"I am so far from one!"

One of the joys of being around young kids is getting a glimpse of the world through their eyes.  Here are two priceless stories.

I was lucky enough to take courses from one of the leading Gesell Institute researchers, Norm Heimgartner, during my Master's study. The Gesell developmental assessment is based on observing young learners to document their development on a continuum of growth.

During one of Norm's many research stories, he recounted watching a young boy saw on a board for over 20 minutes. Norm finally strolled over and asked him what he was making.


Such a perfect kid answer to a predictable adult question.  We're product oriented. There should always be an end in sight. Making sawdust comes from an entirely different way of experiencing the world!

Here's another story. 

I was helping a kindergarten teacher colleague assess her students. One of the tasks was to count to 100. After I gave him the instructions, Darrin launched into his counting. He got through the 30s, then the 40s. He was on track to make it--amazing for a kindergartner!

"91, 92, 93, 94 ..." He stopped and looked at me, amazed, eyes wide. "I am so far from one!"

Not only could he count to 100,  he had well-developed number sense for a kindergartener.

I still remember that scene over 20 years later because it's stories like this that remind me to listen ever so carefully to little ones.The early childhood folks have known this for a long time--among them Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, Reggio Emilia, and Vivian Paley. Kids have the right "to grow and learn at their own pace and in their own way" (Arnold Gesell).

Today more and more of our assessments are taking place in front of a computer screen. Assessments are impersonal, devoid of the stories of children's lives. Are kids able to show what they really know? Maybe just as important, what are teachers getting a chance to learn?

Are we there yet? How kids make sense of the world

The concept of "developmentally appropriate" is a backdrop for every learning experience we orchestrate as educators.  You know when something isn't DA because kids don't "get it," or simply because the lesson flops. Kids spout off guesses, call out in confusion, or put their heads down. It's happened to all of us.

Here's one of my favorite "developmentally inappropriate" stories.

I was driving from Illinois to Indiana with a 7 year old. You'll recognize the routine: Every five minutes she asked, "Are we almost there? When are we gonna get there?"

I explained that our trip would take about the same amount of time as the beginning of school until lunchtime. I explained we were driving from the state where she lived--Illinois--to the state right next to it. Maybe I talked about Indiana and Illinois as being two of our 50 United States. I pointed out the sign, "Welcome to Indiana."

The conversation was fraught with abstract concepts that a 7 year old doesn't yet comprehend: states, crossing from one state to another, and the United States. I knew all this after 20 years of teaching kids her age, and knew that my explanation was a stretch for a 7 year old, but I thought I did a decent job of it. 

A few minutes later she called home. Her dad asked where she was, and I still laugh to remember her answer: "We're still in America, Dad, but we're on a different road!"


More on supporting Kate as a reader

If you're a new reader of this blog, you'll want to scroll down to read my post about Kate, as well as her mom's thoughts.

I'm so thankful for Denise's candid comments. They help me remember that all of us--kids, families, teachers--bring different perspectives to any learning situation. I'll use this post to respond to what Denise found most important about our work together,

First of all you and Kate have clicked. You've taken the time to listen to her and get a sense of where she's at and what will help her. 

Denise put her finger on the most important part of the student--teacher relationship: Teachers pay close attention to the learner, what they do successfully and what can move them along. This might seem easy, and teachers do get better at it with time, but it is not a simple matter. It takes knowledge of the learner herself, knowledge of how literacy learning develops, in this case, and a deep understanding of child development. Kidwatching is a strength I've developed over years of teaching.

You've also given us books that we both enjoy and that she can read--books that are more interesting and fun than the simple leveled books ...  

Kate is also very focused on the "level" she reads, and she can tell you where every single kid in the class is reading ... "so and so is a C" or a D, or a J. Reading other books beside the little level readers has helped her see that she's a better reader ...

The next key--engaging books! This can be such a challenge for early readers. Kate benefits from some reading of the simple leveled books, but no classroom collection of these books can provide enough variety to keep kids' interest over time.  Kate had not yet read the "E" level assessment text at 96% accuracy, so most of her Independent Reading books came out of the "D" tub of books. 

The primary team of teachers did dedicate some of their book budget to sets of higher quality leveled books (longer length, better stories, and pricier) to use with small instructional groups and I pulled from those during the time I read with Kate. But it was so important to find other books that she and mom could enjoy. 

I've written previously about the importance of providing different kinds of reading experiences for young readers. Denise reads aloud to Kate regularly, which is one of the most important contributions a family can make. Then some Independent Reading with the leveled books. Kate could read some E, F, and G books despite not being able to "pass" the pesky E assessment text.

Two readers enjoying Elephant & Piggie
But what really engaged Kate, and re-engaged her interest in reading, was Shared Reading. I carefully chose the books--Elephant & Piggie, Fly Guy, and Fox--and encouraged Denise to read the book aloud to Kate first, and then for the two of them to read the book together. Elephant & Piggie books, with character speech bubbles, just cry out for two readers. The dialogue is full of the kinds of "sight words" that too many kids are practicing on lists or flashcards, and the illustrations draw kids in to look more closely. They read for meaning, rather than practice. Fly Guy is clever. Fox is a crazy dude. When kids read these books, with just a little support from us, they forget they're reading. Exactly what Kate needed. Soon Kate was reading them on her own. Elephant & Piggie (level G+), Fly Guy (levels H-I), Fox (level I-J). 

Here's another point that is key. These books might be challenging, but because they are also longer and well-written, readers will gain more information about the story as they read. That helps them problem-solve on their own with very little support from us. Stay tuned for the next post which will includes videos of kids doing just that!

Kate can also be quiet. She kind of goes with the flow, and sometimes that means she can get lost in the shuffle. Her time with you really turned that around.

Kate is quiet and it took me time to get to know her within a group of 4-5 other kids who were more energetic and demanding of my attention. She was much like Maris, whose reading I describe in the kinds of reading post. Imagine the demands on teachers with 25, 29, maybe 30 kids. Kids like Kate are often overshadowed in the everyday hustle and bustle of a classroom. 

Kate did begin to bloom in our small group, but we experienced the most success when Kate and I read together while Denise watched, then followed my lead at home. Not only could Denise give her the kind of support she needed, Kate's sense of self-efficacy--her sense that "I can do this" and "I am a reader"--grew day by day. All of us contributed to Kate's success.

You made it more fun, quite frankly, and you were so accurate when you said that readers will lose the flow of the story if you focus so much on individual words. You let me know that ... it was okay for me to read along with her in some parts. I learned to lighten up a little.

Exactly. When reading becomes a burden, or a challenge, it's time to mix it up. My first suggestion to parents or tutors is to read the full book to the child first. (I liken this to asking someone to play a piece a music without ever having heard it first. Imagine. So read the book aloud first.)  If the book is in the ballpark of the reader's skill, that one reading will launch them into reading it with little support. If it's still tough and the reader wants to read it, subtly share the reading. Try to read in phrases, rather to supply single  words you predict are too difficult. Or find a better book!

Our short time together last spring and this summer--maybe 4-5 hours in total--helped all of us. Kate is learning she's a skilled reader. Denise is learning to trust her instincts and is expanding her repertoire of ways to help Kate. And I'm refining my kidwatching, for no two learners are ever the same. It's why I love this work.


Thoughts from Kate's Mom

When I think about Kate's reading, I start with thinking about how much I have always loved reading myself. One of my earliest memories is going to kindergarten and imagining that I was going to learn how to read, but in those days they didn't start teaching reading until first grade.

When Kate was born, I started reading to her right away. I wondered if I was jumping the gun on this, but when she was six months old we started reading a couple of books a night. I always thought that because I loved reading, Kate would be the same. Then again, I met my stepdaughters when they were 4 and 6 and I was a little surprised that they were reluctant readers. I wondered why they just didn't jump into reading like I had. When they grew to be teenagers, I talked to them about it and they told me that by third or fourth grade, things just clicked into place and they wouldn't put books down.

In kindergarten, Kate and I read the little (leveled) readers at home that they read in school and then in first grade the same.  Kate was progressing, although slowly.  I found out that she had been reading with you and her teacher suggested I talk with you, and that's when our relationship began. I can't thank you enough. I've been thinking about what has helped Kate move ahead and here are a few of my thoughts.

First of all you and Kate have clicked. You've taken the time to listen to her and get a sense of where she's at and what will help her. You've also given us books that we both enjoy and that she can read--books that are more interesting and fun than the simple leveled books. Kate can also be quiet. She kind of goes with the flow, and sometimes that means she can get lost in the shuffle. Her time with you really turned that around.

Kate is also very focused on the "level" she reads, and she can tell you where every single kid in the class is reading ... "so and so is a C" or a D, or a J. Reading other books beside the little level D readers has helped her see that she's a better reader than she might have thought.

Watching you read with Kate was huge! Before Kate was born, I was going to school to be Montessori teacher for kids 2 1/2 to 5 years old. We were taught to follow the child. When Kate started to read, I would just listen and maybe do a little correcting but basically I was letting Kate work it out and struggle with the difficult words.

You made it more fun quite frankly, and you were so accurate when you said that readers will lose the flow of the story if you focus so much on individual words. You let me know that I could make it more fun and not so hard, and that it was okay for me to read along with her in some parts. I learned to lighten up a little. 

I really do believe Kate will be an excellent reader. We care about her and her success and it feels like she's following the path of her big sisters.

I'm so glad you can see how summer gets so crazy. She didn't always read on her own as much as we'd planned, but I never give up on reading to her because it's such a nice way to end the day. She just hunkers right down beside me and snuggles up. It's good to know it's the reading that's important, no matter who is reading to whom.  This all makes her feel really special. I just love this kid!

Thanks so much, Kathy, for taking time with Kate.  You are the best!


"This is Kate. She's a D!"

One of my daily joys as a librarian (and foremost a literacy educator) is to work with a small group of first grade readers. The teachers and I were able to dedicate a 25 minute block during their independent reading time to make it happen. Although our school's official RTI (Response to Intervention) efforts are focused on math, an RTI process prioritizes that the most skilled educators work with the students who need the most expert support.  I appreciated the teachers' confidence in my experience.

My small group varied across the year, with one child experiencing a growth spurt and another needing support after several months away from school. And then one day Kate came along with her classmates. "This is Kate," one of them announced. "She's a D!"

I've written in other posts about the Fountas & Pinnell guided reading levels that currently organize part of reading instruction. One downside of this "leveling" work is that teachers and kids, sometimes even parents, take up the drumbeat and kids begin to label themselves with these levels. (D level texts are what might be expected from beginning first graders.) These kids knew that D was not "adequate" reading in the spring of first grade, and that many of their classmates were reading H, I, J or even P level books. Yes, sigh.

Kate's teacher and I had only moments to talk before she left for a planned leave after spring break. I told the guest teacher that I'd love to talk with Kate's mom if she met her, and just days later Denise came to visit. I'll let her tell the story in her own words, and then fill in the educator side of the story following. In the meantime, here's Kate. She's clearly an A+!

To tell the truth, I'm kind of new to the library

It was quiet in the library when Richard walked in. He looked around and then asked, tentatively, "What kind of books do you have here?"

"What kind of books are you looking for?"

I don't remember the title he mentioned, but our library did have the book and I showed him where he could find it.

In that quiet space he confessed, "To tell the truth, I'm kind of new to the library."

"We're glad you're here."

Richard became a regular. He spent his time in the fiction area and he was such a voracious reader that I seldom saw him with the same book twice.

I maintain a grade-level schedule for lunch and recess breaks so everyone gets a chance to use the computers, work on assignments or visit with friends, but I also let kids know if they're so quiet that I don't even notice them, they can come at any time. This is Richard.

As I revisited these mental images to add to the blog, another bold image came back to me:  The first day of my senior year in high school. My family had just moved to the Pacific NW and I knew no one at the high school apart from my brother. On that first day I walked to the threshold of the lunchroom and paused to look at the 200-300 students all catching up with their friends. I couldn't figure out my part in that space, but then thought, "Aha, the library. I'll spend my lunch break there."

The library was empty and a welcome refuge. The librarian approached. "Are you new here?"


"The library is closed at lunchtime. You'll have to leave."

Sometimes, and perhaps unconsciously, we create the spaces we needed ourselves.  This is true for parents, for leaders in many fields and especially for educators.

A librarian has many roles, and one of them, on no one's list of performance standards, is to create a safe place where you can admit that you're kind of new.


Is that foxglove?

A few moments ago I walked by a patch of flowers and the foxglove memory came back. Here's how it went.

Years ago, one of my colleagues created me a series of spring break till the end-of-the-school-year "advent" calendars. Each year she came up with a different scheme, and one particular year it was a series of flower pots with numbers on them. Day by day my students and I flipped up a numbered pot to find another pot with a wildflower picture pasted above, the flower name in calligraphy on the pot. The flower illustrations had originally been hand-painted by James Audubon. An intact set of pictures in book form was included for my first graders to browse and learn more. I decided to match each child with a wild flower and as that flower was revealed, the kids took on the role of helper for the day.

Trillium, primrose, goldenrod, forget-me-nots, phlox, anemone. Each day another flower, each day another new name to playfully roll off the kids' tongues and to match with a flower. Who knew how engaged urban first graders could be with wild flowers!

In mid-May I scheduled a field trip to Snake Lake, a local nature reserve. Our elderly docent handed out nature name tags (Canada goose, fir tree, wood duck ...) to the kids and we set out on our walk. We paused at each natural feature along the trail for her descriptions, and she would then invite the kids to "take 5 bunny hops" or to "tip toe behind Canada goose" to the next stop on the tour. (Ah ... I should have known she was a retired kindergarten teacher!)

"Does anyone know this plant?" she queried at one stop. Brandon stepped from behind another student to look more closely. "Is that foxglove?"

Imagine her amazement! And imagine my own. Then again, she asked rather than telling the name. That alone is significant. And we had been studying wildflowers by chance!

Even though I know how smart even the youngest kids are, I continue to be amazed by what catches their attention and sticks with them. This recognition has helped me reconsider the "what" of curriculum. Seven-year old Leslie wanted to learn more about famine. A 9 year old student of a colleague decided to study how property taxes are assessed, an interest that was precipitated by his father's irritation that their taxes had increased. Another first grader shared that the last small gas station in Redmond was closing. When a classmate responded, "So what--there are lots of gas stations," he clarified that this was a family-owned gas station! Without fail, I now always focus part of my time with kids on learning more about their keenest interests.

Language researcher, Gordon Wells, reminds us that all of us learn language from the company they keep. If you want someone to sound like a lawyer, invite them hang out with lawyers. Kids learn "vocabulary" as they use it to talk about new concepts, and to a much lesser degree, through memorizing words and their definitions. (If you would like to read more about any of this, let me know and I'll share resources.)

Is that foxglove? Indeed.


98% of five year olds test creative

Fifteen years ago I heard a research report that measured creativity in young kids and then again at a later age. The results were alarming. A huge percentage of kids were judged creative at age 5, and then the number dropped precipitously after several years in school. I have kicked myself ever since for not noting the citation.

And then recently, out of the blue, children's author Derek Munson shared the same stats during a presentation. I talked to him afterward and got enough of the details to track down the description of the research. Suffice it to say, Derek is one of the most creative people I've met. His "alien baseball players" Web site launches this week, if his work on friendship and creativity doesn't hook you.

Here's the research description:

Are We More or Less Creative as We Age?

In Creativity and Innovation 
A 1968 study by George Land, a general systems scientist interested in the development of creative performance, revealed that we are naturally creative as children. However, as he shared in Grow or Die: the Unifying Principle of Transformation, as we grow up we learn to be increasingly uncreative.
How did George Land prove this?
Over a 15 year period he distributed among 1,600 5-year-olds a test designed to measure creativity. This test was used by NASA to select innovative engineers and scientists. George Land used the test to re-test the same children at 10 years of age, and again at 15 years of age. Here are his results with regards to their creativity:

5 year olds: 98%
10 year olds: 30%
15 year olds: 12%

The same test was also given to 280,000 adults with a 2% score for their creativity.
Why are adults not as creative as children?
For most, creativity has been buried by the structures we build that involve rules and regulations. Our educational system was designed during the Industrial Revolution over 200 years ago, to train us to be good workers and follow instructions.

Creativity is a skill that can be developed. Learning to be creative, like most things in life, requires practice to develop the right muscles, and a supportive environment in which to flourish.
Accessed on 5/21/09 from


Readers who struggle

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 and provide the 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? This site is dedicated to transforming them!

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.

In some small or large way I have been helpful to each of these readers, and I share details of how with the hope that the information can be used to help others. This blog is dedicated to ending the frustration that people feel when there's a mismatch between a kid's learning and the experience of school. There's nothing I love to do more than think through the issues and problem solve together.

But first, a little more on why readers struggle.

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 as a result of their experiences in learning to read. This confusion might happen at home, or at school, and is rarely intentional. 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.

Do you have a story of a struggling reader? Please share it!


We are having so much fun!

Imagine the scene.

It's a warm, Midwest afternoon. My 5-year old companion complains of hunger, so I pull over to the Esquire, a burger joint in downtown Champaign. We settle at a table, the only outdoor customers.

While we wait for our burger, she starts in on the complimentary bowl of peanuts. It's breezy and quiet as I watch her small fingers try to break open a peanut. She's squeezing her fingers together on its rounded sides, so I offer a few tips. The shell isn't giving, and she continues her squeeze.

Finally she looks up. "We are having so much fun!"

It was the last thing I could have predicted she would say, but how perfect it was! The slow pace of the day, the lovely weather, the empty patio, her determination. I was enjoying watching her, and we were having so much fun.

I share this story as spring break approaches. Maybe you have a few days off, and if you're lucky, a young child to enjoy. I hope you too can find the time, and the place, and the quiet, to be surprised.


The Real Learning of "Sight" Words & Punctuation

Last spring a reader asked my thoughts about the value of worksheets and flashcards. I shared my own teaching priorities and promised to track down research on how well kids read words in context compared to reading them on lists or cards.

It took almost a year! No luck on Google searches, or searching through my files. No luck writing several literacy researchers who I guessed might have done this work. In the end, the answer came in an email outlining a lifetime of research by Ken Goodman, my educational "grandfather"!

When Goodman began his miscue research in the 60's, one of his research studies involved 1st grade and 3rd grade students reading passages, and then reading a subset of the words in those passages on a list. The results might surprise you.

First graders could read 66% more of the words within a passage (what reading people sometimes call "connected text") than they could read on a list. Third graders could read 80% more of the words within a passage. Further, this research was conducted in a diverse, low-income community--the kind of kids that research shows get more traditional literacy instruction (worksheets, round robin reading, low-level comprehension activities), while their more advantaged peers are honing their reading skills in book clubs and discussion groups.

(The photo above shows 3rd graders reading sight word cards in the hallway. The kids could read them all, and yet the stated goal of learning the words was to spell them accurately in their writing. I encouraged the teacher and principal to shift the focus to just that. The time in the hall, and with flashcards, didn't match their goal.)

A decade later, Lucy Calkins conducted similar research, but this time about punctuation. One class of third graders studied punctuation, and a second class learned about punctuation in the context of writing and talking about their writing with their teacher and peers. At the end of the year, the first group could identify and define, on average, 3 punctuation marks, while the kids who wrote as a means of learning could identify and explain the use of 8 or more, including editing marks.

Talking about ... or doing? Practicing words on lists or cards, or reading more of those same words within books? Naming punctuation marks, or using them to achieve one's purpose as a writer?

Therein lies the difference between what some call workshop curriculum, and the teaching of the past. M.A.K. Halliday observed, also in the 1960's, that kids learn language, learn about how language works, and use language simultaneously. They do it in their early years, and can do it in schools, too. Moreover, our job as teachers is that much easier when the direct teaching of strategies is based on what we see in the kids' work and can be immediately applied.

I'd love to hear from readers who find a way to test this out in their own work!


World Read Aloud Day

Today, March 3rd, is World Read Aloud Day. This is a celebration I can get behind!
No one describes the power of read aloud better than author extraordinaire, Mem Fox.
Reading aloud is not a cure-all. Not quite. But it is such a wonderful antidote for turning on turned-off readers and brightening up dull writing that I feel it's worthwhile to plead again for its regular occurrence in every classroom, not only those classrooms at the younger end of the school. Even in my forties I have benefited as a writer directly from hearing writing read aloud. The music, the word choice, the feelings, the flow of the structure, the new ideas, the fresh thoughts -- all these and more are banked in my writing checking account whenever I am fortunate enough to be read to.
Mem's bold book, Radical Reflections, is organized around 16 lessons that teachers can learn from parents, because long before kids come to school, they've successfully learned many complex behaviors, the least of which is their home language. In many homes, that language learning is undeniably influenced by being read to.
The findings of a recently reported study in the UK show that daily reading aloud at home boosted children's success at school, including knowledge and understanding of the world, literacy and math. These children also outscored classmates in assessments of their social, emotional, physical and creative development.
Teaching kids the alphabet and to count, in contrast, was not shown to be significant.
So all you parents out there, thanks for inspiring lesson #16, "reading aloud, once again, with feeling"! And today while you're reading, take satisfaction that empirical evidence supports the importance of what you've known all along.

Here are a just a few of many favorite read aloud titles:

For young ones, look for titles by Mem Fox. "More, More, More," Said the Baby! (Vera Williams) is another favorite, and comes as a board book. Buz (Egielski) is also a winner, if you can find it!

For 4-7 year olds, nothing beats Martin Waddell's Pig in the Pond or The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything (Williams & Lloyd).

For slightly older kids, Roald Dahl always hits a home run, and my absolute favorite title of his to read aloud is The Enormous Crocodile. It makes a great readers theater if you can find multiple copies and highlight the different voices.

Afternoon of the Elves (Lisle) offers girls a lot to talk about, and it was one of few "girl books" that my 3rd grade boys also enjoyed.

Finally, if you're the parent of a disengaged guy reader, check out Jon Scieszka's site, Guys Read. It's never too late to reengage!