Story Structure and Teachable Moments

Structure: (noun) mode of building construction or organization; arrangement of parts, elements, or constituents (source:

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Story Structure

We’ve been reading Rump by Liesel Shurtliff in my 2nd grade class, and we’ve just gotten to Chapter 12. We’ve finished about a quarter of the book. One of my students commented that “the story really feels like it’s starting to take off” and many her peers agreed. I hadn’t planned on having a discussion about fiction story structure today, but I took advantage of the teachable moment and pushed back our next subject for a few minutes to go deeper into story structure.

First, I asked the students what she meant by her comment. This led her to say that the character was in trouble and that things were starting to happen to him, and she wanted to know what would happen next. I agreed with her, and led the discussion into that a bit more, including more specific academic vocabulary like problem, solution, and characters in our talk.

Next, I pulled up this video on Youtube and we watched it together, pausing at a few points to connect our discussion of Rump to what was shown in the video.

Plot Mountain

I just adore this video about Plot Mountain from Scratch Garden, because it describes fiction story structure in a concise and fun way. It also features fairy tale elements, so I knew it would connect well with Rump.

I paused after the video talked about the Introduction, and I explained that what we’d read so far in the story was called the Introduction. We’ve gotten to know the characters and their histories/pasts, and we know enough details to feel like we’re in the setting. The problem has been introduced.

The next part of the video talks about rising action. After watching that clip, I tied the term “rising action” into what my student said that began our discussion (the story starting to take off). The image of the diagonal line mountain rising made sense to the kids, and they started to get even more excited about what would happen next.

Then I showed the remainder of the video where they sing about the hero’s journey, the climax, and the resolution. In my own house with my 5 and 8 year old sons, we’re always noticing that movies and shows seem to all have “a big battle” at the end (Living with all boys—-this is what is watched at my house). But my boys have a point-most stories DO have that big battle, whether it’s a huge Marvel or Power Rangers one or just a fight between the characters or a party scene at the end.

I talked about that with the class, and they shared the “big battles” from their favorite movies and other books. We labeled those big battles as fiction story climaxes, and this vocabulary term will be referenced often through the year. Then I asked the class if their movies were over the second the battle ended, and they all said “No!” One student said that there is usually a few minutes extra at the end. We looked back at the video and saw that this is called the “Resolution”.

The entire discussion with video time took about 12 minutes, but even in that short time, our class had an anchor lesson that will hold much of our fiction learning for the rest of the year. We’ll revisit the Plot Mountain video clip again and again, and we’ll talk about it when we read aloud other books. I’ll bring it up in writing conferences as the students develop their narratives and in book chats about their independent reading.

Teachable Moments

As a veteran 17 year teacher, I’ve realized that you’ve got to take advantage of these rich teachable moments that arise unexpectedly. I was fully present while reading the chapter book, and I truly listened to my student’s comment that sparked the entire tangent. BUT… I know that story structure doesn’t show up until later in the district curriculum map, and we were also late beginning our social studies lesson. This wasn’t a model picture perfect 3-part lesson plan, HOWEVER…it was such a rich learning experience for our class—-one that will grown in value each time we revisit the discussion, going deeper and deeper each time.

I could have ignored the student. Or I could have said, “You’re right. The story is getting good, and I’ll share more about story structure when we get to Unit 4.” But I made a judgement call as the teacher. I wanted the students to see the video right then and learn it when it was applicable. It would be like saving a relevant (Oh this reminds me of) anecdote for the NEXT time you see a friend rather that just saying it right then and there at your coffee date. The students were ready to learn about fiction today, and I wanted to capitalize on that interest.

Our teaching these days has to be so picture perfect and always observation-worthy, meeting all 10 instructional standards. That’s a lot of pressure, and I worry that these special teachable moments are getting lost in the shuffle amidst the expectation of always being “on.”

I believe class community is built and strengthened in moments like the one I shared with my class today. For the rest of the year, I can say “Plot Mountain” and immediately activate the students’ knowledge of story structure. The class was focused and engaged in the discussion, and I was present with them, not really worried about the next item on the day’s agenda.

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This started out as a blog post about story structure but ended up being about a lot more.

Do you still have teachable moments with your class? Or do you feel tied to the framework of your day? Do you feel pressure to be Teacher Observation worthy all day long? Or do you give yourself permission to have spontaneous learning experiences if/when they arise? If I had happened to be observed right then, how do you think I would have been evaluated? The activity was nowhere on my plans-I was off schedule. There was no differentiation at that moment. But the kids were engaged, focused, and learning. And it set the stage for future instruction.

So where do teachable moments fit in this uber accountable world of education we live in?

10 questions to ask the teacher next door

What is your friend doing next door in Reading Workshop?   So many times we stay isolated in our classrooms and forget that there's a wealth of literacy expertise just next door or down the hall.   Here are 10 questions to ask your neighbor about what they're doing in reading right now.  

  1. What book have you read aloud to your class that they like the most?

  2. How do you use AR (Accelerated Reader) with your students?

  3. What's your biggest struggle in teaching reading right now?

  4. What's your favorite reading center?

  5. What is your students' favorite reading center?

  6. What is your favorite go-to site for literacy resources?

  7. How do you find ideas for your reading lessons?

  8. What do you remember about reading as a kid?

  9. Who is the lowest reader in your class and what are you doing to help them?

  10. Who has made the most growth in your class? What did you do that helped them the most?

I hope these questions prompt some quality discussion with your colleague.    We can all benefit from each other's expertise, through the Internet or IRL.



Three great FREE reading activities to try

Are you familiar with the Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR)?    They have done incredible work making effective research-based literacy activities, and they offer them all for free on their website.    The centers include directions for teachers and all the necessary materials.   They are mostly print and go activities requiring minimal teacher prep (Yay for that because we are all short on time these days!)  There are so many resources on their site that it's tough to find what you're looking for at the time you need it.   You can view the collections of resources by type (phonics, fluency, comprehension, etc) and by grade level band.   There is also a search tool.  Take some time later and see all that they have to offer.  

All Reading Center Activities:

Search Tool:


Here are my three favorites that have been proven to work with my struggling readers over the past few years.

1. Vowel Picture Sort- This activity is an essential part of my reading curriculum.  I do it whole group before my students start learning the long vowels, and I revisit it in small groups when my students need intervention.   In the activity, students must listen for the medial vowel in picture cards and then sort based on a long or short vowel sound that is heard.    Often in reading instruction, we rush straight from teaching short vowels to introducing the long vowel sounds and magic e rule.   This exercise slows the learning down and makes sure that students are developmentally ready for the concept that one letter (the vowel) can stand for more than one sound.   The activity trains the ear to segment the vowels and helps students hold both the long and short sounds in their brains.  Try this activity with your students.  I promise, it will not be time wasted.


2.  Vowel Stars-This is another one of my favorite games.   Students are asked to change the short vowel in CVC words (example: dig, dog, dug).   I usually do this task with students in small groups and make it a competition.  They try to get 4/5 or 5/5 correct before switching cards.    Students could even grade each other and listen for their peer's responses.  I explain the importance of listening for the subtle differences in words in my blog post titled Same Same but Different.


3.  Phoneme Swap-In my opinion, students don't get enough time playing with sounds.   We used to do more nursery rhymes, poems, and songs in Kindergarten, but now that the reading standards have been pushed down, the Kdg teachers must teach letters and sounds earlier than before so the students miss that language playtime.    I believe the missing skill in struggling readers is phonemic awareness (specifically the ability to segment and blend sounds).  This activity addresses that weakness. Students must determine how words are changed (ex-boat to coat).   That phoneme manipulation will help students improve their spelling and decoding abilities.


Try these activities with your students, especially the ones struggling with learning to read.   And have fun exploring the FCRR resources!   Let me know your favorites by commenting below.

What is a vowel?



Pop quiz time:   What’s the difference between a vowel and a consonant?


Do you know?  I didn’t take linguistics in college (not required for education majors).  So I didn’t learn this until I read some research textbooks on-line after becoming a reading specialist 5 years into my teaching career.   (nerd alert! I read literacy research textbooks for fun so you don’t have to). Anyway, I don’t recall the exact “researchy” definition of a vowel or a consonant, but this is the way I explain it to students:


Vowels open your mouth; consonants close your mouth.


Did you know this?  It was an eye-opening, jaw-dropping moment for me when I realized this (pun intended).   I immediately tested it to just to make sure it was true for every letter and, SPOILER ALERT, it is!  All of a sudden, I understood why there’s such thing as a closed syllable versus an open syllable.    Now I knew why the vowels are “a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y”.   Finally I realized when the “sometimes y” occurs.


After I learned what a vowel is, I started teaching it to the kids in my reading segments. Now it’s one of the first lessons I will do when beginning the school year or launching a new reading group.  Curious the exact language I use? Check out this teaching powerpoint. And here is a freebie I made for the students to use for reference.


I use two types of images to help my visual learners remember this key difference.


  1. Open mouth face versus closed mouth face
  2. Open door versus closed door


For kinesthetic learners, I keep small pocket mirrors in my reading supplies.   The students and I watch in the mirrors as we practice saying all the vowel sounds and see our mouths open wide as we produce them.  Then we see and feel how our mouth must close (partially or all the way) to make the consonant sounds. As a science experiment/performance task, I’ll ask the students to “prove it” for each sound.  I give them 26 index cards (one for each letter) and have them say each sound while looking in the mirror. Then they sort by open or closed mouth/vowel or consonant. This is a fresh way to think about the letters, and my students have always enjoyed and learned from this hands-on task.   It helps them internalize the difference in the letter types, which sets them up for future success when learning the various vowel sounds and syllable types.

TEACHING NOTES: Sometimes students get confused on /g/, /h/, /p/.    The /m/ and /v/ sounds are some of the more obvious ones. I’ll tell them to make a pile of ones they’re not sure about, and we’ll go over them at the end.   If they’re really stuck and confused, show them the jaw and how it is hinging as you say the sounds. You have to start opening your mouth to get out a vowel sound (be it long, short, r-controlled, truly ANY vowel sound).  Your mouth HAS to open to make that sound. Consonant sounds, however, are made by starting to close your mouth. To make the /h/ sound, you have to slightly close your mouth to push the sound out. You have to push your lips closed to make the /p/ sound.


Over the years, I’ve been told by my administrators that my ideas are “outside of the box.”  This instruction falls in that category. It’s not a typical lesson that occurs beyond kindergarten or first grade classrooms.  But it’s an essential piece of my literacy content and one that I’ve taught to all my reading groups, even to students in fourth and fifth grade.  I’ve found that when students truly internalize the difference between vowels and consonants, they have an easier time understanding the categories of syllables and how to change vowel sounds.


Try this lesson with your students and let me know how it goes.   Comment below or email me at

My Why

What's your WHY?  

Have you seen this Ted Talk by Simon Sinek?


In it, he explains how important it is for companies and people to know their WHY at the heart of what they do.  As educators, I think knowing our WHY is so essential.  I try to revisit my WHY at the beginning of each school year and each grading period.


Here's the WHY for RDNG.  This is WHY I began this company while still continuing to work as a teacher.


Everyone deserves the gift of reading. It's one of the most meaningful things in my life.  When I started teaching, I didn't know how to help a student learn to read.  I could take a decent reader and make them better, but I left college not knowing how to help a non-reader, beyond some flashcards and  Truthfully, there are some students who I call "The Ones Who Got Away."  They left my 3rd grade classroom still not knowing how to read---and that responsibility still haunts me.  I hope and pray that they learned from their next teacher.

I learned how to teach reading when working with low readers and studying them for over 12 years.  I analyzed their weaknesses, read countless resources, and tried various activities and methods to find what works.   My job was my reading laboratory.

I want to share all those resources and tools with you so that you can unlock literacy for your struggling readers when they first enter your room.  Think of this site as a course titled "What I Wish I Had Learned about in Teacher Training about How to Teach Kids How to Read".  Let me save you some time and energy by compiling the most ready resources and knowledge to help you develop literacy skills for the students in your classroom.


What is your WHY?  Why did you become a teacher?  Why do you continue to choose to work with students, even when teaching feels like an impossible job sometimes?  What keeps you returning to work to serve your kids?

Same Same but Different


My friend went on a mission trip to Thailand when we were in college and came back repeating the Thai saying "Same Same but Different". I love that phrase and have been using it since then to describe fashion, recipes, books, really anything and everything. It's a very useful expression and feel free to add it to your daily lexicon if you're not currently familiar with it. Once I started working as a reading specialist, I found myself applying the saying to words as well. The majority of the struggling readers I've worked with over the years have been English language learners. When I work with them, I find myself apologizing to the students on behalf of my native language. English is tricky, y'all! There are so many synonyms for words. Letter sounds change, and there are more irregular words than phonics rules for people to remember. When my students make errors on words or get confused decoding words that look similar to other words, I say "Same Same but Different" as shorthand for my longer "English is a tough and confusing language" speech. Once I say that, the students know to go back and look at each letter sound in the word and try to decode again, choosing the correct word that makes sense in the context of the reading sentence.

I've taken hundreds of running records over the years, and I've noticed consistent same same but different errors made by elementary readers. Here is a list of commonly switched wordsthat I compiled based on my students' miscues. I made a game on Boom Learning for my kids to get extra practice with those tricky words.


What words do your students switch when reading? Are they the same as the mistakes my readers make?

How to Introduce Sight Words in 7 Easy Steps

Speak to any elementary teacher about reading and shortly into the conversation, you'll hear about the importance of sight words.  We stress how essential it is to practice them during parent conferences.  We see evidence of students' practice in classroom lists, graphs, and other artifacts.  We all agree that sight words are an integral part of the reading program. But I was frustrated early in my teaching career because I wasn't sure how to teach the sight words, beyond using word cards and lists and asking students to memorize them.  What was I supposed to do as the teacher to help the students learn the words?  My school at the time was using a scripted literacy program that taught them in a strange way.  Whenever the students encountered a sight word in a passage, we were supposed to interrupt and say "Funny word!  Let's sound it out the funny way.   That's not how you say the word.  This word is ____."

Frankly, I hated that method of introducing the sight words.  I thought it dumbed down the teaching and interrupted the flow of students' reading.  It treated the students like idiots incapable of thinking and analyzing words on their own.  Out of desperation I created a different approach.

It was around Christmas time, so I decided to categorize the sight words as nice or naughty, like they say in the carol lyrics.  My first grade class took to this new way of dealing with sight words quickly, and within a month, they were transferring their understanding to other words they found in books.  Since then (which was December 2013), I have used this method with hundreds of my reading students, ranging from first to fifth grade, and they all understood the technique.

the RDNG sight words method

  1.  Teach the whole class and/or small groups the difference between regular and irregular words.
    • Nice/Regular words are easy to read.  They follow the sound rules.  The letters you see match the sounds you hear.
    • Naughty/Irregular words are harder to read.  They break the sound rules.  The letters do not match the sounds.
  2. Teach a list of 20-30 words at a time.  I usually divide the Dolch word lists in half.
  3. Go through each word with students and code it as regular or irregular (nice or naughty).  Most students enjoy putting smile and frown faces/emojis beside the words.
  4. For words coded as irregular, help students come up with the way the word should be spelled.  I ask the kids "How would you spell this word if you were the boss of English?"  Examples: said=sed (like red, bed); of=uv; where=wair (like lair, hair).  My students need more help with this the first few lessons but can gradually do it on their own as we progress through the sight word levels.
  5. Provide students with practice time to read and spell the words.  They should locate them in books and use them in sentences.  They can build the words with letter tiles, rainbow markers, and other reading manipulatives.
  6. Assess the words after a period of 1-4 weeks.  Test students' reading and spelling of the sight words.  Aim for 80% mastery or higher to advance to the next list of words.
  7. Listen, observe, and discuss words with students. More and more of your readers will show you words from their books, sharing statements such as "Hey, this is one of those naughty words" or "I noticed this word has letters that don't match the sounds" or "Oh, this must be one of those irregular words that can't be sounded out."   Do an inner happy dance (or outward one if that's your teaching style) when you observe these because they're signs of sight word learning being internalized and transferred!!!!!


This is my way of teaching sight words to my at-risk and ESOL students.  It has helped my struggling readers develop a strategy for decoding and recognizing high frequency words.

How do you approach sight word instruction in your classroom?  What methods have helped your students master the sight words?  Please share your best practices below in the comments or write me at'd love to hear more!



Why do so many readers struggle?

Main Reasons why Students Struggle in Reading

Quick quiz:

What skill do struggling readers need the most?

  1. sight words
  2. letter sounds
  3. fluency (reading speed)
  4. all of the above
  5. none of the above

I purposefully tried to trick you with this question.  In my expert opinion, after working with struggling readers for 16+ years, the answer is (e) none of the above.

Are you surprised?     If it’s not the skills listed above, then what are struggling readers missing?      The answer to that question is the topic of the post.  Are you curious?    I hope so.   If you are, keep reading!

When I first got my job teaching reading exclusively, I actually didn’t know how to teach reading.  Apologies to the boss who hired me at the time!   I knew how to help a student learn to read better, but I had no clue how to turn a non-reader into a literate one.    Luckily for my students’ sake, I learned quickly.       My first year working an as Early Intervention Program (EIP) teacher, I was assigned a variety of grade level segments, all the way from Kindergarten to fifth grade.     In fact, at one point in the day, I had to leave my Kindergarten reading groups and roll my resource cart over to the fifth grade department and work with students 5-6 years older during the next hour.     It was difficult to switch my conversational and teaching style during the walk in between the halls, and sometimes I made the mistake of speaking in my “little kid” voice to the “big kids”.     That difficulty aside, though, having those teaching segments next to each other was the turning point in me learning how to teach someone how to read.

I had to test the Kindergarten students on some critical skills in their grade level standards, specifically segmenting sounds and blending nonsense words.    After I assessed the Kindergarten students, I assessed my fifth graders as well, just as an experiment.    The result was a moment of awakening!     The fifth graders who couldn’t read could not do those Kindergarten skills.     They could not tell me the first sound in a word or break apart a word into beginning, middle, and ending sounds.   This affected their ability to spell words.   (Newsflash-they were terrible at spelling; their letter choices made no sense).    They also couldn’t put sounds together, either orally or when looking at written words.    Therefore, they couldn’t sound out words when they were reading.     Put these two skills together (blending and segmenting) and you get alphabetic principle/sound symbol correspondence.   That’s what the students were missing:  the understanding that letters stand for sounds and you put these sounds together to read (blending) and take them apart to spell (segmenting).    I started using the same activities in both my Kindergarten groups and my fifth grade groups, and voila- the students learned to read!     Once the fifth graders mastered blending and segmenting, I was able to accelerate their progress and teach all the other sounds and word knowledge they needed.

So, try it-I dare you.    Take a struggling reader of any age and rewind the curriculum clock back to Kindergarten.   Test them on blending and segmenting and see if they can do it.      If they cannot, and in my experience 9.5 times out of 10 that’s true, then you have your starting point.    Work on phonemic awareness with them-the older they are, the quicker they’ll pick it up.   And they’ll be so happy and comfortable working on something they can actually do!    The phonemic awareness activities will seem easy and fun for the students; they won’t feel “babyish”, I promise.

So, to recap:  What skill do struggling readers need the most?

  1. sight words
  2. letter sounds
  3. fluency (reading speed)
  4. blending and segmenting

Correct answer:  (d).   Test for, and then teach blending and segmenting.  Then you can fill in the rest of the gaps in their reading development.


The Printer that Saved Me

Okay, I'm exaggerating.  But my life as a teacher did immediately improve once I got an HP Instant Ink Printer.  Copy and printer ink are both hard to come by at my school, so having the power to print at my own desk has made my teaching life easier.   I purchased it for $47 on Black Friday 2016, and now I pay $9.99 a month to print 300 color pages.   If I go over that number, I just pay $1.00 more for 25 pages, which is $0.04 a page!!! Much cheaper than going to the copy shop.   The ink itself is wireless, so it communicates with the company and sends more ink in the mail automatically when it starts to run low. Before Instant Ink, I always seemed to run out of ink right when I needed to be printing pages on a deadline, and I rarely had the $60 or $70 in extra spending money to buy the replacements.   This automatic monthly fee and replacement mailing has taken all of the stress out of ink buying for me.

If you'd like to join the FREE from ink and printing stress club, join here.  You'll get one month at no charge.


Getting my Mojo back


I'll admit it.  I had lost my mojo a bit, baby.    Getting put back into the classroom unexpectedly this at the start of this year, teaching a new grade level, and encountering tons of behavior problems....all of these combined to throw me off my game.     The fall semester was tough.    I had to take some steps to recharge and find my way.

Now's it a new semester and I feel like I've got my mojo back.    One of the main reasons for that is attending the NCTE 2016 conference, which luckily for me was held locally in Atlanta a few months ago.    It was my first national teaching event to attend, and it was a tremendous experience.    I left on such a high, and I've now caught the "conference bug"...I am already making plans to attend next year !

The reason NCTE 2016 was so invigorating is because I found my tribe.    I found the people doing the kinds of teaching that inspire me.  I was able to meet and learn from teachers and authors who influenced me from the start of my career....innovators such as Steph Harvey, Anne Goudvis, Nancie Attwell,  and Franki Sibberson whose books showed me how to implement Readers Workshop in my classroom and connect my dear students to just right and much loved books.     At the conference, I connected with teacher leaders like Patrick Allen, Jennifer Serravallo, Kristin Ackerman, and Jennifer McDonough who are still walking the walk and providing creative and engaging workshop instruction, even in this day and age of Common Core, scripted instruction, and accountability.

I had been out of the classroom for so long because of my years of work as a reading specialist.   In my absence, from 2006 to 2016, the classroom landscape had changed.    Now teachers have many more resources from sources like Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers, but those are expected to be used in a very monitored and data focused way.     We are now observed with higher scrutiny, striving to meet extremely high teacher standards 100% of the time, because we never know how or when we'll receive an informal walk-through or formal observation.     All of this contributed to noise and confusion for me as I transitioned back to the classroom.  Truly, I forgot about my teaching foundations.      I was extremely fortunate to "cut my teeth" as a teacher through the America's Choice initiative, which focused on explicit, creative, student-focused literacy workshops, and that's the instruction that feels right-that matches my teaching style.     At the NCTE conference, I was surrounded by educators who all feel the same way and do the things that I used to do, namely putting great books in the hands of children and helping develop their writing voices.  These hundreds and thousands of teachers at the conference were doing the good work,  even in this post-NCLB classroom era.    In an instant, I was reminded of the teaching I used to do.

My students in my early classroom years READ and WROTE for the majority of the day with direct purpose.   Why wasn't I doing that now?    What was I having my current students do all day, if not authentic reading and writing?  [possible topic for a shame-filled future blog post...or NOT.  I want to move on.]

Immediately, I returned to school and changed things, simplified things, in my room.     The students LOVED it!  The first day, M. said in amazement, "Mrs. B. we actually READ during reading time today!"      I responded, "yes, M.   Isn't that a great thing?   Let's make sure we do that every day from now on, and I'm sorry we weren't doing that from day one."


Thanks to the wonder of the Internet, I can connect to the tribe I located at NCTE anytime via social media, blogs, e-mails, and messaging.   I can see pictures and read anecdotes about their daily instruction and be motivated to do similar authentic literacy work with my students.    If I'm ever in danger of losing my mojo again, I'm one click away from a virtual field trip/ peek into "my people's" classrooms, and I can be inspired once again.

Thank you, NCTE 2016 and tribe, for helping me find my mojo.    It's an honor to be in the field of education with you.


"Teaching children to read and providing them with something

worthwhile to read is not a job for the faint of heart in this

world.   But I'll keep at it, and I won't be alone.    You'll come

too.   We're fortunate, you know.  Too many people in this world spend their lives doing work that doesn't matter in the great

scheme of things, but bringing children and books together does

matter.  And we get to do it."


~Katherine Paterson, "Back from IBBY"

Data Wall

img_6064 img_6066  

"Teachers, district level personnel will be coming to inspect your classrooms.  One of the things they'll be looking for is your data wall featuring MAP scores and goals."


Oh, S#&%!    Whoops.  Yet another on my to-do list that I had forgotten to do.  And now it had to have it done...yesterday!     What was I going to do?     Confession time:  cute design ideas are not my jam.  My brain just doesn't automatically work that way.   And I didn't have the time to scour Pinterest for ideas.  I shared my struggles with a friend on support staff, who's AWESOME, and she said, "Let me help."

SURE....HELP....PLEASE!!!!     She came up with the rocket ship idea and "Shoot for the Stars" title overnight and started hanging it up the next morning.  We were going to put star goals on student decorated index cards, but after brainstorming, we came  up with the astronaut idea instead.   I printed a class set immediately, and the students stated decorating.    I conferred with each student and recorded their original assessment scores on the center of their astronauts with their goals written on the stars.  Within hours, the entire data wall was done.    Students now know their Reading and Math baseline scores and their mid-year goals for both subject tests.  Our data wall is something that our entire class is proud of.    Good friends/colleagues are the best, aren't they?!?!  Full design credit goes to @mrspeachyblue!

Troubleshooting, Problem Solving


A few weeks ago, I posted about all the struggles I've been encountering in my Readers Workshop.      I'm a reading specialist.  Most of my career has been spent providing intervention to low readers to catch them up to their peers.    Give me a low reader, and I can determine why he/she is struggling and know how to close their reading gap.

But give me classroom full of readers at all different levels and with multiple behavior problems, and I've got more of a struggle.    Now that I'm back in the classroom, I'm experiencing what homeroom teachers around the country are dealing with, especially those in Title 1 schools, serving at risk populations of students.   TEACHING IS TOUGH, y'all!    I get it.    There is so much to do and so little time and resources and copies to do it in.

So, here I am a few weeks later, and the struggles are still there, but I'm tacking the problems one by one.     Here is a list of the issues I posted previously and a brief description of my troubleshooting.     My readers workshop is not all smooth sailing at this point, but I have been able to get to a place where I feel I'm better addressing my wide range of students' needs.



img_5956   A picture of my messy desk in the midst of my research for solutions.


Closeup of jigsaw puzzle piece isolated on white


  • Where do I fit the grade level lessons and activities in my plans?


I'm focusing on broad level phonics and comprehension skills each week whole group and differentiating the depth of work/mastery required, depending on the students' reading development level.


Closeup of jigsaw puzzle piece isolated on white


  • How do I provide support to those grade level activities so even my lowest readers can be successful?


The type of support differs depending on what I'm teaching: decoding or comprehension.    For decoding, I'm teaching the phonics skill to all the students, but then differentiating the word quantity and difficulty that students must learn.  For example, next week I'm teaching final consonant blends.  All the students will receive an overview of the skill and then each reading level group will practice and be tested on different word difficulty.    My emergent group will practice much fewer words than the on-grade level and above students in my room.

For comprehension, I'm again teaching the same grade level skill to all the students, but the practice materials and assessments are tailored to the students' reading levels.  I like using passages because they match the students' Lexile levels, and they can be used for a variety of comprehension skills.


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  • Should I give a grade level specific phonics mini-lesson, even when it's beyond 75% of my students' instructional levels?    If not, then how do I choose the best mini-lesson that will be relevant to the various differentiated tasks the students will do in their groups?


Some days, my mini-lessons are on grade level specific phonics skills.   Other days, I'll teach short lessons on generic word solving strategies such as "Good Readers look for CHUNKS of words they know."  Students then practice those decoding strategies in their independent and guided reading time and share during Closure of Readers Workshop.


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  • What's the best way to manage the noise level and behaviors of the room during groups/center time?


Thank you, universe, for ClassDojo.    I leave it showing on my Promethean with the reading groups displayed.   The winning group each day receives small prize.   They've gotten pretty competitive about this.


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  • How do I train the students to stop interrupting my group?


Dojo has solved this one.  Interrupting is a behavior that makes students lose points.   Students will still try every now and then to interrupt, but after they lose points, they get peer pressure from their group members to stop repeating the behavior.   If it becomes a problem again, I will adjust the points deducted from each team for that behavior, and I think that will work.   If students lose 2 or 3 points for interrupting, they will self-monitor themselves and their group members.


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  • What are some of the best literacy activities for my students at each of their reading development stages?     What should my emergent students be doing?   What should my early readers work on?  What work can I give my on-level students that they could do independently?    How do I best challenge my advanced readers?  (Keep in mind, I have VERY VERY VERY limited printing and copying resources at my school.   So most of these activities must be paper-free.    That resource issue is contributing to the struggle)


This year, I'm relying heavily on Words Their Way because their sorting activities and games are organized by levels.  (Also our grade level used their spelling inventory as a benchmark common assessment at the start of the school year).  Using those assessment results and my own running record data, I placed my second grade students in four groups:

  1. Emergent (barely know letters and sounds)
  2. Letter-Name Alphabetic (limited sight words and decoding skills)
  3. Within Word (close to grade level)
  4. Syllables and Affixes (at or above grade level)

Student in each group are doing 2-3 word sorts a week, reading guided reading books, and playing sound and sight words games from my resource files (my favorites are from




Honestly, I need to beef up my games and activities for my highest reading group , beyond just the word sorts.     Because the majority of my teaching experience has been working with struggling readers, those are the most prevalent resources in my collection.


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  • What scope and sequence do I set up for all my groups so that they can all catch up and be on-grade level readers by the end of the year?  How do I accomplish that huge task when I can only meet with them 2-3 times per week?    (That's why the activities I choose above must be of the highest quality.   Students must be learning and advancing in reading, even when they're not at the kidney table with me.   Centers can't just be "busy work".)


The lowest reading groups are going to do more sorts a week to hopefully accelerate their progress.   The other reading groups are doing 2 sorts a week;  I plan to increase the lower groups to 3 sorts a week for a few months and then maybe even 4 sorts a week by the end of the year.     The lower groups also meet with myself or the Title 1 paraprofessional four days a week to experience more supervised guided reading and intervention activities.   This accelerated calendar should get the Emergent group to the middle of the Within Word curriculum by the end of the year, which would be 1.5 years of growth in 1 year, narrowing the achievement gap by half a year.


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  • How I type all of this into a managed plan so that my grade level can understand and use these resources with their struggling students as well?


The whole group instruction follows a typical schedule, which should help my team with routine practices and expectations.    Mondays focus on the phonics skill of the week, Tuesdays are for sight words, and the other days of the week are for the word sorts, comprehension,  and decoding strategy minilessons and activities.    Interactive notebook pages are provided for the whole group skills, with 3 different pages for each skill (Easy, Middle, Challenging).     I think this is going well for my team, but you know each teacher has the power to shut their door and do what they think is best for the students, which I have no control over.  I'm just trying to suggest a variety of activities and resources that the team can use for their students, no matter the reading level.    Lastly, I've created a large resource folder on the network drive that everyone can access for Words their Way, center, and mini-lesson resources.  The "cloud" makes it so much easier to share files!



Minilessons- Where the Magic Happens


Last week I shared many of the struggles I'm currently experiencing in Readers Workshop.     Anytime I have problems to solve in my teaching, one of the first things I do is consult the "masters"/aka Go to My Bookshelf.   I have amassed a collection of education volumes that I use as resources time and again.     (Future blog post:  bookshelf pictures and a list of my favorite go-to titles, if you're interested)

One of the first books I pulled off the shelf was The Art of Teaching Reading by Lucy Calkins.  Typically, I get lost in the chapters of this book because there's so much wisdom in its pages.  But this time, I went straight for the minilessons section (Chapter 5) because I was on a hunt for a list of mini-lesson topics I could include in my grade level plans.     I'm searching for decoding mini-lessons that would be relevant for readers of all levels, so that they could apply the learning into their word work and guided reading activities during center time.   I'm looking for what I'll call "umbrella topics", ones that fit all my readers needs, even with their broad range of word solving abilities.  Did I find such a list in that chapter?    No.     But what I DID find was even more valuable-----perspective and a new way to think about mini-lessons.

Here are some of the gem quotes and insights I got from my reading:

"Whether we realize it or not, each of us, in our classrooms, authors a world and a story....The important thing to realize is that in our classrooms, as in any story, trouble can galvanize us to set off on a journey. ~Lucy Calkins"

"MLs are the best forum teachers have for pulling the class community together to take on a prob. ~L. Calkins"

"Minilessons may not be as powerful as Peter's magic sword and shield, or as potent as Lucy's vial of healing liquid, but they may be the best forum teachers have for pulling the classroom community together to take on a problem. They are a gift of sorts, a resource to draw on. With careful attention to the architecture of our lessons and an assertive responsiveness to our children's needs and goals, minilessons can turn classrooms into places where magic happens." ~Lucy Calkins

Here are my takeaways from that section/those quotes.   Lucy Calkins, one of the leading literacy experts, actually gives us PERMISSION to screw up and have troubles within our workshops.  She says that she usually dismisses teachers from trainings, saying "When you go back to your classrooms to try out these ideas, they won't work.  There will be trouble."

Yay!   It's so refreshing to hear acknowledgment that we'll have trouble as we implement and that it's okay and expected to not get it right the first time.      In this age of electronic evaluations and high teacher accountability, it feels like we've got to be perfect in our instruction 100% of the time and that if something doesn't go smoothly, then that means we're not good teachers.

What she's making clear is that it's our role as teachers to carefully observe our students and guide them on their literacy journeys.     When we notice they're having trouble decoding, or choosing the correct books, or finishing a book, or understanding what they read, then we gather them together and provide short mini-lessons to give them strategies and tools to use in their real life reading experiences.    Mini-lessons aren't meant to be long teacher-driven demonstrations or explanations about activity directions (Here's How to Complete a Venn Diagram).    Rather, our mini-lesson time on the carpet is when we gather as a class community to identify and tackle problems in our reading lives.  This shows the students we care about their reading.   This is responsive teaching.  This is dynamic teaching.  This is relevant learning. magic.

I made a video!

I made my first video last week. Here it is:

I made the video using a site called PowToon. It took me about four hours to make it-half of that time was spent learning how to customize and edit using their tools. I think the next videos I make will take about half that time (2 hours) or less, now that I know how to navigate PowToon better. Overall, I enjoyed the process and using PowToon. They have a lot of tutorials for beginner video makers like myself, and their graphics and music are fun and easy to customize.

Have you made videos? Have your students? Eventually, it's something I want to try with students, as another output vehicle for them to show what they've learned. I realized during the video creation process that you must be quite clear on the message/knowledge you're sharing when you make a movie. The important information must be distilled in just a few minutes through an engaging visual medium. This is at the highest level of Bloom's Taxonomy: Create. My creative brain was firing on all cylinders as I worked on the video, trying to share reading knowledge in a format different than a typical lesson.

Another movie-making sites I plan to try are: Wideo, GoAnimate, and Moovly. I'll post more later as I continue on this video-making journey. Is it time to join the Directors Guild of America yet? ;-)

Balancing Act (The Struggle is Real)


I've got 21 students all at VERY different reading levels, the majority of which are below.     I must teach my grade level standards while also catching them up and meeting all of their literacy needs (and do all this with limited time during reading).  How do I manage it all?   How do I balance the reading period to get all of it in with maximum effectiveness?!?


Anyone else dealing with this struggle?   Do you have an answer to balancing it all?


I'm going to be figuring it out in real time this year.      I'm a reading intervention specialist.     When the students get into the small group at the kidney table with me, I know exactly what to do to unlock literacy for them and finally get them reading (all wisdom I'll be sharing on this site in the future).    That's the easy part for me, because my teaching experience was concentrated in that area.     As a reading group teacher, I could go into a class, pull my groups, and then move on to the next class.   I didn't have to do what the classroom teacher does which is manage ALL the groups simultaneously, choosing differentiated activities appropriate for each group while also controlling the behaviors and noise level within the room.

Here are some of the problems I'm currently trying to solve in my Readers Workshop:

  • Where do I fit the grade level lessons and activities in my plans?
  • How do I provide support to those grade level activities so even my lowest readers can be successful?
  • Should I give a grade level specific phonics mini-lesson, even when it's beyond 75% of my students' instructional levels?    If not, then how do I choose the best mini-lesson that will be relevant to the various differentiated tasks the students will do in their groups?
  • What's the best way to manage the noise level and behaviors of the room during groups/center time?
  • How do I train the students to stop interrupting my group?
  • What are some of the best literacy activities for my students at each of their reading development stages?     What should my emergent students be doing?   What should my early readers work on?  What work can I give my on-level students that they could do independently?    How do I best challenge my advanced readers?  (Keep in mind, I have VERY VERY VERY limited printing and copying resources at my school.   So most of these activities must be paper-free.    That resource issue is contributing to the struggle)
  • What scope and sequence do I set up for all my groups so that they can all catch up and be on-grade level readers by the end of the year?  How do I accomplish that huge task when I can only meet with them 2-3 times per week?    (That's why the activities I choose above must be of the highest quality.   Students must be learning and advancing in reading, even when they're not at the kidney table with me.   Centers can't just be "busy work".)
  • How I type all of this into a managed plan so that my grade level can understand and use these resources with their struggling students as well?

The answers to all these questions will be future blog posts topics.   You'll be learning with me this year as I apply all of my reading development knowledge to the unique challenges that classroom teachers face.  The struggle is real, y'all.





Do you share this same struggle?    Have you figured out how to balance it all?    Share your concerns as well as success tips and strategies below in the comments.  I'd love to hear from other reading teachers in the same boat.

Happy Reading!


Cups and Ice


Have you ever had a decision made for you that was out of your control?     How did you feel about it?

This has happened to me recently, and the experience is making me stretch and grow in unexpected ways.    I was told by my boss that I had to change jobs very last minute before the start of the school year.  I was upset at the suddenness of the decision.   I was frustrated  with my lack of control.

I'm a reading specialist who suddenly finds herself back in the classroom.      So what do I do about it?  How do I handle this challenge/opportunity?


I was speaking about it with a friend from church, and he suggested that I watch this Ted talk by Josh Levs and the accompanying Friends clip.  In the Friends episode, Monica and Phoebe are throwing a party. Typically, Monica takes control of everything and will only allow Phoebe to help with the cups and the ice at the event.     Cups and ice aren't the fun parts of party planning, and Phoebe knows she's been given some low level tasks.       It's the way that she handles her role that's amazing.      She decides to SHINE in the realm of Cups and Ice and, spoiler alert, those end up being the coolest and best things at the party.

Takeaway from both clips?    Bloom where you're planted.     Shine within the task/role you've been given, even when it's not your ideal.

Or, as my friend put it, "You've got to cups and ice the s**t out of your job."


TED Talk:




Getting Started

Greetings!    You are reading my first ever blog post.   Forgive my inexperience as I get started with my blog and website, learning how to navigate the digital world.  

Let me begin by telling you about myself and my reasons for creating this online space.


Reading is my “jam”.    I’ve heard that saying on The Bachelor.  Some girls will say “Motherhood is my jam.”   or “Being a journalist is my jam.”   This isn’t a phrase in my normal lexicon, but it does sum up how significant reading is to my life, both professionally and personally.


I’ve been a voracious reader since elementary school.  I was that kid staying up past my bedtime with a flashlight under the covers, desperate to finish the book and find out how the story ends.  Even as an adult, I’ve been known to pull all-nighters  to finish the newest Harry Potter or Outlander novels, for example.    I enjoy sending articles to friends and family of interesting things I read.    Anytime I have a new project or interest (tennis, adult ballet, yoga, buying a home, budgeting, healthy cooking, reading, etc), I head to my local library and check out a stack of books on the subject for a free education.  I’m grateful for the adventures I’ve gone on in the books I’ve read-  all the places I’ve “traveled” and interesting characters I’ve “met” in the millions of pages.


It’s not surprising that I chose the field of education as my field of study and work, because I wanted to spread that love of books and learning to the next generations.    I taught third grade for a number of years and then got the opportunity to join the support staff as an EIP (Early Intervention Program) teacher.    Through default, I was  tasked with mostly upper grade (3rd-5th) reading segments and one Kindergarten reading on the side.   That was a huge range but ended up being the pivotal moment of my career.    I quickly realized that the struggling readers in the upper grades were missing the very skills I had to teach to the Kindergarten students (phonemic awareness, blending, segmenting), and once I used the same activities with those older students and taught them the missing skills, they were soon able to catch up and finally learn to read.

So that became my specialty:  teaching older struggling students how to read.  Over the years, I’ve developed a method to catch the readers up as quickly as possible so they can become engaged and successful with their grade level work.

I created this site to share what I’ve learned over the years about reading development and unlocking literacy for struggling readers.   I have also been creating print and digital materials for my students to use, and I want to spread those resources to struggling readers beyond my school so that the learning gap can be closed once and for all.      I feel privileged to have such a meaningful relationship with books, and I believe that everyone deserves to enjoy the gifts of reading, or at least have the choice to do so, even if they don’t evolve into a reading nerd like me.


As this site is developed, you will have access to my teaching materials, resources, and methods.    I’ll let you know what’s in the process of being published, and I’ll be polling you to get feedback and input into product development.   I encourage you to question and comment often about my resources.    Everything I do is for the good of the students, and so I welcome the opportunity to assist you helping your students become great readers.

Let’s unlock literacy together!


All my best,


Shannon Betts