The Most Important Part of Strategy Instruction

By Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris, 2018 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speakers

With the publication of Mosaic of Thought by Ellin Oliver Keene and Susan Zimmerman
in 1997, ideas about comprehension instruction began to shift towards teaching students  to be strategic. Since then, powerfully influential books–such as Strategies that Work by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis and The Reading Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo–have helped us understand how to consider the strategic work of reading as a collection of processes that work together to help children comprehend text. While we agree that strategy instruction should be an instructional mainstay, we invite you to consider some of the more subtle aspects of teaching students to be strategic.

LFA2018-Kim-YarisLFA2018-Jan-BurkinsHere are five things to think about as you are working to develop strategic readers in your classroom:

  1. You can better teach reading strategies if you understand the reading processes of students.

    Listening to students read, talking to them about their understanding of texts, and knowing how they idiosyncratically approach and process text is quintessential to knowing which strategy will be most helpful to them. As a teacher you can know 1,000 reading strategies, but if you don’t know your students well enough to understand them as readers, you will not be able to effectively match the strategy with the reader.

  2. Students do not need 1000 strategies to be successful, in fact this may make them less successful. 

    The value of knowing a lot of strategies as a teacher is that we can then differentiate our instruction to meet the individual needs of students. Teaching lots of strategies to all of your students, however, will likely produce a cognitive overload. In the moment of figuring out the tricky part of a text, having three very-versatile strategies will prove more beneficial than having 15 specific strategies. In the moment of reading, problem solving must be on the run. Having too many strategies to sort through slows the whole process, which interrupts comprehension. Sometimes, less is more.

  3. It doesn’t matter how many strategies students know, if they don’t actually use them. 

    The real value of reading strategies is in their application! If students don’t–independent of teacher reminders and prompting–use a strategy, then it is of little value. The reading rubber meets the literacy road when you evaluate strategy instruction through the lens of student transfer–Do students know when, as well as how, to use strategies, and are they doing so independently?

  4. Isolated strategies are not the end goal. 

    The ultimate purpose of strategy instruction is that students integrate new strategies into their larger reading process. Knowing how to infer (or question or predict or clarify, etc.) is not enough. Proficient readers integrate strategies, flexibly using them in fluid ways. Putting all the strategies together is the ultimate goal.

  5. Not all students need explicit instruction in specific strategies. 

    Students who have balanced and integrated reading processes, who are already strategic and agentive as they work through text, probably need little (or even no) strategy instruction. They simply need more time to read. Their reading processes are already what Marie Clay referred to as “self-extending systems.” Be careful about one-size-fits-all strategy instruction, particularly if it replaces actual reading practice for students.

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Immersion Helps Children Envision the Possibilities

By Stacey Shubitz, 2018 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

Instagram Stories have been around for two years. They came onto my radar about six months ago since several people I follow started creating them. I thought about dabbling in Instagram Stories, but knew I needed to watch a bunch of them before I tried on my own. (Even though Instagram Stories disappear from your profile after 24 hours – unless you save them to your profile from your private archive – I didn’t want to make a fool out of myself!) Therefore, I immersed myself in many Instagram Stories before creating one.

LFA2018-Stacey-ShubitzJust as I needed to view many Instagram Stories to help me figure out how one of my own would go, immersion helps young writers envision what their end products will look like. Regardless of the genre, time spent immersing children in the kind of writing you expect them to produce in a unit of study is time well-spent (Bomer, 2010; Caine, 2008); Eickholdt, 2015; Ray, 2006; Shubitz, 2016). After all, it’s hard to understand what’s expected if you don’t know what the finished piece could look like.

Typically, teachers share mentor texts with students during read aloud time. The first reading of a text should be to experience it as a reader. The second reading of a mentor text should be to notice craft or, rather, how the text is written. After reading a text twice, it is time to dig deeper to notice and note what an author did that made the writing come alive. Many teachers provide time for whole-class discussion of a text so that all students’ responses are honored and recorded on an anchor chart for future reference.

In addition, students can work with partners to read like writers. You may provide students with a variety of mentor texts (i.e., published, teacher-written, student-written) to read and explore together. Provide students with a variety of mentor texts – at different levels – so all students can engage in immersion with a partner.

There are many ways to help students read like writers.

Katie Wood Ray (1999) suggests:

  1. Notice something about the craft of the text.
  2. Talkabout it and make a theory about why a writer might use this craft.
  3. Give the craft a name.
  4. Think of other texts you know. Have you seen this craft before?
  5. Try and envision using this craft in your own writing. (120)

Ralph Fletcher (2011) encourages students to:

  • Make a copy of the writing and put it in your writer’s notebook.
  • Copy a sentence or short section of the piece in your writer’s notebook, maybe mentioning why you chose it.
  • Share it with a friend, zooming in on one part or craft element you really liked.
  • “Write off the text” – that is, create a similar piece of your own. (13)

While Katherine Bomer (2016) provides a third way to examine texts:

Step 1: Read Out Loud.

Step 2: Respond as a Reader.

Step 3: Reread.

Step 4: Read with a Lens.

Step 5: Talk.

Step 6: Record. (10-11)

There isn’t one way to read like a writer. Therefore, it’s important to provide students with a variety of ways to read texts – some are more structured than others – so students can find a process of their own to adopt. After all, we want kids to continue to do this work independently in the future.

After spending two to four days at the beginning of a unit of study to immerse students in a genre, it’s time to determine what they’ve absorbed. After immersion, set aside a day to administer an on-demand writing assessment (Calkins, Hohne, and Robb, 2015). On-demand writing assessments give students the opportunity to try out what they’ve learned after immersion. The data you’ll glean from an on-demand writing assessment will help you modify your whole-class instruction, if necessary, if you notice there are some big understandings about a genre the entire class is missing. In addition, you’ll be able to look at each student’s piece to determine strengths and areas for growth, which can help you set goals for one-to-one writing conferences. Furthermore, on-demand writing assessments provide you with data to create groups of students so you can create a series of small-group strategy lessons to meet multiple needs at one time.

We want students to feel confident when they begin the first non-immersion lesson in a unit of study. One of the best ways to empower kids to feel like they can create writing is to help them understand what it is they’re going to create from the start.

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Bomer, Katherine. 2010. Hidden Gems: Naming and Teaching from the Brilliance in Every Student’s Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

—————. 2016. The Journey Is Everything: Teaching Essays That Students Want to Write for People Who Want to Read Them. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Caine, Karen. 2008. Writing to Persuade: Minilessons to Help Students Plan, Draft, and Revise, Grades 3-8. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Calkins, Lucy, Kelly Hohne, and Audra Robb. 2015. Writing Pathways: Performance Assessments and Learning Progressions. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Eickholdt, Lisa. 2015. Learning from Classmates: Using Students’ Writing as Mentor Texts. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fletcher, Ralph. 2011. Mentor Author, Mentor Texts: Short Texts and Craft Notes. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Ray, Katie Wood. 1999. Wondrous Words: Writers and Writing in the Elementary Classroom. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

—————. 2006. Study Driven: A Framework for Planning Units of Study in the Writing Workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Shubitz, Stacey. 2016. Craft Moves: Lesson Sets for Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Thinking about Text Choices for Readers Who Struggle

by Cindy Downend, Assistant Director of Primary Programs and Helen Sisk, Intermediate/Middle Grades Faculty Member, Lesley University Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

We’re busy in the Center right now preparing for our Summer Institute on Teaching Struggling Readers: Elevating Teacher Expertise in Grades K–6 and we have been pondering all that we need to consider when selecting texts for our students who are finding it difficult to read. Fortunately, Gay and Irene have provided us with some guidance in When Readers Struggle that is (as always) sage advice:

  1. Readers need to be engaged with delightful texts. Often, the most struggling students are given the least appealing texts that would be off-putting to any reader. Select texts about interesting topics in nonfiction or appealing characters in fiction. Also be sure to provide visually interesting books with compelling illustrations or photographs.
  1. Next, think about how the child will understand the text. Struggling readers need something they can relate to their own experiences and understandings. When selecting a text ask yourself, “Does the text have enough support to allow them to predict, to make inferences, to learn something new?” (Page 402)
  1. Consider if the print features of the text will support comprehension. Beginning readers need simple font with clear spaces between lines and words. Print layout becomes more complex along the gradient of text, but you will want to ensure that the text layout is not confusing. Students need to learn to deal with complex text features, but be sure that there is not too much for the reader to handle.   
  1. Use books with language that is accessible to the reader. Written language will always be different than what is spoken. However, you will want to think about the match between a child’s oral language and the language structures in the text. At the earlier reading levels the match needs to be close so children can use what they know about language to help them read. As readers move into higher text levels, the language becomes more complex. This gradual increase then expands the reader’s processing system. 
  1. Analyze the text structure to ensure that the reader will be able to understand the meaning. Think about how the book is organized and the reader’s current ability to follow a story or manage different kinds of organization. Stories with a repeating pattern are much easier to comprehend then a text with a more challenging structure of multiple episodes, flashbacks, etc. With nonfiction, consider how the text “works” and support the reader by explaining any unfamiliar structures. The ultimate goal is to enable readers to figure out how texts are organized.
  1. Evaluate the illustrations to ensure that they support meaning and do not confuse the reader. Beginning readers need a well-defined story and the illustrations at the earliest text levels carry most of the meaning. Look for pictures that are clear with no distracting information. At higher text levels, the illustrations will extend understanding and are meant to enhance the meaning of the book.

If you would like to think more about the role of text selection as well as all of the other facets in supporting readers who struggle, come to Cambridge this summer and join us for Lesley University’s summer institute on readers who struggle being held July 13–16.

During this four-day institute, you will join educational leaders Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, and university faculty in exploring the characteristics of students who struggle with reading and examine the teaching practices that support their reading growth. Students who struggle with reading require instruction that builds on their strengths and scaffolds their next steps.

This institute is available for noncredit or credit. To register go to:

A Parent’s Perspective: I Know First Hand the Power of Leveled Literacy Intervention

by Melissa Fasten, Project Manager at the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

Working for the Center in the capacity of project manager, I theoretically am aware of the amazing work and systems our director Irene Fountas and her colleague Gay Su Pinnell develop on behalf of our struggling readers.  This summer/fall, I experienced first hand Leveled Literacy Intervention as a parent.  Read on to learn of our journey with the LLI green system.

When the summer reading list for my six-year son arrived and we were urged to read for 20 minutes each day, I was excited. Yay!  Gabe and I can snuggle while I help him learn to read.  Gabe has enjoyed read-aloud and bedtime stories – this will be great!  Unfortunately, it was a struggle and my child was not interested at ALL in reading with me over the summer before 1st grade.  When I say struggle, I mean the books that were on the summer list for beginning readers were too difficult.  Gabe shut down, crossed his arms, read with no expression when he was able to decode a word, and was literally kicking his feet!  As a parent, I felt defeated.  What and where did I do wrong?

In October, Gabe started the green Leveled Literacy Intervention (LLI) program.  Immediately, he gained confidence in his reading. With each take home book, I saw his magnificent growth each day.  A milestone for me was when he read to his nine-month old sister totally without prompting!  During our teacher conference, his teacher shared that when asked if he was a reader in September; he stated “No, I am not good at it.”  By December, Gabe’s teacher stated that if she asked that question now, she felt the response would be a much more positive one.  What has changed?  His experience with successful reading in LLI small group instruction (thanks to Ms. Williams) allows Gabe to fully participate in his literacy instruction in his classroom.  He has learned to problem solve if he doesn’t know a word.

His LLI group is wrapping up and although I haven’t seen a progress report yet, I can measure his success through his reading behaviors and development of text preference.  He seeks clues, reads sentences everywhere with fluency, and is in constant exploration of language.  His writing has improved through the take home activities as well.

Thank you to Brookline Public Schools for understanding how important this early intervention is to your students and to the Fountas and Pinnell team for creating these systems to provide this small group instruction!


Writing about Meli from his writing book.  Gabe’s favorite book series are Orsen and Taco, Meli, and Sam and Jessie.

To learn more about LLI, visit our Center’s web page

Wanted: Texts For All Readers

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

What Really Matters When Thinking About Text Difficulty: The Dual Needs of Struggling Readers

by Eva Konstantellou, Reading Recovery Trainer

coverIn his recent article in The Reading Teacher, “What Really Matters When Working With Struggling Readers” (click on “Get PDF” under “Article Tools” to read the full article), Richard Allington makes the important point that “struggling readers just participate in too little high-success reading activity every day” (p. 525) and blames this common practice for the failure of struggling readers to become achieving readers.   He argues that if struggling readers are asked to read texts that are too difficult for them, they will continue to flounder with very little chance of becoming engaged readers who learn from their own efforts.  He proceeds to suggest that the reading development of primary-grade struggling readers will be fostered if they have opportunities to read texts at a high level of accuracy between 98% and 100%, just like the better readers in the classroom.

Reading Recovery teachers understand the importance of having their students access texts they can read independently.  Reading Recovery students need to make accelerated progress so that they catch up with their classmates.  One kind of learning that contributes to acceleration is performing with success on familiar materials.  “Acceleration is achieved as the child takes over the learning process and works independently, discovering new things for himself inside and outside the lessons” (Clay 2005, p. 23).  Indeed in the 30-minute daily Reading Recovery lesson, students have the opportunity to read two or more familiar texts which provides for volume of reading practice, orchestration and practice of a range of complex behaviors as well as the understanding and enjoyment of stories.

In addition to choosing texts that allow their students to practice independent reading of familiar texts, Reading Recovery teachers also choose texts that allow their students to engage in independent problem-solving on new and interesting texts.  The teacher’s supportive teaching and prompting extend the student’s ability to problem-solve in texts that are just right—neither too easy that they do not offer opportunities for problem-solving nor too hard that they create frustration to the reader because he has to work on a large percentage of words which renders the reading dis-fluent and interferes with comprehension.

Fountas and Pinnell have also stressed the importance of having struggling readers access texts that allow them to perform like proficient readers:   “It is important for students to read a great many independent level books—texts they can read with an accuracy rate of 95 percent or higher (Levels A through K) or 98 percent or higher (Levels L through Z)”  (Fountas and Pinnell, 2009, p. 126).  They have also commented on the importance of selecting text for differentiated reading instruction that allow their students the opportunity to grow as readers:

“Students do need to take on more texts that are more difficult than those they can presently read independently.  But the gap cannot be so great that the reader has no access to most of the words and the meaning of the text”  (Fountas and Pinnell 2012, p. 2).  Texts that are a bit harder than their independent reading level have high instructional value because they help build the students’ network of strategic activities that will allow them to operate successfully in increasingly more challenging text.  These new, instructional texts become easy for students with successive readings and the processing system is strengthened as fluency and comprehension are also improved.

Struggling readers need to have opportunities to read a large quantity of engaging, delightful texts independently.  At the same time they need to extend and deepen their competencies through “reading work” in texts that offer them opportunities for problem-solving—searching for and using information from many different sources, self-monitoring and taking initiative to correct their mistakes, confirming what they’ve read, and solving new words by using a range of strategic actions.

Allington, R.L. (2013) “What Really Matters When Working With Struggling Readers,”The Reading Teacher, 66, 7, 520-530.

Clay M.M. 2005.  Literacy Lessons Designed for Individuals:  Part One, Why?   When?   And How?  Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.

Fountas I.C. and G.S. Pinnell.  2012.  “The critical role of text complexity in teaching children to read,”  Heinemann.

Fountas I.C. and G.S. Pinnell.  2009.  When Readers Struggle:  Teaching That Works. Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.

Engaging Struggling Readers in the Intermediate and Middle Grades

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!