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.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Technology in Schools—A Time and Place?

I know it's been a while...sorry. I just had to share this letter with you (and an accompanying New York Times article) that was sent to me by Renee Dinnerstein, an internationally recognized early childhood educator. It’s one you won’t want to miss as it makes us (me, at least) reflect on where our elementary schools are headed with their ever-growing push for more and more technology starting in the earliest grades. (Be sure to click on the link to the article this letter is in response to.)

Monday, August 29, 2011

Picture Walks, KWL, and DRTA…And the Winner Is...! (An Interview with Dr. Kay Stahl)

I can’t wait to share this Voice of Literacy podcast with you. I’d listened to it when it was first broadcast in 2009, but stumbled across it again today while cleaning out files. It’s called “Picture Walks, KWL, and DRTA.” Dr. Kay Stahl discusses her research in comparing these three methods of guiding small groups of readers through text. Very interesting and informative as are all Voice of Literacy podcasts.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Matt Damon Speaks Out for Teachers

Here's an article/video that was sent to me last night by a parent of two delightful and former students—Gillian and Michael. In Laura’s own words about actor and activist Matt Damon’s speech this weekend at a Save Our Schools DC rally: “It’s so nice to know that someone with a high profile ‘gets it’.” Now if only we could convince our president and other policy makers that excessive testing is doing our students and our profession a huge disservice. Enjoy.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Guest Blog: Blogging and Comprehension

Lindsey Wright is fascinated with the potential of emerging educational technologies, particularly the online school, to transform the landscape of learning. She writes about web-based learning, electronic and mobile learning, and the possible future of education.

I’m sharing Lindsey’s post with you in the hope it will motivate you to consider blogging with your students—if you haven’t already started.

Blogging and Comprehension by Lindsey Wright

While it's customary for students to write research papers or complete other one-off writing assignments everywhere from online college classes to traditional grade schools, many teachers at all levels are begining to discover that incorporating blogs into the curriculm provides for much more effective teaching. The main reason for this is that blogging is by nature dynamic, always growing and changing while providing fresh web content on a regular basis. As such, using blogs in the classroom allows students to tap into this continual flow of words to improve their own writing, gain critical technology-based skills, and aid in overall comprehension of school subjects.

Ultimately blogs provide an active forum for learning that can be utilized even in the early elementary classroom to engage students and improve interaction. Having to present ideas to their peers in a clear, concise manner on a regular basis requires students to expand their knowledge of class subjects and aids in overall comprehension. Likewise, the critical thinking skills acquired through blogging can be applied to other areas of life, including higher education and, eventually, the workplace.

Blogging as a Learning Tool

Blogs offer many powerful tools for teachers who are looking to integrate technology in the classroom. Serious bloggers create new posts several days a week, making blogging the ultimate writing project. It’s been well established that writing on a regular basis is the best way to practice and become a better writer overall. Blogs provide a focus for this type of practice and can be used to engage students in the act of writing far more often than large projects like research papers allow. This is as true for young students learning basic writing skills as it is for middle and high schoolers developing more advanced literary ability.

Integrating the active nature of blogging into the classroom can be done in several ways, each with its own advantages. Students may have their own individual blogs, or teachers can start a collaborative classroom blog to bring a class together on a particular project. The key is making use of the unique learning opportunities offered by blogs.

Student Blogs

Journaling has been a typical classroom activity for many years. As technology advances, individual student blogs become the next logical step. Blogs offer a sense of community not found with paper journals. When journaling for class, students know that the teacher is the only person who is going to be reading their work. However, with blogs, students can read each other’s posts, thereby creating a network of classmates who also have the opportunity to respond to the writing of their peers. This encourages students to really think about what they’re writing and put effort into presenting ideas in a clear, comprehensible manner.

Through continued use, a blog can improve student articulation and critical thinking skills. How does this translate to comprehension? Writing blog posts involves careful consideration of content. A good blogger doesn’t simply cobble a post together, throw in a few links and call it done. On the contrary, blogging involves the same critical thought as traditional classroom writing projects. Students who blog have to take the time to consider what they’re writing about and work out how to best present their opinions and ideas. In order to do this with clarity, students have to develop a solid grasp of the subject on which they’re writing.

Collaborative Blogs

Teachers can also create a collaborative or community blog for their students. The most important difference between this and individual student blogging is the ability of the teacher or instructor to easily moderate posts and comments. Most blogging platforms allow for the creation of a main or administrator account that can control the overall flow of activity on a blog. With this option, teachers set parameters so that they can review each piece of content before it appears on the blog, thus eliminating the possibility of inappropriate material going live. Moderation makes it possible to use collaborative blogging even with young children.

An instructor-moderated blog in which the entire class can participate opens the door to endless possibilities. Teachers can post writing prompts or discussion questions and have students respond in the comments section, thus creating an open forum for discussion. This free flow of ideas requires the same sort of careful thought that students should be applying to everyday classroom discussions. However, having to articulate their answers through writing encourages students to slow down and consider the words they’re using. A comprehensive knowledge of the subject at hand is also required to facilitate interaction and promote the academic sharing of ideas.

Since it’s possible to post a blog comment from anywhere, community blog activity isn’t restricted to the block of time reserved for a subject during the school day. When at home both students and teachers participating in a blog can take the time to write thorough, thoughtful posts and comments as well as respond to each other in ways that aren’t possible during class. This further aids comprehension in that teachers can provide more in-depth information for students to read on their own time, along with links for further reading.

Blogs vs. Research Papers

The thought of a traditional research paper makes most students groan in anticipation of long hours spent at the library, mountains of notes, and the final frantic scramble to bring everything together. While traditional research is still very important for students to practice, teachers should consider the benefits that blogging has over bigger writing projects.

The fact that a blog post isn’t as long as a whole paper is a plus. Rather than having to wade through page after page of information, both students and teachers can break a subject down into manageable chunks. Students get the luxury of using the Internet to do research on their own time, and teachers are spared having to read and correct sheaves of lengthy reports. It’s also much easier for teachers to check the sources used by students in blog posts, given that links are included right with the writing rather than being listed in the ubiquitous bibliography pages at the end of a traditional paper.

Additionally, knowing that the teacher is going to be checking their work this closely should motivate students to find quality information and put together thoughtful blog posts. Student blog posts have the potential to be more comprehensive and original than a paper comprised mostly of information regurgitated from sources that the teacher may never see.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Highly Recommended Book on Reading Comprehension

Just a brief post to recommend a professional book that I think every elementary-grade teacher should own. It’s called Teaching Reading Comprehension to Students with Learning Difficulties by Janette K. Klingner, Sharon Vaughn, and Alison Boardman. This short volume offers clear, practical, and research-based practices to improve students’ comprehension. And in this age of high teacher accountability and standards, this may be just what we need to keep ourselves grounded and feeling confident that we are doing the very best for our students. It’s one that I keep at the very top of my pile.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

"Retelling as Written Response" Ideas

[This post is based on a question Lisa posed in the June 25th comment box.]

Dear Lisa,

I think you’re “right on” when you have your ELL first graders talk about the book you’ve read aloud before asking them to respond in writing. The types of guided responses you've asked them to make and the prompts you've provide seem varied and developmentally appropriate. And I totally get how this is so much more difficult when they attempt them on their own. This is always the case and, as you well know, their skill develops over time. So we need to be patient.

Let’s focus for a moment on the “retelling” part of your question. You’ve expressed concern that asking kids to retell stories would be tedious and boring. It may be, but the extend to which it actually is depends on how often we ask them to retell and the types of retelling we engage them in. Two things need to come into play: First, we need to balance written responses with oral responses such as readers theater, book talks, etc. and visual representations such as making pictures, character maps, etc. Second, we need to expand the scaffolds we provide for students as they retell. 

You mention Beginning-Middle-End (B-M-E) as one scaffold. In The Next Step in Guided Reading, Jan Richardson offers two others that work with early readers such as yours. They are Somebody-Wanted-But-So (S-W-B-S) and the Five-Finger Retell.

Here’s how Richardson describes S-W-B-S:

“The students write a one-sentence summary using the S-W-B-S scaffold. At first you will need to help students write this response, but eventually you should be able to say, Write a ‘Somebody-Wanted-But-So’ for this story.

Somebody: Who is the story about?
Wanted: What did this character want?
But: But what happened?
So: How did it end? What happened next?

The response should be written in a complete sentence. As students write independently, you should circulate among the group and scaffold students who need your help.”

In addition Richardson discusses the Five-Finger Retell where each finger represents one aspect of story grammar.

Thumb: The characters are…
1st finger: The setting is…
Tall finger: The problem is…
Ring finger: The events are… (What happened first? Next? Then?)
Little finger: At the end…

Since your students are young and ELL, this is a scaffold you would introduce and initially use in whole-class settings. However as the students get the hang of it you might ask them to write about “one finger” with enough detail (and perhaps a picture) to show they understand how it works with the story as a whole. And of course, they will need multiple demonstrations of what you mean.

I close with this reminder. While responses to text—written and otherwise—are important and should be something kids do during their independent reading time of day, we need to remember that providing voluminous opportunities for them to read just-right books is still our number one priority. Kids can’t improve their reading if they don’t read.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Daniel Willingham Podcast-Background Knowledge and Reading Strategies

I was going through some files preparing for an institute I'm doing this week in ohio and came across a link to a podcast given to me by a soul-mate teacher in Portland, Oregon. Well...I finally listened to all 15-minutes of it and am so glad I did! It's Daniel Willingham talking about background knowledge—how important background knowledge is and how comprehension strategy instruction is being over-done. Now that you have a bit more time—assuming you've already begun your well-deserved summer break—take your laptop on your deck, grab a cool drink, and listen... Bet it will start you thinking about next year.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Juggling Time for Reading and Response

In a May 30th comment box Mary raised the issue of there being a fine line between asking kids to respond in a thoughtful manner to texts they read and one that doesn’t take too much time away from their independent reading. She writes that her children often get caught up filling in their response sheets when perhaps time would be better spent reading.

I understand her dilemma and I have experienced it often myself. And admittedly if I went back to classroom teaching tomorrow I’d have to seriously reconsider the amount and type of response I ask students to make. Especially in light of the Carnegie Corporation’s 2010 Writing to Read Report that recommends, based on a meta-analysis of reading and writing research, that teachers have students write about texts they read to improve to improve their reading. The report states on page 5 that “students’ comprehension of science, social studies, and language arts is improved when they write about what they read, specifically when they:

•  respond to a text in writing (writing personal reactions, analyzing and interpreting the text)
•  write summaries of text
•  write notes about a text
•  answer questions about a text in writing, or create or answer written questions about a text.

So you see, not only would I need to consider how much kids should respond during the reading workshop but also how to get them to write more throughout the content-area times of day. How often and the types of responses I might ask them to make would, of course, depend on children's age and stage of reading development, but would certainly include more…more drawing, more writing, more quick writes, more writing about what they are learning. If studies cited in the Carnegie Report link writing to children's reading development then I’d be remise not to consider how this might play out in my own classroom. And unfortunately I’d still be left with the dilemma of how increase the amount of responding children to without taking precious time away from their reading. No quick fix here…just the challenge of figuring out a personal solution to this ever-so-important juggling dilemma. (Thanks Mary, for raising the issue.)

Monday, May 30, 2011

Branching Out—Our Nonfiction Collection Needs to Address More Than “Animals”

My interest in informational texts and the importance of bringing them into classrooms and children’s hands has made me rethink a whole lot of things. In fact when I went into my basement to check out the nonfiction books I own, I was alarmed to find that so many are about animals. And when you consider all there is about the world for children to learn, it would seem that the books in our private and classroom collection should include titles for a wide variety of nonfiction subtopics—weather, transportation, astronomy, biology, history, etc.—you get the picture.

I’m happy to say that I’ve recently added three new titles to my nonfiction collection:
The Digestive System: What Makes Me Burp? by Sue Barraclough is an fine example of an expository text written with primary-grade students in mind. Each chapter title is written as a question, which prompts kids to find the answer as they read. In addition, it’s jam packed with gorgeous photographs and text features to held kids access and recall information, e.g. table of contents, labels, captions, close-ups, index, glossary. There are other books in this “Body Systems” series: The Circulatory System, The Respiratory System, The Sensory System, and The Skeletal and Muscular Systems.

A Is for Astronaut: Exploring Space from A to Z by Traci N. Todd and Sara Gillingham is, you guessed it, an alphabet book about space. Instead of lengthy paragraphs for each letter, there are several key words for each letter and a simple phrase to describe each word. For example, the word “cockpit” on the “C” page says that it is “the part of a spacecraft where the pilot sits.” The illustrations (a combination of gorgeous photos and vintage illustrations) are sure to pique children’s interest and the information is easily assessable to primary-grade readers.
The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps by Jeannette Winter a beautifully written biography about this world-renowned animal researcher and activist. In addition to learning about Jane Goodall’s life-long passion for learning about these primates (which seemed to begin with a toy chimpanzee given to her by her father), children also learn how important it is to “observe” what’s around them and follow their passion.

I’m excited about these books. What’s more…these three titles span three distinct nonfiction subgenres: expository text (digestive system), sequential texts (space from A to Z), and biography (Jane Goodall). We need to branch out on so many levels.

Friday, May 20, 2011

A Noteworthy Informational Text Strategy Book

Let me tell you about a really cool book I found when preparing for some content area professional development I’ll be doing next week. It’s Barbara Moss and Virginia S. Loh’s 35 Strategies for Guiding Readers though Informational Texts. It’s a newly revised and expanded edition of Moss’s 25 Strategies for Guiding Readers

I love the way the book’s organized. Lessons are chunked together under the following categories: Getting Started Strategies, Building Background Strategies, Vocabulary Strategies, Comprehension Strategies, and Writing Strategies—although I must say that to me they’re ALL about comprehension. The strategies in this K-12 resource are accessible and applicable to children in kindergarten through grade 5. 

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Yet Another Nod to Background Knowledge

I just returned from the International Reading Association Conference in Orlando, FL where I presented a session on "Re-Envisioning the Five Pillars of Reading." One pillar that I include in my re-envisioned paradigm is background knowledge since it's most essential in helping children comprehend what they read.

After the session, a teacher shared the title of this YouTube video that I'm now sharing with you. It's by cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham and it's called Teaching Content Is Teaching Reading. I highly recommend it. It's only ten minutes long and although the music is a tad annoying, the message—that kids need prior knowledge to comprehend text—is dead on. I hope you enjoy it, share your thoughts, and then, of course, pass it on.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Book Selection for Independent Reading: Reading Conferences "Yes"—Book Shopping Days "No"

Let me state right off that while I’m a huge fan of shopping—for clothes, shoes, cosmetics, etc.—I’m not a fan of book shopping days where young children go off to select books for independent reading from a basket of leveled texts. Quite often the results don’t match our expectations. Even though the books are “at their level,” children often have trouble reading them “cold” with the recommended 98 to 99 percent word accuracy. And the teacher misses the opportunity to guide students’ selections and help them work out some of the books’ more challenging aspects. Words, organization, or design, for example. This absence of teacher guidance and feedback is unfortunate.

That’s why I build book return and selection into our reading conferences. If children are emergent and early readers I either go with them to the leveled pots or bring several baskets to the conference table. Then I direct the child to select a couple she might like to try, and I also select a few I think might be a good match. From these pre-selected titles, the child selects three of four she’d like to have in her bag. Then she might have a go at reading several pages of one of them. This gives me an idea of how challenging or supportive the text in fact is. When children are transitional or fluent readers, they anticipate that they’ll be exchanging books that day and come to the conference with several titles in hand.

During the reading conference, we also discuss nonfiction topics the child is interested in learning more about, or I refer to the book preference notes I’ve already recorded in her reading notebook or to the reading inventory which accompany the child to the conference via the reading folder. Children can select “look” books that, while too difficult to read word-for-word, can provide interesting information through pictures and other text features.

The ability to independently choose books that are a good match to ability, interest, etc., is a skill that develops over time with teacher guidance and feedback. I have more input into children’s selection when they’re just starting off and gradually hand over more of the responsibility to them. (Please recall from my post on April 26 that during the first independent reading time of day children can read any book they want, regardless of level.) In addition, I teach students how to select books throughout the year during mini-lessons, and I excite them about the possibilities through the book talks I provide.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Diane Ratvich: Testing Undermines Teaching (Me: And Independent Reading as Well)

I just had to post this National Public Radio's interview with Diane Ratvitch. She's, of course, right on. Our obsession with testing and preparing kids to take them precludes giving them opportunities to do other important reading work, such as reading on their own.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Okay...So I Lied!

I said my next post would be on using reading conferences to match kids with books, but when preparing for my IRA presentation I happily stumbled upon an old favorite book that’s just perfect for teachers in grades 2-4 to read aloud to their kids and discuss. The book is The Goat Lady by Jane Bregoli. If you don’t know this book or don’t own it, you simply must purchase a copy for your class.

It’s perfect to have students wonder and ask questions about Noelie Houle, the real-life “Goat Lady,” who has so much more going for her than what we initially perceive. As a student of mine once commented upon seeing the cover picture of Noelie Houlie—“She looks so poor and so old, but she’s smiling! Why is she smiling?”

This book is simply wonderful to read aloud and have students consider (i.e. infer) what she’s like. It’s a stunning example of characterization and how readers can gain insight into her generous personality by what Noelie says and what she does. It’s a book to read, think, and talk about. It’s a book to read again and again and again. (And when we teach writing, we can refer to how Jane Bregoli “showed, but didn’t tell” about the Goat Lady.)

As an added bonus check out this YouTube video of the actual goal lady. You’re welcome…in advance!

[And the next post really will be about helping kids select books during their reading conference.]

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Independent Reading—Balancing Choice and Just-Right Reading Materials

We know that choice is an important component of independent reading. And so is having children read just-right materials. But how do we find the balance between the two, especially when we consider the challenges of children who are just learning to read?

Years ago, one of the ways I found the balance was by having two distinct independent reading times of day. During the first independent reading (the first 20 minutes at the start of the day), children were allowed to select and read any texts their little hearts desired. Too easy, too hard, just right—it didn’t matter. Then to counterbalance that, during the second independent reading time, children could read books from their book bag, most of which were just-right texts that I helped them select during their one-to-one reading conference. That worked just fine and both choice and just-right materials were accounted for.

More recently, I encourage teachers to consider this balance within the reading workshop itself since so few are able to make time for two independent reading times each day with all they have to do. This means that children will need to have a mix of easy, just-right, and “look” books in their bags.

Easy books: Since only half of the books in children’s bag are returned each time we confer to be replaced with new selections, the “older” half are ones they love and want to hang onto or those they need to get better at reading. At times they may be individual titles that somehow speak to children personally (we all have those kinds of books, right?) or they’re on topics they can’t quite get enough of.

Just-right books: These are books that children can read with 97-99 percent word accuracy. (Allington says 98 to 99 percent but I find that 97 percent is sometimes even hard to pull off.) Quite simply it’s difficult for children to practice skills and strategies they’re trying to acquire when texts are more difficult than this.

“Look” books: These are books that are too difficult for children to read on their own, but ones they can glean a lot from by simply looking at the pictures and reading snippets of text. Most often (since you can’t read snippets of a story and come away understanding it) these are informational texts.

[Considering the types of books children need to have in their bag to balance opportunities for choice and just-right texts, my next post will address reading conferences as the opportunity to provide for both.]

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Turn the Tables and Put Independent Reading "First"

All too often we try to fit independent reading into our schedule once all the other parts of our balanced literacy program are in place. We reason that since we're working with small groups of readers or conferring with students one-to-one, we'll simply let the other kids read and provide literacy centers to engage them and keep them busy. But we often don't buy into the important role that in-school independent reading can play in children's reading lives. Independent reading often becomes just something we give kids to do to fill the time. It's time, however, to turn the tables and put independent reading first...

Understanding the valuable contribution independent reading can make in children's reading lives is the first step in giving it the center-stage attention it deserves and improving its effectiveness. Independent reading allows students to practice the skills and strategies you've demonstrated throughout read-aloud, guided reading, and shared reading. It exposes them to background knowledge of new topics or deepens their knowledge of topics they're already passionate about. It exposes them to vocabulary and literary language they're not likely to hear during oral language exchanges. It shows them possibilities they have for their own writing. If an author of an informational text has included a scale drawing to compare the size of something they're learning about to something they already know, then why not try the same in their own writing. Opportunities to improve children's reading lives abound...and the first step is acknowledging they're there and then figuring out ways to actualize them.

Over the next couple weeks, I'll take a close-up look at various aspects of independent reading. In addition, if anyone has specific independent reading-related questions, please send them along.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Kids Have to Read a Lot to Get Better at It

As the school year draws to a close, it’s time to consider which areas of instruction we want to reflect on over the summer months and refine for the coming year. If I were asked this question, improving the quality of children’s independent reading times of day would be at the top of my list. Whether my students were emergent and early readers just starting out or more proficient readers who were refining their reading skills and strategies to embrace more complex text, providing them with opportunities to read voluminously under my guidance and direction would most definitely be a top priority.

Two books I highly recommend to support your thinking in this regard are Terry Young and Barbara Moss’s Creating Lifelong Readers Through Independent Reading and Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child. The first, Creating Lifelong Readers Through Independent Reading, lays out the basics of why independent reading is vital to children reading success and how to set up a classroom environment to make it happen. It helps us consider all the teaching and learning possibilities that independent reading offers students and demonstrates how to incorporate strategy work and content-area learning into the mix.

Although many of you may have already read Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer, it’s certainly a title to pull down from your shelf and revisit. Its subtitle “Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child” just about says it all. Miller, a sixth-grade language arts and social studies teacher, reveals how year after year she moves her students to choose their own books, read voluminously, and acquire a passion for reading. However, it’s for sure not a “go read and I’ll see you later” approach. Miller shares with her students what she does as a reader, invites them to bring their own ideas to the table, and is intensely involved in every step of their journey. Her passion for reading and her empowerment of students make all the difference in the world.

Monday, April 18, 2011

I'm Back...

Hi Everyone. Ted and I just returned from a long anticipated trip to Sicily and Barcelona. It was amazing and I hope that you all get the chance to experience both places someday soon—that is if you haven't already done so. (I'm leaving it up to you to infer my inclusion of this "grapes" clipart!)

Anyway...I fully intended to post to this blog while we were away but didn't anticipate the difficulty I experienced getting internet access and the cost of doing so. That's why you haven't heard from me for a while.

It will take a couple more days to sort things out...but hold tight. I'm looking forward to continuing our conversation.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Don't Forget Our Lists

Just a reminder that we have several lists going in the right-hand column. They've been lying dormant lately and I'd like us to start thinking about books we might add. Here are the categories: Books That Give Kids Something to Think About, Short and Sweet Chapter Books, Picture Books to Help Kids Infer, and Books to Help Kids Visualize. Please send me your suggestions.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Something to Talk About...

In light of the fact that several of my recents posts have centered around oral language, I think it’s time to create a list of books that most definitely will give kids something to talk about.

This past weekend when I presented an in-depth session at the 21st Annual Literacy and Learning Institute in Melville, Long Island, I was lucky enough to hear Carmen Agra Deedy deliver the Saturday keynote. Wow! I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone quite like her. A storyteller in the best sense of the word—entertaining and yet, at the same time, provocative! So of course I just had to ask folks about her children’s books that were for sale. “Which of these would you recommend I buy?” Well, The Yellow Star won hands down and I can see why.

It’s the legend of King Christian X of Denmark who, as legend has it, is attributed with saving Jews from concentration camps by wearing a yellow star himself and inspiring other citizens to do the same. And while this is a legend, it’s one that remains strong because we so desperately want to be true. Agra Deedy posits: “What if the good and strong people of the world stood shoulder to shoulder, crowding the streets and filling the squares, saying, ‘You cannot do this injustice to our sisters and brothers, or you must do it to us as well.’ What if?” I say this book and its message will certainly give kids something to talk about.

Another book by Carmen Agra Deedy that I purchased was Martina the Beautiful CockroachI know…The Yellow Star is so noble and inspirational and this one’s about a cockroach…?  Well, don’t judge a book by its cover or its protagonist. Even a cockroach, as this Cuban folktale will attest, can teach kids about going deeper to find out what a person is really like. (Would your friends pass the Coffee Test?) Martina is fun, witty, and sure to get kids talking. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

My Re-Envisioned Pillars and an Oral Language Development Webcast

As you may already know my new book Comprehension from the Ground Up centers upon re-envisioning the "Five Pillars of Reading" to make them more comprehensive and address our current tendency to focus too early and too much on comprehension strategy instruction. We've tended to equate comprehension with comprehension strategy instruction when there's so much more to it than that as my re-envisioned pillars and book will attest. (I tried to insert a jpeg of my pillars but it didn't work. Sorry.)

I encourage you to check out this most valuable webcast "From Babbling to Books" featuring Todd Risley, Sharon Ramey and Julie Washington who are leading experts in the area of oral language development. (Todd Risley is co-author of the classic Meaningful Differences in the Every Day Experience of Young American Children.) This hour-long webcast explores the importance of oral language and how to develop it from birth through the early school years. Viewers will gain insight into the relationship between oral language and reading success and ways to promote this important reading and comprehension skill.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Change of Heart, Mind, and Genre—Nonfiction Writing from Day One

My March 28th blog post about how we’re overdoing personal narratives and need to move kids to different writing genres early on in the school year rather than have them start the year with yet another personal narrative unit has left me to reconsider how I might proceed during the first two weeks of school before the first formal writing unit begins.

First I need to describe what I’ve done in the past:

Traditionally, the first writing assignment I gave students was to write an introductory piece about themselves that they would share with classmates. As children finished their piece (some finished in one day and others took several days) they asked to share it with classmates during the share portion of the workshop. Once a student shared, he knew that he and the others that shared that day would confer with me the following day and receive their writing folder, topic list, and paper so that they could “free write” until our first formal unit—a personal narrative unit—began.

Here’s what I might do now instead:

During the first week of school I’d read children a variety of short, but gorgeous, informational texts on a variety of topics such as the body, animals, weather, the solar system, etc., because I know that I need to achieve a 50/50 balance of fiction and nonfiction throughout the year. Exposing children to this broad range of topics early on will help them recognize that each of these categories, not just “animals,” are interesting and worth reading and writing about.

I’d also ask kids to think and start writing about the nonfiction topic they’re most interested in pursuing. Some children will easily identify a topic and others will have to dig deep. I’d also ask children to use the topic list I gave them during their first conference to list additional nonfiction topics they may want to write about later on, and even send this list home so that families can help children consider past experiences, what they know, and what they would like to explore. In addition to reading aloud nonfiction, I’d also read them books like Megan McDonald’s Insects Are My Life and Amy Schwartz’s Begin at the Beginning to drive home the point that the best topics are ones they know and love.

As children write what they know, I can get a better sense of where I need to start my instruction. This, like the personal narrative assignment of old, will give me good baseline information regarding what kids can and can’t do. For example, did they easily come up with a topic, did they have a lot to say, does their writing have a sense of organization or is it basically a list, how developed are their writing conventions? These introductory pieces might serve as a starting point for their nonfiction study or they may simply be kept in children’s folder as baseline writing.

From here I’d move into a formal nonfiction writing unit where I demonstrate some qualities of good nonfiction writing, e.g., strong openings, voice, organization, word choice, text features. You might want kids write book reviews of informational texts to share with kindergarten students. (What fun to have them visit classes with books and reviews in hand to get the little guys wanting to read what the older kids recommend!) Or you might want to introduce kids to nonfiction text features they’ll meet in written texts, so you may decide to have them write an expository piece to help classmates learn more about a topic they’re passionate about. And this time the text features will do some of the heavy lifting in regards to how information is conveyed. They might even title their piece “Planets Are My Life” or “Trains Are My Life” to convey their passion as little Amanda Frankenstein did in Insects Are My Life. Or you might want them to write “Question and Answer Books.” Perhaps a committee of like-minded individuals might work on one together. So many avenues to explore for both the students and us, their teachers!

[It’s All About Comprehension—Keep in mind that when children are writing informational texts, they're learning first-hand how the genre works. This will help them to better comprehend nonfiction texts they read. They’ll also be building their background knowledge so they can later access it.]

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!