Margin Notes



Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey are the authors of many of my favourite books about teaching literacy. They are the authors of many of the “Visible Learning” books (with co-author John Hattie). In my opinion, their book “Developing Assessment Capable Visible Learners K-12” is one of the best books written about formative assessment and feedback. The reason I enjoy their books so much is that they mesh the research with practicality. Plus, they always challenge and expand my thinking!

Their latest book, Comprehension: The Skill, Will, and Thrill of Reading (with co-author Nancy Law), is no exception.

In this book, the authors lay out their case for why reading instruction needs to move beyond teaching the skills of reading – to also include the explicit teaching of the will and thrill of reading comprehension.

If you are a teacher of literacy who is looking for ideas on how to…

…get students excited about reading.

…teach critical literacy.

…increase student talk.

…have students question any text they are reading.

…encourage students to take action through reading and understanding.

I would highly encourage you to read this book!

Fisher, Frey and Law’s research-based ideas about cultivating the thrill of reading in our students rests with them being able to answer one simple question:

“What does this text inspire me to do?”

Well, I pondered this question and was inspired to write this review!

Learn more about Fisher and Frey here.

Here, Nancy Frey is speaking about reading comprehension at the South Australia Literacy Conference in February 2020:

If you are interested in more resources about teaching reading and viewing, may I also encourage you to check out the ASD-W Margin Notes Literacy K-12 SharePoint – Reading/Viewing Page.

Happy learning!



Picture books provide for teachers the perfect tool to build students’ vocabulary, understanding of story structure, and character traits, but beyond that they also provide teachers the perfect platform to introduce areas of study far beyond that of developing literacy skills.  Discussion of complex ideas like cause and effect, self-esteem, bullying, or mathematical concepts can all be initiated through the use of picture books at any age. You are never too old for picture books, and given how busy teachers are, why not consider combining multiple purposes through a read aloud?

The following texts are new releases that teachers of all grade levels will enjoy having as part of their classroom library.

Because by Mo Willems and illustrated by Amber Ren provides a joyful journey through a series of seemingly unrelated and insignificant events that bring a young girl face to face with a life changing moment.




I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes and illustrated by Gordon C. James uses easy to read text to highlight the strength, courage, and worth of a child. Strength can be found in a painful fall, courage in making an effort, no matter how small, and it all contributes to recognizing our own unique worth.





A Computer Called Katherine by Suzanne Slade and illustrated Veronica Miller Jamison celebrates the life and perseverance of Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician featured in the movie Hidden Figures. Katherine exhibits strength and the unwavering recognition that how she and other women are and have been treated is wrong… as wrong as 5+5=12 or 10-5=3.




I Didn’t Stand Up by Lucy Falcone and illustrated by Jacqueline Hudon is another example of a seemingly simple text that will facilitate thoughtful discussion about bullying. The illustrations like the text provides powerful context for the topic.



Project Zero, hosted by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, describes its mission as “to understand and enhance learning, thinking and creativity for individuals and groups in the arts and other disciplines.” You can learn more about Project Zero and its focus on making thinking and learning visible through thinking routines and protocols, documentation, and artifacts here.

Project Zero’s Thinking Routines Toolbox is an extensive collection of routines “designed by PZ researchers to become one of the regular ways students go about the process of learning. Routines are patterns of action that can be integrated and used in a variety of contexts. Educators might even use more than one routine in teaching a single lesson. Routines don’t take time away from anything else educators are doing; instead, they enhance learning in the classroom.”

The toolbox organizes the routines into categories based on the kinds of thinking they will inspire, such as Perspective Taking and Digging Deeper into Ideas. By selecting an activity and clicking on the title under “Resource Links,” you can access a printable one-page description of the routine that outlines its purpose, describes possibilities for applying this routine, and offers tips for launching it in the classroom.

The routines make students’ thinking and learning visible in multiple ways, including writing, talking, drawing, and movement. They are easily adapted to any grade and learning context and are a powerful way to scaffold students’ explorations of various texts, topics, and concepts. This toolbox is filled with options for facilitating authentic discussion and helping students develop the essential skills of critical thinking, close reading, and questioning texts and their world.




Cece Bell, author of Newbery Honor Book, El Deafo, has taken the stage with her new, “Chick & Brain” series for children learning to read. Egg or Eyeball? is the second book in Cece’s series. Not only is she the author of this book geared to generate many laughs from its readers, but she also boasts the illustrator title for this series too!

What I particularly love about this title and the previous book, Smell my Foot, is that Cece captures the audience with comedy about manners gone wrong with the characters Brain, Chick, and Spot.

So, what is this mysterious discovery?  Chick and Spot say it is an egg with supporting facts, and Brain says, “eyeball.” Sit down, relax and judge for yourself. You may be surprised with the outcome!



As a followup to Tuesday’s post on 10 beliefs about readers and reading, we wanted to share the beliefs about writers and writing that guide our work. Here are our beliefs:

1. Students’ writing development is directly related to their volume of writing.

“Building writing stamina, the volume we write, and our commitment to developing our craft is essential. Students need to understand that writing begets writing: the more you write, the better writer you will be” (Elliott and Lynch, Cultivating Writers).

“They need time to generate ideas, focus their attention on a topic, be engrossed in drafting a piece, play with words and craft, and get caught up in text creation” (Elliott and Lynch, Cultivating Writers).

2. Engaged writers make decisions about topic, audience, purpose, form, and mode.

“Too often, in trying to help students, teachers do too much of the thinking. Students come to rely on formula and standardization—and when formula and standardization take hold, the energy and intellectual rigor that comes from creation gets lost. Students become disengaged” (Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle, “The Curse of Helicopter Teaching”).

“Writers have varied experiences. They employ different strategies when composing in different situations, for different purposes and audiences, and when using different technologies and tools. Writers also make ethical choices, and writers always have more to learn” (NCTE, Understanding and Teaching Writing: Guiding Principles).

3. Honouring and developing students’ writing identities is essential.

“Because writing is linked to identity, writers represent different ideologies, values, and identities. Thus, writers’ cultures and languages influence their writing. Recognizing that students are language users with multiple literacies will help the writing instructor engage students in writing. Writers also bring their past writing and reading practices with them whenever they write or read. In short, everything they have experienced, who they are, where they have been, and what they have done impact their writing practices, literacies, and language attitudes” (NCTE, Understanding and Teaching Writing: Guiding Principles).

4. Our role is to teach the writer and not the writing.

“Too often we teach Writing Skills and the Writing Process rather than helping students find something worth communicating. How can you write to make a difference if you have nothing to say? How can you be ‘fearless’ if you lack the courage of any conviction? Why learn to write well if you have no desire to achieve any effect? Writing is ‘thinking on the paper,’ as the National Commission on Writing put it” (Grant Wiggins, “Real-World Writing: Making Purpose and Audience Matter”).

5. Writing is a tool for thinking.

“When writers actually write, they think of things they did not have in mind before they begin writing. The act of writing generates ideas; writing can be an act of discovery. This is different from the way we often think of writers—as the solitary author who works diligently to get ideas fixed in his or her head before writing them down. The notion that writing is a medium for thought is important in several ways and suggests a number of important uses for writing: to solve problems, to identify issues, to construct questions, to reconsider something one had already figures out, to try out a half-baked idea” (NCTE, Professional Knowledge for the Teaching of Writing).

6. Writers require a caring community.

“As writing teachers, we consider it our duty, responsibility, and obligation to create safe writing spaces: places where our students can tap into their lives and know that their ideas and experiences have value; an atmosphere in which they are willing to put themselves on paper and, above all, know that their story will be received with the love, care, and respect it deserves. This requires a caring community” (Elliott and Lynch, Cultivating Writers).

7. The process of writing must be valued as much as the product.

“First, to say that writing is a process is decidedly not to say that it should—or can—be turned into a formulaic set of steps or reduced to a set of traits. Experienced writers shift between different operations according to their audience, the purpose of the writing task, the genre, and circumstances, such as deadlines and consideration of length, style, and format. Second, writers do not accumulate process skills and strategies once and for all. They develop and refine writing skills throughout their writing lives, as they take up new tasks in new genres for new audiences. They grow continually, across personal and professional contexts, using numerous writing spaces and technologies” (NCTE, Professional Knowledge for the Teaching of Writing).

8. Writing requires talking and reading.

“…writing exists in an environment of talk…Writers often talk in order to rehears the language and content that will go into what they write, and conversation often provides an impetus or occasion for writing. Writers sometimes confer with teachers and other writers about what to do next, how to improve their drafts, or how to clarify their ideas and purposes.”

“Writing and reading are related. People who engage in considerable reading often find writing an easier task, though the primary way a writer improves is through writing. Still, it’s self-evident that to write a particular kind of text, it helps if the writer has read that kind of text, if only because the writer has a mental model of the genre.” (NCTE, Professional Knowledge for the Teaching of Writing).

9. Teachers are writing role models.

“You are the writing teacher in your classroom. You are directly responsible for creating the writing culture and climate. We believe your students deserve a writing teacher who is knowledgeable about the craft, process, and challenges of writing. Your students are entitled to a writing teacher who provides insightful feedback, tips, and suggestions. They are also worthy of a writing teacher who incites enthusiasm and passion for writing. We cannot say it any other way. You have to be a writer, even if it’s in your own way!” (Elliott and Lynch, Cultivating Writers).

10. Authentic writing instruction and assessment reflect real-world writing.

“For assessment to be authentic, it must include tasks that are a good reflection of the real-world activities of interest. This term arose from the realization that widely employed assessment tools generally have been poor reflections of what literate people actually do when they read, write, and speak. The logic of authentic assessment suggests, for example, that merely identifying grammatical elements or proofreading for potential flaws does not yield an acceptable measure of writing ability. Writing assessment tasks should reflect the audiences and purposes expected in life outside of school, with the real challenges those conditions impose” (ILA & NCTE, Standards for the Assessment of Reading and Writing).

“Think of the many genres you know that, really, have no life outside the walls of schools: ‘five-paragraph essays,’ ‘book reports,’ ‘short answers,’ even ‘summaries’ as freestanding texts. Many of these began in ways that are related to writing outside of school. But they grow apart from their origins, becoming “school genres,” of a breed that lives nowhere outside captivity. Students can tell, and in turn they often divest themselves from writing” (Anne Elrod Whitney, “Keeping It Real: Valuing Authenticity in the Writing Classroom”).




Although we may not always realize it, as teachers our beliefs about readers and reading greatly impact how and what we teach, and what we ask readers to spend their time “doing”. As Jill and I began work on a 4-part series of reading workshop webinars, we came to realize that the foundation of reading workshop is these beliefs we hold about readers and reading. Here are the beliefs that guided our work:

1. Students’ reading development is directly related to their volume of reading.

“The volume students read is critical to the advancement of their reading skill and overall academic success (NCTE Statement on Independent Reading)

2. Honouring and developing students’ unique reading identities is essential.

 “Because it leads to a volume of reading, we care more about our students’ active engagement than we care about any particular literacy work. To nurture reading identities, we believe that the diversity of students and their experiences must be represented in the reading in our classrooms” (Gallagher and Kittle, 180 Days).

3. All students can be engaged readers.

“Engaged readers are motivated to read, strategic in their approaches to comprehending what they read, knowledgeable in their construction of meaning from text, and socially interactive while reading” (Guthrie, Wigfield et al, “Engagement with Young Adult Literature: Outcomes and Processes”).

4. All students must have access to a wide variety of texts that they can and want to read. 

“Classroom libraries must contain digital and multi-modal texts and be diverse in text category (non-fiction and fiction), genre (e.g., fantasy, historical fiction, realistic fiction, myths, autobiographies, memoir, narrative non-fiction, expository non-fiction), and text level” (ILA, The Power and Promise of Read-Alouds and Independent Reading).

5. Choice of what to read is essential for developing motivation and agency. 

“When students can choose their reading material, they are more likely to read…to increase reading volume, teachers have to expand the amount of choice students have in what they read” (Fisher and Frey, “Raising Reading Volume Through Access, Choice, Discussion, Book Talks”).

6. Daily self-selected independent reading time is non-negotiable.

 “Teachers need to make reading a priority in their classes so students will receive the message that it’s important. Elementary grade children and beginning readers get this message constantly – and read more and more often as a result. Teenagers need to receive the message too” (Atwell & Merkel, The Reading Zone).

7. Our role is to teach the reader – not the text. 

“In our reading experiences, we can help students discover who they are and who they want to be. We can open our classroom doors wide to make sure that all children who enter, that all children who show up, know that with us they will learn, with us they will read, with us they will matter. Because they do. And we can ask those kids how we can be the types of teachers they need. We can ask those kids how they would like to learn and then we can listen to their truths and become the teachers they need” (Pernille Ripp, Passionate Readers).

8Reading is a social act. 

“Talk deepens thinking and learning. Yes, there are moments when we seek deep reflective silence in our classrooms, but these moments, but these moments are balanced by the frequent buzz that occurs when students share interesting thinking with one another” (Gallagher & Kittle, 180 Days).

9. Teachers are reading role-models.

“Teachers who are engaged readers do a better job of engaging students as readers. According to Morrison, Jacobs, and Swinyard (1999), ‘perhaps the most influential teacher behavior to influence students’ literacy development is personal reading, both in and out of school’ (p. 81). Teachers should commit to leading literate lives and becoming connected to reading communities—whether in person or through social media—that support them as readers and literacy professionals. Teachers should understand the value of different modes and platforms for reading (Garcia & O’Donnell-Allen, 2015) and build their capacity to read with a critical, discerning eye (Newkirk, 2011)” (NCTE, Preparing Teachers with Knowledge of Children’s and Young Adult Literature).

10. Authentic reading instruction and assessment reflect real-world reading.

“We believe there is greatness to be found when we gather around literature and poetry, but students do not discover this greatness through lectures, quizzes, worksheets, or poster projects. Students discover beauty when given the opportunity to wrestle with the greatness of literature on their own terms” (Gallagher & Kittle, 180 Days).

“For assessment to be authentic, it must include tasks that are a good reflection of the real-world activities of interest. This term arose from the realization that widely employed assessment tools generally have been poor reflections of what literate people actually do when they read, write, and speak… reading very short passages and answering a limited number of multiple-choice questions is not a good measure of what literate people normally do when they read. Authentic assessments of reading employ tasks that reflect real-world reading practices and challenges” (ILA & NCTE, Standards for the Assessment of Reading and Writing).





As we say goodbye to the year, and with Christmas just around the corner, we thought we would share some of our favourite middle level, young adult, and picture book titles from 2020!






Oh, the great debate on learning to spell!  Here is what we know: memorization alone by writing the word repeatedly is not the answer. We have come along way from the days of spelling tests and spelling bees to the advantage of all our learners. One thing we do know is that words are tricky and, while it is important for students to learn to spell, we must do better.  As educators, we need to change our thinking and teach our students strategies to learn to spell words.

Miriam Trehearne is a bestselling author and has written several teacher’s resource books for Grades K-5.  In her Grades 1-2 Teacher’s Resource Book, Miriam shares the importance of supporting students in what they know about a particular word, identifying what is tricky about the word and a strategy to help support the students in remembering the word.

Miriam, suggests that guiding students when asked, “Teacher, how do you spell….” with questions such as, “Show me what you know about the word,” or asking “How does it start,” encourages students to practice effective spelling strategies and allows teachers to coach their students to use the spelling prompts they have learned as they attempt to write the word.

Here is a great visual that Miriam provides in the teaching resource on page 226 that you can provide for your students to support them in their spelling:




Lucky Stars by Aron Nels Steinke is the third book in the series Mr. Wolf’s Class. Steinke teaches 5th grade and was inspired by the everyday goings on in his own class.  This series of books features the same animal characters that students are sure to see themselves in or their classmates.

In Lucky StarsMr. Wolf’s students are writing personal narratives and Sampson is struggling to think of any events in his life worth writing about until one morning, he and Margot take a bike ride and he has an accident that lands him in the hospital. After that he thanks his lucky stars that he’s going to be okay and has a sensational personal narrative to write. 

Written as a graphic novel Lucky Stars is recommended for students from grades 2 to 5 and for those who enjoy realistic fiction with some great humour 



Jennifer Seravallo’s The Literacy Teacher’s Playbook Grades K-2, 3-6 sheds a new light on turning assessment data into goal-direct instruction. Often we rely so heavily on formal products such as assignments, benchmark assessments, or exit slips that we forget to use the moment in many everyday opportunities to gather information to help guide our instruction. One way to triangulate data is to pay particular attention to the conversations going on in our classrooms.

Jennifer suggests that “student conversations give teachers a window into student’s understanding… by transcribing these conversations and reflect on them through the lens of comprehension we are able to reveal what a student understands or doesn’t understand.” Jennifer also reiterates how essential, “It is that we provide opportunities across the day for our students to engage in meaningful conversation: about topics of importance to the classroom community, a bout books read together as a class and independently with partners and clubs, about their writing, about math, and so on.  As students speak and listen, it’s just as important for us as teacher to listen and assess.

One tool Jennifer uses to record whole class conversations is by drawing a quick sketch of a circle with students initials placed in reference to where they are seated around the circle.  As the conversation takes place in her class, Jennifer takes notes about what the students are doing, records who speaks and who stays silent (note the check marks around the circle in the diagram below) and includes a brief transcription of what was said.  Jennifer “uses these notes as assessments from which to craft goals and develops teaching and learning opportunities for students.”

Here are two samples shared in The Literacy Teacher’s Playbook:

Engagement inventories are a quick strategy you can try tomorrow in any grade!