How Can Principals Support Effective Literacy Instruction?

When walking through our school’s classrooms, I often see students independently engaged in reading and writing. Yet I am still surprised when a teacher says, “Gosh, sorry you came at this time. We were just doing some independent work. Maybe come back later when I am teaching?” In my first year as a principal, I would politely oblige and go to another classroom. Now, I smile and say, “Of course you are! What else would you be doing?”

independent reader

When we give students time to practice the skills we have explicitly taught them, it is only then that we allow them to become readers and writers. Teachers need to stop apologizing for taking a step back and allowing our kids to walk on their own path toward proficiency. Guiding students to become independent, lifelong learners should be the ultimate goal in any classroom. The Daily 5 framework (Boushey and Moser, 2014) gives structure and purpose when striving for this laudable goal.

Highlighting Dr. Richard Allington’s 2002 article “The Six Ts of Effective Elementary Literacy Instruction”, here are three practices that can move kids forward: Time to read, lots of texts that are readable and interesting, and a teacher who knows his or her students and understands literacy. Principals are essential in supporting these practices in school.

1. Time

Principals can create time for teachers through thoughtful scheduling. One of our priorities when creating the school schedule is blocking off at least 90 minutes for literacy, and two hours in the primary grades. Then we hold that time sacred. Announcements are kept to a minimum. We do our best to ensure that intervention support takes place beyond that block. Less effective practices, such as worksheets and test prep, should not have a place during this time.

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Reading and writing also shouldn’t occur exclusively during this time. For instance, principals can encourage and expect teachers to integrate reading and writing within the content areas. This year, grade level teams in our school projected out integrated units of study (Glover & Berry, 2012). Students, especially English Language Learners and those with learning disabilities, benefit from seeing science, social studies, and literacy connect with each other in meaningful ways. Content integration is also a big time saver.

2. Texts

photo 2Notice the use of the word “texts” and not “books”. Principals should consider comic books and graphic novels, eBooks, and magazines as worthy purchases. They can pique the interests of our most reluctant readers, especially boys. Rethinking what a text looks like can make all the difference for engaging students in reading. 

The best placement of texts is in a classroom library. In our school, we always try to devote a significant portion of our budget to this area. Teachers are given latitude in what titles to purchase for their classrooms. That’s important, because they know their readers’ photo 4interests and skills better than anyone. Through this  investment, we have observed a high percentage of texts students carry come from classroom libraries. If there is a lack of funds, we consider other options, such as the school’s PTO, community organizations, and central office.

3. Teach

Whenever we interview candidates for a teaching position, one question I always ask is, “What have you read lately?” If they struggle to come up with a title or two, it is fair to say they may not see reading as a lifelong endeavor. But to be an expert reading teacher, educators have to be more than just familiar with children’s literature. Quality instruction should include clear modeling, shared demonstration, guided instruction, and time to practice these skills independently (Routman, 2014).

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Showing teachers how to embed ongoing assessment throughout instruction can happen a couple of ways. For example, principals can bring in literacy experts to demonstrate these skills. If this is cost prohibitive, consider online professional development services, where teachers can view best practice in action. Also, time can be provided for teachers to collaborate about what works and share these findings. For instance, my second grade team held discussions about their understanding of the Daily 5 and the CAFE framework (Boushey & Moser, 2009). These visible conversations can elevate the professional discourse throughout the whole school. The subsequent impact on shared beliefs and student learning can be profound.

Within the Daily Five framework are mini-lessons. These brief teaching points are critical toward building independent readers and writers. Without this explicit instruction in between these times to practice, students lack the appropriate modeling, purpose and guidance for their work. Just like in sports, players need an effective coach so they can practice both what they know how to do and stretch themselves to attain new skills.

Is It That Simple?IMG_0372

Well, certainly not the complex practice of classroom instruction. But what we should provide during our instruction is pretty straightforward: time to practice, texts that are interesting and readable, and great teaching. 


References

Allington, R. L. (2002). “The Six Ts of Effective Elementary Literacy Instruction.” Retrieved from http://www.readingrockets.org/article/96 on April 20, 2014. 

Boushey, G. & J. Moser (2009). The CAFE Book: Engaging All Students in Daily Literacy Assessment and Instruction. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Boushey, G. & J. Moser (2014). The Daily Five, Second Edition: Fostering Literacy Independence in the Elementary Grades. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Glover, M. and M. A. Berry (2012). Projecting Possibilities for Writers: The How, What, and Why of Designing Units of Study, K-5. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Routman, R. (2014). Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success. Alexandria, VA: ASCD

imgresPost a comment and possibly win a copy of The Daily 5, Second Edition. Check out the rest of the posts in this week’s Stenhouse Daily 5 Blogstitute:

May 5: Ruminate and Invigorate by Laura Komos

May 6: Enjoy and Embrace Learning by Mandy Robek

May 8: Read, Write, and Reflect by Katherine Sokolowski

Examples of Practice: Using iPads and Evernote When Assessing Readers

All K-12 teachers are reading teachers. The school, grade level and content area we work in does not matter. In every classroom, a random group of students will come in with varying degrees of reading ability. And their levels of ability can and do differentiate based on which skill we choose to focus on. That is why it is so critical that teachers have sound understanding of where there students are at in their ability to decode and comprehend text. When we know them as readers, we are better at helping them choose books for themselves, we tailor instruction to meet their specific needs, and we know when to release the learning responsibility to the student so they can become independent readers.

I share this because in a few days I am going to make a case to approximately 20 or so K-12 teachers that using Evernote on an iPad can enhance their abilities to better assess their students’ literacy skills. Two things I have learned through exploring technology is that a) the “why” needs to come before the “how” and the “what” (Sinek, 2010), and b) the technology should support best practices in the classroom. Form follows function.

The “Why”

Dr. Ruben Puentedura developed a framework to help educators understand the place of technology in the context of learning and education. It is titled SAMR, which stands for Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition.

SAMR_model
(Image retrieved from http://www.hippasus.com/rrpweblog/)

This framework shows how the various levels of learning can be raised with the appropriate integration of technology. This bears the question: Is a student not able to reach their potential in the absence of these tools? I don’t know that yet. However, if there are ways to enhance learning in the classroom and we choose to not leverage it, this may be irresponsible of us as educators.

The “How”

The iPad is a computer in the loosest of terms. Yes, you can use it to type a letter, email a friend, and post something on Facebook. What separates it from other computing devices such as the desktop is its mobility, the engagement factor, content creation and integration.

Mobility
Any teacher can use tools such as Evernote to store student information. What makes the iPad (and other mobile devices) a better fit is it can travel with the teacher. No longer do students always have to come to the bean-shaped table for small group and one-on-one instruction. The teacher now comes to them. If you think about it, this is big. The student is not singled out, the conferring and assessing can happen anywhere the student feels comfortable, and the technology allows the teacher to teach and assess concurrently.

Engagement
I don’t know what it is about these devices that just captures the students’ attention. An example: I was using the Reflection app to mirror the iPad screen to the whiteboard. Second graders and I were using Notability to compare and contrast the book and eBook version of The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. I started the Venn diagram, then handed off the writing responsibility to the closest student. With the iPad on their lap and stylus in hand, he wrote one of his ideas down on the screen. There was no hesitation on his part. This might have been different had I asked him to go to the board and write in front of peers. What was also interesting was that the entire class was reading the words as this student wrote them.

Content Creation and Integration
The compare and contrast notes the second graders and I made together could be a start to other projects. We could use these notes to write a persuasive essay on Pages and then publish it on a classroom blog. We could create illustrations on Drawing Pad and then use them in an iMovie to highlight the elements of a story. I could go on and on. The possibilities that come with the iPad are multiplied because so many of the applications work in concert with each other. With a simple multi-finger swipe, I can switch from one app to another as I put together a project.

The “What”

Here is how I see teachers using Evernote on the iPad to assess readers. For a framework, I am using the “Assessment to Instruction” steps outlined in The CAFE Book by Gail Boushey and Joan Moser. After each step I also identified the step’s level on the SAMR ladder, based on how the technology would be used to enhance practice.

Two things before getting started:

  • I recommend setting up an Evernote account prior to using it in the classroom. Create a notebook for each student. Also, find out what your Evernote email address is so you send information to a specific notebook with ease.
  • With each step, put the step’s description in the title of the note. Create a new note for each step of the assessment process.

1.  Assess Individual Student (Augmentation)

Take a running record of a student. Then take a picture of it with the iPad and email it to Evernote using your Evernote email account. To put the image of the running record into that student’s notebook, put the notebook title in the subject line of the email message preceded by the @ sign (i.e. @Mike). To add tags, use the same process, only put a hashtag in front of each key word (i.e. #September #BB16 #GR18). If your assessing skills are a little rusty, I highly recommend Peter Johnston’s Running Records as a quick resource.

For older kids or when a running record is not enough, Janet Allen offers a variety of ideas that could also be used to assess readers in her resource Yellow Brick Roads, such as surveys, observations, checklists and sentence completions.

2.  Discuss Findings with Students (Modification)

What Evernote provides is the ability to record audio while taking notes. A teacher can go back to this recording and listen again for what the student said. The student could also be given an opportunity to listen to your discussion of the findings later in the year. Seems like a great opportunity for both teacher and student to reflect on their growth as a reader.

3.  Set Goal and Identify Strategies with Student, and

4.  Student Declares Goal on Menu (Augmentation)

With a copy of The Literacy CAFE Menu in front of you, create a new note to document this information. If the strategies and goal are also included as tags in the note, they will be more easily accessible when needed. Also, as a teacher plans for guided reading, he or she can quickly search among tags for a specific strategy to work on. This could greatly enhance the concept of flexible grouping. The same process might take a bit longer with a three ring binder. In addition, snap a picture of their goal and add it to the note for a visual component.

Quick iPad tip: Tags are added by selecting the circle button with the “i” in the middle, located on the top right.

5.  Teacher Fills Out Individual Reading Conference Form (Augmentation)

Again, using tags to note the students’ strengths, goals and strategies will make his or her information easier to find later. Once conferring commences, I could see a teacher using this one note six times before creating a new one. This would involve adding the categories outlined in the CAFE Reading Conference template each time (date, touch point, observation and instruction, next steps).

6. Teacher Fills Out Strategy Groups Form (Modification)

If a teacher is looking to start strategy group instruction based on similar skills (found through tags), he or she can pull students together based on need by creating a Notebook Stack. As far as I can tell, this can only be done on a PC. Just drag one student’s notebook over another and a stack is created. Once a student has shown proficiency in that strategy, he or she can be pulled out of that stack to another group.

But where do the strategy group notes go? My suggestion would be to create a whole new notebook within the stack to house these notes.

7.  Instruction (Redefinition)

This is where Evernote can be a real game changer. The whole point of assessment is to inform instruction in order to impact learning. If I were still in the classroom, I could imagine pulling up my students’ notes as I planned for future literacy instruction. Instead of hunting for each student’s individual goals and strategies, a quick search in Evernote will pull up what you need to know in a matter of seconds. Groups are quickly formed. They aren’t based on reading level either; instruction is tailored to meet specific needs. Students can receive guided reading instruction at the appropriate complexity level without feeling like they are in the “low” group.

Embedding formative assessment in the planning of instruction tends to get lost in the process when everything else needs attention too. Evernote and the iPad are tools that have the potential to both increase productivity and enhance the instructional practices of teachers.

Resources Cited

Allen, Janet (2000). Yellow Brick Roads. Stenhouse: Portland, ME

Boushey, Gail and Moser, Joan (2009). The CAFE Book. Stenhouse: Portland, ME

Johnston, Peter (2000). Running Records: A Self-Tutoring Guide. Stenhouse: Portland, ME

Puentedura, Ruben (2012). Building Upon SAMR. Slideshow retrieved from http://www.hippasus.com/rrpweblog/

Sinek, Simon (2010). Start With Why. Video retrieved from http://www.ted.com/speakers/simon_sinek.html

Top Ten Tips for Reading Aloud

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1. Schedule It

Reading aloud shouldn’t be left to that few minutes before lunch. Richard Allington, in his ASCD article Every Child, Every Day, states that students should listen to a fluent adult read aloud every day; it is an essential element of reading instruction in classrooms. As a principal, I try to model this practice. My teachers schedule me in to read aloud in their classrooms for half hour time slots, anywhere from twice a week to once every two weeks.

2. Be Intentional

Classroom time is important, so my visits should be connected to learning. What helps are the learning targets posted on the board. As I visit classrooms, I can see the concepts being taught. This information gives me ideas for books that would work well with what students are studying. For example, poetry is a focus at 4th grade, which led me to read aloud Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein.

3. Start Small

The first book I share usually rhymes, has a beat, is a captivating story and/or is short. These are the “can’t miss” stories, books that are guaranteed to capture the students’ attention. Titles that come to mind include Pete the Cat by Eric Litwin and Neville by Norman Juster at the primary level, and Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco and The Wretched Stone by Chris Van Allsburg for intermediate grades.

4. Assess Your Listeners

Teachers know that every class they inherit is different from year to year. To get a read on my new listeners, I pay attention to how the students respond as I read aloud to them. I use formative assessments to alter my instruction for learning. A great resource about formative assessment is Checking for Understanding by Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey. Strategies they recommend include noticing nonverbal cues like puzzled looks and boredom, as well as having student “Think-Pair-Share” during the story.

5. Plan Ahead

Classroom success comes to those prepared. For me, I don’t read aloud a book to a classroom until I have read it myself. This is the best way to determine if it will make a good read aloud. Did I have a hard time putting the book down? Would I recommend it to others after I finished it? Was it character or story driven? If I don’t have time to do this, I often refer to The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. It has great recommendations for read alouds as well as research and tips for supporting this practice. I have also nixed books I had high hopes for, but realized it is more of a read alone story upon review.

6. Build Stamina

Unfortunately, some kids enter school without a lot of stories read aloud to them. This is evident when we assess our five year olds and too many cannot even recognize sounds and letters. To expect kindergarteners to sit through twenty minutes of James and the Giant Peach on the first day of school may be unrealistic. Once I have Started Small (#3), I recognize their growing abilities to listen to stories with specific comments such as, “Wow, you sat for ten whole minutes while I read you A Day’s Work by Eve Bunting!”. For more on building reading stamina, check out The Daily Five by Gail Boushey and Joan Moser.

7. Pick the Right Text

Just because a book is an award winner doesn’t mean it will make a good read aloud. In fact, many of my favorites don’t have this recognition. I get recommendations from colleagues, local bookstores and on Goodreads. These experts help me find stories that have short chapters, limited dialogue, interesting plots, and characters kids can relate to. I also read aloud nonfiction and informational text. Two of my favorites are Meet the Dogs of Bedlam Farm by Jon Katz and Animals Nobody Loves by Seymour Simon.

8. Set Up the Story

In Strategies That Work, Stephanie Harvey describes the process of introducing the think-aloud (a guided version of reading aloud). The idea is to get students thinking during the story, not just at the end. Reading a book cold doesn’t activate students prior knowledge, which is necessary for getting the most out of it. I start a story by first reading the title and the author’s name. Next, I might ask an open ended question related to the book or do a picture walk and make predictions. This modeling creates a bridge to developing independent readers.

9. End as You Began

As I read, I give opportunities for students to predict what may happen next, ponder a question, or make an interesting observation. Once completed, we go back to how we started. For example, when I have read aloud The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles, the students and I first discussed what “courage” means. I collected their responses and started the story. As I read, I asked students to identify examples of courage and marked that text with a Post-it note. At the end, we took our notes and revised our previous definition as a whole group. Other fun ways to wrap things up are writing a book review and doing book talks on stories in the same genre or by the same author.

10. Stick With It

No doubt there are days when I feel like I don’t have time to get into classrooms and read. That is why scheduling it in my calendar is so critical. I also remind myself of all the benefits: Kids are introduced to authors and stories that might not otherwise have been exposed to, both students and teachers see how much I value literature, I am able to stay current on what kids are reading, and I connect with students in a positive and fun way. I cannot think of many things I do as a principal that are more important than sharing myself as a reader in school.

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Word Work vs. Spelling Packets

(I was asked by another building administrator my opinion regarding using word work in classrooms rather than tedious spelling packets. Not having an extensive reading background, other than I taught reading at the elementary level for seven years, I try to tread lightly when giving my opinion in this area.)

Tedious spelling packets are just that, tedious. In Chapter 4 of Teaching Essentials (Focus on Meaning First), Regie Routman stresses making curriculum and standards relevant and authentic. I cannot think of anything more irrelevant or inauthentic than a packet of worksheets. Word work such as word sorts are the opposite. They are visible everywhere, in the Jumble puzzle in the daily paper to board games such as Scrabble. Today, they are fun apps to play on mobile devices such as Moxie and Words with Friends, all using the framework of sorting letters to make words. People pay money and spend hours doing word work (including me). Would anyone buy an app or a board game that asked them to complete worksheets?

The thinking required to complete worksheets is pretty low level. Read the question, find the correct word on the list, write the word in the appropriate space, repeat. Word work, on the other hand, encourages students to compare/contrast, categorize and make new connections with word patterns, all on the upper level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Word work may not be limited to the 10-20 words given to the student in a spelling packet, none of which are chosen by the student. As well, word work promotes independent learners, another focus of Regie’s, because they depend on the student to create the words, not the worksheet. Students working on spelling packets are compliant but probably aren’t as engaged.

I could go on, but it would be me just venting because I used spelling packets almost exclusively for seven years as a teacher. I think I knew better at some level, but I never took the time to reflect on my own practices and ask, “Why I am doing this?”.

The caveat is, if the district expects teachers to use spelling packets because it is part of the board-approved language arts program, then spelling packets should be used in classrooms. They are not terrible, and probably do help students at least remember and maybe apply the word pattern of focus. That said, could they be taken home for parents to do with their child? Done together on the document camera? A workaround like this could allow the teacher to use better practices such as The Daily Five during the literacy block.

Speaking of which, there a number of good resources out there to help teachers develop more effective practices when teaching students spelling and vocabulary. Besides The Sisters’ resource The Daily Five, I recommend having a copy of Teaching Kids to Spell by Gentry and Gillet on your shelf. Although it is almost twenty years old, it contains some creative ideas for differentiated spelling activities to use with students. Janet Allen talks about work banks for older students in her book Yellow Brick Roads. Debbie Diller’s resource Literacy Work Stations has an appendix thicker than some novels filled with reproducibles for word work stations. What is a favorite word work resource of yours? Please share.