April 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Advancing Reading and Writing | Professional Shelf

Reflection and collaboration are key to developing best practices and sharpening teaching skills. Two recent publications, each written by a literacy pro and fueled with a steady supply of practical classroom suggestions and welcome words of inspiration, demonstrate how these processes advance writing and reading instruction.

close writingIn Close Writing: Developing Purposeful Writers in Grades 2-6 (Stenhouse, 2016), Paula Bourque, a K–8 literacy coach and litcoachlady blogger, describes shifting her focus from the teacher to the learner by paying close attention to “the routines and behaviors” of student writers. Why is it that students so often don’t reread their own writing to check for continuity and clarity? Or, why do they think a piece is complete without any attempt to revise? By applying the concepts that govern close reading to writing, Bourque believes students can be taught to purposefully reread, reflect, and revise as they “take on more awareness, ownership, and responsibility for their growth as writers.”

With nods of appreciation to other practitioners and researchers whose work has informed her own, Bourque takes readers into classrooms in Augusta, ME, where theories are put into practice. The body of the book, “Part 2: Close Writing Lessons,” is divided into nine chapters, and each highlights lessons led by Bourque and elementary teachers. For example, students are taught to orally reread for meaning and pacing; to use mentor texts from authors, teachers, and fellow students to analyze what good writers do; and to look for specific strengths in their own writing. Samples of student work and classroom photos are included. In addition, each chapter begins with an insightful one-sentence overview of the topic and ends with a useful synopsis, considerations for ELL students, and self-reflection questions for educators. Bourque also explores how to make the most of reading and writing buddies, assessments, feedback, publishing, and performing. The final section of the book contains Q&As with published authors that focus on their writing processes and habits and incorporates tips for using the interviews with students. A companion website with classroom videos, study guides, and reproducibles is available.

story still the heart ofIn the introduction to Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning (Stenhouse, 2015), Katie Egan Cunningham, a literacy consultant and assistant professor at Manhattanville College, worries that when she asks teachers to “Tell me about your students.” they often respond with reading levels rather than information about the children’s reading lives. The power of story, individual and collective, to move and motivate learners is at the core of Cunningham’s exploration of the critical role story plays in classroom instruction. With suggestions for building book collections and multi-modal text sets that embrace diverse populations and genres, the author reminds teachers that students should see themselves reflected in classroom libraries—the stories teachers choose are paramount. She includes an example of a cross-curricular text set drawn from a variety of media and developed for grades 5-8 that encourages students to read and write about the role of responsibility, friendship, conflict, and other sophisticated philosophical questions.

Cunningham urges teachers to look for stories in poetry, music, the visual arts, and multimedia; as students recognize the components of story in various media, fluency is bolstered as these ideas and skills are transferred to written texts. Read-alouds, shared reading, storytelling, reader’s theater, and wordless picture books are all mined for how they can be used to develop skills while fostering deep thinking. A “Read-Aloud Planning Guide to Increase Understanding and Interaction” which uses Julius Lester’s Let’s Talk About Race as a model is worth noting. Throughout, Cunningham makes creative use of an assortment of compelling resources, such as Pixar’s “22 Rules for Phenomenal Storytelling” and Noboru Kaetsu’s film Children Full of Life, to illustrate and support her thought-provoking argument. An annotated bibliography of children’s literature, videos, music, TED talks, and more is appended.

Curriculum Connections

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Alicia Eames About Alicia Eames

A former Brooklyn Public Library children's librarian and NYC public school teacher/librarian, Alicia Eames is a freelance editor and a frequent contributor to the SLJ’s Curriculum Connections “Professional Shelf” column.



  1. Thank you for your wonderful review. I feel very honored to be showcased alongside Katie Cunningham. (I actually teach in Augusta, Maine (not MA)-some people may appreciate that geographic distinction.) I always look forward to reading SLJ reviews and was so surprised to see my own book here. I truly appreciate the kind words.