Alternatives to The Traditional “Big Book”

Like most primary schools, our literacy storeroom is full of “big books”. Teachers choose big books relevant for their class, taking into account the genre, level of difficulty, contents, features etc of the text. Big books are typically used at the beginning of reading lessons, to tune students in and there is usually a particular learning focus which the teacher reinforces.


For the first few years of my teaching career, I was a regular visitor to the “big book” racks, and would spend a lot of time choosing the books that suited my needs for particular reading sessions.  




This all changed a couple of years ago when I first got my interactive whiteboard. After exploring the stories, activities and websites available online, I realised that the limited choice of the school big book collection was no longer an obstacle in providing my students with a rich and diverse literacy program.




This also aligns with the wide-spread belief that students should be transliterate learners. As teachers we should be exposing our students to the wide variety of texts, media and literary platforms that exist today. Wikipedia defines transliteracy as:

“The ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks.”


 Of course there is still definitely a place for big books in the classroom, particularly in the early years of school, as they are an excellent way to teach reading and writing conventions. But it is fantastic that we can now teach our students through the huge array of online options, and this surely makes the classroom a more engaging, energetic and interesting environment for our students.


This week, Kathleen Morris and I presented a professional development session for our staff, where we highlighted just a few ideas for some big book alternatives. We reinforced that there are so many ideas online, and this presentation is just a snapshot of the options available to teachers.


We find new resources online every day and I’m sure others do too. I’d love to hear your ideas!

What is your favourite online alternative to the “big book”?

Learning High Frequency Words

Successful readers and writers need a sound knowledge of high frequency words.  

One problem some struggling readers have is that they often pause at high frequency words during reading, stopping the flow of the text. This affects their phrasing and fluency, and ultimately meaning from the text is lost if they are regularly stopping to solve words. Learning how to spell some high frequency words also proves tricky for these students. In order to help these students along, Kathleen Morris and I have set up a computer program for them to work through. Some of the websites my students use each week are Popcorn Words, Sight Words with Sampsonand Spelling City.


Popcorn words

Sight words with sampson

Spelling City


The idea is that the students use these engaging websites to focus on the words and hopefully retain them more readily. The students have a checklist to tick off when they have achieved the different lists of words on the websites.


Recent testing has been very positive and all of my lower students have improved their fluency and they are reading the high frequency words more automatically in texts. My “struggling spellers” have made solid progress in writing the words since last term. Of course, it is an ongoing process and continual support and monitoring for these students is needed.


We have a “Phonemic Awareness” teacher who works with small groups of like-needs students to improve their reading and spelling skills for half an hour each day. These students receive homework to do each week, so they are getting lots of hands-on, fun practice.


As well as using the websites, my students practise writing their words each week during reading groups. I also have flash cards to improve “automatic recall”, word games and Integration Aides work with these students whenever possible. My students have individual spelling lists to work on at home and these are checked weekly. Using play doh and magnetic letters to make words, and writing on the interactive whiteboard are other methods we use to help the students retain high frequency words. 

How do you help your students improve their high frequency words in reading and writing?


For the Love of Reading

I thought I’d share a quick idea I used in my classroom this week to help promote a love of reading.


independent reading


Reading is a part of every classroom in every school. Some students love it, while it seems others simply read because we tell them to! To help students feel motivated to read, I have them selecting their own “good fit” books which I blogged about here.


I am passionate about instilling a love of reading into my students. My Literacy Block features reading books, blogs, listening to stories on iPods, reading with the teacher, reading to friends, retelling stories to our class mascot Leo, reading plays, recording interesting words in texts and more.


I talk about how much I love reading, and I often have my students give verbal retells of books they are reading. To promote reading, we made a VoiceThread this week and published it on our class blog. Several students were asked to give a brief summary of their current “good fit” book to record on the VoiceThread. The students loved hearing themselves and we have received a number of comments on the blog post from students, parents and teachers. It also generated a good discussion in the classroom, about what books are popular, which series’ the students are enjoying and what books the children have at home.


It has been wonderful that other teachers and students from around the world have added comments to the VoiceThread too! Check it out below.



How do you help students develop a love of reading?

Explicit Teaching

While the concept of “explicit teaching” is not new or revolutionary, my school has been focussing on it heavily over the past couple of years. The emphasis is that it’s not just our instructions that should be explicit, but our class discussions, small groupwork and one-on-one teaching moments with individual students needs to be highly explicit and focussed.


To teach explicitly, I believe: Lessons are focussed, strategies are reinforced, connections are made, examples are provided, language is direct and consise and students are encouraged to reflect on their learning. The original goals of the lesson are always in my mind as I work with small groups and conduct roving conferences during activities. If I feel that the purpose of the lesson is becoming a little lost, I will stop the students and ask them “what are we learning about today?” This helps the students and me to refocus and concentrate our attention to the aims of the lesson. 


Importantly, when I teach explicitly, I try to only have one main focus and stick to it. I also give my students multiple opportunities to practise the skills I am reinforcing.


My team teaching partner, Kathleen Morris, and I regularly evaluate our teaching and determine how to get the most out of our students, and we both agree we have never taught in a more explict fashion. When we sit down to plan, we work out what our focus is (we often have a weekly focus in Literacy) and how our students can best achieve the learning outcomes. If we feel an idea or activity is a little vague or indirect, we scrap it. We really feel that most of our teaching hours need to be spent on explicit teaching and learning.


Some examples of how I teach Literacy explicitly are shown in the presentation below. 



Of course, sometimes a less explicit approach is necessary. It is important to remember that students need to also direct their own learning, and they benefit from “self discovery” and independence.  It is sometimes helpful for students to learn on their own without being guided through the process by their teacher. This allows students to focus on what they choose, and explain their learning, strategies and discoveries in a less structured and focussed environment.


I enjoy and see the rewards of explicit teaching and I’d love to hear how you teach explicitly in your classroom.

How do you teach explicitly?


The Google Teacher Academy 2011

GTA logo

I was lucky enough to be selected to attend the Google Teacher Academy in Sydney, Australia on April 20 and 21. The Google Teacher Academy (GTA) is a free professional development experience designed to help primary and secondary educators from around the globe get the most from innovative technologies.

Educators who wish to attend the GTA completed an online application and 54 classroom teachers, ICT specialists, administrators and librarians from around the world were chosen to attend the Sydney event. Upon completion, the educators are classed as Google Certified Teachers (GCT).

Most of the Google Certified Teachers (GCT) from GTA Sydney

GTA group photo

We were told to prepare for a huge day and a half of learning, and that certainly proved to be true! We were taken on a fast-paced journey through Google’s free products and other technologies and my head is still spinning from the experience! It would be impossible for me to blog about everything I learnt, so I have decided that this post will be a brief overview of the GTA program and I will blog about specific Google education tools in the coming weeks.

 Google border

I was really impressed with the leaders at the GTA. They are clearly experts in their field and they presented the tools in a logical, practical, interesting and entertaining way. Here’s a snapshot of three tools we learnt more about:

1. Google Search – We learnt how to use the Google search engine more effectively, the key being to maximise the chances of finding what you are after quickly. A few tips included using Related Searches, the Wonder Wheel, Google alerts, Google Squared for research, Advanced Searches, being specific in Google Images, Similar Images, Google News Timeline, Readability, Google Books, Google Custom Search, Google Curriculum and Google Scholar.

2. Google Apps for Education – We learnt the differences between Apps (inside a domain) and apps (outside a domain). Schools can set up a domain for a year level/school (more appropriate for younger students) and individual accounts (for senior students) to store their own information, collaborate with friends or publish for the world. Students, teachers and staff can share ideas more quickly and get things done more effectively because they have access to the same powerful communication and sharing tools.

3. Google Sites – This is Google’s version of a wiki. Google Sites is a free and quick way to create and share a website. You can embed content, add gadgets (similar to widgets) and there is a big storage capacity. Schools can create class webpages. Click here for some ideas for how Google Sites could be used for teachers.


Other tools we learnt about include…

Google tools


It is difficult to summarise such a huge day and a half of learning succinctly, but here are four really positive elements from the GTA that stood out for me.

 GTA reflection


We also got a giftbag with lots of cool Google freebies!

Google gift bag


I had a great time at the GTA and feel very privileged to now be a GCT! In a way, the learning has only just started and I look forward to further investigation, reflection, collaboration and experimentation to realise the full potential Google tools and products can offer our students. So stay tuned for future GTA posts!

For Google Certified Teachers: What did you enjoy most about the GTA experience?

Other readers: What Google products do you use?

What Google tool would you like to know more about?


How Has My Teaching Changed?

I am currently in my eighth year of teaching. In that time I have taught Grades Prep, One and Two and have taken on a variety of different leadership roles within my school. I have learnt so much about children, education, schools, leadership, teaching and learning in the past eight years, and I feel I am a very different person and teacher now, compared to when I started teaching. 


One of my favourite elements of blogging is the opportunity for reflection. I am constantly thinking about how I can improve as a teacher, but recording my thoughts, ideas and opinions takes that self analysis and growth to a higher level. I thought I would reflect on some of the ways I have changed in teaching Literacy over the past eight years.


 2004 2011 Literacy comparisons 1

2004 2011 Literacy comparisons 2


When reflecting on the changes I have made over the past few years, the increased use of technology is obvious. There were no interactive whiteboards in my school when I first started teaching, and now I would really struggle to teach without one. I also use my time much better now than when I first started teaching. Prioritising is so important! When I look at graduates now, I wonder if they feel as overwhelmed as I did in my first year. It is always interesting to reflect on how we first started and how much we’ve grown. Of course, after only eight years, I’m sure there is plenty of professional growth left for me yet!

How has your Literacy teaching changed over the years?

How do you think your teaching may change in the future?