Author Archives: sundaycummins

About sundaycummins

I'm a literacy consultant with a focus on helping professional learning communities tackle teaching with informational texts.

Beware of how students mask comprehension struggles ;)

When I lean in for a reading conference with a student (who is reading an informational source), I always start by asking her to tell me a little bit about what she is learning from the source. I say, “Tell me what you learned in this section” or, in the case of narrative nonfiction, “What just happened in this section of the text?” When I do this, I’m checking for (mostly) literal understanding of what the student just read or, in Fountas & Pinnell terms, “within text understanding.”

As the student responds to “What did you just learn?”, I assess by asking myself questions like:

    • Is the student talking about the content on the page in front of them?
    • Are they able to describe what they’ve learned easily, in their own words?
    • What are they leaving out that maybe they do not understand?

Sometimes a student will look at you and just say, “I don’t know.” That’s great. You can move into teaching from there.

But lately, I’ve been noticing some other ways students try to get by–

1) The student talks about something they already knew (or they learned in the preview)…versus what’s in the text.

Example: A student was reading a NEWSELA article “Fishing boats are taking too many big hunting fish from the sea” (adapted from Scientific American). He’d just finished this paragraph:

Top predators are at the top of food chains. Food chains can be thought of as a series of levels, with each level dependent on the next for food. An ocean food chain starts with many plants and tiny animals like shrimp. Small fish eat those and bigger fish eat those smaller fish. Top predators help control the populations at lower levels. This keeps all the ocean life in balance.

When the teacher and I asked him to tell us a little bit about what he’d learned, he said, “Sharks are predators of smaller fish.” His comment did not reveal learning from this paragraph. He’d probably inferred that the author was going to move into talking about sharks, but he did not reveal his understanding of the content in this paragraph. When we probed further (“Tell us a little more”), he was not able describe how the author had described the concept of a food chain as a “series of levels,” etc. By listening carefully and probing, we determined we needed to support him (via a shared think aloud) in making sense of the content stated explicitly in that paragraph.

2) The student talks about an easier part of the text (or even an easier part of a sentence) and they DO NOT talk about the harder parts of the text (or the sentence) that they may not have understood.

Example: During a lesson with students reading an article about the future of drones, each time I leaned in and asked an individual to tell me about what she’d learned so far in the article, she referred to the statement in the article about drones delivering pizzas someday. None of them referred to the section of the article they’d read about first amendment privacy rights being violated by drones. When I probed further about what they’d learned from this section, I realized they did not understand it. Their response to my query, “What are you learning?” was “what I am understanding easily” (and maybe, in this case, “what did I find appealing” ;). So I moved to support the in understanding this harder content as part of our conference.

3) They repeat phrases or language from the text without a real understanding of what that language means or because they don’t know what it means.

Example: A student had just read aloud the following sentences (to the teacher):

But impala are well adapted for life among predators. Impala fawns are more likely to survive their first year of life than lion cubs.

When we asked her to tell us what she’d just learned, she said, “Fawns are more likely to survive.” Sounds good, huh? Then we asked her “What does more likely mean?” No clue. So we knew where we needed to teach next.

What I’m also finding is that we (me included) are sometimes too quick to accept what students say. We are not giving ourselves a moment to assess and then think through how to respond in a way that has generative value.

A FEW SUGGESTIONS for ASSESSING (literal understanding) in the moment (or what I’m learning):

  • Start with a general question or prompt like, “Tell me a little bit about what you’ve been reading or learning…”
  • Gently cover the passage and ask the student to look at you as they talk. Then you are messaging that this is a conversation about their learning.
  • LOOK AT THE TEXT FOR YOURSELF. Don’t be afraid, as the teacher, to look back at the text to compare what’s in the text to what the student has said. As I listen to the student, I lift my hand up just enough to glance at the text underneath as a way to help me check for understanding.
  • When needed, PROBE-ASSESS FURTHER with statements or questions like:
    • Tell me more.
    • What does the phrase “more likely” mean?

ONCE YOU ASSESS THAT A STUDENT IS NOT UNDERSTANDING WHAT THEY READ (or maybe not monitoring for meaning), here are few suggestions:

  • FOCUS ON ONE SENTENCE. Ask the student to read one sentence and then look up at you to talk about what he learned. (There can be a LOT of info in just a sentence or a paragraph.) If they are able to do this, point out to him how stopping and thinking about what you’ve just read is a helpful way to make sense of the details in a source and remember those details.
  • THINK ALOUD FOR & WITH THE STUDENT. The temptation is to ask the student a bunch of questions like, “What does the lion do to protect her cubs?” and “Where does she take them?” and “What does she do while they are hiding?” and so forth. RESIST. These questions continue to assess comprehension but they don’t really teach students how to make sense of a piece of information. Instead think aloud as a though you are making sense of the information with statements like, “When I read this, I noticed the author was telling me where the mother lion takes the cubs–to a hiding place and I noticed a detail that tells me why–so the predators won’t find them while the mother is off feeding.” You might also need think aloud about how you used background knowledge or what you learned in another part of the source to help you make sense of a detail. Then you need to follow with, “What did you notice?” drawing the student into conversation with you about how we make sense of particular details in a source. (And conversations about how sometimes we can’t make sense but we have to try and then we just have to move on!)

There’s so many ways a student’s meaning making may break down while reading an informational source. I can’t get it all into one blog entry, huh? Hope these take aways are a bit of help.


“Why do we have to annotate?”

“Why can’t I just highlight?” Ever heard that from a student? A few weeks ago I had the honor of teaching a class of 5th grade students with the objective of convincing them that annotating is a powerful way to make sense of a source–I did this by helping them realize the value of annotating AND by teaching them what they might include in an annotation.

Why do we annotate? I don’t have to convince you of the value of annotating, but we do need to remind students that annotating a source can help us make sense of the details and remember what we read. AND if we can understand and remember what we read, then we are more likely to be able to engage in critical thinking.

What types of notes should we jot when we annotate? This is the bigger (or real) question for students. Many (maybe most) do not know what to write in an annotation. They do not realize they can sketch a concept that is being described, write notes about what they don’t understand, note the type of detail the author has used (e.g., comparison, cause-effect, process, etc.), highlight or draw a box around important terms of the topic of a paragraph or section, and so forth.

Notes about the lessonThese students were studying the conservation of matter in science so I located a NEWSELA article that described condensation, boiling, and evaporation. Below are images and notes from the first two parts of a three phase lesson.

During Phase 1, I introduced the vocabulary word “process” –which is in the first sentence of the source. Understanding this word helps a reader understand many parts of this source better. I wrote the definition on the board and then we discussed briefly (see my notes from my lesson plan). We briefly previewed and made predictions and then I gave them a purpose for reading, “You have been studying condensation and evaporation in science. As you’re reading, I want you to think about new information you are reading that you can add to what you already know.” I encouraged them to put a + sign by new info, but to not spend energy on annotating yet.

As the students read the article, I leaned in to confer with several. I noticed that while they were able to name the topic they’d read about and give a few general details, they were not describing, in detail, what they’d learned. One student stuck out to me – he seemed very confident. He’d pushed the article away and was on to other things. When I leaned in, he informed me that he’d read the article twice and, basically, understood it all. I asked him to describe to me the process of evaporation and noticed he was probably drawing from his background knowledge to respond. Then I asked him to describe to me how the author explained evaporation. (The author uses a real life example of a puddle of water that appears to be shrinking but in reality…) The student had nothing to say, could not recall how the author did this. Together we went back and reread and discussed.

I closed by asking them to turn and talk with a partner about a new piece of information they’d learned from the article.

During Phase 2, I started by asking one students to come up and be the teacher while I pretended to be a student. I handed him a sticky note with a prompt a teacher might use to check for understanding – “Describe the process of condensation that you learned about in this article.” I asked him to ask me this question. When he did, I paused and looked out at the group with a bewildered look. I said, “Well, I think it’s about how water goes up in the air.” I looked at the students and said, “Is that about what you can say???? There was a lot of information in this article and that’s all I can really recall.” Most of the students agreed enthusiastically – “YES!!!” While we were laughing at me for not remembering more, we were also making it okay to say, “Hey, I need to go back and read and think through important parts closely to make sure I understand what I read and remember what I learned.”

They were with me!!! So then I introduced an anchor chart with the question “What are types of annotations we can use to help us make sense of details (in a source) and remember what we learned?” (See below.) 

I modeled thinking through a sentence in the source (with the article on a doc camera) and annotating and then we collaborated on deciding what to underline and jot down in the margins. As we annotated, we stopped and thought about what kind of annotation we’d made and began to list these types of annotations on the anchor chart. The students gave annotating with a partner a go. I quickly realized, that for many, they would need lots of additional opportunities with the teacher as a guide. Still there was good conversation about what they might jot down to help them make sense of the source. In the end, we only closely read and annotated two short paragraphs and that was plenty!!!

I closed by asking the student who’d played the teacher earlier in the lesson to come back up and ask me the same question. I modeled using my annotations to explain what I’d learned:

I learned that evaporation happens when a liquid is heated in some way.  The water molecules at the surface of the water start moving more quickly and they break away from the other molecules and move into the air as a gas. Evaporation is the effect and the liquid being heated in the cause. The author used a real life example–a puddle of water and what happens to the water to help me understand how this happens every day.

I looked out at the students and said, “How did I do?” There was a resounding cheer! They recognized the difference in what I could say – but more importantly in what they could say as a result of thoughtful annotations. Then I asked them to turn to a partner and use their annotations to explain what they’d learned. I probably could have asked them to put away their annotated text and talk about what they’d learned and observed positive results as well. They just understood and remembered the details better.

Woohoo!!!! So much fun!!!

Hope this helps.


Sample text set for teaching authors’ purposes

If students are reading multiple sources on a topic, thinking about the purpose of each source can help students remember the content in the source AND notice the similarities and differences between sources.
What follows is a sample set of sources (on recycling) for students to explore a set of sources (each with a different purpose) and an idea for a three-phase lesson with these sources. (I’m imagining these or similar sources could be used with grades 3-8.) If you haven’t seen the blog entry on using the mnemonic PRIDE as a way to introduce the different authors’ purposes, I’d start there.
1) In these two articles, the authors try to persuade the reader that recycling is worth the effort or it is not. With younger students, I’d just use the “CON” article; the “PRO” article is pretty sophisticated. Also, when I used this with students, I removed the words “opinion” and “pro” and “con” because I wanted students to notice this for themselves.
(Joining newsela is free!)
2) The majority of this NPR story recounts or tells the story of one group of that uses recycled materials to make  instruments:
OR if you are working with 3-5th grade students, you might find the book Ada’s ViolinThe Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay by Susan Hood and read this aloud to students. This text also recounts or tells the story of this orchestra.
3) This author at this site instructs or gives steps for an individual to make paper from recycled newspaper –

4) This author’s purpose seems to be to describe products that are made of recycled material.

5) The author’s purpose in both of these sources seems to be to explain how paper is recycled.
NOTE: For these last two sources, there might be some conversation around whether these authors’ purposes are to explain or to instruct; I lean towards explain because these are not steps the individual can take on their own BUT it’s a worthy discussion to have (if an issue emerges) with students because they are engaged in critical thinking!
Phase 1 Meet the Sources
  • Briefly introduce the set of sources. (You might include links in a Google doc or print out hard copies.)
  • Encourage students to explore (read-view-listen to) each source in the set–with a partner, in a small group, or independently. Pose this question: What are you learning about recycling? You can ask small groups to stop and discuss this as they engage with each source or you can ask this when you lean in to confer with students.
  • Close by asking questions like the following: What did you learn about recycling today that you thought was helpful? Fascinating? Hopeful? Why read-view-listen to more than one source on a topic?

Phase 2 Meet the Strategies

  • Introduce or review the different types of author’s purposes. (If you are just starting, look for how in this blog entry.)
  • Ask students (independently or with a partner) to reread-view-listen to each of the sources and jot down notes about the authors’ purpose. You might do one together.  As the review each source, encourage them to think about the content of the source–what are they learning as far as content–and how it’s easier to remember that if they think about the author’s purpose. If they come up with author’s purposes that are different than what you had in mind, ask them to explain their thinking–that requires critical thinking. Be open to what they come up with if they can justify their thinking (with background knowledge, text evidence, etc.)         
  • Close with a question for conversation like “How are these sources similar and different? How does thinking about the author’s purpose help you explain the similarities and differences?”
Phase 3 Meet the Response 
  • You might provide a writing prompt like one of the following:
    • What have you learned about recycling that is important for other people to know? What are two sources you might recommend to others? Describe what you learned in the sources and why someone should read-view-listen to both.
    • How has reading more than one source on this topic changed your thinking about this topic? Describe important ideas you are walking away with, citing the sources.
  • Help students plan. See my notes for phase 3 in the lesson on introducing author’s purpose.

BTW – If you give this text set & lesson a try, please let me know how it goes! Or feel free to touch base with me before teaching. I’d be glad to be a think partner!

If you need more ideas on how to teach with multiple sources (including putting together text sets), see my new book Nurturing Informed Thinking (with Heinemann).

Hope this helps.


P.R.I.D.E. Noticing & Naming Author’s Purpose

Recognizing an author’s purpose (or purposes) for writing or creating an informational source can help a student determine what’s important in a source, remember what they read (or heard in a video or saw in a graphic), and begin to think critically about the information in a source.

Last week I had the honor of teaching a lesson on author’s purpose to a group of students. The teachers and I used the three-phase lesson plan and an article on the benefits of recycling from NEWSELA ( the second or  “con” article). (This was part of a larger teaching lab experience where teachers planned in small groups and then we brought in students for each group of teachers to teach.)

Below are notes about the phase 2 lesson that I led with a small group.

Phase 2 Meet the Strategies

With the anchor chart pictured above, I introduced the what, the why, and the how of identifying author’s purposes.

What: Readers know that authors have a reason or purpose for writing an informational source (a purpose they have PRIDE in :). Authors’ purposes include to persuade, to recount or tell a true story, to instruct (or teach us), to describe, and to explain.

Why: Identifying an author’s purpose can help you think about what is important in a source. For example, if you notice that an author seems to be instructing you or teaching you how to do something, then you will be looking for specific steps or directions you can follow.

 How: As you preview and then read or reread (like today) a source, look for clues as to the author’s purpose. Try to notice and name the author’s purpose. You can do this by keeping the types of authors’ purposes in mind.

Let’s do this kind of thinking with the article we just read on recycling. What do you think the author’s purpose was?

The students quickly identified the author’s purpose as to persuade: to persuade the reader to do or believe something.  Together we wrote a purpose statement on a blank piece of paper.

Then I pushed them to identify details in the text that made them think this was the author’s purpose. You might think aloud about a detail or the use of a word that signaled persuasion–share what you learned from a sentence (or detail) and then what that made you think related to the author’s purpose.

Then you can ask the students to reread the source (or part of it) with these questions in mind – What did I just learn (in this sentence or section)? What does that make me think (related to what I think the author’s purpose is)?

When we regrouped, during our discussion of what they learned and noticed, I took notes–with just enough words to trigger memory of what they learned or thought about. These notes can be used to help students write a response during the Phase 3 Meet the Response part of the lesson.

BTW – During this lesson I didn’t get into noticing “author’s point of view,” “supporting premises,” “textual evidence” and so forth. That’s too much for some students who are new to analyzing a persuasive text. (I tried that in a lesson and it bombed!!!!) I casually referred to “details you noticed that make you think the author is trying to persuade you” and “why that makes you think so.”

A BIG thank you to Amanda in North Kansas City Schools and her colleagues for coming up with the fantastic mnemonic for author’s purpose. When I posted this on twitter, an author, Patricia Newman (who writes fabulous nonfiction!!!!), responded with how this resonates well with her as a writer with a purpose!

I’ve included a one page guide that describes introducing author’s purpose and how you might do this during a series of Phase 2 lessons. (This is from the new edition of Close Reading of Informational Sources out in spring 2019!)

PRIDE Identifying Author’s Purpose

Last thought (of many) – Identifying an author’s purpose can REALLY help when students begin to analyze the information in multiple sources! If you have a copy of my new book Nurturing Informed Thinking: Reading, Talking and Writing Across Content-Area Sources, check out Chapter 3, Lesson 8, p. 66!

Hope this helps.


Less is More – Identifying key words from just a few sentences

Have you ever asked a reader to tell you about what they learned in a short nonfiction book or article and they do one of the following?

  • Give you a few miscellaneous (not related to each other) facts?
  • Talk about the last fact they read?
  • Share facts you discussed during the preview of the source?
  • Talk about a main idea (lions are amazing jumpers) but not about key details that support that idea (mountain lions have slim bodies and powerful legs that help them jump)?

Or does the student do one of the following:

  • Talk knowledgeably about one part of the source?
  • With thoughts that reveal thinking beyond the text (making inferences or helpful connections or interpreting the text in some way)?
  • And even about the text (e.g., analyzing the author’s use of a particular type of detail like a statistic or analogy)?

If you experience the former more than the latter, it may be worth your time to engage the students in close reading and identifying of key details with just a short excerpt of text.

A few weeks ago, I had the honor of working with a group of students reading a book called Animal Champions (Pigdon, Okapi Educational Publishing, 2012). This book is written at about a Fountas and Pinnell level L. I used the THREE PHASE LESSON PLAN FOR LEARNING.

During Phase One, I introduced the book with a short discussion of the word “champion” (the students were given a chance to consider the definition and use the word in a conversation with a partner about a “champion runner in your class.” Then we did a preview and predict (where I asked, “What do you notice?” and “What do you think you’ll be learning about animal champions?”). Next the students read and I conferred with them and then we closed with a discussion and teaching point.

During Phase Two, we did a close reading (to make meaning) of just THREE SENTENCES. During Phase 1, I’d noticed that students were recalling general facts (e.g., “pronghorns are fast runners”) and were not able to share key details and explain those details. The Phase 2 lesson was designed to support this then.

Check out the text excerpt in the image below. There’s A LOT of information in these three sentences.

Depending on the student’s background knowledge, they might do the following learning-thinking as they closely read, talk and write about this SHORT excerpt:

  • a pronghorn is a kind of antelope
  • a pronghorn is a fast runner
  • a pronghorn can run at about 37 miles per hour–which is a little faster than when my family drives to school in the morning
  • a pronghorn can run this fast for 5500 yards–which is about 55 football fields in length
  • a pronghorn’s long legs must help it run faster–it can take bigger strides
  • a pronghorn’s big heart must help it run faster, too–a big heart can pump more oxygen rich blood to your muscles which you need to run fast
  • a pronghorn’s large lungs take in a lot of air while it’s running – because they need more oxygen for their muscles

My point is there’s a lot to think through (within the text and beyond the text thinking) in just these three sentences! I haven’t even touched the surface of how they might think “about the text” (e.g., how the author makes the case that the pronghorn’s physical features help it run fast, how the author could make a stronger case that the pronghorn is the champion runner by making comparisons to other animals).

During the close reading, with the small reading group of students, I did not go for understanding all of the points listed above. We spent about twelve minutes thinking together about what we’d learned (that we could share with someone that night at home) and listed the key words (green sticky notes) below.

I started by introducing the pasta analogy and that led into a discussion about our purpose for (this particular) close reading–to identify facts about the pronghorn that we can go home and share with someone. The key words or details are triggers for remembering what we learned in more detail–so we do not write down all of the details we may include when we share with someone (or write about what we learned). For a description of how to do this with your students, I’ve attached a one-page guide (excerpted from the new edition of my book Close Reading of Informational Sources due out next spring).

4Identifying Key Details Using the Pasta Analogy

During Phase 3 (a third 20-minute lesson), we thought about how we’d share what we’d learned with someone at home (“Hey, Mom! Guided Writing”) and added the words “learned” and “fascinating” to our key words (orange sticky notes). We orally rehearsed what we’d say (students practiced with a partner and I coached) and then they wrote.

These students were definitely PUMPED ABOUT THE LEARNING THEY’D DONE and ready to go home and talk with someone about it!

Soooo….consider asking the students to read a source, but then to really dig in and learn about one aspect of the source’s topic in detail. These reading habits-skills may transfer to other texts students read–really slowing down and thinking about what they are learning, identifying (& making sense of) key details to support their understanding, retaining information, AND expanding their understanding of the world around them.

I RECOMMEND CLOSE READING OF SHORT EXCERPTS AT ALL LEVELS OF reading-viewing-listening to informational sources. I’ve done this with 2nd-8th grade students who are not recalling key details or not thinking beyond the text (inferential, interpretive thinking) or even readers who are not slowing down to evaluate the text (about the text thinking). LESS IS MORE.

Hope this helps.



When unfamiliar vocabulary gets in the way of word solving – Tip #2

What do you do when emergent-early stage readers can’t decode a word because it’s not in their vocabulary?

In a previous entry, I wrote about holding emergent and early stage readers accountable for word-solving (as much as possible) before offering  support including telling providing an unfamiliar vocabulary word. For example, one student figured out “off” in the word “officer” and when she reread the sentence, she realized the word was officer.

TIP #2

Integrate unfamiliar vocabulary into the text introduction, as part of the conversation about what the students are noticing in the text features (headings, photographs, captions, etc.).


For example, in the book Animal Close-Up (Okapi) (about a DRA level 12 or F&P G), as the students and I looked at the photographs, I asked them, “What do you notice?” They were not noticing the butterfly’s “tongue” prominently featured in the picture and an important word on this page. I said, “I noticed the butterfly’s tongue. Look at that. It looks like it is curled up or rolled up.” I was worried that “roll” might be a difficult word for reading and an unfamiliar vocabulary word for this group. So I integrated this vocabulary into our conversation and we took a moment to notice that, indeed, the tongue is rolled or curled up. Then I said, “You’ll have to read to find out how the author describes the tongue.” 

On the next two-page layout, there is a scorpion and the author states that the scorpion has poison in its tail. At this stage, I would not expect students to be tackling the middle of words like these (e.g., “oi” and “ion”). So it was important that I integrate these into our conversation. The students noticed the “scorpion” but they did not mention its tail or that it has poison in it (which they probably didn’t know). I casually said, “Do you think that a scorpion is poisonous like some spiders?” A few said yes, a few said no and I said, “Well, I think you’ll have to read to find out.” What I have found is that later, while reading, when students stop to problem solve words like “poison” and “roll up”–they are more likely to recognize these words because of the meaning we built during the conversations we have during the text preview. They still have to do work–they have to use the first part of the word, they have to think about what would make sense and sound right.

I’m not giving away a lot. There’s still plenty of work for the students to do. For this lesson, I did not preview beyond these few pages so there are still opportunities to problem-solve while making meaning. I’m just trying to give the students a head start so that they don’t get STUCK on unfamiliar vocabulary and they can focus their energy on decoding stage appropriate words and making meaning.


The same goes for emergent stage texts (DRA 1-3; Fountas and Pinnell A-C). As we engage in a picture walk, I try to use the language of the book and integrate unfamiliar vocabulary. For example, with the book Lovely Flowers (Pioneer Valley) (about level B), the author writes about animals that like flowers. One of the animals is a hummingbird. I would not expect students at this stage to be tackling the “ummingbird” part of this word. I’m mainly focused on using the first letter “h” and the picture clue. But what if they have never heard of a hummingbird? During the picture walk, after I say, “What do you notice?” If the students say, “It’s a bird,” I can respond, “It might be a bird or it might be a hummingbird, you’ll have to use the picture and first letter to help you figure that out.”


I write key words into my lesson plan as a reminder for what I want students to notice and the vocabulary I want to make sure I integrate into our conversation. Sometimes I even have them listed on a sticky note with page numbers so I can glance down and remember what I need to notice and name if the students do not. I do this with transitional and fluent stage plans as well! (More on that soon!)

I DO NOT point out these words in the text. Kids are more likely to hold onto vocabulary if we  build the meaning through the conversation we have while previewing the text.

I do NOT STRESS OUT about addressing every unfamiliar word in the texts. I’ve never had a student pass out at the guided reading table because they couldn’t figure a word due to vocabulary issues. It’s okay. When you lean in to individuals, you are there to coach them in making sense of these words as they read and, independently, they need to problem solve (to the best of their ability) the way you have taught them in previous lessons.

At the emergent stageif there’s an overwhelming amount of unfamiliar vocabulary, DUMP THE BOOK.  Find a book where the students can engage in a productive (not frustrational) struggle, where they might be a few new words, but there are mostly words they can tackle or recognize.

Hope this helps.


When Unfamiliar Vocabulary Gets in the Way of Word Solving–Tip #1

Ever notice a young reader get stuck on decoding a word in a text because the word is not in his or her vocabulary? Or maybe the student has heard the word, but not frequently, and it’s not easily retrievable? This can be a big problem for young readers of nonfiction at the emergent (DRA 1-3; F&P A-C) and early stages of reading (DRA 4-16; F&P levels D-I)–especially when students are reading on topics they are not familiar with. I find that many students just shut down.

So what can we do?

Tip #1 Hold the student accountable for what they CAN do to tackle that word before offering additional support.


I was working with a kindergarten student (an emergent stage reader) reading a book like On the Rocks. When she came to the word “seal,” she stopped and looked at me. I had seen her look at the picture to help herself. I asked her, “Do you know what this animal in the picture is?” and she said, “No.” I didn’t immediately give her the word, though. Instead I said, “Can you look at the first letter and get your mouth ready for that sound?” AFTER she said “/s/,” I said, “Could it be a seal?” She smiled, nodded and continued to read. It was as though she’d heard the word (probably during the picture walk), but did not know it well enough yet to retrieve it on her own.

BTW – I did not expect her to read the “ea” in “seal” or to read the middle and end of the word “seal” because she was at the point in learning to read (DRA 1-2) when we are focusing on students using the picture clue and first letter to figure out the new word on each page of a repetitive text.


In another case, a first grade student (at the early stage of reading) was reading the book Night Workers (about a DRA level 4 or F&P level D). When she came to the word “officers,” she appealed to the teacher. Seven-year-olds probably do not use the term “police officer,” huh? They probably say “cops” or “police,” right? The teacher could have given her the word “officer,” but at this stage of reading, the child should at least be able to tackle the first part of this word. We asked her to look at just the first part of the word “off” by covering the last part of the word with her finger (not the teacher’s;). She recognized that as “off”; that’s also a word she could look at and say slowly. Then we asked her to read the sentence again. She read “He is a police off…”; when she did, she realized it was “officer” and read the word. (Oh, how that kid beamed!!!) If this didn’t work – then we could have asked, “Could it be the word ‘officer’?” If the child had no knowledge of that word, then we could say, “That’s the word ‘officer.’ Sometimes that’s a word we use to describe a person who works for the police–police officer. You say it.” Ask the child to repeat it a few times.


With a first grade student reading Eyes (DRA 10; F&P F), reading the book Eyes, he read easily until he came to a word he didn’t know–“feelers.” The sentence was “This snail has eyes on the end of feelers on the top of its head.” It may have been that he didn’t know how to initiate word solving or it may have been that he knew he was going to read “where” the eyes are and he did not think he would personally know what that part of the body on a snail is called. He didn’t have the vocabulary. I started by asking him, “What can you do?” He shrugged. Then I asked him if he knew “this word” and I wrote see on a dry erase board. He quickly read the word. I proceeded to help him see the same vowel team “ee” in the word feelers and he figured out the word. We talked about how he used a word he knows to help him figure out this word BUT WE ALSO went back into the text and reread the text and looked at the photograph to discuss the meaning of “feelers.” In a sense I was able to teach the student how to tackle the word and how to make sense of its meaning as well.

My point here is that we need to encourage the child do as much of the work as they can to decode the words while also coaching them to make sense of these new words.

With that in mind, one note of CAUTION—If a book at the emergent or early stage is going to have a LOT of unfamiliar vocabulary, choose another book. If there’s a manageable number of unfamiliar vocabulary words, then give it a go.

I do have another tip (Tip #2) to help with this…in the next blog entry 😉 If you want an update the next time I blog, please feel free to follow my blog. 

Hope this helps.


Make it a habit for you and your students–reading multiple sources on a topic

Researching and writing my newest book has made it hard (UGH!) for me to teach with one source on a topic anymore. Anytime I plan a lesson with one informational source, I just want to know more about the topic of that source. And, if the topic is engaging (or we make it engaging),  I know students do, too. So how do we do this on a regular basis? My BIGGEST TIP is to just start. Anytime you have one source you’re going to use, go ahead and find a second one.  Once you see how kids’ eyes light up when they recognize a familiar topic and are able to contrast and integrate new information, you’ll be hooked on that, too.

A FEW SUGGESTIONS for the beginning of the year:

  • Read aloud sets of trade books on the same topic.  There are SO many good trade books on informational sources that can easily be read aloud. Remember, with some books you do not even have to read the whole book, you can read aloud parts.
  • As you read aloud new books in the set, ask students to turn-and-talk in response to questions like, “What can you add to your learning?” With younger students keep track of learning by engaging in shared writing of facts. When students notice a fact that is in more than one source, circle that fact on the list.

  • Pursue deeper thinking across sources with thematic questions like, “How did this woman persevere, too?” and “How was this group also innovative?” There are some fantastic newer trade books out about women that you could easily read aloud to students (in grades k-8!!!!) or book talk and then leave in set in the classroom library for partners to read and discuss.

  • Book talk “SETS” of books instead of single titles. Ask your librarians. They know what’s new and hot in nonfiction and (hopefully) can put together a great set for you.
  • With older students, check out new articles on and then find one or more additional sources.  For example, a few weeks ago,  I noticed an article entitled, “Huge sea-life sculptures made from ocean’s plastic trash.” GREAT article that reveals how an artist is bringing awareness to the problem of trash in the oceans. I searched on the site for “trash in the ocean” and a second article popped up. Skimming it, I realized that students could easily “add to their understanding or learning” by reading this second article. Another option is to look for video links. On this particular topic, easy easy, right? Tons of options. Watch a few minutes with students, while they keep in mind the question, “What am I adding to my learning?” (For quick tips on vetting NEWSELA articles, see a blog entry I wrote.)

If you’d like more information, these ideas (including sample lessons) are explored further in my new book Nurturing Informed Thinking: Reading, Talking, and Writing Across Content-Area Sources (2018) 

Okay. Hope this helps.


On the power of inquiry charts…my kids surprised me when…

Recently I had the honor of talking with Sara, a teacher in Iowa, whose students have started using inquiry charts. In a nutshell, these charts help students determine what is important and organize their notes as they read-view-listen to multiple sources. (If you’re not familiar with inquiry charts, please check out an article I wrote for ASCD’s EL The Case for Multiple Texts or this blog entry.)

Sara’s students were engaged in a shared inquiry into the giant squid. This was their first experience with an inquiry chart – so everyone was using the same research questions and the same sources. Below are two examples of their charts. Notice the questions are across the top and the sources are listed in the first column.

I asked Sara to share what she noticed about the students during this experience and as we talked, two important points jumped out at me.

*The questions on the inquiry chart should be revised if your students realize the questions are not clear enough or are too big. Sara started with the question, “How does the giant squid catch and eat its food?” As they read-viewed the sources, though, they realized there was too much information to take notes on and explain in response to this question. Sara and the students reformulated the question to “How does the squid use its tentacles to catch prey?” The students were okay with changing the question–because it made the task more manageable and helped them determine what was important. More importantly, the students LIKED that the first question didn’t work, they got to see their teacher problem-solve and they had the opportunity to help her problem solve. Formulating and reformulating the questions together has become a part of the process for the students.

BTW – this happens a lot. In my experience, developing “perfect” questions for the inquiry chart is hard. I have changed many a question once I’ve seen what students do with it. Totally okay. We want them to see the process and engage in this for themselves.

*Some sources may have more to offer students than we realize–especially when our students have started thinking across sources. I have looked at sources and thought, “Oh, no. They won’t get anything from that” and then been super surprised at what they noticed (that basically I didn’t!!!) Sara wanted to show the students a video of a giant squid. Finding a good video is hard when there have only been a few sightings of this mysterious creature. (Most of what we know is from examining dead squid that wash up on shore.) She found a video of a giant squid eating a fish. The video is raw footage taken by scientists with no narration or other helpful features. Sara thought it would be hard for the students to glean any new information from this, but it would be cool for them to watch. She was surprised at how wrong she was. They noticed all sorts of details in this video — because they had already learned so much from other sources.  Students noticed that the fish didn’t appear to change much in size over the course of the video, but then one reminded the others about how they’d read that a squid only eats grape-size pieces. Yes! That would explain what they were seeing. A few minutes later when the squid let the dead fish float away they did notice small tatters on the dead fish. This might have been where the grape size pieces were eaten away. They also surmised that the tatters might be from where the suction cups on the squid’s arms – these suction cups have razors around the edge. Woohoo! The students were using what they already knew to help them make sense of a new source. The power of reading multiple sources on a topic!!!

BTW – when the students were done with their research, they used their notes to create a life size squid in the hallway, complete with captions detailing what they’d learned.

I discuss these issues and more in a chapter on inquiry charts in my new book with Heinemann – Nurturing Informed Thinking.

Okay. A BIG THANKS to Sara for sharing stories from her class with me.

Hope this helps.


When a student can’t read a word

When students at the transitional or fluent stage of reading (DRA levels 18+ or alpha levels J+) struggle with a word, there are a few “go to” strategies and prompts I rely on. (I’ve attached a file at the end that lists these prompts 🙂

  1. “Is there a part you know?” If it’s a word that has any parts they might know, I use this prompt. For example, a student was stuck on the word “acorns” in the sentence “Some bears eat nuts, acorns, roots and leaves.”  I lifted the word “acorn” out of the text by writing it on a dry erase board and then prompted the student to “look for a part you know.” He was thrilled when he noticed the “or” and then his eyes grew wide when he noticed “corn” in the word as well. Decoding is not enough. Then I asked the student to reread and think with me about the meaning of that word.  I said, “Let’s go back and reread that sentence. (Student reads aloud.) Now what does the word ‘acorn’ mean in this sentence?” and we discussed how it must be a food like the other items listed in the sentence. I closed by saying, “When you’re reading, you need to make sure that
  2. “Can you use a word you know to help you with this word?” Sometimes when a student is stuck, I look at the word and think about what part of the word they are struggling with. For example, one student was stuck on the word “join.” I knew the “oi” was causing her problems. I wrote the word “coin” on a dry erase board and asked, “Do you know this word?”  She did and read it aloud to me. “Can you use the word ‘join’ to help you with the tricky word?” and she figured out “coin.” (BTW I’ve had this backfire when the student did not know the word I chose and then I just give it to them 😉 Then we reread and thought about the meaning of that word. She read the word in the text and we talked about what it meant.
  3. With some words, I’ll ask the student, “Can you use your finger to help you look at the parts?” or “Can you look at the parts with your eyes?”  As they do, I encourage them to think about what they know about each part. As described in a previous blog, when a student got stuck on the word “burrow” — I helped him use his finger to cover the end and asked, “Do you know that first part?” He recognized it as “bur.” Then I coached him on how to cover the first part of the word and look at “row” which he did not know. Then I wrote “snow” on a dry erase board and he used that word to help him read “burrow.” Finally I asked him to reread the sentence and think with me about what the meaning of that word is. I do not use my finger to cover up parts of the words. The student must use his finger because later when he is alone trying to problem solve, he will not have my finger to help him 😉
  4. “Was there a tricky part?” If a student mumble reads a word, hoping I won’t notice that he doesn’t know the word, I let him finish the sentence and then I say, “Was there a tricky part?” Usually they nod and then I say, “Can you show me?” and have the student point the word out. Next I say, “What can you do?” Tips –
    • Let the student finish the sentence first. If you stop them at the point of error, then you have done the monitoring.
    • Keep your finger out of their book. Make them use their own finger. That’s part of the work you want them to do when they are alone, right?
    • Sometimes I ask “Was there a tricky part?” and the student says, “Nope!” ;0 Then I ask them to reread the sentence and make sure what they are saying matches what they are seeing. If they notice their error, we talk about how what they said may have sounded right or made sense (if that’s appropriate), but it doesn’t look right.
    • If the student does not know what the tricky part was – even after rereading, then I say, “Listen to me read this sentence. As I read, I want you to notice where what I say does not match what you see.”
  5. “Are you right?” and “How do you know?” or “What can you do?” If you have students who read a word or get stuck and automatically look up at you without problem solving, you need to nip this habit. If I know a student has been taught word solving strategies and they appeal to me, I shrug my shoulders and say, “Are you right?” No nodding. No “Good job.” Make them accountable. Follow up with “How do you know (you’re right or you’re wrong)?” and support them in verbalizing how they were strategic or what they need to do to be strategic.
  6. “That’s a word you just have to know.” When a student gets stuck on a word that has a mostly irregular spelling (e.g., only, unique, beautiful), I don’t dig a deep hole for myself trying to help them figure it out. I just say, “That’s a word you just have to know. It’s _____. Let’s reread that sentence and think about what it means.” In other cases, I might give them part of the word (the irregular or tricky part) and let them figure out the other parts. For example, a student got stuck on the word “certain.” He chunked it and after he’d gotten “cer” (with a soft c – ugh!!!), I gave him “tain.” Then we reread the sentence to think about how the word was used and why. AND in yet other cases, I just think, “That’s way over their head developmentally, I’m giving it to them and going on with my life!!!” That happens.

Honestly, if the word is not in the student’s vocabulary, they may not be able to figure out the correct pronunciation. What’s most important is that they at least understand the meaning of the word. That’s why I strongly encourage students to check for meaning. When I help a student with visual cues, I always reread the text with the word and discuss the meaning of that word with students (even words like “only”). You may have to help them use context clues to figure out the meaning of the word and sometimes there are no clues so you just give them the meaning. If you need a reminder about the types of context clues students can look for when they don’t know a vocabulary word in an informational source , see this blog entry I wrote.

Prompts for Supporting Word Solving

Sources that have helped me get better at prompting for word solving (in addition to a lot of practice) –

Next Step Forward (Richardson, 2017, p. 178)

Guided Reading: Responsive Teaching Across the Grades (Fountas & Pinnell, 2017, p. 414)

Teaching Strategic Processes in Reading  (Almasi & Fullerton, 2012, Chapter 7–dense but hearty)

Hope this helps.