Free Valentines!

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Every year, Pioneer Valley Books offers valentines as free downloads to teachers and parents. This year our eight adorable designs feature Bella and Rosie, Sally the Cow, Rusty the Robot, and more! Click here to visit the Pioneer Valley Books website and download your free valentines!

Teaching Tip: Learning to Apply What You Have Learned

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Phonics has been in the news a lot lately. It’s very important that we teach phonics. I don’t think any teacher disputes this! But phonics is not a goal in and of itself. We teach students phonics—or how words work—so they will learn how to decode unknown words while reading and how to encode unknown words while writing.

I learned so much about phonics and the importance of teaching students decoding skills when I was a Reading Recovery Teacher Leader. I also learned how important it is to be able to teach students how to apply these new decoding skills to authentic reading and writing situations. This intervention program has results unmatched by any other. In a Reading Recovery lesson, students read several books, write a story, and are given a brief, highly targeted “phonics” lesson. Throughout their lesson, students are instructed how to immediately apply the phonics skills they have been taught to real-life situations.

Think about learning how to drive a car. You can study how to apply the brakes and work the steering wheel, but until you have actual real-life experience, you will never become a proficient driver. Learning to read and write requires knowing how to apply skills you are learning to real reading and writing situations.

I am having lots of fun watching my grandson Jaxson learn to read and write. Let’s look at how Jaxson works out solving the new word ditch. He breaks the word into parts but doesn’t quite have it. He then checks the picture and tries again. When he uses a combination of the sounds and the context, he is able to solve the word!

Next, let’s look at Jaxson solving how to spell clouds in his writing. First, I help him hear the sounds by using sound boxes. Then, on the next page, he is able to write the word clouds again, saying the sounds slowly under his breath. (To learn more about sound boxes, read pages 38–39 in The Next Step Forward in Word Study and Phonics, by Jan Richardson and me. Also, here is a link to a video about using sound boxes.)

Both these examples illustrate how important it is for students to learn how to apply what they are learning in phonics to real-life reading and writing experiences!

January Office Hours Webinar

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Please join Jan Richardson and I next Tuesday, January 14, at 4:00pm EST, when we’ll be holding our free Office Hours webinar. Our topic will be Guiding Writers: Teaching with Intention and Intensity.

Including guided writing as part of your guided reading lesson extends comprehension and improves students’ writing skills. We will begin January’s Office Hours by sharing a short presentation on how to enhance students’ understanding of character traits, motivations, and feelings through writing. After the presentation, Jan and I will be available for a Q&A session on guided writing.

Visit the Pioneer Valley Books website for more information on this free webinar series, and click here to register for the January webinar!

Teaching Tip: More about Word Study

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Word study is an important but very brief part of a guided reading lesson.

In November, Jan Richardson and I hosted our first webinar, where we attempted to answer a range of questions about word study. It has been posted here if you haven’t had a chance to watch it!

We had many questions we couldn’t get to, so I’ve picked a few to answer here.

Erin’s question:
I have a kindergartener who speaks Chinese in the home. She has mastered her letter names when tracing but is struggling with picking up sounds. Any recommendations on how to support her in this learning?

Children beginning to learn English as a second language may experience more challenges with the word study part of the lesson. As you know, Chinese is a very different system from our English system. Can your student hear the sound but not identify which letter it is? Doing more lessons with picture sorting will help. Also, students can get confused if in the classroom the teacher uses an ABC chart with one set of pictures and then in an intervention setting uses a chart with a different set of pictures. Pick one and stick to it: A-apple or A-alligator, but not both!


Michèle and Jan’s Office Hours Webinar

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I’m pleased to announce that Jan Richardson and I will be holding office hours for 30 minutes once a month to talk about how the amazing tools from Pioneer Valley Books help you teach literacy in your classrooms, and to answer your questions about how to improve your own use of these tools. The free series launches next Wednesday, November 20, at 4:00pm, and focuses on Word Study.

Visit the Pioneer Valley Books website for more information on this exciting new webinar series, and click here to register for its debut!

Teaching Tip: What Are the Other Kids Doing?

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One of the biggest things that gets in the way of implementing guided reading is keeping the other students appropriately occupied so guided reading lessons can be taught without interruption.

I had an opportunity recently to listen to Debbie Diller, a guru on this topic, at the International Literacy Association (ILA). She has some great ideas for how to make this work. I suggest reading her book Literacy Work Stations: Making Centers Work.

Debbie says teachers are spending too much time creating activities for centers. We focus too much on the “stuff” and instead need to focus on what we want students to learn. She sets up what she calls SIMPLE literacy stations that run all year and provide students with opportunities to explore and practice what they are learning. Students read, write, listen, speak, or work with words. Materials are changed to reflect students’ new reading levels, strategies being taught, and topics being studied.

Introduce the Station
Start by introducing students to each station. In a large-group mini-lesson, model how to use each station, how to get out and clean up materials, and how to engage in each activity.

Next, have students practice using each station. For example, to practice for the partner reading station, everyone sits with a partner and practices how the activities work before they do it in the actual station. Have students sit side by side, select a book, take turns reading, and learn what to do after they finish the book, such as to how talk about it.

Working Alone or with a Partner
Do your centers get noisy? Are children having difficulty sharing and working together? Debbie says each station should have only TWO children working in it at a time. She suggests setting up duplicate stations—so you might have three separate partner reading stations. The students work in pairs on each activity—and later some may do well by themselves.

Controlled Choice
There should be a variety of things to do at the center that students can choose from, but all the activities should provide opportunities for extending the learning and practicing something you have been teaching. Tie these activities to your state standards.

Some Examples of Simple Stations

Listening and Speaking Station
Have students listen to an audiobook (try to use some that come with books!). After they listen to the story, have them retell the story to their partner using a graphic organizer. (Graphic organizers should have been introduced to students during a whole-class mini-lesson.) This would be a great time to utilize your Retelling cards from your Comprehension Box Set!

Nonfiction Station
Place a collection of high-interest nonfiction books in a tub. At this station, kids can read a nonfiction book and write about the topic. After you have explained how to use the Green Questions cards from the Comprehension Box Set during Interactive Read Aloud (coming in February 2020), place those cards in the center for students to write and answer questions about the nonfiction book.

Word Study Station
Some ideas for what a Word Study station might look like can be found in The Next Step Forward in Word Study and Phonics, a new book written by Jan Richardson and myself. In the book we provide some examples of independent activities for each guided reading level. Here is a video of two students partnering up to practice sound boxes from Kelsey Holloway’s first-grade classroom in St. Augustine, Florida. This provides a great follow-up learning experience to what she has been teaching the students during guided reading.

Your Word Study station could consist of the same materials you are using for word study during guided reading. For example, kindergarten or first-grade students who are in Beginner Steps (PreA) would have magnetic letters to make their name, laminated charts for rainbow writing their name, and a pocket chart for making their name puzzle. They also would have picture cards to sort the same sounds you had them working on during guided reading.

The time and effort you put in to setting up your stations can pay off big time by both allowing you time to teach your guided reading lessons and ensuring your students are using their time to grow as readers and writers!

Teaching Tip: Teaching Test-Taking

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Fantasy, mystery, biography, poetry, and informational are some of the genres we use during guided reading. Often forgotten, or maybe not considered, is reading for test-taking. This genre demands different cognitive skills that need to be taught for both reading the passage and answering the questions.

To introduce this genre to your students, first download and print copies of the Test-Taking Strategies cards from Next Step in Guided Reading author Jan Richardson’s website. These cards outline the steps for reading the passage and answering the questions. Print the cards back-to-back so each student has a card to use in the lesson.

Strategies for Reading the Passage

Step 1. Before reading a test passage, students should use their background knowledge by previewing text features—such as the title, headings, illustrations, graphs, and/or charts—to make predictions. This preview sets a purpose for reading.

Step 2. As they read the passage, students should circle or underline one or two key words in each paragraph. This helps them maintain focus and attention. When students read with a pencil in hand, the result is an amped level of accountability and understanding.

Step 3. After reading each paragraph, students should use the key words they highlighted to orally summarize it. This helps them remember what they read, which will assist them when they answer the test questions.

Step 4. Once they read the entire passage, they can use their highlighted key words to retell the entire passage.

Strategies for Answering Questions

Step 1. The first step involves understanding the question. Here, you will teach students how to identify key words in each question. (Hint: these words often include academic language, such as compare, analyze, determine, etc.)

Step 2. Now teach students to paraphrase the question using the key words they identified in step 1. This helps students focus their attention and clarify the purpose of the question. Through paraphrasing, their processing is slowed down, providing time for students to comprehend what the question is truly asking. Students who struggle with reading tests often jump to the multiple-choice answers and look for something that may have been in the passage but may not answer the question.

Step 3. The next step is to have students decide if they should look back through the text. Once students know where to look, they can utilize the comprehension strategies you have taught them in guided reading. For example, if the question is asking for a comparison, students can think of what they know about answering yellow questions. Or if a question asks which statement would be included in a summary of the text, they can quickly use the Somebody-Wanted-But-So card for the text and choose the answer that best fits.

Step 4. Finally, it is important to teach students to evaluate all the choices. Students need to toggle with the answer choices by asking, “Does this choice answer the question?” or by concluding, “I think it is right/not right because …” Once an answer choice is determined, students should reread the question and their answer to be sure they’ve selected the correct response. Sometimes all the choices are lifted from the text but only one answers the question. In some cases, the question asks the reader to identify two correct answers.

Teach these steps during your guided reading lessons. Once these strategies are internalized, they will become second nature for students.

—Karen Cangemi, Literacy Consultant

Teaching Tip: Word Study Literacy Tip

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Utilize the Assess-Decide-Guide Framework to Ensure Effective Word Study Instruction: Meet Jacob!

As a nationwide staff developer focused on the implementation of customized guided reading, I am frequently asked how to best engage learners in effective word study. Jan Richardson and Michèle Dufresne have authored a timely publication intended to help us design and deliver developmentally appropriate word study and phonics instruction even more strategically. Let me offer steps to take based on the practices featured in The Next Step Forward in Word Study and Phonics (2019) and The Next Step Forward in Guided Reading (2016), as well as my long-term work with students, including Jacob (pseudonym).

I began to work intensively with Jacob at the close of his second-grade year. His data revealed a struggle with skills, including digraphs. As suggested by Jan and Michèle, I led Jacob through a series of word study activities during his guided reading lessons. Across his journey of learning, I monitored Jacob to confirm he was utilizing his newly acquired word study skills when reading and writing.

More specifically, Jacob first engaged in picture sorting to help him hear sounds and link them to letters (The Next Step Forward in Word Study and Phonics, p. 34). Once he accurately and confidently sorted pictures featuring digraphs, we then focused on making words, which challenged him to visually scan words to check for letter-sound accuracy (The Next Step Forward in Word Study and Phonics, p. 36). As he demonstrated proficiency with making words, he then engaged in sound boxes with the intent of helping him hear and record sounds in sequence (The Next Step Forward in Word Study and Phonics, p. 38). The sophistication of his word study activities increased as he displayed proficiency. I repeatedly witnessed the value of strategically embedding word study into his guided reading lessons. I celebrated as he applied what he was learning about letters, sounds, and words when reading and writing.

A summary of the steps taken to help Jacob become a more proficient word solver, which are presented by Jan and Michèle in their Assess-Decide-Guide Framework (The Next Step Forward in Word Study and Phonics, p. 20), is as follows:

    • Assess:  Examine Jacob’s data to determine word study needs and strengths.
    • Decide:  Determine the word study activities aligned to Jacob’s needs.
    • Guide:  Plan and teach needs-based word study instruction.

Try Jan and Michèle’s framework. The results are invigorating and rewarding for learners and teachers alike!

Author: Carolyn Gwinn, PhD; Educational Consultant

Warm Up the Reading Muscles

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I took a month off from my BODYPUMP class this summer. When I got back, I found myself struggling with the weight I was used to lifting prior to my hiatus. I had to use smaller weights. And boy was I sore the next day! But after a few classes, I was quickly back to lifting my usual weight.

As you head back to school, you may find that many of your kids did not lift a book all summer—and their reading muscles need some warming up! If you assess these students right away, you may not get an accurate assessment of what they really can do. Instead, for the first few weeks, consider dropping them down a few text levels from where they were at the end of the previous school year. Warm up your students with these easier books, and see how quickly they get back into the reading groove!

What about a Spelling Program?

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Spelling is an integral part of word study. During word study, students will learn to spell words that will be useful to them in reading and writing text.

If you feel you need a spelling program that goes beyond what students are learning in the word study segment of guided reading lessons, we recommend the following:

  1. Reconsider using the same list of spelling words with all your students. If your students are reading at different levels of proficiency, they will be at different stages of spelling. You can differentiate your spelling by grouping students into small groups based on those high-frequency words that will be appropriate for learning and practice.
  1. Have students learn a few words that follow a phonics pattern used during word study. Here is an example of a spelling list for a group at Level D:


This list includes three high-frequency words that often occur in Level D guided reading books, including one with the –ed ending. There are also three words that start with the digraph sh, which you might be using in word study activities. At Level D, we recommend teaching students digraphs; learning to spell a few words with the sh digraph will help students learn some useful words that include the sounds they are working on.

  1. Provide students many opportunities to practice their spelling words. This can be done during an independent center time. Have students make the words with magnetic letters, write the words on dry-erase boards, do rainbow writing, write on fun surfaces like sand trays, and write with finger paint. Have students write sentences with their words and draw pictures. Create some spelling games, such as word bingo and roll and write.
  1. Review words long after the spelling week. If you want students to retain their spelling words in their long-term memory, it is not enough to have them learn them and then never work on them again. Have students practice by dictating sentences that include the new words AND old words they have learned. Review the words during sight word review at the beginning of each guided reading lesson.


Spelling Activities


Materials needed:
Tic-tac-toe template, dry-erase boards and markers

Print out the tic-tac-toe template. Student 1 (o) reads a spelling word and Student 2 (x) writes it on a dry-erase board. If it is correct Student 2 can place an x on the board. First to get tic-tac-toe wins the game.


Spelling Word Race

Materials needed:
Paper and pencils

Teacher or a student dictates the spelling words. Two players race to write each spelling word. The student who writes the word the fastest (and correctly!) gets a point. The student with the most points after writing all the words wins the race.


Roll and Write

Materials needed:
dice, paper, pencils

Player take turns rolling the dice. Whichever player has the highest number gets to write one spelling word. Whoever writes all their words first wins the game.


Spelling Word Bingo

Materials needed:
Bingo cards with spelling words written on them, bingo chips

Print out the bingo cards and write the spelling words on the board. Make sure the words are arranged in a different order on the bingo board. Someone calls out a spelling word or turns over a card with the spelling words. Players cover the word with a bingo chip. The first student to complete a diagonal line column or row cries out, “bingo,” and wins the game.