Have your students ever said to you, “But, I don’t know what to write!” If you’ve been teaching for a more than a day, I imagine you’ve heard that. And then you have gone through the arduous, painful process of helping them find an idea. It might sound something like this.
Teacher: Well, what do you like to do?
Student: I don’t know.
Teacher: Did you do anything fun this weekend?
Teacher: Have you ever gone somewhere special?
Student: My grandma’s house.
Teacher: Great! Write about that!
And then you get a minimal piece of writing because the student really doesn’t feel excited about grandma’s house and has nothing they feel like saying about it. Or, you get a blank page.
Well, if you’ve ever been there, you need to start talking to your students about their Writing Territories. A Writing Territory is something the student knows a lot about and is passionate about. I introduce the idea every year by reading “Manfish” by Jennifer Berne. This blog post and FREE download have more details about that first lesson.
Today, I want to talk about where you go next. In the first lesson, our goal was to inspire writers, to help them see that they have many areas of expertise, just like Jacques Cousteau, and that what they have to tell the world is important. That same goal carries over into this lesson. We are going to continue inspiring writers and helping them find their voice by connecting to what they love.
For the second lesson, I begin by reading Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. This is a truly beautiful book about a woman who lives a life doing the things she loves. She travels, she makes friends, she lives by the sea… At the end of her life, she has one, unfulfilled goal – to make the world a more beautiful place. She isn’t sure how to do that until one day, inspiration strikes and she becomes the Lupine Lady.
The theme of the story will resonate with students differently than the the theme of Manfish. As I finish reading the book, I ask the students to consider how they make the world a more beautiful place. I tell them that I make the world beautiful by teaching , and I add that idea to my Writing Territories List. I also add in trips that I have taken and my favorite flower. Then, I ask students to return to their Writing Territory lists, and add to them.
It is important for students to revisit their Writing Territories lists often because they will learn and grow and develop new territories. It should be a messy, living document that you add to and elaborate frequently. One way to do that is to read a great book about someone who lives their passion, and then ask students to add to their lists. I often turn to books for inspiration in my own writing, and I want my students to do that same. (If you’d like a resource to help you do that, check out Make Friends with a Book Writing Prompts.)
Miss Rumphius is a beautiful book that I been reading to students for 20 years. It has inspired many great writing pieces for my students, and it will for yours too!
Poetry is perfect for accomplishing many of your literacy goals. One of the great things about poetry is how short it is. You can accomplish a lot in a short amount of time! This blog post will feature 5 ways I use poetry in my classroom, with links to resources to help you do the same! (The FREEBIE is at the end, so read on!)
One good way to use poetry is for a close reading, especially if your students have not done them before. The purpose of a close reading is to teach students the skills they need to analyze a text deeply. Poetry is perfect for that because poems generally have a literal meaning that is readily apparent, but also a deeper meaning that emerges through close reading. Another reason poetry is terrific for a close reading is because the text is generally short, usually no more than a page. And finally, if a poem has rhythm and rhyme, it can make the text more accessible to students, and also more fun to reread. If your students hate the repeated readings required by close reading, try poetry!
In my classroom, I like to begin the year with poems about school, and our first close reading is of Mary Had a Little Lamb. We read the entire poem, not just the part that is generally known, and we also read a non-fiction text that tells the story of how the famous poem was written. Check out the Poetry Break – Poems about School Resource on TPT!
Poetry is also perfect for teaching vocabulary. Many Tier 2 words (check out this blog post for more information) can be encountered in poetry. In this example from my Limericks Poetry Break, the context of the poetry helps students learn two Tier 2 words – brute and resembled.
The rhythm and rhyme of poetry makes it perfect for getting students up and moving, which can be really important for engaging students who may not love the quiet sitting that often accompanies reading – especially boys. Poetry is meant to be read aloud, in fact, making it perfect for Task Cards like these, also from my Poetry Break – Limericks resource.
Finally, poetry can help your students fall in love with language. Similes, figurative language, hyperbole, alliteration, onomatopoeia…. These poetic devices help students find the beauty of English. And of course, these devices also show up in well written fiction and non-fiction, so learning to love the language and understand it through poetry increases student’s comprehension of other texts. For example, consider this poem, Sick by Shel Silverstein. This is a terrific example of hyperbole, and so fun for students. That poem is featured as a Poetry Break in Poems About School.
The alliteration and repetition in A Ring Upon her Finger by Christina Rossetti make this a great poem for easing in. If you, or your students, are nervous about poetry, give it a try with one of my print and teach units. These units include everything you need to help your student analyze poetry, write poetry, and learn to love poetry!
I love fun and spontaneity in my classroom. One way I do that is with Poetry Breaks. A Poetry Break is exactly what is sounds like. I find a poem that I want to share with my students. Then, when they least expect it, I hold up the Poetry Break paddle, and read them a poem. We talk about it briefly, and then I reread the poem. Then, we return to our regularly scheduled lesson. Eventually, I give the paddle to a student and ask them to plan a Poetry Break. They LOVE it, and it gets them reading LOTS of poetry! Want to try it in your classroom? Download this FREEBIE which includes an overview of the strategy and a Poetry Break paddle of your own – everything you need to bring poetry to your classroom!
Take a Break for Poetry today! You’ll be glad you did!
As I’m sure you know, goal setting and data tracking is an important strategy for raising student achievement. John Hattie found that student self efficacy (what I like to call ownership) resulted in a .92 change in achievement – well over the .4 hinge point that marks a successful educational initiative. And, goal setting leads directly to a feeling of self-efficacy, so it is well worth our time to teach students to write effective goals and to reflect on their growth. (For an overview of all of Hattie’s work, click here, and grab his book, Visible Learning, if you don’t have it already!)
In this blog post, we are going to focus on how to help students make meaningful goals in reading. We will discuss appropriate areas for goal setting, writing meaningful goals, how to track data, and how often to reflect and set new goals. If you want a resource that will help you do all of that, check out Student Data Binders. There are 110 Student Sheets in all the academic areas plus Leadership and Social Skills!
Writing Meaningful Goals
The first word I want to focus on is meaningful. It has become quite a trend in education to have students track their reading level – AR, DRA, BAS…. Whichever system you use, you may be asking students to keep track of their reading level. You may have them set a goal around their reading level, you may have them make a beautiful graph of their growth….
If so, please STOP! Reading levels are not meaningful to students. When I was teaching 3rd grade in a building that was highly focused on data, we had a training on goal setting, and were encouraged to have our students set goals based on their reading levels. Something felt weird to me about it, but I believe in goal setting and I believe in using reading levels to drive instruction, so I went along with it and had all of my students set goals to improve their reading levels by at least 3 levels during the year.
My son went to kindergarten in the same district that year. I will never forget the day he came home with a paper from his teacher that said he was a Guiding Reading Level J. That is 2nd grade reading level, so I was understandably excited! He wasn’t. He was pretty disgusted by the whole thing because his teacher told him he could only read books out of a certain tub, which was mostly filled with Little Bear books. He was not a fan of Little Bear. He felt restricted by his reading level, and just wanted to read books about Cars (the movie, which he loved!)
As a teacher, I learned an important lesson that day. Reading levels are for teachers, not for kids, and not for parents. I finished the year with my 3rd grade students and their goals about reading levels. I bet you know what happened. Not much. Kids don’t know what it takes to move from a level M to a level N. So, the goals weren’t meaningful to the students, and little progress was made. My students certainly felt no ownership of their learning. It was almost like their goals were being done to them instead of with them – just like my son.
If you don’t believe me, trust the experts. Fountas and Pinnell have written and tweeted extensively on this in the Reading Teacher, EdWeek, their blog, and other places. They are pretty clear that reading levels are for teachers, not students or parents. The link to their blog includes some really helpful phrases to use with parents. Check it out!
So, that was a really long intro to goal setting. 🙂 If we aren’t having students set goals around reading level, what does that leave us? Well, what is meaningful to students and in their control? These are some areas that make meaningful goals for students.
Number of books read
Increasing reading stamina
As you get to know your students individually, you will probably find other areas, unique to each reader, that are meaningful and worthy of a goal. You, the teacher, bring your expertise and knowledge of what it takes for students to move to the next level. The student brings the interest and motivation. And in the space between, a meaningful goal will emerge.
For example, you know that a student who cannot read a grade level text fluently is likely to struggle with decoding so significantly that they lose track of meaning and are unable to comprehend a text. You also know that strategies for increasing fluency include close reading practice decoding multi-syllabic words in context. So, together, you and the student might write a goal like this:
“By the end of October, I will increase my fluency from 84 words per minute on a fifth grade level text to 90 words per minute on a fifth grade level text. I will use my Menu time to complete the Multi-Syllable Words Task every week in October and I will reread our close readings one extra time each week.”
This goal is SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Based. And it is meaningful because it is entirely in the students’ control, and it will help them achieve. Just make sure that the idea comes from the student and that they feel excited to use their menu time to complete those tasks. If you impose the goal, you will find a far lower rate of growth than if the student chooses a goal that is important and fun for them. Choice is a key motivator, so give kids choices!
Once your students have meaningful goals, you will need to find a way for them to track their goals, and also the time for them to do that work. If students don’t reflect and track regularly, they will lose motivation and the goal will lose its power.
I have a weekly time on Fridays for students to reflect on their goals. Students grab their data binders and track their data from the week. These are some of the data tracking sheets that I use. One way I differentiate in my classroom is with student goals and data tracking. All students track their books read on either the Weekly or Monthly form (depending on which one helps them be successful). All students track projects and tests on the Standards-based form. The other forms are given to students only if they match their goals.
How often to change the goals
I have experimented with this a lot. Yearly goals are way too big for most students. They lose motivation and falter over time. Weekly goals take too much class time and are so small that they don’t result in much growth. Quarterly goals are not bad, but for me, monthly works the best.
First, a month is not a huge span of time. It’s long enough to create a lofty goal, but not so long that students lose motivation. Also, monthly goals can be seasonal. Frequently, students write goals in October around reading a certain number of spooky books. In February we talk a lot about kindness, students sometimes make goals around reading and recommending books to friends as an act of kindness. Monthly gives these fun options and helps keep the goals varied and interesting.
Second, if a student does not meet their goal, they get 10 chances each year to try again. When we set yearly goals, I found that students often realized in January that they could not meet their goal under any circumstances, and so they stopped trying. With monthly goals, students get a do-over every few weeks! That really fits the growth mindset that I try to help students build.
Finally, monthly goals give students lots of practice with goal setting and reflecting. By the end of the year, students will set 9 reading goals and 9 math goals in my classroom. They will set 8 writing goals and 8 leadership goals. And they will set 6 Science goals, 6 Vocabulary goals and 6 Social Studies goals. (As you probably noticed, I don’t have students set all the goals in the first month. We increase the number of goals as the year progresses.) My students will be pretty good at writing SMART goals by the end of fifth grade!
Goal setting and data tracking are important tools that help students take ownership in their learning and achieve at higher levels. I hope that this blog post has given you some ideas and that you bring goal setting to your classroom. My resource on TPT can be helpful, so grab that, or make your own, and give it a try!
I separate the students so there are 2-3 students at each prompt. Each student has their Writing Notebook and a pencil. I start the timer for 1 minute if I have a class full of reluctant writers, and 2 minutes if they are more confident writers. The students write about the prompt until the timer goes off, and then they rotate to the next Task Card. The timer starts again and students write about a new prompt. Within a few minutes, students have rotated to 12 different Task Cards and written 12 different responses. After 12 minutes, I ask students to return to their seats and spend another 30 minutes writing. Sometimes these writing prompts turn into something that students work on over time, polish and publish, and sometimes it is just something they work on for a few minutes.
What is so great about this is students are exposed to lots of ideas at once, and almost always, there is one that really grabs them. In fact, they almost always find more than one prompt that they like to write about! Another benefit is that students build stamina and writing endurance, and they become more flexible writers and thinkers. Lots of great benefits! I use SpeedWriting once a month or so, and my kids look forward to it every time!
Please grab this free download to help you try SpeedWriting in your classroom. This one-pager walks through the steps, and it is included in 12 Book-Themed Writing Prompts on TPT. Check it out today!
QuickWrites are a really easy strategy that gets kids writing and only take about 5 minutes a day! Interested? Read on!
Just as we want our students to become more fluent readers, we also want them to become more fluent writers. QuickWrites are an awesome way to make that happen. A QuickWrite is exactly what you think it is – something a student writes about for only a short amount of time. You give the students a prompt and set a timer. Their goal is to keep their pencil moving the entire time! Even if they are writing the same word over and over, that pencil keeps moving. Because they only write about the topic for one minute, it is more like a game than a long-term commitment. I’ve learned over the years that once students start the pencil, even if they write their name over and over and over again, eventually, the ideas will flow. This strategy will improve students’ ability to write on a topic and awaken their imagination and bring new ideas to their writing!
Because I know that choice is an important motivator for kids (well, for all humans, really….), I give my students one prompt, and one minute. Then, I give them another prompt, and another minute. Finally, I give them a third prompt, and one more minute. Within less than 5 minutes, my students have written something about three different prompts.
After my students work on three different QuickWrites, I ask them to go back and count how many words they wrote for each prompt during the one minute timing. They graph their highest number of words, and that is my writing lesson for the day. Students are free to continue writing on one, or more, of their QuickWrites or work on a writing project of their choosing for the rest of our writing time.
Download a FREE copy of my Writing Fluency Graph here! If you like it, be sure to check out my Student Data Binder resource on TPT for more goal setting, data tracking and student reflecting resources. There are over 110 Student sheets included, so something for everyone!
What I’ve learned is that using QuickWrites about once a week improves students’ ability to put pencil to paper and get the ideas flowing. Also, the QuickWrites are a bank of ideas. If a student gets stuck and can’t come up with an idea for an assignment, one thing I encourage them to do is return to their QuickWrites. Often, they find something there that they can adapt to meet the requirements of the assignment. And since they have already done some writing on that topic, it can feel easier for them to get started.
My QuickWrites resources include the prompts in 4 different formats so that you can use them with lined paper, primary paper, as a prompt that students glue into their journal (which is how I use them) and in a center. Another way to use the writing prompts is for SpeedWriting. This blog post gives you all the details and includes a free download to bring SpeedWriting to your classroom!
Check out Make Friends with a Book and my other Writing Prompts on TPT today and let’s launch a great writing year together! Happy teaching!
If you’ve read any of my other blog posts, you probably know that I’ve spent a significant amount of my career teaching ELLs. You may also know that, even when I’m not teaching ELLs, direct vocabulary instruction is always an important feature of my classroom. I try to spend just a few minutes a day on direct instruction of vocabulary. My goal is to teach 500 words a year – and even that is a small fraction of the words that I should be teaching. If you missed it, check out this post which summarizes the research on why direct vocabulary instruction is critical.
Word Walls are a key strategy in helping me meet that goal of 500 words a year. As you are setting up your Word Wall for the year, here are a few things I have learned over the years.
The power of a Word Wall is in its interactivity. A pocket chart is the best way to ensure that. I’ve tried stapling words on the wall in the past, and I find that when I do, they just sit there. When I put them in a pocket chart, kids can grab the cards and use them, and so can I. So, to keep my Word Wall a living, interactive part of the classroom, I use a big pocket chart.
Another benefit of the pocket chart is that I can add words that come up unexpectedly in class. I prepare Word Cards that I use intentionally, but I also seize the teachable moment and add words that we encounter in books, videos, conversation….
Because I use a pocket chart, I can’t fit all of the words for the year at one time. So, students keep a personal Word Wall as part of their Writing Notebooks. Before I remove the Word Cards for a unit, I make sure the students have the words in their notebooks. I also store the previously learned Word Cards in an alphabetical accordion folder so that students can find them if they need them later on.
Make sure you choose a spot that is easily visible and accessible. One year I put my Word Wall in the back of the classroom, and kids didn’t use it. Even though my students’ desks face all directions, there is something about the front of the classroom that communicates importance. Put your Word Wall in the front if you can.
What do you include on a Word Wall?
If you missed it, be sure to check out my blog post on Tier 2 words. I explain the three tiers in that post – something that you really need to understand to help your Word Wall be most effective. My Word Wall is mostly Tier 2 words because they are the ones that my students need direct instruction with. I also include some Tier One words if I want my students to be sure to spell them correctly, and I add Tier 3 words when they come up.
If you don’t already have one, a COBUILD Dictionary is a great tool to explore. Besides all of the other things that a dictionary can do, COBUILD dictionaries tell us how frequently a word is used in written English. Very common words are Tier 1, and need little to no instruction. Very uncommon words are rare, and also need little to no instruction because, in all likelihood, the average reader will never encounter them. For example, abecedarian is a Tier 3 word. You may be an abecedarian when it comes to the COBUILD dictionary. But unless that word turns up as an important idea in a book or other context, I won’t spend direct instruction time on it in class.
As teachers, we want to put our energy into teaching our students the things they will likely need to know. For example, this link will take you to an online COBUILD dictionary where you will see that the entry for isthmus has two out of five dots colored. This tells you that isthmus is one of the 30,000 most frequently used words in English. So, some direct instruction is probably warranted.
Plateau, with three colored dots, is one of the 10,000 most frequently used words. And it is a word that students struggle to spell, so it is a perfect word to spend direct instruction time on, and should receive greater focus and deeper instruction.
Adding Words to the Word Wall
There are many great ways to do this, so let your creative mind flow! But, if it’s late and your brain is tired, here are a few things I generally do as I introduce words.
For example, I use my Word Wall for my Landform vocabulary every year. If you need Landform Word Cards, check out this set on TPT. Each card has a photo of a landform in the US, so I double my impact by teaching important Science and Social Studies content!
This resource includes 32 terms. At the beginning of the unit, I choose the Tier 1 words that my students likely already know, and quickly add them to the Word Wall. It should take about 10 minutes of class time. The goal is to make students aware that the words are there, that they should know them, and that they are responsible for spelling them correctly, now and forever. I play a game I call Categories to introduce these words. It sounds like this.
Teacher: Class, today we are going to play Categories. I have 10 words. Our category is landforms. The first definition is “a piece of land that rises higher than everything around it.”
Teacher: Good guess. This landform is smaller than a mountain.
And then I place the Word Card under the document camera to show the students the word, definition and photo. Then it goes into the pocket chart and we move on to the next word. In this way I review 10 words that most of my students already know and I create a place in their brain to hold more words that fit the category of landforms.
The next day, I introduce a Mystery Word that fits in in our category. Mystery Words are always Tier 2 words, and I will spend the majority of my direct instruction time on these words. I choose a word that the students should encounter in reading or other context that day, and I remind them that it fits the category of landform. In the morning, I write the first letter on the board, and then blank lines for each letter (like the game of hangman). As the day progresses, I add a letter here and there until the students guess the word. Often, they guess the word when they encounter it in the text. Then, we look at the Word Card and add it to our Word Wall.
Finally, if there are Tier Three words that I want the students to learn, I present them in a quick, direct instruction. I simply tell the kids the word and the definition, and then use it in a sentence. Then, I challenge my students to work together to come up with a sentence of their own. Finally, we add the word to the Word Wall.
That’s a quick overview of how I use Word Walls in my classroom. Of course, the power is in the revisiting. More on that in future posts.
In the meantime, if it’s helpful, grab some of my Word Wall sets on TPT, or make your own. Here’s to a year filled with Words, Words, Wonderful Words!
Yesterday’s blog post featured a somewhat unusual idea for launching Writer’s Workshop. After the initial flurry of writing about the crazy dancing teacher, some students struggle to find their next idea. That’s where today’s idea comes in handy.
Manfish, by Jennifer Berne is a marvelous picture book about Jacques Cousteau. He was a true Renaissance Man – inventor, environmentalist, explorer, cinematographer…. The book beautifully traces his life and his development of his many talents. It’s a perfect opening to inspire students to identify their own talents and interests.
This free lesson plan on TPT walks you through how to use the book to introduce the idea of Writing Territories to your students and then help them brainstorm to find their own writing territories. The detailed lesson plan includes a brainstorming sheet for students. I have students paste those in the front of their writing journals so they can easily revisit them throughout the year. The free download also includes a checklist that will help you keep track of student progress.
The real power of this lesson actually comes after the lesson. Once students have brainstormed their writing territories, the revisiting is key. The first revisit happens in a writing conference with me. During that conference I am working to get to know my students, so I do more listening than talking. I also often try to help the students narrow their topics down.
This is a copy of one of my student’s brainstorm after half of a year. She started with the first 5-6 ideas. As the year continued, we revisited this from time and she added to her brainstorm.
When I met with this girl during our first conference of the year, we started by looking at her Writing Territories sheet. I noticed that she had listed her family as one of her territories. That is a very general topic, so I asked her to be more specific. We discussed each member of her family and analyzed which ones she felt she could write about. She said that her little sister and her dog would both be funny to write about, so I had her add them to her list. By narrowing her topic down she had a better chance of writing a well organized story. Later in the year, she narrowed even further by identifying her Writing Territory as “11 year old girls with annoying little sisters”. Not long after she wrote a pretty funny story about her youngest sister. Narrowing the focus during a brainstorm can often set a story or essay on the right path, even before the writer begins.
This student also added ideas during the year. She loved Science, so she added the solar system, and then narrowed even further to Saturn. One of her best pieces of writing for the year was her informational piece about the journey of the Cassini spacecraft and its study of Saturn.
To help get students to add to their list, we try to make it a living document. I show mine and add to it frequently, and I ask the students to open their notebooks and begin a Workshop by reading their list. I also say things like, “Oh, what an interesting idea. Why don’t you go add that to your Writing Territories list?” Even if it’s math class, I try to encourage the students to find their own voices and their own ideas and add them to the list.
I hope this lesson helps you and your students find topics to write about. Grab the free lesson plan on TPT today!
Every year, on the first day of school, my students come back from lunch to see a mysterious box, covered with a cloth. Then music starts to play. I usually use 2001, A Space Odyssey because it is SO dramatic! As the music crescendos, I whip the cloth off the box. It is wrapped, so I rip that off too! Of course, I’m not saying anything while the music plays, but I’m dancing around in a goofy, ridiculous way. All the kid’s eyes are glued to me and not a few jaws are dropped as I rip open the box and start throwing tissue paper around the room.
Finally, at the most dramatic moment in the song, I reach in, my mouth wide with awe and delight, and I reveal – a writing journal!
I then proceed to bestow them upon the fortunate students in Room 205. After my craziness, as you might imagine, every student has something to write about. So, when the music dies and the hubbub quiets, we have our first writing session of the year.
For the first Writer’s Workshop, I keep it short. Kids have likely lost their writing stamina over the summer, and I’m interested in having them enjoy the time and get something on the page. We go through all the steps though.
It is quiet when we write so that everyone can do their best thinking.
You can write wherever you want to in the room. Just make sure you choose a good learning spot for yourself.
When we finish one piece, we start another.
Sharing is always encouraged, and always optional.
I like to begin our Writer’s Workshop together in this dramatic fashion for a few reasons.
Kids always have a story to share with their families on the first day of school.
I like to confound their expectations and surprise them as much as possible in the first week of school. Fifth grade is like no other class they’ve experienced.
Writing is exciting to me, and I want it to be exciting to my students.
Books have been great friends of mine for my entire life. They have helped me through times of sorrow and grief, they have taught me the skills to master challenges, they have helped me escape to new worlds when this one was a little too much to take. Books are constant and continual friends for me.
So, it is probably not a surprise to you that I want my students to have books that are friends as well. When I first mention the idea, some of my students roll their eyes. They are fifth graders, after all, and eye rolling is a skill they excel at and practice often. But, as the year rolls on, I notice many students quietly making friends with a book. Activities like Bring-a-Book-to-School Day help, and so do Quote Marks.
Quote Marks are simply book marks with encouraging, and sometimes funny, sayings on them. I generally post the quotes in the Book Nook, sometimes sticking them in surprising places for students to find as they peruse the shelves (for example, the quote from Diane Duane goes on the wall behind her tub of books). I put the same quotes on book marks and let students choose the ones they like. I also use the quote posters as Quick Write prompts to really get kids thinking about the quote. Many of the quotes express the author’s view of books as friends, so they reinforce that I’m not the only one crazy enough to think that!
It’s mid-August and many of you are already back in school. We are not back yet, but yesterday I opened my planner for the first time. I love the feeling of that empty planner – so much potential! So much learning! So much time!
And yet, I know in January, I will be feeling just the opposite. I will wonder where the time has gone and if I have spent it well. So today’s post is not about a literacy strategy. It’s all about you, and the decisions you make that have a major impact on your student’s achievement. Today, we are going to talk about the schedule.
There are many things out of our control as teachers. For example, this year, my school is piloting a new math curriculum and a new SEL curriculum. I can’t control that. The PE and library schedule is out of my control. Recess scheduling and pull-out schedules are also out of my control. When you think about the time in the day, much of it is out of my control. But, always, I can find some time everyday when ALL (yes, all!) of my students are with me for Independent Reading. I found the time when I taught kindergarten and I find the time now that I’m teaching fifth grade. I made that decision twenty-one years ago when I first read Fountas and Pinnell’sGuiding Readers and Writers and I’ve never changed my mind. I’ve changed just about everything in my practice since then, so why is this a constant for me? Because it is the single most important thing I do to raise reading achievement, build critical thinking skills and provide emotional support for my students. Don’t believe me? Here is the research.
Raising Reading Achievement through…. Reading
It seems like a no-brainer. If you want to get better at something, you have to practice it. Just this afternoon I had a conversation with my daughter about strategies she can use to improve as a basketball player. We talked about dribbling and layups and reading books about basketball strategy. Not once did I suggest that she do a few worksheets about basketball. That would be a pretty ludicrous idea. And yet, how much time do students actually spend practicing reading each day?
Researchers have been asking that question for decades. Just how long should students read each day? Should they read in school or at home? Should the teacher read while they are reading? There are hundreds of studies that support the importance of daily reading. Here are links to just a few:
This study found that 15 minutes of daily reading had a positive effect on students’ reading comprehension ability, word recognition skills and fluency.
This study found that 15 minutes is the magic number to begin seeing accelerated reading growth due to independent, daily reading.
This study found a correlation between reading at school and improved comprehension, but no correlation between reading at home and improved comprehension.
So, enough research. There are hundreds of studies that you can Google if you want to know more. But I think it’s a good moment to unpack this with a real-life example.
One of the biggest influencers on my practice as a reading teacher was a young girl named Amy. Amy was 8 years old and spoke another language at home until she came to school at age 5. I was privileged to be her 3rd grade teacher. At the beginning of the year she was reading at a second grade level, which wasn’t bad considering she had only been speaking English for three years. She was in my lowest Guided Reading Group, reading books at levels J and K. Third graders typically read levels M, N, O and P. And I had a high reading group that was reading “The Whipping Boy” by Sid Fleischman, which is a level R. I noticed that Amy had chosen to sit really close to the Guided Reading table, and that she had checked out a copy of “The Whipping Boy” from our school library. After a few days, I could see that she was really interested in the book and our conversation, so I invited her to join us. I was convinced that she needed to be instructed at her Instructional level, though, so I asked her to continue in her low reading group AND participate in the higher level group. A few weeks after we finished “The Whipping Boy”, I assessed Amy’s reading level again. To my utter shock, she had grown from a level J to a level N! I couldn’t believe it, so I had a colleague re-assess her. Same thing! That’s when I realized Amy’s motivation and interest in the book had done what no amount of direct instruction could do – caused her ability to grow more than a year in a few weeks. And she never went backwards. For the rest of the year, she kept up with my gifted students in the higher reading group, and in fourth grade, she even surpassed some of them.
Obviously, Amy is a very special student. Few students have the motivation to do what she did. But Amy taught me that motivation is more important than home life, economic status, language skills or current reading ability. And I have seen that pattern emerge time and time again since Amy first helped me see it. When students become motivated to read, their achievement goes up.
And how do we increase motivation to read? By giving students time to read, and to be read to. But, there are some essential components that make the reading time more effective. First, students must be allowed to choose their own books. Choice is key in human motivation. But, teachers need to be ready to step in to help match students with books (see my posts about Book Ballots and Book Talks for strategies on how to do that!) Second, students should read a wide variety of texts. Build a classroom library that exposes students to newspapers, magazines, books, short stories, poetry, non-fiction, literary fiction…. When students read widely, they become more curious and hungry to read more. My Book Bingo can be a fun way to encourage choice and reading of different genre. Finally, students will be more motivated to read if they set goals around their reading. I like to have students set goals about how much reading they will do and what type of reading they will do. More on that in a future blog post.
Increasing Critical Thinking Skills through Reading
Back in 2004, I read Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement by Marzano. It’s a terrific read and I highly recommend it if you want to learn more. One of the key ideas in the book is that students today lack background knowledge about all sorts of things. They can’t find Mexico on a map; they don’t know when (or why) the War of 1812 was fought; they think that milk comes from cartons, not cows. If that was true in 2004, it is even more true now. According to a study cited in this blog, during the 2015-16 school year, a survey of 9.9 million students found that 54% of students read fewer than 15 minutes a day. Marzano found that the best way for students to build background knowledge was through wide reading. If students are reading less than 15 minutes a day, they are not building background knowledge. And background knowledge is key for critical thinking.
Take, for example, the critical thinking skill of formulating a hypothesis in science. In order to formulate a reasonable hypothesis, you have to have some background knowledge. Last year, I asked my students to formulate a hypothesis about fish dying in a lake in the Adirondacks. I gave them data on wind patterns and pollution from factories in Detroit. I assumed that they would know that pollution kills fish. So, I was surprised when one of my students hypothesized that the pollution was not causing the fish to die. Luckily, I pushed them to explain their thinking. This particular student had a freshwater fish tank and had observed algae-eating fish, and they hypothesized that the fish in the Adirondack lake would eat the pollution, just like the algae-eating fish. Their hypothesis was based on background knowledge from their small corner of the world. In this case, limited background knowledge really hindered their ability to formulate a reasonable hypothesis.
Providing Emotional Support through Reading
I learned what it meant to be a normal, teenage girl, growing up with the awareness that my life could end with any knock at the door by reading Anne Frank’s diaries. I experienced the thrill of saving my brother from death at the hands of the White Witch by reading “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. I thrilled to the noise of the crowd as the Black Stallion surged across the finish line, and I felt as though the victory was mine. I felt less lonely during the pandemic by reading “The Pillars of the Earth”, an historical fiction book about plague times. Book have helped me become more empathetic, more courageous and more confident. Books have given me solace in times of trouble and eased my pain in moments of sorrow. This year more than ever, we need to tap into the healing power of books so that our students can emerge from these difficult times and find their own healing and their own voice.
And the research backs up my experience. There is a type of therapy called bibliotherapy that uses reading and books to help people heal. One study of 96 students with mild depression found that bibliotherapy was an effective strategy in treating their depression. Other studies have also found that reading is helpful in decreasing anxiety and depression. If you’ve ever experienced the calm of a classroom full of students, all on task, all quietly reading, you can easily understand how that experience helps people find inner peace.
But how do I find the time?
By now, I hope I’ve convinced you that quiet, choice reading time is an essential part of every classroom, everyday. And now, we find ourselves back at that schedule. Where do we find the time?
First, you have to ask yourself a hard question. “What can I take out of the schedule?” Here are a few suggestions that you might consider taking off your plate. Only you know what will work best for your students, but removing one or more of these might give you the time you need for effective reading practice every day.
Worksheets – As I mentioned earlier, you wouldn’t have someone work on their basketball skills by completing worksheets. Why use them for reading improvement when you could simply have the kids read?
Accelerated Reader or other test-based motivation program – When was the last time you read a book because you hoped to take a test on it? According to the What Works Clearinghouse, there are two valid studies about AR. One found a very small gain in comprehension. The other found no gain in comprehension. Neither found an improvement in fluency. So, if you use AR, it should be a very small part of your literacy block. It hasn’t been proven effective enough to take center stage.
Weekly spelling lists – Again, there is ample research that weekly lists do not improve spelling ability. We DO need to teach how language works, but this approach is not effective.
Rote language activities – Activities like copying definitions from the dictionary, coloring posters about idioms or figurative language, grammar packets…. Ask yourself if your students will grow more with time reading or time spent on rote tasks.
Handwriting practice – How useful will this be to your students? I could make the case that students should be exposed to cursive, but I don’t think it merits a lot of instructional time. Where do you fall in this debate?
As you really start analyzing your schedule, you may find moments that you can grab for Independent Reading. If you commit to finding the time, you will find it. Start by finding 15 minutes a day, and stick with it. Don’t let anything interfere with it. Then, make it 20 minutes a day, and really commit. Before you know it, you will have found 30 minutes a day. That’s when you will start to see it really making a difference.
So, this year, once again, I figured out a schedule that includes our math pilot, our SEL pilot (during SS time
0 and at least 30 minutes of reading time each day. I am still agonizing over what to take off the plate and what to include. And in January, I will probably ask myself where the time has gone. If all goes well, by January I can tell myself that about 45 hours of the time went to purposeful, student-centered, choice reading. And then I’ll breathe a sigh of relief that something is going well, and I will dive back in. I wish the same to you, teacher friend!