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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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Data Wall

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“Teachers, district level personnel will be coming to inspect your classrooms.  One of the things they’ll be looking for is your data wall featuring MAP scores and goals.”


Oh, S#&%!    Whoops.  Yet another on my to-do list that I had forgotten to do.  And now it had to have it done…yesterday!     What was I going to do?     Confession time:  cute design ideas are not my jam.  My brain just doesn’t automatically work that way.   And I didn’t have the time to scour Pinterest for ideas.  I shared my struggles with a friend on support staff, who’s AWESOME, and she said, “Let me help.”

SURE….HELP….PLEASE!!!!     She came up with the rocket ship idea and “Shoot for the Stars” title overnight and started hanging it up the next morning.  We were going to put star goals on student decorated index cards, but after brainstorming, we came  up with the astronaut idea instead.   I printed a class set immediately, and the students stated decorating.    I conferred with each student and recorded their original assessment scores on the center of their astronauts with their goals written on the stars.  Within hours, the entire data wall was done.    Students now know their Reading and Math baseline scores and their mid-year goals for both subject tests.  Our data wall is something that our entire class is proud of.    Good friends/colleagues are the best, aren’t they?!?!  Full design credit goes to @mrspeachyblue!

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Troubleshooting, Problem Solving


A few weeks ago, I posted about all the struggles I’ve been encountering in my Readers Workshop.      I’m a reading specialist.  Most of my career has been spent providing intervention to low readers to catch them up to their peers.    Give me a low reader, and I can determine why he/she is struggling and know how to close their reading gap.

But give me classroom full of readers at all different levels and with multiple behavior problems, and I’ve got more of a struggle.    Now that I’m back in the classroom, I’m experiencing what homeroom teachers around the country are dealing with, especially those in Title 1 schools, serving at risk populations of students.   TEACHING IS TOUGH, y’all!    I get it.    There is so much to do and so little time and resources and copies to do it in.

So, here I am a few weeks later, and the struggles are still there, but I’m tacking the problems one by one.     Here is a list of the issues I posted previously and a brief description of my troubleshooting.     My readers workshop is not all smooth sailing at this point, but I have been able to get to a place where I feel I’m better addressing my wide range of students’ needs.



img_5956   A picture of my messy desk in the midst of my research for solutions.


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  • Where do I fit the grade level lessons and activities in my plans?


I’m focusing on broad level phonics and comprehension skills each week whole group and differentiating the depth of work/mastery required, depending on the students’ reading development level.


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  • How do I provide support to those grade level activities so even my lowest readers can be successful?


The type of support differs depending on what I’m teaching: decoding or comprehension.    For decoding, I’m teaching the phonics skill to all the students, but then differentiating the word quantity and difficulty that students must learn.  For example, next week I’m teaching final consonant blends.  All the students will receive an overview of the skill and then each reading level group will practice and be tested on different word difficulty.    My emergent group will practice much fewer words than the on-grade level and above students in my room.

For comprehension, I’m again teaching the same grade level skill to all the students, but the practice materials and assessments are tailored to the students’ reading levels.  I like using passages because they match the students’ Lexile levels, and they can be used for a variety of comprehension skills.


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  • Should I give a grade level specific phonics mini-lesson, even when it’s beyond 75% of my students’ instructional levels?    If not, then how do I choose the best mini-lesson that will be relevant to the various differentiated tasks the students will do in their groups?


Some days, my mini-lessons are on grade level specific phonics skills.   Other days, I’ll teach short lessons on generic word solving strategies such as “Good Readers look for CHUNKS of words they know.”  Students then practice those decoding strategies in their independent and guided reading time and share during Closure of Readers Workshop.


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  • What’s the best way to manage the noise level and behaviors of the room during groups/center time?


Thank you, universe, for ClassDojo.    I leave it showing on my Promethean with the reading groups displayed.   The winning group each day receives small prize.   They’ve gotten pretty competitive about this.


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  • How do I train the students to stop interrupting my group?


Dojo has solved this one.  Interrupting is a behavior that makes students lose points.   Students will still try every now and then to interrupt, but after they lose points, they get peer pressure from their group members to stop repeating the behavior.   If it becomes a problem again, I will adjust the points deducted from each team for that behavior, and I think that will work.   If students lose 2 or 3 points for interrupting, they will self-monitor themselves and their group members.


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  • What are some of the best literacy activities for my students at each of their reading development stages?     What should my emergent students be doing?   What should my early readers work on?  What work can I give my on-level students that they could do independently?    How do I best challenge my advanced readers?  (Keep in mind, I have VERY VERY VERY limited printing and copying resources at my school.   So most of these activities must be paper-free.    That resource issue is contributing to the struggle)


This year, I’m relying heavily on Words Their Way because their sorting activities and games are organized by levels.  (Also our grade level used their spelling inventory as a benchmark common assessment at the start of the school year).  Using those assessment results and my own running record data, I placed my second grade students in four groups:

  1. Emergent (barely know letters and sounds)
  2. Letter-Name Alphabetic (limited sight words and decoding skills)
  3. Within Word (close to grade level)
  4. Syllables and Affixes (at or above grade level)

Student in each group are doing 2-3 word sorts a week, reading guided reading books, and playing sound and sight words games from my resource files (my favorites are from




Honestly, I need to beef up my games and activities for my highest reading group , beyond just the word sorts.     Because the majority of my teaching experience has been working with struggling readers, those are the most prevalent resources in my collection.


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  • What scope and sequence do I set up for all my groups so that they can all catch up and be on-grade level readers by the end of the year?  How do I accomplish that huge task when I can only meet with them 2-3 times per week?    (That’s why the activities I choose above must be of the highest quality.   Students must be learning and advancing in reading, even when they’re not at the kidney table with me.   Centers can’t just be “busy work”.)


The lowest reading groups are going to do more sorts a week to hopefully accelerate their progress.   The other reading groups are doing 2 sorts a week;  I plan to increase the lower groups to 3 sorts a week for a few months and then maybe even 4 sorts a week by the end of the year.     The lower groups also meet with myself or the Title 1 paraprofessional four days a week to experience more supervised guided reading and intervention activities.   This accelerated calendar should get the Emergent group to the middle of the Within Word curriculum by the end of the year, which would be 1.5 years of growth in 1 year, narrowing the achievement gap by half a year.


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  • How I type all of this into a managed plan so that my grade level can understand and use these resources with their struggling students as well?


The whole group instruction follows a typical schedule, which should help my team with routine practices and expectations.    Mondays focus on the phonics skill of the week, Tuesdays are for sight words, and the other days of the week are for the word sorts, comprehension,  and decoding strategy minilessons and activities.    Interactive notebook pages are provided for the whole group skills, with 3 different pages for each skill (Easy, Middle, Challenging).     I think this is going well for my team, but you know each teacher has the power to shut their door and do what they think is best for the students, which I have no control over.  I’m just trying to suggest a variety of activities and resources that the team can use for their students, no matter the reading level.    Lastly, I’ve created a large resource folder on the network drive that everyone can access for Words their Way, center, and mini-lesson resources.  The “cloud” makes it so much easier to share files!



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Minilessons- Where the Magic Happens

Last week I shared many of the struggles I’m currently experiencing in Readers Workshop.     Anytime I have problems to solve in my teaching, one of the first things I do is consult the “masters”/aka Go to My Bookshelf.   I have amassed a collection of education volumes that I use as resources time and again.     (Future blog post:  bookshelf pictures and a list of my favorite go-to titles, if you’re interested)

One of the first books I pulled off the shelf was The Art of Teaching Reading by Lucy Calkins.  Typically, I get lost in the chapters of this book because there’s so much wisdom in its pages.  But this time, I went straight for the minilessons section (Chapter 5) because I was on a hunt for a list of mini-lesson topics I could include in my grade level plans.     I’m searching for decoding mini-lessons that would be relevant for readers of all levels, so that they could apply the learning into their word work and guided reading activities during center time.   I’m looking for what I’ll call “umbrella topics”, ones that fit all my readers needs, even with their broad range of word solving abilities.  Did I find such a list in that chapter?    No.     But what I DID find was even more valuable—–perspective and a new way to think about mini-lessons.

Here are some of the gem quotes and insights I got from my reading:

"Whether we realize it or not, each of us, in our classrooms, authors a world and a story....The important thing to realize is that in our classrooms, as in any story, trouble can galvanize us to set off on a journey.  ~Lucy Calkins"

MLs are the best forum teachers have for pulling the class community together to take on a prob. ~L. Calkins Click To Tweet

"Minilessons may not be as powerful as Peter's magic sword and shield, or as potent as Lucy's vial of healing liquid, but they may be the best forum teachers have for pulling the classroom community together to take on a problem.    They are a gift of sorts, a resource to draw on.   With careful attention to the architecture of our lessons and an assertive responsiveness to our children's needs and goals, minilessons can turn classrooms into places where magic happens."   ~Lucy Calkins

Here are my takeaways from that section/those quotes.   Lucy Calkins, one of the leading literacy experts, actually gives us PERMISSION to screw up and have troubles within our workshops.  She says that she usually dismisses teachers from trainings, saying “When you go back to your classrooms to try out these ideas, they won’t work.  There will be trouble.”

Yay!   It’s so refreshing to hear acknowledgment that we’ll have trouble as we implement and that it’s okay and expected to not get it right the first time.      In this age of electronic evaluations and high teacher accountability, it feels like we’ve got to be perfect in our instruction 100% of the time and that if something doesn’t go smoothly, then that means we’re not good teachers.

What she’s making clear is that it’s our role as teachers to carefully observe our students and guide them on their literacy journeys.     When we notice they’re having trouble decoding, or choosing the correct books, or finishing a book, or understanding what they read, then we gather them together and provide short mini-lessons to give them strategies and tools to use in their real life reading experiences.    Mini-lessons aren’t meant to be long teacher-driven demonstrations or explanations about activity directions (Here’s How to Complete a Venn Diagram).    Rather, our mini-lesson time on the carpet is when we gather as a class community to identify and tackle problems in our reading lives.  This shows the students we care about their reading.   This is responsive teaching.  This is dynamic teaching.  This is relevant learning.    This….is magic.

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Getting Started

Greetings!    You are reading my first ever blog post.   Forgive my inexperience as I get started with my blog and website, learning how to navigate the digital world.


Let me begin by telling you about myself and my reasons for creating this online space.


Reading is my “jam”.    I’ve heard that saying on The Bachelor.  Some girls will say “Motherhood is my jam.”   or “Being a journalist is my jam.”   This isn’t a phrase in my normal lexicon, but it does sum up how significant reading is to my life, both professionally and personally.


I’ve been a voracious reader since elementary school.  I was that kid staying up past my bedtime with a flashlight under the covers, desperate to finish the book and find out how the story ends.  Even as an adult, I’ve been known to pull all-nighters  to finish the newest Harry Potter or Outlander novels, for example.    I enjoy sending articles to friends and family of interesting things I read.    Anytime I have a new project or interest (tennis, adult ballet, yoga, buying a home, budgeting, healthy cooking, reading, etc), I head to my local library and check out a stack of books on the subject for a free education.  I’m grateful for the adventures I’ve gone on in the books I’ve read-  all the places I’ve “traveled” and interesting characters I’ve “met” in the millions of pages.


It’s not surprising that I chose the field of education as my field of study and work, because I wanted to spread that love of books and learning to the next generations.    I taught third grade for a number of years and then got the opportunity to join the support staff as an EIP (Early Intervention Program) teacher.    Through default, I was  tasked with mostly upper grade (3rd-5th) reading segments and one Kindergarten reading on the side.   That was a huge range but ended up being the pivotal moment of my career.    I quickly realized that the struggling readers in the upper grades were missing the very skills I had to teach to the Kindergarten students (phonemic awareness, blending, segmenting), and once I used the same activities with those older students and taught them the missing skills, they were soon able to catch up and finally learn to read.

So that became my specialty:  teaching older struggling students how to read.  Over the years, I’ve developed a method to catch the readers up as quickly as possible so they can become engaged and successful with their grade level work.

I created this site to share what I’ve learned over the years about reading development and unlocking literacy for struggling readers.   I have also been creating print and digital materials for my students to use, and I want to spread those resources to struggling readers beyond my school so that the learning gap can be closed once and for all.      I feel privileged to have such a meaningful relationship with books, and I believe that everyone deserves to enjoy the gifts of reading, or at least have the choice to do so, even if they don’t evolve into a reading nerd like me.


As this site is developed, you will have access to my teaching materials, resources, and methods.    I’ll let you know what’s in the process of being published, and I’ll be polling you to get feedback and input into product development.   I encourage you to question and comment often about my resources.    Everything I do is for the good of the students, and so I welcome the opportunity to assist you helping your students become great readers.

Let’s unlock literacy together!


All my best,


Shannon Betts