Conferences are always so inspiring. I love attending them and talking with like-minded educators, meeting new people and having time from my busy school life to reflect on my practice. This past weekend, Pat and I attended the Reading Recovery conference in Columbus, Ohio. We enjoyed meeting some of you and sharing our thinking at our sessions. We also enjoyed learning from the many smart people who presented. If you’ve never been, it’s a “must-do” February conference, so mark your calendars for next year!

I attended many fantastic sessions, but I continue thinking about Lucy Calkins’ keynote. She spoke about where education is today, and how we have a choice as to what role we might play in the future of public education. Her words, “as educators standing in this place in our field, we have a choice. We can look out and see problems and despair or possibility and promise,” have echoed in my brain all week as I returned to my school.

If we see our job and schools as sources of problems and despair, do we have the energy to make a difference with the kids we teach every day? Do we wake up full of joy and enthusiasm in our role as educators? No. But some days it’s very hard to look past the testing frenzy, the new mandates made by people who have never set foot in a classroom, the budget cuts, the overcrowded classrooms, the lack of support and so on and so on. It’s easier to see despair and problems over possibility and promise.  Easier? Perhaps. Justified? Absolutely. But it sucks the life and energy out of us as teachers.

So what if we focus on the kids?

As Lucy said, “not one of us can be hiding behind someone else’s proclamation of what we need to do as teachers”. We are in this profession because we love kids. We want to make a difference in the world and see teaching as the way to do it. There have been way too many proclamations about what we need to do as teachers. It’s time for us to stand up and bring possibility and promise back to our schools, our teaching and our professional lives. Focusing on the kids, and what we know is best for them, allows us to see possibility for who we are as teachers, professionals and learners. Standing up for best practices and for our students is empowering. When we can be passionate learners and passionate teachers, when “our teaching is alive and powerful”, when “we are doing work that feels big and significant” – it’s hard to see the problems and feel despair. It’s much easier to see possibility and promise.

Lucy ended her keynote with this question, “are we going to be who we say we want to be? We have the choice as educators.” I am taking this opportunity to really think about who I say I want to be as an educator. And then make sure that my actions, thoughts and words reflect that vision. I want to walk into school every day looking towards possibility and promise. I want to rekindle the passion in teaching that called me to this profession 19 years ago. I want to remember that my focus is on the kids, and that my work here is “big and significant”, joyful and passionate.

How about you? What choice are you making?

Do you love to read?

I am an avid reader. I’ll admit, it’s bordering on an obsession. There are stacks of books throughout my house, my office at school, and quite often, in boxes waiting for me on my front porch. I am passionate about books and reading and I love to share this passion with the kids I teach. Many former students have come back to visit and say the thing they remembered most was how much I loved books, and how I helped them learn to love books and reading.
But what if you’re a teacher who doesn’t love books? One who doesn’t read much beyond magazines, newspapers or articles on the web? One who doesn’t call herself or himself a “reader”? Can you still help foster a love of reading in the kids you teach?
One of my grad students recently shared that she really isn’t a reader. She recognized that this might be a problem since she’s expected to teach kids how to read and that she wants the students in her class to love reading. She decided to join a book club at her school, and shared with the class that it was the first novel she’s read since high school. I admire her honesty and willingness to be a learner alongside her students. I was thrilled when this same student came to class on the day we were doing our Young Adult literature book clubs saying that she was hooked on these kinds of books. She couldn’t wait to read the rest of the suggested books on our list and she was amazed at how quickly she had read her book. She discovered the hidden reader inside of her, and couldn’t wait to continue finding more good books to read.
I’ve always loved reading. It came easy for me, and I’ve always seen it as a huge part of who I am.  Perhaps teachers who don’t consider themselves readers just haven’t found the right book or motivation. So what if this grad student found her way in to the reading world by starting with Young Adult novels.  How we get there doesn’t matter.  It’s finding that porthole that counts — a porthole that we can slip through to begin our life as a reader. Being a reader makes being a teacher of reading easier – it really does. When we “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk” our kids notice. And that reading bug of ours eventually bites them and they become kids who love to read too.

Is My Child Dyslexic?

If you have been teaching for a while you have probably come in contact with a parent of a child who is struggling learning to read who asks, “Is my child dyslexic?”  Here is what Frank Smith has to say about the term.

“This term is a label, not an explanation.  Dyslexia means, quite literally, being unable to read. Children are dyslexic because they can’t read.  To say that dyslexia is a cause of being unable to read is like saying that lameness is a cause of inability to walk.”

Is the brain of a struggling reader wired differently or is it permanently fixed as some parents and teachers might believe? With these questions in mind, let me digress a bit and share a story.

This past summer, my niece’s son, Josh (age 12) had brain surgery.  He had been experiencing seizures for the past year and a half.  Through all that time the doctors tried countless medicines to control the epilepsy but to no avail.  Surgery, to stop as many as 15 seizures a day, seemed the only option.  After months of tests to pinpoint the exact source of the seizures, a piece of his brain was cut out.  His parents were told that other parts of the brain would eventually take over the functions that were removed.

The good news is that Josh has been seizure free for several months now! Without going into too much detail, I will share that Josh lost considerable language skills and vocabulary immediately following the operation.   When questioned just days after the operation he could not come up with any answers to: “name some farm animals” or “name some video games” or “name some movies.” You can imagine the panic his parents experienced.  And yet after only 4 or 5 weeks, I saw Josh and his word retrieval issues had improved tremendously.  He recommended that I read Among the Hidden, a book he was reading for his English class. He then proceeded to tell me all about the book, including very specific details.  He is successfully functioning once again as a studious 7th grader!

This experience makes me realize all the more how malleable the brain is.  Carol Lyons talks about the plasticity of the brain. “Recent research in neuroscience shows that the brain can change its physical structure and its wiring long into adulthood through teaching and experience.”  She defines neuroplasticity, a power we have until old age, as “the ability of the brain to change in response to teaching.”

It is absolutely amazing what the brain is capable of! And yet, how many of us think that dyslexia is a permanent condition? How many teachers think that a child diagnosed with a learning disability implies that his brain is fixed forever?   How many doctors used to think that trying to rehabilitate a person with brain damage after a stroke was time wasted? I once heard the parent of an LD child say, “But he can’t do that because his brain works differently” as if there is a permanent situation that can’t be fixed. Now neuroscientists have proven all of those beliefs to be false.  This is great news!  Spread the word.

As teachers of reading we all have had those children who read ‘was’ for ‘saw’ or continually mix up b and d.  The longer the problem goes on, the harder it is to fix.  But there are ways to retrain the brain to work with these issues. And the earlier, the better. First and foremost, we need to teach reading as a meaning-making activity. A child who learns to read for meaning, will not mistake was/saw in. sentences such as, “Jesse saw the snake hidden under the rock” or  “I was having a hard time making up my mind between butter pecan and chocolate ripple.”  And if he does mistake it at first, he will quickly self-correct if he is reading for meaning.  You can also train the child to put a finger quickly under the first letter and make that sound.  It’s difficult to say the word ‘was’ if your lips are shaped and ready for an /s/ sound in ‘saw.” And vice versa.  Yes, these kids may have trouble with reversals, but we need to give them ways to solve those problems independently.

Ultimately the parent question I began with should really be, “Will you be able to teach my child to read?”  And hopefully we will answer, “Yes, I will keep working until I find the way to support your child in learning to read.”

What are your thoughts on this topic?  Do you believe that all children can learn to read?

To read more about how brain research relates to learning to read:

Lyons, Carol “Changing Lives Forever:  Looking Backward and Forward” Journal of Reading Recovery, Spring, 2010

Lyons, Carol.  Teaching Struggling Readers:  How to Use Brain-based Research to Maximize Learning, Heinemann, 2003.


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what brings me joy in my teaching life. Joy, by definition, is a source or cause of delight. I think back to my favorite teachers as a child, and it was clear that they found joy in teaching. I’m sure they had many of the same stressors that teachers today have, and yet, they remained joyful in spite of it all. Today, teachers are challenged daily with a zillion things that don’t hold a lot of joy, and in fact, some can be downright spirit crushing. But it’s up to us to create joy in our teaching lives, and share that joy with our kids and our colleagues.

Here are five things that bring joy to my teaching life.

  1. Sharing a new book with kids. I love books, and I love sharing books with kids. This week I shared a Piggie and Elephant book (We Are in a Book! by Mo Willems) with a class of first graders. Their laughter and excitement as I read the book was fabulous. They had such a hard time staying “criss-cross applesauce” on the rug – they wanted to stand up and get closer to the book.  And when I said they could find more of this series in the library they cheered. Seeing kids this excited about books and familiar authors is truly joyful!
  2. Inquiry. As a learner, I am most engaged when following a topic that I am passionate about and have a personal interest in. Inquiry projects with kids encourage questioning and allow them to pursue learning that directly relates to their lives. There is much joy in seeing a class constantly questioning and experiencing learning by co-constructing an evolving curriculum.
  3. Writing with kids. Teaching within a Writer’s Workshop is an amazing thing. I love how excited kids get when I share a new writer’s technique with them or when we discover something together about an author’s piece. I’m always impressed with how bravely and fearlessly young writers try on a new technique and play with it in their own writing. Sitting side-by-side with a writer gives me an opportunity to connect with that child and his or her writing and see the possibilities that hide within each writer. A child’s writing is something to celebrate and find joy in.
  4. Play. I believe in the importance of play. Through play we can learn so much about each other, the curriculum and ourselves. When we are playful, it is difficult to get upset, stressed out or cynical. Play should infiltrate our teaching lives (as well as our personal lives!).
  5. Kids. Kids bring joy to my life. The hugs, the funny things they say, the way they light up when they figure out a tricky part in a book or publish a story or solve a challenging math problem or discover a spider web on the playground.  My life wouldn’t be complete without a daily dose of kid joy.

What brings joy to your teaching life? 

What’s RIGHT with education?

Lately there has been a lot of talk about education in the news. Unfortunately, it seems to be a lot of talk about what’s wrong with education and how we can fix it. We’d like to take a minute to share our list of what’s right with education. What does it look like when things are going well? What are the signs that a school or a classroom doesn’t need to be “fixed?”

Here are a few of our thoughts.

1.  Teachers are smiling.

We’re not just talking about the “nice to meet you smiles,” but the genuine “I love my job” smiles. Those authentic smiles to kids, parents and colleagues in the hallways, classrooms and teacher’s lounges are signs that teachers love what they do. Teachers smile a lot more when they are respected, trusted, encouraged and celebrated.  A school most likely doesn’t need to be fixed when the teachers are happy.

2.  Kids are smiling.

We want our kids to love learning, love school, enjoy what they are doing, and feel valued as contributing members of the classroom community. It’s our job as teachers to make sure we’ve created the environment for this to happen.  Kids smile when they have choice in what they read and write, when they are listened to and respected, and when they are encouraged to do their best. A school most likely doesn’t need to be fixed when the kids are happy.

3.  Kids are reading and writing daily and growing as literate beings.

A school that is working well has kids engaged in daily, meaningful literacy work. Kids have ownership of their reading and writing and are given sufficient time each day to practice.  Kids aren’t doing mindless worksheets or isolated activities just to have something to turn in to the teacher.  Rather, they are being treated as real readers and writers in the world.  Their teachers are supporting them and helping them grow into proficient readers and writers.  That growth is measured in multiple ways, not just with test scores. A school most likely doesn’t need to be fixed when kids are engaged in meaningful literacy work.

4.  It is noisy.

We’re not talking about just random noise, but purposeful, meaningful literacy talk. Kids should be talking about their reading and writing daily. Literacy is social and kids (and adults) need time to talk in order to construct meaning and see the purpose that literacy has in their lives. A school most likely doesn’t need to be fixed when kids are talking about their thinking, their learning and their literate lives.

5 .  More teaching than testing is going on.

Teachers need to be interacting with and responding to the students in their classrooms.  Time is spent constructing the curriculum, choosing the read alouds, planning instruction, meeting with children to talk about their reading and writing, and assessing students based on their specific needs as learners.  A school most likely doesn’t need to be fixed when teachers are teaching and not just testing.

What else is happening in schools and classrooms that don’t need to be fixed?  We look forward to your thoughts!

Getting to know your readers

Most primary teachers early in the school year are busy trying to figure out what kind of readers they have in their classroom.  Some schools use standardized benchmark tests to level the students early in August or September, others use the data from the end of the last school year.  We’ve worked in schools where teachers are trained to use the DRA to assess all their students or they use parts of Clay’s Observation Survey tests to gather information.  We’ve also worked in other schools that use their own benchmark leveling system and others still that use only computer tests, spelling inventories, and word reading lists.

Whatever assessment system your school or district uses, we suggest that you also take time to just listen to your students read to you.  There is so much more than can be learned about a student by hearing him/her read in a comfortable setting.  You can hear how he attacks unknown words, how fluent he sounds, whether he rereads to check and confirm what he is reading, and so on.  By chatting with the student about the text, you can discover a lot about his comprehension. You are trying to discover what the child is able to do as a reader, what he can almost do, and some indications of what he still needs to learn how to do. Below is a list of tips of what to listen or watch for as each student shares a book with you.

  1. Watch for students who are reading to you in beginning pattern texts (levels 1-4) and seem to have memorized the book, but are not looking at the print.  Some may even be inventing the text based on the pictures and show no evidence of voice/print match. Encouraging one-to-one matching of text is your starting point with these students.
  2. Listen for all aspects of fluency.  Does the student read in groups of words or does it sound choppy like robot reading?  Does the child seem to attend to the punctuation to help her decide how the sentence should sound?  Is she reading in a monotone rather than making the dialogue parts sound like a character talking? Fluency (pacing, phrasing, intonation, and attention to punctuation) can be taught; it’s more than just a child’s speed and accuracy.
  3. Be on the alert for the student who shows no evidence of self-monitoring.  Is he skipping words he doesn’t know or just making garbled sounds when he doesn’t recognize the word instantly? Does he read phrases that make no sense, but doesn’t stop or reread to try and fix his error?  Teaching for self-monitoring behaviors needs to start with the earliest readers.
  4. Watch for students who seem to be able to read texts that they are familiar with, but then get stumped with a new book on similar levels.  These children don’t appear to have any strategies for solving words.  (It is possible for some students to slip by us, having memorized early level texts).  They need to learn beginning strategies for solving words and understanding texts.
  5. Watch for English language learners who read words with no meaning.  Some seem to “sound OK” when they are reading aloud to us, but we notice their comprehension is lacking.  Work to discover what is getting in the way.  Often a word in English that has multiple meanings, an unknown vocabulary word, an awkward phrase, or an idiomatic expression is what is tricky for the ELL.
  6. Make note of a student who only uses visual information (sounding out letters) for solving words.  He needs to learn how to integrate all the sources of information for figuring out new words.
  7. Notice those students who tested beyond level 10 and yet are not starting to take words apart.  They are still sounding letter-by-letter and are not looking for parts they know.  They will need to learn more about how words work.

For further reading about some of these topics see the following pages/chapters in Catching Readers Before They Fall:

Assessment: Chapter 10

Fluency: 37-39, 56-57, 124-127

Self-monitoring: 36-37, 123-124

Sources of information and/or word solving strategies: Chapter 4

Beginning reading strategies and behaviors:  Chapter 7

Working with ELLS: Chapters 6 and 7

Additional information in One Child at a Time: Fluency, chapter 4; Self-monitoring, chapter 5; ELLS, chapter 7.

Enjoy getting to know your readers this school year.  What are some of the things you are discovering?

Katie & Pat