Student-Led Discussions Develop 21st-Century Learning Skills

"All we do is read a few chapters and do worksheets. No discussions. I hate worksheets. I want to see what my friends think about Nothing but the Truth. We never talk about anything much in class."

Recently, I surveyed students in my area’s middle school English classes asking them to tell me about their reading, and what motivated them to read and write. This response from a seventh-grade student expresses the frustration most of his classmates were feeling. 

At the end of the day, when the teacher and I debriefed her lesson, she explained that throughout the year students completed novel-based packets that she had purchased, which basically require students to read the book and answer vocabulary and comprehension questions.

“That’s the only way I can keep 30 students working and quiet,” she explained.

When I shared some student responses, the teacher said that she encouraged discussion on some days, but because students seemed disengaged, she didn’t do it that often. In this class, as in other teacher-centered classes, students sat in rows, worked alone, and weren’t interested in working hard.

I believe that administrators, literacy coaches, and lead teachers have the responsibility to help teachers like this one transform their classrooms into 21st-century learning environments. And we need to start now!

What administrators can do

We live in a rapidly changing world and in a global economy, so it’s crucial for teachers to rethink and change their instructional practices.

For students to develop the 21st-century skills that prepare them for further education and a job market that requires strong literacy, they need the 4 Cs: collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking. And teachers need to participate in professional learning experiences they can transfer to their classes—teacher-centered experiences that will inspire them to create student-centered experiences.

Change can occur when school administrators transform faculty meetings from stand-and-deliver-information forums to discussions in which teachers learn in groups, choose materials, collaborate, and communicate. 

Moving from a teacher-centered to a student-centered approach

So how do we do that? Start by changing the format of department, team, and faculty meetings. Here are some suggestions.

Ask teachers to: 

  • Read and discuss articles about the benefits of student-centered learning and the 4Cs.

  • Watch videos of student-centered classes and discuss them at faculty meetings, inviting teachers to consider students’ engagement, motivation, and behavior.

  • Study professional books and journal articles. 

  • Work with a colleague so they can celebrate their successes and dialogue about their frustrations with integrating the 4Cs into lessons. 

  • Share their teaching experiences at full faculty meetings so colleagues learn from one another as well as provide feedback.

What teachers can do: student-led discussions develop the 4Cs

Everything students do at school should equip them for developing collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity.

I recommend starting by implementing student-led literary discussions. These discussions can be about your read-aloud text, instructional reading materials, a short common text, video and movie clips, or texts your students are reading independently—any text as long as it is high quality.

High-quality materials encourage multiple interpretations and nudge students to reflect on characters, themes, conflicts, and information. In addition, they encourage the social talk that students enjoy as they collaborate to analyze informational texts and step into characters’ shoes to think creatively and deepen their understanding of the character and his or her world. 

Get started with student-led discussions

Take the plunge by starting with two- to three-minute turn-and-talks during your read-aloud, and have pairs discuss the question you posed; limit sharing with the class to two to three students so you avoid interrupting the flow of the read-aloud.

Once you and your students are comfortable with turn and talk, introduce small-group and paired discussions.

Small group discussions

A group of three to six students discuss a common text or different texts in the same genre using open-ended questions that they composed. (See Tip 1 below.) To explore multiple meanings of a text, these discussions can take 10 to 30 minutes, with possible follow-up discussions, depending on students’ levels of engagement and interest.

Paired discussions

Paired discussions permit students to explore layers of meaning in texts, as well as multiple themes, and make inferences. Partners can discuss a video, blogs on the same topic, or a common text. Lasting from 5 to 30 minutes, these discussions might extend over several class periods because students need the time to analyze and think critically.

I’ve developed seven tips that can help you and students as you collaborate to develop productive and meaningful discussions.

Seven tips for implementing student-led discussions

The tips that follow will help you to adjust and refine your role as facilitator and enable students to take charge of discussing a range of texts.

  1. Teach students to write their own open-ended, interpretive questions. Open-ended questions have more than one answer and ask students to arrive at multiple interpretations supported with text evidence. Tell students that when they can find two answers to a question, the question is open-ended and they can turn to composing another question. 

  2. Have students choose a leader (students can take turns) who keeps the discussion moving forward by using prompts such as:

    Does anyone have a different idea?
    Can you offer text details to support your position?
    Can you explain that term?

  3. Invite students to negotiate the amount of time they’ll need to complete their discussion. Tell students that if they need extra time, you’ll consider it as long as they have been using time productively.

  4. Decide on a signal for closing a discussion. I like to flick the classroom lights to get students’ attention and let them know they have about a minute to finish. 

  5. Listen to discussions. Sit in on two different sessions each time groups or partners meet. Notice what students do well, and close with a positive statement such as: “I noticed that everyone participated” or “I heard students citing text evidence.” 

  6. Ask students to debrief after a discussion giving them two questions: What worked well and why? What can you improve and how? Then have students use their answers to set a goal for their next discussion.

  7. Have students write about their reading by summarizing it, answering open-ended questions, or composing a paragraph that explains an idea or argues for a position. According to Steve Graham and Karen Harris, when students write about books they can read, their comprehension jumps 24 percentile points (The Reading Teacher, January/February 2016).

Assessing student learning

Use students’ responses in their notebooks, paragraphs, and essays to assess their learning. Create an observation checklist to use as you listen to discussions that take into account preparation, participation, listening skills, citing evidence, critical thinking, communicating ideas, and collaborating to set deadlines.

Closing thoughts

Collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking improve as students engage in literary discussions and work on ways to express and receive ideas from peers. Moreover, when students lead literary discussions, they become engaged and motivated, listen actively, and respect the diversity of interpretations peers bring to the table.

What I'm Reading—Jeff Wilhelm

Jeffrey Wilhelm's book Reading Unbound: Why Kids Need to Read What They Want and Why We Should Let Them (co-authored with Michael W. Smith) has been awarded the 2016 NCTE David H. Russell Award for Distinguished Research in English Education. In the spirit of Reading Unbound, we asked him to share what he has been reading lately.

On the doors and teachers' desks at the school where I work, teachers post what they are reading. At the moment, on my door, I’ve posted the following: 

I love this. We are all proclaiming that we adults are readers, and that we are a community of readers. We advertise that we read all kinds of different texts and for a variety of different reasons. We invite students to ask about our reading and to tell us about their reading. Often students ask to borrow material from me when I’m done reading. We are creating a culture of reading and sharing the pleasures of reading.

When I was the age of my current 7th grade students, over 45 years ago now (gulp!), my list would have looked like this (I know because I’ve kept a reading diary since 4th grade!):

Back then, I probably would have said that I did all my reading for fun. 

Now, based on my recent research into the power of pleasure reading in Reading Unbound, I know how to identify the various kinds of pleasure that I enjoyed, and I know why each pleasure is important and what specific benefits accompany each pleasure, and I know as a teacher how to promote all of these pleasures in my classroom. 

Pleasure reading as a civil right

My research (with Michael Smith) into the power of pleasure reading has convinced me that pleasure reading is a civil right. Why? There is robust evidence that pleasure reading in youth is the single most explanatory factor of social mobility, educational attainment, cognitive progress over time, and life satisfaction.

Pleasure reading has been found to be more significant a factor in access to equity factors than parent’s SES or education.  (See for example, Guthrie’s analysis of OECD/PISA data, 2004, and the recent analysis of the British cohort study, 2013). What follows is that if we care about social justice, if we care about the current and future experience of our learners, but especially those who are in any way marginalized or struggling, then we must promote pleasure reading with great urgency.  

But here is the rub

What makes reading pleasurable? What motivates students to read and to cultivate the continuing impulse to read over time and into adulthood?  Our research identified five distinct pleasures enjoyed by readers who freely chose or freely chose to continue reading a text. These pleasures were present throughout the informants’ reading, and explain their commitment to reading, how to induct less engaged students into the pleasures of reading, and why each pleasure promotes capacities that lead to the benefits reported in the research. The pleasures are necessary to engagement and participation in reading, and participation is necessary to develop proficiencies and capacities. The pleasures are key! And we know that 91% of children ages 6–17 say “my favorite books are the ones that I have picked out myself.”

The five pleasures and how to promote them

  1. Immersive play pleasure. This is the first and prerequisite pleasure and is typically what we tend to think of as pleasure. This is reading (or doing anything else) for the pure love of it (and is not loving and being loved a basic civil right, too?). But this pleasure quickly becomes enmeshed with other pleasures. How can we foster this pleasure of play – making it visible and available to those who may not experience it? One way is to use drama/action strategies: Dramatic techniques like revolving role play, in-role writing, good angel/bad angel, hot seating, and alter ego encourage and reward all students for entering and living through story worlds, becoming characters/relating to characters in the ways committed pleasure readers do. 

  2. Intellectual pleasure. This is the joy of figuring out a problem or puzzle, e.g. figuring out what a text means, or how it was structured for meaning and effect. We foster intellectual pleasure when we frame curriculum as a problem to solve by using inquiry and essential questions, when we teach students how to generate their own questions and use discussion structures that promote understanding of how texts work and make it clear that students are not playing “guess what the teacher already knows." (Check out Engaging Readers & Writers With Inquiry and Fresh Takes on Teaching Literary Elements.)

  3. Social pleasure. This has several dimensions: the love of relating to characters, to authors, to other readers, affiliating with groups, and staking one’s identity. Erik Erikson has taught us that the primary task of early to late adolescence is to stake one’s identity, which one does through relationships, and through evolving interests and competence. To the degree that school encourages these social dimensions of reading, it assists with the human developmental journey; to the degree that classrooms fail to encourage the social, we undermine it. How we can foster social pleasure: some ways include being a fellow reader with students, to foster peer discussion and sharing through literature circles and book clubs, promoting books through booktalks and reviews, and doing group projects based on reading and research.

  4. Work pleasure. This is about the love of getting something functional done from reading, including being able to talk and argue, as well as apply what has been learned in the world. Promoting work pleasure: using inquiry that works toward culminating projects, service and social action. Mantle of the expert dramas focused on problem-framing and solution. (Check out Teaching Literacy for Love and Wisdom: Being the Book and Being the Change.)

  5. Inner work pleasure. This finding was our most striking and moving. Our informants loved using their reading to rehearse becoming the kind of person they wanted to become, and unearthing deeper layers of consciousness and awareness. As Helen expressed, “[I]t’s not really learning about yourself, it’s learning about what you could be . . . ." Inner work is the love of transcendence, of connecting to something greater and outgrowing one’s current self. Promoting inner work pleasure includes inquiry for service to self, peers, the classroom, school, community or environment; drama as characters in dilemmas or agents (good angel) helping a character, or as authors making choices; personal writing for the future/ to a future self. 


Do we want to cultivate lifelong readers, and for our students to gain the benefits and access to civil rights that come from this? Of course we do. Cultivating all five pleasures is necessary to promote lifelong reading. They are already central to our engaged reading.  We must make them all central to our teaching.

Do you have favorite titles or activities that give you and your students the pleasures of play, work, intellect, inner work or the social?  Share them with me on Twitter @ReadDRjwilhelm or on Facebook

Family-Teacher Conferences: What You Need to Know

Family-teacher conferences provide a wonderful opportunity for families and teachers to come together as equal partners to share insight and information. Successful conferences offer a platform for shared dialogue and meaningful exchange. However, this doesn’t happen automatically. Conducting a quality conference takes thoughtful preparation and planning—before, during and after the meeting. 

But first: did you notice I didn’t say parent-teacher conference? The definition of a "traditional" family has changed dramatically. It is important to remember a student's biological parent may not be the person who attends the conference. It could be a grandparent, aunt, big brother or foster parent, and they should be invited and welcomed to participate like any biological parent. Maybe it is time for a name change?

What does an effective family conference look like?

The first step in planning effectively for this conversation is to identify the essential elements of a successful conference. This may seem obvious, but teachers do not receive training during pre-service on the components of a successful conference or how to conduct one.

These are the five elements I believe essential to conducting a quality conference: 

  1. Treat the family as an equal partner: Be mindful of proximity and seating. Sitting next to a parent communicates partnership and a relationship between equals, whereas sitting at a desk or table can create a barrier to partnership and communicate an unequal distribution of power. 

  2. Have a two-way conversation: Ask open-ended questions, share the air, and be an active listener. 

  3. Express love and positivity for the student: What families want to know more than anything else is that you know their child, love having them in class and see their potential for greatness. 

  4. Provide individualized tips and tools connected to learning: Provide families with strategies they can do at home to support student’s learning and development. 

  5. Articulate concrete next steps and plan for follow-up: As the conference winds down, collaborate with the family on a particular goal. Agree on strategies, timeframe, and when to check in on progress.

How can we help families prepare?

Preparing families for a successful conference is equally important. We want families to understand why their voice is important in the conversation, and how to be an active and equal partner.

One of my favorite strategies is to conduct conference clinics before the fall and spring conferences. During the clinic, families learn about their role and responsibilities, observe examples of successful conversations, and role-play and receive feedback on different conference topics.  

Role-playing the conference conversation is an excellent way for families to practice raising issues of concern. These conversations are often hard to initiate. Practicing the conversation among peers is safe, and empowers the family to engage in this discussion during the actual conference.

It is also a good idea to give families a list of sample questions to ask during a conference. This helps them prepare and prioritize discussion topics in advance, and reinforces the importance of their active engagement during the conversation.

Here are my favorite questions to share with families prior to the conference to spark conversation and two-way dialogue. 

  1. What are my child’s strengths and weaknesses?

  2. What is my child’s learning style?

  3. How do you assess my child’s progress?

  4. How can I monitor progress? What are the “red flags” I should watch for?

  5. How does my child compare to other students in the class?

  6. What are the grade level learning targets? 

  7. What can I do at home to support my child to achieve the learning targets? 

  8. How does my child interact with other students in the class

  9. How do I choose the right books for my child? 

  10. What types of literature interest him/her?

What to do on conference day

Now that we've covered what to do before the conference, what should happen during the conference?

  • Most importantly, ensure the school environment is welcoming for families. Consider assigning greeters at the door and hanging signage to help families navigate the building.

  • If some families need translators, prepare and schedule them in advance, and take advantage of families' presence at school.

  • Use the conference as a time for families to network. There is often a lot of “wait” time during conferences. Make this “wait” time intentional. It can be an opportunity for families to learn something new, meet someone new or share a tip or strategy with another family! 

Stay connected, stay flexible, stay positive

It is important families and teachers stay connected after the conference. Send a thank-you note to the families who attended, reinforcing the tips and strategies discussed. For families unable to attend, call or send a note to say how much you missed seeing them and provide options for rescheduling.

Even with the best intentions, sometimes the conference does not go as planned. Take a deep breath, keep an open mind, and remember teachers and families play for the same team, and students are most successful when we work together. 

Happy conferencing!


Expert advice: Reading Club Editors on Building Your Classroom Library

Today we are joined by three Scholastic Reading Club editors who have tips for building a classroom library full of books that are just right for kids of all ages. 

Preschool – 1st Grade

Hi, I'm Laura Demoreuille and I am the Scholastic Reading Club editor for babies through 1st Grade.

At this age, look for books that speak on an emotional level that any young child can connect with and understand. Whether it's teaching children how to express their everyday feelings or learn manners, books are the perfect tool to connect complex ideas in an engaging, easy way for children. 

Tips to build a classroom library:

  • For young children, it is always important to have a wide range of topics, formats, and characters for all interests. While it’s essential to have favorite characters and topics to help children feel comfortable, it’s great to refresh the books on display so kids get an opportunity to find joy in reading something new. The most important thing about a classroom library is for every kid to find something they love to read; you never know what they will pick up next!

  • Themes are hugely important to the preschool and kindergarten set. If you organize your library by theme, make sure there are photographic books with informational text along with the fiction titles. Include photo-filled books with both animals and people, and remember that it’s important for every kid to see themselves in the books you have in your classroom library.

  • Because kids at this age will become readers at different times, be sure to include high-interest topics at a wide variety of reading levels. Audio centers are another great way to encourage reading skills in your students; children can listen and follow along, learning many sight words along the way.


A big theme this fall is books that encourage kindness and empathy in young readers. 

  • Try: Groovy Joe by Eric Litwin, illustrated by Tom Litchenheld; Rana DiOrio and Stephane Jorisch’s What Does It Mean To Be Kind?Little Tree by Loren Long; Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade by Justin Roberts and Christian Robinson; How Do Dinosaurs Stay Friends by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague, and Red by Michael Hall.

Kids of any age love to laugh! There are some particularly funny books starring a variety of endearing animal characters.  

  • Try: Duck On A Tractor by David Shannon; Night Animals by Gianno Marino; Max The Brave by Ed Vere; Are Pirates Polite? By Mark Teague; If You Give A Mouse A Brownie By Laura Numeroff (illustrated by Felicia Bond).

And finally, it's always good to have books on hand for emerging readers!

  • Try: Mo Willem’s The Thank You Book; The Cookie Fiasco by Caldecott winner Dan Santant; Bob Shea’s Dance! Dance! Underpants; Don’t Throw It To Mo by David A. Adler (illustrated by Sam Ricks); Fly Guy Presents: Weather by Tedd Arnold.

2nd – 3rd Grade 

My name is Shelly Veehoff, and I'm the Reading Club editor for elementary school students in 2nd and 3rd grade.

Kids of this age begin to venture into independent reading, and chapter books are the perfect “novels with training wheels” to transition from picture books. Children are now also more likely to search for books that match their interests and hobbies – whether sports, animals, or more.

Tips to build a classroom library:

  • Newly independent readers feel confident when they encounter books with familiar characters or story lines. Make new titles in best-loved series easily accessible so children feel confident knowing they’ll enjoy their selections.

  • When possible, include different formats of books featuring familiar characters in order to appeal to kids with a wide range of reading levels. Series that are offered in picture book, reader and chapter book formats include The Magic School Bus, Amelia Bedelia, Bad Kitty, and Fancy Nancy.

  • Readers at this level are beginning to develop their own personal reading tastes and interests. Organize part of your library by genre so that children will be able to identify and read more of the books that appeal to them. One interesting new series from Scholastic is the Key Hunters, which publishes each book in a different genre so readers can get a sense of various styles of stories and select ones that they enjoy most.


We’re now seeing a trend in adventurous time travel! There a number of books whose pages act as a passport to faraway lands and days gone by. 

  • Try: The latest Magic Tree House title, Night of the Ninth Dragon; the Ranger in Time series by Kate Messner; Fantastic Frame by Lin Oliver.

For kids curious about the world around them, there are a number of engaging nonfiction titles with a focus on fun! 

  • Try: Jerry Pallotta's Who Would Win? series, including Who Is Tougher? Navy SEALs vs. Army Rangers; LEGO nonfiction books.

What is possibly most near-and-dear to the hearts of the 6-9 year-old crew? The love of laughter! We know that 70% of kids ages 6-17 want books that make them laugh.

  • Try: Funny series including My Weirdest School, Princess in Black, Super Happy Party Bears and Diary of a Wimpy Kid; Dog Man by Dav Pilkey.

Grades 4+

I'm Ann Marie Wong, and I am the Reading Club editor for kids in 4th grade all the way through high school.

Middle school and teen readers need to be able to see themselves in books when reading for fun. Kids at this age feel invested in the story and like to be able to find books with characters they can connect with across numerous genres.

Tips to build a classroom library:

  • Books can be a great way to open the lines of communication when it comes to timely topics or sensitive issues. This year marked the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes and Somewhere Among by Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu have the potential to personalize and contextualize this tragic event. All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely is told in a dual narrative and takes a powerful and unbiased look at the issues of racism. With the 2016 presidential election right around the corner, showcase books about presidents, voting, and all things America.

  • Make sure your library is filled with stories and characters as diverse as you find in your classroom and in classrooms nation- and world-wide. All children deserve the opportunity to see themselves reflected in books and to read about the lives and experiences of people who are different from them. In doing so, they build confidence, empathy, and understanding.


Let’s start with epic series for readers who wait a year (or 7, in the case of Harry Potter fans) for the next book in a series, only to devour it in a single sitting.

  • Try: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child; Rick Riordan's Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 2: The Hammer of Thor (Nine Worlds of Norse Mythology series); Diary of a Wimpy Kid; Dork Diaries; Big Nate; Jedi Academy; I Survived; The Waterfire Saga; and Maze Runner.

Comics and graphic novels for this age level are experiencing a renaissance. There is such a wide variety of genres, stories, and art styles that there is surely something for everyone! The combination of text and illustration can also be very appealing and encouraging for reluctant readers.

  • Try: Raina Telgemeier's Ghosts; Mighty Jack by Ben Hatke; Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur Vol. 1: BFF by by Amy Reeder, Brandon Montclare, and illustrated by Natacha Bustos.

Books turned blockbuster movies are nothing new, but the roster this season includes more than just the paranormal romances and dystopian thrillers we’ve come to expect. 

  • Try: The BFG by Roald Dahl; Middle School, The Worst Years of My Life by James Patterson; Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs; A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness; Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Finally, have you met the fun and hilarious Book Boys? Earlier this month they took us on a Facebook Live walk-through of the October Reading Club flyers. You can find them regularly Judy Newman at Scholastic, our blog where we discuss all the books we're super excited about. 


How to Assess Family Engagement Using Data, not Intuition

For schools, engaging families in effective partnership is challenging work. Data is a great tool to navigate the course, and without it, efforts can feel unfocused and purposeless.

Using data instead of intuition

Educators wouldn’t dream of developing a comprehensive instructional plan for students without first conducting a diagnostic assessment. By the same token, impactful school leaders rely on more than intuition and gut feelings when articulating a comprehensive family engagement strategy.  

Understanding the need to assess family engagement practices is step one. Step two is to make sure the measures assess the right things, and that information is distributed to the right stakeholders.

If we believe family engagement is a critical strategy to support student achievement, then what we assess should produce data to indicate how effectively we engage families in the learning process.

While many schools and districts survey families annually, this doesn't paint a complete picture of the quality of the home-school partnership. Collecting feedback from families is important: however, to measure the effectiveness of the home-school partnership, we must also collect feedback from teachers and administrators, since they are critical to the success of the partnership. We should also look a bit more closely at the other ways we invite families to engage with us as partners. 

Besides surveying families, what are the other ways to measure the effectiveness of the home-school partnership?

The first thing to look at is how you welcome families to the school. If families do not feel welcome, it is difficult to engage them as partners in the learning process. An onsite physical walk-through assesses the school from the moment families’ drive into the parking lot. A complete assessment of the physical environment looks at:

  • parking signage

  • availability of visitor parking spots

  • main office signage

  • welcoming signage

  • customer service

  • signs of learning throughout the building

School website

A campus walk-through is critical, but many families don’t have time to come to the school on a regular basis. The information they find about the school comes from what they read about online. A website review looks at the school's online presence from the family perspective:

  • Is it easy for families to navigate?

  • Is the information written in a language and format families can understand?

  • Most important: can families easily find the information they need to support their child’s learning?

Take, for example, the parent portal. The parent portal is where families stay up-to-date on their child’s progress. The link for the parent portal should be easy for families to locate and access. 

"Customer service"

How many times have you visited a restaurant or business only to be ignored, dismissed or treated rudely? When this occurs, how likely are you to visit the business again?

"Customer service" is equally important in schools. Each and every contact with a family should make them feel welcomed, valued and invited to participate in the learning environment. Besides assessing customer service during an onsite review, conducting a mystery shopper phone call is also a smart way to assess how friendly staff is to families when they call the school. These calls are done anonymously and at random times during the school day in order to assess the level of customer service. 

This is what a comprehensive family engagement assessment looks like: it's not intuition and gut feelings, but a comprehensive assessment that provides you with actionable, qualitative and quantitative data. 

Thank you for focusing on reading, reasoning and clear thinking

Dear Teachers and Friends of Scholastic, 

Today, on Scholastic's birthday, we thank you for the great work you do to help your students understand the importance of the values and the skills they are learning from you this fall. Through your guiding hand, young people discover the power of reading to help them understand themselves, understand others, and understand the world they live in.

Ninety-six years ago, on October 20, 1920, Scholastic published its first magazine to help teachers bring the best in contemporary literature and current affairs through English and Social Studies. From the first issue, the mission of Scholastic has been to help teach young people the importance of facts, logic, reasoning, and "straight thinking"—to understand how our society works, and how Americans govern themselves. 

Almost 100 years later, our magazines such as Scholastic News, Junior Scholastic, Scope, The New York Times Upfront, and Storyworks, among others, still help you present the issues, challenges, and opportunities our society faces. We lay out the facts so children and young people, at their own reading and age level, can learn the skills of managing their world.

Similarly, we continue to  support teachers through our reading clubs, classroom books, and book fairs, bringing exciting and worthwhile literature to your students that helps them understand themselves through sympathetic characters, and helps them understand others by seeing the world from someone else’s point of view: developing empathy through stories.

As you help your students to develop the love of reading through great stories, and to develop their ability to reason and think clearly through reading nonfiction text, you build the values, skills, and character that will continue to influence children for their entire lives. That is the power of reading.

This fall has been a particularly challenging one as a strident presidential election has reached into your students' lives through non-stop media, and made your teaching even more important to your students. 

Your thoughtful support of your children's reading, so they can better understand themselves, understand others, and understand their world, has given hope to your students that we can build a better society and a better life for all. 

Scholastic is proud to help you in this valuable work for young people, as they look to you for the confidence and skills that will help them succeed in school and in life.

Our thanks to you for all you do, every single day, for your students and their families. Please let me know how we can continue to help you do your important work! 

Richard Robinson

CEO, Scholastic Inc.

Students Vote for Their Future

The results of the 2016 Scholastic News® Student Vote are in. Democrat Hillary Clinton has been declared the winner.

The former Secretary of State garnered 52 percent of the vote among students in K-12 around the country; 35 percent of students chose Republican businessman Donald Trump, while 13 percent of young voters opted for “other,” including Spider-Man, Kanye West, and Mom.

In our “exit polls,” students expressed mixed feelings about the candidates. “I wouldn’t want either of them,” said a fifth grader from Marietta, Georgia.

Scholastic has held a nationwide mock election every presidential election year since 1940. To date, young readers have been wrong only twice: In 1948, they chose Dewey over Truman and, in 1960, they gave Nixon more votes than Kennedy.

Since the school year began, teachers have been explaining the workings of democracy to their young charges. The perils of doing so have been greater than ever, with headlines that seem best suited for the National Enquirer.

Indeed, many voters will be relieved to see the presidential race come to an end. But the challenges facing the United States aren’t going anywhere.

What lies ahead for the next president? Second graders in Dana McDonough’s classroom in Newburgh, New York, have quite a wish list: “Make the Earth clean, build more schools around the globe, and put a computer on every desk in every classroom in the country.”

What would the students do if they were elected president? “Make it rain candy, allow kids to have soda, and make new toys.”

The second graders also have advice for the person who will be sitting in the Oval Office in 2017 and beyond.

Of all the shocks to the system this campaign season, imagine that seven- and eight-year-olds have only known an African American president and a woman accepting a major party’s nomination, putting “the biggest crack in that glass ceiling yet.”

As a sixth grader from Phoenix, Arizona, said, “I voted for Hillary because [she] will be the first woman president. America should be happy women are running for president. Over the years, women were thought of as weak. But Hillary is showing all women, young or old: you can do anything.”

See the full results of the Scholastic News Student Vote.



My Mission Moment

As a special education teacher, I know reading is a struggle for many of my students. Throughout the past couple of years in the classroom, I have learned a few important qualities that many of my students share, and how to promote and maintain a love of reading in each child.

I’ve worked in a private, self-contained classroom setting where I taught students with Autism not only to read, but to love reading, and request to read every day. 

My beginning

When I first walked into that classroom, the one thing I noticed right away was that there was no bookshelf anywhere. When I questioned the lack of books, I got a dismissive answer: "oh, these children can't read." That was not an answer I was willing to accept. 

I continually bought books and placed book club orders for the classroom, until one day there was so many books that I needed a bookshelf. The books were now displayed in an appealing way that intrigued the students. They were more willing to walk over, select a book from the shelf independently, and flip through it (even if they couldn’t read yet!).  

Later, my career took me to a middle school in a district where I became a sixth grade inclusion teacher in a co-taught setting. This was something I had never done before. Naturally, when entering the classroom, I noticed tall, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, full of books for our students! We pressed on with classroom set-up and before we knew it, the kids were in the classroom ready to learn.

After meeting with a few students and discussing their reading, the general consensus seemed to be “Ugh I hate reading, it is so BORING!”

But what I really heard was, “Ms. Martin, I just haven’t found the right book yet, please help me!”

It was my mission from then on to show my students just how enjoyable reading could be. I selected texts based on students’ interests, and more importantly, I would model for them the joy of reading.

I also selected a book to read from the collection of books I had accumulated, and then gave a book talk to the students. They loved when it was book-talk-time! Afterwards, the book would be missing from the bookshelf for weeks because they were so eager to read it! If you model for your readers just how much you love to read, they will be inspired to give reading another try to find their very own connection to books. 

The importance of access and choice

These improvements in my students would not be possible without the right selection of books. There are three main rules that I have learned this year as a result. 

  • Always keep your books accessible to children. Let them pick up six different books and flip through to see if it’s a “just right” book. Let the children take them home to read. If they are easily accessible, when they finish a book they can scan the bookshelves for another really amazing book. 

  • Always keep your library (and yourself) current. Not every child wants to read a book that was written too long ago that they cannot relate to. Get on their level, model for them just how important, and fun, reading can be. Have book talks, engage your students in every type of book possible. Challenge them to go outside their comfort zone and read a genre they would not normally read. 

  • Attractive books will always interest the student more than a book with a missing or damaged cover. Teach your students to respect the books in order to keep them looking new. As much as we say, “don’t judge a book by the cover,” sometimes when dealing with a group of sixth graders, the cover is what hooks them right away.

Finding books

However, I know as a teacher I was very lucky to receive a donated classroom library—that does not happen every day. Many teachers do not receive a lot of book donations, or are fortunate enough to have parents buy books for their students.

So I want to leave you with this story: In my district, there are a lot of low-income families. These are students I have seen waiting on line at the mobile food pantry we do every other week, or students that can’t even come to school with even a pencil, let alone any books. We, as a district, are lucky enough to have a Scholastic Book Fair come to our building twice a year. At the second fair, we were presented with coupons that we were allowed to give to students who we knew would not have money to buy all the books on their “wish list.”

I was able to take five students to the book fair and present them with these coupons. They were able to select, and buy books that they wanted to read, books of their choice. When told they were able to select any books they wanted, within the price range, their faces all immediately lit up. They were like kids in a candy store, except it was even better because they were that excited to have the opportunity to buy brand never-before-been-read books.

Let's Talk Word Sorts

Let’s talk word sorts. If you’re using them in your classroom to reinforce the phonics patterns you’re teaching, you already LOVE them (most elementary teachers do). You’ve seen how they advance your students’ understanding of how patterns work in words.  They’re interactive and fun.  Plus, researchers support their use as beneficial tools for developing readers and spellers (Bear et al, 2016; Blevins, 2006, 2016; among others).  

Yay for word sorts! But, of course, sometimes problems arise. As I work with teachers in workshops across the country, several scenarios come up again and again.

See if you can relate to any of these: 

  • Do you have students who don’t actually read the words to sort them (effectively nullifying one of the main benefits of the activity)? 

  • Do you wonder how to best hold students accountable for their work when they sort words on their desks, on the floor, or in a center (after all, gluing words they’ve sorted to paper doesn’t seem like a good use of time)? 

  • Are you frustrated with a one-size-fits-all word sort approach that doesn’t truly fill the needs of all your students?

If you answered ‘yes,’ to any of these questions, then this blog post is for you!

Problem #1: Kids aren’t actually reading the words

Let’s address the issue of students who don’t read the words in the sort. You know the students, those who look at the words at the top of the sort and just visually match up the words with the same letter patterns: "Hey, these words look the same, they all have e-r, so I will sort them together! I don’t even have to read them!"

Yes, we want students to see how the words match (they are made up of the same letters), but we also want them to hear how the words match and understand why this is so, all while building their familiarity/automaticity with the patterns.

Even if we first support students by reading the words together before they are sorted, those who are experiencing difficulty may resort to this visual method rather than doing the work of decoding the words to sort them. But, doing the decoding ‘work’ is one of the big benefits of sorts!

What to do:

Here’s how I address this in my classroom: When I introduce students to our word sorting routine, I tell them there are some hard-and-fast rules. These are rules that cannot be broken! I tell students, “Before sorting a word into its proper column, you must read it out loud. No exceptions! If you get stuck on a word, read the other words you've already sorted in the column with the same pattern and/or go back and reread the header card for help. If you are still stuck, ask a peer for help, then reread the word three times before placing it." 

Naturally, I model this procedure for the class and have volunteers come forward to model the 'right' and 'wrong' way to sort words. I also set in place the routine of doing random teacher-checks as students sort, so they know they need to read the words aloud to be prepared. Students should understand this is important because if they just use the visual features to sort, they are not giving their brains the practice they need to develop their reading skills. Using this 'cheat' will not advance their phonological awareness or their decoding abilities.

Problem #2: Accountability

Let’s move on to another scenario. You have students sorting words on their desks, the floor, or in centers. They’re sorting independently or in pairs. Your aim is a quick practice activity, so you don’t want them spending time gluing the words on paper or writing the words down. How can you still hold them accountable? 

What to do:

I address this with another simple routine. When children finish sorting their words, they ask a buddy to do a "quick check" (if they've worked in pairs, they find another pair to do their check). The buddy randomly points to any word in the sort (five random words is sufficient). The child reads these words aloud. If she gets stuck, she refers back to the header card* for help figuring out the word. 

*“Header cards” have the words or word parts demonstrating the concept you want students to sort for. They are the examples.

For example, using the sample below, "If I know uck (looking at the header card) this must be 'cl-uck-ing, clucking!'” If a word is sorted incorrectly, the buddy assists and the word must be read three times before being placed correctly. I do the quick check with students who are struggling the most, so I can better support them. I might also work with them in a small group to assist as needed.

Another way to hold students accountable is to have them store the words and sort them again the following day with a different buddy doing the checking.

When we complete the sort on the first day, students collect their word cards and put them in an envelope. They write the headers on the front. On the second day, they get out their sorts again and re-sort, this time in one minute! (If one minute is too fast for your students, adjust the timed sort accordingly.) (Blevins, 2016)

Now, a different buddy does a 'quick check.' Students count the number of words they were able to sort in that minute, then remix the words and complete another timed sort, challenging themselves to get just a little bit faster. Students love the game-like feel of this activity and it builds automaticity. Finally, have students take their envelopes home and invite them to re-sort the words one more time with a parent or sibling (more accountability). This person can sign the envelope so it can be returned to school for "extra credit."

Problem #3: One-size-fits-all doesn’t fit all

Finally, sometimes we become tired of a one-size-fits-all approach to word sorts, but have trouble finding the time to locate different sorts for different needs. 

What to do:

Create a table with two or three columns. Write your header words or word parts at the top in the first row. Then, put simple single syllable words on the next few rows, moving to longer single syllable words (words with more complex onsets, like blends or digraphs) on the next rows, then simple two syllable words with simple affixes, followed by multisyllabic words and more advanced vocabulary in the rows at the bottom of the page. Here is an example for short i.

Now, all you need do is copy and make strategic cuts to easily differentiate for different groups of students. Below is an illustration of how this might occur (using a sort focused on short e).

Easy peasy! If you’d rather, you can see my new book, 85 Differentiated Word Sorts, for sorts ready-made in this way. The book covers short vowels, long vowels, r-controlled vowels, diphthongs and variant vowels, consonant digraphs, beginning blends, ending blends, and affixes, emphasizing all the highest frequency chunks as identified by research. There are also review sorts with mixed practice. All are one-page sorts, ready for you to use to reinforce the concept you’re teaching while easily differentiating with just a few quick snips. 

I sincerely hope this book makes your teaching-life a little bit easier. If you have further questions, feel free to contact me at Happy sorting!


Students Vote—Then and Now

In 1940, the average worker in the United States earned $1,725 per year. The inaugural issue of Captain America featured villainous Adolf Hitler on its cover, and race riots broke out in Chicago, Detroit, Harlem, and Los Angeles.   

Across the Atlantic, World War II was raging. In June of 1940, Paris fell to the Germans.

Franklin D. Roosevelt had steered the country through the darkest days of the Great Depression. Now, he was seeking an unprecedented third term as president, running against Wendell Willkie. Among the Republican candidates that year, Willkie was the only one who thought that the U.S. should offer more help to Britain and other Allies battling Hitler and the scourge of Nazism. 

In 1940, Scholastic invited students across the country to participate in a mock presidential election for the first time. Young readers chose Roosevelt resoundingly, mirroring the results of the national election. 

In the decades since, students have accurately reflected the national vote all but twice. Like their parents, perhaps, they thought that Thomas E. Dewey would beat Harry S. Truman in 1948, and that Richard M. Nixon would edge John F. Kennedy in 1960. 

Today, young readers can still make their voices heard. By participating in the Scholastic Student Vote, they can get a taste of what it means to enjoy the benefits—and share the responsibilities—of living in a democracy. 

This year, students can opt for Republican Donald Trump, Democrat Hillary Clinton, or a third-party candidate of their own choosing. On our Election 2016 site, readers can also learn more about the candidates, the issues, and the political process.

Who will win the Scholastic Student Vote? Stay tuned. Students who have not voted yet can cast their ballots here.


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