Classroom Vocabulary Assessment: What’s YOUR Plan?

By Brenda Overturf

Assessment for learning is part of any solid classroom design. But there is no doubt about it—planning for classroom vocabulary assessment can be tricky. Books and articles about vocabulary development often conclude with a “need for research” when it comes to assessment. However, vocabulary instruction would just be a collection of activities if we didn’t pay close attention to how our students are progressing and adjust accordingly.

So how can we assess vocabulary learning? Formal published vocabulary tests are prohibitively expensive. They are usually reserved for higher stakes assessment, and don’t test your students’ classroom learning. Commercial reading programs often lack vocabulary assessments or are based on words that are not right for your students. When it comes to formative and summative assessments to evaluate word learning, you may find yourself designing your own.

Screen Shot 2018-06-04 at 11.04.00 PMI have had the immense privilege of spending a lot of time in vocabulary-focused K-8 classrooms and thought I would share four tips for planning vocabulary assessment some great teachers have shared with me.

1. Plan formative and summative assessments that build from instruction.
Instead of teaching students words from a generic vocabulary list, Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2013) suggest reviewing materials to decide how to plan for instruction. These researchers talk about Tier One words (words that students already know), Tier Two words (more challenging words that students will encounter across texts), and Tier Three words (words that are part of content instruction). Their recommendation for elementary students is to select Tier Two words that students will see in in a particular text or hear in a read-aloud, and introduce Tier Three words when engaging students in content area instruction.

Margot and Leslie are intermediate teachers in a high-poverty school. When planning for instruction, they review possible vocabulary words in their reading program and content area lessons. They then select five to seven Tier Two and Tier Three words (total) to emphasize, choosing words they think will be helpful to students for comprehension and that students will see in other texts in the future—what they call “bang for your buck” words. They introduce these words in context and add two synonyms and two antonyms for each word to help students build semantic networks. They then engage students in a number of active and fun activities with vocabulary.

Leslie and Margot use formative assessment techniques to gauge their students’ word learning during vocabulary activities as a natural part of instruction. Formative assessment can take the form of posing questions and inviting students to indicate “thumbs up” or “thumbs down,” asking students to write answers on white boards and hold them up in the air, or leading students to create their own questions for other students and then observing how they use the words. On a summative assessment that will be used for a grade, Margot and Leslie usually create a multiple-choice format that mimics the standardized assessment that students will take. In addition to expecting students to select definitions, they also include questions in which students choose synonyms or antonyms associated with the word. They intentionally add questions about vocabulary words from earlier in the year so learning will stay active.

Heather, a first-grade teacher, created a scaled-down version of this plan for her students. In her class, children learn one synonym and one antonym for a few Tier Two words she has selected from the shared reading text. Her students practice the words, the definitions, and their synonyms and antonyms in whole group games and literacy center activities. One section of Heather’s first-grade reading assessment is always devoted to vocabulary. Early in the year, students indicate definitions through pictures and simple sentences. Later in the year, students choose definitions or synonyms and antonyms that match the vocabulary words.

2. Teach students to use word-learning strategies, and then expect students to use those strategies on assessments.
There are three word-learning strategies we want to teach students so they will be able to figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word: use of context, meanings of common word parts (affixes and roots), and use of reference materials (Graves, 2016).

Leslie and Margot intentionally teach their intermediate students to use these three word-learning strategies as part of their classroom vocabulary plan. When designing vocabulary assessments, they emphasize use of context. This makes sense, since their state reading assessment often requires a student to select the definition of a word in context. These teachers design part of their vocabulary assessment using a one-page multiparagraph format with blanks where the vocabulary words should go. They write the paragraphs about something that has happened in school so all students are familiar with the background of the text. The vocabulary words (five to seven for each two-week period) are listed in a word bank at the top of the assessment. This format requires the students to use context to decide which word goes into each blank. They also ask students to indicate context clues that provided evidence for their choices. As Margot tells her students, “Test makers try to trip you up. You really have to use your context clues to figure out the right word.”

3. Teach students words they are likely to see in more formal assessment situations.
All the teachers I have worked with, including middle school ELA teachers and interdisciplinary teams, understand the need for teaching students to interpret words that will be used on more formal high-stakes assessments.

Beth and Deshay’s kindergarten students don’t take the state assessment but they are required to participate in the progress-monitoring tool their district uses and they want their students to feel confident when answering the questions. Although the computer-based assessment has a read-aloud feature so that young students can hear the directions, Deshay and Beth have realized there are a number of words their students don’t know or understand. If children can’t comprehend the directions, they can’t follow the directions! These teachers make sure to embed words into their daily instruction that students may hear on progress-monitoring assessments, such as label, information, and word parts. Then Beth and Deshay use informal assessment techniques, such as observation and notes, to judge whether students understand these words and can follow directions using the words.

4. Work with other teachers to share vocabulary assessment ideas.
The vocabulary-focused teachers I know try to collaborate with other educators to create an effective vocabulary plan. Sometimes the team includes all the teachers in a particular grade, sometimes it is an interdisciplinary or small group team, and sometimes it is made up of an individual teacher with a literacy coach. Teams work together to select words, plan instruction and active practice, and design and analyze assessments to make professional decisions about further instruction. Participating in collaborative discussions can be a gold mine of ideas about assessment and student learning.
And Now for The Test!

Performance-based assessment, a method used extensively in the 1990’s, is making a comeback (Hilliard, 2015). In performance-based assessment, the assessor expects students to perform a real-life task. We know students have really learned vocabulary when we observe them using new words in speaking and writing.

Yes, assessment can be tricky, but it is an essential part of a well-designed vocabulary plan. So here is a performance-based assessment task for you: How can you assess vocabulary learning in your own school or classroom?

Beck, I., McKeown, M., and Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, Second Edition. New York: Guilford Press.

Graves, M. (2016). The Vocabulary Book: Learning and Instruction, Second Edition. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hilliard, P. (2015). Performance-based assessment: Reviewing the basics.

Dr. Brenda Overturf is currently a full-time author, speaker, and consultant. She is a career educator as a former teacher, district administrator for reading curriculum and assessment, and chair of the literacy program at the University of Louisville. Brenda’s books on vocabulary include Word Nerds: Teaching All Students to Learn and Love Vocabulary and Vocabularians: Integrated Word Study in the Middle Grades. She is currently working on a new book about K-1 vocabulary. When Brenda is not writing or speaking, she loves to read, create art, travel, and listen to her husband’s 60’s band.

Cultivating Our Own Wonder

Winding down. The year that seems like it only started a minute ago or perhaps feels like it has been moving at the pace of a snail, is quickly coming to an end.  We approach that last day of school with excitement and sometimes tears as we see those students who we have spent the year pouring our energies into waving goodbye and disappearing into the sweet summer sun.  The sun sets and rises again and we realize that a new dawn has really risen. One in which we don’t have to eat our lunch in five minutes or time our bathroom breaks by when the students have recess or another class.  Winding down, we take a deeper breath, perhaps even noticing that the grass has turned green and flowers are popping up all around us.

As you melt into your summer routine, I hope you take the opportunity to reignite your sense of wonder.  Wonder is such a magical thing and it is not just for the young.  Wonder is something that keeps all of us young and curious! I don’t mean the kind of wonder like, “I wonder when I should clean my house?” or “I wonder what we should have for dinner after the baseball game?” But, the mind-growing wonder of living a life that is engaged in the mystery of the world around us.

Wind down and get outside — out of those walls that have held you captive for the last nine months and breathe in air that perhaps has skipped past a glacier or swirled over an ocean.  Allow your toes to sink into the soft green grass or even the goo of a mud-puddle. Open your mind to explore the natural world around you. Don’t take your cell phone. You can read the text later.  Just soak in the world outside that changes each minute and wonder.  Look closely, carefully, what do you observe?  What catches your eye? What new fragrance seeps into your nostrils?  What texture do your fingers or toes feel?

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Do you see the spider threading its way through the grass? Do you see the water droplets from the rain or your sprinkle bead up or spread out depending on the surface it lands on? Do you see the clouds and wonder why they form, where they form and how they create such unique shapes? Is the lightning splitting the sky and sending out its Screen Shot 2018-05-22 at 9.29.14 AMthunderous roar leaving you in awe and wondering how that happens? Did you travel to the mountains for a hike and open your bag of cocoa and see it spray all over your cup and wonder? Lean your head back on your lounger on the beach and feel the breeze coming off the ocean and wonder where the breeze is coming from and where will it go? Suddenly, curiosity takes roots in our minds and we begin to wonder.  Magically we find ourselves reaching for the nearest device to “Google” or grabbing a book or even a friend to find out more!

A few years ago at the CCIRA Conference on Literacy,  Ellen Oliver Keene said something that still resonates in my mind,  “Are your students engaged or are they being compliant?” As the summer winds down and the “teacher dreams” start up again, as you begin to envision your classroom and play around with new lessons, think about how to create a classroom full of students who wonder, students whose minds remain curious about the content that lines your walls and bookshelves. Whether it is wondering how words coming out of someone’s mouth can become written words on a page that can be read by someone else to wondering why Shakespeare wrote in the style that he did,  no matter what age level you teach, you can create an atmosphere that embraces curiosity that seeps through every desk, chair, and human being in your room.

Many of you have Word Walls in your classroom, which is a great resource.  Another one you might try is creating a Wonder Wall! In my classroom, we created a Wonder Wall.  Students came in each morning and would write their “wonderings” on sticky notes that would clutter our back wall.  When we were done with a lesson, students would add more “I wonders…” that swirled in their minds during a lesson but were not yet answered.  As a class, we would then work together to find and discover answers over the course of the week or unit. Some could be found quickly, while others took weeks to discover.  Students would use a variety of resources to discover and share answers. We were creating a classroom that was engaging and vibrant by allowing the students to realize that questions are amazing and that answers are fun to discover. It was a constant group effort! I wanted my students to want to learn and want to read.  I wanted to create in them a yearning to find out more about everything. I wanted them to know that even though we had just finished a lesson that all that there was to know about that topic had not been covered, there was still much more to find out! Students learned about “testable questions” and “researchable questions.”

As literacy teachers, we want our students to want to read and find out information.  Another helpful tool is something called the  “Admit Slip” from Janet Allen. Students analyzed an intriguing picture that related to what we were learning about that day. They wrote down three things they noticed, two ideas  and one thing that they wondered. We would then discuss their observations and wonderings. This was a way that I could assess their background knowledge, set the stage for the lesson, but most importantly create a sense of wonder. I loved it because it was never the same twice and the students always observed something that I had yet to notice. Janet Allen’s book Inside Words holds many other ideas that help create an atmosphere that entices a student to want to learn more.

The best way to create a sense of wonder in your classroom and to get them engaged in learning, is to be curious yourself.  As you enjoy your time away from students, whether you are attending PD sessions, vacationing, gardening, hiking, working, or wherever your summer takes you, take time to look around you and wonder!

Amy Nicholl is a Past President of CCIRA and serves as curriculum coordinator at Poudre Learning Center,  an outdoor learning facility. She is an adjunct professor at University of Northern Colorado, an is a consultant who facilitates professional development workshops in the areas of literacy, science and STEM education. Amy was a classroom teacher for thirty-four years in Windsor, Colorado.  Amy received multiple awards for teaching including two national awards: the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching and the Delta Award for Excellence in Inquiry-based Science Teaching.  Follow Amy on Twitter: @AmyNicholl16

Working With Words Off the Wall

As the school year draws to a close, many teachers have to remove everything from the walls to move classrooms in the coming school year or for summer cleaning. In almost every K-8 classroom I visit, word walls occupy key real estate in the room. Even many high school teachers devote some wall space to key words from the unit. If you are taking words off your wall at the end of this school year, I encourage you to consider how you will use those words again next year.

Interactive Word Walls

Did your word wall provide thematic, visual support for key vocabulary from the latest unit? Were the words organized according to concepts? Did the students help create the visuals and concept maps? If you answered ‘no’ to any of these questions, you might want to try an interactive word wall in the coming school year. Interactive word walls change with each unit, feature student created visuals, and are organized conceptually, not alphabetically. To help you plan your interactive word wall for the coming school year, check out this video explaining how to set them up.

Activities for Working with Words Off the Wall

I also encourage you to keep some of those words off the walls, so they can become interactive learning tools. The following three strategies help students acquire new vocabulary through interactions and making connections. For each strategy, students should create a set of vocabulary cards on note cards with visual cues for each word. These cards may be created throughout the unit, so that students have a complete set by the end of the unit. Vocabulary cards, rather than vocabulary lists, work better for each of these strategies.

1) Categories

Have students work in pairs with one set of vocabulary cards between them. Ask them to categorize the vocabulary words, but don’t give them the categories. Partners should take turns placing each vocabulary word into a group according to the categories they created. Circulate and ask students why the cards in a group belong together. The connections they make through creating the categories help them remember the words and learn them on a deeper level. After the students have sorted the set of cards into different categories, have them write down the name of each category they created. Then have teams exchange tables or partnerships to view a different teams’ categories. Ask them to figure out what that team’s categories were. Finally discuss the various categories as a whole class.Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 7.16.36 AM2) War
Like the simple childhood card game “War,” this interactive partner game requires two sets of vocabulary cards. Have students sit with their partner at a table. Each partner turns over one card from the top of their vocabulary ‘deck’. Together students have to figure out how the two vocabulary terms are connected. They do not have to use both words in a single sentence, but they should try to explain any connection between the words. In this picture, middle school students work with words from a science unit on weather. Notice the additional supports for this activity. The science teacher provided the purple page with sentence frames to help students figure out connections and write possible sentences connecting the two words. The students also had their own visual vocabulary cards for each word to support comprehension. If the students both turn over the same word, they should collect all cards back into their decks,
shuffle, and start again!

3) Quiz-Quiz-Trade

This cooperative learning strategy from Spencer Kagan is great for an interactive vocabulary review at any grade level. Have students choose one of the vocabulary cards from their deck that they know well and can explain to others. (Or challenge them to choose one they need more support with!) Ask students to review the word, practice explaining it to a partner, and prepare a sentence using that word. Now have students stand up with their vocabulary cards and find a new partner. Partner A begins by showing their word and ‘quizzing’ Partner B on the meaning and use of the word. If Partner B needs support, Partner A should ‘teach’ the meaning of the word and provide a sentence using the word. Now Partner B quizzes Partner A on the meaning and use of their word. Once both partners feel confident with the meaning and use of the words, they trade cards. They now become the ‘experts’ on a new word and find a new partner to quiz and teach. Students should continue with Quiz-Quiz-Trade for several rounds. This is a great activity to do as a warm up at the beginning of class or a review at the end of class. The strategy also provides great formative feedback as you circulate and listen to student explanations of the vocabulary.

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I hope you’ll have the chance to use a couple of these strategies before the end of the school year. As you pack up your room for the summer, reflect on how students can interact more frequently with words off the wall.


Gonzalez, V. (2018, May 6) Making the Most of Your Word Wall: Interactive Word Walls. Retrieved from

Gonzalez, V. (2018, March 12) Interactive Word Walls Enliven Vocab Learning. Retrieved from

Jackson, J., Tripp, S., & Cox, K. (2011) Interactive Word Walls: Transforming Content Vocabulary Instruction. Retrieved from

Kagan, S. (2009) Kagan Cooperative Learning. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing.

Beth Skelton is an international consultant providing professional learning focused on creating equitable education for all students. She is especially passionate about making academic content accessible to English Language Learners. She can be reached through her website: , on Twitter @easkelton , and on Facebook: Beth Skelton Consulting

A Seat at the Table

By Hollyanna Bates

As a school district literacy coordinator, I worry about literacy. I worry about students learning how to read. I worry about those who find reading difficult. I worry that we aren’t spending enough time creating readers who choose to read.

I have found that I can fend off a little worry when I leverage the worry into powerful actions.  These actions have developed from small steps to well-developed projects. The projects are implemented across our schools in order to impact both reading achievement and a love of reading.  The projects are possible because teachers, administrators, and volunteers work together with the belief that we have to do whatever it takes. We stand firm in the belief that students need access to the behaviors of literate cultures and we aim to provide this access in a variety of ways. We offer our students a seat at the literate table.

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Summer Books

A few years ago we read Allington and McGill’s research on summer reading and were persuaded to make a change.  We hadn’t seen much success from our traditional summer school model and limited funds reduced the number of students we were able to impact. Since we had surveyed students using Donalyn Miller’s tool in the Book Whisperer, we knew that many students would not read during the summer if we didn’t provide books. Many of our students reported having 0-2 books at home.

With district funds and a heck-of-a-lot of grant funding from our local Rotary club, we have replicated the work of Allington and McGill.  Each student in K-4 gets to choose summer books from a large library we created just for this purpose. Our team researched the newest, most popular titles and cultivated a collection for each school.  Each May we roll out the bins, add some new titles and invite students to select books to take home for the summer.

Author Visits

Our local education foundation has partnered with the school district to provide author visits to all K-8 students each year. Because literate citizens know the names of authors, have books inscribed by authors, and have read several books by a favorite author, we implemented the visits as a way to provide this access. Last year one hundred percent of teachers reported via a survey that they found the visits effective for these reasons: the author visit built excitement around reading, writing and art, inspired students to read books, provided access to literate cultures, and built understanding around the writing process. Before the author visit each year, students write letters persuading a committee to be chosen to eat lunch with the author.  This year, *Carlos, a student who is living in poverty and learning English as a second language, wrote, “I want to be picked to eat lunch with the author because it will change my life.” Today he ate breakfast with Colorado author Todd Mitchell and I think both of them will be forever changed after their time together!

Home Libraries

When our district leaders looked at the research related to the number of books children have at home, the number of students who choose to read and the correlation with achievement, we couldn’t help but take action.  The pilot project was funded by our education foundation and has grown to be funded by every community resource available. Now implemented in our three schools most impacted by poverty, students in 3-5th grades are well on their way to having authentic home libraries. Each month students select two books from the Scholastic order. These books belong to the students and become their home libraries.  In a recent survey, 93 percent of participating students reported they had read all the books ordered through the project, with 76 percent of students reporting that they read some books twice.

While I still worry about literacy development of our students, I am proud of the projects we have in place, the opportunities we provide, and the improvements we make each year to help all children fall in love with reading. 
Summer Reading: Closing the Rich/Poor Achievement Gap by Richard Allington and Anne McGill-Franzen

Scholastic Research Compendium on Access to Books

*name changed to protect identity

Hollyanna Bates is a Past President of CCIRA and a Reading Recovery Teacher Leader/Literacy Coordinator in Summit School District in Frisco, Colorado.  Follow her on Twitter @hollyannabates



Inviting the Thought Partner

By May Tripp

I had the opportunity to observe a teacher named Kristina teach Reading Workshop as she launched the Super Powers unit with her Kinders. The main reason she had asked me to come was to provide feedback on her instructional practice and to be a thought partner as she continued to navigate teaching from the Reading Units of Study resource. I love that she invited me within her first couple days of teaching, knowing she wanted the opportunity to adjust instruction before she got too comfortable in her ways. I applaud her willingness, as I know how scary it can be to put yourself out there and be observed when you’re trying something new!

Two days prior to the lesson, we had a conversation about what I might see. Of course, we all know lessons don’t always go as planned! As she taught the lesson prior to the one I observed, she realized the kiddos needed more instruction around partner reading beyond what had been given that day. The very next day’s mini-lesson, I observed Kristina intentionally adjusting the focus of the instruction and allowing herself the time to help the students develop those essential reading behaviors. That day, the students started reading workshop with the mini-lesson around echo reading as one way to engage in partner reading. Check out these cuties as they used little green witch fingers to harness their pointer power:

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After the lesson, we had time to debrief about the way things went. Kristina began the conversation talking about how she was feeling a lesson behind since she made adjustments and didn’t follow the unit’s plans for the day. As we processed through her sense of rushing through, one of the reminders that helped Kristina was around pacing and allowing yourself the time to slow-down and back-fill, as needed. These kiddos hadn’t engaged in much partner reading yet this year, so she needed to go back and solidify those reading behaviors in order to get to the work reading. Sometimes we get so caught up in the go-go-go mode that we don’t allow ourselves the permission to make a one-day lesson into two, or to be as responsive to their needs day-to-day. Lucy Calkins and her co-authors designed each unit at every grade level with 17-21 lessons and 25-30 days to teach it. The authors ask the teacher to be responsive and adjust the pacing if necessary, as observation and data will dictate throughout the lessons! To finish a unit within a reasonable time however, I do think it’s important to anticipate which lesson(s) or bend(s) your students might need extra time with. The unit overview and table of contents are great tools for this work!

May Tripp has been an elementary teacher for 13 years.  She has taught intermediate grades and is currently working for Jeffco Public Schools as an Elementary Literacy Specialist.

Book Choice: Magic Fairy Dust

By Christina Nosek and Kari Yates

Christina glances around her classroom as she gathers her trusty clipboard and pencil case full of post-its and pens for conferring. She watches as her fifth graders quickly settle into their reading routines, nestling into beanbag chairs and pillows, and quickly losing themselves in the pages of their self-selected books. She smiles to herself. It’s obvious this has become a classroom of readers. Everyone is so engaged. And then she notices Marla.

Something about Marla’s fiddling with her supply box seems way too drawn out. Christina is curious. Marla is usually one of the first to settle in to engaged reading.  So, rather than rush in with a reminder to get started, Christina takes another moment to watch and wonder about what might be going on. After more digging through post-its and pencils, Marla eventually picks up a book and chooses a reading spot.  Yet, instead of truly engaged reading, Christina sees more telltale signs of the very opposite as Marla seems to aimlessly fan the pages of her book and play with her bracelet.

Clearly, something is off with Marla.  Because every other reader seems engaged, Christina knows that checking in with Marla will be her first priority for conferring today. Before she approaches Marla, Christina takes a moment to look back at the notes she jotted during their last conference . Her past notes quickly remind her that Marla was just pages away from finishing The Penultimate Peril, the final book in A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket.  Christina recalls how Marla had devoured one book after another for weeks. Suddenly, she has a hunch about what might going on with Marla.

Wherever there are classrooms where teachers commit to the brave but messy work of letting students choose books for themselves, there will always be a need for lots of reading conferences focused on book choice.  We think this is critically important work for reading teachers; work that has too often been brushed aside or treated as something we take care of with a few quick lessons in the fall before moving on to the real work of teaching reading.  Great books are the magic fairy dust of engagement. We’re sure of it.

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Think about your own reading life for a moment. When have you been driven to stay up  late into the night completely captivated by an author’s words? Or, lock yourself away in the bathroom just to sneak in a few more pages or chapters?  And, on the other hand, when have you had dry spells as a reader? What was missing in the times when you didn’t feel that same sense of urgency to squeak out a few extra minutes, or even move onto the next chapter of a book you had started?  Most likely it was the absence of a compelling book. It’s easy to recognize that the ebb and flow of adult reading lives is driven by the books we choose just as it is for our students. Great books don’t seem to care a bit about our busy lives. They demand our time and attention right now. They won’t let themselves be ignored. They refuse to lie dormant on the bed stand. They follow us around in our thoughts even when we are away from them. And some of them become such a part of us, that even when we reach the end, they refuse to let us go. They live on inside of us, making other books pale in comparison, leaving us temporarily unwilling or unable to believe there could ever be another so perfect for us.  

When it comes to building vibrant reading lives, book choice is everything. At least it is the something that everything else depends on. In our text, To Know and Nurture a Reader; Conferring with Confidence and Joy (Stenhouse, June 2018), we share four intentional directions that a teacher might pursue in a conference including:

  • Book Choice
  • Healthy Reading Habits
  • Strategic Process, and
  • Authentic Response  

While all four of these conferring directions are critical to nurture in every reader, we view book choice as the foundation on which everything else is built.  Why? Because we believe that with an engaging text in their hands, everything else has at least a chance of coming together, but without a text they care about, everything else quickly falls apart including habits, strategic actions, and meaningful ways of responding to texts.

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So it makes sense that until all of our students are consistently finding their way to texts that engage and delight them, book choice will often be the focus of many our one-on-one conversations with students. Today, we highlight a few of the common reasons that drive us to focus on book choice in a conference with a young reader.

  • When we’re first getting to know a reader. Whether it’s the fall of the year or the moment that a new reader joins your classroom, making time to explore past and present book choice strategies will provide windows into their success, struggles, and skills in quest for finding great books. What you learn in these early conferences with young readers can inform future conferences, small group lessons, and whole group instruction about book choosing strategies.  It can help you connect readers with similar interests, and inform your choices about how to organize and supplement the classroom library with topics, authors and series your kids will want to read.
  • When a reader isn’t settling into engaged reading. Whether it presents itself as consistent trips to the restroom, endlessly abandoning books, fiddling in the supply box, or flipping aimlessly through pages, the symptoms of disengagement can look the same for many readers while the root causes might be very different. It can be easy for our thoughts to go to stamina, attention problems, or even intentional misbehavior. However, we find that more often than not the real culprit is the absence of texts the reader finds worthy of their attention. Of course, sometimes kids might have books they want to read and be disengaged for other reasons, but until we’re convinced a worthy text is in the mix, we continue to focus our conferring efforts around book choice. Disengagement is a symptom. The more time we take to understand it, the better positioned we find we are to work thought it.  Conferring allows us to do just that.
  • When a reader is showing new signs of engagement in a book. Conferring focused on book choice isn’t something we reserve only for when a reader is having difficulty finding engaging texts. We also sometimes choose to focus here when a reader has had obvious book choice success, finding a book that seems to take their engagement to new heights. Leveraging a conference to help a reader reflect on how and why they found their way to a particular book and what it is about that book that’s making it work, can be powerful path identifying strategic and transferrable actions they can draw on again and again when making book choices in the future. How did you find your way the last book that you couldn’t put down?  What could you learn from that to find your way to another one like it in the future?

Book choice and engagement are inseparably linked. The time we invest in supporting to develop the skills and strategies to consistently find their way from one engaging text to the next is time well spent in the reading classroom.  Until every last reader has found his or her way to a book they can’t wait to dig into and don’t want to put down, there’s still urgent work to pursue.

Christina Nosek and Kari Yates are the coauthors of the upcoming To Know and Nurture a Reader from Stenhouse Publishers. Christina is a fifth grade teacher and literacy coach in the San Francisco Bay Area. Kari is a staff developer and consultant living in Moorhead, Minnesota. To read more from them, visit their new blog at You can also follow them on Twitter: @ChristinaNosek and @Kari_Yates or on their Facebook Page.

Balancing Act: Small groups, conferring and partnerships

by Kristina Harris

The other night I was looking through the “Units of Study in Reading TCRWP”  Facebook group. A teacher had elevated their  struggle to balance the “teacher directed” components of the independent time during the Reading Workshop.  We know what kids are doing, READING!  However, the question always comes back to how many kids should a teacher aim to meet with during the Reading Workshop daily? Is there a method to the “madness”? I saw a response from someone in the group that suggested a 3,2,1 approach for direct, explicit instruction:

  • 3 kids – with one small group
  • 2 kids – with one partnership
  • 1 kid – with a reading conference

WHAT!? 6 kids? That just didn’t seem like enough kids to me.  Granted I realize it is a balancing act, I know I can meet with more than that.  So I looked back from my reading notes of the past week and decided to flip the suggestion to a 1,2,3 plan.

  • 1 small group (strategy or guided) (~4 kids)
  • 2 groups of partnerships (4 kids)
  • 3 reading conferences (3 kids)les-anderson-215208-unsplash                                         Photo by Les Anderson on Unsplash

That would give me a chance to instruct 11 kids during the independent time of Reading Workshop  and 55 over the course of the week. To me, that felt better, but  please know that this is not a science but an art.  I know there will be days that I might have 2 small  groups and no one-to-one conferences.  I’m using this as my guideline to keep me on track and accountable for my minutes. I know how cute those kindergarteners are with their stories and they can easily persuade me to be off track!

This also lead me to think about my accountability to my students.  Am I meeting with them enough? Is it fair? Is it equitable?  As I was digging through my informal data over the past 2 weeks, I wondered if I had seen everyone.  So I tallied each conference, small group and partnership conversation I had. Yikes! There were ones that I had met with numerous times (double digits) and others that had flown under the radar and I only met with once! Does it need to be equitable? Or will some students naturally need more direct instruction than others? I came to the conclusion that I must have been putting out fires first and only getting to the engaged proficient readers when I had time. I needed to change that, so that those proficient readers also had direct instruction more frequently. I also questioned if I am giving my struggling readers a chance to practice and transfer the skills and strategies independently if I’m always meeting with them.   In light of this new information, I mapped out my conferences and groups for the next few days, knowing I could still remain flexible.  I will continue to do this so that I can ensure I am meeting with my students enough, and  to be sure I have data and accountability for not only  my students, but for myself as well.

Updated with a Visual of my thinking from the comment below.

Kristina Harris has been an elementary teacher for 12 years.  She has taught primary grades and is currently working for Jeffco Public Schools as an Elementary Literacy Specialist. She is currently sharing about her co-teaching experience in a Kindergarten classroom through her blog, Teaching With Elevations.