In this installment of Questions & Authors, Pat Johnson, co-author of Catching Readers Before They Fall: Supporting Readers Who Struggle, K-4, talks about small groups for guided reading and how they can help students in grades 3-6 who are reading below their grade level. She offers some essentials that teachers need to remember when conducting these groups. Check back soon for more tips from Pat’s co-author, Katie Keier, on how to create in-school time for students to read, enjoy, and share books.
A common problem for students in grades 3-6 who are struggling putting a reading process system together is that they are often in books that are too hard for them. In order to avoid giving them “baby books,” they end up in novel unit groups and teachers try to pull them along with the other students. When the text is too difficult, the struggling reader expends all his energies figuring out the words and thus comprehension suffers. These readers often practice “fake reading” as they only pretend to look like they are engaged in these chapter books. We would suggest letting them participate in these chapter book literature circle discussions after they have listened to the book on a CD or allowing another student, parent, or volunteer to read the text to them. Then, in combination with that, these students participate in guided reading lessons with text that is more appropriate to their reading levels. Students in grades 3-6 who are still considered below grade level need some very focused teaching. Guided reading small group gatherings are the perfect place for this.
Here are a few essential elements that help make the teaching in small groups effective for these students:
Use short text
Keep meaning-making at the forefront
Plan in ways that help you tailor the lesson to the specific needs of the group
Allow talk time as you encourage students to negotiate the meaning of the text beyond the literal level and actually teach talking behaviors to maximize comprehension
Why short texts? We find that using short text in guided reading helps both the teacher and students focus better. Many high interest short texts can be found in children’s magazines or from the internet, in poetry, or in short stories or vignettes. It’s easier for struggling readers when the text is short. They don’t feel so overwhelmed and approach the task with a more “I can do this” attitude. Remember, guided reading is a time for the students to practice putting their system of strategies together. Problem solving is part of reading, and if they are appropriately matched to the text, they will be able to balance word solving along with comprehension. Also, the teacher can focus on the students’ comprehension better when the text is not a complete novel. The whole guided reading lesson from start to finish can be completed in 2-3 sessions without the students losing interest.
Making meaning. Always keep meaning-making at the forefront of the guided reading lesson. Even if you have the students practicing a particular strategic action — such as, maintaining fluency, asking questions and searching for answers as you read the text, or using context clues to help figure out the meanings of unknown words — it’s still crucial to have students realize that reading is about meaning-making. Fountas and Pinnell say, “Keep the language grounded in good texts so that students understand that their goal is to understand and notice more rather than to ‘do’ a strategy.” (p. 353). Let students respond to the text in a very conversational way. With short text it’s easier for students to go back to selected lines or paragraphs that confused them and get help from others in the group. They learn how to build meaning together.
Plan ahead. Just like any other teaching that we do, planning ahead for our guided reading lessons is especially important for struggling readers. I use a sheet that lists four areas that help me think through the lesson. Focus: Why have I called these students together? What have my assessments and anecdotal notes told me that these students need practice with? Text Introduction: I jot down a 2-3 sentence summary of what this text will be about and then add a hook or question that will invite the children to talk about the topic. Connection and Purpose: I connect the lesson to previous lessons and then give the students a purpose for reading. For example, “Read to find out as much as you can about this narrator, the “I” of this text.” Or “You just shared how dangerous tornadoes can be. Read to find out some ways to keep safe during a tornado.” Notes: I sometimes jot down a few ideas that are important for this text in order to get it’s full meaning. I want to be ready to guide the students back to the text if their talk gets too far off topic. Each teacher usually develops her own planning sheet based on what works for her and her students.
Time for talk. What sometimes happens in classroom whole-group discussions is that a few talkers do all the discussing. Struggling readers often become passive because they know there are others who will fill the silence. So, meeting in small groups with only these struggling readers offers them more opportunity to get their ideas out. They may be reluctant to talk and offer opinions until they see the environment as a safe place to share. It’s important that the teacher take time to actually “teach talking behaviors” as Maria Nichols says in Talking About Texts. Because of her work, I am more careful to support students as they learn to:
Respond to each other
Provide evidence for opinions
Confirm for themselves rather than waiting for teacher approval
Grasp that their idea can be put on hold to delve further into another student’s idea
Realize that thoughts can be questioned.
In this supportive setting, the readers see that ideas and feelings you have about a text can change and grow over time.
No matter how you structure your reading workshop time, we hope that you are striving to meet the needs of the struggling readers in your classroom. Small group instruction, tailored to the students’ needs, is very effective in supporting these students to grow into proficient readers. Taking the time to find short, interesting texts for guided reading will add to your powerful teaching.
In her book Family Literacy Experiences, Jennifer Rowsell explores the power of the home-school connection and offers teachers multiple ways to use what already excites and motivates their students to enhance classroom learning. In this week’s tip, Jennifer gives a quick overivew of the home-school connection.
The term “family” is used broadly to define intergenerational learning that encompasses siblings, caregivers, guardians, mothers, fathers, grandparents, and extended family. There is a danger in viewing the home as an isolated domain or container that we enter and exit. Instead, I prefer to see the relationship between home and school—or, more broadly, out-of-school and in-school—as fluid. These contexts move in and out of each other and bear traces of the other all the time. In a discussion of literacy out-of-school, we want to avoid the temptation to oversimplify the differences; rather, we need to emphasize the similarities.
Invitations to Bridge Home and School Inviting Home into School
In the years before schooling, children are, for the most part, left to their own devices, their own cultures, their family rituals and practices, and their own spaces in which to learn. This is a magical time in a child’s development, when a formative picture of how to make meaning in the world occurs. Early forms of literacy represent a medley of play, modeling, and using the materials and means at hand to make meaning.
Homes are intimate spaces. What separates home from school is the tremendous variability of homes, each complex of such factors as socio-economic background, race, religion, traditions, tastes, interests, family composition, etc. Objects, books, furniture, and spatial arrangements are meaningful to the people who occupy a home space. As teachers, we may pause to think about what our students do when they are at home, but we seldom think about a student’s home and meanings within the home that take on relevance and are rendered meaningful by a child.
Inviting School into Home
Family literacy emphasizes using the pleasure and comfort children experience with texts they use at home and out in the community to motivate them and offer opportunities to develop as readers and writers. Popular culture can be used to motivate children, and is particularly helpful to boys who show less interest in “schooled literacy practices” (Street, 1995) or literacy traditionally associated with school, such as choral reading from a basal reader, that is unlikely to take place at home. Family literacy, however, involves much more than popular culture. Family literacy involves the tacit things that we do within our home space that cast an impression of what it means to be a reader or writer.
These rites and practices strongly inform our children’s understanding of language, meaning-making, and, importantly, feeling at ease in a setting so that learning can take place. As teachers, we should know the kinds of texts and practices our students have and perform at home, honor them, and plan
Family Literacy Experiences has an agenda: to open up what we mean by literacy. Reading and writing have shifted dramatically over the past decades. The screen has transformed literacy as we know it. Although we cannot assume all children have access to computers at home or at school, they increasingly think in terms of the screen. The shift from language to highly designed visual texts and interface may seem at odds with what we think of as texts, but it is the reality of our children’s worlds. I deliberately use the term “meaning-maker” instead of “reader” to signal a shift from solely written, printed texts to texts of all shapes, sizes, and dimensions.
Inviting New Texts and New Skills
Different text genres fill our students’ worlds. There are texts that play a part in family rituals. There are texts that serve as a historical centrepiece, as mementos to remind us of our past. There are more universal texts, such as dictionaries and religious texts, that occupy a sacred place in a home. There is a sea of picturebooks of all kinds. There are interactive texts, such as video games on a computer. There are comics and graphic stories that can be read on cushions or in a comfy chair. There are movies on television or on DVD; there are cartoons.
In short, there are endless texts at home, on the street, on the Internet, in places of worship, at the mall, and at school—we are surrounded by texts. We may not be comfortable with the amount of time our children spend engaging in new media and technology; nevertheless, we need to understand new skills that emerge from use of them so that we can build on the affordances of their worlds.
With new curricula taking account of literacy skills our students have developed from computer use and exposure to multiple genres of texts, we have some way to go in bridging the gap between the sophisticated set of skills our students have and what actually takes place in school.
Here is a great poem if you want to practice some visualizing on your own on this Poetry Friday. It’s from Nancy Springer’s book, Music of Their Hooves (1994), and it appears in Linda Dorn and Carla Soffos’ recent title Teaching for Deep Comprehension. Enjoy!
Thank you, Stormy
My horse I’m writing you
To thank you for taking me
Up the wildflower trail
Where the air smelled like angels
And getting me around the fallen tree
And being calm when the grapevine
Grabbed you under the belly
And backing up when I asked you to
Even though you don’t like to do it
Thank you for bringing me home
When I got kind of lost
Up there on the mountain
And thank you for standing still
As a tree trunk when we met up with
I promise I will bring you
Wild pears like the deer eat
And shampoo your mane and tail
And never let your water go dry
I’m not a perfect human
You are not a perfect horse
Buyt today we were a team
Thank you Stormy
I love you
After I had been speaking and writing about literacy work stations for years, teachers began raising the question, ‘Could we do this in math, too?’ Absolutely!
Debbie Diller’s much-anticipated new book, Math Work Stations, is at the printer and due in our warehouse February 7. We’ve just posted the entire text online—more than 300 full-color pages filled with practical ideas for teaching math in grades K-2, with photos from real classrooms throughout to make implementation easy.
Start with advice on organizing all kinds of manipulatives and creating classroom spaces for math. See how to introduce work stations through mini-lessons. Then explore dozens of specific work stations on beginning number concepts, addition & subtraction, place value, geometry, and measurement. Each chapter guides teachers on:
what to model in whole-group;
how to troubleshoot common problems;
adapting ideas to kindergarten;
making connections to problem solving, literature, and technology.
The appendix includes more than 50 reproducible forms and charts.
Preview the entire book online now!
Is there place for wonder in your classroom? For this week’s Quick Tip, here is a excerpt from Georgia Heard’s recent book, A Place for Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades. First Georgia talks about the importance of having a “place for wonder” in your classroom and then shows how she and coauthor Jennifer McDonough introduced Wonder Centers in Jen’s classroom.
We invite you to stand back and observe your classrooms. Where are the places of wonder and discovery? An observation window? A shelf displaying shells, rocks, and other natural objects? Are there living creatures (including plants) that children care for and observe? What places in the classroom would the children mark a wonder X on? And if we extend our wonder maps beyond the classroom, are there any natural resources near your classroom that the children could visit and explore?
Our children’s lives run the risk of becoming two dimensional in the present day’s technology-driven society. The worlds of Internet and video games are becoming just as substantial to children as their reality. One student in San Diego commented that he liked to play indoors because that’s where all the electrical outlets are (from Richard Louv’s The Last Child in the Woods).
Classrooms can provide alternative environments to lure young children into continuing their passion for learning. Creating a “wonder” classroom environment is the foundation from which deeper and more sustained explorations can take place.
After I gave a workshop on creating a wonder environment, Ms. Buck, a wonderful primary teacher in Canada, wrote to me about setting up a wonder environment in her kindergarten classroom. She sent this letter to the parents explaining and preparing them for the important work the class was embarking on: Our class is planning to launch an exploration of a new theme—The Wonder World. I am hoping this theme will help my students respond to the natural world with wonderment and awe. We will further extend concepts . . . by gathering data through our senses; we will do sound surveys during outdoor walks; we will look at objects great and small. There will be opportunities for students to wonder, to ask questions, and to pose problems and then we will explore ways to get answers. We will be using our study of the Wonder World as a springboard for math, language, science, art, and music activities.In this chapter, we map out a menu of ideas to create a “wonder world” that will help encourage children’s curiosity and exploration. These ideas can be set up as centers, if you already have the routine of centers established in your classroom, as Jen did; if you don’t have center time established, you can introduce these ideas during a nonfiction writing study unit. The questions generated from the centers, as well as the group research on a particular question, model the exploration students will do later on as they write nonfi ction. Other teachers have explored wonder centers once a week, and throughout the year, as a way of encouraging curiosity and wonder all year long. We encourage setting up wonder centers early in the school year so that when any natural wonder occurs—the wind sweeps the leaves off the trees, the snow begins to fall, or a bird lands on the windowsill—the children will be ready to write it down!
Wonder Centers and Projects
1. The Wonder Center
2. Wonder of the Week
3. Pondering Time and Whole-Class Shared Research
4. Pet Observation and Wonder Journals
5. The Discovery Table
6. The Observation Window
7. One Small Square
8. A Listening Walk
9. The Wonder Club
The Wonder Center When my son was younger, he asked many questions whenever we drove in the car together. It was often diffi cult to drive and concentrate on answering the questions at the same time: “Why is the sky blue?” “Where does rain come from?” “What’s in outer space?” As I stopped at intersections or changed lanes on the highway, I tried to explain some of the ways the world worked. I made a promise to myself that I would always do my best to answer each of his questions as thoughtfully as I could. I didn’t want to dampen his enthusiasm for exploring the world. Sometimes he would stump me, and I’d have to say, “You know, I don’t know the answer; let’s look it up when we get home.” Some of his questions were deeply spiritual, which surprised me, and made me really think about what I believed.
All young children have an enthusiasm and curiosity about the world that we can nurture at home and in school. We wanted to make a place in the classroom where children could write down their questions during center time or writing workshop time and throughout the day. Questions that are valued by teachers and are then included in the curriculum.
When the kindergartners arrived one morning, Jen had written “The Wonder Center” in big letters on a bulletin board in the back of the room. She placed several yellow sticky note pads and a handful of black pens in a basket on a nearby shelf. She gathered the children together for morning circle and said, “I’ve been noticing that you’ve been asking me so many questions. I’m amazed at all that you wonder about! Your questions keep growing and growing, and so I’ve decided to set up a center in the classroom where you can write down your questions. I think we’ll call it “the wonder center.”
The kids turned to one another and smiled. Two boys gave each other high fives. Jen continued, “The wonder center will be one of our centers during center time. But you can also use the wonder center anytime during the day. When you think of a question, and you want to write it down to remember it for later, you can write it on one of these sticky notes, and then stick it to the wonder center board. Not only that, every Friday we’re going to have some time to talk about your questions.”
The kids looked at each other wide eyed, with excitement on their faces. Jen said, “When we have center time today, you can also choose the wonder center as a place to go and jot down the questions you have.” That afternoon during center time three boys, Collin, Kyle, and Ryan, stood at the wonder center and wrote their questions on sticky notes. Collin wrote, “I wonder how slugs are made?” Then Kyle wrote, “How do snakes get their venom?” Ryan connected to Kyle’s question and wrote, “How come there are such things as cookie cutter snakes?” “Oh, I have one,” Collin said. “How do snakes shed their skin?” Ryan said, “I’m on my third or fourth.” “This is awesome!” Kyle said.
After they finished writing, they stuck their questions on the white board. When their ten minutes of center time was up, they moved to the next center, and a new group of students reached for pens and sticky notes on which to write their questions.
One week later, the wonder center board was filled with yellow sticky notes. As we read through their questions, we were amazed at their variety and scope. We decided to revise the center and replace the sticky notes with large chart paper to provide more room for questions. Jen also labeled a gift bag—“the wonder bag”—and placed all the children’s sticky note questions into the bag for future discussion.
We encouraged the three boys who were writing about snakes to explore and research their questions. They began their fi rst nonfi ction writing piece using questions generated from the wonder center. Be on the lookout for authentic nonfiction topics that will emerge from the wonder center.
This Friday’s poem by Claude McKay comes from Alfred Tatum’s book Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males: Closing the Achievement Gap. Tatum explains that he selected this text for his black male students to prompt them to make connections between who they were, who they are, and who they could become. “Focusing on black male empowerment during literacy insruction is an effective way to engage black males with text,” Tatum says.
America Claude McKay
Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!
Her vigor flows like the tides into my blood,
Give me strength erect agains her hate.
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word or jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like pricess treasures sinking in the sand.
If you struggle with setting up your gradebook or feel like there should be an easier – and better – way of grading, then Rick Wormeli has some sound advice for you! Check out this, and other great videos with Rick on our website dedicated to his book Fair Isn’t Always Equal.
Maybe you are already comfortable with using comics and graphic novels in your classroom. Maybe you are just thinking about introducing graphica to your students. Whatever the case, you may run into problems and questions from parents, colleagues, and administration. In this week’s Quick Tip, we take a snippet from Terry Thompson’s book Adventures in Graphica: Using Comics and Graphic Novels to Teach Comprehension, 2-6. In the last chapter of the book he addresses many common concerns, but we will focus just on four.
My kids are “sneaking” comics while I’m trying to teach other subjects. Don’t we wish we had more problems like this? If you don’t discuss this with your students ahead of time, you’ll likely encounter this problem. I suggest you handle this the way you might handle any other situation you find unacceptable: put a stop to it! Celebrate your students’ motivation to read, but explain the rules. Consider allowing recess time, reward time, or extra time to read comics if students desire more time to read. To carve out additional blocks of time, you might also consider holding an after-school or before-school “Comics Camp,” which would allow additional time for motivated students to explore the medium.
My kids are asking to share their comics during independent reading blocks.
First of all, when students spend time reading with a peer in a paired-reading format, positive effects on motivation, engagement, and fluency abound. Certainly, I prefer that my students read independently during our independent reading block, but I think we can all benefit from a bit of flexibility, especially when our students request specific changes in our way of doing things that would motivate them to be more engaged in their reading.
In my own experience, I’ve noticed that, when students use comics for paired reading, the results can be quite different from what you might see when two students are involved in a more traditional paired-reading format. Traditionally, when students try to share a single text during independent reading, I’ve noticed that—even though I set forth my expectations that both partners focus on the text during this activity—more often than not, one partner reads while the other partner fiddles with shoelaces, stares at the ceiling, or in some way or another zones out. However, because the pictures in comics are so important to the meaning of the story, and because they are so engaging, I’ve noticed that, while one partner reads the text, the other partner is generally quite engaged in taking in the picture support.
I think paired reading with graphica works better than paired reading with traditional texts—it is simply more manageable. The listening partner can focus on the illustrations without crowding the reading partner, because the graphics can be seen effectively from a further distance. This isn’t always the case with traditional texts, especially when the pair is trying to read a chapter book with smaller font.
Others (parents, administration, teachers, etc.) think I’m wasting valuable time using
Although it is generally less of a problem than most teachers anticipate, this issue may still come up. Obviously, these naysayers are a bit skeptical about the value and acceptability of this form of literature. Perhaps they still hold preconceived notions about the medium. If this becomes an issue for you, one thing you will not want to do is ignore it. I encourage you to address this matter immediately and up front, and I suggest you do so with information. Ignorance cannot exist where information abounds. Share this book with them. Show them how the medium supports best practices. Show them the research. Invite them into your classroom, and show them what your kids are doing. Be an agent of change.
Periodical comic books are often thin, and I worry that they will be destroyed within days.
Although Superman may be stronger than steel, his comic books, quite simply, are not. Allow for some wear and tear—especially if comics are proving to be popular within your group. I admit that durability could be a real problem among some groups of students. Each group is different, and I’ve worked with some that seem to have no respect for our class materials, while the students across the hallway treat materials with a reverence normally reserved for the Gutenberg Bible. With particular classes, we may need to teach respect of materials. In fact, it may be a good idea to initially take the time to teach all of your groups how you expect them to handle the copies of graphica in your classroom and building.
Beyond that, there are many ways to handle this issue. You might consider using the same system you’d use with in-class magazines, which have a similar level of durability. You might allow only a certain number to circulate within your room and monitor them until you are ready to add more to the mix, once you are satisfied that your students know how to handle them appropriately.
You might also want to take a reality check. Use what I call the “eagle approach”: Who’s really doing this? Who’s at fault? Are all of your students mishandling the materials, or is it just a select few? If you take a few minutes to scan the room and note student behaviors, you’ll likely find that only a few students need to spend time with you to review your expectations. If this continues to be an issue, respectfully and fairly restrict students who aren’t showing the appropriate reverence for the resource. Then, over time, reiterate your expectations and give appropriate second chances as needed.
To store comics, you might consider using Ziploc bags or clear presentation folders, which are available (inexpensively) at most office supply stores. Housing comics in inexpensive manila folders is also an option, but that makes them harder to browse. Additionally, many comic book stores sell sleeves with cardboard reinforcers in which to house comics for protection. These aren’t that expensive—I paid about $16.00 for one hundred of them at my local comic book store—but the fit is exact. This tight fit tends to make the sleeves trickier for younger students to use effectively; if left to their own devices, some students may rip the edition to shreds while attempting to shove it into the sleeve. However, most elementary and intermediate students can be taught the correct way to use these protective sleeves if you are willing to take the time to show them.
An easy instruction that makes sense to most students is “Roll the comic up like a burrito, put it in the sleeve, and then let the burrito pop open and lay flat.” Don’t laugh. It works. You might also consider procedures that would make graphica use easier to monitor, such as a separate checkout system or only allowing students to read them at the “comics table”.
You have to decide on the appropriate level of intervention for an issue such as this; whatever you choose, you’ll soon realize that most kids are willing to take extra care if they’re afraid the medium will be removed from the classroom. If you still have concerns about flimsiness, don’t buy graphica with that level of resilience. There was a time when thinner, more fragile comics were pretty much the only type available to younger students. These days, however, there are so many sturdier options available that you could easily build a classroom comics collection without ever purchasing the thinner editions. As mentioned before, many trusted educational publishers currently print graphica for the elementary-age student and recognize that their products need to be more durable.