Learning to Read

11 09, 2014

Reading Workshop – A Research-Based Approach

By |2018-12-17T11:37:01-06:00September 11th, 2014|Curriculum Connection, Learning to Read|2 Comments

by Bonnie L. Wishne, Head of School

cms_file_28945617_medAs we ease back into school every September, Ancona’s language arts teachers are laying the foundation for a year of minds-on reading by launching the Reading Workshop. The product of over twenty-five years of literacy research, the Reading Workshop (like its twin, the Writing Workshop) is a robust classroom architecture that develops engaged, thoughtful readers who are ready for high-performance learning.

The single factor most strongly associated with reading achievement–more than socioeconomic status or any instructional approach–is independent reading, according to Stephen Krashen, linguist and educational researcher. (The Power of Reading)

Independent Reading

To cultivate the habit of independent reading, Reading Workshops give our students important reading time during their school day. Teachers begin the workshop with a brief and carefully crafted mini-lesson, one idea for the children to learn to use as they read. Teachers capture the important points of the mini-lesson on the anchor charts one sees hanging in the classrooms to remind children of the good reading habits we want them to practice.  IMG_0574

Then, each child finds a comfortable spot for reading his/her book, and while the children read, the teacher moves about the class, conferring with individual students to assess their comprehension and application of the lesson and to offer guidance and reading strategies. S/he gains valuable insight into each child’s tastes, perspectives and ways of knowing that helps her to guide their reading and tailor her mini-lessons.


Reading is Communal


Studies show that children read more when they see other people reading, says Kashen. In the classroom workshop, Ancona students not only see others read, they learn to converse about their reading with partners, and, beginning in 3rd/4th grades, in small book clubs. Ancona students are fortunate to have teachers who are great readers, and researchers have long known that children who love to read come from homes where adults are readers. Partnering with parents, we make thinking and talking about books a habit.


Mini-lessons teach the myriad habits of good readers. They apply to readers at varying levels of proficiency, including those who are reading mostly pictures. Young readers might learn about the parts of a non-fiction book or how to figure out words they don’t know while later readers may discuss character, setting, inference, figurative language or the characteristics of a particular genre. Some mini-lessons give ideas for how to talk about our book or be a good listener for our partner. Above all, they teach that good readers think about and interpret the meaning of the text.

Just Right Choices

photoVarious studies have shown that allowing students to choose their own texts fosters engagement and increases reading motivation and interest and that to progress in their reading, children need to choose and read lots of books at their just right level; in other words, books where they know 95-99% of the words. Every classroom (and the school library) has many books at every level so that each child has many books from which to choose. By reading many books at a comfortable level, children will enjoy reading, develop reading stamina and progress to more challenging texts.

Units of Study

To ensure a rich and varied diet of reading experiences for our students,  teachers at every level follow a curriculum of study units in Readers Workshop.  Study units may focus on a genre — biography, non-fiction or poetry –or they may focus on an aspect of being a great reader — Building a Reading Life or Close Reading and Interpretation.  Some units of study are integrated with social studies or science units — Narrative Non-Fiction of Colonial America or Mythical Creatures: Fact or Fiction?  Parents can find descriptions of the current year’s units on their classroom websites.

Assessing Reading

Working together with our Learning Specialists, our teachers assess each student’s reading in September to determine the child’s just right level. Assessments take word knowledge, word recognition strategies and comprehension into account in setting the correct level. Children will bring home books to read; parents can look for books of similar difficulty outside of school. Teachers will let parents know their child’s just right level when they come for conferences. Regular conferencing with children provides teachers with ongoing monitoring of each child’s progress, and they assess again periodically during the school year to track each child’s reading progress.

Reading Support

What if a child isn’t yet reading at an appropriate level or isn’t making the progress we would expect? Our learning specialists are available to further diagnose children experiencing difficulty and to provide specialized, supplementary instruction for children they identify as needing additional support. The learning specialist will notify the parents of children she is assisting.

Read Alouds

Read alouds are an important complement to the Reading Workshop. Using a carefully chosen text, the teacher models the internal thinking of a good reader as s/he reads a story to the class. Each read aloud has a teaching point–making predictions, for example–that the children can then apply in their own reading. Read alouds teach children to think about their own thinking as they read.

Balanced Literacy

The Reading Workshop is only one component of Ancona’s balanced literacy program. Word study, Writing Workshop, listening to read-alouds, conversing about reading and reading and writing for content all contribute to each student’s growing literacy.

Through the Reading Workshop, each child authors his/her own dynamic reading life.

Passionate Teachers

Teaching great Reading Workshops is an art and a skill that develops over years, and we are fortunate to have passionate teachers who make reflection and refinement part of their daily practice.. We’ve been sending our language arts teachers to New York City for summer workshops at Teachers College at Columbia University for over ten years. All of our teachers of reading have been to at least one training, and most have been back many times for advanced work, to renew relationships and to learn the latest research and practices.



15 11, 2012


By |2018-12-17T11:37:48-06:00November 15th, 2012|Experiential Learning, Learning to Read, Parenting|0 Comments

Prelude:  It turns out that writing a blog, even just one entry, is more fun than I ever imagined.  My humble thanks to everyone who has read the blog and/or offered a comment.

Walking through the Ancona Library the other day, I heard Miss Marsha, our Librarian, buzzing like a bee and growling like bear, so I thought I’d stop and see what was going on.  She was reading a Big Book — a book big enough for everyone to see easily — to a group of three and four-year-olds in her most animated storyteller voice.  She paused and pointed to a picture, asking the children what it was.  Several children called out fly; some called out bug; and one young voice said dragonfly, which it was.

The child who knew she was looking at a dragonfly possesses a valuable form of learning capital:  background knowledge.  Because she already recognizes a dragonfly, she has a head start on understanding the story and on recognizing the word when she comes across it in print.  A recent New York Times article http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/28/nyregion/specialized-high-school-admissions-test-is-racially-discriminatory-complaint-says.html?_r=1 examined the link between vocabulary development and possible bias in high school admissions testing.   The author quoted the education theorist E. D. Hirsch saying there is strong evidence that increasing the general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before age 6 is the single highest correlate with later success.

What does it take to give a child a great head start with background knowledge?  Things that are both free and precious:  time, patience and experience.  Real conversations with children build their vocabularies and their understandings of the world.  They bring those rich vocabularies to their early reading experiences.  Montessori and Progressive schools emphasize experience to create these authentic learning connections for children, but parents play a critical role, too.

Just think about a trip to the gas station.  What is a pump? How does it work?  Where does the gas come from? What is gas, anyway? Why does the car need it?  What is fuel?  What’s a gauge?  What other things need fuel?

Or think about making pancakes.  How do we get eggs and milk?  What are the parts of an egg?  How is wheat turned into flour?  What is maple syrup?  Why do we beat the eggs? Why do we measure the ingredients? The possibilities are endless.  Such conversations not only develop a child’s vocabulary, they develop her curiosity, her competence and her sense of wonder about the world.

We know from brain science that emotional connections facilitate learning, so learning with one’s parent is powerful.  On a hike in a Wisconsin nature reserve a few weeks ago, I saw a mother wade deep into the prairie flowers to carefully examine a bug with her preprimary-aged child.  They looked at its markings, talked about its wings and antennae, discussed what it was doing on its leaf and looked around to find more.  There is no workbook page or app that can substitute for that kind of experience (although, a mobile device could be very useful for identifying the bug if you don’t know what it is.).

There are no limits to these kinds of conversations, either.  I had a high school friend who is now an M.I.T. physicist.  His father was also a scientist, and I can remember him telling me as I struggled with physics that he simply grew up understanding the 1st Law of Thermodynamics.  Now that’s some background knowledge!


17 10, 2012

Lessons from The Wind in the Willows

By |2018-12-17T11:37:49-06:00October 17th, 2012|Learning to Read, Parenting|2 Comments

Prelude:  We at Ancona educate confident risk-takers, and with that in mind, I am hereby introducing my first blog.  I will be sharing thoughts, musings and experiences about education, parenting and kids that arise from my 40+ years of teaching and leading The Ancona School.  They will, I hope, be of interest, particularly to parents trying to navigate today’s fraught childrearing environment. 

Lessons from The Wind in the Willows

For my daughter’s fifth or sixth birthday, her uncle gave her a hard-bound copy of the children’s classic The Wind in the Willows.  Nadia was actually quite a good reader for her age, but she had no particular interest in this thick book with pages and pages of print and few illustrations, even when I tried reading it aloud to her.

It sat forgotten and unloved on her bookshelves amongst many well-worn and much-read books until one evening, many months later, I was sitting on my bed working my way through a dense text for a course, underlining and writing notes in the margins.  Nadia appeared with The Wind in the Willows and a pencil.  She climbed up on the bed, leaned into me and proceeded to page through her book, underlining and making scribbly notes in the margins.  I was a little aghast that she was marking up this quite lovely book, but I understood that she was trying out what seemed to her to be an adult kind of reading.  I also understood that, at that moment, The Wind in the Willows was nearly as unintelligible to her as a graduate school text.

Part of the genius of children is that they are keen observers of our every move.  We know from research that a good indicator of reading success is growing up in a home where there are numerous books, and the adults are readers. Children need to see adults reading – not just to the children, but because they read and love reading for their own purposes.   I tried to model reading and to make it a central part of our lives in many more conscious ways:   reading to her daily, of course; giving books as holiday and birthday gifts; browsing together in the library and bookstore; bringing books to the beach or restaurant; and discussing my own book choices and trading books with friends and family when she was around.

This quite sweet memory of The Wind in the Willows came back to me as we prepared for Literacy Night this week.  Many parents today are so anxious about when their children will read and whether the books are hard enough, that I fear they lose sight of the real goal:  to set the stage for a child’s lifetime of reading.  I hope parents will remember that children who love to read grow up in households that love to read.

While reading to and reading with children definitely supports learning to read, it should never be a source of stress, dissatisfaction or disappointment.  Reading together can and should deepen the emotional and intellectual bonds between parent and child; I can still remember that warm little body pressed up against mine.  And my adult daughter and I still exchange favorite books.

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