Growing Readers: Units of Study in the Primary Classroom
reviewed by Marianne Baker - 2005
I have noticed there is often a different type of language teachers use in todays primary classrooms. That language is upbeat, precise, and empowering. As with any language that is environment-specific, there is a clear line between those who know and use the language and those who dont.
The preservice teachers/students I teach long to be users of that language. Their enthusiasm in working with children is almost never in short supply, but a confident teaching voice may well be. In being mentored by classroom teachers, these students readily commit common classroom expressions to their speaking vocabulary and soon find they are posing gentle questions or suggestions to redirect children to tasks. Sometimes, as we engage in group discussions in our college classroom, a student will delight in reminding us all to use our inside voices, extending the novelty of using his or her newfound language.
But what about the language that informs and instructs, that common language teachers use to instruct children to be thoughtful and reflective in their own reading development? Preservice and in-service teachers, tutors and volunteers, and everyone who struggles with the right thing to say while reading with children might all do well to read about the instructional conversations in the classroom of Kathy Collins. Referring frequently to Marie Clay, Collins reminds us that Clay (1991) asks us to recognize that some children need extra resources and many more supportive interactions with teachers to get them through the necessary transitions of reading acquisition to the stage where they can pick up most of the different kinds of information in print (p. 138). Collins is masterful at providing the words for these interactions, making the implicit explicit for all of us.
I must admit, when I first began Growing Readers: Units of Study in the Primary Classroom, I consciously activated my schema onto my mental radar screen and prepared to read a text about organizing nonfiction units of study. Had I been in her first-grade classroom, Collins might have told me this was an important step in getting my mind ready to read. Yet my assumption was amiss, and I was delighted to discover that empowering language dominates as Collins takes her readers through a year-long instructional scope and sequence for diverse and developing readers. Collins was able to address my concerns of whole-class units of study for such a range of readers, as the units of study are anything but haphazard and include material on building good reading habits and how all readers use strategies to figure out words. She reminds us that whole-class lessons have information for everyone, and small group and individual instruction addresses particular needs.
The foreword, written by Lucy Calkins, reads strikingly similarly to Collinss text in terms of empowerment. Calkins and Collins have collaborated over the years, and each writes of classrooms in which teachers and students wish to be. Calkins writes that Collinss text can become the seed to wrap your teaching around, nurturing your own experiences in the light of an author whose fresh and original teaching reflects her deep, deep understanding of young children reading (p. viii). Presenting not an overwhelming text, but one that invites reflection, Collins brings anecdotes from her own teaching and offers them for readers to use what they can. In short, the book is a quite a pleasure to read.
The independent reading workshop outlined in the text is one built on Collinss teaching and learning philosophy. While inviting each of us to explore our own underlying beliefs, she presents her beliefs in action as the ongoing pursuit of knowledge, the importance of safety and consistency, the importance of providing opportunities for independence, the power of a print-rich, talk-rich, inviting classroom, the value of clear and high expectations (p. 2). These are each apparent as she outlines the structure of the workshop itself, which includes a minilesson, independent work time with instruction, midworkshop teaching, and teaching share time.
How does she get to it all? Collins is well practiced at the brief but structured minilesson, and she is efficienteven building in buffer days as she moves from one unit of study to another. Collins highlights the art of having students sharing with partners during minilessons in place of raising hands for individual sharing. She listens to students and summarizes their ongoing thinking, reinforcing what is familiar to students in consistent terms, and she provides the language for all of us to use in doing so. Collins also provides written minilessons that include actual conversation, followed by several suggested minilessons and suggestions on how first graders might learn to listen and report on someone elses information and on how to select books. Her strength lies in modeling, both for her young learners and for readers of her text.
Collins begins the school year by teaching students that Readers Build Good Habits. The chapter thus titled is an important one that sets the tone for the classroom. Students learn early on how to work with and talk to reading partners, how to understand who they are as readers, and how to focus on reading during reading workshop, while teachers understand better who their students are as readers. By late September or early October, classes are usually ready for the next unit: Readers Use Strategies to Figure Out Words. The chapter by that title features ongoing talk on getting students minds ready to read. Students learn to choose just-right books and learn strategies with print as well as flexibility in using them. In November and December, students learn that Readers Think and Talk About Books to Grow Ideas. Collinss chapter by the same name provides the voice to accompany teaching partner book talks and retellings, making predictions and connections to books, and becoming familiar with talking through strategy use. January is suggested for Readers Use Word Power to Read and Understand Their Books, with a focus on extending students use of print and comprehension strategies with more challenging texts. Inquiry directs reading choices across genres as students move to the fifth unit: Readers Pursue Their Interests in Books and Other Texts. The school year concludes with a perfect summary of looking back to look forward: Readers Make Plans for Their Reading Lives. Students make conscious future plans as they look through their notebooks filled with growth. A brief but helpful appendix provides suggested professional literature, templates for assessments, reflections, checklists, and interviews.
As I read instructional texts, I look for balance among strands of literacy instruction. Although the focus of this text is growing readers, Collins mentions that other components are necessary in a balanced literacy framework. Literacy prevails as this includes daily writing workshop and interactive writing, word study, and story time and shared reading for her first graders. I discovered that fluency and comprehension are never out of sight. Whether referring to students who read like frightened robots or those who sound like auctioneers, Collins reminds us that without the key piece of fluency, students have difficulty comprehending the text, keeping their eyes on the goal of reading.
With a voice representing teachers in the trenches with their students, Collins offers classroom descriptions that ring true of our collective experiences with children, and she nails those experiences with accuracy. Her language is her gift to us as readers.
Clay, M. B. (1991). Becoming literate: The construction of inner control. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.