Reflecting on a Literacy Conference

Yesterday, I joined about 20 of my colleagues in a bus trip to a Professional Development Conference in New Hampshire put on by Heinemann and featuring Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, who have developed many resources for teaching and addressing literacy in the classroom.

First off, let me say that I hate conference halls where a hundred or two of us sit at long tables and listen to a single speaker. There is such little engagement between presenter and audience (I speak; You listen. It’s like the old school way of teaching, right?) and my mind drifted quite a bit at times. I noticed a lot of people in the room with their iPhones out, playing games and checking messages. (I didn’t bring my iTouch so I was safe from temptation). One of the things I love about the National Writing Project is that most sessions are hands-on engagement and I forget that not all professional development is the same way. (But: why not? I guess you can get more money from a huge hall of folks than a small room of folks.)

That said, both Fountas and Pinnell were excellent speakers and they tried their best to keep us interested as we moved through elements of their Continuum of Literacy program that centers on literacy development from kindergarten through eighth grade. They have a real research-based approach to literacy, although the focus is on reading more than writing (with a slight nod to New Literacies tossed into the mix but only slight).

Their concept of Guided Reading for students and of finding various levels of literacy so that you can best help the individual student is fascinating and something our school has moved to this year (well, we are moving towards that direction) and I am trying to absorb as much as I can. I still worry about how I am going to assess 75 students three times a year, and then develop plans for each of those readers. That’s a bit stressful.

Another thing I admire of Fountas and Pinnell: their assessment of student comprehension is based on three tiers:

  • Thinking within the text (literal)
  • Thinking Beyond the text (critical thinking)
  • and Thinking About the text (what the writer did).

This really makes a lot of sense to me when thinking of ways to teach and assess student comprehension skill

“Teach the behavior, not the text.” — Fountas.

I love this quote — based on their own lengthy descriptions of reading behaviors that one will see at different reading levels — because it will require me to make a shift from class novels to something smaller and more individualized and I am just trying to get my mind around that shift. She notes that class novels are not bad, as long as they are not the only literacy experience the students are having (they’re not, but still … class novels are a big part of my reading program).

She said class novels allow all students to “experience the text” but not necessarily “read the text” and that makes sense to me. So, I will be rethinking things in the months to come, that’s for sure.

One more thing she said, in regards to paying attention to fluency. Reading a word is not the same as understanding the thoughts.:

“It’s not about reading the words. It’s about teaching them (students) how to read the language.”

They played a number of video clips of teachers working with students and that was helpful, particularly when I saw a clip of students using the beautiful novel, Seedfolks (which I used once with a pen pal project), and got that aha moment again (meaning: check my Scholastic book points and see if I can get a set for my class).

So, there you go: my own view of the conference.

Peace (in the sharing),

  1. I want to thank you, Kevin, for taking the time to post such a thorough review of your experience at the Heinemann Fountas and Pinnell workshop. It’s gratifying to read how much you carried away from just one day with the authors and the depth of professional reflection that day stirred in you.

    I concur the lecture-hall format for these kinds of large workshops is far from ideal and not consistent with what we know makes high quality professional develoment. Still, I hope you agree, and I believe your analysis of your experience at the workshop even makes the case, that there’s a place for these kinds of events with authors like Fountas and Pinnell, who have such large followings they are no longer in a position to offer, themselves, the smaller, more hands-on PD experiences.

    I hope for all our Workshops participants, the one-day off-site event with a nationally noted educator/author represents only one aspect of a much fuller regimen of PD that includes, among other things, professional reading, regular reflection and discussion with colleagues about that reading, and school-embedded professional development that provides opportunities for guided practice with tried-and-true instructional approaches.

    An abundance of outstanding professional development support exists from an array of sources, including the NWP, which you highlight. And Heinemann, itself, offers an expansive menu of PD, of which one-day workshops are only one part, and offered not as ends, in themselves, but, ideally, as springboards for further reading, thinking, writing, and reflection with colleagues. We also offer more hands-on PD support designed for small groups of educators and delivered on-site in schools and districts, by both published authors and consultants who have been hand-picked by our authors to serve as their surrogates. You can learn more about the full range of support we make available at

    Thank you, again, for your thoughtful analysis of your day with Fountas and Pinnell. I hope to see you again at future Heinemann workshops , where I look forward to having the pleasure of meeting you in person.

    • Hi Vicki
      Thank you for your kind reply. Yes, there is a place for this kind of presentation, but I do wish they had worked something more hands-on into the mix. I was thinking: they could have shown us a video of a student doing reading and had us do our own tallies, then share with a neighbor, and then talk about the results as a large group. That would have been useful to me.
      Logistically, that would be difficult, perhaps, but it was just a thought.

  2. Hi Kevin,
    I have been reading some of your blog’s lately about F & P assessments and guided reading. I am a literacy specialist at my school and we use their tools intensely and I am a firm believer of one-on-one assessments and also forming small, flexible guided reading groups based on strategies and levels. I agree with your statement F&P “Teach the behavior, not the text.” It is so evident to see the behaviors while giving a benchmark.

    You talked about the stress of analyzing each benchmark and then finding teaching points for each child as a challenge because of time. I know one resource I use is The Continuum of Literacy Learning PreK-8 by P&F. This way I can find an instructional level and then look at skills within the continuum as group goals, instead of just individual goals. Trust me the more you use it the easier it gets.

    I also use the Prompting Guide. Our district is trying really hard to have common language and this is a great guide for teaching, prompting, and reinforcing. I use it with my Leveled Literacy Intervention(LLI) groups.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I have enjoyed reading them.


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