Learning to Read: Lessons from Exemplary First-Grade Classrooms


An important goal in every first-grade classroom is to get children reading-but how? This book examines current research on first-grade literacy instruction, and shows how it translates into what good teachers really do in the classroom. The authors, premier early literacy scholars and educators, describe several studies of effective beginning reading instruction conducted across the country. They then take readers directly into the classrooms of five highly successful teachers, exploring the reading, writing, ...
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An important goal in every first-grade classroom is to get children reading-but how? This book examines current research on first-grade literacy instruction, and shows how it translates into what good teachers really do in the classroom. The authors, premier early literacy scholars and educators, describe several studies of effective beginning reading instruction conducted across the country. They then take readers directly into the classrooms of five highly successful teachers, exploring the reading, writing, and classroom management techniques these practitioners use to boost student engagement and achievement. The book provides readers with a vivid picture of the complexities of successful teaching. In particular, it demonstrates ways that teachers can blend elements of both holistic and skills approaches to provide rich and enjoyable learning environments for young readers.
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Editorial Reviews

Examines current research on first-grade literacy instruction and shows how it translates into what good teachers really do in the classroom. Profiles of five successful real-life teachers describe reading, writing, and classroom management techniques these teachers use to boost student engagement and achievement. Emphasis is on learning to blend holistic and skills approaches to provide a rich learning environment for young readers. Pressley is chair in Catholic Education and professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
From the Publisher

"A unique contribution to the field, and a real treat to read. I will use this book as a reference for lecture material as well as for assigned readings for graduate students. It is extremely valuable to take educators into the classrooms of these exemplary teachers." --Diane H. Tracey, EdD, Kean University

"Reading this book, I found myself reviewing my years of teaching first grade and wondering how much better my teaching could have been if I had had this information. The authors do a good job of summarizing their findings in a fair and objective manner and recounting some wonderful individual stories. We learn best from actual examples from the classroom rather than theory alone--there is nothing like real life to add credibility. As I work with schools doing inservice training, this book would be the one I would recommend for all K-12 teachers." --Brenda Sabey, PhD, Dixie State College

"A clear, engaging book offering a nice mix of research and practice. I found myself jotting notes with ideas the authors generated, as well as rereading many passages to savor, reconsider, and connect to my own classroom. I particularly enjoyed the case studies and the concluding reflections, which provide powerful food for thought. I would love to share this book with other teachers, particularly the new teachers that I mentor. I believe it will motivate, enthuse, and provide a basis for daily practice." --Pat Clark, MS, First Grade Teacher, Alden Terrace School, Elmont UFSD, New York

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781572306493
  • Publisher: Guilford Publications, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/2/2001
  • Series: Solving Problems in the Teaching of Literacy
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,433,482
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.58 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Pressley, PhD, was University Distinguished Professor, Director of the Doctoral Program in Teacher Education, and Director of the Literacy Achievement Research Center at Michigan State University.

Richard L. Allington, PhD, is the Irving and Rose Fien Professor of Education at the University of Florida, where he continues the study of exemplary elementary teaching.

Ruth Wharton-McDonald, PhD, is currently Assistant Professor in the Department of Education at the University of New Hampshire. Dr. Wharton-McDonald's research interests focus on the school literacy experiences of young children. She has collaborated with several of the other authors in this book on studies of exemplary teachers and their students. She is currently involved in a study of first graders' perspectives on schooling.

Cathy Collins Block, PhD, is Professor of Education at Texas Christian University. She has directed eight nationally funded research projects related to comprehension instruction, teaching comprehension, teacher education, and professional development.

Lesley Mandel Morrow, PhD, is Professor in the Department of Learning and Teaching, Graduate School of Education, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

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Read an Excerpt

Learning to Read

Lessons from Exemplary First-Grade Classrooms
By Michael Pressley

The Guilford Press

Copyright © 2001 The Guilford Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-57230-649-1

Chapter One

The Nature of First-Grade Instruction That Promotes Literacy Achievement

The planning of a study is always informed by previous research. Often, this means building incrementally on what has been done before. For example, in the past few years there have been many studies reported on the development of phonemic awareness skills in kindergarten and first-grade children. New studies on this topic have often been slight variations on previous studies-for example, investigations of training that is slightly different from training investigated previously. In contrast, however, there was much less research that we could look to for guidance in deciding how to study the nature of excellent beginning reading instruction.

Yet there was some work that we found inspirational and informative as we designed our study. For example, the work of Ruddell (e.g., 1997) on the characteristics of influential literacy teachers is an essential reading in starting a project on effective teaching. Ruddell studied teachers who were nominated by former students, teaching peers, and administrators as outstanding in their effectiveness as teachers. As a validation of sorts, Ruddell observed that better studentswere likely to have had more influential teachers than less successful students. Ruddell relied heavily on interviews of both students and teachers, although there were also some observations of teaching.

Ruddell concluded that influential teachers use powerful instructional strategies, including careful monitoring of students and provision of feedback about progress in literacy. Influential teachers possessed in-depth knowledge of reading and writing processes, as well as extensive knowledge of the content covered in elementary schools, complemented by extensive knowledge about how to teach reading, writing, and elementary content. Influential teachers did much to motivate learning in their students but did not rely on external, tangible rewards to do so. Influential teachers had personal characteristics that affected their teaching, including high energy, warmth, flexibility, and sensitivity to students. They were enthusiastic about reading, writing, and content learning. Influential teachers were concerned about their students. They did much to make learning personally relevant to students and tried to make learning a discovery experience. For example, Ruddell and his associates observed that influential teachers were especially likely to engage in meaning negotiation with their students, with students and teacher together asking questions about the texts being read and constructing alternative interpretive possibilities.

Researchers interested in the effects of culture on literacy development have been especially sensitive to classroom processes, drawing conclusions about instruction that works with minority students based on extensive observations in classrooms. For example, based on years of work at Hawaii's Kamehameha School, Au (1998) concluded that beginning reading instruction that works with Hawaiian children has the following characteristics: There is attention to letter- and word-level processes but also to higher-order literacy competencies, including reading comprehension and the writing process. Phonics instruction is embedded in a broad curriculum that includes extensive reading and frequent writing that permit the use of skills being learned through classroom instruction. Au observed much guided reading and discussion of literature in effective Kamehameha classrooms.

Others interested in minority children have similarly come to the conclusion that effective and desirable instruction with minority children is highly meaningful, focusing more on comprehension, composition, and immersion in important cultural and world knowledge. Luis Moll (e.g., 1998), who has studied the teaching of Hispanic American students, and Gloria Ladson-Billings (e.g., 1994), who has documented teachers who were successful with African American students are two such investigators. Both Moll and Ladson-Billings described how teachers made connections between classroom learning and the cultures and communities of their students, emphasizing that education at its best is a cooperative enterprise rather than a competitive one.

One of the most extensive analyses of effective teaching in elementary classrooms was offered by Michael S. Knapp and Associates (1995), who observed 140 elementary-level classrooms, each for at least one school year. The most important finding of Knapp and Associates was that achievement was higher in classrooms in which there was much teaching for meaning. That is, with respect to literacy, achievement was higher to the extent that reading instruction emphasized comprehension and the teaching of comprehension strategies, and to the extent that writing emphasized composition (i.e., the writing of stories and expositories). In contrast, achievement was less impressive when teachers emphasized letter- and word-level skills during reading and writing instruction. The most effective teachers in the Knapp and Associates study were able to cover the lower-order skills within the context of higher-order instruction (i.e., as students tackled challenging texts and wrote multiple-paragraph passages).

Although Ruddell (1997), Au (1998), Moll (1998), Ladson-Billings (1994), and Knapp and Associates (1995) offered converging data in support of elementary-level literacy instruction that goes well beyond letter- and word-level skills, none of these studies chose as a focus beginning reading instruction in first grade. We saw this as an important omission, given the emphasis on first grade in recent years by the many constituencies interested in beginning literacy. This book reports work that explicitly informs about grade 1, and, in particular, first-grade classrooms in which children make good progress in becoming readers and writers. Granted, there have been entire books written on what should happen in whole-language first grades as well as in first grades attempting to be rich in direct instruction of basic skills. We found lots of teacher's manuals available, detailing publishers' envisionments of what first-grade classrooms, driven by their products, should look like. Even so, we found nothing like an observational study focusing on first-grade classrooms per se, a study undertaken to represent excellent first-grade teaching as completely as possible and attempting to do so in an agenda-free manner (i.e., not written by an advocate for a major literacy development perspective, such as whole-language or direct instruction).

We came to this investigation with some previous experience in sizing up elementary-level classrooms with respect to literacy instruction. Pressley et al. (1992) had carried out a series of observational studies that detailed how comprehension instruction occurs in elementary classrooms dedicated to a strategies-instructional approach. That work mostly involved observations of classrooms, but was complemented by interviews of teachers who were observed and of others who were not observed. Those data were analyzed to produce a theory grounded in data (Strauss & Corbin, 1990).

In the investigations presented in this chapter, we chose to follow Pressley et al.'s (1992) approach with respect to data collection and analyses. In both of the studies summarized here, analyses of individual classrooms were carried out, based on observation and interview data to produce a grounded theory. Then, there were analyses across the conclusions about individual classrooms in order to generate more general conclusions.


Most research involves convenience samples-that is, the individuals studied usually live and work near the researchers. So it was in the first study reported here, which was a doctoral dissertation by Ruth Wharton-McDonald when she was a student at the State University of New York at Albany. Administrators and reading specialists in a number of upstate New York school districts were asked to nominate a first-grade teacher in their district, specifically one whose teaching was considered exemplary in promoting literacy, as well as another teacher in the district who was considered more typical of the district (i.e., very solid in promoting academic achievement but not as outstanding as the teacher who was nominated as exemplary). Those making the nominations were asked to consider a variety of factors, including their own observations of the teachers, teacher enthusiasm, reading and writing achievement of students, student enthusiasm for reading, whether they would want their child in the teacher's first grade, whether the teacher reached a wide range of abilities, and positive feedback from parents. When the study began, the research team had 10 teachers in the sample, 5 who were nominated as outstanding in promoting their students' literacy and 5 who were nominated as more typical of their districts.

Several observers made multiple visits to the 10 first-grade classrooms. These observers then coded their data for each classroom with respect to categories of events occurring in the classroom (e.g., morning meeting, one-to-one sessions with teachers). Each of these events was described in detail. Visits to a classroom continued until the observers were confident that they were coming to no new insights about what was going on in the classroom, although there was an additional constraint that observations be spread across the entire school year. (We established this requirement because it seemed possible, a priori, that the nature of first-grade literacy instruction might change as the first graders became more competent in reading and writing.)

The teachers were interviewed, with the interviews very much informed by the observations. That is, questions were design to clarify what the observers had seen during the classroom visits, and each interview was tailored to what had been observed in each teacher's own classroom. The questions posed to the teacher included the following:

What kinds of things do you ask parents to do in your classroom? Can you tell which kids read at home with their parents? Are all of the students' parents literate? Do the students help each other? Do you consider yourself a whole-language teacher? When you were conducting a reading group, it seemed as though you were doing some on-line assessment of the kids. What were you doing? How do you know which kids are going to need more literature? Phonics? When do you think students do the weekly homework assignments? Do all the kids take books home? How often do they write in their journals? What kinds of grades do you give in first grade?

For every teacher/classroom studied, a model of the teacher's instruction was constructed. A penultimate version of the model was given to the teacher for review and then adjusted, based on feedback from the teacher. (The only adjustments made, however, were very minor, for all of the teachers agreed that the researcher-constructed models were fair and complete representations of their literacy instruction.) These models were intended to be comprehensive with respect to what happened in the observed classrooms during literacy instruction.

For example, one teacher's model included sections on the teacher's philosophy, the areas of reading emphasized, the use of grouping in the class, materials read and used in the class, frequently observed activities, teaching strategies, process writing instruction, students' written products, student engagement, general classroom atmosphere, seating arrangement, other adults in the classroom, home-school connections, and the reading levels of students in the class. Each of these sections of a model included a number of indicators. Thus, for one teacher, the process writing section included information about writing instruction to the whole class, the use of story webs during writing, the effect of talking with partners as part of process writing, how writing and drawing were integrated, teacher monitoring and feedback during the writing process, and how teacher scaffolding supported student writing. In short, by the end of the observations and interviews it was possible to put together detailed summaries of the teaching in each first-grade classroom that was observed. (Chapters 5 through 9 are based on the ultimate summaries of teaching for five of the most effective teachers identified in this study and in the second study addressed in this chapter.)

As part of the observations, the researchers explicitly looked for indicators of literacy achievement in classrooms. The reason was that the researchers did not want to accept the school district's appraisals of teachers as exemplary or more typical without corroboration. Three indications of achievement characterized classrooms with high literacy achievement as compared with those with less achievement:

1. By the end of the study, it was clear that reading achievement was better in some classrooms than others. That is, in some classrooms most students were reading books at or above grade level by the end of first grade, whereas in other classrooms there were many students who were reading books well below grade level.

2. By the end of the year, in some classrooms writing was more advanced than in other classrooms. Thus, in some classrooms, most students were writing more than one-page stories, with the stories reasonably coherent; punctuation, capitalization, and spelling were often quite good in some classrooms. In contrast, in other classrooms the stories were much shorter on average (e.g., perhaps two or three lines long), with less evidence that students understood and used punctuation, capitalization, and spelling conventions.

3. In some classrooms student engagement was much more consistent than in other classrooms. Most striking, in classrooms with high reading achievement, there was also high writing achievement. Moreover, in the classes with high reading and writing achievement, most students seemed to be working productively on literacy tasks most of the time.

During the course of the study, one teacher, who had been nominated by her administrator as outstanding in promoting student achievement, dropped out because of personal reasons unrelated to the study, leaving a total of nine teachers who were observed over the course of the year and interviewed. Of these nine, three were notable for promoting reading achievement, writing achievement, and engagement; two of the three were originally nominated as outstanding teachers and one was originally nominated as more typical of his district. Three teachers were notable as being not as successful as the others in getting their children to read and write and to be engaged in literacy activities.


Excerpted from Learning to Read by Michael Pressley Copyright © 2001 by The Guilford Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Pt. I First Grade: History and Contemporary Practice 1
Ch. 1 A Brief History of First-Grade Reading Instruction 3
Ch. 2 Surveying Nominated-Effective First-Grade Teachers about Their Instruction 32
Ch. 3 The Nature of First-Grade Instruction That Promotes Literacy Achievement 48
Ch. 4 Teaching Writing in the First Grade: Instruction, Scaffolds, and Expectations 70
Pt. II The Case Studies 93
Ch. 5 Barbara Wiesner 95
Ch. 6 Andy Schultheis 115
Ch. 7 Georgia Leyden 138
Ch. 8 Missy Allen 162
Ch. 9 Patricia Loden 184
Pt. III Thoughts about Teacher Development 203
Ch. 10 How I Became an Exemplary Teacher (Although I'm Really Still Learning Just Like Anyone Else) 205
Ch. 11 Concluding Reflections 219
Index 237
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