Getting to Know Your Readers and Writers to Save Time Later

There are a few things that I always aim for in the classroom:  

  • A sense of community
  • Joy-for me and my students
  • High-impact instruction

And above all, SIMPLICITY.  I’m not into cutesy, time-consuming things that don’t provide maximum student benefit.  And I’m certainly not into anything extra.  The more I can streamline,  the better.  My motto is “many birds, one stone.”

What if I told you there was a way to do ALL of those things, right at the beginning of the year, and that it would save you oodles of stress and time when assessment and parent conference season comes knocking at your door all too soon?  

It’s true!

We all have to assess our students near the beginning of the year, and many of us have to use specific reading benchmark assessments.  These can eat up a great deal of your time, sometimes for weeks on end, causing you to feel stressed.  

Keep reading–I can tell you what’s always worked for me, and this process has been painless every year.  Best of all?  It’s incredibly simple!

The Secret Sauce 

It’s all about getting to know your kids–as people and as readers and writers.  The things you do very early on–starting from day one–will save you tons of time later, instill a sense of community in your classroom, and lead to higher instructional impact.  

Here are 6 of my tried and true tips:

  1. Spend a few minutes every day really getting to know a few of your students.  Class sizes are large, and time is limited.  But if you choose just 3-4 kids each day to really talk with and get to know, you’ll be off on the best foot.  Talk with them during the walks to and from specials, recess, and lunch.  Talk with them on the playground, even if you don’t have duty.  Watch what they do, who they interact with.  During the morning time when kids are filtering in, strike up a conversation.  And here’s the key:  give them your undivided attention during these brief chats.  Don’t work on emails or pass things out or put things away.  Just look them in the eye and learn about them.  You’ll quickly find out how incredibly special each one is.  This will be the beginning of real relationship building, which will also serve you very well in terms of classroom management.  (And bonus, this gives you the opportunity to remind them of how many stories they have to write about!)
  2. During reading time, which will be short for the first couple of weeks as stamina is built (or rebuilt), just chat with them about what they like or don’t like to read.  Find out what their reading life at home is like.  Look at what they gravitate toward from your classroom library.  Ask them to tell you about what they’re reading right then–this will give you a good sense of whether what they’ve chosen is a best fit or not. (If you subtly and casually read the book blurb as they chat, you’ll understand the story enough to know if they understand it or not).  

Have them read a bit out loud to you–this will be like an unwritten running record, and will tell you very valuable information about decoding skills, fluency, and comprehension as it’s reflected (or not) in their intonation.  Even better–actually jot notes about this, so it is a running record.  You will likely be able to do some “just-right book choice” guidance in these first couple of weeks.  Do this as often as you can, will all your students, and you’ll have a good sense of what sorts of books–and levels–your kids can read with independence.

  1. Do a reading interest inventory.  This can be done more publicly, in a whole-group lesson, or students can complete it on their own for more privacy…or a combination of both methods can be used.   
  2. If it’s available, look at last year’s data.  Take it with a grain of salt, though.  There are a lot of factors that make this information less accurate than it was back in the spring.  But if you can see, for example, that last year’s teacher reported that a child was able to read level M books at an instructional level at the end of the year, you know those Piggie and Elephant and Fly Guy books this child keeps reading over and over are probably WAY too easy!   

You also can know that they will likely have slid a bit over the summer, so that same level M might now be too hard.  This is again where listening to them read and asking them what they’re reading about will be invaluable.  You might, in this example, find that they seem more comfortable with Frog and Toad kinds of books, which are several levels below M.  So that Harry Potter book they keep bringing to school?  It’s WAY too hard. Steer that child in the direction of books like Frog and Toad and some that are just a little bit more complex, and they’ll be well on their way to getting back on track.  

  1. Take some observational notes and do engagement inventories, in both reading and writing.  Look at habits and skills–do they lose focus quickly?  What do they do? Can they get it back? How?  Are they really reading, or mostly looking at pictures or skimming the words?  Are they able to come up with ideas to write about on their own?  What kind of writing stamina and volume do they have?  Does reading or writing stress them out?  Can they stay awake? (Falling asleep happens!)  All of these are things you can teach into the first couple of weeks of school so that your reading and writing workshop are off to a strong start.

And a couple extra tips here:  for the time being, hold off on playing “quiet music” during this time.  Often, that’s actually very distracting for kids, and you might be inadvertently getting in the way of their stamina building and focus.  This might even be a question you ask them or their parents about to see if music is a good idea at all.  And leave the lights ON, or just slightly dimmed.  It’s very, very hard for kids to see what’s on the page in front of them in darker rooms.  This can really strain their vision and cause headaches–and very often, a dim room makes it much harder for them to stay awake!  My own daughter has complained about the lights issue for years–it makes it super difficult for her to stay focused and she gets headaches from the eye strain. 

  1.  Don’t forget how important information from parents is.  Ask them to fill out a questionnaire or survey about their child, or give them a call.  Include questions about what their child’s interests and dislikes are, what their reading and writing life at home is like, and what they feel their child’s reading and writing strengths and weaknesses are.  Parents are a child’s first teacher, and they truly know them best–lean into that so that you can work together to help their child reach their maximum potential.  

Relationships Build Community

By taking the time to really get to know your kids as readers and writers the first couple of weeks of school, you’ll be showing each and every child that you see them.  You’ll set the tone with them and with their parents that you are all in this together, and the goal you’ll all be working toward is helping that child grow as a reader and writer.  This casual but purposeful getting to know you time not only builds relationships, but begins to cultivate that sense of community and joyful learning.  

Joyful Teaching and Learning

Because you’re getting to know your readers and writers from day one, you’re already nudging them forward, encouraging them to write about things they love, to read books that make them happy–but also steering them toward just-right books and championing their early writing efforts.  You’re already teaching in high-impact ways, without even writing a single lesson.  

High-Impact Instruction

And because you’ve gotten to know them so well  and you’ve taken notes along the way, you have a really good sense of what book levels your kids are reading comfortably.  So that kid who was instructional M last spring, who is now able to comfortably reading and talking about Nate the Great?  Don’t start assessing at level M!  That would be a huge waste of time.  You already have data that shows you that they’ve dropped a bit.  PLUS there was a whole summer of probably not much reading for the child.  If you start at M, it’s likely to be much too hard.  Level L might be even be hard.  

See where they are with what you have seen and heard them do.  

Start with that K.  It’s likely even that will be a bit of a challenge, because the comprehension questions that these more formal assessments entail are very high-level.  You’ll know where to go–up or down–from there, but you won’t have to do much more than a couple of assessments.  Because you started with where they are now, you didn’t waste assessments, and most importantly, you didn’t waste time.  Given that these assessments can take 20-30 minutes per book to do, which you can multiply by the number of students in your class, starting with where you believe them to be and going from there will save you countless hours.

Which means, while your colleagues down the hall are spending weeks and weeks and weeks trying to find where their readers are and wasting loads of valuable instructional time (and assessments), you’ll be done in no time, and will get into the meat and potatoes of instruction–using the data collected to move your kids further and faster.  

And save yourself and your kids a TON of stress in the process!

Want some help making your time in the classroom more efficient?  Contact me to set up a coaching call, so we can think it through together!   And,  join my private FB group for immediate support from like-minded educators!

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