Thursday, December 17, 2009

Resources for Busy Reading Teachers (and we're all busy AND reading teachers)

As you take a short break in your teaching to enjoy the winter break, I want to say to every reader "thanks and lots of love" for all your efforts in and out of the classroom.

Every week I talk with teachers face-to-face and virtually.  Even at conferences, when I ask teachers to talk with me about their work, so many say, quite frankly (when I tell them I'll keep their name out of it), that they are up to their eyeballs in staff development:

too much of the wrong sort,
too little that is meaningful and
expectations that teachers will be able to absorb what they need from a conventional presentation when they have already been in class all day or feel pressed for time. 

I also hear that too often, these professional development settings are designed and solicited with little input from the teachers receiving the training.

Here is my holiday gift to you:

A few resources I have found that will help you discover valuable information to enhance your teaching while allowing you to set your own timetable, accessing when it is convenient and meaningful for you:

IRA READING RADIO - I was thrilled to see that the International Reading Association has partnered with BAM! Radio to provide the first resource from IRA that you can listen to anytime.  The initial show features Peter Johnston, professor and Chair of the Reading Department at the University of Albany (NY), talking abou the need to redefine literacy in modern terms, and is hosted by IRA's executive director.

NINGS, Networks, and Listservs:

Social and professional networking are growing by leaps and bounds.  Just look at your students who are blogging, responding on Facebook or Twitter, connecting with those who have common interests.  Teachers can do the same.  With a commitment of only minutes a day, you can create dialogues, ask questions of peers or more experienced teachers, all without the worry of "what will those I work with every day think".
Check out these and share others you know about in comments on this blog:

The National Council of Teachers of English's ning (a virtual, member-based platform for setting up a venue for interaction on the Internet)

IRA, NCTE, NAEYC and many other professional teachers' groups have their own groups on the Linkedin network.  Although Linkedin contains people from all walks of life, you can choose those you wish to interact with.  You are alerted to news, job offerings, and postings from other members on any level you wish.  It does require you to sign up, as do most online communities, but you control how much you interact.  The advantage to Linkedin over Twitter is that you can actually write a sufficient amount of test to thoroughly explain your question or comment.  Others join in and share information, based on your post.  I don't know about you but I don't have time to idly chat online; I need to have a purpose for the time I devote and I sometimes need a pat on the back, a voice of understanding and support from outside my immediate world, a confirmation of my professionalism and expertise.  You can get all that from these sorts of interactions.

Yahoo also provides a variety of discussion groups including one for IRA as well as specific groups for teachers who use various teaching strategies like Four Block or the 6+1 Traits of Writing.

CAVEAT:  As with any networking on-line, there are a few cautions:

Set personal guidelines to limit your time on these sites (it's too easy to loose time surfing "eternally")
Decide ahead of time what you want to gain from this sort of interaction and let that guide your involvement.
Ask others about their experience or visit as a guest initially until you are satisfied it is the group for you.
Consider whether starting your own blog or ning is positive for you.


My use of blogs is two-fold:

I have three blogs to serve those whom TLA supports (one for preschool teachers, the one you are reading for K-12 teachers, and one for families).  I post occasionally now but in 2010 will be ramping up to share content at least three times weekly.

I also spend a bit of time each week searching out great resources that others are providing in a blog format.  Do you know that there were 112.8 million blogs as of 2007 (no telling how many there are now)?  That means there is probably a blog out there that contains just what you need.  Here's a half dozen samples to get you started:

Picture Books to Teach the 6+1 Traits of Writing
A Blog from Real Teachers Who Love Reading
The Dream Teacher
If Bees Are Few (inspirational)
The Reading Tub's Blog (bringing reading home to families - and a great resource for teachers)
I.N.K., Interesting Nonfiction for Kids

I encourage you to let one of your new year's resolutions be to grow as a professional and not depend solely on what you might have access to through your school or school district.  You're likely to become a better teacher for the effort!

Remember, we always love comments.  If you've had a great experience with some personal "PD", share what you learned with the rest of us.  Happy holidays (and well deserved rest during the winter break).

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Picture Books and Literacy Celebrations In The Spotlight!

Several posts ago, I talked about using picture books as a powerful way to promote content learning and grow background knowledge. Today, I revisit the world of picture books with a few great new titles AND tips for using picture books in a different way to grow both the background knowledge, vocabulary and oral language of both students AND families. But first, a few thanks to my new friends from SE IRA (after these few paragraphs, you'll find the topic at hand):

I recently presented at the SE Regional Conference of the International Reading Association.Thanks to all my new friends in Louisiana for a great time. You were wonderful hosts! also met a couple of new friends I'd like to quickly share with you before going on to our topic:

I made some great new pals like Nile Stanley and Brett Dillingham, authors of Performance Literacy Through Storytelling, Nile and Brett told terrific tales and poems during the Poetry event one evening. Nile was spunky and joined music and poetry for a delightful experience and I have to say that Brett is a mesmerizing and illustrative storyteller, all at the same time.

I also met Hester Bass, the author of The Secret World of Arthur Anderson. If you don't know about this interesting artist, you'll want to explore a copy of this new book and you can find out even more about him through a website on his museum.

Now, back to our topic: While at the IRA conference, over 50 teachers and literacy advocates sat down with me to address a new use for picture books and I'm sharing a few additional resources here for both those who attended my session AND those who couldn't make it to the conference. 

Think about traditional picture walking and then let's tweak it a little. Great teachers do that with effective strategies all the time, to make it work for their students and families. Picture walking can be a wonderful tool for engaging families and students reluctant to spend time with books, beyond that pre-reading strategy of scanning the pictures before you read the text. Here are a few tips for using picture books to engage those for whom traditional literacy approaches may not be appropriate or comfortable, that is

Modeling is important. Simply show them how to look first at the outside of the book and  talk about what the story inside might be like.

Then take them inside, beginning with the first page and again just talk about what you see in the pictures. Don't worry about the text (if you've chosen wisely books that are colorful, have a strong storyline supported by the pictures, it will be easy).  Ask the child what he sees, it may be different.

Lastly, after the pictures have been viewed from every page, talk about the story as a whole. What happened? What was interesting? Who were the characters, those who were a part of the story? Would you do the same thing they did?

Taking the concept of exploring a book from an "academic lesson" to a positive experience with their child is the focus. Continue to encourage and coach; even let parents (or students) try it with one another so they get the idea. Give the parent "playing the role of the child" permission to act just like a child in their responses.

Wordless books and nearly wordless books (temporarily remove the intimidation of text and concentrate on engaging the family or student in telling a story from the pictures).  Here are a few to try with many different ages of children and many different families:

Changes, Changes by Pat Hutchins
Do You Want to Be My Friend?  By Eric Carle (Harcourt, 1995)
First Snow by Emily Arnold McCully (Harper Row, 1985)
Free Fall by David Wiesner (Harper Trophey, 1991)
Hector Protector by Maurice Sendak
How to Build A Snowman by Scholastic and Jo Moon
Hug by Jez Alborough
I Can't Sleep by Phillippe Dupasquier, U.S. edition: Orchard, 1990
I Like Black and White by Barbara Jean Hicks, Tiger Tails, 2005
Lights Out by Arthur Geisert
My Friend Gorilla by Atsuko Morozumi, Farrar, Straus and Giroux:  London, 1997
Oops by Arthur Geisert, Houghton Mifflin, 2006
Pancakes for Breakfast by Toni DePaola (Voyager, 1990)
School Bus by Donald Crews (Harper Trophy, 1993)
Sidewalk Circus by Paul Fleischmann
Ten Minutes Til Bedtime by Peggy Rathmann
The Red Book by Barbara Lehman
The Secret of Love by Sarah Burg
The Snowman by Raymond Briggs (Dragonfly Books, 1986)
Truck by Donald Crews
Tuesday by David Wiesner
Yes! By Jez Alborough
You Can't Take a Balloon into the Metropolitan Museum by Jacqueline Weitzman
You’re A Good Dog, Carl by Alexandra Day

I'd love to hear how your experiments with these ideas work in your classroom and with your families!  Please post and share with others through your comments!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Reading Loud with Today's Children - The Technique of EIR

Did you know that reading aloud has the potential to be the greatest instructional tool in your teacher's toolbox?  It connects to more levels of learning than any other single activity you can do in your classroom today (according to the landmark report, Becoming A Nation of Readers.  And it helps students see how the strategies and ideas they are learning in the skill-based instruction you provide apply to real reading.  Here are just a few of the benefits:

Exposes students to a richer vocabulary than they may encounter in leveled text (they can often understand up to two years higher in their listening vocabulary than in their own reading vocabulary levels.  You can learn more about this in Reading and Vocabulary Development from The Journal of Instructional Psychology)

Stretches and expands the number of words a child knows

Develops a strong concepts of story and how print works

Demonstrates proper grammar and sentence structure and exposes students to more complex levels than they can manage independently in print.

Exposes students to a variety of different types of stories, informational text and rich literature

Reinforces letter sounds and blending sounds into words (essentials in how our language works in print)

Gives opportunities for students to practice prediction and the order or sequence of stories and learn to evaluate together the validity of predictions as one moves through text

Builds background knowledge

Strengthens listening skills and the ability to understand what they hear

Puts a strong model of fluency (and thinking) in front of children

Encourages higher level thinking while freeing the brain to concentrate solely on understanding the story without the "burdens" of fluency and decoding.

Increases attention span

Builds excitement about learning and reading.

I expect you can find even more connections to your standards and those outlined by a joint listing from the International Reading Association and the National Council for Teachers of English in this simple activity.  When you give students a daily diet of read alouds, especially the Engaged Interactive type, you set a class culture, you layer and support the instruction you do at other times in the day and you promote motivation, as essential a component as the sub-skills we teach if we are to create lifelong readers.

"The truth is, if we can't find time for anything else, we should find time for reading aloud," says nationally  board certified Master Reading Teacher, Lisa Frase.   I couldn't agree more!

Now you are ready to try an EIR in your classroom:

Choose 5-10 minutes (write it in your lesson plan or it gets squeezed out)

Preview the text to look for those connections to your standards, your goals for learning in your classroom.  Look for places that are natural opportunities for you to split open your brain to show students what is going on when you:

question - especially "how" and "why" questions
think, wonder and ponder
pay attention to context clues to understand vocabulary

Take time to explain what you are doing in quick interjections into the storyline.  It may take you a few times to fine-tune the balance between insertions and moving the story along but today's students are used to a back and forth, multi-tasking, quick approach.  EIR fits that to a T.  It may take a bit more practice on your part if you are used to "sit still and listen" read alouds.  Your students can tell you when the fit and balance are correct by their level of engagement.

To learn more about how to select the right books for this type of read aloud, contact me at


Remember when you are planning to deliver an EIR, that it's easy for mature readers to rely on the automaticity with which we use these strategies.  However, those readers who are still growing need explicit examples of how to apply those strategies in real reading situations.  Dr. Michael Pressley speaks to that in his chapter in the Handbook of Reading Research (check out particularly the segment on "what comprehension instruction could be).  EIR gives them that!


How does this compare to the reading aloud you do in your classroom?  Has the strict scripting of reading programs and tightly scheduled dates given you the mistaken idea that you don't have time for reading aloud with students?  I'd love to hear questions and comments about what is happening in your school.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Combine Writer's Workshop and the 6+1 Traits for Great Results

One of my favorite things to do when I teach young writers is to write with them. Just as it is important for teachers to be readers, it is also important for them to be writers. Do you write with your students? Here are a few ideas:

When your students are writing in class, at least some of the time, let them see you writing too. You can be jotting down ideas for a new action research project, making notes for your lesson plans for the future, or maybe, yes maybe, writing the same assignment that you just gave them.

Spend time celebrating writing in your class. One of the most important ways to cultivate writers is to create a classroom environment of risk-taking and cooperation instead of one where students are afraid of criticism or being made fun of. You can find something, even if it is a diamond in the rough, to celebrate in any student's writing. Give your students chances to share their writing and to cooperatively discuss revisions.

Play a game to emphasize avoidance of the "I don't say anything" word, "GOT". We use it frequently in our oral language but it is such a lazy word. Write a simple sentence with "got" as the verb and then have your students play "hot potato", tossing a ball or other object around. Whenever a student catches the object, they must give an active verb to replace "got" in the sentence. Have a brief discussion about levels of meaning (good word choice) afterwards.

For more ideas on writing, visit my columns at Another great resource is Purdue University's OWL writing lab. Til next time!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

A Treasure Chest of Nonfiction Resources

Nonfiction writing for children represents a pool of unique tools for educators teaching knowledge learning areas. Certainly nonfiction gives educators ways to build content knowledge. Don't forget that it also serves as a window of opportunity to motivate all students, to turn them on to reading. I've always said, "there's a book for every child" and, when you open the selection to include nonfiction texts, you raise the likelihood that each student finds that book.

I know educators and librarians don't have a lot of time to find these gems on their own so here are a few great new resources that will help you in your search:

My friend, and author, Vicki Cobb, and many of her fellow non-fiction authors just this week introduced a brand new database, website and blog, dedicated to helping busy educators and librarians tap into this world. To quote their introduction on their INK THINK TANK website "The real world has never been so interesting!"

Search this resource by subject area, national standard, grade level and much more on the database included here. There are more than 20 different contributing authors on almost any subject matter you can think of. They also have a corresponding blog where the authors of these great tools visit, share ideas and thoughts, and help us all maximize resources.

Ever feel as though your students have no hook, no foundation of knowledge, on which to build new content area knowledge? Need a quick tool to find picture books to use when introducing that content area subject matter? Powerful Picture Books: 180 Ideas for Promoting Content Learning is an environmentally-friendly, easy-to-use resource you can reference all year long. An annotated list of over 180 quality picture books, suggests one title to read for every day of the typical school year. Most of the entries represent picture books readily available in your local public or school libraries. Read aloud book 1 to book 180 in your classroom or use the interactive index to help you select the content area you need.

Each annotation includes the title, author, and publication details plus ideas (and some hyperlinks) for extending the learning. These recommended reads cover such content areas as history, writing, the arts, geography, science and more. You can find picture books applicable for use with elementary, middle and high school students.

Get your media specialist involved! Sharron McElmeel, from in Cedar Rapids Iowa Community School District, shares some great ideas for promoting nonfiction with the youngest readers in her article entitled A New Section for Young Readers: J is for Junior Nonfiction.

Maximize the use of nonfiction with your students and turn more of them on to reading as a tool for life, a way to feed their interests and explore new worlds.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Revisit the Read Aloud

Do you miss read alouds? In many of today's classrooms, reading aloud with children has been squeezed out or, perhaps even worse, has become a clinical, teacher-directed instructional piece to the point where it's lifeblood and impact have been depleted.

Take a look at an abbreviated list of values for reading aloud with students:

Pure enjoyment of great stories/growing motivation and interest in reading
Taking students to a different level of understanding of the story (Bloom’s
Taxonomy concepts)
Discussion and reinforcement of story elements
Reflecting on the text and searching for multiple meanings
Exploring the elements and format of print and story
Practicing and modeling specific comprehension strategies such as questioning,
predicting, clarifying, etc.
Building and activating background knowledge
Using inference
Understanding of the writing process, use of grammar, point of view,
writer’s voice, word choice and other writing-related skills.
Introducing and reinforcing vocabulary
Reinforcing content area learning
Modeling and Practicing “think-aloud” and visualization
Introducing and/or reinforcing summarizing skills

This list reads like a list of standards. I expect you can find at least a few of your state's embedded here.

So what's the deal? What I recommend to many teachers is to step back. Look at what you do as a reader when you read text. It is an active and interactive process. You draw on all you know about how to figure out those squiggles on the page and the meaning behind them, almost effortlessly. Our students are still learning about those through comprehension strategy instruction, decoding instruction and fluency practice. So open up your brain. Get off the "lesson" channel and just explore, think, wonder, figure out and celebrate great writing.

It doesn't have to take 30 minutes - try 5 or 10 (most picture books can be read in that length of time). Evaluate the "down times" in your day - waiting for students to arrive, during the "morning meeting"/first few minutes of class, before or after lunch, closing out the day. There IS time.

When you take this approach to reading aloud with your students, it will have an incredible impact.

Do you know about the research behind read alouds (there is actually quite a bit)? Dr. Wesley Sharp has written an excellent article summarizing some of it on Dr. Maryann Manning's take includes not only references to research but also personal experiences. My favorite principal of all time, Dr. Reba Wadsworth, has great insight into this area as well. One more resource: Katherine Goldner's action research in conjunction with her graduate studies. It so clearly illustrates the value of such "in the classroom" experiments and evaluation.

I'd love to hear from real teachers out there using (or not using) read alouds. What have your experiences been?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Tim Rasinski and The Role of Fluency Instruction

I was thrilled when my copy of IRA's The Reading Teacher came in the mail yesterday. If any of you are members of the International Reading Association, this journal is one of the best in terms of practical ideas.

This month Tim Rasinski (as he does so often) pairs with a classroom teacher. This time the two discuss how reader's theater can create an academic pathway to grow students' fluency. I hope that those of you with experience with reader's theater review this article's abstract as well as the article itself if possible. On the online version, there is even an idea for using Jan Brett's book Hedgie's Surprise in a reader's theater environment from Read Write Think. If you have not used reader's theater in your classroom, now is a great time to try it, especially with the detailed approach outlined. Tim's website also provides a great list of sources for reader's theater scripts. You can even have your students create their own as part of a writer's workshop or groupwriting experience.

One point of the referenced article is particularly important in today's classroom with an increased focus on fluency. The purpose of improving fluency is increased comprehension. I fear that in the past few years, many schools have swung the pendulum too far in the direction of focusing purely on speed and the result, as Tim and Chase talk about in this article, is children that can read like a house afire but have little understanding of what the meaning behind the text is. That can be terribly damaging to their ability to read increasingly complex text as they move forward in their schooling.

I saw this first hand as I conducted a research study on fluency and the influence of family reading on first graders' growing fluency. In a study conducted in schools in GA, AL, TX and TN, about 80% of the students we asked to read a leveled piece which included inference could not identify what the children in the story were doing (building a snowman). Many students immediately upon finishing the one minute reading (timed so we evaluate all the students within a reasonable time) asked, "how many words did I read?". It seemed they had nearly been "programmed" to ask that, even when there was no direct evidence that this is what our assessment was attending to. In fact, I recommended this response to our evaluators who heard that comment: "I wasn't paying any attention to that; I wanted to listen and see if you sounded like you were talking when you were reading and whether you understand what the story was about." Although this was not the focus on the study, it was indeed a wakeup call.

Educators must be very careful as we work with students to improve their fluency that we do not minimize or sacrifice expressiveness, pacing, automaticity in word recognition, and decoding. Worst still, if speed is our primary focus, children get the mistaken idea that fast word calling is reading. That is simply not what makes a good reader. Whether we are working with beginning readers in kindergarten or first grade, or older students still struggling with reading, we must be sure that we are sending the messages that fluency is a tool, that reading is squeezing the juice of meaning out of text. If we do not send that message loud and clear, we may see children benchmark on fluency assessments but their comprehension (tested more frequently that speed of reading and much more important) will suffer.

Certainly we want our young and maturing readers to be fluent, but we also want them to be able to think deeply and widely, analyzing and evaluating what they read, rather than simply regurgitating facts. That takes excellent, engaged teaching, giving some time to fluency, but always going back to the focus and purpose of reading, to gain meaning from that text.

I'd love to hear about your experiences with reader's theater and how you are using it in your classroom. How are you putting fluency in its correct perspective with your students?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Step Into the Writing Process: Tools for Great Introductions

As teachers, whether we are in kindergarten or high school, we tell our class, "you need to make sure you have a strong introduction" when we encourage them to write. But such a broad statement isn't instructional and, if the students don't already have the tools to do that, they are lost.

Over my years of teaching children to write (ages 7 through 18) and 46 years of personal experience with the craft, I've discovered that there are lots of methods for creating effective introductions. Here's a few "tools" students can add to their toolbox to help their introductions (in essays, papers, narratives -- really any writing -- zing!

1. Always use the active voice and active verbs.
2. Avoid dull, predictable sentence structure.
3. Begin with one of these:

a surprising fact or statistic

a question"

a direct quotation (even a controversial one) to give a hint of perspective

a statement that leads into the piece, changing the routine perspective

purposeful repetition of a key phrase or term

an engaging anecdote or story, can include humor.

After your students have written their draft (including the introduction), ask them to switch with a partner. Have that partner answer this question:

When I read just the introduction, can I tell what the paper is about (the topic)?

Have the pair work together to either identify strong specific elements that make the introduction a good one or help one another revise to improve the introduction by incorporating some of these ideas. Make sure you follow through with multiple opportunities to practice writing strong introductions AND ask your students to seek out actual examples of writing and use these tools to evaluate the quality of others' introductions. Make sure you include great examples in a mini-lesson read aloud (great informal way to do a book talk). After reading the introduction, ask students "Is this a good introduction?" Follow-up, most importantly, after they voice their opinion, with the question, "Why?"

For more help with writing, visit the archive for's Reading Coach (not just for reading coaches but for every teacher).

How do you help your students write great introductions?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Building Background Knowledge with the Use of Picture Books

Do your students have that "deer in the headlights" look, lost because they haven't a hook to hang this new content chapter in history, science or social studies? We've probably all been there at one time or another. You feel for them but when you read the content with them or ask them questions, you just get a blank stare. Most often, the real reason behind that is that the student has no place to begin, no frame of reference to connect to. They have no "background knowledge" or "schema". Without a place to start ("oh, I know this information already, so I can understand the new information better"), students may not be able to make sense of it.

Think of what would happen if you were thrown into the middle of an engineering project with no training in that area. It would be impossible to be successful or to learn more without a foundation. It's the same when it comes to understanding writing, historical events and times, science, math, music, art, most anything -- we all need a starting place.

To find that starting place, enter the world of today's picture books. They are more colorful than ever with exquisite art created by true talents such as Jerry Pinkney and Jan Brett. They sometimes contain complex ideas in a simple format (like Patricia McKissack's Goin' Someplace Special).

Want to find more treasures to help your students learn content-related facts and information? Start with my Amazon List to find more suggested titles that all teach music concepts (from Native American and African roots to classical and jazz legends). Share this with your music teacher if you have one. also gives you some tips for using picture books to teach standards.

Because I recognize this is an issue that impacts comprehension (and we know how important comprehension is; it is the reason we read in the first placle), I've created a new environmentally friendly resource to help you find even more fantastic subject-matter picture books (the new e-book is entitled Powerful Picture Books: 180 Ideas for Promoting Content Learning available at Inspiring Teachers. Nearly half of the picture books listed can be used with middle and high school students as an introduction to more complex text. Powerful Picture Books will soon be featured at Cool Book of the Day where you can find a new cool book for you posted there every day.

Maybe you have other content areas you need help with. My friend, Vicki Cobb and a group of over 25 of her fellow nonfiction writers have started a new blog at I.N.K.. It highlights interesting Non-fiction for Kids and is a fantastic source for finding even more great non-fiction books for kids of all ages. Non-fiction is the heart of fact-finding and most reading beyond 3rd grade is content area or nonfiction reading. Whether you are looking for science books, books about famous people, language, painting or whatever, you're likely to find a sampling there.

With these tools, you have an easy way to support your students' learning. Tap into the world of picture books (fiction and non-fiction) to use as a fun, interactive way to help your child gain the basics. You'll help them gain a position where they can soar. The great news is that picture books, chosen carefully, can even be used with students who are in middle and high school.

Even if you have students who are doing well in school, search out a picture book or two that relates to a time in history or a subject that they may not study very much in school. Put those picture books in your classroom library for those students who finish their work early or those students in your class who have been identified as gifted. The more your students grow their background knowledge, the better prepared they will be to succeed in school, on standardized tests and in life.

Happy Reading!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Reinventing the Read Aloud

Engaged Interactive Read Aloud is the best way to connect with Facebook savvy, blogging, and texting students because it mirrors that same quick, back and forth interaction, while embedding strong examples of what our brains do when we as mature readers read. I've been developing the technique for years, based on research from great thinkers like John H. Guthrie, Catherine Snow, Marilyn Adams, and S.J. Barrentine.

It takes enthusiasm, familiarity with the text, and a willingness to expose your thinking process to your students but the great news is it works with K-12th graders. And it doesn't take much time but a daily dose of even 5 minutes can make a tremendous difference in the comprehension skills of your students. That will bring a return in higher test scores, stronger reading skills and thinking students.

There's not space here to explain the entire process but here's a taste.

Step 1: Share a purpose for reading this text aloud with students. It doesn't have to be your entire purpose because your focus for them is engagement, hooking them in. However, you do want to set the stage.

Step 2: Have students predict, talk about what they know about the subject matter, prime the pump for the new information they will gain. Make sure that you do this, not in a strictly instructional way, but conversationally. Remember that you want them hungry for read aloud so you have to be a great commercial for it.

Step 3: Read from the text, explaining out loud (and using whiteboards and other tools ready at hand to illustrate) what your brain is doing as you read the first line or two. It might be an explanation of how you decoded a difficult word (make that a joint exercise - "how did I figure that out?"), it might be an illustration of how you took what you already knew to make sense of the author's statement. It might be raising a question that you want to remember as you continue to read. It might be just a wondering, pondering moment in which you think about the meaning behind the text, in many layers.

Get the idea? Remember you have to be as much a teacher as an entertainer as an enthusiastic and passionate deliverer. Try this new version of read aloud in your classroom tomorrow and let me know how it goes!

My in-service trainings this year will be concentrating on this technique which can be taught to not only professional educators but also librarians, paraprofessionals and parents. We all need to be on the literacy team.

Friday, August 14, 2009


With school just beginning (or around the corner) for most of us, I want to be sure you are equipped and pampered. With all the overload of curriculum, standards, getting settled, it can be easy to get overwhelmed. Here are a few resources sure to help you survive and thrive!'s Reading Room: Here you'll find reading and writing lesson plans, Reader's Theater scripts, professional development articles by yours truly and more. is one of the most trusted friends of teachers online and it remains subscription free!

The IRA - International Reading Association's RTEACHER listserv. Over the past five years or so (can it have been that long?), I've been priviledged to interact with a marvelously eclectic group of teachers and learners through this listserv. You can join the listserv, contribute as much or as little as threads develop by sending an email to If you aren't a member of this incredible group, you need to join. It's well worth it! I'll be presenting as a featured speaker at the Alabama Reading Association (state affiliate) conference in November AND in a session at the SE Regional IRA Conference in New Orleans that same month. Check out my travels on Linkedin at my profile (see My Travel powered by TripIt).

The National Council of Teachers of English. This is also an excellent professional organization with a bit narrower but very complementary focus. What I love best is that the IRA and NCTE often write joint position statements. As national organizations, they want to hear from their members and influence education in a positive way. This year, they are sponsoring the National Gallery of Writing (, a place where you can write and where you can share your students' writing. October 20 has been designated the National Day of Writing!

> I hope these resources help you. Let's start a dialogue about others you may want to share with the rest of us. Stay tuned!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Are You Excited?

Some of you are getting ready to go back to school next week for in-service and making your nests before students come in. Others have a few weeks before the rush. Now is a great time to get recharged and enthused about the new year.

Let me suggest a few "start off on the right foot" ideas for any age:

Have your children write a "writer's autobiography" one of the first days of school. Right away you get an idea of their writing abilities and you learn something about your students' attitudes and experiences with writing. You can even ask parents to write a "writer's biography" about their child, just a simple paragraph to gain their perspective (oh, and by the way, later you can use these to teach "point of view"). Do you know about the National Council of Teachers of English's Day of Writing October 20th? Check it out and become a part:!

Create a new bulletin board that highlight books students found this summer. Let them be creative (a TV guide summary/review, a conventional book review, a pictorial recommendation). If you have some kids who weren't readers during the summer, give them a hall pass to visit your media center briefly and, with the guide of the media specialist or a helper, explore the new books in that collection before anyone else. Be sure to put your own picks up there and make sure there are a few copies of at least one of those in your classroom library.

And by the way, kiss your media specialist. She/he can be a great resource and help while you are focusing on reading and writing skills. After all, the aim of education has got to be to create lifelong readers if they are doing to do more than pass the test.

Visit again soon!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Let's Have A Chat

Do you realize the power you have to influence and engage learners of any age with conversation? Whether it's a book or content area discussion, a debate about current events, a prediction, a sympathetic ear, or a "heart-to-heart" with a student everyone else has given up on -- you are in a position of great power.

I've been thinking a lot about what conversations look like in classrooms and would love to hear from real teachers. Here are a few thoughts of mine:

In his book, Life in a Crowded Place: Making a Learning Community, author and researcher Dr. Ralph Peterson points out that “in everyday life, talk is the primary medium for learning, and for that reason, talk is an essential part of a learning community’s life.” For it is when we move beyond the rudimentary layers of thinking, from knowledge to comprehension, to application, analysis, evaluation, and synthesizing (Bloom, 1956). If you want to do more than shuffle papers, record test scores, and push kids on to the next level, you must make space (both literally and figuratively) for conversation in your classroom.

Are you talking at students or talking with them? The distinction reflects on your abilities as a teacher. Yes, we must all "correct and direct" but strong, interesting conversations raise the percentage of time students are actively engaged in learning. Carefully crafted words can open doors for students in understanding and peer conversations can build background knowledge.

A big part of effective conversations is vocabulary. Do you use the same dull, everyday words when you talk with students or are your conversations purposefully embedded with key vocabulary from content area learning, new words introduced in writing, spelling or read aloud times? A version of Reader's Digest's Word Power is a quick way to reinforce and grow your students volume of words. Did you know that only 10-17% of students' vocabulary comes from direct instruction. The rest comes from incidental learning and conversations are a great place to accomplish that.

I'll be back next week after visiting the AL Kindergarten Conference. Steven Layne is keynote speaker. If any of you are close to Huntsville, AL, I believe there is still time to register. This is a great regional conference (we had Mem Fox last year!).

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Enthusiasm is Key!

With all the competition with TV, video games, DVDs, texting, and the whirlwind of life in general, it is more important than ever that teachers are commercials for reading. When you read aloud (and I hope all of you use this terrific teaching tool no matter what age you teach), use your voice, speed up at the intense parts, building to a climax, slow down and even pause when you hit the parts that need to be savored.

Think aloud while you read (so you show students how expert readers do it). Being conversational with interjections and questions occasionally does not impact the story line or detract from it. In fact, the more you do this, the better you get at it. When I read picture books to teachers, modeling this approach which I call "engaged reading", I ask them at the end if they lost the storyline and they always say "no". Because they were engaged in the story and the conversation surrounding it.

I'd love it if every one of you added a title you can do this with to the blog this week. Include the interest level!

I'll start: I'm beginning to read "The Desperado Who Saved Baseball" by John H. Ritter. I'd recommend anything John has written (great for upper elementary and middle school, on into high school).

Here's my list of the benefits of reading aloud. No other instructional activity I know touches so many levels:

Purposes for Read Aloud for 3rd Grade and Up

Pure enjoyment of great stories
Taking students to a different level of understanding of the story (Bloom’s
Taxonomy concepts)
Discussion and reinforcement of story elements
Reflecting on the text and searching for multiple meanings
Exploring the elements and format of print and story
Practicing and modeling specific comprehension strategies such as questioning,
predicting, clarifying
Building and activating background knowledge
Using inference
Understanding of the writing process, use of grammar, point of view,
writer’s voice, word choice and other writing-related skills.
Introducing and reinforcing vocabulary
Reinforcing content area learning and building background knowledge
Modeling and Practicing “think-aloud” and visualization
Introducing and/or reinforcing summarizing
Targeting a specific grade-level standard:_________________________

As we develop our list of books, I encourage you to pick one up and read it yourself. Just dive in and enjoy it. Later, after you've finished (and when you are closer to school beginning), go back and identify what you can teach by exploring this book with your students.

Happy Reading!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Light the Spark of Background Knowledge

Building background knowledge is essential as our curricula and our students become more diverse. Look for every resource you can find to help you do that. It's more than just about the textbook.

If you teach history, historical fiction can be a more palatable way for students to gain some basic understanding of people and places from a certain time. You don't have to read an entire novel; choose selections that highlight the background knowledge your students need and read those aloud. Have a classroom library with selections relating to all the major periods/topics you'll be talking about during the year.

If you teach math, check out Bridget Hadley's article on It outlines how comprehension strategies traditionally taught in English or Language Arts classes also apply in mathematical thinking.

If you teach science, search out biographies on Michelangelo, Marie Currie, Albert Einstein, Dr. Ben Carson and many others. Again, select excerpts that highlight the scientific accomplishments and theories of individuals. Do you have a classroom library? It's one of the best ways to get students engaged in a subject.

If you teach art or music, many of the same ideas apply.

To help you find texts to build those connections, consider picture books. Even if your students are in high school, picture books can be great tools to introduce them to subject areas that they know little about. Check out my newest E Book from ( where you'll find over 180 picture books referenced that can be used in art, music, history, geography, math, science and language arts instruction.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Student Overboard!

As the end of the school year closes, I start a brand new blog for teachers. There are all kinds of places you can go to learn about the newest research, techniques, and strategies for teaching the mechanics of reading. I do believe strongly in the importance of teaching those mechanics but it cannot be everything we teach. What we will do here is talk about "lighting the spark of literacy (reading, writing, listening, communicating and viewing) with children of all ages.

Why is that even important? I think the best way to answer this is to quote Jim Trelease. He says, "What we teach children to love and desire will always outweigh what we teach them to do." Now I know there are a few teachers who are just in the profession to do what is minimally required, just meet the standards and be done with it. But I also believe that most of you who are teachers are in it for more.

NCLB has been frustrating and curriculum driven instruction has become so often restrictive. My aim here is to talk about how to go beyond what is required and light a fire that will serve your students long after you are dust.

So, here's my question for you: Are you interested? Do you want to start a quiet (or maybe not so quiet) revolution? Do you want to learn what it takes to get kids fired up about using reading and writing as tools for life? Then you've come to the right place.

Feel free to post questions, comments, wisdom and ponderings.