Author: Laura Robb

The Reading Teacher – Invest in Teachers

“Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher.” This Japanese proverb supports what Richard Allington’s research explains: It’s teachers who make a difference in children’s learning. Yet, schools invest mega-dollars in programs—basal reading programs. computer reading programs with scripted guides that tell teachers what to say and how students should reply. The notion of a quick fix to transform students into proficient and advanced readers maintains its allure to many school districts around the country.

We need to let go of the search for the magic bullet that quickly turns every student into a successful and motivated learner. The solution resides in every school: teachers. Invest in teachers and make ongoing professional study at the building level the core strategy for supporting all students. This is not the quick fix school districts yearn for; this is an investment that works.

 Investing in teachers also means giving them the materials needed to reach students at diverse instructional reading levels: class libraries with 1,000 to 2,000 books for independent reading and book rooms that have five to six copies of the finest literature relating to the topics in units of studies across the curriculum—all at instructional reading levels that represent the school’s student population. Take careful note: having the best books available for students won’t matter unless teachers receive the training that enables them to use resources to meet students’ needs.

Pre-service Training

        While attending college, it’s crucial to learn the way you will be teaching your students. Instead of lecturing, teachers collaborate, experience project based learning, genius hour, guided reading, differentiating instruction, and explore how to use technology to enhance learning. In addition, college education curriculum should prepare teachers to manage a classroom of diverse learners as well as how to actively involve students in their learning. For you to work in a rapidly changing world, professional study needs to continue in schools where you teach.

Ongoing Professional Learning

        One-shot workshops don’t have lasting power, even when they are from outstanding educators. They can inspire teachers and administrators to reflect on change, but without follow-up, they tend to fizzle and soon are forgotten.  So, to make the most of an inspirational, active learning workshop, it’s important for administrators and literacy coaches to keep the conversation going and provide the support needed to change and adjust instruction. It also means that administrators need to attend workshops that you attend. The suggestions that follow maintain a focus on PD.        

Faculty and Team Meetings: You and colleagues learn using professional materials in ways their students will learn. You collaborate, have meaningful conversations, raise questions, share ways you could integrate technology, write about your reading and ask: How can I use the information in this article to support my students?

Google Docs: Administrators, reading specialists, and teachers can take turns posting a professional article once each month on Google Docs. This is an excellent way to enlarge your theory of how children learn, best practices, and twenty-first century skills: collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, and technology. You and other staff members respond on Google Docs with a comment, question, or connection to classroom practices. Observing Colleagues: By observing a colleague, you can learn about class management, motivation, engagement, and how experiences foster creativity and collaboration. Finding the time to do this is always an issue. I suggest that school administrators step up and cover a class to make this happen. It’s important to follow up an observation of a colleague teaching with a conversation to offer feedback, pose questions, and clarify understandings.

Teachers as Readers Groups: When the principal suggests organizing groups that read and discuss a professional book the group chooses, and the school purchases the books for the group, it tells teachers, “The principal and this school community value professional learning.”  Best, if principals invite you to volunteer to participate, as you will have to commit extra time. If the principal organizes groups twice a year, teachers will eventually join one–and the principal should also join one.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

Take Advantage of Twitter: Encourage the entire school staff to open a twitter account and become active on this social network platform. Twitter offers interactions with educators and writers around the country and world. Learning occurs when you explore articles suggested in tweets, comment on these, and reflect on thought-provoking quotes that occur daily. Ask a question about teaching on twitter, and you’ll receive several thoughtful replies.

Partnerships: Encourage teachers to form a partnership with a colleague they trust.  Teacher partnerships hold myriad possibilities: discuss the kind of feedback to offer a student, learn more about project-based learning and genius hour, share ideas and uses of technology, professional articles, read aloud texts. There are no limits on what partners can share, learn together, and discuss.

Closing Thoughts

Nothing can replace you, the teacher, in the classroom.  That’s why ongoing professional development at the building level is so important. Unlike computers and robots, when you possess deep knowledge about how children learn, you can process students’ actions, words, and written work and provide feedback that moves each child forward. Moreover, you have a heart and emotional center that enables you to build students’ self-efficacy, self-confidence, motivation, and engagement in learning because students feel your respect and trust, your hopes and goals, as they experience your investment in their progress.  

Learn more from a great book by Laura, Read-Talk-Write

The Reading Teacher -Teach Readers, Not Programs

I started my first year of teaching in a country school near Winchester, Virginia with two sets of books for sixth grade: the Ginn Basal Reader with its accompanying workbooks and a sixth-grade math textbook. Of the twenty-eight students in my classroom, five students could read the stories and complete the workbook pages. Twenty-three students were reading two to four years below grade level. To prevent a backward slide due to lack of reading, I checked out books for them to read from the public library. I also wrote to publishers asking for uncorrected proofs or any books they could send me. Books arrived daily which started my first classroom library.

I learned five lessons from my first year of teaching that have stayed with me throughout my career. These lessons continue to be reinforced as I work in schools and present workshops for teachers.

Lesson 1:  Teach your students, not programs.

People who design and create basal programs and scripted teaching guides don’t know your students. Good teaching requires knowing each one of your students as learners and as people who have a life beyond school. Knowing enables you to identify students’ strengths and needs, then, with their input, figure out the best way to help each one of them improve and grow.

BEWARE of programs that promise success for all students if you faithfully use their materials. And here’s why. Basal Reading Programs are grade level, and classes throughout the country have some students reading at grade level, some above, and too often many reading two or more years below their grade. In addition, these programs have students reading excerpts from books—short texts. There is not enough reading material in one program to help students raise their instructional reading levels. Teachers tell me that there are so many worksheets for students to complete, there’s no time for extra instructional reading–definitely, no time for independent reading. Moreover, basal reading programs create teacher dependency. The program and its guides do the thinking for teachers and replace teacher observations, interactions with students, and having the background knowledge to make the decisions that can move each student forward.

The lure for teachers and administrators of reading programs on a computer is that texts are at diverse instructional levels, making these programs appealing to schools with large populations of below-grade-level readers. Texts on computer programs are usually short with an abundance of factual questions focusing students on information in the text. No deep inferential thinking or multiple interpretations here. Like Basal reading programs, Computer reading programs don’t offer students enough reading for them to improve. Students need to read books to build stamina, practice comprehending complex plots, new information, and then infer, synthesize, and evaluate parts of the text.  Programs make lots of money for corporations. They. Don’t. Help. Children.

Lesson 2:  Learn from your students.

Effective teachers learn from their students. They circulate among students, watch them read and write, listen to their conversations, noting who gets the lesson and who requires additional support. Effective teachers confer with individuals and small groups, trying to get inside students’ heads to understand how they think about reading and writing. Effective teachers provide helpful feedback to students—feedback that causes students to be meta-cognitive, self-evaluate their progress and set goals.  You see, it’s what students do—their talk, writing, and questions that inform what we teach and whether we need to plan interventions. Learning from students means teachers continually learn about the art of teaching.

Lesson 3:  Invest in teachers.

Teachers make a difference in students’ learning and their lives. No adult recalls a workbook page, but they do recall a teacher who spent time getting to know them, who learned their interests and suggested books to read that tapped into those interest, who helped them improve, and made learning active and engaging. If we as a nation value education and understand the importance of helping students learn for their future, then schools need to invest in teachers, not programs. Ongoing PD at the building level is an investment that will support all students as teachers continually develop their theory of learning.

Lesson 4:  Teach reading with the finest books.

Use the finest literature. No more ordering class sets of one book. Class sets mirror a basal program because every student can’t read and learn from the same book. Content teachers order books for a specific topic, such weather and ELA teachers around a genre and theme such as biography and obstacles the person faced.  Purchase four to five copies of each title. Lobby for a book room and organize books around a topic, genre, and instructional reading levels. Books rooms have materials that enable teachers to respond to their students and select texts that correspond to students’ instructional reading needs and interests.

Lesson 5: Help students be successful.

Success at school is what teachers want for all of their students. Teachers give students materials they can read, materials that are relevant and motivate and engage. In addition, success builds self-efficacy, the belief that with hard work, it’s possible to move forward.

Closing Thoughts

It’s time to break the barrier of circular thinking—looking for a magic bullet or quick fix that doesn’t exist. Education has had years of basal and computer programs. However, they’re not helping children or teachers. What will make a difference is to develop the finest teachers during pre-service training and continue their learning while they work in a school. Research clearly says it: Teachers make a difference in the lives of their students!


Look for Laura’s next blog, “Invest in Teachers.” She’ll offer ways schools can develop their own ongoing PD programs.

Learn much more from Laura’s book, Differentiating Reading Instruction!

The Reading Teacher  –  The Interactive Read Aloud

During my early years of teaching, I remember reading an article written in the mid-1930’s that proposed reading was “caught” much like one catches a cold. The article stated that not much could be done for children who didn’t catch reading during the primary years. I guess the appropriate conclusion was that most likely, they would remain weak and reluctant readers throughout their lives.  I remember thinking, what an absurd theory! I also remember feeling intense anger over placing the children who didn’t “catch” reading in a box labeled “hopeless.”

It’s weird, but in the context of what we know about reading today, this theory can be rationalized. Those children who listen to thousands of books and hear and engage in meaningful talk before they enter kindergarten are primed to “catch” reading.  That idea was not the point of the article, for the author offered no evidence, anecdotal or research-based, to support this static mindset.

Learning to Read as a Growth Mindset

When children interact with teachers and adults who believe it’s possible to create book joy, to enlarge vocabulary and background knowledge through conversations and by reading aloud several times a day, then gaps in literacy can close.

There are two kinds of read alouds students benefit from:

  1.    Read aloud books you love and are passionate about sharing with students. Students sense the passion and hopefully work hard to replicate the reading experience for themselves.
  2.    Read aloud to model how books affect your mind and feelings, how you interpret books and apply strategies like inferring and involve students in the process. When you present interactive read alouds, students have multiple opportunities to build and enlarge their mental models of what good readers do and eventually understand why they love reading.

Materials for Interactive Read Alouds

The interactive read aloud is the instructional piece of reading. It’s a mini-lesson where the teacher uses an anchor text to think-aloud to share how to apply a strategy such as inferring or literary elements and text structures.  An anchor text is short and the same genre as the unit of study. You can use an excerpt from a longer text, a picture book, or a short text such as an article, folk tale, short, short story, or myth. Two elements guide my choice of an anchor text:

  •      it needs to be high quality literature; and
  •      short enough to complete in seven to ten lessons.

If a picture book is too long, but a book you feel strongly about using, summarize some parts to move the lessons forward. Then, offer the book for independent reading so students can connect with the entire text.

Guidelines for Presenting Interactive Read Alouds

By organizing your units of study around a genre and theme such as biography and obstacles or informational texts and changes, student first observe how you think about a text and then work with a partner to practice what you model before moving to their own texts.  What follows are guidelines for presenting ten to fifteen minute interactive read alouds.  The lessons become a reference point for review and for intervention and/or reteaching lessons.

  •      Model the strategies, literary elements, etc. that are in the plans for your unit of study.
  •      Name the strategy, literary element, or text structure, you’ll be modeling.

Today, I’m going to show you how I make an inference.

  •      Explain the strategy, how it helps readers, and what you will do to apply it.

An inference is meaning not stated in the text; it’s implied. Authors write texts expecting readers to infer. For this biography, Wilma Unlimited by Kathleen Krull, I will use details to find unstated meanings.

  •      Read a short part of the text out loud, and show how you apply the strategy.

I can infer Wilma’s family was poor. Her father worked several jobs to support Wilma and her nineteen brothers and sisters.

  •      Involve students on the next day. Have them pair-share and provide text evidence to support one inference.
  •      Collect students’ inferences on a T-Chart to show them how to organize their thinking in their notebooks. Write “Inference” on the left side and “Text Evidence” on the right side.
  •      Repeat this process until you’ve modeled and students have practiced the strategies for the unit.

Closing Thoughts

Reading aloud books you love and want to hear again and again nurtures your need for wonderful stories and shows your students the meaning of  “I love to read.” In addition, make one of the read alouds interactive and instructional, so your students develop mental models about how to think and feel about books. Reading can’t be “caught.” It’s taught when students listen to and discuss stories before entering school. Once at school, they can observe how you and their peers interpret and respond to books. Then they self-select and read, read, read!

Check out Robb Communications to learn how Laura and Evan can help you meet your professional development goals!

Learn more ways to improve instructional reading in your school or division, Teaching Reading in Middle School, By Laura Robb

The Reading Teacher – Choosing “Just Right” Books

Is there a perfect or best way for students to select an independent reading book? I don’t think so. Since I’ve been teaching, the five-finger method is a strategy that teachers pass on to students. This technique asks a student to read 100 words and if there are five the student can’t say and/or understand, they look for a different book. I am not a fan of the five-finger method. Having difficulty with five words per one hundred words can be problematic for students with fluency issues. For me, there’s no one method of selecting a book that students use. It’s all about relationships that enable you to offer guidance that resonates with each child and meets that child’s needs.

I wish I could offer you one or two methods that always work. I can’t. My teaching head believes that for students to enjoy an independent reading book, it should be close to 100% accuracy. However, my students have taught me that exceptions to this belief abound! Take Marta, a third grade student who was instructionally on grade level. She checked out The Wizard of Oz on a visit to the library. Definitely, far above her instructional level, so I asked Marta, “Tell me why you want to read it.”

“I’ve seen the movie three times. I really want to read the book.”

“You certainly have a lot of background knowledge, “ I said. “Try it. Know that you might have to reread parts.” A happy Marta skipped to the computer to check out her book. Marta read The Wizard of Oz three times. “The second to get it [the story] better. The third ‘cause I could really read it.” Marta shows us that choosing books is more complicated than we thought. Here are five suggestions to guide you.

  1.    Have students share what they want to read with you. Go to library period with your students and be there to suggest books, to hear why they “must” read a book. Invite students to run by you books they select from your classroom library.
  2.    Offer alternatives. Avoid taking a book away from a student. Instead, suggest two alternatives just in case they want to switch. Abandoning a book should be a student’s choice.
  3.    Listen to students’ reasons. Always ask “why” and listen. What the student says can support your suggestions. If you’re unsure, let the student try the book and explain that it’s okay to abandon it.
  4.    Adopt book talking. Each month, invite students to book talk a favorite independent reading book. Spread these over two days. Just imagine, a class of twenty-five students will hear 250 book talks in ten months. They’ll discover many books that interest them—books they choose to read based on peer recommendation.
  5.    Approve of abandoning a book. When I was in school, I had to finish a book, even if I disliked it. The idea was that I’d learn the discipline of completing what I had started. That doesn’t work. It creates anger and intense dislike—two emotions you don’t want student to associate with reading. When a student abandons a book, I like them to tell me why, only because I’m interested in what causes this decision.


Your advanced and proficient readers have learned, through experience, how to select a book to enjoy. However, English language learners and students reading below grade level benefit from your support. So say “good-bye” to strategies that don’t work for them, including the five-finger method. Instead, take the time to deepen your relationships with students by supporting their independent reading choices! With practice, they’ll figure out how to choose, but also know it’s okay if they recognize the book is not for them YET and find another.  One day, if the student still wants to read it, he or she will.

Learn more about Laura’s ideas on reading- check out- Teaching Reading in Middle School