Saturday, April 19, 2014

Building Capacity for Effective Instruction

            Let me begin this post with an assertion: the quality of the classroom teacher, not the instructional program, is the primary variable in determining the effectiveness of a comprehensive reading program. This assertion is often hidden beneath the glitz and packaging of many commercial programs. It is not the quality of the wand, but the magic of the teacher that makes reading and writing come alive in today’s classrooms.
            In addition to this primary assertion, I would assert that no significant changes in instructional practices will occur until corresponding changes take place in one’s theoretical understandings. In other words, unless we rethink why we do what we do in the name of literacy education and instruction, most changes will be cosmetic and superficial. The resources teachers select may change, or the daily schedule may be rearranged to accommodate new program components, but the core of one’s instructional practices remains intact.
            What do these assertions mean for school reform efforts focusing on literacy education? I believe it means that we need to invest resources, time and effort into professional development models that balance pedagogical development with theoretical understandings. It means that we need to invest in helping teachers develop their theoretical understandings, rather than just changing their instructional approaches. Change occurs when teachers understand more about effective instructional practices, based on sound theoretical foundations and current research supporting literacy development.
            This begs the question, “What should professional development based on these assertions look like?” To begin, effective staff development needs to create space and opportunities for teachers to observe quality instruction, reflect on instructional practices and observations, and have time to dialogue with other concerned educators. Professional development should be based on the current needs and previous experiences of the teachers involved. As educators, we have been talking about “child-centered pedagogy” for many years. Maybe, it’s time to focus on “teacher-centered professional development.” The focus must be on growth, not change. Change will occur when teachers’ knowledge base expands and they are provided opportunities and support to grow and try new instructional practices.
            There are three key principles of professional development that form the basis of my work with teachers and school boards; access and opportunity, choice and ownership, and dialogue and reflection. First, teachers need access to quality literature and reading materials, opportunities to share ideas with other teachers, and time and support to enact new instructional practices. Second, teachers need to have choice and voice in their professional experiences in order to take ownership and responsibility for their development. Finally, teachers need time to reflect upon and discuss their instructional decisions and practices with other educators. These principles provide the foundation for the four essential components of professional development described below.
            In addition, I need to help classroom teachers, administrators and literacy coaches or specialists develop a Preferred Vision for the instructional practices and learning environments they create in their schools and classrooms. It is our role to help teachers articulate what they want their instructional practices and learning environments to look like, sound like and focus upon. In order to develop a preferred vision, teachers must be able to critically examine their teaching practices based on current theoretical understandings. Growth without direction is confusion, and direction without growth is learned helplessness.
In order to help teachers and literacy coaches develop a Preferred Vision, I recommend the following four components of a professional development model:
1.    Presentations – professional development providers should be willing and able to present new information that challenges and informs teachers about quality instructional practices.
2.    Demonstrations – teachers need opportunities to see what quality instructional practices look like and talk about what they observe, either by visiting actual classrooms or through video clips of teachers teaching.
3.    Learning Experiences – teachers need opportunities to try new instructional practices on their own and have time and support to reflect on how things went and what may improve their instructional approaches.
4.    Readings – other professional voices need to be brought into professional development experiences by reading educational journals and professional publications.

These professional development experiences do not guarantee that teachers will grow and develop; rather they provide the necessary foundation for professional development to occur. Helping teachers and administrators develop a preferred vision for their schools and classrooms, is an important step in realizing the types of quality instructional practices that will benefit our children and students.

Friday, April 18, 2014

PBD: Favorite Postmodern Picturebooks

Just a few of my favorite postmodern picturebooks. 

A more detailed book list is available at:

What is interesting about postmodern picturebooks is not necessarily what they are, but what they can do for readers and literacy educators. Postmodern picturebooks invite students to navigate non-linear structures and attend to the various symbolic representations, literary codes and conventions in order to make sense of the complexities inherent in these texts.

Some characteristics of postmodern picturebooks:

  • expand the conventional boundaries of picture book formats 
  • contain non-linear structures and storylines 
  • offer multiple perspectives or realities to the reader 
  • may be self-referential – they discuss their own creation or existence 
  • contain elements of ambiguity or irony 
  • often contain surrealistic images 
  • include the juxtaposition of unrelated images 
  • mock traditional formats 
  • are often sarcastic / cynical in tone 
  • contain overly obtrusive narrators who directly address readers and comment on their own narrations 
  • often contain narrative framing devices (e.g., stories within stories, “characters reading about their own fictional lives 
  • feature typographic experimentation 
  • feature a mixing of genres, discourse styles, and modes of narration 
  • illustrated with a pastiche of illustrative styles 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

PBD: Horace and Morris but Mostly Dolores

A good friend reminded me about Horace, Morris and Dolores (my Mom's name) recently. I have always been a big James Howe fan from his Bunnicula (Rabbit Vampire) series of funny chapter books. In this series, Howe talks about gender and friendship and how the two should not interfere with one another - a great lesson in this day and age about acceptance and tolerance. 

I have created a booklist about Books for Addressing Social Issues on my website at:

Rethinking Reading Comprehension Strategies

Just Some Random Thoughts

A significant amount of research conducted on effective reading comprehension strategies has focused on the cognitive operations readers selectively employ when reading to construct meaning in transactions with texts. This research, based primarily on verbal protocol (self-reporting) research, has provided literacy educators with a list of approximately seven comprehension strategies that proficient readers have identified as ones they use to comprehend texts. This list generally includes; summarizing, predicting, inferring, monitoring comprehension, visualizing, asking questions, and making connections. These strategies have been referred to as “goal-directed cognitive operations” that are taught through teacher directed instruction.

With an increasing focus on reading strategy instruction, teachers need to continually monitor how the various reading strategies they are demonstrating in their reading workshops serve the primary goal of supporting readers’ construction of meaning in transactions with texts. These cognitive strategies cannot be viewed as an end in themselves, rather each strategy should be viewed as a scaffold for readers to use to make sense of the texts they read. These strategies need to be used In Service of Meaning-Making.

Reading comprehension, that is, the construction of meaning in transaction with texts, is inextricably linked to the immediate and socio-cultural contexts of the reading event. In other words, comprehension strategies must always take into account the actual reader, text, the activity, and the context of the reading event. What this means for reading teachers is that we should not teach comprehension strategies in isolation, disregarding the context of the reading event, the reader’s purpose for reading, the text being read, and what is expected of the reader after their reading is completed.

Let me make some of my theoretical assertions more concrete. I have observed classrooms where the focus of the reading curriculum was one of the above mentioned reading strategies, in particular, predicting. Students were taught to predict through a series of activities that paid little attention to the texts being read or the readers’ purposes for reading the texts. Teachers read stories, stopped periodically asking students what would happen next, then read on to see who made the best predictions based on the actual unfolding of events in the story. The problem was that the focus of the instruction was predicting, not how readers anticipate when reading, and use prediction to comprehend what was being read. Prediction became the primary goal, and the transition to how predicting can support comprehension seemed non-existent. When teachers demonstrate predicting in the context of reading mystery books or the picture books of Chris Van Allsburg, for example, they are contextualizing the strategy of predicting with a particular text, for a particular purpose. It is important for teachers to always help readers understand how the strategies they are demonstrating relate to the goal of making sense of what readers read.

Proficient readers anticipate what a particular book will be about using a variety of cues, for example, the genre of the text, the title, illustrations, and the structure of the text. Teachers can use a “think-aloud” to demonstrate how they would approach a particular text, modeling how they determine the genre, think about the title, examine the illustrations on the cover, read the book blurb and preview the text by scanning through it quickly. The difference is that one can anticipate what is coming up without having to predict what will happen. Predicting in a class setting often leads to some students being right and others being wrong. The important thing in reading is being logical, not always being right. Books can take various surprising turns and twists, which adds to, rather than detracts from, the reading experience. Just because we can’t always predict what will happen next in a story, does not mean we are not reading for comprehension.

Comprehension strategies should not become an end in themselves. We need to be sure that the strategies we demonstrate and expect students to assimilate are learned in service of making meaning when we read, that we help students understand how these strategies help them make sense of what they read, and allow them to comprehend texts more independently.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

PBD: Chalk and Fossil

Two of my favorite new wordless picturebooks are by Bill Thomson: Chalk and Fossil. He is a Professor of Illustration (what a cool job that must be) at the University of Hartford. His website is an excellent resource:

The illustrations for Chalk and Fossil look almost computer generated in their detail and saturated color palette. They are humorous stories that I am sure young boys would love (I do).

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

PDB: A Walk in the Park

Although Voices in the Park (2000) is one of the most well known picturebooks by Anthony Browne, many educators are unaware that it is a second version (not exactly a sequel, but more like a retelling in a different format) of A Walk in the Park (1977) which has recently been re-released. In the original version, we learn the names of the parents - Mrs. Smythe and Mr. Smith - who go nameless in Voices in the Park. The variations among SES and class distinctions are equally pronounced in both versions, though A Walk in the Park is not told in four separate voices. Both versions are highly recommended.

Talking Our Way Into Comprehension

           Particular patterns of interaction between teachers and students have dominated traditional classroom instruction. One pattern of interaction that involves traditional roles for teachers and students, and particular ways of talking and responding, has been referred to as the Initiate – Respond – Evaluate (IRE) or Recitation Script (Cazden, 2001; Gutierrez, 1994). In this interaction pattern, the teacher initiates discussion, generally by posing a question, students respond to the teacher’s prompt, and the teacher closes the interaction by evaluating what the student has offered.
            The IRE or Recitation Script generally involves the use of “pseudo” or display questions, in other words questions with predetermined answers used to ensure students can recall a specific bit of information from a text. Through numerous studies, display questions have been demonstrated to dominate literacy instruction (Alexander, 2006; Myhill, Jones, & Hopper, 2006; Nystrand, 1997). In traditional classrooms teachers pose a majority of questions, most of these questions involving literal recall of textual elements. The use of these display or pseudo questions relegates students to verbally “filling-in-the-blanks,” diminishing their active involvement in lessons and discussions.
            Various educators have referred to the traditional IRE pattern as a “monologic” (single-voiced), or authoritarian, discourse. This pattern of interacting with students has dominated classroom discussions and has become viewed as a “natural” way of talking with children. It has a very strong influence on teaching and teachers, yet it is rarely openly discussed and critiqued in professional development experiences and coursework for preparing teachers. This monologic interaction pattern is what Cazden calls a “default setting.” In other words, if teachers don’t pay conscious attention to the language they use during instruction and discussions they will constantly revert back to this traditional way of talking.
            In contrast to the monologic discourse pattern, educators have also described and proposed a “dialogic” (multi-voiced) discourse pattern. Robin Alexander has suggested that dialogic teaching is:
1)    Collective – teachers and students address questions together
2)    Reciprocal – teachers and students listen to each other and share ideas
3)    Supportive – students offer ideas without fear of reprisal
4)    Cumulative – teachers and students build on one another’s ideas
5)    Purposeful – teachers keep educational goals in mind
 Dialogic teaching is not simply a way of asking new questions to get students responding, instead it is a different way of talking with, and responding to, students. Dialogic teaching sets new expectations for student involvement in discussions, requires students to pose as well as answer questions, and supports understanding and interpretation of what is read, rather than narrowly viewing comprehension as the ability to recall textual elements.
To make the shift from monologic to dialogic teaching requires teachers to ask interpretive (higher order) questions that provide a wider range of acceptable answers, view the text as a “point of departure” during discussions, understand that discussion is an instructional support for helping students explore the potential meanings of a text, and encourage students  to move beyond literal meanings and expand their interpretive repertoires.
There are several instructional techniques for supporting the development of students’ interpretive repertoires. Let me briefly describe several of these instructional techniques here.
Set New Expectations for Discussion – students have become socialized into answering literal questions as much as teachers have become trained to ask them. We need to clearly articulate new expectations for literary discussions and be sure that students understand that our goal is to explore written texts and visual images in order to generate, articulate, and negotiate meanings in our community of readers.
Change the Physical Arrangements for Discussions – when students sit in rows the focus of their attention is on the teacher. When students are asked to sit facing each other, their attention shifts to their fellow classmates. We want students to learn to address one another as well as the teacher during our literary discussions. In this new arrangement, we may begin to suggest that students not raise hands, but listen attentively to one another in order to join the discussion.
Sensitive Listening and Uptake – teachers need to really listen to what students are saying and extend their ideas and responses by “taking up” from what has been said to clarify, extend and support students’ interpretations. We do this by naming specific student contributions, generalizing from their responses, having a deep understanding of the literature we are reading, and challenging students to “go deeper” with their thinking. We cannot respond effectively if we don’t listen, nor can we extend what students offer if we don’t address their comments and provide opportunities for students to consider other interpretations.
Become Aware of Dialogue Blockers – there are specific things that occur during a literary discussion that may block us from conducting effective discussions. Dominating voices, passive participants, lack of time, focusing on “winning” discussions, constantly seeking consensus and agreement, defensive attitudes, attacking other students and their ideas, and not listening to one another can diminish the effectiveness of discussions. The more we become aware of these potential dialogue blockers, the more we can effectively contain and possibly eliminate their effects.
            James Britton has reminded us that “talk is the ocean on which all learning floats.” If we don’t pay close attention to our patterns of interactions in the classroom, the traditional discussion patterns we have relied on for years may hinder students’ interpretive abilities. 

Alexander, R. (2006). Towards dialogic teaching: Rethinking classroom talk (3rd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Dialogos.
Britton, J. (1970). Language and learning. London: Penguin Press.
Cazden, C. B. (2001). Classroom discourse: The language of teaching and learning (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Gutierrez, K. (1994). How talk, context, and script, shape contexts for learning: A cross-case comparison of journal sharing. Linguistics and Education, 5, 335-365.
Myhill, D., Jones, S., & Hopper, R. (2006). Talking, listening, learning: Effective talk in the primary classroom. Berkshire, England: Open University Press.
Nystrand, M. (1997). Opening dialogue: Understanding the dynamics of language and learning in the English classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.

Monday, April 14, 2014

PBD: Mr. Wuffles

After spending the weekend talking with David Wiesner at the Kutztown Children's Literature Conference, I developed a deeper appreciation for his new book Mr. Wuffles. This picturebook has a different illustration pallet that many of his other books. The colors are bolder and brighter. The story revolves around a curmudgeonly cat that finds a toy to play with only it is actually a spaceship full of aliens. The aliens hide in the walls of the house, only to realize that mice have been drawing on the walls inside the walls like the art in the Caves of Lasceaux. Wiesner uses four different types of speech bubbles to alert the reader to whom is talking. I will have to revisit this one for sure to see what I missed in my first few readings.