Teachers who work with early readers know that these students need lots of encouragement, support, and feedback as their skills develop. A balanced literacy program includes opportunities for that type of engagement through quality whole group teaching, in small groups, and with individual reading support. Small group literacy instruction is a crucial component of this balanced approach because it gives students a low risk environment to practice and apply new skills.
Teaching small groups and guided reading isn’t as easy, though, for teachers who are teaching fully remote or hybrid. On top of the challenge of supporting these emergent readers from a distance, the reading opportunity gap continues to widen because of the lack of access and the decrease in face-to-face interactions.
Being dedicated to helping your students build literacy skills means you have to take advantage of the time you do have with them. Here are some tips on how you can get the most out of your small group instruction whether you are in person or remote.
- Have a routine. A routine helps assure that students are building on prior skills and connecting those with new concepts. Here’s an example.
- Warm up 3-5 mins. Review prior skills.
- Introduce students to new concepts through direct teaching and modeling
- Support students while they apply the skill by trying it together
- Provide encouragement and feedback while students try it on their own
- Check for understanding and close.
- Try different grouping strategies for guided reading groups. Work with small groups that are at the same instructional reading level, or pull students who need reinforcement of a particular strategy. Pair students with their classmates in the classroom, or experiment with breakout rooms. Whether you are in person or remote, use independent reading to build reading stamina.
- Balance your instruction. Small groups shouldn’t concentrate only on introducing a new leveled reader. This time is an opportunity to provide literacy intervention for a variety of skills including:
- Acquiring new vocabulary
- Understanding Science or Math through literature
- Increasing Fluency
- Building Comprehension
- Document what happens during your small groups. Assess and track student progress and achievements. Using a tool like BookNook, you can build assessments into your routine and easily monitor progress overtime. Keeping track of students interests can also help you know your students as readers and suggest books that you know will foster their love of reading.
- Find good digital text. If you’re teaching remotely, you still need to choose good literature, but you also have to think a bit more practically about the books you use. Ideally, you want to be able to display it easily while teaching and provide access for students afterward the lesson so they can build their fluency. Also remember, any good library collection provides quality literature at a variety of levels and both nonfiction and fiction text.
Small group time can be a powerful intervention for any reader. These tips can help you get the most out of your teacher-led groups. However, it isn’t just an opportunity for literacy instruction, it’s also an opportunity for you to build relationships with your students. Take advantage of this smaller setting to give you and your students a break from a hectic schedule or Zoom calls. Then tackle reading.
A Tale of Two Teachers: Meet the high school friends turned educators who devised a way to watch students learn in real-time, and are now part of the BookNook family.
A 9:00 pm truck stop in Seymour, Indiana isn’t the first place one would imagine as the birthplace of a transformative idea in education. But that’s exactly where Ryan Culbreth, middle school Language Arts teacher and co-founder of ReadEngage, found himself, pulled over late one evening in 2013, talking through the data sequence for a digital platform to help teachers watch how to help struggling readers in real time.
Ryan Culbreth and Clay Schepman, co-founders of ReadEngage
On the other end of the line was Clay Schepman, Social Studies teacher and co-founder of ReadEngage. Ryan and Clay met as teens when their mothers, both kindergarten teachers, carpooled to work together and eventually introduced their sons to each other. Fast forward, the two shared typical high school antics, earned teaching and Master’s degrees as college roommates, and eventually started families. But as educators, Ryan and Clay found themselves feeling something a lot of their fellow teachers felt – powerless. They had great confidence in their power to inspire and create a student’s interest in learning, but the power faded instantly once a student was on their own outside of the classroom. “I could teach reading strategies, but as soon my students had a book in their hands it was like I lost all power,“ said Ryan, “They were on their own to read and if they had any trouble, it was impossible to pinpoint where they were struggling or how I could set an instructional course to help them improve.”
What kept Clay and Ryan awake at night was an instructional gap amplified by the monumental shift to Common Core state standards which entailed teaching to benchmark and end-of-year summative assessments. Literacy featured greatly with the standards, but what Common Core lacked was a structure for formative assessment – a way to monitor student learning by providing ongoing feedback on how teachers should make adjustments to improve their teaching, which in turn would improve a student’s ability to learn. “It’s like being data rich, but information poor. Testing may provide a warehouse of data, but teachers can’t really see where the problem is,“ noted Ryan, “We wanted to invent a way to code-ify formative assessment, to keep building the skills that good readers do, naturally.”
So, the two teachers set out to build something based on a genuine need in their classrooms and a desire to create a scalable formative assessment tool as a key driver to both better teaching and better learning. But where to start for two data geeks who had never pitched anything before? The answer was a 10-hour drive to a tech startup weekend event in Washington D.C. There they met the team at NotionTheory, who specialized in designing software for minimum viable products (MVPs), which is tech-talk for products that have just enough features to test out with a small set of users to validate further investment and development.
Over the course of two years, the ReadEngage platform was created with necessary patents in place and was now pilot-ready. The technology involves a text-based, dynamic, in-process visualization of student and group engagement that provides immediate evidence of student proficiency to inform instructional decisions. A quick 3-minute video demonstrates how the platform works.
Avoiding any conflict of interest with introducing a new curriculum within their own school district, the initial pilot was taken to two classrooms at nearby Scottsburg Middle School. Clay took a day off to run the demonstration and the initial reaction was promising. Teachers commented about the “immediate real time feedback”, “ease of use and user-friendly colors”, plus “ability to share exercises with other teachers as a great tool for collaboration.”
Images courtesy of the Indiana Migrant Education Program (IMEP)
But the real test came the summer of 2016, when ReadEngage was awarded an eight-week grant to pilot their literacy platform with one of the most disenfranchised communities in the country – migrant farm workers. Funded through the Indiana Department of Education’s Migrant Education Program (IMEP), 1,200 children of farm-working families received daily literacy lessons directly from Ryan and Clay among other teachers, all there to provide standards-based curriculum at every needed grade level. The educators dedicated themselves to helping migratory children overcome educational disruption brought on by moving state to state for seasonal farm work. “Every day, our big RV would pull up right onto the tomato fields for Red Gold Ketchup,” described Ryan, “And all the kids would run to us, eager to start their lessons. We were so amazed because the middle and high schoolers spent a full day in the fields before beginning another full day of learning with us.”
Images courtesy of the Indiana Migrant Education Program (IMEP)
The Indiana DOE equipped each participating student with an i-Pad which traveled with them as their families moved from Indiana, to Texas, to Florida for more farm work, returning to Indiana at the end of the season. According to Clay and Ryan, the families (who represent a diverse set of cultures, from Burmese to Latino) returned their borrowed devices in good condition and with much gratitude. Today, Ryan continues to work with the IMEP as a Language Arts consultant, and both count their work with migrant families as among the most rewarding experiences of their careers.
“We felt this was a real game-changer for literacy,” said Ryan, “We’re not just checking a box with assessments. This is true, formative assessment – talking with a student, especially those learning under extraordinarily difficult conditions, about where are you now, where did you get off track, where do we get you back on track and grow.”
Meeting Michael Lombardo, BookNook CEO, in 2018 was another milestone for Ryan and Clay. Whether it was fate that brought together these like-minded innovators, equally passionate about children’s literacy, or “dumb luck” as Ryan and Clay like to joke about all their good fortunes, the meeting cemented the idea that the pair had come up with truly transformative technology for watching readers learn in real time.
“I also had the great opportunity to work with migrant children while in college during a University of Michigan Alternative Spring Break,” said Michael, “And at our core, Ryan, Clay and I share the same philosophy about the critical need to support the most needy kids, and to address reading skill growth at school, at home, and in the community. By acquiring some of ReadEngage’s intellectual property, we are improving on a world-class tool that’s closing literacy gaps and changing lives.”
Ryan and Clay are proud teacher ambassadors and consultants for BookNook with a vision to help promote live reading interventions across similar state-wide or coalition-fueled initiatives modeled by their experience with the Migrant Education Program. They are also excited to help BookNook expand to a host of other institutions or agencies with equally critical literacy needs, like working with departments of corrections or other marginalized communities.
We celebrate Ryan Culbreth and Clay Schepman, two high school friends turned educators and tech innovators, and now, members of the BookNook family!
Equity has been one of BookNook’s core values since the very beginning of our journey. The phrase we use to define it is “We Are Our Community.” We talk about it that way both because we want our team to look like our users, but also as a reminder that when something we created becomes part of a child’s life, we by extension become a part of their community.
Recently we’ve asked ourselves some hard questions about the kind of community member we have been. Like many in the field of education, we come from a place of good intentions–our mission is to close the educational opportunity gap. On the surface, it’s easy to tell ourselves that what we are doing must obviously advance equity.
But the way we go about that work matters, and on deeper reflection we’ve come to realize that we have made choices with unintentional but very real equity consequences. We want to acknowledge that publicly and commit to taking concrete action to be a better member of the communities we serve.
The hard truth that surfaced is this: the way we structure our fees is not equitable. Like most edtech companies, we charge based on how many students are using our program. On the surface this seems logical, but when considering that the most common use of BookNook is intervention it means we are, in effect, charging the most to the schools and nonprofits who serve the most struggling students–populations that overwhelmingly skew towards children of color.
We also treat our Spanish Dual Language Learner and Summer programs as “add ons” at an extra cost, reasoning that not every school or nonprofit will want to use them, so not everyone should be charged for them. Again, the practical effect here is to charge higher prices to schools serving higher need communities.
So, starting this summer we are rolling out an equity-based pricing model. When setting out our fees for a school or nonprofit, will expressly and transparently take into account the relative privilege of that community. The higher the percentage of children who are eligible for the National School Lunch Program, the less we will charge. We will also include our Spanish Dual Language Learner and Summer programs as part of our base subscription, rather than charging extra for it.
We realize this will mean some of our partners will see an increase in what they are asked to pay to use BookNook, and that others will see a decrease. Considering the equity gaps that have been once again thrust painfully into the forefront of our national consciousness, we think that is exactly what should happen in the moment.
We’ve run the numbers on this (another of our values is “Data Rule Everything Around Me”), and we expect that the net effect with our current partners is that they will be charged less. We hope that some of those partners will decide to reinvest their savings to provide more reading supports to struggling students as part of their Covid Slide responses. But if they need to use those funds to provide other crucial services or to make up for budget cuts, that is more than understandable.
We realize that, like all actions taken individually, this alone is an insufficient response to the issues we as a nation must grapple with. So at BookNook we will continue to reflect on ways in which we can “be our community,” act on our values, and work with partners to do more for the schools, nonprofits, and students we serve.
We Are [Striving to be a Better Member of] Our Community.
Curriculum adoption is one of the most important processes that a School District goes through. The process is lengthy, costly and does not happen often, yet it directly affects the teaching and learning of everyone in the District. While it is mandated by the state for every classroom to have adopted curriculum, implementation and buy in from the teachers can make or break usage. It is vital that the process that districts go through is thorough, research based and is supported by stakeholders.
My work in education has primarily been as a teacher in a two-school school district. While there wasn’t a single curriculum director like bigger districts have, there was a lot of opportunity for teachers to be leaders, so I jumped at the opportunity to lead the curriculum adoption for a new Math curriculum in my district, which I loved
How did it Work
Our process began as a whole staff. We brainstormed what key components we as teachers wanted in curriculum. We also looked at strengths and needs for our students based on our state assessments. We studied where our students excelled and where we needed more support in helping them learn concepts.
In our little two-school district we had 6-8 teachers per grade level. Each grade level selected two teachers to serve on our adoption committee. We are lucky that in California, the process for selecting state-approved curriculum is rigorous. Only programs that meet several key guidelines are selected to be considered “approved” and are allowed to be adopted by districts. Additionally, the state sets guidelines for adoption, purchase and implementation. This gave us a framework to develop our timelines.
Our committee reps took the guidelines that we as a staff had developed and attended the County Adoption Fair. This is when representatives from each publishing company shows off their curriculum. As a committee, we narrowed our pilot choices down to two different curriculums. The curriculums selected were very different from each other. One was more of a traditional sequence while the other spiraled and challenged students to deeper thinking.
As a committee we developed an evaluation instrument to use as teachers moved through the programs. This included evaluating the curriculum, assessments, getting student feedback and getting parent feedback. We also looked at how the curriculum supported special populations, re-taught and extended standards and provided different modes for learning. We really tried to look at the program as a whole and how it fit in with the needs that our staff identified at the beginning of the process.
Each teacher piloted the programs for 4-6 weeks. Our intent was for each teacher to implement two different chapters from each program so they could see how the curriculum developed over time and give feedback on more than one standard area. This was also great for getting buy-in from the teachers – they were able to use the curriculum in the wild and feel like they were a part of the process.
After two months of piloting, we came back together as a committee to evaluate the programs. We used a post-it chart where positives about each program were displayed in different colors. After the reflection process, it was clear by looking at the colors displayed on the charts which program stood out for our staff as the program our district wanted to implement. We presented our findings to the Board of Education. Upon their approval, the curriculum was adopted and the materials were ordered. Teachers would implement the program the following school year.
The adoption process we went through involved multiple stakeholders (administration, teachers, students and parents). It involved using an evaluation tool to help process the positives and negatives of each program. Our process was done over time in a deliberate and paced fashion. Most importantly, our process was based on the specific needs of our students in our district.
What did I learn
In reflecting on the process that we followed in adopting our math curriculum, two key components stand out as “take-aways”…Include stakeholders and take time in the process.
It is imperative to include all stakeholders, including students and parents. It is easy to focus on the feedback from classroom teachers, but there are others that may offer a different perspective. Getting feedback from special education teachers, art teachers, paraprofessionals and other specialists will allow for the curriculum to be looked at through other lenses. Additionally, parents and students are essential in the process, as they are the ones directly working with the curriculum.
Time. There is never enough time. Schools are maxed out on time. However, time is what is needed in a curriculum adoption. It is one of the biggest decisions made by districts and it directly affects every single person within a district. Taking the time to develop a process, implement the curriculum and reflect on the curriculum is needed in order to make a sound and educated decision. Don’t rush the process. Start the process early in the adoption cycle so you can ensure that there is plenty of time to evaluate the curriculum.
Curriculum is the cornerstone of teaching and learning. The process should be meaningful and intentional. It should also be fun! As a district we learned a lot about how our teachers teach. We also learned a lot about how our students learn and what they need, because, ultimately, the students’ needs are at the center of any adoption!
Megan Cusimano is a former teacher in the Bay Area. She also writes curriculum for BookNook
Engaging students in meaningful conversations about what they are reading is so important in helping students get the most out of instructional time. Getting students engaged in reading and talking about what they are reading will encourage them to develop deeper comprehension skills, practice higher-level critical thinking skills and make connections with the text and each other. Several studies have demonstrated a positive correlation between behavioral engagement and achievement-related outcomes for elementary and high school students (Connell, Spencer & Aber, 1994; Marks, 2000; Newmann et al., 1992; Skinner, Wellborn, & Connell, 1990).
So what exactly is an engaged reader?
An engaged reader actively thinks about what they are reading- absorbing, reflecting and predicting. They are involved at a deep level and motivation is inherent. In this article you will find tips that will help you create a more engaging, student-centered approach in your classroom, while also maintaining structure.
What studies show
As educators, we know that home influence plays a large role in students’ reading habits as well as motivation, and that many children enter the classroom at a disadvantage because of this. Research has found that helping students become more engaged with reading while at school can have a significant impact on their overall reading habits and skills. This is supported by a study done in 1999 by Guthrie and Schafer that was a secondary analysis of 1994 NAEP data:
Guthrie and Schafer (1999) found that engaged readers have much better text comprehension and reading achievement than do disengaged readers. Beyond that simple fact, however, engaged reading can overcome major obstacles to achievement. For example, low levels of education in the family and low income usually pose obstacles to reading achievement. Students with less-educated mothers nearly always score lower in reading comprehension than students whose mothers have more education. However, Guthrie and Schafer found that engaged readers who had mothers with a low level of education achieved more highly than disengaged readers who had highly educated mothers. For example, a student with a less-educated mother who reads “almost every day” for enjoyment has a better reading achievement and text comprehension than a student who reads “never or hardly ever” but has a mother who is highly educated. A similar relation occurs for engaged reading and income. Low-income students (receiving free or reduced-price lunch) who were engaged readers scored highly on achievement tests. These engaged readers were comparable in text comprehension to students with higher income (not receiving free or reduced-price lunch), but who were disengaged readers (Baker, Dreher, Guthrie, 2000).
Studies like this demonstrate how significant a teacher’s influence can be on a child’s view towards reading.
Show genuine interest
As a teacher I find it easy to get caught up in the motions and not take the time to truly engage students in a deep, meaningful conversation about what we just read. It’s understandable to try to increase the engagement of your entire class by moving quickly through post-reading questions. However, I’ve found that jumping from student to student and question to question tends to lead to less interesting dialogue and poorer engagement. This results in your students feeling a lack of interest on your part. Remember: quality over quantity. Your students desire not only to be heard, but to feel listened to. You can show them that you are listening to them by taking notes and asking specific follow-up questions. I promise you that if you do this, your students will feel valued, be more likely to share, and will give their answers much more thought.
Another way to show your genuine interest, is to encourage students to draw connections from the literature to their personal lives. These personal associations, often referred to as “heart connections,” animate the readings and make them more relatable to students. This method will drive higher amounts of quality discussions with students while decreasing mediocre student answers. Because of time constraints, only a few students will be able to share out loud. This is why I recommend utilizing partner shares and written reflections to hold all students accountable and give everyone a chance to share their thoughts in some way.
Ask open-ended questions
Open-ended questions are questions that don’t have a right or wrong answer, which makes kids feel more comfortable engaging in conversation. Open-ended questions also encourage more than just yes or no responses and provide the opportunity for a real conversation to be had. Some examples of book related open-ended questions are:
- Which characters in the books would you like to meet in real life?
- What part of the book did you think was the most exciting?
- How would you change the book’s ending if you could rewrite it?
- If you could be a character in the book for one day, who would you chose to be and why?
- If you could be friends with any character in the book, who would you like to be friends with and why?
- What do you think the author wanted us to take away from this book?
- Would you read other books from this author? Why or why not?
- Is there anything in this story that is similar to something that has happened in your life? What was it and how is it familiar?
- Did any of the characters remind you of someone?
- Would this book make a cool movie? Video game? TV show? Why or why not?
You can always further extend questions by asking, “Why?” or “Tell me more.” If a student responds to a question by saying, “I don’t know,” you can respond by saying, “Well let’s think about it.” Saying “I don’t know” might just be a reflex for the student, in which case just give them some time to think without pressuring them! If a student gives a short answer, you can say things like, “Tell me more about that” or “What led you to that answer/belief?”
Projects related to reading
Some young students get so nervous when the class is having a discussion. Which means that even though they may have some great questions in mind or answers to contribute, they are too shy or anxious to raise their hand, or may freeze up when the attention is on them. Combating an environment of anxiety starts with you, the reading guide. You can create a more casual setting for students to discuss reading by having them create brochures about where their book took place, write a letter as their character, create a board game, book board or poster about their book, create a test about the book(including answer sheet), write an advertisement to encourage other children to want to read the book or have students bring stories to life by creating a 3-D scene from their book. Projects on reading give students time to think and reflect on their thoughts on the reading and present them in an orderly fashion that makes sense to them.
I know this one is a tough one. When you ask a question, give your students ample time to gather their thoughts and reflect. This is also a great opportunity for students to share feedback with their peers or in a small group before responding to the question to the whole class. As a teacher, it can feel uncomfortable waiting in silence, but students will greatly benefit from this reflection time. By allowing them to think of meaningful responses that will spark an engaging dialogue, everyone wins.
One way to maximize reflection time is to ask your students to write their initial thoughts about the post-reading questions on a mini journal/notepad. Then have them break up into mini groups of 3-4 and share what they wrote down. The group can then share with the class what they discovered after conversing in their groups. Not only does this exercise encourage everyone to speak up, it also promotes collaboration and teamwork! I strongly recommend talking to your students about what reflection time is, and why it is important. I’ve found that explaining the benefits of reflection time makes students feel engaged and empowered.
Make it fun
If you make book discussions fun and engaging it will calm your students’ nerves and make the discussion less formal and more inviting. Below are a few ideas to spice up book discussions:
- Games that include questions about the reading are a great way to facilitate book discussions in a fun way. I’ve seen this done by creating a board game, dice game and even common reading questions written on a beach ball that you toss around the class and have students choose a question about the story to answer.
- If you’re starting a new book, it might be fun to add some decorations to the classroom that are related to the book or dress up like a character from the reading.
- Having other staff members at your school be a part of bringing a story to life really adds to the fun and also helps build community. With younger students, I’ve had our principal, secretary, school specialists and parents deliver mail, messages or packages to our class from characters from our stories. I’ve also seen guests dress up as characters and come to a classroom for a Q&A session with students.
- Game show or trivia game – create questions related to reading, form teams and maybe even have some prizes!
- Change where you read – the school garden, field in the schoolyard, school library or perhaps a nearby park.
- Plan field trip around reading – if the story took place somewhere you are able to bring your students(or somewhere somewhat similar) this is a great opportunity to connect your students to the reading and their community.
Learn how BookNook helps engage young readers:
Baker, L., Dreher, M., Guthrie, J. (2000). Engaging Young Readers: Promoting Achievement and Motivation. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Connell, J. P., Spencer, M. B., & Aber, J. L. (1994). Educational risk and resilience in African American youth: Context, self, action, and outcomes in school. Child Development, 65, 493-506.
Marks, H. M. (2000). Student engagement in instructional activity: Patterns in the elementary, middle, and high school years. American Educational Research Journal, 37, 153-184.
Newmann, F., Wehlage, G.G., & Lamborn, S. D. (1992). The significance and sources of student engagement. In F. Newmann (Ed.), Student engagement and achievement in American secondary schools (pp. 11-39). New York: Teachers College Press.
Skinner, E. A., Wellborn, J. G., & Connell, J. P. (1990). What is takes to do well in school and whether I’ve got it: The role of perceived control in children’s engagement and school
achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82, 22-32.
University of Washington: Center of Teaching and Learning. Engaging Students in Learning.
Retrieved from: https://www.washington.edu/teaching/teaching-resources/engaging-students-in-learning/
For further reading on this subject, check out the below articles:
How to Encourage Students to Read for Pleasure: Teachers Share Their Top Tips
Let’s Stop With the Worksheets and Create Engaged Learners
Tell Us More: Reading Comprehension, Engagement and Conceptual Press Discourse