Monthly Archives: June 2020

My Webcam Part 2: More About Distance Learning Literacy Activities and Why I Do Them by Dr. Sam Bommarito

My Webcam Part 2: More About Distance Learning Literacy Activities and Why I Do Them

By Dr. Sam Bommarito

Last week I talked about some of the new capabilities using a webcam brought to my literacy work. It has been a real gamechanger.  Adding it made the one-on-one literacy lessons I do as close to being there with the child as you can get. I meet my literacy students once a week. They are in grades K-2 and need extra help in reading. The sessions last only 30-40 minutes, and I try to pack as much bang for the buck as possible into the lessons. Here are some of the things I do in each session, how the webcam and selected features of the Zoom application help, and explanations of why I do them. This week I will be explaining what I do when I am teaching a decodable book.  The lesson is built around a decodable book from the award-winning Headsprout computer program which is published by A-Z Learning. More about that in a minute.

When I was doing my sessions in person, having the students make and break words and/or phrases was a key feature of almost every lesson.  By using a real-time live feed from my doc camera, I am able to do almost the same making and breaking activities with the student as I did when I was with them in person. Let’s look at making and breaking words from a story they were about to read.

I begin by asking the student to spell the two chunks we will be using in the story.  In this case, they were “an” and “in.” I then put one of the consonants with the chunk, saying the consonant sound and then the chunk. I ask them what word I just made. They say, “tan.” I repeat the process with tin. Then I put the t back and ask them what to do if I want to make tan. We repeat that with each of the consonants. At the end, I add “Fr” to an to make Fran. Fran is the name of one of the characters in the story.



Next, I demonstrate by making and breaking words and phrases for them.  I also ask them to make and break the words/phrases for me.  These phrases are related to the story they will read.


I first read the phrase to the student, pointing to the first letter of each word. I then ask them to read the phrase for me, as I point. Remember this is all live and in real-time.  They can see what I an doing because I use Zoom share screen to show them the making and breaking tablet.  Pointing to each word as I read and having them do the same is a vital teaching move. Clay calls it “making it match.”  Some of the prompting I do includes saying- if you see five words, say five words if you see three words say three words.  Any teacher who uses level 1-4 books with kids knows that many kids first memorize the whole book. Word by word pointing and asking them to go back and find particular words helps the child develop the concept of word. Instead of viewing reading as listening to a whole book and memorizing, they instead learn to view reading as figuring out each and every word as they go along.

The next picture illustrates my next teaching move. I break the word as shown below. Then I make the word and put it back into the phrase. I then break the word again and ask them what to do. They tell me to put back the c, then the a and then the n.


I break each word in turn and repeat the process. Sometimes, depending on the child, I break more than one word at a time. When the making and breaking is finished, I then have the student read the book. Here are some screenshots of the decodable book, which is a benchmark book in the Headsprout program.



I have them read the book to me.  I point to the first letter of each word. They see a real-time screenshot of the book.  This decodable book comes from the award-winning software program called Headsprout.  Here is a link where you can find out more about Headsprout

Head Sprout only

Headsprout has a carefully thought out scope and sequence.  It is adaptive, teaches the students the sounds they need to learn, and scaffolds them into using that sound-symbol knowledge to decode. It can be used as a stand-alone program. However, I find it is more effective when used with Raz-Kids plus (more about that at another time), and I have chosen to supplement it with the making and breaking/story creating activities I am describing in this blog.   It is most certainly not the only software program out there. It does happen to be one of the programs I’m using this summer with my kids.

In the way of full disclosure, I have used products by Learning A-Z for years. I have even done presentations for them, and last year they sent people from their main office in Phoenix to present their products to our local ILA. What I like about their products is they are well designed. The designs incorporate the latest research on how to teach reading. They have some great, easy to use diagnostic reports built into all their software. In my opinion, they have the best tracking and reporting system in the business. Their software goes through extensive field tests before being marketed.

During the week, my kids continue to do Headsprout lessons.  The next week I have them make their own book following the pattern of the benchmark book from Headsprout. Here is a sample from one of their books. This book gets added to their home library along with a copy of the decodable book by Headsprout.


Regular readers know that decodable books are not the only books you will find in my student’s home library. There are also trade books, Keep Books (predictable books with a high percentage of high-frequency words), books that they have written inspired by Keep Books, and at some point,  books they have written using their Writers Notebook. They also read books from the Raz Kids plus programs and those books include well-designed quizzes over what they read.  In a previous blog, I wrote about Language Experience stories. Even my youngest kids create them. Adding those stories to their home library gives them a lot of reading material.  See my blog about creating language experience stories, here is a link  BLOG ABOUT LANGUAGE EXPERIENCE.  In that blog, I also talked about how this can all be done using distance learning.

So that’s how I am using the webcam for word work and for work with decodable books. I think it is clear that my students read a variety of books, including decodable books, predictable books, trade books, and books they’ve written themselves using Language Experience. We have conversations from time to time about which books they like the best. They learn the importance of having favorite books and favorite authors. They learn the importance of talking about what they are learning from their various books.  I hope this blog gives you ideas about how to make the new normal of distance learning as kid-friendly as possible. In the meantime, Happy Reading and Happy Writing.

Dr. Sam Bommarito aka the new distance learning guy

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.

P.S. If you found the blog through Facebook or Twitter, please consider following the blog to make sure you will not miss it.  Use the “follow” entry on the sidebar of the blog

My Webcam: A gamechanger for my distance learning  literacy lessons By Dr. Sam Bommarito

My Webcam: A gamechanger for my distance learning  literacy lessons

By Dr. Sam Bommarito

Like everyone, when the new normal came into being, I found myself scrambling to try to adjust. One of the things I do is to conduct one-on-one literacy lessons with students. I do this as a volunteer.  Over time my lessons include word work, e.g., making and breaking and the use of Elkoin boxes. They also include having the student read aloud and performing, I.e., reading aloud from passages/poems they have practiced. I routinely use a technique known as language experience. The student tells stories, the teacher writes them down. These stories become future readings for the student.  Of course, we talk about their stories. I supplement what I do with the use of a couple of commercial software programs. All this was usually done with the student in the same room, and often with the parent also attending the session. Enter the new normal. I got a quick lesson in distance learning. This week I will concentrate on the “how” of my lessons- how I accomplish the same things I did before using distance learning. Next week I’ll talk more about the “why” of my lessons, why I teach what I teach.

I tried more than one distance learning program but settled on Zoom. Zoom was ALMOST like being there. However, there were issues. At the very beginning levels (RR 1-8), I ask my students to point to the first letter of each and every word. I even have a chant about that:  “Make it match don’t make it up, that is what to do. Make it match. Don’t make it up, and you’ll read your story true.”  Sometimes when they have finished a sentence or two, I’ll say stop. Then I point to a word and ask, what is this word? These particular teaching moves are designed to make sure the student isn’t just memorizing the whole book.  But in the typical Zoom meeting, I couldn’t really see where the child was pointing. Enter the document camera.

As you can see the doc camera is compact. I found this one on Amazon for about $100. Two of the features I looked for are that the camera was high-resolution and that the camera showed the image instantaneously. Having used older models a while back, I found it is important that there be no lag in the picture being displayed.

BLOG doc camera

Notice in this shot you can see some of the Keep Books I use with my students (go to this link for information on Keep Books LINK. ) Since they are low cost ($ .25 if bought in bulk), I can have a copy with me and the student can also have a copy at home. The students also sometimes write their own books using keep books as inspiration. Here is one that a student wrote using the same patterns as used in the Lunch Box Keep Book:


I can display Keep Books, or books they’ve written inspired by the keep books in real-time.

Finger pointing

I can point using my finger OR by creating an arrow like the one pointing at the lunch box.  I can drag that blue arrow along and use it as a pointer. When I want to use software programs, I can demonstrate how to use them in real-time, while the student is watching. I use both Raz Kids and Headsprout with my students. I can also show them some of the reports from those programs.  Elkonin boxes and Rasinski’s word ladders are also readily displayed.  In sum, adding the doc cam to my teaching tools makes it as close to actually being there as you can possibly be.

As indicated, next week, I’ll take up the why’s of what I do during my distance lessons. In the meantime, I highly recommend you watch this video. In it, Dr. Nell Duke from the University of Michigan describes her distance learning lessons around word work. She talks about doing this in a small group setting. She has many research-based ideas about word work to consider. Use this LINK to see the video.


So until next week, Happy Reading and Writing!

Dr. Sam Bommairto (The doc cameras guy!)

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.

P.S. If you found the blog through Facebook or Twitter, please consider following the blog to make sure you won’t miss it.  Use the “follow” entry on the sidebar of the blog

Teaching Fluency: The advantages of using a complete view of the reading process by Dr. Sam Bommarito


Teaching fluency: The advantages of using a complete view of the reading process by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Fluency is one place where advocates of balanced literacy get right, and advocates of the simple view get it partially wrong.  You see, advocates of the simple view of reading use measures of fluency like those found in the Dibels. The Dibels measures some (not all) of the components of fluency. A little refresher on the Dibels and its content.  The focus of the Dibels is on reading rate.  More recent iterations of the Dibels include correlation-based tests of comprehension.  I’ve written before on the limits and limitations of using the Dibels as a test of comprehension. The upshot of what I’ve said is that for preliminary studies, it might be an adequate measure of reading. Still, for the kind of whole-district, multi-year studies needed to demonstrate the efficacy of particular approaches to be used, a much more complete test of reading is required, modeled on statewide reading assessments that include passages and a variety of comprehension questions.

Today I want to focus on a different aspect of the limits and limitations of tests like the Dibels. What happens when one focuses on reading rate/reading accuracy as the key factors in reading and leaves out other factors? What happens is that instruction in fluency too often becomes a race. Shanahan talks about the use (and misuse) of assessments like the Dibels He ends by saying, “a pax on both your houses.”  He recognizes that principals and other administrators sometimes focus on all the wrong things when looking at test results from measures like the Dibels. They try to teach the test rather than using the test results to inform instruction. This is a decidedly bad use of test results.  I’m taking that thought one step further. If the measure were more complete, the probability of misuse would go down. What’s missing from the Dibels? Let’s look at Tim Rasinski’s rubric for measuring fluency.

I’ve written before about Dr. Tim Rasinski’s extensive work around the topic of fluency.  The bottom line is, as he said recently, making kids read-fast is not the goal of fluency instruction making meaning-is Rasinski takes a complete view of the fluency process.  He concerns himself with prosody. I’ve written about Rasinski and how his work has impacted my teaching practices  2018blog1, 2019blog2,  Let’s have a look at Tim’s fluency rubric. It can be found in the book Megabook of Fluency, a book he co-authored with Mellissa Cheeseman. The rubric includes the following:


What are the advantages of measuring all these aspects of prosody rather than just measuring speed and accuracy?  Let’s begin by looking at an entertaining video about not reading like a robot but instead reading with expression.

Don't Read Like a Robot

Why is there even a need for a video to ask kids to read with expression rather than read like a robot? It is because the measures we use do not include this critical aspect of measuring prosody, and subsequently, these aspects are often never taught.  I’ve found in the project I was doing in 4 elementary classrooms (2 first grades and 2 second grades), that teachers and students alike quickly caught on to the importance of reading with expression. Kids started “reading like storytellers” within a couple of weeks of being introduced to that concept.  One of the students taught me a lesson about reading like a storyteller. I said everyone knows it is important not to read like a robot. One student timidly put up his hand to ask a question. “But Dr. B. What if your character is a robot?”.  Hmmm.  That child got it didn’t he?.

Unfortunately, Corvid interrupted the project before it could be completed. The project included instruction/demonstrations on reading with expression and periodic read-aloud performances after systematic read-aloud practice. It also included the use of Dr. Rasinski’s rubric to assess students’ progress in prosody periodically.  The cumulative data from each periodic measurement was used to inform prosody instruction. Stay tuned. As soon as it is safe to resume face to face classes, we’ll try to carry out this piece of action research.

But wait. Is using a testing instrument like Dr. Rasinski’s rubric really scientific?  Those familiar with the qualitative analysis and developing interrater reliability know that it is. Here is a link to a quick overview of the two approaches LINK. The fact that Rasinski’s rubric measures all aspects of prosody, not just the elements of speed and accuracy, underscores one of the potential weaknesses of using only quantitative studies and ignoring or discounting qualitative studies.  In order to get things that are easily and directly measured, quantitative studies run the risk of oversimplifying- the risk of leaving out educationally significant factors. Understand that I am not arguing for all research to be done qualitatively.  I am arguing that both qualitative and quantitative measures be included in the educational research we use to inform our educational decisions.

Next week I will talk about how my acquisition of a small portable document camera has dramatically aided the distance learning work I am currently doing with my one-on-one tutoring of selected students. Until then, Happy Reading and Writing.


Dr. Sam Bommarito (a.k.a. a reading storyteller)


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.

P.S. If you found the blog through Facebook or Twitter, please consider following the blog to make sure you won’t miss it.  Use the “follow” entry on the sidebar of the blog.

Fluency is taking a back seat this week, instead, I will talk about #BlackLivesMatter by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Fluency is taking a back seat this week, instead, I will talk about #BlackLivesMatter

by Dr. Sam Bommarito

This week I had promised readers I would be talking about fluency and some of the amazing ideas and methods I have learned from the work of Dr. Tim Rasinski. That blog post will be forthcoming, but this week’s events dictate that I need to talk about the whole issue of Black Lives Matter and potential ways educators can and should respond to the events of the past few weeks. In case you missed it, a good start would be to listen to this recording from the RALLY FOR BLACK LIVES by The Brown Bookshelf (#KIDLIT COMMUNITY) this week-



Earlier this week, I posted links to the rally on both Facebook and Twitter urging folks to attend, and in a bit of irony when I first went on to watch, I got a “resources full” message from The Brown Bookshelf site. I went to the Zoom alternative they had created- that was full for a time as well.  But I finally was able to watch most of the rally live (an amazing experience). As promised, they created a recording that lets folks watch the full 2-hour event.  There are almost 10,000 comments about the recording, among them was “I got goosebumps when….”. To say the response to the rally was overwhelming is an understatement.

I will not attempt to unpack everything that was said- there were so many important things that were covered. Instead, I want to react to one thing that caught my eye. Here it is:

Black Lives Matter Rally USE FOR THE BLOG


“Love letters to kids who need to look to the light, even in our darkest time.”  Thanks to Denene Millner for that powerful statement.  For me, it reminded me that as educators, it’s all about the kids, all about what we can do (should do) for the kids.  I’d like to reflect on what that has meant to me and some of my colleagues here in St. Louis.

A little background. I’m white.  I grew up in north St. Louis city. My first teaching job was with the Ferguson Florissant school district. The school where I taught for 18 years was in Jennings Mo, which borders Ferguson. The Ferguson Community Center (I’ll be saying more about that in a minute) is about a mile from my old school. The school had over 90% free lunch. The school population was mainly black.  The staff and the parents at that school were something special. Let me elaborate.

One of the roles I took on was as parent liaison for the Title 1 program. That was an extra duty job- for all my time there, my main job was to be a Title 1 reading teacher/Title 1 staff developer. At our first parent meeting, we had three parents. Hmmm. Not a great start. Some might conclude the parents did not really care about their kids. Nothing could be further from the truth. My last year there, we had several hundred attending our parent events. Kids were coming to do flashlight reads in the gym, exchanging books, and eating ice cream. And eating ice cream? You see, folks knew that the trick was to create a sense of community. Ice cream socials were a part of many of the local church events, and they became a part of our school events. Many of our parents worked more than one job (flies in the face of some stereotypes, doesn’t it?). We adjusted accordingly. We held events on different days-different hours. We were blessed to find parents willing to take charge, and they did.  Lesson learned here?  Building community matters. Listening to parents matters. The parents want to help their kids. But some had such a terrible school experience themselves they were skeptical about coming back to the school. It took time, a lot of reaching out, and a lot of empowering parents. But in the end, we did have a real community. I learned a valuable life lesson from this- building community is foundational to creating successful schools.

Fast forward to the present. What are educators in my community doing now to help children?  Enter my good friend and colleague, Julius Anthony. Julius is an educator, an author, and an activist. He is the founder and current President of St. Louis Black Authors. What are they all about?



Julius and his group have opened several literacy centers in the St. Louis region. I was privileged to be there when he opened his very first one. It is located in the Ferguson Community Center. Just down the road from my old school. Julius and the St. Louis Black Authors understand the importance of building community. The shelves in the literacy center are stocked with books that are about the black experience and written by black authors. Julius is an author himself. The project is named after one of his poems, “Believe.” Julius understands the importance of community. The centers include comfortable places to sit and read and murals by local Black artists. Some of the newer centers his group have opened are in schools. His love letter to the children of the St. Louis area is an invitation to come to a safe place to read and find out about black heritage and culture. To find out more about Julius and his wonderful group go to their webpage:

St. Louis Black Authors for the Blog


So, that is not the only thing going on in my community, but it is one of the most important ones. As educators, we must do what we can to build community and foster understanding. Julius and his group give us one example of things we could do.

OK, now I PROMISE next week I will do the blog about the issues of fluency and about the importance of teaching in ways that develop the desire to read in each and every child. As Mark Twain said: “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who can not read.”  Certainly, by their community-building efforts, Julius and his group are helping to foster a love of reading in the children of the St. Louis region (and Beyond).


Dr. Sam Bommarito

Copyright 2019 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.

P.S. If you found the blog through Facebook or Twitter, please consider following the blog to make sure you won’t miss it.  Use the “follow” entry on the sidebar of the blog.