One lesson I learned in my early years as a teacher was that students learn more, I have more time to teach, and the classroom seems to work more smoothly when everyone in the room is on the same page with our use of language and procedures. This may not seem critical or important, but when these things aren’t in place, lots of teaching and learning time is wasted due to continual explanation and re-explanation of where to go, where to find things, what to bring, what to do, and how to do it.
A big part of being a member of a community is knowing the terms used and expected procedures and routines for how things work. For example, when I say, “Readers, meet me in the meeting area for reading workshop,” my students know it means it’s time to grab their reading notebook, pencil, and current book, walk to the meeting area, and sit next to their literacy partner because the lesson is going to start soon. This does not happen by chance. Rather, it happens intentionally with explanation and practice at the start of the school year. Eventually, it becomes a natural, expected part of our day to day community. Everyone is in-the-know and our reading learning starts off seamlessly without too much fuss or confusion.
If students forget what they need to bring or do, there is a co-created chart for reference displayed in the room. All it takes is the point of a finger or reminder from a friend to check the chart to support students who need a nudge. The chart is also helpful for guest teachers, new students, and visitors to welcome them into our community.
Plus, when a common set of procedures and language are in place, students feel supported and safe. They feel in community with everyone else who share the common procedures and language.
Every classroom community is comprised of unique individuals who make it a special place to teach and learn. The terms and procedures in my classroom might look a little different than the terms and procedures in your classroom. Spending time explaining, co-creating, teaching, practicing, and learning the terms and procedures in your classroom at the very start of the year will be time well spent that will make your students feel safe and confident and will ultimately save you a ton of instructional minutes in the future.
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.
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.
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 8/27/22. 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
*This post was originally published on 5/30/22. It was updated on 6/4/22 as I added even more resources to my summer learning stack! Enjoy!*
Summer break is just weeks away or already here for many! It’s the perfect time to unwind, recharge, and do a little self-paced reading or learning in a book club!
If you and your colleagues are reading Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Reading in a summer book club, I’d love to casually chat with you and answer questions through Zoom (or potentially even in person if you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area or Seattle area). Additionally, if you are leading a group of new teachers or preservice teachers, please do not hesitate to reach out this summer or in the fall. I will always make time to openly chat with new and preservice teachers– I’m here to answer their questions, hear their thinking/feedback, and ultimately learn from them as well! Just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A key aspect of Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Reading is pointing teachers in the direction of other great resources to continue their learning and answer further questions. I am the teacher I am today because my first year mentor, Midge, introduced me to the habit of professional reading to continually inform my practice. This summer, I plan to read and reread the following professional texts. I hope you’ll join me in reading one or more of these books!
If you’re looking to make your writing instruction more student-centered or are looking to make your writing routines, procedures, and instruction more effective, Melanie Meehan has you covered with her newest book, Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Writing. Does the book look familiar? My book and Melanie’s are in the same series! We actually even collaborated during the process of writing the books as well.
If you’re looking to make your literacy practice more culturally responsive and are ready to do the work and make some important changes to benefit all students, Dr. Kim Parker has the book for you with Literacy is Liberation: Working Toward Justice Through Culturally Relevant Teaching. A key focus of this book is the emphasis on creating an intentional space and community where students feel safe to talk about pressing issues.
What a complete joy it was to read this gorgeous book by Donalyn Miller and Teri Lesesne. I highly recommend the audiobook read by Donalyn herself! Helping every child find reading joy is in reach of all classroom teachers. The Joy of Reading offers key considerations and shifts in classroom practice to make reading joy a reality for all students.
This new book by Afrika Afeni Mills will be released in a few weeks, and I cannot wait to dive in. Open Windows, Open Minds: Developing Antiracist, Pro-Human Students, “fills an important gap in the arena of diversity, equity and inclusion... If you’re a White educator or parent, this book will help you to let go of the things that no longer serve you, and to teach your students to embrace those things that will help create welcoming environments where all feel a sense of belonging.” (review from Zaretta Hammond on Corwin’s website). This is a book many of us need, myself included as a White teacher working to do better.
I typically only write about literacy education, but like most elementary school teachers, I teach all subjects! The longer I teach, the more it’s confirmed that my classroom instruction is more impactful for students when I blend subjects by concurrently finding cross-curricular and community connections. Enter Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Math. From Building a positive math community to encouraging talk about math, the four authors of this book bring their years of math expertise into this question/answer format book that is sure to help all who teach or support elementary math. If this one also looks familiar, it’s in the same series as mine and Melanie Meehan’s books!
A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Workshop Mini lessons by the writing team of Lisa Eikholdt and Patty Vitale-Reilly will support both new and veteran teachers alike in mastering the important teaching method of mini lessons. As a new teacher many years ago, my area of focus was keeping my mini lessons mini– this is no easy feat! Now, as a veteran teacher who’s mastered timing, my current area of focus is ensuring all of my mini lessons are relevant and engaging for all students while still keeping them appropriately academically challenging. I wish I had this book as a new teacher, and I’m so glad I have it now as a veteran!
Interested in additional budget-friendly options for professional learning this summer? A few months ago, Melanie Meehan, Georgina Rivera, and I recorded a webinar about bringing more joy to the elementary classroom. This hour-long webinar can be found for free embedded here or at this link on YouTube. In this video, we offer lots of “party favors” (free teaching resources) for teachers.
Another resource I highly recommend reading, rereading, and savoring throughout the summer months is the annual 31 Days IBPOCblog series (linked here) hosted by Tricia Ebarvia and Dr. Kim Parker (author of the above recommended book, Literacy is Liberation). Every May, 31 educators of color generously share a blog post with the education world and beyond. I have learned a ton over the years from this blog series and have found many authors and educators to continually seek out and learn from because of it.
The final resource I have to share is a podcast I recently participated in with a few educators I deeply admire. In this podcast, Dear School Leaders (linked here), from Peter DeWitt’s Leaders Coaching Leaders podcast, Ayanna Perry, Matt Kay, Georgina Rivera and I discuss building community, relevancy for students, authenticity, teacher entry points, book banning, and so much more! The podcast can be found at the included link or on most podcast hosting platforms.
Whatever you do to support your professional learning this summer, please also prioritize rest, recreation, and recharging. It’s been a rough year for all of us in schools. I, for one, need a reset.
Also, check back here periodically over the summer or click the blue follow button to have more teaching and learning tips delivered directly to your inbox.
I hope this summer brings you and your loved ones what you need.