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Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The First Day of School in a Pandemic

In my lifetime, I have experienced 67 first days of school. For me this has always been a joyous time. When I was a student, it was a chance to renew old acquaintances, meet new people, and start new adventures. As a teacher, I always looked forward to meeting and getting to know new students and learning their names and what made them tick and seeing if the new crop of kids would fall for my old jokes and tricks.  This 68th first day of school will be different, of course. My thoughts are with every child who must navigate this strange new world, every teacher who must find a new way to teach, every administrator trying to make this work without putting children and adults at risk, and every parent trying to do a god job of parenting in this new and unfortunate reality.  

This is a frustrating, maddening time for all, but we owe it to the children to make the best of it we can. We owe it to the children to lead with empathy and understanding. My granddaughter, Schuyler, robbed of a large chunk of her kindergarten year, now faces a first grade like nothing you or I or our children ever faced. I worry for her. I worry for all these kids. It is with Schuyler and all these other children in mind that I offer this poem, written many years ago, in a different time and under different circumstances, that I still think captures some of what it means to entrust your child to a teacher and some of what we must draw on in this time of uncertainty.

The First Day of School
by Russ Walsh

Today, dear teacher, I deliver to you
            my heart, my life, my son.
He’s not perfect:
One day he’s noisy,
Next day he’s careless,
Next day he’s both.
            Treat him kindly;
            Guide his growth.

I assure you, dear teacher,
            you’ll learn his name quickly.
He has his opinions.
He speaks them loudly,
Displays them proudly,
So sure he’s right.
            Respect his feelings:
            Harsh words can bite.

I should warn you dear teacher,
            he has no patience for seatwork.
But he’s not lazy,
Just likes to ponder,
And let his mind wander
In every which way direction.
            Value his thinking;
            Allow reflection.

Today dear teacher, I deliver to you
            my heart, my life, my son.
I ask that you listen.
I ask that you watch.
I ask that you care.
            And give him a hug,
            When I’m not there.

So take good care of the children, take good care of yourself, lead with kindness, and be assured this too shall pass.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Phonics, Fluency, and Flexibility

If you have ever read one of Peggy Parrish's delightful Amelia Bedelia books to young children, your efforts were no doubt greeted by howls of laughter. Children delight in the word play involved when Amelia "dresses the turkey" in coat and pants, or when she "pitches a tent" by throwing it poles and all, into the bushes. The children's delight comes, of course, from the humor derived from Amelia's totally literal understanding of words and the children's growing knowledge that words can have more than one meaning. If you are reading these books to first and second graders you may also notice that some children are not in on the joke. They may laugh along with others, but they may not yet have the cognitive flexibility to get the joke. 

Cognitive flexibility is defined as the ability to switch between thinking about two different concepts or to think about multiple concepts simultaneously. If you can't switch between two different concepts of "dress" or "pitch" you can't get the humor of Amelia Bedelia. Likewise, if you can't switch between two or more different concepts about how words are constructed, you will have great difficulty becoming a fluent reader. Recent research indicates that cognitive flexibility contributes to beginning reader's fluency, that low achieving readers lack cognitive flexibility, and perhaps, most importantly cognitive flexibility can be taught. (See References Below)

When you think about this it makes good sense. Phonics knowledge can only get us so far in decoding. If children approach every unknown word with only the "sound it out" strategy to help them, they will only be able to decode the most rudimentary words and will not achieve fluency in reading. Sounding out will work effectively enough for a words like "sun" or "moon" or even "June", but even here students must have the flexibility to see two different ways to represent the "oo" sound. What about the word "fight?" Sound it out won't work here, so the child must move to the analogy strategy: "I know the word "night" and this word ends the same, and it start like "fun", so it must be "fight"." 

Then when children move to multi-syllable words, new challenges present themselves. Compound words like "strawberry" or "baseball" may be fairly straightforward, but what do we do with a word like ""previewed?" Here children must apply their morphological knowledge: "I know "pre" is a suffix meaning "before" and "-ed" is a suffix indicating past tense." And then there are words like "cover" and "covert" and "model" and "motel" where flexibility is given a real workout. Here the reader must try an approximation of the word, using knowledge of closed and open syllables, and then try to determine what sounds right and makes sense in the context of the reading (Best guess and check).

Summing all this up would indicate that a fluent reader must flexibly and strategically use a combination of strategies to decode an unknown word.  Students who consistently use only the "sound it out" strategy will find that too many English words don't map easily to letter by letter decoding and that the fluency necessary for sustained comprehension eludes them. "Sounding out" is a necessary skill, but applying it too rigidly will hinder the development of fluency.

Children need to develop a "What could I try?", mentality when approaching unknown words. Teachers can help them develop this strategy through modeling. Modeling can perhaps best be achieved through the think aloud. While reading aloud to children the teacher stops at a variety of pre-planned points in the reading to model decoding strategies. Placing the target word on chart paper or white board can help to demonstrate the strategies being used. The teacher can model flexibility by trying different strategies and by orally labeling the strategies as "sound it out" or "analogy" (some say "compare" strategy), "morphology" or "word parts" or "best guess and check." 

When following up with individual readers, the prompt, "What could you try?" can be used to remind readers that a variety of strategies are at hand to help them. An  anchor chart in the room can be used to help readers see that a number of decoding strategies are available to them at all times.

Some children seemingly come by their flexibility in approaching reading problems naturally. Other children need systematic instruction to help them discover the many routes they may take into a word. Our language is rich and complex and often defies attempts to govern it with rigid rules. While that richness and unpredictability may be frustrating to young readers, Peggy Parrish shows us in her Amelia Bedelia books that that very richness and unpredictability can also be a great source of joy and humor. 


Cartwright, K.B., et al., (2019).  Executive function in the classroom: Cognitive flexibility supports reading fluency for typical readers and teacher-identified low achieving readers. Research in Developmental Disabilities. retrieved from Aug. !5, 2020

Chard, D., Pikulski, J., Templeton, S.(2000). From phonemic awareness to fluency: Effective decoding instruction in a researchbased program. NY: Houghton Mifflin. retrieved from August 15, 2020

Pascale, C., Duncan, L., Blaye, A. (2104). Cognitive flexibility predicts early reading skills. Frontiers in Psychology. retrieved from Aug. 15, 2020.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Reading Instruction at a Distance: Read Aloud, Read Along, Read Alone, Read Again

Whether teaching at a safe distance in school, or online, or some combination of the two, teachers and students face a unique challenge this year. While reading instruction for our most vulnerable readers will necessarily look much different from normal practice, many best practices can still be used effectively. An instructional design I would recommend is Read Aloud, Read Along, Read Alone, Read Again. Let's take a look at these four elements and see how we can use them in this brave new teaching world.

Read Aloud

This well-documented and effective reading strategy can and should remain central to our distanced instruction. Read aloud is not only a pleasurable activity for most, but it also builds student vocabulary and background knowledge, provides a model of fluent reading for children, and provides the teacher with opportunities to model reading comprehension strategies like predicting, summarizing, rereading, adjusting reading rate, and questioning.

During this pandemic, while I haven't been able to visit my grandchildren, I have been recording video  read alouds and sending them off to be shared at bedtime. Teachers can choose to do recorded read alouds or real time read alouds with their students this fall. For more on Read Aloud you can look here.

Read Along

As I wrote in a recent post you can find here, the read along is an assisted reading strategy that can be used with vulnerable readers to help them improve decoding, fluency, and comprehension. At its most basic, students follow along while a voice recording is played. The strategy was developed for use with third graders in the 1970s to help readers who struggled to get any pleasure out of reading because decoding was slow and laborious. Listening and reading along repeatedly helped students develop more fluency in their reading and with that greater fluency came greater comprehension.

Voice recordings of a wide variety of texts are now readily available. Amazon has an "Immersion Reading" program tied to its Kindle reader that is very promising. Apps like Hoopla and Libby connect students to local public libraries and their store of recorded books. Teachers, of course, can also make voice recordings of books that they want students to read along with.

Read Alone

We know that students spending time reading alone in a book that provides just the right amount of challenge is perhaps the single most effective reading experience we can provide. In the classroom, we would call this independent reading time, but at a distance, it might indeed be reading alone. Whatever the name, this is a critical activity in any reading instruction program. Our target should be to get all students to read at least 20 minutes on their own in a book of their own choice daily.

For a full discussion of independent reading and why it is so critical, you can look here. 

Read Again

The research in reading has long shown that re-reading a story, poem, or passage improves decoding, fluency, and comprehension. Re-reading is a particularly effective strategy for vulnerable readers, whose decoding may be slow and  demand so much attention that it interferes with comprehension. Using the book that the students are listening and following along with, teachers could ask the students to listen to the story over and over while following along until they can read it aloud with good fluency. If the story is a longer one, the students might be asked to choose one passage or paragraph to re-read until they are able to read it back fluently. As I will discuss below, poetry also lends itself very well to the read again strategy.

You can read more about repeated reading here. For an article that looks at repeated reading with poetry, you can look here.

Putting It All Together

While this instructional design could be used with any type of text, and while the same text does not have to be used for each type of instruction, here is one way that the design could be used in a unified way using poetry. Poetry is particularly useful for the strategy because whether teaching in-person or online a copy can easily be made available to all students. Poetry also lends itself to repeated reading and the rhythm and rhyme support fluency and decoding.

Here is a poem from my book, Snack Attack and other poems for developing fluency in beginning readers (Infinity, 2010).

The Rattling, Rumbling Train

The rattling, rumbling, rambling train
Travels through the sun and rain
From south of France to north of Spain;
Then turns and speeds right back again.

The rattling, rumbling, rambling train
Climbs the mountains, crosses the plains.
What might its boxcars each contain?
Perhaps some fruit or corn or grain.

The rattling, rumbling, rambling train
With cars linked in a giant chain.
I watch it pass, but can’t explain
The power it has to entertain.

The rattling, rumbling, roaring train
Makes noise that clatters through my brain.
But please don’t think that I complain,
I love that rattling, rumbling train.

In step one of the strategy, the poem would be read aloud to the child/ren. Prior to the read aloud, predictions might be gathered about the topic of the poem by reading the title or perhaps talking about times that children have watched a train roll by in front of their car. Some mention of different kinds of trains like passenger trains and boxcar trains might be helpful. After the read aloud, vocabulary like "plains" or "contain" could be discussed. Other topics for discussion could focus on onomatopoeia (rattling,, rumbling, clatter) or alliteration (rattling, rumbling, rambling) or even metaphor (the cars linked in a giant chain).

Step two would involve the children reading along in the text  while the poem was read aloud again. This could be done in real time by the teacher or recorded for the children to listen to later, Recording the poem has the advantage of allowing the children to read and listen repeatedly.

Step three asks that the children read the poem independently.

Step four has the reader returning to the poem and re-reading it. This re-reading could be done with a partner, if possible, or with a parent. If needed, the reader can listen to the taped recording of the poem repeatedly until a fluent reading of the poem is possible.

Follow up activities might include opportunities to write about reactions to the poem and/or sharing personal experience with trains in writing. Teachers might also want to spend some time discussing the -ain word family or blends and digraphs like "tr", "gr", "pl", "ch." that are a part of the poem.

It is, indeed, a challenging time. It is also a time when good reading instruction is possible. Most importantly it is a time to encourage students to improve their reading by continuing to read. Repeatedly.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

What's In a Name Chart?

Sylvia Ashton-Warner's book, Teacher, first published in 1963, is a chronicle of her experience teaching Maori children in her native New Zealand in the 1940s and 50s. A major insight that Warner discusses in the book is the concept of "key vocabulary." She approached the literacy instruction of her children through the words that had special resonance for them, through their own experience, much of it fraught with poverty and violence. Warner had each child come to her each day with a word they wanted to learn and led the children though various activities to make sure they learned them. These words, drawn from the "inner life" of the child, were powerful to that child and, therefore, more easily learned.

We have all had similar experiences, I'm sure, with children who can read a word like "dinosaur" before they can read the word "they", simply because "dinosaur" is a powerful word for that child, a "key vocabulary" word, if you will. As Invernizzi and Buckrup (2018) put it, "The effects of experience are personal and profound" (p 92).

Over the years, research has demonstrated the efficacy of Warner's ideas. Perhaps none more so than the research of  Treiman and Broderick (1998) who demonstrated that the identity and characteristics of the first letter of a child's name has a significant effect on the child's knowledge of letter names. If we think about it, this makes perfect sense. What vocabulary is more key to the child than that child's own name. Children's strong attachment to their own names may help them in understanding how letters work in words, first within their own names and later, perhaps in other words (Rieben and Perfittii, 2013).

The research brings me to what I consider one of the most powerful instructional tools we can have in the primary classroom - The Name Chart.

As Benito and David and Matilda and Jayden learn to find their names on the name chart, they can also learn the shapes and sounds that those beginning letters make.  Later they may learn that Belen or Diego or Jessica or Morgan have names that start with the same letter. The powerful words on the name chart are a gateway for children to learn the alphabetic principal, that is, letters represent sounds and that those letters may be used in various combinations to make words.

Here are some other recommended uses for the name chart in the classroom.
  • As a spelling aid when doing shared pen or interactive writing activities. "This word starts like Zachary's name."
  • As a game as children come to sit for read aloud. "Touch your own name on the name chart and then sit down."
  • I'm thinking of someone whose name begins with "M." Who can come up and touch it?
  • Clap the names and count the syllables.
  • Do a shared reading of the names .pointing to each name as you read it in order or randomly.
  • Place cards with the names on them in the word study center and have children sort by first letter.
Our own name is our most powerful word. It makes good sense to guide children in their understanding of the alphabetic principal by showing them first how letters work in their own name.

Works Cited

Ashton-W.arner, S. (1986) Teacher.  New York: Touchstone.

Invernizzi, M.and Buckrup, J. (2018) Reconceptualizing Alphabet learning and Instruction. in Cassano, C. and Dougherty, S..ed., Pivotal Research in Early Literacy. New York: Guilford.

Rieben, L. And Perfitti, C.A. (2013). Learning to Read: Basic Research and Its Implications. Mahwah, NJ. Erlbaum.

Treiman. R. and Broderick V. (1998). What's in a Name: Children's knowledge about the letters in their own names. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. 70, 97-113.