Write about Reading and Increase Comprehension!

By Laura Robb

The research on writing about reading is in, and it’s truly compelling! An article by Steve Graham and Karen Harris in the January/February 2016 Reading Teacher has implications for all teachers and all subjects. The research is clear and decisive on this point: when teachers have students write about books students can read, their comprehension jumps 24 percentile points. This is in contrast to simply reading, rereading, and studying. In addition, when students write about content material presented in class, comprehension jumps nine percentile points. The study makes it clear that it’s the students who must do the reading which means that teachers need to find materials on specific topics that all students—even those reading below grade level—can read.
The writing discussed in the research doesn’t focus on formal essays and paragraphs. So what does this mean for teachers of students in grades K to 12? The researchers aren’t suggesting that students answer questions after completing each chapter in a book. Moreover, prior to writing, it’s beneficial to have students turn and talk about their reading with a partner. Partner talk stimulates thinking, helps students clarify ideas, and often allows them to observe ideas that differ from theirs.
To support teachers with writing to improve comprehension, I’ve included the suggestions that follow:
K to 12 Students need a readers’ notebook to draw and/or write their responses to materials they are reading.
Primary Students can stop-to-think during guided and independent reading to talk about a character, an event, a setting, a problem in fictional texts, and specific details in informational texts. Students can use a framework to retell and/or summarize reading materials. They can also create lists of words that describe a character or their feelings toward an event or character.
Middle Grade, Middle and High School Students can develop lists of words that describe a character’s personality traits. They can also write the text messages two characters from a book might write to each other. In addition, students can write short summaries, post book reviews on a class website, take notes in their own words, as well as write a readers’ theater script and perform it with classmates.
Pausing after reading a chunk of text to analyze characters’ personality traits, assess how characters resolved a problem, list their emotional reactions to an event or decision, and make inferences with informational texts can also improve comprehension. After completing a book, students can identify themes, illustrate an event that sparked their personal interest, and use graphics to show a key event.
Teachers can ask students to revisit entries in their notebooks and adjust them as well as use their notebook entries and notes to write paragraphs or essays that inform or argue for a claim.

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Active Learning, Active Engagement!

By Laura Robb and Evan Robb

Get your students out of their desks and learning by doing. Organize students into collaborative groups of three to five and encourage meaningful talk. Limit teacher talk to twelve to fifteen minutes in a 45-minute class. Use the rest of your class time for actively engaging students in learning. Gordon Wells said in The Meaning Makers (Heinemann, 1986) that all learning is the guided reinvention of knowledge. The teacher creates situations where students, through discussions, reading, writing, and observing come to understand information.


Students love to talk. They do it well. And it’s a great way for them to enlarge vocabulary, observe the thinking of peers, and clarify ideas. Here are some ways to involve students in paired and small group discussions.

Turn and Talk. Ask students to turn to their partner and discuss a question, word, project, video, book talk. This is a simple, tried and true way to involve students in meaningful talk. Remember to ask partners to share with the class.

Learning Buddies. Invite students to discuss a short text, a book, video, blog, wiki, or article. Help students set guidelines for their discussions.

Peer Revise and Edit. Organize students into partners or small groups and have them read each other’s drafts. Using a rubric or writing criteria, partners can suggest ways to improve the content, mechanics, and usage.

Study Buddies. Most middle grade and middle school students don’t study because they are unsure how to study. This type of review asks students to think about what they’re read, viewed on line, learned, and their written notes. Set aside one to two class periods and provide pairs with suggestions for studying. Students can:

Create high level questions they believe will be on the test. Show them that words like why, how, evaluate, compare, contrast, lead to questions that have more than one answer. Good questions always have more than one answer and use text details and/or inferences as support for answers.

360 Degree Math Partnerships. Put whiteboards all around your classroom. Have students solve math problems at the board. Stand in the middle of the classroom and observe students. Immediately offer support to students who “don’t get it.” You can also have students work together so that the one who understands can show how to think through the problem to the student who requires help. This gets students doing math during class and allows the teacher to spot problems immediately and offer support.

Organize Cross-Grade Projects. Develop projects with teachers on your team and/or with students in lower grades. Students can work together in different classrooms and in the library. Try some of these suggestions:

  • Older students become reading buddies to younger students. Once a week, set aside time for students to read together and discuss their books.
  • Older students listen to younger students read their writing and provide feedback on content.
  • Peer partners can design and film a video.
  • Peer partners can create a website or blog and continually update it.

Let Students Teach Each Other. As a teacher when you have to teach, you immerse yourself in a topic so deeply that you can think, read, speak, and write about it with ease. The same holds true for your students. The pyramid suggests that teaching results in the most retention of a topic. Here are ways that students can teach one another:

  • Use Jigsaw. Give pairs or small groups sections of texts to discuss and then teach to the group. Texts can be magazine articles, online pieces, sections from a content textbook or chapters from informational texts and literature.
  • Organize Panel Presentations. Have small groups become experts on a topic and plan a panel presentation that teaches the class.
  • Develop Teaching Blogs. Organize students into groups and give each group part of a topic to study. For example, for human rights, one group canexplainthis concept according to the United Nations, other countries, and interviews that students conduct; another group can give examples of violations of human rights and how each one was handled; a third group can study human rights from an historical perspective; a fourth group can delve into people who advocated for human rights, what motivated them, and how they changed events. Using a blog, students can teach one another by posting findings and inviting other groups to respond.
  • Teach Younger Students. Challenge older students to develop active-learning lessons on making inferences, solving equations, conducting an experiment, etc. To teach these lessons to younger students means older students must have a deep understanding of their topic.
  • Peer Book Conferences. Once students have conferred about a book with their teacher, ask them to pair-up and confer about a book with a partner. Partners document peer book conferences and turn their write-ups into the teacher. See form at the end of the newsletter.


The Common Core asks teachers to involve students in speaking and listening activities. Here are some suggestions that work:

  • Present monthly book talks and develop standards for presenters and listeners.
  • Argue for a claim in a speech in addition to writing essays.
  • Write and perform a readers theater script based on a specific text.
  • Conduct interviews in front of the class. Interviews can be between characters from a book or to explore a student’s expertise on a topic.
  • Write and perform a dramatic monologue. Students’ monologues can be based on an historical figure, a famous scientist or mathematician, or a character from a book.


Reading and writing workshops are active learning teaching models. A read aloud and mini-lesson open workshop. Students spend most of class time reading books they choose and writing about topics they choose and care about. The teacher makes the rounds and holds brief conferences with students, leading her to figuring out which students require longer conferences; she also organizes student partnerships so students can confer with and support each another.



Laura shares ideas to help make classrooms more engaging, student focused, and dynamic.  Student engagement coupled with purposeful learning can not only increase student learning but it also can make learning more enjoyable for student and teacher.  This blog contains great Monday morning strategies as you the teacher work to increase student engagement in a purposeful strategic way! I hope your principal is an encourager of trying new strategies to increase student engagement! Overly compliant classrooms devoid of conversation, engagement, collaboration and communication need to be part of our past.

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Some Thoughts on Intervention

Principals can create a climate where teachers value interventions and make them part of their teaching plans.  Here are some tips for helping teachers understand that interventions matter.

  • Have teachers discuss the kinds of interventions they use at team and depart meetings.
  • Focus some of your walkthroughs on observing the teacher circulating among students with a clipboard in hand and completing on-the-spot repairs or scheduling an exploratory conference.
  • Invite teachers to share a successful intervention with colleagues at a faculty meeting.
  • Organize professional book study groups that focus on interventions; join a group so you model your investment. Give teachers choice of books and purchase them using school funds.
  • Invite teachers to share the Tier 1 instructional practices that are working in their classrooms.
  • Invite teachers to share students’ work that shows progress because of interventions.

Because the classroom teacher is the key to helping a diverse group of learners improve, it’s important to help teachers enlarge their knowledge of how to intervene and also to celebrate their success with a note from you!

Two Book Suggestions for Professional Study Groups

  • RTI From All Sides: What Every Teacher Needs to Know, K-8, by Mary Howard, Heinemann,  2009
  • The Reading Intervention Toolkit by Laura Robb, 4 to 8, Shell Education, 2016

Evan Robb, Principal Johnson Williams Middle School and author of:

The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook, Scholastic, 2007.

Follow Evan Robb on Twitter: @ERobbPrincipal

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How Can We Use Goal Setting With Our Students?

Response From Laura Robb

Laura Robb, teacher and coach, has written more than 20 books on literacy. She is the author ofVocabulary Is Comprehension: Getting to the Root of Complex Texts (Corwin, 2014) and published two books in 2016: The Intervention Toolkit for Shell and for Corwin, Read Talk Write:35 Lessons That Teach Students to Analyze Fiction and Nonfiction:

Make Reaching Goals a Reality! 

It’s New Year’s—time to make resolutions! Our goals are often ambitious: For example, to lose weight, we walk several miles a day, work out four to five times a week, and/or dramatically curtail our calorie intake.  Several weeks into the new year, however, most of our goals have been placed on a back burner. Soon they’re totally forgotten.

At school, we often ask students to set learning goals in order to reach a benchmarks in reading, writing, or a content subject. However, like our own goals, students’ goals frequently go up in a puff of smoke and vanish. Though we set resolutions and goals with a strong resolve to meet each one, many fall by the wayside, never to be attained. 

Why does this happen? Often because we set goals without negotiating them with students and designing a plan that outlines how to reach them, along with a schedule for monitoring progress.

Make Negotiation Part of Goal Setting

When you negotiate goals with students, you involve them in the process and give them ownership. Here’s how I negotiated focusing an independent reading goal with Rosa, a fifth grade student.

Rosa was working on increasing her reading stamina. When I asked her to set a goal, she was able to concentrate on a self-selected book for 10 to 12 minutes. “I’m going to read and focus for 30 minutes, ” she said.

“Your goal shows a lot of enthusiasm for reading, and that pleases me. Can you aim for 30 minutes but start with more reachable times?” I asked.

Rosa remained silent for a couple of minutes and then said,

“I want to get to thirty, but maybe 15 and then 20 minutes is better.”

I nodded. “You’ll move from 15 to 20 minutes quickly because you can concentrate now for 10 minutes.  Then you can aim for and meet the 30 minute goal.”

Notice that instead of handing Rosa a goal, I posed a question to provoke her thinking. I wanted her to reflect and make the decision. Our next step would be to discuss the five steps for setting goals, so Rosa could develop a plan that she’ll revisit and update until she meets her goal.

Five Steps to Setting Goals

Having students set goals creates a desire to attain the goal, but desire, alone, won’t sustain their efforts. Students need to follow the five steps below to plan and achieve a goal.

  1. Set the goal and write it in your reader’s notebook.
  2. Determine what needs to be done to reach the goal. Record your thoughts underneath the goal.
  3. Assess the amount of time needed and how to monitor progress.
  4. Work to meet the goal.
  5. Revisit the goal, update and adjust your plan, and note progress.

Completing these five steps can make the difference between meeting and abandoning a goal. A good example of this is the story of Luke, a sixth grade student.

Luke Invests in Meeting His Goal

Every year, Luke wanted to improve his punctuation and usage, but struggled. However, once Luke used the five steps, he became invested in reaching his goal because he had a supporting plan that included bi-weekly reviews of his progress.

Luke’s paragraphs, essays, and journal writing had excellent content. However, they consistently contained run-on sentences and missing words, commas, and end-of-sentence punctuation. At a recent conference, I asked Luke to review the writing in his folder and set a goal. “I need to proof better,” he said. “Got lots of run-ons and punctuation mistakes–need to fix those.”

“Excellent goal,” I said. “Think for a moment. What you need to do? And how much time do you think you’ll need to reach your goal?”

Luke felt he needed to read his writing out loud and listen for missing words and places to put commas and periods. He was able to explain how to identify run-on sentences, and said, “I just need to rewrite them.”  Luke wrote his plan in his reader’s notebook, reviewed it, and figured he needed three weeks to revise and edit two paragraphs and a recently completed essay.

Twice a week, Luke revisited his goal and reflected on his progress. He successfully revised and edited both paragraphs in two weeks. Halfway thought the third week he re-negotiated an extra week for the essay; I happily gave it to him because Luke recognized that the longer piece required more time to reach his goal.  Using and internalizing the five steps moved Luke to meeting the learning goals he negotiated with me because he had a concrete plan to follow, review, and adjust.

Luke’s Plan

Read writing out loud.

Listen and look for missing words.

See where end punctuation goes—commas, too.

Find run-ons—rewrite them.

Read out loud again. Fix more.

Check progress on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Monitor and Celebrate!

Stay involved and monitor students’ work as they strive to meet a goal. Encourage them to negotiate more time to work and for one-on-one support if they need it, as well as to adjust their plans and schedules as necessary. Ask students to point out what worked well and what didn’t, and to express their feelings about meeting the goal. Join them in celebrating their successes, because positive feelings toward learning boost self-confidence and self-efficacy. By doing all this, you’ll create a community of learners who take responsibility for their goals and work hard to meet them.