The Critical Role of Phonemic Awareness in Reading Instruction

Phonemic awareness is one of the best predictors of a student’s ability to read fluently. This ability to hear speech sounds clearly, and to differentiate them, is what allows us to acquire language easily, and this knowledge of language is key to our understanding of what we read. As cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Paula Tallal explains, “To break the code for reading, a child must become ‘phonologically aware’ that words can be broken down into smaller units of sounds (phonemes) and that it is these sounds that the letters represent.”

A National Reading Panel in-depth review of 52 phonemic awareness articles found that explicitly teaching phonemic awareness has a direct and significant impact on children’s reading, significantly more than instruction that lacks any attention to phonemic awareness. However, this foundational skill is rarely taught systematically.

It wasn’t until after I learned my son was born profoundly deaf, and I made the shift to the field of speech and language, that I saw the evidence for myself that reading difficulties were directly correlated to the inability to differentiate sounds. Through my years of research and teaching hearing-impaired students to read, I learned not only that children need direct, strongly auditory-based instruction in each of the 44 sounds of the English language, but that the order in which sounds are presented to children directly affects how well and quickly they are able to secure their sound system.

I discovered it was critical to begin phonemic awareness instruction with the sounds which are easiest to hear and blend (/m/, /s/, /oo/, /sh/, /ee/, /aw/). These sounds can be lengthened or held, and don’t have any other sound attached to them which allows a student to get a good grasp of the sound before blending it with another. As students gain proficiency with these easier sounds, they’re ready to learn the rest of the 44 sounds, those that are more difficult, such as /d/, /i/, /k/ etc. These sounds are harder to hear in syllables, and they can’t be lengthened or have another sound attached to them when spoken in isolation. This is the path provided to students in grades PreK–2 in the digital foundational reading program I authored, Ooka Island.

Phonemic awareness teaches students to both hear and manipulate sounds, and to understand that spoken words are made up of sequences of speech sounds. Through my research, I learned that students who were able to identify phonemes rapidly were able to read more fluently because of this rapid processing. Those students who took longer to process phonemes struggled with comprehension. It appeared that too much attention was required to decode the words, leaving less for interpreting what was read.

Fluent reading relies on students developing their phonemic awareness to the point of automaticity, freeing up their brain energy to easily comprehend what they’re reading. Without securing their sound system by learning to automatically recall the 44 sounds of the English language, students rely on inefficient decoding methods and coping strategies like memorization. These skills may enable them to begin to read but as texts increase in complexity, students’ comprehension begins to break down, as it becomes too challenging to understand what they are reading when they are focused on laboriously decoding every word. If we want students to gain mastery of the 44 sounds, they need to have repeated auditory exposure to each of the individual sounds and learn how to rapidly recognize each sound amongst other sounds.


National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction. Reports of the Subgroups. Author. 2.1-2.8

Tallal, P. (2012). Improving neural response to sound improves reading. PNAS. vol. 109, no. 41, 16406–16407

Inquiry in the Classroom: Never Lose Your Sense of Wonder!

Sherry Kinzel is a contributing author to Responsive Literacy: A Comprehensive Framework.

There’s nothing like a summer camping trip in the cathedral of the great outdoors that brings on a flood of questions about the world.  When my three boys were little, they had a million questions every time we went camping:  What makes fire burn?  Where do the fish sleep at night?  Can you make it stop raining?  It was like a switch had been flipped, and they became seekers of ALL knowledge.  They were in a natural state of curiosity and in a rich environment. What a combination!  The more they discovered, the more seeking they did.  This inquisitive process was a sight to behold (and, as every parent knows, it was a bit exhausting trying to field all those questions—some of which I had no clue how to answer; so we agreed to ask a park ranger or find another resource to help answer their wonderings when we got home).  Those memories led me to wondering “why aren’t our classrooms more like that?” and “what can be done to generate more authentic inquiry experiences for students?”

Why aren’t more classrooms inquiry-based?

Perhaps part of the answer to that question has to do with how teachers view their role in the classroom.  The public educational system for the United States began during the Industrial Revolution, so at that time we were preparing our youth to enter a workforce that would lead them to working in factories that were mass-producing products.  Input in…output out.  Little to no inquiry or creativity required.  Is it possible that that process was translated into the field of education?  Teacher delivers content.  Students commit content to rote memory and recall content when prompted to do so.  Could this be the reason so many of us as students sat passively through lecture-style teaching year after year during our own education?  Do teachers today still view themselves as keepers of the knowledge

I don’t think teachers do that on purpose.  However, I think we often unintentionally send that message to our students.  How?  Teachers are predominately the ones asking the questions or telling students what questions need to be answered.  According to, inquiry is “a seeking or request for truth, information, or knowledge.”  Our classrooms need to be spaces where children and teachers are seekers of truth, information, and knowledge.  They should be places where everyone’s thinking and curiosity are valued, and it is okay for teachers to ask questions that they don’t know the answer to.  Consider posing this authentic question:  What does inquiry look and sound like in my school?  Have each teacher reflect on their own classroom experiences and then build a conversation with each other.

What can be done to generate more authentic inquiry experiences for students?

Bottom line…we do what we value.  Therefore, inquiry has to be valued.  I don’t know a teacher worth her salt that intentionally tries to make her students dependent on her for learning.  Inquiry has to be viewed as authentic learning.  It has to be understood as a way of helping students become independent in their thinking and their pursuit of knowledge and understanding.  Remember, we are preparing children for their future, not our past.  Valuing inquiry means we are supporting their ability to become problem-solvers right now and in the future.

How do we do that?  By modeling, of course! This means teachers have to pose questions they don’t know the answers to during an interactive read-aloud, science experiment, or shared reading of a historical document.  Teachers need to get comfortable with sharing what they are wondering about aloud with students. It might sound like, “That makes me wonder about…”  Then pause to give others time to respond. They also need to develop the habit of “honoring” the thinking of others by saying things such as, “Oh my gosh!  I’ve never thought about it like that! Gavin, thank you for sharing your thinking.  Do you see how Gavin’s thinking pushed our thinking deeper?”

This might mean that instead of saying, “Tomorrow we are going to begin a unit on weather,” we say “What are some things you’ve always wondered about weather? For example, why do weather forecasters say there’s a slight chance of rain and then it rains all day? Let’s make a list of our wonderings.”   Students will follow our lead to wonder about the world when they feel safe to share their thinking and feel the reward of discovery. 

4 Easy Ways to Enliven and Inspire the Pleasure and Purpose of Summer Reading

I love my reading life over the summer. It's wandering, surprising, whimsical and free. I give myself permission not to have to give myself permission. I read everything from old cookbook recipes to funny celebrity news to binging through a new mystery writer. Yet when I see summer reading lists from schools, my heart sinks. With all we know about reading instruction and what it takes to raise super readers, we have not done the work needed to help our students read for 365 days a year in ways that will truly inspire them.

We have boiled our summer reading advice to our students down to lists that represent what we think they "should" read over the summer. The books tend to be award winners: noble, beautiful books that teach lessons and connect to a social studies curriculum. All safe choices that might be good in certain contexts, but they do not live into the spirit of what we genuinely do as readers with the pleasure of those summer months before us. When we—as lifelong readers—make choices, they are hardly ever the "safe" ones. We go outside the boxes again and again. I want that for our children and young adults, too.

Here's how:
Let's encourage and inspire our students to do this:

1. Read your favorite books again. Rereading is absolutely the most powerful tool that will help readers develop greater stamina, deeper concentration, and abundant joy. My memories of rereading The Chronicles of Narnia, Charlotte's Web, Walk Two Moons, any poem by Langston Hughes, Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter, Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Bean Trees— these books meant something different to me at different times of my life and I continue to read and reread them, finding not only their magic and power as they were and are, but also the sense of my own self in its ever-changing, ever-growing journey.

2. Read books (and everything) that make reading feel easy. We spend so much time all year telling our students that reading feels hard, and explaining how they can push through the hard parts. At a certain point, no one, and I mean no one, wants to do something that always feels hard. It's just not possible. As humans, we gravitate to the things that bring us joy and make us feel so good. The same is true about reading. I love reading celebrity magazines. I love reading mysteries. I love reading romantic novels that always work out. So what?! Does that make me less of a reader? No! It makes me a confident, bold, purposeful, happy reader. Let's make the summer about reading that feels good.

3. Read at different times of the day and in a variety of places. We think of and talk to our students about reading as if it's something that generally happens right before bedtime. But, really, that is so limiting! Not every reading experience happens then. I, for example, love watching a Netflix show right before bed. I prefer reading in the early morning and throughout the day. I tell my students this. Encourage them to find ways to tuck reading into other routines, as they travel, sitting on a porch stoop at sunset, as a late afternoon ritual.

4. Put it down. Invite and encourage your students to abandon anything they aren't into. We do that as adults, why do we not tell our kids we do it?! If I don't like a book I'm reading in the summer, I stop reading it! There are thousands more books for me to choose from. I don't have time to waste. And pushing through a book that is boring me to death is not really a good use of my time. Empower your students to have ownership over their decisions and not to feel guilty or less than a reader because they abandon a book. I have a stack of books in my phone and on my nightstand; my guess is I'll enjoy about one out of four of them and those are the ones I'll finish. And I am a super reader!

Let the summer be about choice, agency and identity building for every single one of your students. In this way, one hundred percent of them can truly become lifelong super readers.

Word Study: Assessment-Driven Instruction

Carla Steele is a contributing author to Responsive Literacy: A Comprehensive Framework.

Why do they get it on Friday and misspell it on Monday?

This is a question raised by parents, pondered by educators, and researched by literacy experts alike. It is a question that challenges us to deepen our knowledge and understanding of not only phonics and spelling, but of the various ideologies and pedagogical practices that factor into this phenomenon as well.

It means that we have to take a hard look at the teaching and learning happening—or not happening—in our classrooms. Are we are motivating students to be active and engaged participants, and have ownership in their learning? Is our instruction systematic and intentional? Are we affording students the opportunity to transfer what they learn into authentic reading and writing experiences?

If not, consider a shift to a developmental, systematic, and assessment-driven Word Study approach, which focuses on teaching for transference and is both a component of and immersed within a comprehensive, balanced literacy model—one that may look very different than the traditional instruction many of us received. 

What Do I Need to Know?

There is not just one way to “do” Word Study, and navigating the possibilities can be overwhelming. However, there is one essential resource: the teacher. No one understands students’ needs better.

The following is not a “how-to” guide to Word Study. It is a brief overview of key factors to consider when developing, selecting, or refining an existing Word Study model.

What is Word Study?

Word Study is first and foremost developmental. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Students are active participants; have ownership in their journey to become successful, independent word-solvers as readers and writers; and is a key part of literacy instruction for all grades.

It is also: 

  • research- and inquiry-based
  • student-centered
  • active
  • generative
  • socially constructed
  • differentiated
  • engaging
  • process-driven
  • assessment-driven
  • responsive to students' strengths and needs
  • intentionally linked to authentic reading and writing

Assessment-Driven Instruction

Spelling inventories are useful in discerning a child’s stage of spelling development, offering insight into the level of word knowledge the student controls. While the stages of spelling development are established, the rate of progress in and through each stage can vary significantly between children. Assessment informs decision-making that supports differentiated instruction and ensures that instruction is appropriate.

A multifaceted assessment plan should include daily and periodic assessments to provide data and information important for both instructional decision-making and progress monitoring.  Other assessments, especially useful in interim progress monitoring include: classroom observations, running records/records of oral reading, and writing samples.

When taken together, the data from a combination of assessments make it possible to determine students’ progress in developing item knowledge as well as their use of word knowledge/word solving strategies in reading and writing continuous text.  A Word Study approach relies on this type of sensitive, systematic, and intentional assessment.

Organizing for and Managing Word Study

Whole Group or Small Group Instruction: If one is not yet comfortable in facilitating small group Word Study, it may be better to begin with the whole group. However, the ultimate goal is to transition to small group, differentiated instruction to better meet the students’ diverse needs.

  • Whole Group Instruction: The Word Study cycle begins with a teacher-led, whole group mini-lesson. On subsequent days, students engage in application activities designed to strengthen and expand their learning with each day ending in a group share. 
  • Differentiated Small Group Instruction: The first step is to group students who have similar strengths and needs for instruction based on assessment data. A staggered start is used to begin each group’s study cycle. It is important that groups remain fluid and flexible so that movement is possible between groups as students grow in their understandings and new learning needs arise.

Planning for Instruction: Begin by analyzing data from a spelling inventory used to determine students’ stage of spelling or word knowledge. When coupled with additional classroom data and information, a starting point for instruction can be determined. It is important not to focus only on what the student does not know. Look instead for what the student controls or is beginning to control.

Word Study in the Classroom: Classroom curriculum must provide time for explicit Word Study as well as time for embedded opportunities—across instructional contexts—in order for students to practice, extend, and deepen their understandings of how words work as they read and write continuous texts. It is not one or the other, it must be both. A comprehensive, balanced literacy framework makes this complex task achievable.

Teaching and Learning 

Word Study is based on theoretical underpinnings that assert a child’s acquisition of word knowledge is a systematic, developmental process that grows and changes over time, at different rates for different children. Therefore, the teaching and learning that takes place within in our classrooms must go far beyond a one-size-fits-all approach.

Quality Word Study can do just that by affording students a myriad of opportunities to discover, extend, practice, and build understandings about how words work across instructional contexts and within a systematic, organized block of time.

It can also ignite the wow factor in students when they are encouraged to inquire and search for understanding; employ critical thinking/problem solving strategies; and become active participants in their own learning as they journey to become proficient readers, writers, and language learners.

Learn More:

The Joy of Writing: Living as Writers Within the Workshop by Wendy Sheets, contributing author, Responsive Literacy.

Let’s Rethink Second Grade: My Teaching and Coaching Experience with this Transitional Year by Shelly Schaub, contributing author, Responsive Literacy.

The Writer's Journey by Jenny McFerin, contributing author, Responsive Literacy.

For the Love of Guided Reading by Nikki Woodruff, contributing author, Responsive Literacy.

Interactive Read-Aloud: The Bedrock of the Literacy Block by Lisa Pinkerton, contributing author, Responsive Literacy.

Is There a Silver Bullet for Literacy? by Pat Scharer, editor of Responsive Literacy.

How Superintendents Can Help Reduce Chronic Absence

Hedy Chang is the Executive Director of Attendance Works, whose mission is to advance student success and reduce equity gaps by reducing chronic absence. She joins EDU to encourage district superintendents to sign the Superintendents Call to Action.

This fall, Attendance Works and nine national organizations are reaching out to District Superintendents and inviting them to prioritize an increasingly urgent issue: chronic absenteeism.

While many people understand the critical connection between school attendance and achievement, far too many don’t realize how quickly a child’s absences from school adds up. Surveys suggest that families want their children to succeed and recognize that regular attendance is important. But few realize how missing just a few days each month can interfere with learning and  throw a child off track academically.

Chronic absenteeism occurs when, within the academic year, a child misses 10% or more of school – as little as two days per month. Research shows that starting as early as preschool and kindergarten, students who are chronically absent struggle to read by the end of 3rd grade. By middle school, they are more likely to drop out of high school.

At least 8 million students, or more than 15% of students nationwide, are chronically absent, according to the most recent  data from the U.S. Department of Education for the 2015-16 school year.

Why do so many students miss school? The reasons are varied, and include unaddressed chronic health issues, unreliable transportation, bullying or feeling alienated by an unwelcoming school climate, or problematic school discipline practices.

Working together with community partners, district-level Superintendents can help motivate students and families to avoid unnecessary absences and overcome challenging barriers to getting to school.

This year, with the Superintendents Call to Action we are asking local Superintendents to:

  • Prioritize Attendance, by making it clear that that reducing chronic absence is a top priority, and asking their principals, teachers and school board members to make it one of theirs, as well.
  • Mobilize the Community, by involving key stakeholders in positive problem solving rather than punitive action and blame, which are not proven to be effective. Superintendents can call for engaging families through positive messaging and offering supports as soon as absences start to add up to too much lost instructional time.
  • Drive Action with Data, by using local chronic absence data to monitor and address chronic absence as soon as it becomes a problem. Local Superintendents can analyze data – by grade, school and sub-population— to find out and publicize where resources are needed the most and to set shared targets for improvement.

While everyone can help ensure students show up to class every day, the leadership role that a Superintendent plays is irreplaceable. District Superintendents are uniquely positioned to tap civic and elected leaders, businesses and libraries, health providers, housing authorities, volunteers and other partners to help develop and implement a shared plan of action that reflects local resources  and challenges.

If you’re a Superintendent, sign the Call to Action! Last year, 620 leaders  from districts large and small—located in 41 states, the District of Columbia, U.S. Virgin Islands and Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Island—signed the Call.

Sign the Call to Action on the Superintendents page on our website.

To learn more about why reducing chronic absence is so critical, read Attendance: The New Equity Frontier, an interview with Hedy Chang.

Why Not? How to Build Innovative Community Partnerships

Dr. Jacqueline L. Sanderlin (“Dr. J”)—Executive Director of School and Community Relations, Inglewood Unified School District—will be speaking at the Principals of Literacy Institute (Nashville, TN / September 20-22, 2018) brought to you by Scholastic and National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP). Register here.

In my work building partnerships for the Inglewood Unified School District in Inglewood, CA, I have worked with members of our community to create beautiful projects and inspiring experiences for the children in our schools.

It is absolutely true that this work takes a lot of hustle and creative thinking. But there is one thing I always remind people: partnerships are relationships. Every conversation I have begins with this idea in mind. I never ask, “What can you do for us?” I ask, “What can we do together?” From there, we’re able to dream big together.

Below are a few ideas to get you started in building and cultivating community relationships for your schools.  

Branding your school identity

School choice is real and the competition is stiff! How is your school standing out as a viable choice? There is a way to make your school speak when you give it voice, personality, and life. There are specific strategies that can help you learn how to make your school a landmark in your community and one that the community knows about. When they know your school, the voices multiply!

Supporting academic pathways with partners

Having a pathway is an excellent way to inspire community partners to bring access and opportunity for students. Partners need a pathway to connect to and reside in. Their ability to make your pathway come alive with job shadowing, internships, scholarships, and certifications is a possibility that will create a pipeline into the world of college and career. With a solid plan, you can bring partners into your vision for years.

Making it rain green

This is the best color rain you can have and you don’t need an umbrella! How do you make it rain green? Become a cause and draw partners who will see your school as a financial investment – not charity. Community partners are always looking for a cause because they not only want to – they have to. Come and hear why and how you can leverage this opportunity the next day.

Learn more about and register for the Principals of Literacy Institute here.

The Joy of Writing: Living as Writers Within the Workshop

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

Oh, the joy of writing! Whether you’re an administrator or a teacher focused on student learning, wouldn’t you love to hear that sentiment expressed by learners in classrooms throughout your school? But what is involved in making that happen? In order to grow as writers and improve across achievement measures, students need to live as writers. Within a Writing Workshop, a writerly community may provide just the context for that to happen in classrooms in several ways.

Daily Opportunities to Write

In order to build momentum, writers need daily opportunities to work on meaningful pieces of writing. When writing is done intermittently, focus and passion for a piece is lost. Writers should ponder their stories even when they’re not in school. Within the Writers’ Workshop, they have daily opportunities to write, making the most of their writer’s notebooks as well as the pieces they take through the writing process.  


Writers glean creative ideas from many resources: life experiences, conversations, explicit instruction, and from other texts. When writers notice quality writing that others have produced, they are able to stand on the shoulders of those mentors to try out the craft in their own pieces. The classroom library should offer many, many options for a variety of texts so that writers may develop flexibility in coming to know their mentors. This should include multiple quality examples of genres, authors, and text structures and forms. Reading mentors with a noticing eye will benefit writers tremendously!

A Toolbox of Options

Writers need to continuously add to their repertoire of options for improving their writing. A gardener doesn’t expect to reap a harvest without the right tools to do the work of gardening. Likewise, writing doesn’t show much improvement without adding new possibilities to the repertoire to strengthen the process. Daily mini-lessons provide explicit strategies for writers to extend their learning about craft and conventions. When sharing a principle about what writers do, Interactive Read Alouds that have already been enjoyed and discussed are used as mentor texts to demonstrate the author’s craft. The decisions writers make are in service of communicating a message. Therefore, when trying out new strategies, it is intended to better convey a message. Craft mini-lessons related to organization, idea development, language use, word choice, and voice will make writing better and more interesting. Mini-lessons on conventions are also shared so writers may learn to effectively express their ideas in a way others may understand. With every mini-lesson shared, writers try out the learning within their own pieces of writing, and add to their collection of tools to employ with future writing as well.

Conferring to Have Thinking Lifted

Writing conferences are ideal for coming alongside a writer – not to fix the piece, but to lift the thinking of the writer in a generative way. During this writer-to-writer conversation, writer’s development is supported by responding to needs related mostly to craft (but also conventions). A focus on one or two ideas ensures they may be tried out in meaningful ways. A teacher may confer with a writer at any point during the writing process, and this differentiated work supports each individual in a positive way to lift their thinking.


For writing to be meaningful and for writers to be invested, they must be offered as many opportunities for choice as possible. Writers have many choices to make: topics for writing, the genre that best communicates their message, the purpose and audience for which they write, the research they conduct, the structure of their piece, the details they include, the paper, illustrations, graphics, or text features they include, whether they handwrite or type, whether they publish, and how a published piece may look and be shared. Teachers have the choice to position learners as writers who have agency with the meaningful decisions they make…what a gift that all learners deserve! 

A Writerly Community

Writers flourish within a productive, writerly community. Within a community of writers, students are invested in their work and may be found sharing their pieces with one another often. While coming together in a circle for mini-lessons and share time, everyone is able to see one each other and every voice is honored. Writing is seen as important work, and children are elevated as writers who are making important decisions. Learning doesn’t simply come from the teacher; everyone contributes to the meaning-making as writing is shared and discussed. Within a writerly community, all of the above elements are included and contribute to the purposeful, respectful, constructivist learning environment where writers may grow. Oh, the joy of writing!

Learn More:

Let’s Rethink Second Grade: My Teaching and Coaching Experience with this Transitional Year by Shelly Schaub, contributing author, Responsive Literacy.

The Writer's Journey by Jenny McFerin, contributing author, Responsive Literacy.

For the Love of Guided Reading by Nikki Woodruff, contributing author, Responsive Literacy.

Interactive Read-Aloud: The Bedrock of the Literacy Block by Lisa Pinkerton, contributing author, Responsive Literacy.

Is There a Silver Bullet for Literacy? by Pat Scharer, editor of Responsive Literacy.

When One-Shot PD Isn't Working: Supporting Literacy Teachers Around Guided Reading

With more than 150,000 students, our urban school district is one of the largest in the nation. An issue that we frequently grapple with is the problem around “one-shot” professional development—the kind of PD where teachers attend one session targeted around a certain need. The problems with this type of PD had been myriad: Usually, teachers did not delve any deeper into the topic, nor did they receive ongoing support. And these sessions were also not typically embedded in their daily work. So we began to think differently about how we approached PD.

An opportunity to do so arose when the Executive Director of one of our feeder patterns asked our department how we could support the primary literacy teachers at nine elementary schools in their study of guided reading. We decided to embark upon a semester-long professional learning community (PLC) focused on guided reading. We chose Jan Richardson’s The Next Step Forward in Guided Reading as the text that would be the center of our work. I worked closely with the Academic Facilitator from that feeder pattern throughout the entire process.

Our Guided Reading PLC

First, we had each school complete an inventory of their leveled libraries and reading assessment kits. Next, campus administrators chose one teacher from each grade (K-2) to attend our monthly sessions and become trained as guided reading teacher-leaders. Some teacher-leaders were in their first year of teaching, while others were veterans, but each was chosen because he/she exemplified a growth mindset. Literacy coaches from each campus also attended the monthly sessions. It was imperative for the literacy coaches to learn alongside the teachers to increase their own capacity, to carry a consistent message to the teachers not directly involved in the PLC, and to provide additional support to all teachers implementing guided reading. Approximately 50 teachers, coaches, librarians, and administrators attended each session.

I planned each session using the outline of Jan Richardson’s book and accompanying study guide. Teachers read chapters in the book before coming to the sessions, and we began each meeting with a read aloud. These read alouds, although not a part of a guided reading lesson, served as a time to build community, a model of an effective literacy practice, and time to talk about books and literacy.

We implemented Richardson’s “Assess, Decide, Guide” framework in each session as we focused on a specific developmental level of a reader. Each time, participants listened to a recording of a student reading a leveled text, and completed a running record as they listened. The teachers then worked together to notice patterns in the student’s reading behaviors and determine next steps for reading instruction. After digging into the information in the chapters and videos from the book, teachers met in groups to discuss how guided reading was progressing in their classrooms, to share artifacts from their classrooms, or to discuss student assessment data. At the conclusion of each session, teachers set their own individual, specific implementation goals based upon the learning they had that day.

In the Classroom

Between sessions, the teachers implemented new guided reading practices in their classrooms. The teacher-leaders shared their learning with grade-level teams so that even the teachers who were not part of the PLC still benefitted. Literacy coaches frequently visited the teacher-leaders’ classrooms during guided reading to offer on-the-spot coaching support. Every few weeks, a small group of leaders (administrators, literacy coaches, the Academic Facilitator, and I) visited the classrooms of the teacher-leaders during their guided reading instruction. During these instructional rounds, we used the rubrics that accompany Jan Richardson’s book to guide our observations.  It was important that these observations were not seen as an evaluation of the teacher but as an important step in providing specific feedback that would lead to continued growth for both teachers and students. After each visit, the group shared with the building administrator any trends that we observed. Information gathered from the observations also helped determine topics for discussion at future PLC sessions. This cycle of professional development session, implementation, classroom visits, and feedback reoccurred monthly.

Quantifiable Progress

The thirty-one participating teachers were surveyed on their beliefs about guided reading during the first PLC session. All of the teachers indicated that guided reading was an important vehicle in moving students toward grade-level proficiency in reading. However, 30% of the teachers felt they were not adequately prepared to conduct guided reading. Although they felt it was important and necessary to conduct guided reading every day, only 28% of teachers reported that they did so. When teachers were given the same survey during the final session, over 90% reported that because of the PLC, they were now adequately prepared to conduct guided reading on a daily basis.

Teachers were asked what specific knowledge they had gained as result of the PLC. One teacher explained that she now knew “how to better organize my class and structure guided reading using specific activities to guide students’ understanding; meeting them at their level and challenging them.”

Another teacher mentioned that he learned how to incorporate writing into guided reading. When asked how their level of understanding of guided reading had changed since before the PLC, one teacher wrote, “This PLC addressed questions regarding guided reading, and equipped me to be successful in implementing and doing guided reading well.”

Teachers were also asked to describe how their thoughts and beliefs regarding guided reading changed throughout the PLC. One teacher stated, “I feel more confident, organized, and prepared.” Another teacher wrote, “I am confident to implement it in my classroom and enjoy it! It’s amazing to see how much they are learning and how much we can get done in 20 minutes!”

We attributed the success of this PLC to the fact that teachers were engaged in work that directly connected to their classrooms and that they were provided time during the sessions to reflect and engage in meaningful conversations about that work. This semester-long PLC approach with multiple campuses was so successful that the teacher-leaders designed an entire day of professional development on guided reading for their colleagues before school started the next school year. Additionally, this new professional learning model was so impactful that ten other feeder patterns in our district adapted it into a year-long model for more than 50 additional campuses.


Let’s Rethink Second Grade: My Teaching and Coaching Experience with this Transitional Year

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

“Students who read independently become better readers, score higher on achievement tests in all subject areas, and have greater content knowledge than those who do not.” (Krashen 1993; Cunningham and Stanovich 1991; Stanovich and Cunningham 1993).

When I share this quote with educators and ask them what independent reading means in this context, they typically respond that it means that students choose the text they read and that they spend at least 20 minutes reading at a time. What is interesting to me is that teachers assume that independent reading means the time when students read outside of school. And yet we know that independent reading increases achievement in all subject areas, so I believe that we need to dedicate time to sustained, independent reading every day at school. After all, we have control of how school time is spent. We have no control of how students spend time at home. 

Early in my teaching and coaching career, I worked in schools that were organized in a traditional fashion; Kindergarten through second grades were considered primary grades and third through fifth grades were intermediate grades. In this model, primary students (K-2) rotate through a series of centers while the teacher met with small groups of students during guided reading. Often, second grade teachers reported that their students needed more time reading and writing and less time moving through centers. Many second grade students begin reading small chapter books, which require more reading time, and teachers felt that they needed more time to help their second graders process more complex texts.

Recently, I began teaching and coaching in a building that housed second through fifth grade. This model is important because the second grade teachers aligned their work more with third grade teachers rather than with K-1 teachers. The second grade teachers and I began learning more about teaching within a Reader’s Workshop model (see below) that was used in grades 3-5. We began to wonder how student achievement would be impacted if we transitioned to more sustained reading and writing about reading during Independent Literacy in second grade. We felt the pressure of Ohio’s Third Grade Guarantee, where third graders are retained if they don’t pass the state test. We also believed in the research that proves the best way to improve test scores is to engage students in large volumes of reading and writing about reading. While our ultimate goal was to teach children and provide rich, literate education, ‘the test’ was also a consideration.

Second Grade Teachers Make the Transition

The second grade teachers and I began to work together to improve students’ reading stamina and the quality of their writing about reading. Teachers moved away from busy work (such as worksheets and workbooks) and from play or work centers. Teachers worked with their class to build stamina for reading a text of their own choosing for a minimum of 20 minutes per day. Most classrooms were able to build stamina to read more than 30 minutes each day. Students engaged with a wide variety of genres and were able to read a high volume of books throughout the school year.

Students increased the amount of writing about reading drastically during this transition because they were given dedicated time during school to read independently and write about that reading. They engaged in writing letters to their teachers about their reading on a regular basis, responded to reading mini-lessons in their reader’s notebooks, applied whole-group mini-lessons to their independent reading books, and engaged in sharing of their thinking. While the students read and wrote about their reading, the teacher met with small groups of like-readers for guided reading. 

After transitioning to this model in second grade, teachers reported a high degree of satisfaction with how their students were responding to texts in both oral and written situations. When these second graders became third graders, student achievement in reading and writing that was measured by third grade achievement tests soared. Third grade teachers reported a higher degree of satisfaction with student abilities and continued to work on stamina and writing about reading using more complex texts and objectives.

I began to wonder if this sort of success was specific to the district in which I taught, or if another district with different demographics, teachers, and students would find similar results. I shared my findings with a colleague who is a District Literacy Collaborative Trainer, an expert in the field of literacy. She agreed to implement this kind of Independent Literacy transition in second grade classrooms in her district. The impact on student achievement and positive literacy experiences was astonishing and very similar to the increases noted in the school in which I taught.

Second Graders Are Ready for More

Throughout this process, I learned valuable lessons that are transferable to other second grade classrooms. Second graders:

  1. Are capable of sustaining their reading for longer and longer stretches of time if the expectation is clear and connected to real learning. 
  2. Are able to write about their own reading if they are given clear guidance about what to write about related to their thinking while reading.
  3. Enjoy choosing texts to read based on their interests because this is often the first full year where they have reading abilities allowing for a wider variety of choice if a variety of texts are provided.
  4. Begin to develop a level of literary maturity which allows them to transfer understandings from a mentor text to an independent text with clear expectations and instruction.
  5. Are becoming more capable writers and are able to write constructively about their thinking related to a text they are reading independently when strong routines and expectations are established and maintained.

Rethinking Second Grade

As teachers plan for the upcoming year, they should consider ways that they can engage second graders in reading more texts and increase the volume of writing about reading in the classroom. Here are a few ideas to help teachers get started:

  • Start with a great classroom library! Organize books by genre or topic in baskets that are easy to browse.

  • Spend some time at the beginning of the year doing short book talks about books in your library to get the kids excited about what to read. If teachers are excited about it, students will be excited as well!
  • Set a timer and challenge students to read a little longer each day! Let students pick a cozy spot in the room to read and celebrate their accomplishments. 
  • Give students a notebook and ask them to write about the book they are reading. Give them a scheduled due date to turn in their letters. Teachers respond back to them about their thinking! They will love to get a personal letter from the teacher.

  • Implement short minilessons to guide their thinking while they read. Use Interactive Read Alouds as mentor texts to teach them what their favorite authors do. Ask them to apply these ways of thinking to their own reading.

Learn More:

The Writer's Journey by Jenny McFerin, contributing author, Responsive Literacy.

For the Love of Guided Reading by Nikki Woodruff, contributing author, Responsive Literacy.

Interactive Read-Aloud: The Bedrock of the Literacy Block by Lisa Pinkerton, contributing author, Responsive Literacy.

Is There a Silver Bullet for Literacy? by Pat Scharer, editor of Responsive Literacy.

The Writer's Journey

Jenny McFerin is a contributing author to Responsive Literacy: A Comprehensive Framework.

I was cleaning out my office recently and discovered a tattered message from my daughter. It was her practice to leave notes around the house when she was younger. Today she just sends me texts, Snapchats, or Instagrams. Over time, the notes changed as her writing became more sophisticated. Early on, the notes were squiggly lines, then strings of letters. Eventually the notes evolved from her name into longer messages like I love you. To this day, I keep these messages hidden throughout my office, just as my daughter left them for me. When I find them, I am reminded of this sweet time of her childhood and also of the journey that writers take.

One message I saved was a card with hearts around the edges and two figures in the middle that resemble people with some letters. When I asked her the message she said, “Happy Birthday, Mommy, I love you!” She considered the audience, purpose, message (craft). She had to decide where to place the writing (conventions). Finally, she knew how the writing would be published…at the party (writing process).

When teachers think about supporting writers, they should consider craft (elements of the writing piece), conventions (punctuation, grammar, and spelling), and writing process (how the writer composes and constructs the text, including drafting, revising, and editing).

As I think about my daughter’s messages, even her earliest writing included craft, conventions and writing process. Of course, considering all of these elements at once can seem overwhelming because teachers must adapt each one to the needs of each individual learner. Just as one cannot expect an early walker to balance in high-heeled shoes, teachers must carefully support the writer with the level of craft, conventions, or writing process that meets her needs. 

A good place for teachers to start is by gaining an understanding the author's audience, message, and purpose. I achieve this by listening to the writer and refraining from projecting my own agenda onto the piece. This helps me further develop the other facets of writing for the young author. For example, one time I was working with a writer and as she told me about her sleepover story, I drilled her with questions that I thought would motivate her to add more to her story: Did you play games? Did you have pizza? Did you watch a movie? Was it fun? Who was there? She replied with one-word responses, and when I checked back on her writing, she had made little progress. I realized I hadn’t taken the time to know this piece of writing nor her as a writer.

So, how is this possible? In order to get to know the writing and the writer, teachers can take three actions:

  1. Understand the writer's stage of development 
  2. Learn about the piece of writing
  3. Decide what the writer needs next

Understand the writer's stage of development

Knowing where the writer falls along the developmental continuum provides insight for what the writer controls regarding craft, conventions, and writing process. Writers move along a developmental continuum: Emergent, Early, Transitional, Self-Extending. Within each stage of development, teachers need to offer different levels of instructional support. Emergent and Early writers, for example need lots of interactive writing so they are actively involved in the writing process. All writers benefit from writer’s workshop where they can exercise their writing lives with the support of a whole group mini-lesson, writing time with teacher conferencing, and whole-group sharing.

Learn about the piece of writing

Read the story and ask the writer about it; don't assume anything. As the reader, the teacher should be open to learning and engaging the writer in open dialogue about the piece. Remember my example with the one-word answers from the writer? A more effective approach would have been an open-ended conversation like: Tell me about your writing. What are you working on today? What are you trying? How can I help you with your writing today? The teacher shouldn't assume anything about the piece because she is not the author, the child is the author. The teacher is there to support and guide the writer. 

Decide what the writer needs next

Now that the teacher knows where the writer is along the developmental continuum and what the writer needs, the teacher can determine how to support the writer with craft, conventions or writing process. The value in considering all facets that the teacher will develop the writer, not just improve writing skills.

The teacher can check in on progress by asking:

  • Are there elements of writing craft where I can support the writer?
  • Where does the writer need support related to conventions?
  • How can I support the writer in the writing process?

Take joy in the journey with your writers. You will learn about their life experiences and passions. As you look beyond the symbols on the page, the real message will move you to guide the writer in the right direction.


Pinnell, G.S. & Fountas, I. (2017). The Continuum of Literacy Learning: Expanded Edition.

Learn More:

For the Love of Guided Reading by Nikki Woodruff, contributing author, Responsive Literacy.

Interactive Read-Aloud: The Bedrock of the Literacy Block by Lisa Pinkerton, contributing author, Responsive Literacy.

Is There a Silver Bullet for Literacy? by Pat Scharer, editor of Responsive Literacy.


Subscribe to EDU RSS