Critical Literacy: Evaluative Thinking in Pre-K

As educators, we strive daily to help students think critically. One of the chief ways we do this is through our questioning. When we ask higher-level questions, students must utilize higher order skills such as: Evaluating, Analyzing, and Creating—the top tiers of Bloom’s Taxonomy.


It is helpful to plan such questions in advance.

In the lesson below, preschool teacher Courtney Thompson planned a lesson to help students EVALUATE. She read the popular text Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems, in which the character – the Pigeon – tries to persuade the bus driver to let him drive the bus. She then asked students to evaluate when she asked the following:

Would you let the pigeon drive the bus?


Why or Why not?

Students were directed to think about what the pigeon was saying in the story and then to EVALUATE whether or not they would let the pigeon drive the bus. They had to draw a picture that showed their decision. Many students said they wouldn’t let the pigeon drive for reasons such as “he would crash.” Others said they would let him drive the bus.

Take a look at the video below for a snippet of the lesson:

Other ways that teachers can easily plan for EVALUATING during shared reading include:

Judging character decisions/motivations

Exploring other ways to solve problems in the story

Wondering about how problems could have been avoided

Rating a character’s reaction

We are thrilled to see this work beginning in Pre-K, and it paves the way for more complex evaluative thinking in future years.

What ways are you engaging your young learners in evaluation?

~ Darla and Jen


Five Reasons You Need To Read Aloud Now

Why is read aloud so important in every classroom? In conversations with our teachers, visits to classrooms, and considering new information from our recent visit to #ILA15 (International Literacy Association) convention this year in St. Louis, we’ve come up with five reasons we think teachers need to read aloud every day in every (yes every) grade level.

#5 Reading Aloud helps develop a community of readers. You could call read aloud the “oldest book club” in the word. But it’s even better than that because it’s in the moment. Twenty five eager listeners find out together if “Ivan” will ever be happy in his new home. They learn to choose kindness in the pages of Wonder, and they begin to understand that it’s okay to be an Absolutely Almost just like Albie. They do these things alongside of friends–and it becomes all the more meaningful.


#4 Reading Aloud to students helps expose them to text levels they can’t access on their own. As David Booth said, “One thing you offer kids is that you can read (texts that) they can’t.” You “represent for them the literacy texts they can’t handle yet through the eye, but they can handle through the ear” (Webinar: 2005).  As cited in Steven Layne’s newest book In Defense of Read Aloud, students can comprehend when listening at least two grade levels above their independent reading level. And this speaks to all students, from kindergarten to seniors in high school. Reading aloud wipes away any struggle that may exist with decoding. It evens the playing field. Suddenly, all students can contribute to the conversation.

read aloud

#3 Reading Aloud gives students the opportunity to engage in critical conversations. These conversations help them to be critical thinkers rather than passive receivers of ideas. Once students begin to recognize and discuss issues of concern to them and connect these issues and ideas to their lives, they begin take action in the world. What could be more important?

#2 Reading Aloud provides opportunities to model strategies to build independent reading skills.  When students are finding a text meaningful and enjoyable, it’s the perfect time for teachable moments. Teachers are able to show the work that readers do each time they open the pages of a book, making complicated processes more transparent and transferrable.  Whether it’s Know and Wonder work highlighted in Vinton’s What Readers Really Do or Beer’s Notice and Note signposts, read aloud supports the development of independent reading habits that can last a lifetime.

#1 Reading Aloud hooks readers. Chances are, you remember that one teacher (maybe more if you’re lucky) who read aloud. For me, it was my high school English teacher. He read Great Expectations and we talked about it. It was that simple, yet it was the first time in my life I considered issues from different viewpoints, the first time I really wanted to know what happened. At that point, the literacy door cracked open a little wider. For Jen, it was Mr. Brewer reading Treasure Island in sixth grade. It wasn’t just a read aloud, it was a performance. His voice boomed down the hallways, and a student or two from another class could always be seen peeking in, mesmerized by the tone, rhythm, and animation of a master storyteller.

As Steven Layne said in a recent Webinar, you will most certainly have a student or two who says, I hate reading.  Read aloud may not change that mindset completely. But … and this is an important but … for many students, it will be the first positive experience they have ever had with a book. Imagine the power in that sentence. Teachers have the power through reading aloud to open students’ eyes to the power of reading.

Reading aloud can be a game changer for students who need it most. It can crack open the door–as it did for us–and open up a new world. What are you reading tomorrow?

~ Darla and Jen

Independent Reading Series: Time and Choice

boy reading

The research base on student-selected reading is robust and conclusive: Students read more, understand more, and are more likely to continue reading when they have the opportunity to choose what they read. In a 2004 meta-analysis, Guthrie and Humenick found that the two most powerful instructional design factors for improving reading motivation and comprehension were (1) student access to many books and (2) personal choice of what to read. (Dick Allington, 2012 EL Vol 69)

One of our favorite articles about reading is Every Child, Every Day by Allington and Gabriel. In it, they describe the six elements of reading instruction that students should have every day.  The first element: Every child reads something he or she chooses.

In our launching post, we stated our beliefs about independent reading.  First on our list was the need to give students time to read each day, and second was the importance of allowing students to choose what they read. These are two simple choices we can make as teachers that will have the greatest impact on the reading achievement of our students.

In speaking with teachers, we’ve found that there exists a wide-interpretation of what independent reading time looks like.  We thought it might be helpful to look at what providing true time for reading looks like vs. the less desirable forms it may take in the classroom.

True Time For Reading:

·      Specifically included as a cohesive part of the daily instructional plan.

·      Age appropriate block of time given for meaningful interaction with text every day.

       (If students aren’t used to large blocks of time spent reading independently, start small. Consider using classroom or individual stamina goals that will increase volume over time. It’s also important to discuss what real reading looks like as compared to skimming or flipping through a book.) 

·      Expectations and procedures of time are clearly conveyed to students. 

       (For instance, students should know how long they will be reading, what kind of moving around is permissible, what type of jotting or writing they might be expected to do, and what the teacher’s role is during this time.)

·      Viewed just as, or more important than direct instruction.

·      Student selects text

Less Effective:

·      Added in to the schedule whenever time allows.

·      Used as transition period, such as after recess.

·      Cut from the schedule to ensure time for other instruction/activities.

·      Given as an option at centers or only if other work is finished.

·      All students read the same text, or teacher selects individual texts

Questions also arise about text selection. Do we allow students to read whatever they please? What if the text they choose isn’t appropriate?  Is it okay that a student reads below his or her level?  It’s important to note that choice isn’t completely unmonitored or undirected by the teacher.

Choice Involves:

·     Teaching students how to decide if a book is a good fit for them and then reteaching those strategies as necessary.  The most effective independent reading provides students with high-success experiences.  If students are choosing texts that frustrate them, be sure to confer about finding “just right” books to get them back on track.

·     Guiding students toward appropriate books, but not limiting them to specific book bins or Lexile levels.

·     Understanding that student interest plays a large role in how successful a student will be with a text.

·    Allowing for guilty pleasure reading (i.e. reading enjoyable books that are well below the student’s level), and…

·    Asking students to challenge themselves by trying new titles, authors, and topics. 

          (It helps to think about what is on our own night tables. There’s probably a huge variety in our reading diet, from favorite magazines to professional books, to the latest Jodi Picoult novel. We choose based on what what we bring cognitively to the reading table each day. Some days we may need an easy read, while on other days we can tackle a 400 page novel. It is no different for students.)

·     Sometimes requiring a selection within a certain genre that is being studied. 

We know that even with all of these guiding principles in mind, teachers fear that students won’t make appropriate choices.  We know that we have chronic book abandoners, students who get stuck reading Magic Tree House and won’t move on, and students who insist on checking out books that they simply cannot read. We are looking forward to sharing our ideas about these tricky scenarios in this series, so we hope that you’ll join us for future posts.

Getting Started

If independent reading hasn’t been a daily priority in your classroom, it’s time to make it one. Begin by deciding what part of the day works best for you and your students. Some teachers prefer to have students begin each day by reading, and others use it to close the day. We feel that independent reading works best directly following read aloud.  Whatever time you decide on, be sure that it’s one that is uninterrupted, focused, and non-negotiable.

Worried that your current classroom library isn’t large enough to provide adequate choice for your students? Start by developing a weekly time to visit your school library. Working together with your school librarian who is able to order books or suggest new titles is a great way to begin planning your own book collection. Many teachers are concerned about the cost of books, and developing a classroom library can be a pricey investment. But it’s just that…an investment. When independent reading is a priority, teachers will look to cut out other spending in order to buy books. Also, consider these ideas when building your collection:

* Join Scholastic Reading Club to earn free books for your class. Each time a student orders, you get points. Make a big deal out of the monthly order form and the tiles inside, and your students will be excited about ordering. The points add up quickly.

* Inquire about grants available to teachers. Our town has an education foundation that has given thousands of dollars in books to our teachers. Stay connected on social media to find out about special grants or contests that award classroom libraries.

* Let parents know that you are all about books. Many would probably be happy to clean their house of unused, outgrown books.

* Check Craigslist, eBay, and other local yard sale sites for people who are selling used books at a bargain price.

* Consider talking to your parent-teacher association about investing in classroom libraries. You never know until you ask!

Providing time and choice for your students is the first step to developing strong independent readers in your classroom.  Donalyn Miller has greatly influenced our thinking about independent reading, and we would love for you to read both of her books on the topic of developing readers in and out of the classroom.

book whisp2 book whisperer

(Available in the WES library)

We’ll leave you with this tweet from Kylene Beers (We love her!).

We would love to hear what successful structures for time and choice you have implemented in your classroom!

~ Jen and Darla

Independent Reading Series


After posting every day during the month of March as part of Two Writing Teacher’s Slice of Life Challenge, we took a little time off to decide what was next. We’ve been in and out of classrooms, talking with teachers and students, and we are excited to dive into a series of posts on independent reading.

We share core beliefs about independent reading:

1. Students must read independently every day. 

2.  Students must have choice when it comes to independent reading. 

3. Students must have access to appropriate, high-quality, high-interest texts at home and in school. 

4. Teachers must confer with students frequently about their independent reading: giving feedback and setting goals.  

5. Accountability structures must be implemented with great care and regard for authenticity. 

It’s important to clarify what we mean when we say independent reading. This is not the assigned pages in a science text leading up to a test. We’re not talking about the article that the whole class is required to read during a unit of study.  On the other end of the spectrum, this is not students going off on their own to read whatever suits them momentarily, with no guidance, expectations, or purpose.

The independent reading that we’re referring to is thoughtful, purposeful, student-driven, and teacher supported.

And there are so many ways for teachers to support this time that makes all the difference in the reading lives of students.  And as we know from research, and our own trial and error, there are so many mistakes that can be made as well…to ruin this seemingly simple act.

We can’t wait to share some of the great success that we’ve seen in classrooms.  After talking with teachers in a range of grade levels, we hope to address some points of frustration as well.

Many wonderful minds have inspired our thinking about independent reading. Donalyn Miller, Kelly Gallagher, Kylene Beers, and (of course) Dick Allington are just a few of the educators whose wisdom and research have shaped our core beliefs.  Recently, we’ve been enjoying Kathy Collin’s and Matt Glover’s new book, I AM Reading


We’re sure that we’ll be referencing their work with early readers as we share ways to support independent reading at all levels.

We hope that you’ll join us for this upcoming series, and we’d love your feedback and input as we explore this topic.

~ Jen and Darla


slice of lifeAs the quote says, reflecting on our journey is what fuels learning. It allows us to look back, re-evaluate, change course — or newly commit to the current one — consider our strengths, and determine where we still need or simply want to grow.


We believe productive reflection is thinking about what’s next based on where we’ve been. Not asking what if I had … or lamenting if only I didn’t … (miss those three days of commenting!)

So here are some lessons we learned from this challenge and some what’s nexts for us:


-Supportive communities of writers make us stronger as individuals. Writers (at least Slicers) are just plain nice folks. They want us to succeed because we are joined in this literacy journey together. You can feel their support in their comments and posts. They build us up in a genuine way. It’s worth the time to invest part of our lives in community.

-Supportive writing partnerships push us forward. No doubt about that. There’s power in numbers. And, accountability to others is often more motivating than accountability to ourselves. In partnerships, there’s power.

-Sometimes writing comes easily. Most times, it needs to be inspired. We can inspire ourselves and others in lots of ways. Reading other blogs, books, looking at beautiful images, or reflecting on the day’s events. Thinking about the strengths of our partners, their writing territories, and where they might go next. When the writing doesn’t come, we can search for inspiration.

-Sincere compliments and feedback go a LONG way. We need to compliment our fellow writers. It’s the least we can do. And guess what–this helps lift us up as writers. It’s a win-win.

-Learning about other writers and their writerly lives makes us tick. We are passionate about it. Writers just need to stick together. Only we understand that we HAVE to write. Like we need to breathe, eat, live.

-There’s tired, and then there’s just DOG tired.


-We plan to write more about what truly inspires us. That hasn’t changed. Teaching, learning, leading, connecting our literacy lives both inside and outside of the classroom.

-We plan to connect even more with writing communities that sustain us. We will start by SLICING every Tuesday with fellow writers at TWT.

-We plan to read more blogs of our writers and comment more. It’s important for us and them.

-Last, when we get tired beyond words, we will … SLEEP! Yes, sleep. And then write.

It’s been a journey.

Good luck with yours.

For all of the day’s Slice of Life stories head to Two Writing Teachers.

Darla & Jen


All the Reasons

slice of life



Lessons plans

Baseball practice

Play practice




Lunch boxes

School clothes

All the reasons why I don’t have the time

Staring at me, scolding me, defeating me

But all I need is just need one reason

One reason to stay

One reason to try

One reason why

I should be here.


We’ve had our fair share of days during the last two weeks when slicing hasn’t fit nicely into the schedule. Baseball season started, PARCC testing happened, our kids were sick, then we were sick, end of year paperwork (already!), PD days, and days when just didn’t feel like it.  All the reasons why this challenge was too hard were pretty convincing at times.

We’ve been thinking a lot about challenge and struggle. And we think it’s good. It’s been good for us, and we know it’s good for our students too. There is real joy in hard work and accomplishment, and this is something we must impart to the young learners in our classrooms.

It’s okay to say,

This is going to be hard. You might not feel good about it right away. You may get it wrong a few times. But, you’re going to keep trying, and I’m going to keep helping you.

This is going to be hard, but you will do it. 

And you’ll be so happy when you do. 

We are very glad that we joined the Slice of Life Community this year. After a month of writing daily, we have a lot of reasons why we’re looking forward to March 2016.  Congratulations to everyone on your hard work. What an accomplishment!

What a joy.

For all of the day’s Slice of Life stories head to Two Writing Teachers.

~ Jen and Darla


slice of life

The spring Saturday reunion at Teachers College Reading and Writing Project can never come too early. We are always ready – as the school year is winding down – to be inspired and leave re-energized for the last few months of the year. Yesterday was no different.

We left with our own take-aways from individual workshops that we can’t wait to put into practice. But collectively, we left with the wisdom and guidance from the two keynote speakers – Ms. Patricia Polacco and Ms. Kylene Beers.

The heart of both of their messages was that students need CHOICE. And we – as teachers and literacy leaders – need to make sure they have it.


As Ms. Beers stated, The best book a student will ever read is the one he chooses himself. And as Ms. Polacco said so passionately, “Teachers need to unite!”

We need to make our voices heard about what needs to happen in classrooms – and possibly more important – what shouldn’t be happening in classrooms.

We leave the spring reunion with renewed abandon to offer our students the power to choose books that are relevant to their lives. We leave with validation that the rich literature we share and discuss with our students is vital, yes vital, for their growth as empathetic, caring individuals.

So we will continue to search high and low for just the right book if it will make a difference for a student. And we’ll share only literature that is worthy of our students’ time, books that just might change their lives.

We hope you will too.

For all of today’s Slice of Life stories head to Two Writing Teachers.

~ Darla and Jen