We're Moving on Up: Reading and Writing for Upper Elementary Students

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So far this summer, our LL ED block has focused primarily on teaching techniques applied to learners in the K-2nd grade age range. Most people think of these younger students when anyone mentions elementary school learners, not to mention all we have discussed regarding the unfair portrayal we receive as future elementary teachers whom most people hold the stereotype that all we do is finger paint and play games all day. Similarly, the majority of the authors we have read in the course of the summer offer insights about emerging learners with newly formed language skills ripe for the tuning instead of students seeking further guidance in their already formed foundations. However, the readings for this week build upon the knowledge gained thus far on the tactics and strategies of teaching reading and writing as they tend to focus to upper elementary students (3rd-6th grade).

How to organize the more mature classroom

With many of excited about creating our own classroom it is important to remind ourselves that the set up of a classroom is important no matter what grade you are teaching. Creating an environment that is purposeful and sets the priorities of the teacher is another important part of being a teacher no matter what grade you are teaching. S & S state, "The way we set up the classroom gives our students a clear message about the culture of the classroom, the kind of work they will do, and the expectations we have for them." (Page 29) This is a huge task for a teacher to undergo with all the pressures of what creating a classroom environment can tell the students.

Some important points to remember when setting up your classroom are:
*The classroom library should be organized in a way that makes sense for the needs of the children.
*There should be room for a meeting space.
*There should be enough space in the classroom for other subjects. (This shows the students that the other school subjects are important to learn too.)
*There should be plenty of comfortable spaces for students to work and meet. Having room for groups work and such is something that is important for upper elementary as well as primary. (S & S, 2003. Taberski, 2000)

Wall Space

Making use of wall space is a great way to show students what we value (S & S, 2003). Although we as a class have debated about what should be hung up and what should not, we will still need to decorate them in some way so they are not bare! Some examples that S & S offer onof how to use your walls to display different types of work are: (Pages 31-33 for more specifics)
*Ways into books
*Book Characters
*Invitations into books
*Word Play

Here are some websites to shop for school supplies when creating your ideal classroom environment with our limited teacher budgets. They are fun to browse and to start thinking about how you would want your classroom walls to look when we are teachers:

Supplies 1
Supplies 2
Supplies 3


Time is something that many of us feel we never have enough of. This is also true in the classroom so organizing it successfully to make the most use of our time is an important aspect of setting up a classroom. Making sure that there is time for:
*Independent reading
*Read aloud
*Conversations, etc.

As these are all still things to consider when setting up the classroom schedule (even with older grades). By having routines for reading and writing can allow students to immerse themselves in the act of learning how to read and write effectively. S & S explain the importance of having plenty of time set aside each day for reading and writing, and creating routine where students can work out their common questions, have thoughtful conversations, and be a part of rigorous learning.

Reading Diaries/Notebooks

Reading notebooks can continue to be used in upper grades and with more complexity. S & S explain that we want our students to develop and reflect on their reading. As teachers we can use these notebooks to monitor progress and analyze students needs (especially because most reading is beginning to become silent as they become better readers). S & S have suggested that reading logs for 3-6 grades can be split into five categories: (Pages 36-40)

1. Reading log and response
2. Books I want to read
3. Read Aloud
4. Me as a Reader
5. Strategies and mini-lessons

An inner debate that could occur over these reading logs is whether or not they should be graded. S &S state, "if they are graded, students may not find it as a safe place to deepen their reading skills and understanding." This is something that you as a teacher will need to decide on your own though.

Older books for older students?: the upper elementary classroom library

We have been reading a lot about how to organize a classroom library. Taberski has given us a lot of insight on how to do this for primary grades, but now the question remains of how to organize a classroom library when working with an older age group such as 3-6th grades. S & S say that, "The more children read, the better readers they become." (pg. 12). They also explain that as a teacher it is our job to make sure that students are choosing the right books and that we have helped them learn the skills to do this appropriately. We do not want to take on the sole responsibility of book choosing, because just like in primary levels, we are working on independence; this goes for book choice as well. In September and October the Smith reading suggests we as teachers need to focus on how students can succeed in book choice and how we as teachers can successfully battle some of the challenges that students might encounter. Some interesting points S & S offer on how to better prepare yourself as a teacher to teach students on how to match books with themselves are:

*Know that when students make meaningful book choices they are often more committed to that book and
*Organize your classroom library thoughtfully

Organizing a classroom library is something that takes a lot of time and thought. We have spent a lot of time thinking about this, but a new point of view may or may not need to be put into place when considering how to create a library for older elementary students. There is no one right way to do this but techniques from S &S can make this process much easier for teachers. Teachers can use book baskets, similar to those suggested by Taberski, but focus on higher-level categorizations of the books according to the grade level of the students. When students choose books from the classroom library, we as teachers can monitor what they are choosing to try to find ways for the library to work most efficiently for the students needs. A classroom library is not limited to baskets, but many may find it to be the best way for organizing for students.
Some of these categories for organizing book baskets include: (S & S Pages 16-22)

1. Favorite Author
2. Non-Fiction Books
3. Series Books/Favorite Characters
4. New Books/Award winners
5. Read Aloud Books
6. Class Picks/Reading with a Friend
7. Different Formats

Another fun thing to add to the making of the classroom library could be compilation of websites that students can read during independent reading time and at home if they have a computer available (S & S, 2003). There are a lot of personal websites made my teachers that offer ideas and advice on how they created their own classroom library. This website was particularly interesting because she showed the transformation of putting her library together, mentioned great ways to get good deals, has other teachers post their library pictures for ideas, and even explains how she opens her library to her students in the beginning of the school year.

Upper Elementary Reading

Some people think that we only teach reading in the primary grades of elementary school. In some ways this may seem true, but it is often forgotten that children need to continue to lean to read beyond primary grades.

"...in grades K-2 we teach children to read and in grades 3-6 our students read to learn." (S & S, Page 1)

This idea of learning to read and reading to learn is a common theme about reading for upper elementary. An article from scholastic.com explains this theory as well while providing some milestones for these older students to try to reach with their reading in the upper elementary grades.

As teachers, the basic fundamentals of reading may be in place once students reach a certain grade, but there is surely more for students to learn.

Sibberson and Szymusiak quote "What many researchers have now shown is that for all children, learning to read and reading to learn should be happening simultaneously and continuously, from preschool through middle school and perhaps beyond." (Stenhouse Publishers, pg. 2.) This is important to remember because many students have not been reading very long and we as teachers need to be there to help them experience and understand these new encounters with reading more difficult text.

As students move through elementary they grow up, but so does their text. S &S explain that students still have a lot to learn in the upper grades because their texts become more difficult. There are a few focus points that they pointed out, in which upper elementary students begin to focus on deeper with more complex text. Some of them include:

*Analyzing themes
*Responding at high levels

These comprehension and reading expectations for students increase as they continue to increase in their sophisticated text choices. As a teacher it is important to give the students the skills they need to tackle the harder texts given to them. Smith uses literary discussions and study to help further the understanding of more difficult texts. Some of her ideas could be helpful in teaching upper elementary students how to use these new texts. Many of you might find that her literacy circles were very similar to the literacy groups we were a part of in 402 this summer!

How to step up and teach students more difficult texts

As children are given more difficult texts a few common themes/challenges begin to unravel.

1. Books Unfolding slowly: An important new challenge that often faces upper elementary readers is the fact that higher-level books unravel much slower than the books they are used to. As a teacher teaching students skills on how to persist through a beginning that takes time and pages to unfold can be difficult. S & S give some helpful tips on how to approach this common problem:
*Realize that all readers face this challenge
*Skim through old books to see where they were hooked
*Skim and figure out when readers becomes unhooked
Through using these three indicators, a teacher may be able to understand what grabs the student's attention, or what loses it. They can then use this information to help them in teaching their students to persist through what the students may feel is a slow story.

2. How children choose books: Children are used to choosing books by looking at the cover and title (S & S, 2003). By teaching students to look at other factors that make a book they can better decide if the book is for them. One suggestion was to have the students begin to look at the blurb on the back, which gives a short explanation of a book. Another was to introduce to students the idea of opening the book and reading the first page to see if it is something they think that they may like. We as a class talked about students having to count their fingers to see how many words they didn't know to determine if the book is "right" for them. Also just having conversations with students about books and book choice can be really helpful when they are beginning to choose more difficult text.

3. Deep Reading: Some students get so excited that they can read chapter books that they begin to feel the pressure to read longer, fatter books with smaller type and more challenging words (S & S, 2003). Think about in the Taberski video where the child was dying to read chapter books! The text explains that we need to teach our students that a successful reader is someone who can understand the deep meaning of text. These great readers are those who can have in-depth conversations about the text in a meaningful manner. A very well known text mentioned (by S & S) as an example of a book that has deeper meaning is "Tuesday's with Morrie." This book has simple text, but very deep meaning. Books, such as this one, are a good example of how students can be blinded by the size of a book and not see that the content within it is so much more important. In creating lesson plans for deeper meaning Kelly Gallagher has lesson plan ideas in her book Deeper Reading, where she says that her key questions when creating the lessons are:
1. Without my assistance, what will my students take from this reading?
2. With my assistance, what do I want my students to take from this reading?
3. What can I do to bridge the gap between what I want my students to learn on their own and what I want them to learn?
4. How will I know if my students "got it?" (Page 198)

Literacy circles can also be a teaching technique to help find deeper meaning of text. As teachers we can have different goals for these literacy circles: (Smith)
* Teaching students to work together
*Analyze their text
*Set goals
*Read independently

Smith quotes, "the more practice and experience we have with particular strategies, the more competent we become in using them." To teach students how to find meaning in their books, we need to teach them the skills on how to do it and let them practice it often. She works on teaching the students to appreciate literature and use it in more sophisticated ways. To help her students establish and organize these literature groups and find deeper meaning in her books she has created three forms for the students.
*Form 1: Literature Study Contract
*Form 2: Literature Study (Daily)
*Form 3: Literature Study (Final)

These literature groups can be a fun way for students to further their understanding and put deep meaningful thought into what they are reading. Reading groups are also a technique that they will use throughout their educational career. We even just had reading groups in college for 402!

Main Teaching Points for Reading in Grades 3-6

There are so many things to be thinking about when teaching upper elementary students how to read. To compound what S &S found most important, a list was provided and gives insight on skills, strategies, and behaviors that should be taught to students in grades 3-6 (Page 9 in S & S):

*Sustaining interest and understanding throughout a challenging text
*Choosing books that match individual needs
*Keeping track of characters
*Using skills and strategies to get through the hardest sections of the text
*Having skills to get through text that is not interesting
*Understanding complex meaning
*Trusting that texts that aren't immediately engaging might have value
*Reading a variety of texts with a repertoire of tools for working through different text conventions, formats, and features
*Changing thinking while reading to revise predictions and clarify understanding
*Having conversations in a community of readers with an increasing level of sophistication about different types of texts and reading experiences
*Reflecting on thinking and monitoring strategies and behaviors
*Knowing yourself as a reader
*Using strategies flexibly for different kinds of texts

While utilizing these strategies, always remember to be creative with new activities or adapting the things we have already discussed. Watch this video of a teacher who makes reading more fun and expressive when students read and recounting their stories in class.

Sharing the tools of writing benefits all

To introduce writing activities effective at the upper elementary school level, Routman discusses shared writing.

Shared writing is the collaborative efforts of the both the teacher and the students in order to create a written piece as a team. It is mostly seen where a teacher is at a chalkboard, dry erase board, or easel in front of the entire class, but shared writing can also be done in groups of students working together at a table or conferencing with the teacher. In all of these settings, the students are generating the bulk of messages while the teacher does all of the grunt work by physically holding the pen. Students have the ability to watch how a written piece is formed as the teacher writes neatly and skips spaces. More importantly, students also have the opportunity of viewing the writing process when a teacher creates a writing piece with his or her students over a longer period of time.

Shared writing relates back to the fundamental ideals of using modeling to catalyst student learning and praise to generate the appropriate levels of confidence that make students apply more effort and interest toward writing or any other subject.

It can work for all learners

It is easy to relate such a guided approach like shared writing to teaching and learning to younger elementary learners, but it works for all students. When using shared writing with older students in the elementary school, say 5th graders, shared writing may be the most appropriate activity to start to introduce students to more difficult aspects of written work like writing compound sentences and practicing with different tenses of words.

Lower achieving students also benefit from shared writing because not only are they exposed to examples and strategies used by their peers, which may seem more relatable, but struggling students are able to participate and offer their own ideas in a safe setting to try things out. The same can happen for non-native English speakers who may struggle with oral speech. For both types of students, the positive environment created by the teacher allows these students to take a risk and gain confidence in front of some of the other students who may seem to get most of the spotlight. Remember, though, to "be sensitive to students' language and culture." (Routman, 91) The point is to celebrate their insight not isolate the things they do not do correctly, which may potentially belittle them and in turn negate their motivation and connection to reading. "Receiving validation for their ideas in front of their peers builds students' writing confidence, a necessary prerequisite for becoming a writer." (Routman, 85)

Bridging shared writing with reading

Shared writing can be connected to reading, an important aspect of teaching where pairing activities of reading and writing in order to enrich both sets of skills in learners. One of these activities connects shared writing with guided reading and read alouds. Routman mentions how teachers can perform a shared writing conference with a smaller group of students within the class, maybe a group of struggling writers. After the collaborative efforts are achieved keeping in the aforementioned ideals of praise and sensitivity in mind, the teacher can then use the piece as a read aloud for the entire class or use it as the piece for guided reading with smaller groups. Using a student generated piece in such a way helps to reinforce their efforts. A teacher may choose to pull out the student written piece unannounced for the other classmates to learn from then reveal who the true authors were, providing a wonderful opportunity to boost the struggling writers' morale, or the teacher can start the shared writing experience by stating how this piece will be used with other students to ensure extra positive effort.

Shared writing also provides an excellent way for students to develop better book reviews after a novel or story is read. Royce Lindner, 6th grade teacher from Wisconsin, mentions how his collaborative efforts with a student to write a book review for Holes by Louis Sachar actually produced a better review than the one he created himself. (Routman, 87) Students can also perform the same activity without a teacher's help, much like our class does after discussing books in our book groups in LL ED 402.

For another teacher's reading and writing connections, watch this video by Lynn Reichle.

Let's get this writing started

Beyond shared writing, teacher need to get students writing. We have used the term "writing workshop" this entire summer, but it is important to realize writing workshop just means writing. Routman mentions not to add unwanted stress by placing this fancy title for the students because it may cause them to be scared about writing. If you are going to use writing workshop as the title of an activity, explain what that means by defining what the activity is not. A teacher can tell what it isn't by listing the following from page 174:

*A lockstep, linear process: prewrite, draft, revise, edit, publish
*Focusing on individual writing traits
*Following a program or template
*Writing to prompt after prompt to prepare for a high-stakes test
*Practicing skills in isolation
*Writing topic sentences with supporting details
*Assigning a topic without teaching (or meaning)
*Writing for purposes student don't value or under

The list above looks like most of the writing procedures and statements associated with those activities in our own personal schooling, especially when writing becomes more complex at higher grade levels. These rigid approaches to writing cut engagement and encouragement at its knees before students even attempt to write. The harsh guidelines overwhelm students to the point of preparing to fail. Instead of organizing our writing classes around particular skills and minilessons, shift the focus to communication of a given message to a specific audience. (Routman, 175) Routman continues by asking teachers to keep the following in mind:

*Establish a genuine purpose and audience for all writing.
*Start by demonstrating (shared writing above and modeling...perhaps enough has already been said about that)
*Gradually release responsibility to students (think about Taberski's meeting frequency early then having students work more in peer groups, as seen in Joe and Teeter's blog post two weeks ago)
*Celebrate, respond, evaluate, teach, and move forward (PRAISE, PRAISE, PRAISE and all the stuff we have attached to positive reinforcement)

Another aspect to add to her list would be to have your students write everyday or to a routine. The high frequency of writing promotes better flow, where students keep their brain sharp to the task of writing and generating ideas. A musician, Micah Gardner has been quoted as saying, "write every day, even if it isn't right." His words help to inspire other people, even young writers, to push past the mental blockers, aka writer's block, and keep up the work even if it might be a stepping stone to that great piece of writing hidden within.

We know you are busy reading and writing your blog, but take the time to listen to his smooth island jams. He is a great musician and a wonderful person beyond the stage.

Personal choice may be easier said than done:

As we continue to build engagement and get our students to write more frequent or even everyday, teachers need to guide older students how to make intelligent choices of what to write, i.e. topics and genres. Teaching students how to choose better topics and styles for themselves comes from prewriting techniques (brainstorming, outlining, researching texts, etc.). It is important to note, though, that sometimes focusing on most of the prewriting stuff can overdo it for some students and overwhelm them, thus negating their focus, interest, and writing efforts. Also, within these prewriting strategies students may become lost.

Freewriting is an excellent way to break the ice or mental blockers when people attempt to write. Keep these activities stress free by never focusing on grammar or too specific of a topic. After the freewriting period, apply the conferencing strategies we have talked about in order to guide the appropriate writing style needed to most effectively send the message of your students' writing. Remember that these conferences should happen throughout the writing process (beginning, middle, and end), and celebrate all the "gems" or "pearls" your students write, and be genuine with your feedback. Nothing is worse than when a student looks at the conference as a necessity instead of a conscious choice to help them grow. It is also important to save these freewritings and any writings students create in order to be able to view any and all growth in writing or refer to a previous piece for expanding or new ideas.

Teaching genre writing

We have discussed, at length, individual choice and freedom of student writing to promote engagement, meaningfulness, and personal joy in writing. The individual choice we are talking about is allowing students to write pieces across all types of writing genres. In upper elementary, writing new genres is the next necessary step when building strong writers of our students. As teachers, we have to be the facilitators for our students to know what genre suits the message they want to send to their audience. The most difficult aspect of teaching a required genre, most likely by a school district's standards, is how to present it to your students with interest in a way "that engages students' hearts and minds." (Routman, 194)

It is suggested to hide the true meaning of an activity through your language as a teacher. For example, instead of saying "multi-paragraph, informational essay" discuss another project with the same goals, like making a guide book to help future students orient to the school or a how to book about fifth grade survival. Once a decision is made, then use familiar tactics of providing modeling examples, other written references, monitoring their writing workshops, etc. until the desired goals are reached. For an example, below are the steps of generating a guide book with your entire class.

The guide book process:
*use shared writing with the whole class to develop the first page of the guidebook
*have students write their own pages (personal writing workshops with feedback)
*shared student works with the class (periods for students to read in front of class where they can receive praise and gain confidence from positive feedback)
*redrafting and conferencing (provide deeper feedback)
*publish book (display/print copies to show parents) and discuss finalized steps with the whole class about cover, artwork, colors, design, etc. This could be a great phase in the process to incorporate either artwork from projects discussed in our art class or use electronic media and technology, perhaps publishing the work online

At the end, reveal that they were writing multi-paragraph writing, a district requirement (teach it first, label it later). Don't get lost in the lingo. It is good to utilize such a project or similar projects because it teaches nonfiction, informative writing, something students are not exposed to because most of what is read is fiction (stories, fantasy, etc.).

Countering this idea, it is important to maintain fiction because the research involved with informative writing can make the students feel overwhelmed, like when we ask students to write a research paper before they fully know what they're doing or how to do it well. Plus, fictional stories tap into a child's vivid imagination and inspire them creatively with new innovative ideas, which can entertain them while reading and writing.

*For a quick concise, step-by-step progression of teaching new genres to your students, seek pages 196-197 of Routman's book. It's an excellent list that simplifies the entire process.

Calkins provides more useful knowledge about teaching genres to students. Her first step agrees with Routman, tap into the knowledge of genres children have already learned. You would be surprised what students already know, which can make the job of teaching easier, and some kids can be used to help others figure out what they already know. Peer learning helps to create the ideal classroom community surrounded by trust, respect, and safety, something we've discussed trying to achieve all summer.

Here is a link to a scholarly text relating peer learning to psychologist theory. The chapter discusses Vygotsky's theories when applied to peer learning.

Along with meaningfulness of the text, meaningfulness of specific genres need to be celebrated by offering students real world reasons to write in a given genre (directions, ads, articles, reviews of books and movies, letters, descriptions of classroom jobs, etc.). Also, examples of all types of genres can be presented by making a "grab bag" at the library.

It is also important to realize some genres simply develop from the goals students have in mind after an initial piece is written. During student and teacher collaboration, students should ask, "what might I make of this?" Useful feedback and partnered inquiry then reveals the true intend of the piece ("wow, this is actually a description" or "you just wrote some directions"). It goes back to Routman's write first, label later approach. The genre literally forms naturally from whatever the intended message was or from an initial writing splurge activity, like freewriting.


Student freedom is important with writing, but teaching specific genres with a purpose causes teachers to teach the entire class the same genre at once. One can argue doing this goes against most of what we have celebrated, but it is necessary. Routman and Calkins would agree that teaching a new genre at once to the entire class is necessary for the inquiry period of learning. Also, when the undivided classroom community is writing in the same style, the whole body of students can help each other and share aspects of their own writing to enrich the entire quality work across the student body. Calkins compares this to living like a real poet or journalist who most likely has other poet/journalist friends who look at the world through the same writer lenses.

Much like Routman's, here is a "quick list" of suggestions from Calkin to keep in mind when teaching genres:

*pick something from the genre that wows yourself, it will evoke powerful response from your students (building interest to empower meaningfulness)
*become drawn under that genres spell, not collect facts but inhabit the genre
*students will then research and start experimenting with the genre on their own or in collaborative efforts
*realizing the reactions, debates, and emotions evoked by the pieces then delve into how that author did this to me through their piece
*keep notebooks compiling any and all written pieces: do not consider its contents drafts => when living through a genre drafts don't exist, it's all just pieces of the larger puzzle of the life through writing
*at the end of the genre study, need to celebrate the process and look hard at what was truly discovered when "living the life"

After genres are learned

Once your students understand the difference between genres and the message they can transmit through them, you as a teacher can guide that knowledge in an endless amount of directions. For example, think back to the beginning of the semester when we made our Zines. All of us were literally performing our own personal genre study, though it was hidden amongst the topic of our choosing. Also, keep in mind the work we have done taking a fairytale and revamping it into three or four new ways. The knowledge of the genres caused us to be able to perform and learn the entire TRANSMEDIATION lesson. Do the same with your students in order for them to learn new styles and tap their creativity. They might not even know what they're doing because of how much fun they'll be having.

1. How can we relate the running records performed in class to upper elementary reading strategies and challenges? Support and explain from the readings.
2. Thinking back to the June 28th blog post regarding classroom management, would you change anything about your classroom if you had older elementary students, specifically 5th and 6th grade? Support your answer with outside sources.
3. How would you teach reading and writing to your students if you were assigned an upper elementary position? Which strategies to you find most effective? Support by using the readings.
4. Which aspects of genre teaching do you find to be most effective? Would you teach the genre first rigidly, or would you allow students to plug away at a piece, later revealing the true nature and design of their work?
5. What are the similarities we see in teaching upper elementary reading and writing compared to activities and strategies utilized to teach primary reading and writing to emerging learners? Are there any differences?


Calkins, L. Genre Studies.

Evitt, M. F. Reading to Learn: Upper Elementary Reading Skills. Scholastic. Viewed July 15, 2009. http://www2.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=1536.
Gallagher, K. (2004). Deeper Reading: Comprehending challenging texts grades 4-12. Stenhouse Publishers.

Routman, R. (2005). Writing Essentials: Raising Expectations and Results While Simplifying Teaching. New Hampshire: Heinemann.

Sibberson, F. & Szymusiak, K. (2003). Still Learning to Read: Teaching students in grades 3-6. Stenhouse Publishers. 1-40.

Smith, K. Bringing Children and Literature Together in the Elementary Classroom. NCTE.

Taberski, S. (2000). On Solid Ground. New Hampshire: Heinemann.

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