Literacy Instruction

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Changing Our Thinking: Teaching for Transfer

Changing Our Thinking: Teaching for Transfer

There are many practices from long ago that we need to rethink as teachers. This series looks to bring up those practices and offer alternate ideas that are more relevant in today’s classroom. Today we’re discussing teaching the child not the program. The skills we teach students today should be transferrable to all stories or all writing or all problems. We need to teach for transfer and help students make connections. 


We used to teach the book, writing or problem

Teachers used to pick up books like The Sign of the Beaver (one of my most hated whole class texts) and think, “what lessons does this book teach?” Then they would teach the book. I made a map of main out of dough. I had to look up new vocabulary words in every chapter even if I didn’t find any new words. My classmates built log houses out of sticks and the activity list could go on and on. While these activities may have helped me understand The Sign of the Beaver, I couldn’t take those same skills and apply them to another text. When we finished that book we went on to another one and repeated the same process again with no connection to the previous book. 

In writing, teachers would circle mistakes in red pen and students would correct the mistakes. Students would make the same mistakes every time and then the teacher would circle it and they would fix them. This cycle could continue indefinitely. Some kids would receive things that were circled that they didn’t even know how to fix. Worse yet, some teachers never even had their students write for an authentic audience. They just wrote in response to prompts or in other ways but never produced writing on their own. While student writing might have looked nice with all the correct capitalization and punctuation, if the student couldn’t really do it on their own did they really know how to do it? 

In math we solved problem after problem with no connection between the problems. Teachers would see students make the same mistakes over and over and would teach them how to solve that specific problem. In word problems this happens especially. We teach the problem instead of teaching strategies to solve all word problems. Sarah has six pennies and then she got five more. How many does she have now? Ugh… actually most teachers might go through a template that doesn’t allow for student thinking instead of teaching them comprehension skills. A lot of math teaching still looks like this hilarious Kid Snippets video

What's the Problem?

The problem with taking a book like The Sign of the Beaver and pulling out all the lessons kids could learn in that specific book or circling all the mistakes a child makes on one specific writing assignment or telling the child how to solve one specific math problem is that there is no transfer. The child cannot walk away from that book or writing assignment or math problem and take what they’ve learned and apply it to their future learning.

When teaching reading, we want to teach skills that all readers can use in any book.

In writing, we want to teacher the writer skills that they can apply to any writing piece.

In math, we want to teach mathematicians strategies they can take to the next problem. 

When we begin to teach the CHILD instead of the book or writing or problem we are creating independent learners. That child can take the knowledge they’ve learned and apply it to the next time they read or write or solve a problem. They have learned transferrable skills.

They can begin to see that reading skills apply to all books not just to certain ones. Nonfiction readers do the same thing regardless of text. Fantasy readers use the same strategies regardless of text. Historical fiction readers need a certain set of skills regardless of text. Decoding skills and learning new words can be the same in every text. 

In writing if we correct every single mistake then they child can’t  become a better writer. If this week you teach that writers use punctuation to help guide the reader. Then that child can focus in on punctuation. Punctuation might not be in every child’s zone of proximal development. If it isn’t in their ZPD then don’t waste time on it. Look for the skills that they do need. A child can learn that regardless of genre all writers find a way to draw in their audience. 

In math they can see that mathematicians are always making connections. Math is built upon reasoning and relationships. Strategies you use in addition can be used in subtraction and multiplication and fractions and so many other things! The different operations and problem types don’t live in a silo and mathematicians know how to connect different math concepts. 

What to do Instead


First of all, we shouldn’t be teaching whole class novels anymore… a good topic for a new changing our thinking post. For more on best practice in Literacy join me on Tuesdays and check out the Literacy Instruction tab at the top of the page. 

Think about the skills each reader needs. Books can teach a wide variety of skills. In one Bailey School Kids book I can teach about the mystery genre and how readers try to solve mysteries along with the characters. I can teach decoding skills as kids discover words they don’t know. I can teach fluency skills and encourage readers to let their voice reflect the tone of the story. I can teach that readers reread when things don’t make sense. I can teach that readers of a series learn about the characters and pay attention to their traits. I can teach that readers can connect the previous chapter to the current chapter. I could go on and on. 

Switch your thinking. Instead of what skills can this book teach? Think, what skills does this reader need? Not every reader needs the same skills and most books can teach the reader the skills they need. 


Teachers should no longer be editors in the writing classroom… another topic for a changing our thinking!

As you watch your writers work, notice their mistakes. Notice the skills that they have independently mastered and compliment them on those skills. Notice the skills that they use correctly most of the time but still make errors on from time to time. Notice the skills that they are beginning to correct on their own but don’t do it frequently. Notice the errors that they make all the time but don’t correct at all. Notice everything they do. Then decide what to teach. 

When deciding what to teach not all writers will need the same skills. If a child is able to do something on their own, they don’t need to be taught that skill. If a child makes errors but never corrects them, this skill might not be in their zone of proximal development yet. They might not be ready for it yet. Teach in to the mistakes that they are beginning to correct on their own but don’t have down yet. Become their coach and teach them those skills. 

Writers use punctuation to guide their reader. Writers use capital letters at the start of a sentence. Writers break their writing into paragraphs to organize their ideas better and make their writing easier to read. Writers use strategies to spell words correctly. These are all teaching points that can be applied to any piece of writing. 

Switch your thinking. Instead of, what is this writer doing wrong? Think, what skills does this writer almost have? What can I teach them today that they can learn to do independently and apply to the next piece of writing?


Oh, math. So often in math we teach and prompt kids in the easiest way for them to get the answer. Isn’t math just answer getting? If you haven’t watched this video about answer getting in math then take a moment to do so. Math is not all about answer getting. When we don’t teach for reasoning and understanding we often teach for answer getting. 

Instead of teaching the specific problem ask yourself what is a skill this mathematician could apply to every problem they encounter. Maybe they need to know that mathematicians struggle but they keep going when it is hard. Mathematicians construct arguments to explain their reasoning. Mathematicians create a model to try to solve an unknown problem. Mathematicians use different strategies to solve problems. 

Switch your thinking. Instead of, how can this student get the answer? Think, what skills does this mathematician need? What skills could I teach them today that they can apply to future problems as well. 

What I've Learned

Teaching for transfer has completely changed my teaching. I now reflect a lot of each child’s zone of proximal development and how to teach for independence. When I think about transfer it means that the child can do the skill without you and can bring this knowledge with them to any problem, book, experiment, or whatever. 


Leave your thoughts in the comments below! I would love to hear about your journey in teaching for transfer and answer any questions you may have. 

Weekly Wisdom

Weekly Wisdom

Weekly Wisdom

Weekly Wisdom

Balanced Literacy: Finding Time In Your Schedule

Balanced Literacy: Finding Time In Your Schedule

Welcome back to our balanced literacy series! Today the focus is on our schedules. Have you ever seen that Tropicana orange juice commercial where all those oranges squeeze into the bottle? In the commercial all of the oranges squeeze in a very small space and magically the container still shuts. Sometimes scheduling the time you have available in your classroom can feel like that. Let’s talk about different options with balanced literacy and your schedule. Please leave any comments below with what works or doesn’t work for you. If you need more individual advice, feel free to email me at! 

Don’t forget to stop by every Tuesday  to gain a better insight into using a balanced literacy framework within your classroom! 

The Ideal World

...that none of us live in

What time allotments are supposed to be allowed for balanced literacy? You might want to refresh yourself on the balanced literacy components before reading on. Now, while reading this section do not freak out! Please! I know exactly what you’ll be thinking, “WHAT? Who has time for all of this on a daily basis?” The answer is no one. Only the ideal dream school that we can all fall asleep thinking about. We’ll get to real life scheduling in a moment. I do think there is value in understanding how things should go before we change them to how they have to go. 


Kindergarten - Grade 2

  • Read Aloud with Accountable Talk: 20-30 minutes a day
  • Word Study: 10-15 minutes a day
  • Reader’s Workshop: 60 minutes a day
  • Writer’s Workshop: 60 minutes a day
  • Shared Reading: 10 minutes a day
  • Shared Writing: 10 minutes a day 

Total: 170-185 minutes a day 


Grade 3 - Grade 5

  • Read Aloud with Accountable Talk: 20 minutes a day 
  • Word Study: 10 minutes a day
  • Reader’s Workshop: 60 minutes a day
  • Writer’s Workshop: 60 minutes a day
  • Shared Reading and Shared Writing: scaffolded into groups 
Total: 150 minutes a day 

Let's Get Real

I have never had this so called dream literacy schedule and I’m sure you don’t either. Let’s figure out how to apply this in the real world of teaching. Currently I have 80 minutes three days a week and 120 minutes two days a week for literacy. I can’t follow this schedule no matter how much I want to stick to it. I also need to make sure that my schedule isn’t shortchanging the kids. 

Nonnegotiable Items

Tbe first thing you need to do is determine your nonnegotiable items. These are my current nonnegotiable items within my classroom schedule. I currently teach grade 1. 

  1. I must have read aloud with accountable talk every day. 
  2. My students must have independent work time and as much of it as I can give them.
  3. My mini-lessons will stick to the 10 minute time frame because otherwise I am taking precious time away from independent work time. 
  4.  I will read a story each day during snack (that does not count for read aloud with accountable talk because… well, they’re focused on eating) to increase their exposure to stories.
  5.  No students will be pulled out of my literacy time for any support. This time is sacred.

My Past Schedules

Total: 180 Minutes a day! 

Ok, so… maybe I lied when I said I never had the dream literacy schedule. I completely forgot about my first school! My first school district was 100% invested in balanced literacy. That is actually where I was trained and where I learned so much of the knowledge I am sharing with you. We wrote our entire social studies curriculum in a way that supported our literacy goals. This was my schedule during my time there. We always had enough time to get everything done that we needed to get done. If science or social studies needed more time we would flex our literacy or math time to devote more time to those subjects. Teachers were given professional choice within our schedule to make small daily changes as needed. This was honestly the greatest schedule I ever had. You’ll notice that Shared Reading and Shared Writing aren’t listed as subjects. This is because those were pulled into any subject every day. Sometimes shared reading happened in math or shared writing happened in science. We were completely in control. 

Snack happened while kids were independently reading. This is obviously not ideal because eating and reading at the same time is very tricky for the grade 2 reader. Very tricky. We had many lessons about how to eat safely, without damaging the books, eat our snacks. 

Total: 120 minutes 

This schedule worked pretty well for grade 3. At this school we were not so attached to balanced literacy and focused more on the workshop model. We received amazing PD around oral language and accountable talk here. 

You will notice that we do not have a read aloud time written into our schedule. Even though we did professional development around read aloud for two years we never made actual time for it within our schedule. Usually I cut reader’s workshop short by 15 minutes and did read aloud then. Sometimes read aloud would be incorporated during Morning Meeting or Science or Social Studies. This was tricky but it was what we had to work with. Again, not ideal but I worked with what I had. Isn’t that what we all do as teachers? 

At this school we had less flex time in our schedule. We were expected to be teaching what was on our schedule no matter what. If the principal walked in and it was supposed to be word study and you were still doing writer’s workshop it was “noted.” I don’t know where those notes went but someone knew when you didn’t follow your schedule with fidelity. 


Total: 65 minutes 3 days a week 105 minutes 2 days a week… I think! 

This is my current schedule and by far the least ideal of the three. Last year my schedule was much better than this one but I can’t find it and our schedules are too complex to remember. Usually I don’t even know my schedule until March! You’ll see that our students receive 200 minutes a week in their native language. This means that our Polish speaking students head to native Polish, our French students go to native French, our German students go to native German and all the kids who don’t fit into those categories go to foreign Polish. If we’re complaining about our schedule I have no idea how these native language teachers do it. They literally teach an entire years worth of curriculum (not just reading and writing but social studies and other important information too) in 200 minutes a week! I can’t even imagine! 

This is the first time that I haven’t had time for both reader’s and writer’s workshop everyday. I want to do each subject justice but I know that I am not doing what I should be doing. At one summer institute Lucy Calkins said something along the lines of… if you can’t do 60 minutes of workshop (reading or writing) a day then don’t even bother. She said not to do this sort of schedule at all. I should just forget it. I can’t imagine what she would think if she saw my current schedule. 

I do reader’s workshop on Monday and Tuesday and writer’s workshop on Thursday and Friday. I use Wednesday to flex between the two. Some weeks you need 3 days of reading. Some weeks you need 3 days of writing. Some days I am so discouraged by this schedule. I just have to work with what I’m given 

Plus! 80 minutes of word study in two 40-minute blocks? Also not ideal for the first grader. This schedule is the most rigid of any. I cannot move anything around. I can sometimes swap science and social studies for each other but there is no way for me to get more literacy time in our day.  

So What Do I Do?

  • I plan like no other. Pulling all of these strings and orchestrating a successful schedule while trying to implement balanced literacy is HARD. My plans are on point in order to incorporate everything. 
  • I guarantee my students get a read aloud every single day. It usually is only 15 minutes a day. Sometimes I put my read aloud in math, science or social studies. 
  • Interactive writing has been totally incorporated into my science and social studies curriculum. My students usually get about 30 minutes a week. 
  • Shared reading is totally incorporated into word study, math, and social studies. We do some shared reading in science but not too much. We have about 20 minutes of shared reading a week. 
  • I teach my kids to hustle. We learn abut urgency and we know that everything we’re doing is the most important thing in the moment. I shave down my transition times to next to nothing in order to optimize minutes.
  • I also relax and know that some days it just isn’t going to happen. Sometimes we need a go noodle break even though we clearly have no time for it. We do it anyways.
  • My kid listen to a story (without accountable talk aka not interactive) every single day during snack time
  • We have wonderful and very involved parents who provide support for literacy at home


What's Next?

Each Tuesday a new post will appear giving you more insight into the life of a balanced literacy teacher! Next week our post will focus on the teacher moves during independent reading or writing time.

Use the comments section to ask any lingering questions or leave any comments with things I can do to better help you on this journey to implementing a balanced literacy framework within your classroom.

What are the nonnegotiable items within your schedule? Do you have a scheduling issue at your school? I would love to hear from you!

Weekly Wisdom

Weekly Wisdom