Tag Archives: Jim Burke

Slice of Life 23: How much reading is enough?


(During March, I am blogging daily as a part of the Slice of Life Story Challenge!)  Special thanks to the hosts of the Slice of Life Challenge:  StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna and Beth.   More Slice of Life posts can be found at  Two Writing Teachers .

I LOVE to read.  I LOVE reading.  I typically READ just about anything. Reading is my preferred activity over cooking, cleaning, or crafting. I could be considered a voracious reader by some.  I read quickly when I am reading for fun.  I will read almost anything but I do not like vampires, fantasy or science fiction very much.  When I find an author that I like, I devour ALL their texts.  When I find something I really like, I may reread it.  There are times during the year when my reading life seems to suffer.  While writing blog posts every day, I do have less reading time. Is it “okay” that my reading seems to have an ebb and flow?  How much should I be reading? What should I be reading?

I believe that I need to be familiar with authors and texts in the field of literacy.  I have my favorite authors and this year they all deal with loving literacy:  Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts, Donalyn Miller, Penny Kittle, Kylene Beers, Dorothy Barnhouse and Vickie Vinton, Jim Burke, Kelly Gallagher, and all the authors of the fabulous Units of Study in Writing from Teachers College. My reading of YA varies according to the favorites of students in the buildings where I work.

How does reading play out for our students?  How much should they be reading?

In Book Whisperer, Stacey, Tara, Dana, Betsy, Anna and Beth. More Slice of Life posts can be found at Two Writing Teachers Donalyn Miller challenges her middle school students to read 40 books per year.  That is basically one book per week, including reading over holidays and school breaks.  A student who has developed those “reading habits” is likely to be successful as they move through life.  In Reading in the Wild, Donalyn is more specific about the “habits” that students need in order to be life-long readers.  Those numbers seem to make sense because a student will “be in the story” and stay connected to the text in those time frames.

For our struggling Middle School and High School students in Second Chance for Reading, I have suggested teachers set 30 books per year as the goal for students.  If teachers have expectations and are carefully monitoring student work, 30 books is ambitious for students who have been less than successful in reading for years. It’s doable, a stretch but yet highly possible if the habit of reading becomes a part of a daily routine.

But is that “good enough” for our children? How long to read a book?

I was following the Twitter stream from the Saturday reunion at Columbia’s Teachers College and several tweets caught my eye. Exactly what books should students be reading and for how long?

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So taking Hatchet and spending a week and a half on it would fit with Donalyn Miller’s goal of 40 books per year. Is this happening?  Are students allowed to read a book like Hatchet in a week and a half?  I believe this also fits with the belief behind CCSS Reading Anchor #10:  “Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently. Yet, it seems like I should be doing more in order to have teachers and students consider the “sheer volume” of what they are reading.

Are there books that should be “whole class” books in grades 3-6?  If yes, what would be the characteristics of such a book? And how “many” of these would a child read during any given year?

I remember working on Language arts curriculum 20 years ago when teachers wanted certain books to be on a “protected list” so teachers in grade 3 would not use a book reserved for grade 4 because then it could not be used for prediction.  But what is the real goal of a “class book”?  If it truly is to have all students explore specific texts, will the class read at the same pace? Is it about the “activities” that accompany the book and its reading? What about a book club approach?

This tweet of a quote from Kelly Gallagher caught my eye:

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So Kelly would agree with Donalyn Miller that students should not be spending forever on a class book.  Dragging a novel out into 9 weeks’ worth of work turns it into a “9 week worksheet”!  That belief has also been espoused by Richard Allington who has said that students need to read “more” in order to be better readers!

Are there some books that every fourth grade student should read?  That would be a great source of conversation for a team of fourth grade teachers.  What literature is that important and that interesting for the students?  The same question would apply for informational text, poetry and drama.  Those decisions can and should be made at a local level.  The caution would be in “not allowing” a whole class text to be the only reading at the time and also not to be drug out as Gallagher’s quote reminds us.

How much should a student read every day?

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The original source of this quote is not listed but think about this for a minute.  To stay on the same level (maintenance), a student needs to read just right books for an hour each day and a common expectation in about 3/4 of a page per minute. So a quick check by a teacher 5 minutes into a silent sustained reading time would suggest that all students had read at least 3 pages.  If a reading log/goal setting page includes the page started, a teacher could quickly move about the room conducting a visual scan.  This would be data that could allow the teacher to form groups to discuss goals and purposes for reading.

The goal would not be public humiliation.  I have used “bribes” for reading – pizzas, food, parties, etc. in order to encourage students to read more.  Sometimes the food begins as the “reason/purpose” for reading until a student becomes “hooked” on reading and then begins to ask for books for gifts!  Students do not need to take quizes to show their understanding of books.  Carefully remove barriers or practices that are “counter-productive” to reading MORE!  Consider how you can help your students be daily readers who will carry that habit over into the summer even when you, the teacher, are not around!

How much are your students reading?  How do you encourage them to set HIGH expectations for their own reading?

“Do I HAVE to teach writing?”


Teachers Don’t Have Time to Teach Writing was a provocative post that caught my eye yesterday (01.26.14) on Twitter.  The author, Ashley Hurley, claims to have heard teachers say that they just don’t have time to teach writing more times than she can count.  (It is shocking but I have also heard that statement. Her impassioned post includes numerous quotes from the National Commission on Writing, National Writing Project Newsletter, and Writing Next. However, beyond those quotes is a universal need for students to become literate citizens who can fully participate in a democratic society.  Evidence of this would be found in letters to the editor for a local paper, blog posts, or even conversations in the local coffee shop.

The College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing define what students should understand and be able to do by the end of every grade in each of the ten writing standards.  Further support for writing is found in the sidebar:

  ” . . . students need to use writing as a tool for learning and communicating to offer and support opinions, demonstrate understanding of the subjects they are studying, and convey real and imagined experiences and events.” . . . “To meet these goals, students must devote significant time and effort to writing, producing numerous pieces over short and extended time frames throughout the year.” (p. 16, CCSS, English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects)

Is teaching writing optional?  

No!  Beyond the Iowa Core/Common Core, consider your own state’s definition of “language arts” as it relates to state code and educational requirements.  A quick google search combining “state name” “educational code” and “writing” will provide a look at current and previous expectations for writing. I quickly searched Nebraska, Minnesota, Illinois and Missouri to collect information for four states that border Iowa.  I was intrigued by the fact that Nebraska does have a state writing test (I wonder what kind of orchestration is necessary for a state-wide writing test?) and that all five states (including Iowa) have long had writing expectations in state educational code.  What may be new for teachers and students is the fact that writing is important in all content areas K-12.

What does writing instruction look like?

It was difficult to use the information garnered from searches to get a clear picture of writing instruction from the five states I was reviewing.  Due to the state writing assessment, Nebraska had more information than the other four. Current beliefs and pedagogy would certainly predict that instruction might include some measure of gradual release or “I Do, We Do, You Do” that is prevalent in the literature and widely supported by the likes of Doug Fisher, Nancy Frey, Kelly Gallagher and Jim Burke.

Many teachers, at a variety of grade levels and content areas, provide free-writing or “journaling” writing time where students are permitted to write on a topic of their own to show what they know. George Hillocks, Jr. reported on the results of six types of writing instruction in 1987.  He summarized the free writing research as:

“Free writing.  This approach asks students to write freely about whatever concerns them.  As a major instructional technique, free writing is more effective than teaching grammar in raising the quality of student writing. (Effect size = .16) However, it is less effective than focuses of other instruction examined.”

If free writing is an opportunity for students to write while the teacher does “other work” and is not connected to writing instruction, modeling or practice, then it may not be the best use of the available instructional time.  Furthermore, if “free writing” is the ONLY writing time allocated daily, students will probably not make much growth in writing because of the low effect size.

What  writing instruction is needed?

Writing instruction must include clear models of the criteria and expectations for writing.  Sources for student writing include #tcrwp, the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, National Writing Project and Appendix C of the Common Core.  Writing also needs to include choices for students.  Students should NOT always be handed a topic to write about; nor would students necessarily be allowed to ALWAYS write on a topic of their own choice.  Sometimes, especially with an on-demand prompt, the student may be required to write on a topic that the teacher has specified.  Students who have not had a lot of writing practice or who do perceive themselves as successful writers will struggle with choosing topics and staying with a topic when writing.  Teachers will need to explicitly teach the steps of the writing process as students engage in drafting, conferencing, revising, and editing their work.

But one constant for writing instruction is that there will be INSTRUCTION!  Merely writing “more” will not help create better, stronger and longer writers!  In fact, it may be possible that students could write “more” without ever improving the “quality” of their own work!  Improvement would result from writing that incorporated the thinking from a demonstration or mini-lesson coupled with collaborative “we try it” work that provides students with a safety net as they practice new learning / skills!

How do we provide enough writing opportunities for writing across the day?

First, we begin with writing in all content areas every day.  We add writing to reading as a measure of student understanding, not as a worksheet to be filled out.  “Two Writing Teachers” is hosting “Writing About Reading Blog Series” this week.  A new blog will be posted every day with possible options for writing about thinking while reading.  Today’s blog (linked above) by Dana Murphy features three different approaches:  

  1. Lifting a Line
  2. Character Web
  3. Visual Note Taking

Check them out.  All three approaches include a picture of student work as another model. A twitter chat is planned for Monday, February 3rd using the hashtag #TWTBlog and more information is available in the link in this sentence.  While you are reading about those approaches, consider whether some of them would be appropriate across a wide range of content reading across the day. (Summarizing is not the only skill that students need to work on!).

Second, there must be common language about writing in all content areas (K-12).  A focus on common language is present in the Common Core and it may be a unifying factor for students, parents, and teachers. Teachers need to work collaboratively across all content areas and grades to increase their comfort level and knowledge through the use of peer to peer conversations focused on improving the quality of student writing and writing instruction.

Third, there must be models of the expected level of writing at the end of the grade level.   Annotated models with specific feedback about the use of writing techniques is very beneficial to students and writing models are on the list of research-based practices in Writing Next. Also plan to include scaffolds where needed to connect speaking and listening, reading, and writing skills.  Some students may need more auditory models prior to working to accelerate their writing skills.  Begin collecting student examples to use as models. Garner permission from the student authors to use them in demonstrations.  These models need to be collected across all content areas as writing expectations should not be different by content areas.

Fourth, teachers must write as well.  Teachers need to know and understand the struggle embraced by our students on a regular basis.  That knowledge and understanding comes from writing alongside the students.  Teachers cannot continue to “tell” students to write or to write like “Author X.”  Teachers must also provide models of high-quality writing.  Students need to see quality science writing from the science teachers and historically accurate writing from the social sciences teachers as just a few examples.

What is one thing that you can change about your writing instruction TOMORROW?  How can you provide the instruction that will help students meet the demands of the Common Core and prepare them to be reading, writing, thinking citizens?  Where will you start?
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