Effective Reading Instruction

What is Effective Reading Instruction?

There are many students who will do well in spite of teachers, and despite of us as well. However, the most effective teachers are also able to be effective with the lower-achieving students. This has always been an equity issue when we fail to meet the needs of all students, but particularly those who are marginalized.

When we dive into multiple sources of data, we often can see that there are key practices that exemplary teachers engage in that are great for all students, but absolutely essential for those students who struggle with literacy in our schools. Often, the students who struggle are also marginalized in some way, and it is up to teachers to make the real differences in their lives.

What does a successful reading experience look like? It looks like students performing with a high-level of accuracy, fluency and comprehension. It is the high-accuracy, fluent and easily comprehended reading that provides the opportunities to integrate complex skills and strategies into an automatic, independent reading process.

Excellent readers can also self-monitor for understanding, summarize while reading and edit while composing.

What does the research say about how to do this?

Can students who struggle with reading become successful readers? Yes! The lowest achievers benefit the most from exemplary teachers, when they can spend 50% of the day purposefully reading with books and texts that they can actually read, with teachers engaged in explicit instructional practices.

What are the practices that make teachers particularly effective for all students, but especially struggling readers? What are the exemplary practices that work? According to Arlington (2002), the following practices are those that exemplary teachers put in place:

  • Students are actively reading and writing at least 50% of the day
    • This includes language and math
  • Explicit demonstrations of skills and strategies/modelling
  • Think-Alouds
  • Line-by-line analyses of different types of text
  • More student talk between teacher and student, and student to student
  • Longer assignments, less shorter tasks
  • Writing tasks that last for 10 days or more
  • Individual and small-group research projects
  • Integration of several content areas
  • More complex tasks that span several content areas
  • Work that requires more self-regulation of students
  • Student choice and voice – ‘managed choice’ makes it difficult for peers to compare and rank each other (as can be done when students compare identical worksheets and templates)
  • Extensive and explicit practice including consolidation of skills and strategies, more guided reading, more independent reading, and more explicit math reading
  • Less time on copying definitions, less time completing ‘after-reading’ comprehension worksheets, less time on ‘stuff’
  • Activating student background knowledge before reading, and having rich discussions after reading

Engaging a classroom in rich reading discussion sounds like it is common sense, however, according to Allington (2002), data demonstrates that the dominant pattern of classroom talk tends to be the teacher posing questions, having students respond, and then teachers verifying and correcting the students. Whether during the math block, or the literacy block, this is definitely a pattern that continues to dominate many classrooms. This also takes the onus off of the students to listen to each other, and to try to understand what others are thinking. Yet, it is a practice that still permeates school. Pre-packages lessons are also problematic for promoting rich classroom discourse.

Exemplary teaching cannot be packaged. It is responsive.

Prepackaged instructional handouts/kits etc are not useful for the explicit teaching of skills or strategies. It is also not equitable or responsive to purchase units online to give to our students to fill out and complete. Therefore, it is essential to think deeper about any worksheets we give our students. For example, if you are providing students with a worksheet to fill in, and they get the answers right, they are not engaging in an instructional activity – they are engaging in an assessment activity of who can fill the work in and who is experiencing difficulty. While this can work sometimes in formative ways, an graphic organizers may be essential to help some students organize thinking, and build executive functioning skills, worksheets are just not an exemplary instructional practice.

Strong instructional practices are essential for students – especially those who are struggling, or considered low-achieving. 

Library, Sky, Birds, Mystical, Clouds

Students need a very rich supply of books, and a rich supply of books that they can successfully read. Aside from books for instructional purposes (which are indeed necessary), students require many more available books that are at their developmental level. For students to become independent and proficient readers, they require copious amounts of successful reading experiences. It is important to consider not just how to ensure that classrooms and libraries have these book supplies, but also how to use them effectively each and every day.

When all is said and done, reading proficiency has to rest with the exemplary practices of the classroom teacher. While there are excellent programs out their to support teachers and students, exemplary teaching in literacy is about being responsive to students needs, and providing strong and responsive literacy programs where at least 50% of the day is devoted to reading and writing – in any subject.

Deb McCallum


Arlington, R. (2002). What I’ve learned about effective reading instruction: From a decade of studying exemplary elementary classroom teachers. Phi Delta Kappan. pp 740 – 747

Leadership & Goal Setting

Goal setting is an essential practice when coaching and engaging in Instructional Leadership. However, it can also be one of the most difficult practices to engage in. This is because goal setting can be laden with so many different past expectations, experiences and beliefs. What needs to happen to help make goal-setting a truly meaningful experience and practice?

First, it is my belief that leadership means starting where the teachers are at with their thinking, and helping them to reach their goals with their students. This is a collaborative professional development opportunity to help us all continue to grow in our practice. If we can co-construct effective goals for the learning processes with the students, then we will be better equipped to monitor student learning.

Goal setting can be a natural extension of meeting teachers where they are at, and helping them to have a voice-an essential part of the process for collaborating and improving student learning.

However, I find it can also be very difficult to co-construct goals sometimes. While it is not my role to make teachers set personal goals, I do believe in the importance of setting goals that promote student learning. However, goal-setting can become challenging, depending on the various beliefs, expectations or past-experiences with goal-setting.

The term ‘goal-setting’ is sometimes laden with many different messages, expectations or past experiences that have built up, and existed in the past. These expectations and past understandings can create an uncomfortable situation for teachers to engage in goal-setting. Particularly in math, where math anxiety has grown out of reinforcement of memorization and speed as the signs of a good mathematician.

What are some of the situations that we might be facing when it comes to goal setting? First, some may have an underlying belief that that goal setting occurs when someone is ineffective in their role, or hasn’t learned what they need to know to do their job. Some may also believe that their goals have to be based on what they think others expect of them, or may believe that they will be evaluated on their goal setting. Goal-setting to others may mean that their identity as a professional is at risk. Goal-setting may not lead to traditional definitions of what success should look like either. Further, if someone already does not feel much self-efficacy about teaching math, or any other subject, then they may truly not know where to start and feel vulnerable to find a goal that might be best for them or their students. Goal-setting might also just feel like an impossible task among the differing pressures around teachers, different personalities, or political climate. Finally, the pressure around math that has traditionally, and still continues to exist in math, has produced much fear and anxiety around math itself – let alone goal setting in math. Thinking about these issues can make the best of us feel like goal-setting is a very risky activity.

But I still believe we can work together successfully to overcome these challenges.

Therefore, it is an important leadership process to be able to meet someone where they are at and help them set goals for student learning, that are aligned with broader school and district goals – but that aren’t about pleasing someone else, or the powers that be. Building relationships is key. We can also help foster safety to help make it clear that goal setting is something we all need to do because our students are always changing and evolving each year, and knowledge is always changing and evolving in our world. Each situation will require different relationships.

I also think about the importance of modelling goal-setting for myself, and sharing my own goals with those I work with – and inviting help and feedback with those so we all can continue to meet the ever-changing needs of our students. Modelling our goal setting for others, and inviting them into the process, could be important for moving forward.

One of the goal areas that I am personally working on and thinking about, and will be articulating this year, is about is how to help develop student assessment abilities, especially how they can use assessment and feedback practices to truly understand themselves as learners. How can I focus my teaching cycles to help harness student assessment capabilities? What evidence will I gather for that? What will this look like in the classrooms I support? How will I center my teaching cycles in a way to harness student assessment?

Supporting goal setting is an important leadership activity for everyone. Goal setting really to become a tool that helps to build trust and common understandings. This is something that I will be thinking about deeply, and setting personal goals around, as we grow together throughout the school year. I hope to hear about others goal-setting practices and challenges, and perhaps even some stories that will help us all move forward together.

What are your own personal goals for your math programming this year – for yourself or your students?

What leadership stories do you have that can help shed light on goal-setting in math?

Deborah McCallum

Director Reflections on a Day of Swimming in the Deep End

Director Reflections on a Day of Swimming in the Deep End
— Read on www.learningforwardontario.ca/post/director-reflections-on-a-day-of-swimming-in-the-deep-end

Swimming in the Deep End: A Day with Jennifer Abrams

This particular book is about the professional deep-end work we do in schools: the projects we undertake, the initiatives we are tasked to move forward with, the teams we are in charge of. What I hope this book will do is support you in seeing what the deep-end skills, capacities, and mindsets look for you in your context, with your work as an ever-learning education leader-someone who is growing his or her leadership skills to be effective within your school or organization, no matter your role. If you are looking for some strategies to stay afloat in the deep end, dive on in.” ~ Jennifer Abrams

On Tuesday Aug. 20, In partnership between Learning Forward Ontario and the Ontario Principals’ Council, I had the privilege of being part a very special event with Jennifer Abrams, author of Swimming in the Deep End. Her session, entitled ‘Swimming in the Deep End: What does it take?’, was excellent. We had the opportunity to learn about how we would each go about developing the educational leadership skills that we need to create change within our schools.

As an Instructional Coach, I was able to think deeply about what skills I need to develop, as they pertains to my own unique situation, and my own work both as a coach and from my own initiative I will be leading for my PQP practicum this fall.

Her Deep-end self-assessment of 4 Foundational Skills was invaluable to me to begin to think about where I felt I needed to focus my own learning on. The 4 Skills include:

  1. Thinking before you speak
  2. Preempting Resistance
  3. Responding to Resistance
  4. Managing Oneself Through Change and Resistance.

Resistance is a very broad category, and so I believe it is important to become clear as to what exactly about resistance we might find ourselves managing, and how we can do that. Jennifer Abrams led us through an entire day of work that enabled us to think through this as they pertain to our own situations and lenses. It is not a matter of ‘if’ you will experience resistance, but ‘when’ you will face resistance. This is because there are so many needs, values, goals and polarities at play that need to be aligned. It is very important to me that I can now specifically think about how I can understand these challenges that will be inherent in my own initiatives, and in those of my school board that I am responsible for.

It is one thing to meet people where they are at – this is essential to building relationships. It is another issue to swim in the deep end and communicate in ways that could create discomfort for the purposes of learning, and the purposes of helping our students achieve the best education they can. As Jennifer said, we are also in the business of thinking about the adults we work with, and not just the students. We are developing and supporting those teachers who in turn support the students. How will I provide opportunities to help them see that they are making an impact and developing? How will I help provide the professional learning that will help make changes for the betterment of the students?

My own philosophy is that learning is hard, challenging and uncomfortable, and we have to push ourselves through it in order to learn. Some people say that we always need to have strong relationships first in order to build trust. However, I have also come to believe that we can also build strong relationships based on trust by Swimming in the Deep End together. Depending upon the people we are learning with, I do think that some of the strongest learning comes from working through challenging circumstances together, with willing spirits.

In my role as an Instructional Coach, yes we are working to shape quality learning experiences for the students, however, we are also deeply working with the adults, for the sake of the students. We are developing and supporting those who support the students. We provide those opportunities to help teachers see how they are making an impact and developing in their professional practice for the students. We think about what is the professional learning that we will provide at our school. Therefore, I ask myself about how we are growing and teaming while making changes for the sake of the students? I have learned with Jennifer that this includes the ability to embed regular moments of reflection.

Implementing regular moments of reflection reminds me of the Coaching/Teaching Cycles we engage with in our practice, in our school board SCDSB. We call it co-planning, co-teaching and co-debriefing. To me, the debrief is the most important component.

I have found through personal experience that coaching is not nearly rich enough unless there is formal time set aside for a rich debrief session. This is the part of the action plan were we can truly stop and reflect. It takes courage to just sit, look back on the lesson. Courage to recognize what might not have done as well as we had hoped, to look at what the data is telling us through, look back and look ahead. This is the input that is essential to improving and moving forward. I really appreciate that Jennifer highlights the importance of setting up regular moments for true reflection for these very reasons.

Something else that really stood out to me was Jennifer Abram’s inter-generational work. It suddenly hit me that the new teachers are 20 years younger than I am, and that we have grown up in completely different worlds. (I have no idea how this happened, lol). I obviously coach all age groups, but to realize that new teachers have grown up in a different world, it is important to think about the implications of this in terms of how I coach.

It resonated with me that Jennifer Abrams was discussing the importance of understanding what others values are and how they need to align with the school and board goals, but also to articulate clearly how they will maintain autonomy over their practice.

I am now also thinking deeper about how I will plan my own initiatives and deliver the key messages. As I embark on my PQP Practicum this school year in my role as an Instructional Coach, I will be continually revisiting and reflecting upon the components of Jennifer’s Deep-end self-assessment (that you can find in her book, Swimming in the Deep End) and her four foundational skills: a) Thinking before you speak, b) Preempting resistance, c) Responding to Resistance, d) Managing Oneself through Change and Resistance.

I am very excited to take my Learning Forward this year after this wonderful session with Jennifer Abrams.

Thank you everyone for a wonderful day,

Deb McCallum

Aug, 2019

Guided Reading for Math?

We often teach math differently than we do literacy, but the language used in math is often not only more complex, but also children come to math often with different levels of understanding. Families have vastly different comfort levels and knowledge of math- and this spread is often larger than traditional language. However children’s number ability is significantly and positively related to their ability to use complex language for number (Uscianowski et al., 2018).

              In my role as an Instructional Coach, I see the barriers that students face when they are unable to comprehend the literacy elements that are embedded within a complex math problem. If students cannot comprehend a math question or problem, then this will be a very large barrier for being able to solve the math.

One of the suggestions that I usually give is for teachers to use a complex math problem in a Guided Reading Group! This is different than guided math, where teachers might work with a small group of students to solve the math problem.

In a traditional Guided Reading group, you are helping students to read for meaning. Guided reading is meant to support independent reading and strategy use. It is not a prescribed protocol, but rather a flexible framework to help meet the needs of the students that teachers are working with. Guided reading, when done well, significantly can increase impact on reading ability.

Why not try guided reading to help students build cognitive, metacognitive and affective skills for reading complex math problems? I encourage you to give it a try.

If you are guided reading for math, here are some suggestions:

  1. Do NOT have students solve the problem. You are working to help them read for meaning. Help them to conceptualize and understand the complex problem. Help them to build common understandings and internalize this. Build strong metacognitive skills, and help them feel positive about their achievements.
  2. Allow students to interact with each other and ask questions. Learning is social, and students need opportunities to learn with others who are at similar levels. Which brings us to the next point:
  3. Help students who are in the same Zone of Proximal Development. The students you are working with should all be able to read the challenging text with the teacher- because they have similar developmental needs.
  4. Put scaffolds in place to help students to be successful while reading the math problem. Some students may need to read the problem aloud several times. Some students may need help understanding some of the vocabulary. Some still don’t understand the math concepts. Some have never experienced the ideas in the first place.
  5. Help students develop the mathematical concepts they need to process the text. They need to internalize the meaning of math problem. They may need help building understanding of some of the concepts. The Big Ideas can be interwoven with the weekly learning goals, or personal learning goals.
  6. Ask good questions. For instance, use questions to build background knowledge – something that many students may not have, but which is essential for developing the ability to read problems independently and internalize the meanings. Ask questions that allow the students to think and make conjectures and develop their own understandings of the math.
  7. Help students to model and represent their thinking. Studies show that when all learners can visually represent their thinking, they develop higher levels of comprehension.
  8. Help students to identify what they know, and what they don’t know orally, and in the form of a visual representation. Please do not have students rewrite the whole question. That can cause frustration and more anxiety about math.
  9. Connect the guided math problems to your weekly mathematical learning goals – make sure that they are real problems that you are teaching, and providing opportunities to solve within math class.
  10. Make sure your guided group meets your math goals.

This is not an exhaustive list, but I am deeply interested in pursuing this idea further.

Some other great comments shared earlier from @MarkChubb include the importance of teaching THROUGH problem solving, and the importance of teaching students how to read a problem. He also shared a word of caution that if our math goal is to improve literacy abilities, then we could miss key points about how to improve our students mathematical understandings.

I am looking to learn more and explore more. So far I have experienced difficulty finding research on this topic in academic libraries. If you are able to give this a try, please share your experiences here in the comments section, or contact me personally!

I would love to hear more!

Deborah McCallum


Uscianowski, C., Almeda, M. V., & Ginsburg, H. P. (2018). Differences in the complexity of math and literacy questions parents pose during storybook reading. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2018.07.003

Highlights • Parents ask more complex questions about characters’ actions than number or shape. • Parents with higher reading anxiety ask less abstract character’s actions questions. • Parents who enjoy literacy activities ask more abstract characters’ actions questions. • Child’s number ability was positively related to the complexity of parents’ number questions. • Parents pose more complex questions about number to their sons than daughters.

Feedback in Online Learning Environments – Canadian School Libraries Journal

Feedback in Online Learning Environments – Canadian School Libraries Journal
— Read on journal.canadianschoollibraries.ca/feedback-in-online-learning-environments/

Virtual Reality in the Math Class: Moving from Abstract to Concrete

I have been thinking about Virtual Reality (VR) and how it could support math class. I think that we can help our students develop deeper conceptual understandings of math if we can provide opportunities to help students experience the math in multiple immersive ways. We know that students learn best when they can experience the solutions, versus merely given an algorithm or a rule.

What I also know is that Kyle Pearce has discussed the importance of concreteness fading in his blog, where he describes how students move from concrete to representational to abstract: https://tapintoteenminds.com/concreteness-fading/ – But as Kyle suggests, using manipulatives is still more abstract than what is actually being measured. This is where Virtual Reality can help. What if students had the opportunity to not merely use manipulatives to represent what is being measured, but could actually access and measure the actual object?

When students only have opportunities to memorizing the tricks, tips, algorithms, and rules only, they lack the depth of understanding of the mathematical concepts.

But if we are moving students to abstract thinking as shared in Kyle’s blog, we also have to acknowledge that if the goal is to help students transfer their knowledge abstractly to new math, this won’t necessarily mean that students will continue to be able to engage in adaptive reasoning, conceptual understandings, and further justify mathematically what is actually going on in new problems. Merely moving to the abstract is not sufficient enough. Staying abstract can and will likely greatly affect their ability to transfer knowledge to new mathematical problems.

Ruth Beatty addresses this very issue in here video, where she discusses the importance of not just moving from concrete materials to abstract, but also important to move from abstract to concrete:

Here, Ruth basically describes the importance of allowing students to construct their understanding of the world by actively constructing their own understandings of the math with multiple representations, with more interactions, connections and meaningful experiences.

I think that this is great support for why VR could work in the mathematics classroom. Students can use VR to NOT just replace concrete representations to manipulate, NOT just to build patterns, but to ALSO interact with a wider repertoire of experiences and representations.

Therefore, the concreteness comes from not just working with manipulatives, but from our multiple relationships and personal interactions with objects, patterns & ideas – so any concept can become concrete through the use of VR – to provide multiple models and ways to interact with the mathematical concepts.

If we construct our understanding with multiple experiences, the concepts can become concrete in the minds of our students. VR as a way to provide more experiences and representations, and ways to interact with to create lifelong and personal relationships with the concepts – not just with the mathematical terms and algorithms themselves. Therefore, we can have students move from abstract to concrete with VR.

Have you done this in your math class? If so, what did you learn?

Deborah McCallum

Virtual Worlds Database

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