Making Izzy's Gnocchi with Nick

You may have read an earlier post on my work with Nick, a nine year old who taught me a lot about working with older beginning readers. When I share our accomplishments with others, I always advocate that adults help learners use literacy to explore a keen interest, even at the earliest phases, essentially taking the focus off learning to read and write and actually using reading and writing to learn. For some kids, it's reading ads about fashion or media, for others it's IMing. Nick and I first studied crows, and then moved on to cooking.

Nick's interest was clearly piqued by food, in part because his dad works in the restaurant industry. His passion lead me to schedule a gnocchi-making lesson with Aunt Izzy, a legend at the Batali family outpost, Salumi. Here they are working together, along with a second photograph Nick took during Izzy's lesson. (She was a great teacher, so I wasn't surprised to find out that she had taught kindergarten for many years!)

Nick wrote out the ingredients, and I later helped scribe the instructions in his own words. Just this week, two years after that lesson and several months after Izzy sadly passed away, Nick came over to make gnocchi. We took out his recipe and followed it again.

Aunt Izzy’s Gnocchi
By Nick 1/07

500 grams potatoes (approximately one pound)
300 grams flour
2 eggs
2 t. salt

Your favorite sauce
Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Serves 4-6


1. Put the potatoes in a large pot of boiling water. We used Yukon Gold potatoes. Cook until they are tender. Cool and peel them while they are still warm.

2. Put another large pot of water on to boil while you make the gnocchi. Put the sauce on the stove to warm at the same time.

3. Press the potatoes through a ricer onto a clean counter covered with a little bit of flour. Add the flour and salt so it makes a mound and then make a hole in the middle. Crack the eggs into the hole.

4. Start to stir with your fingers mixing in the flour and potatoes and if you think it is soft enough, make it into a ball and knead it until it’s smooth. Leave it alone for 5-15 minutes.

5. Flatten the ball and cut the flattened side into 6 strips (or so).

6. Make sure you have just a little flour on the table or counter. Roll one of the strips like a snake until it’s about as big around as your thumb. You might have to break it into two or three pieces as it gets longer. It helps to spread your fingers out as you roll it.

7. Take a knife and don’t saw it, cut the snakes into pieces about as big as the length of your finger from the first knuckle to the tip, or a little more than half an inch. The flour on the table should keep the gnocchi from sticking together but don’t use too much.

8. Roll the gnocchi on a fork or a gnocchi board to make the ridges. Izzy likes to make ridges on the gnocchi because the sauce sticks better. You roll it with your thumb making a little impression in the middle. It takes practice and some people are better at it than others.

9. Put the pieces onto a tray with about 3-4 tablespoons of cornmeal so they don’t stick together.

10. When the water is boiling, put half of the gnocchi in the pot. The gnocchi will sink to the bottom and then float to the top. After it floats to the top, cook it for one more minute. Then scoop it out into a colander to drain and do the same thing to the rest of it.

11. Serve the gnocchi in warm bowls with a couple spoonfuls of sauce. Grate the cheese over the top.

12. EAT IT!

I can't think of a better homework project--a solid hour+ of work--for a kid who was once described as lacking focus. What interests the kids in your life? How could you use reading, writing, sketching, and photography to learn more?


Writing to Support Reading

It is heartening to hear from parents who are struggling to support their kids' learning--not because your issues are easy to solve--but because this issue is so pervasive and so many parents feel alone as they face such challenges. If you're reading these posts and experiencing your own mismatch between learning and school, please share it!

Leslie has posted a second comment in response to cat6, who suggested Leslie ask "does that make sense?" both at times when Shelby's reading does make sense, and also when it doesn't. This way Leslie is not giving the subtler message that Shelby hasn't read the passage correctly. Rather, she is teaching the direct lesson that readers stop along the way to monitor their comprehension.

Leslie now has new information about Shelby as a reader:

Here is the latest. My sister-in-law is a Reading Recovery trained teacher and reading specialist (unfortunately she lives a couple hours away and we don't see her often). She did a basic reading assessment with Shelby to try to pinpoint what we need to focus on. Her decoding is very weak, which I'd already figured out on my own. My sister in law feels that we need to find someone to work with Shelby using a multi-sensory approach (she mentioned SLANT or Wilson's). She isn't a believe in focusing heavily on phonics instruction but thinks this is the root of Shelby's issue. Of course Shelby's teacher can't provide this type of support and heck if I know how. So I'm on the hunt for someone who can work with her but not having much luck. So the frustration continues!

I have wanted to post on writing so will use this opportunity to make three suggestions for Leslie and Shelby, focused on writing instead of reading. Writing gives us one window into how learners are making sense of the grapho-phoneme system (what most people call phonics), as writers put down on paper what they know. Reading Recovery lessons include sentence writing instruction, and in this post I'll suggest 1) an adaptation of a sentence writing activity, 2) creating a personal spelling sheet, 3) and last, my favorite Donald Graves strategy for writers who lack confidence. These may or may not be appropriate for Shelby at this time, but I'm predicting that they're worth a try.

Sentence Writing
Use a bound journal or composition book for this engagement, dedicating one page to each writing session. Here is one possible sequence:

1) The adult partner writes a sentence about something worth sharing, i.e. "I had a challenging day at work because two projects were due at the same time." Something simple and real. Say the thought out loud, and then "think aloud" to Shelby as you write, telling her the decisions you're making as a writer.

So something like, "I ... had ... a ... challenging, that starts with /ch/, then /al/ and I know there's another /l/, /enj/, interesting, it sounds like a /j/ but it's a /g/, and /ing/ is easy, i-n-g ... day, interesting how /ay/ makes the long a sound ... at ... work. I know it's /or/ in work because I've seen it so many times, but all the vowels can say /er/ when they're next to an /r/ ..." Etc.

That might be too much talking for that one part of the sentence, but you get the picture. You're talking aloud about your writing. Yes, you won't know as much about phonics as some of us reading wonks, but you should do okay with it.

2) Then ask your child to share an idea from her day/write a sentence. Unlike RR (where the teacher talks the spelling of words through with the writer before s/he writes , I would encourage her to do her best as she writes. After she finishes her idea/sentence, ask her how she made her decisions, both for words that are spelled conventionally and those that are not. If she made a reasonable decision on a misspelled word, like using /ow/ where she should have used /ou/, which both make the same sound, tell her her decision was a good one, even if it is not how that word is spelled in print.

If she's unsure about spelling, say if a consonant should be doubled, tell her, sharing the related spelling rule. Few phonics/spelling rules are helpful to kids, since there are so many exceptions to the rules, but Sandra Wilde offers a short list of rules worth learning (
Routman, 2000).

Spelling rules worth learning
• Put i before e (as well as the ei pattern)
• Drop e before adding a suffix
• Change y to i before adding a suffix
• Double final consonants before adding a suffix

So, one sentence a day for each of you. Talk about what and how you write it, 10-20 minutes max. My RR colleagues say that the sentence writing experience really shows up in kids' confidence as writers in as little as 6 weeks. Then again, RR is done with younger kids.

You could do this on the computer, but you'll need to turn off the automatic spelling correction feature. You also lose the original spellings, which are interesting to track, but most kids will write with more enthusiasm on the computer.

Personal Spelling Sheet
Type up a one page (front and back) sheet with 3 or 4 columns, black lines for entering words, and capital letters in the margins. Etc. Obviously include more lines for frequently occurring beginning letters, like T & W. After you work out the spelling of a word from her written idea, ask her if she wants to add it to the spelling sheet. This could take other forms (a small booklet), but the idea is to keep it simple, for her to make the decisions, and for her to use it. Too many words become cumbersome, especially when they look alike, i.e. were, when, where, which. And better for her to enter words she uses, rather than to use a prepared sheet with many words. Tuck it into the notebook.



My favorite Donald Graves strategy
This strategy is a good one for kids who are reluctant or inexperienced older writers. If the writer is "stuck," ask her what she wants to say about the topic. As she talks, write down her ideas in phrases (rather than entire sentences). Spend some time talking about the focus of the writing, and then offer your notes: "If you want to use some of your great ideas, here they are." Keep the focus on the ideas, rather than spelling.

Leslie and I will see each other soon, so I can demonstrate these suggestions face to face. We'll find out, over time, if writing with Shelby will give her insights into Shelby's knowledge of letters and sounds. And in the meantime, I would negotiate that Shelby talk with you or the teacher about the books she reads, rather than take the AR tests. Just a thought!


Reading with 5th Grader, Bryce

This week I read with another 5th grader whose homeschooling mom wanted an idea of his strengths and needs as a reader. Bryce is an engaging, confident kid who described himself as someone who liked to read 5th grade books when he was a first grader, even though his first grade books were sometimes hard to read.

After hearing Bryce read from several books (my selections, his choice), I gave him the Burke Reading Interview (Goodman, Watson & Burke, 1987). Carolyn Burke is one of my mentors and this interview is a valuable tool for educators who want to learn more about how a reader makes sense of reading. (Readers who want to know more about this seemingly simple but carefully constructed and researched tool are encouraged to read more about it in the RC Owen Publishers text cited above.) Here are the questions with Bryce's responses.


When you are reading and come to something you don't know, what do you do? Sound it out for a long time or my mom helps me with it. Do you ever do anything else? Sometimes look in a dictionary.
Who is a good reader that you know? Why is s/he a good reader? Can I say two? Case and Olivia. Olivia was really advanced. She could read really well. She was so advanced for preschool so she automatically went into kindergarten. Case's parents worked with him until he got it.
Do you think s/he ever comes to anything s/he doesn't know? Probably. If s/he did, what do you think s/he would do? Sound it out. Look it up in a dictionary or on a computer.

If someone was having trouble reading, how would you help that person?
Sound out each word with them. How would a teacher help? Help them figure it out.

Are you a good reader?
Why? Medium. I can't read like 8th grade words, but I can read 5/6th grade. How did you learn to read? Sounding it out. When I was in first grade I could read like 5th grade words but it was hard to read first grade words.
What would you like to do better as a reader? Just continue practicing.

How could we help you more at school? At home?
I get to pick what I want to read.
I invited Bryce to choose from 10-12 nonfiction books on the natural world (the 500 section of the library) and several short chapter books. He debated reading about worms or planets, then settled on worms. I asked him to read the table of contents, and we read the chapters that interested him most.


Bryce is a happy kid and coming to read with me appeared to be comfortable for him. He was also an active learner and curious about the world around him: I know ants can be enemies to worms because I've seen ants crawling on a worm on the sidewalk. Is ring worm a worm? I know some other tall tales too, like the guy that caught tornadoes. These interests served him well when he selected books.
Bryce's primary strategy when he came to something he didn't know, as he reported, was sounding out words. This worked for him some of the time, and when it didn't, he looked to me for help. Taken together, these two behaviors disrupted the flow of his reading and weren't particularly successful or efficient.
I asked him to guess the percentage of words that people can successfully "sound out." He guessed 7 out of 10, but the answer is closer to 5 out of 10.

After reading several short chapters, I asked him to choose another book and we talked about a couple more strategies readers use. He chose a book on weather and again read the table of contents. We turned to a chapter on electrical storms and I asked him to predict what he might read about. I was struck that he didn't look at the photograph on the opposite page (a full page photograph of lightning). (Often times readers will use strategies they don't name, and then teachers can help them be more aware--more metacognitive--of their reading behaviors. In this case, however, Bryce did what he reported doing: sounded out words and looked to me for help.)

This was the opportunity to share that good readers also look at the visual images. We turned to the chapter on hail storms, and used the picture to successfully predict words/concepts that he then was able to quickly locate on the page. I went back to the word lightning to illustrate that he might have gotten stuck sounding it out (a reader has to recognize ight, or will get bogged down sounding out each letter). Yet if he would had predicted that the text would include information on lightning, he would stand a better chance of successfully reading the text.

We ended our brief session with me complimenting Bryce's strengths as a reader and reminding him to add prediction and looking at illustrations to his growing repertoire of strategies.

Before reading:
Read the title and subtitles, and browse the illustrations.
2) Predict what the text will be about. What do you expect to read?

During reading:
1) use your knowledge of letters and sounds
2) use the illustrations
3) use your knowledge of the topic

After reading:
(Stay tuned for more information. One has to chose the one or two most important things to teach a learner if you want the teaching to be helpful, so this is where my session with Bryce ended.)


Helping 5th Grader, Shelby

If you read Leslie's comment to the October reading post, you'll know that her daughter Shelby is resisting help with reading. I know Shelby, as Leslie and I worked for the same organization for several years.

Four years ago Shelby and I spent a Saturday afternoon together while her mom caught up on a project deadline. Shelby happily read the books I offered, and was most interested in the Birds of Illinois. For over 90 minutes she used it to identify birds at the bird feeder outside the window, sketching them on separate pieces of paper and adding their names and a few facts about each one. I worked nearby and touched base with her once or twice. She was seven. She was successfully and happily reading and writing.

Several years later Leslie wrote to tell me that Shelby had a serious interest in Abraham Lincoln and wanted to read everything she could find about him. It's hard to believe this is the same kid that is now disinterested in reading!

One can't know precisely when and how things went awry, even for a knowledgeable and involved parent like Leslie. Several of my hypotheses are that 1) Shelby is experiencing the reading and writing assignments in school as exercises or burdens (e.g. finish reading a book/write a report or take a test, study words for a test) rather than experiences that help her accomplish learning goals that she can shape, and perhaps 2) the feedback she's been given about her work hasn't been perceived as helpful and supportive.

Kids who are responding emotionally to what I call a mismatch between their learning and the expectations of school may sometimes be able to talk about why they are upset. Occasionally Nick would offer a comment about the cause of his struggles. But most learners are responding to them rather than reflecting on them.

The good news is that Shelby has many skills as a reader and Leslie is committed to her support. I'll offer a couple of suggestions and invite Leslie to make a guest post next month if she is willing.

There is no doubt that Shelby knows that something is wrong. She's been tested, her mom is concerned, and she's resisting even reasonable work. The good news is that the more people read, the better their fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, even without help from others. Instruction can wait for another time. Set aside any interactions that cause emotions to flare up. Relax.

Let Shelby know that you expect her to read every night and that she can choose what that reading looks like 5 nights out of 6. And mean it! If you read together, let her decide where you should stop and talk. If she reads "gibberish," offer to swap that book for a simpler one ("one you might like better") with a strong story line (e.g. Because of Winn Dixie or Out of the Dust or Love That Dog) that pulls her along, rather than focusing on figuring out words. Read joke books or American Girl magazine, and talk about what you read like you would talk with a friend. Read cookbooks together and choose recipes to make. Invite her to read picture books to a younger reader, maybe a friend's child.

Ask her to learn something with you. Find a few good books that answer the genuine questions that either of you are asking about the topic. Make sure the texts are rich with illustrations, charts, and photographs. If you can get out into the world to study the topic (like Nick's interest in crows), all the better. Or use the cooking experience to learn together and create a file of favorite recipes.

Use your best judgment to negotiate school assignments that work for Shelby. Do the same with any tutoring you might arrange. You know she's bright and has loved learning in the past. Let that knowledge keep your sights on better times ahead. And please stay in touch!


Supporting Jacqueline Offline

Jacqueline was the first parent to comment to my introductory posting, and her question helped me frame the second post on reading with beginning readers. After my response, she contacted me by email to help her respond to her daughter's situation. We will continue to communicate offline, but my next posting--following the election--is also inspired by her question and will focus on writing with young children. If you have found this blog and have questions yourself, I'd love to hear them and will do my best to respond.

In the meantime, I will share a favorite language story. My friend Kristina was out of town and her six year old daughter, Sophie, was walking to school with her dad and a best friend. The friend commented that their teacher was like a princess, and Sophie responded: "Yeah, but my mom's a queen. She's getting a crown next week." Have you figured it out? Sophie had overheard Kristina making a dental appointment, and thought royalty rather than dentistry. This is a perfect example of how kids think as they interact in the world and sort out its complexity. Such a rich glimpse into kid thinking! If you have a language story, please share it!


Reading with Beginning Readers, Ages 6 & 9

In response to my first post, Jacqueline asks about the kinds of literacy curricula used in primary classrooms and how she might play a backup role when what's happening in her daughter's classroom is not what she hopes for. I'll try to keep this post both simple and helpful, and focus here on reading.

What can a parent look for?

* Instances of best practices in reading (the original organization of more/less comes from Zemelman, Daniels & Hyde, and also includes writing, math, and science). These lists can help you think about general increases and decreases i
n particular teaching practices over the last 10-15 years. We know, for instance, that asking children to read "round robin" (or sitting in a group reading one at a time) is less effective than pairs of students reading and talking together.
* A 90 minute literacy block. Kids might also be using reading and writing across the day, so consider this a general rule.
* A range of literacy materials, including different kinds of writing materials and pens/pencils. A large assortment of print materials, including picture books, big books, "just right" books, poetry, and nonfiction. Charts on the wall likely include ideas like how to choose the right book or what to do when you're reading and get stuck.

When I worked with fourth grader Nick, who started the
year reading much like a kindergartner, and when I worked with Maris to determine her strengths as a first grader, I used three kinds of reading engagements. Their moms also read aloud with them regularly, so I've added read aloud as a fourth engagement.

Look for these kinds of reading in the classroom, and if they're not yet in place, you can try them yourself at home. I'll list three characteristics of each one in the school setting, and then how they played out with Nick over many months and with Maris in 2 hours.

• Purposefully chosen texts.
• Read aloud, with feeling!
• Few interruptions so listeners keep the momentum of the reading. Read again and talk about your responses.

Both Nick's and Maris's families read aloud with their kids on a regular basis. This NCTE resource includes strategies and sure fire read aloud titles: Read Together: Parents & Teachers Working Together for Literacy. IRA also offers parent resources.

• Many kinds of print materials and genre available for students to read.
• The books keep the students engaged as readers--not too simple to disinterest the reader or too difficult for them to stick with the reading.
• In primary grades, students may read quietly aloud, alone or in partners.

The books I used with both of these readers are the Benchmark and Bridging books from the Dominie Reading & Writing Assessment Portfolio, by Diane DeFord (the kid books are available separately on a school purchase order), but there are many good options. Often called leveled readers, these books are organized by difficulty and allow one to predict a reader's approximate grade level. With beginning readers I read each book first, then invite the child to read it. With this support, Nick was quickly able to read first grade books, and within a month or two, books at the second grade level. We did this kind of reading for 20-30 minutes a day, and he read several of them repeatedly over 10-12 days before setting them aside.

Maris readily read one of the first grade books, giving me an indication of her ability as a reader. I recommend that interested parents ask to check out "just right" books from the school if they aren't currently available for homework reading. And if you're not
sure if a particular book is a good one for your child, read it aloud. If you enjoy it, it's likely your child will too. If not, enough said!

• Engaging texts that all readers can see and read together.
• Texts available for readers to later read independently or in small groups.
• Use to support readers as they participate in reading texts beyond their current ability.

This strategy--whether used with songs or poetry or chapter books--helps readers read texts along with you that they wouldn't be able to read alone. I used Roald Dahl's Enormous Crocodile with Nick, a slim chapter book with outrageous characters and absurd events. The story contains a lot of dialogue, and with me taking the role of narrator, he was soon able to chime in as one of the characters. I read quietly along with him if he got stuck, keeping the emphasis on the story and expressive reading. Reading short chapter books like this one helped Nick see that his skills were much closer to his peers than he might have believed.

Maris and I read Mouse Tales together. She really enjoyed the story and read her part with gusto, putting a smile on her mom's face. Books like these are readily available in school and public libraries. The Fox books by Edward and James Marshal are also favorites. This strategy is called Readers Theater if you invite a few other young readers to join you.

• Opportunities to study a topic of interest.
• Text sets of materials compiled to explore the topics and answer learners' questions.
• Opportunities for learners to study their topics firsthand (i.e. creating their own rocket, or observing birds at a bird feeder) and then to use the text sets to learn more.

Nick and I first explored books on soccer (he is a highly skilled soccer player) and then settled on studying crows together. We talked about what Nick knew (crows live in the neighborhood and chase other birds) and what he was interested in learning (what does 'caw caw' mean, where else do crows live), and then took our cameras to the beach to watch them in action. In two hours we took over 50 photos, watched a crow pecking the eyeball out of dead fish, and watched several flocks of crows feeding on the ground while a sentry looked out from a tree top.

When we returned home, Nick browsed bird books with enthusiasm. Over the next month we created a PowerPoint presentation with text, photos and video footage to document everything we'd learned. Studying crows was an engaging inquiry for both of us.

In preparing for my session with Maris, I gathered books on several topics that I predicted would interest a first grader, and I had guessed right. She chose two books on big cats (one was a Zoobook and the other a 30 page "show me book" for young readers from the Dominie materials). I offered each of us post-its and asked her to mark three interesting pages from the book she preferred. After a few minutes we shared. She chose each of her pages with photos because they were "cute." I then shared mine: a page that showed 8-9 different big cats, as I can still confuse ocelots and jaguars; a picture that showed a Siberian tiger, with a caption that stated that each tiger has a unique striping pattern; and a picture of a mother lion licking her cub (I admit it--I told her I chose that one because it was cute!). When we met with mom, I asked Maris to share both of our marked pages, and she surprised us by reading the italicized caption about tiger striping patterns. It seemed likely to me that Maris had not yet been asked to use her developing literacy skills to learn about the world around her. I was happy to report to mom that she was well on her way as a reader.

Finally, I advocate for such a range of reading engagements from the beginning, as without them, young readers are offered the most simplistic and meaningless texts, e.g. Dan can fan the man. Can the man fan Dan? The man can fan Dan. (The actual words from a book I used early in my career!) One guideline is that books should always sound like real language. A second is that it's never too early to learn through reading!

I know this is a lot of information, but there is nothing I would love more than to hear from parents who give one or more of these reading engagements a try!

If you would like academic information on learning to read, you might be interested in a position paper on the topic from NCTE's Commission on Reading.



Most young kids come to school eager to read and write and learn. If all goes well, teachers tap into the knowledge that kids have developed during their first years of life--about literacy and the world in general--and provide the rich experiences that launch these fledgling learners into the world of schooling.

But we all know kids that haven't connected easily with school, and the reasons vary. Do you recognize stories like these?

1. Scott was a kid who struggled with the simplistic reading books used in his first grade classroom, yet loved planes and would sketch jets and browse books about them by the hour. He came to my multi-age primary classroom as a second grader, and a beginning reader who had few literacy skills. He lacked confidence as a learner in school.

2. Tyler was reading when he started kindergarten, and there was a clear mismatch between the curriculum that focused on learning letters and sounds and his literacy skills. His teacher viewed kindergarten as a place to teach beginning readers and said she wasn't able to teach him within that context. A year later, he entered a 1st-3rd grade multi-age classroom as one of the youngest students, as a very experienced reader, yet disengaged from school.

3. Anne was the mother of a quiet and deliberative six-year old daughter. Anne volunteered in the classroom twice a week, and was unsure if her daughter was on target as a first grader. What could help her know?

4. Phil was a business owner who reported that he struggled to read the materials that could help him advance his work. His perceptions of himself as a reader were shaped in his first years of school, and were further defined by being the only sibling in his family without a college degree. His view of his reading skills was a mismatch with the thoughtful adult I spoke with who reads the New Yorker for enjoyment.

5. Nick was entering the fourth grade reading like a beginning reader. Based on the school's recommendation he had attended two years of remedial tutoring and summer school. Although he was bright in many ways, his literacy skills had not developed despite the suggested help. It was getting harder and harder for his mother to get him up for school.

This blog is dedicated to ending the frustration that kids and families feel when there's a mismatch between kids' learning and the experience of school. This forum allows us to think through the issues and to problem solve together.

Learners "struggle" for a reason. The reason usually becomes clear when we spend time with them and pay close attention. The problem is rarely that there is something wrong with a reader. Usually, they become confused about reading, often because of their experiences in learning to read and write. Clearing up their confusions is the first step toward successful learning.

One final point: I haven't found it helpful to label children. Referring to learners as lazy or learning disabled or at-risk (the latter two relate to funding categories) hasn't been helpful to me in teaching children to read. What we can do instead is listen to children and learn from them. I am committed to helping you do the same, whether you are the parent, grandparent, teacher, or foster parent of a kid whose learning is not yet on track.