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Commuter Series: An Integrated Reading and Writing Approach

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Less planning, more student autonomy, and more time to confer. Sounds pretty great, right? In an integrated reading and writing block Ellin Keene aims to achieve all three. Her newest book The Literacy Studio—titled after this approach—is full of research-backed insights from the classroom, and practical strategies on how to do this in your ELA classroom. Today in a special commuter podcast episode Edie talks with the author before we hear the clip from the audiobook.


Heinemann Audiobooks


Below is a transcript of the episode:


Hi, this is Brett from Heinemann. Thanks for joining me on the commute today. Less planning, more student autonomy, and more time to confer. Sounds pretty great, right? In an integrated reading and writing blog, Ellin Keene aims to achieve all three. In her most recent book, The Literacy Studio, titled after this particular approach is full of research-backed insights from the classroom and practical strategies on how to do this in your ELA classroom. Today in a special commuter podcast episode, my colleague, Edie, talks to Ellin before we hear a clip from her audiobook.


Hi, Ellin.


Hello, Edie.


It is such a pleasure to be speaking with you today.


And to you, my friend. Absolutely.


I'm just so excited to talk to you about your newest book, The Literacy Studio, which is now available in print and audiobook. Very exciting.


Very exciting.


Let's, for our listeners today, start with the basics. Can you tell us what literacy studio is?


Yes. literacy studio was an idea born in my own classroom, and the idea really in literacy studio is to do, through our instructional moves, what makes most sense to kids, which is to understand the reading aspects of writing, and the writing aspects of reading. It is to purposefully integrate reading and writing, and to give kids choice in terms of if they apply today's lesson in reading or in writing. So, there's more choice built in. Of course, if you wrote today, you're going to read tomorrow. So, it all balances out, but our idea is to build in more choice, more student autonomy, more time to confer, because basically, what was two lessons is now one in the literacy studio.

So, the planning is done with reading and writing being considered simultaneously. So instead of two lessons every day, we're really talking about one.


Oh, that's great. I'd love to talk a little bit more about that fluidity between reading and writing. In the introduction of your book, you talk about the beginning of your writing process, and how you had this idea for the tone of a classroom with a literacy studio in place. You write “a thriving birthplace for ideas from text”, and then you go on to describe that fluidity. So, I'd love for you to tell us more about how you've seen this vision come to life in the classroom.


Well, it is a joy to watch it come to life honestly, as we get better and better with thinking about integrated lessons. Here, I'm talking about not just whole group lessons, but small group and individual conferences. As we get better in planning for that, there is this lovely, in any given lesson, a back and forth. Readers, you think about this. Writers, think about this, but we're really focusing on the same content. So for example, if we're talking about character development, I'm going to say out of one side of my mouth, readers, watch for your characters to change over time. Then the other side, without any change in the lesson, I'm just going to say, "Writers, how can you think about how your character changes over time," so that in any standard, very nearly any standard, we can look at both sides of the reading-writing experience, and let kids go into that experience in the way that they feel most comfortable.

So, some kids will... If we take character changes our content, many kids will go in and try to work on that in their writing before they read. Other kids will try it as readers before they try it as writers. The point is that they're going to try it as both readers and writers, but they have that initial choice. So, it's meant to really capitalize on children's natural, really, I'll say natural instinct. I mean, kids start writing very, very young. 18 months, two years old, they're writing. So, it isn't until they get to kindergarten and first grade that we separate the reading, and teach it separately from writing, which just is it's incongruous to kids who really are approaching language as if it is integrated from the beginning, because of course it is.


I do want to go back to something you mentioned at the very beginning and throughout as you've been talking about literacy studio. You mentioned at one point that you originally designed it for your own classroom so you could have more time to confer.


I did.


Yes, the ever elusive time that you need as a teacher.


It's our biggest problem, isn't it?


Yeah. So, did you achieve this in your classroom? How did it work in favor of the-


Well, it certainly wasn't perfection, but the story behind this is actually pretty serendipitous. In my earlier life, I was a very avid skier, and I planned to spend my spring break in the mountains skiing. This particular year, I think I was a second year, maybe third year teacher, there was no snow, so I was not skiing, and I was very, very disappointed in that, and feeling quite sorry for myself. But at the same time, I was pretty dissatisfied with how my literacy workshop was going. I didn't have time to confer. I felt like kids were slipping through the cracks. I felt like I was either giving too much attention to reading instruction or too much attention to writing instruction, and that they never balanced out, and that my kids most importantly weren't sustaining reading and writing for long periods of time.

I'm acutely aware that if kids are going to get better as readers and writers, they're going to have to spend a lot of time practicing. I was very bothered by that. So, I just sat down at my kitchen table that no snow spring break, and really thought about how to change it. What are the things I can push on here? As I plotted out my schedule, I was looking at 10-minute mini lessons for reading five days a week. I was looking for 10-minute mini lessons for writing five days a week. That's 100 minutes. That's way too much teaching, and not nearly enough of kids working together.

That was the initial tension for me was that it just didn't feel like enough independent reading and writing time, and so I just redesigned everything. I was too dumb to know that you shouldn't redesign everything at the end of the year, but I did, and I went back. I pulled the kids together, and I said, "Guys, we're going to try something different," but I didn't know what to call it, what would call each section. So, they named it. They really named it.


Oh, really?


Yeah, they did.


Oh, cool.


They were fourth graders that year, and just helping us design it together, and we... every day, we'd meet and say, "Well, how did that go?" The part they love the most, and I find this true today, all the classrooms that I work in is the choice of whether to read or write. To us, it seems like such a little choice, right? It's like just this. If they read again, if they read one day, they're going to write the next. So, it is a huge amount of choice. They love that choice. It just seems to mean the world to them. So in that independent work time, if I'm noticing that a child has chosen to read three days in a row, I mean, I'm going to intervene. I'm not going to let that happen. We've got to get equal amounts of reading and writing practice in a given week.

My ultimate happiest moment in literacy studio is when I look at kids during composing during that independent time, and they have a book in one hand, and they're writing in the other. They're going back and forth trying to practice things that I've taught. That's ultimately where we want to see them. You mentioned the introduction to the book. Yeah, that's how I do it. I mean, I'm writing. I have books open. I have research articles open. I have writers that I admire in education that I read before I start to write, so I can get their voices in my head. That's when I know it's working, when we see kids going back and forth so fluidly.


I have just really enjoyed speaking with you today, Ellin, and really enjoyed listening to this audiobook, so I am so excited for everyone else to listen to it. We're going to have a moment now to listen to a section of The Literacy Studio, and delve a little deeper into some of the topics you mentioned.


Terrific. Thank you so much, Edie. It's just a joy to talk about this, because it brings back memories that I have of kids who have been instrumental in creating this work over years and years and years. It's just fun to think back about the kids I'm working with now, the kids I was working with then, and how they react and respond to Literacy Studio really is all about creating more time for them and then more time for us.


Let's have a listen.


Chapter two, time for a reboot. Sound familiar? Issues facing teachers and students in readers and writers' workshop classrooms. It's a bright autumn morning in your elementary classroom early in the year, so much ahead. Nothing quite like those early days of promise. Literacy is first up for the day. You present a short mini lesson in reading, try to keep it snappy, and hustle the children off to read independently. You worry that it has taken too long this fall to get all your students into the right books, but they're reading for longer periods of time each day. Finally, you're ready to dig into real conferences. You rush to confer with as many students as possible, just two today. There's simply never enough time.

You have the students quickly share with a partner. You are determined not to neglect writer's workshop this year. Last year, it seemed that writing always took a backseat to reading, and the writing you did was almost always set up as an assignment, a response to text with very little emphasis on the student's original writing. So, you roll out a carefully planned writing mini lesson using a wonderful mentor text, but it is, like most, unrelated to the reading lesson. This nags at you, and you consider trying to make a connection to your earlier reading lesson, but you feel the press of time. You wind up your motivational speech, and tell the students that it's time to apply what you've taught in their own writing.

You try to make it sound like they're standing on the precipice of greatness as writers. They look skeptical. Most stare at their writer's notebooks. You dig in to confer with a student, and there is so much work to be done in their writing. You're overwhelmed and don't know where to begin. 15 minutes later, you look up and realize that the literacy blog is nearly over. No time to share writing today. Okay, you really will get that in tomorrow. You walk the students to lunch feeling that neither you nor the students accomplished nearly as much as any of you would have liked. You feel the frustration bubble up. The time is simply too short to address standards, and keep up with the expletive deleted district pacing guide.

But more importantly, you can't find the time to really dig in to discuss ideas from their books in more depth to allow kids to engage in self-chosen writing topics. You need time to confer in a way that differentiates and helps each child set relevant and challenging reading and writing goals. The next day, the process plays out again in exactly the same way. There must be a better way. In your team meeting the next day, you share some of your frustrations. A team member jumps in immediately. I know exactly how you feel. Honestly, I feel like I'm planning great writing lessons, and I never get to them. By the time I've given kids time to read, and conferred with a couple, we're out of time. I just don't know where the time goes.

Another colleague pops in. It's not just the time. I mean, we have two hours. I feel like we spend so much time in test prep writing. Read the passage. Answer three questions. Write an opinion piece about this reading. It takes so much time. If the two hours were really hours, I'd be able to accomplish so much more. Every once in a while when I let kids write in their notebooks, they are so excited. I think we get much better writing from them if they were writing in those notebooks every day. They need practice as writers just like they need practice as readers, but it's late September, and that's probably happened only two or three times in my class.

Another teacher jumps in. I hear what you're saying about two hours being enough time. But because we have to have the three reading groups meet each day, I feel like I don't have time to confer with kids, and they don't have time to talk to each other about what they're reading and writing. Don't get me started about the pullouts for special ed and interventions. Those kids are coming and going so often. I honestly can't keep track. The good news is that the kids who are with me all morning are doing a great job reading and writing for longer and longer periods of time, and they're finally learning how to choose books wisely.

But between being caught up in small groups for almost an hour of the blog every day, and the kids I almost never see because they're out of the classroom, I just don't have time to confer, much less help kids learn to set their own goals. You interject. This stuff is all related, the time, the feeling of being boxed into a structure that doesn't allow us to meet kids' needs. Is that really a readers and writers workshop at all? I don't mean to sound like I don't have a lot to learn, but I honestly think I could be more responsive to individual needs if we weren't pinned down by the test reps, the groups, the pacing guide and so on. I want my kids to be challenged, and I get the importance of shooting toward ambitious standards. We just have too many have tos to feel really effective.

A fourth teacher leans in. I'm seeing this from a slightly different angle. We do have great conversations about books in my classroom, and I really am trying to use mentor texts to show what great writers do. The kids are amazing in discussions. They have the freshest, most original ideas when we're talking about books, but when it comes time to write in response to a text, or write their own stuff, I'm just getting nothing. Here's the thing. They're writing in the ways we're asking them to. When I tell them that they must have a claim, and give three kinds of evidence on an assignment, they do it, but it's just not even close to the great things they say in discussions.

Frankly, it's dull, and you get what you ask for. I think the way we're asking them to read and write is the culprit. I think I could get them further through conferences where they set their own goals, but as it is, it's getting harder and harder to get them engaged. Taking workshop teaching and learning to the next level, could that discussion happen among you and your colleagues? It's time to experiment with ways to take workshop teaching. You'll find a brief history later in this chapter to the next level. It's true that readers and writers' workshop has provided the space for millions of children to find their identities as readers and writers. Carefully crafted workshops have offered opportunities for authenticity and engagement, and most importantly, time to read and write.

There is no question that we need to continue the great work that thousands of teachers and professional authors have brought to the field. The teachers whose conversation I excerpted previously are pros. They have years of experience. They are beyond dedicated to their students. They are avid readers of professional texts, and they not only attend great professional development on literacy, but also provide it for colleagues, but they hadn't fully considered one approach that might be most effective in solving these problems, integrating reading and writing. These teachers had attended elementary schools in which reading and writing were taught separately. They learned to teach reading and writing separately in pre-service training and graduate school.

Their state standards separate reading and writing. Their district's curricula were written by different committees at different times for reading and writing. In a couple of cases, their schedules had lunch, specials, and recess in the middle of the literacy blog, which led to reading and writing being taught at two different times in the day, and the upper grades at their school were departmentalized. Kids had different teachers for reading and writing. Every possible structure and experience suggested that reading and writing were separate subjects. I found that is true for most elementary teachers in this country.

I threw out the possibility that several of the most pressing issues the teachers discussed might be mitigated by integrating reading and writing instruction, and that really none of the obstacles I just enumerated were going to make it impossible to do that. In departmentalized settings, collaboration between teachers must be a high priority, but lunch and recess in the middle of the literacy blog, no problem. Separate curricula and standards, we can easily find the connecting points. I told them the story of the year with no snow and my brash remake. I told them how much my kids had contributed to the new design, and how much more time and flexibility I had uncovered when I began to integrate reading and writing systematically in the Literacy Studio.

Since then, I've seen literacy studios blossom all over the country. Some teachers jumped into the deep end. Others took on one component at a time, and each has put their own imprint on their studio. They make revisions. They tweak. They still get frustrated. Hey, it's teaching, right? But their kids have more time to read and write. They have more time to confer and otherwise differentiate. Importantly, what their kids learn as readers impacts their writing. What they learn as writers influences the way they read. Now, the district where I've been watching this conversation unfold has prioritized Literacy Studio K5. I stand back and watch them use innovative approaches. I couldn't conceive when I first thought about integrating reading and writing. It's amazing to be part of this kind of change.


If you'd like to hear more from Ellin's book, you can stream and download the audiobook wherever you get your audiobooks. You can learn more about Heinemann's audiobooks, and listen to a sample chapter by visiting heinemann.com/audiobooks. Thanks for listening, and let us know what you'd like to learn more about in our time together. You can read a full transcript of this episode at blog.heinemann.com.




Ellin Oliver Keene has been a classroom teacher, staff developer, non-profit director and adjunct professor of reading and writing.  For sixteen years she directed staff development initiatives at the Denver-based Public Education & Business Coalition.  She served as Deputy Director and Director of Literacy and Staff Development for the Cornerstone Project at the University of Pennsylvania for 4 years. Ellin works with schools and districts throughout the country and abroad.  Her emphasis is long-term, school-based professional development and strategic planning for literacy learning.

Ellin recently published The Literacy Studio: Redesigning the Workshop for Readers and Writers which is focused on an up-to-date conceptualization of Readers/Writers’ workshop. She is the author of Engaging Children: Igniting the Drive for Deeper Learning (2018), is co-editor and co-author of The Teacher You Want to Be: Essays about Children, Learning, and Teaching (Heinemann, 2015); co-editor of the Not This, but That series (Heinemann, 2013 - 2018); author of Talk About Understanding: Rethinking Classroom Talk to Enhance Understanding (Heinemann, 2012), To Understand: New Horizons in Reading Comprehension (Heinemann, 2008), co-author of Comprehension Going Forward (Heinemann, 2011), co-author of Mosaic of Thought: The Power of Comprehension Strategy Instruction, 2nd edition (Heinemann, 2007, 1st edition, 1997) and author of Assessing Comprehension Thinking Strategies (Shell Educational Books, 2006) as well as numerous chapters for professional books and journals on the teaching of reading as well as education policy journals. 


Topics: Ellin Keene, Podcast, The Literacy Studio, commute

Date Published: 10/30/23

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