Teach Social-Emotional Skills through Literacy Workshop

by Mike Anderson, 2018 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is a hot topic in schools right now—as it should be. It’s increasingly clear that social and emotional skills are the keys to the kingdom—it’s the skill set that employers are seeking—the skill set that’s less likely to be outsourced or automated as our economy continues to shift. Perhaps most importantly, strong SEL skills are correlated with many measures of life-long health and happiness including lower rates of criminal activity and substance abuse and better mental health.

As I work in schools across the US, I hear a common and troubling refrain: more kids are coming to school less school-ready than ever before. Children have a hard time listening to others, making appropriate eye contact, participating in group activities, taking turns, sharing, showing empathy, and making responsible decisions. Many theories are posited by teachers. Parents rely on devices to calm/regulate young children, so they don’t know how to function without a phone or tablet in their hands. Parents themselves may lack key social and emotional skills. In some communities, there are a growing number of children coming from homes where opioids and other drugs are used.

Regardless of the reasons, it’s pretty clear that just as SEL skills are becoming even more important, many children seem to be lacking a solid foundation in these skills. To compound this challenge, teachers are already overwhelmed with all that we have to teach. Many schools are attempting to address the need to teach SEL skills by adopting programs and curricula that emphasize the teaching of SEL skills as an add-on—specific stand-alone lessons and activities to be delivered in addition to academic work. For teachers who are already swamped with too much to teach in not enough time, these boxed curricula can feel burdensome and overwhelming, especially when the required lessons don’t even align with the actual skills needed with a particular group of students!

Wouldn’t it be great if the teaching of social, emotional, and academic skills could somehow come together? What of there was a way to teach these skills as a part of daily academic work instead of on the side?

For those of us who use reading and writing workshops to teach literacy, we’ve already got (at least part of) the answer! There are tons of SEL skills that need to be taught for kids to be successful readers and writers. These are the very skills that they need to learn to be successful throughout school and beyond, and, these are the same skills needed to be successful in most literacy standards! Check out the chart below for a few examples of the overlaps between literacy skills (drawn from Common Core ELA standards), SEL skills, and structures commonly used in literacy workshops.

Literacy Skills SEL Skills Workshop Connections
  •  Read widely and deeply; devote significant time and effort to writing
  •  Focus, attention
  • Self-regulation
  • Setting and working toward goals
  • Building independent reading and writing stamina
  • Choosing just-right books and writing topics of interest
  • Explain the relationships/interactions between individuals in a text
  •  Social awareness
  • Perspective taking
  • Effective communication
  • Book group discussion
  • Reading conference
  • Read prose and poetry orally with accuracy, appropriate rate, and expression
  • Self-awareness
  • Social awareness
  • Reading conference
  • Writing share
  • With guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing
  • Active listening
  • Growth mindset
  • Seeking and offering help
  • Manage stress
  • Perseverance
  • Writing conference
  • Revision/editing
  • Engage in collaborative discussions with diverse partners
  • Empathy
  • Follow social and ethical norms for behavior
  • Control impulses
  • Book group discussion
  • Reading and writing workshops
  • Whole group discussions

A Few Starting Places

Once you start seeing the connections between literacy skills, SEL skills, and the structures of reading and writing workshop, you’ll be amazed at how many start to become obvious. This is both exciting and overwhelming. If every component of reading and writing workshop involves SEL skills that need to be taught (which is true), and if many literacy standards involve SEL skills to be learned (as indeed many do), and if all students need support in SEL skills (and they do), where do you start?

Weave Small Moments of SEL Teaching into Existing Lessons

Each time you’re about to teach a literacy lesson, whether it’s a whole class lesson, a small group strategy session, or a one-on-one conference, consider social or emotional skills that might be involved. Could students use some advice about how to position their bodies effectively for a writing conference? Might they generate some suggestions for how to regain focus on reading after you’ve been distracted? Would some modeling help students better understand how to ask supportive and constructive questions to help push each other’s writing? Here’s a video of a quick discussion I facilitated with a group of third graders as they were about to engage in a series of partner chats to discuss a book they had read. Notice that this is a simple small moment of teaching—something that could easily be incorporated right into many literacy lessons that you already teach.  

Explore SEL Skills in Literacy Standards

This is an activity you might try on your own, with a small group of colleagues (perhaps as a PLC or grade level team), or even with a whole staff at a faculty meeting. First, choose a set of SEL skills or competencies to use. If your district hasn’t already adopted one, you might use the CASEL framework. Another great one is the Habits of Mind. Next, look through your literacy standards or curricula. Make connections between the two. Which SEL skills are required for students to be effective readers and writers? Which literacy skills and structures are great ways to practice the SEL skills kids need to learn? For a more complete write-up of this activity, check out this blog post.

Brainstorm SEL Skills Needed for Structures of Literacy Workshop

This is an activity I tried one summer while teaching a course through the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institutes. We brainstormed common structures used in reading and writing workshop—ones like sustained independent reading/writing, peer and teacher conferences, book groups, read-alouds, whole class lessons, strategy groups, etc. Then, we generated a list of the SEL skills students needed in order to participate effectively in each structure. For example, in order to have good reading conferences, students needed to know how to sit facing their partner, how to make eye contact, how to ask interesting questions, and how to share about a book in a concise way, just to name a few. These lists that we created provided a great starting point for everyone as they considered what to teach, especially at the beginning of the year when setting up these structures.

These are, of course, just a few ideas, but hopefully they’re enough to get you started. I think one more point should be made. Sometimes, teachers worry that they don’t have enough time to teach students social and emotional skills when they already have so many academic ones to teach. The more you explore the integration of SEL in literacy workshop, the more it becomes apparent that SEL skills areacademic. Many are built right into our academic standards and many more are required to participate effectively as a reader and writer in school every day. In the end, I think it’s fair to argue that we don’t have time not to teach social and emotional skills as a part of everyday literacy instruction!

A First Timer’s Guide to Registering for the Literacy for All Conference

We’re excited to announce we’ve opened registration for the 28th Annual Literacy for All Conference, co-hosted with The University of Maine, and the University of Connecticut. This year the conference will be held October 22–24, 2017 in Providence, Rhode Island. While we know many of you are veteran LFA attendees, each year we have more and more new faces joining us in Providence. Welcome to all first timers!

We have made it even easier to register for the Literacy for All Conference! Simply visit www.regonline.com/lfa2017 and enter your email address to begin your registration process. We’ve put together a little guide to our online registration system to help make the process as quick and painless as possible.

An Important Note

We have created an online registration process that seamlessly guides you through the steps of registration. Please do not use your Internet browser’s “back” button if you want to go back and make a change, as it will cause errors and you will not be able to complete your registration. Instead, if you need to change something, complete your registration and then email us at literacy@lesley.edu, and we will make the changes for you.

Before You Register

First, you should make a list of all the sessions you want to attend. You can find the full list on our website. Each time block is listed with a letter, ie: LCA, LCB, etc. Then, each session within that time block is numbered. So, the full session code will read something like LCA-1 or LCC-4. You can only choose one session per time block, so you should have one LCA, one LCB, and so on.  Please note, that on our online registration system, RegOnline, the sessions are listed with only the code and the presenter name, not the session title, as shown below.

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 12.51.23 PM

The only variation is in the In-Depth sessions, which occur either in the C or F blocks. In-Depth sessions are three hours long, not the normal 90 minutes, so if you choose an In-Depth session for your C or F, you will not be able to choose a D or G, respectively, as the In-Depth session will run through that time.

If a session doesn’t appear on the drop-down menu that means it is sold out and you will have to choose another session. Sessions do sell out, so we recommend registering as early as possible to ensure you get all your first choices.

Second, know your method of payment. If your district will be paying for you with a purchase order, you don’t need to know the purchase order number to register. If your district will be paying for you with a credit card, you can still register yourself. When you get to the checkout screen, simply choose “Pay with Purchase Order” and then have your district call us with the credit card number, or fax or email us the PO within ten business days of registering.  Please note, if you are paying with a purchase order (PO), we require that you submit a copy of your PO to secure your registration.  If your PO has not been received by the opening of the institute, you will be required to provide a credit card in order to attend the institute.

We recommend that all attendees register themselves. The process begins with an email validation– you’ll receive an email with a secure link, which you’ll need to click on in order to continue your registration. Forwarding these emails can sometimes be tricky, so we recommend you register yourself to avoid confusion.

If someone else has to register for you, we recommend that you choose your sessions ahead of time and give the list of sessions, including session code and presenter name to the person registering you.

When entering in your personal information, please note that there are separate spaces to enter your school district and your school name, as shown below. When entering your district, please don’t use abbreviations like RSD or UFSD– if the district has a separate name (ie: Oxford Hills School District) please use that; alternately, please spell out the words Regional School District. This will help us keep uniformity in printing name badges, and help match up registrants to purchase orders when we receive them.

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 12.23.16 PM

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 12.23.30 PM


When you’re done registering, you will see a screen confirming that your registration is complete. If you don’t see that screen, you haven’t finished registering yet! Once you get to that screen, be sure to read it thoroughly, as it contains details about which sessions have required readings and materials, a list of conference policies, your own detailed agenda based on the sessions you selected, and other helpful links.

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 12.27.20 PM

In addition to the confirmation page, a confirmation email will be automatically sent to the email address you provided. If it doesn’t appear within an hour of you registering, check your spam and junk folders, as some email providers mark emails from RegOnline as spam by mistake. In the past, many were not able to receive RegOnline emails, because many schools block emails from RegOnline, so if you have a personal email address, we encourage you to use it, instead of your school email, when registering.  If you don’t receive your confirmation email at all, please email literacy@lesley.edu and we will re-send it to you.

Please help us be environmentally conscious! Do not print out your confirmation message to mail in with your check or PO. Instead, just make sure your full name and district are written on the PO or in the item line of the check. That’s all we need to match up your payment with your record in the system.

Conference Events, Exhibit Fair, and Other Information

The conference registration desk hours are as follows:

  • Sunday, October 22, 2017: 10:00 am–6:00 pm
  • Monday, October 23, 2017: 7:00 am–5:00 pm
  • Tuesday, October 24, 2017: 7:30 am–9:00 am

The conference help desk will be open 7:00 am – 6:00 pm each day.

Literacy for All also includes an exhibit fair with booths showcasing classroom services and products for all grade levels and subjects. Exhibit hours are 4:00-6:00 on Sunday, 10:00–6:00 on Monday, with the Exhibit Fair from 5:00–6:00; and 7:30–3:30 on Tuesday. During the Exhibit Fair on Monday, you can enter to win something from our prize raffle, and get books signed by some of our featured and keynote speakers.

Please visit the conference website, www.lesley.edu/literacyforall, for information on hotels, parking, attendance policy and certificates of attendance, and sessions with required readings/handouts/materials.

Have questions? You can contact us anytime at literacy@lesley.edu or by phone at 617.349.8402.

Looking forward to seeing you all in October!

Developing and Celebrating Students’ Academic Vocabulary Knowledge

By MaryEllen Vogt, Author, Professor Emerita, California State University, Long Beach, and 2013 Literacy for All Conference Speaker

It’s no surprise to educators that academic vocabulary is a hot-button issue, especially with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the much-anticipated, related assessments.  We’ve known for years that there’s a strong correlation between vocabulary knowledge and comprehension, and revisiting this relationship is critical to helping students meet the challenging new literacy standards.

MaryEllen Vogt's blog graphicWithin the SIOP Model (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2013; 2014a; 2014b), we use the metaphor of a three-legged stool when we consider the academic vocabulary that is especially critical for English learners’ language growth. Each leg of the stool is of the same length (think “importance”), and if one leg is broken or missing, the “academic vocabulary stool” won’t be able to stand independently.  The three “legs” of academic vocabulary include:

  1. Content Vocabulary: Subject Specific and Technical Terms.  Key words, terms, and phrases related specifically to the topic of a lesson; these words and terms are often highlighted in textbooks and students must know them to meet content standards.
  2. General Academic Vocabulary: Cross-Curricular Terms; Process and Function.  Words, terms, and phrases used across all academic subjects, including functional language, language processes, and classroom tasks; examples include: describe, define, list, summarize, compare and contrast; support your answer with evidence; debate; argue a position; these are also often found in content standards and standardized tests, and are especially challenging for English learners and struggling readers.
  3. Word Parts: Roots and Affixes:  Enable students to learn new vocabulary, primarily based on English morphology (affixes, roots, base words). For example, note the meaning of –photo (light) in each of these words: photosynthesis, photocopy, photograph, photography, photoelectron, photo-finish, photogenic. An important adage about English (and other languages with roots and affixes) is: Words that are related by structure are almost always related by meaning (Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, & Johnston, 2011).

In the past, teachers have regularly taught content vocabulary, but we now know that for English learners and struggling readers, this is not enough. The CCSS suggest if students are to meet the rigorous standards, all teachers must emphasize and ramp up their academic vocabulary instruction.  Two ways teachers can do this is by:

  1. Contextualizing vocabulary instruction in order to make the invisible visible. Teachers do this by providing students with visuals of key vocabulary, such as photographs or illustrations, to clarify a word’s meaning. An activity such as 4-Corners Vocabulary Chart (Vogt & Echevarria, 2008, p. 40), is a perfect way to contextualize an academy vocabulary word: a) divide a paper into fourths; b) in upper left corner, insert a picture that provides clues to a word (picture of a puffy cloud); c) in lower left corner, provide a definition in student-friendly terms (A white billowy cloud type with a dark, flat base); 3) in upper right corner, include a contextualized sentence (The fluffiest clouds that look like cotton, are called cumulus); 4) bottom right corner, write the vocabulary word (cumulus). Students can make their own 4-Corners charts and booklets for any subject area.
  2. Developing “word consciousness.”  In too many classrooms, word study is laborious and uninteresting. Perk up your students’ interest and their growing understandings of words by celebrating new words they have created using roots and affixes. Create a word wall or hang mobiles, each with a different word root and words that include the root, such as –photo and the words previously listed.  Ask students to bring in new words they’ve discovered with various word roots and attach to the corresponding mobiles. Have fun with tricky and funny words, as Stahl and Nagy (2006, p. 146-147) suggest in the following sentence with homophones:
  • A bike can’t stand alone because it’s two-tired.
  • Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
  • A chicken crossing the road is poultry in motion.

And homographs:

  • He could lead if he would get the lead out.
  • The present is a good time to present the present.
  • I did not object to the object.

Academic vocabulary instruction need not be a chore for either you or your students. Because of its relationship to comprehension, the more you attend to academic vocabulary development, the more likely it is that your students will also be developing their comprehension.  I hope that your school year is productive, happy, and full of words and reading!


MaryEllen Vogt is a co-author of 15 books, including Making Content Comprehensible for English Language Learners: The SIOP Model (2013), Reading Specialists and Literacy Coaches in the Real World (2011), and The SIOP Model for Teaching English Language Arts to English Learners (2010).

MaryEllen will be presenting two workshops, sponsored by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, at this year’s Literacy for All Conference on Monday, November 4, 2013:

  • Academic Vocabulary: Engaging Activities For All Learners (Grades 2–5)
  • Academic Vocabulary: Engaging Activities For All Learners (Grades 6–8)


Bear, D.R., Helman, L., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F. (2011). Words their way with English learners: Word study for spelling, phonics, and vocabulary instruction. (2nd Ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Echevarria, J., Vogt, M.E., & Short, D. J. (2013). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP Model (4th Ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Echevarria, J., Vogt, M.E., & Short, D. J. (2014a). Making content comprehensible for elementary English learners: The SIOP Model (2nd Ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Echevarria, J., Vogt, M.E., & Short, D. J. (2014b). Making content comprehensible for elementary English learners: The SIOP Model (2nd Ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Stahl, S., & Nagy, W. (2006). Teaching word meanings. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum

Illustration of Academic Vocabulary Stool (created by MaryEllen Vogt)

How Can Complex Texts Ever Work for Below-Grade-Level Readers?

by Guest Blogger Jennifer Serravallo- Literacy Consultant, Author, and 2013 Literacy for All Featured Speaker

Jennifer SerravalloFor readers, practice matters. Volume of reading matters. As we think about the Common Core State Standards’ goals, experience is a better word than practice—a word that carries baggage of activities around reading.  If we want children to be good at reading, they need long stretches of uninterrupted time to read[i]. Amount of time spent reading is directly linked to reading success[ii] and success as students overall[iii].

Yet all independent reading is not created equal. Research has shown that children’s reading time is often wasted when they are not matched appropriately to books that they can read with accuracy, fluency, and comprehension[iv]. If we wreck students’ motivation by presenting books at their frustration level we will simply make them feel deficient. Students who find pleasure in reading naturally take on books at higher and higher levels as they mature, and get book recommendations from peers and teachers. As they read, they do all the rigorous questioning, imagining, analyzing, and learning that is a part of being in an engaged state of reading. Students’ minds literally can’t get to higher-level thinking if their cognition is so mired in tackling vocabulary, content, and concepts for which they are not developmentally ready — or if they are bogged down trying to just figure out what the words say, being forced to use decoding strategies in every sentence.

So on behalf of all readers, but especially readers who struggle, we have to resist the pressure to meet this new mandate for reading complex texts by replacing students’ just-right reading materials with grade-level texts. It’s magical thinking to assert that every child will suddenly comprehend tougher texts if we merely raise expectations. Research simply does not support that this will make the biggest difference in improving their skills as readers. We need to have a strategic approach, supporting students’ reading of grade-level texts while also meeting students where they are.

First, use effective assessment tools to accurately determine a just-right independent reading level using whole texts and identify goals to support each study. Provide many hours each week for students to read independently — at their independent level — as they practice, and to support students with one-on-one, small-group, and whole-class lessons.

Second, give all students access to grade-level texts by carefully planning close reading lessons using short, “worthy” passages that offer opportunities for instruction. These close-reading lessons may be in small groups or whole class. In my view, close-reading instruction should never interfere with the sacred minutes set aside for independent reading; it is an additional time, as part of an overall balanced-literacy approach. Of course, what students learn can — and should — be applied to their independent reading. Keep in mind that it’s the high-level reflection and discussion we do with texts that cultivate students’ intellectual capacities to a large degree, and not the texts alone. Further, long and dense texts don’t necessarily trump shorter ones in terms of opportunities for college-level analysis.

For example, a teacher can take a level S picture book like Patricia Polacco’s Pink and Say, about a friendship between a Confederate and a Union soldier during the Civil War, and help students comprehend and discuss its themes and ideas with sophistication rivaling a Rhodes scholar reading Shakespeare. It’s not always the text; it’s what you do with it.

Jennifer Serravallo, a featured speaker at the 24th Annual Literacy for All Conference (November 3–5, 2013 in Providence, R.I.), is the co-author of Conferring with Readers (Heinemann, 2007), and author of Teaching Reading in Small Groups (Heinemann, 2010), and Independent Reading Assessment: Fiction and Nonfiction for grades 3, 4, and 5 (Scholastic, 2012 and 2013).

Jennifer will be presenting two workshops, sponsored by Scholastic, Inc., at this year’s conference:

  • Informational Texts: The Intersection of Complexity and Skills (Grades 3–6)
  • Lenses and Lessons For Informational Text Reading (Grades 3–6)

We have launched our registration for this year’s event with more than 100 workshops for teachers, literacy coaches, and Reading Recovery educators.


[i] Allington & McGill-Franzen, 1989; Haynes & Jenkins, 1986; O’Sullivan et al, 1990; Zehr, 2009

[ii] Anderson, Wilson & Fielding, 1988

[iii] Krashen, 1993; Cunningham & Stanovich, 1991; Stanovich & Cunningham, 1993; Allington, 2001; Pressley, et al, 2000; Taylor et al, 2000

[iv] Gambrell, Wilson & Gantt, 1981; Allington, 2001; Ainley, 2006; Fink, 1995; Guthrie, 2004

Connecting Ideas: Explosions of Thought

by JoEllen McCarthy

2012 Literacy for All Conference Speaker and Staff Developer

Thought grenades.  Word wars. The power of an idea! These were the things that resonated with me after revisiting Frindle, by Andrew Clements. It got me wondering…

In our schools today, students and teachers are wrestling with the new Common Core State Standards.  The purpose of these new standards is to have children be career and college ready.  Ironically, career ready for those careers that do not yet exist. In the fictional book by Andrew Clements, “frindles” didn’t exist either.  That didn’t stop the main character, student Nick Allen, from wondering.

I wonder if thought grenades are the explosions of ideas that give us the ability to think more critically.  Isn’t that what we need for our students to be “career and college ready?”

Andrew Clements mentions, “Wondering and thinking are not the same things.”  Of course we want our students “to think like detectives, and read like investigative reporters” as per NY commissioner John King.  However, we want them “wondering” too.  There is a beauty that is intangible in thinking about students’ ability to wonder, to question, and to act on that inquiry.  Isn’t that the premise behind all really great ideas?  A curiosity or a passion exists that is so powerful, that it causes our students to act – to want to act: to read the next book by an author, explore a theme or to further investigate an idea, to read more, to write and in turn to think more deeply.

When we provide text sets (a string of texts around a theme, concept or idea of different genres, levels, media and resources) we provide a wider lens to spark deeper thinking.  Text sets encourage investigations that naturally help with the infamous balance of literature and informational texts required by the Common Core State Standards. But more importantly, thought grenades happen that enable us to reach our students’ diverse interests and learning styles. We can ignite their passions and allow for personalization and differentiation to meet the needs of all learners.  As facilitators of our students’ learning we need to encourage their conversations and collaborations around ideas.   Likewise, as teachers, when we talk with one another, attend conferences, book swap, friend each other on Goodreads.com, connect as part of a Professional Learning Network like Twitter  (thanks Nerdy Book Club), our thinking grows and impacts our work with students.

In terms of the power of “thought grenades,” I will leave you with a “wonder-ful”  example.  There has been a gigantic explosion around the book Wonder, by R.J. Palaccio.  Teachers and students all over are reading the book Wonder.  The book is a must read for all.  It is also a great opportunity to create a text set around empathy:  Trudy Ludwig’s picture books My Secret Bully, Confessions of a Former Bully, Just Kidding; poetry from Baseball Snakes and Summer Squash, by Donald Graves; nonfiction short stories from Bullying & Me: School Yard Stories; videos from www.stopbullying.gov; or Bully, Patricia Polacco’s newest picture book that explores cyber bullying – to name a few.

We were given the gift of Wonder from R.J. Palacio.  Her idea was triggered as a result of an experience, followed by the encounter of the song Wonder by Natalie Merchant. A thought grenade happened.  In essence, because of her connection around an idea, her idea became more than a spark, it became an explosion.  Now, all over our country, thanks to R.J. Palacio, she has given us the “choose kind” mantra to wonder about…and hopefully act upon!  Deep connections across texts and around ideas increase understandings. Text sets and thought grenades both speak to the power of collaboration and connected ideas.  Be connected. Stay curious. Believe. Keep wondering. Thought grenades really do exist.


JoEllen McCarthy is a teacher, lifelong learner, and mother of 3 boy readers and writers.  She spends her days in classrooms as a regional staff developer outside of NYC.  She is passionate about literacy and has recently become addicted to Twitter. She is proud to be an official member of the Nerdy Book Club. @imalwayslearnin

JoEllen McCarthy will be presenting at the upcoming Literacy for All Conference in Providence, RI.  Her session, “Reading, Writing, and Thinking Across Texts”, is scheduled for Tuesday, November 6, at 10:15 am. 

To read more about RJ Palacio http://rjpalacio.com/author.html

See #wonderofwonder or #choosekind on Twitter.

Recent guest blog for the Nerdy Book Club

Keeping the Balance

by Kerry Crosby

Guest Blogger and Adjunct Faculty Member for Lesley University’s Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

As I develop my keynote address titled “Using the Common Core to develop writing curriculum that meets the needs of all writers,” for the upcoming institute at Lesley featuring Katie Wood Ray, I have been struck by the need to put in visuals of balancing scales throughout my presentation.  Districts all over are looking deeply at aligning their curriculum to the Common Core and mapping their units of study over the year.  I am deeply grateful that the Common Core has forced all of us to take a look at how to align our curricula both horizontally and vertically and has created an atmosphere for deeper collaboration and study of what we expect from our students at every level.  This is all satisfying, good and important work.

However, the reason I have felt the need to infuse my slides with balancing scales is so we don’t lose sight of the need to balance our understanding of the Common Core with our understanding of our students and what they demonstrate as writers. We cannot have one without the other—without common standards, we often lack content and high expectations, but without the kids, we fall prey to “covering” materials…plowing through whether they understand it or not in an effort to stay loyal to our units of study and our curriculum map.

So, the question we must ask of ourselves is:  how do we meet the demands of the Common Core and make sure our curriculum is rich and supportive of these standards while making room to differentiate to meet the varying needs of our students?  How do we meet students where they are and bring them to where they need to go—whether they are writing above, on or below the standards for their grade level?

Understanding the Common Core Vertically

One way to do this is to understand the expectations of the Common Core at each grade level. It is not enough to understand what the standards say for your own grade, but what are the expectations for your students’ writing the year before and the year after?  If we understand the differences in the language of the Common Core at the different grade levels and have consensus on what this means in actual teaching and in student work, we will know what our students need to do next in their writing whether they are on grade level, below or above.  As we work with colleagues to align our curriculum to the Common Core, we must not forget to have these questions at the forefront:  What are the expectations for the students’ writing at this grade level? What does that look like? What will I see in my students’ writing to know that they are reaching this expectation and how will I know where to bring them next?

Analyzing Student Work

This brings us to the need to look at student work closely.  Analyzing student writing to know the students’ strengths and what they are ready for next will bring us closer to knowing how to provide the appropriate level of support in our teaching as we address the standards for our grade.  Looking at student writing will help you to figure out how you can differentiate the goals of your unit of study to meet the varying needs in your classroom.

Differentiating Instruction within the Common Core

How then do we meet these diverse needs?  The very structure of writing workshop provides the framework for being able to meet these varying needs and to strike this delicate balance between meeting the standards and not forgetting the individual needs of our students.

The writing minilesson is a perfect place to teach the standard…through explicit modeling and a gradual release of responsibility, you can introduce a concept and let the students try it out in their own writing.  When you notice some students are not taking on the new concepts you are teaching, reflect on how to reach those students.  Instead of just plowing through the curriculum to “cover it,” you will want to think about where each of your students are  in their understandings and use the different instructional contexts offered through a workshop-based approach to meet their needs.  Instructional contexts like interactive writing, guided writing (small group instruction of writing) or writing conferences allow for this differentiation.  Whether these needs are addressed individually, in small groups or through whole group minilessons, the point is that the children are not left out of the process as we strive to meet the demands of the Common Core.  After all, our common core—the heart of our teaching—is our children.

Talking with Colleagues to Keep the Students at the Heart

So, as you strive to understand the demands of the Common Core and align your curriculum, have these important conversations with colleagues:

  • How will we know our students are taking on the learning? What kind of evidence will we want to see in their writing to know they are meeting the standards?
  • How will we meet them where they are?
  • How will our curriculum maps and are teaching allow for differentiation?

Calkins, Ehrenworth and Lehman sum it up nicely in Pathways to the Common Core:

Mostly then, the Common Core writing standards seem utterly aligned to the writing process tradition that is well established across the states, with a few new areas of focus and a raised bar for the quality of writing we should expect students to produce.  This quality of writing can be achieved by mandating explicit instruction, opportunities for practice, centrality on feedback, assessment-based instruction and spiral curriculum that have been the hallmarks of rigorous writing workshop instruction.” (Heinemann, 2012)

If we continue to place our students at the core of our work, we will strike the balance between meeting the demands for high-quality writing offered by the Common Core and meeting the diverse and exciting needs and interests of our students.

Kerry Crosby will be presenting at this year’s Summer Literacy Institute–The Language of Teaching: Planning, Instructing, and Assessing Writing, K–8 on Wednesday, July 11, 2012. There is still room in this institute. Visit http://www.lesley.edu/crr/summer for details.

Sharing is Caring: Infusing Informational Texts with Love

By Jessica Sherman

Primary Literacy Collaborative Trainer, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

As you may have noticed in our recent posts, we here at Lesley University’s Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative have embraced the attention that the new Common Core State Standards have placed on reading and writing informational texts. Knowing that these texts appeal to young children’s innate sense of wonder about their world, to their desire to enthusiastically take on new learning, and to their sense of pride in sharing what they understand, we have encouraged reading and writing in this genre.

When taking on a unit of study in writing informational texts, it is easy to get bogged down by the idea of the author as researcher.  In the past, with this mindset and certainly with best intentions, I have exhausted and frustrated myself trying to turn my first graders into a certain type of researcher that uses printed resources to support their writing. I’ve tried to locate leveled books to match the topics of the 25 first grade readers in my class (impossible!). I’ve tried to group students into “topic groups” (some kids do not care about sharks no matter how hard you try to make them!). I’ve conducted endless lessons about “putting ideas into your own words” (they still copied!) and how to use a graphic organizer to take notes (disaster!). Because of my own understanding of the genre, I was pushing my kids to behave like tiny college students.

As I study the Continuum of Literacy Learning and the Common Core State Standards, I realize how misguided my efforts have been for my primary students. I had imposed a narrow view of an informational writing task on my students rather than using what I had learned about them to build on their strengths.  If I could do it again, I would help writers do the following:

See themselves as people who have already experienced, observed, and learned about their world.  Despite their limited time on this planet, they have surely taken in a lot of information on a variety of topics. They know about families, babies, pets, playing games, food, places they’ve traveled, favorite spots in their community, art class, kindergarten, etc. The list is endless!

Identify which topics best suit them based on their interests, experiences, and understandings. Kids often confuse interest with knowledge about a topic.  They need help understanding that readers seek out topics they are interested in learning more about and writers teach others about things that they have already come to understand.

Think about ALL of the ways they might become a little bit more knowledgeable about their topic. If kids are showing us that using books independently for research is too difficult, let go of that task. Help them see that writers conduct research in many different ways – observation and interviews are valid methods of investigating a topic. In the meantime, continue to model “book research” during shared writing experiences.  With repeated exposure and eventually with explicit instruction, they will be ready to take this step in their own work.

Become immersed in the genre so that they notice how features of informational texts help readers understand the topic better.  If kids are truly interested their topic they will care about making sure that their readers understand the topic. They will want to try out using features of informational texts (such as page numbers, labels, heading, and bold print) in order to convey their message clearly.

Unpack the work of authors in this genre to learn about how they might craft a piece of writing that engages readers in learning.  When students are encouraged to notice the way that authors infuse joy and passion into their work, they will certainly follow suit. Passion about a topic evokes a strong voice in the writer and in turn pulls readers in. The idea of getting a reader excited about a topic that the author already loves can be extraordinarily motivating.

Becoming a proficient writer of informational texts requires many, many tiny steps down a variety of very long paths.  It is up to primary teachers to inspire the youngest writers to begin this journey fueled by a determination to joyfully and thoughtfully share the things that really matter most.