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.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

"Talking Twins" YouTube Clip

You may have already seen this YouTube video of the "Talking Twins" but had to share it anyway. Don't you just love the way these twins are "talking" or at least socializing? And doesn't it make you think of perhaps how natural and important it is to students' growth and learning? And doesn't it make you think of how we can encourage more of that in the classroom? Providing time for talk is an essential component of comprehension instruction and learning.

Monday, March 28, 2011

When Is Enough, Enough in Regards to Personal Narratives?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the kinds of writing we ask kids to do. About how writing is both a tool for communication and a way to let learners experience the reading-writing process so that they can better understand texts they read.

As I reflect on this I think of David Coleman’s presentation (Coleman’s a co-author of the CCSS) on YouTube where he states that personal narratives (where a writer shares an experience) and personal (correction—should read "persuasive") essays (where a writer shares an opinion) are the two most frequently assigned writing genres among high school students. He cautions, however, that having students write in these genres may not get them very far in their work lives as they will seldom be asked to do either. He suggests that what’s needed is for students to write with evidence.

I think about my visit to Manhattan New School at the start of this school year… As it happened I visited on the same day that writing consultant Isoke Nia was working with primary grade teachers. Isoke had teachers pondering why they consistently kick off each school year with a personal narrative genre unit and suggested that perhaps it’s time for kids, and themselves, to move on.

I also think about journal writing…and the extent to which we ask kids to produce these notebook entries. I "get it" that it can loosen them up, get their writerly juices flowing, convince them they have something to say. But I also know that it’s too easy to assign journal writing and let it take the place of an authentic writing workshop where children actually receive explicit instruction, guidance, and feedback about how to write.

As we approach the end of one school year in anticipation of the beginning of another, this may be the ideal time to consider whether or not we want to continue in this direction. It may be time to reflect on authentic purposes for writing—to communicate, to inform, to persuade, to entertain. And then consider whether personal narrative genre units are taking up precious time that might be better spent elsewhere.

I. for one, think there’s a lot to be said for expanding the writing repertoire we expose students to, especially at the start of the year. Do kids, especially those in second grade and up, really need one more dose of personal narrative writing? Might we instead have them save personal writing for their Idea Books or “free writing times” and let them choose to write them or not. 

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Inside Scoop on the Writing Process

I’m preparing a seminar and came across a list of books I often recommend to help children understand the writing process. Numbers 1-3 are autobiographical or biographical, 4 & 5 are fictional stories, and 6 & 7 are about finding your passion in life and beginning any artistic venture with what you know best.

Thought you might be interested in this list. (I’ll leave it up to you to clink the links to learn more about each book.)

1. Author: A True Story by Helen Lester
2. Playing with Words by James Howe (Meet the Author series)
4. The Best Story by Eileen Spinelli
5. If You Were a Writer by Joan Lowery Nixon
6. Insects Are My Life by Megan McDonald

BTW: My easy favorite is Begin at the Beginning, perhaps because I can identify with Sara's procrastination in the face of challenging work (she keeps getting something to eat). Unfortunately this is the title that's the hardest to locate. You can try second-hand sellers, used bookstores, the library...it's worth the search.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

So Sorry...

I feel badly that I haven't posted as much these past two weeks as I would have liked. It's just that I've been crazy busy and haven't had a moment to do anything more than the most urgent "do-now." That said, I hope that within the next week I can get myself centered once again and back on track. Thanks for understanding.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Looking for Something Short and Sweet? Try Short Stories...

Back in January we starting talking about the importance of children reading short, sweet chapter books—books they could wrap their thinking around. Texts they can revisit, reread, and contemplate.
It seems to me that short stories, even episodic tales, fit the bill just fine.

So here are four collections of short stories you may want to read aloud to your students:

Yes, this title is definitely a mouthful, but the stories about three toys—actually they’re more loosely related adventures than individual stories—are simply delightful. Younger readers, unable to read stories like this on their own will love to hear Lumphy’s, StingRay’s, and Plastic’s take on the world. And there’s a lot to be learned from their adventures.

It’s hard to say enough good things about these six short stories. You remember Timothy from Timothy Goes to School and Charles from Shy Charles and Doris who loves cheese-wiz sandwiches. Well these three personalities and other friends you’re certain to recognize from Rosemary Wells’s picture books are all enrolled in the same kindergarten class. And what a lot of fun it is to see six of these characters each featured in a story. One thing though—the stories are so much more fun when readers know something about what the characters are like, so I advise reading aloud some of Wells’s picture books first.

Jack Plank Tells Tales by Natalie Babbit
Who doesn’t like a good story? And disenfranchised pirate Jack Plank most definitely has stories to tell. Jack’s been “let-go,” so to speak, from the pirating community and needs to earn a living on land. Not so easy, as he explains to fellow boarders each evening upon returning to Mrs. Del Fresno's rooming house—jobless. Kids will relish Jack's pirate-related tales about why each job he tries simply doesn’t pan out. (The paperback edition will be available in April.)

Altogether, One at a Time by E. L. Konigsburg
These four short stories—and these really are distinct stories—give readers a whole lot to think about. Themes like understanding what it’s like to grow old, learning compassion, facing fears, dealing with prejudice and racism are presented in Konigsburg’s straightforward and witty style. Read these stories aloud and give kids plenty of time to talk.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Barnes and Noble Search for "Camilla de la Bedoyere" Yields 72 Results

…And I’d never heard of her. Until last Friday, that is, when I did some professional development at the Kingston, N.Y. Superintendant’s Day Conference. During a lunch break, I toured George Washington Elementary School, the district’s only public Montessori school and one that is sought-after by district families. As I peeked in one of the Children’s House classrooms—those are the multi-age classrooms for three-, four-, and five-year olds—I happened upon a lovely flip book by Camilla de la Bedoyere called Life Cycles: Egg to Chicken/Tadpole to Frog. I was immediately taken by the unusually stunning photographs and engaging text.

So as soon as I returned home I googled the author and—low and behold—I found 72 results for this author/illustrator on Barnes and Noble’s site! Books on the life cycle of the butterfly, sharks, and chickens. Books on monkeys, the rainforest, and the human body. I also found a delightful series for young readers called “Farmyard Friends”… Horses and Ponies, Cows, Pigs, Chickens, and Sheep. The books are a bit pricy for individual purchase ($25.00 each) but they’re certainly titles that primary-grade teachers may want to put on a wish list of books their school, PTA, or district might purchase for the classroom. I ordered Sheep and Horses and Ponies and am awaiting delivery any day now. I'm expecting them to be every bit as lovely as Egg to Chicken.
(FYI: It appears that Egg to Chicken/Tadpole to Frog is no longer available in flip book format. Each title is sold separately.) 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Building Background Knowledge at Home (Ask Sharon…an Advice Column for Teachers)

On March 13th Lauren wrote: “Sharon, I'm a mom of three who loves to read blogs about education and, in particular, reading. My oldest is 5 and amazes me everyday with the leaps and bounds in reading that children her age can make. I've been enjoying your blog, and I found the podcast very informative [see March 12th post]. I would love to hear some of your ideas for how parents can expand the background knowledge of their children. (As I comment to my daughter's teachers, we're a team in her education.) We read aloud zealously, talk to our kids as we go through the day and try to provide them with a range of experiences. I'd love to see your thoughts on this for parents.”

Dear Lauren,

You’re so right when you say that we’re a team…teachers and families working together. So it makes all the sense in the world for you to wonder what parents can do to help build their children’s background knowledge and, consequently, their comprehension. In addition, you’ve expressed three of the very most important things families can do—reading aloud to children, talking with them about how the world works, and exposing them to a variety of experiences so that they’ll have something to build on when they encounter similar experiences in books they read. I bet there’s not a teacher reading this blog post who doesn’t wish the same for every student in their class. Your children are so very lucky!

Here are some things you might also consider:

1. Learn from your child about what she’s most interested in learning. It’s always best to start with children’s interests and then branch out from there.

2. Once you find your child’s passions, gather several books on that topic and keep them in a special tote bag or basket to bear witness to the fact that there’s so much to learn on just this one topic. Keep adding to that bag or basket…but don’t limit yourself or your child to books. Provide writing tools for her to draw and write about what she knows and wonders about. Puzzles to manipulate. Games and activity books related to that topic. Learning about the world involves many facets and multiple talents.

3. As you read to and with your child, take the time to closely examine the pictures, as they hold a wealth of information. Nonfiction writers are open about the fact that the visuals in informational texts are every bit as important (perhaps even more so) as what’s written. So much information is conveyed through photos, scale drawings, charts, etc., so give them the time they deserve.

4. Look for opportunities to expand your child’s interests. For example, if she’s interested in elephants, start with elephants but then ease her into books about Africa or Asia so she can begin to explore the environments in which these amazing creatures live.

5. Don’t limit your child to “animals” even though children naturally gravitate toward animal books. It’s important to broaden her horizon and engage her in fascinating books on weather or space or the arctic.

6. And above all—make whatever you do with your child voluntary and fun. If you see her balking when you drag out the bag or basket of books, back off for the time being. Building background knowledge at home and at school is far too important to have the experience turn your child off to the experience.

Hope this helps… 

[FYI to all those new to this "Ask Sharon" column who may be wondering where I get the chutzpah to write an advice column "a la Ann Landers": I'm just having fun...seriously! But know that I do take your questions and my responses to heart!]  

Monday, March 14, 2011

How Much We Remember...With and Without Visuals

As I consider how writers use their talents to help readers visualize (experience) ideas and information and how readers must pick up where writers leave off by envisioning what was written (see blog posts for Feb. 28th, March 1st, March 4th, and March 9th), I can’t help but recall John Medina’s wise words in his book Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, a book I highly recommend if you’re at all interested in understanding how our brains impact learning. (Besides... the almost 132 amazon readers that gave the book a "five star" rating can't all be wrong.)

Medina writes: “We learn and remember best through pictures, not through written or spoken words.”

“Text and oral presentations are not just less effective than pictures for retaining certain types of information; they are way less efficient. If information is presented orally, people remember about 10 percent, tested 72 hours after exposure. That figure goes up to 65 percent if you add a picture.”

The implications for our teaching are staggering, and we’ll explore some of them in later posts. For now it’s enough to know that we must attend more to visuals—the pictures, charts, videos, etc., we use in our instruction and the images we help readers create in their minds. It’s a step in the right direction and, indeed, something to think about.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A "Background Knowledge" TREAT for You!—Pass It On

I just returned from Seattle and Portland where I spoke with teachers about how too much of our instructional time is spent teaching kids to use comprehension strategies. And that, if we’re truly interested in improving reading comprehension, we need to redirect some of our attention to other comprehension-related areas, such as background knowledge, oral language and vocabulary, and reading-writing connections, as these aspects of reading instruction also impact children’s ability to understand what they read.

During a break, Marina, one of my new Oregonian friends, told me about a podcast that she had recently listened to (and has since listened to at least four times). This American Radio Works podcast is an interview with Daniel T. Willingham, a cognitive psychologist, who teaches at the University of Virginia and is the author of numerous American Educator articles and the book Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. In this podcast, Willingham shares the same concern that I expressed in my seminar—we’re overdoing strategy instruction and need to find ways to equip students with background knowledge that will help them to fill in the gaps the author left and make sense of what they read.

More than anything I encourage you to make the time to listen to this 13- minute podcast. You won’t be sorry. And as you plan your lessons for the week and throughout the year, consider Willingham’s wise words. Look for ways you can include more content-area texts in your literacy block. Recognize that when you’re teaching science and social studies you’re also teaching reading comprehension by providing kids with the information they need to understand.

Pass it on… (And thank you Marina.)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Anne Lamott—You Make Me Laugh!

Recently, feeling overwhelmed by all I have to do and underwhelmed by my meager writing talents, I was rereading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life for inspiration to keep going. But what I got instead was a ton of much-needed laughs and some insight into how Anne Lamott does it—make readers laugh that is. Here’s just one example that caused me to herald Ted from his office to “come hear what Anne wrote.” (I always like him to come to me, rather than me going to him. He-he.)

“I [Anne Lamott] started writing when I was seven or eight. I was very shy and strange-looking, loved reading above everything else, weighed about forty pounds at the time, and was so tense that I walked around with my shoulders up to my ears, like Richard Nixon. I saw a home movie once of a birthday party I went to in the first grade, with all these cute little boys and girls playing like puppies, and all of a sudden I scuttled across the screen like Prufrock’s crab. I was very clearly the one who was going to grow up to be a serial killer, or keep dozens and dozens of cats. Instead I got funny.”

I started thinking about why this passage is so funny. Why it left me practically falling off my chair and screaming frantically for Ted to come. It’s largely because I could SEE what she was describing through her often surprising comparisons.

I can picture Anne walking with her shoulders up to her ears like Nixon, can’t you?

I can see the boys and girls playing like puppies, can’t you?

I can envision her scuttling across the room (don’t you just love how active that verb is?) like Profrock’s crab.

So Anne, I’m glad you didn’t cross over to the dark side and become a serial killer or a hoarder of cats. I’m glad you got funny instead. Thank you for making me laugh…and teaching me about good writing. Now if you could just sit beside me and whisper in my ear when I write!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Homework—Reading for the Fun of It

In Chapter 3 of Comprehension from the Ground Up I tell the story of Sofia, my seven-year-old granddaughter, becoming so totally engaged in putting together her craft jewelry box that she lost track of time. And how two hours later she resurfaced with a gorgeous sparkly jewelry box to show for her efforts. I compared that experience to the type of experiences we should try to create for students in our classrooms and families should provide at home. We want students to engage in their reading and read voluminously. But how…how can we make reading experiences sparkle so that children will love to read so much that time simply slips away?

One way is to make sure the homework we assign doesn’t involve the heavy-lifting feel that accompanies so many of children’s in-class assignments. Homework should be relaxing and fun. Kids should look forward to their home reading as a much needed and well-deserved break from the routines and rigors of the day.

When Sofia visited us over the President’s Day Weekend, I was thrilled to see that a transfer from arts and crafts to reading had taken place. Sofia read nonstop. She read Sharks while she was eating breakfast. She read Muggie Maggie while waiting for Eva to get dressed so they could go out and play. She read Owls in the afternoon when she needed a break from playing with cousins Jack and Danny. And at night her Mom read to her from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows! And the best part is that all the while Sofia was doing her homework—reading, simply reading. So thank you to Nicola Davies, Beverly Cleary, Gail Gibbons, and J. K. Rowling for helping to put fun back into homework. And thank you to Ms. Steele for letting these fine authors do what they do best. (And btw: Sofia still loves arts and crafts, soccer, basketball, and cooking...in addition to reading.)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Mirror by Jeannie Baker Is Not to Be Missed

When Jeannie Baker’s Mirror arrived via my trusty and grossly over-worked UPS delivery man, I wasn’t at all prepared for what I saw when I open the book. Two parallel stories, one set in urban Australia and the other in rural Morocco. In each story a young boy arises while it is still dark to accompany his father on a day-trip. The Australian boy and dad drive to the hardware store to purchase bricks for a fireplace they’re making, and the Moroccan boy and his father ride a camel to the market to sell a rug the women have been making. That’s how the story starts, but what unfolds is a visual and emotional treat not to be missed. (Rather than me trying to explain the technical aspects of how this most unusual book is put together, I’ll leave it up to you to go to Amazon and read the descriptions provided in the editorial reviews. See the visual below for an idea of how it's formatted.)

However I can tell you what the book does—it describes the commonality among us all. Despite the fact that there are so many outward differences between the lifestyles of the Australian and North African families, there are connections and similarities that we must acknowledge. As Jeannie Baker writes: "Like each other, we live to be loved by family and friends and to be part of a larger family, a community. Inwardly we are so alike, it could be each other we see when we look in a mirror." Jeannie Baker has done her part by producing this breathtaking book, now it’s up to us to share it with students and get them talking. It truly is one of the finest wordless books I’ve ever read.

Friday, March 4, 2011

John Steinbeck, Poetry, and Knowing

If you know anything at all about me, I bet you know that John Steinbeck is my all-time favorite writer. And our recent thinking about visualization has reminded me of what he once wrote about poetry in a letter to Herbert Sturz, an undergraduate student at Columbia University: “With the rhythms and symbols of poetry one can get into the reader—open him up and while he is open introduce on an intellectual level things he would not or could not receive unless he were opened up.” Didn’t you feel “opened up” and totally receptive to what Steinbeck wanted us to feel and therefore know about the Okies in The Grapes of Wrath?

It’s so interesting to think that Steinbeck so purposefully evoked his readers’ senses so that he could, in fact, teach us something. I think the same must be true of all writers—the good ones anyway. They want us to know what they know, and they understand that if they select just the right words, frame them in just the right way, appeal to just the right senses, they’ll hit a nerve that will go directly to the brain and open us up to a flood of emotion and, yes, intellectual acceptance. I wonder what Lester Laminack wanted us to feel and know when he wrote so lovingly about his Mammaw in Saturdays and Teacakes, or what Jonathan London hoped we’d understand about the threatened gray wolf when he wrote The Eyes of Gray Wolf. Feeling, experiencing, knowing—each so connected to the others and all part of how we learn.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Still Thinking About Visualization

Monday’s post got me thinking about visualization and exactly what it is that writers do to breathe life into their text. We talk about visualizing all the time but what does it really mean? Clarifying this for myself will help me identify additional titles I can use to demonstrate visualization and explain to children what to look for as they read and to try out when they write.

Authors help readers to visualize when they:

Write with specificity—For example, writing “Peter ate a heaping bowl of Captain Crunch” is more evocative than saying he ate some cereal. In Lester Laminack’s Saturdays and Teacakes, his Mammaw opened the Frigidaire (later described as a refrigerator) and put two sticks of Blue Bonnet into the teacakes (later described as margarine). Better to sell 128 boxes of girl scout cookies than to sell “a lot” of them.

Use strong nouns and active verbs—This makes the writing so much more concrete. “The toddler tip-toed” across the room enlists more of the senses than to say “the young child walked...”

Compare one thing to another, often something unfamiliar to something I know—Both fiction and nonfiction writers do this through similes and metaphors. In the Big Blue Whale, Nicola Davies writes that the blue whale’s skin is as slippery as soap and as springy as a hard-boiled egg.

Write dialogue in keeping with every day language of the character—Lester Laminack’s Mammaw said, “My goodness, buddy, we didn’t put no vanilla in here. Reach up in that cabinet and get me down the bottle of vanilla flavor.” Hearing her say this—in this way—makes her more real to me.

Use onomatopoeia (sound words)—In Down the Road by Alice Schertle, the screen door goes “Squeak-bang,” and Hetty listens to her shoes go “thup, thup, thup, thup” as she walks down the road.

When you read to your kids this week, look and listen for how the author evokes the senses and then share it with the children. Maybe even make a list like I just did.