One Principal’s Resolution for 2016: ‘Ask the Children’

The author is Principal of Innovations Early College High School in Salt Lake City.

As a new year begins and I, like many, take a fresh look at what’s important in my role as a principal, I come back to a simple mantra: “Ask the children.”

At the root of our human experience is our individuality -- a uniqueness that allows for great diversity in thought, creativity, and the experience of beauty in our society. At the same time, we are all driven by an innate pursuit of happiness. I believe that recognizing that drive is key to preparing our future generations for success. It’s something we must cultivate for children through our positions of leadership and trust.

True leadership demands that we must serve those whom we lead. And it is especially important in a school setting that we, as educators, serve our students. To serve them truthfully, we must understand the needs and concerns of each student and then commit to meeting that need, whatever it takes.

Whatever it takes means just that. We must ask those whom we serve how to be better. But how often have we made significant change in our schools based solely upon the opinion of our students?

Where is their voice when we create and design school buildings? Where is their voice when we create master schedules that confine them and curriculum that bores them? Where is their voice when we set the operating time of a school? When have we created learning opportunities and made them available when students are ready to learn?

The answers to these questions remain the same: Unfortunately, students’ voices are silent.


Ask the children what they like about their school. Ask them what causes them pain and distress. Ask them what they don’t like about school. If you have the courage, ask them what type of school they would create if they had the power to influence and impact decisions.

Remove the barriers. In our efforts to control behaviors of students, we have ironically created a system that encourages misbehavior, negatively reinforces behaviors, and disenfranchises the minds and creativity of our future.

However, when we free the minds and cease to control every facet of the educational experience for students, we will discover that they become once again individuals with in a system rather than a system that strips them of individuality.

So what are you waiting for? Ask the questions. Ask the children.

To learn more about Ken Grover and Innovations Early College High School, check out Scholastic Administr@tor magazine's December 2014 article.

Behind My Scholastic News Cover Story About a Nine-Year-Old Syrian Refugee

At Scholastic News, one of our goals is to cover complex news topics for kids in a way they can understand without feeling overwhelmed. I’ve covered a lot of difficult topics in four-plus years as an editor at the magazine—from immigration to the war in Afghanistan—but none has felt as timely, complex, and important as the cover story I wrote for our January 4 grade 5/6 issue.

Back in October, when the refugee crisis in Europe really started making headlines, we had decided that we wanted to cover the topic for fifth and sixth grade students.

Whenever we write stories about complicated issues, we try to feature a kid who is about our readers’ age to make the story more relatable. After pursuing a few different leads with organizations overseas, I reached out to an organization in Texas that helps refugees resettle in the U.S. The people there helped us set up an interview with a family who had arrived in the U.S. from Syria only a few weeks earlier. We planned a pretty straightforward article that would compare that family’s journey to the U.S to that of the millions of refugees traveling to Europe.

On the morning of November 13, I had a phone interview with a 12-year girl named Reem, her father, and her younger brother. I conducted the interview through a translator because the family spoke only Arabic. Reem seemed sad and a bit hesitant as she talked about leaving her home city that had been destroyed by war, traveling for 23 days to Jordan, and spending a night in a refugee camp. But by the end of the interview, she seemed truly excited to speak about her new life in the U.S.

And then, later that day, the news broke of the terrorist attacks in Paris. Within days of the attacks, many politicians in the U.S were calling for a ban on Syrian refugees. The story I was writing was getting more complex by the day. And yet, it also seemed to grow more significant.

Like all good journalists, at Scholastic News we feel it’s important to present all sides of an issue. The January 4 cover story does just that. It also gives students the opportunity to read about a kid their age who overcame great odds. I hope it will spark some passionate class discussions.

Ten Surefire Tips for Maximizing Student Reading Stamina

I have just invited eighth grade students to select books and find comfortable places to read them. During the first ten minutes, Adam does everything in his power to avoid my request.  He goes to the bathroom, gets water from the fountain in the hall twice, sharpens a pencil, considers three books, chooses none, and instead, hastily leafs through a magazine. Clearly, Adam has a lot of energy. He also has the ability to concentrate while playing sports and talking to friends. But invite Adam to read, and he becomes exhausted after ten minutes, often complaining that his eyes and head hurt. These are all common symptoms of students who lack the stamina to read for extended periods of time.

Reading stamina is having the energy and the concentration to focus on reading for at least thirty continuous minutes a day. For students who lack stamina, reading is a frustrating and unpleasant experience, so they tend to read as little as possible. However, today, reading is a life skill needed for college and career success, as well as for the joy that a personal reading life brings. The good news is that you can help students boost their reading stamina at school and at home by using the ten tips that follow.

Have students start small. Have them gradually build stamina by reading self-selected books in five-minute intervals--then ten minutes, and so on, until thy reach one hour. Remind students that developing reading stamina is like training to run a mile in less than eight minutes. Both require regular practice to increase energy and concentration.

The Ten Surefire Tips for Maximizing Reading Stamina

1. Value Independent Reading. At school, this means setting aside twenty to thirty minutes at least three times a week for students to read self-selected books. Teach students how to choose books that they can read with ease by showing them the two- finger method.  Students read a page in a text. If they encounter more than two words they can’t pronounce or whose meaning they can’t figure out from context, they save the book for another time and choose a different one. Teaching students to choose books that are accessible and enjoyable will also motivate them to read at home.

2. Use Classroom and School Libraries.  Students of all ages need access to books. Seventh-grader, Lucas, put it this way, “ Having a classroom library means I can find a book when I need one right away.”  Continually work on enlarging your classroom library: Shoot for 1,000 to 2,000 books at a variety of levels, on a range of topics, and in multiple genres.

Schedule a weekly school library visit for your students—and be sure to accompany them so you and your librarian can suggest great reads.  If your classroom library is still a work-in-progress, encourage students to check out several books whenever they visit the school library and store them in their class cubbies or lockers, so they have enough to read until their next library visit.

3. Read Self-Selected Books. Educators such as Donalyn Miller, Richard Allington, and Steve Krashen agree that choosing their own books is the key for students to become motivated to read at home and in school.

4. Diminish Distractions.  Reading is social. There will be times that a student wants to share something he or she just read which is terrific because it shows engagement with the text. But it can also be distracting to classmates. So encourage students to use a soft voice while sharing with a classmate. Keep the door to your room closed to diminish noise from the hallway.  The fewer distractions, the easier it will be for students to concentrate.

5. Create Comfortable Reading Spaces. Think about the places at home where you read. Most likely it’s in a comfortable chair, on an oversized pillow, or in bed. Visit a carpet store and ask the owner to donate small remnants that students can sit on while reading. Carpet remnants are easy to store; they can be stacked in a corner or closet. Avoid requiring students to read for pleasure sitting at their desks. Instead, invite them to find a comfortable space in the classroom. Some will sit under desks or lean against the wall. If you have a limited number of beanbag chairs and large pillows, create a rotation system so students take turns reading on them. 

6. Advertise Great Reads. Students respect and value suggestions from peers. So set up systems that foster sharing book suggestions. Here are three:

  • Teach students to book talk and have them present a talk each month. The benefit of consistent book talking is huge! Over ten months, a class of twenty five students will hear about 250 books from peers.
  • Set up a graffiti wall by posting a large piece of construction paper on a bulletin board.  After completing a book that they enjoyed, have students write the title and author on the graffiti wall and one sentence explaining why they enjoyed the book so much. Then, a few times a week give students several minutes to browse the graffiti wall to discover peer-recommended books.
  • Teach students to give a 60 second elevator talk about a book they enjoyed reading. Their goal is to convince peers to read it. When a student’s desire to present an elevator talk strikes, schedule it during that class or as soon as possible.

7.  Set Monthly Goals. Share with students the research findings by Donalyn Miller and Steve Krashen--that reading 40 books a year independently can ramp up their reading achievement by enlarging their vocabularies and expanding their knowledge base. Negotiate monthly reading goals with students to help them meet the 40-book challenge. Books of 500 or more pages should count as two to three books. Students who can read books of that length presumably have stamina, and you want to encourage them to continue reading long and complex texts.

8. Take Brain Breaks. A seventh grade class lobbied their teacher for “brain breaks”-- time to chat and stretch after they had been reading deeply for thirty minutes. Brain breaks offer students a few minutes of down time to relax, re-energize, and yes, gain stamina. Tell students that when they plan to read at home for an hour or more, they should take a break, walk around, have a snack, and then return to reading.

9. Hold Small-Group Discussions. Organize into small groups students who have completed different books that are in the same genre. Students discuss such things as literary elements in fiction or text features and structures in informational materials. As such, they not only expose their peers to a range of reading materials within a genre, but they also tend to become better at clarifying their thoughts and become more reflective when they share their thinking.

10. Have Students Self-Evaluate. Four times throughout the year ask students to review their reading logs and reflect on the number of books they completed, favorite books, books they reread, and the amount of reading they completed at home. Then, ask students to use their self-evaluations to set reasonable independent reading goals which might include: extend reading time at home by fifteen minutes, read longer books, try a different genre, add a book to the graffiti wall, or read other books by a favorite author.

You can also give students a checklist to measure their reading stamina as part of their self-evaluation.

My Reading Stamina Cheklist


Checklist for Evaluating Reading Stamina: check items that apply to your reading.

____I quickly found a comfortable space to read.

____I concentrated on my reading and met my goal of _____minutes.

____I read for_____minutes beyond my goal.

____I can read and concentrated for all of silent reading time.

____I read without jumping up, getting a drink, or moving around the room.

____If I was distracted, I worked hard to avoid distracting others.

____I recognized I was distracted and was able to return to my reading on my own.

____I have a reading stamina goal and use it to increase the amount of time I read deeply at school and at home.  [end checklist]

Final Thoughts

Showing students how to self-select “just right’ books is a giant step toward improving students’ reading stamina. Choice creates engagement and engagement nurtures students’ desire to read. As they improve their stamina, commend students. Celebrate small but consistent improvement as well as big improvement. Keep in mind that all students will not improve their reading stamina at the same rate. In fact, some students might need more than one school year to be able to read for long periods of time. That’s okay. Coordinate your efforts with other teachers, celebrate progress, and give students the gift of time.

Learn more about building students' reading stamina in Laura Robb’s book, Unlocking Complex Texts.

Five Inspiring School Leaders I Met This Year

As editor of Scholastic Administr@tor magazine, one of the best parts of my job is meeting inspiring educators and learning about what they are doing and how it is working for children. Over the past 12 months, I’ve had the pleasure of touring numerous schools including High Tech High in San Diego, Innovations Early College High School in Salt Lake City, Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina, Cesar E. Chavez Multicultural Academic Center in Chicago, and Williamsfield High School in Illinois.

Getting inside schools, seeing children work, talking with teachers and students, makes it clear how important—and hard—the work of education is. Here are five of the most interesting leaders we had the pleasure of spending time with in 2016.

Tim Farquer (Superintendent, Williamsfield Community Unit School District #210, Illinois) – It’s not everyday that a district of 300 students gets to host the U.S. Secretary of Education, but when Arne Duncan’s back-to-school bus tour pulled up to this one-building K-12 district, Williamsfield was ready. Nestled within acres of cornfields, Farquer has transformed his district by eschewing textbooks and embracing open educational resources. The superintendent figured that by spending the district’s money on computers, he could push his schools to one-to-one. Finding the right materials and getting teachers to enthusiastically buy-in has helped his students feel a part of the larger world. “This is remarkable to see a town of 600 literally leading the country where [it needs] to go,” Duncan said. “This is a really big deal.”

Kenneth Grover (Principal, Innovations Early College High School, Salt Lake City) – As the director of secondary schools in Salt Lake City, Grover kept seeing firsthand how some students just didn’t fit into the district’s range of high schools. He knew that a different model would help these students, something that was more molded to their individual needs. Grover went in search of a model, but couldn’t find what he wanted, so he set out to create what he knew was needed from scratch. A few years later, Innovations was born. Today, students in the public high school are firmly in charge of their learning, controlling the time, path, and pace of their education. “We wanted to take personalized education to its fullest,” Grover said.

Mark Benigni (Superintendent, Meriden (CT) Public Schools) – It would be easy for Mark Benigni to complain about what he doesn’t have in his school district. In the five years he has led Meriden, the small urban district hasn’t gotten a single budget increase, while its percentage of free and reduced-lunch students and English-language learners has continued to increase. Still, Benigni knew he needed a new program to shake up the district and reinvigorate teachers and students alike. Working closely with his teachers union, the superintendent was able to create an extended learning program at two of his elementary schools. This program brings children into school early for fun (and educational) tasks, while allowing his staff ample leeway in creating the content that stretches each day an additional 90 minutes. Absences are down, student engagement is up, and Benigni is hoping to continue to expand the program to more schools.   

Brad Rumble (Principal, Esperanza Elementary School, Los Angeles) -- When most people look out at this stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, they look right past the section that grabbed principal Brad Rumble’s attention. That’s understandable, for on the road that stretches 15 miles from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles, the portion that jumped out at Rumble is just a 100-foot-long space filled with debris and barbed wire. But it wasn’t the clutter that grabbed Rumble’s attention, it was the possibility. The principal of Esperanza Elementary School, who’s also a Los Angeles Audubon Society board member, eyed the spot as a perfect place to restore a little nature in the middle of L.A.’s urban jungle. “We are embarking on the re-wilding of Wilshire Boulevard,” Rumble said, harkening back to the 1890s when Henry Wilshire first created a path on his barley field. Rumble is creating an outdoor classroom where students will be able to study native plants, and pretty soon, birding. “Birding works for students on so many levels,” Rumble added. Birding strengthens students’ power of observation and the social skills it takes them to interact with each other is a perfect complement for today’s more rigorous standards, he said.

Mike Oliver (Principal, Zaharis Elementary School, Mesa, Arizona) – Just one step into Mike Oliver’s office at Zaharis and you get the sense that something different is happening. Oliver’s office could be confused for an adjunct library as he’s used rain gutters to hold books from the ceiling to the floor. “We’ve decided to flood our school and our classrooms with real books,” the principal said. Classrooms are well stocked with a variety of books and comfortable reading spaces, ranging from couches to a refashioned bathtub. While students are encouraged to read and share their discoveries, so are Zaharis’s teachers. Staff frequently share what they are reading with children, all in the hope of creating lifelong readers who are also critical thinkers.

How to Take a Mid-Year Checkup of Student Mastery in Your School Or District

The mid-point in the school year is a great opportunity for school and district leaders to step back and do an evaluation of standards that may not have been mastered by students from the first half of the year. It is not enough to raise reading levels of students or to get them to their reading level if they were previously behind, educators have to also make sure students understand and have mastered the standards that will be covered on the state tests. More and more teachers are tracking the standards taught and recording if the student mastered it or recording what level of understanding the student has for the standard.

If you find that a few students have not mastered the same standard, you can place them in a small group for the re-teaching of that standard. If the majority of the class did not master a standard or multiple standards, then that standard should be retaught to the class with the understanding that they (teacher and class) did not previously master it. Look at creating a document at least school-wide, but preferably district-wide, that records the students who are present, the teacher, the standard or grade level expectation, re-teaching strategies/work done (One to one, small group, guided reading, engaging activity…), a record of original score(s) from the assessment of the standard, and new assessment score(s). Leave room to write notes about individual students as evidence of what you did to support the student or need to do to give more support. We don’t want teachers teaching the standard the same way it wasn’t received successfully the first time.

This data could be used year-to-year to identify strategies that worked best for teaching standards that students traditionally struggle with or may not have mastered at high levels. Students can and should understand what mastering a standard means and when it is appropriate to re-teach or move forward.

One great idea I saw in a class was this: Students made a folder with one side a list of the standards they mastered with at least 80 percent proficiency and the other side had standards not mastered by at least 80 percent proficiency. The students voted if they thought the teacher should do a whole class re-teaching of the standard or students should form small groups. The students were proud to have ownership of their learning and understanding of what was expected of them. Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about.

Five Big Stories in Education in 2015

We've had plenty to talk about in 2015 -- from testing to read alouds to ESSA, our new federal education law.

Here are five big education stories that kept my attention this year.

What's on your list?

ESSA is the law of the land

After years of starts, stalls and stops, the era of No Child Left Behind is finally on its way out. On December 10th, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law. Only time will tell how the law plays out in practice, but shifts are clear: more flexibility on spending and assessments for states and districts, more restrictions on the power of the Secretary of Education, new systems for accountability, and perhaps an easing of focus on standardized tests.

  1. Associated Press: Obama signs education law rewrite shifting power to states
  2. Morning Consult: How Old-School Legislating Brought an Education Bill to the Finish Line
  3. Vox: How schools will be different without No Child Left Behind

The soon-to-end era of Arne Duncan

One of the longest-serving members of President Obama’s cabinet, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced earlier this year that he would leave the post. His signature initiatives, including Race to the Top and federal School Improvement Grants, drove much of the conversation in education since 2009. Some see the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act as a culminating moment for him – while others see it as a defeat of many of his priorities. Whatever your thoughts are about the administration’s education agenda, there’s no denying that Duncan’s impact was huge.

  1. Washington Post: U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to step down at end of year
  2. The Hechinger Report: Arne Duncan’s legacy – the top-down approach to education
  3. Education Week: ESSA Cements the K-12 Obama-Duncan Legacy

The growing interest in family engagement initiatives

Recognizing the impact that out-of-school circumstances and barriers can have on a student’s readiness to learn in the classroom, schools and districts are increasingly investing in efforts to improve outreach to families and caregivers to give them supports and tools to boost learning at home. In New York City, an ambitious effort to improve family engagement initiatives in struggling schools kicked off this year. We expect more growth in this area in 2016.

  1. Education Week: Parent Engagement on Rise as Priority for Schools, Districts
  2. The New York Times: A Door-to-Door Push to Get Parents Involved at Struggling Schools

The role of testing and test scores are hotly debated

The debate over the role standardized tests should play in public schools appeared to reach a crescendo in 2015, capped off by the rewrite of NCLB and new calls from President Obama to limit the time students spend taking high stakes tests. Still, test results made big news: For the first time in years, results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed a drop in reading and math scores.

  1. The Hechinger Report: Will a decline on the Nation’s Report Card hurt Common Core?
  2. Slate: Can the Obama Administration Really Pare Back Standardized Testing?
  3. Education Week: Students Take Too Many Redundant Tests, Study Finds

A spotlight shines on read alouds

As more cities and states invest in early learning initiatives and as research continues to show how crucial the early years are for brain and language development, the read aloud seems to be having a well-deserved moment in the sun. Parents are getting the message that reading to children from birth is important, and communities are investing in providing books to families to read at home. Yes, read alouds make for special moments of bonding and comfort between parent and child; they also introduce students to early vocabulary, life lessons and, hopefully, a lifelong love of books.

  1. The New York Times: Long Line at the Library? It’s Story Time Again
  2. The New York Times: Study Finds Reading to Children of All Ages Grooms Them to Read More on Their Own
  3. NY1: City’s First Lady Promotes ‘Talk to Your Baby’

Four Things Educators Should Know About ESSA, the New Federal Education Law

Today President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA); the reauthorization of President Johnson’s 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. This landmark education legislation was part of the “War on Poverty” and the quest to bring equity in education to disadvantaged children.

The passage of this legislation is being celebrated far and wide. At the most basic level, people are simply celebrating that Congress acted in a bi-partisan manner and re-authorized a law that was nine years overdue.  Beyond rejoicing for sheer movement, many people are delighting in the legislation’s flexibility and the return of local control.

Let’s discuss briefly what that means from a somewhat practical – this is policy not implementation after all – standpoint.

  • Assessments – Tests are still required but there is flexibility and funding to develop alternative approaches to assessments. 
  • Accountability –Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) is gone and replaced with statewide accountability giving states more discretion in setting goals and figuring out how to intervene in low-performing schools. As states design their systems for measuring schools’ progress they will now need to use a student’s opportunity to learn, such as school climate or student engagement, as an indicator of progress.
  • Supporting teachers – The law ends the federal mandate tying high-stakes testing to teacher evaluation. With less teaching to the test, perhaps teachers can find even more joy in teaching and thinking through creative ways to meet individual student’s needs. Coupled with the flexibility states now have in turning around low performing schools, many hope this will be the right combination to helpsolve teacher recruitment and retention problems in some of the hardest to staff schools.
  • Fiscal Flexibility – This legislation consolidates more than 80 federal education programs down to 50 and in doing so creates a new $1.7 billion dollar Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant. Guiding parameters of this grant include funds being directed towards ensuring a well-rounded educational program and safety and health programs for students.  

As the vast majority of education audiences to varying degrees celebrate the passage of ESSA and the increased flexibility it affords, many of us are left wondering what implementation will look like in two or three years.

Will states and districts reflect on the lessons learned from years of prescriptive mandates and federal approaches to intervention? Will they partner to determine the most effective practices that integrate services and truly address the whole-child so our most disadvantaged students come to the classroom on a level-playing field ready to learn and benefit from the well-rounded education ESSA strives to achieve?

I remain optimistic from conversations I’ve had with State Chiefs, district leaders, and policy makers that if we keep our focus on the students, our determination on achieving equity, and use the momentum and excitement leaders feel at this moment with the passage of ESSA that we can at least get closer.

To learn more about the ESSA law, you can join a special Q & A with The White House and the U.S. Department of Education on the Scholastic Teachers Facebook page scheduled to begin today at 5:45 p.m. EST.

Deck the Halls with Boughs of Literacy

Whatever holiday you celebrate this winter season, you can have fun involving your children in the preparations and build their literacy skills at the same time! Consider these possibilities:

Make a list, check it twice. There are lots of reasons to make lists during holiday time: lists of things to do, lists of places to go, lists of foods to buy, lists of gifts to buy, and more. Have your children help you write those lists, and then have them read through the lists periodically to check off items that you and they have accomplished. If you have a child in early stages of reading and writing, concentrate on helping him or her figure out the first sound and letter in each word. If your child is more advanced, concentrate on stretching or breaking up big words as needed so he or she can represent all of the sounds.

Cook up some learning. Recipes are a form of how-to, or procedural, text—a type of text commonly found in school. Think instructions for doing a science investigation or directions for using a new computer program. Involve your children in reading recipes. Show them what you do and invite them to help: gather all of the ingredients at the beginning and pause after each step to make sure you’ve done each one correctly. Pay special attention to measurements, as they provide an opportunity to develop math skills.

Trim the table. Your children can make place cards or table tents for each guest, write poems or stories on homemade placemats, even label one or more of the dishes that will be served with information about what they contain and maybe even where they originated. When responding to your children’s writing, be sure to focus mainly on the content and what the writing communicates—not spelling or punctuation. We want to use this occasion to help build positive attitudes toward writing.

Plan a family activity. Family gatherings can be more memorable when there’s an after-dinner activity. Consider planning a sing-a-long. Your children can write the lyrics and music to a song—or read and reread lyrics found online. These activities are great for building reading and writing fluency. Or consider playing a board game that involves reading. If the game doesn’t contain print, add it, such as color words in Candy Land or “Up” and “Down” in Chutes and Ladders.

Give the gift of reading. Giving and receiving books sends a strong message about how much we value reading. Whether gift-giving is a part of your winter season, consider involving your children in donating books to children in need. The process of selecting books to donate is likely to fuel your children’s own reading and give you good ideas about books that interest them. If funds don’t permit book buying, think of lower-cost ways to give, such as volunteering to read to children at a local daycare center or send magazines to troops overseas. 

Take advantage of TV. After a long day of preparations, you and your children may need some time to unwind. Although my best advice is to curl up with a good book, TV can also support literacy development. Choose programs with a strong, rich storyline or lots of information about nature, history, or current events. Aim for programs that include words your children don’t know. Watch the programs with your child, explaining words. Also, discuss the storylines or information during (muted) commercial breaks. And turn those captions on—that alone can support literacy development.

The winter season brings lots of demands on your time and energy, but also lots of opportunities for love—and learning.

Moving Students from Basic Recall to Analytical Comprehension

“Comprehension” is a word that teachers use all the time: Jake’s comprehension is weak; Talia can’t comprehend nonfiction; David comprehends everything he reads. In this blog, I’ll look at recall, the basic step in comprehending a text—a step that provides readers with information that enables them to determine important details, infer, identify themes, and analyze a text’s meanings. And I’ll provide ideas for helping students move from recall to those more sophisticated reading strategies.

Recall Is Basic Comprehension

A common sense belief I always share with teachers is that it’s pointless to ask students to read and reread a text they can’t learn from—a text at their frustration level. Recall implies that the learner is able to decode the text, and understand and remember the information. That can only happen when the student has enough background knowledge and the text is close to his or her instructional reading level.

Classroom Snapshot: Tasha

Recently, I administered an Informal Reading Inventory (IRI) to Tasha, an eighth-grader. Before plunging into the assessment, we spent time chatting about her interests, and she volunteered this statement: “I hate reading. I suck at it.” Her reasons were logical and on point. Reading three years below grade level, and required to read and reread grade level texts, she said: “If I have to read again and again and can’t understand it, what’s the point?” She shrugged and added, “I get nothing from it.”

After completing and analyzing Tasha’s IRI, I suggested two actions that could improve her reading:

  1. Have her read and learn from material at her instructional reading level—preferably books she chose. Not only would she recall information, but she would also be able to practice inferring, determining importance, identifying themes, and at the same time enlarge her vocabulary and background knowledge.
  2. Accelerate her reading stamina and achievement by having her self-select books for independent reading. Researchers Richard Allington and Steve Krashen agree that 40 books a year can enlarge a student’s vocabulary and background knowledge, build fluency, and most important, develop a love of reading that will sustain Tasha.

Scaffolding Suggestions for Recalling Details

  • Have the student reread if the book if it is at his instructional level.
  • Place the student in a book in which he or she has enough background knowledge to recall its details.
  • Find another book that’s more accessible.
  • Have the student reread a few paragraphs, and then stop to think and check his or her amount of recall. If recall is solid, have the student read on. If it’s not, have the student reread or close read.

Moving Students From Basic Recall to Analytical Comprehension

You can move students beyond basic recall to analyzing texts by using the three strategies that follow: determine importance, make logical inferences, and identify themes. In addition, when you use these reading strategies, you’ll move students beyond recall to high level thinking:

  • Use your read aloud text to explicitly model how you apply the strategy.
  • Set aside time for guided practice as you circulate to offer students’ support, answer questions, and acknowledge what’s working. 

However, it’s also important to note that with skilled readers, reading strategies work in teams. For example, I can infer and determine important details at the same time. Or I can compare the protagonist to antagonists and settings. To help students understand, apply, and absorb reading comprehension strategies, teach them one at a time initially—and gradually move toward showing students how to integrate them.

Determine Importance

This strategy applies to fiction and informational texts. With fiction, good readers decide the events, conflicts, and decisions that are significant and can explain why. Determining importance also helps them understand literary elements, such as protagonist, and genre, such as science fiction.

With informational texts, good readers separate nonessential from essential information. They set a purpose for reading because it helps them focus their efforts on specific, essential information.  As they read and reread, they also figure out the information and vocabulary that are important to helping them infer and understand themes. 

Classroom Snapshot: Mikel

Paul Green gives a group of fourth graders a short article on the Amazon Rainforest and asks them to set purposes for reading by studying the two photographs and captions and by reading section headings. Here are two purposes students offered: Read to find out why deforestation is bad. Read to see why the Amazon Rainforest is needed for fresh water. Paul explains that having different reading purposes will make their discussion richer.

However, while Paul circulates among students as they read, he notices that Mikel does not have a purpose written in his notebook. Mikel says, “I never set a purpose. I read it.” Later that morning, during independent reading, Paul meets with Mikel and has him read a different article without setting a purpose and then reread it after setting a purpose. Then he asks Mikel, “Which reading helped you figure out key details?” Mikel grudgingly agrees that setting a purpose helped.

Scaffolding Suggestions for Determining Importance

  • Help students set a purpose for reading for informational texts.
  • Help students set a purpose for reading fiction. For example, a purpose for reading Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins could be to monitor the problems Gilly, the protagonist, faces in the first three chapters. . 
  • Ensure that students understand the diverse subgenres of fiction. For example, a purpose for reading The Giver by Lois Lowery might be to explore what makes the book a dystopian novel.
  • Model how you set purposes by reading aloud. First, set a purpose: To determine the structure of folk tales.  Then, as you read, think aloud and pinpoint the essential details that help you meet your purpose.

Make Logical Inferences

To infer from text, students first have to understand what an inference is: an unstated or implied meaning. Making inferences that are logical means students have to use details in texts they are reading as support.

Inferring is a strategy that you should model many times during the year because it is difficult for most students to grasp, absorb, and apply to their instructional and independent reading. From my experience, with practice, inferring becomes automatic for most students between eighth and tenth grade.

Classroom Snapshot: Sam

Sam, a fifth grade student is reading Ruby Bridge’s Through My Eyes and experiencing difficulty inferring from the text. His teacher switches gears and invites Sam to use details in the book’s photographs to infer. Once Sam shows that he can infer from photos, his teacher moves him to text and says: “Words and phrases in the text give you details similar to what you saw in photographs.” She supported Sam by selecting words and phrases and inviting him to infer. Then she provided an inference and asked Sam to find supporting details. The teacher gradually released responsibility for inferring to Sam until he could apply the strategy on his own

Scaffolding Suggestion for Making Logical inferences

  • Invite students to make inferences based on events in their daily lives. For example, they can infer the temperament of a dog from its behavior or the mood of a friend or sibling from his or her words and actions.
  • Think aloud and share your inferring process using a read aloud text.
  • Have students make inferences based on photographs and illustrations in books.
  • Help students transfer inferring from events in daily life, photographs, and illustrations to inferring from text details by first providing them with target words and phrases and asking them to infer. Have students practice with you and/or a peer until they can work independently.

Identifying Themes

Themes are tough for readers to identify because, like inferences, they are unstated.  But by using informational text details and literary elements students can identify themes that not only apply to the text they’re reading but also to other texts. Here are three steps that can help students pinpoint themes in fiction and nonfiction:

  • Identify the big idea or general topics in the text and talk and/or write about them.
  • In fiction, explore what characters do and say that relate to that big idea or general topic. In nonfiction, explore information and details that relate to that big idea or general topic.
  • Create a theme statement that expresses the author’s message about the big idea or general topic. Encourage students to avoid using character’s names or the names of places mentioned in a text. An effective theme statement applies to people, characters, and ideas across texts, not just the text in hand.

Classroom Snapshot: Ricardo

Ricardo, a sixth grader, can name specific characters and places in the book he’s reading, but he can’t use the information to state themes. His teacher, Ms. Krieger, meets with Ricardo on three separate occasions for five minutes as the rest of the class reads independently. Her plans include modeling how she uses what characters say and do to arrive at a theme and discussing her process. Then, she’ll provide Ricardo with a theme and have him find the details in the text that support it.

Scaffolding Suggestions for Identifying Themes

  • Have students watch a video and identify its theme. Then ask them to talk about how the same strategy can be applied to a text.
  • Give students the details from a text that they need to identify a theme and have them compose a theme statement.
  • Show students how you pinpoint a general topic in fiction and link it to what characters do and say. Then model how you use the information to compose a theme statement. For example, the general topic is the pain and anger that a child experiences when he realizes his parent commits evil acts. In The Giver, Jonas feels shock, intense anger, and deep pain when he watches, on video a feed, his gentle and nurturing father kill a “newchild” who doesn’t meet the growth standards of the community. To transform the father’s unspeakable action into a theme, the reader has to think beyond Jonas to all young adolescents: Disillusionment occurs when an adolescent sees that a beloved parent is capable of evil.
  • Pair up students who have read the same text and have them work together and identify one to two themes.
  • Work backwards: Give students a theme statement and ask them provide the text details that support the theme statement.

Document Teacher-Student Conferences

A five-minute, one-on-one conference can support a student’s needs; one meeting might be enough, but more likely, you’ll need two or more meetings.  It depends on the extent of the student’s needs and the level of the instruction you’re providing.

You can schedule a series of conferences over several days while the rest of the class reads or writes independently. Keeping conferences short and focused allows students to practice a strategy over several days and provides the time students need to absorb how the strategy works and how well it’s working for them.

Hold these five-minute conferences in a quiet place in the classroom. Use a small table or use an extra student desk and meet away from other students to ensure privacy.  I recommend documenting these conferences using a form at the end of this blog. The filled-out form provides a record of what you planned and what you and the student discussed, practiced, and accomplished. It can also inform the focus of future conferences and teaching decisions.

[begin reproducible]

Five-Minute Intervention Conference Form


Directions:  Complete this conference form and use the information it contains to inform your practice. Store in the student’s assessment folder to consult later as necessary.


Focus the conference topic:

Points to discuss with the student:

The kind of scaffolding I’ll try:



Note important comments the student made:

My observations of the student:

Negotiated goal for the next conference.

Date of the next conference:

[end reproducible]

Learn more about scaffolding by exploring Laura Robb’s book, Unlocking Complex Texts.

How I Researched and Evaluated One of My Everyday Teaching Practices

In today’s education world, teachers are completely surrounded by data, but in many ways, we are left wondering how to apply it to our teaching practices. Because testing data only provides a snapshot of what teachers and students do for a whole school year, it is important that we as educators find ways of systematically evaluating the programs and practices we use in the classroom on a daily basis. My goal as a reading teacher isn’t just to raise test scores, but to teach my students to be stronger readers. If we want to really help our students become better readers, it is imperative to continually evaluate the programs and practices that we use when teaching.

A little over a year ago, I began the process of learning how to systematically evaluate a program that I used in my classroom. While in a M.Ed. program at Berry College, I entered an action research class with the hopes of analyzing the effects of the Independent Reading Assessment (IRA) by Jennifer Serravallo, a whole book comprehension assessment published by Scholastic and adopted by my school. I wanted to evaluate the lessons in the IRA and their impact on students’ whole book comprehension. Little did I know how valuable this information would be to me, my school, my system, and especially my students.

Here’s the process I went through: To begin, I became very familiar with the assess-evaluate-teach framework in the IRA resource. I found it helpful to include my colleagues in this process and to seek advice from them. During grade level meetings, I would explore the IRA framework with the literacy coach at our school. We watched videos of Jennifer Serravallo modeling how to use the IRA and conduct goal setting conferences. We poured over the teacher’s manual studying how to use the assessment and work the lessons into our everyday instruction. We also spent time norming students’ responses, so we could get a better idea of the expectations in grading the assessment. Because of this collaboration and training, I felt very confident in using the IRA.

After administering the assessment, I organized the results and formed small groups of students based on their reading needs. I then taught specific reading lessons to these small groups over a period of time. When I felt that they were ready to be assessed again, I sent them off to show me what they learned. At this point, I had two sets of data to analyze. In order to compare the first assessment to the second assessment, I had to calculate a standardized score for each. Using statistical software, I found the mean score of each assessment and calculated the difference. My students showed a statistically significant increase from the first assessment to the second assessment.

So what does this mean for my classroom? It means that the instruction based on the IRA teaching strategies were effective for my students. It means that my future students will probably benefit from similar instruction, and it means that my colleagues and I now have data to stand behind our instructional practices and resources that we use on a daily basis.

In the future, my students and I can analyze our classroom data with the purpose of continuing to use the practices that work and modifying or eliminating the practices that are not effective. This process will make me a more effective teacher and lead my students to become stronger readers, which of course is my overall goal!


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