Something old and something new: Using Language Experience in this new era of online learning by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Something old and something new: Using Language Experience in this new era of online learning by Dr. Sam Bommarito

For those of you who may not know about Language Experience, it is a very old but effective way to teach reading. The implementation of it is quite simple. The teacher asks the student to talk about things. For instance, he/she could ask them to tell a story. The student does the dictating, and the teacher takes down what they say. What they say is saved on paper or other means, and the student comes back to read what they’ve “written” several times. It is essential in this part of this process that the teacher writes down what is said and doesn’t write the story for the student. Once published, the student’s writing piece is read and reread. The benefits of this kind of repeated reading have been widely researched and documented by educators like Dr. Tim Rasinski. See my previous blogs about that LINK1, LINK2.  The tremendous advantage of this method is that every word the student says is in their listening vocabulary.

Language experience is a useful technique for both younger students and older students. The best teaching move when using this technique is to have students talk about the things that are the most interesting to them. That helps to ensure the students are likely to have good background knowledge about the topic and, of course, that the subject is of interest to them. For instance, I’ve used this instructional method with 16-year-olds who were reading well below grade level.  One of the things that most 16-year-olds are interested in is passing the driver’s test. After reading parts of the driver’s manual to them aloud, I asked them to talk about what they learned. I wrote down what they said. We returned to their writings several times on different days.  Usually, finding something for older readers who are reading well below grade level is very difficult.  Too often, things they can decode are not age-appropriate or not of much interest to them.  However, I found them to be very interested in what they had to say about the driver’s manual. Since it was in their own words, virtually every word they “wrote” was in their listening vocabulary. This meant as we worked with these texts, I could focus on their decoding skills.  They were more than willing to read and reread their stories about what drivers need to know. Properly scaffolded, such repeated reading can go a long way toward developing fluency and decoding skills. More on that in future blogs. The upshot is that I used analogical phonics to teach them about decoding as they reread their books.

In previous weeks I talked about how I used Language Experience with younger students. This year I’m working one on one with several 1st and 2nd graders who were struggling with reading at the beginning of the year. In a previous blog, I described how I had them dictate books and then reread them. The result was these young readers were willing and able to do wide-reading of the books that they wrote. Coupled with their wide-reading of Keep Books (LINK) and eventually trade books, the students made remarkable progress in reading. As I described it, the students would dictate their story. We went to the web and downloaded pictures they thought would go with their book, using an 8-page book template from Publisher (write me at for copy.  I typed in their story and then printed out a copy. Publisher prints out the booklet in a form that can be stapled into a book. I use a printer that prints on both sides, and a stapler made just to put the staple for the booklet dead center on the seam. That makes the end-product look more book-like.  If your printer doesn’t support printing back to back on the same page, Publisher’s printing routine allows you to print all pages separately. You can then place the appropriate pages back to back and use a glue stick to make the necessary back to back pages. The book comes out a bit thicker that way, but until I got my back-to-back printer, I made books like that for years. Here is what the finished product looks like. The extra-long stapler used to staple the book in the center is also pictured:

Like all teachers everywhere a couple of weeks back, I came face to face with the new normal. Suddenly, the student wasn’t in the same room as me. How could we make our next books? How could we conference about the first draft of their book, taking it through all the writing steps and turning the first draft (sloppy copy) into a published piece? How could we pick pictures to go with the story? How could we get the finished book to them? I quickly had to learn the ins and outs of using Zoom in order to carry out my tutoring sessions. I promise you there were bumps in the road. But things have actually worked out quite nicely.

First of all, know that for the online tutoring sessions, both the child and their parent are on the other end. That gives me a teaching assistant, actually much more than a teaching assistant, the parent is really my teaching partner. The student and the parent did the picture searches for the book (always setting the filter to Creative Commons License only), and they would then e-mail the pictures. Depending on the circumstances, they might also take photographs to use in the book and send them. This week I’m going to try to do picture searches on my mini iPad and hold that up to the camera. I’ll let you know how it goes. (update- that worked but I found something that worked even better. I used the share screen feature on Zoom and we were able to do the pic. searches just like we used to)  After some conferencing to turn the sloppy copy into a piece ready for publication, I would then type up the final copy. The parents already knew where I live (they came to the at-home tutoring sessions), so they would simply drop by and pick up the book. We used social distancing in the process. I left the book on my covered patio in the back, and they would drop in and pick it up at least 24 hours after it was printed. I now use gloves when I’m making books. As I said, a sign of the times. Here is a story by Suzie (pseudonym). At the start of one of our sessions, which always begins with a how is it going what have you been doing segment, Suzie excitedly told me about going to a Birthday Parade (another sign of the times). Here is her story:


I loved it when she talked about the poster falling off the car. She said it had to hold on for dear life. She’s becoming quite the storyteller!

I talked about the steps in the writing process and about turning a sloppy copy into a finished piece. That will become a topic for a future blog post. Here is a link to a ppt in my goggle share drive (LINK) giving some of my favorite professional books about the writing process. It includes books by Jennifer Serravallo, Katie Wood Ray, Ralph Fletcher, Carl Anderson, and Lucy Calkins. (Feb 2022 note: The sharefolder used to be located on the google drive for my blog’s e-mail. After some trial and error found a better way to share so that no special permssions were needed to get to the folder).

June 2022 additional thought. Part of what I always do during these lessons is to teach the students how to figure out words using both analytic and synthetic phonics.  That actually indudes sounding out some of the words they used with the help of sound boxes (Elkonin boxes) and using a computer-based structured phonics program that I coordinate with their writing.  As indicated earlier this works for both younger and older students. Given the interest in this topic I am likely to create future blogs around how to effectively implement this teaching tool from the Balanced Literacy camp.

So that wraps it up for today. With some adaptations, I can do many of the most important things I include in my teaching sessions. I’m most certainly not alone in that. I am in awe of how teachers have stepped up to the plate and, in no time at all, gotten a working distance learning program in place. For that, I have to say “well done!”. So, until next week- happy reading and happy writing!

Doctor Sam Bommarito (aka, editor and Publisher for many a young author and lover of writing workshop)

Copyright 2020 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization

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