In the Classroom with Jen: Engaging Our Youngest Readers

March 26th, 2014

We continue our series with author and first-grade teacher Jen McDonough. This week she is sharing her classroom strategies for partner reading to make sure kids stay on task and on topic.

Engaging Our Youngest Readers Through Partner Work

jennifermcdonoughThere is nothing kids love more than hearing themselves talk. Any teacher will tell you that one of the hardest parts of the job is to get children to stop talking long enough for us to teach them something. So, why not capitalize on what is already a strength to help kids engage in reading?  All right, you are thinking at this point. We know kids like to talk a lot, but what they are talking about does not generally have anything to do with what is happening at school. Point taken. The true teaching magic happens when we can find ways to actually get kids to talk about the books they are reading and not about what they are currently creating on Minecraft. Here are a few “teacher tricks” I use to encourage my students to talk about the books they are reading during partner reading time.

1.     Find books with talkability.

By “talkability” I mean that we need to find books that give the kids something to talk about—books that engage and connect with readers, making them want to share what they have read. This can be especially hard in the lower grades, where decodable text is still front and center as the kids are learning how to read the words on the page. There is not much to discuss about a book that reads, “I see a yellow lemon. I see a purple grape. I see a red apple.”

Kindergarten and first grade are where read-alouds really need to come into play. I search far and wide for text that is easy to read but still carries a theme or message that might be pertinent to the children’s lives. I read the text aloud once—maybe twice—before I turn over the books so that the text is familiar and easier for them to decode.

Another way to help kids access books with bigger themes and more “talkability” is to have them listen to books on tape or an electronic device. By having the book read to them, the text can be more challenging than their independent levels and carry more depth and meaning. Partners can then meet and talk about the book they listened to. By late first grade and beyond, the children are able to start independently reading books that have more depth.

Finding the books can be another full-time job in itself. To lessen the load, the teachers at my school decided to work together to create an ongoing list of book titles that work well. The list can be accessed through Google Docs by all of the teachers and is constantly updated as we find new books to share with each other. Look for books that carry themes that children can identify with: friendship, feelings, or learning from mistakes, for example. I will share some of our favorites at the end of this post to get you started. Putting books in the kids’ hands that they connect with is one way to get them talking during partner reading.

2.     Record videos and make partner observations.

Another way I get kids talking about books during partner reading time is by videotaping them. I use the video function on my iPad with a Bluetooth microphone (so you can actually hear the kids over the classroom buzz of talking—hopefully about books). I record the students’ conversation and then play it for the class. Just like a coach sits down with the team after a game to critique what went well and what needs to be worked on, we do the same thing for reading partnerships. The kids discuss what they thought was going well and make a suggestion about what the partners might do to enhance their reading talk even more.

Young kids will typically say things like, “You did a good job sitting next to each other both holding the book” or “You were talking about the book you were reading the whole time.”  They might suggest strategies for getting the readers to think and talk about their books more deeply by saying, “You could talk about parts you really like and why” or “You can talk about any connections you made to the book.” Sometimes I give the students (even the kids in the partnership being watched) a two-column worksheet with a smiley face on one side and a worried face on the other so they can write down what they notice as they watch. This leads to a more focused discussion and not only helps the partnership being discussed but reminds all the students of ways they can learn more about what they are reading by talking and sharing. Knowing they need to be on task or risk being the focus of video where everyone can see them fooling around helps create an expectation about what should happen during partner reading time.

3.     Use successful partnerships as models for the class.

Finally, there are times when I come upon partners engaged in talk that is helping them delve deeper into their reading, and I jump on the opportunity to have them share their thinking with the class. I learned this “fishbowl” strategy from my work with the Reading and Writing Project at the Teacher’s College of Columbia University. The idea is to call the class over to watch the successful partners model what they are doing so the rest of the students can learn from them. Or I may wait until share time and have the partners model the work they did that day. This is another way to hold the kids accountable while showing them strategies for engaging more with their reading by talking about books with others. We know young children will grow as readers and thinkers if they are given time to talk with others about what they have read. Our job is to make sure the time is spent wisely.

Some of the books we love to give the kids are as follows. I would love to have people post book suggestions to add to the list as well!


Pete the Cat:  I Love My White Shoes by Eric Litwin
One and Zero by Kathryn Otoshi
The Dot by Peter J. Reynolds
Ish by Peter J. Reynolds


Frog and Toad series by Arnold Lobel
Fly Guy series by Tedd Arnold
Poppleton series by Cynthia Rylant
Mr. Putter & Tabby series by Cythia Rylant
Elephant and Piggie series by Mo Willems

Learning from Mistakes

Lulu and the Brontosaurus by Judith Viorst
Lulu Walks the Dog by Judith Viorst
Katio Woo series by Fran Manushkin
David series by David Shannon
Brand New Readers series published by Candlewick Press


Entry Filed under: Classroom practice,Reading

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