Reading Teacher Writes

Sharing a love of literacy with fellow readers and writers

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Reflections from the All Write Institute — #2

What is a Strategy?

Jennifer Serravallo is one of my reading teacher heroes! She is a teacher, writer extraordinaire, and professional development speaker specialist, as far as I’m concerned. I have all her books — even 2 copies of Conferring With Readers (I thought I lost the first copy, so I purchased a replacement.) — The Literacy Teacher’s Playbook, and now The Reading Strategies Book. One of the main reasons I chose this particular book to buy, besides that it was written by Serravallo, was that it addresses the needs of every reading teacher where they are. If you’re trying to teach reading without a set curriculum, she’s there for you. If you must follow a district program or use a basal in your classroom, she knows how to help. Serravallo explains, in detail, step-by-step, category-by-category, level-by-level, 300 reading strategies to use with students. And the book is a great desk resource — pull it out and everything is right there, ready to go.

At the All Write Institute, Jennifer started her quick-but-chock-full-of-information session by asking us, “What IS a strategy?” Strategies, skills, goals…the hierarchy helped me to picture in my mind the ways that I can help readers to learn. Then she said what makes sense: “A strategy is a step-by-step HOW you do something.” Concentrate on the verbs — the ACTIONABLE steps needed to meet a reading goal. For example, what do you do as a reader to figure out the main idea? Well, I find key words in the title, visualize the scenes, read the first sentences of paragraphs as clues, look for repeated words, think about how all the scenes fit together…(“Strategies are wordy!”) Serravallo pointed to the fact that strategies have actionable steps that can be taught.

I don’t think that I ever thought that much about what is involved with teaching a goal before. I just did it. Now I understand that the goals I want to teach have visible parts. Also, I will remember to make sure that the strategies I teach (to reach the goals) are authentic and transferable.  These strategies can be used with any text. I will place this book at my reading table to use every day next school year. I will read the quote on the back of the book to myself each time I sit down with my students. I will remember “Strategies make the often invisible work of reading actionable and visible.” Thank you, Jennifer Serravallo, for your time and efforts to help reading teachers become the best teachers they can be.



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Is Reading Slowly a Bad Thing?

I am a slow reader; I am NOT a bad reader. One of the facts of life from this past school year seemed to stem from the students who read more slowly thinking of themselves as bad readers. Personally, I read more slowly than other people I know for two reasons:

1) I want to note every detail in my head; I enjoy the book more when I notice the author’s style or specific plot events broken down into small moments. I like to get to know characters intimately (in fiction) and study a topic deeply to become an expert (in nonfiction).

2) I have some ADD issues, as well as headache issues that lead me to distractions during reading or even physical sickness that affects my speed and focus. When I have a headache, I actually must stop reading for a while.

Choosing an enjoyable book is not my concern; I love books and reading and I have a list a mile long (measure it!) of “to reads” that I know I will treasure and share with others. Comprehension is not a problem; I understand what I read and I can discuss a book with a friend for a good length of time. It’s that pace — but the speed of reading is only one part of the task; pace does not determine the intelligence of the reader.

What actions can slow readers take to keep themselves reading and loving books? Here’s my personal plan: First, I ask myself why I’m reading slowly. Next, I decide what to do about it. Finally, I relax and read. Students can do the same. Knowing what one can do about the distractions met during reading time can help a slow reader still love reading and become a successful life-long reader.

Ask: Why do People Read Slowly?

My reasons above are the two that I have discovered again and again in the classroom as well as in my own life. I am a detail dame — I must know everything!  Wanting to know more about a character or an event aids comprehension, helps the understanding. That is a good thing! Remember, the point of reading is to make meaning. If it takes a little more time to do, then readers should accept their fate. By slowing down to notice more, readers become more intelligent and enjoy the book more than if they just skim along, saying they are reading just to keep up with others in the class, group, or book club.

People with ADD, ADHD, and other attention issues will have problems in reading due to focus or stamina, not necessarily pace. When a person cannot focus, it will throw off the pace, though, and recognizing there is something that a reader can do about it will help the situation. For example, like I mentioned earlier, when I get a migraine, I have to stop reading. My brain in my head will not allow me to make meaning because I am not healthy at that moment.  It doesn’t mean I’m a bad reader; it means I have to take time off and return later to the task.  That’s okay! There are strategies a person can use to maintain focus or help pick up the pace again.

Decide What to Do — Focus and Pace of Reading

Three of my favorite strategies for keeping the reading focus and pace are:

a) Break the reading into smaller chunks. This helps focus and comprehension because the brain can think about a bit of the text at a time. The reader has less stress, which means more time to take it all in.  When I focus on a paragraph, section, chapter, or even a smaller phrase, I will easily gather the information I need to grasp the meaning. People with poor memory, attention deficit problems, or those who want to slow down to gain more realization can “chunk” the text to be successful.

b) Change the reading environment. Some people do not work well in noisy environments. Some cannot work without background noise. There are others who cannot sit straight up in a chair. More and more, students in classrooms need a place where they can read that is just right for them. Many of the first lessons in a reading classroom surround choosing the right book and getting the right mindset for the reading task. This includes finding a spot where the reading — and therefore meaning-making — can take place. I cannot read in the kitchen area; I will look at the dirty dishes in the sink or discover the dog’s water bowl is empty. Students at school may choose the hallway or a corner of the room on the carpet for their reading space. Readers must be able to read, so a comfortable reading space is a must. Once a spot is found…

c) Set a goal for reading. Whether a person finishes a certain number of pages, or reads for a certain amount of time, it is important to read during reading time. I cannot count the number of research studies, articles, or case studies I have come across that address this issue. It’s the attitude, the mindset, the belief of “mind over matter” — I have to read now! Leave me alone.

Relax and Read — Ahh!

Once a goal is set, a place is found, and reading begins, there is no end to the enjoyment found in delving into a story or topic. Lifelong readers know that reading is a gift; falling in love with reading begins when the stress of how to read ends.  For myself, I know what makes me a slow reader and I accept the challenges that await when I sit down. Slow readers are NOT bad readers. Keep calm and read on!


Newkirk, T. 2010. “The Case for Slow Reading.” Educational Leadership 67 (6): 6-11.

Serravallo, J. 2015. The Reading Strategies Book: Your Everything Guide to Developing Skilled Readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.





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SOLSC Day 25: Making Sense of Sentences

Slice of Life Small LogoThank you to the ladies at Two Writing Teachers ( for hosting the March Slice of Life Story Challenge!

Making Sense of Sentences

I read “Let’s Get Higher Scores on These New Assessments” by Timothy Shanahan in this month’s issue of The Reading Teacher (published by ILA). The journal really hit the spot with me in March. My school is so wrapped up with raising test scores that it’s easy to get sucked into the “test prep” mode of teaching. Every year it happens: “What are you going to do to prepare for ISTEP?” Well…I’m going to teach my students to read, to think, and to show what they know. I’ve never been one for “test prep” strategies, such as workbooks of reading passages with attached comprehension questions, written by testing companies to supposedly get kids to higher achievement levels. I know they don’t work; I’ve known for years. Shanahan stated, “The problem with this very popular approach is that it doesn’t work…It’s as effective as pushing the elevator button multiple times to hurry it along or turning the thermostat to 90 degrees to make a room warm up faster.” (460)

What does work, then, when it comes to passing standardized tests? Shanahan recommends teaching students to tackle those reading passages in a manner that will help them to show what they know. Once students know how to play the testing game better– once they have clear strategies that work — they can perform better. These approaches will help students to take action when they don’t understand. Students can have some control and power over these readings, and face their demons head on. One of the strategies is to teach students to “make sense of sentences.” This basic sentence know-how will help students to achieve.

First, students should read the difficult sentence and ask a couple of questions: 1) Who is involved? and  2) What is happening? I remember learning The Shurley Method 20 years ago. The “Question-and-Answer Flow” had students ask (after reading the sentence): “Who or What is (doing the action)?” Then they ask: “What is being said about (the “Who” or “What”)? For example:

The young boy ran quickly.

“Who ran quickly?” (The boy)      “What is being said about boy?” (he ran quickly)

This is a very basic account of The Shurley Method; there’s much more to the question-and-answer flow. My point (and Shanahan’s premise) is that once students know how sentences work, they can figure out what the sentences are telling them, and, therefore, answer questions and comprehend more easily.

Another strategy is to teach students how to take sentences apart in meaningful ways. In the example above, students can use the questioning strategies to help them to find the subjects and verbs. When moving to longer sentences, Shanahan noted that students can “break a sentence up at the punctuation points and at words like and, or, and that.” (461) Commas in sentences have a purpose; knowing how to break the parts down, and then reconnect them, aids comprehension. The article used a long sentence, as would a standardized testing passage. For my purposes here, I’ll use a passage from our current social studies textbook,The Western World:

“Italy remained divided into small states until the mid-1800s. At that time, a rise in nationalism, or strong patriotic feelings for a country, led people across Italy to fight for unification. As a result of their efforts, Italy became a unified kingdom in 1861.” (Holt McDougal, 531)

In this passage, “nationalism” IS “strong patriotic feelings for a country” (vocabulary). Once students know how to break up the vocabulary word from its appositive, they understand that the sentence actually defines the word, and then sentence as a whole becomes easier to handle. The last sentence has a dependent clause: “As a result of their efforts…” A student should say, “What? What is the result?” They can look for the “finish” at the end of the passage.

Shanahan presented more techniques in the article; I’m using his guidance for my mini lessons. Teachers can teach students ways to read text so that they understand and can help themselves towards success. When teachers teach the transferable strategies of reading, students will learn. “Test prep” then becomes “reading prep” or “learning prep” — something that the students can use every day of their lives, and not just on tests. Timothy Shanahan provided instructors with sensible methods to help students become stronger readers. He mentioned a few excellent strategies; I chose “making sense of sentences” for this post, because that’s what I’m currently doing with my students. I hope to see students’ standardized test scores improve, of course. I really hope my students will use their new-found knowledge to become strong, life-long readers and learners. A teacher can only teach, and hope.