Monthly Archives: April 2012

(119) Coaching Emotional Literacy To Children

By  Dr. Steven Richfield

Parents expend considerable effort preparing children for the challenges ahead but little attention is typically paid to helping them communicate in emotionally meaningful ways. Emotional literacy empowers children to identify feelings within themselves, draw distinctions, understand subtleties, and verbalize their emotions with sincerity and consideration of others. This capacity to translate feelings into precise language can be nurtured at even young ages but opportunities abound throughout childhood. Benefits include greater self-control, enriched relationships, and pronounced self-awareness. Those who lack the skills to correctly read and respond to their emotions face greater challenges in adulthood due to the enormous role emotions play in all aspects of life.

Consider the following coaching tips to advance your child’s emotional literacy:

Capture the chance to provide “emotional captions” to life events.  Kids’ countless questions and observations open the door to a deeper dialogue that goes beyond the exchange of information. When parents ask,” What do you think she was feeling?” or “How did his emotions lead to action?” children are prompted to establish an “emotional vocabulary” that goes beyond simply labeling feelings. Parents help by highlighting clues, emphasizing context, and building a bridge between what children perceive and how they process emotional experiences.

Supply and replenish an “emotional word bank” that grows in sophistication as children mature. While youngsters need help distinguishing jealousy from frustration, or sincerity from sarcasm, older kids are guided toward unraveling more complex emotional puzzles. Examples include the state of ambivalence when opposing feelings tug for dominance, the mixture effect when several feelings converge at once, or the flashback feeling state when earlier ego wounds or painful memories suddenly resurface due to a current stimulus. These and many other emotional scenarios require prompt reading of oneself and the presence of mind to process, and not react to emotional experience. Challenge your child to review scenarios, offer revisions when necessary, and discuss their discoveries about themselves.

Plant seeds for the growth of emotional literacy. Building a fluent emotional vocabulary requires penetrating interactions with your child. It is not done in haste but in the patient security of the parent-child bond. Parents lead the way by sharing their own emotional scenarios and decoding the feelings, expectations, revelations, attributions, and other structures that underlay processing. When scenarios erupt between parent and child, grab the opportunity to tag the structures. For example, when a parent admits, “I almost reacted with sharp anger when I thought you had broken a promise but then I considered other explanations,” they model how to process, and not react.

Discuss how emotional literacy enhances the quality of life. Children who project emotional depth are considered confident, secure, and unpretentious. They are seen as leaders and avoid the superficial contests of childhood.  Friendships take on a more meaningful and satisfying quality. Such a solid foundation in self-awareness and self-control paves the way for fulfilling relationships and future decision-making borne out of self-definition.

Dr. Steven Richfield is an author and child psychologist in Plymouth Meeting. Contact him at 610-238-4450 or

About Steven Richfield

Products by Steven Richfield: The Parent Coach

Categories: Family, Positive School Climate | Leave a comment

Diagnosing Dysteachia

By Nancy Hennessy


Dysteachia does exist. Unfortunately, I can attest to its existence based on my own teaching experiences and my interactions with fellow educators in schools across the country. Despite my best efforts and a resolve to meet the needs of my struggling readers, I was often unsuccessful. Neither my undergraduate nor my graduate work adequately prepared me for working with these students. My experience is not unique; I continue to meet teachers who have lived this story!


Educators are looking for the “clues” that will solve the mystery of reading proficiency. They recognize the right of students to read, and accept the responsibility of teaching them. Their confidence in themselves and feelings of professional competency are often linked to their students’ successes. While some may feel inundated by current educational demands and, perhaps, even a bit resistant, educators are generally hungry for solutions that will make a difference for their students. While evidence-based programs are necessary tools, they alone are not sufficient. “Programs don’t teach; teachers do” (Moats, 2009).


What is missing from teacher preparation and professional development programs is the deep knowledge base that promotes connections between research and practice. We all need an understanding that goes beyond a basic definition of the essential components of reading and recognition of available assessment tools. To design and deliver purposeful instruction, educators must understand how reading develops, why students struggle, why all components of reading instruction are necessary and how to teach them, and how to analyze data. We need to realize “that language systems underlie reading and writing, and that students’ difficulties with reading and writing are most effectively addressed when the structures and functions of language are taught to them directly” (Moats, 2009). Teachers must believe that “Literacy is a secondary system, dependent on language as the primary system so effective teachers know a good deal about language” (Snow, Griffin & Burns, 2005). In other words, we must understand the nature and inter-relationships of language systems (phonology, orthography, morphology, semantics, syntax, discourse, etymology), their contributions and connections to component skills of reading, as well as the complexity of skilled reading. Yet, study after study of teachers’ knowledge in the areas of language and literacy have documented inadequate levels of such knowledge.


  • Teachers do not receive sufficient knowledge of the science of reading in teacher preparation or graduate programs.
  • Many educators lack disciplinary knowledge that is reflective of foundational understanding of language structures and the relationship to reading proficiency.
  • Most licensure tests do not assess research-based reading knowledge.
  • Most standards documents do not fully specify the knowledge base necessary to teach reading.

While many of us can verify these statements based on personal experience, they can also be supported by a review of reports and articles related to preservice and professional development of teachers.


Some forward-thinking organizations, university programs, states, and developers of training programs have started to rethink how they can be the catalysts for change in teacher preparation and professional development. The IDA Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading ( are a striking example of an evidence-based attempt designed to inform and change the field’s thinking regarding the acquisition of this “deep knowledge base.” These standards have been described as filling “a much-needed gap in the teaching profession by providing the most thorough, research-supported documentation of what every teacher ought to know and be able to demonstrate, whether they are teaching students with dyslexia, other struggling readers, or all students” (Liptak, 2012). But they are also being used as a tool to review university programs’ courses of study and then to identify and recognize those that meet the standards. One goal is to increase recognition of the standards as a blueprint for the design of courses as well as professional development training programs. Additionally, states such as Colorado, Maryland, and Connecticut have revised standards or criteria for teacher preparation to reflect the research base. In Connecticut, a requirement for elementary teacher certification includes The Foundations of Reading Test, which reflects scientifically based reading research and is aligned closely to the state reading standards. Training programs, such as Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS), that are designed to promote deeper knowledge of theoretical frameworks and research-based practices are also influencing instructional changes in educational settings.


Dysteachia does not have to be a lifelong condition—I can also attest to that. We are teachable; the system has to change, and we all have to take responsibility.

 “Tempered radicals inspire change … They inspire by having the courage to tell the truth even when it is difficult to do so, and by having the conviction to stay engaged in tough conversations … their leadership inspires—and matters—in big and small ways every day.” —Debra Myerson, 2005

Nancy Hennessy, M.Ed., LDT-C, is an educational consultant and past president of the International Dyslexia Association (IDA). She is also an experienced teacher and administrator. While in public schools, Nancy provided leadership in the development of innovative programming for special needs student, a statewide revision of special education code, and an award-winning professional development initiative. She has delivered keynote addresses, workshops, and training to educators nationally and internationally. Nancy coauthored Module 6 of LETRS: Digging for Meaning: Teaching Text Comprehension (Second Edition) with Louisa Moats and the chapter “Word Learning and Vocabulary Instruction” in Multisensory Teaching of Basic Skills (Third Edition). She is a national LETRS trainer and an adjunct instructor with Fairleigh Dickinson University.


Liptak, E. (2012). The IDA knowledge and practice standards: Creating consistency and quality in how we teach. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 38(1), 11-14.

Moats, L.C. (2008). The challenge of learning to read: Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

Myerson, D. (2003). Tempered radicals: How everyday leaders inspire change at work. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

About Nancy Hennessy

Books by Nancy Hennessy: LETRS

Categories: Professional Developement | 6 Comments

Data or Philosophy: Choose a Master!

If all students learn differently, teaching approaches must differ too

By Joanne Allain

Since my first day of teaching, educators have agreed on one thing: All children learn differently. It seems logical, then, that we would also agree that a variety of approaches and philosophies are necessary to reach all students. Unfortunately, when educators focus more on designing the instruction they prefer than on the needs of the children receiving the instruction, logic is not always part of the equation. Curious how “all children learn differently” quickly turns into “all children must learn the way I teach.

Historically, teaching reading has been fraught with disagreements about content, emphasis, and approach. Should we instruct explicitly or implicitly? Should we employ whole group or small group or both? Should we teach from whole to parts or parts to whole? Should we spend more or less time on decoding? Do we really need to teach spelling? Do students really need explicit skill instruction to comprehend text? Does explicit skill instruction destroy the love of reading or make text accessible for more students? Will surrounding students with more books and more time really do the trick for all of them? Whichever the philosophical approach, we tend to apply it like a blanket over all children in a state, district, or school. The unintended and undesirable outcome: Children who do not respond to a specific approach are often considered to be at risk of failure.

Enter Response to Instruction/Intervention (RtI), a promising system designed to use data (not philosophy) to identify the best instruction and intervention for individual students. RtI seeks to label the need and not the child. It is widely recognized as having the potential to address the needs of all, not just some, by ensuring that students receive excellent first instruction (i.e., Tier I) as well as any additional services required to perform at or above grade level.

Across the country, district and school RtI teams engage in data analysis using sophisticated problem-solving methods to determine the needs of the students under their care. What happens next? Does the team choose instruction and intervention that meets the instructional needs of the student regardless of philosophy? Or, is the team restricted to a specific paradigm of reading instruction adopted by the state, district, or school? Can we say we are fulfilling the intent of RtI if we disregard the findings from data in favor of a philosophy of instruction that most likely contributed to poor student performance?

Let’s look at some scenarios and ask ourselves—Should we continue within the existing instructional approach (philosophy) or use another approach that would meet the needs of the students in front of us?

  • If proficient and advanced students demonstrate that they have mastered content, do they need extensive explicit instruction? Do we persist with more samples to complete or move to more in-depth tasks?
  • If the majority of students in a classroom perform below grade level with an instructional approach based on implicit skill acquisition and cooperative groups, do we continue these methods? Do we continue to refer students to intervention (Tiers II and III) or make the initial instruction (Tier I) more explicit, with adjustments in pacing and gradual release?
  • If many students require Tier II intervention for spelling, do we adjust our first instruction to include focused, explicit spelling instruction? Or, do we lament the poor spelling skills of children and continue to schedule more Tier II sessions?

Clearly, no one has found the perfect answer for all children. If they had, the nation’s reading scores would be better, and states would not be struggling with the requirements of No Child Left Behind. We have to ask ourselves a fundamental question: If we agree that all children learn differently, why do we continue to gravitate toward teaching them all in the same way?  

If we embrace RtI as the framework we use to educate our students, then we must also unequivocally select data over philosophy as the driving force behind our instructional choices. It is time to put the “reading wars” aside and act on the reality that all students learn differently and, therefore, we cannot limit what we offer to one philosophy. We must strive to match the right philosophy (approach) with students’ needs in order to reach all of the students all of the time.

Joanne Allain, M.A., serves as a national consultant and founder of 3T Literacy Group, where she specializes in the planning and implementation of RtI systems. She is the author of Logistics of Literacy Intervention: A Planning Guide for Middle and High School (2007) and Logistics of Literacy Intervention: An RtI Planning Guide for Elementary Schools (2008) and coauthor with Nancy Eberhardt of RtI: The Forgotten Tier (2012). Joanne can be contacted at or

About Joanne Allain

Books by Joanne Allain: Logistics Of Literacy Intervention

Categories: Literacy, Professional Developement | Leave a comment

Choosing RtI Assessment Instruments Wisely

By Susan L. Hall, Ed.D.

When was the last time you heard either the term “Response to Intervention (RtI)” or “data-differentiated instruction”?  Most K-12 educators hear one or both of these terms weekly, if not daily. Everyone knows that data are essential to accomplishing differentiation and RTI, but there are widespread misconceptions about which assessment instrument to use for what purpose. Using the wrong assessment is like trying to flip a pancake with a spoon; you might get some chunks of edible pancake, but it’s messy and inefficient. In my work with schools, I find that the two greatest areas of confusion are about the appropriate uses of universal screener data, and the distinction between a universal screener and a diagnostic instrument.

The most commonly used universal screeners for academic skills are called curriculum-based measures (CBM). CBM is the name of a category of assessments that have particular characteristics that make them well-suited to be universal screeners. CBM is the generic category name, while DIBELS and AIMSweb are brand names. Have you ever noticed how more people ask for a “Kleenex” than a “tissue”?  It’s the same thing with CBMs.

Teachers tell me their school uses DIBELS, AIMSweb, or another CBM, yet they haven’t been provided training about what a CBM is and what it can and cannot do. CBMs are terrific universal screeners, especially in reading, because they are quick and efficient ways to assess a skill.  When administering repeatedly with alternate forms, it’s possible to see growth. Since universal screeners are supposed to be given to every student (or nearly every student) three times a year, it’s important that it not take longer than 10 or 15 minutes to administer. Yet many schools are using assessments that take 30 minutes per student; that’s a travesty because that’s shifting valuable time from instructing to assessing.  Why would anyone spend more than 10-15 minutes three times a year giving a universal screener to the school’s top readers? They’re better off reading during the time you’re spending assessing them.

CBMs are great for sorting students into two piles:  those who appear to be performing at benchmark, and those who aren’t. Yet there are limitations to what you can learn from CBM data. Except in all but a few areas, a CBM cannot tell you enough to appropriately place a student in an intervention group. Yet too many schools are trying to use the data to do just that, which doesn’t work very well. Once you find the students whose skills are below benchmark on the CBM, the next step is the most important: giving a diagnostic screener. You want your universal screener to be the most efficient and effective sorter possible and to point to which type of diagnostic screener to give to each student who is below benchmark. Stopping with just a CBM is like admiring the problem without knowing what to do about it.

Teachers need access to diagnostic instruments to figure out how to address below-benchmark issues. If your school has intervention groups and you aren’t using diagnostic assessments, here’s an opportunity to improve the process. Excellent diagnostic instruments in reading exist in the areas of phonological awareness and phonics; it’s difficult to find the kinds of tools needed for comprehension, and there’s nothing available at the current time that is a vocabulary diagnostic measure. Teachers should use diagnostic assessments to pinpoint the areas a student has mastered, as well as those that are lacking. The data from a diagnostic assessment gives information that allows grouping in a very specific skill area, such as phoneme segmentation, or long vowel silent-e.

The other thing that diagnostic assessments are well-suited for is progress monitoring. After a student participates in an intervention group for one to three weeks, it’s far more effective to give an alternate form of the diagnostic screener than to give a CBM indicator. If the student has been in a group to work on the long vowel silent-e pattern, how can you tell if he has mastered it by having him read an oral reading fluency passage? Perhaps only two out of one hundred words contain the focus pattern. Phonics diagnostic screeners allow teachers to deliver a short segment only on the pattern skill, and it takes less than one minute to progress monitor a single skill. If the student has mastered one skill, then you go on up in skills until she fails the next skill, and that’s her next group placement. A common issue with RtI assessment practices is to progress monitor with the wrong instrument. The CBM should be given from time to time, but rarely is it the best instrument for ongoing progress monitoring of students in intervention skills groups.

At this time, many schools are well into implementation of RtI. According to the 2011 Spectrum K12 adoption survey, 68 percent of respondents indicated they are currently either in full RtI implementation or in the process of district-wide implementation. If student achievement  is not as strong as hoped, then the first place to check is whether the assessments fit the purposes. Check usage of the CBM first; while it’s a universal screener to give to all students, it should not be used universally for all assessment purposes. Invest some time in learning about the benefits of phonological and phonics diagnostic screeners.

Susan L. Hall, Ed.D., is founder and president of 95 Percent Group, a company that provides professional development and materials to assist schools in implementing RtI. She is author of two books about RtI: Implementing Response to Intervention:  A Principal’s Guide, and Jumpstart RTI. She is also author of I’ve DIBEL’d, Now What? Susan is a National LETRS trainer and is coauthor of several books with Louisa Moats, including the Second Edition of Module 7, which is about phonics and word study. She can be reached at

About Susan L. Hall

Books by Susan L. Hall: LETRSI’ve DIBEL’d, Now What? Next EditionI’ve DIBEL’d, Now What?

Categories: Assessment, Professional Developement | 5 Comments

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