Decodable Readers Round-Up!

I used to avoid decodable books at all costs. I felt that they were boring, predictable, and would turn off kids from wanting to read for fun.

I turned to leveled readers whenever I had the chance. They pictures were typically richer, and the story had an plot to hold students’ interests. I remember planning my guided reading groups and making sure I taught them multiple ways to solve unfamiliar words. By doing this, I was confident that their fluency and comprehension was going to greatly improve…more so than if they used decodable books.

Then, I started diving into the science of reading research….and now I want to go reteach every student I’ve ever had….

As someone with a Master’s degree in Reading, I know this is going to sound ridiculous, but after pouring over articles, books, and blogs, I’ve finally discovered that our brains must connect the sounds to the letters when solving words. Only relying on pictures or context clues can actually end up teaching some bad reading habits for later on.

While reading with my kindergarten son at home, I stop myself from asking prompts like “Look at the picture for clues. Skip the word and guess a word that makes sense.” None of these cueing systems require him to actually stop and look at the letters and patterns in the word. Now, I have him identifying blends, digraphs, vowels, and more….and his reading has taken off!

Decodable books have now become a staple in our house and I’ve rounded up some amazing decodable texts that are perfect for new readers!

Simple Words Books

Simple Words Books: Offers decodable chapter books. This is a great option for those older students that still struggle with decoding, but want to be reading the same type of books as their classmates. Anything by this company would be my first choice…they are fantastic!!

Half Pint Books

Half-Pint Kids: These are amazing for brand new readers! They’re simple and engaging, all while telling stories with a real problem and solution. The books include simple and high level questions to support comprehension. Very affordable and can purchase multiple sets for your small groups!

Reading for All Learners

Reading for All Learners: I have a few of these for my son and they are great! The pictures are wonderful and support rich discussions. They start out very slowly, but with all 141 books, they will keep you busy for a while! Best yet, because of the pandemic, all the online versions are being offered totally FREE!

Whole Phonics

Whole Phonics: If your kiddos love funny books, these are the ones for you! They have creative stories and some awesome pictures. The books tend to be a little longer, which makes these great for older students that are struggling.

Are you in a Reading Slump??

Reading slumps are totally real. I’ve experienced it firsthand; I do really well for a period of time, consuming book after book. I bring stacks home from school and devour them while watching tv with my kids. Then, on the flipside, life gets too busy sometimes and I can’t even imagine having the time to read. When I get in those “reading slumps” it’s hard for me to start back up again.

I’m a well-educated woman whose career is centered around literacy. If I find it hard to get myself out of a reading slump, I can’t imagine what it must feel like for some students.

Some students have been in a reading slump their whole lives, never finding a book that excited them and gets them hooked; my heart breaks for those kids. They haven’t experienced what it’s like in the Hogwarts world, walked through the wardrobe into Narnia, or nervously followed along on three refugees harrowing journeys.

I’m not overly worried about those kids like me, where life has just gotten too busy. I’m confident they’ll find their way back to books when life eases up for them. I’m more worried about the kids I described above, the ones that haven’t connected with a book yet. Those are the ones we can’t give up on. We need to keep exposing them to different books and sharing our excitement with them. I’m hopeful that one day, they’ll hear about the one book that excites them and eventually, pulls them out of their reading slump.

I’ve put together this infographic with a few strategies that you could use to help get some of your students (or even you!) out of their reading slump! Click on the image to download your own FREE copy!

If you like….

I love sharing book recommendations with students. I get so excited when I find a new book and I think about which particular would connect best with it.

Sometimes they’re not excited as I am, but I do think they appreciate the idea that I thought of them specifically for it. I’ve started putting together these “If you liked” guides to share with my students and I thought I’ll start posting them here in case anyone is looking for more book suggestions!

I would say these books would be great for 4th grade-6th grade, and probably even up to 8th grade!

*Click the links below to purchase your own copy!

Front Desk: Mia Tang has a lot of secrets.Number 1: She lives in a motel, not a big house. Every day, while her immigrant parents clean the rooms, ten-year-old Mia manages the front desk of the Calivista Motel and tends to its guests.Number 2: Her parents hide immigrants. And if the mean motel owner, Mr. Yao, finds out they’ve been letting them stay in the empty rooms for free, the Tangs will be doomed.Number 3: She wants to be a writer. But how can she when her mom thinks she should stick to math because English is not her first language?

Blended: Eleven-year-old Isabella’s parents are divorced, so she has to switch lives every week: One week she’s Isabella with her dad, his girlfriend Anastasia, and her son Darren living in a fancy house where they are one of the only black families in the neighborhood. The next week she’s Izzy with her mom and her boyfriend John-Mark in a small, not-so-fancy house that she loves. Because of this, Isabella has always felt pulled between two worlds.

New Kid: Seventh grader Jordan Banks loves nothing more than drawing cartoons about his life. But instead of sending him to the art school of his dreams, his parents enroll him in a prestigious private school known for its academics, where Jordan is one of the few kids of color in his entire grade.

Amal Unbound: Twelve-year-old Amal’s dream of becoming a teacher one day is dashed in an instant when she accidentally insults a member of her Pakistani village’s ruling family. As punishment for her behavior, she is forced to leave her heartbroken family behind and go work at their estate.

From the Desk of Zoe Washington: Zoe Washington isn’t sure what to write. What does a girl say to the father she’s never met, hadn’t heard from until his letter arrived on her twelfth birthday, and who’s been in prison for a terrible crime? A crime he says he never committed. Could Marcus really be innocent? Zoe is determined to uncover the truth.

Other Words for Home: Jude never thought she’d be leaving her beloved older brother and father behind, all the way across the ocean in Syria. But when things in her hometown start becoming volatile, Jude and her mother are sent to live in Cincinnati with relatives.

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus: Aven Green loves to tell people that she lost her arms in an alligator wrestling match, or a wildfire in Tanzania, but the truth is she was born without them. And when her parents take a job running Stagecoach Pass, a rundown western theme park in Arizona, Aven moves with them across the country knowing that she’ll have to answer the question over and over again.

Merci Suarez Changes Gears: Merci Suarez knew that sixth grade would be different, but she had no idea just how different. For starters, Merci has never been like the other kids at her private school in Florida, because she and her older brother, Roli, are scholarship students. They don’t have a big house or a fancy boat, and they have to do extra community service to make up for their free tuition.

Science of Reading Book List

My Science of Reading post continues to be my most popular post since I’ve started Windy City Literacy almost a year ago. I’ve really enjoyed researching and learning as much as I can about the Science of Reading, and I absolutely love when I get to share that with others!

Recently, I’ve had a few people reach out for book recommendations that would help them expand their own knowledge as they begin their own journey of learning. I thought if there’s a few people that would like a list, then there has to be more of you out there that would be interested too!

I’ve rounded up some of my personal favorites that have helped me better understand the Science of Reading. I would recommend these to anyone….even if you’re either a novice or an expert!

If you can only buy one of these….I would recommend The Knowledge Gap!! It’s my personal favorite on this list!

*Click on any link to purchase from Amazon!

The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System – and How to Fix It

The Knowledge Gap isn’t just a story of what schools have gotten so wrong–it also follows innovative educators who are in the process of shedding their deeply ingrained habits, and describes the rewards that have come along: students who are not only excited to learn but are also acquiring the knowledge and vocabulary that will enable them to succeed. If we truly want to fix our education system and unlock the potential of our neediest children, we have no choice but to pay attention.

Language at the Speed of Sight

The way we teach reading is not working, and it cannot continue. We have largely abandoned phones-based reading instruction, despite research that supports its importance for word recognition. Understanding the science of reading is more important than ever–for us, and for our children. Seidenberg helps us do so by drawing on cutting-edge research in machine learning, linguistics, and early childhood development.

Shifting the Balance: 6 Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into the Balanced Literacy Classroom

From phonological processing to brain research to orthographic mapping to self-teaching hypothesis, Shifting the Balance cuts through the rhetoric (and the sciencey science) to offer readers a practical guide to decision-making about beginning reading instruction. The authors honor the balanced literacy perspective while highlighting common practices to reconsider and revise—all through a lens of what’s best for the students sitting in front of us.

Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers

Filling a critical gap in teacher preparation courses, Speech to Print supplies K-12 educators with in-depth knowledge of the structure and function of language—fundamentals they need to deliver successful structured literacy instruction. Renowned literacy expert Louisa Cook Moats gives current and future teachers comprehensive, accurate, and accessible information on the underpinnings of language instruction.

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain

“Human beings were never born to read,” writes expert Maryanne Wolf. Reading is a human invention that reflects how the brain rearranges itself to learn something new. In this ambitious, provocative book, Wolf chronicles the remarkable journey of the reading brain not only over the past five thousand years, since writing began, but also over the course of a single child’s life, showing in the process why children with dyslexia have reading difficulties and singular gifts.

Representing your Students’ Identities

As most of you know, I’ve started a new job….in a middle school. I was one of those teachers that always had the idea that I would hate teaching middle school. All those hormones, changes, attitudes…no thanks.

Well, here I am…2 months in…and loving it. These 7th and 8th graders are amazing. Yes, middle school is an awkward time for students, but these kids are out here every day, owning WHO THEY ARE. I’m blown away at the self-confidence these kids have; frankly, we could all stand to learn a little from them. Most of them have figured out what makes them who they are and they are rockin’ it. We even had one binary student volunteer to have the newspaper interview them, with the purpose of spreading awareness…and the student body embraced them without hesitation.

I don’t think we give enough credit to middle school students. They get a bad rep…but I’m here to say “don’t sell them short”. This generation is going to do amazing things…

In order to keep supporting them, we as teachers need to be ready to represent their student identities in all we do in order to help them continue to grow into their own person. Here are 6 ways to help you get started:

Classroom Library

Look at your collection. Are your books representative of all your students? Inclusive of diverse authors? Inclusive of multicultural themes? Available in multiple languages?

Classroom Decor

Look around your classroom walls. Does your physical space make all students feel like they belong? Include culturally and linguistically diverse people and phrases? Promote equality and justice?

Curriculum

When planning and teaching, do you advocate for representation of your students when possible? Include mentor texts from diverse cultures? Use multicultural examples to explain current topics? Address biases in lessons?

Parent Connections

When communicating with parents do you know what language they want to be contacted in? Know what technology parents are comfortable communicating with? Have resources to translate communication, if necessary?

Classroom Supplies

Do the supplies in your classroom include puzzles, games, and toys that include all genders, races, etc.

Guest Speakers

When planning for guest speakers do you include students’ families as speakers and presenters? Discuss societal ad global topics? Include a variety of people from the community?

Close Reading Resources

The idea of a close read isn’t new. It’s been around for a while, but yet there are so many different interpretations of what it actually entails. CCSS came out about 10 years ago, and the idea of close reads blew up! At the end of my post I have a FREE downloadable bundle of close reading passages and questions!

We realized that we needed to be teaching our students to read deeply and think analytically about a piece of text, and that we couldn’t wait until middle school to begin this.

The overall goal of CCSS is for students to be able to read a grade-level piece of text, independently. As we’ve seen through easy formative assessments, we are able to see that close reading is not something that we can afford to stop doing. However, that doesn’t happen instantly. As with anything else you teach, close reads need to be modeled and done together so students can learn expectations.

What is a close read?

Typically a close read is done in 3 phases, each phase serving a different purpose. In order for a close read to be successful, you need to find a high-quality piece of text to use. You can’t just randomly grab a book off the shelf and go. You need to preview the text to ensure there is enough quality writing in there that will lend itself to some deep thinking.

I’ve put together this poster that helps explains the three different phases of a close read. Click on the image to download your own FREE copy of it! After facilitating close reads for years now, I’ve noticed just how good students are at phase 1: the general understandings of the text. However, moving along to phases 2 and 3, students struggle and tend to have a harder time. The more we expose our students to this type of questioning, the easy and more natural it becomes for them.

Over the years, I’ve written a lot of close reads and I’ve finally gotten around to bundling them all together. Most of the text, I’ve pulled straight from the CCSS appendix and others are just text that I personally love.

Each text comes with three phases of questions for you to engage in with your students. I would recommend taking three days to get through one passage: one phase per day. For some of the passages, there are also extension activities to help continue to conversations. Below is one of the close reads from the bundle. You will receive the text passage, and then a separate document with all three phases of questions. All of these passages would be best for 3rd-6th grade. Click here to download the whole bundle FOR FREE with all 9 passages!!

Is guided reading working??

Alright friends, you may want to sit down for this one…

Ready?? I think we need to take a break from guided reading….

I know, I know…huge, unpopular opinion. And now if you’ve worked with me in the past, you know what a huge believer I’ve been in guided reading. However, over the past few months I’ve been reading a lot of research and thinking about reading instruction differently. Experts believe that guided reading is happening in over 70-80% of the classrooms across the country…and…there isn’t much evidence to prove that it actually is increasing students’ reading abilities.

Even Tim Shanahan, one of the leading literacy experts, states in a 2011 article, “I have sought studies that would support the original contention that we could facilitate student learning by placing kids in the right levels of text. Of course, guided reading and leveled books are so widely used it would make sense that there would be lots of evidence as to their efficacy. Except that there is not.”

Why the change in thinking?

*Guided reading is absolutely a teacher-driven practice. Teachers hold the control in a guided reading group and do about 95% of the work. They decide who is in the group, what is being read, how many pages, where they’ll stop for discussions (that they’ve already preplanned). Students who are always finding themselves in the “low group” are seldom given the opportunity to read rich, and challenging books.

*Students aren’t becoming self-directed, joyful readers just because we’ve been prioritizing daily, guided reading groups. Students become readers, in every positive sense of that word, when most of their reading time is dedicated to uninterrupted, voluminous reading of texts they can and want to read.

*When you think “differentiation”, you naturally think about guided reading. Students are grouped with students at their reading level; it’s easy to feel like your differentiating for each student’s individual needs. However, we as teachers have a tendency to use similar discussion questions, graphic organizers, and activities for each group, regardless of ability level. For example, the popular strategy of using “Somebody Wanted But So Then” as a way to help build summarizing skills is completely appropriate for a level M/N reader when they’re working on identifying one problem. However, strategies like this are being used as a blanket for all readers; students reading around a Q/R/S, no longer need this strategy. They’re advancing onto more complex reading skills and continually using these strategies in a guided reading group are now hindering them from practicing the more complex skills they actually need.

*With so much on teachers’ plates these days, things are bound to “get cut out” throughout the day to accommodate the other things that come up. Unfortunately, guided reading always seems to be the thing that gets missed. Students already get very minimal one on one time with their teacher for support, understandably so. But if we keep engaging in a practice that we’re ok with skipping to get to the many other things, what’s the point of even doing it? Our time would be better spent ensuring our Tier 1 instruction is strong enough with scaffolds and supports for all of our students.

What to do instead…

“Ok, that’s great, Liz…so what in the world should I be doing instead??”

I get it…I’m challenging what we know, and what we’ve been doing for years. Trust me, it’s hard for me to even be writing this, especially because I’m also guilty of doing everything listed above. #whenyouknowbetteryoudobetter

*Place students in flexible groups based on deficits in certain skills or standards. Use timely and relevant data from classroom assessments. For example, if you’re teaching identifying the perspective of an author in your direct instruction, then use a quick check-in to help guide your next day small group work. Maybe some students need to be taught a strategy that will just help them learn how to identify what a perspective is. Others may be ready to learn how to weave their own perspectives into the text. Constantly switching up which students are in which groups not only is intentional teaching, but it also allows the “typical lower” students to have the chance to be in a “higher group”.

*Focus on 1-1 conferring during independent reading time. Students are engaged in their own self-selected books; you can use this time to bounce between your students and teach them a skill or strategy that is unique to their specific needs. This is by far my favorite teaching practice! I absolutely love hearing students talk about the books they have chosen for themselves!

*Put more of a focus on student-led book clubs, rather than guided reading. Let students choose their own books and form their own groups; this automatically ensures more of a buy-in from your students. Students can make their own decisions about how much to read, what to talk about, and when to meet. As a teacher, you can give each group a focus area for each time they meet. For example, in addition to their normal readings, maybe you tell them to identify the different perspectives of the author through the book.

Phew…that was a lot to take in. I’d love to hear your thoughts, too! ❤️

The Magic of Game Play

You’re all in for a treat today!! My next guest blogger is someone who I’ve followed on Twitter for a couple years now and continue to be inspired by: Tisha Richmond!

Tisha is the author of the best-selling book, Make Learning Magical, which unlocks seven keys to transform teaching and create unforgettable experiences in the classroom. She also is the host of her very own podcast, Make Learning Magical!

Enjoy this amazing piece about the “magic of game play”!


I grew up in a game playing family. I have vivid memories of playing games at my grandma’s house with my cousins or sitting around our dining room table. There was something magical about opening up the game closet and carefully selecting the game that would preoccupy our time for the afternoon. As I’ve become an adult with a family of my own, games continued to bring magic into our home. Though my kids are now grown, there is nothing I love more than playing games as a family when we are reunited. It’s pure joy to engage in laughter and fun with the ones that I love, but I’ve found that the attributes of game play go far deeper.

CHALLENGE

One of my favorite Netflix series to binge watch over break was The Queen’s Gambit. The series followed the character’s  journey from childhood to adulthood as she became a world reknown Chess player. It was so fascinating to watch her childhood intrigue of the game grow into a passion as she learned the rules and game mechanics involved. The game didn’t come easy to her, but through consistent study and practice she developed her own set of strategies to master the game. I couldn’t help but watch the series from the eyes of an educator. Isn’t this what we want for our students? We want them to be challenged to persevere through the struggle and failure and be motivated to develop their own strategy to attain mastery. After watching the series I realized that Chess was a classic game that I never learned how to play so I went on the search to add it to our game collection. I was so excited to find an incredible vintage set and I had a wonderful time learning how to play with my daughter and her boyfriend over the holidays. Games are a wonderful way to challenge our students to push past the struggle to master content and skills. What games can we bring into learning to challenge our students to reach new heights?

COLLABORATION

One of our favorite family traditions is purchasing a table game for our family to play over the winter holidays. I love searching for the perfect one and wrapping it up to open on Christmas Eve. So many special memories are created as we gather around the game table as a family. The laughter and excitement that games bring bonds us in a special way. Everyone is completely immersed as they are collaborating and communicating to learn the strategies and rules of the game. Let’s think about this dynamic in our classrooms.  Creating a sense of community is so vital to building a classroom where learning thrives.  Don’t we want students to laugh and be excited about learning? What would learning look like if students were continually collaborating and communicating about how to master the content? How would it change the culture to have students that supported and celebrated each other’s accomplishments?

CREATIVITY

The Bob Ross inspired game “Happy Little Accidents” has become a new family favorite.  In this game, players draw a random squiggle and then mix it up with the other player’s in the middle of the table. They are mixed up and picked at random. The lead of the round calls out the word on the card and then each player attempts to turn their squiggle into an illustration of that word. Once all the squiggle have been transformed into drawings, the players take turns explaining why the drawing is the best representation of the word drawn.  The game is hilarious because players are required to think on their feet and come up with convincing arguments with very little time to think through what they are going to say.  I love the creativity that comes out when players are challenged to do so in a short amount of time.  I have noticed this same dynamic happen in my classroom.   When students are challenged to take their skills and demonstrate their learning in a creative way, they blow my mind!  Sometimes we put too many parameters on student learning.  Give students challenging opportunities to be creative and watch them soar! Check out my blog post: Squiggle Your Way to Learning where I share how I remixed this amazing game for use in the remote or brick and mortar classroom.

CRITICAL THINKING

Reflecting on all of the various mechanics in the games we played this weekend, made me realize how much critical thinking was required.  Let me use our favorite card game Hearts as an example.  In this game, players strategically play their cards to avoid collecting Hearts and the Queen of Spades.  You are continually thinking critically about what move you are going to make next so you can end the game with the fewest points possible.  In the gamified classroom students are also critically thinking about the content.  In culinary, they are daily analyzing, evaluating, interpreting, and synthesizing the content and creatively thinking about how they are going to solve problems that arise.  Students are not merely consumers of information, they are learning by doing; empowered to create their own learning adventure.

This winter holiday I thoroughly enjoyed engaging in gameplay with my family.  I am grateful for the time of laughter and fun and the memories made.  However, the experience went beyond that, and that is what I want for my students.  The fun and laughter is important and what memories are made of, but students immersed in a rich learning environment full of challenge, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking is where the magic truly happens. 

Martin Luther King Jr.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

-Martin Luther King Jr.

In the past, I always took this day for granted; I never resonated with the importance and sanctity of it. As a kid, I ignorantly appreciated it because it was a day off of school. As a young adult, I again, ignorantly appreciated it because it was an extension of my weekend.

Now, as a mom of two young kids, my views and thoughts about this day have drastically changed. I’ve done a lot of self-reflecting and learning since the events in the summer: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. I’ve committed to educating myself, and beginning to have those hard conversations with own kids. I now understand the importance of remembering Martin Luther King Jr., and all the other brave people that have fought so tirelessly for equal rights for all people of color.

As usual, my go-to is using authentic books to begin the conversations. Here are a few books to help celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. Please remember, books should not be the “end-all” answer. They are simply a door to get you started with some much tougher conversations!

Picture Books

Middle Grade Novels

Now there are tons and tons of amazing books out there; these are simply just a few of my favorites. Happy (early) Martin Luther King Jr. day!

Reading Resolutions

I’m so excited for today’s post! When I first started thinking about guest bloggers, this person was at the top of my list! I’ve been following her work since graduate school, and still constantly reference her many books when I need new inspiration. Over the past couple of years, we’ve built a friendship as we began collaborating together.

Tanny McGregor, also introduced me to the idea of sketchnoting through her newest book, Ink and Ideas. Her sketches are absolutely beautiful! I’ve taken everything I’ve learned about sketchnoting and brought it into the classrooms. Giving students another way to connect with text has been so powerful for many of our apprehensive students. They feel confident about responding and thinking about books without the pressure of having to write their thoughts.


It’s the beginning of a new year, a clean slate. The possibilities seem endless right now and we’re all desperately trying to forget 2020 (even though 2021’s not starting off so well).

In the spirit of the new year, Tanny has made a beautiful sketchnote of her reading resolutions for 2021 for me to share with all my readers!

Doesn’t that just make you want to curl up with markers and a notebook?!? It’s so inspiring!

Seeing her resolutions has sparked ideas and excitement for me as I think about what I want 2021 to look like for me as a reader. I love the idea of sharing books freely; I’m definitely adding that to my reading resolutions. I use to be so good at sharing books on Twitter and I want to get back into that!

If you don’t already, go follow Tanny on Twitter (@tannymcg). She shares beautiful books and has amazing thoughts and ideas!

Tanny, thank you so much for taking the time to create a sketchnote of your 2021 Reading Resolutions and sharing it with us at Windy City Literacy! Grateful for you everyday!