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Reflections from Keystone State Reading Association

by Lynne Dorfman & Janice Ewing

Keystone State Reading Association’s annual conference provides opportunities for friends and colleagues from across our state to gather in one place to listen to thoughtful presentations. A variety of speakers from many states as well as Pennsylvania deliver new ideas and make powerful connections to classroom experiences. One of our mentors, Janet Allen, opened with a statement that made us continue to think about implications. Basically, Janet told us that with all the mandates that are coming to us from the federal, state, and local levels, we are still trying to improve literacy without increasing the number of minutes that children read each day.

Many of us may have a ninety-minute block or more for literacy instruction, but what does that include? At the elementary school level that may include instruction in spelling, handwriting, guided reading, vocabulary work, and perhaps a core read with the reading anthology. What about an independent reading program and an opportunity to have some choice with rigorous texts that interest and engage students? It made us think about how we purposefully craft effective instruction and provide intriguing information for our struggling and reluctant readers while building a reading community that thrives on challenge, choice, and opportunities to share our thinking.

Allen gave us titles for interesting and engaging books at each grade level. Here is a small sampling of the books she mentioned. For third graders, she suggested How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O’Connor, Animal Heroes: True rescue Stories by Sandra Markle, Please Bury Me in the Library by J. Patrick Lewis, and Here Comes the Garbage Barge by Jonah Winter.  For middle schoolers she recommended Phineas Gage: A Gruesome But True Story About Brain Science by John Fleischman, Planet Middle School by Nikki Grimes, Gordon Korman books, and You Don’t Even Know Me: Stories and Poems About Boys by Sharon G. Flake.  We are always looking for books in myriad genres that address a wide array of themes and topics to lure our readers and writers with their magic!

Another stand-out speaker, among many, was Doug Fisher, who shed light on the sometimes murky area of text complexity. He reminded us of the three lenses to look through when making this determination: quantitative, qualitative, and reader and task considerations, and then elaborated on each one. For example, a quantitative evaluation of a text (word and sentence length) may tell us that it is complex, but not why. A qualitative analysis, on the other hand, will lead us to look at factors like text structure, genre, and sophistication of ideas (so we don’t find ourselves assigning Hemingway to second graders). When we look at task and reader considerations, we were reminded to balance more complex strategy instruction with easier texts. Overall, the question we need to ask ourselves is “What makes text complex, and what will be difficult for my students?”

Fisher also addressed another area of potential confusion – close reading. His recommendation is that not all reading needs to or should be close reading, but when it is appropriate, students should be guided to read in three phases of depth: what the text says, how the text works, and what the text means. He cautions that this does not necessarily mean three readings; more or less may be called for, depending on the three factors of text complexity.

In this age of multiple mandates, it’s empowering for us to turn to mentors who help us to construct knowledge, rather than accept others’ interpretations of what rigorous and motivating education consists of. If we want our students to be critical thinkers and active learners, it has to start with us.

-What mentors, colleagues, or professional resources have you turned to lately for support?

-How have you been a source of support to others?

Lynne R. Dorfman profileLynne Dorfman is a co-director for PAWLP. Her new book, co-authored with Diane Dougherty, is Grammar Matters: Lessons, Tips, & Conversations Using Mentor Texts, K-6 (September 2014)


Janice Ewing is an adjunct for Cabrini College and a co-director for the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project. Janice co-facilitates PAWLP’s “Continuity Days” and this blog. She is an avid reader and writer, and especially enjoys writing poems.

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