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When our teaching doesn’t translate into learning, it’s tempting to point a finger at students.

They aren’t interested.

They didn’t come to us ready to learn.

Or they just aren’t trying hard enough.

But when instruction misses the mark it’s often because it’s landing somewhere other than “in the learning zone”.

Sometimes we ask students to take too large a leap and leave them feeling frustrated.  Sometimes we ask them to keep practicing and performing what they are already capable of doing, leaving them bored and unchallenged.

When truly magical learning happens it is usually because the instruction falls within the zone of proximal development, a term theory developed by Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934).  When we teach “in the zone” we start with what students can already do independently and provide the scaffolding they need to stretch up to a next step.  Whoever they are, whatever they bring, we must start with strengths and build.

Picture a kindergarten classroom. Students arrive at the classroom door with an enormous range of writing readiness.  Some have spent little time with writing tools and are still making unidentifiable scribbles on the page, others are drawing elaborately detailed pictures accompanied by words or short sentences, many others are somewhere in between.They aren’t all ready for the same next steps, but every one of them is ready for responsive, student-centered kindergarten writing instruction.

The same is true of readers and writers at any grade.  Our kids come to us from literally all over the map with vastly different backgrounds, strengths, and past learning opportunities.  Our classroom communities are more diverse than ever.  Success hinges on our ability to view all students as capable and ready regardless of learning and language differences.

The five steps below will help you design literacy instruction that is responsive, differentiated, and lands “in the zone”.

  1. Start by identifying student strengths and interests. Too often we let ourselves focus on what kids can’t do and how much they need, need, need.  In a learner-centered classroom, we start by asking ourselves, “What is it that this student can do right now? When we challenge ourselves to notice and name student assets we start to view all learners as capable, proficient, and ready for more.
  2. Use a wide range of assessment sources. Formal state or district assessments may give us some useful information. But the most useful assessments are those that help us to make real-time decisions about what to do next from day to day. Tools such as running records, observation, conference notes, reading logs and writing rubrics are indispensable in this way.  In her post, “Close Reading of Kids; Teaching Reading Like a Scientist” , Jennifer Serravallo challenges us to take on an inquisitive mindset about student strengths.  “The teaching of reading, to me, is about the kids. Kids are complicated and complex, they’re nuanced, they’re as unique as snowflakes. And when we want to teach them, really teach them, we have to study them closely. Do a close reading, if you will. Approach them like scientists.”  Serravallo 2013
  3. Choose right-sized next steps. The more you know about the reading and writing process and the more deeply you know your students, the better equipped you’ll be to choose right-sized next steps for them. You can’t go from crawling to walking in a single step. Joyful, engaged learning is an outcome of right-sized learning steps.
  4. Use a smart balance of instruction formats.  It’s just as unlikely that we will meet everyone’s needs with whole group instruction as it is that we will be able to individualize every teaching point. Therefore, our literacy classrooms need to offer a mix of whole group instruction, fluid and flexible small group work, and individual conferences.  Within this mix we’ll be able to utilize gradual release of responsibility (Pearson and Gallagher) to provide support graduated levels of support. We’ll have the structures to respond to what most of the class, a small group, or just a few students are ready for the same next step.
  5. Teach responsively. Truly responsive teaching requires that we do so much more than just “follow a curriculum”.  It requires that we also follow our students. Whatever curriculum guides our instruction it must be aligned not only to the desired learning outcomes, but also to the readiness, strengths, and needs of our students. Teaching responsively means we use curriculum resources as just that, resources. Then, based on what our students show they know and need, we adjust and adapt. We’re not teaching curriculum; we’re teaching students.

When let go of our the long list of where students fall short, and instead challenge ourselves to name and and build on strengths, joyful and student-centered learning will follow.

Every learner is ready for the just-right next step.

Let’s roll up our sleeves and follow their lead.

UntitledSimple Starts; Making the Move to a Reader-Centered Classroom will help you provide strengths-based reading instruction, differentiated to meet the needs of every reader.