Seeing the Matrix: The Reading Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo

There is a scene in the movie The Matrix, where Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, sees the “matrix” for the very first time. The codes and numbers that govern actions become transparent to him, and with ease he is able to deflect punches, fight bad guys, and gaze handsomely into the distance while doing so. (30 bonus points for anyone else who knows what “Keanu” means in Hawaiian.) The rules of the world have become visible, and with access to that knowledge, Neo becomes invincible.

There have been countless times when we have claimed to “see the Matrix,” learning to knit, figuring out a tricky yoga pose, finally assembling that blasted piece of ikea furniture. For many, “seeing the matrix” has become shorthand for suddenly understanding an underlying principal that had seemed magical, or in more common vernacular, for finally “getting it.” Now we have Jennifer Serravallo’s new book, The Reading Strategies Book (available here) to demystify what makes for powerful reading instruction, and make “the matrix” of teaching reading accessible to us all.

The cover and a sample from the table of contents

The cover and a sample from the table of contents

Jennifer’s book is as visually stunning as it is accessible. She outlines thirteen goals of reading instruction, from engagement to fluency, word solving to comprehension for both fiction and nonfiction, and lays out many many many many strategies to help any child, K-8, achieve each goal. Each strategy has its own page with tips on whom it might help, how you might teach it, prompts you might use, and even a visual cue for a child. Every. Single. One.

Have you wondered how to engage kids whose minds wander?

~There are strategies for that.

Have you wondered how to help emergent readers make sense of books when they can’t yet read   the words?

~There are strategies for that.

Have you wondered how to help children wrap their brains around the idea of synthesis?

~There are strategies for that.

Goal 2

We have been fortunate enough to work alongside Jennifer when we were colleagues at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. The depth of her knowledge about readers and the art of reading always blew us away and left us often to exclaim, “I wish I could borrow your brain!”

That is exactly what reading this book is like: borrowing the brain of a master reading teacher, one who has an idea for every challenge, a possible answer for every question, and a good idea when you have none. Better yet, Jennifer’s book teaches you how to develop your own expertise. Jennifer’s book doesn’t just teach you about reading, it teaches you how to think about readers.

~The strategies are sound teaching.

~The suggested visuals are clear and engaging.

~The lay out is practical and accessible.

~The book is pretty much genius.

sample pages

Kristi says: I am entering my fifteenth year of teaching (while never aging a year–it’s miraculous, really) and I am a confident teacher of reading. Within the first 15 pages, I had already used 15 post-its to mark pages, jot thinking, and reflect. New teacher, seasoned teacher, teacher of reading, teacher of humans, this book is important and valuable for every single one of us. See the matrix, become a better teacher for the kids you see every day.

Marjorie says: As I read each strategy I thought of a child who would benefit, not only from the language of the lessons, but the visuals Jennifer has included as well. This book is going to become a permanent part of my conferring toolkit. The organization by goals also helps focus attention on readers, not levels, which makes this book a powerful teaching tool.

Once you have had the pleasure of reading The Reading Strategies Book, leave your thoughts in the comments below. We give it four thumbs up!

Happy charting!

Kristi and Marjorie


(Keanu means “wind over the volcano” and it must be true because I read it in Seventeen magazine 25 years ago ~Kristi)

Charting Step by Step: Every Strategy Has a Process Attached to It

The heart and soul of teaching is all about breaking down complex skills into bite-size steps so that children can do them by  themselves. We often break skills down even further into strategies, and for each strategy there is a process, or a series of steps, that you go through to achieve a goal. Charting these steps ensures that children have a tool at hand should they forget what to do next. We call this type of chart a process chart. The beauty of this kind of chart is that it can help us think about our unique students and plan for what will help them best understand and do the skill we have in mind. To quote Confucius, “When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.” Process charts provide such steps.

We devote a whole chapter to this important type of chart, the process chart, in our book Smarter Charts for Math, Science & Social Studies. Any process requires a direction, which often leads to steps. For example, scientists go through a process whenever they are going to explore something. The chart, “Scientists can…” reminds children of some helpful steps in the scientific process. First, look closely. Then ask questions. Next, make some theories, confirm or revise those theories, and then do it again and again.

This chart introduces the basic steps of the scientific  process.

This chart introduces the basic steps of the scientific process.

Teachers know that telling kids is not the same as showing them how to do something and then giving kids lots of opportunities to practice that thing. To quote another favorite Confucius seed of wisdom, I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand. Process charts help children see and remember so that they can do and understand.

In most classrooms, creating a community that works cooperatively and compassionately together is a big goal. But knowing how to socialize is a learned skill. With Confucius in mind, will telling kids to be nice make this happen? They need to see what this looks like and then do it themselves. The chart below is one example of how a process chart might go that hopes to help kids be able to develop some of their interpersonal skills starting in kindergarten.

Each step of the process is blocked out making each action clear and distinct.

Each step of the process is blocked out making each action clear and distinct.

The value of process charts is not only that they remind children of each step, but they illustrate how these steps are repeatable. For example, when children are beginning to learn to write words we want them to repeat saying the word, hearing the sounds, then writing the letters that match the sounds, then doing this with each sound and with each word the child tries to write. The simpler the steps, the easier to repeat. The chart below was created for some children who were working on hearing more sounds in words so that they would start writing more letters to go with those sounds. The simplicity of the chart also makes it perfect to make as a table chart or as an individual bookmark.

The icons provide quick visual reminders of the steps to follow.

The icons provide quick visual reminders of the steps to follow.

Process charts help teachers teach and help children learn. The key is keeping the steps explicit and clear, providing visual icons that are instantly recognized, and getting the kids to use the chart often. Eventually the children who are beginning to internalize the process can then use the process chart to teach any classmates who could also use the support. Talk about empowering kids!

Happy Charting!

Marjorie Martinelli & Kristi Mraz

Whether Gearing Down or Revving Up…Setting kids up for independence

For some of you the 2012-2013 school year has come to a close, for others this week will be the last, and here in the northeast many schools won’t finish until the end of June. And then there are the many year-round schools across the country and lastly, summer school. So whether you are gearing down or revving up, here are a few ideas to encourage your students to practice what they have learned with increased independence using charts and checklists to help them along.

Setting kids up to have the mind frame that they can be in charge of their own learning and can help themselves solve problems as they arise is a life skill that will carry them far. At PS 176, an amazing school in Brooklyn where the majority of students are ELLs, Marjorie set the first graders up in Valeria’s class to ask themselves questions whenever they got stuck or weren’t sure how to solve a problem when reading and to use the charts and other resources in the classroom, not only as needed, but with flexibility as well. Bringing some of the strategy charts down and putting them back in front of the children also helps children reorient themselves to what you have taught. At this time of year, it is not so much new learning, as it is maintenance learning and review.

The left side highlights the questions, the right is one of the reading strategy charts.

The left side highlights the questions, the right is one of the reading strategy charts.

This idea of asking questions was extended to the writing workshop and used when the children were given a checklist to reflect on the poems they had written. The two key questions were “What have I learned about writing poems?” and “What do I still need to work on?” Putting the questions inside of speech bubbles was a visual reminder that these were questions that were to be spoken both to themselves and to their writing partners. The checklist includes examples and space for children to make tally marks each time they find a poem where they have used one of the strategies on the checklist. Rather than one “check and I am done!” it becomes “look how many times I have used repetition!”

Questions to ask when using a checklist.

Questions to ask when using a checklist.

Close-up of the checklist.

Close-up of the checklist.

Another area to build independence is with book clubs and conversations. Setting up a checklist to remind club members of how to get ready for a conversation and then to keep it going is one way to do this. In Florence’s first grade class at PS 176 Marjorie showed the children a system to get their talk going by having each child choose one of their big idea post-its and put it on a talk mat (in this case it was just a piece of paper with a star drawn in the middle). Then the club decides on which idea they want to start with and moves that post-it to the middle of the star. The goal is to talk as long as they can about this idea before moving on to the next big idea. The photo below shows what it looked like at the end of the lesson once the children had tried this out on a shared class book, Worm Builds by Kathy Caple (Brand New Readers). Some of the ideas generated by the class were, “Worm used to be worried, but now he is confident,” “Worm learned not to give up,” and “Friends should say sorry,” which they chose as the one to start the conversation with. Each club was then sent off with their own star talk mat and checklist to remind them of the steps without the need for a teacher nearby. The children in each book club were focused and intent, the talk energetic and dynamic.

Make your book club ROCK!

Make your book club ROCK!

In Pamela’s kindergarten class at PS 176 she was revving her children up for first grade by showing them ways they could post-it in their books during their final unit of study on character. The first lesson Marjorie taught was on noting character feelings and when a character’s feelings change. Once again she used some of her favorite books from the Brand New Readers series to model and practice with (Worm Builds and Piggy and Dad “Play Ball!” by Frank Remkiewicz). The photo below shows the beginning of a strategy chart. The chart includes not only visuals, but some sample post-its kids can refer to as examples. Pamela did a follow up lesson on revising some of the feeling words that were very general like “happy” and “really, really happy” since one of the goals of this unit was increasing vocabulary for her large percentage of English Language Learners. Another follow-up lesson was on using the post-its to do inferential retellings of stories.

Post-its help track when a character's feelings change.

Post-its help track when a character’s feelings change.

We hope this helps whether you are gearing down or revving up for the days ahead!

Happy Charting!

Marjorie and Kristi

Let the Reading Work Begin!

Welcome back! We hope you rested this weekend and are ready for the week ahead. By now, many teachers have established some basic routines and are looking towards the rest of the year. Of course, all routines will have to be practiced and revisited throughout the year, but most children know their spots, can locate their baggies and writing materials, and are ready to go! Now you need to teach them some things they can do in those spots and with their tools and materials. So in this post, we will explore some of the charts you might be making around the important work in reading that your children have begun. We have divided this by grade level, but you may see charts in other grades that speak to you as well. As always, we want you to look at these charts as inspiration for you, not as a product to copy. The best charts have your voice, and your children’s voices firmly implanted on them.


A Kindergarten Chart to Support Early Reading Behaviors

This first chart addresses what children are doing in reading workshop, when they may not yet be conventionally reading. Rather than letting children flip quickly through books, this chart accompanies a lesson that teaches how readers touch each thing in the picture and say what they see. This work is building a sense of story and developing young children’s oral language, both of which will support them as they move into more conventional reading. A few things to notice about this chart:

Amount of writing versus amount of visuals: Charts are meant to be used by the children in the classroom. If most children are not yet reading, charts with lots of words will be overwhelming and unused. The big strong visuals will remind children quickly and easily the job of readers during readers workshop. It shows, not just tells, in a way that is understandable to any child. When making charts consider the amount of print that your children will be able to reasonably handle.

Use of actual texts: Kindergarten children are nothing if not concrete. You may say they look like “a million bucks” and they will stare right back at you, as if you have spoken in another language. And, in some sense you have, until you explain the mysterious phrase. Using actual texts (these are just color copied on a printer from Mo Willems lovely book, Cat the Cat, Who is THAT? ) will not only draw attention to the chart, but will cement the skill in children’s minds. The teacher in this case used this text to demonstrate the skill of touching what was in the picture and saying what she saw, and then put the same page on the chart. Just like in the writing chart in the previous post that used the actual paper, consider if you can use the actual item on the chart.

First Grade

A First Grade Chart Working Towards Longer Stamina

A few posts back (Are You Ready for Reading Workshop?) we looked at a chart that recorded how children’s stamina was growing. As we all know, you can’t just will children to read longer. This chart shows some of the strategies the teacher taught over several days to build that stamina. A few things to notice on this chart:

Amount of writing versus amount of visuals: This first grade chart has more writing, but still a strong amount of visual support. The vocabulary is not overly complex, the phrases simple, and the separate strategies are divided by color to make the information on the chart easier to group.

There are steps: This chart could just have had three bullets that say: set a goal, make a plan, meet the book, and be done. Instead, this teacher felt that each of these ideas needed more development, so provided a series of steps for children to follow. When you are teaching something that feels complex, it can help to break it down into a few simple steps and record those on a chart. Try not to have more than four or five steps on any one chart, because more than that becomes hard to follow, and even harder to remember.

Second Grade

Beginning of a Second Grade Chart about Post-Its

This second grade chart is teaching children ways to use post-its to record their thinking as they read. The 6 x 8 inch post-its used on this chart are the ones mentioned in a previous post (Shopping the Specials) which are not only large, but come in eye-catching, fluorescent colors. A few things to notice about this chart:

Amount of print versus amount of visuals: This second grade chart is much heavier on print, but the print is broken up in an accessible way. And it still has visual support. In general, we try to avoid charts that look like unbroken lines of print with tiny visuals. We want charts to work like billboards, where kids can get the meaning in a drive by way. In other words, in a split second the message is seen and understood.

It is growing: This chart has only just begun! The teacher will be adding additional strategies as she teaches them to the readers in her room. The nice thing about the large post-its used on this chart is that they allow the teacher to easily add on. Another lovely aspect is that children can take them off. If students need help with a particular strategy, they can pluck it off, put it near where it is needed, and then return it when they are done.

Some of you have asked about sending in your own charts! Please do! The best way to do this is to send photos in an email to We have already received some which have been posted, and others that we are holding on to until we have the perfect post for them. We’d also like to give a big THANKS to those of you who have been referring this blog to your friends and directing others to this site. Making powerful, effective, and accessible charts that support independence is not easy work. So we appreciate you taking this journey with us.

Until next time, happy charting!