Making Read-Alouds Purposeful – Canadian School Libraries Journal

Making Read-Alouds Purposeful – Canadian School Libraries Journal
— Read on

Reading, Disability & Blackness

I have been an educator for the past 20 years, I am currently a School Based Literacy Facilitator, where I go to schools and lead and coach administrators and teachers to do the type of work needed to help students learn to read.  My own big ‘why’ for doing what I do is because I feel a sense of urgency when it comes to helping all students become proficient readers. It impacts absolutely everything in life. 

After listening to Thomas Reid and his must-listen-to podcast “Reid My Mind Radio” I find myself thinking deeper about blackness and reading, disability and reading, and of course, the intersectionality of blackness and disability. Thomas Reid creates profound podcasts where he shares “stories and profiles of compelling people impacted by all degrees of blindness and disability. Plus Reid explores his own experiences in his unique way pairing his words with music and sound design.” His work has given me the opportunity to think deeper about blackness and reading, disability and reading, and of course, the intersectionality of blackness and disability. How does blackness and disability intersect to impact reading? 

I need to start out by sharing that I did not grow up with black students in my classes, I didn’t have black teachers. I don’t work with black teachers, I don’t have black administrators. Therefore, I acknowledge that in many aspects, I am the one who feels metaphorically blind to blackness, and blackness and disability. How can I reach students and help them all to read if I cannot see what I need to see? 

Why do so many schools in marginalized communities have students who struggle with learning how to read? I want to ask myself what I need to do to understand this enough to make a real difference. What are the connections between poverty, race and disability, and learning to read? What are the inherent injustices?

Reid shares in his podcast: Let me hear you say Black Lives Matter: “White America doesn’t want to do the work to fix injustice” 

I think that it is fair to say that white schools also don’t want to do the work to fix the injustices. White teachers don’t want to do the work – many without even realizing this. White curriculum also doesn’t do the work of fixing injustices, and instead causes many. In my experience, educators want to be very prepared, to be knowledgeable ‘experts’ about what everyone needs to do to be successful. I feel the need to do my best in these ways as well. Therefore, in my opinion it has become a culture of feeling the need to have all of the answers, of being able to compartmentalize everything into neat boxes, which in turn will help us fill out our report cards, our IEP’s, our TPA’s, or ALP’s, our SIP’s, our BIP’s. Which are important, but sometimes become the boxes we need to check off, and not about the students that we need to teach. 

If something is not right, or doesn’t seem normal with our students, we put it on an IEP, or refer it to an expert. We ‘other’ it. WE don’t SEE it. The disability is sent to someone else, before we will do anything else with it. The blackness is sent to someone else if it cannot be contained, ‘normalized’, or accommodated. Do we blame blackness and disability if a student cannot read? 

White culture deems what ‘good literature’ is to teach with. The actions we do to support are surface level – ensuring some black authors, ensuring some books with characters who are black or disabled – but it is surface level, and it is ‘tokenism’. And still compared to standards of whiteness of reading and literacy. 

As Reid also said in his podcast: “The real power in our actions”. What kinds of actions do we really need to see? 

I know that I need to spend time truly understanding blackness and disability, and what the injustices are and how they feel- especially as it pertains to helping students to learn how to read. I need to understand the policies and procedures, and behaviours that prop these injustices up. Are there creative ways to take action? Inspirational ways?

It will take time.

Special Education and Disability

As I continue in my studies, I find that blogging helps me to make sense of what I am learning. How I take my readings and conversations, and reflect on them in ways that I can, in turn, continue to share with others, in ways that further shape my own thinking and growth as an educator.

Up until now, special education and disability have been entities that I have merely wanted to learn more about. To become educated about to be better in my roles. However, I now am beginning to understand that special education and disability are so much more than things we need to become educated about. This can be problematic, because educating ourselves only about the disability itself, can merely become an act of understanding how to help students with disability to assimilate better in a normal classroom. To succeed to the best of ‘their’ ability- in relation to ‘normal’ – and if we cannot achieve this, we will need to find a new class, or stream for ‘them’.

But, I want to propose, that when we only see special education and disability as only entities that educators need to become more educated about, we need to think about the idea that we could be in fact problematizing disability and special needs – because we are only learning about them in terms of how much they don’t fit into what a normal classroom should be. We have to consider that we in fact problematize students to the extent that they disrupt the ‘normal’ teaching processes. If they can’t fit in, where should they go? How do we make this happen?

In education we live committed to the notions of ‘normal’ and our desire to ‘normalize’ students. This happens in many ways – formally and informally both through pedagogical practices, the
curriculum, but also in the every day, moment by moment noticings, wonderings, decisions. How our own shadows come through in our judgments and behaviours, decisions and plans made in dealing with and talking about others.

What do we imagine disability to be? How do our own shadows reinforce the labels and stories that we tell in education about special needs? Are we able to understand disability and special needs outside of their relationships to educators? What do the stories and labels that educators attribute to special needs actually tell us about ourselves and our own shadows? We live with
difference all around us, and yet, this idea of ‘normal’ and who doesn’t fit into that mold, really downplays the importance of difference, and the humanity of our students.

Can we examine the implicit, and explicit conceptions that we hold about what it means to maintain normalcy in the classroom? When does a special need or disability become ‘trouble’, and what is in fact this ‘normal’ that the trouble is disrupting. Can we create a picture of this normal that we expect?

Why does disability need to be ‘proven’? In this way, we always make disability a problem. Then we make that individual participate and prove that they are a problem.

What is normal? And if you are not normal, well maybe you need to be elsewhere. Documented. Segregated. And then we will know that a diagnosis must lead to a placement.

How do educators talk about students with impairments? What about disabilities that are assigned disability, even before an ‘official diagnosis’. What are the everyday noticings that tell us that someone is not ‘normal’. How will the curriculum be performed with students who do not fit the ‘norm’. How will we fix this problem?

Who will the actors be in the IEP? Are students allowed to have a voice in this creation?

How will it play out in the ‘theater of the classroom’. The choreography of ability. The cues and performances that we use to determine what we know about someone. What roles do we all play out, because we believe it is what is expected? What is normal? How do we act in ways that further problematize the special needs?

What parts of someones identity leads us to believe that it is something to be feared? Why is the emphasis placed on students as the problem? How does it feel to be a problem? Have we asked? Do we care?

How does this reinforce the discussion and rhetoric about students? The ‘low’ students, the students who come from ‘those’ families, or ‘those’ communities? Or the students that we need to be reminded as being in fact members of healthy families and communities? Reminded that they
do in fact belong somewhere.

If not in a special class, perhaps a stream? Special equipment and technologies that try to help with the adaptation to ‘normal’. If they still can’t fit in, then how about destreaming? New location? new classroom?

But then we layer on the notion that disabled people are just like everyone else, with problems like everyone else.

But unlike everyone else, with everyday problems, those with disabilities not only have problems like everyone else, the disability is in fact a problem that needs to be accommodated to help students fit into the ‘norm’.

Thus, perhaps the the real question of difference that we can turn our focus to, is the difference between ‘having a problem’ and ‘being a problem’.

And the idea of ‘special’ troubles as being different than ‘ordinary’ troubles that students bring to the classroom.

This social construction and idea of the ‘norm’ will in and of itself generate ‘normal problems’ that are need of a solution. Problems for the norm thus requires solutions that will keep the ‘norm normal’.

Even to consider the books we read to and with students. The books that we provide for students in schools. All of the books that emphasize sameness. What differences do we erase by ‘saming’ the disabled and making statements that we are all the same? Our failing to imagine disability as anything other than negative, thus serving to erase that difference with a sense of normalcy. Or as a problem in need of a solution.

In conclusion, beyond educating ourselves about disability, I’d like to invite anyone reading this, including myself, to pay close attention to the things we notice, the things we say, and the things we wonder about – especially when it comes to special needs and disability.  Can we truly attend to difference and humanity as opposed to figuring out how to normalize and create ‘sameness’?

Brain Words Book Club: How the Science of Reading Informs Teaching

Yesterday, we had an invigorating discussion as group of us got together to discuss the book ‘Brain Words: How the Science of Reading Informs Teaching, by Richard Gentry and Gene P. Ouellette. I wanted to share just some of my learning from this experience:

‘Brain Words’ is about helping students to develop rapid and accurate word reading, because word reading is necessary to reading comprehension. It is beyond visual recognition, but deeply connected to phonology.

As the book starts, we are welcomed to think about how we think about how children store patterns and words in their brain. Gentry discusses the idea of helping students to build a dictionary in each child’s brain of syllables and words within each child, and pronunciation, meaning and critical spelling.

When we speak of building a dictionary in each child’s brain, we are referring to building a bank of syllables and words within each child – that includes information on pronunciation, meaning, and critically, spelling. These stored patterns and words referred to by scientists as lexical representations, we refer to here as brain words” p 2.

I really took away the importance of how  to help students store brain-based spelling representations – because this is essential for helping students to develop their own ‘dictionary’ of brain words.

It was very interesting to read about the confusion that exists ‘out there’ about word reading. Some people implement word study programs by sorting words and testing hypotheses so that kids can ‘discover’ how words work. Others still follow scope and sequence charts – which is supposed to bring systematic exploration of words, but usually ends up with isolated lessons. As such, we end up with disconnected lessons for phonological awareness, phonics and vocabulary – and they all become isolated add-ons to an already full literacy block. Some teachers will teach lessons on random words pulled from a random text that will appear next in a reading program – unable to see how it all connects. Some do add-on mini-lessons that are disconnected from other activities.

Some teach explicit spelling, have children memorize words, do spelling tests. This led me to make a connection to math and the ‘memorization’ of math facts:

We don’t want students to just blindly ‘memorize’ multiplication facts – instead, we want students to build the brain pathways that help students to be able to figure out any multiplication fact regardless of whether they have it memorized or not. This develops automaticity. I believe that it is similar with word study. We don’t want students to blindly ‘memorize’ sight words. What we want is to help students develop the pathways for word identification, so that any time students come to a word they do not understand, they have the skills to figure the word out, to sound them out, and the ability to then remember those words. In this way, we create automaticity, not a memorized bank of sight words – the research and science of reading shows that this is not how students learn to read, and will not help students identify unfamiliar words, or remember words.

We also had a great discussion about this and how we don’t follow a ‘program’, per se, but rather we engage in a comprehensive program where hopefully the components all connect.  We want to think about reading development versus lessons from a kit.

I connected this with how David Kilpatrick let us know, that researchers do not study ‘program’s, they study concepts, ideas and techniques. Therefore, ‘Research-Based Programs’ are a moot point. In fact, ‘Research-Based Programs’ is not a protected term, so anyone can use this term to sell their product. What is important is the research and science behind the components of Reading, including Phonological Awareness, Phonics, Vocabulary, Fluency and Comprehension. They are all important and I look forward to learning how it all connects.

So many questions moving forward, including

  • What is the best way to use word walls?
  • Can we change how we use running records to make priorities about how students use visual and sound cueing strategies versus the 3-cueing system (which includes strategies that poor readers use, and not based in the science of reading)
  • How to explicitly teach/integrate phonological awareness, oral language, routes to reading and spelling to promote orthographic learning and creation of brain words
  • How does it all connect?

Really looking forward to studying the second half of the book and learning more about how Gentry’s 5 developmental phases of spelling!

Literacy Instruction: From ‘Best Practices’ to Centering Student Voices

I am thinking about the intersections of literacy instruction and learning that centers the voices of Black students.

I know that even as I am thinking about this, and sharing my own thoughts and questions, that I have been indoctrinated with racist tendencies that I have subconsciously absorbed: 10 Ways Good White People Can Help Black America (If ‘Good White People’ Exist)

I am thinking about how often we engage in discussions about the best ways to ‘teach’, that are deemed to be ‘best practices’. They look ideal on the surface, and are built from data that are considered to result in student success and achievement. These practices are often what is measured and monitored to determine if a teacher is a ‘good’ teacher or not. They are also considered the practices that will close the ‘gaps’ that exist in literacy for marginalized students. This could include, but not limited to practices such as

  • how we build effective lessons that get students thinking about a problem or concept, interact with the problem or concept, and then help them share and consolidate the key learning.
  • how teachers assess student understanding,
  • how comprehension skills are built, including eliciting evidence from the text to draw conclusions, making connections to the characters;
  • what texts are used and how they are used including the provision of leveled readers for students based on assessed reading levels
  • how students should read and write
  • how lessons are taught with the ‘best’ activities for all students
  • how lessons are consolidated based on discussion of other voices and ideas from specific texts and resources

This seemingly ideal organization of lessons can be a big part of a problem that promotes racist practices. Therefore, I want to think deeper and far beyond the ‘best practices’ to think about changing the how and what of we do, to thinking about the why and who in order to center the voices and experiences and histories Black students.

As I think about literacy, I think a lot about how to teach literacy comprehension and skills. Often, these skills and strategies are taught in isolation, or in relation to a text that centers whiteness. I think that we need to go beyond teaching the comprehension skills themselves – and instead harness the the rich content of the student’s own background knowledge, and co-create new opportunities to build upon the students own literate identities that already exist. I am still learning about the best ways to do this.

I am also making a connection to the research about leveled readers, and will share this one article here that explains it a bit more: Leveled Reading Groups Don’t Work. Why Aren’t We Talking About It?

What harm do leveled readers create for our students that we need to understand? Do leveled readers result in leveled lives? What students are privileged enough to succeed with the best-practices currently provided?

Why can’t we co-create literacy content with our students from personally lived experiences and stories? Why can’t we ‘play’ more with language to create meaningful texts for a variety of audiences? How can we provide students with opportunities to write themselves into the curriculum? Write themselves into the classroom? Center the lives of students right in the curriculum?

Can we center student’s own background knowledge, and co-construct new knowledge and experiences that facilitate richer literacy learning?

How can we harness mentor texts to help students learn to read and write from authors with similar ways of being in the world?

How can we help integrate social justice opportunities with students AND their families? How are families using literacy, social media and more to co-construct the discussions that center and engage Black families?

What do we know about the racist constructions of the best-practices, the language we use in our literacy programs, and who is able to succeed and achieve in literacy?

What if these best-practices actually serve to further racialize Black students in how they come to understand themselves as literate learners?

Do students have opportunities to also create the language and texts in learning environments?

What are we missing when our literacy instruction for marginalized students if it is only data-driven to ‘close the gap’? Does this become the foundation for the only ways that we interact with Black students? Indigenous students? Racialized students?

How can we begin to center the rich languages and literacies of Black voices right in the intellectual work.

Can Black students’ histories and identities and experiences be used to re-write the curriculum and de-center whiteness?

What does it mean to be a good student? What does it mean to be a ‘good’ reader or writer?

What does it mean to be a good teacher? What if great pedagogical practices are in place, but students are continually silenced? Humiliated?

Literacy is not just the ability to read and write. It also includes background knowlednge and experience, it includes social lives and emotions, it also includes how we compare literacy used among students and families, with the mainstream ‘school’ literacies.

What does it really mean to be literate?

What do education practices and pedagogies need to look like in order to center the cultural experiences of students?

What does this look like in early literacy versus adolescent literacy learning environments?

Do we center approaches based in white English canon, or are there other ways we can empower students. Are there other ‘best-practices’ that we can use to help students become the creators of the knowledge in our classrooms, and build on the literacy skills that students already have?

Can we help Black students write themselves into the classroom curriculum?

How do we help students understand and reflect on their own strengths as readers and writers? Above and beyond what is imposed from curriculum?

Are we really providing our students with regular opportunities to think of themselves as readers and writers in our schools?

Further, because we care very deeply about all of the students we teach, how can we use texts and other resources that help students to understand how we look at literacy from white, settler, colonial perspectives – yet in a way that does not blame white students, or shame them. Instead, how can all students develop agency to center voices that have not been included in our curriculum?

In addition, I feel the same way about helping educators learn. Can educators learn that literacy instruction is frought with racist beliefs and practices, and work for greater equity and justice without being shamed? How can all educators develop agency to center voices that have not been included in our curriculum?

These are a lot of questions.

I am just scratching the surface of my learning.

I have to say that I would appreciate having job-embedded access to knowledgeable facilitator to be able to receive coaching and guidance on my own practice moving forward to center Black lives, and to focus #BlackLivesMatter in my own coaching practice. I believe that this would be a key resource to support job-embedded learning that goes beyond webinars and one-time courses or workshops.

Any helpful comments, resources, supports to help us along our own journeys are much appreciated,

Assessment Literacy – via Lyn Sharratt

Feedback in Online Learning Environments – Canadian School Libraries Journal

Feedback in Online Learning Environments – Canadian School Libraries Journal
— Read on

Guided Reading with Adolescent Readers

What are the best strategies for teaching and facilitating learning with Adolescent readers? There is a dearth of research that discusses Guided Reading with Adolescent students, but we do know that differentiation and equity are essential. There is a very great potential with this practice if we can learn to implement effectively. If we hear the words ‘Guided Reading’, most teachers will have a basic ‘head-nodding’ understanding of what it is, but outside of the younger elementary grades, there does not exist a rich wealth of research into Guided Reading with Adolescents. Without a more in-depth understanding, it will not be implemented in our classrooms.

How can we take what we know about Guided Reading, and use our knowledge of Adolescent readers, to determine how to implement this activity in the classroom?

What is Guided Reading?

Basically, Guided Reading is not its own program — rather it is part of a broader ‘Comprehensive Literacy’ framework that implements a Gradual Release of Responsibility from Modelled to Shared to Guided to Independent Reading.

It is defined by features including levelled texts, small-group instruction, teaching and prompting of effective reading strategies, independent activities for those not involved in guided reading. Because there is not enough time in the day to meet with all students individually, Guided Reading is a flexible option for supporting students with reading comprehension. The groups are usually comprised of 3–8 students. It is comprised of before, during and after reading strategies. Before Reading strategies include building Learning Goals and Success Criteria, activating prior knowledge, building background knowledge, setting a purpose for reading, using graphic organizers, KWL charts. During Reading strategies include identifying connections to personal experiences, asking questions, discussing vocabulary, making inferences, teaching strategies for unfamiliar words, sharing reactions, and providing feedbackAfter Reading strategies include consolidating the key learning, engaging in self-assessments, and teacher mini-assessments, feedback, planning next steps for student learning.

It is also absolutely essential that the grouping arrangements be flexible, temporary, and change based on progress monitoring and assessment. This is key for promoting differentiation and equity.

Most importantly, it needs to be a flexible framework that supports you in your responsive instruction and assessment strategies.

Why Guided Reading?

A common issue for all teachers is the difficulty of being able to meet the range of needs that occur in each classroom. This includes, and is not limited to, students with identified learning disabilities, different needs associated with attention-deficit, autism spectrum, fetal alcohol, hearing impairment, ELL, social and behavioural problems, suspected unidentified disabilities, average achievement levels, attendance issues, transience, trauma, cross-cultural differences, students needing enrichment, and gifted students — and infinite combinations of all of the above and more.

When it comes down to it, it is the teachers themselves who are directly affected by their unique range of needs. As such, it is the teachers themselves that need key strategies that will need to be actively engaged in assessing, reflecting on, and improving their own practice.

If done well, Guided Reading has the ability to promote differentiation AND equity through small group reading opportunities.

Why are some students good at comprehension and why do others have difficulty?

4 possible reasons that students will encounter difficulty with reading:

1. Low knowledge of vocabulary

2. Inadequate word recognition strategies

3. Lack of schemata or background knowledge to interpret text

4. Poor use of strategies to comprehend what they are reading

Let’s look for a moment at # 4. What can teachers do to help students use strong strategies that support comprehension?

Students with difficulties in reading comprehension, need to engage in strategies including:

· re-reading the text

· using background knowledge and schemas

· developing metacognition

· becoming assessment-capable learners who can tell whether they have comprehended it or not

We really want adolescents to really learn to harness their metacognition and self-Assessment skills that they will need both now – and for the rest of their lives.

A repertoire of roles and activities that the Teacher can use in Guided Reading, depending on the situation:

· Coach

· Modelling/demonstrating — make learning visible

· Prompting

· Questioning students

· Eliciting questions from students

· Listening

· Activating background knowledge and schemas

· Creating mental images

· Telling — students information in an abstract way without telling them what to do

· Explaining — clarifying how to do something — direct explanation

· Promoting engagement in discussion

· Promoting awareness of text structures

The reading strategies need to be chosen based on student needs, and teacher observations during guided reading.

The following is a basic structure you can use for a 15–30 min Guided Reading session:

1. Introduce the Learning Goals, and co-create Success criteria

2. Teacher introduces text, and engage students in pre-reading activities

3. Students read silently, some may be asked to read in a whisper or quiet reading

4. Question, prompt model and during reading strategies. Be careful not to make this a solely teacher-led session. Especially with adolescents.

5. After reading strategies and discussions


Finally, don’t forget to assess your students. Guided Reading provides a great opportunity to Triangulate other data you may have from other benchmark assessments, standards-based assessments, and observations. You can record and track what happens in Guided Reading in a personalized way that works best with you (checklist with learning goals and success criteria, google forms, anecdotal organizers etc.) with data from other group reflection notes, teacher journals, student conferences, classroom observations, assessments and more.


Guided Reading is not without its challenges. It is best to be responsive to the needs of your own students and situation, rather than feel you need to create that ‘ideal state’ of Guided Reading in your classroom. There are very real challenges including insufficient time to work with each of the guided reading groups, insufficient space for multiple groups, disruptions, attendance, figuring out what to do with the other students, lack of motivation, diverse range of needs. The reality is that these challenges exist everywhere, and we need to figure out for ourselves how Guided Reading could and should look in our own unique situations.

Words of Caution:

It is best not to consistently group students in the same ways all the time. This begins to turn into a traditional model of pulling-out students for instruction, and having separate classes, which are both models that have not demonstrated effectiveness. It also becomes a situation that the opposite of differentiation and does not promote equity.

Also, especially with adolescents, it is essential as Teachers to avoid leading the entire discussion. It is important to help students lead the questions and discussions themselves or make strides to helping them take this responsibility. It supports metacognition, and also the very important role of the Adolescent reader in developing their own identities as readers, and as people.

Two Things to think about moving forward:

1. what will you do as a teacher to support differentiation, equity, and reading comprehension skills with your adolescent readers?

2. What are the types and frequencies of ‘talk’ that you will help students engage in?

Deb McCallum

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