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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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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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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