Why Blog

I’m passionate about finding ways to simplify comprehension instruction and learning. I’m concerned that we are defining comprehension too narrowly as an accumulation of five or six meta-cognitive strategies when cultivating comprehension involves so much more than that. We need to help children acquire accurate fluent reading skills and strategies; build background knowledge; develop their oral language and vocabulary; make reading-writing connections, and acquire a repertoire of meta-cognitive strategies to use as and if needed.

So I invite you to join me in blogging about this ever-so-important topic. I look forward to hearing your ideas, teaching strategies, book recommendations, classroom stories, etc., basically anything that will inspire a healthy conversation among colleagues.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Susan...B...Neuman—Three Words to Get Us Back on the Road to Successful Reading (Ask Sharon...an Advice Column for Teachers)

On February 11th Mandy asked: When you think or hear the word “kindergarten” what are the top three things in literacy that come to your mind? Play, reading levels, integration? I think it's a tough time to teach primary.

Dear Mandy,

In considering how to respond to your question, I initially toyed with “interaction,” “socialization,” “developmentally appropriate,” and “play,” as ideas that come to mind when thinking about kindergarten and primary-grade literacy instruction. However, after reading—just last week—a most informative and inspirational article by Susan B. Neuman, a professor of Educational Studies at the University of Michigan specializing in early childhood development, I feel compelled to share some of Neuman’s ideas and link you to this ever-so-important article. (And BTW: there are three words in “Susan” “B” “Neuman.”)

In Sparks Fade, Knowledge Stays: The National Early Literacy Panel’s Report Lacks Staying Power, Susan Neuman advises us to think out of the box when it comes to deciding on practices that will enhance children’s early literacy development. She insists that focusing too heavily on code-based practices, such as helping children understand the alphabetic principle, decoding, and encoding words, can detract us from also providing children with a “massive, in-depth, and ever-growing foundation of factual knowledge,” which is key to improving their reading comprehension. In short, to help children read with comprehension, children need to learn both code and content knowledge.

I hope you enjoy the article as much as I did, and that it leads to some good conversation among your colleagues.


P.S. Actually after I read this article I emailed Susan to thank her for getting this important early childhood message out to us and promised that I'd make it my personal mission to pass her words along. I'm keeping my promise...now won't you join me?  

[Dear Blog Members: I'd love to hear back from you about this article. Also please post questions for future columns in the comment box. I need to hear from you. Thanks.]


  1. Great article - and perfect "companion" to several of your posts such as "Don't Assume Too Much." Comprehension is key and our instruction in this area must be mindful. Your newest book & podcast for Choice Literacy are thought-provoking. In adding to my nonfiction material, I kept your ideas of background knowledge and accessibility in the forefront of my mind. (I'm working on my question!)

  2. so glad you enjoyed the article. there's so much there that we all need to consider. these early years are too important and foundational to waste. and of course, thanks for your kind words about my book and podcast.

  3. Your blog is awesome! I appreciate the book lists and also this article. Reading this article has helped to strengthen my resolve and commitment to comprehension instruction.

  4. ...can't tell you how thrilling it is to hear that this blog is impacting teachers' lives. you've made my day.

  5. just wanted you to know that I Tweeted your post and used the hashtags #edchat and #elemchat and it was an "@ mention" on The # elemchat Daily! I sincerely hope this helps to get the message out. Here is the link: http://paper.li/tag/elemchat

  6. i'm so glad you tweeted the post. it's an important message for sure. thank you. thank you.

    (as for tweeting, i know nothing about it except that i tried it once for half a day and gave it up. it didn't make sense to me. perhaps i should try again.)

  7. Thank you so much, Sharon. As always, your words and thoughts deepen my own and light my way!

    Big hugs...

  8. Coincidentally, I received an email today with a link to another TED speaker who might interest you: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BlvKWEvKSi8
    Mr. Meyer's message, while centered around math education, also I think, speaks about the importance of building background knowledge in support of comprehension, as Susan Neuman notes.
    Although my district has supported the philosophy of reading workshop for years, I can almost feel it beginning to slip away. As one example, we are now moving towards assessments that count words correct per minute to determine a child's progress as a reader, focusing particularly on the progress of struggling readers. Fluency is important, of course, but I cannot imagine how it can be the only measure to determine if a reader is making adequate progress. I also don't think fluency is measured only in words per minute.
    Underlying all this, I think, are engagement and motivation. If I am not engaged or motivated by counting words per minute, I can't imagine how my students will be! Certainly, building background knowledge with engaging content will help readers to grow more than focusing on adding two words per minute in 6 weeks.

  9. big hugs back to you too laura. (will i see you at ira in orlando?)

  10. linda, it's so sad to hear what's happening in your district. and you're so right about engagement and motivation, not words read correctly per minute, as being key to developing readers who not only can read but choose to read when they don't have to. hang in there, doing what you know is best for kids.

  11. Dear Sharon,

    Firstly, this blog is jam packed with so much good stuff. I am really enjoying reading and learning and being inspired by your writing...and sharing the link with fellow teachers who I know will soon be doing the same.

    Secondly, in response to Susan Neuman's article, it reminds me of the quote you once shared in a PD at PS 197:

    “When it comes to teaching, the power of a reader’s passionate, personal interests cannot be overstated.” – Fink, R.

    Humor me as I reflect upon myself and my own reading habits: I am passionate about ballet. This was an interest of mine from a very young age- I practiced it as a child, I went to performances, I studied about it at the library and on the web. I immersed myself in it and to this day, I will devote hours to reading about it- in books or in the newspaper....and I can confidently say that most things I read about ballet- whether they are dancers’ names, old or new ballets, performance reviews- I remember. They are stuck in my brain for a long time and I could speak about them days, weeks after I have read them and in great detail.

    I completely agree with Ms. Neuman in that if we focus more on depth and investigation into a fewer number of content areas rather than briefly skimming over many content areas, children's background knowledge will grow- and with that, so will their comprehension. I used to think that my job as a teacher (particularly as a teacher in an at risk neighborhood) was to expose my students to as much as I possibly could in a given year. I wanted them to see the world through me, scaffolding their discovery of things they never knew existed. While I still think this is a valiant outlook, I would have to say that my mindset is now more about exposure to new things but with focus. For example, if I am teaching kids about sea turtles and I do it really well (bringing them as close to sea turtles as I possibly can- without going to West Palm Beach...) they will generate a significant amount of new background knowledge. I don't believe that this background knowledge will only be useful when they read about sea turtles- they will be able to apply what they learned about sea turtles to other living creatures. They will notice patterns in living things and wonder similar questions to those they investigated when learning about sea turtles- "what does it eat?" "where does it live?" "what does it look like?" In this sense, the study is invaluable because it is deep into one content area and it equips the students with skills they can apply to other related studies.

    We need to give kids more opportunities to study something, one thing, deeply. We need to give them opportunities to study this content as scholars and researchers would. We need to give them opportunities to demonstrate their application of this background knowledge to something else, but something of interest to them. In this way we are encouraging their passions but also opening doors for them to try out something new.

    Thanks for reading.


  12. hey katy, thank you for sharing. i loved reading what you had to say—from ballet to sea turtles. your comment about studying sea turtles in depth to both learn about them and then apply the information and skills they've acquired to other areas of interest is a point well taken and so very important. and in addition i think we can instill a similar love of content area topics by giving kids more opportunities to go deep and not just wide. one day i'd love to visit your classroom—i know that i'll be just as inspired as when we first met.