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 28, 2011

Books to Help Kids Visualize (Ask Sharon...an Advice Column for Teachers)

On February 25th Michele wrote: I am looking for some really good books to teach visualization with my second-grade kiddos. Do you have any suggestions?

Dear Michele,

When I think of good books to demonstrate visualization, I look for books that evoke ALL the senses—sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch—not simply books that create a mental image. “Visualization” is more expansive than just what we can see.
With this in mind here are some books that are sure to please your young readers. I’ve grouped them into two categories—stories that contain lyrical language and lyrical texts that illustrate a concept.

First the stories that contain lyrical language (I won’t bother to annotate them here, I’ll just link you to Amazon so you can more fully review my recommendations):

1.     Down the Road by Alice Schertle
2.     The Five-Dog Night by Eileen Christelow
3.     Saturdays and Teacakes by Lester Laminack
4.     The Chicken Chasing Queen of Lamar County by Patricia Harrington
5.     Hurricane! by Jonathan London

And for the lyrical concept books, I recommend:

1.     Twilight Comes Twice by Ralph Fletcher
2.     In November by Cynthia Rylant
3.     Atlantic by G. Brian Karas
4.     A Quiet Place by Douglas Wood

If anyone has additional suggestions for Michele, please share in the comments box. Thanks.


Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Brain That Does the Work Is the Brain That Learns

The brain that does the work is the brain that learns. I can’t recall where I read this, so for now let’s simply consider what it means for the children we teach. I’m convinced the implications are profound.

And since I don’t want to do all the work (and all the learning), I’m going to pose this prompt and ask you to complete the statement. Then I’ll post your responses so we can consider the myriad ways to enhance learning. Here’s the prompt:

If it’s true that the brain that does the work is the brain that learns, then I’m going to have to __________________________.  

Here are some of your suggestions:

•  Do a better job of sharing at the end of the reading workshop
•  Have children report out more about their thinking
•  Provide more strategic help
•  Let students struggle a bit more and then celebrate their struggles
•  Improve my questioning strategies (techniques)
•  Allow more wait time
•  Encourage children to pose their own "wonder" questions before reading informational texts
•  Make writing conferences more meaningful by focusing on one and only one facet of writing, and
   then allow the writer to be more in control of the writing process
•  Select shorter books to read aloud so that there will be time to discuss the ideas and information
•  Build in abundant opportunities for children to respond in writing to what's been read
•  Encourage kids to sketch what they've learned

Thanks and I'll continue to add to this list as suggestions are submitted in the comments box.

We’re on to Something with Our Short and Sweet Titles

It’s good to know that what we’re saying about the importance of children reading “short and sweet” titles aligns with the Common Core State Standards. The Common Standards recommend that children spend more time reading short and complex texts—ones they can read and reread multiple times, examine closely for content, structure, and text features, and those that encourage them to think critically. Children can’t do this, as we well know, when texts are too long.

If you have a copy of the CCSS take a look on page 32 at the text examples  illustrating “complexity, quality, and range of student reading in K-5.” I think you’ll be pleased with their age and grade appropriateness. Here are a few examples: K—Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes; 1st grade—How People Learned to Fly by Fran Hodgkins and True Kelley; 2nd-3rd grade—Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White; 4th-5th grade—Horses by Seymour Simon. The document notes with an * or ** the titles that are most likely to be read aloud by the teacher or read along with the teacher to supplement children’s independent reading of just-right texts.) If you don’t have a copy of the standards use the link above to download it. They’re worth becoming familiar with and are actually quite good. Hopefully, they won’t become lost in translation when applied to classrooms.

Now it’s time to add more titles to our own “short and sweet” list: 

Absolutely Lucy by Ilene Cooper is a delightful story of eight-year old Bobby Quinn, who’s terribly shy and who wants a dog more than anything else in the world. Learn how Bobby’s wish comes true, and how his new dog Lucy, who's “absolutely the prettiest dog in the world," helps him make friends. The best news of all is that there are three other books in the Absolutely Lucy series, all certain to win the hearts of young readers.

       In How Oliver Olson Changed the World by Claudia Mills, Oliver has a problem that most kids would welcome—his mom and dad always want do everything for him, even his homework. Read to find out how Oliver Olson changes the world—or at least his world.

      No Way, Winky Blue by Pamela James and the four other books in the series, chronicle Rosie’s relationship with her parakeet Winky Blue. There are a lot of lessons to be learned about accepting and appreciating those we love for what they are.

The protagonist in Muggie Maggie by Beverly Cleary is Maggie Schultz, a third grader who makes a decision NOT to learn cursive. She intends to print or use the computer instead. See how she sorts through this mess her stubbornness has gotten her into. The book is also available in Spanish. 

Gloria’s Way by Ann Cameron is a companion to the well-loved Julian and Huey stories. In these six charming vignettes, readers will identify both with Gloria’s problems and their resolution. And then, of course, readers will delight to once again meet up with her best friend Julian and his brother Huey.

And...in the spirit of the Common Standards recommendation of a 50-50 balance of fiction and informational text, we also need to start thinking about nonfiction titles that help to build knowledge of key topics within and across the grades. More about that at another time. For now, I’d welcome additional suggestions for our “short and sweet” list.

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.]

Friday, February 18, 2011

Two Great Picture Books to Help Kids Infer

While it’s true that each and every book children read requires them to infer—to fill in the gaps the author left—there are some books that really get kids thinking about why a character is feeling and behaving as he is. Two of my favorites are Tight Times by Barbara Hazen Shook and Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts.

Tight Times is an oldie but goodie. So old that many of you were not even born when it was first published back in 1979. Imagine! However, it’s a book that every elementary-grade teacher should be familiar with, especially if you collect realistic picture books that kids can relate to and get them thinking. Here we have a young boy who wants a dog but since his family is going through “tight times” no amount of pleading can convince his mom and dad to let him have one. There are abundant opportunities for readers to infer, e.g., why the family has to eat lima beans so often instead of roast beef, why the dad comes home in the middle of the day looking so sad, why his mom and dad start to cry and make a sandwich hug with him in the middle, and why he starts to cry too?  This family, although low on funds, is high on love.  

Interestingly enough, Those Shoes is also about a boy desperately wanting something—in this case, black sneakers with white stripes—so he can fit in with the kids at school. However, his grandma only has money for things Jeremy needs, not things he wants. Readers have to infer how he’s feeling, why Antonio is the only classmate who doesn’t laugh at the velcro sneakers the guidance counselor gives him to replace his shoes that fell apart, why he tries so hard to fight his instinct to eventually give the too small shoes he and his grandma found in a thrift show to Antonio who has smaller feet. 

In both books, readers have to work to fill in the gaps so they can understand the character’s dilemma and then celebrate its resolution.

I’m going to start a new list in the right-hand column of fiction and nonfiction books that do an especially good job of providing opportunities for kids to infer. I hope you’ll also add to this list by writing in your favorite titles in the comment box. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Don't Assume Too Much

We often assume kids know more than they actually do. That’s why it’s important to be explicit with them when reading aloud and demonstrating skills or strategies. When I decided to read-aloud Freya Littledale’s The Magic Fish to a first-grade class who were just starting a fairy tale unit, it was to help the kids pay attention to what the fisherman and his wife do, what they say, and even how they say it. I wanted them to eventually deduce that the fisherman is kind and his wife is greedy.

The first page of The Magic Fish goes like this:

Once upon a time there was a poor fisherman.
He lived with his wife
in an old hut
by the sea.

Now I certainly intended to show the pictures, talk about how poor the couple was, and then mention that a “hut” is a simple, small house. One that’s not at all fancy. But then it dawned on me that this may not be enough. It’s unlikely that young children will have had much experience with concept of a “hut,” and then I realized that some children may never have been to the “sea.” So I printed some clip art of “hut” and “sea,” laminated the pages, and showed them to the children at the start of the story.
The setting of this story and the characters’ relationship to it has everything to do with the story. Now I’m not trying to make excuses the wife for wanting more, more, more, but I certainly understand her at least wanting a pretty house. Don’t you? After all she has to stay home all day while her husband is out fishing for dinner. A passtime he may even enjoy! But after that she’s on her own—her wanting to “live in a castle,” to “be queen of the land,” and to “be queen of the sun, and the moon, and the stars” is over the top and can only be attributed to her being GREEDY! Not at all a nice way to be, as she soon finds out.

My point is…take the time to help kids understand the stories we read aloud or those they read on their own. This may make the difference between creating readers who only read when they have to and those who choose to read because they love it.  

Monday, February 14, 2011

Ask Sharon...an Advice Column for Teachers

Here’s how this "advice column" works: Blog followers will post questions in the “comments” box throughout the week, then I’ll answer one or two early the following week. All unanswered questions will be saved and most likely inform future blog postings. And to anyone new to this blog, trust me, I don't take myself all that seriously...but hey how many opportunities does one get to play Ann Landers?

Dear Linda,

Thank you for taking the time to write. (See Linda’s question in the February 11th comment box.)

Let me address the second part of your question first: “Might a nonfiction study work best with an overarching topic?” I think it’s wise to both briefly study nonfiction for its own sake, and then move on to a content-area topic where the nonfiction text features you’ve uncovered are now used to access information students want and need to know. This offers the best of both worlds—students learn about nonfiction and then directly apply what they’ve learned.

You might introduce the unit by reading aloud some nonfiction titles on topics that interest your students and then charting your finding. After you’ve done this for a week or so, re-direct children’s attention to a content-area topic they will begin exploring. Nonfiction text features and the various nonfiction subgenres become so much more powerful when children recognize that information can be delivered in a variety of ways. And you’ll be integrating science and social studies into literacy, which is exactly what we want to happen.

About instructional strategies: 
You’re wise to frontload your nonfiction study, as you say you’re doing, by reading informational texts aloud to students. Children work best, in fact we all do, when we’re given a context for new ideas and thinking. And so sharing informational text during read aloud and shared reading is certainly a step in the right direction. As is giving children opportunities to share what they’ve read, learned, and found interesting. I used to provide a share time for students each morning after the first independent reading time of day. I would ask if anyone had something to share about a topic we were studying in science and social studies. Students would tell classmates what they’d learned from reading that morning. And because they enjoyed sharing and knew that if they wanted to share they'd have to do the work, children were more likely to select content-area books to read. “Brava” on that account as well.

Additional ideas:

Content-Area Literacy Centers—Another way to make texts (and nonfiction text features) accessible is to create content-area literacy centers for kids to work at during independent reading. First-grade teacher Millie Velazquez sets up centers that focus on topics her kids care deeply about and ones they are studying in science and social studies. She equips the center with all sorts of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry about the focus topic, brings in realia, and invites kids to do the same. There are pictures, writing supplies, and games for students to use. (See pages 172 to 177 in Comprehension the Ground Up for more on these centers.)

Text Feature Notebooks—You can either make one “big book” of various text features with students or allow each student to make their own. (And Linda, since you teach first grade, I advise doing one together.) Designate a page or two for each of the more common features you’ve identified at the start of the unit, e.g., captions, labels, scale drawings. Little kids don’t need to be overwhelmed by focusing on too many features or ones they’re unlikely to meet. As you continue to read aloud books and come across these text features, place post-it notes on the page so that later you can copy the page (and probably decrease its size), trim it to fit the big book, and paste the item on the page as an example.

Nonfiction Book Talks—Structure into your schedule a brief book talk two or three times a week where you or the children share a nonfiction title. Children might share a favorite part of a book they’re reading, and you might read the opening passage from a book to get kids interested in exploring it on their own. Always call students' attention to the text features that helped them access the information. The possibilities are endless, and it’s a good way to keep kids thinking about nonfiction.

Highlight Different Purposes for Reading—As you read to students call their attention to the different purposes we have for reading nonfiction. When we want to learn some baseline information about a topic we don’t know much about, we’ll read the entire book. Other times we might be looking for specific information to answer a question or to use in a piece we're writing and so we'll likely use the table of contents and index to find what we need. It’s a good way to show kids how the text features and "purpose for reading" go hand in hand.

About mentor texts:
I don’t have much to say here except that the nonfiction books I rely on the most are topic-related and not genre specific. That said, Gail Gibbons’ books are always high on my list and are likely so show up in a variety of content-area studies. Realizing that I should have more to say on this than I do, I’ve ordered Nonfiction Author Studies in the Elementary Classroom by Carol Brennan Jenkins and Deborah White. (So you see Linda, blogging isn’t helping break my book-ordering habit either!)

A book suggestion on primary grade writing:
Ann Marie Corgill’s Of Primary Importance: What’s Essential in Teaching Young Writers. (And yes, she's a dear friend and we taught together at the Manhattan New School, but that's not why I'm recommending her book.) It's packed with so many sound and practical writing workshop ideas for all types of primary-grade writing genres and publishing. 

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Podcast Invitation

A couple of weeks ago Franki Sibberson, co-author of Beyond Leveled Books, interviewed me about how I select books for instruction and how I help students make smart and thoughtful book choices for independent reading. This interview, now a podcast “Sharon Taberski on Book Choice” and its accompanying transcript, is available on the Choice Literacy website. I hope you enjoy it.

And by the way…be prepared to spend more time than you anticipated browsing the Choice Literacy site. It's chocked full of amazing teaching ideas. 

Friday, February 11, 2011

Ask Sharon...an Advice Column for Teachers (can you see me smiling?)

I have an idea. How about I ask you to post teaching questions throughout the week, and then I select one or two to answer every Monday or Tuesday? Sort of like an “Ann Landers” or “Dear Abby” column, only about teaching! (Just so you know, I’m “playing ” with this advice column format—just trying to have a little fun—and don’t at all take myself seriously. That said, you can count on me to take your questions VERY seriously and provide the best answer I can.) Are you with me?

So start posting your questions…anything at all related to teaching and learning, and I’ll post a reply on Monday or Tuesday. Can’t wait to hear from you.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Slow and Steady...(You Know the Rest)

We’re on a fast track in this country. We think that moving kids up to higher and higher reading levels faster and faster is the way to go. We reward kids for reading lots of books, rather than encouraging them to spend time enjoying, learning from, and mining fewer titles. In “The Case for Slow Reading,” Thomas Newkirk makes the case for slowing kids down, rather than speeding them up. He gives practical ideas for how to do this, e.g., attending to beginnings, annotating pages, and reading poetry. Rather than me trying to explain what Newkirk says, I urge you to read his article for yourself—slowly and deeply. It’s a keeper!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Two Great Read Aloud Titles for the Little Guys

I can’t wait to share two great titles that are guaranteed to get and keep your little guys engaged and begging you to “read it again.” Some of you may already know and own them, but they’re new to me and I couldn’t be happier. I feel like I found gold.
A Frog in the Bog by Karma Wilson starts out:

“There’s a frog on the log
in the middle of the bog.
A small, green frog
on a half -sunk log
In the middle of the bog…”

And when I read that I may have audibly moaned—oh no, not another linguistic “this-is-good-for-you” text to hit kids over the head with letter sounds. Fortunately I kept reading (probably because of the accolades on the back cover) and realized my first impression couldn’t have been more wrong. This book is fun, zany, bouncy, delightful and makes you (yes, it made me) join in chanting, even singing, the verses. Your little guys will LOVE it, so please check it out. (And after you’ve had a ton of fun reading and rereading this book, you can dig into its treasure trove of onset and rimes. Like I said, this book is pure gold.)

My second read aloud find for the younger set is Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle. Besides being a satisfying story of a little blue truck whose friendship and kindness to his barnyard friends pays off, it’s great fun to read aloud. It, like A Frog in the Bog, rhymes and the up-beat verse beckons readers to join in. Before you know it, you’ll have a roomful of playful kids “beeping” like Little Blue and croaking, baaing, oinking, peeping, and quacking like Little Blue’s farm friends. It’s a fun book about friendship, so after all is said and done, you can use it to kick off a wonderful conversation on that ever-so-important topic. There’s also a sequel called Little Blue Leads the Way.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Some Explicit Teaching Guidelines

I like to hang out at PS 54, an exemplary elementary school in the South Bronx, where the teachers and administrators are forever pushing my thinking. In fact, being there is like having ready access to a great big bowl of mind-candy with an “Eat up!” sign taped to the side. And, believe me, I partake. (I only hope the teachers I work with learn as much from me as I learn from them.)

At the moment, the school’s literacy coach, several K-3 teachers, and I are thinking through a fairy tale and folk tale unit and will use traditional tales to demonstrate main idea (in this case "theme"), noting important details, and story grammar (character, setting, problem, etc.)  

In addition, I want to help teachers consider ways to be more explicit in their teaching. I want us all to become better at letting children in on what we’re thinking and demonstrating, and what students themselves should be doing throughout the lesson—instead of only focusing on directly teaching the focus skills and strategies. As I see it, although the terms are often used interchangeably, there’s a real difference between direct instruction and explicit teaching. Direct instruction means that you’ve decided to teach something head on rather than have students uncover the information, skills, or strategies themselves. Explicit teaching has to do with the delivery of a lesson and how to make our thinking clear to students and keep them on track.

Here are some explicit teaching guidelines:

1.    Identify what you want to accomplish. You can’t reach your objective if you don’t clearly know what it is.

2.    Tell the students what you’ve planned and why so that it both makes sense to them and is meaningful. (See January 9th blog post.)

3.    Build on the context you and your students have created. Whenever possible refer to what you and the students know and have experienced together, e.g., “you remember yesterday when we…, it’s like when Carlos said…, what I’m showing you now is similar to what we did when we read…”

4.    Speak simply and honestly with students. Don’t beat around the bush or turn the lesson into a series of numbing questions and answers. Tell students what they need to know, and ask questions only when you genuinely need an answer, so you can attend to the point you’re making.

5.    Be explicit with students throughout the lesson, not just at the beginning. Explicit teaching involves more than just telling kids up front what you will do, what they will do, and why. It involves clearing a path for them all through the lesson so that they stay focused and don’t get sidetracked.

6.    Connect, connect, connect—one idea to another, one book to another, lessons that came before to what you’re doing now or what will come later.

7.    Bring the lesson full circle by restating what you’ve shown them—what you’ve said you’d show them at the start of the lesson. Invite them to try this strategy out as they read on their own, but don’t expect young children to follow through without plenty of additional guided practice.

As I write these guidelines, I’m fully aware that they’re easier to write than to implement. However, this is something to work toward, to eventually become better at. It’s important to be explicit.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Let's "Play a Bit" Like They Do in Finland

The recent New Republic article, They’re Playing in Finland by Samuel E. Adams, about the innovative policies Finland has enacted to revamp their once-mediocre school system is heartening, and reminds me of an encounter I had several years ago with Peter Cunningham, a highly acclaimed photographer that Heinemann hired to take classroom photos for the cover of what was my soon-to-be-published book. (The book’s publication, due to my slow-but-steady MO, actually ended up being a few years down the road, but that’s another story.)

Peter showed up in my classroom bright and early one morning, took note of what he saw, and instead of setting up shop inside the classroom and taking photos of a few children and me reading, writing, and talking together as I’d anticipated, he opted for a fifth-floor staircase landing as his make-shift studio where, according to Peter, the lighting was better. Pleased with his newfound environment, Peter indicated the middle of the landing with a nod of his head and said, “I want you and the kids to step inside (his circle of light) and just interact a bit. I don’t know what I’m doing,” he teased. “Let’s just play a little bit. Let’s have a little fun.” More than anything else that morning—more than the gorgeous photos he rendered, more than the respectful way in which he interacted with the children—Peter’s playful, out-of-the box approach to his profession, his suggestion that we play a little bit and have some fun, has stayed with me all these years.

We need more of this spirit of playfulness and innovation in our classrooms and in our teaching lives. Things have gotten so serious, so frightfully serious—about scores, about testing, about quickly moving kids up in levels, about AYP, that we lose sight of the fact that our best work—children’s and teachers’—comes when we all take a deep breath and relax, when we take a moment to genuinely assess children by sitting alongside them, talking with them, reflecting on what they’ve taught us, and then making teaching decisions based on what we know about our children and about best practice.

We have much to learn from Finland. It’s time we got in on the fun.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Using "Short and Sweet" Texts to Teach Genre

I’m a huge fan of Benchmark Education and the exemplary teaching materials they publish. Last month I had the pleasure of visiting their Pelham, NY office on my drive from Trumbull, CT where I spend half my time to Brooklyn Heights where I spend the other. I was interested in learning more about their Readers’ and Writers’ Genre Workshop, a new product I was introduced to at the 2010 IRA in Chicago. This resource is a collection of “short and sweet” genre sets for students in Grade 3 and higher. Each title, available at three reading levels and featuring one of 20 genres, includes a description of the genre, its key features, two short (and sweet) examples of that genre—one with annotations and the other without—for students to read and study. Students are also invited to try their hand writing in that genre.

I bring this resource to your attention in light my interest (and yours, as noted by the large number of comments made to my Jan. 20th  “Chapter Books—Short and Sweet” post) in putting into children’s hands reading materials that aren’t so long that students grow weary, over-whelmed, and lose sight of what they’re reading. Check this product out. It may be just what you’re looking for.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Andy Shane Series for Young Readers

The Andy Shane series by Jennifer Richard Jacobson offers a well-written and humorous collection of short chapter books for young readers not yet ready to handle longer, more sophisticated titles. Each book in the series has four chapters, and its problem is easily recognizable. (It usually has something to do with Andy Shane's very bossy classmate, Dolores Starbuckle). The best part is that there are seven books in the series so once your students get started in this series during guided or independent reading, there are additional titles to be read. In addition, it's one of the few children's books I've come across that portrays an up-to-date picture of what elementary-grade classrooms look like, e.g., the children sit in a circle for a part of the day and are not always at desks, and the teacher is dressed comfortably in slacks and a loose-fitting top. Start collecting this series. It won't disappoint.