Posts Tagged ‘literacy’

Decodable Text Sources (Part 3 of 3)

This is part 3 of a series on decodable texts. If you haven’t read parts 1 and 2 yet, go do your homework! 🙂

In Part 1, I discussed what decodables are and why we need them. In Part 2, I discussed criteria for evaluating decodable texts, instructional implications, professionally developing staff, and potential limitations or considerations.

You likely already have some decodables in your classroom or building, or know where you can get access to them. Be sure to carefully consider the criteria outlined in post 2 to determine if and how you can use them to promote student phonics learning. You might very well decide it’s time to say goodbye to a beloved resource that will no longer serve you or your students.

Over the course of this post, I will discuss the following popular resources:

  1. UFLI decodables
  2. Benchmark Flagship Decodable Readers
  3. Decodable Fluency Readers
  4. Pioneer Valley “Phonics Storybooks” Decodables
  5. Little Blossom
  6. Beanstalk
  7. TCM Teacher Created Materials
  8. Lerner Books
  9. Reading Rocket suggestions
  10. UFLI suggestions

  1. UFLI decodables – these are free and online! Check out their Toolkit Resource page here and the Phonics S&S here. You’ll see a menu of lesson resources. Beginning with lesson 8, you’ll see you can click to download a decodable passage that is aligned to a phonics concept. Below is a screenshot of a lesson on short o. Notice how it is cumulative and includes short a and i, learned in lesson 10. UFLI is designed to be used universally, and you can purchase their manual for a very reasonable price (only $70!) for use with their generous and abundant free online presentations and resources.

    Assets: Very instructive – clearly aligned to a research-based scope & sequence, paired with a targeted multi-sensory lesson and word work (ladders/chain). HIGH percentage of decodable words; the only words you need to pre-teach are the sight words ‘is’ ‘a’ and ‘the’ for this text. And they’re free!

    Considerations: This story is not very comprehensible – there is no story structure, and some sentences are just plain silly (A man is not a fan?). It’s definitely not engaging – no illustrations, exciting or even cohesive topic upon which to build a discussion. However, the box is provided for students to illustrate and label (yay writing!) to show their comprehension, which is a very productive and engaging task. This text is very short.

2. Benchmark Flagship Decodable Readers or “BEC Decodables” – Yes, these are written by the guru himself, Wiley Blevins. The books are sold as a set – 39 Kindergarten books and 72 First Grade books. They are available in digital format (free with purchase), Spanish, and as take home B&W consumables (extra cost). There are several titles aligned with each phonics skill, which means students can have multiple practice opportunities. Bottom line: I think these belong in every single Kindergarten and First Grade classroom across the nation. These would be best used for universal instruction and tier 2 intervention.

Assets: Very instructive – there is a very clear scope and sequence provided here, which provides the phonics target skill as well as aligned HFWs you’ll want to pre-teach. The clarity of the S&S means you can easily align it to your existing curricular resources. Each book is at minimum 85% decodable. Very engaging – the topics are fun, illustrations are beautiful and high quality, and the story structures are easy to identify. The inclusion of science and social studies topics means you can provide background knowledge and cross curricular support, as well as have worthwhile material for comprehension and discussion.

Considerations: The Kindergarten books will include a rebus to support students in reading story or content words (like ‘airplane’). In the First Grade set, you’ll encounter more story or content words that students will need to figure out, either with picture support or instruction.

Example of rebus found in K books
Beautiful illustrations. This is from a 1st grade book on r-blends. You can see some text features you may need to instruct or explain – quotation marks, dollar sign, and the ‘Mr.’ abbreviation. The majority of the words are decodable and fair, with only a few HFWs to teach or review. All short vowel sounds and l-blends are reviewed. I am a little confused about the word ‘says,’ which is an irregular word that is not mentioned in the S&S.
This is from We Live in Space, which focuses on soft c and g. Like above, you’ll see decodables push the envelope with text features, like representing time. We’ve got some story words here (astronaut, float) that are supported with illustrations. Long vowel sounds like the final e pattern, as well as -ing suffix, are cumulative and previously taught. The book lists ‘far’ and ‘too’ as the HFWs to be taught, but I don’t see ‘away’ or ‘change’ listed – these could be tricky.

3. Benchmark Decodable Fluency Readers – Another product from BEC vetted by the guru himself, Wiley Blevins. There are 30 titles for Kindergarten, and 54 titles for 1st grade. Just like the Flagship decodables, they are sold only in sets. They are available in digital format (extra cost), and as take home B&W consumables (extra cost). Each title comes with a Teacher Card that outlines phonemic awareness activities, HFW activities (read, spell, write), and discussion questions (literal, inferential, making connections). These would be best used for universal instruction and tier 2 intervention. Why are these called “fluency” readers? From what I surmise, the premise is that strengthening phonics skills via decodable practice (and supporting activities) will help students master and transfer these skills from controlled text to authentic reading. If done well, I believe that is the purpose of all decodable books, so this term “decodable fluency readers” seems redundant. Bottom line: I’d also gladly purchase these for each Kindergarten and First Grade classroom. If I had to choose between these and the Flagship Decodables above, I’d go with the Flagship.

Assets: Very instructive – there is a very clear scope and sequence provided here, which provides the phonics target skill as well as aligned HFWs you’ll want to pre-teach. The publishers claim it is “aligned to the Science of Reading research.” The clarity of the S&S means you can easily align it to your existing curricular resources. Engaging illustrations with a story premise, characters, and a problem.

Considerations: You have to buy the entire set, and can’t pick individual books. These are not available in Spanish, as were the Flagship Decodables. They don’t feel as comprehensible as the Flagship books – a bit looser in terms of premise and story elements. I feel the Flagship books could be used for intervention in 2nd grade and beyond, but these Fluency Decodables are best developmentally for K/1st.

The red book is from the Kindergarten series, and the blue is from 1st grade. Each book comes with a Teacher Card (shown).
Note the progression of content from Kindergarten (bottom) to 1st grade (top). Much more text per page, and more story content for discussion.

4. Pioneer Valley “Phonics Storybooks” Decodables I’ve already grown to know and love the Pioneer Valley books. They have such beautiful illustrations, high quality books, varying styles, engaging topics, series with familiar and repeating characters, chapter books, and we can count on them to be accurately leveled. Books are available online with Digital Literacy Footprints, which includes accompanying resources like running records and guided reading lesson plans. If you already know you love PV, then you’re going to love these decodables.

The decodables are organized into 4 levels:
Level 1 Ready, Set, Go! – Novice Readers
Phonics Skill Focus: Initial and Final Consonant Sounds and Short Vowels.
Helps novice readers develop concept of print, one-to-one matching, return sweep.
Level 2 On Our Way – Beginning Readers
Phonics Skill Focus: Short Vowels, Initial/Final Digraphs, and Initial Blends.
Level 3 Building Up – Early Readers
Phonics Skill Focus: Final Blends, Long Vowels, and Vowel Teams
Level 4 Moving On – Transitional Readers
Phonics Skill Focus: Vowel teams, Vowel–r Combinations, Trigraphs, and Diphthongs

Considerations: I’m going to start with considerations first, because they will influence the assets that I want to focus on. I really enjoyed levels 1 & 2, and found them to be very clear, consistent, aligned, instructive, and comprehensible. I would be very glad to purchase these to use in my classroom library or sets to use as a shared resource for small group instruction. However, levels 3 & 4 no longer felt like phonics readers. Many even seemed to be the same books I already use from their main library, just relabeled as a decodable with a few phonics words as the focus. As you can see in the picture below, the leap from level 2 (middle) to level 3 (top) is huge, with much more text, punctuation, and content. Out of 85 words on the page, only 4 words (5%) contained the target ‘oo’ phonics skill. The rest appeared to be fair play words – previously learned phonics skills, sight words, and a few story/content words (i.e. “principal”). There is balance or trade-off in all things; to get this highly engaging, quality illustrations and storyline, it is at the cost of phonics practice opportunities. However, you do get a longer controlled text for practicing fluency, as well as review. Consider your goals. Finally, the only genre offered is fiction.

Assets: (Speaking only about levels 1 & 2) Very instructive – there is a very clear scope and sequence which will allow you to easily match up texts with your phonics S&S. The sight words are clearly listed and are cumulative. The illustrations and storylines are very engaging, and readers will appreciate the familiar characters and attention to comprehensibility. Books are also available in digital format, which is great for home connection.

5. Little Blossom Stories – These decodables come from Cherry Blossom Press, which you may have heard of. There are 135 books in the set (which can be purchased individually, unlike all of the sets described above), and the publisher claims that the interest level of these books are Pre-K through 2nd grade. Each book has a Lexile level and a Guided Reading Level (A-C) which I actually find suspicious. As I mentioned in Part 1, decodables have an entirely different purpose and simply do not align to guided reading levels. Decodables are controlled texts aligned to a phonics scope and sequence and meant to provide phonics practice opportunities, whereas Leveled Texts are aligned to the developmental journey of the reader, and gradually become more challenging in terms of literary elements, text features, vocabulary, and longer and more complex sentences and plots. Decodables are meant to be rehearsal for Leveled Texts; they are not the same.
I could not find the phonics S&S easily accessible online. The publisher claims that each book contains at least two vowels as the phonics focus. There is a 1-page “Teacher’s Guide” you can download at the top of this page here, which provides some extension activities. Note: I do not agree that making predictions is a best practice for building comprehension, so I disagree with that suggestion in the teaching guide.

Assets: There is a word list at the end of each book to check for identification in isolation. The entire text is rewritten on one-page at the end, which is great for fluency practice, older students who might be embarrassed to read a book with illustrations, or a quick running record for accuracy and WPM rate. The illustrations are adorable, and you could have a discussion around the book.

Considerations: I do not find these books instructive in that I cannot locate a scope and sequence. If you were going to purchase these to support your Phonics S&S, you’d have a lot of work to do to align the materials. There seem to be quite a few non-phonetic and story/content words used to help create a more engaging plot. I cannot comment on sight words as I was unable to locate a schedule for them. The pages are very thin and stick together.

6. Beanstalk Science Decodables – So many decodables are fiction, so it’s kind of exciting to see some intentional nonfiction! After all, students really love learning content, which is a major driving factor for learning to read. There are 60 different science-based titles, which are organized by “Phase” (explained further here). These books should take you through Phases 2-6 as follows: 2. letter sounds (short vowels, most consonants, and double ff, ll, ss), 3. “phonics” (less common consonant sounds, digraphs, common vowel teams), 4. blends (CCVC, CCVCC with short vowels, CCCVC and CVCCC with long vowels) 5. “vowel sounds” (more vowel teams, silent e, diphthongs), 5.5. sound families (more vowel teams, multiple spellings of a sound, r-blends) and 6. affixes. This doesn’t match up to any S&S or developmental progression that I am familiar with. However, each phase set includes 12 books and is only $29.99, so it wouldn’t break the bank to buy several sets and Frankenstein together the books you’d need to cover your own curricular progression. Be careful to match up what’s provided and where your gaps are, as it’s possible that not all of your phonics elements will have an accompanying decodable. Bottom line: I wouldn’t use this as my primary source of decodables, but these would be great additions to my collection. I’d love to see them in student’s book bins, or I might use them for small group instruction and extended practice, especially for Tier 2/3 in upper elementary.

Assets: Science content! Very engaging to students, and could be used to support cross-curricular science learning. This makes great content for discussion and building language. These books provide an excellent opportunity to teach Tier 3 content specific vocabulary. Inside the cover of each book, you’ll find the phonics elements that are the focus of the book, a list of “tricky” words (which can be sight words, HFW, vocabulary terms…), and some instruction ideas for engaging in discussion or language building. These decodables would be very high interest for upper elementary students.

Considerations: Instructive… question mark? I’m not fully on board with the phase organization system. You’ll have to carefully vet the books and cross walk them with your own curricular progression to know where books will line up or where you could find some alignment. I could not find a document that outlines each book with a phonics focus and “tricky word” schedule. You’ll have to be on your toes! But if you are only planning to use these for independent reading, specially designed instruction, or intervention, then this may not be as important to you. This series is limited to the nonfiction genre.

7. Targeted Phonics by TCM Teacher Created Material. This series contains a kit for each grade Pre-K through 2nd grade. You are purchasing more than just books here – you get a student practice workbook and basically an entire Phonics Block. Each kit contains 21 books.

In their own implementation research study, the developers explain that levels Pre-K and K are meant to be used as universal instruction, and 1st and 2nd are designed to be used as intervention (this surprises me, as you would think you’d still be teaching universal phonics at those grade levels, right?). They explain that their kits are aligned to a systematic phonics S&S. Instead of the phonics schedule I’ve come to expect where each skill is aligned to a book title, I was able to find a broader explanation of how kits are designed and progress from easier to more complex elements (kind of reminds me of Beanstalk and their phases).

A specific breakdown of the phonics elements covered in each kit can be found starting on page 18 of this document. The lesson plans provided include phonemic awareness, letter formation activities, ideas for your literacy centers, comprehension activities at higher levels (i.e. retelling, connection, prediction, literal and inferential questions), discussion and oral language practice, vocabulary activities, some grammar and punctuation instruction at higher levels, repeated reading for fluency, and extension and differentiation ideas. The high frequency words come from Dolch and Fry lists, which are listed within the book and in lesson plan. They truly are decodables in that the vast majority of the words are decodable, and there are some story/content words which they call “challenge words.”

There is a lot of research and supplemental materials presented on their website, which means you’ll have access to an entire instructional program. They’re really done their homework, truly. In their Research Base, they cite all of the gurus and seminal works, from Ehri and Blevins and Yopp to ILA and Shanahan and Duke & Cartwright. They’ll also provide correlation studies to your own state standards by grade level.

Assets: It’s a whole program, not just the books. it is very instructive, and carefully researched and designed. The language of the books is aligned to what they claim – the majority of the words are decodable, there are a few clearly identified sight or HFWs, and some story/content or “challenge” words to help drive the plot. The books are colorful, cheerful, and engaging in that there are characters and actions and that connect into a story. A classroom kit is around $900, which isn’t as much as some other comprehensive kits.

Considerations: Books are only sold in kits. This would replace any other phonics materials you have, so you would only need to align this to your reading and writing materials. The books themselves have a lot of repetition and patterned sentences, which you may feel flavors a students ability to decode without relying on context. The lesson plans include running record protocols for your use, which have an MSV error analysis (and you might have big feelings about the cueing system, in which case you could just ignore that part). These really are for early and emergent readers, and won’t be well-tolerated by upper elementary.

8. Lerner “Phonics Fun” Books: These caught my eye as I thought about particular students and the kinds of books they enjoy reading. First of all, please know that there are only 8 books (however, peruse Lerner and you’ll find many more phonics and decodable options). An entire set of paperback will cost you only about $70. You can also buy hardcover and e-book multi-user versions. The books are meant to be funny, silly, and engaging with cute rhymes. They focus only on short vowel patterns, and they are only available in fiction. This would not constitute a comprehensive series of decodables to build your curriculum or intervention by any means. However, these would be affordable and cute books to add to your classroom library and book bins. I see these appealing to students universally in grades K-1, and in small group or intervention in grade 2. Below is their published S&S.

Lerner publishing offers many free teaching resources you could peruse to support instruction.

Assets: Engaging – silly, funny, highly appealing to specific students, probably even striving readers in 2nd and beyond. Colorful, high quality books. Instructive in that they accomplish what they promise – highly decodable and focused solely on the phonics patterns listed. Lots of picture support. There are plenty of teaching resources if you have the time to peruse and choose. The title is a pretty accurate communication of which phonics skill you’ll be learning about.

Considerations: There are only 8 books, so this is meant to be seeded into your classroom library and book bins. These aren’t systematic or sequential, as they are not really a program. You’ll get to align them and fit them in as they best suit you and your students’ needs.

9. Reading Rocket suggestions – On their website, RR shares a list of “Decodable Text Sources” that might be worth checking out. I see BOB books top of the list, which are very popular among family libraries at home. The list is organized by age, which is very useful. Check it out!

10. UFLI suggestions – On the UFLI website, the very generous researchers have provided this google sheet to help you find resources and see how they align to their own phonics scope and sequence. Need more resources on the /sh/ digraph? Just head on down to row 60 (item 45) and you can find about 16 different publishers that have materials to suit your needs. I will list all of the resources below that I haven’t already covered in this blog post, and add a star if they are also referenced by Reading Rockets in the list shared above. You may want to check them out!

I hope this review has given you some food for thought and some direction to help you make some purchases. If you are a classroom teacher, perhaps you’ve found some ideas above for using your classroom budget to seed your classroom library, and/or collaborate with your peers to build a collection of shared resources. If you are in a leadership position, hopefully you’ve found some inspiration to foster a clear universal phonics program that includes carefully vetted and intentionally selected decodables that align with your S&S, philosophy, and student needs.


Why is Everyone Talking About Decodables? (Part 1 of 3)

Have you noticed an uptick in the use of the word ‘decodables’ recently – whether in the media, your professional learning, or in the teachers’ lounge? You’re in good company! Decodables (also called Phonics Readers, controlled texts, basal readers, or primer readers) are enjoying somewhat of a renaissance in education, due largely to the prevalence of new research on how the brain learns to read and what this means for best practice in literacy instruction.

This topic is going to be covered across 3 blog posts. In the first post, I want to review the features and purpose of decodable texts, discuss why we’re hearing so much about them in media and research these days, and explain why they are such an important tool that we need to incorporate into our instruction. In the second post, I will discuss how you (and your team) can make a game plan for reviewing and selecting the best decodables to use in your classroom or add to your shared building resources. In the third post, I will share my insights about a few different decodable products that I’ve recently reviewed, and hopefully give you some ideas to make some thoughtful purchases.

Depending on how many years you’ve lived on this planet, or how many years you’ve been in education, I’m willing to bet you’ve had experience with decodables in the past. Perhaps you’ve read (or at least heard of) ‘Dick and Jane’ books like the sample below.

What are some words that come to mind when you think about decodables? For myself as an early reader, I categorized them as boring, contrived, nonsense, fake or ‘practice’ books. The words used were overused (“Why is every book about a cat? I don’t even like cats.”) or of low-utility to me (How often do you have the chance to use words like ‘hex’ or ‘jut’ as a 7-year-old?). I did not find them engaging, and I was much more interested in getting my hands on a colorful picture book. I know there are many attitudes and experiences that readers can have with decodable books, which can also elicit a positive sense of comfort and pride for emerging readers. Equally, classroom teachers can also have a wide range of attitudes, experience, and perceived value in using decodable texts in their instruction. For myriad reasons, decodables have taken a backseat in classroom instruction over the past several decades, and were no longer considered a standard resource.

The impact of Science of Reading Research

These past few years, the phrase “Science of Reading” has worked its way into every aspect of education from professional learning (I’m personally taking a “Science of Reading” book study seminar with my local Cooperative Educational Service Agency), and university course offerings (I’ve had to update and realign several syllabi and course objectives to align with new research) and resources (“Buy this Science of Reading aligned product!”) to movies (“The Truth about Reading”) and podcasts (“Sold a Story”), Facebook groups, and everything in between. I have friends who don’t have children or aren’t even in the field of education reaching out to ask me what I know and what I think about SoR. In short… unless you live in a remote village without wifi access, you’ve been punched in the face with the Science of Reading topic.

What the Science of Reading refers to is this new body of research about how the brain learns to read – it taps into findings from linguistics, cognitive and educational neuroscience, and educational psychology. It is not a program or a method or an agenda – it’s simply a body of knowledge that is engaging the field of education to reexamine what we believe and how we teach reading. It has drastically shifted our focus to the importance of systematic and sequential phonics instruction for early and emergent readers, from Kindergarten through about 2nd grade (and likely beyond).

In my tenure as an educator, I have seen the focus on emerging and early reading as primarily focused on using engaging, authentic books, language and conversation, and modeling reading strategies in a Workshop Model. The goal is to get books in student’s hands and to help them see themselves as successful, confident, skilled readers that can think about, talk about, and enjoy reading. And to that end, we’ve been using tools like highly engaging trade books with patterns ( “See the ___. See the ___.”) and teaching students to use initial sounds and picture clues (“Hmm.. it starts with /f/ and it’s green. What could it be? Yes, a frog!”) to help them get up and running with books and persevere past tricky parts. We teach students to automatically recognize the most useful “Snap Words” or High Frequency Words (“the” “and” “what”…) that they are likely to encounter in their books. As we learn letter sounds, we guide students in noticing the first letter and identifying the sound it makes to “get your mouth ready” to say the word. We model and guide their practice with strategies like previewing a text, making connections, asking questions, and retelling. (It should be noted that new research has shown us that using strategies like “Sammy Skip It” and come back to it, and over reliance on picture clues, is actually a harmful habit to teach students and should be avoided in reading instruction).

You might be thinking, “That all sounds great, but what about phonics instruction? Didn’t you just say that new research tells us it’s like… super important?” Yes! Children HAVE been getting phonics instruction all along. Reading, Writing, and Phonics study are a tripod – three legs that are balanced and hold up Effective Literacy. I still strongly support the workshop model as described above, and I believe the ultimate goal of reading IS to get students talking about and loving great books that challenge and excite them. I ALSO understand and agree with the movement to incorporate more deliberate, systematic, and sequential phonics instruction into literacy. Through workshop, students are introduced to phonics patterns that are then deliberately reinforced during Reading and Writing blocks.

In order to get the most leverage out of our phonics skill practice, we need students to linger in the transition between phonics and reading where they can apply what they’ve learned with controlled texts (decodable books) and encoding practice (phoneme grapheme mapping, spelling) of that same skill. This rehearsal or sheltered practice must happen BEFORE they are able to be successful with any other kind of book (authentic, trade, or leveled book). The goal of reading engaging authentic texts has not changed, but the path must become reinforced with more deliberate phonics practice.

Features of Decodables

What are some features of controlled texts or decodables? How are they different from other kinds of books? There are three categories of words that readers encounter in a decodable, ranked in order or prevalence: 1) phonetically regular words that are able to be sounded out based on phonics skills that have been taught (ex: CVC words, final e words…) 2) high frequency words (HFW) or sight words that have irregular patterns (ex: what, you) 3) story or content words (ex: chair, bicycle). You’ll see a lot of different opinions on the ratio or percentage of the categories of words in a book, but all researchers agree that the majority should be from category 1: phonetically predictable words that follow the focus pattern. This gives students the maximized opportunity for practicing the target skill.

It seems reasonable to expect that a decodable series would follow a clearly defined scope and sequence of phonics features – typically this means starting with short CVC words with short vowel sounds (cat, tin, mop) and progressing to digraphs (ch, th, sh) and so on. Each book should focus on only one target phonics skill. Many series are cumulative, meaning any previously learned phonics feature is fair game in all subsequent books. These books are intentionally designed to promote phonics mastery, and are intended to be used for a limited time during structure lessons.

By now, it should be pretty clear why decodables are a MUST for emerging and early literacy instruction.

  1. They offer students extended practice and application with a phonics skill.
  2. They discourage students from developing habits such as guessing based on pictures or context.
  3. They follow a systematic progression that is mutually reinforced by the reading and writing curriculum.
  4. They hold students and teachers accountable for for transferring and practicing phonics skills in a structured, supportive context.
  5. They are an critical rehearsal step on the road to fluent reading of authentic texts.
  6. They build student confidence and self-efficacy and enjoyment of reading.

Incorporating Decodables into the Curriculum

For what grade levels are decodables helpful and appropriate? Most decodable books or systems will say they are designed for universal instruction in Kindergarten and 1st grade classrooms, at a minimum. Some extend to 2nd grade. Outside of universal instruction, they can also be used to support small group or Tier 2 / 3 interventions for higher grades, as long as the content is developmentally appropriate (not too babyish and won’t cause emotional harm). I really appreciate this image from Wiley Blevins that shows us how decodable texts are most critical in the early grades and phase out as students are more independent and successful with transferring their skills to authentic leveled texts. And all along, we see the importance of trade book read alouds at every grade level. We must always be reading high quality, rigorous grade level material to our students to model and instruct with reading strategies, provide language and thinking practice, and develop cognitive and executive functioning skills agnostic of phonics mastery.

I’m in! Now what?

I’m sure we can all agree that decodables have a primed and welcomed space in our classrooms. And yet, there’s a very real reason why they quietly seemed to disappear from our consciousness over the past several decades. They were of such poor quality, and nobody liked them! I was gifted some really old phonics readers for my own children at home, and I hated them so much that I tossed them. I thought – if I’m going to snuggle and read to my little children at night, at least I want to read them something we can enjoy and discuss. I was clearly very misinformed, and I wasn’t playing the long game of having support materials at home when my children started school. I also don’t blame myself, because they were really, really boring and stilted and… weird.

What you might love to learn, as I did, is that decodables have come a long way in recent years. Publishers are paying attention to the demand and churning out some very high quality readers that you are going to enjoy. In my next blog post, I’ll get into the nitty gritty of what makes a “good” decodable, and how to make selections that will suit your needs.

–> On to Part 2: Choosing Decodables

Burkins, J. M., & Yates, K. (2022). Shifting the balance: 6 ways to bring the science of reading into the balanced literacy classroom. Hawker Brownlow Education.
Jen and Wendy. (2022, October 7). 5 problems with using MSV (aka the Three-cueing system). Informed Literacy. Retrieved April 20, 2023, from
The Science of Reading. Benchmark Education Company – Building Literacy and Language for Life. (n.d.). Retrieved April 20, 2023, from


WSRA 2019

I had the honor of attending the annual WSRA convention for my 5th year. If you’d like to refer back to any of my previous WSRA posts, here they are! I look forward to this very well-organized, professional event year after year because of the amazing, nationally-known speakers that are featured as well as the careful cultivation of trending topics and research in education and literacy. Oh, and all the great friends I get to meet up with year after year!

“Bringing Strategies to Life: Conferring with Individuals and Groups” by Jennifer Serravallo

The first session I attended was offered by Jennifer Serravallo and focused on Conferring. I was very interested to attend this session to enhance my ability to support the educators in my district as we continue to refine our literacy workshop model and our work with Teacher’s College.

After making a strong case for conferring with students (which has a high impact on learning through providing individual feedback, building student teacher relationships, and goal-setting opportunities), Serravallo helped us delve into the steps for establishing a conferring culture in your classroom.

Step 1: Choose a Student Goal

Begin by consulting the “Hierarchy of reading goals” (below). Face-to-face with a student and his/her book bin, work your way down the list with a student, interview style, until you determine where the student needs the most support. Stop at the first level where you notice a need for instruction.

There are several other assessment sources you can reference to set a goal for a student. For engagement: Is the student excited, passionate, and overall engaged with their texts? Observe them during independent reading – what is their time on task? Stamina? For fluency: Take an informal running record and note miscues, rate, inflection, etc. For genre-specific skills, consult the learning progressions of your instruction / curriculum. Additionally, invite students to fill out this form below, which allows them to reflect and self-report on areas they believe they need to advance.

While working to identify a goal for a student, consider engaging in a goal-setting conference, as per the following steps:

Goal Setting Conference Structure

  • Guided Inquiry – Help the student name a goal (that you already have in mind)
  • Teach – Offer a strategy to practice the goal
  • Coach – Provide feedback and support as the student practices
  • Link – Leave the student with a visual, physical reminder (artifact) of the goal and strategy). This could be a sticky note, copy of an anchor chart, model, graphic organizer, etc.

Below are some Prompts to Use Doing Guided Inquiry to empower students and engage them in their own learning and goal-setting:

  • What do you think you’re doing well as a reader?
  • What do you think you might need to work on?
  • What do you notice about your work?
  • Can you think fo ways that I can help you grow as a reader?
  • Look at __ compare it to what you’re doing as a reader.

Step 2: Look for & Reinforce Strengths

Provide “Helpful Compliments” – Notice and name what they are doing. Focus on effort, not ability.

Step 3: Identify and name the students’ strengths.

Resist the urge to focus on deficits! Often, students aren’t even aware of their strengths until we point them out for them. Naming their strengths and skills helps build them up!

Step 4: Think of the Progression of Skills

For example, consider the skill of “adopting new vocabulary” and how students progress through the list below as they master a new word. They don’t jump from “not knowing” to “master” in one fell swoop; it’s a progression! Resist the urge to jump straight to the grade level goal or standard.

  • Get the gist of the word
  • Understand the simple definition
  • Use local context to explain
  • Use larger context to explain
  • Consider author’s craft, tone, connotation vs denotation

Research Decide Compliment Teach Conference

Putting all the above together, we land at the R-D-C-T model of conferring. When we confer with students, we engage in the following steps (yes, all within about 5ish minutes!)

  • Research: Ask questions, have student read aloud, look at artifacts, etc.
  • Decide: Find a compliment and next step that connect
  • Compliment: What, why, concrete example of a student’s strengths
  • Teach: Name the strategy and teach, model, explain (step by step, how to)
  • Coach / Active Involvement – student reads/thinks/talks as the teacher offers feedback
  • Link: Repeat the teaching point

Step 5: Group for Efficiency

Develop a strong system of note-taking and management. Group students with similar needs to create strategy groups. Jennifer Serravallo explains that she meets with every student in her class face to face at least twice a week, either through individual conferring and/or strategy groups. This is a great goal!


WSRA 2017

I picked up all these great new books at the WSRA exhibition center!

I had the privilege of attending the WSRA Wisconsin State Reading Association again this year. I wish each and every teacher could have this experience!

Keynote: From the Cocoon to the Butterfly: How Readers, Writers, and Good Citizens Are Made, Not Born

The convention began with an invigorating keynote address by none other than the famous children’s author Mem Fox. She honored us with a passionate and joyful reading of several of her children’s books, including Possum Magic, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, Whoever You Are, Tough Boris, and Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge. A common thread throughout her presentation was that children deserve to be read to (yes, all ages, even the bigs!), and they deserve to hear the glorious language of real writing. She is saddened to think that children believe basal readers are real books (no wonder they say they hate reading!). She called basal readers “loathsome rubbish” and “banal words dragging themselves in single file across an arid page.” HA! 

More important than selecting a book at a student’s current reading level is selecting a book at a student’s interest level. Mem encourages teachers to lift their students up by exposing them to beautiful language and books that have a ‘reward’ – students deserve literature that inspires them to laugh, cry, think, and wonder. “Great art communicates before it is understood” – T.S. Elliott.

She shared with us an interesting anecdote about a time she was working on publishing a book through Scholastic. Her language had read, “I adore you.” and the publisher asked her to change the word ‘adore’ to ‘love,’ which is more common and readily recognized by students. But what a mistake that would be! Give students new and beautiful words to consume. They may not understand them right away, but they can by the end of the book or through repeated exposure. And this is how students learn! We need to use language to give students wings.

Session 1: Dyslexia: Definition, the Research Base, Perspectives, and Points of Contention by Donna Scanlon

This session was very eye-opening, especially since my school is in its first year of recognizing and addressing the needs of students with dyslexia. We previously only offered comprehension intervention, and this past year we have adopted a program that we are using with small groups and 1-on-1.

Dr. Scanlon shared several interesting conclusions that she has drawn from her reading and research. Most eye-opening to me was that Scanlon would like to retire (or at least redefine) the term ‘dyslexia’ as a lack of response to intensified, appropriately targeted instruction. Let’s break that down. Within research, the terms ‘dyslexia’ and ‘reading disability’ are often used interchangeably. Research has projected that approximately 20% of the population has dyslexia, which has been traditionally defined as a phonological processing disorder. As we know, the purpose of reading intervention is to help these students improve their reading abilities and bring them up to grade level. Theoretically, intervention should be effective for the majority of this 20%. If a student is able to improve his/her reading abilities and function productively in the classroom, what is the purpose in labeling them as having dyslexia? We should reserve the term ‘dyslexia’ for the few students with reading difficulties who do not respond to effective reading intervention. Overusing the term ‘dyslexia’ is not only non-inclusive and may serve little purpose or benefit to the student, but it can destroy a student’s motivation and their willingness to do a task (reading) they are told is a challenge for them.

So let’s talk about effective reading interventions…
Scanlon had several important criticisms of the one-size-fits-all Orton Gillingham based reading interventions that are widely used by school districts to address the needs of students with significant reading difficulties. Many of these programs teach phonics and phonemic awareness in isolation. They prevent or discourage students from relying on contextual clues to decode words (a strategy that students with weak phonological processing skills often rely heavily upon), and yet this is an important strategy that students will need to use to be effective independent readers. There is also a lack of consistency across different teachers and different programs, and students may become turned upside down with different approaches and terms (ex: capital letters vs. upper case letters, naming conventions, or sequencing of sounds / skills).

Readers vary on a continuum of abilities and need different levels and types of support in becoming strong readers. What works for some doesn’t work for others. The traditional OG-based interventions are used as a one-size-fits-all approach, which can’t meet all the needs of all of our students. These methods can also be quite laborious and cumbersome, when we can simply teach students that there are – for example – 3 ‘a’ sounds (long, short, schwa), and if one doesn’t make sense, try one of the others! No need to overcomplicate things with so many rules and processes.

What Scanlon does recommend as effective is explicit instruction in phonological awareness coupled with reading strategies that help students to transfer these word attack skills to their reading in the classroom (she calls this method “Interactive Strategies Approach”). This method relies on the teacher’s knowledge and professional judgment to make thoughtful decisions about what students need. This method could include pre-teaching a word attack strategy that students will need in an upcoming independent read, so that he/she can immediately apply the target skill. It also involves explicit modeling and coaching as teachers guide students in working through difficult reading obstacles. Instruction should also focus on acquiring high frequency sight words and gaining automaticity in decoding. Overall, instruction must be responsive to student’s needs, and canned programs don’t cut it for everyone.

If you’re still reading (I know this part is detailed and dry), and you want to know something you can do right now to help every student in your class, Scanlon recommends hanging up this simple sign (but please note – letter reversals is not the defining characteristic of dyslexia, and many young students struggle with letter orientation).

Session 2: Dishing Up Dialogue: Discussion-Based Strategies for Student-Centered Learning by Suzanne Porath

I chose this session because I want to learn more about supporting my students in becoming stronger, more critical thinkers. I know that can’t happen readily in a lecture-based setting, and it’s so critically important that teachers allow students the time to process big ideas through collaborative discussion.

Porath began by defining dialogue as when people come together to construct meaning and seek to understand (not just respond to) one another. Dialogue requires follow-up. For many of us (adults AND students), dialogue has become about waiting for our turn to speak, and not taking the time to listen and understand – and that is a skill that we can model and help our students to acquire!

Do you use Lucy Calkin’s units in your classroom? If you do, you probably make the anchor charts for your classes. Consider – what if you actually invited students to help you make the anchor chart? What if you did the lesson backwards, and had the students deduce what it is you are highlighting in this lesson? That would certainly spur more discussion!

Porath also encourages you to really consider what you need students to write/record, and what you can simply have them discuss. That traditional assignment of reading a book, picking a character, and having them write up a personality trait with evidence – couldn’t we have more FUN by talking it out with a partner? And you know that traditional assignment where you read a book and have to answer a set of written discussion questions – couldn’t we invite the students to develop and answer their own discussion questions in small groups? All of this would help them to develop interpersonal, collaborative, and discussion-based skills of listening and responding thoughtfully.

To have an effective, productive, purposeful conversation, the following need to be in place:

  1. Build trust.
  2. Create a physical space that encourages interaction.
  3. Set expectations of respect.
  4. Model turn-taking
  5. Teach active listening strategies
  6. Provide scaffolding (sentence stems, anchor charts, templates, graphic organizers).

To model and practice these discussion skills, a fun idea could include listening and responding to a storybook read by a professional actor, presented on

And finally, discussion should have a purpose to move you forward as a person. It shouldn’t be a performance, but rather an experience. After a discussion, ask your students to reflect on whether the discussion changed them, challenged them, or confirmed their thinking (from Reading Nonfiction – Notice & Note Stances Signposts and Strategies).

Session 3: Sneaking in Social Studies: Fusing Social Studies and English Language Arts

I was very excited to attend this session, because next year our district is moving toward perosnalized learning and ‘blocks’ of classes to allow for more flexibility. An exciting organizational outcome of this will be combining English Language Arts and Social Studies into a “Humanities” block. Therefore, I wanted to learn as much about this concept as I could.

I had a few important takeaways from this session to share with my colleagues:

  1. Consider what we are already doing in ELA that is actually Social Studies based (ex: reading primary sources, engaging in debate, analyzing society and/or human environment interaction, etc.) – you are already heading in the right direction!
  2. Reorganize the curriculum around themes, not events
  3. Focus on essential questions (Wiggins & McTighe) to guide your curriculum
  4. Reconsider the materials you are already using, and consider making some swaps
  5. Adopt project-based learning strategies
  6. Sacrifice breadth for depth
  7. Delve into CER: Claim, Evidence, Reasoning
  8. Consider what you can afford to cut from your ELA and SS curriculum

A final takeaway that I treasure from this session is the concept that there is a wider spectrum than the traditional FACT vs OPINION dichotomy. Instead, consider

  • verifiable information (instead of facts. this information can be corroborated or proven true.)
  • inferences (instead of opinions. these are conclusions based on evidence and/or reasoning.)
  • judgments (are sensible conclusions or evaluations that are personal opinions.)
  • Example: My mom’s birthday is on Friday (verifiable information). She loved the cookies I made her last year (judgment). This year I’ll surprise her with dinner at 6pm, because she usually gets home from work at that time (inference).


New Research in Literacy

This past weekend, I attended the Cardinal Stritch Fall Literacy Conference. It was a short but powerful conference with JoAnn Caldwell as they keynote speaker (heard of the QRI? Yeah that’s her!). I’ll keep this short and sweet, but here are some key takeaways I have from the conference:

  1. Students SHOULD read frustration level texts.
    And all this time, we thought we should be giving students texts at their instructional level. There are some inherent flaws in that arrangement, though. If we don’t model strategies and comprehension with frustration level texts, how will they ever progress? Secondly, if we are giving them only instruction level texts (which are below grade level for intervention students), then they will never catch up to grade level, and we aren’t using the same level of cognitively demanding material. Grade level material will have more complex sentence structure, vocabulary, content, and depth. THAT is what our students need.
  2. Interventions need to focus on TRANSFERRING skills to the classroom. 
    It seems a simple enough concept, but how often do we actually acknowledge or work on this skill? What students learn in intervention should directly tie into the classroom learning. They should be reading a text at a similar level (but perhaps on a different topic), and we should focus on what Dr. Caldwell calls ‘concept free’ questions, or questions that aren’t directly tied to the topic at hand (ex: What is the theme of this story? How did the author organize this text?) I think LLI or Leveled Literacy Instruction does a great job of modeling these skills.
  3. Students can’t just jump in to a Close Reading.
    They need to get the gist of the story first. They need to recognize and acknowledge the topic, textual features, linguistic features, organization of the text, etc.
  4. Intertextual connections is a critical skill we often gloss over in school. 
    This means making connections BETWEEN two or more texts. How do they overlap? Agree? Differ? This is a skill that must be explicitly modeled and taught.
  5. There’s a new reading comprehension assessment, and you’re gonna want to buy it. 
    Have you ever given the QRI and thought, “This is such a wonderful tool, but it is so time consuming and laborious to give one on one. I wish I could give it to my whole class at once.” Well, you might like to know about JoAnn Caldwell’s newest tool, the CARA: Content Area Reading Assessment. It is an assessment of reading comprehension across the disciplines. At each grade level, there are 3 literature, 3 science, and 3 social studies passages. Yes, that means you can do a beginning of the year, mid-year, and summative assessment (Hello, SLO!). It is aligned to the common core, and it could serve as a wonderful modeling tool for teachers looking for assistance writing standards based questions from text.

The conference also had a panel discussing the major differences between the QRI-5 and the QRI-6. I own both, and I teach and use both, so this was very informative for me. I certainly can’t do the panel justice by replicating their wonderful Q&A, but I’ll summarize some key points I want to remember:

  • There is a new kind of passage called the Inferential Diagnostic Level passage. The passage type we are familiar with, Level Diagnostic, are still there as well. However this new kind of passage is designed to be read orally or silently in chunks. The reader pauses to respond orally or in writing to intermittent inference questions. The reader is allowed to look back at the text right away. Passages are a bit longer than we are used to, and readers provide a more concise summary at the end.
  • Level diagnostic passages from level 6 and up are no longer labeled as just ‘narrative’ and ‘expository,’ but now also include the discipline (i.e. science, literature, social studies, etc.). I asked Dr. Caldwell if that meant we had to give multiple expository selections to diagnose a student’s level, and she said no – either science or social studies would be fine. However, she also clarified that she might lean toward science, since it is markedly different from literature.
  • Self-corrections during the miscue analysis do NOT count.
  • To make room for the new passages, 11 ‘oldies but goodies’ had to go on a permanent vacation. I’ll miss “Pele” and “Octopus” most of all! ::sniff::
  • The prior knowledge questions now have sample responses to help with scoring.
  • There is no longer a prediction question prior to reading.
  • There is now an Oral Reading Prosody Scale adopted from NAEP.
  • The retelling section is shorter with fewer points – many shorter ideas were combined.

I truly enjoyed this conference, and plan to promote and attend again next year. I made a lot of wonderful new connections, and learned some invaluable concepts to enhance my classroom and university level instruction. And, I got to present my own research as well!



Wisconsin State Reading Association and Books for the Bus

WSRA Quilt (c) Kristen Dembroski

I recently attended the Wisconsin State Reading Association in Milwaukee. I had such a great time meeting wonderful educators and literary heroes. At the end of the first day, there was an awards ceremony for the important, influential people that help promote high literacy standards in Wisconsin. One story brought me to tears. A school bus driver started a program on his bus called “Books for the Bus.” He brought in his daughter’s outgrown books and shared them with the students on their hour commute to and from school. He told them if they liked the book, they could keep it, and if they wanted to donate, they could bring their book to share on the bus. The idea was a hit, and soon spread to all of the busses in that school district. I was so touched! You can read more about this heart-warming story by clicking here.

Lynda WSRA (c) Kristen Dembroski


I was also there to celebrate my friend and colleague, Lynda, who received the “Friends of Literacy” lifetime achievement award. She is completing her doctorate (her topic is helping teachers use rubrics to evaluate iPad apps for the classroom), she is a professor, she is an amazing cheerleader and supporter, and an all-around amazing person who can make friends with anyone, anywhere.

I met other important legislators, authors, professors, student teachers, and inspiring educators. Everyone I met was passionate about literacy and student learning. I remember thinking to myself, “These. These are my people.” I can’t wait for WSRA 2015!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...