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!

Carol Varsalona: Professional Wonder


Before July 2013, I was clueless about the wide world of connectivity afforded by Twitter and other social media platforms. True, since childhood, I have been a wonderer who curiously gathered information to expand knowledge and experiences. True, I have attended countless conferences and learned from the some of the best literacy and technology luminaries. But not until I retired from public education, did I realize the potential of Twitter for continuous professional development and deeper wondering. It was then, that I took a leap of faith and became a connected educator, consultant, and  global citizen reaching out to educators across the world. Thanks to guidance from JoEllen McCarthy and Tony  Sinanis, Twitter became my viable channel to express myself, connect, and collaborate on issues of importance with educators beyond my region.


Moving from unconnected to connected has been an expansive journey for me from no exposure, to lurking, to moderating #NYEDChat, to interviewing connected educators, like Tom Whitby live on Google Hangout, to creating fifteen poetry galleries of artistic expressions. I titled my blog, Beyond LiteracyLink, because of the interactive nature of my journey from unconnected to connect. Then, a couple of years ago, I found Wonderopolis, a site “where the wonders of learning never cease…where natural curiosity and imagination lead to exploration and discovery in learners of all ages.” Delving deeper into the resources afforded by this free site, led to being appointed a Wonder Lead Ambassador for Wonderopolis. I now write for Wonderopolis from the Wonder Ground, offering educators ideas on curiosity-powered instruction for today’s interactive classrooms. The steps on my journey opened doors to engage in collaborative conversation, pursue professional wonder, and rank among the thousands of worldwide, connected educators inspired to expand their knowledge base.


For me and other connected educators, wondering is an active practice, a journey toward exploration and discovery from “that is the way we always did it” approach to innovative, vigorous teaching. It is a spark to create change in practice. Through the rise of the connected educator movement, I have watched professional wonder grow in intensity. Twitter chats have globalized the asynchronous collegial circles that I designed over a decade ago. At focused, weekly convos, connected colleagues and I seek to enhance our professional wonder. We converse with other educators, parents, and community members to voice opinions on various topics and chat with students whose voices are strong representations of the younger generation. We support each other; nurture our love of learning, share successes, and review missteps with reflective action as steppingstones to success.


You may ask but why Twitter as a framework for conversation? Is it a viable platform for 21st-century discourse? For connected educators, Twitter is a place to listen, collaborate, share ideas, and gather new knowledge beyond the walls of the classroom, school building, or community. It is easily accessible and opens twenty-four hours for global networking. Recognizing that one-shot professional development is not successful in sustaining change and increasing professional wonder, Twitter provides  21st-century professional wonderers an asynchronous digital platform to explore global approaches to teaching and learning.


Final Thoughts


Professional wonder can be cultivated and sustained through online networking and learning together as connected colleagues. Becoming a unique voice in a diverse world of thought is a positive move. My message is clear: Be a risk taker and continue to wonder about ways to impact teaching and learning.


Tips for Harnessing Professional Wonder:

  • Read continuously.
  • Explore the possibilities of connected educator conversations.
  • Listen and learn alongside passionate educators on Twitter.
  • Build your circle of connected educators, your professional learning network.
  • When ready, let your voice rise on Twitter.
  • Start a blog exploring your professional or personal passions.
  • Share your wonders.
  • Celebrate learning.
  • Let the wonders of being a connected educator impact your professional life.




Follow Carol on Twitter @cvarsalona

The Principal: Improve Reading Scores


Looking for a silver bullet or magic? Stop reading right now, I cannot give you these. There are no silver bullets or magic ways to improve reading scores or any test scores for that matter.   School leaders, teachers, and communities often draw incorrect conclusions about the quality of a school, teachers, principals, all the way to a superintendent based on scores from one day of testing. So, let’s learn some ways to improve reading and also scores.


First, I ask you to embrace and accept a simple assumption: if you practice, most things you do will get better.  If you practice with purpose based on proven research strategies, improvement is even more likely to happen. For students to improve reading, they need to read and read with purpose.


Here are some tips and cautions to guide a program for reading success!


Rule #1: Read Aloud: Do this every day for five to ten minutes, depending on the length of reading classes. This is an opportunity to model reading, ask probing questions, and integrate strategies which have been taught.


Reminder:  Reading a favorite book for most or all of a class period no matter how animated the instructor is will not make students better readers.


Rule #2: Instructional Reading: This is purposeful reading instruction to increase the application of strategies and skills to a text needed to be a better reader.  State standards are often a good guide for specific strategies and skills along with an abundance of research on the skills needed to be better readers.  The key is students need to read with purpose at their instructional level. Assessing students to know their lexile levels and using this information to create genre focused instructional reading units that meet the needs of students is critical for students to become better readers.


Reminder: One book for all rarely works; all students do not read on the same level.   Instructional reading must be driven by the instructional needs of each student.  If a teacher reads to students during this part of the lesson, students will not become better readers. They are not reading.  Embarrassing games that have students read aloud like popcorn reading serve no purpose to improve reading for all. They are time fillers, nothing more!


Rule #3: Independent Reading:  Is your school making a concerted effort to promote independent reading?  This can range from allocating funds for books to school wide promotion and celebration of independent reading.  Create a culture where all the students in your school are always carrying an independent reading book!. By encouraging them to read accessible books on topics they love and want to know more about, you develop their motivation to read! Students should complete thirty minutes of independent reading a night, and that should be their main homework assignment. Try to set aside two days a week for students to complete independent reading at school. Reading in a classroom is valuable!


Reminder:  If staff get hung up on how to hold students accountable for reading or how to punish students who do not read, your efforts will fail.  Find different, creative, and motivating ways to increase reading. You can have students present a brief, monthly book talk and enter completed books on a reading log. Twice a semester, students can choose a book from their log and share it with their group.


I am asking for a commitment to reading.  Yes, actual reading VS reading programs where students read passages and answer questions or face texts far above their instructional reading levels. Commit to research based reading instruction and students will become better readers. If all students read at least three self-selected books a month in addition to instructional reading texts for the course of each year, test scores will improve.


As professionals I am calling us to take back what we know makes sense and what research has proven to work. In other words, bury worksheets and have students read the finest books. Reading teachers must become experts on reading instruction, assessment, strategies and the skills needed to teach students to become better readers. Let go of practices that do not work.  If not we will continue to be palsied by slick programs from companies who have very different bottom lines than educators have.

For great information on a favorite topic of ours, Read Talk Write by Laura!

Check out my book published by Scholastic! The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook!

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