Structural Possibilities of Informational Texts

by Lynne R. Dorfman and Rose Cappelli

Writing is used across the day to make thinking visible and deepen understanding of complex concepts. It is a way for students to think, reflect on their learning, and find the best way to organize their thoughts in order to be able to share them effectively with others. When we write we often are trying to incorporate new

learning into existing schema. The process of planning, drafting, revising, editing, and rewriting gives our students the time they need to accommodate new knowledge, classifying it in a way that will help their brain remember, store, and retrieve it. Authors help their readers do all these things by intentionally choosing the appropriate organizational structures to frame their writing. Writers and readers co-construct knowledge, discovering the writing and reading processes that work for them to create and comprehend informational texts.

A Rationale for Informational Writing Across the Curriculum

In their book Pathways to the Common Core Calkins, Ehrenworth, and Lehman discuss this process as well as the importance of being able to use it across the day.

“…not only will they [writers] need to do all this within a writing workshop,

where the focus is on developing skills as writers, but they’ll also have to

transfer these skills to the content areas doing this work on the run, quickly,

in the service of discipline-based learning. (p. 143).

We use informational writing across the curriculum to answer essential questions or offer an explanation, as well as to examine events and processes that affect our lives. Informational writing is much more than creating animal or state reports. In the age of Common Core, our thinking must evolve to include new approaches for delivering information that a target audience wants to read. The Common Core recognizes the need for a writing process, but also challenges writers to look beyond the ordinary and find opportunities for experimenting with new organizational scaffolds.

Common Core Writing Anchor 5 states:

Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach. (CCSS 2010, 18)

Today through the use of the internet we have information at our fingertips. Print is everywhere. But what makes it interesting? What makes a reader want to look further? Writers need to find unique ways of presenting information that will invite participation and transaction with text.

Organizational Scaffolds in Informational Writing

By introducing different scaffolds throughout a semester or school year, teachers can help students make informed decisions about what organizational global structure (scaffold) would work best for any given piece. Within the informational text students may also make use of many organizational patterns such as problem/solution, cause/effect, compare/contrast, time sequencing, and definition/description. These patterns can change from one paragraph to the next.

“The Common Core asks teachers and students to turn informational texts – their own and those written by others – inside out so as to study the designs that undergird the texts, noting the parts and the ways that the different parts have been brought together.” (Calkins et. al, 147).  By using a mentor text and engaging in a close read, students can discover how an author puts a text together. It’s like watching a building being raised and seeing the underlying structure that supports the walls, windows, doors, and roof. The organizational scaffold that students can discover will inform their decisions about how they organize their writing in a meaningful, logical way.

The Repeated Introductory Phrase

“When I was young in the mountains…” is the dependent clause that begins many pages of author Cynthia Rylant’s children’s book, also the title of her well known memoir.  After the first read to simply enjoy the wonderful words and images that appear in this text, a reader will notice that this clause only starts a sentence that begins a new vignette.  Each slice of life – whether it is about Grandfather returning from a day in the coal mines; dinner and a trip to the outhouse; walking to the swimming hole; or pumping water, heating it, and taking a bath – each tiny story begins with this phrase. Readers can understand that the writer is sending a clear message to expect a new facet of life in Appalachia.

Rylant uses a repeated refrain in her book In November. Consider these words:

In November, some birds move away and some birds stay. The air is

full of good-byes and well-wishes. The birds who are leaving look very serious.

We are often too quick to introduce students to a scaffold and have them try it out without first reflecting on the author’s intended purpose. We find students writing their versions of Rylant’s text using the repeated introductory phrase to begin each sentence. Instead, if we spend time examining the text with students, we can help them discover that Rylant only uses the phrase “In November…” to introduce a new idea. The sentences that do not use the phrase provide details. This text helps students understand that it’s not about the number of ideas in a text, but rather how each idea is developed through elaboration – examples, description, explanations, and anecdotes.

The repeated introductory phrase is a scaffold that is used by many authors. In Up North at the Cabin, Marsha Wilson Chall strings together a series of vignettes that reveal something about herself through her childhood memories of summers spent on a lake.

Up north at the cabin, I am a smart angler. Grandpa tries pink spinners,

leeches, and dragonflies – but I know what fish like. I bait my hook with

peanut-butter-and-worm sandwiches, then jig my line and wait.

Eileen Spinelli moves the reader through an autumn day in I Know It’s Autumn. With each new time period we read, “I know it’s autumn when…”

In both Miss Moore Thought Otherwise by Jan Pinborough and The Tree Lady by H. Joseph Hopkins, picture book biographies, the authors use a repeated sentence or variation of it to show the forward thinking of the women – Anne Caroll Moore and Kate Sessions.

Unique Constructions Can Be Imitated

How to Be by Lisa Brown presents a unique scaffold that can be used at all grade levels across the curriculum. Students will discover that the text is written like an essay or poem of advice. Each sentence begins with a verb that illustrates a unique quality about the subject. A similar scaffold can be found in “Things to Do If You Are a Pencil” by Elaine Magliaro and “Things to Do If You Are the Sun” by Bobbi Katz. These poems can be found in Falling Down the Page: A Book of List Poems edited by Georgia Heard.

Taylor, a first grade student, initially wrote a “How to Be” piece about herself and was able to transfer the use of the scaffold to write about whales in a science unit later that same year.

“How to Be Taylor”

  • Eat ice-cream.
  • Play with your dolls.
  • Like to watch Cartoon Network.
  • Pretend to be able to see animals underwater.
  • Float on your back.
  • That’s how to be Taylor!


“How to Be a Whale”

  • Eat krill.
  • Play, jump, and leap in the water.
  • Behave like an acrobat.
  • Communicate with clicks.
  • Migrate to look for food.
  • That’s how to be a whale!

You can see that Taylor was able to find the right verb to communicate her ideas and understanding about whales. From her writing we can learn what she thinks is important about whales (and about herself).

Questions to Focus the Reader

All good research uses a central or essential question that peaks the curiosity of the researcher. A question scaffold will help students find out what they want to know about instead of finding the answers to questions their teachers may pose. There are several variations to a question scaffold. Susan Stockdale uses a basic question-answer scaffold around a central theme in her book Nature’s Paintbrush: The Patterns and Colors Around You. Her first question, “Have you ever noticed the patterns and colors on plants and animals?” serves as an introduction for her text. In subsequent pages she asks a related question and provides a concise answer.

In Looking Closely Inside the Garden, Frank Serafini uses a series of close-up photographs of nature to help students imagine what they are seeing. His central question, What do you see? Is followed by two possibilities that peak curiosity.

Look very closely.

What do you see?

A stained glass window?

A jigsaw puzzle?

The final question, What could it be? is followed by the answer and a detailed explanation on the following page. In this example the answer is a monarch butterfly. Steve Jenkins uses the question format in his book Creature Features: 25 Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do. This book explores unusual physical animal characteristics. Each question is posed in a letter format and answered in first person prose by the animal:

Dear sun bear:

Why is your tongue so long?

I love to eat ants and termites. With my long tongue, I can reach into their nests

and slurp them up.

This interesting pairing of photography, art, and informational writing in both Serafini’s and Jenkins’ books provides a new approach that is highly motivating for students who consider themselves artists and appreciate an additional lens to add to their writing endeavors. Like scientists, students can pose questions and observe the world around them to notice something extraordinary.

In one fifth grade classroom students were examining books by Sneed B. Collard III in preparation for an author visit. In thinking about the kind of structure Collard uses to deliver information, the students discovered that in many of Collard’s books there is an underlying question that leads to a general observation and focus. For example, in Leaving Home, Collard explores how the young of different animal species leave the parents.

Sooner or later, we all leave home.

Some of us walk.

Some of us crawl.

Some of us fly.

And some of us swim.

The book continues in this manner, and on each page there is a paragraph that gives an example of an animal that behaves in that manner accompanied by a detailed explanation. He uses this same structure in some of his other books such as Teeth, Wings, and Animals Asleep. The students also looked at books by other authors who use this type of structure including Melissa Stewart’s A Place for Birds, A Place for Butterflies, and A Place for Frogs and Dianna Hutts Aston’s A Seed Is Sleepy, An Egg Is Quiet, and A Butterfly Is Patient.

The students decided that perhaps they could use these books as mentor texts and create a class book that uses the same structure. As Collard did in Leaving Home, they wanted to explore something that was common to all animals. The subject of food came up, and through discussion they agreed that their research would focus on what and how animals eat. First, they did a lot of reading in books and on the internet. Some had a particular animal in mind, while others were more open in their approach. The students discovered that some animals eat alone, while others eat in groups and that some animals swallow their food, while others chew. They discussed all of their findings in small groups as well as whole group, then each student decided on what page they would write for their class book, All Animals Eat, imitating the structure of Collard’s Leaving Home – a general statement with an example and a paragraph of explanation.

One of the fifth grade Common Core State Standards for informational writing asks students to provide a general observation and focus for a topic, develop it with facts and ideas, and provide a conclusion (20). Without realizing it, this fifth grade class was working towards meeting that important standard.

Persona Writing: Delivering Information Through Many Voices

Sometimes an author chooses to organize an informational text in the many voices of an era – a particular time and place of importance or interest. Persona writing can establish an intimacy with the reader almost immediately. In Colonial Voices: Hear Them Speak, Kay Winters offers a collection of poems in the many voices of the Boston colonists that lived during the time of the American Revolution. She did not choose to represent famous people. Instead, her voices represent ordinary people and their various occupations written as first person accounts – the clockmaker, the tavern keeper, the milliner, etc. From her poems we get an inside view of both Loyalist and Patriot perspectives. Winters includes additional information about the various occupations as historical notes at the back of her book. She repeats this structure in other books such as Voices of Ancient Egypt and Voices from the Oregon Trail. Students may notice that often authors will repeat an organizational structure that works well for them. When a writer discovers the best organizational scaffold for a text, he will also know that he has found a way to keep his topic fresh and unique for his readers.

Persona writing for informational texts can take many forms. Molly Bang writes in the voice of our sun in her book My Light, and G. Brian Karas writes in the voice of the ocean in Atlantic. Poets such as Douglas Florian and Joyce Sidman use this persona structure, too, to impart information in an interesting way. Students can find ways to use the scaffold in Turn of the Century: Eleven Centuries of Children and Change by Ellen Jackson. In this book Jackson writes in the persona of eleven children from centuries ranging from 1000 A.D. to 2000 A.D. She shows us a day in the life of different children and couples this short narrative with some facts about life during that century. For example, we learn that Alice, a ten-year-old chamber maid living in the year 1400, was not able to read or write. In the list of facts about the year 1400, we learn that girls as well as boys were sent out to work at an early age.

Persona writing can be used across the curriculum. Instead of writing the “traditional” president reports, students could imitate the organizational structure from Turn of the Century to write in the voice of the president they are researching. They might choose to write in the president’s voice as a child, a young adult, and as the nation’s president. The list of facts could represent key events that happened in the country or around the world during the time in which the president lived or lives. In science, students could become various plants or animals from the rainforest and describe their place in the ecosystem. The facts could include information about how serious the threat of extinction is for each plant or animal and detailed information about its actual size and location in the world.

Final Thoughts

By studying mentor texts students can gain proficiency and acquire a multitude of organizational scaffolds to help them synthesize information from complex texts and make it their own. The scaffold is like the glue that holds everything together. Scaffolds enable students to think and write about information and use their writing processes and what they know about good writing to convey their ideas to a target audience.

The Common Core State Standards brought attention to informational writing. The standards ask students to put forth the same energy and stylistic consideration for composing informational writing as they do for narrative writing. But as teachers, we can’t let standards be the focus of our writing instruction and practices.  In his book In the Best Interest of Students, Kelly Gallagher reminds us that in this climate of standards- based instruction, it is important to keep best practice in the foreground of writing instruction.

The teaching of writing should never be seen as an activity to be

“fit in” around the standards. Writing instruction should be a

nonnegotiable, core value in any classroom, and teachers should not

have to be concerned with fitting it in. The question, “How do you fit in

writing instruction around the new standards?” is the wrong question.

The correct question should be, “How do you fit in all of the standards

around your writing instruction?” (7)

Teaching students about organizational scaffolds can go a long way toward helping students deliver information to their readers in unique and powerful ways. This kind of teaching requires a shift in thinking away from using the five paragraph essay for every informational piece we write. Studying global structures will provide both choice and challenge, two ingredients for effective instruction and meaningful, lasting learning. When we create classroom environments that include high-quality mentor texts and allow students to participate in an inquiry approach, they can discover new ways to organize their writing across the content areas.

We know that students become better writers of nonfiction

because they try out new things and take responsible risks (try

or imitate the writing techniques in mentor texts that they are

capable of doing with a little practice and guidance). It is only

through risk taking and experimentation that our writers will

continue to grow and become better writers tomorrow than

they are today (Dorfman and Cappelli, 5).



Aston, D. H. (2006). An egg is quiet. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.


________________. (2011). A butterfly is patient. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books


________________. (2014). A seed is sleepy. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.


Bang, M. (2004). My light.  New York: Scholastic.


Brown, L. (2006). How to be. New York: HarperCollins.


Calkins, L., Ehrenworth, M., & Lehman, L. (2012). Pathways to the common core.

Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


Chall, M. W. (1992). Up north at the cabin. New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc.


Collard III, S. B. (2001). Wings. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.


_______________. (2002). Leaving home. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books

for Young Readers.


_______________. (2004). Animals Asleep. New York: Houghton Mifflin Books for



_______________. (2008). Teeth. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.


Dorfman, L. R., & Cappelli, R. (2009). Nonfiction mentor texts: Teaching information

writing through children’s literature, K-8. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.


Gallagher, K. (2015). In the best interest of students: Staying true to what works in the

ELA classroom. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.


Hopkins, H. J. (2013). The tree lady: The true story of how one tree-loving woman

changed a city forever. New York: Simon & Schuster.


Jackson, E. (1998). Turn of the century: Eleven centuries of children and change.

Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.


Jenkins, S. (2014). Creature features: 25 animals explain why they look the way they

  1. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers.


Karas, G. B. (2002). Atlantic. New York: Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers.


Katz, B. (2009). “Things to do If you are the sun.” In Falling down the page: A book of

list poems, ed. Georgia Heard. New York: Roaring Book Press.


Magliaro, E. (2009). “Things to do if you are a pencil.” In Falling down the page: A book

of list poems, ed. Georgia Heard. New York: Roaring Book Press.


National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) & Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). (2010). Common core state standards for English language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects.

Washington, DC: NGA Center and CCSSO.


Pinborough, J. (2013). Miss moore thought otherwise: How anne carroll moore created

libraries for children. New York: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children.


Rylant, C. (1993) When I was young in the mountains. New York: Puffin Books.


_____________. (2000). In november. New York: Harcourt, Inc.


Spinelli, E. (2004). I know it’s autumn. New York: Harper Collins.


Stewart, M. (2009). A place for birds. Atlanta, GA: Peachtree.


_____________. (2010). A place for frogs. Atlanta, GA: Peachtree.


_____________. (2011). A place for butterflies. Atlanta, GA: Peachtree.


Stockdale, S. (1999). Nature’s paintbrush: The patterns and colors around you. New

York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.


Winters, K. (2003). Voices of ancient egypt. Washington, DC: National Geographic.


__________.( 2008). Colonial voices: Hear them speak. New York: Penguin.


__________. (2014). Voices from the oregon trail. New York: Penguin.

About the authors:

Rose Cappelli is an independent literacy consultant. She is active in the Keystone State Reading Association and her local reading council.
Lynne R. Dorfman teaches graduate level courses at Arcadia University and works as an independent literacy consultant. She is active in her Alpha Delta Kappa chapter.
Both authors also work with the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project at West Chester University and are frequent presenters at conferences and workshops nationwide on literacy related topics. They are the authors of Mentor Texts: Teaching Writing Through Children’s Literature K-6, Nonfiction Mentor Texts: Teaching Informational Writing Through Children’s Literature K-8, Poetry Mentor Texts: Making Reading and Writing Connections K-8, and a video, Writing with Mentors, all published by Stenhouse Publishers.  

Gravity and Renee: Ideas to Get Better Student Talk!

CARR’s Spring 2017 guest presenter, Gravity Goldberg, joins forces with co-author of “What Do I Teach Readers Tomorrow?”, Renee Houser, to share strategies with us for how to move “beyond blank stares”. Check out this post from their blog- and watch the video, too- you’ll be glad you did.


Developing Reflective Teaching Practices

I recently participated in an Instructional Coaching workshop hosted by CREC.  Part of the learning was developing reflective practices to improve instruction and ultimately student learning. One method to accomplish this was using video to help teachers focus on goals for instruction and student learning.  There was one excellent training video that could be used by teachers to reflect on their own practices, by coaches to foster conversations with colleagues, or by mentors who are training new teachers.  It is titled Using Video to Improve Practice:  Do It Yourself! and features Sarah Brown Wessling.

Here is the link for the video from the Teaching Channel:

Connecticut Teacher Evaluation 2.0

By Rachel Gabriel

Like a message in a bottle that first crashed on to shore on a wave of reforms – only to be carried out and back in again by smaller waves and currents – teacher evaluation has come, transformed, and settled into the everyday lives of teachers across Connecticut. For those who were involved in the pilot year, this marks the third year under the new policy, which has rolled back in intensity each year since the start. For others, this is the second time around: A chance to consider evaluation more closely and to begin to find ways to use it to support teaching and learning.

As I study teacher evaluation and teach reading specialists, I have heard a wide range of responses to the new policy: from teachers who claim new rubrics don’t leave room for instruction they believe in, to those who have found new ways to engage and support struggling readers as a result of conversations with evaluators and colleagues. The truth is that teacher evaluation policies and rubrics for observation say very little about the nature of reading instruction that qualifies as exemplary. In this article, I am going to argue that this is good news for literacy professionals. The vague descriptions of “good teaching” in rubrics for evaluation and the room for personalization in individual teachers’ goals and measures of student growth leave us room to direct our efforts and evaluators’ attention to what matters the most in literacy classrooms.

Focus on what matters most Reading is the most researched K-12 content area in all of education research. Despite its importance and complexity, decades of research and experience teaching reading tend to converge on the same set of opportunities needed to develop literacy. Teachers can arrange these opportunities within most any framework using literally any set of materials (Taylor, Pressley & Pearson, 2000; Bond & Dykstra, 1967), but without any one of these opportunities, we know literacy development is thwarted. One way to conceptualize these research-based opportunities to develop literacy is as non-negotiables (Gabriel, 2013) that must be part of instruction for every reader every day (Allington & Gabriel, 2012). The four non-negotiables are listed below.
Every reader every day:

  1. Reads something they can and want to read
  2. Writes something to an audience for a purpose
  3. Talks about what they read or write with peers
  4. Listens to an expert reader read and think aloud

We ought to hold these truths to be self-evidence because we have found them to be true in so many different studies, from so many different
perspectives, with so many different goals. When we organize our instruction, professional conversations and goal setting around these non-negotiables, we can use teacher evaluation to focus our work on what matters the most. In the following section, I will briefly describe each nonnegotiable and what it means in the context of classroom observations, goalsetting and professional growth conversations.

Every Reader Reads Something They Can and Want to Read

We know that time spent reading is necessary-but-not-sufficient for reading growth. It is not sufficient because simply putting in the time does not guarantee optimum (not too much or too little) exposure to new words and text structures, or the engagement and feelings of success required to motivate and sustain reading practice within and outside of school. Students must have high-success experiences with texts in order to solidify skills, build confidence, and leave room for the engagement that fuels comprehension and the motivation to continue reading. When students self-select texts, it dramatically increases the chances that they will find something they can and want to read.

Ensuring every reader has something they can and want to read can be accomplished in a number of ways, but is antithetical to a classroom where every student is always reading the same class text with no alternative. This is not to say that shared reading experiences are not valuable for discussion and that challenge is never a good idea. A balance between shared and individual texts allows the best of both to contribute to literacy development. In fact, English teacher and author Kelly Gallagher would argue for a 50:50 split between whole class novels and independent reading (Gallagher, 2010). For classrooms with many struggling and/or reluctant readers, I encourage teachers to invest even more than 50% of their time doing the independent reading that fuels a cycle of reading success (Gabriel, 2013), and less on the shared texts that fail to match readers by level or interest.

When an evaluator enters an effective literacy classroom, they should see evidence that students sometimes have the opportunity to read something they have chosen at or near their individual level. They should witness students actually reading at some point in a full period, and they should be able to interview students who will describe what they’re reading now and what they will read next. These indicators suggest that the teacher has invested in high-success reading experiences and organized instruction that promotes reading motivation, engagement and success.

Every Reader Writes to an Audience for a Purpose

We know that reading and writing are reciprocal processes, which means that growth in either supports the other (Graham & Hebert, 2010). In fact, sometimes writing is a way into engagement with reading (Calkins, 1994), especially for students who struggle to learn to read (Dostal & Wolbers, 2014). Like time spent reading, simply investing more minutes writing is not enough. Students need to be writing to an audience, for a purpose, in order for writing instruction to be meaningful. Like reading for a purpose, writing for a purpose increases engagement and stamina, but it also provides an authentic reason to pay attention to conventions and skill work (e.g., spelling, punctuation, grammar, style) in context.

Marie Clay famously referred to reading as “a meaning-making, message-getting process,” (Clay, 1991), but too often, writing is either avoided altogether, or taught and practiced without attention to its meaning or message. That is, students are taught to write formulaic paragraphs, brief responses, and journal entries that are only ever seen by their teachers. In other words, they write, but are not taught writing as an agentic linguistic process of composition (Kiuhara et al., 2009). Moreover, they are writing in formats that do not have any real referent in the outside world, and therefore fail to transfer to meaningful writing tasks. When students are asked to write in class, they must be writing to someone for some reason. Rather than writing a paragraph that a teacher will grade, students can write to their classmates, students in other grades, or school papers. They can create copy for a class website, a how-to book, a warning sign, a petition, set of directions or menu of options.

Evaluators should see students’ writing to an audience for a purpose that they can articulate at some point during every class. Even if the writing is short and informal, without an audience and a purpose writing tasks cannot add up to meaningful practice. Audiences give young writers a reason to internalize conventions in order to ensure clear communication. Writing for a purpose gives young writers a way to make choices about structure and formatting in order to create a text that can accomplish something in the world. Investing in instruction and assessment that include writing to an audience, for a purpose ensures opportunities for students to develop both as readers and writers.

Every Reader Talks with Peers About What They Read or Wrote

We know that literate talk is an important part of literacy and language development. Students need to use words in order to learn them, and will see the impact of their words, as well as the importance of their stories (written or read) in conversation with one another. Classrooms where students have time to talk with each other about what they are reading and writing demonstrate growth in both reading and writing achievement (e.g. Applebee et al., 2003; Cazden, 1988)

Teachers are often unwilling to allow time for students to talk because they are afraid of what they will talk about, and assume time spent talking is wasted time. Perhaps this is the reason that students have so little practice or opportunity to engage in literate talk. Classrooms that support discussion and provide time and reasons to talk about text show significantly higher achievement, engagement and participation than classrooms where teachers do all of the talking, or only involve students in echoing or filling-in-the-blank of predetermined answers (see Nystrand, 2006 for a review).

Evaluators should expect to witness students talking with each other about text in every classroom, every day. The old idea that a quiet and compliant classroom is a high quality classroom has been thoroughly debunked by the research. Students need to use language to learn language. They need conversations as reasons for reading and writing, and spaces for considering what they’ve been reading and writing. This talk about text means that students must have experiences with texts worth talking about and shared experiences making sense of texts they have written or read.

Every Reader Listens to an Expert Reader Read and Think Aloud

We know that access to experts’ reading processes and strategies is invaluable for developing readers. This is especially true when reading in content areas where discipline-specific texts present unique challenges for readers such as unfamiliar formats, sentence structures, purposes for reading, and multiple meaning words (Fang & Coatam, 2008; Moje, 2008; Shannahan & Shannahan, 2008). Reading, like other complex and invisible multipart processes (swimming, driving, riding a bike) requires modeling – not of the outcomes of reading, but the very moment-tomoment thinking that leads to reading with understanding.

Even (and especially!) in the upper grades, time spent reading aloud to students increases exposure, engagement and expertise when reading discipline-specific texts for discipline-specific purposes. Though students may have had the benefit of years of stories being read aloud in school or at home, few have been able to watch an expert approach the kinds of texts students use in math, science, theater or agriculture classes. As a secondary teacher, you may be their first and best model for meaningmaking in your discipline.

Evaluators should expect to witness teachers talking about their thinking in every classroom every day. Students should be able to articulate how they approach, make sense of and fix their understanding of texts that represent the range of types and purposes required for the discipline. This means that a look around the classroom should show a range of text types, as well as some evidence or reminders of conversations about how they are read.

Advocate for The Instruction You Believe Should be Used

Under new teacher evaluation policies, rubrics for observation and student learning objectives (SLO’s) define what counts as good teaching, and what evaluators should focus on during feedback and coaching conversations. Thus, rubrics for observation and guidelines for writing SLO’s are general enough to apply to every grade level and subject area. They therefore say very little about what kind of literacy instruction should count as good teaching, or what administrators should pay most attention to when observing and supporting literacy instruction. As literacy professionals, we have a responsibility to be able to articulate exactly how the general descriptors of rubrics, and criteria for goals apply to our visions of excellent literacy instruction. For example, Table 1 includes descriptions from the “exemplary” column of Connecticut’s Rubric for Effective Teaching third domain (instruction) next to descriptions of what this might translate to in a literacy lesson.

Table 1. Generic rubric language and literacy-specific “look-fors”

3a. Instruction for Active Learning
Literacy-specific look-for
Every reader every day…
Students are encouraged to explain how the learning is situated within the broader learning context/curriculum.

Students are writing to a real audience, and will deliver their written products to that audience.Students are reading in order to do something: act, build, create, write, communicate, and are thus responsible for selecting texts that matter to them.

2. Writes something to an audience for a purpose.
Invites students to explain the content to their classmates.
Students talk about texts they have written and read, their conversations allow opportunities to use vocabulary in context, evaluate each other’s writing, and review/recommend books to one another.
3. Talks about what they read or write with peers.
Challenges students to extend their learning beyond the lesson expectations and make cross-curricular connections.
Students self-select texts so that they are applying skills and strategies learned in class to novel texts. Similarly, students compose written texts for specific audiences and purposes, this ensures their writing takes on the formats and conventions of authentic texts and are used as communication outside of the lesson.
1. Reads something they can and want to read.
Provides opportunities for students to independently select literacy strategies that support their learning.
Students have access to a wide range of explicitly modeled reading and writing approaches that match varied text types and purposes. These models allow them to use these flexibly for their own reading and writing purposes.
4. Listens to an expert reader read and think aloud.

We have to be ready to articulate literacy-specific versions of good teaching with evaluators so that we can keep observations, feedback and conversations focused on literacy instruction. Similarly, we have to be ready to suggest goals and measures that mirror our visions of literacy instruction so that SLOs and IAGD’s do not promote a limited version of reading. Table 2 includes sample SLO’s from the state’s website ( along with the versions of reading they imply, as well as some alternatives.

Table 2. SLOs, measures and implied importance

CT SEED website
1st / 2nd
Students will increase fluency of reading with specific skill level, i.e. single word, within a story, etc. to improve reading comprehension.
First graders will increase Nonsense Word Fluency score by 20 words and Second Graders will increase Oral Reading fluency by 45 words per minute, as assessed by relevant measures on the DIBELS assessments.
Measuring fluency using nonsense words narrows the task to rapid word calling, rather than reading quickly and smoothly with expression in ways that promote comprehension.
Students will write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence, including the acknowledgement of opposing claims, references to credible sources, a concluding statement, and a formal style.
The majority of my students will be able to write arguments in response to literary and informational texts that score between Proficient and Advanced on the department’s rubric.
Measuring writing using a school rubric may narrow the task to academic essay writing, rather than allowing students to select and compose in the format and style that matches their chosen audience and purpose.
All of my 11th grade students will demonstrate growth towards mastery of the Common Core State Writing Standards
Fully-developed essays, graded analytically using the district rubric will improve by 10% by the end of the year.
Measuring growth in writing in terms of the CCSS writ large would require a multitude of writing samples. It’s impossible to imagine if/how a goal this broad would influence daily instruction.
Potential Alternatives
1st / 2nd
Students will increase fluency in ways that support reading comprehension by rehearsing and performing a range of performative texts (poems, plays, speeches) that include repetition and require attention to prosody.
Students will read a novel text with accuracy, prosody and a 20% higher rate in words per minute than they did at the beginning of the year. Prosodic phrasing will indicate comprehension, which will be confirmed by paraphrasing or representing what was read in a visual or other modality.
This classroom is likely to involve repeated reading for authentic purposes (not skill & drill) and attention to prosody for communicative purposes.
Students will write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence, including the acknowledgement of opposing claims, references to credible sources, a concluding statement, and a style that aligns with their chosen purpose and audience.
Students will compose, publish and deliver a persuasive piece of writing to the relevant school or town official. It will also earn a score of proficient or advanced on an analytic rubric.
This classroom is likely to contextualize persuasive writing within topics that matter to students, and to teach the tools and conventions associated with such writing for the purpose of interpersonal persuasion, not academic correctness. Students select and meet genre-specific expectations by considering their audience and purpose.
All of my 11th grade students will compose, deliver and evaluate texts of three distinct types using formats and conventions that match their intended audience.
Students will generate and demonstrate a set of criteria for effective compositions in a range of settings. They read widely and consider the impact of various structures and conventions when determining criteria for judging various text types, and will be able to create texts that meet the criteria they have developed.
Students are asked to use their writing knowledge strategically and flexibly to understand, deconstruct and compose texts depending on a nuanced understanding of how written language is used and understood across contexts.

When setting SLOs and selecting IAGDs, we have to be ready to suggest and explain the goals and measures that support the kind of literacy learning we believe in, in order to avoid narrowing the focus of instruction to whatever is easiest to measure.

Make Evaluation Work for You

In this second year of teacher evaluation reform in Connecticut, we can no longer leave evaluation’s impact on reading instruction to chance. We have to be ready to make evaluation work for us by linking our goals, conversations and instruction to the aspects of literacy instruction that matter most for students. This means
making explicit connections between the vague aspects of literacy instruction that matter most for students. We have to be ready to make evaluation work for us by linking our goals, conversations and instruction to the aspects of literacy instruction that matter most for students. This means making explicit connections between the vague descriptions on evaluation rubrics and specific literacy practices. It also means setting goals and choosing assessment measures that focus on opportunities to develop powerful literacies – rather than contrived or isolated skills.


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