Wednesday, December 16, 2020

A Holiday Gift of Poetry 2020

The holidays will be a bit different for all of this year, but one constant source of joy and solace for me is poetry. Here are a few that I have resonant in this somewhat scary, socially distanced time. Happy Holidays.

When Giving is All We Have
            Alberto Rios

One river gives
Its journey to the next.

We give because someone gave to us. 
We give because nobody gave to us.

We give because giving has changed us.
We give because giving could have changed us.

We have been better for it,
We have been wounded by it –

Giving has many faces: It is loud and quiet,
Big, though small, diamond in wood-nails.

Its story is old, the plot worn and the pages too,
But we read this book, anyway, over and again:

Giving is, first and every time, hand to hand,
Mine to yours, yours to mine.

You gave me blue and I gave you yellow.
Together we are simple green. You gave me

What you did not have, and I gave you
What I had to give – together, we made

Something greater from the difference.

Wonder and Joy
Robinson Jeffers

The things that one grows tired of -- O, be sure
They are only foolish artificial things!
Can a bird ever tire of having wings?
And I, so long as life and sense endure,
(Or brief be they!) shall nevermore inure
My heart to the recurrence of the springs,
Of gray dawns, the gracious evenings,
The infinite wheeling stars. A wonder pure
Must ever well within me to behold
Venus decline; or great Orion, whose belt 
Is studded with three nails of burning gold,
Ascend the winter heaven. Who never felt
This wondering joy may yet be good or great:
But envy him not: he is not fortunate.

Ode to My Socks
Pablo Neruda, translated by Robert Bly

Mara Mori brought me
a pair of socks
which she knitted herself
with her sheepherder's hands,
two socks as soft as rabbits.
I slipped my feet into them
as if they were two cases
knitted with threads of twilight and goatskin,
Violent socks,
my feet were two fish made of wool,
two long sharks
sea blue, shot through
by one golden thread,
two immense blackbirds,
two cannons,
my feet were honored in this way
by these heavenly socks.
They were so handsome for the first time
my feet seemed to me unacceptable
like two decrepit firemen,
firemen unworthy of that woven fire,
of those glowing socks.

Nevertheless, I resisted the sharp temptation
to save them somewhere as schoolboys
keep fireflies,
as learned men collect
sacred texts,
I resisted the mad impulse to put them
in a golden cage and each day give them
birdseed and pieces of pink melon.
Like explorers in the jungle
who hand over the very rare green deer
to the spit and eat it with remorse,
I stretched out my feet and pulled on
the magnificent socks and then my shoes.

The moral of my ode is this:
beauty is twice beauty
and what is good is doubly good
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool in winter.

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.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

When Best Practice Meets Questionable Methods in Literacy Instruction

All of us try to provide best practice instruction to our students. Sometimes, though, in our enthusiasm to provide the children the instruction they need, we end up using some instructional methods that work against our goals. Here are a few things we know work in literacy instruction, some ways we can turn those good practices into unproductive ones, and then some things we can do instead.

Best Practice: Regular Reading - Kids who read a lot tend to get better at reading, so it is a good idea to get kids to read as much as possible.

Questionable Method: Reading Logs - Research has long shown us that external controls have a negative impact on intrinsic motivation. Reading logs, rigidly employed, can turn the pleasurable act of reading into a chore. Other extrinsic motivators like pizza parties and other non-reading related awards should also be avoided.

What to do instead: Trust in the power of books and focus on student engagement in those books. If we want children to read we need to have many books readily available (classroom library), to provide the opportunity to read them (independent reading), to give children some choice in what they read, and to make sure they are able to read them (just right book). We also need to advertise the wonderfulness of books through daily read alouds and weekly book talks. 

If we want to reward kids for reading, make the rewards reading related, such as providing extended independent reading time or increased time to talk about their books or an added visit to the library.

Best Practice: Written Response to Reading - Research shows that when children write about what they have read they increase their comprehension by at least 30%., so we should have kids write after reading

Questionable Method: Journals - Reader response journals are a good thing, but like reading logs, they may be viewed by many kids as a chore that kills the joy in reading.

What to do instead: Journals can be an important part of the classroom reading routine, but they should be used sparingly and not as a daily requirement. They are most successful when the teacher spends time modeling what a good journal entry should look like for the children. One journal a week seems adequate. There are many other ways that children can increase their comprehension of what they have read. Some days a simple turn and talk to a partner about your reading should suffice. Drawing illustrations and acting out scenes in what you have read are other ways to respond. Another productive activity is the Stop and Jot, where children employ post-it notes to identify particularly impactful passages in their reading. Stop and Jots make good notes for a possible later journal entry. Like giving students some choice in what they read, giving them some choice in how they respond is a good idea. Variety matters here.

Best Practice: Vocabulary Instruction - A strong and growing vocabulary is critical to a child's ability to comprehend increasingly complex text. It is, therefore, every teacher's responsibility to provide vocabulary instruction.

Questionable Method: Vocabulary Lists: Recognizing the need to teach vocabulary, teachers assign lists of words to be looked-up, put into sentences, and studied for a quiz at the end of the week. Fifty years of research has shown that this form of instruction does not work.

What to do instead: Vocabulary is best learned in context and from a conceptual base. Teachers provide context for learning vocabulary through discussing words during a read aloud, by talking about words in a story children have just read, and by using such concept oriented strategies as semantic maps, List-Group-Label, and concept circles. Here is some guidance on teaching vocabulary from a conceptual  base. Here is an example of the List-Group-Label Strategy.

Best Practice: Decoding Instruction - Research shows that in order to read well, children must learn to quickly and efficiently decode novel words as they encounter them. Since this is a critical reading skill, we must teach kids to decode words as they read.

Questionable Method: Over-reliance on the prompt "sound-it-out"- Sounding out is an important skill for readers to have. The ability to match sounds to symbols is critical, but over-reliance or inflexible dependence on "sounding-it-out" is both inefficient and often ineffective. 

What to do instead:  The definition of decode in The Literacy Dictionary (ILA) is "to analyze spoken or graphic symbols to ascertain their intended meaning" (italics mine). Meaning is at the center of the decoding enterprise. Children must be taught to flexibly approach an unknown word seeking its meaning by using a combination of strategies including sounding-it-out, but also employing meaning clues, syntax clues, onset and rime, and morphological clues to decode a word. You can read more about the role of meaning and flexible strategies for decoding here.

Best Practice: Listening to Students Read Orally: Listening to developing readers read a passage orally is an important diagnostic tool for the teacher. Student miscues in oral reading or lack of fluency in processing provides teachers with critical information for planning instruction.

Questionable Method: Round Robin Reading: Round Robin or Popcorn Reading where children are asked to take turns reading orally is a long discredited instructional practice. It is ineffective in improving reading and potentially embarrassing for vulnerable readers.

What to do instead: Students should only be asked to read orally as individuals in three situations. One is a private diagnostic conference where the child is reading to the teacher and the teacher is taking a running record for diagnostic purposes. The second is in a small group guided reading session where again the child is "whisper reading" to the teacher listening in over the shoulder and prompting to assist in processing the text. Finally, performance activities like reader's theater or radio reading, where students are given ample opportunity to rehearse their parts before reading orally. You can read more about the problems with Round Robin Reading here.

In our efforts to provide students with the best possible instruction it is a good idea to keep our eyes on the big picture and not on the most immediately expedient solution. The eventual impact on learning will be profound.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Picture Books for Older Chldren? Of Course

One of the ways that teachers are meeting the challenge of online instruction is through picture books and the read aloud. This is a good idea in many ways, but are picture books appropriate for older students, say fifth grade and up? The answer is YES, OF COURSE. The reasons are many, but I wish to highlight just one of those reasons today. Picture books make a great introduction to many, many complex ideas. They can help to build needed background knowledge for new topics, introduce content specific vocabulary with illustrations to assist the learning, and may serve to engage students in a topic of study that they may not have even known they were interested in prior to the picture book read aloud.

Year ago I noticed my colleague, Peggy Burke, had a copy of a comic book titled, Your Brain and You on her desk. I asked her why she had a comic on her desk and she told me that she was reading it because she had signed up for a seminar titled something like, New Discoveries about the Functions of the Brain for Educators, at Harvard University. Peggy said she really didn't have much current background knowledge on the brain, so before attending the seminar she thought that this picture book could give her some the of the basic anatomy and vocabulary related to the topic. 

And so it is with many picture books, they provide outstanding introductions to a wide variety of topics. I have found Gail Gibbons books particularly effective for just this purpose. Her book, The Monarch Butterfly, for example introduces children to the life cycle of the butterfly, the incredible story of monarch migration, and even some of the cultural celebrations that have grown up to celebrate this wonder of nature. Along the way children are also introduced to the structure of the butterfly as well as key terms like metamorphosis, chrysalis, molting, and larva. Reading this book aloud provides excellent background for a broader study of insects in a middle grades classroom. There is a Gail Gibbons book for almost every conceivable science topic you might want to explore in your curriculum.

Speaking of the brain, Seymour Simon has a wonderful picture book on that topic. Simon is the master of explaining complex topics to children through text and illustration. His books are beautiful, informative, and accurate and make ideal introductions to a wide variety of topics. Among my favorites are Weather, Our Solar System, and the very timely, Wildfires. All of these books contain  glossaries and indexes for easy use.

The more background knowledge readers have on a topic, the better their comprehension of the text will be. The more background knowledge a reader has on a topic the better their engagement in the reading is likely to be. Reading pictures books aloud to older children to help them prepare for study in any topic is a "no brainer." 😏

For some more of the many reasons to read picture books to older children, I recommend this video from literacy champion, Colby Sharp.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Mighty Storm: Multiple Texts Help Synthesize Thought

Three things I read this morning came together in what might be considered a perfect storm of insight. First, I read for one hour the book I'm currently reading, Isaac's Storm, by Erik Larson. Isaac's Storm tells the tragic story of  the deadliest natural disaster in U. S. history, the Galveston, Texas hurricane of 1900. The second thing I read was from a headline on the front page of the New York Times, Trump Scorns Own Scientists on Virus Data. The article details how the President rejected the professional scientific conclusions of his own advisers on the prospects of a Covid vaccine being widely available and on the importance of people wearing masks to slow the spread of the disease. The third item was also a headline from the front page of the Times, Unexpected Fury of Storm Pounds Coast of Florida, which tells how the latest hurricane, Sally, proved difficult for forecasters to predict and hit with unexpected force in Pensacola. Florida where people were not expecting it to be as powerful and destructive.

The hurricane in Galveston in 1900 struck unexpectedly and with great ferocity, with winds of more than 145 mph and with a storm surge of perhaps 30 feet. An estimated 6,00 to 12,00 people were killed. Property damage was estimated at 34 million, more than a billion in today's dollars. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all was that their were no warnings about the storm, and no chance for people to evacuate largely because of politics, prejudice, and hubris. Cuban scientists, who had a great deal of experience in predicting hurricanes, had indeed predicted that the hurricane was heading west toward Texas. The weather bureau in Washington, DC, however, predicted that the storm would turn north over Florida and up the east coast to New England. The Director of the Weather Bureau, Willis Moore, was so jealous of the Cubans, and so sure that the Cubans were inferior in their abilities, that he shut off the flow of data from Cuba to the U.S. At the same time, he forbid regional forecasters, such as Isaac Cline in Galveston, from declaring storms hurricanes because he did not want to frighten people unnecessarily.  The combination of blocking information from Cuba, and making it difficult for local forecasters to report hurricanes proved deadly. Kerry Manuel, professor of atmospheric science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology says, "The Galveston hurricane made people realize you can't play politics with the weather bureau. If you make it political, you will die."

The leap from Galveston to the headline in the New York Times about President Trump scorning the advice of his own scientists is not a difficult one to make, I think. When we ignore the guidance of the most knowledgeable people in weather or health related crises, people will die. The third headline, this one about the unexpected force of the Hurricane Sally, however, reminds us that science is not perfect and that we must be ever vigilant, keeping up-to-date on the latest understandings and scientists must continue their research in any fields with open minds and and the rest of us must continue to be informed consumers of the best guidance science can give us.

Why do I bring all this up on a blog dedicated to teaching and reading instruction? I think my experience here is instructive about how people experience reading and how that experience influences comprehension of text. Anything I read right now is influenced by the current pandemic, the current political situation, the impacts of climate change, and the impact of all the background knowledge and personal experiences I bring to any reading situation. As teachers, we must take all of the context of the reading situation for the students into account as we consider how to guide their comprehension of texts. Probing questions can help students build their comprehension using multiple sources of information. I have written about that in a past post here. When we think about building comprehension instead of testing comprehension, students can make leaps to greater understanding.

Another lesson to take here, I think, is the importance of providing students multiple thematically related texts to help them learn to look for patterns and to synthesize information across texts. Multiple short readings on related topics, connected through opportunities to write about the readings and make judgments about what has been read, seems to be the kind of reading activity designed to prepare students for life in a democratic society where critical thinking will be critical for our very survival.

Guiding students with probing questions, providing them with multiple interconnected texts, and giving them opportunities to write about the connections they find may lead to the deeper understandings we desire.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Do Our Children Deserve the Truth?

Knowing our history, the good and the bad, is the first step, I want my children to love the country they live in, but I also want them to be clear-eyed about what that country is.
- America Ferrara , Actor

In 1970, when I was a wet-behind-the-ears, 22 year-old social studies teacher at Bristol Junior-Senior High School, I was teaching a ninth grade Civics course. The topic was the the Bill of Rights and specifically, the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights, which states in part:

Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion...

I explained that the Founding Fathers were concerned about the co-mingling of religion and government that many had escaped in Europe and wanted to be sure that religious freedom was guaranteed in the new country.

A student raised his hand. "Mr. Walsh, if that law is in the Constitution, why do we have do we say "under God" every morning when we salute the flag. Isn't that mixing religion and government?"

Good question. My answer: 

The original Pledge of Allegiance did not contain the words "under God." These words were added in 1954 during the Cold War, a period when the fear of an atomic war between the United States and the communist USSR was high. Many viewed communism as a threat to the American way of life, and were particularly concerned that communism was a godless philosophy.  In this country the period was known as McCarthyism, named after a Senator from Wisconsin, who accused many people of being communists, caused many innocent people to be blacklisted so they could not get  work, and generally stirred -up people's fear of communism. Under pressure from anti-communists in and out of the government, Congress approved the addition of the words "under God" to the Pledge and then President Eisenhower spoke in favor of the change. And so we now say "under God" in the pledge. Interestingly, it was also President Eisenhower who two years later, in 1956, declared "In God We Trust" as the motto of the United States and in 1957 those three words were first printed on our money. Since that time many people have pointed out that these words go against what the Founding Fathers thought about the role of religion in government and the issue is still controversial for some.*

As far as I know no children were harmed by me telling them this truth.

It has always seemed to me that teaching the truth about America is the most American act we can commit. A great deal of our history is wonderful: freedom of religion, land of opportunity, great democracy, economic success. A great deal of our history is horrible: genocide of Native Americans, slavery, Jim Crow, imperialism, economic inequity. In that, we are like every other civilization in history. Have we gotten more things right than many other civilizations? Perhaps. But that does not absolve us from those things we have gotten wrong. 

It has never seemed to me that our heroes needed to be perfect to be considered heroes. It is, indeed, perhaps more heroic that imperfect people overcame their imperfections to make great contributions to our country. It is also true that we must judge our historic figures and the actions they took with a sense of historical mindedness. We cannot blame doctors for bleeding patients in the 18th century because we knew by the 20th century that this was more likely to kill than cure. People are surely products of their times.

With this in mind, we may not wish to judge Washington and Jefferson too harshly for owning slaves, being that this was so common for men of their time, but we cannot excuse lightly, I think, Jefferson's relationship with his slave Sally Hemings. Common practice of the times perhaps, but still rape and still reprehensible. Jefferson, of course, knew this because he kept it secret and his descendants attempted to keep the truth buried. Jefferson's character cannot be fully understood without an examination of this relationship. Nor can we get a full picture of Washington without examining his dogged pursuit of runaway slaves or his evolving views on slavery that led him to (conditionally) free his slaves at the end of his life.

There seems to be a sentiment among some that school children should not learn about the flaws of our heroes. School textbooks have a long history of glossing over the more unseemly aspects of our history. Biographies written for young people are often whitewash jobs. Just this past week President Trump threatened the funding of California schools because they were integrating The 1619 Project into their American History curriculum. The 1619 Project focuses the historical lens around the time that the first slave ship arrived in America. The appropriately named Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas has introduced legislation that would prevent schools from teaching the curriculum. 

California's Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond replied appropriately:

California’s educators should feel empowered to lead courageous conversations with their students about the history of race and racism in our country—not worry if their school will lose funding.

And there it is. Courageous conversations are the lifeblood of a history class. For America to live up to its ideals of freedom and justice for all, we must examine our history warts and all. These discussions will not weaken the country, but strengthen it. To come face to face with our history is not to weaken our country, but to make it stronger. To tell our young people the truth is not to undermine our greatness, but to better assure that our greatness can be even greater in the future. Who can't handle the truth? Apparently only a few old white guys in Washington. Our kids and our country will be better off with the truth.

We might ask at what age we would want to make sure the children were hearing the truth. I would argue that if the topic is in the curriculum, whatever grade that might be, is the right time to start. If children are old enough to learn about the contributions of Squanto and Sacajawea, they are old enough to know what the people who came to their land did to their people.

* The words "under God" in the pledge have been challenged many times in the courts. In its most recent ruling in 2004, the US Supreme Court rejected a suit against the words on a technicality, but three of the Justices: Rehnquist, O'Conner, and Thomas, asserted that the Pledge, including the words "under God" were constitutional. Other court cases have asserted that no one can be compelled to say the Pledge.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Vocabulary Instruction: Try Word Riffs

Many young readers hit a wall when their reading demands that they decode longer and longer words. Research has shown that instruction in morphology (roots and affixes) can help readers make this transition. Some excellent resources are available for teaching morphological understanding. One that I particularly like is the Word Ladder approach of  Dr. Tim Rasinski. Word Ladder books for various grade levels are readily available from Scholastic, but lately Tim has been posting Word Ladders on his Twitter feed. You can follow him @TimRasinski1 to get his latest freebies. 

I have had success with a variation on the Word Ladder, adding an element of the Think Aloud, in my own teaching. I call it, for lack of a better term, the Word Riff. The idea of the Word Riff is to help students use morphology in decoding, expand student vocabulary, and turn students on to the richness and logic in the English language. 

The Word Riff grows out of each student's Vocabulary Self-Collection Notebook. As a part of the student's interactive notebook they keep for my class (a place for reflections, reading responses, notes, etc.) I ask the students to collect new, unknown, and interesting words they run across in their reading. The student is asked to identify the word, the context (sentence) the word was found in, a best guess definition of the word, and a dictionary definition of the word. If you would like to read more about the Vocabulary Self-Collection Strategy, please see this readwritethink lesson.

Each day I ask student volunteers to share words they have discovered and then the class decides which word they would like to learn more about. It is at this point the Word Riff begins. Essentially, I take the word and talk about its roots, prefixes, suffixes, derivation, and other words which use the same or similar root. In one class a student brought in the word "signatory." The student, doing some research on local history (4th grade), had come across this sentence:

"George Clymer was an early American advocate for revolution and a signatory of both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution."

The student told the class he learned from the dictionary that "signatory" meant "signer." So Clymer was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

I took it from here, writing the word, the sentence, and the definition on the board, I began as follows:

"As you can see, boys and girls, both "signatory" and "signed" come from the same root word, in this case the Latin "sign" which means mark or seal. The first thing I notice is that we hear the "g" in signatory", but the "g" is silent in "sign." One thing we need to learn about the English language is that sometimes spelling is preserved to carry the meaning of the word, even if that spelling does not match the way the word sounds. So the silent "g" in "sign" lets us know that this word is related to making a mark. Speaking of making a mark, right away I am sure you noticed that "signatory" is close to "signature." When you put your signature on your assignment you place a mark that lets me know whose paper it is. And there is the word "assignment", meaning some work that you must do or literally leave your mark on it to signal that it is yours. Notice that "signal" also comes from the same root, so that we know to stop working and look to the front when I signal with two fingers in the air. 

Going back to "assignment" for a minute, we might notice the prefix "as-", which indicates something that happens, and the suffix "-ment" which signals that this word is a noun. Some of you may be aware of the insignias that indicate the various houses of Harry Potter's Hogwarts such as Gryffendor. An insignia is a special design that designates membership in a particular group. Notice that the "g" is silent in another "sign" word "design" and then we hear the "g" again in "designate." In both cases the prefix "de-" meaning to set apart. So a design, like an insignia sets you apart as a member of a certain group and when I call on you or designate you to do something, I am also setting you apart with a special "sign."

Finally, I think it is significant that we talk about one more use of the root "sign" that may come up in our reading. I am speaking of course of the word "significant" meaning important. As in, "Your study of roots and prefixes and suffixes is significant." It is important. I would not want to waste your time with teaching you words that were insignificant. I am sure that you can see that by adding the prefix "in-" to significant I have made the word change from "important" to "not important" at all" because the prefix "in-" in this case means "not."

As I am doing this Think Aloud, I write the highlighted words on the board and underline prefixes and suffixes as appropriate. 

Not all words that children come up with lend themselves to so full a discussion of roots and affixes as this one, but many do. Other examples include man- (as in manufacture, manuscript, manual. manipulate, manager, manumission) and graph-  or gram- (as in graphic, autograph, photograph, grammar, telegram) Chrono- (chronic, chronological, chronograph, chronicle, synchronize). Here is a resource for many, many more.

What I want to communicate to children is that words are fun, fascinating, and surprisingly logical in their construction. I want them to know that when  big words are broken down into their component parts they are not so intimidating. I want them to know the joy I take in discovering new words and in discovering ways that words are connected to each other. 

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.