Play-Based Learning: Kids Love it and Teachers Deserve it!

Shelly Schaub is a contributing author to Responsive Literacy: A Comprehensive Framework.

Most educators and parents would likely agree that play is essential for social-emotional growth and that young children learn through play. Infants explore the world through unoccupied play with their feet, hands, and anything else they can put in their mouths. Toddlers play alone with toys, watch others play, and observe the ‘rules’ of interacting with others. Preschool children engage in play that involves other children but the play is not necessarily coordinated. Once a child enters kindergarten, the stage is set for children to engage in play that is guided by rules, goals, and yes, learning standards!  

If we know that children learn through play, then kindergarten and first grade classrooms should include elements of play that are guided by the teacher. These play-based approaches to learning encourage young children to take initiative, learn persistence, engage in creativity, and develop flexible thinking. According to Siegler and Alibali (2005), “Flexible thinking supports a student’s ability to tackle challenging tasks.”

If you want classrooms in your district to be a place where all students can engage and contribute; learn to work and play together; enjoy learning with and from each other; and develop flexible thinking and confidence, begin with these simple tips:

  1. Explore state standards to find evidence of play-based expectations.
  2. Share Read great literature with your students and let them fall in love with the characters, story, settings, etc.!
  3. Incorporate these stories into play-based, open-ended centers such as art, drama, and building centers. The best centers have opportunities for choice, are well organized, and are introduced through strong modelling.
  4. Use materials and items that offer opportunities for creativity such as construction paper, butcher paper, markers, crayons, water colors, paint, craft clay, blocks, etc.
  5. Go beyond copying worksheets for students to color! Worksheets often limit creativity, flexible thinking, and problem-solving. It will be important for teachers to guide their students with how to use the materials provided. Then just watch the creativity and learning begin!

For example, the Ohio Department of Education outlines a continuum for Innovation and Invention in the Creative Strand of the Standards for Early Learning and Development:

Examine how I’ve used these standards to design teacher-guided, play-based center activities that are connected to quality children’s literature:

Kindergarten Art Center

  • Sample Book: Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr.
  • Objects & Materials: Crayons, markers, construction paper, glue, etc.
  • Creativity & Flexible Thinking: Choose an animal from the text. Make that animal with the available supplies. Design other animals that could be included in an innovative version of the text.
  • Social Play: Retell the story using the animals that were created.

First Grade Art Center

  • Sample Book: The Three Pigs by David Wiesner
  • Objects & Materials: Crayons, markers, construction paper, glue, paint, boxes, craft clay, popsicle sticks, etc.
  • Creativity & Flexible Thinking: Choose a setting from the text. Choose a character from the text. Create your choices by using the materials provided.
  • Social Play: Retell the story with your small group using the props created.

The Ohio Department of Education outlines a continuum for Creating, Producing/Performing, and Responding/Reflecting in the Drama/Theatre Strand of the Fine Arts Standards:

Examine how I’ve used these standards to design teacher-guided, play-based center activities that are connected to quality children’s literature:

Kindergarten Drama Center

  • Sample Book: The Little Red Hen by Jerry Pinkney
  • Creating: Listen to a recording of the story or read aloud by the teacher. Talk about the story with peers. Gather or make props to represent setting, characters, and items in the story.
  • Producing/Performing: Retell story by using props in coordination with a small group of students at the center.
  • Responding/Reflecting: Share a portion of the retelling and the props used with classmates at the conclusion of center time.

 First Grade Drama Center

  • Sample Book: Tops & Bottoms by Janet Stevens
  • Creating: Sketch or draw the important scenes of the story with a small group. Gather or make props to represent characters, place, time, and major events in the story.
  • Producing/Performing: Dramatize all major events in the story in sequential order. Express feelings and meaning through expressive interpretations.
  • Responding/Reflecting: Demonstrate confidence and self-direction while performing for the small group. Share a portion of the retelling and the props used with classmates at the conclusion of center time.

Check out more, recent blog posts from Shelly and other Responsive Literacy contributors, here:

Access is Key for Helping Students Learn How to Have Conversations About Books

Nikki Woodruff is a contributing author to Responsive Literacy: A Comprehensive Framework.

Last fall, I was working in a first grade classroom to teach a lesson with the responsive literacy framework in preparation for a summer series from The Ohio State University Literacy Collaborative® titled Virtual Comprehensive Literacy Framework for the K–2 Classroom where teachers and administrators will learn about reading and writing concepts from Responsive Literacy (Scharer, 2018). During my lesson, I focused on the very important practice of teaching readers how to make meaning and have conversations about text through the interactive read-aloud.

The power of utilizing data

I started with data. The word “data” can carry a negative connotation in our elementary schools. It seems we collect so much data on students as required by our states and districts that it can be overwhelming to think about analyzing and using the data in meaningful ways. 

Data collected must be authentic to inform practice because data helps teachers make intentional teaching moves. In this classroom, I started by reading aloud and assessing the students utilizing Marie Clay’s Hearing and Recording Sounds and Words (2016) and the Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System (2016). I noticed several trends:

  • As a whole, the children I was working with could hear and record many sounds as evidenced by the dictated sentence I asked them to write.
  • The readers in this class knew a lot about words and the way they worked. This evidence was obtained in reading and writing.
  • Discussion surrounding text was a challenge for these first graders. I noticed this when reading aloud to the students as well as when I asked them to read and discuss the text with each other. 

After the assessment was complete, I quickly got to work addressing the strengths and needs in the classroom in order to make intentional teaching decisions. I will admit that the first interactive read-aloud was a bust. Sometimes we have lessons that don’t go as planned, and this was one of mine. 

I love the book Swimmy by Leo Leonni about a little fish who helps his friends work together to brave the dangerous waters amongst bigger fish. I thought this book was perfect as we were focusing on building community in this first grade classroom. I preplanned my opening move where I discussed how awesome this book was to generate excitement for the read-aloud. I then prepared three stopping points where we were going to engage in conversation around the text. I was sure that these kids were going to love this book as much as I did, but I was wrong. My goal was to “take an active stance, engaging in conversation together” (Scharer, 2018). That did not happen. The children barely spoke, but I learned something about these readers. I needed to find out what kinds of books they loved so that they would want to have conversations about them. 

Explicitly demonstrating and modeling for students

I now knew the best way to support my students would be to find books of interest and encourage conversations through explicit demonstration and modeling. The children in this classroom were not experienced in this kind of read-aloud, and they needed to be taught how to have conversations with each other about books.

During my short time working with the students and teaching them how to implement strategies for meaning-making, I began to see gains in their ability to think and talk about texts in deep and meaningful ways. I focused on:

  • Choosing books that I thought would be engaging for the kids by directly asking them about their interests.
  • Giving a book introduction to get them excited about the text and to get them thinking about the meaning of the text before we started reading.
  • Explicitly demonstrating and modeling my thinking related to the texts.
  • Creating discussion stems to help the readers think about the interactive read-aloud as a discussion about the text as opposed to a question and answer time with their teacher.
  • Extending some of the interactive read-alouds with opportunities to think deeply about texts through mini-lessons and interactive writing.

Obtaining data-driven results

Because I was intentional in my planning based on student inquiry and data, I saw data-driven results in my students’ ability to think within, beyond and about the text. When I picked high-interest and engaging books and guided conversations around meaning making, I was able to model and highlight thinking and talking about texts in a deep way. My readers responded to this strategy and within weeks, they were thinking about meaning-making in all instructional contexts.

My story is similar to the experiences of many educators. It’s important that we source high-interest and relevant texts for lessons so that students are engaged and excited to learn. But access is key—educators must have access to a variety of books to choose from for their lessons as well as for students to select during independent reading time. Take my time in this first grade classroom for example. The latest Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report™ revealed that 60% of 6–8 year-olds with a robust classroom library are frequent readers compared to 51% of kids in the same age range without a robust classroom library, so making sure our classroom libraries have a wide variety of texts is critical for academic success. The interactive read-aloud was also a moment for me to engage with my students, encourage them to think deeply about the text, and share their interpretations with their peers. This is where the critical learning takes place, and high-interest texts are essential for students to participate in meaningful conversations, an important skill that is translated across subject areas and throughout life.



Clay, M. M. (2016). An observation survey of early literacy achievement: Third edition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fountas, I & Pinnell, G. (2017). Benchmark assessment system: Third edition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Scharer, P.L., editor. (2018). Responsive literacy: A comprehensive framework. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report™: 7th Edition. (2019).

Inviting the Community In: How Engaging Volunteers Can Improve Literacy Outcomes

As the Executive Director of SMART (Start Making A Reader Today), a children’s literacy nonprofit in Oregon founded 27 years ago, I am now in the fortunate position of meeting adults who participated in, and benefited from, SMART as young children.

In a recent conversation with Marissa, a program alumna in Portland, Ore., she shared the positive impact that having an adult volunteer read with her consistently had on her literacy development. She remembers feeling anxious about reading in front of her peers and struggling with comprehension. With her SMART volunteer, Don, she was able to read at her own pace, talk about the story one-on-one, and importantly, it changed her perception of reading. “To see an adult get excited about the books was wonderful,” she says. “I started to enjoy it, and then I started to love it. My mom used to joke that I would refuse to watch TV because I preferred to read.”

When I think about the impact that SMART has in Oregon—providing one-on-one reading support to more than 11,000 PreK through third-grade students and giving away more than 140,000 books each year—I am struck by how much Marissa’s story resonates with what we regularly hear from principals and teachers. In a 2018 survey to teachers with SMART in their classrooms, they reported that 91 percent of students in SMART showed improved confidence in their reading skills, as well as greater pleasure in reading or being read to. Additionally, nearly two-thirds of SMART students met or exceeded age appropriate benchmarks in reading, compared to less than half of third-graders statewide. 

SMART’s proven model is focused on these key indicators of reading motivation and engagement because of research highlighting their importance in overall reading performance. In order to support the reading instruction taking place in the classroom, SMART connects children with one-on-one reading sessions with trained volunteers and provides books for students to keep and build their personal libraries.

Our nonprofit relies on the generosity of individuals, businesses, and foundations to support operating costs. However, equally important is SMART’s focus on engaging an often-untapped asset for schools: community members who care deeply about the future and want to make a difference in the lives of local kids.

Each year, more than 5,000 volunteers like Don give their time to read with kids weekly in 300 elementary schools and Head Start sites across the state, fostering a love of reading while building self-confidence and skills. With our training and support, this powerful partnership not only provides a direct benefit to students, it also relieves some burden on teachers and offers a structured and meaningful way for the community to be involved in local schools.

We can all agree that we must better prepare our children and generations after them for successful, prosperous futures through a strong foundation of literacy, but schools don’t have to do it alone. Inviting nonprofit and community organizations into your schools provides opportunities for positive adult mentorship and one-on-one or small group academic support; working hand-in-hand with a nonprofit partner also allows schools to leverage infrastructure and systems for training and supporting these volunteers. As Susan Scott-Miller, a teacher at Newby Elementary in McMinnville, Ore. said, “SMART has helped our school to become a more integral part of our community. Many local retirees, business people, and others have come to our school to support our children. Children have bonded with these folks and all our lives have been enriched.”

I invite you to learn about the nonprofit organizations supporting kids and families in your community and to seek out opportunities to bring volunteers into your schools.

To learn more about how to bring a program like SMART to your community, visit

We Need to Be Helping Students Feel Confident in Themselves

I've been teaching in the Bloomfield Hills School District for nearly 35 years. It is an affluent, suburban school system northwest of Detroit, serving nearly 6,000 students.

There have been a number of changes in our district over the decades related to student demographics, school initiatives, and state and federal mandates, just to name a few. But the one constant that has remained in place over the years is the inherent insecurity of young people. This lack of confidence is perhaps most noticeable during the middle years. I'm an eighth grade English teacher, and I am always moved and dismayed by the hesitancy I see in my students. Whether they are the star pupil with a perfect GPA or a struggling student with significant learning challenges, they all share one trait in common: self-doubt.

Regardless of the content I'm teaching, one of my most important focal points throughout the year is building confidence in my students.

Ironically enough, it starts with making myself vulnerable in front of my students. I share with them the fact that I have a neurological condition called essential tremor, which causes my head and hands to shake to a significant degree. I talk to my students about how much trauma it's caused in my life, but I also talk about how, despite that challenge, I have built a life where I am deliriously happy. I want them to see that all of us are battling some barrier, and it's important not to let those impediments defeat us.

The revelation of my neurological disorder is often a springboard to poignant and heartfelt conversations about some of the challenges my students are facing. And as they articulate the struggles they’ve endured, I can see them becoming less embarrassed and more able to accept that we all have our own hurdles to leap over, and they begin to feel more empowered to leap over them.

One of the most profound ways I have found to help students gain more confidence is the Breaking Barriers program. It is a curriculum as well as a writing contest designed to help students understand the challenges that others face, look at the difficulties in their own world, and recognize how much strength they have exhibited in actually coping with and sometimes even overcoming these barriers.

I embed the program into my short story unit. Every story the students read helps raise an issue around some type of stereotype, including those related to mental illness, socioeconomic status, race, religion, and disabilities. Before ever discussing the literary merits of each story, students are given an opportunity to converse in small groups and sometimes in whole class sessions about real world issues that surface in the stories.

For instance, when the kids read “The Treasure of Lemon Brown” by Walter Dean Myers, they discuss common misperceptions related to the homeless as well as people of color. Those conversations often spin off into broader discussions of racism and how much responsibility we bear to assist those who are impoverished. This year, the conversation included a newspaper editor who recently encouraged a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, the appropriateness of kneeling during the national anthem and what role race may have played in people's perceptions, and a white supremacist and Holocaust denier receiving 56,000 votes in a House of Representatives race.

The conversation was student-driven. I never dictated the course of the conversation, nor did I inject my own predispositions and opinions. It wasn't about me proselytizing; it was about students grappling with challenging subjects and finding their own voices and their own perspectives while respecting the viewpoints of others, even those with whom they disagreed.

The actual essay portion of the Breaking Barriers program asks students to write about a challenge or problem they have faced in their own lives, and how they have used some of Jackie Robinson's traits to overcome or at least cope with that barrier. Every year I am deeply moved by the rawness and the level of risk taking the students engage in as they focus on a personal battle they have fought. Most importantly, I can see the students begin to realize how much they have persevered, and for some of them, it is an epiphany. For the first time, they are able to acknowledge how much fortitude they have exhibited and how much innate strength they possess.

Yes, their challenges are harrowing to read about sometimes, but in every single instance, an undercurrent of grit, determination and hope permeates their observations. There is something freeing and empowering about throwing back the veil that has kept their pain hidden from the world. By submitting their essays to a contest, students also begin to see that their struggles, opinions and passions matter to more than just their English teacher. There is world out there just waiting to hear what they have to say, and that is exhilarating to them. Watching my students gain confidence in their own voices gives me confidence in their ability to help shape a better future for us all.

Vocabulary Matters: The Role of Word Families in Reading Comprehension

Think about a group of words. Let’s say help, helper, helpful, unhelpful, helps, helped, for example. These clusters of related words are known as morphological word families. Analyses of large numbers of texts have shown that a relatively small portion of English words—2,500 word families to be exact—account for 90% or more of the words in texts that we read every day. These vocabulary words encompass much of our daily lives and are vital to the foundation of the ideas within our culture; they are also crucial to how we think about literacy instruction.

And yet, when thinking about teaching the approximately 600,000 words in written English in today’s classroom, educators often cherry pick a handful of exotic words to teach (i.e. lackadaisical, sheepish, or rumpus). While interesting, these words only occur within one in 10 million words of text and as a result of this practice, student comprehension suffers. Does this focus on rare words that students are unlikely to encounter in the outside world, best help level the vocabulary playing field? Some students come to school with many words to describe the social and natural worlds, but other students depend on close instruction to learn these words. Educators can utilize these powerful 2,500 word families to focus on what core vocabulary matters most in text and better address the individual comprehension needs of all students.

Taking a closer look at the “help” example, students can build an understanding of how these words represent families of shared meaning, while learning that the words and their family members can also represent many different meanings. Help is used as a verb to describe providing services but it is also used to describe taking something without permission. As a noun, help is used to describe assistance and, more recently, the displayed instructions on computers.

The words in the core vocabulary also represent connected concepts. The word help is connected to a group of other words within the 2,500 word families, all of which pertain to helpful actions: assist, contribute, promote, improve, guide, protect, save, rescue. Students' vocabularies are deeply enriched when they learn these distinctive and nuanced meanings and understand how they connect to one another. But, proficiency with these word families doesn't come from memorizing definitions of single words.

To become adept with morphological connections, multiple meanings, and networks of related words, students must be immersed in extensive reading from texts where these words are prominent. Deliberate practice where students can interact with examples of the words in action also supports their vocabulary growth. To bring this practice to life, I authored Scholastic W.O.R.D. (Words Opening Reading Doors), a K–5 digital program full of texts and game-based deliberate practice that emphasize core vocabulary, building students’ knowledge and ensuring they will be able to comprehend any text.

When all students have year-round access to the digital tools and rich texts needed to put these fundamental ideas into practice, they will build strong vocabularies, laying the path for success in school and life.

Fostering Literate Identities Within Dialogic Classroom Interactions

Wendy Sheets is a contributing author to Responsive Literacy: A Comprehensive Framework.

Educators have many responsibilities in preparing students for their futures. But, what is our responsibility when it comes to fostering positive literate identities? We share quality texts, build beautiful, well-stocked classroom libraries, allow for choice within our writing workshops, and hang student work on our classroom walls…what else should we consider? Let’s unpack this a bit to explore the educator’s role in helping learners view themselves as literate beings.

Positioning Learners as Literate Beings

First, let’s consider the notion of identity. Often viewed as a fixed notion based on big ideas such as race, gender, social class, and age, identity positions often shift within interactions where we choose to position ourselves or are positioned by others in particular ways (Bucholtz & Hall, 2005). For example, a student who is labeled as a struggling reader when compared to classmates may be viewed at home as a good reader. The messages conveyed to the learner in both contexts contribute to his literate identity. At home, perhaps he is passionate about farming, and often discusses, reads and writes stories he shares with his family. In school, however, the child may come to view himself as a poor reader over time. He may step into that identity as he disengages from classroom literacy practices that ignore his strengths. The assets learners bring from their home-based and cultural interests are important resources that contribute to their literate identities. If we find ways to recognize and build upon those assets in the classroom, we make learning more meaningful and students are more likely to engage in authentic ways.

In classrooms, there are many messages conveyed that position students as literate beings, and to either legitimize or marginalize their thinking. In a chapter I wrote on fostering literate identities (Sheets, 2018), I discuss ways students are positioned across stories told by themselves, by teachers, and by the classroom. I also emphasize the need to build upon literacy experiences that take place beyond the classroom walls. Our views about literacy and learning impact the ways we position learners.

Expanding Our Views of Literacy

Literacy is much more than simply reading and writing or a list of skills, as is so often the focus within standards. I appreciate Freire and Macedo’s (1987) view of literacy as reading the word and the world, which reflects the grandiosity of literacy, releasing its potential to pour through the narrow constraints of the school doors, flowing into all aspects of life. I see literacy entailing unlimited practices, events, and acts that allow for meaning-making. Literate identities are socially negotiated and constructed through literacy practices, and we are responsible for conveying the ways our practices connect to our learners.

Dialogic Classrooms Offer Much Potential

Along with building on the assets of learners and working within a responsive language and literacy approach, dialogic interactions allow for powerful positioning of learners as literate beings. Dialogic classrooms include the collaborative co-construction of meaning within rich interactions that tap into the power of talk to foster deep learning. Through an open exchange of ideas and inquiry, multiple perspectives are shared within quality conversation. Students in these classrooms come to view themselves and their peers as members of a learning community whose voices matter. Although monologic interactions, such as the presentation of information, questions with right or wrong answers, and the evaluation of responses are sometimes necessary, when they are the dominant discourse style in a classroom, students are positioned as having limited knowledge, with the teacher solely transmitting content to be learned. Students in dialogic classrooms are more likely to identify themselves as good readers than students in monologic classrooms, and the ecology of a classroom and its beliefs about reading speak to children about what counts as reading (Aukerman & Schuldt, 2015). The instructional decisions that teachers make, including dialogic or monologic interactions, are based on what they believe about learners’ identities. Additionally, they contribute to the ways they position learners, leading to positive or negative self-efficacy beliefs.

Dialogic discussion, as a social context for meaning-making, when allowed to flourish within the foundation of a responsive, balanced literacy framework and a humanizing approach to learning, has tremendous potential to enrich the literate lives of all members of a classroom community. In order to foster positive literate identities in students, we must seek to build on strengths within dialogic, humanizing learning spaces. Here, students and their thinking are positioned as contributing readers and writers. Here, learners engage critically, productively, joyfully, authentically, and powerfully.



Aukerman, M. & Schuldt, L.C. (2015). Children’s perceptions of their reading ability and epistemic roles in monologically and dialogically organized bilingual classrooms. Journal of Literacy Research, 47(1), p. 115-145.

Bucholtz, M. & Hall, K. (2005). Identity and interaction: a sociocultural linguistic approach. Discourse Studies, 7, 4-5, 585-614.

Freire, P., & Macedo, D. P. (1987). Literacy: Reading the word & the world. South Hadley, Mass: Bergin & Garvey Publishers.

Sheets, W. (2018). Fostering literate identities. In P. L. Scharer (Ed.), Responsive literacy: A comprehensive framework (pp. 89-100). New York: Scholastic.

Check out more, recent blog posts from Wendy and other Responsive Literacy contributors, here:

Who’s Talking? How Oral Language and Conversation Support Literacy Learning

I can remember being in school and hearing my teachers ask, “Who’s talking?”  This question was immediately met with silence, knowing that if you were the one talking that likely meant you were the one in trouble. I’ve often wondered how we could consider that same question, “Who’s talking?” to elicit a different, more positive response. I know I’m always excited when I enter a classroom and find it abuzz with learning. I love hearing children engaged in conversations about their thinking. But, just what is it about all that noise that is so valuable in student learning, and how can talking more support literacy acquisition?

Most children arrive at school with the ability to speak and express themselves. Their ongoing use of oral language serves as the earliest foundation of reading. Oral language, reading, and writing are all interconnected processes. Fountas and Pinnell (2017) write that language is a child’s “most powerful learning tool” (p. 326). So, supporting our students to use this valuable tool of oral language is of utmost importance. Within our classrooms, we should be mindful of how frequently we invite our students to engage in conversation with ourselves and each other.

Throughout the literacy block, there are ample opportunities for students to engage in authentic and valuable conversations that link oral language to reading and writing. 

During interactive and shared reading opportunities

When we read aloud to our students we are modeling many powerful aspects of oral language (phrasing, fluency, intonation, expression, and so much more). Beyond this, we have a unique opportunity to interact with our students while focusing on the story at hand. Use planned stopping points to engage in purposeful discussion about the reading or ask the students to “turn and talk” at a unique part of the story. The interactions should be varied between student-teacher and student-student as students learn from their peers in many of the same ways they learn from their teacher.

Turn to your neighbor and tell him/her what connections you are making so far.

Take turns talking about how this story has shifted your thinking about [a given topic].

What are you wondering?

Say more about that.

When writing

Clay (2017) asserts, “Writing is a message-sending, problem-solving activity” (p. 5). Storytelling is critical to sending our messages. Oral storytelling is the vocal form of the stories in our minds and writing is the written form of that storytelling. Children should have many opportunities to vocalize their stories and make them come to life before, during, and after the writing process. 

Before writing today, tell your story/idea to the person beside you.

Read your story aloud to your partner.           

Ask one question about your partner’s writing.

Throughout guided reading instruction

Small group guided reading instruction offers many opportunities for students to engage in conversation that supports literacy learning. This time is especially important for our students who may find speaking in a small group setting to be less threatening than that of a whole group setting. We can invite conversation around familiar reading.

Remind your neighbor what happens in this story before you read it.

Within our supportive book introductions

This story is about a cat who has quite a week getting into everything in the house. Share what kind of trouble a cat might get in.

What do you think will happen when the cat goes into the closet?

Share your thinking about what may have happened, even though the author didn’t tell us.

Continuing these discussions after the reading 

Tell the friend beside you what kind of punishment the cat’s owner might do since he was so naughty.

Turn to your favorite part of this story and talk about what’s happening. 

Talking, sharing ideas, and having powerful conversations within the classroom supports oral language development as a catalyst to literacy learning opportunities. It is critical that our students know their thoughts and conversations are valued and important. Invite conversation whenever possible. Let’s affirm their efforts to think critically and out loud about all they are learning. 

There will be times when a quiet classroom is necessary. Be careful not to inadvertently equate these times to ones of learning. The next time we ask, “Who’s talking?” consider all the possibilities if the answer is, Everyone!


Clay, M. (2017). Literacy lessons designed for individuals, second edition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

 Fountas, I.C. & Pinnell, G.S. (2017). The Fountas and Pinnell literacy continuum, expanded edition: A tool for assessment, planning and teaching PreK-8. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Instructional Equity is Essential for Student Success

School is one of the most influential institutions in a child’s ecological system. Award-winning developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner placed school in a child’s “microsystem,” also defined as his or her immediate surroundings and a concept which also includes immediate family. Bronfenbrenner understood that schools, like families, shape children’s development. So the mission to ensure that all children have the school experience that supports their growth and prepares them to meet their future with vigor, is paramount.

To support that goal, throughout history, scientists have looked at the connection between the science of psychology and the practical application of learning theory in educational settings. Instructional theories are still evolving today; however, the belief that all students deserve instruction of the highest quality remains constant. And yet equitable access to instruction remains one of the many barriers faced by students today. At least partially because the research of today is slow to reach the classroom and teachers are without the bandwidth for professional development. For instance, the delivery of instruction characterized by rote memory was widely accepted 30 years ago, but views of instruction have shifted, and so must our techniques. In my experience, I have found that teaching to help students achieve a basic understanding and memorization of content-related facts is still taking place. But, memorization is not enough. How do we support a raising up of instruction?

The quality of instruction in schools and districts can be improved by changing how we think about student learning and teaching the standards.

Students must develop conceptual understandings so that they can apply the knowledge they have acquired, analyze information, synthesize what they have learned, evaluate the content, and most importantly, create new knowledge and new understandings.

By changing our expectations for all students, we can remove the biases that create inequities in instruction. The most significant predictor of student underperformance is the absence of common instructional language and tools. This absence inhibits the provision and facilitation of rigorous, standards-informed instruction in our classrooms. But there are tools available to help advance progress.

The core content standards for English language arts, mathematics, social studies, and science are dense in academic language. I believe it is unrealistic to expect the vast majority of our students—let alone students who are striving to read and comprehend at a level consistent with developmental expectations—to demonstrate proficiency without instruction that’s focused on a conceptual understanding of standards language.

There is an imperative that students and teachers, as well as those supporting and evaluating teachers, understand the terms that comprise each standard. Why? We have work to do to ensure that students have equitable access to the academic language of the content standards, because the language of the assessment can be a chief barrier to improvements in student achievement.

For example, in grade 3 students are expected to determine the main idea of a text, recount its key details, and explain how those details support the main idea. But what does that mean to our students? And how do we ensure that every single one of our students understands what this actually means?

Rigorous instruction aligned to this standard should produce the following results:

  • Students should be able to determine what the text is mostly about.
  • Students should be able to distinguish between the main idea and the topic/subject of the text, which is too broad to be the main idea. “Too broad” as a concept must also be taught, and it must be associated with the topic of the text.
  • Students should be aware that:
    • The main idea of the text is not always found in the first sentence of a text. In fact, it is seldom found there.
    • In some cases the main idea is not stated at all.
    • Key details are too narrow to be the main idea. “Too narrow” as a concept must be taught, and it must be associated with key details in the text.
    • To support their determination of the main idea, students will need a great deal of practice with distinguishing between ancillary and important words or phrases. This will help them explain how the key details support the development of the main idea.

The language of the content standards is finite, so we can resolve the access gap by ensuring that:

  • K–6 curricula includes operational definitions of Tier II (general) and Tier III (content-specific) academic language.
  • Teachers and school leaders refrain from making assumptions about students’ knowledge of academic language. You might be surprised by the number of students who are not conversant in the academic language of the standards.
  • Teachers refrain from watering down the academic language. Instead we should bring this language to the students. They can handle it.
  • Teachers reinforce and reassess students’ understanding of the academic language for each day’s posted objective. When we relate information to students on Monday and ask them to recall it on Tuesday, we typically find that they did not retain the information. Reinforcing students’ knowledge of academic language cannot be done by simply using the unfamiliar word in a sentence or copying terms and definitions from a glossary. We need to embed it in our everyday conversations.

We need to provide educators and students across grade levels with the tools that have all of this common language built into them. 

Supporting educators and staff with guides that define important academic language in a single, streamlined way will result in students having consistent definitions of these terms without conflating concepts and ideas. Equipping educators with guiding questions and differentiating instruction will help students develop the knowledge and language they need to meet the expectations of the standards. Providing students with materials that are inclusive of these definitions and explanations will also help. These are strategies we can work toward for advancing progress and achieving instructional equity for student success.


To read more about Dr. Dickey’s work, follow him on Twitter at @DonyallD and subscribe to his weekly blog, Dr. Dickey’s Epiphanies. To learn more about his work with Scholastic Education, click here.

Access Matters: Reading Role Models and Books

The Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report is a biennial, national survey of children ages 6–17 and their parents, as well as parents of kids ages 0–5, in the U.S. exploring attitudes and behaviors around reading books for fun. To discuss why access to books and reading role models matter, we’ve asked Michael Haggen, Chief Academic Officer of Scholastic Education, to dig more deeply into the report and contextualize the findings:

In my earlier career as a classroom teacher, principal and then administrator, and now in my travels visiting hundreds of schools annually as the Chief Academic Officer for Scholastic Education, I’ve seen how meaningful it is when a child connects with a book. A relationship with reading nurtures a sense of curiosity, develops empathy, enhances academic skills and, perhaps most importantly, creates an understanding among kids that both fiction and real-life stories are available to them to learn from and help decipher their own experience when they need it. This is so vital that we must take active roles to ensure every kid becomes a reader.

You don’t have to be a literacy or education expert to know that children are carefully observing those around them. The research punctuates that reading role models are influential, showing us the more there are in a child’s life, the more likely a child is to be a frequent reader. In turn, frequent readers gain greater access to the personal and academic benefits reading provides earlier and more often.

This edition of the Kids & Family Reading Report also gives us important touchpoints around access to books, and insight into why children might lose interest in reading as they age. Around age nine, the data show an increase in the number of both parents and kids who say it’s difficult to find books the child likes. At this same stage, kids find themselves with more choices to make as the variety of book formats available for their age and reading level increases, as does the volume and diversity of characters and storylines. This combination—knowing what they want in books but not being able to find it—is likely a contributing factor to the overall decrease in engagement with reading that’s evident as children move through adolescence. Of course, great books are futile if children are unable to access them and in every edition of this report, we see that regardless of age, gender or background, the power of choice reigns. Are there compelling, engaging books in all the places all kids need them to be? As we’ll see from this research, access to books both at home and in school remains an inequity among our kids.

Parents, grandparents, older siblings, teachers, principals—everyone in a child’s life—can be a reading role model. It’s up to us all to provide the opportunity for choice, be readers ourselves, ask and answer questions about what a child is reading, read aloud together (regardless of age!), and more. When a child knows that the people surrounding them value reading, we will have a greater culture of literacy in our homes and in our schools.

See the full report: Finding Their Story, Kids & Family Reading Report: 7th Edition


Michael Haggen is Chief Academic Officer, Scholastic Education

How to Host a Successful K–2 Family Engagement Event

Ellen Lewis is a co-author of The Next Step Forward in Reading Intervention.

Parental involvement in the literacy development of their children is essential. This is true for all children, not just those who strive with their literacy skills.

In my book with Jan Richardson, The Next Step Forward in Reading Intervention, we share an approach for including K–2 families in literacy learning with a fun and purposeful after-school event called RISE With Literacy (RWL).

One of the most important factors for involving families is welcoming them as partners in the education experience. RWL builds strong partnerships between families and schools that help to foster a community spirit of literacy. When parents come together and learn how to use reading strategies at home with their children, they become deeper partners in the learning process. In effect, RWL builds capacity for learning from the classroom to the home by empowering families and giving them the tools they need to read together.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to participate in a RWL event at Gulfport Montessori Elementary School located in Pinellas County, Florida. Gulfport MES has 645 students in grades PreK–5, 35 K–2 classrooms, and it is a Title I school with 100% of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch.

The school is a haven of learning and support for the community, led by a talented and dedicated staff including Principal Jessley Hathaway and Assistant Principal Dr. Neala Jackson, with Title I MTSS Coach Jesstina Bushery. They are implementing Jan Richardson’s guided reading theory and practice in the classroom, with the RISE and RISE Up frameworks as the primary literacy intervention.

The results of their work have been stunning as the school has experienced tremendous success. Diagnostic reading test data from January 2019 has showed the school closing the achievement gap. Currently the number of students in Tier 3 who need the most intensive interventions and support has dropped from 32% to 21%.  Students in Tier 2 who need moderately intensive interventions and support have gone from 44% to 54%, and on grade level students are now at 34% compared to 14% in the fall.   

A RWL event was the perfect next step to build parent-school capacity.

MTSS Coach Jesstina Bushery meticulously planned the RWL event with the school’s K–2 staff and administration. Teachers from each grade level volunteered to host the literacy sessions, and they strategically chose reading strategies that had been previously introduced in the classroom.

Two weeks before the event, Jesstina sent home invitations in backpacks, followed by a reminder one week later.  Jesstina stressed that the whole family was invited to attend the one-hour event. The day before the event, a prerecorded phone call went out to all families with students in grades K–2 encouraging them to attend with a special mention that all children would receive a free book and a literacy tip to use at home.   

On the day of the event, all K–2 students left school wearing a Take Me to RISE With Literacy Tonight at 5:30 p.m.! sticker.

We convened as a whole group in the cafeteria and waited to see how many families would come. By 5:30 p.m. the cafeteria was full with more than 200 people waiting to hear our short presentation. We emphasized that they are their children’s first teachers and we as educators need to partner with them in order to help our students succeed. We then led the families by grade level to find their way to a designated classroom.

In the Kindergarten classroom, Mrs. Hitchens modeled the Stop, Think, and Paraphrase strategy, and within minutes parents were trying this with their children as we mingled and supported them. In first grade Ms. Welch had a packed room of families working on the Fix-Up strategy, and in second grade Ms. Gray had parents and students practice the Five Finger Retell strategy.  In every room, students were showing their parents how to use the strategy. The parents were engaged and enthusiastically learning how to take this knowledge home and work with their children.

After the 20 minute strategy sessions, everyone returned to the cafeteria armed with their new strategy learnings, a free book—and ready to enjoy a slice of pizza

Jesstina said, “It was absolutely incredible to see how many families attended the event.  I had several parents stop to say thank you and how informational the evening was. One comment I heard as a parent was listening to her child read was “How do you know that is a banana?”  To hear the parent take the exact strategy taught and apply it was a highlight of my night.  In that moment, I knew we left parents with tools that allowed them to feel confident in their ability to help their children in becoming proficient readers.”

Principal Jessley Hathaway said, “The RISE With Literacy event at Gulfport Elementary was outstanding because it supported our school’s message of literacy both at school and at home. The RISE intervention is a great success here, and RISE With Literacy simply helped transfer those successful literacy strategies to our parents. Our families found it engaging and informative.  We will continue to implement the events, and could not be more pleased with the outcomes of RISE and RISE With Literacy.”       

The Gulfport RWL event is a terrific example of how to empower parents with information and resources to work with their children on lifelong literacy skills. Family engagement with purposeful learning opportunities benefits the entire school and community, and RWL is a way to achieve this for all.

For more information about steps and resources for hosting your own RWL event including a template letter to families, a sample script for calling home with event reminders, a presentation that can be tailored to the needs of your school, and more, visit


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