Reading Magic

Thursday was picture day. The kids arrived in their beautiful dresses, tiny bow ties and an air of excitement. Spring pictures are always fun as they get to pose together as a class and then take the individual pictures. I passed out the individual cards for the photographer and then waited as the kids went up one by one.

“I’m not a principal. I’m not a teacher. I’m a student! Please give this card to the photographer. I’m going to give it to him when I get there!” 

I heard these words coming from a little guy standing next to me, holding his card. Huh? I looked closely at the card he was holding and realized he was reading the words on the card! There was a checklist that listed, “principal, teacher, student”. He was reading the checklist and making meaning from it. The words “please give this card to the photographer” were printed at the top of the card.

But here’s the thing. This little guy has been struggling learning to write his name. He’s been struggling with getting 1:1 solid. He’s been reluctant to read with me in his guided reading group or in conferences. He recently tested at a level 2 on the DRA assessment.

After our pictures, we went back to the classroom and started readers workshop. I asked my friend to come over and read with me. I pulled out a book about a giant gingerbread man who actually chases after the old man and woman who made him. I invited him to read it with me, telling him it was a crazy twist on the other gingerbread man stories we had read. He devoured it, reading fluently, laughing and making predictions, connecting it to the other stories we had read. It was clearly an easy text for him. It was a level 10 book. He wanted more books, so I let him pick some more to put in his book box and sent that happy, excited reader off to enjoy his reading. He was absolutely glowing.

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That 10 minute conference left me with much to think about. Was I holding him back as a reader? Did I have him locked into a level instead of constantly looking for what he was doing well? Was he bored with the level 2 and 3 texts? Did he not see any value in this reading thing? Did he not see himself as a reader? Was he reluctant because he preferred building in the block area instead of reading with his guided reading group during Explore? Were my expectations too low? Was I not looking at him closely as a reader? Did I not really know him as a reader? It gave me much to reflect on, and a renewed commitment to knowing each and every reader in my classroom at an even deeper level than I already do.

Thank you, reader friend, for letting me hear you read that picture card and for reminding me of the importance of looking closely, listening carefully and celebrating the magnificent work our young readers do.

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Day 11

“You can’t find anything in here!” – Organizing Our Library

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We had just returned from our monthly walking field trip to a local park, where we had found a fallen log and spent some time investigating and talking about what might live there. I was reminded of a book I had, A Log’s Life, and went over to our nonfiction book bins to look for it. The kids were waiting patiently on the rug, (as patiently as kindergarteners can wait), as I was looking furiously through the many nonfiction bins we have. I finally found the book – just after one of my kids said,

“We need to organize this library better! You can’t find anything in here! Why don’t we make it like the big library?”

Yes! She was right. The books that we had sorted in September as “learn about the world” or “stories” – were ready to be sorted again, with all the book knowledge that my kindergarteners had gained this year. I invited anyone who wanted to help with this project to gather on the rug during Explore time and we would organize the library better.

Several kids were interested and started working together, sorting the books into piles and having such wonderful conversations!

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“We should keep all the dog books together. And all the monkey books in one place. And the snake books….wait, there’s a lot of books about animals. Maybe we can keep all the animal books together. But there’s a lot of books about dogs. I think dogs need to be on their own or there would be too many mixed in the animals. Then we couldn’t find dog books.”

“We have books about people…like farmers and nurses and Native Americans…Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Obama. We can make one place for books about people.”

“Here’s a book about colors. We read this book when we were making art and learning about colors. People use colors to do art, so it should go in the people place.”

I listened carefully and was amazed at how the kids negotiated the task, the organization and the labeling to make sure the library worked for them. Their conversations were so authentic and I loved listening to how they talked about where books belonged. They spent over two hours on this task and then proudly shared their accomplishment with the rest of the class.

It’s been one week and I’ve noticed how books are being returned to the correct bin and that this part of our classroom library has been revived – more kids are getting books from here and sharing new finds with each other. Ownership, pride, persistence, problem solving…these five and six year olds never cease to amaze.

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Labeling the bins with interactive writing

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The newly organized and labeled bins! We will add pictures next.

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Day 2

 

 

Integration

img_1715Pat and I wrote about the importance of integrating strategies in Catching Readers Before They Fall. We love the analogy of an orchestra. In a symphony orchestra, all the instruments blend together to form incredible compositions extremely pleasing to the ear. The strategies in the head of the reader combine together to make meaning of the text just as each instrument joins the musical composition perfectly in tune with the others.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot as my kindergarten readers are taking off in their independent reading. Teaching integration right from the start is key to developing strategic readers. I teach many strategies through reading aloud, thinking aloud and showing kids how that strategy can help them as readers. Together, we create an evolving chart of what readers do. It’s important to me that this chart, and the language on the chart, is co-created with the kids so they have ownership.

As we add to our anchor chart of what readers do, I make sure to refer to this chart often by thinking aloud during interactive read alouds, and referring to it during small group instruction and conferences. I show the kids how we don’t just use one strategy at a time, rather, we use many of them simultaneously.

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I help the kids reflect on what they are doing as readers and see these strategies as tools to make meaning from text. I want them to have several things to pull from when meaning breaks down and when they are stuck on a tricky word. I keep small photos of our large, evolving, strategy chart around the room for them to refer to as they read.

As I send the kids off to read independently, we read over our anchor chart. I have them put up their fingers, one at a time, as we read each strategy. Then we weave our fingers together, showing that the strategies all go together. This physical movement symbolizes the integration of strategies.

Teaching integration right from the start helps build a solid foundation for our readers. How do you help readers see the importance of integration?

 

Leveled Books – Questioning our Practice – Part II

2015-09-29 14.04.53Yesterday I wrote about questioning our practice with leveled books. Today I’ll continue those thoughts on using leveled books in my classroom.

I love that we have leveled texts, I really do! It was a game changer when Matching Books to Readers was published in 1999. I spent a lot of time with that yellow book trying to understand the levels and how to best choose books for my guided reading groups that would accelerate the learning of my readers. Thankfully, teachers have a text gradient to help us choose texts to instruct children in small-group guided reading and in one-on-one conferences. But we can’t rely solely on a level. We have to make good decisions as a teacher – and we have to teach children how to make good decisions as a reader.

I choose leveled books from our book room and from my own collection of leveled texts when I am teaching children in guided reading groups or conferring one-on-one. I use the level as a guide, and then look carefully at the texts and my teaching point to decide what book I will use in my instruction. I can’t just pull a level E book off the shelf because my reader is reading at a level E. I have to use that level as a guide and then make a good instructional decision as a teacher. For example, when a teacher knows that a student is reading at a level E, she also knows that at this level the child is expected to be able to rely much more on the print and less on the pictures, understand the punctuation marks, solve longer words, read sentences over 2-3 lines and over two pages and she knows how to choose a text that will support and challenge the reader who is ready for that.

2015-09-29 10.29.40I write the level in pencil on the inside cover of my own books, and keep them organized in bins under my teaching table for me to use. I do not have a leveled books section in our class library. Our school book room books have the level on the cover, and if a child asks what that letter or number is for, I tell them, “It is a way to help me as a teacher organize and choose books. You don’t need to worry about the letters/numbers at all. It’s for teachers.” It’s important for me to always keep the focus on the book and not on the level.

After a child reads with me, the leveled book goes in their book box. These books are kept in a large baggie inside the book box  – which holds “just-right” books for my readers. I will often take several leveled books and display them for kids to choose from. I help them decide whether the book is a good match by talking through the book just like I would do when I am choosing a book. I look at the cover, leaf through the book, read the back cover, talk about the author or genre, read a page or two and look at the pictures. This is a great opportunity for teaching children how to choose books that are just-right for them. For example, if I have a child who is reading at a level E, I may take several books that are a range of levels from B-D, and are about topics I think the child will like, and then I invite the child to choose from that pile. I never mention the level. I simply say that I think he or she might like some of these books – let’s take a look and see if they are a good match. Keep in mind, my children also have 5-7 “look books” in their book boxes that are self-chosen from our classroom library and can be any book that child wants to read. I often confer with readers in the class library – helping them decide whether books they are looking at are just-right books to go in their baggie, or look books that go in their book box. I will never tell a child that a book is too easy or too hard for them. I never want to discourage a child from picking up a book.

Week 10 039I believe that it’s important to authentically teach children how to choose books and how to enjoy books. Choosing by level is not authentic and I fear that it creates dependent children who don’t know how to choose for themselves when a book is not leveled. At the same time, it’s extremely important to me that children have many just-right books to read at their fingertips. After all, that daily reading practice is how our readers are going to construct a reading processing system for themselves. But it’s also very important that children have books that are just plain fun – books they have chosen about snakes and tornadoes and Star Wars and dogs and princesses – regardless of the level. Because that’s how our children are going to get turned on to reading and love to read. And isn’t that what we want?

I would love any thoughts on these posts. I realize this may make some people uncomfortable or unsure or questioning our practice. But isn’t that what we want to do as educators? I invite you to ask yourself, your team and your school “how are we using leveled texts, and why?” As Lucy Calkins wrote in my The Art of Teaching Writing book many years ago, “be brave enough to outgrow your own best teaching”. Questioning and challenging how levels are being used might be an area where we need to be brave.

Leveled Books – Questioning our Practice

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Do your students know their reading level? Why? Why not?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about leveled texts and their purpose and place in the classroom. Thanks to Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell for designing a text gradient based on Reading Recovery levels, teachers have strong support and guidance when they are matching books to readers. But the level of text is only one thing we can use as a resource when making decisions. We also need to know about the child’s interests, strengths and weaknesses,  what strategic actions they are using, how they are constructing a reading processing system, etc… But I am concerned how these levels are being used in classrooms across the country. Fountas and Pinnell intended for levels to be used by teachers, as a way to help teachers analyze texts and select “just-right” books for small-group reading instruction and as a support for teachers to guide readers in choosing books. They never intended levels to be used by students. The levels on books are for teachers, not students.

“We do not recommend that students use the levels of a gradient to choose books for independent reading. The levels should be very unobtrusive (if not totally invisible) in your classroom. Students need to learn how to choose books based on their own assessment of readability, interesting topics or plots, favorite authors, and general appeal. You can teach students how to assess the appropriateness of texts they find interesting for their present reading levels.”  

-Fountas and Pinnell, Teaching for Comprehending and Fluency, page 152.

I started thinking about teaching independence and how that connects to this quote. If our goal is to teach children to be independent, self-motivated, voracious readers – then aren’t we doing them a disservice by labeling books in our classroom with levels? This is going to encourage mindlessly choosing a book because “it’s a J” – not looking and thinking if it’s a good match. I think teachers have to teach children how to choose just-right books for themselves, not teach children to rely on a leveling system.  I’m very concerned about the authenticity of teaching children to use the level of a book as a guiding factor. What happens when that child goes to the book fair, the public library, the bookstore or to a pile of books at a yard sale? Real readers in the real world don’t use a level to choose their books.  If children have access to lots of books that are “just right” from guided reading and conferences – carefully selected by teachers for that student – and teachers are teaching kids what makes a “just right” book, then shouldn’t we be giving them the opportunity to practice this when choosing books from the classroom library, the public library, a bookstore or when out with their families? We want to create real world readers who can assess whether a book will be a good choice independently.

What happens when children are told their level? Often times that becomes the way a child defines himself as a reader – bragging “I’m a level M.” or, with head hung low, “I’m only a level E.” How do you define yourself as a reader? What would your answer be if someone asked you, “what kind of reader are you?” I would guess that no adult is going to identify herself as a level.  I want my kids to say things like, “I’m a reader who loves Mo Willems, who likes to read books that are about real things and who can’t wait to see what new books arrived at the library.” Perhaps asking your students this question might give you some insight into what kind of readers they are becoming. Do we want kids who can identify what kind of reader they are or who can tell us what level they are?

Another thing that I’ve seen is a high level of competition and comparing in classrooms where children know their levels. Instead of clamoring to read the new Mo Willems book, or an enticing picture book displayed at the library, children quickly dismiss books if they are not on their level and start to look down on children who are at a lower level. At the other end, I’ve seen strong readers held back by their level – being made to stay at a level when they can really take on much more challenging and interesting texts because they’ve been identified at a level lower than where they are really reading.  That level becomes part of the readers’ identity. Kids are ashamed to be reading at a level that is not associated with that grade level. The focus becomes all about a level instead of about reading, books, authors, genres, series books, or fabulous illustrations. When I sit down to confer with a child I never want the focus to be on what level we are aiming for. Do I have that in my head as a teacher? Of course. It’s a tool I use as a teacher. But I want children to be working on their reading and setting goals relating to thinking deeply about texts, authors, genres, a variety of topics, talking about reading with others, enjoying reading and creating a reading processing system that helps them in becoming fluent, flexible, strong readers. I don’t want their goal to be moving to the next level.

What happens when parents are told the level that their child is reading? Most parents have no idea what a “level J” book means. I’m concerned that this is making school reading and real world reading two different things. It’s creating a gap comparable to when we teach young children to use words like “schema” and “metacognition” – parents are mystified as to how reading instruction is happening.  Parents may start to compare their child with others in the neighborhood, or try to push reading books at a much higher level than that child can handle at the moment. What if, instead of sharing a child’s reading level at conferences, teachers showed families examples of books where that child is reading now, and examples of benchmark texts for where we are heading? This helps families understand what their child is working on and helps them understand much more than a “level J” text.

So do my students know their reading level? No. These are a few reasons why. But are leveled books important? YES! Check back for Part II tomorrow when I will post on how I use leveled texts in my classroom as an important tool for teachers.

I would love any thoughts on this post. I realize this may leave some people uncomfortable or unsure or questioning our practice. But isn’t that what we want to do as educators? I invite you to ask yourself, your team and your school “how are we using leveled texts, and why?” As Lucy Calkins wrote in my The Art of Teaching Writing book many years ago, “be brave enough to outgrow your own best teaching”. Questioning and challenging how levels are being used, and what messages we are sending, might be an area where we need to be brave.

“Struggling” Readers in a Growth Mindset

I was catching up on Twitter when this post caught my eye:

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I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What an excellent question! I only wish I had been at that conference to join in on what I’m sure was an amazing conversation.

2015-04-09 13.14.15The term “struggling readers” has always bothered me.  I’ve never liked “struggling” coming before “readers” (or writers, or mathematicians, or whatever identity you are describing). When Pat and I titled our book, we wanted to make sure that “readers” was the first, and most important, identity mentioned – so we decided on “Supporting READERS who Struggle”, instead of “Supporting STRUGGLING Readers”.  However, after reading this quote I couldn’t stop thinking about this. Is it the same thing? By labeling our readers “struggling” (either before or after labeling them as “readers”), are we implying that this is a fixed way of being? That they aren’t readers who are growing and learning – they are readers who are struggling?

But is “struggling” a bad word?

Can struggling be a sign of a growth mindset?

I read an article a few months ago about having and nurturing a growth mindset, where the authors question whether “struggling” might be a good thing. “That struggling means you’re committed to something and are willing to work hard. Parents around the dinner table and teachers in the classroom should ask, ‘Who had a fabulous struggle today?'” I love this. “A fabulous struggle.” I know that for myself, some of my “fabulous struggles”, like completing a 108 mile trail run in the mountains or finishing graduate school left me with a huge sense of accomplishment, pride and joy. It wasn’t easy. I struggled. A lot. And I had a lot of help and support. But it was worth it.

Learning to read isn’t always easy. It can be a struggle for some children. But what if we changed our conversation about what “struggling” means, and instead, teach children that struggling is a fabulous thing to do? That, if you are committed to something, and work really hard, you can feel that amazing sense of accomplishment and joy. I think the conversation we have with our students would be the easy part. None of my kindergarteners would tell you they are “struggling”. That word is never used, and they all see themselves as readers – whether they are reading pictures in books, the letters in their name, retelling a familiar book or reading all of the words in an Elephant and Piggie book. They are simply “readers”. It is the conversation with adults that we need to change. When we discuss children in our CT meetings and our progress monitoring meetings the word struggling comes up often. After all, it is our “struggling readers” that we are meeting about. But what if we framed our conversation about the “fabulous struggles” these kids are having and how we can support them and help them grow as readers and empower them? What if our conversations worked towards growth and empowerment and looked at effort, good teaching and moving our readers (and writers, mathematicians, etc…) towards growth and success?

I’m looking forward to exploring this more. My school is focusing on the growth  mindset as one of our professional learning strands for the upcoming school year. I think this question begs conversation, reflection and thought as we examine our language and our practice.

I would love to hear your thoughts on “struggling readers” and a growth mindset. Please share!