Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The School Book Room: An Oasis for Readers

The School Book Room: An Oasis for Readers 

Jenny McFerin, K-2 Literacy Collaborative Trainer

Book rooms can be an oasis for teachers; a place to find the resources needed to quench our students’ thirst for quality, engaging, and enjoyable stories. Book rooms are a way for buildings to house a variety of texts in one location. Texts in book rooms range in many levels so that the instructional needs of all readers are met. This variety in level and genre provides opportunities for students to learn the written language and to love stories. It would not be an inefficient use of space and resources if each classroom housed its own set of leveled texts for students. A book room provides a space where teachers can access all levels of books as needed for students. Working with colleagues on organizing and maintaining this efficient system will help share responsibility and build capacity.

How should a book room be organized and maintained?

Book room organization and maintenance are personalized from building to building. The text, Matching Books to Readers: Using Leveled Books in Guided Reading, K-3 (Fountas and Pinnell 1990), offers many suggestions for starting and maintaining a school book room. Share this photo journal below with your literacy team. What else can you do to maximize the book room in your building?

At Northwestern Elementary School, Springfield, Ohio, teachers can check out guided reading books using an electronic system. When books are ready to be returned, teachers place the books on the cart and a volunteer puts them away. The literacy coach, Amanda Husted, works hard with the literacy team to order and maintain a variety of books.

Some schools use a self-check out system. Teachers keep track of the books they have taken from the book room using clothes pins or index cards. 


These are boxes with books. The blue cards have the book title and number of copies

Each teacher has a card packet on this bulletin board. When a teacher checks out a set of books she places the blue card from the book box into her card pocket.

This is a printout from the data base created for the book room at Harding Elementary in Youngstown, Ohio (Genevieve Bodnar, Literacy Coach). Teachers can easily locate titles of books and levels. This also serves as an inventory to aid the literacy team when a new order is needed.

Literacy coach, Prudy Platt from Paul C. Bunn Elementary in Youngstown, Ohio has a section in the book room for Keep Books®. Teachers can use this home-school connection by finding the just right book for children to read at school, then children take the books home to keep.

Heather Myers, literacy coach at William Holmes McGuffey Elementary in Youngstown, Ohio uses the whiteboard in the book room as a communication center with her staff.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Power of Shared Reading

The power of shared reading

by Jenny McFerin
K-2 University Trainer

We live in data driven schools. Over time, we teachers have become very good at collecting and analyzing data. Once we know what students need, devising a plan and executing the plan can be a challenge. In a recent action research experience, a group of literacy coaches in training were working together with the second grade team at Prairie Lincoln Elementary (Southwestern City Schools, Columbus, Ohio). Our group of professionals included classroom teachers, literacy coaches, literacy coaches in training, the building principal, and a university trainer. Together, we were learning about the students in a low progress reading group. As we analyzed each student's strengths and needs it became clear that all students needed further support in detecting errors and self correcting. 

We knew what the children needed, now we had to decide how to teach them. We chose to use shared reading to demonstrate how to notice errors and fix them while reading. Shared reading is a context where the teacher is processing the text while students are following along. It is important that the children can clearly see the text; big books or enlarged poems are some examples. 

The teacher demonstrated what to do when something in the reading did not match. The teacher demonstrated what to do to fix the error. Then, the teacher and the children shared the reading, stopping and talking through thinking when they encountered errors. As the students took on the reading, we began to see small shifts in their readings; they were stopping when words did not match, they were rereading to fix the errors!

Consider the power in explicit demonstration through shared reading when making a plan for teaching children how to notice and fix errors

Monday, September 24, 2012

Interactive Read-Aloud Recommendations

Interactive Read-Aloud Recommendations
By Wendy Sheets, Intermediate Trainer
When engaging children in the practice of Interactive Read-Aloud, it is important to choose high quality text that will promote good conversation. In addition, exposing students to a wide range of authors, genre, and content will broaden their repertoire of experiences. I am often asked for a list of recommendations, and although many lists have been published by others, I’ve compiled my own personal list of favorites. What follows is a variety of titles that I have personally used during Interactive Read-Aloud with intermediate readers. I would love to hear some of your favorites as well!

A Drop of Water: A Book of Science and Wonder by Walter Wick

A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams by Jen Bryant

A Unicorn Named Beulah Mae by J.H. Stroschin

Abe’s Honest Words: The Life of Abraham Lincoln by Doreen Rappaport

Amelia Earhart: The Legend of the Lost Aviator by Shelley Tanaka

An Angel for Solomon Singer by Cynthia Rylant

Beethoven Lives Upstairs by Barbara Nichol

Bigmama’s by Donald Crews

Chicken Sunday by Patricia Polacco

Christmas Tapestry by Patricia Polacco

Coming on Home Soon by Jacqueline Woodson

Crab Moon by Ruth Horowitz

Crow Call by Lois Lowry

Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill

Dear Willie Rudd, by Liba Moore Gray

Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin

Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting

Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say

Grandpa’s Face by Eloise Greenfield

Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine

I Love You the Purplest by Barbara M. Joosse

Listen to the Wind: The Story of Dr. Greg & Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and Susan L. Roth

Ma Dear’s Aprons by Patricia McKissack

Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Doreen Rappaport

More Than Anything Else by Marie Bradby

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford

My Mama Had a Dancing Heart by Libba Gray

My Name is York by Elizabeth Van Steenwyk

Mr. Peabody’s Apples by Madonna

New York’s Bravest by Mary Pope Osborne

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen

Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco

Rosa by Nikki Giovanni

Rumpelstiltskin by Paul O. Zelinsky

Saturdays and Teacakes by Lester L. Laminack

Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson

Sit In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney

Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin
Sophie's Masterpiece by Eileen Spinelli

Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson

Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco

The Brothers Kennedy: John, Robert, Edward by Kathleen Krull

 The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

The Lotus Seed by Sherry Garland and Tatsuro Kiuchi

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski

The Moon Over Star by Dianna Hutts Aston

The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson

The Three Questions by Jon J. Muth

Train to Somewhere by Eve Bunting

Twilight Comes Twice by Ralph Fletcher

Under the Quilt of Night by Deborah Hopkinson

Up North at the Cabin by Marsha Wilson Chall

Welcome to the River of Grass by Jane Yolen

When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson by Pam Munoz Ryan

Who Was the Woman Who Wore the Hat? by Nancy Patz


Monday, July 30, 2012

Using Technology to Enhance Dialogue

Using Technology to Enhance Dialogue

by Jenny McFerin, OSU Literacy Collaborative Trainer

Just the other day, my children (Abby and Connor), along with my niece (Quinn), were playing. They started off playing school. During their play I noticed how they were effortlessly using their electronic devices to enhance the learning at ‘school’. For the announcements, the principal had her iPad which helped her give the weather report. The teacher used the iPod to create a list of assignments the class would have to complete. The student used the iPod to research ocean animals (the area of focus for the day). Then, something happened at ‘school’. Everyone scattered, each with an electronic device in hand…one upstairs, one downstairs, and one outside. The conversations were deep and engaging. From iPod to iPad they discussed via video chatting how exactly this problem at school would get solved. Once the issue was resolved, the electronics went by the wayside and they came together for lunch and finished their ‘day at school’.   Later that night, I read this exchange that took place between Quinn and Abby:

Quinn:   I miss u!

Abby: I miss you to

Abby: Can I fas tim you

When we think of opportunities for talk in the classroom we traditionally use talk in whole group, small group, triads, or partners. Nothing can replace looking eye to eye and speaking. Children need to learn how to engage and be social with peers and adults.   

Children also need to learn how to appropriately use technology. Consider the power of conversation and engagement when technology can be used. 

As you prepare to welcome a new class of students into your classroom, how might you use technology to enhance dialogue?

Monday, July 16, 2012

That's Why It's Called Teaching

That's Why It's Called Teaching
By Wendy Sheets, Intermediate Literacy Trainer 

The sun shone brightly on the waves and the shouts and laughter amid the fishermen could be heard as we walked onto the long concrete jetty that stretched into the ocean. My husband and I were visiting my parents in Florida and had crossed the hot sand to reach the pier at Sebastian Inlet Park. Among the many fishermen, there was a boy around age 14, who was busy with the work of fishing. As we stood there enjoying the sunshine, the breeze, and the contented manatees far below us, I couldn't help but keep an eye on the assiduous young fisherman. Wearing just shorts, his bronze back was evidence of his frequent trips to the salty waters to pursue this love of his. He skillfully maneuvered his pole, carefully baiting and casting into the swells of lapping waters. When he spotted three large stingrays swimming in the distance, he quickly changed his bait to begin a judicious mission. We watched with wonder as he pursued his catch, much like an adrenaline-filled predator seeking his prey. Through his determination, he managed to hook one of those stingrays, and thus began the process of working him in. Tenacity took the lead and inexperience fled as the young man patiently pulled just a bit at a time, slowly fatiguing the thrashing stingray. I watched with interest as he worked and waited with tired muscles, determined to win the battle as time slipped away. Rubbing his arms, he asked another man to briefly take the pole before returning to his task. The weary stingray, after a lengthy time, pulled under the jetty with a final burst of zeal, and the line snapped, leaving the boy's pole disappointingly empty. I felt a sense of loss, sorry for the young man who had endured so long. Upon turning to look at me, he smiled and shrugged, proclaiming, "That's why it's called fishing. It's not called catching."

As I reflected upon that experience, I thought about how much it was like our work with those we teach, children or adults. Like that boy, we must be determined and dedicated, committed to our work. We are excited and filled with anticipation and fortitude as we observe progress, moving slowly, but always maintaining a sense of urgency. Basking in the sun is always a pleasure, but when the work needs done, we roll up our sleeves, knowing we have an important mission.  When dealing with "a struggler," we must be willing to have patience, coming alongside and lifting for as long as it takes, expending great amounts of energy, sometimes even pausing to reflect and massage our sore muscles. When progress comes slowly, we may have to reach out for help from a more expert other, someone who can bear the weight better than us at that moment. We give it our all, never retreating to throw in the towel, not willing to lose our fight. We remember that learning is a journey, and we have an ever-important job to do. That's why it's called teaching.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Summer Project: Building up Classroom Library with Nonfiction Articles

Summer Project:  Building up Classroom Library with Nonfiction Articles

Why?  Various sources suggest that classroom libraries should contain 50% to 60% nonfiction material for our readers, regardless of the grade level.  Personally, I haven’t seen a classroom library that comes close to that yet.  I’m sure that is due to the expense of adding nonfiction books.  However, I do understand the need to expose our readers at every age to nonfiction materials, since it is reported that about 90% of what adults read is nonfiction.

How?  I just started a summer project that I wanted to share with you.  I am collecting articles from the internet that can be included in a classroom library.  I plan to print off the articles and organize them so that readers can select articles by topics.  (I actually found a large magazine holder for the articles at a yard sale for $4!)

I believe reading these nonfiction articles will support their comprehension of informational text, provide them with a wealth of mentor texts for writing articles, encourage them to explore content-related topics further, and be very enjoyable (Wow! What a concept, huh?!)

Susan Johnson, a literacy coach at Malabar Intermediate, has already started a similar project for nonfiction articles.  She has downloaded articles from the internet, placed them on colored folders, laminated them, and organized them in bins by topics/subjects (color-coded folders).  She has included a section for “mini-biographies”.

I’ve listed below some of the sites that I’m going to use for my article collection.  Please post any sites for articles that you are willing to share.  My goal is to have 50 articles by August!  I’ll keep you posted!

Websites for Articles

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Engaging English Language Learners In Discussion Related to Prior Knowledge and Experiences

Engaging English Language Learners
In Discussion Related to Prior Knowledge and Experiences

By Jackie Wissman, SWCS District Trainer

Are We Asking the Right Questions?

Though tapping prior knowledge to connect new learning and understandings to existing schema is important for all students, it is highly emphasized in readings related to meeting the needs of our growing English Language Learner (ELL) population.    In fact, tapping student’s prior knowledge is one of ten accommodations that have been proven effective for English Language Learners (Laturnau, 2003).  Often, there is the misconception that ELL students abstain from conversations related to prior knowledge because they lack related experiences or background knowledge.   We need to realize, however, that the ways in which we elicit information greatly impacts the level in which students can connect, discuss and engage.    Helping children connect to the larger themes and overall ideas of stories will help all students, including English Language Learners, make meaningful connections and take part in valuable discussions that enhance comprehension.  If we want to engage our English Language Learners, we need to think carefully about the questions we are asking!

Connecting to the Literal Meaning Vs. Overall Theme: A Case Study Comparison

Recently, I had the opportunity to see two teachers introduce Snow on the Hill to two different guided reading groups of mostly ELL second graders.  The text is about a family whose car gets stuck in a ditch while driving to town on a snowy day.  While waiting for the tow truck, the children use plastic bags to sled down the hill.  In the first introduction, the teacher elicited background knowledge by asking if the children had ever been sledding.  The teacher and one student talked about sledding for about a minute.  The other students, 3 of 4 who were ELL, listened respectfully but did not contribute to the discussion.  They had no prior experiences or connections to sledding.

In the second introduction to a group of 5 students, 4 of which were ELL, the conversation related to prior knowledge was quite different.  Instead of asking the students to connect to the literal meaning of the text, the teacher asked them to connect to the larger theme, “ Have you ever had to make the most of a bad situation or had something good come from something bad?”  After the teacher shared a time where her family made the most of a two-day power outage, they all had something to say.  One student shared the time that she forgot her lunch and was quite upset until all of her friends gave her a small part of their lunch.  “It was my most favorite lunch ever!” she exclaimed.  This is certainly an example of something good coming from something bad!  The students all participated in a 5-minute conversation connecting to the big idea of the text before the teacher moved to a more literal discussion and introduction of unknown vocabulary and concepts including sledding, ditches and tow trucks.  

Why is Discussing the Overall Theme Prior to Introducing Literal Meanings so Important?

Cummins (1994) shares that we must provide instruction which values the educational and personal experiences of our ELL students rather than ignore or try to replace these experiences.  Going beyond the literal level and helping kids think about the larger themes and ideas makes it possible for all students to connect and discuss.  This values their experiences and knowledge even if it is different than our own.

Key Vocabulary and Concepts:

This is not to say that talk related to literal meanings and concepts is not important to ELL students.   In fact, teaching key vocabulary and concepts is another one of the ten accommodations proven effective with ELL students (Laturnau, 2003)!    Meaningful vocabulary and concepts must be included in instruction including book introductions and interactive read aloud discussions if our ELL students are going to truly comprehend.   We must remember, however, that though it is quite necessary, there is much more to building background knowledge than introducing vocabulary!    We need to help students think within, beyond and about the text!

Links Across the LC Framework:

The idea of tapping prior knowledge beyond the literal level can easily be applied across the framework. 

Guided Reading: The Snow on the Hill example demonstrates how helping students connect to the overall theme in book introductions can result in more meaningful engagement and comprehension. 

Interactive Read Alouds and Shared Reading: We can certainly engage students in intentional conversation that allows them to connect to and think about larger themes and author’s purpose during our interactive read alouds or shared readings.  We can also model our own thinking as a means of lifting the thinking and connections of the students.  In addition, we can help students begin to see the connections between themes across texts; that authors often write about universal themes such as friendship or overcoming obstacles.

Writing Workshop:  We must recognize and value different perspectives and experiences.  Students need to connect with topics in order to invest in them!  Though we help kids think about ideas worth writing about, we cannot rely on prompts! 


When we help kids connect to the big ideas and overall themes, we open the possibilities for response and honor the experiences and prior knowledge of all students, including our English Language Learners.   We must remember that the ways in which we elicit background knowledge and experiences will certainly impact if and how students respond!


Cummins, J. (1994). Knowledge, power and identity in teaching English as a second language.
In F. Genesee (Ed.), Educating Second Language Children.  New York:  Cambridge University Press. 

Laturnau, J. (2003). Standards-Based Instruction for English Language
Learners. In G. G. Garcia, & G. G. Garcia (Ed.), English Learners: Reaching the Highest Level of English Literacy (pp. 286-305). Newark, DE: International Reading Association, Inc.

Smith, A. (1997). Snow on the Hill. Illustrated by Greenhatch, B. US Edition: Rigby

Pinnell, G. S., & Fountas, I. C. (2001, 2008). The Continuum of Literacy
Learning Grades PreK-8: A Guide to Teaching
. Portsmouth: Heinnemann.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Understanding Orthography and its Implications for English Language Learners

Understanding Orthography and its Implications for English Language Learners

By Wendy Sheets, Intermediate Literacy Trainer 

In understanding approaches for reaching our English Language Learners, I’ve been doing some studying lately. The book English Learners: Reaching the Highest Level of English Literacy, edited by Gilbert G. Garcia (2003), is a useful resource. As I looked at chapter four, written by Donald R. Bear, Shane Templeton, Lori A. Helman, and Tamara Baren, I was able to glean (and would like to share) a better understanding of orthographic development and its implications for the support we give to our English Language Learners. As educators, we may be better equipped if we understand how orthography propels reading development and how word-study instruction can be a powerful practice to increase literacy learning.

Understanding the Layers of Orthography    

Although there are many different orthographies, most of them are composed of sound, pattern, and meaning, which are evolving layers of information. A shallow or transparent orthography is one that is highly regular in its sound-symbol correspondences, such as spelling in Spanish or Italian. In these orthographies, it is easy to decode written words because there are fewer sounds and a direct correspondence between sounds and letters. A deep or opaque orthography, such as French or English, often includes a less direct correspondence between letters and sounds. Chinese, which is also a deep orthography, includes characters that represent morphemes, and they contain sound, pattern, and meaning layers. Semitransparent orthographies, such as German, are characterized somewhere between shallow and deep orthographies. According to Rieben, Saada-Robert, & Moro, the progression within a student’s literacy learning often takes place in stages or “phases of dominance” (as cited in Garcia, 2003, p.73). Those reading and spelling stages are a progression from sound to pattern to meaning, and may be broken down to include the following: Emergent, Letter Name-Alphabetic, Within Word Pattern, Syllables and Affixes, and Derivational Relations. If you have used Donald Bear’s or Kathy Ganske’s developmental spelling inventories, you should be familiar with these stages of spelling and reading.

I found it interesting to consider the impact on development that a deeper or more opaque orthography has. For instance, in English, patterns are examined earlier and for a longer period of time than in more transparent orthographies, such as Spanish. Where a character represents a single syllable, such as in Chinese, young children may make the match between the sound and written symbol early (around age 4). Within a shallow orthography, emergent readers and spellers may appear more advanced because of their ability to track text and make a few sound-symbol correspondences. We see faster reading rates among Spanish readers because it is easier to read more words accurately within a shallow orthography. However, reading with expression and building an extensive sight vocabulary is more complicated.

How Bilingualism Affects Development 

It is helpful for educators to have knowledge about the spoken and written languages of their students in order to understand their development. The interaction between spoken languages has an impact on what students hear and how they pronounce words. For example, a teacher may hear the short i in hit, but to her students, it may sound more like a long e (as in heat). There are several sounds in English that may be difficult for Spanish-speaking students to pronounce. Those include /d/, /j/, /r/, /v/, /z/, /sh/, /th/, /zh/, /ng/; beginning and ending with s, and ending sounds with r. Knowing that it may be logical for the j as in jump to be pronounced like chump, for example, can be helpful for teachers. The good news, according to Tolchinsky & Teberosky (1998), is that in comparative studies of orthographic knowledge, bilingual learners negotiate between languages and literacies (as cited in Garcia, 2003, p. 75). Instead of different orthographies causing confusion, learners apply their knowledge about spelling and reading from one language to another. There are some cognitive advantages to bilingualism in growing a stronger knowledge base with respect to each language. In young children, the phonetic or sound quality of words should be emphasized, as those phonological processes create a foundation for reading.

Word Study Activities  

In order to develop a word-study program, it is recommended that a spelling inventory be used to reveal what students know about English orthography and their primary language. I’ve found useful spelling inventories in the publications: Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction and Word Journeys: Assessment-Guided Phonics, Spelling, and Vocabulary Instruction. Words that can be spelled can also be read, so spelling assessments reveal a measure of word reading or decoding. Bear, Templeton, Helman, and Baren suggest engaging students in instructional activities of sorting and charting to explore patterns and facilitate vocabulary development. Emergent learners may explore and make distinctions through concept sorts, using objects and pictures such as buttons, plastic animals, and macaroni according to different criteria. They may play “Concentration” games, sort by the way pictures or objects sound at the beginning, or by other criteria, such as size. Later, sorts may become more abstract, with the purpose of examining contrasting words with stress assignment, or words in the past tense. Beginning charting experiences include shared opportunities for students to talk about what they know, watch a teacher or another student model the writing, listen to syllables, think about word parts, and use analogies to spell. They may build webs together and may chart known words from around the world. These experiences also broaden English-speaking students’ vocabulary and appreciation of other languages. Collecting and charting interesting words and clarifying meaning (through questioning, discussion, noticing relationships, and using a dictionary or thesaurus) is a way older students may explore vocabulary as well. Students may learn to make meaning connections between words for various reasons. As they notice connections and relationships between words, they understand more about the structure of words and are able to pose important questions about word meaning. Word study is not a matter of naming rules, but of discovering patterns. Physically manipulating words provides the active process of construction to take learning beyond the verbal level, leading to automaticity. Sorting and charting activities may be explored within content area studies as well. Throughout all of these activities, it is important to support English language learners with practices that use oral language to bridge an understanding to the written.

Talk, Talk, Talk!

It is imperative to note the understanding that learning is a social process, and that English language learners (along with all of us) need multiple opportunities for discussion and interaction with others. As we consider orthography and the acquisition of language, we also must remember that while a student is able to decode or write a word, without building meaning, the process is not truly reading. Although I am able to “decode” text in Spanish, my understanding is quite limited. I have to agree with Marie Clay’s assertion that “Reading is a message-making, problem-solving activity, which increases in power and flexibility the more it is practiced” (Clay, 1991). In order to build comprehension and engage students in making meaning, much conversation needs to take place. “Dialogue seeks to harness the ‘collective intelligence’…of the people around you; together we are more aware and smarter than we are on our own” (Isaacs, 1999, p.11).  It is through purposeful talk with others that we construct ideas and visions of possibility for ourselves and each other.  As we do this, we create that habit of mind to think reflectively and critically, rather than passively absorbing information in isolation.  We know that new knowledge connects to previous knowledge. As our English language learners synthesize by building on oral language resources, background experiences, and literacy in other languages, it is my hope that we, too, may create new understandings as we strive to improve our practices to best support all of our learners.


Bear, D.R., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F.R. (2000).
        Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling
        Instruction. Upper Saddle, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Clay, M. (1991). Becoming Literate: The Construction of Inner Control.

Ganske, K. (2000). Word Journeys: Assessment-Guided Phonics, Spelling,
        and Vocabulary Instruction. New York: The Guilford Press.

Garcia, G.G. (2003). English Learners: Reaching the Highest Level of English
        Literacy. International Reading Association.

Isaacs, W. (1999). Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together. New York: Random

Monday, April 23, 2012

Navigating Implementation: The Role of the Principal

Navigating Implementation: The Role of the Principal

By: Jenny McFerin, Literacy Collaborative K-2 University Trainer

Literacy Collaborative is a comprehensive school reform model designed to improve reading, writing, and language skills of elementary children. The instructional framework, professional development, and coaching are the fundamentals of the model (Literacy Collaborative 2012).  In order to ensure fidelity of implementation, there are standards for the district, principal, literacy coach, and classroom teachers to follow. Buildings that follow the standards in implementation are schools with high academic success and teacher knowledge. While coming together as a team helps to manage the bumps in the road, the principal is a key element in navigating staff through the many challenges that come with change. 

I would like to offer three actions a principal can take to support implementation of Literacy Collaborative:
  1. Learn about the Literacy Collaborative Framework. Principals can learn about the framework by attending professional development offered by the literacy coach, being present in classrooms and engaging in conversations with teachers and the literacy coach about implementation.
  2. Communicate with the literacy coach and classroom teachers. Schedule regular meetings with the literacy coach to discuss what is going well in regards to implementation. Talk with teachers about the literacy happenings in the classroom.
  3. Provide resources that support implementation.  From schedules to materials, the principal has the capacity to strengthen opportunities for teaching and learning. Students need 2- 2 ½ hours of daily literacy instructions. Teachers need time to analyze data and make plans for intentional teaching based on the analysis.  Engaging in conversations with the literacy coach and colleagues about data and teaching will ensure student growth.
The leadership in a building determines the success of implementation. The principal has the capacity to positively impact student achievement and teacher growth. Creating a community of learners, communicating expectations and providing time and resources are keys for principals to consider while navigating implementation. 
What are you doing to support implementation in your building?
Literacy Collaborative (2012). Literacy Collaborative [This section of the website describes the Literacy Collaborative]. Retrieved from

Monday, April 09, 2012

Acquiring Second-Languages through Constructivist and Communicative Approaches in Literacy Collaborative Schools

Acquiring Second-Languages through Constructivist and Communicative Approaches in Literacy Collaborative Schools

By: Shelly Schaub, K-2 Literacy Collaborative Trainer

English Language Learner (ELL) populations are growing at fast rate in most school districts across the United States. Projections suggest that “language minority students (those who speak a language other than English at home and who have varying levels of proficiency in English) will comprise over 40 percent of elementary and secondary students by 2030 (Thomas & Collier, 2001). Many questions are being asked about how to meet the needs of ELL students in classroom literacy blocks. The purpose of this article is to link the constructivist approach of the Literacy Collaborative framework for literacy instruction to the communicative/constructivist approaches to second-language acquisition.

Literacy Collaborative is a school-reform literacy project that supports teachers in raising their expertise through on-going professional development. The theory base upon which this professional development is built is largely grounded in the constructivist view of Vygotsky (1978). The constructivist paradigm is a view of instruction which focuses on using what the learner already knows and adding new understandings to construct meaning. The learner’s strength and needs are the center of instruction. According to Crawford (2003), “Communicative approaches to second-language acquisition are based on concepts, theories, and hypothesis that converge around the constructivist paradigm.”

Vygotsky’s theory of constructivism involves three important elements: Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky, 1978), Scaffolding (Bruner, 1978), and Approximation (Holdaway, 1979).

Element 1: Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development , ZPD, is defined as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem-solving under adult guidance in collaboration with more capable peers” (pp. 86-87). Teachers find a child’s ZPD through various methods of systematic observations. The analysis of drawings, writing, reading, speaking and spelling provides evidence of a child’s understandings and help teachers decide a next step for instruction. Vygotsky’s hypothesis leans heavily on the social construction of knowledge which grows from the support of more capable others (e.g. parents, teachers, older siblings, etc.).

Element 2: Scaffolding involves a teacher finding a child’s ZPD and engaging with a child or group of children in a learning task while providing temporary supports that are removed as students show evidence of independence. As student show progress in language development, scaffolds are gradually removed to release responsibility to the child. Teachers engage in scaffolding student learning by designing lessons and using intentional language the move from teaching to prompting to reinforcing particular concepts.

Element 3: Approximation is a process in which English language learners imitate the language behaviors of their models. As they test hypothesis about their new language acquisition, they grow more proficient. Approximation is dependent on oral and written opportunities within the context of authentic wholes. In other words, English language learners address listening, speaking, reading, and writing as a totality or whole, not a separate entities. Skillful teachers engage students in integrated language and literacy tasks in which they listen, talk, read, and write in a safe community of problem-solvers.

Connecting Theory to Practice:

Through the study of these theoretical understandings, teaching practices can be enhanced to meet the needs of second-language learners as they acquire language and literacy. Early literacy experiences in the Literacy Collaborative classroom provide numerous opportunities for children to move towards proficiency. The Literacy Collaborative framework is a workshop-based approach to instruction. The framework is divided into reading, writing, and language/word study workshops. For details about the Literacy Collaborative framework, visit The Literacy Collaborative classroom is a print-rich, organized environment that provides opportunities for exploration, scaffolding, and socialization. The Literacy Collaborative classroom is intentionally arranged to facilitate whole and small group instruction.

Whole Group Meeting Space:

This first grade classroom is arranged to facilitate whole group teaching elements which include reading to children, reading poems and big books with children, writing with children on the large easel, and studying letters, words and how they work through resources such as the word wall and linking charts. These language, literacy and vocabulary experiences are rich when they are surrounded by a sea of talk through authentic conversations, modeling, and scaffolding from the teacher and peers.

Small Group Work Spaces:

This kindergarten classroom is arranged to facilitate small groups of children working together. Through exploration in heterogeneous, learning groups, children are given the opportunities to socially construct knowledge (Vygotsky, 1978) while engaging in learning opportunities that are designed with success in mind. 

The guided reading table is another small group meeting space where children read leveled books that are in their ZPD with the support of their classroom teacher. These homogeneous groups engage in conversations before, during and after the reading of high quality stories. English language learners participate in conversations about texts with the modeling, prompting, and reinforcing of the teacher.


English language learners need a constructivist/communicative approach to learning English as a second language because the opportunities for learning are authentic and are focused on meaning-making and problem-solving. Teachers need the support of colleagues and highly trained coaches to explore the theories related to best practices for instructing English language learners and implement these theories through practice into their classrooms. High-quality teaching is student- centered and requires decision-making and flexibility based on the understandings of student needs. A constructivist classroom is a student-centered classroom. A Literacy Collaborative classroom is a constructive, student-centered classroom built on Vygotsky’s theory that “What a child can do in cooperation today, he can do alone tomorrow.”


Bruner, J.S. (1978). The role of dialogue in language acquisition. In A. Sinclair, R.J. Jarvella, & W.M. Levelt (Eds.), The child’s conception of language (pp. 241-256). New York: Springer-Verlag.

Holdaway, D. (1979). The foundation of literacy. Sydney: Ashton Scholastic.

Crawford, A.N. (2003). Communicative approaches to second-language acquisition: A bridge to reading comprehension. In G.G. Garcia (Ed.), English Learners: Reaching the Highest Level of English Literacy (pp. 152-178). Newark, DE: International Reading Association, Inc.

Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (2005). English Language Learners: A Growing Population. Retrieved April1, 2012 from

Thomas, W.P., & Collier, V. (1997). School effectiveness for language minority students. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Bilingual Education.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman. Eds. And Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (Original work published 1934)

Monday, March 26, 2012

Conversation: A Powerful Tool

Conversation: A Powerful Tool
By Wendy Sheets, Intermediate Literacy Trainer

After spending three days in professional development with a group of amazing literacy coaches recently, I can’t help but ponder the power of conversation. Over and over, I heard remarks about appreciating having time to talk with other professionals, to reflect upon successes and challenges, and to find encouragement through those conversations. Sometimes we need to just listen to others’ ideas as we process and synthesize what they’re saying. And at other times, our own sharing helps us to clarify our beliefs, perhaps solving problems or noticing new ones, and at times just affirming that our voices matter. Isn’t that how we create meaning, either learning something new or shaping what we already know? Conversation is powerful. “Essentially we are social beings and our brains grow in a social environment…we often forge meaning through socializing…Talking, sharing, and discussing are critical; we are biologically wired for language and communicating with one another” (Jenson, 1998, p. 93).
Interactive Read-Aloud 
Let’s think about conversation within a few different contexts, beginning with interactive read-aloud. When a classroom community has been created and children feel comfortable taking risks, what rich conversation takes place around a high-quality text! As purposeful talk is orchestrated and students engage in the negotiation of meaning, thinking is furthered. The dance of strategic actions begins, and students naturally make connections, predictions, and inferences, and they dig deeper to synthesize new ideas, along with thinking more critically and analytically about the text. “The experience provides unequaled opportunities for expanding background knowledge, vocabulary, literary knowledge, and shared language” (Fountas & Pinnell, 2006, p. xxxiv).
 Book Clubs  

Once effective talk is established during interactive read-aloud, readers naturally progress to building deep conversations during book clubs. “When students participate in book clubs, they talk, read, and often write in highly interactive ways. The central idea is that greater insight can be achieved when several people share their thinking, thus benefiting from each other’s understandings and perspectives. The discussion takes the form of an investigation as participants try out tentative ideas, search for information to confirm or refute their thinking, and build on one another’s ideas” (Fountas & Pinnell, 2006, p. 280). Inquiring becomes habitual as readers probe the meaning of text together. As meaning is constructed in a small group, readers achieve a greater understanding, a lift, if you will, than they would have alone.

Writing Conferences    
There is something very special about setting aside one-on-one time. My sons and I have our best conversations when travelling alone for long distances in the car. I think knowing we have the stretch of time, our talk is less inhibited, and becomes more meaningful. During writing conferences, we also set aside a special time, or meeting, to focus solely on one individual. We seek to discover our student’s needs, reinforce their strengths, and provide support, all the while lifting the writer, rather than the piece. And that needs to happen through effective conversation. Carl Anderson suggests several different conversational strategies for helping students talk about their writing (2000, p. 97). He recommends redirecting when a student talks about the content of their writing rather than their writing work. When students have some facility with talking about their writing work, he suggests reflecting and pausing, showing and describing, referring back to the last conference, and naming what is observed. When students need much support with talking about their work, he uses strategies to take a tour, describing what he thinks he sees the writer doing, and then making suggestions by asking specific questions that create options for the writer. Amplification allows him to demonstrate something while naming it, such as the use of carets or a circular structure, and finally, he asks for clarification when students need practice using writing discourse. Most importantly, I think we need to remember that a writing conference is a personal conversation that moves our writers forward. The work is generative, so that the learning becomes a part of the writer’s repertoire to use again and again.
 Coaching Conversations 

I would be remiss to leave out the power of conversation within a coaching context. According to Lyons and Pinnell (2001, pgs. 141-12), “Coaching emerges from the trusting context that surrounds the act of teaching…An effective coaching conversation has five essential features:
      1.      It is tied to a specific event that has just occurred.

2.      It takes place in the context of the teacher’s attempt to learn a specific technique or concept.

3.      It makes use of specific teacher and student actions as well as words.

4.      It includes reciprocal reflection and constructive dialogue between teacher and coach.

5.      It results in new learning and a plan of action to improve teaching.

The authors go on to discuss the fact that a real conversation has give-and-take with both participants making statements and asking questions, offering advice and help, clarifying for each other, and sharing experiences and hunches. It is through the wonderings, the hunches, that we become active learners.  
Think About It…

Think about the conversations that take place in your life. Are they productive? Full of give-and-take? Do they help you to reflect and clarify, and do they lift others in their thinking? When we come together to share our ideas, all of our contributions are woven together into a beautiful tapestry that covers our thinking and pushes us beyond our own walls. This is what happened with the literacy coaches in our professional development session I mentioned earlier. The stage was set, the pump was primed. Voicing ideas was bound to happen and everyone went away feeling refreshed and renewed with strengthened understandings and greater intentions. Let’s work to create the right atmosphere for purposeful conversation in every context in which we live as readers and writers. Our brains will thank us.


Anderson, C. 2000. How's It Going? Portsmouth: Heinemann.
Fountas, I.C. & Pinnell, G.S. 2006. Teaching For Comprehending and Fluency. Portsmouth:
Jenson, E. 1998. Teaching With the Brain in Mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Lyons, C.A. & Pinnell, G.S. 2001. Systems For Change in Literacy Education: A Guide to
          Professional Development. Portsmouth: Heinemann.
Nichols, M. 2006. Comprehension Through Conversation: The Power of Purposeful Talk in the
          Reading Workshop. Portsmouth: Heinemann.              

Monday, March 12, 2012

Supporting English Language Learners through the Literacy Collaborative Framework

Supporting English Language Learners through the Literacy Collaborative Framework

By: Jenny McFerin, K-2 Literacy Collaborative Trainer

Reflection on Research

I have been reading the book, English Learners: Reaching the Highest Level of English Literacy, edited by Gilbert G. Garcia (2003).  The book is a collection of chapters written by various authors and is a great resource for understanding the needs of English Language Learners. Through this reading I have learned about different instructional approaches schools use to support English Language Learners (ELL).  I have also recognized that the Literacy Collaborative framework for teaching and learning are connected to those instructional approaches that are most effective for our ELL.

In the chapter, Revisioning the Blueprint: Building for the Academic Success of English Learners (Garcia & Beltran, 2003), it is proposed that ELL students can succeed in classrooms that provide strong teaching with frameworks that are research based.  One approach is the implementation of a ‘Fifth Reading Block.’   This instructional approach is grounded in literacy and offers multiple opportunities for discussion about content.

Instructional Implications

There are several connections between our framework for teaching and learning and what Garcia and Beltran define as the fifth reading block (Garcia & Beltran, 2003). They state, “The key to success is that students must be required to produce oral language in each phase of the day’s lesson appropriate to their level of language acquisition.  Interaction is an essential ingredient of each phase: Cooperative activities that promote collaboration between and among students are staples of this instruction (p.213).”  Some key components of instruction during this block are:
  1. Lessons should be literature based.  Literature is a strong model for language, it provides opportunities to connect to content, and it provides opportunities for discussion.
  2. Lessons should have a focus on standards.  Through literature, teachers can teach strategies for learning the language and literacy.
  3. Strategies should be modeled and taught explicitly through teacher think-alouds.  English language learners need repetition and redundancy in order to take on new learning.
  4. Oral Language is essential. Students need opportunity to talk with peers and with the teacher.  Through discussions and cooperative activities, students can experiment with the language they are learning.  Readers Theatre is another opportunity to practice language.
  5. Strategies for tapping into schema and building vocabulary should be incorporated.  Building background knowledge through multi-media resources, primary language translations, or concrete examples will only provide a richer understanding for students.
  6. Writing extends the thinking and discussion in the classroom.  Engaging students in the writing process will further support understanding of the language.
Connection to Literacy Collaborative Framework

Upon reading this I immediately connected to our framework for teaching and learning.  Two facets that stood out to me were Read Aloud and Interactive Writing (Fountas & Pinnell, 1996) and encompass all of the components listed above.
During Interactive Read-Aloud and Literature Discussion the teacher promotes thinking Within, Beyond, and About the text (Pinnell & Fountas, 2001,2008) by choosing intentional stopping points in the text.  During these stopping points, the teacher engages students in conversations. The teacher can either model her thinking or have students talk together.
Through Interactive Writing (McCarrier, Pinnell, & Fountas, 2000), students can extend their thinking and understanding about the texts that have been read aloud.  This process supports both comprehension and word work (Pinnell & Fountas, 2001,2008).


There are several challenges English Language Learners (ELLs) face when entering our classrooms:
  1. ELLs are expected to learn all the nuances of literacy while learning the English Language.
  2. ELLs are expected to learn skills in the same sequence as their English speaking peers.
  3. Most often ELLs are immersed in English without the support of their known, their native language.
Despite these challenges, we often remove children from the classroom in order to provide opportunities for skill and drill practice.  The greatest support we can offer students who enter our classrooms who are learning English is to immerse them in our already literature-rich communities.
How are you supporting English Language Learners in your classroom?


Fountas, I. C., & Pinnell, G. S. (1996). Guided Reading: Good First Teaching for All Children. Portsmouth: Heinemann.
Garcia, G. G., & Beltran, D. (2003). Revisioning the Blueprint: Building for the Academic Success of English Learners. In G. G. Garcia, & G. G. Garcia (Ed.), English Learners: Reaching the Highest Level of English Literacy (pp. 197-258). Newark, Delaware, USA: International Reading Association, Inc.
McCarrier, A., Pinnell, G. S., & Fountas, I. C. (2000). Interactive Writing: How Language and Literacy Cometogether, K-2. Portsmouth: Heinemann.
Pinnell, G. S., & Fountas, I. C. (2001,2008). The Continuum of Literacy Learning Grades PreK-8: A Guide to Teaching. Portsmouth: Heinnemann.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Writing Breaks

Writing Breaks

As schools across the nation begin to roll out the Common Core Standards, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing in the content areas.  The new standards for “literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical areas” have more than a few teachers nervous. 

I am currently reading Content-Area Writing: Every Teacher’s Guide by Daniels, Zemelman, & Steineke.  The authors shared the following alarming statistic:  Kids recall 10 to 30 percent of what they read, hear, and see.  If you think about the common classroom practices for delivering content information, they typically include in-class reading, large-group discussion, teacher lecture, video, or picture viewing.  While these activities focus on “covering” the content, they only help kids remember 10 to 30 percent.  That’s simply not enough!

Here’s a way you can increase the retention rate up to 70 to 90 percent!  It’s a practice called Writing Breaks.  The teacher simply pauses at regular intervals (about every 10 to 20 minutes) to have kids write.  General prompts can be used.

  • What piece of info stands out and seems really important? Why?
  • What does this remind you of?
  • What questions do you still have?

More specific prompts can be used.

  • Which person’s actions surprised you the most?
  • What would you do if you faced this problem?
  • What would you do if you faced this problem?
  • What might have happened if Theodore Roosevelt had not overtaken construction of the Panama Canal from France?
  • How would you describe the relationship between…?

You can use this practice with pictures, charts, diagrams, etc. to develop visual literacy too!
Daniels also recommended following up the writing with pair sharing, and then choosing a few pairs to share out to the whole group.
What a great and simple way to make sure kids are doing the thinking they need to be doing while engaging with text!  What kinds of writing are you doing with kids in the content areas?  Let’s collaborate, shall we?

Sherry Kinzel
Literacy Collaborative Trainer