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.

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.]