Teaching and Scaffolding Student Talk

One of the strongest draws towards reading Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence and Equity for All Learners has been the many research-based practices offered by Routman and the different educators participating in this book study. Every blog post I read takes me back into Routman’s words with new eyes. It is a powerful reminder of how book clubs can support reading as a social practice, leading to deeper thinking and understanding of texts. Looking back over the last two months there are posts and discussions about: readers and writers; choice, agency and engagement; assessment; intervention; professional development; and, relationships and community. If you are just finding out about this book study now, I encourage you to read Routman’s book and the #litessentials posts that continue to provoke much thinking and discussion.

For my post today, I’d like to pick back up the importance of student talk that Routman (2018) addresses in her section on Equity (p. 304 – 309) and that Ryanne touched on in her previous post. Both Ryanne and Routman identify classroom conversations as one way to rebalance the power dynamics in and out of classrooms so that all students are valued and heard. Routman tasks us “to make sure our students, all of them, become master language manipulators in order to communicate in whatever format they are using” (p. 305). In order to help our students become master language manipulators it is first important to understand language registers.

Language registers consider the level of formality – the purpose, audience, topic and location of the communication (Montano-Harmon, , n.d.)

  • Frozen or static register rarely changes and is scripted ex. prayers or laws.
  • Formal register is impersonal and one-way ex. speeches.
  • Consultative register is bound by expectations and includes professional discourse ex. academic talk.
  • Casual/informal register is the type of conversations you have with different social groups you belong to such as friends, teammates and email exchanges.
  • Intimate register is reserved for private communication with close family members.

Our students bring their knowledge of casual and intimate registers with them to school, but for many of our students, they have not yet learned how to engage in more formal registers. To support students to use the more formal consultative register, Routman encourages teachers to incorporate scaffolded conversations (p. 305). In this video with third grader Liam, you can hear Routman’s suggestion to “put the language in his ear”. Scaffolding talk is not providing the student more thinking time or increased opportunities for talk. Scaffolding talk is when the teacher supports the student by offering the vocabulary, syntax and support they need to express their ideas in academic ways.

Routman (2015) provides additional suggestions to teach and provide opportunities to develop and practice academic talk (p. 308), thus developing students’ abilities to fully communicate in a variety of situations:

  • promote avid reading
  • do more partner work, turn and talk, and small group work
  • suggest specific vocabulary to the student

I would add social platforms such as Flipgrid and Padlet to the list above, in order to invite more introverted students into a safe space and to also build a third space between school and home for students to practice more formal registers.

Routman’s suggestion to “help the student recall unique language” (p. 308) is one I feel is especially useful to consider at this time of year. As we begin to think about how we will set up our schools and classrooms for the next school year, how might the walls become scaffolds for academic talk?

Below are two examples from a fifth grade classroom: a conversation anchor chart and an academic word wall (Moench, 2017).

IMG_3183.jpg       IMG_3202.jpg

Typically as teachers we really like to talk and are quite good at it. As we think about how to rebalance the power between teacher and student talk time, and provide equitable talk time for all of our students, we need to make some intentional changes in our practices and our learning environments. In her chapter on Equity, Routman (2018) has provided us with some practical starting points. What suggestions can you add? How have you supported student talk in your space?

How will you teach and support student talk for equity in your classrooms?

Thanks for reading!


When professional learning isn’t your choice…

As teachers, we have all had times when we have been asked to participate in mandated professional learning. Before you read on, think about the last time you found yourself in this situation. How did you feel about being there? What elements worked for you and what rubbed you the wrong way?

For me, this type of learning reminds me of what our students must feel each day. I admit that I myself have not always been a huge fan of mandated professional development. It is ironic that planning and delivering this type of learning is now a regular part of my current position. Knowing that the feelings around this type of PD are not always talked about in a positive light, I was intrigued to read Chapter 3: “A Model for Required Professional Development” in Jennifer Allen’s book Becoming a Literacy Leader. I was genuinely curious to find out what might Jennifer offer to help me become a better facilitator for required learning sessions.

Right away I loved Jennifer’s honesty as she shared her moments of success and frustration. Anyone who has organized and led professional learning has had those moments where you clearly know you have failed. Jennifer begins with sharing some very challenging years that were not working for her. Paying attention to our mistakes and learning from them is important for all of us, regardless of our teaching context.

I began to think about my biggest fails from this past year. What did I learn? Probably the most important lesson I learned this year was to invest the time to learn the culture of the group. Not all groups work the same way and not all leaders want you to work with their staff in the same way. Asking questions and ensuring expectations are clear, helps things go more smoothly. Many times I am asked to introduce ideas and information that may challenge entrenched ways of thinking and working within schools. Another lesson I learned is to name this dissonance right at the beginning and open up space to disagree, in agreeable ways. My biggest learning continues to come from reflecting about the bumps in the road and what I could do differently next time.

In Chapter 3, Jennifer introduces us to three key ingredients she believes are essential when designing an agenda for mandatory professional development:

  • making meaning of content together
  • individualizing the learning
  • bridging theory and practice.

I loved her example of “My Life in Seven Stories”, but equally was a fan that she left room for me to contextualize these ideas and make them my own. When I thought about the three ingredients for professional development, I was able to immediately connect my own personal experiences with her framing.

Thinking about how groups can make meaning of new content together, I  realized how important good questions are for learning. Thinking in questions helps organize the main ideas and guide professional development but also leaves room for the learners to influence the direction and thus the learning. Framing professional learning through a series of questions signals to the participants that they will be actively making meaning together. Knowledge Building Circles are a great way to dig deep into important questions and make meaning of content together.

The second ingredient Jennifer suggests is to design professional learning so people can individualize the learning. This can be tough with very large groups but by providing choice within the session, we can increase autonomy and engagement. Choice can be as simple as offering a collection of articles to choose from, a variety of tools to use, or even providing the opportunity for groups to make micro-decisions about how to structure a block of time. Jennifer’s suggestion to take what you learn and apply it yourself (p.54), reminded me that we want our learners to be actively engaged in doing the learning and not just hearing about the learning. If your session is about reading, ask your participants to read. Taking off the teacher hat and putting on the learner cap is important for internalizing and personalizing learning.

The third ingredient was a recent epiphany for me. I used to wonder why we even needed theory. Just tell me what to do! Now I understand that theory helps us understand the ‘why’ behind our choices. Jennifer suggests that the bridge between theory and practice can happen by giving teachers time to play with the strategies in the classroom (p. 54). I think an important part of this ingredient is also to scaffold teachers to be able to name and understand what theory might look like in their classrooms before they leave the professional development session. Embedded planning time to bridge theory and practice during professional development has become a regular fixture in my planning. A handy protocol for this is ‘Connect. Extend. Try’. At the end of PD sessions, I ask participants to think about how the new learning connects with what they already know, what extends or challenges their thinking, and what is one new thing they will commit to trying.

Having only finished Chapter 3 of this book, I am excited to continue reading to discover more practical and inspirational ideas about leading literacy. I know I will for sure be stealing Jennifer’s “My Life in Seven Stories” to use at some point with teacher writing groups this year!


Please consider adding your ideas about key ingredients or some ‘tried and true’ ideas for professional learning in the comments. I’d also like to invite you to join our reading community as we read and discuss Becoming a Literacy Leader together.

Thanks for reading,


Learning is Messy

Learning is Messy

My son and daughter, ages seven and five respectively, wanted to help me put together this garden last night. My son’s job was to assist me in stacking and sliding the cedar boards together. My daughter distributed the screws to me, one at a time, when I was ready to drill the boards together.

This set up worked fine, until my son decided to chop off the tops of some of the bee balm growing by the house with his toy sword. This led to my daughter, in her attempt to redirect her brother, dropping one of the wood screws. My wife saved the day, finding it in the grass later that evening.

It would have been easier if I had just built this raised bed by myself. I really didn’t need the help. But then again, my son would not have been exposed to 90˚ angles or dovetail joints. My daughter would have been deprived of appreciating the initial fruits of our labor, even if they would result in “yucky” zucchini. In the end, we did achieve our goals. It took a little bit longer than anticipated to get there, but we arrived together.

Why I Take Class Size Research With a Grain of Salt


photo credit: dcJohn via photopin cc

John Hattie, in his book Visible Learning, found through his synthesis of many research studies that class size has only a .21 effect size on learning. According to his findings, class size is slightly more effective than charter schools and slightly less effective than comprehensive teaching reforms. Hattie considers the hinge point for a practice to be strongly associated with student achievement at a .40 effect size. Class size does not make the cut.

I can understand these findings. Poor teachers will use poor instruction regardless of the number of kids in their class. Great teachers can move a group of students forward regardless of the odds stacked against them. So why do so many teachers and parents believe class size is crucial to the success of students? Because class size does matter. I am not talking about the research from thousands of classrooms. I am talking about a classroom on any given year.

Calling back to my teaching days, one of my best years I had was with 28 5th and 6th graders in a multi-age classroom. We were a cohesive group of learners. We could have in-depth conversations about the books we were reading or the math problems we were working on. Conversely, there was a year where 21 students gave me a run for my money. The combination of certain personalities made that year a lot more challenging. That classroom of 21 students felt more like 31 students on some days.

You read this and maybe think, “That’s proof that class size really doesn’t matter.” However, I think my example is the exception that proves the rule. First of all, Hattie’s research takes into account hundreds and thousands of studies. This is where social science research is limited; the human factor. As most teachers can attest, one person can change the entire dynamic of a classroom setting. Second, the more students you have, the more closely you follow a script. Group work becomes both physically and socially more difficult when class size gets larger. Hattie acknowledges this (p. 87). He goes on to point out that class size research could largely be based on the fact that teachers don’t readily change their practices when class sizes fluctuate.

The final reason for my skepticism is the research doesn’t acknowledge the long term effects on the teacher. There is a difference between conferring with 20 students and conferring with 30 students. Grading 30 papers is a lot more time consuming than grading 20 papers. Getting 30 students to walk orderly in the hallways is more of a… okay, you get the idea. These little differences, all of these stressors, can add up to larger effects on a teacher’s health and well being. I would wager that there is research out there that shows teachers who regularly have large class sizes are more likely to seek employment elsewhere.

This post is not to question Hattie’s research, but to point out what could happen when people only look at the numbers. My biggest fear is that administrators and school boards will look at this data and say, “You know what? We don’t need that extra teacher. The research says it doesn’t matter all that much.” It does matter. I’ve been there. I suspect that those who disagree have never had to teach in a classroom with 30 students.

Why I Do What I Do

Why I Do What I Do

Image retrieved from www.startwithwhy.com

Simon Sinek states that people and organizations should start with why they do what they do, and then describe how and what they do. “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.”

I am a principal because I believe I can make a positive impact on the future of the students I work with. It is a service to the common good that I provide. It’s not about me.

I do this by being a self-directed learner. I constantly seek out different ways to be a better instructional leader through my personal learning network.

The people I follow, and those that follow me, make me a better educator.

Instead of No Recess, What About Alternative Recess?

Today I was outside with the students during recess. I thought about how much they need this time. Not only does it allow them to expend energy, it boosts memory and enhances their ability to learn throughout the day.

Unfortunately, recess is one of those carrots that we sometimes hold over kids when they will not comply with our demands. Does this help, or possibly even hurt the learning process?



One option is to take the kids out at an alternate time during the day. This way, they get their kinesthetic needs met, yet they are held accountable because they missed that social time with their friends. They make up their learning time when it is more convenient for the teacher. Now, I could see this being a problem, such as not having supervision, or missing out on other academic times. Hopefully, this wouldn’t have to be used very often.

What are your thoughts? Is alternative recess a better choice than none at all? What works for you to help keep kids accountable for their learning? Please share in the comments.


KWHLE: A Different Take on the KWL

I am trying to allow participants in my Connected Educator course to own their learning. Initially, I had set up several pages on our Google Site that would house each teacher’s evidence. The part that I now realize is missing is their professional learning goals for this course.

I was searching the web for a template but couldn’t find one that worked. Instead, I altered the well-known KWL (Know, Want to Know, Learned) by adding more columns: “How Will I Learn?” and “What Evidence Do I Have of My Learning?”. See the graphic organizer below.

What do I think I Know? What do I Want to Learn? How will I Learn? (Content + Process) What Have I Learned So Far? What Evidence Do I Have of My Learning?
(Product – Student and Teacher)

The “H” column is not original thinking by me. I do like it because it helps the learner think about the process they will take to acquire new learning, as well as the content they will access. My potential addition is at the end, with the evidence.

I have learned from studying professional learning communities that it is essential to document whether or not students learned what you tried to teach. The same should apply for our own learning. In this organizer, participants could insert images, links and text related to what they created with their students. This organizer is a Google Doc, so we could also house each participant’s KWHLE on a page on the Google Site as a link. That way we can watch each other’s growth and collaborate in real time.

What are your thoughts? Does something like this already exist? What would you add, delete or revise? Feedback is always appreciated on this blog.