Reading, Thinking

Growing A Reader



Our daughter is almost 2 and a half years old. I never read to her when I was pregnant (sorry research, but that just seemed weird) but we did start reading to her  from a pretty early age – maybe 4 months old? We have a stuffed bookshelves of books, a book box by her bed and another in the window of the living room, more in a drawer beside our bed, and others stacked around in piles. In addition to books, her dad likes to bring her catalogs for farm equipment, lego toys, toy tractors…and so these are part of her library too.

Recently I have been noticing more about her behaviour as a reader. 

In “The Bear Snores On” we now pause at the page (below) where the bear wakes up and sneezes so that Lizzy can point out that “The bear has ABCDBCBCBDBCD’s coming out of his mouth! That’s funny!”


When we read one of the Usborne books from a boxed set, we have to start with her point to each piece of text on the cover and asking “What is this?” (The answers being: The people who printed the book, the name of the book, the person who wrote the book, the person who drew the pictures). The book is turned over and we talk about the writing on the back too.  Inside the book, she’ll point to the words and I’ll tell her that they are the words that make up the story. When we’ve gone over this, the story can begin.


And after looking at a “First Words” book, I asked her to tell me what all the pictures on the front cover were and to my surprise, she could name them all. Likewise, she will often ask for books to be re-read multiple times (“Read it again! Read it again!) and will now laugh in the funny parts and respond more to what is actually happening in the story.

All this got me thinking.

We have been reading some of the same books for 2 years now so it is not surprising that she knows the stories by now.  What I am surprised by – or maybe more curious about – is how her behaviours as a reader are changing. She will ask for a book to be read to her as soon as she wakes up. She will pack a book in her little backpack if we’re going out for the day. She definitely goes to sleep pretty easily if we first read books to her.And she has started pointing to the words (albeit randomly) while I am reading. So, do we have a reader? And, why should we care?

So I watched some TV…

Bill Clinton was on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and he talked about the “Too Small To Fail” initiative of the Clinton Foundation, designed to support parents and children in closing the 30 million word gap.  Essentially children of higher socio-economic parents who have the time and the resources to read to their children will have enabled their child to hear 30 million more words than his or her lower socio-economic peers.

More on the 30 million word gap from Rice University.

And more on the Language Gap from Stanford University.


And then I bought a book…


Raising Kids Who Read – What Parents and Teachers Can Do by Daniel T. Willingham. (Here is a great NPR Q&A with the author).

This book poses some really great questions and focuses your attention on three components of reading:

  1. Decoding
  2. Comprehension
  3. Motivation

There is a lot of ‘chicken or the egg’ type thinking going on as you examine these three points. I would argue that our daughter is motivated to read, and is beginning to comprehend what she is reading, but is unable to decode. In schools, we often start with a desire for students to decode words and then they are ‘readers’. We then drill them on comprehension and by the time they are 11 or 12 (or maybe earlier, sadly) we are focused on how to motivate them to read in the first place.

Willingham talks about comprehension being born out of experience. He gives an example of a sentence in which it is mentioned that surprisingly, the sails of the boat were made of kevlar. A student may be able to decode ‘kevlar’ and comprehend that if something is ‘surprising’ it is atypical, but unless they have come across kevlar in a previous experience, they are unlikely to make the connection as to why this is surprising.

So, how do kids gain this experience? By reading, sure, but by speaking and listening and experiencing. And by talking. Harvard Graduate School of Education professor, Catherine Snow – one of the world’s leading experts on language and literacy has conducted research which shows that talking with children leads to a larger vocabulary, and that leveraging this broader vocabulary through further discussion and storytelling leads to improved literacy outcomes.

Bari Walsh wrote a great article, How To Raise A Voracious Reader. Consider the implications from this extract of his article:

A large body of research — much of which arises from the pioneering literacy work of HGSE Professor Catherine Snow — has shown that rare or sophisticated words are the building blocks of a robust vocabulary in children. And it turns out that rare words — those that don’t appear on an age-defined list of 3,000 common words — show up more often at the dinner table than they do in the picture books we read to our children, says Fishel, an associate clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.

A 2006 paper by Snow and Diane Beals found that children between the ages of three and five heard about 140 rare words when caregivers read aloud to them from picture books. At the dinner table, they heard about a thousand rare words. “That was the real jackpot,” Fishel says. “Kids who have bigger vocabularies learn to read more easily and earlier, because they can decipher the meaning of more words when they’re reading.”

And it’s not just listening to words – it’s using them to explain, remember, and tell stories. Research shows that “kids who know how to tell stories are better readers,” says Fishel, whose recent book on the topic is Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids. “The dinner table is a place where we encourage our kids to tell us stories. When you ask your children open-ended, ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions, or when you ask them to reminisce with you, you’re helping them build their narrative skills.”


Kids who know how to tell stories are better readers.

Consider the implications of this in your classroom. How much time is dedicated to story telling? How often are children given the opportunity to talk? What are your kids doing when they are eating their lunch and how could you support language development and the building of robust vocabulary during this time?

The Family Dinner Project offers some practical tips for parents who want to use dinner time to build these skills with their children. This is great place to start if you have questions about why and how the FDP works.

The solution to ‘Growing A Reader’ is not in buying flashcards or comprehension workbooks. The solution is spending more time talking with your children. Sharing your stories. Encouraging them to share theirs. Talking and listening. And having experiences that promote talking and open the door to conversations.


Four Ideas for Reading in the New Year

I was going back through all the “pin now – read later” items that I had pinned on Pinterest and noticed there was a bunch of really fun finds to do with reading.  In no particular order, here are four ideas for reading in the new year.

Read Your Way Across the USA

I love this.  I have read a few of these books but I like that someone has taken the time to prepare a map of books that take place in each of the 50 states.  For those kids that are looking for a fun challenge or want to expand from their usual genre choices, this might be a fun way to encourage the introduction of a few new authors into their reading life.  My fifth graders have read some of these books but some might be a bit beyond them at this point.  I also like the idea of them creating their own reading map based on books that they have read or want to read and seeing if we can also make our reading way across the USA.

Source: via Sonya on Pinterest

Reading Genres

I have kids who tell me, “I don’t like fantasy” or will ask, “What is the difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy?”.  This guide looks really helpful in helping kids independently make choices about the type of genre they will read next. I like the similarities column as that to me seems to be the way to get the kids to expand from the genres they currently read into new ones.

Source: via Carol on Pinterest

Read Write Think Website

read write think

If you are yet to discover this website, you are in for a treat.  If you are a regular user, you will know how awesome it is.  I did a quick search for “reading” and “strategy guides” and then narrowed down the results by clicking on “inquiry based teaching”.  What I got was a great guide to teaching research skills with an inquiry approach.  The guides are comprehensive, fully supported by research, come with appropriate handouts and/or links to other websites, and best of all, are less of a ‘one stop shop’ to be reproduced and more of a spring-board for your own interpretation and ideas as a teacher.  The detail and depth of this website makes it a firm favorite of mine and really does hammer home the connection between reading, writing and thinking – as it’s name suitably suggests.

Blooms Taxonomy

Encouraging higher order thinking is something that can be done when children are reading.  The following graphic is one which explains the ‘higher order’ and provides kid-friendly synonyms for each level.  I will be introducing this in my classroom as a way of highlighting these ideas to my kids and getting them to delve deeper in their thinking as they discuss and write about the books they are reading.


What tools, ideas or strategies are you reading in the new year with?


Oozing With Love For the Printed Word

Yesterday, I was outside in my reading hammock, with my dog at my feet, and a cool drink resting nearby and I polished off Sharon M. Draper’s “Out of My Mind” in just under two hours. 295 pages. Loved it. By contrast, I spent about half that time on the short stories and bubble format questions of the benchmark assessment my kids are given at the beginning of the year (I took the test too – if they have to, I figure I should too) and even I was questioning my love of reading at the end of it. But I digress…I have been thinking a lot about Reading.  In particular, in establishing a classroom environment that oozes with love for the printed word.

In setting up my reading classroom, I want to build on what seems to be a fairly well established love of books amongst my students.  They are very well read, very reflective of what they have read and very keen to read more.  I know…I am super lucky.  I also have the author of the fabulous book blog One Page To The Next as a parent in my class.  On Friday, we met to throw around ideas for growing a class of readers and writers.  Last year, all of my kids kept blogs as a way of sharing their reading reflections.  This year, I want to open things up.  Here are some ideas we plan on pursuing:

Book Time Line

I came across My Life Through Books via my Twitter network.  Developed by Phil Sharp, it is a very cool visual way to share what you have read. This is hot off the press and not ready for public consumption just yet – which is a shame because when you go to the site and check it out, it is slick and cool and just the ticket for showcasing your reading prowess.  Until it becomes avaliable, I like the idea and think it could be transferred to a platform like Dipity by students so that they can track their reading history from the beginning to the end of fifth grade. If you like the look of seeing “________ (insert your name) Life Through Books”, be sure to let Phil know!

Newberry (or Other Award Winning Books) Challenges

Mr. Shu, a pretty awesome librarian and mega-lover of literature, is on a quest to read award winning books (among the million other books he reads – seriously, this guy is a machine!).  We loved the way he was sharing his progress with his students via posters of award winning books that he then gives a gold sticker to, upon reading.  A great way to introduce a selection of books and to share your own reading with the students or to encourage them to challenge themselves in their own reading. There are lots of lists of top books you could do this with.  I like the look of the NPR Top 100 Teen Books – despite the fact that Wonder doesn’t feature 😦

Here is Mr. Shu explaining why he decided to do this challenge:

Wonder Wall

Wonder by RJ Palacio was the only book I assigned as summer reading for my incoming class. Starting tomorrow we are going to take a leaf out of the book – or more accurately Mr. Browne, the English teacher’s book – and begin with precepts.  On the first day of school, Mr. Browne writes the word PRECEPTS on the board and asks if anyone knows what it means. Among his 5th graders, the answer is crickets. (I am curious to hear what my kids will say!) So he writes on the board “Precepts = Rules About Really Important Things!” After asking the children what some really important things might be (he gets “rules,” “homework,” “schoolwork,” “parents,” “family,” “pets,” “friends,” “sharks” — that sort of thing), he writes on the board “WHO WE ARE!”

“Who we are,” he said, underlining each word as he said it. “Who we are! Us! Right? What kind of people are we? What kind of person are you? Isn’t that the most important thing of all? Isn’t that the kind of question we should be asking ourselves all the time? ‘What kind of person am I?’” (47)

From here, Mr. Browne launches into his yearly ritual. It starts with one final inscription on the chalkboard: “Mr Browne’s September Precept: When Given the Choice Between Being Right or Being Kind, Choose Kind.” From there, the instructions unfold like so:

  1. Students create a section in their English notebooks dedicated to monthly precepts.
  2. At the beginning of each month, the teacher will write a new precept on the board for students to copy.
  3. Students will then discuss the precept and what it means.
  4. At the end of the month, students will write a brief essay on that month’s precept, what it means to them personally, and how they managed in their attempts to “live it out” over the past four weeks.
  5. Students will have these precepts to take home in June. In the summer, they are required to mail the teacher a precept of their own on a postcard.

Today, I made a space for the precept of the month.  I wanted there to be somewhere for the kids to focus their attention on with regard to this idea from the book.  I hope to see them add to it with quotes along the same theme, examples of “choose kind” in their lives or around the world, other books that share a similar theme to the precept…or anything!

Reading Graffiti Wall

Whilst I am still looking for a great title, I am pretty much in love with how the wall turned out.  I had read about graffiti walls for sharing about books and I think it could be fun.  I also want to experiment with a plain paper that can be written on, but I thought, given that I happened to have brick colored paper, that I would start there.  I can’t wait to see what ends up on it!  If you have a suggestion for a heading, I’m all ears!

Reading Square

As I mentioned, my kids last year had book blogs.  While my kids this year will soon also have blogs, I am interested in giving them a physical space to “sell” what they are reading from.  To that extent, I am leaving everything up to them.  My husband measured and taped off the board outside our room for me so that everyone has a space.  Starting tomorrow, how they decorate and display their reading will be up to them.  I look forward to seeing how thoughtfully creative they will be!

This is just the beginning to the development and transformation of reading in fifth grade! There are plans afoot for the incorporation of Book Trailers (viewing, sharing, creating and critiquing), possibilities for Author interactions via Skype or in person, Illustrator studies (starting with my personal all-time favorite, Peter H. Reynolds) and using QR codes  to link to digital content that we post on our blogs.

How do you develop a love for reading in your class?  What new ways of doing are you trying this year?

If you also have literary love for Peter H. Reynolds, join me in celebrating Dot Day – it’s going to be awesome!  I have some ideas to help your celebration here.

Inspiration, PYP, Reading

Those Who Need It The Most

I have been have an interesting Twitter conversation with  a fifth grade teacher embarking on her sixth year of teaching.  The conversation has been on the topic of punishments, specifically taking away recess for ‘infringements’ such as not having parents sign notes, forgetting homework, behavior.  Five minutes.  Five minutes.  Five minutes.  A culture of subtraction has been established and now the question is, what are the alternatives and how can these be agreed upon by a team of teachers for whom this has been the norm?

This year, I am flying ‘solo’.  There is only one fifth grade. But there is a whole school of kids and whilst I don’t believe in the ‘one rule fits all’ mentality, I do believe in finding positive solutions for negative situations.  So what would I do?

My friend Marina Gijzen, a teacher, parent, colleague whilst at Bonn International School, taught me a lot about the family dynamic and the relationship between home and school.  She was the one who advised me to take up any issue such as no note, missing forms, and late arrivals with the parents first.  No kid “wants” to be the one walking into class late, all eyes on them, having missed what’s going on.  Take it up with parents and welcome the kid, warmly, genuinely.  I was teaching her daughter at the time, so I took the advice on board.  I have also been on the ‘late train’ myself as a teacher and I know what a difference “Mrs. terBorg, I am so happy to see you!” makes to what has probably been a stressful morning rather than, “Hey! Mrs.terBorg! You’re late!”.

So…do we punish kids by excluding them from recess, or not?

I say not.  Unless your school culture is one of exclusion, separatism, ostracizing and humiliation. If so, go right ahead. If not, if your school culture is built on developing a welcoming environment and nurturing the development of your children, you will need an alternative.  What about discussion? What about finding out what the root of the visible behavior is? I just read a fabulous article on the importance of inclusion and of being part of something bigger than yourself. Did you get that – being part of something bigger than yourself.  And for those who are a bit rubbish at it – they need twice as much.  Twice as much love, patience, practice, support, caring and kindness.

Schools are currently set up for the students who have good social skills to be given more opportunity to use and refine them, while those with poor social skills are left behind, only to get worse than others in their age group. Opportunity for winners — and exclusion for losers — is a recipe for disaster.

– Dr. Richard Curwin

It is said in sports and in war that the best offense is a good defense – same goes for a good year in your classroom.  Start the year strong.  Give your kids permission to choose a new path.  Establish a culture of respect and the idea of community.  Be relentless in your quest for this from day one.

Donalyn Millar, author of The Book Whisperer, has put out a book list of Books that Build CommunitiesCommunities of Readers and Writers, Communities Who Value All Members, Communities Who Have Fun, and Communities Who Care about the World. Being in community can mean many things and these books are a great way of sharing that with your students.

One of Donalyn’s suggestions is the book Wonder by RJ Palacio.  This was the only book on my summer reading list for my incoming fifth graders.

In addition to reading this book, we will be looking at the movement behind the book to “Choose Kind“.  We will also be partnering with other classes of 4th, 5th and 6th graders who are also reading Wonder as part of Wonder Schools.  In addition to Wonder, there are a number of picture books (another love!) that could be read in conjunction with this book (cue shopping excursion before next Monday!) Clearly, this is important to me – but why?  Because I don’t want to spend the next year subtracting things from the lives of my students.  I want to add to their lives.  I think we are going to have a  great year. An amazing year.  All the ingredients are right in front of us.  What will you choose?  Compassion? Love? Kind?

As I think about the teachers who will choose to revoke recess over missing parent signatures and late arrivals to school, I can’t help but think what would happen if the principal of their school treated them the way they are treating their students.  What would a teacher say to being given an extra recess duty because the lunch order form for a child in their class was late, or the school fees were overdue, or a parent from their class was yet to volunteer?  Ludicrous, right? So why treat our kids this way?

Always, always, choose kind.

Inspiration, Reading

A Quote, An Infographic and Four Awesome Websites for Reading

I am seeing A LOT on my Twitter feed about reading.  With schools out for summer or finishing up their last few days or weeks, teachers are tweeting like crazy about ways to avoid the Summer Slide (not the one at the pool).

Here are some resources I have come across to do with reading that look pretty awesome. What are your favorites?

One of the best things I think you could do to stay connected over the summer is to set yourself (or your child) up with a Twitter account and ‘follow’ some of the curators of these blogs below, but also, follow your favorite authors.  My recent experience says that many authors will take the time to respond to budding readers and aspiring writers.  I would caution you to read carefully before tweeting or emailing or commenting so that you are not asking a question that they have already answered elsewhere on their blog or in the dustjacket of their book! Ask a question that will deepen your connection to the author or help you move forward in your own reading or writing journey.

Below are the sites I am following this summer (to begin with!).  Click on the header for each blog/site for more information.  But first, check out this fun infographic to help you decide what to read this summer.  I love this – totally adding it to the “cool things I want to share with my kids” list for next year!  Blogs to follow after the (long) infographic:
Summer Reading Flowchart

Via and USC Rossier Online

This blog is by Mr. Schu a ” K-5 teacher-librarian who works diligently to put the right book in every child’s hand.”  I follow @MrSchuReads on Twitter and love the timely updates, the wealth of knowledge and the love of reading that oozes from every tweet.  If you love books, follow Mr. Schu! You might also want to scroll down and browse through the blogroll of blogs Mr. Schu follows.  I have clicked through a few and they are all pretty great – I can see my ‘read later’ feed on Instapaper is going to implode this summer!

I think it makes a big different when you know a blogger personally, versus going on what is ‘popular’ on the internet.  The author of One Page To The Next has been a parent of one of my students for two, coming up three, years.  She is a passionate reader.  She reads and reads and reads and stays on top of all things amazing with reading.  She has introduced me to authors I never knew, connected me to amazing ideas in education and children’s literature and reignited my passion for reading.  When she walks into my room, she thinks she is just a regular mom, but this is what I see:

In their own words, the curators of the Nerdy Book Club site welcome you:

If you love books, especially those written for children and young adults, then you are an honorary member of The Nerdy Book Club. Like us, you probably always have a book along to read, a title to recommend, and time to talk about works held dear.

This looks like another great place to get loads of information about what is current and cool in all things books and a chance to hear from other people about their thoughts on books via reviews and recommendations. One of the curators is Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer.  That alone should be enough information to get you to sign up!  The Nerdy Bookclub is also the place to go for information on the Summer #BookaDay challenge.  It looks great!

Touted as the site where “kids flex their reading muscles”, Biblionasium is a new site for kids, teachers, and parents to connect over a love of books. According to the site, here is what they offer these three groups of readers (click each image for more information):

UPDATE:  There is another great site:  Mrs P’s Tips To Keep Kids Engaged in Reading has some really cool ideas!  Check it out!

Creativity, Reading

The Beauty of Vowels, Advice to Sink in Slowly, and the Birth of a Book.

How often do you think about vowels?  Probably not often!  In a post titled “Vowels: A cinematic homage to the beauty of language and life”, Brainpickings shares this video from film maker and visual storyteller, Temujin Doran.  The film is a beautiful collection of images, narrated by Temujin with singular words: “floor, door, small, tall, sky, fly…” and yet the picture, whilst always embodying the meaning behind the word, does not necessarily translate literally – which keeps you watching.  Actually, I think it is a clever combination of a very droll, rhythmic voice and the most beautiful of images that makes this such an interesting film. I challenge you to not walk around spouting random words when you look at things in a proper British accent after watching this film!


Temujin was just one of the artists commissioned to create one of the series of posters crafted by designers for design students in their first year of studies at UK universities.  Titled ‘Advice to Sink in Slowly’ the prints are both motivational, inspirational and beautiful works of art. It made me think that my fifth graders could create something equally as beautiful as a departure gift to the elementary school on their graduation to middle school in a few short months!  What advice would they leave in their wake, I wonder?

Below are a few of my favorites, click here for the full collection.

Last week my husband found a video on how books were made and he suggested that amongst all the high tech, I remember the ‘lowly’ printed word and its contribution to education.  I couldn’t have agreed more and loved the short film, but before I could post it, one of my pillars of inspiration and a fantastic source for anyone who wants to get kids (or adults) excited about reading, literature, books and all things related, One Page To the Next, posted the video!  Despite knowing that ‘everything is a remix’, I was hesitant to post it myself but it is just too good not to share! It makes me want my own first edition and it would definitely be a fantastic video to show kids who wanted to author and publish their own books!   Don’t forget to check One Page To the Next – you can thank me later.