Literacy Now

The Engaging Classroom
ILA Membership
ILA Next
Literacy Instruction: 2020 and Beyond
ILA Membership
ILA Next
Literacy Instruction: 2020 and Beyond
    • Topics
    • Job Functions
    • Literacy Education Student
    • Literacy Coach
    • Classroom Teacher
    • Teacher Educator
    • Librarian
    • Reading Specialist
    • Teaching Tips

    Reflection on ILA’s "Expanding the Canon" Brief

    By Jamie Hipp
     | Jan 24, 2019

    readers-theatre-canonIn my former career as an elementary theater specialist, the perpetual hunt for royalty-free, developmentally appropriate, well-written scripts for rehearsal and performance was exhausting. I decided early on to allow my students to dramatize chapters from children’s literature into plays. This process offered my students rich playwriting opportunities for an authentic purpose. It also allowed me to cover a multitude of theater standards and vocabulary including playwriting, elements of fiction, character subtext and development, emotions, and more.

    Newbery Medal texts are ubiquitous in many school libraries, therefore I started my search with a comprehensive winner list. I had simple criteria: I had read the book before and the text would make for an interesting scene for rehearsal and/or performance. My prioritization of Newbery winners I had read previously could also be regarded as part of the “canon of sentiment”—fondness for texts from your own youth and propagation of these texts.

    Upon rereading the first group of Newbery Medal winners I secured from the library, I was hesitant to assign three books for dramatization. These were books that I adored from my own childhood! Those same books now seemed culturally disrespectful and promoted both negative stereotyping and gender roles when considering my readership (and audience) of 21st-century students.

    Several articles and biographical sketches of author Scott O’Dell document his vague and inaccurate depiction of Nicoleño culture by using the indigenous customs and traditions of other tribes in the 1961 Newbery winner, Island of the Blue Dolphins. If I assigned The Slave Dancer (Aladdin), the 1974 winner by Paula Fox, I felt I would not be culturally responsive to my many students of color. The book is narrated by the white, 13-year-old fife player, Jessie, leaving out the voices of the enslaved Africans who were brutalized on the ship. Finally, if I assigned the 1981 winner, Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved (HarperCollins), was I promoting gender conformity? As a staunch supporter of student choice, I simply did not know how to answer when a student picked up Slave Dancer from my desk and asked to borrow it.

    Stereotypes were a frequent discussion topic in my class. The theater term "stock character" refers to an archetype easily understood onstage. To model stock character creation for my students, I would often hunch over, pantomime using a cane, hold my back, and wrinkle my forehead to portray an elderly person. In the discussions that followed, I would always emphasize that I do not (nor do many people) know any elderly individuals who legitimately look or move similarly, however, the depiction "reads" as elderly onstage. Still, a conversation about culture, gender, and nationality did not come as easily to me.

    In a subsequent conversation with my colleagues who taught English language arts, I learned I was not alone. Their student demographics also included indigenous youth, students of color, and gender nonconforming students. They shared similar hesitations regarding certain books. ILA’s recent brief, Expanding the Canon How Diverse Literature Can Transform Literacy Learning, tackles this issue of expanding the canon of literature from only the classics and award winners to a wide array of works including various perspectives and peoples.

    In my own reflection on this brief, it seems crucial to continue to encourage student self-selection of texts, even if their choices make us (teachers/educational stakeholders) hesitant. Student choice sets the stage for literacy learning. Pairing texts like Slave Dancer with fellow Newbery winner Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson (Putnam) puts the African American voice center stage. All literacy educators can play their part in expanding the canon through inspiring student choice of both classics and contemporary literature which embrace diversity in its many forms. Now, on with the show!

    Jamie Hipp is an adjunct professor in LSU’s School of Education and serves as a fellow for the Louisiana A+ Schools network. Connect with her on Twitter @artsarehipp.

    Read More
    • Foundational Skills
    • Topics
    • Teaching Tips
    • Job Functions
    • Reading
    • Teacher Educator
    • Reading Specialist
    • Literacy Education Student
    • Literacy Coach
    • Classroom Teacher
    • The Engaging Classroom

    How and Why to Include Word Solving in Intermediate Grades

    By Nancy McCoy
     | Jan 16, 2019

    pulling-instructional-modelI bought a new car this year. It has many bells and whistles that I am still learning how to use. Before handing me the keys, the car salesman spent time showing me how to use some very basic features, such as my lights, windshield wipers, and turn signals. It was time well spent because it began raining as I drove out of the dealership. Once I had driven my car for a few days, I was ready to begin learning some of the other features, such as its GPS system.

    Most readers in intermediate grades have learned some of the basic concepts they need to become a proficient reader. As they read, they practice applying what they know. Just as I needed more help with more sophisticated gadgets that my car provided, struggling intermediate students often need further instruction on how to read longer, multi-syllabic words.

    One of the stickiest problems for fluency is the inability to pronounce words quickly and thereby keep understanding the message at the forefront of the reading task. Most beginning readers are able to negotiate the automaticity of word solving in the first years of reading. As texts increase in difficulty, students are confronted with words that are long, have multiple syllables, or that may not be within the child’s vocabulary and, therefore, the context doesn’t help with the pronunciation. Teachers must be aware that this is the phonics issue of all intermediate readers and not only struggling readers.

    Every reader, even adults, will be confronted with long and unknown words. Try reading a medical journal sometime and you will understand. Featuring words and how to solve them should be a daily mini-lesson for whole-class instruction. The following two strategies will help all students with pronunciation of longer words and may be incorporated quickly and easily into the daily practice of reading instruction.

    Look, listen, say it

    Choose a word from any subject within the current area of study. Display the word so it’s visible to all students.

    • Look: Ensure all the students are looking at the word. This is important.
    • Listen: The teacher pronounces the word while children are looking. Moving a pointer or hand across the word left to right may be helpful.
    • Say it: The students then say the word while they are looking at the word.

    This procedure can be modified in many ways.

    • The word can be pronounced in syllables and then pronounced as a whole word.
    • The syllables in the word can be “tapped.”  (Look, Listen, Say it, Tap it.)
    • The word can be written in syllables and then as a whole word.
    • The word can be written by the students, as in the spelling strategy “Look, Cover, Check.” 
    • The word can be analyzed by looking at its root word, prefixes, and suffixes.
    • The word can further be defined and the meaning talked about.

    This simple procedure, when done frequently, will help students learn to pronounce longer words.

    Building word families

    Another instructional strategy that should be practiced frequently is building word families. This is especially important for intermediate readers and is a link to word meaning when Greek and Latin roots are featured. These word families need to grow organically from what students will be reading. For example, the root equi- appears in many subject areas.

    Roots will help build vocabulary across the curriculum. An example using the root spect- would be: spectacles, spectrum, spectator, perspective, inspect. When beginning a list of word families, the root word should be written in a column, so students can see the root and how it appears in each word. Prefixes will spill out on the left and suffixes will spill out on the right. By writing the roots in a column, students can focus on the parts of the word. This will lead students to notice known parts within words and transfer that skill to analyzing new words.

    When students and the teacher create these word families together, they become a powerful tool that can be posted on chart paper in the classroom. Students are drawn to things to which they have contributed and can continue to find new words to add.

    Don’t neglect teaching the word analysis that all readers need on their way to fluency and understanding. Make featuring long words and how to pronounce them a daily habit. It takes a minute or two out of a day to write a word and practice reading it. You will be giving your students a lifelong skill.

    My car?  I have learned how to use many of its features. Not all are automatic for me …yet.

    Nancy McCoy has been a fourth, fifth, and sixth-grade classroom teacher, Reading Recovery teacher, literacy professional developer, and curriculum coordinator. She has worked with struggling readers of all ages from whom she always learns more about how to teach reading.

    Read More
    • The Engaging Classroom
    • Teaching Tips

    Creative Assessments for Independent Reading

    By Heather Miller
     | Jan 15, 2019

    literacy-centers-all-childrenMost schools encourage independent reading, and for good reason; the more time a child spends reading daily, the stronger a reader she or he is likely to become. Over time, a daily reading habit is associated with financial, academic, and professional achievement as well as active participation in civic life. I believe that one of the best investments a school can make is in well-stocked classroom libraries that boast a wide range of genres, authors, styles, and reading levels.  

    Although many schools do a great job of making time for independent reading and insisting that children keep an independent reading log, often schools struggle to find time to assess independent reading.

    Book reports, while an important genre to master, can be time-consuming for children to complete. With all the other projects in the ELA curriculum competing for time, it can be difficult to insist that students complete a book report on a regular basis. 

    Fortunately, there are alternative assessments to independent reading that both emphasize the creative arts and can be completed at home. Students enjoy completing these creative assessments so much that it provides a new incentive to finish reading their independent reading book.

    Creative assessments of Independent Reading 101

    Consider requiring students to complete a creative assessment of a book they have read independently. Offering the four options below gives students the power to choose their preferred mode of demonstrating their understanding. They’ll enjoy the creativity and self-expression of the task, and you’ll learn more about each student’s personality, artistic skills, and engagement levels. 

    Write (and perform) a scene in a play

    Share with students a scene from a movie version of a book that they know and love. The scene should be no more than three to five minutes long. Then, invite students to write a scene based on their favorite moment of the novel. They must write the scene out in play script format, complete with a cast list, stage directions, setting, and dialogue for each character. They can either hand in their written scene as their assessment or opt to act out the scene with classmates or direct classmates in acting out the scene. Few students opt out of performing their dramatic masterpiece in front of the class!

    Through this activity, students flex their creative skills as dramatic writers, actors, and directors. They also demonstrate their grasp of the central conflict of the novel through their dramatization of a pivotal moment in the narrative.

    Write (and perform) a theme song based on the novel

    Students take the melody of a song and rewrite the lyrics to express the plot and theme of a novel of their choice. Emphasize that the chorus of the song should express the novel’s theme or key message. Add rigor by insisting that the song give the listener a sense of the story’s plot and the main character’s journey. 

    Students can hand in the lyrics as their assessment or opt to perform it solo or with friends. Students who want musical backing can find a karaoke version of the song and use that as a backing track. 

    During their performance, students exercise their talent for composition and share their singing talent while expressing a strong understanding of the text. Students match the mood of a novel with the mood of a song’s melody. This assessment often takes the perspective of the main character and therefore requires students to empathize with his or her story. 

    Design an alternative book jacket that shows you understand the plot and theme

    Show a book cover of a familiar book and ask students to explain how the book designer reflected the story and theme through its design. Then, challenge students to redesign the book cover of their independent reading choice. Students reflect on the theme and plot of the novel and use that understanding to design a new cover for the book, including the back cover copy. Add rigor by insisting that the front cover and details on the spine and back cover visually communicate the motifs, symbolism, and characters of the book. Students will present their book cover design to the class and articulate how it reflects the book’s plot and theme.

    Students can hone in on the symbolism, setting, and visual aspects of the author’s craft, using all the different spaces in a cover (front cover, spine, and back cover) to express their understanding of the book’s plot, characters, and theme.

    Be a guest on a talk show

    The teacher plays the host of a talk show and invites special guests on the show to discuss the book they’ve just read. Students prepare for their guest appearance by reading through a list of 20 rigorous questions that test their deep understanding of the novel beforehand. Students must prepare thoughtful answers to all 20 of these questions. Any of the 20 questions can be asked during their guest appearance on the talk show. Students appear on the talk show and respond maturely and fully to the questions the teacher asks about the novel. While this option does not involve a concrete deliverable, it is no soft option. It is essentially a verbal exam—and a student who cannot answer a question posed of him or her does poorly on the assessment.

    This exercise builds confidence, improves public speaking skills, challenges students to think intellectually about the book they have read, and reinforces knowledge of literary devices and concepts. Students who are strong speakers and thinkers but struggle to express themselves through writing have an opportunity to shine in this assessment. 

    Having a monthly creative assessment “party,” at which students share their dramatic scenes, theme songs, book cover designs, and appear on a talk show, is a lively, highly enjoyable way to ensure that children are benefiting from their independent reading. It’s also a great way for students to learn about books in your classroom library that they may wish to read.  

    Heather Miller, the director of LPM Education in New York, is the creator of the Bringing Classics to Life program, which will be featured at the 2019 Texas Association for Literacy Education Conference and the Massachusetts Reading Association 50th Annual Conference in March and April, respectively. She is also the author of Prime Time Parenting (2018), a guide to raising children in the digital age.

    Read More
    • Job Functions
    • Literacy Education Student
    • Classroom Teacher
    • Literacy Coach
    • Teaching Tips
    • Teacher Educator
    • Reading Specialist
    • The Engaging Classroom

    More Energized in the New Year: One Literacy Teacher Educator’s Goals for 2019

    By Kathryn Caprino
     | Jan 10, 2019

    Winter break is always a great time for personal contemplation and reflection.

    I want only the best for my students, who are all future teachers. After reflecting on my experiences as a literacy teacher educator, I have been wondering lately if I am unintentionally contributing to teacher burnout by suggesting, even implicitly, and perhaps modeling that educators should give their all to students—often at the expense of their own well-being.

    In this blog post, I share three of my personal goals for the new year with the hope that they help me (and perhaps other literacy teacher educators) to be more energized in the new year and inspire future teachers to embrace similar practices.

    • Conduct walking office hours. I know getting more exercise in the new year sounds hackneyed, but I do want to prioritize movement this year. How can I be a model of health by just sitting in my office? I am going to finally get my standing desk functioning. I also plan on inviting my students to join me on walks during office hours, something I have been wanting to do for a long time. I can see this being a challenge on snowy days, but I’m going to give it a try.
    • Reach out to other professionals. If I have learned anything in my 13 years in education, it is that I do not know everything. One thing I always tell my students is to reach out to other professionals. If you want to know about professional resources, check out a Twitter chat. If a student is facing challenges with reading, seek out the building’s literacy coach or reading specialist. If a student’s mental health is suffering, seek out counselors and school psychologists, professionals trained in these areas. And we must model this, too. Teacher educators are trained very specifically—but not in all areas of a college student’s life. When students’ needs move beyond our training and expertise, we need to model how to reach out to other professionals.
    • Unplug. There are times—sometimes very late at night or on the weekends—when I return student or colleague emails. Although there is a part of me that prides myself on being connected and available, I realize that this may not be sending the best message to novice teachers with whom I work. If I suggest that they establish specific time slots during which they will return parent or caregiver emails, then I need to model this. We might not always be finished with everything, but sometimes the computer or cell phone must be put away. I will be honest; this one could be hard.

    As I think about what 2019 will bring, I am excited. I want this year to be the best year yet—professionally and personally. I also want to learn from you. What practices do you think we as teacher educators should be modeling to our preservice teachers? What resources do you rely on to help you model what it means to be a successful professional and person? What are your goals to be more energized in the new year?

    Kathryn Caprino, PhD, is an assistant professor of pre-K–12 New Literacies at Elizabethtown College. She teaches courses in children’s literature, literacy assessment, and cultural and linguistic diversity. She researches children’s and YA literature, the teaching of writing, and incorporating technology into the literacy classroom. She reviews children’s books on

    Read More
    • The Engaging Classroom
    • Teaching Tips

    The Power of Comics

    By Jennifer Marshall
     | Dec 20, 2018

    For a long time, comic books and graphic novels were geared toward children on the basis that, because they have pictures, they’re not “real books.” As a child, I wasn’t allowed to read comics for that very reason. I read my first comic book as an adult when I met my husband, who is the comic buyer for our local shop. Today, I am the mother of two girls who are obsessed with manga (Japanese comics). This year alone, I have read over 400 comic books. It’s safe to say that comics play a very large part of our family’s reading life.

    Comics versus graphic novels

    Stylistically, comics and graphic novels are very similar. Comic books are usually about 24 pages and are released in single issues usually once or twice a month. These individual books often form an ongoing story that spans several issues. Like TV shows, they are published regularly and collected in what are called trades. Batman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Bone are all popular examples of comics.

    Graphic novels are basically longer versions of comics. Usually, graphic novels tell one full story and can be a couple hundred pages long. Examples include Amulet, The Witch Boy, and Smile.

    Comics are a writing style; not a genre

    The other thing that is important to understand about comics is that they are not a genre; they are a style of writing. Comics can be found in every genre, include all the literary elements you would find in traditional novels, and can be equally as complex. In the comic Ms. Marvel (Marvel), a young Pakistani girl from New Jersey named Kamala Khan tries to balance her new super powers with her religious beliefs. There are several moments where her family is made to feel like outsiders because they are Muslim.

    In the graphic novel Witch Boy (Graphix), a young boy named Astor wants to learn magic. Although Astor could save his family, he is expected to do what boys do and ignore his talent for magic. In the March trilogy (Top Shelf Productions), John Lewis tells the story of his role in the fight for equal rights. I could list dozens of examples of complex stories and themes found in comic books, some meant for students and some meant for adults, just as you find in traditional novels.

    The benefits of reading comics

    There are fewer words in comics because much of the story unfolds in the visuals. For my students who struggle with vocabulary, these images offer visual clues to help decode new words. To fully understand the storyline, you need both the words and the pictures. If you are only reading the words or only looking at the pictures, you are missing half of the story.

    When you reread a traditional novel, you may notice foreshadowing that you didn’t see before. Artists in comics do the same thing. Something that didn’t seem important in the first reading now stands out. For months, one of the major comic publishing companies, DC Comics, was inserting the same yellow button in the background of many of their books. This was a hint about the impending rerelease of a story that was popular in the 1980s.

    The transformative power of comics in the classroom

    When I began teaching Tier 3 reading, I had not encountered any research about using comics in the classroom. All I knew was that my family and I enjoyed reading comics and that my daughter, at 12 years old, had only finished one book that wasn’t a comic. I knew comics had the power to engage my daughter, who would not stay interested in a traditional novel long enough to finish. My students were below grade level in reading for many reasons—language barriers, sickness, high mobility rates, and more—but almost all of them had two things in common: gaps in their reading skills and a strong dislike of reading. I am a firm believer that if you find the right book at the right time, you can help a student learn to enjoy reading.

    The student who helped me realize the power of comics was a seventh grader who very loudly and proudly would announce that he had never read a novel. He was obsessed with Japanese culture and had just watched an anime (Japanese cartoon) called Bleach, which is based on a manga of 74 books. This student, who had never finished a book, had read all 74 books within a couple months, found another similar series, and started those. All in all, he read 184 books that year. He had transformed from a student who refused to read to one who sought out his own reading material. Comics were the tool that engaged him and drove him to practice his reading, and that practice is what improved his reading skills.

    This really pushed me to try to put comics into the hands of more students. I had always allowed students to read comics in class, but I had not purposefully encouraged them to do so. I spent that summer reading as many young adult comics as I could find. Each year, I see more students reading for fun once they have discovered comics.

    Integrating comics into the curriculum

    Something that I love about comics is that, no matter what interests my students, I can usually find a comic about that topic. This means that I can also find comics for various curriculum that I am teaching. There is a series called Science Comics (Macmillan) that delves into science topics, ranging from dinosaurs to plagues. In the book about dogs they explain the Punit Square and how it determines genetic traits of dog breeds.

    There are also many retellings of classic literature. My sixth graders have a waiting list to read Moby Dick, Jayne Eyre, and The Life of Frederick Douglass. I have read comic versions of Edgar Allan Poe, Shakespeare, and Beowulf, where every line of the original was included. Several authors tell their story in comic form, such as Raina Telgemeier’s Smile (Graphix). So often when someone mentions comics we instantly think of the stories about Batman, Iron Man, or Spiderman, but comics are so much broader than that.

    My students’ recommendations

    Today, my students are excited to read comics. They recommend their favorites to others and begin to branch out by reading traditional novels or nonfiction texts about things in the comics. In Marvel Comics, the original Spiderman died for awhile and the mantle of Spiderman was assumed by a boy who was half black and half Puerto Rican. My students were so excited to see a superhero that looked like them. They not only read every comic they could find that featured Miles Morales, they also read the Jason Reynolds novel about Miles. Students who read the comic adaptation of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series (Hyperion) or Marie Lu’s Legend series (Putnam) will often then reach for the novel. By not only allowing students to read comics but encouraging them to read and discuss them, I observed what every teacher and parent wants: an engaged reader.

    Here are some of my students’ favorite comics:

    • Dog Man by Dav Pilkey (Graphix)
    • The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag (Graphix)
    • Smile, Sisters, Ghost, and Drama all by Raina Telgemeier (Scholastic)
    • Ms. Marvel Volume 1: No Normalby G. Willow Wilson (Marvel)
    • Miles Morales: Spider-Man by Jason Reynolds (Marvel)
    • Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke (First Second)
    • The Amulet Series by Kazu Kibuishi (Graphix)
    • Bone by Jeff Smith (Cartoon Books)
    • Spill Zone by Scott Westerfeld (First Second)
    • Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson (Dial)
    • Real Friends by Shannon Hale (First Second)
    • Quarterback Rush by Carl Bowen (Stone Arch)
    • The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang (First Second)
    • Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani (First Second)
    • Angelic by Simon Spurrier (Image Comics)
    • Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel (Graphix)
    • El Deafo by Cece Bell (Harry N. Abrams)
    • Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol (Square Fish)

    Jenn Marshall teaches Tier 3 Reading in Kennewick, Washington. Comic books are her life; she incorporates them into her classroom and even reviews them in her spare time.  

    Read More
Back to Top


Recent Posts