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Using the author as a mentor: Helping students learn strong research skills by David Harrison and Mary Jo Fresch

Austin 2018 Dave and Mary Jo


is this weekend, and you can join us from anywhere! Check out our live chat w/ authors & educator

This week David L. Harrison (children’s poet and author) and Mary Jo Fresch (Professor Emeritus, The Ohio State University) are doing a guest post on this blog. THANKS SO MUCH TO BOTH OF THEM. They will both be at the ILA convention in Austin July 20-23. Be sure to catch them at their sessions in Austin (see below). Below is a picture of them at the 2017 NCTE convention in St. Louis, where they introduced their newest book. Glenda Nugent (my Missouri Reader Co-Editor) and I got to meet them face to face.  Hope you enjoy this week’s guest post and find it as informative as I did.

David and Mary JO with us





Using the author as a mentor: Helping students learn strong research skills

In this Blog, David L. Harrison (children’s poet and author) and Mary Jo Fresch (Professor Emeritus, The Ohio State University), share classroom ready ideas for helping students be successful researchers.

Hello readers! This summer are you dreaming about students who not only love to write, but do so with a good foundation of information about their topics? Wouldn’t it be fulfilling to read well researched and thoughtfully composed writings? We share with you some ideas to help prepare students to be better researchers. Beginning to write without carefully researching a topic often ends up with writing pieces that not only lack accuracy, but also passion.  Regardless of the genre, students need to be ready to write – whether it is a nonfiction piece connected to content studies, poetry that uncovers a particular feeling, a fiction piece in an accurate setting – all forms of writing need thought before pen and paper ever meet.

Through David’s own work as a writer, students can observe and replicate the work of getting ready to write. As a “mentor” of research, David shares with students what he does to prepare to write. And across the genres he writes! By learning authentic research skills, students “connect their academic work directly to the real world in a powerful and meaningful way.”

(Werner-Burke, 2004, p. 44). Research is what we do to get ready to write.

We know current day media presents challenges to teachers. In Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project Online Survey, 99% of middle and high school teachers responding believed that their students are conditioned to find information quickly and easily, but 83% agreed the amount of online information is overwhelming for most students. As Doug Lemov reminds us, “want to become a doctor? An economist? An engineer? You’d better be prepared to read articles, primary documents, research studies, and complex essays . . .In other words, success in scholastic and professional endeavors requires the ability to learn from the literature of a discipline (2017, p. 10).” We must show our students how to be researchers.

The remainder of this blog is an interview with David about his work and how that translates into classroom instruction.  How can he “mentor” your students to be thoughtful and thorough researchers? Keep reading! Mary Jo promises to give you lots of ideas to move from David’s experiences to providing similar student activities.

Mary Jo:

David, you’ve often said we cannot do our best writing when we begin before we’re ready to write.  How does that work for you when you have a new book idea?


Mary Jo, for me almost every new project begins with a question and a list. The question is: What is this book going to be about? What is its purpose? If I can’t answer that question, I won’t know what I’m looking for when I set out to do my research.  The list has four parts. One: What do I already know about my subject? Two: Are there things I think I know but want to double-check to be sure? Three: What do I not know about my subject that I might want to include?  Four: What do I not know I don’t know? Okay, that fourth list sounds impossible. In the beginning it is, but as I get deeper into my subject, unexpected fascinating facts always pop up. That’s why I need that fourth list! Collectively – the questioning, starting the lists – this is presearch. It’s what I do to get ready to help me get ready to write.

Mary Jo:

That sounds like a good place for teachers to start their students on the road to research. First, selecting a topic that they are interested in is key to staying engaged throughout the research and writing process. So, students should select from ideas they have to write about, then make those four columns – What they already know; What they think they know but better double-check; What they want to learn in their research that they can include in their writing; and finally, What they don’t know they don’t know (or what surprises along the way they discovered thanks to the research process).  So, teachers easily have four quick and compelling lessons just in the question posing phase of the research. Once students learn how to ask these questions they can use them forever!


Next comes the most important part of writing, Mary Jo. Tracking down all the information we need before we can write anything worth reading. There is no single way to do this. Of course the Internet is the easy-peasy way to get facts in a hurry. Unfortunately, you can also get wrong information just as fast. As a writer, I fear making mistakes. If I write something that is wrong, I have failed my reader. Fiction springs from nonfiction so a writer must get his information straight before setting out to write that story or poem or essay. We don’t have room here to get into every form of research that writers use, but the point is that the more students “get” the need to get it right, the better their writing will be. You simply can’t write your best if you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Mary Jo:

So, what’s next?  Let’s peek into your study.  You have researched information to fill out all four questions (you might even have added information you know but forgot to include!).  Now what?  How do we use those answers in the best way?


By now I’ve chosen my topic. I’ve decided on the purpose of the project. I’ve made lists of what I know, need to double check, need to learn, and one for surprises. I’ve read books about my subject, checked the Internet, interviewed, observed, and kept good notes about everything I learned. So I’m ready to write at last! Not. I am now the proud owner of a set of notes about many aspects of my subject. Can I tell my reader about all of them? Afraid not. My writing would wander all over the place if it tried.

So now I sit down with all I’ve learned and start arranging notes, looking for an ideal place to begin, things I want to say in the main text, and a strong way to finish. I’ll set aside bits of information that aren’t likely to make the cut. And NOW I’m ready to pick up my pen or sit at the keyboard and write my first word.

Mary Jo:

So, organizing the notes is another key step. As we think about your role as a mentor to students’ research, they need to see that real authors must be organized in keeping and using their notes. Teachers could ask students to take their notes and use highlighters to mark the information they want to include in their writing. They could use one color for the introductory paragraph(s) and another color for the body of the writing. They could also take the notes, cut them apart, and arrange the ones they want to use in the “order of appearance.” They might even discover they could write more than one text from the notes if they have more information than they can use for the first writing. Has that happened to you?  Did you ever say, “Wow, I have a lot of good information here…more than I can put in one book!”?


Absolutely, Mary Jo! When my wife and I went up the Amazon River in Peru, I made eighty pages of notes and took hundreds of pictures. I used my research to write a book of poetry about the Amazon called SOUNDS OF RAIN. Years later I returned to my notes and wrote a middle grade novel called DOWNRIVER.  My extensive notes about a cave discovered in southwest Missouri resulted in a nonfiction book called CAVE DETECTIVES. The same notes produced more than one poem. Lately I’ve thought of returning to those notes to write a collection of poems for a new book. Notes from a book about mountains inspired a book about glaciers. Notes from the book about glaciers inspired a book about the first people to migrate to the North American continent. The more we learn about our subject, the more ways we discover to write about it in different genres and even start new projects!

Mary Jo:

Sharing with students what David does demonstrates the real-life purposes of research, notetaking and organization, and then choosing a way to write (and maybe more than one way!). Our dreams of students who write with accuracy and passion can be a reality when we help them build the skills they need to presearch a topic (Is my topic too big? Should I narrow it? Should I expand it?), pose good questions to research the topic (by using such resources as internet, books, video, interviews), organize the notes to help decide on the focus of the writing, and then, maybe “shelve” some notes for another writing piece or two down the road. There is a wonderful saying (Anonymous!) that sums up how David and I feel about teaching good research skills to students:

The future belongs to the curious. The ones who are not afraid to try it, explore it, poke at it, question it and turn it inside out.

 David and Mary Jo have published a number of articles in the Missouri Reader.

Links in order of appearance: ; ;


Let’s Collaborate to Address Dilemmas in Literacy By Dr William Kerns

I am on vacation. Dr. Kerns volunteered to do this weeks post. THANKS BILL! It should provide you with some good food for thought.

Let’s Collaborate to Address Dilemmas in Literacy

 This is a difficult time to be a teacher. Pressures of high stakes testing have the impact of narrowing curriculum. Meanwhile, the use of commercially produced assessments contributes to pressure to label students according to reading levels that shape reading goals. This blog entry explores the way that teachers in the literacy field can work together to enhance instruction through the systematic examination of questions about practice.

Reflective teachers engage in ongoing, self-initiated inquiry (Calderhead, 1992; Elder & Paul, 2008). Dialogue and collaboration helps teachers take responsibility for improving instruction (Day, 1999). Far too frequently, teaching practices that are grounded in a deep tradition within the research literature become misunderstood and misapplied in classrooms. One example is the facilitation of student goal setting. There are debates in the literacy field over whether these goals should include the explicit enunciation by the child of improvement according to specific reading levels. This blog will address how understanding and conducting research can help teachers to better address this issue in the classroom. I argue for an approach to teaching that continuously draws upon research and inquiry in order to inform the academic and social consequences of instructional choices.

Student Goal Setting and Reading Levels

Reading is a goal-directed activity in which a person makes meaning of a text. Setting goals helps students to become increasingly motivated readers (Kintsch, 1998). This is because goals enable students to become focused on a task that they view as relevant (McCrudden, Schraw, & Kambe, 2005) and purposeful (Locke & Gary, 2006). Goals that are specific and appropriately challenging (Kleingeld et al., 2011) are linked to improved confidence among students to be successful readers (Schunk, 2003; Smith & Wilhelm, 2002). Students self-regulate as they read a text by setting goals and monitoring progress toward accomplishing these goals (Bray & McClaskey, 2015). Importantly for social-constructivist teachers to bear in mind, goal-setting appears to be increasingly effective when teachers and students systematically work together to name the goals and monitor progress (Pincham, 2006). Also of importance for teachers of students who are identified with specific learning exceptionalities in reading, goal setting has long been linked to long-term gains among students with learning disabilities (Raskind, Goldberg, Higgins, & Herman, 1999).

Debate arises when the goals are related to Lexile style reading levels lacking in personal and social meaningfulness to the student. Lexile measures are used to track either the difficulty of a text or a student’s reading level. While Lexile levels are commonly used in schools, other commercial companies such as American Reading Company provide alternate means of identifying reading levels. In the American Reading Company’s system, levels are identified via color schemes that correspond with a reading level. One key concern is that communication of goals based on Lexile-type levels may also communicate to students a set of beliefs and assumptions about who they are as readers, and “what” they are as readers,  thus positioning students as character types in a particular storyline about those who are reading at identified levels (Harré, 2012). A Lexile level is not one that a student would naturally identify if reading a text on his or her own. So, tying goal setting to Lexile levels raises the issue of power (Lukes, 2005) if consideration is given to who is legitimate to speak (the student?) regarding goal-setting and whether the student’s voice may be getting silenced.

This debate raises an important question. What is a teacher to do in the face of administrative and curricular pressures for students to make gains as typically determined by Lexile levels? Communication of goals based on Lexile levels may be unavoidable for teachers in many school districts depending on administrative pressure. My suggestion is that it’s important to help students also set goals that are personally meaningful, rather than rely on Lexile levels as the key to goal setting. This is easier said than done. It requires an ongoing analysis of research literature related to literacy and pedagogy. Further, I recommend that teachers also engage within inquiry communities and conduct forms of classroom inquiry.

Joining Inquiry Communities and Conducting Inquiry

Inquiry communities help teachers to develop knowledge of practice through ongoing, supportive dialogue and reflection (Lytle, 2008). Dialogue in the group is based on a search for understanding and improvement of practice (Swales, 1990). Collaborating on classroom-based research opens new opportunities for communication among teachers and university faculty, while it increases awareness and reflection of issues related to learning and participation in the teaching profession (Rock & Levin, 2002).

Steps that can be taken by teachers to ensure that they benefit from participation in an inquiry community include the following:  engage in a group that fosters a supportive environment for reflective thinking and for inquiry; seek to continuously learn about the role of reflection in teaching; seek to engage in ongoing dialogue that fosters systematic reflection and inquiry. I recommend that teachers strive to join (or build) a learning community (Schwab, 1976) with dialogue that involves seeking new educational ideas and the improvement of teaching practices (Swales, 1990). Crucially, teachers need to feel safe to take risks in a supportive environment that is open to new ideas and new concepts.

Teachers conducting classroom inquiry engage in systematic, intentional study of professional practice through a planning process of gathering and recording information, documenting experiences inside and possibly outside of classrooms, and creating a written record. Typically, the methods include journal entries that are coded to identify the themes and patterns (Guwaldi, 2009). The goal is generally to address questions and make sense of experiences through a reflective stance toward classroom instruction and classroom learning. Prior to embarking on classroom inquiry, I strongly recommend seeking dialogue in an inquiry community and studying material related to reflective teaching (Hatch & Shulman, 2005; McCann et al., 2005; Zeichner & Liston, 2014) and methods of conducting teacher research (Chiseri-Strater & Sunstein, 2006; Falk & Blumenreich, 2005; Freidrich et al., 2005; Hopkins, 2008; Hubbard & Power, 2003; Lytle, 2008; McBee, 2004).

Taking a Pragmatic Approach

This blog is grounded in a pragmatic approach to the reading of research to inform the act of being a reflective practitioner.  Dewey identified attitudes that are involved in the development of a habit of inquiry. I believe that these attitudes are important when it comes to how teachers approach research. Open-mindedness involves willingness to rethink fundamental ideas through ongoing reflection and inquiry. Reflective thinking in a moment of doubt is then “occasioned by an unsettlement and it aims at overcoming a disturbance” (Dewey, 1916/1980, p. 336). To solve the problem, according to Dewey (1933/1986a), a teacher should exhibit wholeheartedness, or an in-depth commitment with full devotion to personal and emotional resources. Dewey viewed the development of a habit of pursuing inquiry in the face of doubt as an essential aspect of reflective thinking. However, commitment should also involve responsibility. A sense of responsibility entails taking seriously the moral choices faced in life and in the classroom setting by habitually evaluating, through inquiry, how actions may bring about desired or undesired consequences. The reading of research then  fosters an ethical sense of responsibility among teachers. Finally, Dewey (1916/1980) urged an attitude of directness, or faith that actions grounded in in the attitudes of open-mindedness, wholeheartedness, and responsibility in the conduct of inquiry are worth taking for the benefit of a democratic and just society.

Schön (1991) differentiated between reflective thinking performed while a professional is engaged in an activity, reflection-in-action, and reflection-on-action involving the review and examination of past action. Schön stressed the value of reflection in the context of practice. Ongoing reflection is informed by what the teacher learns from the inquiry by weighing the merits of redirecting activity against time constraints and need for curriculum coverage. A reflective practitioner gains self-knowledge while engaged in theorizing by taking control and responsibility for knowledge.




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State University of New York.

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Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. (2009). Inquiry as stance: Practitioner research for the next generation. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

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Taylor & Francis.

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Elder, L., & Paul, R. W. (2008). Critical thinking in a world of accelerated change and complexity. Social Education, 72, 388–391.

Falk, B., & Blumenreich, M. (2005).  The power of questions: A guide to teacher and student research. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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Collaborative. Berkeley, CA: National Writing Project.

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England: Open University Press.

Hubbard, R. S., & Power, B. M. (2003). The art of classroom inquiry: A handbook for teacher-researchers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Kleingeld, A., Van Mierlo, H., & Lidia Arends, L. (2011). The effect of goal setting on group performance: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(6), 1289- 1304.

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Reflective teaching, reflective learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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Education Quarterly, 29(1), 7–21.

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lives of young men. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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Using Research to Jump to Confusions: (Nope, it is not another typo- Sometimes We Unintentionally Jump to Confusions) By Dr. Sam Bommarito


research creative commons Blue Diamond Galary

I’ll start by stating my position about using research. We absolutely should use research to inform our decisions about teaching. That would include both qualitative and quantitative research.  However, especially when looking at the research around what good readers do, we need to be careful. Sometimes in our haste to get our readers to the desired end results, we fail to pay careful attention to the path that the good readers took to get there. Over the next few weeks I’ll be exploring what I mean by this, beginning with one a classic misreading of the research.  This has to do with the research around high frequency words. Early in the 20th century pioneering work was done around high frequency words.  Dolch and Fry both discovered that relatively few words (Dolch 220, Fry 300) make up most of the words we read (up to 70%).  That means as you read this piece approximately seven out of every ten words are likely to be words found on the Dolch or Fry list. This fact led educators to think that it would pay off handsomely to include as many of these words as possible when instructing beginning readers. It spawned what came to be known as the sight say method.  Folks thought they had found an approach that would solve the problems of teaching beginning reading. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, the 1st Grade Studies concluded that sight say was not the best beginning reading approach. Where did things go wrong?

Let’s start by looking at why educators thought teaching the high frequency words early, and by rote, would pay off big.  The typical reader needs to know 50,000 words by the time they reach high school.  By teaching the high frequency words early we would assure our young readers would know 7 out of 10 of every word they would ever need to know. They would know them very early in the reading process. Wow! That’s a great payoff. It greatly reduces the work beginning readers have to do when reading text. Once they know the high frequency words, only 3 out of every 10 words are unknown when reading running text.  I want to be clear that I think that this is a payoff we want to have.  Where the sight-say folks went wrong in implementing this was that they tried to skip right to the end without paying attention to the middle. What do I mean by that?

What the sight-say folks did was create stories designed to teach high frequency words by rote.  The “by rote” part is that took their train off the tracks.  Look at the exemplar of such stories- the stories from the Dick and Jane series. The text might look something like this. “Look, look, look. See, see, see. See Spot. See Spot run. Run, Spot run!” The writers of these stories knew that multiple exposure to a word results in that word moving into the child’s sight word.  No sounding out or problem solving here. Read the word over and over and over and you will come to know the word. By the end of the first year the child would know most of the high frequency words by heart.

Now would be a good time to remind the reader that sight words and high frequency words are not synonymous terms. Sight words are those words readers know by heart.  Adult readers know most of their words by heart. By contrast, high frequency words are those 220 to 300 words that appear the most often in the English language.  Yes, it is important that children learn those words early.  However, counting on the strategy of learning them by rote resulted in children who learned the strategy of “memorize the words you need to know” as their main word strategy. They learned no other ways of figuring out their words.  Given controlled text with lots of high frequency word in them they read just fine.  When they made the move to normal text many of them fell apart. They knew the 220-330 but hadn’t a clue of what to do with the other 49,700 or so words left to learn.  Do the math. If readers try to memorize those words they would have to memorize over 700 words per week every week between first grade and the start of high school. It is self-evident readers need additional word strategies beyond memorization.

There is a lesson to be learned from the failed attempt of the sight say movement.  Their goals were reasonable. Teach the high frequency words early. Make sure beginning readers become like adult readers, i.e. they know most of their words by sight. Their mistake came in how they tried to teach those high frequency words. They taught them directly and efficiently by repetition and rote. They skipped the middle stage good readers go through. Good readers learn to problem solve their own words. In the course of doing their wide reading, after problem solving the same unknown word several times that previously unknown word becomes part of their sight vocabulary. This is how they built their sight vocabulary to the levels usually associated with older readers. Failing to include that problem-solving step left sight say advocates in an untenable position. Once the beginning readers got out of the tightly controlled beginning texts, they didn’t have the necessary strategies needed to build the rest of their sight vocabulary.

Next week I am taking a break and going on a summer vacation. Week after next I’ll talk about how to teach the high frequency words in a way that helps students to develop strategies that lead them to become fluent, lifelong readers. In the weeks that follow I will explore how the same phenomena of “trying to skip to the end without paying attention to the middle” has derailed some of our work in teaching comprehension strategies as well.


Happy Reading and Writing

Dr. Sam Bommarito (Natural born problem solver!)

This Summer Operation Food Search in St. Louis Will be Offering Families Books as Well as Food By Doctor Sam Bommarito

childrensbookscollage creative commons

St. Louis is blessed with many non-profit organizations whose goal is to help families and individuals with the most need. Among those organizations is Operation Food Search.  According to their website they distribute more than 35 million dollars’ worth of food and necessities to 330 community partners in 31 Missouri and Illinois counties. They feed 8,500 school age children in the St. Louis region. Our local and state ILA groups first found out about this organization through local media and from our friends at Ready To Learn One thing led to another and we contacted Operation Food Search to see if they would be interested in distributing books for children. We thought that food trucks going into neighborhood in North St. Louis could bring along books for the kids as well as food for the families.  Staff at Operation Food Search agreed this would be an innovative idea. This month our state and local ILA groups donated two full pallets of gently used children’s books to OFS. Volunteers from OFS learned the tricks of becoming “book doctors”. As a result, this summer those books will be in the hands of children in North St. Louis.

The statistics comparing availability of books in the poorest urban areas are grim. In earlier blog posts I pointed out that the website for Ready To Learn reported a huge disparity between the number of books in the homes of children in the poorest area and those in more affluent areas. They said:

“In many low-income households, the priorities are feeding the children and heating the home. Buying books for children is a luxury that few can afford. In the average middle-income neighborhood there are thirteen books for every child. In the average low-income neighborhood there is one book for every 300 children.”

I also reported that several organizations in St. Louis are working on this problem. The St. Louis Black Authors Initiative  has the goal of distributing 1000 book boxes to families in the St. Louis region. Over the past few years Ready to Learn has distributed over 200,000 books to children in St. Louis. Our local and state ILA groups have distributed thousands more to children in Title One schools throughout the region.  The recent donation to Operation Food Search is the latest chapter in that saga.

This coming Monday Glenda Nugent co-editor of the Missouri Reader and myself are attending the OFS Summer Launch. Glenda will talk briefly about the importance of reading and how to help families make literacy a part of their everyday lives.  Here is the current draft of what she will have to say. She begins with a quote from the world-renowned children’s author Mem Fox. She then talks about the benefits of wide reading and gives some tips on how to help parents support their child’s literacy efforts.


“When I say to a parent, “read to a child”, I don’t want it to sound like medicine. I want it to sound like chocolate.”

 Mem Fox


Mem Fox is a world-renowned children’s author, who has written books for children of all ages.  Her advice about reading is well worth considering. Why is reading so important for our children? How can we help to make reading something children want to do rather than something they have to do?  How can we encourage our children to become life-long readers and learners?  Let’s talk briefly about the answers to these questions

There are many experts in the field of reading who extol the benefits of wide reading.  Mary Howard, Laura Robb, Evan Robb and Dr. Molly Ness are among them.  All of them indicate that these benefits are most likely to come when we provide children a variety of books and give them the choice of the books they select. Citing current research, Beers and Probst in their book Disrupting Thinking outline what some of these benefits are. They found students:

  • Build Knowledge
  • Improve Achievement
  • Increase Motivation
  • Increase Writing
  • Develop Empathy
  • Develop Personal Identity


How much reading is enough to make a difference? Burkins and Yaris found as little as 10 minutes more reading a day can make significant differences.  See the details about all this in the informational handouts we are providing for this gathering.


What can we do to help parents help their children become better readers?   We are providing you with some handouts with tips for parents. These include:

  • Have regular reading times (the bedtime story!)
  • Talk to your children about books they read.
  • Encourage them to shop authors and shop topics. Let them choose books based on their interests.
  • Provide books for them and bring them to their local libraries. Take advantage of the summer reading programs at local libraries
  • Don’t be afraid to read aloud to them, and to share reading aloud with them.

When it comes to caring, parents from urban areas are no different from any other parents. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the work of the Village of Moms.  Village of Moms is a new organization in St. Louis. It focuses on literacy empowerment and educational success in our African American community in the Saint Louis region. They established The Reading Village. The Reading Village will provide a safe place to learn and grow.  It will make a variety of books available to our St. Louis children.  Members of our state & local ILA will be attending their kickoff event in June. We will provide almost 1000 gently used books for their project.

It truly does take the whole village to raise the child. St. Louis is so fortunate to have organizations like our International Literacy Association groups, the St. Louis Black Authors Initiative, Ready to Learn and Village of Moms. All of them are serious about getting books into the hands of our children. We are so excited the Operation Food Search has decided to join in that effort as well.  I hope this brief presentation helps you to see why reading is so important.


Last week in this blog Dr. Kerns talked about the importance of collaboration.  The various organizations in St. Louis are learning about the importance and benefits of collaboration every day. I know the St. Louis region in not alone in such work.  I would love to hear about other places and about how other regions are promoting literacy and getting more books into the hands of children. Until next time this is Dr. Sam signing off!


Dr. Sam Bommarito (a.k.a. literacy supporter who gets by with a little help from his friends)

Link to handouts mentioned in this presentation:

The graphic by Trish Hutchings is used with permission. I gratefully acknowledge her willingness to share her graphic.


A Call to Action by Dr William Kerns

(This weeks entry is by my partner,  Dr William Kerns)

A Call to Action by Dr William Kerns

Those of us in dialogue on this blog site tend to share a common vision for literacy and education. We seek to promote wide reading and learning experiences that are constructive, engaging, even playful while academically and cognitively vigorous. Learning is social. When Tim Rasinski speaks of an approach to fluency that draws on stories, music, dialogue, and that is intended to promote a lifelong love of reading, we love it. When Mary Howard speaks of the urgency of addressing approaches to reading interventions that take the joy out of reading, we agree.

There is a crisis in the literacy field. It’s a crisis of engagement. A crisis of vision over how literacy is understood. A crisis for the very “soul” of what it means to promote strong literacy. In this blog entry, I intend to depart a bit from describing strategies for reading instruction. This blog entry is a call to action.

I love seeing the way that literacy bloggers are linking with and promoting one another. It’s also heartening to see various organizations including International Literacy Association and National Council of Teachers of English promote partnerships as well as dialogue. By no means do I intend to discount good work already being done.  I’d urge us to bring out minds together to think of how to link our resources, imaginations, and strategies together to address the crisis that is occurring in the literacy field.

There are two key steps I’d like to urge in this blog. One is to view ourselves as part of a community of learners. The next is to be the change that we wish to see in the literacy field. It is only by working together and by becoming energized that we will impact the crisis within the literacy field.

Be a Community of Learners

We can start by acknowledging that we are all continuing to learn. Our learning is a lifelong, constructive and evolving process. So, let’s establish a makeshift professional learning community together. It is vital for us to provide supportive experiences in diverse contexts for one another. We are each still growing in our own areas of expertise. The premise for my call for a community of learners is that as each of us explores concepts of literacy and literacy instructional methods through dialogue online and in different contexts, we construct a richer understanding as we participate in what Barbara Rogoff would call a community of learners.

We learn from experience and dialogue with one another in a community of learners as we move between roles of the more experienced expert and the less experienced novice. Each person reading this blog entry is at a varied stage in the process of gaining skill in the use of tools within the profession while also gaining a sense of agency in the way that we understand the rules of how we can perform our roles. Collaboration can lead to increased confidence to take a stand for what we believe. Let’s help one another to maintain a passion for our role in the literacy field.


We can help one another in key areas including: the planning of activities as well as the construction of objectives and assessments; planning for in-depth learning and critical thinking. Important strategies in planning that are essential for social-constructivist teachers include sequenced instructional design. I advocate the design, implement and evaluation of meaningful classroom activities, with each activity preparing a student for the next activity, providing guidance and assistance to students as the students explore increasingly complex concepts and tasks. Teachers should learn how to assess the current knowledge and skills of students and how to provide skilled instruction to diverse learners, adapting instruction based on an ongoing assessment of progress.

Be The Change We Wish to See

We can help one another to take increased responsibility for our own roles in shaping our careers and contributing to the field. Helping one another and helping colleagues can become a way of living as we operate in our own individual schools, universities, and professional organizations. We can in the process encourage colleagues (and ourselves) to continuously re-examine  fundamental assumptions about literacy and teaching as new evidence arises based on reflection and inquiry. This means being honest with one another if we are to encourage colleagues to be open to new ideas and understandings based on an examination of evidence. We too need to wholeheartedly be committed to the pursuit of inquiry, and take responsibly to be committed to a careful consideration of the consequences of possible actions. That’s why we need to work together. We can’t address the crisis in the literacy field in silos.

Be a Reflective Practitioner

I view a reflective approach to education as tied in with choices of morality. We can choose to act or not to act. I believe that reflection on practice is at the heart of professional growth. I also believe that reflective practice is not an act to be best engaged in within a silo. We need one another if we are going to be at our best. There are ways we can help each other on research project ideas, design ideas, and teaching ideas. Sometimes an intelligent conversation itself can be energizing. A sure way to avoid becoming “stuck in a bad habit” is through what John Dewey would call a reflective habit, by being committed to re-examining assumptions on the basis of new evidence. I urge that we together foster among one another the skills to critically examine language, stereotypes, and educational practices various contexts. Those whose lives we touch as educators are impacted by life-conditions that often include the denial of equitable opportunities in education. Let’s together build the capacity to respond in a way that can help students reach their fullest possible potential in life.

Singing our Way into Fluency: Exploring Other Books to use Including Books for Older Students by Dr Sam Bommarito

I wanted to thank Eric Litwin again for sharing his views on using music as part of literacy instruction.  In my view Eric is an educator who also happens to be a very talented singer, songwriter and author.  His books are entertaining. More importantly his books are educational. This is because they are being written by an educator who is consciously trying to build literacy instruction into his work. He is to be commended for his body of work. The numerous awards he has won over the years stand as evidence that I am not alone in that opinion. That said, let’s look further into the topic of singing and writing our way into literacy.

In a very real sense, songs are poetry set to music.  Music adds many things to literacy instruction, including that element of joy that so many of us seem to be looking for lately. Today I want to investigate more of my favorite books from the genre “books that are songs”.

This week let’s start with one of the all-time classics from this genre.  Baby Beluga by Rafi. How could a teacher use Baby Beluga in his/her classroom? Baby Beluga could fit in as a “read aloud” at the start or end of the day. It could also fit into any number of science lessons. It could be used to help learn the “oo” sound.   Kids love to sing along. You could even let them do that more than once (e.g. listen first, sing if you want, then for sure sing on the second time). Music for it can be downloaded on any one of the music services. As with all the books mentioned, since audios are available you need not worry about your singing voice.   The song is also readily available on u-tube.

Baby B.

This would be a good place to bring up a point that Rasinski made during his St. Louis presentation.  It pays to have the lyrics of the song in front of the children when they are singing. In the case of Baby Beluga children could sit with copies of the book in groups of two or three. The teacher can monitor whether page turning occurs at the right time.  5-8 copies of the book should be enough for this purpose.  Having those copies makes the book available for future individual or pair reads at a station or during independent reading time. What about pointing while reading?

There is a stage in the reading process where word by word pointing (making it match!)  can be very useful at least for some students.  Based on my reading workshop training et. al. I would encourage this practice early in the reading process. Students reading at Levels 1-8, especially those that tend to “invent” i.e. make up their own text instead of reading the text from the author, could benefit from instruction on “making it match”.  I have a little poem I wrote to bring home that point to the children:

“Make it match, don’t make it up, that is what to do. Make it match don’t make it up, you’ll read your story true” (copyright 2018, Sam Bommarito)

By “matching” I mean to point to each word as the reader reads. It is up to the teacher on whether to use matching with all children at this stage or just those who tend to be inventors. Somewhere between level 9 and level 16 you want to scaffold them into dropping this practice.  Another teaching tip is to use the prompt “show me which word is which…” e.g.  show me which word is baby, or show me deep, or show me sea.  For children who are not paying enough attention to visual clues (the letters!) you can also say “How did you know that was baby (or deep or sea)”?  They would respond with “because it starts with b OR because of the picture OR because of the way the story is going”.  This method could be employed after reading the text together. In addition to its use with reading along with lyrics, these teaching tricks can also help children who memorize whole books when reading those very short beginning texts. Once they realize you want them to know which word is which, they tend to drop the strategy of “learn the whole book at once”. They start using the strategies of “knowing which word is which and learning how to figure out my own words using all the clues”.

Also- I want to make a plea to music teachers out there to let the children look at the words when they sing. I respect that oftentimes choral directors want their singers to know the songs by heart (that’s 50 plus years in church choirs talking!). But if there were points during the learning of the songs that students could be looking at the words that would be very useful for developing prosody.  You can save trees by using white board projections instead of paper copies.  Classroom teachers using songs should always take advantage of developing prosody by letting students look at the words they are singing.

Now let’s talk about three additional books that are songs and that could be used with older children.  Don’t Laugh at Me by Allen Shamblin and Steve Seskin, There are No Mirrors in my Nana’s House (Synthia St. James & Sweet Honey in the Rock) and Be A Friend by Leotha Stanley.  What each of these books has in common is that they deal with substantive social and cultural issues.  Teachers can easily envision places they could fit into units dealing with social justice and learning about the heritage of various cultures. They would also fit into the literacy program itself. The “make it match” strategy is not recommended for use with these books since they are all well above Level 8 in decodability. However, they would all lend themselves to reading in groups of two to three.  The Be a Friend book really lends itself to meaningful performances taken from the book.

Be A Friend   Don't Laugh at Me   No Mirrors

Don’t Laugh at Me by Allen Shamblin and Steve Seskin

COMMENTS: Peter Yarrows has turned this book into a national movement, here is a blog entry that talks about Peter and his work  There is a strong  message for tolerance in this song.  The possibilities for meaningful classroom discussions around the book are endless.

Availability and links.  The book is widely available on sites selling books. The music can be downloaded from commercial music sites.  Here is a YouTube link to the song:

No Mirrors in My Nana’s house (Synthia St. James & Sweet Honey in the Rock)

COMMENTS: I was in training for reading/writing workshop when this book first came out. My trainers were from teachers College in New York and were very excited about the book. It comes with a cd. The book is powerful and evokes strong images of the black experience in Harlem where the members of Sweet Honey Rock grew up. They sing acapella but it sounds like a full orchestra. It has a positive message. Again, the possibilities for meaningful classroom discussions are endless. Here are some YouTube links to different renditions of the book as a song and the book as a book.

Singing version (THIS ONE IS A MUST SEE!):

Read first then sung:

Be A Friend by Leotha Stanley

COMMENTS: Unfortunately, this book is no longer in print. Used copies are available on Amazon.  The original book came with a cassette, so when shopping check to see if that is included. Fortunately, the music from all the songs in the books can be downloaded from Amazon.  The book chronicles the history of black music and musicians.  Each chapter explains a genre and its impact on Black History. For instance, the chapter on Jazz talks both about the genre and famous people from the genre like Louis Armstrong.  What makes the book especially unique is that Leo wrote an original song for each chapter.  The “School Blues” is hilarious. The song “Brain Power” would really lend itself to a performance at a grade level graduation. See what I mean by reviewing these songs in the YouTube video of the book contained in first URL listed below. The possibilities of writing songs like Leo did are also endless. This book is a potential book club book with lots of opportunity to sing.

Brain Power video performed by a third-grade group with Leo accompanying them (THIS ONE IS ALSO A MUST SEE!):

School Blues audio only, Leo & the Be a Friend singers:

So…, those are some of my favorite books from this genre.  They can be used to build prosody. They can be used to promote literacy in its many forms. They can help your students explore important social issues.  They can help to bring Joy into your literacy instruction. Hope you enjoy them all as much as I have. Next week Bill Kerns will be making another guest appearance. Until then:

Happy Reading and Writing

Dr. Sam Bommarito (a.k.a. singer of literacy songs).

Singing our Way into Fluency: Exploring the Work of Eric Litwin and How He Brings Together the Art and Science of Reading By Dr Sam Bommarito

I’ve already discussed how one educational leader, Timothy Rasinski, uses songs as an important part of his fluency program. Today I have very a special guest on the blog, Eric Litwin.  Eric is a well-known children’s author and educator. His website describes him as follows:

Eric Litwin is a song singing, guitar strumming, # 1 New York Times Best Selling, award winning author who brings early literacy and music together. 

 He is the original author of the Pete the Cat series as well as the author of The Nuts and Groovy Joe. 

Eric believes early literacy is more joyful and successful when the child is fully engaged with the book. He calls this interactive reading. 

 Eric’s books have sold over 12.5 million copies, been translated into 17 languages, and won 25 literacy awards including a Theodor Geisel Seuss Honor Award.”  

             Dance Party    The Nuts, Keep Rolling    Pete the Cat

Regular readers of my blog know that I first met Eric when he did an all-day presentation about music and literacy. In an earlier blog, I described how he engaged teachers, myself included, in a day long workshop at the annual Write to Learn conference in Missouri @WritetoLearnMO. It was held in February of this year.  By the end of the workshop he had us all writing our own songs- songs that were designed to help our students on the road to literacy. He also shared his wonderful books with us.  I talked with Eric after the workshop and he agreed to be interviewed by the Missouri Reader for the fall issue. Glenda Nugent, my co-editor on the Missouri Reader has completed that interview. More about that a little later.  I asked Eric if he would consider talking to the readers of this blog about the topic of Singing Your Way into Fluency. He agreed.

I asked Eric how music can help readers, especially beginning readers. Here is the core of what he had to say:

“The components of song including melody, rhyme, rhythm/cadence, and repetition facilitate prediction. Prediction is essential for an emerging reader to successfully read a book. This combined with appropriate phonetics and sight words is empowering for emerging independent readers. I really do believe early literacy is more joyful and successful when the child is fully engaged with the book. This is the heart of interactive reading. This is the what my books try to do, engage the child and at the same time teach the child things they need to know in order to become successful readers.”

He went on to say:

“When I’m writing, a critical issue for me is to clarify my book’s message. The main message of a book can be incorporated into the song increasing the success of the message. One example of this can be found in The Nut Family, Keep Rolling.The song says, “Keep Rolling”. This reinforces and communicates the essence of that book’s message.”

Eric has certainly written books that do all the things he talks about and more. Here is an example:

Groovey Joe Colorado

Groovey Joe Dance Party Countdown! was the winner of this year’s One Book 4 Colorado program. That’s the governor of Colorado reading the book aloud to a group of children.  This book is a perfect example of what Eric was talking about. I can guarantee it is engaging. It is definitely predictable. Got a copy for my grandchild. She loved it! She just finished preschool. This book, and others like it, really do lay the foundation for so many things. That includes building the background that children need to effectively use phonics. Just as important it gives the children experience in how to make meaning from the words they see, hear and sing.  Visit Eric’s website to see for yourself. When you do be sure to scroll down the page and click on the audio link for the song Disco Party Bow Wow which is pictured below.  We got to see him perform it live at our conference, and the teachers in the room all loved it. More importantly, so did my granddaughter. I predict that your beginning readers will also love it and learn from it.

Website Play

This song uses a form of “call and response”.  Sing it with your children. It helps when children look at the lyrics of a song when they sing. Use the book. You’ll be amazed at how much they pick up when you use that strategy.   You don’t need to be able to sing yourself. Eric’s audio does that for you. I’ve spent lots of time already exploring this site- the downloads, the newest books. It is a treasure trove of materials that can help you help your beginning readers.  I think Eric’s work is an example of reading instruction that is both art and science. He is serious about both.  His musical books are unique because they bring narrative and music together. Want to read more about Eric and his thoughts about literacy?  Check out the fall issue of Missouri Reader.  It’s free.  To subscribe go to the current issue and click on the subscribe bar on the left side of the reading page. Once you are subscribed, you’ll receive future journals, including Glenda’s interview with Eric in the upcoming fall issue.

Here are some additional links to Eric’s materials:

The Nut Family:

Groovy Joe: (can download Groovy Joe music for free at this site)

Additional Free Music From Eric:!songs-and-activities/c129x

Next week I will expand the blog topic. It will become “Singing and Writing Your Way into Fluency”. I’ll tell you about some of my other favorite children’s books that include the use of music. Not all of them are just for beginning readers, some are for older readers and deal with topics that are important to them. I’ll talk about how to look for writing craft in these books and teach your students to use that craft in their own writing. That way they can also write their way into fluency!  As always- I value your comments and suggestions about the blog and its content.

Happy Reading and Writing


Dr. Sam Bommarito (a.k.a., fan of Eric, friend of Groovy Joe)

Blog content Copyright 2018 by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Content from Eric Litwin’s website is copyrighted & used with permission