I just spent the first two days of school with my new group of 5th graders. We are already on our way to growing into a community of readers. Over the past two days, I observed my fifth graders choosing and reading books from browsing boxes set at each table. I also spent a lot of time listening to their conversations to learn more about them.
In a couple days, I’m going to give our first book choice lesson of the year. Years ago when I set students free in the classroom library prior to teaching about choice, I noticed some students didn’t know where to start and seemed a bit overwhelmed by all of the reading options. This caused some of them to just grab a book without previewing it, which in many cases led to unengaged reading or repeated book abandonment. Because of this, I started explicitly teaching students how to choose books.
Two Questions to Consider When Teaching Book CHoice
Interest: Does this book look like it will interest me?
Readability: Do I understand what I’m reading?
Inviting students to ask themselves these two questions (or versions of the questions) when considering whether or not to select and stick with a book has the power to guide them in an authentic, transferrable way each time choice arises.
The way these questions are framed and explained in the lower and upper grades will vary. For example, when thinking about question two, in a first grade class, I might ask students to consider if they can read most of the words on a page yet. If not, this is a book that might be saved and understood for later instead of a book to read right now.* I avoid the terms “just right” and “at your level” because those are fixed, rigid, and often have a negative connotation with young readers. Instead, I opt toward language that emphasizes growth and learning. I’ve found students engage more in this deep thinking about their choices when it’s framed as “books to read now,” and then “books to look forward to reading later.” Those books for later can even be saved on a to-be-read list. Students learn that the more they grow and learn as readers, the more books they will be able to read and enjoy in the future!
In a fourth grade class, it will look and sound a little different. I might invite students to ask themselves if they want to talk about the book with a friend after trying out a few pages. If it is a book they do not want to talk about or a book that just isn’t holding their interest, it’s time to pick a new book. The big idea is that I want to give students tools and strategies so they can successfully choose books on their own. Much more is involved in book choice, but this is a good starting point to think about the language of book choice in the elementary classroom. Pages 49-54 in Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Reading go much more in depth.
Keep in Mind
Book choice is an art, not a science. It might be messy and mistakes will be made. Embrace these times as learning opportunities for next instructional steps.
One lesson on book choice is never enough for all students. Some students will likely still need your support with choosing books they can read and want to read. Teach toward independence, but don’t expect it immediately.
*While kids must have access to books they can accurately read (decode and understand), they also need to explore books of high interest- even if they can’t yet decode all the words. For example, if a 1st grader wants to read a book about dinosaurs but can’t decode all the words, of course you encourage them to keep that book! They can have that book AND books they can accurately decode. Book choice is nuanced and complex. To learn more about the different types of books (emergent story books, decodables, etc.) that will especially support kindergarten and first grade readers, take a look at pages 96-100 in Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Reading.
One of the more powerful things a teacher can do to both positively build a reading community and enhance teaching and learning is to embrace the mind shift of seeking out what students are doing as opposed to what they are not doing.
When students feel valued and that their strengths are seen and honored before all else, many positives will arise. Some of the benefits I noticed in my own classroom when I made this shift years ago were that students became more likely to share, their motivation grew, they felt safer to take risks in their learning, and they started to support and lift each other up more.
If making the shift to asset-based thinking about students is new to you, consider framing your thinking around these questions. Sometimes, the first questions will be all you need. Other times, you’ll need to use the second question to guide your thinking.
What is this student doing well? or What is a reading strength I see in this student?
How can I turn this observation into a positive to better serve this student?
I actually have these questions written on a note taped to my conferring clipboard. So, every time I meet with a student, I’m reminded to seek out the assets before all else. Below are two examples of intentionally pushing my thinking as a teacher to make the shift from deficit-based thinking to asset-based. The more you make the shift, the easier it will become. Eventually, it will become your default way of thinking if you continually work on it.
It’s quite easy to notice all the things that aren’t going well. Noticing the positives, or reframing the perceived deficits to be assets will change the trajectory of your reading community in a big way!
Oodles of studies have found many different benefits to students engaging in a high volume of reading. If you’re interested in taking a look at some of those studies, Donalyn Miller beautifully wrote about and linked many of the research articles seven years ago in her piece titled I’ve Got Research. Yes I Do. I’ve Got Research. How About You? Over the years, I’ve referenced this piece again and again when helping teachers make the case for independent reading in their schools. More recently, Dr. Richard Allington and Dr. Anne McGill-Franzen, published Reading Volume and Reading Achievement: A Review of Recent Research, which also shows evidence that reading volume plays a key part in reading development.
The way to achieve a high volume of reading for all of your students is by creating an established time for daily supported independent reading in class. Unfortunately, there is some misunderstanding about how daily supported independent reading time looks and works in a classroom setting. Some think that independent reading time is unproductive in classrooms; hence the need to still make the argument for it. But, this is simply not true. After reading Miller and Moss’ No More Independent Reading Without Support, I started adding the word supported when speaking and writing about independent reading time. This is a critical piece. While students are engaged in reading, the teacher is always actively supporting them. This support can come in many forms: book choice support, environmental support (places to comfortably sit, help with eliminating distraction, etc.), intentionally planned instructional small groups based on student strengths & needs, individual reading conferences, and authentic reading stations/centers (mostly in the primary grades). Without support in place, many students might not experience the success in reading that they all have a right to find.
A reading community cannot be established and continually nurtured without a sacred time each day set aside for supported independent reading. In my own teaching schedule, this time occurs each day from the moment students walk in the door for about 25-40 minutes. Then, there is another supported reading time later in the day as well. With all of the distractions, interruptions, and schedule irregularities that take place in elementary schools (have I ever mentioned the lost hour in my classroom a few years back thanks to an ant invasion?), this guarantees my students will receive the reading support and time they need each day. All teaching schedules and situations are different, so I recommend taking a look at your schedule with the expectation that interruptions will arise, and selecting a time of day or two for daily supported independent reading with a contingency plan in case an interruption pops up. If you’d like to see sample schedules, here are two from my colleague’s kindergarten classroom and my own fifth grade classroom.
Whatever time of day you choose to dedicate to supported independent reading time, the key is to be consistent while still embracing flexibility. If reading time is interrupted, think about and have a plan for how you can fit it in later in the day.
If it seems that more time needs to be created in your school day, take a hard look at your schedule and ask yourself what you can eliminate. If a literacy coach or a like-minded supportive grade level partner is available, you might consider asking them for schedule advice as well. Many teachers find more time in their schedule when they eliminate old practices like morning seat work (worksheets to keep kids busy) and Daily Oral Language drills, which have not been shown to improve students’ authentic reading and writing.
In the words of one of my fifth graders from this past school year, “Reading books I love everyday and talking about them with my friends was the best part of 5th grade!” I’m so excited to support more students find this joy within the reading community this school year!
In the coming posts in this series, I’ll discuss more on supporting students during supported independent reading time. Stay tuned!
Choice and access to a classroom library full of books is an incredibly joyous, central part of thriving classroom reading community. Getting books into students’ hands from the get-go is key for setting the tone that reading is the central focus of the school year together. However, for students who have not experienced choice before, this access can also be quite overwhelming. Contrary to what some might think, choice is something that actually needs to be taught to support elementary students with making solid book picks for themselves (the fifth post in this series will take a deep dive into teaching choice).
To ease the overwhelm and still provide all students choice in their reading at the start of the school year, give browsing boxes a try. During the first two to three days of school while I am still introducing procedures for the classroom library and tweaking it a bit based on learning more about my students, I place browsing boxes full of books of different topics, genres, and readability at each student group table. Students browse though the books in the boxes while chatting with their table mates. The boxes provide book access, more opportunity for student conversation, and choice in reading without the overwhelm a larger classroom library might bring at first.
Steps to Getting Started with Browsing Boxes
Gather large boxes to fill that will be placed at student tables.
Select a wide variety of books including different genres, topics, and even books from past grade levels that might serve to give some students the comfort and familiarity they need in a new classroom. I like to ask my colleagues in the grade levels below me about some loved books in the prior school years.
Place the books in the boxes.
Places the boxes at student tables for student reading choice. Encourage students to try out some of the books and even settle in to reading one or more. Also be sure to encourage conversation around the books: What looks good to you? Have you read this book before? etc.
Use with flexibility! Remember, browsing boxes are a starting point, not a gatekeeper to other books. If a student sees a book of interest in a different browsing box or somewhere else in the room, offer the book to the child!
Take note of the books students are gravitating toward. This will be valuable information for you moving forward. Swap books out if needed.
Have a plan for removal or an extension of the browsing boxes. They may continue to serve a purpose in other ways throughout the school year, but their purpose is to be a starting point of comfort to get students accustomed to choice. They are not the end point when it comes to choosing books.
Browsing boxes work in every grade level. Many kindergarten and first grade teachers even make use of them well after the first weeks of school. As long as boxes are kept fresh with books being added and swapped out, browsing boxes can serve different purposes all year long in classrooms. They can even be used instructionally. Pages 52-53 and 100 of Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Reading discuss using browsing boxes along with instructional reading more in-depth.
The key thing to remember for the first days of school is that browsing boxes offer curated choice in a way that is manageable for students before complete open access to the classroom library is given.
Before diving in to the academics of the school year, prioritize learning more about your students as the full and complete people they are. All students come to our classrooms with full and complete lives comprised of many aspects that should be both appreciated and celebrated. Their experiences, interests, and backgrounds need to be fully seen and celebrated if they are to feel like valued members of the classroom community.
Taking the time to really get to know your students will build their trust in you, deepen your relationship with them, and enable you to better make decisions about language to use, books to seek out, and so much more regarding reading instruction. Plus, and perhaps most importantly, when you get to know and celebrate your students for the people they are, they will feel more comfortable and confident in celebrating themselves and each other.
Classroom Practices to Better Learn ABout Your Students During the First Weeks of School
Start your school days with a morning meeting, or as I like to call it, morning circle, where we all sit in a large circle facing each other. Pose questions for students to consider and verbally answer to get to know them (*note- it’s also important to allow students to pass. It takes some more time to feel comfortable speaking in front of the whole group, and this should always be respected). Also, in addition to you getting to know students, this will enable students to learn more about each other. Choose a question or two each day that applies to all students. Avoid questions about material possessions, vacations, and anything that would not equitably apply to all students. Some questions to get you started might include:
What is something you enjoy doing with your family?
What is a favorite food you like to eat at home?
What is one activity you like to do outside of school?
What is something that makes you smile?
What is one special thing you’d like to share with all of us? TIP: Also be sure to share your answers to these questions as well. Students are more likely to share their lives with us when we also share our lives with them.
Prioritize conferring from day one. If you’ve read this blog or any of my writing before, you know that conferring is the most trusted tool in my teacher toolbox. A conference is a one on one conversation between two people. It can be instructional or just informational. Contrary to what some might say, there are no required steps to a conference, especially to a conference with the purpose of getting to know another person. A bonus of engaging in casual conversation conferences during the first couple weeks of school is that doing so will also build students’ comfort level with conferring when instructional conferences begin. To start beginning of the school year conferences, simply sit beside students one at a time, ask if you can join them for a minute or so to chat, ask a thoughtful question, and listen. Students should do most of the talking. A casual conference can start with
How are you enjoying school so far?
What has been your favorite part of our first couple school days together.
Do you have any suggestions for our classroom? TIP: After the short conversation, end the conference with a celebratory statement. A simple, “I am so glad we chatted and am so glad you’re in my class this year!”
Give students lots of time to chat with each other. One of the best ways to get to know students, and to help them get to know each other and find comfort in the classroom, is to offer multiple opportunities throughout each day for them to chat with each other. While they are chatting, listen in to learn more. But, be sure to listen rather than talk so they are the ones setting the tone and topics for the conversations. Here are a few simple ways to do this within the first days of school:
One thing: In table groups, or in small groups of 3-5, ask students to find one thing they all have in common outside of school. Encourage students to start by simply asking each other basic questions– How many siblings do you have?Do you play or watch any sports?Do you enjoy music?etc. I’ve been doing this activity for years, and I can safely say there is no other activity that provides nearly as much information about students in a short amount of time! As students do this, I roam around the room and listen in. When groups have found one thing, ask them to find another. Students of all ages absolutely love this activity as it gives them a safe space to share their lives and get to know the lives of their classmates.
Free choice time: Providing students with free choice time a few times within the first couple weeks of school enables me to learn their preferences in activities, listen in to authentic student conversation that naturally occurs, and allows me to see whether students prefer to work with others, independently, or a mix of the two. During free choice time, students may choose to read, draw, write, play/build with blocks, play games, work on puzzles, and more. They may choose to do things with others or independently. They are also free to change their minds and try something new! TIP: Free choice time does not mean unstructured time or a free-for-all. Prior to the first free choice time, sit down with students to co-create a set of norms for this time.A co-creation of norms is a community builder within itself as it gives students voice and choice in classroom procedures.
At the end of the first two weeks of school, sit down before or after school one day to list three outside-of-school asset-based facts or celebrations you’ve learned about each of your students. Doing this not only solidifies your learning about your students, but it will also show you which students you will still need to learn more about. The first step in building any community, reading or otherwise, is learning about and then celebrating its members. Dr. Gholdy Muhammad reminds us, and I strongly agree that, “It is our job as educators to not just teach skills, but also to teach students to know, validate, and celebrate who they are.” Once you celebrate your students as the people they are, it opens up space for them to celebrate themselves in the classroom community. There is nothing more important in education.
Like many of you, I will be heading back to my classroom soon. While still relishing in the final days of summer relaxation (and let’s be honest, recovery from the past two and a half tumultuous school years), I’m beginning to think about the steps I’ll take starting on the first day of school to build a classroom reading community that will enable each of my individual students to become members of a collective, supportive, cohesive community of readers.
A well formed community is celebratory in the good times, supportive in the tough times, and successful due to everyone collectively working together toward common goals that evolve over time as the community grows. Also, being a member of a safe and nurturing reading community makes students more apt to take risks and unabashedly embrace new learning. Building a well formed reading community doesn’t happen by chance. It takes intention with teaching decisions, consistent practices, and predictable procedures. It goes well beyond the pages of any required curriculum.
The upcoming posts in this blog series will be short for end-of-summer reading ease but packed with practical ideas and methods that I have refined over the years in my own fifth grade classroom and the classrooms of my lower grade teaching colleagues (who always graciously try out my ideas, offer feedback, and invite me into their classrooms to work with their students).
This series will run from 8/1/22 to 8/19/22. Follow the blog to receive every post in your email inbox or check back here then. All posts will be linked here after they publish.
This letter is for you if your paper has published anything about the resurgence of the so-calledReading Wars, which many of us who actually teach in classrooms choose not to engage in. Frankly, we’re too busy teaching children of varying strengths and needs to get caught up in this unfortunate debate steeped in misunderstanding.However, the record needs to be set straight about what works for children. I agree in that not all children are getting what they need. All children need responsive teacherswho take the time to learn their individual strengths and needs and then know how to respond accordingly. And, to be clear, the onus of this falls on more people than the teacher in the classroom– I’ll get to that later in this letter. Thank you for reading.
Years ago when I taught third grade during this one particular school year, most of my class entered my classroom as fluent readers. In this third grade class of 24 students, three of my students at the time still needed more focused, intentional instruction in decoding. I learned this rather quickly through conferring with these students within the first two weeks of school. Luckily, I had access to great curricular materials to use at my discretion that specifically focused on phonics instruction in small chunks each day.
Over a four-month period, I met with these three students in a small group during supported independent reading time for 7-15 minutes four to five days each week to give them the decoding lessons that the rest of the class simply did not need. Because these three students needed the lessons, they found them highly engaging. After each lesson, they spent time reading books they chose that they could read and wanted to read to transfer the decoding skills they just learned to their actual reading.
This is an example of responsive teaching. I used ongoing formative assessment to figure out my students’ individual strengths and needs so I could respond accordingly.
Now, imagine if I gave my entire class of 24 readers these lessons as a whole group. The 21 kids who simply did not need the lessons would have been completely bored and quickly disengaged. If you’ve ever taught in a classroom with children who become disengaged (I’ve been there– all classroom teachers have!), you know how disruptive it can be for the children who desperately need the lesson at hand. It is simply ineffective teaching for everyone in the room. Additionally, valuable reading time for the disengaged children would have been wasted on something they didn’t need.
Think about the reverse now. If I chose not to give those three students the lessons, or if didn’t know it was an option to deviate from “grade-level” instruction, and only taught from one set of materials, those three children would not have fully learned to read that year. They would have left third grade as non-readers who likely would have either developed coping mechanisms to painfully survive in school or different behaviors to self-sooth and deal with their frustration.
Responsive teaching, or providing students with what they individually need in order to thrive, was the answer then. It still is the answer today, nearly 15 years later.
It’s simply untrue to say that all kids need the same thing at the same time in order to thrive. It’s also wrong to say teachers must use this method or that approach in order to be successful. Now, it is safe to say that many or most kindergarteners will benefit from intentionally planned lessons in phonemic awareness and phonics. Also, it’s fair to say that many or most fifth graders will benefit from well developed lessons on how to use text evidence to back-up claims about their reading. Statements like these about teaching and learning can be made with nearly every age group. However, to say all kids learn a certain way or that all teachers must follow a script, a program, or a specific methodology in order to be effective is simply false. It’s easy to say and do, thus the widespread appeal. But, it’s just downright ineffective when teaching a classroom of different learners who deserve to be seen and known and loved by their teachers.
Being a responsive literacy teacher is what works. A responsive literacy teacher spends time getting to know students and responds accordingly. A responsive literacy teacher deviates from the plan when they realize said plan won’t work for some students. However, being a responsive literacy teacher is not easy. Herein lies the issue. Many people are looking for easy fixes or the one right program to teach reading and writing. These things simply don’t exist. If school systems truly care about literacy education, they would put all of their resources into developing their teaching force to be truly responsive to all students. It takes five main things to achieve this: Belief, curricular materials, on-going professional learning, time, and class size.
Belief To be a responsive literacy teacher, one needs to believe that all students want to read and will learn to read. No exceptions here. As teachers, we simply must believe with our whole hearts in all of our students. Without this belief, nothing else matters.
Curricular Materials When I say curricular materials, I do not mean a specific program developed by a for-profit company (who are making loads of money right now due to their misleading marketing capitalizing on the resurgence of the so-called Reading Wars). When I say curricular materials, I mean that teachers need to have access to a wide variety of classroom library books that represent all children in the classroom and community, small group books, lessons, and other various materials to support their instructional decision making. A new teacher walking into an empty classroom with no guidance or materials for decision making will have an incredibly challenging time being a responsive literacy teacher. School systems need to ensure teachers have access to a wide variety of materials from which to choose. States need to equitably and properly fund school systems in order for them to be able to do this. Teachers should not be expected to pay out of pocket for their own teaching materials.
On-Going Professional Learning This is a huge missing piece in most school systems. It takes on-going professional learning to be a responsive literacy teacher. It is incredibly difficult for teachers to be responsive if they have never learned how. On-going professional learning does not refer to trainings on how to use a program. To the contrary, teachers need to know what to do when the plan and program don’t work for some students.
On-going professional learning takes place with colleagues to learn and collaborate around how to best teach students by building on their individual strengths and pinpointing their specific needs to then address them. It doesn’t take place once or twice a year, nor does it happen on a computer. The best professional learning I ever engaged in was delivered by staff developers who worked alongside my colleagues and me inside our classrooms on an ongoing basis. We watched our staff developers teach, tried out the modeled methods ourselves, received coaching feedback, and reflected on the lessons and most importantly, how students responded to the lessons. The best professional learning is done in the classroom with a literacy coach or staff developer who has an ongoing relationship with both teachers and students. I’ve seen it work. I’ve been both the coach who delivers this type of professional learning and the teacher who receives the coaching. It is powerful and highly impactful! I am a responsive teacher because I have the know-how of years and years of benefitting from solid professional learning.
Time Curricular materials and professional learning won’t go very far if teachers are not provided ample time to think, collaborate, rethink, and plan with their colleagues. Consider it this way: I can have the best ingredients and cooking lessons from a Michelin-rated chef, but they will do me no good in preparing a world class meal for friends and family unless I have ample time and space to practice the cooking methods it takes to make the meal. Teachers need time. Like world-class chefs, responsive teachers need time and space to practice and process with their materials and learning.
Class Size Simply put, and this does not require much explanation, class size greatly matters. It is reasonable for a teacher with 20 students to be responsive to students’ strengths and needs. It is completely unreasonable to expect this of a teacher in a classroom packed with close to 30 students. Most teachers I know will still try, but it will not be likely that all kids’ needs will be met in an over-packed classroom. If you disagree with me, I suspect you have never actually worked as an elementary school classroom teacher.
Other Factors To be completely honest, there are likely some things I’m not considering right now that also play a role in responsive teaching. Also, responsive teaching is what can be done inside the classroom. Many other factors also play a role in a child’s literacy development outside the classroom. Did the child have access to a preschool that emphasized oral language and cooperative, imaginative play? Does the child have access to books at home– to build on to this, does the child’s community of residence support families by having systems in place to provide accessible early literacy experiences like a community library with books in languages spoken within the community?
Teaching literacy is a beautiful blend of art, science, resources, time, and much more. I’m a very different teacher than I was 10 years ago. I know I will be a very different teacher 10 years from now.
The next time a reporter is tasked with writing about literacy education, please encourage them to dig a little deeper. If they say the answer is simple and can’t understand why teachers aren’t using the magic solution, be wary. Be very wary and ask that reporter to go back and research a bit more. The answer is not simple. Being a responsive teacher is incredibly challenging work that requires a great deal of systemic support. Frankly, the system as a whole just isn’t there yet, though it should be.
Respectfully, Christina Nosek -Responsive teacher -24 year elementary educator -Certificated reading specialist -Author of two books on the teaching of reading -Classroom teacher who is continually learning and growing