A flying visit to hear Peter H. Johnston

I took a plane yesterday to Auckland to attend a presentation from Peter H. Johnston, the author of Choice Words and Opening Minds, put on by the Auckland Literacy Association.

I didn’t realise it, but this was kind of unusual. Many people were surprised at how far I had come for the event. In fact, I even won (yay!) $100 worth of books for travellign the longest distance. To be honest though, I didn’t even think about the distance, I just knew I had to come. Peter’s books have really spoken to me in terms of their simplicity, the sense they make, and the very real way I believe they have the potential to change teaching and learning.


There were a lot of people there – 105 eager educators who all clearly enjoyed the books as well. I lucked in and sat at a table near the front, which was subsequently filled with University of Auckland Ph.D. students and staff, including my lecturer, Jan Gaffney. To say the conversation was interesting would be an understatement.


My humble notes from the talk could be summed up like this: (I hope I got it right!)

  • I made connections between Peter speaking about small moments in classrooms leading to big things and Pasi Sahlberg speaking about small data at the Ulearn conference this year. It is those moments in a classroom that make the difference for kids; the relationships, the knowing our learners.  
  • The importance of having shared goals and collaborating together in a classroom really support creating a healthy learning environment. The goal being for all of us to learn together.
  • Experience becomes knowledge through language – Michael Halliday
  • Be a noticer…create noticers. This puts the kids in charge of the learning and the conversation. When you ask them to notice, they are the ones doing the job, not you.
  • Teach kids to be the teachers. Tell them what they are doing (making it clear), and they teach that. You then have multiple teachers in the room, rather than just one.
    • Can you see the first part? – good phrase
  • Treat something as if it were already the case and it becomes the truth – we live ourselves into our own realities. We, as teachers, can support them to do this. Peter used this word I think (I had a bit of trouble understanding it as I heard prolapse & thought it definitely couldn’t be that!) – proleptic. I think he was referring to this:literary prolepsis
  • Children with stronger social imaginations:
    • Have stronger comprehension of narrative texts
    • Have more positive social skills
    • Are more socially cooperative
    • Have larger social networks
    • Are viewed more positively by their peers
    • Misbehave less
    • Show fewer negative responses in interactions
    • Show stronger moral development
    • Have better self-regulation
  • Book to check out – Already Ready by Matt Glover
  • Be wary of writing for kids – you are telling them they can’t do it. I personally think there can be some exceptions to this – many of my students I have to start by writing their stories (as oral recounts for example) to show them that they can be writers, before then letting them take over. But, I certainly believe what Peter is saying here as a general rule for most kids starting school. It is about accepting offers and believing them into being writers as they go on.
  • Writing is an intentional social practice.
  • We are building identities – identity shapes attention. Who you think you are alters what you attend to. If you think you are a writer, you attend to the writing prompts etc…This connected me to Hana O’Regan’s presentation at ULearn where she talked of the identity many Māori learners have as they go through school. Māori and Pasifika learners are often given an identity that is setting them up for failure from the start.
  • If a student doesn’t care about what they read, why would they want to talk about it – could create problems here with testing (e.g. easstle) and teacher assigned reading.
  • Trust was mentioned a lot by students when talking about books became the norm. They trusted those who read books they had enjoyed or talked about with them.
  • Effect sizes from Guthrie & Humenick, 2004 (to blow your mind):
    • On Motivation to Read:
      • Choice 0.95
      • Interesting Texts 1.15
      • Mastery/growth-oriented culture 0.72
      • Collaboration 0.52
    • On comprehension:
      • Choice 1.2
      • Interesting Texts 1.6
      • Mastery/growth-oriented culture 0.87
      • Collaboration 0.48
  • The Read-aloud allows for authentic interactions with students. The teacher is real.
  • Position students as engaged, knowledgeable equals.
  • Sustains a sense of autonomy, relatedness, competence & meaningfulness (human needs).
    • How did you manage that? – good phrase
  • The art of conversation – we are teaching this. Learning from each other.
  • Commitment to dialogic engagement.
  • To build comprehension – conversations like this (about texts etc) support that.
  • One child uses it (a strategy), models it, and then it gets used by others – it becomes that child’s strategy.
  • Teach children to think together – to improve comprehension and more.
  • Marie Clay posed some of these questions to gauge classrooms:
    • Are these children in control of their learning?
    • Is the teacher following the child’s lead?
    • Teaching for strategic process?
    • Learning community is a self-extending system?
    • Children experiencing literacy as a tool for building fulfilling lives.
  • Beware of leaving the hard stuff till later – I’ve always believed this. I don’t think you should leave comprehension, for example, to spring on students as a surprise in Year 3 or 4. They are doing it naturally right from the beginning – we just have to look for it and show them when they do it.
  • Book to look at: Lisa Cleaveland – More about the authors.
  • The primary goal is getting the students to want to learn and to keep learning.
  • Start with what they notice – you’ll be starting on firm ground.
  • Give over control to students.
  • Keep the kid in the conversation – don’t push them out.
    • Does anyone else have that problem? What did you do? Could you try that? – good phrases, particularly when you don’t have the answer!
  • Capitalise on the collective knowledge of the classroom.
  • Be prepared for approximation – from teachers and learners.
  • Self-determination theory – to investigate.


Just typing all that up has made me go “Wow!” Some real gems of statements. And these just came out naturally from Peter. Some of them sound quite high brow, but they weren’t. They were all supported by examples and interactions from real students. This all came out of students. They have it all there. We have to bring it out of them as it were.

If you haven’t read Peter’s books, I highly recommend you do. They are worth it. I think they should become part of pre-teacher training.


A flying visit to hear Peter H. Johnston

Reading gems

This quote from a teacher showed up in reading today and resonated with me. I think I may need to create a poster and stick it to my wall with it!

“My thought was not that children are averse to reading, but our goal was to create this love and culture for reading that went deeper than what you sometimes see in a typical first-grade classroom. Some of my kids when they come into first grade think reading is a set of skills: ‘I have to practise my sight words’ or ‘I have to read these decodable books.’ It wasn’t necessarily about enjoying a good story and understanding it. Because it’s so skills-based in kindergarten, and sometimes in low SES (socioeconomic status) schools, we focus so hard on decoding interventions, and we’re giving them all these prescriptive strategies, that it’s really hard for teachers to find time to foster that love of reading that’s going to stick with them throughout their education. I think that the love of reading that we develop goes deeper than just kids liking to read: it’s kids forming relationships around books; it’s developing a sense of what they like to read and not just what they’re told to read, and developing a sense of their identity as a reader.”

Reading gems

Two analogies from my kids…


The Swimming Analogy

So, it came to me the other day when I was watching my son’s swimming lesson. He’s at that stage where he is starting to put it all together – the arms, the legs, the breathing…It’s hard. I was never a natural swimmer so I feel for him. Last week he did it all, but it was…weird…it was clunky.

giphy (1)

It was hard to fault – his arms were rotating well, his legs were kicking nicely, but it looked wrong. It seemed mechanical and awkward. Like he was thinking about it too much instead of just doing it. And that’s when it came to me.

This is that extra something that many students and teachers miss when they are learning to read or teaching children to read. You can have all the technical aspects, and yet your reading can still be clunky and mechanical and awkward. I often get told about, and meet myself, students who can “read”. They read texts at their level, and yet they are missing something. Often it’s pinned down as a lack of comprehension. However, when you talk to these students, it is often clear they are getting the story. There is no obvious reason why they aren’t fully comprehending the story, why they’re not “reading”.  

So, you explicitly teach them comprehension strategies, and they do really well at that. You chat, you explain, you connect, you relate, and it seems that they get it. They appear to be doing everything they need to do to be successful readers, but they remain unsuccessful.

It is my thinking that they are swimming like my son. They have all the skills, but they’re having trouble putting them together. It hasn’t come naturally, so it’s still a little clunky.

Now, if my son is going to get any better at swimming, he must practice. He must fail. He must practice again. He must keep going. He must observe others and imitate them. He must practice!

What is clear to me is that these students are, most of all, lacking in practice. We must give them the time and skills and opportunities to practice their reading so that it can become smooth and fluent. So that everything works together well. If we are not doing that, we are not helping them learn to read. (this will apply to writing too!)

giphy (2)


The Bath Analogy

We used to live in an apartment in central Wellington. That was the place we bought my firstborn home to. We didn’t have a bath, just a shower. We lived there for just over two years and in all that time we used one of those plastic planter buckets, the big flexible ones that come in different colours, for him to bath in. Ours was green.


Our son was very happy in that bath. We would put in in the bottom of the shower and run the shower head down into it. We used bubble bath. He loved to have his hair combed through in the shower. As he got older, he played more and more in the bath. And he got bigger.

giphy (3)

One day I realised he could do with a bigger bath. I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed it before. He was happy, he could still fit, but it just wasn’t as fun as it could be.

I randomly connected this to reading one day – sometimes kids just need a bigger bath to play in. I often find teachers are holding their students back with their reading, for whatever reason. It is easy to say, well, they’re doing well with this, so why challenge them more? But really, they need that bigger bath. The conditions can remain the same, but the space that they have to stretch themselves with their reading needs to be extended. Given the opportunity, you can be mighty surprised at what students can show you. 

We got a bigger bath. Same type. Same colour. He loved it.


Two analogies from my kids…

Mixed ability groupings – a first look-see

It was an inauspicious start to my morning’s observations out and about in the Wellington region. My car battery was flat and I had to call Roadside Rescue. 30 minutes and $205 later (for a new battery), I was on my way again, doubting if I would actually manage to see anything at the places I was going due to running out of time.

But, I made it to Wainuiomata, a place where I can’t remember the last time I’d been to it. Also, amazed at this place appearing over a hill. It’s like a whole little world, but is still part of Welly! I was going to visit Kristen Fraser – a teacher who had answered my call on the NZ primary facebook page (finally, it was good for something for me!) for teachers who were using mixed ability groupings in their classroom, particularly for reading.

It was a short observation, but very sweet. It was one of those lightbulb moments where you say to yourself – Ooohhh!! Of course, that’s how you do it. Why didn’t I think of that? Kristen doesn’t have fixed reading groups at all. All her students have a colour wheel level, which is displayed on the wall (we talked about how some kids might respond well to this, but she has a culture in her class where it is acceptable), and a corresponding box of books is lined up along the wall.

Kristen sits on the mat for her guided readings and each child comes down when called to read. They choose a book from their colour box that they want to read, and then they choose and record a goal to aim for that day. This could be a decoding or comprehension goal. Kristen uses a book to have these recorded each day. Like so:


Then, each child reads their chosen book, focusing on their goal. Kristen does the usual Guided Reading things, except with different goals and texts for each student in mind. Sometimes children have chosen the same book and I saw some chatting away about it during their session. When they finish reading, the students then reflect on the goal with support from the teacher or from some key resources. Like these:

Simple right? It requires a bit of set up early on in the year, explaining strategies and processes, but then pretty much plans itself. Focused on individuals and their goals for reading. As part of a balanced reading programme, I think this method is totally adaptable and doable. I could imagine doing it in my own classroom (if I had one). I will be trying to demonstrate or explain it to other teachers I come across in my job in the hope that they will give it a go.


Mixed ability groupings – a first look-see

Gut gut! (this title should be read half german half English – e.g. Good Gut!)

Ok, I had to explain the title, so that isn’t a great start I realise But every time I reached for this book I thought “gut” in German, meaning “good”. And that is what is book was – good. Pretty good actually, but “Ziemlich gut” really isn’t such a grabbing title.

My Mother read this book in her last year or so and was so influenced by it that she would often mention things in it at many points in many conversations on many occasions. It was the kind of thing that you were just “yeah, yeah Mum, whatever”. I never got around to reading it while she was alive, preferring to tease her about it. I wish I had read it while she was alive now! Small things to make your Mum happy…


I found it really interesting. I can’t say I knew more than the usual about mouth to gut, so it was fascinating to learn about microbes and where things break down and the fact that we have two sphincters (true story!). I have to say, once the book got to all the nitty gritty of different bacteria in the gut my interest started to lag. But if you are into that sort of thing, it was very easy to read and written in plain English mostly (even though I think it was translated from German, so obviously written in that originally…).

One thing I did find disturbing was the amount of mice that are out there having testing done on them! Every study seemed to have some mice in a lab helping us work out which bacteria might help us lose weight or some such thing. Did you know that mice get depressed? And bacteria from the gut of depressed mice transferred into other mice can make them depressed too?


I realise that many of the findings are good for helping us with our health, but I found it immensely sad that some mice had to be made depressed for it. If only there were some better way! All the mice goings on was said so matter of factly too. For me, mice in a lab is kind of a far off concept, so it seemed weird to read about it on every second page.

But, all in all, Gut was good and if you are trying to maintain a good gut, Gut would be a good read. Gut gut!

Gut gut! (this title should be read half german half English – e.g. Good Gut!)

RT: Lit Conference Highlight – Learning more about the brain.

At the end of September, I attended my second Resource Teacher of Literacy conference in Wellington. 108 of us met to talk and learn under the subject of diversity. It was a strange and abruptly short conference for me, as I ended up missing quite a chunk of it due to first my daughter being ill, and then myself.

The parts I enjoyed most from what I did manage to attend were keynotes from Nathan Mikaere-Wallis and Kathryn Berkett and their follow-up workshops. Nathan Mikaere-Wallis is fast becoming a Kiwi institution and talks some of the most sense in the education field today. Kathryn Berkett also works in the area of educational psychology and was entertaining and informative as well.

Both speakers use the Neurosequential Model as a basis for their content. If you don’t know of the Neurosequential Model, I suggest you accustomise yourself with it. It both fascinating and simple in its complexity! Here is a graphic of it:


In last year’s post on Christian Wright’s presentation, he used the terms “downstairs brain” and “upstairs brain”. Basically, the downstairs was the feeling brain, and the upstairs was the thinking brain.

Kathryn numbered the brains from 1 to 3, joining the first two together, similar to this picture:


The brains explained through your hand.

– in this sketch, the limbic (thumb) sits cradled between the survival (palm) and the thinking (fingers) brains.

Unfortunately, my notes for the keynotes and workshops for these wonderful people got mixed up so I am just going to share everything I learned in a jumble of goodness. Apologies to Nathan and Kathryn, but their presentations did work together quite well anyway.

The Neurosequential Model works on the basis that children develop from the bottom up. First, in the Number 1 Brain, they learn survival. This is the brain that keeps you safe. Your instincts to protect yourself come from here. Next, comes the movement brain at Number 2. This is coordination and movement. Then comes the 3rd brain, which is the emotions or feeling brain. This one is developed in those first three years, and it is vital.

Only once these 3 brains are established, children begin to develop the 4th brain, the thinking brain. Most students who are having difficulties in school will have blockages in brain 3. Literacy fits into Brain 4.

Interestingly enough, it is now known that a human brain is only fully developed at an average age of 26. For women, it ranges between 18 and 24 and in men between 22 and 32! Girls brains grow faster and mature faster. The order of your birth also makes a huge difference, as firstborn children get all that individual attention at the beginning.

I found it fascinating to discover the reasons why 7 is often considered that magical age where learning really can begin – this is the time when most children are beginning to move from their emotional development into the frontal cortex, the fourth brain. Children used to start school at 6, but New Zealand changed this to 5 during the war, as did many other countries.  However, New Zealand did not change it back like many other countries post-war.

The point to having school entry at 6 was to get children socially and emotionally ready for the concrete operational stage starting at 7. All that sitting on the mat, turn taking, listening, etc…was meant to happen in that first year before the “hard” learning began. Since New Zealand didn’t change back to 6, we have children starting school at least 2 years before they are developmentally ready, and yet we are expecting them to develop literacy straight away. Even more than that, we are judging them on how well they do it at 6 with National Standards (hopefully not for much longer!). Seems pretty unfair to me!

Nathan stated that brains 1, 2 and 3 need to be in place before literacy learning starts. If you try to jump to 4 without them, you’re like a builder trying to put the roof on first. At each age, we should be meeting the needs of that age. We shouldn’t be trying to practise being a 7 year old at 3. We need to meet their emotional, limbic system needs. It has been found that those who do large amounts of literacy early on even out anyway later on. Building up the first 3 brains is a worthwhile improvement as you can’t get to the 4th without those 3. In my work as an RTLit, I often find similar situations to this. A relationship must be established between myself and the student and the student must also have the mindset available for learning.

When a child is under 7, it is how clever you THINK you are, not how clever you are that matters. That mindset and disposition are all important for future learning success. We are damaging their attitude towards learning in the first 2 years of school by focussing on their achievement. I agree with this to a large extent – children are developing fixed mindsets far too early these days due to experiencing negative consequences to failure on a day to day basis. Children need a positive disposition of themselves as a learner, but also to their gender and their culture.

An example of this not working is the Maori child – starting school with a negative stereotype of their culture, through no fault of their own. Among other things, laws that were made have allowed this to happen. Maori and Pakeha are still not starting out equal. To be proud of your culture makes you more likely to be intelligent. The negative stereotype that Maori students have to deal with cannot be underestimated. Educators must be willing to show that they value Maori culture and be prepared to show bravery by trying to incorporate it into our classrooms.

It was said that unless there is a learning disorder, building up brains 1, 2 & 3 should mean that Brain 4 (where literacy lies) should just roll out as a natural course. It is my belief that this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t spend time and effort on the foundations of pre-literacy – reading to your children will always be important and useful.

Your brain will look different after you learn to read or write. 


RT: Lit Conference Highlight – Learning more about the brain.