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Writing Matters- Teaching and Learning from the Heart

23 Oct







Guest blog post by Peter Catalanotto and JoEllen McCarthy, 2014 Literacy for All Conference Speakers

Unless we reach into our students’ hearts, we have no entry

into their minds.”

-Regie Routman

Getting at the core of what matters most to all readers, writers and thinkers, is the “heart” work of education. As Regie Routman said, we need to reach into their hearts in order to reach their minds.

Children live what they learn. Young writers learn from explicit instruction, modeling and emulating what they see strong writers do. Studying these authors inspires creativity, and supports a vision of what is possible for kids to do.

Books touch the hearts and minds of all readers. Powerful picture books serve as mentor texts to lift the quality of student writing, but more importantly they can also have the “power” to lift students up. Books can connect us as members of a growing community of learners. Books can leave heartprints: they can touch our lives and leave lasting impressions on our hearts. That’s why it isn’t enough to choose the mentor texts for the what, but it is also important to think about the why.

“Mentor texts are more than just craft coaches for writers- they can also offer inspiration and life lessons.”

– Georgia Heard

To teach is to touch a life.

When Peter started school, he wrote backwards and upside down, a condition called dysgraphia. Because he wrote backwards, he never aspired to be a writer. Several teachers had him practice writing. More importantly, his third grade teacher, Miss Dunn, put into practice the belief- allow a child to lead with their strengths.

When she noticed Peter’s struggle with writing, she suggested for a book report that he simply read the book and draw a series of pictures. When she saw his drawings she said it was clear that he read and understood the story. Then she asked if there was a way she could know what the characters in the pictures were feeling and thinking, or what they might do next. Peter looked up at her and said, “I could add words.”

“That’s brilliant!” she exclaimed. “Yes, you can add words to your pictures!”

Powerful words: “Yes you can.”

Yes we can in fact, reach into the hearts and minds of our students. We reflect on the what and why of our students’ needs. Isn’t that what matters most? Now, more than ever, we need to practice kindness, practice patience, and practice love. Because children won’t remember most of what you say and do. But they remember how you made them feel. What matters most in writing, (in reading, in life—) touching the hearts of all learners.

Miss Dunn touched Peter’s heart and mind. Who is your Miss Dunn? More importantly, whose Miss Dunn will you be?

Mentor author/ illustrator Peter Catalanotto and educator, JoEllen McCarthy offer an invitation to connect with them, collaborate, and celebrate what matters most to reach the heart of all learners.

Join the conversation at the Literacy for All conference session LCF-9 Tuesday, November 4th: Writing Matters: Learning From and With Mentor Authors (Grades K-5)

Running Records- Part 1

27 Aug

by Diane Powell, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

Josh's rrI’m going to share some thinking from the questions that were posed by teachers on previous Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative Twitter chats and could be a help to educators everywhere.  I’ll be using Marie Clay’s text An Observation Survey of Early Literacy Achievement and Fountas & Pinnell’s The Continuum of Literacy Learning, PreK–8 as resources so you’ll know of appropriate resources to use in your continuing search for guidance around the use of Running Records.

1. Can you share strategies for helping teachers see value of Running Records as formative assessment rather than an event at the end of the term?

Teachers are very busy these days and unless they understand the power of Running Records and the rationales for using them, they will see them as optional or mandated a few times per year. One thing that often helps teachers see their value is to have them follow one reader over time by capturing the reading behaviors the reader demonstrates during oral reading. Looking across records of oral reading begins to show the teacher the ways in which the reader’s processing power is changing over time. It also allows us to think about how our teaching is impacting the learning of the reader –or not. The Running Record allows us to see how the reader is using strategic actions for thinking within the text – those he is using and those he is neglecting to use. How is the reader working in a balanced way to gain meaning from a text? What does he do when he comes to an unknown word? How is the reader showing us he’s monitoring his reading? How does his reading sound with respect to aspects of fluency? How does the reader search for and use information sources to read or self-correct? How does the reader adjust his reading depending on the text and the purpose for reading? All of these kinds of information can inform our teaching and the student’s learning. Yes, it takes some time, but the teaching becomes so much more powerful based on what we find in the Running Records.  Using them only occasionally is like taking only a portion of a prescription a doctor gives you – it doesn’t reach the problem to provide long lasting improvement for the reader!


2.  How often should readers be assessed with Running Records? How often should teachers be doing Running Records, besides benchmarking?

That depends on the reader. If a reader is making steady progress in his reading, it makes sense to check in with him every 2-3 weeks to be sure his trajectory continues in the right direction and he’s taking on new learning as well as strengthening his reading powers. High progress readers should probably have a check in about every 4-6 weeks to be sure they, too, are continuing to progress.

 On the other hand, if the reader is reading below grade level, he needs more frequent checks. A teacher should plan on capturing his reading every two weeks to see if any of the teaching that you’re doing is impacting his learning. If not, you need to adjust the teaching to work from the reader’s current strengths and move him forward. That’s often easier said than done and it may require help from a colleague who works with struggling readers or a coach who can see things you might be missing. Make sure you reach out for help in working with readers who are not making progress. They may be taking on the learning differently than you imagine and your teaching might be missing them where they are.

Part 2 of this post (next week) will answer some of the remaining questions on Running Records from our previous Twitter chats!

Wanted: Texts For All Readers

12 Feb

by Heather Morris, Intermediate/Middle School Trainer

This post is the first in a series this winter/spring where we take questions that were asked during our guided reading Twitter chats last summer and answer them in greater length.

Question: I need ideas for upper grade students who read at lower guided reading levels. Texts are babyish.

Answer: A couple years ago, I was meeting with a group of four students in a guided reading group.  During our discussion of the text, one student exclaimed, “Oh, THIS is reading!  I don’t think I have been reading before.”  Mujeeb was in fifth grade reading Super Storms by Seymour Simon, a level M book. Eureka!  He was completely engaged in the book and was enjoying a lively discussion.

As intermediate and middle school teachers, we understand that some students may enter the classroom reading below grade level.  It is our job to observe readers carefully and get to know them in order to select a text to use during guided reading.  We choose books that are at that reader’s instructional level and that students will be interested in reading. Sometimes selecting a text can prove tricky for these readers.

So how might we go about finding these texts to use for our small group reading instruction?  One way is to read, read, read as many books as possible!  As we pour ourselves into children’s literature, it becomes clear what books will engage each of our readers, and the more books we read, the wider the selection from which we have to choose. Another way to find books is to ask your librarian to suggest some titles.  She/he is a wonderful resource!

Remember, you can always turn to a helpful resource to find texts that are written at a lower level but have high interest, like Fountas and Pinnell’s Leveled Books: Matching Texts to Readers for Effective Teaching.  There is also an online version, On the online version, there is an advanced search option that allows you to look for books with mature content and lower level text demands. As you peruse your students’ instructional levels, you’ll find authors and series that your students will enjoy.

Lastly, creating a community of teacher readers at your school can be an invaluable resource to locate wonderful books to fill our school’s book room to use for guided reading.  Finding and purchasing books of high interest for below-grade level readers could be an agenda item for your school’s Literacy Team. Also, blogs contain a treasure trove of texts that colleagues around the world recommend:

Taking the time to find instructionally appropriate texts that honor a student’s age and interests will unlock the door to reading  – just like it did for Mujeeb!

If you are interested in learning more about guided reading , visit our Center’s NEW guided reading resource pages at

Charts: Purpose Is Key

17 Sep

by Marjorie Martinelli and Kristine Mraz, Authors and Featured Speakers at the 2013 Literacy for All Conference


Charts are here, there, and everywhere. Teachers spend a great deal of energy and time creating charts. They hang from every nook and cranny of each and every classroom. They are the expected norm, a part of pedagogy, and a sense of pride. But they are also an ongoing challenge. Why? Because in spite of this attention, interest, and passion for charts on the part of teachers, students often appear oblivious to the charts. They do not seem to grasp the reason for charts, the why of charts, and often do not use the charts as a result. For many students charts have become blended into the background like wallpaper, absorbed into the subconscious, or simply exist in schools like fire bells and cafeteria smells. They just are. But when charts seem unimportant to the audience we hope to reach, then it is the purpose that needs to be made perfectly clear for both students and teachers.

Start by asking why you make charts in the first place. We have found the most effective charts come out of a need to make our instruction crystal clear. Charts help when planning lessons because a chart forces you to break down an idea into concrete steps. They help us test out the language that will be used and repeated over and over. They lead us to think about student engagement. And charts help us consider the different learning modalities that exist in our classrooms. Which children need visuals? Repetition? Linear-sequential steps? The sketching out of a chart allows for revision and editing which leads to efficiency and effectiveness in our teaching.

Then we need to make sure our students understand the purpose behind the charts we make and how charts can help them meet the increased challenges we plan to set forth. Try asking some students what they think the charts are for, but don’t be discouraged if you hear things like, “They’re for the teacher” or “They’re when you don’t know something and you have to cheat.” This just means they really don’t understand the purpose of the charts and this is a quick remedy. Start with some real life scenarios that illustrate how people in the world use checklists to help them be more strategic or to remember complex steps. Commercial pilots know how to fly jets, but they still use charts to double-check themselves and to set the right course. Doctors are very smart people who use charts and checklists so they can look for patterns and be more strategic in figuring out a patient’s needs. Even your own use of the notes function on your smartphone shows how you need help remembering things you know but don’t want to forget. The most brilliant people in the world use charts to scaffold and support the work they do.

Finally, find opportunities to model how the charts in the classroom can be used to make students become more strategic, flexible, and innovative as they grow and learn. For example, when San Ho kept finding himself starting every piece of writing the same way, he went up to the chart on writing leads: Hook your Reader, and decided to try some of the other suggestions. He shared that he was getting bored with his own writing and that using the chart got him to try out some new strategies which helped him be excited about his writing again.

Charts are here, there and everywhere for a reason. They help both teachers and students clarify, challenge, and scaffold in ways that are authentic and useful. Charts also help teachers turn learning into an active process for students by making information visible and accessible to all.

Marjorie Martinelli and Kristine Mraz are co-authors of Smarter Charts (Heinemann 2012). They will be presenting two workshops at this year’s Literacy for All Conference in Providence, R.I. on November 4 and 5: Visible Learning: Charts in Action and Beyond the Basics: Optimizing Classroom Charts for Independence.

The Sharing of Amazing Books

12 Mar

by Helen Sisk, Intermediate/Middle School Trainer (our new trainer from Fairfax, Virginia)

* blog post from Friday, March 8th (when it was snowing here in Cambridge, Massachusetts!)

It’s snowing, again, and this southern transplant is fascinated with the uniqueness found in each storm – never the same old, same old. One storm, Nemo, created mounds of snow, yesterday it snowed all day and never accumulated, today’s surprise storm left traffic in a snarl. Schools aren’t closed and I’m in awe of the hardiness of my neighbors. All winter long, the changing weather keeps things interesting.

Isn’t that also how we want to keep our teaching – fresh and exciting?

Recently, I read the book Moonshot by Brian Floca to a group of educators. We were fascinated to learn about the first trip to the moon from a technical perspective interwoven with narrative and wonderment. And, we loved it – wanting to talk about it, to look closely at the pictures, and to reread it.  We searched the award it won – The Sibert Informational Book Medal, and discovered new nonfiction titles. We went to Brian Floca’s website and learned why and how he created this book. We couldn’t wait to return to our classrooms to share MMoonshotoonshot with our students.

We became engrossed with this book. How do we generate similar responses with our students? Are we sharing books that are new and amazing? Do our students clamor for them? Are WE engaged? We need to continue honoring classic picture books such as Owl Moon and Big Mama, but intentionally add books by different authors and novel topics that our students find captivating to expand their repertoire.  Constantly mixing it up engages us, too. It’s a teaching perk we need to tap.

We are all looking for the next great book. Please comment below on titles of books you and your students discovered this year. We’d love to hear from you!

Engaging Struggling Readers in the Intermediate and Middle Grades

30 Apr

By Irene Fountas

Director, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

When you think about the students who are not reading successfully at the grade level, what becomes immediately noticeable?

I think first of a lack of engagement and motivation, attributing that not to the student, but to the context that has not supported her success.  Of course we need to think about the importance of excellent teaching, but our first goal needs to address the engagement of the learner.  Many of these students would not choose to read.   Or at the very least, they might not choose to read what we offer them.  Let’s think together about the issue of student engagement and motivation in this blog.

What do you notice about what does engage the student?  Our conversation can focus first on the context we provide for their learning.

  • Learning activities that include talking and thinking with peers.
  • Time for real reading.
  • Multimodal texts – texts with a variety of graphica – images, sidebars, boxes, photographs, etc.
  • Texts with informational topics relevant to their lives.
  • Short texts related to social issues they grapple with.

Do you have some of the same observations?  What would you add to the list?  Please respond with your comments and we can share our thinking!

Building on the Learner’s Prior Knowledge

21 Mar

By Eva Konstantellou

Reading Recovery Trainer, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

“…The goal is to help children move from where they are to somewhere else by empowering them to do what they can do and helping them engage in activities through which they can learn more.”  Marie Clay, By Different Paths to Common Outcomes, p. 87

Teacher and studentContrary to the behaviorist conception of the child’s brain as a blank slate, recent research on the structure and function of the brain has put forward the notion that the brain is actually wired for learning and that any input from the outside world interacts with the learner’s prior knowledge to create new pathways for learning.

In his fascinating book, The Art of Changing the Brain:  Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning, biologist James Zull writes that the brain consists of complicated cells called neurons that are connected to one another to form networks.  These networks represent knowledge that is stored in the brain and keep changing as new knowledge comes into the brain through concrete experiences and is integrated with existing knowledge through a process of reflection and testing.  All learners, Zull says, even newborn babies have some prior knowledge, which is the starting point for acquiring new knowledge.  The role of teaching in acknowledging existing networks and building upon them is critical.

The connections between Zull’s ideas and Reading Recovery teaching and learning are apparent.   Marie Clay’s theory of literacy processing puts the learner at the center of the learning process and sees instruction as a means of taking the child from where he is at to something new.  Instruction starts from what the child knows and builds upon that foundation to keep expanding learning into new, uncharted territory.

Assessment:  Surveying the Known

The assessments that Reading Recovery teachers use are designed to capture the child’s prior learning and are not seen as ends in themselves but as tools that will inform teaching.  The Observation Survey tasks administered by the teacher assess the child’s current level of performing on literacy tasks and based on the results teachers design instruction that relies on what the child can already do in order to take him toward that which is not yet under his control.  Starting from the known is what differentiates Reading Recovery from other interventions that work from a diagnosis of what is wrong with the child.

As a matter of fact, the teacher’s investigation into what the child already knows and controls does not end with initial assessment but continues throughout the child’s series of lessons in Reading Recovery.  The first couple of weeks of working with the child, referred to as Roaming Around the Known sessions, is a critical time in the intervention: the teacher refrains from teaching the child anything new but instead continues to observe and record what it is that the child already knows about literacy.  The idea is to bring to the surface all that is known or partially known about print, the letters, words, and the ways the child puts them together to make sense of the texts he reads and writes.

Instruction:  Building on the Known 

In all reading and writing activities of the Reading Recovery lesson, teachers teach in a way that takes into consideration the child’s prior knowledge.  For example, when the teacher is introducing a new text to the student, she chooses text that contains some familiar ideas, language, and visual signposts the child has already encountered (letters, words, punctuation marks) and tries as she introduces the text to the child to activate any prior knowledge the child has in these areas.  During the introduction and the first reading of the book, the child connects the new information that the teacher provided to what he or she already knows about how texts work and is able with the gentle support of the teacher to expand his current level of working on texts toward greater sophistication and complexity.  (See recent blog by Irene Fountas on the text gradient of difficulty).   Similarly, prior to writing a story in the daily lesson, the teacher talks with the child about a topic of interest to the child in order to compose a message, which the child then proceeds to record.  During the writing the child writes what he knows and the teacher introduces new learning.

The teacher thus works within the known, or in Vygotskian terms, within the child’s “zone of proximal development,” around a body of knowledge that is known or almost known, enabling the child to extend the boundaries of his knowledge through the guidance and support of a more knowledgeable other.


Zull, James E. (2002).  The Art of Changing the Brain:  Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning.  Sterling, VA:  Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Clay, Marie (2005).  Literacy Lessons Designed for Individuals, Part One and Part Two.  Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.

Clay, Marie (1998).  By Different Paths to Common Outcomes.  York, Maine:  Stenhouse Publishers.


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