading at home. It’s understandable that busy parents may sign reading logs without really checking in with their children. But if we build in time to read independently at school, we can help students find a good book (if they need that help) and observe readerly behaviors to help them become more skilled at being a proficient reader.  Independent reading block is a time for students to consciously and subconsciously practice the strategies and skills they’ve learned in minilessons, and it’s the time when teachers are differentiating instruction through roving conferences and small-group instruction. In Good Choice!: Supporting Independent Reading and Response K-6, author/educator Tony Stead reminds us that when we create “a time for independent reading from the onset of the school year, children not only build up stamina for reading, but also see it as an important and pleasurable component of their daily lives (2008, 5).”  In part, our students learn to read by reading. With access to a wonderful classroom and school library and daily time to read books they select to read, students will grow as readers and develop a lifelong reading habit.

 Anchor Charts for Reflection

Independent reading time is sacred time in the reader’s workshop. It is the specific time set aside for children to engage in reading books they have chosen for their own purpose. Setting this expectation is important. Taking the time in the beginning of the year to help children understand the work they will do during this time, and how, will help you accomplish your goals for this time and increase student independence in the workshop. You might consider bringing the class together to create an anchor chart that lists what the reading workshop looks like, sounds like, and feels like. For children who have had workshop experience, this exercise reminds them of reading habits that have been used successfully in previous classrooms. It becomes a place to begin and can be added to throughout the year. Children who are newer to a workshop format will need more time and teacher modeling to learn habits that increase reading stamina and reading focus. One strategy for grades 1 – 3 is to send them off to read independently for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, the class can regroup on the floor or at their seats to create an anchor chart of actions that has helped their independent reading time and of actions that has hindered their reading time. This chart can be posted as a reminder of what they as a class have determined were the expectations for independent reading time. The children become the standard setters and have ownership of this time. 

Building Stamina is Key

Helping children read independently for extended periods of time is one goal for the workshop. Jennifer Serravallo reminds us in her book The Reading Strategies Book: Your Everything Guide to Developing Skilled Readers (Heinemann, 2015) if children are not reading during independent reading time they will not make the progress we are hoping for and working for. “Engagement is everything.” (pg. 44) Helping children increase their stamina – the amount of time children can sustain their reading – becomes part of the work done in independent reading time. Children need realistic time expectations and strategies to help them increase their reading stamina. These strategies become procedural mini-lessons, small group instruction opportunities, or individual conference focus points. 

Strategies to build stamina can range from finding a smart place to read in order to concentrate to figuring out your next steps. If you’re planning to read for research purposes, then you are thoughtfully gathering your tools and resources to sustain stamina for the work at hand. One strategy you might try is creating a class graph that shows the number of minutes the class read during independent reading time. Children will see the bars grow over time and feel their success as a community of readers. Older children are able to keep their own graphs. These children are often capable of noting specifically the number of minutes they were actually reading and when they were engaged in an activity that took their eyes off the text. (For example, when they were engaged in creating a written response, a book club discussion, or small group instruction.) Reading the graph and drawing conclusions from the data is important and could be used to set class goals as well as individual goals. Ask children to record the number of minutes they read at home. Setting a specific amount of time for your students is a way to start and be sure to tell them, “I expect you to read at home.” As the year progresses, remove the specific amount of time and just ask your students to record how many minutes of reading was done at home and the number of pages. This information is valuable and can be used to discuss stamina progress with students, book choices, and places to read. Keeping track of time and page numbers can help children see their stamina grow. 

One more thought about stamina. Not all kids can sit for extended periods of time — they need to move! We need to set reasonable and realistic goals for the group of children we are teaching. But there will always be the child who needs more specific strategies. Teaching students what to do when they lose focus is important to maintaining reading time. In a conference, establish a time frame for taking a break while reading independently. Giving students a set amount of time to read and establishing a signal system for movement helps you maintain your conferring schedule. It may also keep these need-to-stretch-and-move students reading for most of the allotted independent reading time. In the beginning a goal could be 10 minutes of reading with a quick standing stretch. Helping children recognize when they start to lose their reading focus, and giving them strategies to re-enter the text, is a way to increase their stamina as well as focus. Teach students to place sticky notes in the text to indicate where to stop reading and make a comment, ask a question, create a quick sketch, offer an opinion, or make a prediction. When students learn how to self-monitor, they can make good decisions. For example, some students may realize that their book choice often hinders their reading stamina and ability to focus on the text. These students should learn when to abandon a book in favor of another and how to choose books more appropriate for their interests and reading level. Examining a child’s reading habits; location, time, and book choice can help you and the child create goals that will increase stamina and bring greater joy to independent reading time. 

What the Teacher is Doing

Kid-watching or information gathering (Goodman and Owocki, 2002) can be about students’ progress, understanding, strengths and challenges, cooperation, reading habits, and attitude. Most of the time will be spent in observing students’ readerly behavior and noting it while you are clipboard cruising. During the first six to ten minutes of independent reading time, everyone is silent. As you circulate, you can observe students who are flipping back to reread or review information or the storyline events or who are staring at one page for a long period of time. Some readers may jot notes or write in their response journals. You may notice certain students who move quickly through their pile of selected books, from one to the other, without ever really reading any of them. Others will be deeply engrossed in one book and stay with it all week or even for a two-week period until it is finished.  You may start to understand that some students are engaged in “fake reading” – simply turning pages to be compliant. Others “read” the illustrations and text features. Jot important observations on sticky notes and transfer to an electronic file or notebook when you have a chance, preferably that same day.  Your notebook can have two columns – one for the sticky note(s) and date and the other column for you to translate into possible minilessons for the whole group, opportunities to extend learning through small group instruction, or future reading goals. Kid watching also leads to other work a teacher does to differentiate instruction during independent reading time – the work of conferring and feedback.

The Heart of Reading Workshop

We value reading. As readers ourselves we look for extended times to sit and read. This is something we strive to give our students in the workshop setting. Some of you will remember the Sustained Silent Reading practice (SSR) or Drop Everything and Read (DEAR time). You may have experienced this as a student or perhaps have taught using this practice. In a classroom that practices SSR, children read for extended periods of time from a book of their choice and so does the teacher. In a readers’ workshop, independent reading time offers more than just reading time. In a workshop approach, you will see teachers observing the readerly behavior of their students, conferring, and offering feedback. You may see a teacher interrupt her independent readers to deliver a mid-workshop teaching point or offer praise to spur them on.  Teachers will sometimes guide or model the book selection process (when it is necessary), monitor use of skills and strategies, teach small groups, hold roving conferences, and help their readers set goals. This work happens during independent reading time… the time every student can get “lost in the zone” reading something they love. Independent reading time. This is the heart of reading workshop.


Atwell, Nancie and Ann Atwell Merkel. 2016. The Reading Zone: How to Help Kids Become Skilled, Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers. 2nd ed. Scholastic Professional Books.

Goodman, Yetta and Gretchen Owocki. 2001.  Kidwatching: Documenting Children’s Literacy Development 1st Ed. Heinemann. 

Serravallo, Jennifer. 2015. The Reading Strategies Book; Your Everything Guide to Developing Skilled Readers. Heinemann.

Stead, Tony. 2008. Good Choice!: Supporting Independent Reading and Response K-6. Stenhouse.

Lynne R. Dorfman is an independent literacy consultant and an adjunct professor for Arcadia University. She enjoys her role as a co-editor for PAReads: Journal of Keystone State Literacy Association. Lynne has co-authored many books for Stenhouse Publishers, including Welcome to Writing Workshop: Engaging Today’s Students with a Model That Works and Mentor Texts: Teaching Writing Through Children’s Literature, K-6. Her latest manuscript, Welcome to Reading Workshop with Brenda Krupp, will be published in 2022.  Lynne enjoys writing poetry, taking her Welsh Corgis for walks, and planting flowers. She often vacations on Long Beach Island and Niagara-on-the-Lake. Lynne is planning a trip to Boulder, Colorado in 2022 with her husband and dear friends. She cannot wait!

Share Small Moments: Priming Students to Tell Their Stories

By Nawal Qarooni Casiano

“What ARE you wearing?” Shayla said, pointing to my matching tank and shorts outfit in the school hallway, where I shoved binders into a backpack for class. “It’s SO ugly. It looks like someone threw up all over you. And it shows your hairy legs.” I remember my quivering lip. I remember trying hard not to cry. I remember looking around quickly to see who might have heard.  It was a top and bottom in dusty colors with squiggly lines and geometric shapes. My mother had bought the outfit for me after I told her everyone in sixth grade had getups in patterns. Theirs were from the GAP and the Limited Too. Mine were not. 

This is a story I often use when modeling small moments with students in elementary classrooms, and its result almost always leads to students writing about bullying, difference and identity. My vulnerable storytelling opens doors for students to share their emotional moments. Teacher vulnerability in writing workshop builds connections with students, generates trust that primes students to learn, and cultivates a learning stance in students that reaches beyond classroom walls.  

The power of storytelling exposes vulnerability for the most valuable learning: the kind of learning that lingers beyond a single conversation. When I was a newspaper reporter, my editor would say “ You’re the best street reporter we’ve got,” which he attributed to my delivery of personal anecdotes before interviewing others, leading to instant connections with strangers. My unintentional vulnerability  opened doors to discussion and aligned me with humanity, whether I realized what I was doing or not. 

Bring Authenticity: Connecting Through Story

When teachers make connections to students in little and large ways- from preferences in food to bigger reflections from their lives- students are more likely to feel comfortable, safe, and as a result, ready to learn. Teachers’ abilities to think back to their own childhood experiences and bring those moments alive in writing workshop paves the way for students to voice their own similar moments – from times they were bullied to when their behaviors were unkind; from when their pets died to when their birthday parties felt euphoric; from when they fell into a snowbank to when they broke a bone as a result of roughhousing. When teachers boldly brainstorm opinions they have, it gives students license to be equally assertive. Thinking across writing genres, teachers can pre-think their vulnerable moments, creating a bank of ideas that will feel useful in instruction and relationship-building.

“Psychologists have long known that self-disclosure is one of the hallmarks of intimate, trusting relationships,” writes Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. She calls this move “selective vulnerability,” connected to “trust generators.” 

“Turns out storytelling is one of the universal ways people connect and get to know each other around the world. The human brain is hardwired for stories,” Hammond writes.

Bringing authenticity to teaching amplifies the content. Welcoming humanity in school spaces instead of relegating personhood to lives after the bell rings gives permission to students to bring their full personalities too.

“Neuroscience tells us the brain feels safest and relaxed when we are connected to others we trust to treat us well,” Hammond writes.

There is no need for perfection. There is a need for authenticity.  During the pandemic, when teachers and students are coping with the weight of multiple traumas, when educators feel pressure to combat false narratives of learning loss, it is even more imperative that we slow down and lay bare our humanity. 

Cultivate Idea Generation: Mining Your Stories

Oftentimes, teachers I coach say they’re not prepared with stories from their pasts, particularly from the age group they teach, that can be called to mind readily in front of children. Or, educators worry their ideas will run dry when modeling live writing during mini-lessons. In my work as a classroom teacher and literacy coach, I have thought about ways to pre-plan and think through purposeful moments of vulnerability. 

A colleague and accomplished public speaker recently shared that he has several stories from his life written out and depending on context, pieces are moved like Legos in an architectural feat. Like a puzzle, with pre-brainstormed ideas of meaningful moments, he is able to build a story of significance that stays in the minds of participants long after the speech has ended. 

This is why it’s useful for educators to brainstorm outside of the classroom moments, opinions and expertise from their lives they would be willing to share and write about in literacy instruction. Alongside teachers during planning sessions, we share stories and jot down our most hilarious or tear-jerking moments. This exercise strengthens my relationship as a coach to my teachers, and it also serves as a model for teachers connecting with students in instruction too. 

While I use this mapping template to guide our thinking and conversations, simple lists work just as well. The purpose is to isolate nuggets of color and interest from our pasts that make us the beautifully varied, unique individuals we are. We might even leave a brainstorming bubble blank, without a heading, and allow for free-flowing idea generation. You’ll see several examples from teachers in Illinois schools below.

We use a general list of guiding questions to support our thinking, and I am careful to nudge our story collection back to when we were students’ age as often as we can. Though valid and worthy wedding and baby delivery moments inevitably bubble up, I use those gems as opportunities to get to know my teachers better – not necessarily for writing instruction. When modeling vulnerability stories with students, they are able to better relate when our moments are not from our adult lives, so recollecting about the time I threw gum in Abby’s hair on a dare then felt deeply remorseful (still haunts me) and telling of the time my sister and I bathed our dolls in the toilet (big, big trouble) prove more valuable for students. 

  • When I was in the grade(s) I teach, what moments stood out to me? 
  • What moments do I seem to come back to over and over again?
  • When was a time as a child when I felt a strong emotion? 
  • What moments have felt hard for me, where I overcame a challenge or consistently struggled? 
  • What lessons did I learn about life when I was a child? 
  • Where in my life can I model for students my humanity and emotion? 
  • What opinions do I have that I want to share? 
  • What can I teach students about life – outside of curriculum- that I can weave into conversations? 
  • What hobbies or interests am I an expert in that I can share with my students? 
  • What places have I been that I want my students to learn about too?

When a teacher I coach knew two students in her class were coping with divorce, she purposefully modeled in writing workshop about the time when she, as a child, was forced to wear pants she hated because she lived between households. She not only built trust and connection between herself and her students, but made space for her students to share their own emotional moments connected to separating parents. 

Another teacher shared about the moment when her husband told her their dog couldn’t walk anymore because he was really sick, spurring students in her class to write with specificity about losing their own pets. Her modeling allowed for students to tell of their emotions with a level of detail and introspection she felt was attributed to her willingness to share so emotionally first as a model. 

It was in the texture of their storytelling that students were primed for learning and connected on a deep level to the instruction as a result. 

Model Perseverance: Highlight Moments of Challenge

One of the most vulnerable types of stories to share with students is when we  dealt with adversity and moments of challenge. In addition to building a more trusting classroom, opening a door for children to be vulnerable with their whole selves, stories of grit, in particular, have implications for the learning brain. Beyond strengthening writing instruction, powerful storytelling around struggles and mistakes enhances all areas of instruction by serving as a model of perseverance for students. Furthermore, there is research to show that students can grow the part of the brain that controls emotions, vulnerability, and fear if they venture into unfamiliar situations and push themselves to try.

In the first decade of life the neuroplasticity of the brain allows for the most stretch and growth, says JoAnn Deak, a neuroscientist and author of the children’s book Your Fantastic Elastic Brain. When things are hard, our brains signal the part that needs more practice. In the book, she likens the growing brain to a rubber band; when an activity or emotion feels most difficult, that is precisely when we must work harder. Sharing this with students in the context of storytelling about challenges we faced helps students see that imperfection is ideal; hardship breeds growth; and continued practice cultivates strength. 

A classroom teacher I coach recently told me when he shared stories of dancing tap and jazz as a child, a student opened up about taking dance too. When he shared vulnerability about being a boy who loved musicals and dancing, so too did this  young writer in his classroom. Together, they talked about how they might avoid their fears, even if it felt uncomfortable.  “He opened up to me…even if he wasn’t comfortable opening up to classmates.”  These are the trust generators that cultivate spaces where students feel more comfortable expressing themselves, taking risks, and learning, particularly in instances of resilience.

As teachers, we must be willing to share what feels difficult for us, and tell students stories about times we overcame – or continued to struggle. This form of selective vulnerability breeds familiarity and connection but moreover, allows students to see teachers as human and imperfect. Vulnerability is necessary for deep learning to occur, as it breeds curiosity, relationship building, trust and understanding of our more complete humanity. 

Build Trust, Grow Minds

When I was young, in a desperate attempt to assimilate and be just like everyone else in my class, I ceaselessly begged my parents for a gerbil. After months of pleas, they finally relented, and when I was in Kindergarten, we brought home a dark brown, palm-sized gerbil. We named him Brownie. 

He would be dead less than 24-hours later, drowned in a too-big water bowl. My sister and I found him floating face down. When we discovered him, we woke the household up with our screams.

This is a story of sadness and quite frankly, of horror, as we went from elated and jubilant to devastated, sickened, and riddled with a heavy guilt- in such a short amount of time. We felt deeply irresponsible for having caused an end to Brownie’s short life. Even writing about it now makes my stomach roil. But I use it in the classroom to share with students why and how I grew from those feelings. I use it to connect, cry, and question. 

Oral storytelling traditions go back long before humans could read or write. Because the human brain is hardwired for stories, when teachers share personal anecdotes in the classroom, trusting bridges are built, and students are better positioned to learn. Being vulnerable spurs students to share more easily stories about themselves. Educators can pre-plan vulnerable moments to share outside of live classroom time, behind the scenes, as part of curricular planning. In fact, keeping a bank of anecdotes and opinions at the ready is useful to purposefully build community and classroom relationships. 

As teachers, our instincts might be to present ourselves to students as the all-knowing sages without flaw or fault. We often aim to show ourselves as perfect, maybe even without colorful histories and experiences. But unveiling our vulnerabilities, trials and travails through storytelling not only primes students for learning, it cultivates space for students to be unguarded too. And in that space, powerful learning happens.


Deak, JoAnn. Your Fantastic Elastic Brain. Little Pickle Press 2010.

Hammond, Zarretta. Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. Corwin 2015. 

Nawal Qarooni Casiano is an award-winning journalist and educator with experience in New York City and Chicago schools. Forever passionate about growing readers, writers and thinkers, Nawal was a classroom teacher, curriculum developer and literacy coach before launching NQC Literacy in 2014. She and her team at NQC Literacy facilitate tailored professional development, coaching and staff learning experiences around literacy practices in schools and districts. You can find her in Chicago’s Logan Square or online at and on Twitter @NQCLiteracy

In the Spirit of Literacy

By Fran Haley

I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battles or politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit. — John F. Kennedy

I’ve been thinking a lot about the human spirit and what it means to be a literacy educator. 

Sometimes the work can be spirit-crushing: Navigating the ever-changing tides of literacy instruction. Keeping a foothold while major pedagogical approaches fall in and out of vogue like flavors of the day. Straddling the continuously-shifting tectonic plates of standards and curriculums. Sustaining a vision for who your students are and all they can be, recognizing that data points on graphs can never tell the whole story of living, breathing, unique individuals. Surviving professional development that is often dictated rather than designed to meet your own needs or interests. Feeling like an island when opinions and methodologies clash. And all this before the advent of COVID-19, before the mad scramble to online teaching, before becoming a daily onscreen presence in student homes, before losing contact with students as families cope with shutdowns, before the still-escalating illness and loss of life, including that within one’s own circles of family, friends, and associates, before the devastating, divisive, demoralizing year that was 2020.

While this work is not without its own particular “battles or politics,” it is also a story of the triumph of the human spirit. When our times reinvented education, we educators reinvented teaching. As if by some magic (but I know better), teachers instantaneously produced magnificent digital resources, toolboxes, and tips that were shared freely. I have never been more grateful for my network of literacy colleagues close to home and across the globe, nor prouder to be numbered among you in this unfolding story. As teachers of reading and writing, we know the power of words. We know that as we shape the emerging readers and writers of our times, they shall shape those to come.

So, when I was asked recently what teachers are facing in regard to literacy and what is most needed, I responded: “A great lot of pressure at present. We have to able to relax some and find joy in our work.”

Today I am altering my answer a bit.

We need to make room for awe.

Let me explain.

Quite of its own accord, awe decided to be my defining word for this new year. When I turned the pages of my planner from December to January, I discovered a tiny subscript: Experiencing awe (the feeling of being in the presence of something bigger than you) can improve your physical health and make you feel more altruistic. There was another sentence about intentionally creating awe; I will get to that in a moment.

Those words speak to me on several levels. First of all, I’d never thought of awe as being beneficial to one’s health or as something that stirred a deeper concern for the well-being of others. I do know, however, that at the heart of teaching lies a recognition of being in the presence of something bigger than yourself. It shines from a kindergartener’s eyes; it is in the spontaneous song of the adolescent. It is also in the timbre of a voice of someone you love. It is the thing that makes any human strive to create something powerful, meaningful, and lasting, even in the crucible of chaos. Awe is the deep language of the human spirit. It is what we experienced when the world paused long enough to listen to the words of a young poet reciting for a new president. 

Have you noticed how many people—many students—have suddenly been enraptured by poetry after hearing Amanda Gorman? 

Have you heard anyone ask (because I have): “Why is this type of writing not valued in our schools?”

Maybe that question ought to have the word now tacked onto the end. When I’ve facilitated workshops for teachers as writers and we prepare to write around an object, artifact, emotion, or memory, faces suddenly light up. Teachers say: “I used to love this kind of writing!”

-Used to. 

Perhaps it is time to return. 

Think about intentionally creating awe. Writing tends to throw the awe-door wide open. For us as well as for the students.

Begin by carving out moments to experiment for yourself with language, ideas, creativity. Just play. See what happens. Here’s a few simple things to get going—you can make them as quick and easy or as intricate and consuming as you like.


  1. Dig with the Golden Shovel. Take a line from a poem or a favorite book, speech, or song that has special appeal to you and transform it into something of your own. Each word in that line becomes the ending word of a line of your own poem. It may reflect an aspect from the original work. It may not. A Golden Shovel poem can mean whatever you wish; it’s just inspired by the line you use to create it.


A line from Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb”: Even as we grieved, we grew.

Days roll on, even to odd, odd to even,

tossed dice, never quite landing, as

we wonder how that’s possible. Don’t we.

In the spinning we still loved as we grieved

and we’ll go on, won’t we, 

even as we did when odds against us grew.

From Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May: We do not fade so easily from this life.

Now, who are we

and what should we do,

here where the sun shines not

and Earth’s colors fade.

Even so

consider how easily

we glide from

that room to this,

enduring, rather than living, life

—You get the idea, now. 

You might give the Golden Shovel to students to dig something more out of whatever books they’re reading, songs they’re singing, famous speeches they’re studying—anything, really. 

Use it yourself first. Switch it up. Use your “golden line” as the first words of your own lines instead of the last. The Golden Shovel is a good tool for awe either way.

I promise.

  1. Revisit the acrostic. It is an ancient form. You remember, the first letter of each line spells a word vertically…see how creative you can be with the form now. I wrote this acrostic on social distance in the early days of the present COVID-19 pandemic while thinking of my granddaughter, a fan of the movie Frozen:

Soon the spell will be 
Over and we
Can be 
In the same bright kingdom together 
Let this virus go, let it go

Don’t come back any more.
It’s funny how 
Some distance makes everything seem like
Time is frozen
Although, little queen of my heart, we are one day 
Nearer to overthrowing this
Corona-nation separation to resume our happily
Ever after

Here’s an acrostic attempting to capture a feeling while contemplating the clouded, haloed moon:

Shrouded in clouds, the


Lifts a bit of veil in

Absolution, in

Consolation, for enlightening

Every skyward-turned eye on Earth

Did I mention you might use photos for inspiration? I do, all the time.

  1. Write around one word. You can probably guess mine. Here I combine it with quotations from Vincent van Gogh and his painting, The Starry Night, in addition to a new phrase I learned. When the sun is far enough below the horizon at dawn or dusk that its blue wavelengths paint the landscape, it’s known as “the blue hour” (isn’t the sound alone just so poetic?). The sky’s the limit, when playing with the possibilities of just one word:

Awe (The Blue Hour)


on the blue hour

at the falling away of day

and the coming of the night

with hope of stars

givers of dreams

singers of songs


that there is no blue

without yellow and orange

like the crackling fire

in our souls

beckoning one another

to stop, come and be warm

instead of passing by

in wisps of smoke

in tendrils of wrongs


in electric-blue currents of memory

love survives

by anchoring itself

to the last blade 

of living grass


the color of forgiveness

in the blue hour

A final plug for writing poetry: It’s freeing. It doesn’t have to be bound by capitals, punctuation, grammar constraints…it’s about words and rhythms and images and maybe a thesaurus. English Language Learners can excel at it. I once had an ELL student dictate a poem about his love of baseball to me. Then he owned it. It was his. He practiced reading it aloud with a smile that shines in my memory to this day.

Experiencing awe (the feeling of being in the presence of something bigger than you)…


One has to ask who’s making the greater contribution to the human spirit.

Then there are letters.


In professional development on the power of writing, I once encouraged staff to write letters to someone who’d had a big impact on their lives. The person could be living or dead. They were to explain the impact and thank the person for it. I asked for volunteers to read their letters aloud after the writing. One teacher offered; as she read, she began to cry. “I didn’t expect professional development to be so emotional,” she wept. 

It is exactly those moments that we remember most, psychologists tell us. Experiences around emotion. Being valued by others. Taking part of in a shared experience. They are brief but powerful, meaningful, and lasting. 

Our staff spent some time writing letters of encouragement to one another that year. We kept encouragement folders containing these letters, to reread when our spirits needed a lift.

I know that some teachers are currently writing letters of encouragement to students. I have found myself thinking: What would happen if we wrote letters to parents, thanking them for enduring our online presence in their homes? What if we told them that we admire their strength, their perseverance? What if we read these letters aloud to them? 

Such things might transform a culture.

Speaking of which…

Don’t Forget the Read Aloud

It’s magical. For all ages, nothing promotes the love of language like hearing words read aloud by someone who understands that it’s a performance. One of the greatest things I’ve seen this year is an online poetry slam in which students shared their original work; some even had videos of themselves acting out the poetic images and scenes they crafted (some impressive videography at the elementary level!). 

Whether letters, poems, or books, reading aloud is an invitation for awe. Consider Gorman again: in listening you actually lose sense of yourself for a moment; you feel part of something larger, vibrant, transcendent. That’s the awesome power of language. Even when I work with small groups, with limited time, in person or online, I read aloud to them for a few minutes. A current favorite book with conveniently short chapters: Peter Brown’s The Wild Robot. It has a theme of overcoming, of survival, of redefining home. Who’d have thought that artificial life would stir the human spirit so.

For it is one thing to be literate, and another to be life-literate.

If we have learned anything this past year, it is that we have only so many moments before the final chapter of our times is done and the dust settles over our cities. Life may be in charge of the story, but we are responsible for the craftsmanship. 

And our contribution.


Fran Haley is a K-12 English Language Arts educator currently serving as an elementary literacy coach. Writing is her favorite thing to do and to teach; she finds awe in helping people of all ages discover the power of their own writing and fall in love with the craft. That’s her primary goal when facilitating professional development in writing for teachers. She authors the blog Lit Bits and Pieces: Snippets of Learning and Life. As a member of several online writing communities, she interacts with educators around the globe. Connect with her on Twitter: @fahaley.