Monday, October 26, 2020

Ten Roles of the Instructional Leader in Literacy

I currently teach a graduate course at Rider University for prospective reading specialists. While the course focuses on the theory and research behind sound reading instruction, an underlying goal of the course is to prepare students to be literacy instruction leaders. Toward that end, here are the roles I think a successful instructional leader fills in that critical position. These insights were gained over my several decades long experience as a teacher, reading specialist, supervisor of instruction and director of curriculum.


One good way to understand what instructional needs a particular teacher or group of teachers has is to listen to them. We all come into these leadership positions with preconceived notions about what good literacy instruction looks like, but in order to lead we must first understand the needs, desires, understandings, and concerns that the teachers have. Sitting down in small groups and with individuals to talk about literacy instruction from the teacher's perspective is a place to start.

Non-Evaluative Observer

The role of leader often involves observations that end with formal evaluations. In order to understand where teachers are in their literacy instruction and what their individual needs might be, however, it is much better to conduct brief non-evaluative observations and follow-up conversations. These observations are always pre-arranged and never formally written-up.

Evaluative Observer

As I said, however, at times the role of the leader involves formal evaluative observations. The goal of these observations, with very few exceptions, should be instructional improvement. To this end, most observations should follow a clinical model, that is, include a pre-observation conference, observation, and post-observation conference. The clinical model helps to insure that the conference is focused on improvement and not some kind of "gotchya" activity. Feedback on lessons should be supportive and aimed at targeted changes. It is better to focus on one or two areas for improvement and to provide clear expectations for implementation, than to overwhelm with a fistful of suggestions.


Literacy leaders systematically share their knowledge and the exciting new books and articles that they read in the course of keeping up to date on research and innovation. Professional book discussions, information shares, informative emails, and monthly newsletters are ways that the literacy leader provides updated information for teachers. As a reading specialist, I would hold bi-monthly, pre-school information sharing sessions. As a supervisor, I often conducted before and after school book clubs to look at new books on relevant instructional topics for teachers.

Available Resource

The literacy leader needs to be available to answer teacher's questions about instructional practice or about individual students. Reponses need to be timely and informed by best practice, current research, and actual experience. When the leader is unable to answer a question, she should be able to point to resources that may be helpful and provide those resources whenever possible.


Whether it is guided reading instruction, min-lesson development and delivery, book club organization, phonemic awareness instruction, comprehension strategy instruction or any of the many other instructional challenges that may confront the classroom teacher, the literacy leader must be able to model these practices for the teachers through professional development activities and in the regular classroom with the children. Modeling is a powerful way to teach complex concepts to children and adults. The ability to show teachers best practice instruction goes a long way to establishing credibility and trust for the literacy leader.

Resource Provider 

When introducing any instructional innovation to teachers, it is critical that the literacy leader provide the teachers with the resources to implement the innovation. When I wanted to implement literature circles in my fifth grade classrooms, I first had to work with building principles to budget money for the books to support the literature circles and then work with the teachers to identify the books that would be used for literature circle study. The same was true for guided reading. Multiple copies of books on a variety of levels were needed to implement the instructional design. Many a good instructional idea fails for lack of resources. If we expect teachers to implement our innovations, we must provide the resources for them to do so.


At times the literacy leader must be the advocate for the teacher. This may involve arguing with a principal for a budget line for each teacher to get money to improve their classroom library or sitting in on a parent conference with a teacher whose instruction, grading, or evaluation of a child is being questioned. The role of advocate may also involve providing parent presentations on literacy curriculum and instruction or presentations to the Board of Education regarding curricular decisions. 

Program Evaluator

As a literacy leader, you will be inundated with all kinds of literacy programs that promise great things if implemented "with fidelity." The job requires that these programs be evaluated in light of what the current research says is best practice, in light of the needs of the students in the school district, in light of the ease of implementation, and always in light of the fact that teachers teach literacy and not programs. Programs that seek to provide scripted or "teacher proof" instruction eliminate the most critical aspect of any literacy program - the teacher. The implementation of any program must put the teacher at the center and be both grounded in sound research and teacher efficacy. Any program under consideration must come with a commitment to the professional development and the professional expertise of the teacher.


The literacy leader benefits greatly from a broad network of other professionals filling the same roles. Professional organizations such as the International Literacy Association or the National Council of Teachers of English are very helpful.. Sometimes local universities bring literacy leaders together on a regular basis for information sharing and networking. Sometimes county or regionally based organizations provide the support. No matter where it comes from, it is critical that the literacy leader gain perspective and support from a wide network of people working on the same problems.

I like to think of the literacy leader as the "teachers' teacher." In this role we work to make sure all of the teachers under our supervision are successful, while recognizing that each of them is a unique individual with their own special talents, abilities, and perspectives to bring to the task of literacy instruction.

Monday, October 19, 2020

7 Ways to Help Young Writers

This week I have been reading a new biography of my literary hero, John Steinbeck, Mad at the World: A Life  of John Steinbeck by William Souder. In the book Souder quotes Steinbeck's favorite writing teacher, Edith Mirrielees, an English professor at Stanford University, as saying, "Writing can't be taught, but it can be helped." This put me in mind of the work  the psycholinguist, Frank Smith, who wrote an article titled, Reading Like a Writer, in which he posited that most of what a writer learns about writing is learned, not through instruction, but through reading in a special way - reading like someone who thinks they are a member of the "writing club."

Of course, even if writing can't really be taught and even if most of what a child learns about writing is learned by reading, there is still plenty of opportunity for the teacher to help, to be the guide on the side. Here are some good ways to help.

  1. Provide regular opportunities to write on self-selected topics. In order to feel like a member of the writing club, kids need to view writing as a regular part of their lives. Daily writing time puts the developing writer into a perpetual state of rehearsal for writing.  For example, because I knew I would be writing this blog entry today, I have been rehearsing, reading, and jotting notes on the topic all week. The expectation of writing something that I want to write means, as Smith says, that I am reading like a writer. That is, my reading is driven in part by my goal of writing about the topic,
  2. Provide lots of opportunities to read on self-selected topics. If, as Smith says, most of what we learn about how to write comes from reading, it is a given that we must find plenty of time for students to read widely in self-selected topics. We can further help by making the connection between what we read and what we write explicit to the children, perhaps by talking about how certain authors have influenced your own writing or how things that you read about give you ideas for writing.
  3. Model the process of writing through writing for the students. We know from the research that writers follow a definite process when they write. When we write for students. we not only get to model the process of writing, but we get to share something of ourselves. Talking aloud while we write, which takes some practice, provides the students with a template for their own writing process.
  4. Model good writing through mentor texts.  Much of early writing is imitation. Actual authors provide a template on which we can try out our own efforts to express things in new and attention getting ways. I remember in high school much of my writing was juvenile attempts at satire. I would enjoy writing comic takes on Benjamin Franklin's kite flying experiments or the courtship of Miles Standish, John Alden, and Priscilla Mullins. A teacher happened to mention that my writing reminded her of the books of Richard Armour. Intrigued, I went to the library and took out two Armour books, 1066 and All That and It All Started with Columbus, two riotous historical satires. Armour became my mentor for the silly, hyperbolic, gently reproachful satires I wrote for the next several years. Pointing students to the right books to help them write about their own topics is an excellent way to be helpful. We can then let the professional authors, provide the teaching.
  5. Provide timely mini-lessons Mini-lessons are a great structure for the teacher to provide a high amount of input into student writing. The best mini-lessons, I think, are those that are most timely. We need to ask ourselves, "What lesson will have the most impact right now?" It makes no sense to teach a mini-lesson on punctuating dialogue until students have begun to try to use dialogue in their writing. Likewise, the best time for a minilesson on varying sentence length is when students are showing that they are capable of writing longer sentences, but have not mastered how to effectively use sentence variety in a composition. It is also important to provide a variety of mini-lessons. We should be providing as many mini-lessons on the qualities of good writing (like show, don't tell) as we are on correct usage and punctuation.
  6. Conduct writing conferences where you listen, respond, and extend. I like to go to early in the writing process conferences without a pencil in my hand. In these conferences, I want to focus on the writing, what is the writer trying to communicate, how successful are they being, what assistance do they want? To this purpose, I want the writer to do most of the talking and I want my probing questions to elicit more talk to help the writer clarify in their own mind what they are trying to do. I also want to respond personally to the writing, by indicating, yes, this is something I am interested in or this is like something that happened to me, or I can see why this is important to you. Finally, I want to ask some questions that might get the writer to rethink, do further research, or examine what they have done so far. Have you considered...? What if... I was wondering...? The writer should go away from a conference feeling that they are doing work that the teacher values and that they have some ideas to work on to improve their draft.
  7. Target those things you want to correct  Because we are working with students, we should not expect the work to be perfect. Our focus for final revision and editing should be on targeted corrections. What should we target? One focus would be on topics of recent mini-lessons. If the class has been working on varying sentence length, that might be a target. Another focus would be particular challenges that this individual student exhibits. If the student has a tendency to misspell certain words, that could be a target for that individual student. If we try to fix everything, we may cause confusion and frustration. Targeting our corrections means that students can focus on one or two things that will improve the writing, while other problems can be reserved for another writing project.
Maybe Edith Mirrielees is right that writing can't be taught, but teachers can go a long way to be effective writing helpers. 

Monday, October 12, 2020

Haiku: A Path to Poetry for Young Writers

Most young children love poetry, but when it comes to writing poetry they are often overwhelmed by the demands of rhythm and rhyme. Sense suffers as kids scramble for rhyming words.

My Mom

I love my mom oh so much
I love her more than chocolate - Dutch!
She s me all the things I need
And I help her to weed.

Now this poem, written by a second grader, is not without its charms, but it contains a mixture of the profound and the mundane that is typical of a child stuck in the rhyme versus sense conundrum. Freeing children from the demands of rhyme allows them to tap into the natural poetry that is within them. Haiku provides a structured, but non-rhyming. poetic form with which nearly all children can be successful. 

Haiku is, of course, the short poetry form that originated in Japan. Literally translated haiku means "beginning poem" and indeed these little poems are an excellent starting point for young poets. 

Haiku attempts to capture a single moment or single image in the world of nature. A good haiku should capture an image in the way that a photograph freezes time. As the poet X. J. Kennedy says, "You just point to something and let it make the reader feel something, too."

Haiku consists of three lines containing seventeen syllables, five-seven-five respectively. Writers and translators of haiku do not adhere strictly to the syllable arrangement, but with young writers I believe the strict form provides a helpful framework. As children become more adept at haiku, the rules can be loosened.

Introducing Children to Haiku

First read lots of haiku to the children. I like to find books that provide illustrations or photographs so that I can show the students the image the author was attempting to capture. I have included a list of suggested books below.

Secondly, lay out the "rules of haiku" for children on an anchor chart. My chart contains the following:

1. Haiku attempts to capture a moment in time in nature.
2. Haiku attempts to help a reader see an image in the mind's eye.
3. Haiku attempts to make the reader feel something (happy, sad, amazed, calm, Ahah!)
4. The first line contains five syllables.
5. The second line contains seven syllables.
6. The third line contains five syllables.

Next, analyze a few haiku from the books you have read to the students. Discuss how the poem captures a moment in time in nature. Have the children clap and count the number of "beats" or syllables. Younger children sometimes have trouble clapping and counting at he same time, so I have them clap while I count. 

Now you can brainstorm with the children a list of words that might be found in a haiku and that might be a topic of a haiku. . The children will name many things that can be found in nature. I encourage them to use specific words (not just bird, but cardinal, not tree, but oak.)

You are now ready to model writing a haiku for the children. Using the list of words the children have brainstormed, I talk about the image I am going to try to capture in words. Without worrying too much about the syllable count, I put a tentative first line on the board. I encourage the children to look it over and make suggestions. This gives me the opportunity to show the children how we can manipulate the syllable count by adding or deleting words or choosing a different word with the same meaning. This procedure continues through the next two lines. When the first draft of the haiku is completed, I model revision behavior by reading over the piece and making changes that clarify the message and make the poem conform to the structure of haiku.

Finally it is time to have the children try their own haiku. I stand back and marvel as the classroom fills with the sounds of children clapping out syllables and conferring with each other. Generally I have the children do a rough draft, a revised copy, and an edited copy before they transfer the haiku to art paper and illustrate. Children's haiku can be bound into an impromptu big book for all to read or displayed prominently on a bulletin board.

Your students will no doubt amaze you with their facility for haiku. Here are a few written by my second graders in years past.

In a quiet lake
Where I visit everyday, 

I hear the birds sing.
            Krystal Tamayo

Blue rain falling down
Landing gentle in my hand.
So cold and so clear.    
               Jennifer Bergman

Juicy red apples
Sitting in the greenish tree.
All ready for me       
                Kristy Hajducek

Down the sunny path
Slither, slither goes the snake.
Everybody run!
                Anne Marie Schamper

Haiku Books

Atwood, A. (1977) Haiku -Vision. NY: Scribners.
__________. (1973) My Own Rhythm. NY: Scribners.
Cassedy, S. (1992). Red Dragon on My Shoulder. NY: Harper Collins.
Crews, N. and Wright, R. (2018). Seeing Into Tomorrow: Haiku by Richard Wright. Millbrook Press.
Lewis, R. and Keats, E.J. (1965) In a Spring Garden. NY: Dial Books.
Raczka, B. and Reynolds, P. (2018).  Guyku: A Year of Haiku for Boys. NY: HMH Books.
Ramirez-Christianson, E. and Gallup, T. (2019). My First Book of Haiku Poems. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle.
Salas, L. P. (2019). Lion of the Sky: Haiku for All Seasons. Millbrook Press.

Teacher Resources

Donegan, P. (2018). Write Your Own Haiku for Kids: Write Poetry in the Japanese Tradition. North Clarendon, VT.: Tuttle.
Hopkins, L.B. (1998). Pass the Poetry, Please! NY: Harper Trophy.
Kennedy, X.J. and Kennedy, D. (1999) Knock At A Star. Boston: Little Brown.

This post is revised from an article that appeared in The Reading Instruction Journal.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Word Recognition: To what extent is it "self-taught?"

I taught myself how to decode. No, I was not some precocious early reader who intuited how words work at three and was reading before entering school. And, yes, my first grade teacher. Ms. Rickles, did a very creditable job in teaching me the alphabetic principal and the phonological awareness I needed to get myself started on the road to being a reader. Most of what I learned about the ways words work, however, I learned by reading and I can distinctly remember that happening to me. 

Early in the second grade, my mother enrolled me in the Weekly Reader Book Club. I was thrilled when the package with my first book arrived with my name on it. The book was a Whitman/Golden Book adaptation of  a Disney True Life Adventure documentary series called The Living Desert. The book contained lots to interest a seven-year-old boy and I read it with a vengeance. It was probably a bit above my reading level, but with the help of my understanding of  sound/symbol relationships learned in school, a bit of my own background knowledge, the copious pictures in the book, and some determination, I was able to decode words like iguana, rattlesnake, prairie dog, desolate, tortoise, habitat, evaporation and so forth. Along the way, although I was not aware of it at the time, of course, I was teaching myself the orthographic system of our language. The more I read, the stronger, richer, ad deeper this understanding became.

It has been estimated that there are about 88,500 distinct word families in English. Not even the most heroic of teachers could possibly hope to teach developing readers even a fraction of these spelling patterns. How do we explain how successful readers learn all these patterns? Researcher David Share (1995) hypothesized that readers learn these patterns primarily through the process of successful experiences of "phonologically recoding words." Phonological recoding is the process of translating print to sound. According to Share, this process is a "self-teaching process", which enables the reader to acquire the detailed knowledge of the orthographic structure of the language that is needed for successful reading. The more successful encounters the reader has, the more information is available to recognize new words. As Share puts it, "the process of word recognition will depend primarily on the frequency [with] which a child has been exposed to a particular word, together, of course, with the nature and success of item identification." (p. 155).

The implications are pretty clear. Students need to develop a thorough understanding of the alphabetic principal and phonological awareness (syllables, onset/rime, phonemes) and at the same time they need lots of opportunities to read, so that they can apply this growing knowledge to new and novel constructs. Another implication is that much of this reading must be on the independent level, because the key is "successful interactions."  Children will not have the opportunity to put this self-teaching to work, if they are struggling with the reading. Some challenges are welcome, as opportunities to apply growing decoding skills, but for the most part children should be reading at volume in independent level texts. One exception to this general rule would be when a student shows a particular interest in a topic and that level of engagement motivates the reader to "work through" some challenging passages.

Another implication is worrisome. If much of word recognition is "self-taught" through wide reading, and if this ability to self-teach is dependent on a high level of phonological awareness, then children who struggle with phonological awareness will struggle to build the orthographic lexicon they need for skilled reading. As  Cassano and Dougherty (2018) have observed, this indicates that the Matthew Effect (the rich get richer and the poor get poorer) in literacy can be laid to weakness in phonological awareness and the subsequently fewer opportunities to develop the ability to decode a wide range of orthographic constructs.

Share's insight is, for me, a clear argument for balance in instruction. While most children need instruction that helps them develop phonological awareness, they also need lots of opportunities to apply this learning in real, independent reading situations. Students who struggle to develop the requisite phonological awareness need continued  attention to help in developing that awareness, but also continued opportunities to self-teach through successful encounters with independent and instructional level texts under the guidance of the informed teacher.

Works Cited

Cassano, C.M. and Dougherty, S.M. (2018). Pivotal research in early literacy: foundational studies and current practices. NY: Guilford.

Share, D. L. (1995). Phonological recoding and self-teaching: sine qua non of reading acquisition. Cognition, 55, 151-218.