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, January 31, 2011

Background Knowledge—You Have to Have It to Use It

Nothing is as important to children’s reading comprehension as the knowledge and experience they bring to texts. You’ve heard this before. In college courses, in seminars, in professional literature. Background knowledge RULES. We know from our own experience that it’s difficult to understand a text whose topic we know little about, a medical journal or financial report, for example. Yet, despite our understanding of how important background knowledge is to reading comprehension, I doubt that most of us feel it in our bones. I see it when I work with teachers and ask them to bring to a meeting their favorite books. Invariably, most teachers bring along fiction titles. I see it in summer reading lists my grandchildren bring home. I even see it on children’s literature blogs. We love stories and we should. But we also need to squeeze out room for informational texts so that our kids can begin to acquire the background knowledge they’ll later need to understand more complex texts. 

One surefire way to help build background knowledge is to read more informational texts aloud to students. Make a commitment to alternate between fiction and nonfiction. Or follow the rule of thumb I give to students who resist either one genre or the other—for every two fiction (or nonfiction) books you read, you have to read a nonfiction (or fiction) title. Once you wet your appetite for nonfiction, they’ll be no turning back.

Then there’s the matter of what books to read. I like to select read aloud titles based on topics that excite students or those that relate to content-area topics they'll be studying. You might also decide to pair two books on the same topic. That way you can compare the information presented in each and the text features and access features used, and you’ll be sure to give kids the opportunity to hear the same content-area vocabulary repeated throughout out both readings. Frogs! from Time for Kid’s and Frogs! from National Geographic are excellent titles to read and compare if your kids are studying life-cycles. What are some of your favorite nonfiction titles?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Paradigm Change—Food for Thought

I recently received this link to a YouTube video from a New York City principal I worked with over the last couple years. I found it most interesting and engaging, and thought you might too. It's called Changing Education Paradigms by Ken Robinson. It's twelve minutes long and cuts off at the end. If we're successful finding the entire presentation, I'll be sure to send it along. Certainly, there's much food for thought.

Friday, January 28, 2011

A Call for Interaction

Remember the January 26th post about the importance of interaction? About how essential it is for children to interact with texts and one another to fully comprehend what they read? Well the same need for interaction applies to a blog moderator (that’s me) and fellow bloggers (that’s you). I need to hear from you—what you’re thinking, what you’re reading, what practices you’re trying so I can respond in ways that push our thinking about comprehension teaching and learning. While I have indeed received several much appreciated comments, especially to the “short and sweet chapter books” post, I encourage all of you to send your thoughts and ideas along. Your voice is so important and much needed. Thanks...

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Another Short, Sweet Chapter Book—Not My Dog!

Here’s another short, sweet chapter book—Not My Dog! by Colby Rodowsky. Eight-year-old Ellie wants a puppy, one she can name something special, one she can take for a million walks, and one she can teach to come and sit and stay. But what she gets instead is a full-grown square-headed, pointy-eared, skinny-tailed dog. One she’s forced to take on as her pet because her great Aunt Margaret can no longer care for him. And one she insists is “not my dog!”

As you might expect, Ellie slowly learns to love Preston (a name she dislikes almost as much as the dog). The cool part is that readers can see Ellie change. The events that help transform Ellie from a Preston- hater to one that loves and accepts him are transparent enough for young readers to take note of and follow. You might want to read this book aloud and, as you do, make a chart like the one I’ve posted along the right-hand column that lists and helps students think through the characters, setting, problem, main events (i.e., those that lead to the problem being resolved), and finally the resolution itself. Your children will surely identify with this book as they’ve undoubtedly had to deal with similar compromises that do, in fact, end happily ever after.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Reader Response: Authentic Interaction or Code for Test Prep?

When I consult in school districts, I often have to first sort through what they say they want me do to get to what they really want me to do. For example, schools often insist that their students need more work with reader response when what they actually mean is that they need help getting kids to effectively respond to test prompts. Here we have an apples and oranges situation. No matter how hard we try, we can’t turn a crunchy red apple into a juicy sectioned orange, or vice versa. They’re just different.

While prepping for tests is important, this can be successfully done several weeks before the test without taking precious time away from literacy experiences that really matter. Children need opportunities to interact with texts in a way that it brings them to life—in the sense that Louise Rosenblatt suggested decades ago in her transactional theory of reader response. Rosenblatt’s theory encourages the interaction of the reader and the text in a literary event. And, for me, “interaction,” more than any other word best describes what must occur if children are to genuinely and deeply understand what they read. 

In support, I offer a mentor quote from P. David Pearson et al highlighting the importance of interaction:

"We can no longer think of reading comprehension as a series of discrete skills that can be summed to achieve comprehension ability. Instead, we see comprehension as a complex process involving interactions between readers and texts in various contexts for various purposes." (“Developing Expertise in Reading Comprehension,” Technical Report #512, 1990, p. 6)

And now let me recommend a book that describes a wide range of practices to engage children in authentic interactions with and responses to text. It’s Marjorie R. Hancock’s A Celebration of Literature and Response: Children, Books, and Teachers in K-8 Classrooms. In addition, it provides up-to-date lists of children’s literature to use in guiding children through responding to traditional tales and modern fantasy, poetry, realistic and historical fiction, and informational texts. Since the price of the book is steep (around $70.00), I recommend encouraging your principal to order one or two for your professional reference library. (And, if I might add, ignore the all-over-the-place ratings on Amazon. For the life of me, I can’t figure them out. This is a stellar resource.)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Flat Stanley Is Alive and Well (Traveled)

My last encounter (until recently) with Flat Stanley came two years ago when my granddaughter Sofia sent me an envelope with none other than Flat Stanley inside, asking that I show him the sights and then get photos and travel descriptions back to her so she and her classmates could learn more about Brooklyn Heights. Hmm… so Stanley and I went out to the Brooklyn Promenade one blustery winter morning to snap photos. We took pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge and the New York City skyline, and then of the coffee shop where I like to hang out, of our doorman welcoming Stanley into our building, etc. Although Stanley and I had a great time, I was happy to send him and some New York City books back to sweet Sofia and her classmates. Done…fini…finito. (Not quite … as you’ll see in the photo to the left of this page, a lucky BUTTERFLY got to visit Times Square and many other New York City landmarks at the request of Eva, granddaugher #2.)

Quite honestly I didn’t think of Flat Stanley again until I came across Stanley’s Worldwide Adventures series in a bookstore. Of course! Flat Stanley must have traveled the country and the world as grandchildren everywhere mailed him to grandparents everywhere. And now there are more stories to tell!

Flat Stanley's Worldwide Adventures: The Great Egyptian Grave Robbery a book your new-to-chapter book readers will enjoy. In this adventure, Stanley is mailed to Egypt to help find ancient treasure locked for centuries inside a pyramid. He finds himself fearing the grave looters may lock him in the tomb "to rot for eternity with the mummies and no one will ever know." Imagine. Your kids will love it. As a companion to this, you might read If I Were a Kid in Ancient Egypt to help ground children in this exotic time and place. It makes life in ancient "come to life," so to speak.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

To Get Kids in Touch with What the Characters Are Thinking—Try a Tableau

I first heard of having kids enact a tableau and saw it demonstrated years and years ago at a session Timothy Rasinski did at a reading conference. And while it looked like fun, I never actually got around to trying it out with my kids. I guess never quite envisioned its potential. And then a couple weeks ago, I read about tableaus again in Dr. Sandra Mercuri’s Research-Based Strategies for English Language Learners as a way to help children reframe information they’re reading about. 

Mercuri refers to Neelands and Goode’s (2001) version of a tableau and describes it as follows: “…[S]tudents listen to or read fiction or nonfiction text and select a strategic scene to dramatize. They arrange themselves in the performing space, each student portraying a different character. Remaining motionless, each student, in turn, voices what his or her character is thinking or feeling within the context of the scene. (Each student can hold a flashlight beneath his or her chin while speaking.) Through this strategy, students begin to understand how important what a character thinks, feels, and does is to the whole story.” (pp. 69-70) 

Now I get it—tableaus can help students better understand what they’re reading! This is certainly a strategy I’m going to try out in classrooms and discuss in presentations as an effective comprehension booster. I’ll let you know how it goes, and would love to hear about your attempts at tableau and the books you used.

A Fork in the Road...

As I read your comments regarding short and sweet chapter books, I see a need to divide this category into two. The first for younger elementary-grade readers and the second for older elementary-grade readers. You'll find these two categories listed separately along the right-hand column of this blog. Thanks for your suggestions. I plan to enter a few of my own this coming week.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

If You Like Mercy Watson...

Linda’s recommendation of the Mercy Watson series (see comment box for January 20) as great books for our short and sweet chapter books list reminded me of a “series” of new picture books I recently came across (and now own) that are written and illustrated by Chris Van Dusen, the illustrator of the Mercy Watson series. They’re about Mr. Magee and his dog Dee—and yep, they rhyme. Besides the illustrations practically popping right off the page, they’re sure to tickle your children’s funnybone. Here are three titles in the series: Learning to Ski with Mr. MageeDown to the Sea with Mr. Magee, and A Camping Spree with Mr. Magee. 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Chapter Books—Short and Sweet

Do you feel that you’re working too hard at getting kids to understand books they’re reading independently? Are you concerned that there’s never enough time for kids to talk about what they’re reading? The problem might be that the books they’re reading are too hard—and too long. In fact, I’m convinced this is the root cause of many of the comprehension problems children face in the middle elementary grades. And that many of their problems would disappear if we worked harder to get the right books in their hands and stopped being overly concerned about moving children up in reading levels, faster and higher.
With that in mind, I’d like to begin to identify some excellent chapter books that are both short and sweet. So here’s my first recommendation:

#1 The Green Ghost by Marion Dane Bauer          

This 96-page tale simply begs to be read (aloud, independently, or anyway at all) and is just perfect for second- and third-grade readers. It’s well written, suspenseful, and even a bit eerie, with two female protagonists to which young readers can easily relate. The text is large enough not to be intimidating and the chapters seamlessly alternate between present and past time, with shaded and unshaded page borders to help orient readers to a time change. It’s definitely one of my all time favorites.

PS: I'll be keeping a running list of my title selections, and yours, in the right-hand column of this blog.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Announcing a Five-Week-Long Webinar

The webinar 
will be based on ideas 
presented in this book.

I will be hosting a five-week-long Heinemann Webinar Workshop series starting February 26. For information on how to register, go to the Heinemann's website: http://heinemann.com/PD/webbased/products/WBST.aspx

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

More Alike Than Different

This summer I attended the wedding of Ann Marie Corgill, a close friend and colleague, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and had the pleasure of meeting her new father-in-law. As Bob and I spoke (and teased) about things "northern" and "southern," I happened to say that "we're more alike than different." And for some reason this stuck with him, and re-directed our conversation—from how southerners seem to add syllables to words and northerns clip their words and speak fast-fast-fast, or how asking for a Coke in the north will get you a beverage made by Coca Cola and in the south you'd need to explain more of what you meant because "coke" refers to any carbonated beverage—to how we are, in fact, more alike than different. 

In thinking about teaching ELLs and native speakers, I'm also struck by the truth of this "more alike than different" saying. In fact, last week I attended a two-day workshop given by Dr. Sandra Mercuri, the co-author with Denise Rea of English Language Learners: How to Reach Goals and Meet Standards, K-8 and the similarities between how all children learn was brought home even more. As Dr. Mercuri spoke, it was hard not to see how so many of the strategies that work in teaching ELLs resemble good pedagogy for all students. 

Here are the key strategies Dr. Mercuri shared in her presentation and in her book:

Modeling (i.e., thinking aloud, fishbowl) gives students an opportunity to listen in on an expert reader's processing of text. Students get to hear how the teacher thinks and problem solves which gives them ideas of how they themselves can think about text as they read.

Contextualizing (i.e., visuals, manipulatives, collaborative grouping, moving to learn) helps to engage students in learning and makes ideas, concepts, and information more concrete.

Thinking about thinking (i.e., tea party, metaphor lesson, test debriefing) allows students to actively participate in their learning and bring to each new experience what they already know.

Reframing information (i.e., readers theater, mini-performance, poetry, murals, tableaus ) allows students to revisit information and text and interpret it in a different way.

Since it's unlikely that most of you will get the chance to hear Dr. Mercuri speak, I recommend that you read her book. Although I frequently shy away from books that address such a wide audience (K-8), this slim volume is jam-packed with wonderful ideas that can be adapted across grade levels. It gives us sound strategies to help bridge the gap between ELLs and native language speakers, and it reminds us of pedagogy that works well with all our students, but especially those in the primary grades, children from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and children with special needs. And it reminds me, of course, that we are more alike than different.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Sense and Meaning

A resource I find myself returning to repeatedly is David Sousa's How the Brain Learns. Sousa makes an interesting distinction on page 49 and 50 between sense and meaning, two criteria that increase the likelihood of new information being stored in long-term memory. Sense refers to whether or not the information is comprehensible to the learner. Does the sentence or passage make sense? Meaning refers to how closely the information relates to the learner's personal experiences. Is it something that's interesting to him, motivating, connected to his life experiences? Does he understand how learning this will be of use to him? Sousa points out that of the two, meaning is more likely to lead a reader, writer, and thinker to remember more of the details.

When I consider my own teaching, I recognize that I need to become better at consistently helping children see meaning in what they're learning. We're all being rushed to do more and do it faster. But if in doing so we're missing a focus on meaning, then we may not be as effective as we intend, and children may not actually be learning. And that would be a shame.


  1. January 9, 2011 2:32 PM EST
    Thank you for sharing this insight and thinking to my teaching. I love the definition of meaning. Also, thanks for joining the blogging world.
    - Mandy
  2. January 9, 2011 2:38 PM EST
    I find so much of the brain research interesting and keep dipping in for more. I'm happy you found the sense/meaning definition helpful. As far as blogging goes...i'm trying. Now i'm reading Blogging for Dummies (hate the title) and when I have a better sense of what I'm doing I'll probably move my blog to a blogger site. I'll keep you posted on this though...
    - Sharon Taberski
  3. January 11, 2011 10:47 PM EST
    I hope that most teachers understand the correlation between the two and use the explanations of them when looking at the way we speak to and teach our students.
    - sgitman
  4. January 12, 2011 5:35 AM EST
    Yes, and the "meaning" part is the one we really need to make a high priority.
    - Sharon Taberski

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Something to Think About

During the past holiday season Ted and I went to the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York City for a concert performance of Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales. The five vocalists were highly accomplished for sure, but I was aware throughout that I was having to work really hard (too hard, in fact) at understanding and enjoying the story they were telling through song and brief narration. I found my mind wandering to what the female vocalists were wearing and how their red velvet dresses were the same but different. (The more mature singer had long sleeves and her costume was highly bejeweled, and the younger one had shorter sleeves and less adornment. The men were also dressed differently from one another and yet somehow in character with the roles they were playing. On and on my mind-meandering went...) Basically I needed some help to stay engaged with the story. A scene change perhaps, some scenery other than five chairs and some Christmas trees, a tableau or an enactment of what was happening off to the side, an intermission so I could talk with Ted about how he was handling things and what he was thinking

This led me to think about the children we teach, and whether in our read-alouds, we make them work too hard and to the point where their minds wander and they have difficulty staying with the story or information we're presenting. Do we provide enough visuals that would help students more fully engage? Do we bring in real world objects for our ELL students to make the concepts we're sharing more concrete? Are we giving students enough time to talk and process the information they're hearing? Are we giving ourselves the time we know we need to do a good job of reading aloud? I'm afraid that in many instances we are not—we assume, we hope, the children are understanding, but are they really? And because we're so concerned about all we have to cover, we miss golden opportunities to make our read-alouds more meaningful to students.

So what can we do to make the ideas and information we present through read-alouds more accessible, more often? I'd love to hear from you...


  1. January 4, 2011 5:16 PM EST
    I have nothing to say about the comprehension part, but I do have to say You Go, Blogging Girl!!
    Seriously, I know I will learn lots about comprehension and teaching (and life and learning and everything else I don't have room to write here) from reading your writing.
    Yes, I did kind of slip and link your blog and website so others would know you're busy blogging now! :) love, AM
    - AM
  2. January 5, 2011 5:01 PM EST
    that's so funny - two days ago i printed out a dylan thomas poem and put it on my wall. i've never done that before ever. weird!
    - Dan Taberski

Serendipity...or What

After I finished my earlier (January 4th) blog entry, I began googling "comprehension" as I so often do to see where it would lead me. Well...it led me to Tanny McGregor's Comprehension Connections: Bridges to Strategic Reading and a reminder that although I own Tanny's book I had never read it.

So that's how I spent the rest of the afternoon...reading through this compelling book about the importance of making our comprehension strategy instruction concrete, with the help of onions, lint brushes, salad bowls, etc. (I know it sounds crazy but the ideas are actually quite clever, and I can see how they would be helpful to students.) So, in light of my concern expressed in my earlier blog that we're making kids work too hard by keeping ideas and information abstract, is this find serendipitous or what?

Tanny writes: "...I'm using concrete objects to craft 'launching lessons'; lessons that unleash new paths of thinking, lessons that support lots of student-to-student talk, lessons that can be referred to again and again, lessons that kids will remember and think about long after the school day is through." And she does just that.

I recommend you give this book and its ideas a try.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year!

I've been wanting to start a blog for a while now and have finally decided to give it a try. I must say it's not as easy as I thought—or more accurately—it's as difficult as I feared. (I've actually written and have twice tried to publish this opening entry, without success, and am hoping that three's the charm.)

As you can tell from the titles of my recent publications, I've been thinking a whole lot about comprehension these past few years. And what better way to ring in the new year than to create a blog where we can share our thinking about this ever-so-important topic. I hope to share practical ideas to bring into the classroom, to-die-for professional and children's books, and anecdotes that jump-start our thinking about what we can do to enhance students' reading comprehension.

I'm looking forward to hearing from you...


  1. January 2, 2011 9:58 PM EST
    Discovered your blog on AM Literacy Learning Log. I look forward to reading your posts! I know they will be as thought-provoking as your books. (Just finished your most recent over the holidays!)
    - Mary
  2. January 2, 2011 10:08 PM EST
    now i'll have to check ann marie's latest post to see what she's saying about me. lol. this blogging is new to me and a bit intimidating, but we'll see how it goes. glad you like my book.
    - Sharon Taberski
  3. January 3, 2011 9:25 PM EST
    Hi Sharon- I too am looking forward to reading more of your posts. I am very happy you started blogging and I love your avatar!!
    - katie dicesare
  4. January 4, 2011 11:12 AM EST
    Thanks Katie. And I'm embarrassed to admit that i had to look up "avatar." Thanks for helping keep me up to date.
    - Sharon Taberski