Differentiating Reading Instruction and the Walk to Read Model – Hit or Miss??

Differentiating Reading Instruction and the Walk to Read Model – Hit or Miss??

Walking to read is the process of grouping kids in skill-alike groups for a small portion of the day. 

Typically teachers in a grade level will "specialize" in a particular skill level grouping during Walk to Read and the students will "walk" to that group for targeted instruction.

In its best form, walking to read allows for more targeted, more efficient, more streamlined planning, instruction and assessment monitoring.  It’s a GREAT option for a highly functional staff.

Notice that I said "Highly functional"…more to come on this…

For those who know me and hear me speak, you know that I am neither a supporter of the Walk to Read (WTR) model nor am I a naysayer. 

And here’s why:

Walking to read IN THEORY is a great way to streamline the planning AND the delivery of targeted small group instruction students at all levels.  If there are problems with WTR, it’s usually in the execution of the model, not in the theory of the model. 

So it’s important to be HONEST, be FORTHRIGHT, and DEMAND COLLABORATION when you’re launching into or re-establishing a walk to read model in any grade level and school.

Here are a few examples of why walking to read can fail:

  • There are trust issues within the grade level and teachers don’t want to "give up" their kids to "that teacher" – these are essentially trust issues amongst professionals
  • There is an illusion of high differentiated instruction during small groups just because we have kids of like skill level grouped together
  • There is an in-the-dark feeling about kids because there are not functions for collaboration and close monitoring between homeroom and WTR teachers
  • There is lost time for instruction because traveling from one spot to another is poorly executed
  • There are increased behavior problems because teachers have varied behavioral expectations



Here’s how it CAN work:

SOLUTION 1: Discuss trust issues head-on – get real about concerns!  If there is a worry that your teaching partner might not put in enough time for prepping killer lessons, then set up a time to plan together.  If your teaching partners are too "lax" on their management of the kids, then suggest that you come up with common expectations across groups that you jointly teach the kids!

SOLUTION 2: Share weekly plans for kids – in other words: POST YOUR PLANS, PERUSE YOUR PLANS AND DISCUSS YOUR PLANS!  If they look too much alike (and are not, therefore, differentiating instruction), then work together to suggest ways that you can change-up lessons and challenge kids more than they are currently challenged.  Create a check-list together for each lesson so that you ensure that true differentiated instruction is really happening.

SOLUTION 3: Set bi-monthly data meetings where you get together FOR THE SOLE PURPOSE OF TALKING THROUGH THE WALK TO READ DATA and nothing else!  Go student-by-student and discuss what’s going well, what’s a struggle, what growth the data is showing and then set targets for each group.  This builds in camaraderie AND trust!

The cool thing is, the more you talk, the more you collaborate.

And the more you collaborate, the more you trust. 

And the more you trust your teaching comrades, the more you focus on the kids. 

And the more you focus on the kids, the more they learn. 

And the more they learn…

Need I go on?


Don’t Get It Twisted! The Differences Between Responding and Discussing

So…I talk a lot.  In fact, I talk for a living!  (How’s THAT for working talking into an art form!)

Well, I’ve been told that I “talk just to be talking”…of course I disagree, but that doesn’t surprise you, does it?

When I’m coaching teachers and observing in their classrooms I see lots of talking for talking sake, but not necessarily lots of talking for mastery sake!  Let me explain…

There are two kinds of important verbal interactions in classrooms:

  1. Responses
  2. Discussions

Excellent classrooms have a smattering of BOTH kinds of speaking – teachers who get excellent results make sure that the output (or what kids are saying) is something that they monitor closely and measure carefully…kids need to be responding continually as they try new techniques so that we know what they’re learning and can give them in-the-moment feedback. 

Now here’s where I see lots of confusion…

Some teachers are confusing lots of talk and lots of responding with lots of quality talk and lots of quality responding!

Here’s where they’re going wrong, I think: they are confusing lots of responding with lots of discussion.  And it causes frustration because they’re thinking, “Geez!  Why can’t I get my kids to have a proper conversation about this new piece of text?  All they do is copy my answers or shrug their shoulders when it’s their turn to add to the discussion…they also let the same kids do all of the answering all the time…ugh ugh ugh!

Does that sound familiar to you?  (Not that it happens in your classroom of course, but you’ve heard that…ahem…a “friend” is having this problem…)

If you’re struggling with this, here’s where you can fix it:

#1: There is a difference between a response and a discussion

Responses are quick and rapid answers that are oftentimes simple, recall-based skills that they’re practicing.  Many a time responses are given as a whole class and in unison.  An example of a response would be this:

Teacher: Guys, listen to the this word.  “Peak”.  What is the first sound you hear in “peak”?

Students: /p/

Discussions are more complex and conversation driven.  They aren’t focused on a “right” answer, but a complete response that is longer and more complete. An example of a discussion would be something like this:

Teacher: Ladies and gentlemen, today we are going to have a discussion about the motivation of our main character.  I would like you to think of two examples from the text that give you clues as to why the man decided to leave the dog in the mountains, even though the dog was his best friend.  Think for a minute and then I’m going to have Jonathan start our discussion of the character’s motive.

Jonathan: Well I agree with Heather’s response when she said the man had to save himself before he could ever save the dog.  I think the man was motivated to leave his dog in the mountains even though he loved him so much, because the dog was injured and slowing the man down.  The man knew that he only had a few hours to live so in order to be able to save the dog in any way, he had to save himself first.  The author even gave me that idea when he wrote…

#2: Just because students are good responders doesn’t mean that they’ll be good discussers

Responding is a skill.  Holding a discussion is a skill.  Both have to be practiced regularly in order to become automatic.  I find that some teachers get really frustrated when students aren’t doing well in a conversation around a concept or piece of text.  And when I ask them “How often do you practice discussion as an academic skill?”  They usually will say, ” ALL the time!!!”

But when I dig deep and give them perspective on discussion v. responding, they realize that they have had students responding constantly (which is why they’re so good at it!), but discussion is rarely taught explicitly and rarely practiced often.

So, what do you do about all of this?

Well, I encourage you to start by putting a yellow highlight in your lesson plan book/curriculum guide/teacher’s manual where you’re going to have students respond. 

Then put a green highlight everywhere in your materials that you’re going to have students discuss.  If you find that you’re radically lop-sided, add in the under-represented skill a few more times to even it out. 

Sometimes it’s the simple awareness of how often we engage in practices that helps us refine our practices beautifully!

A Requirement, Not An Invitation: How To Engage Students


Have you ever googled “How to engage students?” out of desperation or curiosity?

I have….and what I found was a lot of quick tips and how-tos.  The problem is, I think that looking at engaging students comes from a deeper well than just trying some new techniques.  Let’s be real – – if it were about a simple technique, wouldn’t we ALL be doing it and reaping the benefits right now?

While I don’t have the silver, magic bullet for you (Sorry!), I do know what you need to do to engage your students – or engage them in a bigger way this school year.

The secret?  It’s all about you.  I know it, you wanted me to make it about the students, but it’s really not.

Here are 7-Quick-Steps for you to implement RIGHT NOW to engage students in a way that you haven’t before:

  1. Realize that engagement starts with expectation.  Treat students like they already ARE engaged…and they usually follow!
  2. Know that increasing student engagement is a habit.  Don’t give up – if you expect it and then reinforce, reinforce and reinforce, you WILL see improvement in engagement. Don’t give up!
  3. When you see low levels of engagement or general apathy to the lesson, check yourself first.  It might be that your energy isn’t very high or that you’re “phoning it in” without even knowing it!  There is POWER in “acting as if”…as if you are pumped!  As if you are ecstatic about the content!  Put your acting game face on!
  4. Engagement isn’t natural – If you are using a new engagement technique, realize that you must teach it, model it and tell students when they’re going to use it – and then practice, practice, practice before you expect it to be done.  Set kids up for success!
  5. Student engagement is built simultaneously on habitual use of engagement techniques AND keeping things interesting!  Find a balance between using techniques that students are confident in, but switching it up periodically so they don’t become stale and “phoned in”.  If you tune into your kids, you’ll know the exact point that you need to switch it up.
  6. Plan ahead for engagement.  While you might catch a break periodically with some bird-walking or “teachable moments”, 95% of your engagement should be planned for.  Ask yourself “Where do I need my kids to be super charged and into the content?”  And then work to teach them what it looks like to be engaged.
  7. Don’t assume that students know what engagement looks like and feels like.  I see that a lot of kids are struggling to engage because they don’t know what it is to be engaged!  If you’d unlock the secret for them, I bet they’d be raring to go.

Here’s what I know for sure: If you invite students to be engaged or more engaged, there’s a possibility that they won’t choose to join you!  BUT, if you structure your lessons so that they’re required to engage, you’re MUCH MORE LIKELY to see a big leap in engagement level.  It’s up to you!

The MUST HAVE Reading Strategies List for EVERY Teacher


I get quite a few questions about how to teach kids to read – a very common question is “What reading strategies list should I use as I teach my students to read?”

My response is usually something like this: Let’s think about how, in any field, if we want to get really good at something, we copy the masters or the greats in the field.  The masters/greats have figured it out and it behooves us to copy and steal a bit from them!

There is lots of confusion about which during reading strategies or before reading strategies are used, what they’re called, how often kids should use them and what it will look like when they’re using them perfectly.

Well.  I’m here to tell you this – reading strategies are designed to help facilitate comprehension.  End of article. End of series.  End of conversation! 

So, as we teach them to kids, we want to make sure that we’re not obsessing over the perfect use or memorizing the definition of each strategy (which, by the way, I see too much of).  Instead, we should be focusing on HOW THE STRATEGIES FACILITATE COMPREHENSION AND UNDERSTANDING OF THE TEXT!

Say I’m using a strategy like “monitoring comprehension”, for example.  That might look like this: I’m reading through a new text and I realize that a new character is popping up and I don’t know who the character is and maybe I missed something.  And so I recognize that I don’t know who this character is, so I better go back and look through the text and find where the character’s name cropped up for the first time and reread that section so that I can go back to my point of confusion and continue to read – and understand!

Using a reading strategies list is not a science – it’s part science and part art!  And we need to look at what good readers do and how they use strategies and teach reading strategies in the same way to our students!

Here is a good, solid list for you to reference as you teach and then model, model, model and model even more how good readers use strategies during reading to make sense of the text:

  • Making connections
  • Questioning
  • Visualizing
  • Making inferences
  • Synthesizing information

So, where do you start?  Start by figuring out where in the text the strategies above might come into good use – and apply the teach, model, practice, apply model to teaching that strategy.  Start small and do it right and watch comprehension soar!


What Are Reading Strategies and Why Are They So Important for All Kids?

I remember when I first started teaching I fantasized that I would have a gaggle of kids sitting at my feet while I read books aloud to them and we would marvel at the literature (of Kindergarten???) and have deep conversations about the meaning of the literature and connect the text to the world and basically just live out every English teacher’s fantasy (or at least THIS English minor’s teaching fantasy!)

And then my students showed up.

And I cried.

And my mom had to come and help me.

Like moms do.

And then I pulled it together!

So what do I mean by “pulled it together”?

I got real about what my students needed and what I would have to do to provide it to them.  Gone were the sitting at the teacher’s feet for hours on end, discussing the deeper meaning of Goodnight Moon and onto really teaching these kids WHAT good readers do and HOW to do what good readers do.

I came to understand much more clearly what reading strategies are for and why I needed to start teaching them – especially in Kindergarten!

So, here’s what I’ve learned and incorporated into my practices in Kindergarten and upper elementary, middle school and high school classrooms – these are ideas that work in REAL LIFE classrooms!

  1. Reading strategies (like compare and contrast, prediction and inference, summarizing, etc.) are solely for the purpose of boosting comprehension of the text.
  2. Reading strategies are super important to teach because by teaching them we show students how good readers think.  This is so important because learning to read is NOT a natural process.  If it were, we wouldn’t have such high illiteracy rates!
  3. Reading strategies need to be modeled, modeled, modeled to kids of all ages before they become automatic.  Just like you wouldn’t give a car to a 15 year old learning to drive, you don’t hand over comprehension of text to students without lots of hand holding!
  4. Reading strategies are a process, not a check on a checklist.  Prior to reading ANY text, you should model and think aloud for students how you, as a successful reader, approach and attack the text.  Things like “Hmm…this has me thinking that I’m a little confused, let me use my reading comprehension strategy of re-reading to see if I can make more sense of this.” Think-alouds like this give kids permission to ask questions about the text.
  5. Reading strategies give kids TOOLS to figure out difficult text – this is the whole point!  Teaching reading comprehension shouldn’t been a shot in the dark – we need to ARM kids with the big guns (proven reading comprehension strategies) to be able to take on new text with lots of new vocabulary and lots of new content knowledge. 
  6. Reading strategies give kids confidence.  Have you ever seen a strong, confident reader cower at the thought of difficult text?  Probably not!  They go rip-roarin’ into the text because they’re thinking, “I’ve got this!” – and what you see is them regularly and appropriately applying reading comprehension strategies!

So, what are reading strategies?

Reading strategies are flexible tools designed to help facilitate text comprehension.

And why are they so important for all kids?

Reading strategies are critical to develop in order to boost comprehension, confidence and clarity while reading text.

So, where do you start with all of this?  Start by reflecting on your lessons from last year – did you make assumptions that kids already knew/had the reading strategies?  Were there multiple opportunities each day in different kinds of text where you modeled the strategies?  Where do you see obvious opportunities to model next year?

Now, I’ve got to go and get back to prepping my Proust lesson for my kindergarten demo tomorrow.  *wink wink*