Category Archives: Literacy

Middle Grade Books and Authors that I Highly Recommend!!!

Last year when I taught 4th and 5th graders, I began to really dig into the books in that level.  I usually like to know what the kids are currently reading, and as a 7th and 8th grade teacher, I read Percy Jackson, Hunger Games, and the Divergent series with them.  The issue though, for me, was that these YA books began to feel like cotton candy.  They were really fun to read, but after a while.. they felt overly saccharine.  I actually finally finished  The Brothers Karamazov after a long stint of YA.  I just craved something.. substantial.

Interestingly, that didn’t happen when I began reading these “children’s novels.”  And it made me remember reading an interview or article with/about Katherine Patterson (or was it Lois Lowry) where someone said that they love children’s books because they stick with you forever.  Or basically, these children’s books are written for children who will grow up to become adults who will still read and remember these books from their childhood.

I really believe that to be true. There are so many books that I read as a kid whose themes stick to my bones even now. There were so many books that helped me navigate situations… And even though I wasn’t a little white boy with a dog, I really appreciated the lessons that followed me through the years.

Anyway since last year, I’ve gotten to read old authors that I’d never experienced, new authors that are hitting the scene, and old books that I enjoyed in the past, and new books from old authors … (Did I hit every category)?

Usually, after reading a lot, I tend to get desensitized to quality so then when something really good died happen, it totally pops out!! With that said, after literally reading over 50 middle grade (NOT YA books) in 2017, these are the books and folks who definitely out to me:


Current Books/Authors (authors are alive and still writing):

  • TRENTON LEE STEWART!!!!!! (The Mysterious Benedict Society series is so great.  The Secret Keepers also was really well done – there was a point where I was frightened and had to speed up my reading because I couldn’t figure out how the protagonists were going to get out of their predicament)
    • Great read-aloud or independent book for kids who like puzzle and mysteries.
  • KATE DICAMILLO – how she can write on themes of loss, death, poverty… in a way that is quiet, solemn, and yet doesn’t “baby” her young readers is beyond me.  Her books are lovely and so different. Each one.
    • Think: Katherine Paterson type books
  • Rebecca Stead – impressed by her different stories, protagonists, and the real way she addresses real middle-school conflict.
    • One of her books is a throwback to A Wrinkle in Time!!! She plays a bit with some sci-fi and there’s always some mystery.
  • Jacqueline Woodson – I love books written in prose poetry.  Her books allow kids to experience books that help you feel, books that describe, books that “show”.  She also highlights experiences that are usually pushed aside.
    • Think: Sandra Cisneros (House on Mango Street).  Lots of protagonists of color!
  • Richard Peck – I think he’s still writing, and he’s been writing a LONG time about books that are set in the early 1900s in rural areas and I love them I love them I love them. [I liked his books so much that it warranted a run-on sentence].  They’re short and perfect for 3rd-5th graders, I think.  I don’t know how I’ve never read his books, but I’m making up for lost time at the age of 30.
    • many different protagonists all set in earlier times.  Kind of your precursor to Anne of Green Gables or Little House on the Prairie.. or Old Yeller.  Those kinds of books.  But a LOT easier to read.  
  • Sharon G. Flake – books may be for kids 4th grade and up.  The way she writes REALLY rings true for so many of my students of color.  Her authentic voice and situations (and not watering down facts) but still acknowledging the difficulties of childhood is really wonderful.
    • Set in urban areas – and realistic without sensationalizing anything.
  • Neil Gaiman – He writes books that ranges – from funny kids picture books to intense adult novels. This man has so much talent.
    • Coraline, The Graveyard Book .. are for kids. Other ones might be a little more adult
  • Grace Lin  – One of her series (geared towards a 2nd-4th grade audience) is a typical Ramona Quimby or Junie B. Jones type of chapter book except her main character is Taiwanese-American girl. It’s nice!  Then she has books for older readers that are beautiful and weave in folktales.  Lovely.
  • Catherynne M. Valente – Magickal with a K!  More for older readers, I think BUT a great/fun read aloud. Great for those who enjoyed Phantom Tolbooth or Alice in Wonderland – type stories.
  • Jason Reynolds – Raw, stories that are unapologetic and real.  His books really captured my male students of color.
  • Sarah Pennypacker – I haven’t actually read a lot of her books, but Pax is a story about a boy and a fox.  And … just think of Homeward Bound, or Where the Red Fern Grows, and you’ll understand the appeal of this book.  If she can write Pax, I’m sure the others are great too.

Oldies and Goodies 

  • Katherine Paterson (so. many.)
  • Lois Lowry (The Giver, Number the Stars…)
  • Jerry Spinelli (so many…)
  • Sandra Cisneros (poetic prose. Lovely)
  • Roald Dahl (everything!)
  • Beverly Cleary (Ramona Quimby!!)
  • Judy Blume (her Tales of Fourth Grade Nothing, Fudge, etc.. are hilario)
  • Oh and of course: Harry Potter, A Wrinkle in Time series, Chronicles of Narnia, Percy Jackson, Dear America, Encyclopedia Brown, Ender’s Game, and Pony Pals. 🙂 🙂 🙂

I’m sure there’s many more…  I try to review almost everything I read on Goodreads but if I’m missing something, definitely drop a comment.

PS:  There is something to be said for comics and graphic novels. I think authors are doing amazing things with that cartoon medium, and kids can learn a lot about rhetorical devices from those genres as well.  I’d always encourage diverse reading with kids (and if it takes reading books out loud to a kid to sell it to them, why not? Or get an audio-book for them to read along to!) … but I am totally not opposed to comics even if that means that’s all a kid reads for a season.

Some graphic novels and comics (or authors of them) that I recommend:

  • The Arrival by Shaun Tan (no words at all — lots to ponder though)
  • Persepolis (definitely for older audiences — talks about life in Iran before and during the Islamic revolution)
  • Raina Telgemeier has books that were super popular with my 4th/5th graders.
  • Amelia’s Notebooks, Dork Diaries and Big Nate are both popular series for students who are reluctant readers.
  • Brian Selznick has interesting gray illustrations that are a big part of the plot.  (He wrote Hugo)
  • Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese is wonderful)
  • Nelson Mandela: The Authorized Comic Book

Teaching (reading)

The worst thing a teacher could have is unteachability.  If you’re smart and you go into a teaching program and roll your eyes through the whole thing, because for some reason, you and your 2 years of teaching experience are more valid than your instructor, you are going to end up being one crud teacher.

In other news, if all teachers understood a little bit more about reading development*, zones of proximal development**, and race-power relations***, I’d be more motivated to collaborate.

As it is, it’s tiring to hear someone say that X, who has an intermediate English language level and has to look up every 4th word, has the ability to fully read and understanding a book that is 2 levels above his grade level.  Sure he has the ability.  Just not in the way you mean it.

It’s really tiring.

*reading development: For the average educated adult reader, the following excerpt from a random abstract will be very difficult to understand:

An interpenetrating network structure created by a maleic anhydride (MA) compatibilizer imparted additional interactions between the two matrices, which has resulted in increased miscibility within the blends. A modified interface has been characterized using morphological analysis through FT-IR and SEM analysis. Because MA compatibilization distributed flexible intermolecular hydrogen bonding within the blend matrix, elongation at break and Izod impact strength has been reported at a maximum of 540.17% and 99%, respectively, compared to those of the PLA matrix.

Unless you have background in this, there is at least one word per sentence that you may not know.  Sure, you might gain a general gist using your context skills and sentence-structure knowledge, but would you be comprehending this?  No.  You may be “decoding” this, which means, simply using proper vowel/consonant knowledge to pronounce each word. But by no means could you comprehend this.  In fact, you might be able to provide a nice written summary without actually understanding what this says.  We know, perhaps intuitively, that having a student read books that are too easy for him will not help him learn.  However, if a student reads at a level that is too high for him, he will not improve in reading comprehension either!  Even if this student did, he would not improve as quickly as a student reading at his level.  How do you determine an at-level book?  Try the five-finger rule (read a page, if you missed 1-2 words, it might be too easy, 5 or more words: too hard).  Or give a quick reading assessment.

**zone of proximal development:  Think: Vygotsky.  Basically, think in terms of onion layers ( Shrek!).  A student’s brain and ability is sort of layered.  In the center are all the things he can do independently.  The next layer might be things he can do with help.  The last layer is something he cannot do even with help.  The zone of proximal development is that space between where he can do work with help and where he can’t do work with help.  That is the space where you want your teaching to be.  This way, the student is constantly being challenged but not overwhelmed.  By crafting good questions to encourage investigation on the part of the student, you’re growing this student’s previous layer.  You want your student to always be hovering at the edge of the layer of what he can do with help and what he can’t do with help.. so that gradually he can do more and more things with help and independently.

That makes sense too, right?  This also means, don’t stick your teaching in that awful outside layer where the kid couldn’t do it even if they kid had help.  Such as, giving the kid a book that’s 2 grades above his level in terms of content and reading ability.  What is so wrong with having a kid read a book he might enjoy or at least could feel confident that he could read on his own?  If it’s too easy for the other kids, then pull out your learning taxonomies (Bloom’s, Costa’s, whatever), and start getting your kids digging deeper.  Don’t throw your weakest kids under the bus just so you can feed your ego and work through “challenging” texts.  There’s a difference between challenging and impossible.

Guess what?  The 60% of your class who are amazing can still be amazing without you.  You are not the reason for their success – although you definitely could be a factor.   Most likely that 60% just needed a break in that they could go to a school that held actual expectations.  Now, the 40% of your students who struggle are the ones that are true measures of your ability to inspire, coach, instruct, and guide.  That means finding their level, and then figuring out how to push them beyond that level.  It does NOT mean lecturing on a book the whole time and giving them all this background information and preloading a bunch of vocabulary etc.. Students aren’t learning to read.  They’re learning how to think like you and pull opinions and thoughts off of your own presuppositions.   What are you?  God?

***Race-Power relations: Now this topic is sensitive, so I’m going to keep it simple.  Most of us come are not where we are because of merit.  There was some uncontrollable factor in our lives that allowed us to get to where we were in the present.  The fact that you were born into a stable family, the fact that you never had to worry about your meals, the fact that you didn’t need to worry about being accused or given the second degree due to skin color or ethnicity.. those are all privileges that allowed you to be where you are today.  We are all biased.  So stop acting like middle school kids ought to reap the consequences of every crappy decision they make.  They’re in middle school – it’s time to make mistakes.  Help them learn from it.  Meet them where they are and then help them rise above it.  Acknowledge that their circumstances are tough, and sure, you don’t need to baby them or “dumb down the information.”  In fact, thinking like that, again, makes you appear incredibly condescending.  Affirm what they can bring to the table and build on that.  And don’t assume that you understand everything, because we don’t.

Maybe one day, if I have more time, I’ll stick this into cartoon form.

I get so incensed about this, because… why would a kid be motivated to read and learn to read deeply if for him, reading is work?  If reading is equated to difficulty?  Reading shouldn’t always be difficult – at least not in the way we present it.  It shouldn’t be all this busy work of looking up all these words.  It’s freaking Middle School.  Start building motivation and enjoyment so that when they do hit the hard books in high school, they don’t groan.  When they hear an author’s name, they don’t immediately equate it with a miserable 7th grade experience.  Make it GOOD.  DAH!

Inspirational Words from a Teacher of Reading

I’m slogging through writing my last paper for HGSE.  I read this for my paper and I’m, well not completely rejuvenated, but my interest is re-piqued.

“I am not a machine. I am not a silver-bullet reading program that will sit on a table in room 165 and wait for Alvin or his mother to push the “on” button to tease, push, cajole, nag, nurture, and so much more. Nor am I just anybody. I have energy and expertise. I know language, writing, and reading, especially as they concern adolescents. I understand the importance of phonemic awareness, phonetic connections, morphemic knowledge, textual organization, metacognitive awareness, contextual strategies, critical literacy, and multiliteracies. I appreciate the value of struggling and succeeding by our own efforts and of being able to say, “See, you could do it,” whatever the task, and then watching pride grow into a smile. I read professional literature daily and reflect on current research and practice that encourage literate thinkers and learning strategies that are effective and com- pensate for student strengths and weaknesses. I create a curriculum that is responsive to the students who come into my charge, and I make hundreds of decisions and adjust lessons on the spot according to my assessment of student learning. I am aware that there are social forces in the community and at work—cultural differences, school structures and politics, and teacher variability. And I acknowledge that I have deficiencies; some I don’t recognize and others I work to repair.

I am all of these things, for I am a teacher. I am also dispensable—easily replaced by another READ 180 teacher. I am gratified to believe that I am not so dispensable to Alvin and his mother. Apparently, they are looking for a teacher of literacy, not a manager of computer disks and discrete skills, such as those set forth in a reading program. I have them to thank for reaffirming what I know and feel: pride in being a teacher of reading. Of greater significance, however, is that Alvin and his mother, by recognizing their challenges as readers, have brought the response to compre- hensive reading instruction into focus: the place for the teacher in reading.”

Lupino, E. (2005). Taking place: The teacher in reading. International Reading Association, 49(1), 4-10.

Voices, privilege, and cultural context in writing instruction in the USA

“Too often, those teachers who do feel some level of confidence about the assessment of students of color, have been shut out of the conversation. Their voices have been silenced by bureaucratic procedures, lack of inclusion, and lack of acknowledgment for the resources they can bring to the discussion. In order to remedy this situation, not only must we “learn how to better privilege the voices and interpretations from teachers most knowledgeable about the context of students’ assessment” (Huot, 1996), but we must learn how to better privilege the voices and interpretations from teachers most knowledgeable about the cultural context of students’ assessment. Unless we accomplish this task, writing achievement for underachieving students will, quite likely, continue to decline.

Excerpted from Arnetha Bell’s “Expanding the dialogue on culture as a critical component when assessing writing”

Notes on Adolescent Literacy in the US

These are just tidbits that might interest you from my readings.  Similar to a previous post on homeschooling, my habit is simply to write the data/quotes that stick out to me.  As a result, readers might not be getting a full picture of the argument of the report or the situation.  BUT maybe it will titillate your interests and cause you to look for yourself!  In this case, you can.  Time to Act: Advancing Adolescent Literacy can be accessed at

Recent data comparing literacy skills in the world shows that US 4th graders rank among the best in the world, 8th graders score much lower, and 10th grade US students score among the lowest in the world (p.1).

Private industries spend up to $3.1 billion/year to boost entry level workers’ writing skills (pp.1-2).

Despite the most gains in reading achievement and narrowing of racial achievement gap for 4th graders in 33 years, these gains seem to dissipate as students move into and through the middle grades (p.8).

Literacy demands change!

Primary grades: read texts of words they already know, about topics that interest them.  Comprehension assessments require students to summarize and retrieve items from the text.  Math tests require applying well-learned procedures.

Secondary grades: expected to learn new words, new facts, and new ideas from reading, interpret, critique, and summarize.  Literacy practices combine literacy skills and content knowledge, and students are expected to know how to do this. Basically, text length, word complexity, sentence complexity, structural complexity, importance of graphics, conceptual challenges, and variance of texts across content areas all increase.) (pp.10-11).

Five essential factors of Reading First

  • improved classroom instruction
  • rigorous assessment
  • carefully designed professional development
  • structured accountability
  • increased (and ongoing) funding

Teacher attrition: about 17% of teachers leave the profession nationally every year (p.20) (I wonder if this is just public schools or includes independent schools too).

3 Myths about teaching (p.20)

  • Great teachers are born that way
  • Great M/HS teachers are nonconformist, solitary genius or lone wolf types
  • Great M/HS teachers need only know a single content area well

At bare minimum, all M/HS teachers should possess a working knowledge of (pp.20-22):

  • How literacy demands change with age/grade
  • How students vary in literacy strengths and needs
  • How given content area texts raise specific literacy challenges
  • How to recognize and address literacy difficulties
  • How to adapt and develop teaching skills over time

It takes literacy coaches upwards of 2 years to build the rapport necessary for stimulating real growth in teachers (p. 27)


  • Use assessment data to inform instruction
  • Budget reflects literacy priorities
  • Principal focuses on student learning and works in partnership with literacy coach
  • Strongest teachers –> greatest needs
  • it’s all about ongoing professional development
  • accelerated learning over remediation(? How does this work?)

Sesame Street and Vocabulary

Barney, Lamb Chops, The Puzzle Place, and Sesame Street.

Anybody else a Lamb Chops fan? I still remember that I was changing in the locker room for swim club when I found out that the Lamb Chops lady (Shari Lewis) died.

What does not belong?  Sesame Street!  I never enjoyed Sesame Street growing up.  I liked the other three shows (albeit, I only liked Barney secretly), but despite the fact that I grew up with a lot of Sesame Street toys and gear, I thought Sesame Street was b-o-r-i-n-g.

Yet as an adult, studying reading development, I’m really beginning to like and appreciate Sesame Street!

Actually, take that back a few years.  When Sesame Street began bringing in celebrity guests, well, that was genius.  But I simply appreciated the humor and the guests back then.  Now, I appreciate the educational merit of Sesame Street.

Exhibit 1:  Mark Ruffalo, Murray, and Empathy

This is just great.  The word “empathy” is audibly repeated numerous times.  The definition is visibly demonstrated and explicitly stated.  There is context provided, and it’s personalized.  Lastly, it’s entertaining and celebratory!

This sort of unfamiliar word through TV is great especially for young children from low-income backgrounds.  In one study, it was shown that the average 3 year-old from a welfare-dependent background had 500 active vocabulary words, whereas a 3 year-old from a professional family background had more than 1,000 words!  Then, according to the Matthew Effect (the richer get richer, the poorer get poorer), these differences become more and more pronounced as the children get older. *

I used to think Sesame Street was a gimmick, and I don’t want my future kids to watch TV.  But I do see how, in a sense, it provides the scaffolding and repetition for students who are less likely to learn new vocabulary easily through the medium of TV.  I do wish Sesame Street would actually SHOW the word though.  Students need to see it (because, fun fact: Spelling actually matters! (It’s not arbitrary!)  Spelling helps build vocabulary which in turn has a direct effect on Reading Comprehension).

Okay, I had an exhibit 2 in mind so that I could talk about phonics, but I think I went too long about vocabulary.  Take a look anyway!

*From the Vocab chapter in Best Practices in Literacy Instruction (4th ed.)

Miss Junia reads for the record

12:03AM – Packs llama llama red pajama, double checks directions, doesn’t bother writing down the phone number of the school since she’s going to be there on time.

7:15AM – alarm goes off  

7:35AM – turns off the snooze for the last time and runs to take a quick shower.

8:02AM – Ready to leave, but decides to read a bit of Proverbs before leaving

8:08AM – Leaves and realizes she’ll have to walk briskly to make it to the bus stop (bus scheduled to arrive at 8:12 and 8:17)

8:11AM – Arrives to the bus stop.  Cold.  Wet hair + New England wind = cold.

8:19AM – Unfamiliar bus comes.  She remembers this one goes near her destination.  The other busses don’t seem to be coming.  Gets onto this bus since she doesn’t want to be late for reading.

8:23AM – Gets off bus stop at a familiar sounding street

8:24AM – Realizes she got off too early

8:48AM – Finally is on course to where she’s supposed to go (thanks to the road workers, no thanks to the residents).  She calls the school (thanks to Google texting help).

8:53AM – Arrives at the school but can’t figure out the entrance.  Finally goes in through the back way.  Yes, the area right by the dumpsters.  That tiny door.

8:57AM – Preschool teacher is a little confused.  She didn’t know Junia was scheduled to come.  No matter, she makes time for Junia to read.

9:03AM – Miss Junia reads  llama llama red pajama.  At first preschoolers are sitting at the edge of the carpet.  By the end, they are so close, and one little boy stroked her knee the whole time.  Miss Junia is melting a little and leaves book behind for the class.

9:16AM – Misses the homebound bus by literally 15 seconds.  Realizes she could have just walked through the school playground instead of the detour around the school.  Waits and waits and waits.  Tries to read for class.  Can’t finish reading because fingers are too cold.  Thinks that in California, if it was this cold, it would mean she was at Lake Tahoe and she’d be seeing snow.

9:32AM – Heads back to the dorm.  Way too late to go late to class.  Eats breakfast instead.

So yes.  Today was definitely hectic, and it was only the morning!

Today people all around the world read to preschoolers to encourage early childhood literacy!  Here’s a glimpse of Harvard faculty reading the book for this year!

It’s not too late to read to a preschooler!  Go to and you can read the book online!  I know some people even read to their families over Skype!