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10 questions to ask the teacher next door

What is your friend doing next door in Reading Workshop?   So many times we stay isolated in our classrooms and forget that there’s a wealth of literacy expertise just next door or down the hall.   Here are 10 questions to ask your neighbor about what they’re doing in reading right now.


  1. What book have you read aloud to your class that they like the most?
  2. How do you use AR (Accelerated Reader) with your students?
  3. What’s your biggest struggle in teaching reading right now?
  4. What’s your favorite reading center?
  5. What is your students’ favorite reading center?
  6. What is your favorite go-to site for literacy resources?
  7. How do you find ideas for your reading lessons?
  8. What do you remember about reading as a kid?
  9. Who is the lowest reader in your class and what are you doing to help them?
  10. Who has made the most growth in your class?  What did you do that helped them the most?

I hope these questions prompt some quality discussion with your colleague.    We can all benefit from each other’s expertise, through the Internet or IRL.



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Three great FREE reading activities to try

Are you familiar with the Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR)?    They have done incredible work making effective research-based literacy activities, and they offer them all for free on their website.    The centers include directions for teachers and all the necessary materials.   They are mostly print and go activities requiring minimal teacher prep (Yay for that because we are all short on time these days!)  There are so many resources on their site that it’s tough to find what you’re looking for at the time you need it.   You can view the collections of resources by type (phonics, fluency, comprehension, etc) and by grade level band.   There is also a search tool.  Take some time later and see all that they have to offer.


All Reading Center Activities:

Search Tool:


Here are my three favorites that have been proven to work with my struggling readers over the past few years.

1. Vowel Picture Sort– This activity is an essential part of my reading curriculum.  I do it whole group before my students start learning the long vowels, and I revisit it in small groups when my students need intervention.   In the activity, students must listen for the medial vowel in picture cards and then sort based on a long or short vowel sound that is heard.    Often in reading instruction, we rush straight from teaching short vowels to introducing the long vowel sounds and magic e rule.   This exercise slows the learning down and makes sure that students are developmentally ready for the concept that one letter (the vowel) can stand for more than one sound.   The activity trains the ear to segment the vowels and helps students hold both the long and short sounds in their brains.  Try this activity with your students.  I promise, it will not be time wasted.


2.  Vowel Stars-This is another one of my favorite games.   Students are asked to change the short vowel in CVC words (example: dig, dog, dug).   I usually do this task with students in small groups and make it a competition.  They try to get 4/5 or 5/5 correct before switching cards.    Students could even grade each other and listen for their peer’s responses.  I explain the importance of listening for the subtle differences in words in my blog post titled Same Same but Different.


3.  Phoneme Swap-In my opinion, students don’t get enough time playing with sounds.   We used to do more nursery rhymes, poems, and songs in Kindergarten, but now that the reading standards have been pushed down, the Kdg teachers must teach letters and sounds earlier than before so the students miss that language playtime.    I believe the missing skill in struggling readers is phonemic awareness (specifically the ability to segment and blend sounds).  This activity addresses that weakness. Students must determine how words are changed (ex-boat to coat).   That phoneme manipulation will help students improve their spelling and decoding abilities.


Try these activities with your students, especially the ones struggling with learning to read.   And have fun exploring the FCRR resources!   Let me know your favorites by commenting below.

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What is a vowel?



Pop quiz time:   What’s the difference between a vowel and a consonant?


Do you know?  I didn’t take linguistics in college (not required for education majors).  So I didn’t learn this until I read some research textbooks on-line after becoming a reading specialist 5 years into my teaching career.   (nerd alert! I read literacy research textbooks for fun so you don’t have to). Anyway, I don’t recall the exact “researchy” definition of a vowel or a consonant, but this is the way I explain it to students:


Vowels open your mouth; consonants close your mouth.


Did you know this?  It was an eye-opening, jaw-dropping moment for me when I realized this (pun intended).   I immediately tested it to just to make sure it was true for every letter and, SPOILER ALERT, it is!  All of a sudden, I understood why there’s such thing as a closed syllable versus an open syllable.    Now I knew why the vowels are “a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y”.   Finally I realized when the “sometimes y” occurs.


After I learned what a vowel is, I started teaching it to the kids in my reading segments. Now it’s one of the first lessons I will do when beginning the school year or launching a new reading group.  Curious the exact language I use? Check out this teaching powerpoint. And here is a freebie I made for the students to use for reference.


I use two types of images to help my visual learners remember this key difference.


  1. Open mouth face versus closed mouth face
  2. Open door versus closed door


For kinesthetic learners, I keep small pocket mirrors in my reading supplies.   The students and I watch in the mirrors as we practice saying all the vowel sounds and see our mouths open wide as we produce them.  Then we see and feel how our mouth must close (partially or all the way) to make the consonant sounds. As a science experiment/performance task, I’ll ask the students to “prove it” for each sound.  I give them 26 index cards (one for each letter) and have them say each sound while looking in the mirror. Then they sort by open or closed mouth/vowel or consonant. This is a fresh way to think about the letters, and my students have always enjoyed and learned from this hands-on task.   It helps them internalize the difference in the letter types, which sets them up for future success when learning the various vowel sounds and syllable types.

TEACHING NOTES: Sometimes students get confused on /g/, /h/, /p/.    The /m/ and /v/ sounds are some of the more obvious ones. I’ll tell them to make a pile of ones they’re not sure about, and we’ll go over them at the end.   If they’re really stuck and confused, show them the jaw and how it is hinging as you say the sounds. You have to start opening your mouth to get out a vowel sound (be it long, short, r-controlled, truly ANY vowel sound).  Your mouth HAS to open to make that sound. Consonant sounds, however, are made by starting to close your mouth. To make the /h/ sound, you have to slightly close your mouth to push the sound out. You have to push your lips closed to make the /p/ sound.


Over the years, I’ve been told by my administrators that my ideas are “outside of the box.”  This instruction falls in that category. It’s not a typical lesson that occurs beyond kindergarten or first grade classrooms.  But it’s an essential piece of my literacy content and one that I’ve taught to all my reading groups, even to students in fourth and fifth grade.  I’ve found that when students truly internalize the difference between vowels and consonants, they have an easier time understanding the categories of syllables and how to change vowel sounds.


Try this lesson with your students and let me know how it goes.   Comment below or email me at

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My Why

What’s your WHY?


Have you seen this Ted Talk by Simon Sinek?


In it, he explains how important it is for companies and people to know their WHY at the heart of what they do.  As educators, I think knowing our WHY is so essential.  I try to revisit my WHY at the beginning of each school year and each grading period.


Here’s the WHY for RDNG.  This is WHY I began this company while still continuing to work as a teacher.


Everyone deserves the gift of reading. It’s one of the most meaningful things in my life.  When I started teaching, I didn’t know how to help a student learn to read.  I could take a decent reader and make them better, but I left college not knowing how to help a non-reader, beyond some flashcards and  Truthfully, there are some students who I call “The Ones Who Got Away.”  They left my 3rd grade classroom still not knowing how to read—and that responsibility still haunts me.  I hope and pray that they learned from their next teacher.

I learned how to teach reading when working with low readers and studying them for over 12 years.  I analyzed their weaknesses, read countless resources, and tried various activities and methods to find what works.   My job was my reading laboratory.

I want to share all those resources and tools with you so that you can unlock literacy for your struggling readers when they first enter your room.  Think of this site as a course titled “What I Wish I Had Learned about in Teacher Training about How to Teach Kids How to Read”.  Let me save you some time and energy by compiling the most ready resources and knowledge to help you develop literacy skills for the students in your classroom.


What is your WHY?  Why did you become a teacher?  Why do you continue to choose to work with students, even when teaching feels like an impossible job sometimes?  What keeps you returning to work to serve your kids?

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Same Same but Different


My friend went on a mission trip to Thailand when we were in college and came back repeating the Thai saying “Same Same but Different”. I love that phrase and have been using it since then to describe fashion, recipes, books, really anything and everything. It’s a very useful expression and feel free to add it to your daily lexicon if you’re not currently familiar with it.
Once I started working as a reading specialist, I found myself applying the saying to words as well. The majority of the struggling readers I’ve worked with over the years have been English language learners. When I work with them, I find myself apologizing to the students on behalf of my native language. English is tricky, y’all! There are so many synonyms for words. Letter sounds change, and there are more irregular words than phonics rules for people to remember. When my students make errors on words or get confused decoding words that look similar to other words, I say “Same Same but Different” as shorthand for my longer “English is a tough and confusing language” speech. Once I say that, the students know to go back and look at each letter sound in the word and try to decode again, choosing the correct word that makes sense in the context of the reading sentence.

I’ve taken hundreds of running records over the years, and I’ve noticed consistent same same but different errors made by elementary readers. Here is a list of commonly switched words that I compiled based on my students’ miscues. I made a game on Boom Learning for my kids to get extra practice with those tricky words.

What words do your students switch when reading? Are they the same as the mistakes my readers make?

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How to Introduce Sight Words in 7 Easy Steps

Speak to any elementary teacher about reading and shortly into the conversation, you’ll hear about the importance of sight words.  We stress how essential it is to practice them during parent conferences.  We see evidence of students’ practice in classroom lists, graphs, and other artifacts.  We all agree that sight words are an integral part of the reading program.

But I was frustrated early in my teaching career because I wasn’t sure how to teach the sight words, beyond using word cards and lists and asking students to memorize them.  What was I supposed to do as the teacher to help the students learn the words?  My school at the time was using a scripted literacy program that taught them in a strange way.  Whenever the students encountered a sight word in a passage, we were supposed to interrupt and say “Funny word!  Let’s sound it out the funny way.   That’s not how you say the word.  This word is ____.”

Frankly, I hated that method of introducing the sight words.  I thought it dumbed down the teaching and interrupted the flow of students’ reading.  It treated the students like idiots incapable of thinking and analyzing words on their own.  Out of desperation I created a different approach.

It was around Christmas time, so I decided to categorize the sight words as nice or naughty, like they say in the carol lyrics.  My first grade class took to this new way of dealing with sight words quickly, and within a month, they were transferring their understanding to other words they found in books.  Since then (which was December 2013), I have used this method with hundreds of my reading students, ranging from first to fifth grade, and they all understood the technique.

the RDNG sight words method

  1.  Teach the whole class and/or small groups the difference between regular and irregular words.
    • Nice/Regular words are easy to read.  They follow the sound rules.  The letters you see match the sounds you hear.
    • Naughty/Irregular words are harder to read.  They break the sound rules.  The letters do not match the sounds.
  2. Teach a list of 20-30 words at a time.  I usually divide the Dolch word lists in half.
  3. Go through each word with students and code it as regular or irregular (nice or naughty).  Most students enjoy putting smile and frown faces/emojis beside the words.
  4. For words coded as irregular, help students come up with the way the word should be spelled.  I ask the kids “How would you spell this word if you were the boss of English?”  Examples: said=sed (like red, bed); of=uv; where=wair (like lair, hair).  My students need more help with this the first few lessons but can gradually do it on their own as we progress through the sight word levels.
  5. Provide students with practice time to read and spell the words.  They should locate them in books and use them in sentences.  They can build the words with letter tiles, rainbow markers, and other reading manipulatives.
  6. Assess the words after a period of 1-4 weeks.  Test students’ reading and spelling of the sight words.  Aim for 80% mastery or higher to advance to the next list of words.
  7. Listen, observe, and discuss words with students. More and more of your readers will show you words from their books, sharing statements such as “Hey, this is one of those naughty words” or “I noticed this word has letters that don’t match the sounds” or “Oh, this must be one of those irregular words that can’t be sounded out.”   Do an inner happy dance (or outward one if that’s your teaching style) when you observe these because they’re signs of sight word learning being internalized and transferred!!!!!


This is my way of teaching sight words to my at-risk and ESOL students.  It has helped my struggling readers develop a strategy for decoding and recognizing high frequency words.

How do you approach sight word instruction in your classroom?  What methods have helped your students master the sight words?  Please share your best practices below in the comments or write me at….I’d love to hear more!



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Why do so many readers struggle?

Main Reasons why Students Struggle in Reading

Quick quiz:

What skill do struggling readers need the most?

  1. sight words
  2. letter sounds
  3. fluency (reading speed)
  4. all of the above
  5. none of the above

I purposefully tried to trick you with this question.  In my expert opinion, after working with struggling readers for 16+ years, the answer is (e) none of the above.

Are you surprised?     If it’s not the skills listed above, then what are struggling readers missing?      The answer to that question is the topic of the post.  Are you curious?    I hope so.   If you are, keep reading!

When I first got my job teaching reading exclusively, I actually didn’t know how to teach reading.  Apologies to the boss who hired me at the time!   I knew how to help a student learn to read better, but I had no clue how to turn a non-reader into a literate one.    Luckily for my students’ sake, I learned quickly.       My first year working an as Early Intervention Program (EIP) teacher, I was assigned a variety of grade level segments, all the way from Kindergarten to fifth grade.     In fact, at one point in the day, I had to leave my Kindergarten reading groups and roll my resource cart over to the fifth grade department and work with students 5-6 years older during the next hour.     It was difficult to switch my conversational and teaching style during the walk in between the halls, and sometimes I made the mistake of speaking in my “little kid” voice to the “big kids”.     That difficulty aside, though, having those teaching segments next to each other was the turning point in me learning how to teach someone how to read.

I had to test the Kindergarten students on some critical skills in their grade level standards, specifically segmenting sounds and blending nonsense words.    After I assessed the Kindergarten students, I assessed my fifth graders as well, just as an experiment.    The result was a moment of awakening!     The fifth graders who couldn’t read could not do those Kindergarten skills.     They could not tell me the first sound in a word or break apart a word into beginning, middle, and ending sounds.   This affected their ability to spell words.   (Newsflash-they were terrible at spelling; their letter choices made no sense).    They also couldn’t put sounds together, either orally or when looking at written words.    Therefore, they couldn’t sound out words when they were reading.     Put these two skills together (blending and segmenting) and you get alphabetic principle/sound symbol correspondence.   That’s what the students were missing:  the understanding that letters stand for sounds and you put these sounds together to read (blending) and take them apart to spell (segmenting).    I started using the same activities in both my Kindergarten groups and my fifth grade groups, and voila- the students learned to read!     Once the fifth graders mastered blending and segmenting, I was able to accelerate their progress and teach all the other sounds and word knowledge they needed.

So, try it-I dare you.    Take a struggling reader of any age and rewind the curriculum clock back to Kindergarten.   Test them on blending and segmenting and see if they can do it.      If they cannot, and in my experience 9.5 times out of 10 that’s true, then you have your starting point.    Work on phonemic awareness with them-the older they are, the quicker they’ll pick it up.   And they’ll be so happy and comfortable working on something they can actually do!    The phonemic awareness activities will seem easy and fun for the students; they won’t feel “babyish”, I promise.

So, to recap:  What skill do struggling readers need the most?

  1. sight words
  2. letter sounds
  3. fluency (reading speed)
  4. blending and segmenting

Correct answer:  (d).   Test for, and then teach blending and segmenting.  Then you can fill in the rest of the gaps in their reading development.


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The Printer that Saved Me

Okay, I’m exaggerating.  But my life as a teacher did immediately improve once I got an HP Instant Ink Printer.  Copy and printer ink are both hard to come by at my school, so having the power to print at my own desk has made my teaching life easier.   I purchased it for $47 on Black Friday 2016, and now I pay $9.99 a month to print 300 color pages.   If I go over that number, I just pay $1.00 more for 25 pages, which is $0.04 a page!!! Much cheaper than going to the copy shop.   The ink itself is wireless, so it communicates with the company and sends more ink in the mail automatically when it starts to run low. Before Instant Ink, I always seemed to run out of ink right when I needed to be printing pages on a deadline, and I rarely had the $60 or $70 in extra spending money to buy the replacements.   This automatic monthly fee and replacement mailing has taken all of the stress out of ink buying for me.

If you’d like to join the FREE from ink and printing stress club, join here.  You’ll get one month at no charge.


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Getting my Mojo back


I’ll admit it.  I had lost my mojo a bit, baby.    Getting put back into the classroom unexpectedly this at the start of this year, teaching a new grade level, and encountering tons of behavior problems….all of these combined to throw me off my game.     The fall semester was tough.    I had to take some steps to recharge and find my way.

Now’s it a new semester and I feel like I’ve got my mojo back.    One of the main reasons for that is attending the NCTE 2016 conference, which luckily for me was held locally in Atlanta a few months ago.    It was my first national teaching event to attend, and it was a tremendous experience.    I left on such a high, and I’ve now caught the “conference bug”…I am already making plans to attend next year !

The reason NCTE 2016 was so invigorating is because I found my tribe.    I found the people doing the kinds of teaching that inspire me.  I was able to meet and learn from teachers and authors who influenced me from the start of my career….innovators such as Steph Harvey, Anne Goudvis, Nancie Attwell,  and Franki Sibberson whose books showed me how to implement Readers Workshop in my classroom and connect my dear students to just right and much loved books.     At the conference, I connected with teacher leaders like Patrick Allen, Jennifer Serravallo, Kristin Ackerman, and Jennifer McDonough who are still walking the walk and providing creative and engaging workshop instruction, even in this day and age of Common Core, scripted instruction, and accountability.

I had been out of the classroom for so long because of my years of work as a reading specialist.   In my absence, from 2006 to 2016, the classroom landscape had changed.    Now teachers have many more resources from sources like Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers, but those are expected to be used in a very monitored and data focused way.     We are now observed with higher scrutiny, striving to meet extremely high teacher standards 100% of the time, because we never know how or when we’ll receive an informal walk-through or formal observation.     All of this contributed to noise and confusion for me as I transitioned back to the classroom.  Truly, I forgot about my teaching foundations.      I was extremely fortunate to “cut my teeth” as a teacher through the America’s Choice initiative, which focused on explicit, creative, student-focused literacy workshops, and that’s the instruction that feels right-that matches my teaching style.     At the NCTE conference, I was surrounded by educators who all feel the same way and do the things that I used to do, namely putting great books in the hands of children and helping develop their writing voices.  These hundreds and thousands of teachers at the conference were doing the good work,  even in this post-NCLB classroom era.    In an instant, I was reminded of the teaching I used to do.

My students in my early classroom years READ and WROTE for the majority of the day with direct purpose.   Why wasn’t I doing that now?    What was I having my current students do all day, if not authentic reading and writing?  [possible topic for a shame-filled future blog post…or NOT.  I want to move on.]

Immediately, I returned to school and changed things, simplified things, in my room.     The students LOVED it!  The first day, M. said in amazement, “Mrs. B. we actually READ during reading time today!”      I responded, “yes, M.   Isn’t that a great thing?   Let’s make sure we do that every day from now on, and I’m sorry we weren’t doing that from day one.”


Thanks to the wonder of the Internet, I can connect to the tribe I located at NCTE anytime via social media, blogs, e-mails, and messaging.   I can see pictures and read anecdotes about their daily instruction and be motivated to do similar authentic literacy work with my students.    If I’m ever in danger of losing my mojo again, I’m one click away from a virtual field trip/ peek into “my people’s” classrooms, and I can be inspired once again.

Thank you, NCTE 2016 and tribe, for helping me find my mojo.    It’s an honor to be in the field of education with you.


“Teaching children to read and providing them with something

worthwhile to read is not a job for the faint of heart in this

world.   But I’ll keep at it, and I won’t be alone.    You’ll come

too.   We’re fortunate, you know.  Too many people in this world spend their lives doing work that doesn’t matter in the great

scheme of things, but bringing children and books together does

matter.  And we get to do it.”


~Katherine Paterson, “Back from IBBY”