Ok, That’s IT! (It’s Reading That Creates Better Readers)

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Ok, That’s It! I can’t take it anymore!

(NOTE: The following is an opinion piece meant to voice my own reflections about teaching reading and spreading the love of reading far and wide. I do not state specific research here — only what I have encountered in my years as an educator in general statements. Please be advised: I am only writing here. Please discuss with positive intent to improve reading education for students’ lifelong success.)

Every day I read research, posts on social media, journal articles, you name it. Each person or company attempts to sell their wares with the claim that they (and only they) can help students to achieve in the area of reading in school. AR (Accelerated Reader) gets the brunt of the criticism (maybe AR is the most widely used/well-known program for reading? I don’t know.), but there are other highly touted programs out there that claim high growth/better student achievement. Low test scores, lack of student growth, decreasing student achievement, poor school grades, are all indicators that something must be done about teaching reading in school. Students are failing. Schools are failing. Teachers are blamed, parents are blamed, schools are blamed. Politicians make grand speeches about how they can “fix” our schools. The hole that is student failure in reading is getting deeper. IF you ask “them.”

So what can we (namely, teachers) DO about this fiasco? I have a few ideas.

  1. Make reading in school FUN again. The fondest memories I have of school reading are of teachers who read aloud fantastic stories (using the voices of characters!) and showed us wonderful covers of beautiful books in well-stocked libraries, where we could choose what we wanted to read to take home. We got to use free time to peruse almanacs, maps, atlases, and we talked about the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not tales that grossed us out the most. Every year, my family saved money for the Scholastic Book Fair, because we would get new books to read and share. I was a good reader because I read. We read a lot.
  2. Make real reading a priority. Real reading. That means no snippets of articles or excerpts of stories that have been torn apart and meticulously “leveled” back together to “help” children read. Real reading. That means real books — not basal readers. Real reading. That means real authors weaving their own creations and illustrators designing the pages to make readers say,”Ah! Wow! Awesome!” Real reading, where students are led to practice (at least 20 minutes a day, uninterrupted, in school) with the help of a qualified reading teacher and supports that are there and can be taken away so students can transfer their learning from one text to another. (Yes, this means direct instruction, led by a teacher, and not a computer monitor.)
  3. Invite teachers to attend professional development: conferences, workshops, classes, etc. that will enhance their skills in teaching reading. Build PLNs (Professional Learning Networks) where teachers can learn with other educators and support each other in the work. (Yes! It’s work. That’s okay.) Have teachers practice “best practices” in reading, and watch how they — and their students — grow.
  4. Promote reading/literacy in each community in the nation. (Not just the affluent communities) Education is important, and reading is important for one to become an educated, intelligent citizen of our world. Be a reader yourself, spend time talking about reading, and spread the book love! (This is my favorite part of being a reader in the global community.)

I attended the IRA (International Reading Association, now International Literacy Association) Annual Conference in Minneapolis in 2009. I remember rushing to a session on reading research that would explain how to improve student achievement in reading (my area of teaching). I was so excited; I sat on the edge of my seat with my notebook in hand. I heard about research that spanned 5 years, with over a thousand subjects. At the end of the presentation, the main presenter looked at the crowd and asked, “You know what we found?” (“What? Tell me!” I thought. I readied my pen to the paper.) He gave a long pause and studied the faces looking back at him, and he smiled.

He said, “The more you read, the better reader you become.” 

I gasped (I could hear it.), I thought to myself, “What? Duh! I knew that!” Reading creates better readers.


Thinking About “The 5 Truths of Reading” by Pernille Ripp

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I’m stealing today — stealing great words, great thinking, great learning. Pernille Ripp first wrote “The 5 Truths of Reading” on her blog in 2015, and as she says, the post is “old, but still relevant.” I agree. I’m thinking about how I can be more of an advocate for authentic reading and teaching practices as I start my new position as school librarian this fall. Here are my thoughts about the 5 truths: (See Pernille’s original post here.)

  1. Give students choice in what they read. Assigned reading is not the way to get kids to read. Usually the word “assignment” is followed by a collective “Ugh./Aww, Man!/That’s stupid!” from students in the classroom. I’ve heard it; I know. The love of reading for reading’s sake is gone immediately, and that’s not what we want. Our intentions are good — we want students to read good books, to be exposed to meaningful literature, to become more intelligent human beings. But when we assign reading that we choose, we are pushing our lives, our values, our choices into the faces of our children. Instead of assigned readings, give students choice. Talk about books that they might love, build a classroom library where students can find themselves, and create a classroom based on sharing those wonderful titles and the lessons they bring.
  2. Don’t judge the books – or the students. Pernille stated, “Our glances, our purchases, our book conversations all shape the identities that our readers are creating.” I’m guilty here, for sure. Not so much in glances or conversations, as I love to hear what my students are reading (and why they chose a particular book). My purchases have been my decision, though, and mostly reflected what I would like to have in my classroom library. No more! I have followed #WNDB (We Need Diverse Books) for over a year now, and I have consciously built a better library. Instead of deciding what you want, ask your students what should be in the library, and heed the call from recommendations given to you. Once I had a student tell me, “Mrs. S! I know this isn’t your genre, but you HAVE to read this!” One of the best things I ever did. I loved Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs! Listen to your kids. They know. Give them a chance. (Image courtesy of books.google.com)
  3. Be a reader. This is a big one! I cannot imagine being a reading teacher or a librarian without being a reader first. Shouldn’t reading be a pre-requisite for becoming a reading teacher? I think so, and recently I’ve said that out loud more often. Each time I finish a book, I’m more intelligent than I was before, and that is what I want for my students, as well.
  4. Read because it’s reading time. My motto in my reading class was “Read During Reading Time.” I still find it disheartening to hear that people who observe teachers find that there’s “just reading” going on in the classroom. Excuse me, it’s READING class! We have to get rid of rewards, points, and prizes for reading. We have to find that JOY of reading is its own reward, and we have to do that at school.
  5. Label books, not readers. This is so important. Pernille mentioned that Fountas & Pinnell (speaking at the ILA annual conference) stressed that levels are for books. Pernille also said that labeling books meant placing a sticker or stamp on them to show what bin they belong in. Kylene Beers and Bob Probst have done extensive reading research, and I remembered that Kylene said, “This is a child, not an H.” I remembered that when a student asked me once after a formative assessment, “Am I a red?” (as in, “Did I fail the test?”) I have the shivers now, just thinking about it again.

These 5 truths have been on my mind. Hopefully sharing my stolen thinking (thank you, Pernille!) will deeper our conversations about reading and teaching reading in the classroom.


Who Needs Words? A Series of Posts About Teaching Reading and Learning to Read

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Part 2: The Wordless Picture Book Titles (Short List)

I promised in Part 1 of “Who Needs Words?” that I would reveal the title list for my “Notice and Note” study of wordless picture books. Well, life is tricky, and gathering wordless picture books for use in middle school is difficult (another story, another time). Thankfully, many primary centers came to the rescue and I received a box of books today! Librarians of South Bend Schools, I thank you kindly for sharing.

I plan to share many new titles with my students next week as we continue to use Notice and Note strategies taught to us by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst. As I said earlier, I found that the three essential questions from Reading Nonfiction: Notice and Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies work well to study these non-word texts.  To recap, the three essential questions we will use are: 1) “What surprised me?” 2) “What does the author think I know already?” 3) “What challenged, changed, or confirmed my thinking?”

The first order of business: read wordless picture books, talk to our partners, and share our thoughts. I cannot wait for the thinking fun! (I also cannot wait to hear the comments when I introduce the titles to my pre-teen students. I can just hear it now: “Man, some of these books are old!” I will giggle to myself and watch what unfolds.)


The following is a short list; the students will work in pairs. As we receive more books, I will add them to the series’ posts. Let’s get started:

Fossil and Chalk by Bill Thomson, Museum Trip by Barbara Lehman, Zoom and Re-Zoom by Istvan Banyai, Journey by Aaron Becker, Sector 7, Flotsam, and Tuesday by David Wiesner, Frog On His Own by Mercer Mayer, Flood by Alvaro F. Villa, Unspoken by Henry Cole, Time Flies by Eric Rohmann, and Deep in the Forest by Brinton Turkle.

Stay tuned for Part 3: Art as Comprehension. I stole my friend, Trevor Bryan’s work for that. Thank you in advance, Trevor!

Slice of Life Tuesday: If You Judge Me By My Reading Level…


Slice of Life Small LogoIf you judge me by my reading level, you will find that you don’t know me very well.

If my performance task is “build a premium bunk loft with attached desk” and you give me the pictorial instructions from the box of wood pieces, I will fail.

If my performance task is “decide which book to read next in your TBR pile of 50 books,” I could do it, but I would complete a few prerequisite tasks: organizing, skimming and scanning, and mock voting.

If my performance task is “bake 150 chocolate chip cookies for the school fundraiser” and you don’t offer me the ingredients, and the written steps in the order they should be included in the recipe, I will fail, and you will not receive, or sell, my cookies.

If my performance task is to “read at least 3 texts written by a chosen author, then present a compare/contrast presentation of the works according to found patterns, characterization, and plot moves,” with no other instructions, I will still receive the highest marks on your reading presentation rubric.

I need to teach my students so they learn. They all have strengths and weaknesses, just like me.  Some are wonderful artists. Some can figure math problems in their heads. Some can read well. Some can build intricate creations. If I judge a student by their assessed reading level, I put them in a box. That is the greatest disservice I could provide. We MUST think outside the box. Please do not judge a student by their quarterly (or semester!) reading level.


Slice of Life Tuesdays: Back to Work/Back to School


Slice of Life Small LogoBack to Work/Back to School

Yes, I’m back to work — back to school! Monday was the first “teacher day” and today I welcomed my 20th group of homeroom students into Room 138. Where does the time go? One of the first questions I ask students on the first day of school is, “Who likes to read?” Today, I saw a bunch of hands shoot straight up, excitedly reporting the data. Yes! We like to read! I’m so happy to start the year with people with whom I can share my passion. Passion is Powerful! (That’s Lucy Calkins’ phrase that I carry with me everywhere.)


After introducing myself I gave a quick tour of the fairly empty room. My OLW, LEAN, works at school, too. I cleaned the clutter and the room is squeaky clean and quite bare at this time. Over the course of the next few days, my students and I will unpack boxes and discover the joys of new and old titles, of new and worn books. The magazine subscriptions will start coming in the mailbox. The charts and student work will hang on the bulletin boards. This is the most exciting time of the year — the discovery days that will move us forward.

In our meeting area on the rug, I read aloud BIG PLANS by Bob Shea and Lane Smith. Those two authors crack me up! The students listened intently as I shared my big plans with them. Reading! Writing! Learning! “I have BIG PLANS, Big Plans, I say!”

After reading, we wrote “about the tiger.” My school’s mascot is the Tigers, so I chose the large stuffed animal in the room to help me — allowing students to show me their writing style. I said, “Write about the tiger.” I will learn about their writing style, conventions knowledge, and stamina for writing time. I am happy with the work that students did today. We had a great day.

I apparently did not reveal enough details about my BIG PLANS, however. When I asked if there were any questions I could answer, a young inquiring mind from each class section asked me, “When do we go to the library?”

I love this group!


Reflections from the All Write Institute — #2

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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.



Is Reading Slowly a Bad Thing?

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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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