Classroom Strategies, Research and Reflections, Tools and Resources

Tidying Up

Instructional Routines for Whole-Class Reading and Writing

This article was originally published on the blog Mr. G Mpls and was reprinted here with the permission of the author. The original post can be accessed here.

Education suffers from initiative overload. Teachers are yanked here and there, impossibly tasked with newer and ever-more complex trends that come and go with each new school year. Mike Schmoker (2011) captures the conundrum:

“Our failure to be clear and focused prevails even as we continue year after year, to attend conferences, workshops, and book studies; adopt complex programs and initiatives…all while denying students meaningful opportunities to read and write.”

Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning

When training does focus on literacy, it all too often makes things more complex and cumbersome. We are constantly “developed professionally” yet a dismal status quo remains with only 1/3 of 4th and 8th graders reading at or above proficiency nationwide (with vast disparities in race/ethnicity).

Like a cluttered, disorganized room, new ideas are haphazardly piled on top of old ideas. One year close reading; then vocabulary, and personalized learning…next, how about an entirely new curriculum complete with super-sized teacher guides. Rinse and repeat. This rapid turnover of initiatives is at the root of growing teacher cynicism, exhaustion, and recalcitrance.

At this time we need to tidy up, and KonMarie our instructional practices. We squander too much time on thinly-supported, energy-intensive “priorities” that drain teachers’ energy and enthusiasm.

Marie Kondo (2014) describes how “letting go is even more important than adding…one of the magical effects of tidying is confidence in your decision-making capacity” (p. 177-178). As teachers, we can similarly improve our decision-making and effectiveness in the classroom when we are empowered to let go of what does not help students learn.

Simple, Effective Instructional Routines

For me, routines have been an ideal vehicle for simplifying and improving my daily instruction. Harry Fletcher-Wood writes in What Makes Expert Teachers that “experts have automated many of their routines, allowing them to focus on the most important challenges…we need to provide the tools novices need to automate simple, effective routines.”

Over the past few years, I’ve sought out highly-effective routines for teaching reading and writing. I’ve developed these routines with 5th-6th graders in social studies and science classrooms, teaching grade-level text to classes containing a majority of struggling readers.

The biggest benefit of instructional routines is that they are immediately actionable and can be applied flexibly, no matter the curricula. Transition and change is the norm, not the exception for teachers; therefore, having a flexible set of effective instructional routines makes the most sense when it’s not uncommon to switch grade levels and curricula yearly.

I’ll first briefly outline theoretical roots behind my approach to literacy instruction and then dive into describing what I’ve found to be highly-effective instructional routines.

So…How Do Readers Actually Comprehend?

My approach to literacy instruction is grounded in the text processing perspective articulated by Beck & McKeown (2006). This model describes comprehension as a process where a reader attends to pertinent information, then integrates that information with a) prior background knowledge and b) what has just been read.

“Successful comprehension is an active process in which readers attend to information as they encounter it in text, hold relevant pieces in memory, and then connect those pieces to subsequent text information with the goal of building an overall representation of the ideas presented in the text” (p. 33)

Beck and McKeown (2006)

The text processing perspective emphasizes readers’ development of coherence, achieved through the organization of meaningful text segments (McKeown, Beck and Blake, 2009). This coherence is not achieved by readers cuing up various “cognitive strategies,” but instead through teacher-led reading and interspersed discussion around meaning.

According to this perspective, a text is coherently comprehended when readers are able to accurately recall key ideas, along with their proper sequence in a complete mental representation. Van den Broek, Young, Tzeng, and Linderholm (1999) describe this in more detail:

“The outcome of a successful reading process is a coherent mental representation of the text. Prior research on memory for texts indicates that such representations resemble networks of interrelated concepts…Over the entire reading process, the reader gradually learns the various concepts and their interconnections and builds an episodic memory representation of the text. (p. 78, 80)

My understanding of the text-processing perspective, and reading in general, is further deepened by cognitive load theory. Cognitive load theory views human cognition as consisting of a limited working memory where all information is initially processed and a vast long-term memory for storage.

As teachers, we must recognize that working memory can only process a limited amount of new written information at a time, and that having more stored information (e.g. fluent decoding ability and plentiful background knowledge) frees up space for more efficient processing and deeper comprehension. The Simple View of Reading therefore recommends reading teachers in all grade levels focus their energies on developing students’ decoding and language comprehension abilities.

To best assist students in managing working memory while reading, Adam Boxer writes how teachers can increase available resources by a) developing internal resources through retrieval, spaced, and interleaved practice of core content and by b) deliberately providing external resources (e.g. for reading and writing this might take the form of guided annotations and sentence starters).

Simplifying Cognitive Load Theory, Adam Boxer

In summary, text processing perspective and cognitive load theory together have helped me better understand how working and long-term memory interact to make meaning while reading. Below are five instructional principles synthesized from both theories which have helped me focus my overall literacy instruction:

  • Read portions of content whole-class in incremental chunks interspersed with routine discussion and checks for understanding. Utilize control-the-game with strong student readers to increase engagement.
  • Embed retrieval, spaced, and interleaved practice with core content and vocabulary into lesson starters and low-stakes quizzes to develop meaning and maintain retention.
  • Consider how new knowledge will be connected and embedded in a network of previously-taught knowledge
  • Provide worked examples and sentence stems to outsource working memory when practicing cognitively demanding tasks e.g. responding in writing and summarizing
  • Be wary of splitting students’ attention unnecessarily between reading, writing, and discussion. Carefully plan stopping points, and avoid activities that might require multi-tasking.

With these principles in mind, the next section will describe instructional routines I’ve developed to teach whole class reading and writing.

Research to Practice

What are highly-effective practices for teaching reading and writing with grade-level text to classes with a majority of struggling readers?

While my teacher training emphasized a workshop model with a “mini lesson” followed by small groups or stations, I’ve found that this structure results in students spending far too much time receiving “Tier 0” instruction with no adult providing explicit instruction or frequent opportunities to respond.

Therefore, in the past few years I sought out and synthesized this collection of whole-class instructional routines from various sources, most notable being The Writing Revolution (2017), Bringing Words to Life (2013), and Questioning the Author (2006). I’ve also centered my whole-class instruction around three of the National Reading Panel’s “Big Five” recommendations for literacy instruction: making sure to include daily practice with comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency.

Lesson Preparation

According to Beck & McKeown (2006), lesson preparation should have three goals:

  1. Identify major understandings and anticipated problems
  2. Segment the text based on the understandings and problems
  3. Design queries for students to process meaning from segments

What follows is my step-by-step approach.

  • Choose a manageable amount of text for the lesson. I find that between 800-1200 words (front/back of 1 page) is ideal for a 50-60 minute lesson.
  • Format text with two columns to provide room for notes in margin and ability to zoom in with a document camera. Here’s a neat trick for converting images to text.
  • Plan a brief explanation for how this reading will connect with previous readings/content.
  • Pre-read the material to identify key ideas/understandings. 
  • Identify text segments, or meaningful “chunks,” that develop key ideas. This will not always be at the end of paragraphs. Be wary of sections that will easily overload working memory and prepare examples along with a student-friendly explanation for each.
    • For each text segment, plan annotations (e.g. circle key dates, underline details, box names or key ideas) that will be used as frequent Checks for Understanding. As these annotations emphasize key ideas, names, and places, they will also be a useful external resource to manage working memory when retelling and summarizing.
    • Plan open and narrow queries to prompt the annotations and retelling between key text segments. Examples:
      • Open: “what did the author tell us here?”
      • Closed: “circle dates in this section…what happened in the year _____?” 
  • Choose 1-2 strategic points for partner retelling with turn-and-talk. I like to plan a retell approximately halfway through the text, and at the end.
  • Identify 2-3 Tier 2 vocabulary words to be learned in-context, added to student dictionary. Prepare student-friendly explanation (Collins Online Dictionary is great) and a few examples/non-examples.
  • Create/modify a simple graphic organizer or story map to scaffold students ability to form coherent representation of whole text.
  • Include space right after for writing a summary with a sentence starter in third person
  • Create/modify a few Text-Dependent Questions for students to complete. Plan sentence starters, and make an exemplar citing text evidence.


A look at how I might segment a text, plan annotations and open/narrow queries.

Lesson Delivery

  • Read the text whole-class with document camera. Gradually incorporate control-the-game with strong student readers to increase engagement.
  • At planned stopping points, initiate interspersed discussion using:
    •  Narrow queries with text annotations. (Randomly call on students to CFU after). This ensures students are actively processing meaningful “chunks” of the reading.
      • “Underline the definition of ________”
      • “Box two important names mentioned by the author so far”
    • Open queries to grapple with Tier 2 vocabulary in-context or retell and summarize at strategic points.
      • “With your partner, re-read the paragraph and try to figure out what ________ means”
      • What did the author say here?”
      • “Retell your partner what we have read so far”
  • After the initial reading to develop coherence, have students pair off for 5-8 minutes and re-read the text, alternating every paragraph to develop fluency (Shanahan, 2005).
  • Following the paired reading, explicit writing instruction:
    • Students independently complete a short graphic organizer to capture key ideas. This can be scaffolded by having students refer to their annotations. Check with partners.
    • Students write a summary using sentence starters to encourage writing in third person (e.g. This article was about….the author described…). 
      • To scaffold this, I often provide 2-3 keywords from the text that should be mentioned in the summary.
  • After summarizing, provide 2-3 final text-dependent questions to encourage students to re-read, or “close read” at deeper levels for craft/structure or to integrate various key ideas.
    • Utilize whole-class feedback with a document camera and frequent “show calls.”

Example of a summary writing stem

As a result of using these instructional routines, I’ve found that students of all reading abilities can engage with grade-level (or above) text while developing reading comprehension, fluency, and vocabulary. All students are taught explicitly and systematically, with frequent opportunities to respond.

Using these routines, students also have numerous opportunities to deliberately practice authentic note-taking and writing fully embedded in meaningful content. The use of annotations and routine checking for understanding ensures that teachers are aware of students’ comprehension while reading is taking place, not just after.

Last point – this may seem like a lot initially, but with repetition and habit, I’ve found a reading can be confidently prepared in less-than 20 minutes. If text-dependent questions and graphic organizers can be adapted/used from the curriculum, even less. This whole process is designed to be manageable on a daily basis.

While there is no one right way to teach reading and writing, this post represents my best efforts to synthesize a series of research-informed best bets, apply them in my middle school classroom, and communicate them as clearly and concisely as possible.

Put Simply

  • Education suffers from initiative overload, with an endless stream of trends and buzzwords distracting us from providing students meaningful opportunities to read and write.
  • Instructional routines are powerful vehicles to communicate and implement best practices. At this time, teachers really don’t need 300 strategies to teach reading or 20-pound teacher guides.
  • The text processing perspective and cognitive load theory together provide guidance for teachers on how to best manage working memory while teaching reading and writing. Teachers would be wise to consider how new knowledge is best embedded and integrated in long-term memory.
  • Instructional routines to develop comprehension, fluency, and vocabulary can be effectively adapted to and taught alongside any grade-level content – not siloed off and taught as standalone skills/strategies.

References

Beck, I. L., & McKeown, M. G. (2006). Improving comprehension with questioning the author: A fresh and expanded view of a powerful approach. New York, N.Y: Scholastic.

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. Guilford Press.

Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: An easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones. Avery.

Facer, J. (2019). Simplicity Rules: How Simplifying What We Do in the Classroom Can Benefit Children. Routledge.

Hochman, J. C., & Wexler, N. (2017). The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades. John Wiley & Sons.

McKeown, M. G., Beck, I. L., & Blake, R. G. (2009). Rethinking reading comprehension instruction: A comparison of instruction for strategies and content approaches. Reading Research Quarterly44(3), 218-253.

Shanahan, T. (2005). The National Reading Panel Report. Practical Advice for Teachers. Learning Point Associates/North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL).

Shanahan, T. (2013). Letting the Text Take Center Stage: How the Common Core State Standards Will Transform English Language Arts Instruction. American Educator37(3), 4.

Van den Broek, P., Young, M., Tzeng, Y., & Linderholm, T. (1999). The landscape model of reading: Inferences and the online construction of a memory representation. The construction of mental representations during reading, 71-98.

One thought on “Tidying Up

  1. love the videos, being able to watch the teacher and students in action gave me a better understanding of the strategy being demonstrated.

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About the Author: Jon Gustafson is a 5th grade teacher in Minneapolis, MN. He regularly blogs about curriculum and cognitive science at mrgmpls.wordpress.com and can be followed on Twitter @MrGmpls