Responsive reading instruction empowers us to design student centered learning experiences. How do we actually make this work without feeling overwhelmed by planning for the range of needs and goals in a given classroom?
Today on the Heinemann podcast, we have a chance to explore this with New York Times bestselling author, Jennifer Serravallo, author of The Writing Strategies Book and its predecessor, The Reading Strategies Book, which was reaching its fifth book birthday.
We started off our conversation with a story about how one teacher's planning process finally clicked.
Below is a full transcript of this episode.
Jaclyn: Jen, thank you for joining us to talk about The Reading Strategies Book. I can't believe it will have its fifth birthday soon. Tell us what you've noticed about its use through your conversations with teachers over the last several years.
Jen: Does the fifth birthday mean that I get to have cake? I think I should, right?
Jen: Any excuse to have cake. Let's see. One kind of interesting thing that I've noticed is, and this was a, I have to thank a teacher for this analogy. Someone said that she thinks it makes perfect sense that there's a target on the cover because when she first got the book, she regarded it kind of like a Target store. Like when you go into Target, if you don't have a list, you know you're going in thinking you're going to buy toilet paper or something and all of a sudden you come out with new throw pillows for your couch, a badminton set, a head of lettuce and you're like, how did I get here? Have you had this experience?
Jaclyn: I have. I have definitely had that experience. That is a really good example.
Jen: She said when she first got the book, she was just like, "Oh my goodness. There's so many great ideas in here. There's so many visuals and so many different things you can teach," and she sort of went in like, I want to do that. I want to do that. And her book was just filled with post-it notes and she said she realized that she has to go in with a plan and not go in just looking for anything and everything. Just like going into a Target store, the throw pillows are great, the head of lettuce is great, but did you need it? Right. So I think it's been a journey of a lot of people like this one teacher, really finding purpose behind the strategies, which was my whole intention from the beginning, is that people really have this book of lots of ideas but that they're choosing from amongst the strategies, with real purpose and real intention. I'm thinking specifically about the students in front of them.
Jaclyn: Yeah and it sounds like it's achieving that goal because there's still so much energy around the book. It's still so fresh. I love hearing teachers talk about the way that they're starting to make sense of what students need.
Well, we know that you don't just pick random strategies from it. You have to have a plan, just like you talked about going into Target, especially if you want to focus on teaching responsively. So important to be able to teach, like you just said, the kids in front of us. So this sounds like one of the ways that the reading strategies book really respects teacher's abilities as decision makers.
Jen: Yes, absolutely. That was really important to me is that, and if you look at any of my work, it's really about that. It's about supporting teachers to make good decisions for the students in front of them, to equip teachers to better know their kids and then this book is really a okay, so now that you know your kids, what's the content? How do you explain to them the how-to behind what it is that you want them to do? And that's the whole intention behind the design. I remember like in the first year or two when I was out talking to people about the book and I'd show them, oh you turn the book on its side and it's color coded according to this hierarchy. In the beginning they're like, "Oh, the color coding." Right? Then it matches. It matches the different goals. That's the whole intention behind the design is that you first think what does my child need?
And if it's help with understanding the plot and setting, you flip to the yellow chapter because that's the plot and setting chapter. And you'd go in first with the what and then the strategies within each chapter or the how-to, to support people.
Jaclyn: So you just mentioned, really how teachers would make the decision, start with the what and then find the how. So the color coding is super helpful. So when they're going into the book, how do they determine the how?
Jen: Well inside of every chapter there are, it depends on the chapter, a few dozen, a couple dozen different ideas for how-tos and each of those is on its own page. But then there's guidance on each page as well for how to select for the particular child in front of you. So different strategies are going to work for different kids for different reasons.
Like one of the things that you have to keep in mind, for example, is the text that the child's reading and how complex that text is. And for a student who, let's say, is reading a Mrs. Wishy Washy book, you're not going to teach them from the character chapter a strategy about noticing the complexity of the character or understanding how characters are different depending on the situation that they're in, or drawing a web of all the characters and how each of them impacts the other. That's just too complex of a strategy. All of those are too complex of strategies for what's in the actual book that the child's reading. So there's guidance on each page with the general range of levels that this particular strategy will work for. There's guidance on the page about which genre or genres the strategy works best for. And really what I'm trying to do there is to help teachers navigate within the chapter once they've decided on a goal to navigate within the chapter for the particular circumstances of that student.
Jaclyn: So each chapter is focused on a goal and within each chapter there are a number of strategies. So how many is too many? When you're working with students and you're choosing goals, how many is too many? When do you know when to move on? How do you know?
Jen: Well, I think that's a great question because it's really important to not overwhelm a student who is working on a goal with too much, with too many strategies, with too many ideas, with too many charts, with too much stuff. And that's a really important thing to keep in mind. What I try to do is I'll think of a student, let's say I've just looked at an assessment and I'm determined that they could use help with retelling and making sure that their retell is in sequence and that they're telling the most important events.
And I go into the yellow chapter, chapter five, and look for strategies to help with retell and I might find three. But it's very important to not introduce all three of those at once. We want to do one at a time. And probably what's going to happen is you'll introduce the first strategy and then there'll be some time when they're approximating and you want to check back in, give feedback, you know, offer some reinforcement on what they're doing, give some adjustment. And only once it seems like they've really gotten the hang of that strategy, would I teach them a second strategy for that same goal.
So I don't want to move off of that goal after only one strategy, but I also don't want to give them a bunch of strategies from the beginning. It's kind of like you ever taken piano lessons or had someone in your household take piano lessons and the piano teacher shows up and teaches the student a song and the student needs time in between that lesson and the next one to practice and mess up a little bit and get some correction and get some feedback and try it again. And then when the teacher comes back, the teacher will either say, okay, that song now sounds good. We're ready to move onto another song. Or she'll listen to the song, and say, you know what, I think we want to spend a little more time on that and you'll give them some more feedback and some more tips.
I think of it kind of the same way in the classroom. You've got this goal, right? We're trying to work on understanding plot, retelling in sequence, retelling the most important events. I teach you one way to do that is maybe to use transition words as you're going back and retelling the most important events. I'm going to give you some time on your own to give it a try, to practice and when I come back I'm going to see if you're doing it and if you're not, we're going to stick with it. I'm going to give you some more feedback and if it seems like you've gotten the hang of that strategy, I'll offer you another one so that we can keep going with that overarching goal and you'll learn multiple ways over time.
Jaclyn: So Jen, how do you balance individual goals with whole class curriculum? We know we want to teach the curriculum to students. It's based on the grade level standards, but we also need to individualize for students. So how do we balance this?
Jen: So when I was a teacher in New York City, I had large classes and I had an enormous range of learners, enormous range of different kinds of interests. What my kids wanted to read about different goals that the kids needed and the levels of text that they were reading often spanned three or four full grade levels all within one class. And what I really tried to do was to balance what I knew is one important aspect of our literacy instruction, which was addressing grade level expectations, grade level standards, and the curriculum with really meeting them where they are and giving them the support they need.
So if I'm in a third grade classroom and I'm teaching a unit on reading mysteries and we're doing lessons around tracking the suspects and our notes to try to determine who did the thing that the crime solver's trying to figure out. And I have a student who is still trying to work on reading with fluency. I can't ignore that that's something that that student needs. I have to balance for that student what they're getting from the whole class lessons and what they're getting for their individual support. So the way I would organize my classroom is I would often teach one whole class lesson focused on a strategy connected to the unit, connected to the grade level expectation. I'd send kids off with the expectation that they were going to try and think about what they worked on that day and I might spend a little bit of time, maybe 10 minutes or so moving around the room, checking in to see how they're applying the strategy from the whole class lesson into their independent reading.
Then I would switch gears and remind them of what they're working on individually and I think it's important to have some kind of visual reminder, whether it's a bookmark or a sheet of paper that has their individual goal and the strategies that they're practicing for their individual goal somewhere visible. You know, kind of like how you have anchor charts in the classroom to make visible the whole class teaching. You want sort of like mini anchor charts for the individual, what they're working on, on their own. So I'd remind kids. Okay, so remember, keep going with that, tracking the different clues and keeping track of your suspects, but I want you to also remember what you're working on for your individual goal, what strategies you're practicing for your individual goal. And as I come around and work with you, I'm going to be checking in to see that you're doing that.
I would spend most of the rest of that period as they're reading independently supporting them with strategies based on their individual goals. So checking in to see how the last strategy is going. Maybe offering them a new one for the most part, right? For the most part, the majority of the time was focused on that. I felt like because kids were still having time in a read aloud with conversation and strategy instruction there. They had the mini lesson. They had partner time or book club time where they were still practicing the work around the mystery unit. We often had an end of workshop share where we'd come back together and articulate what we're doing with the mystery meeting. That was a way to allow for, yes, they're practicing some of the classwork, but they're also practicing what they're working on as an individual. And I felt like that really moved them the most because they had real devoted practice time to what they needed as an individual, while not ignoring what they needed in terms of their class expectations.
Jaclyn: So it sounds to me like by allowing teachers to really look at what students are doing and the type of texts that they're reading, then they can choose the goals. And it reminds me of one of the downloads that's really popular from our website, the What Can I Work On as a Reader. And so I wondered how that helped out with this kind of work, with how it helped the students choose and own their goals, how it helped teachers work with students towards their goals.
Jen: Sure. So, I talk to teachers about, obviously one of the first questions is how do I know which goal to focus on, right? Which chapter am I going to? And there's some teachers that have a lot of different assessments that they're required to use and they're using those assessments to help them figure out what kids need. Some teachers are creating their own assessments to learn more about students. And some teachers, regardless of whether they have assessments already or not, are finding this, what can I work on as a reader, self reflection form, really helpful for being another sort of point of data, kind of to see do kids notice what they need? Does it align to what teachers are noticing students need? So for those of you who haven't seen it, I'll just describe it.
So it's a one-page self-reflection form. It has a series of I statements and each of maybe every three or four I-statements connects to a goal. So one of the goals that's possible for kids to focus on is their engagement with reading. And that includes things like being able to select books that they're going to be excited to read. Being able to maintain attention and focus on the book that they're reading, reading for stretches of time. And so the questions on the, What Can I Work On as a Reader form, ask kids to reflect with I statements. I always get settled and read for the entire time. I find books that I like, I love to read and then they would check off, yes always or kind of sometimes or no, never. And what you're doing is you're looking for leading the child to look for the places where there may be checking a lot of only sometimes or no, not really. And that's the place where they could use some support. So it's both and it's either a tool to add another point of data for teachers to cross check what they're noticing about the students with what the child is noticing themselves. Or it could be a way, if teachers don't have other ways to find particular goals, it could be a way to give that over to students and allow them to self-select what goals they want to work on.
Jaclyn: Yeah, it sounds like it's really used flexibly to increase the student-centeredness of the classroom. And so I'm wondering for teachers who teach in a classroom that isn't a workshop classroom with lots of independent time and conferring, what would a tool like this look like in a classroom that uses a program or another framework, a basal, something like that?
Jen: Well, I hope no matter what program or curriculum teachers use, there is always a way in which teachers get to know individual kids. And there's always a way in which kids have some individual focus based on what they need most. So even if there is a program that's very scripted, I would hope that the teacher would be informed by what individual needs are going on in the classroom to help with whatever independent work they happen to be doing, even if it's not self-selected, independent reading books. You know, let's say for example, in a basal reader, all of the kids are reading the same story and they're answering the same questions at the end. A teacher who knows, for example, that a child could use support with fluency might direct that child to read the passage out loud to themselves so that they can hear themselves and to practice phrasing and their intonation and expression that would align to their individual goals.
So they're still reading the same text that everyone else is reading and they're still answering the same questions and they're still participating in the same conversation, but they have some individual strategies that are going to work with just them. I also think it could be an interesting way for teachers to examine their curriculum. If you give everybody a chance to self reflect and say what they need and it turns out that a good chunk of your kids are telling you, I'm often coming to words I don't understand and I don't know how to figure out the meaning and you're going to say, wow, there's a lot of kids that could use support with vocabulary and figurative language. I would hope that it would also help the teacher with their plans for their whole class instruction and they'd look at whatever program they're using or whatever curriculum they're using and they would say, I need to stick some extra lessons in here to help kids with the things that they need the most help with.
So I think it could be both. I think there should always be a place for individual strategies based on what kids need, based on what kids are asking for, regardless of the curriculum, regardless of the program that the teacher's using. And also I think it could inform the way that the whole class scope and sequence looks based on what kids need.
Jaclyn: Thanks for sharing your thoughts on that. I agree that it might be a good way to look at curriculum because you know we always forget sometimes to ask the people who it affects the most, the children, so why not ask them and get the self reflection from them.
So we've been talking a lot about choosing goals for individual students, looking at the student as an individual, making our instruction student centered. And this can be really overwhelming for teachers. So many things to manage. What advice do you have for teachers who are still feeling overwhelmed by this idea of individualizing reading instruction?
Jen: Well, there's 13 goals in The Reading Strategies Book, 13 goals on this, What Can I Work on as a Reader? And if you're feeling like 13 is too many, one way to sort of tip toe toward a bit more individualized instruction or a bit more differentiation is to maybe say what are the five most common I know in my classroom and try to have everybody choose from amongst those five. And so the teacher could limit the choices a bit more. And you could also that form, the What Can I Work on as a Reader, I've seen teachers just take the questions or the I statements that align to a shorter list of goals so that it's a little bit more focused and is less for the teacher to manage and I'm very comfortable with conferring and working with kids one on one. For a teacher who isn't yet working one on one with kids a lot, maybe if I said I've got five goals, everybody's going to have one of these five, then it could become small groups that you're using and instead of organizing kids in groups based on a text that they're reading or a text level that they're working on understanding better. Instead, organizing kids based on need. Organizing kids based on strategy could be really impactful and with a shorter list of goals maybe feels a little bit more doable.
You can find the downloads, What Can I Work on as a Reader as well as its companion, What Can I Work on as a Writer and other free downloadable resources at Heinemann.com/JenniferSerravallo/resources
Both The Reading Strategies Book and The Writing Strategies Book are now available in Spanish editions.
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Jennifer Serravallo is the author of New York Times’ bestseller The Reading Strategies Book as well as other popular Heinemann professional books, The Writing Strategies Book; Teaching Reading in Small Groups; and The Literacy Teacher's Playbook, Grades K–2 and Grades 3–6. Her newest books are Understanding Texts & Readers, and A Teacher's Guide to Reading Conferences.
In Spring 2019, Jen’s new Complete Comprehension: Fiction and Complete Comprehension: Nonfiction were released. These assessment and teaching resources expands upon the comprehension skill progressions from Understanding Texts & Readers and offer hundreds more strategies like those in The Reading Strategies Book.
Additionally, Jen is the author of the On-Demand Courses Strategies in Action: Reading and Writing Methods and Content and Teaching Reading in Small Groups: Matching Methods to Purposes, where you can watch dozens of videos of Jen teaching in real classrooms and engage with other educators in a self-guided course.
Learn more about Jen and her work at https://www.heinemann.com/jenniferserravallo/, on Twitter @jserravallo, on Instagram @jenniferserravallo, or by joining The Reading and Writing Strategies Facebook Community.