Theory and Practice


Students write their favorite quotes from a book they are reading independently on this board. The teacher noted that they love using the metallic markers.

People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy. – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience)

The Relationship of Print Reading in Tier 1 Instruction and Reading Achievement for Kindergarten Students at Risk of Reading Difficulties by Jeanne Wanzek et al (Learning Disability Quarterly, August 2014)

The title for this study clearly describes the inquiry these four researchers explored. They observed over 100 students at risk of reading difficulties from 26 different kindergarten classrooms for this study. Here is what they found:

  • Core classroom instruction is students’ first line of response for reading instruction.
  • On average, students were actively engaged in the act of reading print for just over 1.5 minutes (90 seconds) during a 90 minute literacy block. This finding is consistent with related studies.
  • Choral reading accounted for 90% of all print engagement during the literacy block.
  • The instructional quality of the teacher was not correlated with the amount of time students were actively engaged in the act of reading print.

As you can see, kindergarten students at risk of reading difficulties received lots of instruction in how to read, but few opportunities to actually apply these skills. This occurs in spite of the wealth of evidence that there is a “significant positive correlation in time actively engaged in reading and all three major measures of reading achievement (letter-word identification, word attack skills, passage comprehension)”.

One surprising correlation the researchers found was the amount of time spent in authentic whole classroom instruction, such as think alouds with authentic texts, and increased engagement in reading print. Conversely, small group learning had a less positive association with engagement in reading print. The researchers suspected that while the teacher was meeting with one small group, the rest of the students were doing busy work such as worksheets so he/she could teach.

Wondering + online inquiry = learning by Diane Carver Sekeres et al (Phi Delta Kappan, November 2014)

Four university professors offer a clear framework for scaffolding inquiry-based units and assignments in online spaces. They suggest using a gradual release of responsibility when teaching students how to find, curate, and synthesize information from websites and resources beyond their classroom: Modeled inquiry, structured inquiry, guided inquiry, and open inquiry.

By using structures and scaffolds, several benefits are realized. First, students are given more choice and voice in their school work. Second, teachers are better able to assess whether students are learning and how deeply they have learned the content and skills. Third, families have more access to their child’s progress and final products. Finally, by posing questions as checkpoints along students’ learning journeys, thoughtful reflection can be nurtured and taught when exploring online resources.

Reading in the Wild: Learning from Lifelong Readers by Donalyn Miller (Keynote given at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention, February 5, 2015)

This curated list of tweets documents the important points made by Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild. She spoke passionately about the essential elements needed to grow lifelong readers in schools today. Here are a few of the more popular statements, based on the number of favorites and retweets.

Assessing Literacy Assessment by Peter Afflerbach (Session given at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention, February 6, 2015)

This presentation by a professor of literacy and assessment at the University of Maryland questioned the usefulness of assessments for promoting deep reading habits. Standardized tests and test prep were specifically targeted as having negative influences on reading achievement during Dr. Afflerbach’s session.

Finding Joy in the Quiet Moments by Michael Perry (Wisconsin State Journal, February 1, 2015)

Perry, a self-described “author, humorist, and intermittent pig farmer”, describes the sounds and setting of a day in his life. His youngest daughter was not feeling well. With a pile of books and a box of Kleenex on hand, the rest of the family did their best to go about their day quietly while attending to her needs.

The sounds are backdrop and domestic, deepening in this feeling that in this moment we – the family – are in communion despite our silence.

He concludes his commentary by admitting that there was nothing profound about this “most unassuming sort of evening”.  Perry also finds that slowing down and appreciating the present can bring about unique insights.

Joy is elusive, and joy is fleeting. And yet – and this may be the premise of the riddle – those who chase it rarely catch it.

Taking time to reflect…

In public education, there is a strong demand for accountability. Just like in the article about online inquiry projects, there is this need to know what the students were learning and how. On the other end of this spectrum is what we know about learning: that the results of our efforts don’t always appear on a predetermined date. This is especially true when we apply practices that don’t initially appear, at least to the uninformed, to be making an impact on student achievement, such as sustained silent reading.

This practice of allowing students time to read and think about a text of their choosing may go against the grain of what we may believe about education. “If I am not teaching, then the kids are not learning.” It is true that teachers are the most important factor in a classroom. Yet students learn independently all the time. An example is video games. The manuals that come with the games when purchased are sparse and provide the most basic amount of information. The game designers know that much of the learning will happen while the users are actively engaged in playing the game itself.

The same thing often happens when students are independently reading. Given the proper amount of instruction, choice in what to read, access to lots of interesting texts, and time to read and think about their reading, students can often teach themselves how to navigate texts.  It can happen even when the comprehension waters get a little choppy. This type of reading environment, so well described by Donalyn Miller, also is a benefit to teachers. It reduces stress, puts more responsibility on the student, and helps the teacher focus on the reader instead of just what they are reading.

The question still remains: How do we know students are making gains and improving as readers when we give them time to read? Too often, classrooms overuse choral reading so teachers can hear the progress students are making, especially in the primary grades. There is also the all-too-real pressure of the looming standardized tests. Based on what I heard at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention, these tests are an incredibly poor tool for assessing student and teacher performance (no surprise). And yet, we still use them.

So what is the solution? For teachers, I suggest blocking off at least 20 minutes, and preferably 30 minutes, for uninterrupted daily free choice reading. If your principal questions this, share the research highlighted in this post with him/her. I also recommend checking out publications by Stephen Krashen and Richard Allington. For principals, be thoughtful about scheduling. Give teachers time to allow for these extended periods of silent reading. Reduce or even eliminate announcements. Above all, limit test preparation to the bare minimum.

Michael Perry didn’t provide a quiet environment for his ill daughter because someone told him he should. He did it because it was the right thing to do. We also know what the right thing to do is in our classrooms and schools. By giving students the space and place to be the readers and thinkers they want and are meant to be, we prepare them not only for the test but to be lifelong readers. The 4th graders shared their favorite book quotes on the graffiti board not because it was required, but because the teacher provided them with the time, texts, and permission to do so.

Theory and Practice

New Literacies

A student uses the app Canva to create a visual report about a human body system.
A student uses the app Canva to create a visual report about a human body system.

We were never born to read. – Maryanne Wolf

Creating Digital Authors by Melody Zoch, Brooke Langston-DeMott, and Melissa Adams-Budde (Phi Delta Kappan, November 2014)

Three literacy education professors see opportunities that technology can afford in today’s classrooms. They draw on others’ work in defining new literacies:

New ways of reading and writing made available by technology, as well as the competencies associated with them, such as design, navigation, and collaboration.

The authors conducted research in elementary classrooms, creating digital writing camps for students. They documented several benefits to infusing technology into writing. One example is some students were viewed as technology experts. Although they had not been recognized as strong writers in the past, these students saw themselves as successful in their roles of helping peers translate ideas into publish-ready pieces. Subsequently, teacher instruction was not always necessary.

Another benefit realized during this study was the motivation students displayed for learning with technology. One student noted that using the computer “helped me feel more creative”. Another student liked the fact that writing in a digital format was a fresh alternative to their school experiences:

I think I’m just bored of writing with paper and pencil because it’s what I always use.

Both students and researchers also noted how technology allows for mistakes to be made while writing, supporting the iterative nature of this discipline. The authors conclude their article by noting that “teachers don’t need to be technology experts to do this; students are quite motivated to learn through exploration and collaboration. They acutally might learn best this way.”

From Literacy to Literacies by Itoco Garcia (Reading Today, January/February 2015)

The International Reading Association has changed their name to the International Literacy Association, or ILA. Garcia finds this shift is about more than just technology. “Conceptions of literacy are rooted in language and culture and have been used to distinguish between classes and deny or confer opportunity since Roman times.” Equitable access to powerful instruction is a part of this shift as much as anything else.

To be clear, “ILA defines literacy as the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, compute, and communicate using visual, audible, and digital materials across all disciplines and in any context.” Garcia takes special note of the opportunities that can be provided for students with a broader definition of literacy. When teachers understand how different cultures may interact and utilize tools for reading and writing, what it means to be literate is redefined.

Level Up with Multimodal Composition in Social Studies by Bridget Dalton (The Reading Teacher, Dec 2014/Jan2015)

This associate professor worked in tandem with a classroom of primarily Spanish-English emergent bilinguals. They set out to clear up a misconception with their students, that writing is only something you do in schools.

The educators took a writing project already in place and redesigned it.  Three questions were asked before starting this project:

1. What’s the role? (multimodal designers)

2. What’s the task? (an eBook anthology on their native Colorado)

3. What’s the tool? (Book Creator)

The author notes that pedagogy came first, and then the tools. This helped the class “understand the larger purpose and context before starting the process”, as well as to “position the students as experts”.

Principal PD (2)

The Classroom Blog: Enhancing Critical Thinking, Substantive Discussion, and Appropriate Online Interaction by Shannon Baldino (Voices from the Middle, December 2014)

A high school English teacher explores the ups and downs of implementing blogging in her classroom. Baldino’s goal was to find a way to make homework more purposeful, while at the same time teaching her students digital citizenship skills. What she found was the work involved in monitoring student writing was no less when compared to just pencil and paper. However, the benefits of student engagement, more writing produced, and deeper learning made the experience worth it.

Baldino recognized that the language used in online spaces was not always conducive to productive conversations. Therefore, she explicitly taught her students how to communicate in respectful ways with peers in the comments. Students expressed appreciation for her methods. As one student noted:

Blogging made me more conscious and aware of other people’s feelings online, where it is especially hard to understand others.

The teacher was also creative in the activities she assigned to her students. For example, she wondered aloud if Paul Revere’s ride might have benefited from having access to the social media tool Twitter. The follow-up posts and comments not only deepened the students’ learning about this topic, but also gave them a chance to apply their digital citizenship skills within a meaningful context.

Why Your Students Forgot Everything On Your PowerPoint Slides by Mary Jo Madda (edSurge, January 19, 2015)

In this accessible article, Madda highlights the drawbacks of teachers just throwing their notes on slides to read aloud for a future lecture. First, learners cannot mentally handle the cognitive load of both text and auditory information with dexterity. Instead, Madda suggests keeping slides text-based or not at all to ensure learning is transferred to students:

The duplicated pieces of information–spoken and written–don’t positively reinforce one another; instead, the two effectively flood students’ abilities to handle the information.

The author also notes the benefits of keeping things strictly visual in slideshows, with accompanying verbal explanations. “Mixing visual cues with auditory explanations (in math and science classrooms, in particular) are essential and effective.” If teachers choose this method with visuals, it is also important that the speaking and listening resembles a dialogue.

Delivering content in a conversational tone will increase learning.

Defining literacy today…

As I was preparing my slides for our staff professional development day, I started to realize that it was getting a bit wordy. Although the topic was about creativity and writing, the quotes I was including from profound educational thinkers took up a whole slide each. My follow up questions were falling flat.

In a spark of ingenuinity, my wife had an idea for keeping things simple. She suggested listing quotes from books of well-known authors, and then having the staff try to guess the source. The idea would be that through recognizing authors’ voices, we might better assess how well we can recognize our own students’ voices in their writing. Of course, it went over very well.

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I am a novice as I write about new literacies. There is much I have to learn. What I do know at this time is literacy is about more than text. That genie is not going back into the bottle. The definition of literacy has expanded at a similar rate as technology. New ways of communicating are being developed as we speak (or read?). Concepts such as blogging and digital citizenship have become critical communication skills in a short amount of time.

So it begs the question: If schools are not using these tools during instruction, are they depriving students of necessary global and cultural learning experiences? However, if the extent of technology integration is a basic slide show that simply regurgitates facts, would we be better off without these digital tools? I am going to continue to ponder these questions as I build a better understanding of literacy in the 21st century.