How We Teach Reading

Several parents have asked me to write about the philosophy we use at TCFL to teach reading. Parents can see that it’s working, but don’t know how to explain it to family and friends. This is our reading philosophy in a nutshell.

At our school, we have several goals in media center 2in mind when we teach reading:

  1. That kids become life-long readers. We want them to love reading.
  2. That all students learn to read.
  3. That children learn to read fluently and with strong comprehension.

Everything about our reading philosophy is geared to meet these three goals. All of our ideas come from extensive research into the best ways to teach reading (see bibliography below). Studies that look at how kids learn continue to evolve and, in order to remain on the cutting edge of education, we continually refine and improve our teaching methods. Below are answers to some of the most frequent questions parents ask us:

Why don’t you use Language Arts textbooks? 

First of all, reading real books is what leads kids to become life-long readers. People rarely curl up on the couch with a textbook for a long afternoon read, nor do they read their textbook in bed before falling asleep. On the other hand, people do cuddle up with novels. Textbooks assume that all students should be at the same level of reading. But children are not robots and they learn at different paces.  Some kids in third grade struggle to read the appropriate level  textbook, while others find it too easy and boring. Learning to read is developmental, just like learning to walk – we don’t all do it at the same time or the same pace, yet most of us will eventually get there. If you watch a group of twelve-year-olds running around, you can’t tell which one learned to walk first, and the fastest runner isn’t necessarily the child who started walking before the others. The same applies to reading. By secondary school, we can’t pick out the kids who learned to read first. When we use real books instead of textbooks, we allow students to read at their developmental level.

If kids are at different levels, how do you teach them all? 

Since children all learn at different rates, we differentiate, and this is done in several ways. First of all, we read with kids, evaluating their level on several criteria and finding out where they are on the reading continuum. We don’t do this by sitting down and giving a child a standardized test. Instead, we conference with them individually, asking them questions about their reading, listening to their fluency and discovering which skills they have mastered and which skills they still need to learn. Once we know the levels of our students, we plan our lessons which we teach through shared reading, guided reading or independent reading.

  • Shared reading is done with the whole class. All students follow along while we read a picture book, poem or novel together. This book is challenging for most students, so we support them while they read. We teach lessons that most of the class is ready for at this time.
Attabeira read aloud 4

Fourth grade shared reading

  • During guided reading, we place groups of students together who are working on the same reading strategy, such as pausing for periods and commas, emphasizing words in italics, or reading sentences smoothly, without hesitating. We meet with those students for small group lessons in which we teach them what they need to know. These groups are flexible and change constantly. For instance, one week the teacher may decide that four students need help in reading aloud with expression. Two of the students may be reading on a lower level, one on an intermediate level, and one might be a very strong reader, but they all need to learn the same skill. The teacher finds a book which they can all read comfortably, and they practice reading with expression together. Once these students learn the skill, they’ll be placed in different groups according to their needs.
1st grade reading conference

1st grade reading conference


  • Finally, in independent reading, students read books at their level. We try to help them find books that are slightly challenging but not so difficult that they’ll lose motivation. The teacher conferences individually with students on a weekly basis, teaching them a personalized lesson. She takes note of what she taught the child and then, in her next conference, will check to see if the skill was mastered.

phonics worksheet I heard you don’t teach phonics. How do kids learn to read without phonics?  

Actually, we do teach phonics. We just do it differently than in a phonics-based reading program (which uses worksheets like the picture on the left). When we’re teaching a phonics lesson that the whole class needs, we teach it during the shared reading portion of the lesson. If a child needs a specific lesson, we teach it individually during guided or independent reading time. During reading conferences, we monitor the students to ensure that they are incorporating the phonics we’ve taught them. It has been proven that children don’t learn to read by filling out phonics worksheets. They learn to read by reading…. a lot.

My niece sounds out words fluently, but doesn’t understand them. What’s up with that?                                  

There is a strong misconception that when students can sound out words (decoding) they can read, but often children who decode well have not learned the strategies necessary for comprehension. In traditional schools, the focus tends to be on decoding rather than comprehending. At TCFL, we constantly focus on comprehension strategies: making connections, visualizing, predicting, questioning, monitoring, and summarizing. Many years ago, we had a boy in third grade who had recently arrived from the U.S. His native language was English and he read beautifully: fluently and with expression. But when we asked him what the story was about, he was only capable of telling us the title of the book. This happened over and over again. He had learned to decode, but had not been given any comprehension strategies to make sense of the words he was reading. Reading without understanding is not reading.

My child is in first grade and can’t read yet. Should s/he be tested for a reading disability?      

No, it’s not yet time to worry. The norm for learning to read is anywhere from 4 – 8 years. As long as a child is making progress along the reading continuum, we aren’t concerned. If in third grade a child is still struggling to learn to read, then we need to start looking into possible reading disabilities. In the meantime, snuggle up with your child and read aloud to him or her every single night. This is the best possible way to help your child become a reader.

My teenager loves reading popular novels. Shouldn’t secondary students be reading the classics?                      

In order for kids to become life-long readers, we have to allow them to read what they like. If this means they want to read nothing but vampire books or romances or even comics for a while, then let them. We do introduce them to the classics in shared reading, and we suggest classics we think they might be ready for, but forcing kids to read books they hate is the surest way to turn them off of reading forever. If they become life-long readers, they’ll have plenty of time for the classics later on.

Bibliography of books on how to teach reading:

Fountas and Pinnell:

  • Guided Reading: Good First Teaching for All Children
  • When Readers Struggle: Teaching That Works
  • The Continuum of Literacy Learning, Grades PreK-8, Second Edition: A Guide to Teaching
  • Teaching for Comprehending and Fluency: Thinking, Talking, and Writing About Reading, K-8

Donald R. Bear, Marcia Invernizzi, Shane Templeton and Francine Johnston:

  • Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction

Stephanie Harvey:

  • Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension for Understanding and Engagement

Regie Routman:

  • Invitations: Changing as Teachers and Learners K-12
  • Transitions: From Literature to Literacy

Lucy Calkins:

  • The Art of Teaching Reading

Ellin Oliver Keene:

  • Mosaic of Thought, Second Edition: The Power of Comprehension Strategy Instruction

Janet Allen:

  • Yellow Brick Roads: Shared and Guided Paths to Independent Reading 4-12
  • On the Same Page: Shared Reading Beyond the Primary Grades



  1. excellent! now we wait for a post “how we teach writing”

  2. Yocasta de la Ceuz October 14, 2014 at 4:43 pm

    Very helpful article!

  3. which are the criteria to choose the books that are available for them in the classroom?

    how do you manage that they read those different kinds of texts available for them, besides their own preferences?

    • teachingexperiment October 17, 2014 at 10:07 am

      Marta, thank you for asking these questions.

      We choose books based on interest and reading level. We try to have a variety of levels available in each classroom library so that students who are on the lower end of the continuum will find books that they can read proficiently and students on the upper end of the continuum will find books that challenge them. Of course, we look for challenging books which deal with themes at the child’s age level. We follow a variety of teaching and librarian blogs so that we have excellent recommendations for books. We also buy books that students and teachers request.

      Actually, we urge children to find books that they like and to read them. When children read what they like, they tend to enjoy reading…. which is our goal for them. We don’t mind if a child decides they love a certain author or genre and want to immerse themselves in certain books for a while. At the same time, we try to broaden their horizons by introducing them to new authors and genres during read aloud and shared reading. In the secondary grades teachers ask that students read a novel that they find “challenging” and that they read at least 5 different genres during their independent reading. Honestly, we don’t worry too much about what a child is reading, as long as they are reading.

  4. Pienso que la metodología , es Excelente , muy motivacional y acorde con la época tecnológica que los jóvenes de ahora dominan , necesariamente los pasos q la institución esta dando , son los que esta generación conoces y necesitas , soy Abuela , enseño en una universidad del país , he tenido q Evolucionar rápidamente , para poderlo motivar , los Felicitos , y muy buena bibliografía , Además la educación es integrar y los padres deben participar en el hogar , se que mi opinión no es esencial Ya que soy Abuela , gracias !!!

    • teachingexperiment October 17, 2014 at 1:35 pm

      Rosario, al contrario, yo creo que las opiniones de las abuelas son esenciales. Gracias por sus comentarios!

  5. Carla, this is my favorite post ever! Reading should be engaging, fun and motivating. I love that you wrote this explanation, because sometimes people from outside get the idea that teaching to read this way is a bit unstructured (actually, I’ve heard the word “hippie” a couple of times… hehehe). You know, seeing children on the floor, upside down, “wasting time” just reading… What they don’t see is the whole process behind the scenes. It takes tremendous amount of planning to successfully conduct a reading class this way. It takes a great deal of structure to be able to make it work. And at the end, well, we all see the results: Kids read. Kids like to read. Kids write.

    I can’t begin to tell you how many hours I’ve spent thinking about the Dominican low literacy rates. And every single time I come to the same conclusion: it has a lot to do with teachers, the method they use, and how well they implement the method. TCFL’s reading instruction model depends on very smart, very intuitive, and very VERY well trained teachers. I’m afraid (and almost embarrassed) to admit that this is not the case in all schools in our country.

    • teachingexperiment October 19, 2014 at 8:59 pm

      I agree Laura, most people have no idea how hard teachers work to make this happen. When teachers are good at what they do, they make it look easy. People don’t see the hours and hours of work they do behind the scenes to meet their students’ needs. I know that when people call us the “hippie school” they mean it as an insult, but we accept it as a compliment 🙂

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