Archive for July, 2013

Blogstitute Week 7: Book choice and vocabulary instruction

This week on the Blogstitute, author Lee Ann Tysseling talks about how picking the right books for the right readers, as well using the appropriate digital tools, can enhance vocabulary instruction. Lee Ann is the author of Word Travelers: Using Digital Tools to Explore Vocabulary and Develop Independent Learners.

I’m celebrating the successes that we’ve had this spring in comprehension, vocabulary, and improving student motivation to read. I’ve just sent our spring crop of Literacy Lab participants out the door. (Literacy Lab is the tutoring service provided by teachers enrolled in reading diagnosis and intervention courses at my university.) This spring the majority of students we saw had significant comprehension difficulties despite good oral reading accuracy. Most also claimed that they did not like to read. I expect this pattern is a side-effect of our state’s assessment system, which emphasizes words correct per minute in the primary grades. We achieved solid success with most of these students by finding the right book, working on vocabulary that the students chose, and introducing some attractive technology.

As we face the Common Core State Standards, I am paying more attention to book selection. Many teachers are reporting that they are being directed away from children’s or young adult literature because it isn’t “complex” enough. My personal experience is that we need to begin with the students’ interests and build from there. The students who come to Literacy Lab reinforce this stance. One sixth grader, Stephen (a pseudonym), finished reading an entire novel for the first time in his school career. His teacher helped him become engaged with Gary Paulsen’s book Hatchet by appealing to Stephen’s personal interest in becoming a pilot. One high school junior, Peter, was wildly enthusiastic about an essay from The Best American Nonrequired Reading collection about the effects of a police reality show and political forces that led to the death of a child. Peter had set a goal to begin working on his college-level reading skills and selected the essay himself from the table of contents. Our resistant ninth grader, Maxine, reread Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games—her English teacher was teaching the book to the entire class. Maxine was delighted to read the chapters again, in part because in the classroom she had trouble paying attention to the reading. Her class was reading most of the book aloud due to a shortage of books. Maxine, still in contact with her Literacy Lab teacher, has now finished the second Hunger Games book, Catching Fire. In each of these cases our Literacy Lab students discovered they could be readers and enjoy reading for their own personal interests and enjoyment. I believe a big part of this happened by focusing on self-directed comprehension strategies, working on vocabulary, and finding books that appealed to their interests.

Instruction for these students included vocabulary study using digital vocabulary resources. Thinking about Maxine’s reaction to Visual Thesaurus still makes me smile. She loved the format and dove into researching what this dictionary had to say about words related to her passion, Justin Bieber. She was disappointed that they didn’t really define his name, but she learned quite a bit about many other words related to this musician. We did have to encourage her a bit to use the app as a tool while reading The Hunger Games. Maxine was quite firm in letting us know she had already studied the vocabulary during her English class at school. As we begin using the Reciprocal Teaching or prediction log strategies with her, she began to uncover the bits of the book that she had not understood as her class read it and completed assignments. I recognized many of these comprehension problems as being related to vocabulary knowledge. As she and her Literacy Lab teacher worked together, Maxine learned to own the parts that challenged her. When we first began working with her, Maxine systematically covered up anything that she didn’t understand. I think that, many times, she did not even really recognize these lapses. In her mind, as long as she could say a word, she had done her work as a reader. Combined with the reading strategies, this attention to vocabulary resulted in very satisfying gains in comprehension of other materials.

Another of our Literacy Lab students, Arnold, loved both Visual Thesaurus and Wordnik. He used both regularly as he read Jaguar by Roland Smith. Arnold’s primary need was spelling. By encouraging Arnold to find interesting words in Jaguar and look them up on the Visual Thesaurus or Wordnik sites, his teacher was able to create a positive response to word study. Arnold was reluctant about working on spelling; he much preferred reading fantasy books. By finding a realistic fiction book that engaged him, combined with the technology draw of Visual Thesaurus and Wordnik, the teacher was able to pull him into word study—including spelling development.

We saw similar improvements in engagement and comprehension with two seventh-grade girls whom I would classify as “hostile readers.” Both were failing most of their classes and did not participate in their reading class (often spending much of the class time looking around the room or at their fingernails). I often had to grind my teeth as the Literacy Lab teacher used Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard with one of the girls, Serena. (I take issue with the commercialism and emphasis on name-brand designer clothing and accessories in this series.) But it worked!  Serena came to her tutoring sessions each week eager to open the book and start reading. Serena was a devoted follower of the television series and was amazed by how different the books were from the shows she had been watching. The other seventh grader enjoyed Dead Girls Don’t Write Letters by Gail Giles—a book that I enjoyed rereading as I responded to lesson plans. Both girls found that uncovering their own words for vocabulary study and the use of their Literacy Lab teacher’s cell phone dictionary helped them understand their reading and develop an interest in words (the Internet access at this site did not permit the use of mobile devices or computers). The vocabulary study combined with the use of student-directed comprehension strategies, such as prediction logs and comparison charts, paid great dividends in both comprehension and interest in reading.

Vocabulary study in our Literacy Lab always includes words that our students select from their reading. In some cases the words they choose are unfamiliar to them. Other students like to collect interesting words. This spring, in addition to using Visual Thesaurus and Wordnik, our students have also enjoyed Free Rice,, and the Moleskine app for iPads. The iPads we were using came with this app preloaded. If I were setting up my own iPad I would use Evernote instead. Both of these apps can also be replaced with a simple word study notebook. However, our Literacy Lab students’ eyes light up when we offer these technologies instead of the composition notebooks we have used in the past.

We had great success with other digital vocabulary resources as well. Storybird continues to be a favorite. Once we introduce this website to our students and their families, quite often they return to the next session having written a story or two. We are also beginning to experiment with Haiku Deck as a writing resource. Our literacy learners are motivated by the “eye candy” available on these sites and also are scaffolded in their writing by having some of the plot, setting, or character development eased so that they can focus on writing fluency—getting words and sentences out.

As you take some time off this summer and read a few good books, you might consider exploring some of these digital resources yourself. If you need reading ideas, you can follow my book blog at

Check out last week’s blog post on a similar topic and then leave a comment this week to win a free Stenhouse book! This week’s winner is Dana. Receive 20% off on your order of any Stenhouse book by visiting the Stenhouse website or calling 800-988-9812.

6 comments July 31st, 2013

Blogstitute Week 6: Capture student thinking and learning with a classroom blog

If you’ve been thinking about starting a classroom blog, but wasn’t sure if it was a good idea, then this week’s post is for you. Carol Bedard and Charles Fuhrken, the authors of When Writing with Technology Matters, share some of the reasons teachers might want to consider starting a classroom blog in their literacy classrooms.

Traditionally in literacy classrooms, students participate in literature circles to share their thinking about the books they are reading; they might also respond in journals to capture their ideas and express their puzzlements. Setting up a classroom blog can add to these experiences in a number of ways:

  • A blog gives students a wider audience. Two literature groups reading the same text can share and compare their thinking. All students, regardless of their text selection, can read the blog to see what’s happening in other literature circles.
  • A blog affords students more “think time” than is possible in face-to-face discussions.
  • A blog makes students’ thinking public, which tends to cause the bloggers to be purposeful and thoughtful about their ideas and opinions before (and while) putting them in writing.
  • A blog invites all students to share; no “talk hogs” are allowed, and no one is silenced—not even introverted students.
  • A blog is open 24/7; students are not restricted by classroom schedules, because bloggers need not respond at a particular time of day or a particular pace.

Given this kind of space, students can take their responses in a number of directions. What we found is that, although the writing in students’ journals sometimes consists only of recording major plot events, the students’ blog postings began shifting toward sharing deeper and more personal connections as well as showing higher-order thinking. For example, a student named Marie, deeply invested in the lives of the characters in her book, had an emotional reaction when one of the characters died:

Gregor the Overlander is kind of sad, but it’s cool. I wonder why a good character had to die!!! (I cried a lot when a good “thing” died.) You should read it. Get your tissues ready!!!

Another student, Caleb, after discussing Lunch Money with his literature circle group, decided to continue his “review” of the novel later that day. At 7:00 p.m., Caleb signed on to the class blog to write the following:

I read Lunch Money and I think it is even better than Frindle! The story is solid, like all of his books. The thing that separates it from his other books is the way the characters are. My rating is Story: 10/10 Characters: 10/10 Art: 8/10 Drama: 6/10 Overall:  9/10.

In this post, Caleb showed evaluative thinking by making a judgment: Lunch Money is better than Frindle. He also drew on the features of a movie review to rate some of the story elements. (Author Andrew Clements should be pleased with a 9—Caleb was a notoriously tough critic.) Students who came across Caleb’s post saw a new way of thinking about and responding to books that they could incorporate into their own blog postings.

The blog can be a tool for students to utilize with any number of assignments and projects in a literacy classroom, not just for responding to literature. During a moviemaking project, elementary students went to the blog to ask peers for help with ideas, to report their progress, to plan next steps, and, yes, even to blow off some steam. Alonso was feeling the pressure of creating “something awesome” that would soon be shown not only in front of his peers but also to family and friends:

We’re barely on the second & third scene with making props, and we’re practically all over the place doing all sorts of stuff. I only slept 4 like, 3 HOURS and NO MORE.

As the day of the movie premiere approached, the blog once again united the community of learners—scores of bloggers related to Alonso’s anxiety and expressed their own last-minute jitters.

The blog, though, is not just for students. Blogs are a rich data source for teachers to mine. Teachers can assess acquisition of academic language, content knowledge, readership, writing styles and conventions, and student interest and engagement, for starters. How often do teachers really have access to what students are thinking?

The elementary students learning about moviemaking told teachers plainly—via the blog—what they were learning. This is what Leslie had to say one day:

Today we’re doing scriptwriting and at first it was easy but then it got hard. Now I understand that the more details you put in the story the better it is!

Leslie’s words—“Now I understand”—unmistakably indicated that she believed she had gained an important insight into what makes writing good. She had discovered, in working with her group on their movie, that more details make a story better.

Julian also reflected on what he was learning and, in doing so, showcased his acquisition of academic vocabulary:

Today we finished the narrative and now we are doing a storyboard. In storyboarding we are doing a picture and we are writing the most important parts of the movie we’re going to do. We start at the rising action, then we go to the climax, then we go to the falling action. That’s the last part.

Julian competently related the important parts of story structure—first rising action, then climax—and even clarified for his peers that falling action is “the last part.”  From reading this post, the teacher knows that his or her lesson that day about using a storyboard to capture the story structure stuck with Julian.

What students reveal they have learned—or not learned—can inform teachers’ instructional planning in the future. The blog becomes a record of students’ thinking, and, over time, the pages tell the story of how their thinking and learning have evolved. Because a blog steps up the level of access that is afforded, teachers can sweep in at any time and see what’s on students’ minds. With close inspection, they can be witnesses to new understandings, lightbulb moments, and valued feelings.

Just imagine, over the course of a year, the amount of writing that students would do on a blog.


Charles Fuhrken and Carol Bedard are the authors of When Writing with Technology Matters. You can buy their book — or any other Stenhouse book — 20% off when you use code BLOG on the Stenhouse website. This week’s winner of a free book is Gloria Wilson. Leave a comment on this post for a chance to win a free Stenhouse book of your choice!

12 comments July 24th, 2013

Blogstitute Week 5: Schoolwide vocabulary instruction

Authors photoIn this week’s Blogstitute post the authors of Word Nerds (Leslie Montgomery, Brenda Overturf, and Margot Holmes Smith) expand their vision of vocabulary instruction and share why they think the entire school needs to be involved in vocabulary development. “Though we are excited about the success stories our colleagues have shared with us about their students’ improvements in reading, we think another payoff is the sense of community that schoolwide vocabulary has created within the entire school building.”

Sometimes a good idea spreads like wildfire. Other times, it smolders until it catches on. When we wrote Word Nerds: Teaching All Students to Learn and Love Vocabulary, we described instruction in our own classrooms. One of the things we learned when working on the book is that many students, especially those growing up in poverty and students learning English, benefit from a schoolwide focus on vocabulary instruction. Our school has made that transition—vocabulary instruction has extended to a schoolwide plan that includes kindergarten through grade five. However, whole-school vocabulary development didn’t happen overnight.

Our own initial venture into strategic vocabulary instruction began several years ago with a simple thought: “We have taught this content for the past several weeks. We don’t understand why our students continue to struggle on assessments. We know that they know it. What could possibly be holding them back?”

This question was something that we (Margot and Leslie) pondered as we reflected on our first year of teaching. After attending a workshop on vocabulary development, we suddenly realized that inadequate knowledge of academic vocabulary might be one reason our students were struggling. We immediately took the information and created a strategic vocabulary plan to fit our students and the way they learn. We hit the ground running that following school year by implementing our new vocabulary plan.

During our second year of teaching we were fortunate enough to be on the same team, which made implementing our vocabulary plan much easier. Throughout that year we were able to choose the words to teach, create materials together, and bounce ideas off of each other—a real team effort. Our literacy professor (Brenda) began to visit our classrooms and played an integral role in helping to improve our vocabulary instruction and practices. Not only did she help us develop new ideas based on research, but she also provided an outside perspective about what we were doing and helped us to reflect on our instruction and to know if the students are truly achieving. As the year progressed, we began to notice an increase not only in our students’ vocabulary knowledge but also in their comprehension and fluency. Our students’ reading levels began to improve tremendously, and they were also experiencing better success rates with their performance on school, local, and state assessments. As we reflected on our second year of teaching, we felt much more confident about the way that we had taught vocabulary and reading versus our first year. We definitely were aware that our work was still cut out for us, but the academic and personal gains that we saw for our students gave us the fuel we needed to continue with this plan.

As we entered our third school year, a few other teachers in our building were intrigued and began to join us on this vocabulary journey. Many of these teachers began to experience some of the same successes with their students that we had experienced. However, other teachers were not yet convinced. When we were asked by our principal to formally present our vocabulary plan to the rest of the faculty, we tried to help our colleagues see the benefits not only for the students but for themselves as well. For example, we shared how helping students learn to determine the meanings of unfamiliar words engages them in deeper discussions about texts, which in turn helps teachers increase their level of questioning in order to help students engage in these types of discussions.

As we continued to implement and refine our vocabulary plan and support other teachers, more of our colleagues began to adopt the plan and became excited about the possibilities. The idea of schoolwide vocabulary instruction began to glow! We were asked to help other teachers adapt strategic vocabulary instruction for their students, especially in the primary grades. The kindergarten teachers were apprehensive at first because our vocabulary plan was definitely much different than the way they had previously taught words, and it was hard for them to picture their students engaging in this type of instruction. Yet they were convinced when they saw how proud their students were when they learned new words. Kindergarten teachers now tell us they have just as much fun teaching vocabulary as the kids have learning new words! And a second-grade teacher recently admitted that she doesn’t really like change and then thanked us for being patient as we helped her implement strategic vocabulary instruction in her classroom. The success of her students has convinced her that this is the right path to take.

The idea of schoolwide vocabulary development has now really caught fire, and it has become an accepted practice at our school that students in every class will engage in active instruction to learn new words. Though we are excited about the success stories our colleagues have shared with us about their students’ improvements in reading, we think another payoff is the sense of community that schoolwide vocabulary has created within the entire school building. Students feel safe to use new words that they have learned in their conversations with peers, teachers, and other staff members. They also enjoy having a routine for learning new words and now know that they can expect to learn vocabulary in a similar way from grade to grade. Teachers have grown more confident in their abilities to teach vocabulary and have shared new ideas that they have tried in their classrooms. We truly believe that a schoolwide vocabulary plan has sparked stronger relationships among our school community, as well as increased word confidence at every grade.

Brenda Overturf, Leslie Montgomery, and Margot Holmes Smith are the authors of Word Nerds: Teaching All Students to Learn and Love Vocabulary. You can get 20% off your order if you buy the book on the Stenhouse website with coupon code BLOG. This week’s winner of a free book is Ariel Glasman. Make sure to leave a comment this week for a chance to win a free book!

11 comments July 17th, 2013

Blogstitute Week 4: Lee Ann Spillane on getting fearless with technology

Welcome back to another great post in our 2013 Summer Blogstitute series, this time from Lee Ann Spillane who admits that at one time she was afraid of “breaking the computer” while playing around with technology. The good new is, you can’t really break the computer. In this post Lee Ann shares some ideas for using the summer as your time to explore technology and how you can use it in your classroom.

Summer’s golden hours are here. I am going to spend my diamond minutes lavishly learning what I want to learn. To prepare for summer and the extravagance of time, I stockpile books to read, bookmark tutorials, browse Pinterest, and gather supplies. This summer I’m considering moving my classroom web page. The software I’ve been using to create it keeps crashing, and I want to shift from a static page to a page students can create with me. My students and I have been able to collaborate in our Bear English Ning space, but it’s getting expensive. I know a wiki would allow me to cocreate resources with students, but I’m not sure it will satisfy my design desires. I have a lot to learn, and I’m excited about the adventure ahead.

There was a time, though, when I hesitated. I was afraid I’d mess up the computer. I didn’t want to break it, so I didn’t play around too much.

Making It Work: Getting Beyond “I’m Afraid I’ll Break It”

11-diamond_minutesCleaning up my computer’s desktop one day, I right-clicked on the recycle bin. Right-click. Delete. I did it without thinking. I wanted to empty the recycle bin and free up some memory. Instead I deleted the entire recycle bin. It disappeared from my desktop. Once I realized what I had done, I was frustrated. How do you resurrect a recycle bin? I couldn’t just do without one, so I Googled a solution and found an answer on a discussion board. I followed the steps and replaced my recycle bin on my desktop, no harm done. Mistakes happen.

When I first started learning how to use the computer, I was nervous. Scared to break an expensive machine, I would freeze or sometimes avoid a task if I wasn’t sure which programs to use or how to use them. I was so afraid of breaking the computer that I couldn’t learn. Eventually, I realized that unless I threw the computer out the window or on the floor, my fumbling around in programs wasn’t going to break the machine. That freed me. To learn new technologies or tools, we have to set aside our fears—we have to be willing to try things, seek solutions, test, and ask for help. We have to play. We will make mistakes. We will probably delete things we shouldn’t. Failure is part of learning. Getting lost in the new landscape will happen. Reframe your thinking and let yourself explore.

It’s About the Teaching, Not the Tool

Integrating technology into your instructional routines changes teaching and learning. Technology fundamentally changes what we can do in the classroom. Innovating technology changes how you teach. Using a document camera and a laptop makes sharing or publishing student work immediate and accessible. Imagine crafting a mini-lesson on effective transitions between ideas in a personal essay using a draft a student has written just moments before. Or creating and publishing a short video to review a skill or concept students need, in under five minutes in the middle of class. That kind of teaching—the kind of teaching that assesses and adjusts to students’ needs in the midst of learning—becomes much easier through the use of technology. Be innovative. Figure out ways to empower yourself and your students.

Try One Thing

Set a goal and mark a course to a new place. My family is about to head out on a long road trip. We’ve updated the GPS. We have smartphone backup and maps packed. We want to learn how to geocache. My twelve-year-old is bringing a handheld GPS to use on the trip. Inspired by Hank Green, my son is looking forward to some fun. Learning is part of that fun. He could use a geocaching app on his iTouch or on a retired iPhone we inherited, but he wants to use the handheld. He and my husband are planning to learn how to use it while we drive north. They’re not afraid to break the tool; they’re excited to find the treasure—a hidden cache they can add to and log.

When my students reflected on our year together, they wrote about lessons learned. I wrote about their reflections here. On the exam, I asked students to write about one lesson they learned when using technology this year. Some wrote about royalty-free images, some about help videos I posted online, some about writing publicly on their blogs. Many wrote about the difference Google Drive made in their academic lives. My school is on the cusp of Title I classification. More than seventy percent of our students receive free and or reduced lunch benefits. Not one of my students came to my class knowing how to create, edit, save, or print documents (or presentations or spreadsheets or . . .) using Google Drive. Many did not have printers at home, and flash drives were often shared among friends. I am continually amazed at what students do not know, but my students don’t need amazement or complaint. Students need us to act, to teach. We all need different lessons. Using Google Drive—formerly Google documents—seemed so yesterday. Not to my students. Maybe not to you either.

Learning new tools or technologies is a road trip—some are planned, some spontaneous. When I want to learn, I set a goal, a destination. To get there, I explore and follow the road signs—bookmarking tutorials, attending trainings, or downloading podcasts that explain processes I want to learn. I learn the landscape and take note of the landmarks.

As you learn this summer, don’t worry about getting lost. Enjoy the learning along the way.

Lee Ann Spillane is the author of the Read & Watch book Reading Amplified.
Last week’s winner of a free book is Jenny. Don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance to win a free Stenhouse book! Also, you can use code BLOG on the Stenhouse website to receive 20% off and free shipping on your order.

12 comments July 10th, 2013

Assessing Engagement: A Follow-Up to “Increasing Engagement”

In the midst of our Blogstitute I am going to take a moment to quickly check in with Matt Renwick, an elementary school principal in Wisconsin who first posted on the Stenhouse blog in January about his school’s efforts to revamp its reading intervention program. “Readers are created over time and do not adhere to deadlines. Where learners are heading is as important as where they have been,” Matt concludes.

Summer has arrived: Lockers have been cleared out, desks are empty, and report cards were sent home. While another school year comes to a close, ten reluctant readers are only continuing their learning.

Last fall, my school revamped our after school reading intervention program. Illustrated in our previous post, my staff and I designed a book club based on the tenets of Peter Johnston’s reflections from last summer, Reducing Instruction, Increasing Engagement. We transitioned from a computer-based reading program to an intervention that relied more on students’ interests than on their Lexiles.

Everything started strong. Kids came to book club eager to check out the new titles, selected just for them. The majority of the time was allocated to allowing students to read books, to talk about books, and to share what they read. The facilitator’s job was simply to spark their interest and gently guide.

For a while we had them – They were reading! However, interest gradually dissipated. Some students got off task. Others stopped showing up regularly. The perception was that this “book club” was just an extension of the school day. We had to rethink our approach.

We knew students were engaged by technology. But would purchasing tablets to promote reading provide too much of a distraction? We found our middle ground and purchased ten simple eReaders. These devices were unable to house games and other forms of digital media. Just books. While we waited for the eReaders to show up, students came down to my office in groups of twos and threes to request their favorite titles and authors. Once students had signed a contract and the books were loaded on the devices. we sent them on their way to read.

We quickly realized the benefits of offering eReaders to students:

  • They were more willing to pick books they could decode and understand. On one occasion, a 4th grade boy rattled off some grade level titles, then looked around and whispered, “Could I also get some Flat Stanley chapter books?” I replied, “Sure” without missing a beat. Unless his books could be hidden within an eReader, it was unlikely he would have been caught by his peers reading Flat Stanley and related titles.
  • The technology itself seemed to engage the students. I have never, as a teacher or as a principal, had students seek me out (repeatedly) to see if their new books were available and ready to read. Having kids peek their heads out of classrooms when they heard me walking the hall to ask when their books would be downloaded was a visible example of their engagement with reading.
  • The buy in from parents was impressive. One parent made a special trip to school to pick up her son’s eReader. A father, whose son was home sick on the last day and came to pick up his report card, made a point to share with me that “he has been reading on that thing every day”.

When we looked at our year-end assessments, the results were a mixed bag. Analyzing computer-based screener scores, on average our ten students’ overall literacy skills stayed the same. However, looking at district-developed assessments, the majority of the students (70%) met their grade level benchmark, and the other three students were very close. In addition, their average fluency rate increased by 27% (92 Words Correct Per Minute (WCPM) in the fall; 117 WCPM in the spring).

Beyond this promising quantitative data, did our students develop an affection toward reading? Do they better value the impact a narrative can have on a person’s life? We attempted to measure engagement with a survey given to the students themselves. They were asked specific questions about their reading dispositions and habits; you can view the results here. Here are the most revealing conclusions:

  • Students in book club read a lot more now than they did before joining book club.
  • The eReaders encouraged the students to read more.
  • Students understood what they read, whether in print or digital text format.
  • They often reread their favorite books.

These statements read like they belong in a resource titled “The Seven Habits of Highly Engaged Readers”. We hope these practices continue, as we sent them home with both print and digital texts to peruse over the summer months.

My teachers often state that teaching reading is not like baking a cake. Students aren’t “done” after a certain amount of time and attention. Maybe we should compare educators to gardeners instead of bakers; they plant the seeds for literacy engagement, to grow and eventually blossom. Readers are created over time and do not adhere to deadlines. Where learners are heading is as important as where they have been.

Special thanks to Heddi Craft and Lauren Kelley Parren for their feedback on this post.




1 comment July 9th, 2013

Blogstitute Week 3: Tammy Mulligan and Clare Landrigan on creating a culture of meaningful assessment

At the end of each year we take time to reflect on the things that went well and the things that we want to change the following year. This reflection helps us think about the classroom community we want to establish in the year ahead and prepare for implementing these changes in the first six weeks of school. We find the first six weeks of school to be pivotal in creating the systems and structures that will support our instructional models all year. We establish the culture and climate for our classroom community. In Reading with Meaning, Debbie Miller says, “When our vision of community expands to create a culture and climate for thinking (Perkins 1993)—when rigor, inquiry, and intimacy become key components of our definition—it’s essential that we work first to build genuine relationships, establish mutual trust, and create working literate environments” (2013, 21). We believe we need to use these first six weeks to set the tone for assessment in our classrooms. Assessment is key to rigor and inquiry, and it can only be used productively if it is part of a trusting, authentic, literate environment. Assessment needs to part of this vision of community. How do we define assessment for our students so that they do not see it as evaluative? How do we help students understand their role in the process of assessment? How do we show students that we believe that assessment is inseparable from instruction?

For us, the first step is taking the time to think about why we assess and how we view the role of assessment in our classroom community. We think it is important to share these reasons with our students so they know why we are assessing and how this process will help us as teachers and them as learners. We assess for a variety of reasons: to establish a beginning benchmark for each student; to identify students who may need additional support in reading; to understand the strengths and learning needs of our readers; to learn about the passions, interests, and frustrations of our readers; and to plan whole-class, small-group, and individual instruction. For us, assessment is more than a number. It is the information we need to get to know our readers and to create a climate of learning that will engage each of them.

In the past, we did not “go public” with our beliefs around assessment with our students. In fact, we may have even tried to sneak the assessments in, hoping not to stress our students out. This ran contrary to how we established all other aspects of our learning community in the first six weeks of school. Now we open the dialogue about assessment right away and establish a different tone. We take the time to listen to our students’ thoughts and questions about the assessment process. This gives us the opportunity to discuss their past experiences with the assessment process, clear up any misconceptions, and alleviate any worries they may have. We hope that by listening and talking with our readers, we will help them understand their role in assessment and the importance of the insightful information they share with us.

As we sit down with students to begin administering an assessment, we pay attention to their questions, comments, and even body language (shoulder shrugs, mumbled answers, or silent stares) to learn how they are feeling about the process. When we ask them about their thoughts on assessment, we hear a range of responses:

Why are we doing this?

I already know all of this.

Why did I have to leave the block area?

Why doesn’t Suzy have to do this?

Are you going to do this with everyone?

What is the timer for?

When will I be done?

What are you writing?

We think it is important to let the students know what they will be doing during the assessment and why they will be doing these things:

We are going to work together for the next twenty minutes so that I can get to know you a little better as a reader. You will read a text aloud, and then we will talk about the text and you will write about it. When you are reading, I will be listening to help determine some good next steps for you.

This assessment will help me support you in choosing books that will be interesting and will help you meet your goals. I will be taking notes during this process so that I can remember the things you share with me and the things I notice about you as a reader. This assessment isn’t about you getting things right or wrong. It is about us working together to figure out our jobs: my job as a teacher and your job as a learner.

After we are done I am going to ask you what you think would help you as a reader. We will look at the assessment together and choose some goals for us to work on together. Are you ready to begin?

Assessment is the heart of our instruction. We need our students to understand that assessment is more than one test or a few formal cycles per year. Assessment is what happens every day when we listen to our students and watch them as they learn. Peter Johnston reminds us that “Formative assessment isn’t only the teacher’s responsibility . . . [h]owever, it is the teacher’s responsibility to ensure that the students know how and are disposed to take up their responsibilities for formative assessment” (2012, 49–50). When we include the role of assessment in our culture of thinking and learning, our students understand why we are assessing and how it will help them set goals and grow as readers.


Johnston, Peter. 2012. Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Miller, Debbie. 2013. Reading with Meaning: Teaching Comprehension in the Primary Grades. 2nd edition. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Tammy and Clare are the authors of Assessment in Perspective: Focusing on the Reader Behind the Numbers. Be sure to leave a comment or ask a question. Last week’s winner of a free book is Lori Napier.

14 comments July 2nd, 2013

New From Stenhouse

Most Recent Posts

Stenhouse Author Sites




Classroom Blogs