Literacy: Meaningful Conversations with Families

By Carly Moats

Dear Families,

As key players on your child’s team, I am anxiously looking forward to becoming better acquainted. Parent-teacher-student conferences offer us the opportunity to share how we are all supporting your child. I am curious: What do I need to know about your child? Are there extracurricular activities that keep your family busy outside of school? What is your family’s routine for school work that comes home? How does reading fit into this routine? Who else is on your child’s team, supporting them as a whole child?

Admittedly, in the past I used large amounts of educator-speak to prove the work I was doing to support your child as a reader. I would gloss over reports from one or two assessment measures. Next, I would pull your child’s most recent running record—with check marks and codes scribbled across the page—to highlight what she received reinforcement on and what we decided to work on next. Last, I would confidently share the text level we were currently working in and the end-of-grade-level expectation. With that I would usher you out the door with a handful of reports, feeling like I had done my due diligence in explicitly describing your child’s reading skills.

Over time I began noticing that parents, just like you and me, were disconnecting from the conversation; not intentionally. I had shifted the conversation away from their child by reverting to the language of educators: Your child is reading well above benchmark expectations. Your child scored in the low achievement/high growth quadrant. Your child is reading 100 words per minute. Your child is a level H and the expectation at this time of the school year is level N. Your child should only be reading books at their level.

Skip forward to today: Just like the parents I have met with in the past, I know you want to be well informed about your child’s reading abilities and growth. The difference is that, when you leave our upcoming conference, my goal is to have you walk away with a clear picture of your child as a reader and what we can do together to continue growth. Just because I am not using the jargon does not mean that I am sugar-coating the amount of growth we need to make this school year.

You can expect me to immerse you in texts that your child has read over the last week or so. You may be familiar with many of these texts, having seen your child reading them on the couch at home or stuffing them into his backpack as he runs for the bus. I will model for you reading behaviors your child is using to actively read and discuss these texts, as well as what strategies I will support him with next. I will show you an example of the kinds of texts students are expected to be reading by the end of the school year, again, connecting reading behaviors needed to uncover the key details and messages shared by the author.

Now that you’ve seen the kind of work your reader engages in, I will show you how she is applying these skills on district assessments. You can expect me to be a sensemaker alongside you as we decipher the current and end-of-year expectations and sharing where we go next to support your child’s growth.

Moving on, you may notice my voice becomes more animated and excitement is more evident in my mannerisms. I strongly believe this is the most important part of our conference: I will explain how I am encouraging your child’s love of reading through book talks, viewing book trailers, visiting author’s websites and being transparent about my own work as a reader. By coaching him to determine his own purpose for reading, to read outside his comfort zone, to make book recommendations to others, and to question what he reads, I am working tirelessly to help your child see that the challenging work of a reader has an amazing payoff. It affords us the opportunity to be entertained, to be informed, and to be critical observers of the world around us. This is why I love teaching your child to read.

Last, as you get ready to gather your belongings, I will remind you of my website that is brimming with book recommendations and resources for families. When you ask what level texts your child should be reading at home, I will ask you to let me worry about that at school. At home… at home encourage your child to read into her interests. If she has the desire then she will find a way to get what she needs from a text—no matter the level.


Carly Moats

About the Author: Carly is a K-3 Literacy Interventionist in Jefferson County School District.

Professional Book Review: Teach Like a Pirate by Dave  Burgess

by Elizabeth Mesick

Almost 20 years. Almost. 20. That’s how long I’ve been working in elementary schools with children. For young teachers, that’s a number almost impossible to imagine. With an opportunity for a cross country move for my family, I left the classroom and wondered if I would ever go back. I was burned out, a phrase I used to hate to hear, because I just thought that the teachers who claimed burnout weren’t all that passionate about the job to begin with. Despite those feelings, though, I missed being with the kids. I had to figure out how to balance my fear of being completely overwhelmed by the job with my intense longing to be with students. I needed help.

Enter: Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess.

Teach Like a Pirate will help you find enthusiasm and give you ways to share that enthusiasm with your kids. The thing is, sure we get exhausted and overwhelmed, but the kids must, too! When Dave Burgess talks about his first three days of school, I imagine you’ll find inspiration there like I did. He speaks well about making your classroom an inviting and exciting place, but really gives you the freedom to make it your own. I hate when I read professional books which seem to prescribe a rigid system which you can’t even slightly shape to your own style. I doubt you’re any more of a robot than I am, and I need to be myself with my kids. I spend more time with them throughout the week than I do with my own family; there’s no way I can do that without my real self front and center.

There are just so many fantastic parts to this book. One of my favorites, giving me concrete and immediately usable ideas, was the section on different “hooks,” meaning ways to wrap up units or lessons with nonlinguistic representations of the content. I use this in my classroom now, and not only is it exciting for some students to participate in so that they can show their learning in a way in which they feel successful, but it can also provide a real opportunity to challenge some of my more gifted and literal students.

Teach Like a Pirate is an excellent read for teachers of all ages. It’s written conversationally and Dave Burgess is witty, making the text fly by. I found excitement for myself and for my students, ideas on how to help my kids really care about what they’re doing, and great ideas on how to balance my energy and passion throughout my life, not just in my classroom. Teach Like a Pirate is truly beginning to transform the way I operate in the classroom and I cannot wait to continue my explorations with it this school year.

Elizabeth Mesick is a fourth grade teacher who lives in State College, Pennsylvania.

Defining Core Instruction

by Morgan Davis

Core instruction:  This is not something you can Google.  Sure, type the words into the search field and you will be met instantly with Richard Elmore’s definition of instructional core: the interaction among teacher, student, and content where “if you can’t see it in the core then it isn’t there” (2008).Screen Shot 2017-10-16 at 9.11.44 PM

But when someone asks you to define what is core–most central or most important–about reading instruction, I am sure you go far beyond this definition.  For my team and me, we looked to the whiteboard where the outline of our professional learning in reading workshop lingered.  There it was, our instructional minutes boiled down to the skeletal structures of workshop:  whole-group mini-lesson, worktime, and share.  And there it was, the question looming:  What is core?  

I used to define core instruction as an opportunity to engage with and an exposure to grade-level texts:

Shared reading?

Texts are grade-level or above, so it must be core.

Read aloud?

Again, grade-level or above.  It’s core.  

Guided reading?  


Many of our students read texts that are below grade-level, so this must be where we step out of core.  With core defined as exposure to grade-level texts, the classroom teacher’s obligation is met at the end of the mini-lesson for any student whose reading puts them outside a grade-level boundary. Yes, this is how I used to define core. Forgive me.   

Flash forward a few years and I began to see core as access to grade-level content.  Every child deserves opportunities to engage with grade-level texts, but the kind of thinking and processes that are required of grade-level content can often be accessed through differentiated texts and tasks.

Now I see core as the broad side of the RtI pyramid: universal instruction, the kind of Screen Shot 2017-10-16 at 9.12.02 PMinstruction that every child is entitled to.  “Core program, also commonly referred to as Tier 1, base, primary, or universal program, refers to a school’s initial instructional practices–in other words, the teaching and school experiences that all kids receive every day” (Buffum, Mattos, & Weber, 2009).  

In other words, core instruction is the promise we make to students about reading instruction.  

Now let us return to the whiteboard with its outline of workshop.  Where is the promise here?  To answer, we pick up a green marker.  Without hesitation, we put a solid green line around the mini-lesson and–after some discussion–share time. These times are sacred.  It is during these structures that students create a vision for where their learning is headed and where their successes become visible.  

Next, a solid green line around independent reading.  “The experimental evidence is clearer today perhaps than a decade ago that the actual volume of reading activity is an important component in the development of a myriad of reading proficiencies” (Allington, 2013).  We agree: Our readers–even and especially those who struggle–need ample time to practice.

With that potential debate hurdled in a hurry, we work to tackle the remaining worktime structures. Though in a perfect world it wouldn’t be, it is harder to find the promise here.  The constraints of time invite answers from “everything” to “nothing.”  We draw a dotted line around worktime and keep talking.  “A Tier 1 curriculum must be prioritized so that students have ample opportunity to master power standards.  The core program also must include a component that specializes instruction and learning based on individuals’ and small groups’ disparate needs” (Buffum, Mattos, & Weber, 2009).  Core instruction comes through the structures that put skilled teachers and apprenticed readers together: conferring and small-group instruction.  It also comes through opportunities for students to practice and apply their learning in ways that are accessible: collaborative and independent reading.  Yes, this is our promise.  

We also know that it is during this time we often “double-dose” or make Tier 2 and Tier 3 supports accessible to students.  Just not in place of the promise of core instruction.  

We stand back and look at the board.  A second green line around the mini-lesson and independent reading time highlight how our conversation began: Whole-group instruction and independent reading are sacred.  Share time is protected. Work time is permeable, so long as the sacred spheres within it are preserved.  

In the end, we provide core instruction and intervention without taking a bite out of the promise.

It is core instruction.  

It is a work in progress.


Allington, R. (April 2013).  What really matters when working with struggling readers. The Reading Teacher, 66 (7).

Allington, R. A. & Gabriel, R. E. (March 2012).  Every child, every day.  Educational leadership: Reading: the core skill, 69(6), pp. 10-15.

Buffum, A., M. Mattos, & C. Weber (2009). Pyramid response to intervention.  Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Elmore, R. (2008) Improving the instructional core. Boston, MA: Harvard University, School of Education.

About the Author: Morgan Davis is a K-6 Instructional Coach at Lumberg Elementary in Jefferson County School District.  Morgan also serves on the conference committee for CCIRA.  You can follow Morgan as she explores teaching and learning, slices of life, and her own writing processes at “It’s About Making Space”.

*If you are interested in posting about the topics that were blushed by in this post – such as defining intervention or intervention vs. remediation – or other topics that meet the criteria outlined here, please contact

Read Aloud Book Review

Written by Marcie Haloin

The Alphabet Thief  by Bill Richardson, illustrated by Roxanna Bikadoroff, Greenwood Books, March 2017

Screen Shot 2017-10-16 at 9.19.38 PMCanadian humorist Bill Richardson has written his first children’s book of clever alphabetical rhymes based upon the wordplay of how a word can be changed by dropping one letter.  In the story an Alphabet Thief steals one letter from each page leaving the pen and ink illustrations to explain the transformation.

I used a document camera when reading this with the 5th graders and had to pause frequently so they could enjoy the humor of the illustrations.  Be forewarned that when the snowman loses the s and becomes real he uses his hat to cover his privates.  No matter how fast I read the fifth graders saw.  A Canadian blogger suggested that classroom teacher who had time would have fun doing a sophisticated game of illustrating words that have lost certain letters (e.g. transforming crops into cops or brothers into bothers). Most of the text allows this book to also be an early or guided reader with lots of fun for one-on-one and small group work.

References: Helen K, posted March 3, 2017

Marcie Haloin is retired from her life as a school librarian and university professor and now works in a public library, in the children’s section, of course. Marcie reads at least a book a day and serves as the chair of the Colorado Children’s Book Award for CCIRA.


As our state literacy association, CCIRA collaboratively encourages, supports, and advances literacy through research-based instructional practices to increase literacy access to all.

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For over 50 years, CCIRA has inspired new teachers, veteran educators, and aspiring educators to reach for greatness and make their classrooms a blend of best practices, research, innovations, and inspiration for all students. ”