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Kathy's Favorite Things - 10 Classroom Essentials

This post is just for fun!  I shop A LOT!  Too much in fact.  I try not to, but I just can't pass up a good deal when I see one.   This year, I will post a monthly list of some great finds...just for teachers!

This month I thought I would start with a list of ten essential things that every elementary classroom MUST HAVE.  When I created this list, I kept in mind those things that I absolutely could not live without in my classroom.  I've included tried and true brands to save you time time shopping around.  Trust me...these items are THE BEST!

1.  {Visual} Classroom Timer

This visual timer is essential, especially for primary grade students.  It is just good teaching to set time expectations for students and they appreciate being able to see how much time they have "at a glance."  When time is up, there is a simple, "no-nonsense" beep.  There are several good online timers, but you can't beat this one for ease of won't need to use your Smartboard, and it works even when the internet is down!  It comes in two sizes...I recommend the largest one.

2.  Chimes

These chimes are the perfect tool to get your students' attention.  A soothing sound, easily adjusted to loud or soft, is just what you need to gently direct their attention your way.

3.  Ruggable

Have you seen these WASHABLE rugs?  I have two...and they wash up beautifully....perfect for keeping your classroom clean!  Lot's of different patterns to choose from too!

4.  Stackable Paper Trays

I like to keep papers organized in my classroom, and I could not live without these classroom mailbox trays.  You can use them in a multitude of ways, and they will really help you to avoid creating "teacher piles."

5.  Pencil sharpener

After 28 years in the classroom, I am a connoisseur of pencil sharpeners.  I've had them all, and I can confidently say that this one from School Smart is the very best one!!  No need to shop around any further.  This one will last you several years before needing to be replaced, and when it does die, you can't beat the price point.

6.  Walmart Shelves

Every elementary classroom needs an epic classroom library!  Unfortunately, not all schools provide great shelving for this purpose.  My hubby made me some custom shelving for my classroom that has lasted me all 28 years!  If you're not that lucky, these shelves from Walmart are sturdy and affordable!  You don't need to feel guilty buying multiples as this price!

7.  Plastic Book Bins

I use these bins for so many things, including individual student book bins, extra storage space in a flexible seating classroom, and even to keep myself organized!  You can find extra fancy ones on Really Good Stuff, but if you are on a budget, these ones from Amazon will get the job done for a lot less.  They come in a pack of 30 and are available in lots of fun colors!

8.  Wireless Keyboard

Most classroom smart boards are hooked up to your desktop PC.  It can be less than convenient to walk all the way back to your desk when you need to access your board.  These wireless keyboards are super cheap and so convenient.  The kiddos can even use them!  I love to use them for interactive writing lessons!  This one even comes with a wireless mouse!

9.  Hole Punch

If you are a "binder queen" like me, you punch a lot of holes!!  I like to keep my students and myself organized by keeping things in binders and folders!  This would be absolute drudgery if not for my heavy duty hole punch!  I've had this thing forever and has probably punched at least a million papers!  I have one at home too!  It is such a time-saver.

10.  The "Cadillac" of Staplers

A good stapler is such an essential classroom tool.  It seems like such a simple thing, but choosing the wrong stapler can lead to endless frustration (and even injury)!  I love my shiny red swingline!  I have one at home and at school...don't overthink this one...just buy it!

Well, there you have it...the ten things I could not live without in my classroom.  I am sure that are other things that I could add to this list (we teachers do need so very many things), but I promised to keep this list list to ten!  What are your favorite classroom essentials?  I'd love to hear from you in the comments!

Thanks for stopping by...check out my TOP TEN BEST SELLERS BELOW!  Happy Shopping!

Kathy O.

Phonics Instruction Simplified - PLUS A FREEBIE!!

The phonics debate is in full-swing.  I think they are calling it "the science of reading" now, and the idea of "balanced literacy" is taking a beating.  I taught first grade for 17 years using what I would call a balanced literacy approach, and yes, PHONICS was a critical element of my daily reading program.  I am rather shocked at the assumption that primary teachers are not teaching phonics, because that is not what I witness in my role as an early literacy coach.  I also do not believe a phonics program is the magical silver bullet that is going to fix the literacy crisis in our country.   I really think the problem is much bigger than that.  But I digress....

The point of this post is to help you to see that phonics instruction, although really important to the success of our early readers, is not rocket science.  It involves a few important success factors that can be easily incorporated into your daily literacy routines.  Let me be clear:

This post is based on the latest research-based practices in literacy instruction, and the brilliant work of Wiley Blevins, who has spent his entire career helping to clarify best practice in phonics instruction.  I highly recommend his latest book, A Fresh Look at Phonics, which outlines critical success factors for phonics instruction, as well as common causes of phonics instruction failure.


As I've mentioned, you don't need an expensive phonics program to teach foundational skills, but you do need a scope and sequence that is consistently followed in your school.   There is fairly consistent agreement in the literacy world about the correct scope and sequence to follow when teaching phonics.  It looks something like this:

Literacy researchers Sharon Walpole and Michael McKenna published the following proficiency targets in How to Plan Differentiated Reading Instruction (2017).

As you can see, students should master these critical phonics skills by the end of first grade so that they can begin to focus on the more rigorous work on comprehension and fluency in early second grade.  Beyond first grade, phonics instruction becomes much more difficult to address due to the cognitive demands of higher text complexity.  That is, students need to spend the majority of their time learning comprehension strategies and refining their reading fluency, rather than laboring over the decoding of words.  They also work on comprehension and fluency in first grade through read-alouds and shared reading, but during guided and independent reading the focus is on decoding until this is mastered.


Once your school has outlined a scope and sequence that everyone will follow, a common assessment needs to be given to all K-2 students to determine the specific phonics skills that they need to develop.  This same common assessment needs to be used to progress monitor all students regularly throughout the school year to make sure that instruction is matching exactly what each student needs.  At our school, we use the CORE Phonics Survey, but there are many very similar phonics assessments available that will tell you which skills students will need to develop.

If the assessment shows that 70% or more of your students need the same skill, then you can address these through whole-class lessons.  For example, if you are a kindergarten teacher and 95% of your students do not know most of the consonant sounds yet, then its okay to teach whole-class lessons on letter sounds.  Most of the time, however, you will discover that your students need differentiated instruction in small groups.  For example, kindergartners who know all of their letters sounds are ready to move on to CVC blending, and will not need to sit through a whole class lesson on letter sounds.  It's very important to make the most of your class time by differentiating instruction to meet the needs of individual students.  Whole class lessons may not be the best avenue for phonics instruction in late kindergarten and first grade. Small group instruction will give you a bigger bang for your buck!  Your best bet is to integrate phonics/word study instruction with your guided reading or strategy group lessons.  For example during a 15 minute guided reading session, you could spend 5 minutes on a phonics concept.  Some students may need an additional "dip" with just these skills, which can be done during your Tier 2 or 3 instruction time.

The most important thing to remember is to monitor the progress of students on a consistent basis (every 2-3 weeks if possible), so that you can make necessary adjustments to instruction to ensure that students stay on track and meet the end of year proficiency targets for phonics.


Kindergarten and first grade students need to be directly taught how to blend words, and need DAILY practice with blending.  Teachers should follow a gradual release model when teaching blending routines (I DO, WE DO, YOU DO).  Begin with FINAL BLENDING (one letter sound at at time) and then move quickly to SUCCESSIVE BLENDING (melting words together quickly).  Once students know how blending works, successive blending should be the main mode of practice.

Elkonin sound boxes are a well-known way to help students learn to blend short words.  You would first use them to develop phonemic awareness by pushing a coin into the boxes for each sound.  Later you would have students place (or write) the corresponding letter into each sound box.  

Wiley Blevins describes a very simple approach to daily blending with students called BLENDING LINES.  Simply write out five or six lines of words on a chart that align with the skill students are working on and students can read them chorally and independently.  Do this daily as a whole class or in small groups.  Use the gradual release model (I do, we do, you do) and provide corrective feedback (modeling the correct way) when students make errors.  When creating these blending lines and activities, use high-utility words that students are likely to encounter in text.  

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Dictation is such a simple way to practice phonics skills.  It will only take about five minutes, 2-3 times per week to really see a difference in students' application in their writing.  Give students a personal dry erase board and call out words that follow the phonics skill you are teaching.   It is a great time to model blending as you say the words aloud and then students write them on their boards.  Be sure to check each student's spelling and provide corrective feedback as needed.

I am a huge advocate of providing students with lots and lots of opportunities to write each day....even kindergartners!  It is the best way for them to apply and practice their knowledge of phonics skills (not to mention the MANY other benefits of daily writing practice).


Word building and words sorts help students to understand the patterns in words.  Their knowledge of one spelling pattern can help them to read dozens of other words.  Word building can also help students to discern beginning, middle and ending sounds as they manipulate each to make new words (e.g., change one letter in cat to make can; change one letter in cat to make cut, etc).  Word sorts can also help students to learn spelling patterns and exceptions to spelling rules.   They can be especially helpful for students learning to differentiate between sounds (e.g., picture sorts used to differentiate beginning consonant sounds or different vowel patterns).   Making and breaking words and word sorting should be a daily practice in every kindergarten and first grade classroom.


There are about 100 high frequency words that account for about 50% of the words found in print.  Early readers need to learn these words before second grade in order to read grade-level text.  Some of these words have irregular phonics patterns, but many do not and can be first learned by decoding just like other words (for example, the word "and" can be sounded-out easily).  For the most part, these words should be taught the same way that other words are taught, through sound/symbol analysis.  I highly recommend that you read and save the article Teach Sight Words As You Would Other Words by Nell Duke.  Ditch the rings of sight words and simply provide students with a few minutes each day to practice the words by spelling and writing the words.  You can jazz it up by having them chant, sing, clap, jump (etc.) the words (a-n-d....and!; t-h-e.....the!).  You will be amazed at how quickly they internalize the spellings with daily clap and chant practice, which can be done with the whole class...five minutes is all it takes!  HERE are some really fun ways to practice high-frequency words with your whole class or in your small groups.


Phonics should not be taught ONLY in isolation.  Students will need regular opportunities to practice the phonics skills they have been taught IN CONTEXT.  Decodable books (also called connected text) are books that have a large percentage of decodable words, ideally words that align with the particular phonics skills that students have learned (i.e., if students are working on blending CVC words, then they should have access to decodable text that has plenty of CVC words).  I am a fan of BOB books because they follow the common scope and sequence mentioned above and are CHEAP!  But you can also find decodable books on Reading A-Z (you need a subscription).  Keep in mind that decodable text should NOT make up the majority of your students' reading diet. They are not complex reading and do not provide lots of opportunities for comprehension conversations, but they do provide students with necessary decoding practice on the specific skills they are learning.  I commonly find that teachers forget about the importance of using decodable text.  They are not exciting or particularly fun to read, but they are a necessary part of effective phonics instruction.


I predict that the phonics debate will continue long after I've retired.  My hope is that teachers can see through all of the drama and confusion and realize that PHONICS INSTRUCTION IS NOT ROCKET SCIENCE.  It's really pretty simple.  I hope that this post has helped you to see the forest through the trees, and you walk away with some clarity on how to address phonics instruction with your young readers.

Thanks for stopping by!  Before you go don't forget to...

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Reading Assessment at Your Fingertips!

This post addresses TWO of the Essential Practices for Early Literacy:  Practice 3:  Small Group Reading Instruction and Practice 9:  Ongoing Observation and Assessment.  

These practices were created by the Early Literacy Task Force, a subcommittee of the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators (MAISA) General Education Leadership Network (GELN), which represents Michigan’s 56 Intermediate School Districts.


How well do you know your readers?  Research has shown that the best reading instruction is differentiated to meet the needs of each reader in your classroom.  If this is true, you MUST be able to determine what it is, exactly, that your students need in order to move forward in their reading development.  But, how do you do that without spending tons of time assessing?  The answer is formative assessments that assess the specific reading skills you are teaching in your Tier 1 instruction.  GOOD formative assessments should be easy and quick to administer and should give you specific information about the specific reading skills a student has in place, and which ones they are ready to develop.


Many of you probably use diagnostic assessments such as NWEA (MAP) testing to determine which students are at-risk.  You may also use a slightly more diagnostic tool like Fountas & Pinnell's BAS or DRA.  These are valuable tools, but often do not give you the specific data that you need, or take SO LONG to administer its not practical to use as a formative assessment.


When I begin thinking about how to differentiate instruction for my students, I really want to know two things:  Can they DECODE grade-level text and can they COMPREHEND grade-level text.  If the answer to either of these questions is no, then I want to dig a little deeper to determine what skills they may need to work on first.


If a student is not decoding grade-level text, I would want to give them a Decoding Inventory, sometimes called a Phonics Survey.  There are many of these out there and all do a pretty good job of determining which phonics skills a student needs to develop.  My favorite tool is the CORE Phonics Survey.  A quick google search will provide you with all the tools that you need to administer this assessment, but since it is copyright protected, I will not post it here.  You can find the assessment in the book:

After administering this very quick assessment, you will know which phonics skills to address with each of your students (short vowels, blends, diagraphs, etc.).  Once you have this information and you determine that your students may need an intervention, Sharon Walpole has some intervention resources that are very helpful.  Also, Jan Richardson has some great lessons to incorporate into your guided reading lessons.


But what about comprehension??  It can be a challenge to determining where the comprehension of your students is breaking down.  I find Jennifer Serravallo's Hierarchy of Reading Skills very helpful.

She has created a comprehension hierarchy for both fiction and non-fiction to make it easier to determine where to begin with students.  For example, when working with fiction text, if students are proficient with basic "plot and setting" skills such as retelling, summarizing, determining the problem/solution, etc., that may be a good starting point for them.  Maybe students are able to summarize and tell about the story, but they are not able to analyze characters by determining their traits, feelings, motivations, or how they change throughout the story.  Then that is where you would begin your instruction.  Eureka!! It makes so much sense!

So how do you formatively assess these finite comprehension skills?  You simply have a conversation with your students and ask them some very pointed questions to determine their understanding of each component of the hierarchy.  A starting point might be thinking about what you are teaching in your whole group instruction (units of study) and collect some baseline data to determine you students' level of understanding.  For example, if you are currently teaching your character unit, you can just assess students on character analysis.  I would, however, make sure that they are able to retell or summarize first, since this is a prerequisite skill.  It would be easy enough to assess on both of those skills at the same time.  

Here is how I did this with my class:

  1.  Make sure you have an independent (or instructional) level text for each student that you wish to assess.  I like to use the Reading A-Z books for this, since I can make a copy of the same book for each student at that level. 
  2. Have students read the book independently (since it is an independent level text, you should not need to listen to them reading.)
  3. As students finish reading the text, you can call them over one at a time and ask them a series of questions to determine their understanding of the text.  Your questions should be geared toward the skill you are assessing (i.e., plot and setting, character, etc.).  
  4. Take notes to document your observations of each student.  If collecting progress monitoring data, you can give them a numerical rubric score (1, 2 or 3).  This information will help you to determine student goals and your next teaching moves.

I have created the following formative assessment tools, which include the prompting questions and a rubric for each skill.  These are available for Grades 1-5 in my TPT Store and are available as individual sets or as a bundle.

 It takes about 20 minutes to assess a small group in this way.  You could probably do your whole class in one or two reading workshop sessions.  That is SO MUCH FASTER than trying to administer a BAS with everyone and gives you much more specific information about your students.


  1. Determine a student-centered goal.
  2. Form flexible strategy groups.
  3. Select strategies that will address the skills they are learning.
I like to either create my own strategy lessons or choose from the following amazing resources:

I will usually work with strategy groups for 2-3 weeks and then do another round of formative assessment to determine if students are learning the concepts, and to determine my next steps.


It is critical to determine what students need in order to deliver the most effective instruction.  Assessing reading comprehension doesn't have to be hard, time-consuming or expensive.  Ken Goodman used to talk about the importance of "kidwatching".  If you spend time having authentic conversations with your students about their reading, either in one-to-one conferences or in small groups, you will become experts on what they need right now as readers.  

If you want to know more about how to implement effective strategy group lessons, please visit my blog post:  Guided Reading or Strategy Groups?  What to know!

You may also like the following resources:

Thank you for visiting today. I hope you found this post helpful.  Please feel free to leave your comments and/or questions below.

Let' them talk!! Collaboration in Reading and Writing

Welcome back!  Today I want continue the discussion of Essential Practice 1:

Essential Practice #1:  Deliberate, research-informed efforts to foster literacy motivation and engagement within and across lessons.

The third bullet of this practice states:

The teacher offers regular opportunities for children to collaborate with peers in reading and writing, such as through small-group discussion of texts of interest and opportunities to write within group projects.

Collaboration is a fancy term that means...LET THEM TALK!  As teachers, we love quiet classrooms, don't we?  We think our administrators are judging our classroom management skills based on how quiet our classroom is.  But in fact, it is the always-silent classroom that I really worry about.  Really, really worry.  Teacher - deep down in your heart you know that the most magical things happen when your students are having meaningful dialogue about their learning.  So, let them talk!

1.  Provide time for students to read with partners or in small groups.

Sometimes we call this buddy reading and our students love it!  Students can take turns reading aloud or read together chorally.  Either way, it is a great way to practice reading fluency.  When working together, students will be more likely to stop and process the text and discuss the pictures, which is really great for reading comprehension.

2.  Have students create their own questions about a text and discuss the answers with peers.

Asking and answering questions with a peer is much more engaging that filling out a worksheet...that is for sure!!  So, instead of giving students a list of comprehension questions to answer silently after reading, have students generate a few questions about a text and then work with a partner to talk about the answers.  Of course, you would need a few lessons on "thin vs thick" questions to steer them in the right direction, but I get so excited thinking about the critical thinking involved in having students write their own text questions!!

3.  Allow students to do Team Summaries of texts they are reading.

Summarizing is such a critical reading skill and students need lots and lots of practice with it.  Having students collaborate with partners or teams to write effective summaries not only makes it more fun, but also gives them an opportunity to think critically about a text.   As they discuss the events and/or details in the text they will discuss and debate which ideas are important enough to be included in the summary.  Place students in temporary, heterogeneous groups; both striving and thriving readers will benefit from this type of group work!

4.  Have students do Literature Circles instead of book clubs.

If you have never done literature circles (Smokey Daniels), you are missing out.  Students are placed in small groups to discuss a book.  Each person in the group has a different role to support the discussion.  There are a variety of different roles to choose from including discussion director, literary luminator, connector, word wizard, etc.  The roles help to structure the conversation as the group discusses the book.  Students are highly motivated to read and engaged in a text when they know they have an important role to play in their book club.

5.  Give time for Book Talks

In my previous post about matching books to readers, I discussed the importance of creating structures for students to recommend books to one another on a consistent basis.  Book talks are a great way to do this (and a great way to practice summarizing too)!  The idea is simple.  Allow students to pick a book they would like to "book talk" with their partner, a small group or the class.  They plan out their summary of the book by using a simple outline (for example, a summary of the book, and some reasons why their peers might like it also).  Then schedule a time each week when students can do their book talks!  THEY LOVE THIS....and it will help to create an amazing community of readers in your classroom!

6.  Provide opportunities for students to collaborate around writing

Reading and writing instruction go hand-in-hand and students should be given regular opportunities to collaborate with their peers about their own writing as well as the writing of mentor authors.  I have students meet daily with their writing partners to share what they are working on and to get peer feedback.  Peer editing is so helpful for students as well...they can rely on one another to polish their writing and take this off your plate!  Students also love dissecting a mentor text with their peers.  I love to see them putting their little heads together in front of a great book, and having great conversations about author's craft.  This is perfect to do before starting a writing unit on a new text type.  I have a great post about this if you want to learn more:  Immerse Your Students in Great Writing with Mentor Texts

7.  Use a jigsaw to help students to unpack challenging informational or content-area text.

I love a good jigsaw!!  We do them at professional development sessions often, and I think it is a great way to break down long, and complex texts into smaller components, while also giving a great context for collaborating about the text.  If you have never done a jigsaw, the idea is simple.  You divide a piece of text (an article, short text, or even a whole book) and have each member of the group read one the parts.  Then you give an adequate time to read (which may be minutes or days, depending upon the length of the text).  Then the group comes together and "teaches" about the part they read and gives their own insights.  After everyone has taught about their section, the group can analytically discuss the text as a whole, discussing what they've learned, asking and answering questions.   This techniques really helps students to understand more complex text because they have the opportunity to discuss and analyze one small part at a time, with the added insights of their peers.

These are just a few ways to incorporate student collaboration into your daily reading lessons.  When your principal walks in and HEARS all of the chatter going easy.  Because she will SEE some highly engaged students talking about their reading.  And that is exactly what they want to see!  Trust me!

This post is part of a series about the Essential Practices in Early Literacy:

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