Thursday, November 27, 2008

When the Going Gets Tough

As I got to thinking about reading and writing workshop, I realized it’s not a lot different from a marriage.

September is like an engagement. You’re filled with optimism. It’s a new class, a new year, a new beginning. Everybody is excited and can’t wait to get started.

October is the wedding. The big event arrives: Children’s book baggies are filled with just right books, their notebooks are decorated. You have officially launched their reading and writing lives. It is a beautiful affair.

November starts out with the honeymoon period. You’ve got your kids reading independently, working in guided reading groups, you’re trying out shared reading, they are writing in their writer’s notebooks every day. Workshop feels like a well oiled machine until…

… one day in the middle of November when it doesn’t. You suddenly realize there’s an English Language Arts assessment coming up in January and you’ve got to finish that unit on magnets in Science and there’s a project on Native Americans sitting on the back table, and don’t forget Math. There’s a test coming up on that in March. And what about parent teacher conferences and report cards? Oh, then there’s Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hannukah, and Kwaanza.

We all long to go back to “the way it used to be” when the going gets tough. When you find yourself wondering why you ever wanted to do reading and writing workshop in the first place, remember to ask yourself if the cookie cutter paragraphs about “What I am Thankful For” were really better than the poem Thomas wrote about his walk in the woods and the memoir Kayla wrote about the last time she saw her grandma? Was it better when the whole class read the same book and Margie, Karen, and Dylan sat in the back fiddling with their pencil because they couldn’t really read it? Or is it better that kids race to show you an expression that Amelia Bedelia would use in a book that wasn’t Amelia Bedelia?

Like a good marriage, reading and writing workshop take a lot of work. The struggle is part of the deal.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Beware of the Verbal Red Pen

Using a red pen to correct papers has become something of an educational taboo. We don’t do it because we know that nothing deflates a learner more than a paper that comes back all marked up screaming at a child, “I can’t believe the mistakes you made!” We’ve all moved on to less severe colors and mind what we write on children’s papers so to keep children motivated to learn.

I recently had a reading conference with a young boy. It started innocently enough, “Tell me about what you are reading.” The child complied and shared his excitement about reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid. The day’s lesson was about fluency so I decided to ask him to read a short bit of his book to get a handle on what he did and did not already know about fluency. As he began to read, his voice was flat and unenthused. I worried. Does he understand this? So I directed him to notice a word that had been written in capital letters. I asked him if he knew why the author would do such a thing. He gave me a blank stare that clearly indicated he did not so I went on to explain how writers do that for emphasis. I told him that when writers want a reader to say it really loudly in their head, they use all capital letters. He accepted that explanation and dutifully went back and read it louder. He read on and came upon a couple of words that he did not know. We talked about strategies for decoding unfamiliar words. Again, I worried. Does he understand this? Our conference continued and this boy continued to disregard all he had learned about paying attention to punctuation cues and reading with expression. We addressed other words that came up that troubled him and by now, I could ignore the question burning in my brain no longer. DOES HE UNDERSTAND THIS? So I followed that line of thinking. “When you read this what do you see in your mind?” The young boy looked directly at the picture on the page and described the drawing the illustrator had made. There was no longer a question in my mind about whether this reader understood this book. So, I made yet another move. “You know, when readers aren’t understanding what they read, they have an important decision to make. They have to decide whether they will keep reading this book and try really hard to use their fix-up strategies to make sure they are understanding or they have to think about abandoning the book and going back to it after they have had more practice reading in books that are just-right for them.”

As it turned out, this young reader decided to abandon Diary of a Wimpy Kid for now. But after this conference, I am left wondering what he really learned. I tried to teach so many different things: why authors use capital letters in their writing, how to sound out words that you don’t know, how to pay attention to punctuation cues that tell you how to read it with expression, how do you know if you are understanding, AND when do readers abandon books. Yikes, talk about conference overload!

I liken this conference to the red pen marks on a paper. In the same way that red pen stops the learning because it says too much and deflates the learner’s confidence, so too does a conference that teaches too many things. In hindsight, I would have been better off to have made a note of my concern, stuck with fluency instruction, and revisited this reader again the next day. In the end, I think he would have learned more about becoming a better reader. Ultimately, that is what we want for all of our students.

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Monday, November 3, 2008

Helping Children Revise Effectively

How to revise effectively is one of the most difficult things we teach young writers. It requires children to go back and think more about what they have already labored over for hours. Because this move tends to be so painful, I am always looking for ways of making revision more palatable and easier to understand for young writers.

Recently, I was working with a group of fourth grade writers who devised an amazingly comprehensive list of questions that writers ask themselves when writing. They included things like considering the audience, making sure the writing made sense, and taking things out in addition to the more common kid changes like adding details to make the writing more interesting and thinking about catchy beginnings. I was so impressed with what they came up with that I expected their revisions to be profound.

No such luck.

At this stage, these writers knew how to talk the talk, but walking the walk was a different story. I watched as they grappled with where to make changes. I watched as they crossed out one word and told me they were done. I watched as many sat and stared. I left frustrated. What could I do to support these students in their quest to “re-see” their writing?

Then it occurred to me: these writers needed practice.

As teachers, we have become very good about providing children with models of the work we want them to complete. In fact, I had shown this group of writers what revisions look like. But sometimes, until children have had the opportunity to mark up a paper and try out all of the great ideas they have been told make a difference, they just don’t understand how to apply it to their own work. So that is exactly what we did. The kids worked in small groups with a short text. The groups wrote questions in the margins. They crossed things out. They drew arrows. These drafts went from being boring and mundane to colorful and appealing. The transformation was amazing.

Improving the quality of student writing is important work. It is also hard work—both for students and teachers. Working in small groups to provide guided practice is sometimes just what young children need to scaffold them as they make their way toward better writing.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Don’t Forget the Daily Blessing

“Blessing” books is the term I’ve adopted to describe the practice of getting kids excited about books by telling something about them. It’s when you hold up a book and say, “I was just looking through my books and came upon this one (showing Tales of the Fourth Grade Nothing). I got so excited when I saw it because it’s an old favorite. My third grade teacher read it to me when I was a kid and I remember being disappointed every time she closed the book because I loved it so much. It’s about a boy named Peter who has a pesky, yet very funny, little brother. If you like to laugh out loud when you read, you will LOVE this book. What’s great about it, too, is Judy Blume went on to write more of these books so if you read this and like it, you can read Superfudge, Fudge-A-Mania, and Double Fudge. Let me read you this one little part to give you a flavor of what it’s like…”

Twice this week alone teachers have shared stories with me about how the time they took to bless a book affected their students’ book choices. One teacher told how the kids watched vigilantly as she placed the just blessed book back in the library. She told how they scrambled to be the first to read it. Another teacher told me about blessing an easy book which inspired a struggling reader to put away her hard book in exchange for an easier one knowing that in this classroom, it is okay to read titles that appear a bit simple.

In order to make good book choices, kids need to know what’s out there. We can’t expect children to try new genres or authors or series if nobody ever tells them they exist. Blessing books is a quick and easy thing to do and the impact on young readers is immeasurable. The two minutes it takes to talk up a book may be just the push a child needs to read for ten or twenty minutes…or, if we’re lucky, influence their reading for days and months to come.

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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Book Choice – Too Much Too Soon?

If you work with children in grades 2-6, book choice is a hot topic. Teachers at these grade levels spend a lot of time helping children make selections that are just right and teaching strategies for making informed choices. However, we sometimes need to question if we push too hard too soon.

I recently had the experience of facilitating a teacher training course on Reading Workshop. One of our activities was to explore a range of adult titles and decide which ones we would be interested in reading and which ones we would pass on. One of the teachers in the course picked up one book and said, “Nope, I’m not reading this one. The print is too small.” She picked up another book and said, “Gosh, I would never get through this. It’s way too long.” As a sophisticated adult reader, nobody questioned her motives. Her reasons for not reading these titles were perfectly acceptable to each person in the room.

Fast forward a few days to independent reading time at home with my third grade son. He is a capable reader whose first choice of pastimes is not reading. He always gets the “do I have to?” look on his face as I kick into high gear as the reading teacher mommy. I want nothing more than for him to be excited about books. So I gather those titles I know he’d love if he’d just read them (and the ones I know are perfect for his reading level): Magic Tree House, Junie B. Jones, Jigsaw Jones. He takes a Magic Tree House book from the pile and looks to the back of the book. “How many chapters is it?” he wonders out loud. Reluctantly, he begins to read. I peek in on him a few minutes later and he’s rolling around on the floor with a book in hand. He’s reading, but barely.

A few days later, he stops by my office and starts flipping through some titles I have lying around. Curious, I step back and observe and can’t believe what I see. He comes upon a Berenstain Bears title. He picks it up and he starts to read! He is so interested and engaged, he is reading as he walks out and when I say, “you can read that for reading homework tonight,” his eyes light up with disbelief and clearly, he is happy. More than that, he is eagerly reading.

As he leaves, I am left wondering what prompted this transformation and I realize that the book he chose for himself was colorful and short. He knew when he picked it up, he’d be able to finish it— his process was very much like that of my sophisticated adult reader friend. What’s more, that Berenstain Bears book was a level M—just right for him.

Looking back, I question why I didn’t offer my son shorter texts as an option for his independent reading. As I thought about it, I realized that it is not uncommon for us to want to push kids into reading chapter books when we know they are ready; however, the question begs, if we push too hard too soon is it at the risk of turning kids off to reading?

This was an important lesson for me both as a reading teacher and a parent. I know that my son won’t read Berenstain Bears forever, but, if that’s where he needs to be today, I need to respect that.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

How Do I Make My Child Want to Read?

It’s September. Days at the beach and fun in the sun are long lost memories as school demands that your children turn their attention to projects, homework, and reading assignments. The daily agenda comes home and each day it says the same thing: Read. Depending on what grade your child is in, the amount of time may vary. For young readers it says, “Read for fifteen minutes.” For children in the intermediate grades the assignment might ask for twenty. And for children in middle school and beyond, the reading expectation far exceeds that, asking for minimally thirty minutes a day. For some children, this is the task that they embrace, but for others, it is a request to accomplish the impossible. It’s what causes parents to bargain and eventually, throw their hands up in frustration. When children scream, “I hate reading,” and “Reading is boring!” many parents give in to the temptation to let the nightly reading assignment slide. They think, “Oh, who’s going to know?” or “Why do it anyway?”

Increasing the amount of time that a child reads is an activity substantiated by research. There is strong evidence to support the relationship between the amount that a child reads and reading achievement. Studies have concluded that children who read the most, read the best, achieve the most, and stay in school the longest. Children who read the most have larger vocabularies, read with expression and understanding, and have the best command of grammar. In short, the more children read, the more proficient they become. The more proficient they become, the greater the academic advantage.

So the question becomes, what can be done to make children want to read? Kim Yaris, Executive Director of Literacy Builders, recognizes motivation as one of the biggest obstacles parents and teachers face when it comes to reading improvement. She points out that one of the biggest reasons kids are reluctant to read is because some aspect of reading is hard. She says, “Struggle is the greatest deterrent to reading practice. Children need a great deal of guidance choosing materials that are right for them. Eighty percent of their reading should be relatively easy. ‘High-success reading’ builds confidence and makes children eager to practice more.”

Other simple steps that parents can take to help motivate children to want to read more include:
· Reading aloud to your child: Reading aloud acts as an advertisement for books. It sends the message that reading is pleasurable while at the same time exposes children to new authors, series, and genres.
· Accepting children’s reading interests: Adults often impose their judgment on children’s book choices. They will say things like, “that’s too easy,” or “I can’t believe you don’t like that.” Just as adults have different reading preferences, so too do children. Just as adults are more inclined to read something they are interested in, so too are children.
· Informing children of what’s available to them: Adults learn about books that they are interested in through conversations with friends and colleagues or book reviews. When parents hear or read about a good children’s book or author, they should share this information with their children. They should look to their children’s teachers and librarians to make suggestions that their child might be interested in.

So, it’s September. Back to the books doesn’t have to mean nightly struggles to motivate your child to read. When parents and teachers work together to eliminate “hard” from the reading equation, reading becomes an enjoyable experience for all children.

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Friday, September 12, 2008

The Key to Reading and Writing Success: Don’t Let Children Struggle

When children struggle, parents struggle to help them. When children struggle with reading and writing, parents often don’t know how to help them. Literacy Builders’ Teaching and Learning Resource Center in Plainview, New York educates both parents and children.

Unlike other learning centers that provide educational support in all subject areas, Literacy Builders specializes in reading and writing. Staffed by reading specialists and expert teachers, Literacy Builders begins with understanding a child’s reading and writing abilities. A comprehensive evaluation assesses and identifies difficulties a child may have with reading fluency, decoding, and comprehension or with generating and developing ideas for writing, spelling, and other written conventions. This information is used to create the Reading or Writing Rx, a custom-tailored plan that targets a child’s individual learning goals.

Research has shown that in order to improve children’s reading and writing ability, they need explicit and systematic instruction. Literacy Builder’s Executive Director, Kim Yaris, is a veteran classroom teacher and literacy consultant. She has been creating programs that train teachers how to improve reading and writing instruction in the classroom and has now brought this expertise to the Literacy Builders Teaching and Learning Resource Center. According to Mrs. Yaris, “Literacy is the cornerstone to educational success. When reading and writing are constantly hard work, children learn to hate doing both. We specialize in figuring out what ‘hard’ is. We start with what children can do and build their repertoire of strategies from there. We want to cultivate a love for reading and writing. When children like what they are doing, they are inclined to do it more often. The more children read and write, the better they become at it.”

Increased time spent reading books that match a child’s independent reading level is the core of the Literacy Builders approach. By using books, magazines, poems, plays, and newspapers from the extensive in-house library, children are able to practice important reading goals including fluency, decoding, and comprehension without ever completing a skill and drill worksheet. Real reading materials help to generate greater interest in and passion for learning to read.

Literacy Builders offers a wide range of services for children in grades pre-K-12. Free consultations help parents decide what kind of intervention their child may need. Whether it be intense one-on-one tutoring or small group reading or writing clinics, Literacy Builders makes expert guidance in reading and writing affordable for everybody. They also provide parent training seminars that highlight effective learning strategies and give parents ongoing information about their child’s progress.

The Literacy Builders Teaching and Learning Resource Center located in Suite 309 at 88 Sunnyside Boulevard in Plainview, New York is an inviting, child centered environment that inspires children to want to read and write. With books displayed throughout the reception area and each of the individual classrooms, children can’t help but want to read.

Making a difference sometimes requires being different. Literacy Builders is a different approach to helping children become better readers and writers.

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Welcome to the Literacy Builders Blog.

We hope to keep you informed about many topics that we feel will be helpful to parents as they work with their children in teaching reading and writing.

We are located in Plainview, New York, and provide Tutoring Services, Enrichment Progrmas, and Small Group Tutoring.

Please visit our web site,, to learn more about us, and visit us often, to learn how you can help your children become better readers and writers.