We welcome this opportunity to tell the story of our collaboration. We share a long history of writing books and materials that are research-based and practical for teachers to use. We believe that teacher expertise is at the heart of student achievement and have always wanted teachers to be able to use our books as professional teaching guides, referring to them frequently as they work with children. We have worked hard to create resources that enable teachers to root instruction in rationales and to meet the needs of each child as a unique learner.
The publications of The Continuum of Literacy Learning, the Benchmark Assessment System 1 and 2, and the Leveled Literacy Intervention Systems (K–2) are the result of over two decades of our research and practical work with teachers. Our work is grounded in our own classroom teaching, but we have had the pleasure of working with many teachers, from kindergarten through high school, as well as to participate in research projects and to read the research of others.
In the early 1990s both of us had been working in Reading Recovery® (early intervention involving one-to-one tutoring; see http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/) and also with comprehensive approaches that involved professional development and leadership training for classroom teachers and in-classroom literacy coaches, as well as small group interventions for helping struggling readers. We found that comprehensive plans lead to higher achievement when classroom and intervention teachers worked together as a coherent, cohesive team.
We knew that it was essential to match books to readers and to provide differentiated instruction through working with small groups in reading. But we could not find a focused professional book that offered practical advice and discussions of research-based practice in this area. So, we teamed up to write Guided Reading: Good First Teaching for All Students. It was a wonderful surprise to find that we could produce more helpful materials for teachers when we worked together, so we just kept writing in response to the questions teachers gave us, the needs they expressed, and the challenges we observed in our hundreds of partner schools.
Our books and articles were directed either towards primary teachers (for example, Interactive Writing, with Andrea McCarrier) or intermediate and middle level teachers (for example, Guiding Readers and Writers). Some books seemed to help both groups (for example, Word Matters: Teaching Phonics and Spelling in the Reading/Writing Classroom and Word Study Lessons), and we began to think about the continuum of literacy and language development from the time children enter preschool to grade eight, when literacy is essentially at adult level (except for the long years of experiences of reading texts that adults have accumulated over time).
For many years we had been using a valuable tool—the gradient of text from level A to Z (F & P Text Level Gradient™) that Irene had begun to create with teams of teachers in school districts almost thirty years ago. We refined this tool and published it for the first time in Guided Reading, but we continued to explore just what made one book easier or harder for readers. Thinking across the gradient from A to Z provided a picture of the development of systems of strategic actions over time, and we used this picture to guide the observation of precise reading behaviors and the teaching that would lead each reader forward.
We began to write the book that was eventually entitled Teaching for Comprehending and Fluency, K–8: Thinking, Talking, and Writing about Reading; it took a long time, and there were a few detours along the way. In fact, it took three years and two cold Januarys (including one blizzard, in Nantucket) to complete the text. (Remember, there is very little to do on Nantucket Island in January.)
Here’s what held us up! We needed to analyze in great detail the text characteristics of fiction and nonfiction books at every level of the A to Z gradient to understand the demands of each level on the developing reader. Much of this work had been presented in Leveled Books K–8: Matching Texts to Readers for Effective Teaching, but we continued to refine it. And the most challenging task was to think about what the reader needs to be able to do at each level to read with accuracy, understanding, and fluency. So, we decided to write specific behaviors and understandings to notice, teach for and support for each level A to Z—following the outline of twelve systems of strategic actions that we had identified in several other publications. So that exercise resulted in the creation of the Guided Reading section of The Continuum of Literacy Learning, and that lead to more work!
We went on to use the same text characteristics and curriculum goals as a framework for designing other continua: Interactive Read Aloud, Shared and Performance Reading, and Writing about Reading. We began to think that the continuum would be too large to be an appendix for Teaching for Comprehending and Fluency! And, as we thought about teachers’ and administrators’ needs as they worked to create comprehensive systems, we knew that we needed to add three more continua, K–8: Writing (Conventions, Craft, and Process); Oral, Visual, and Technological Communications, and Phonics and Spelling (a grade level version of the more detailed Phonics Continuum in the Phonics Lessons and Word Study Lessons series we had previously produced). We now had a detailed Continuum of Literacy Learning K–8 and we have found it to be a very helpful tool for teachers to use for planning and assessing and for coaches and administrators to use when supporting teacher development. But this process lead to other challenges!
As we created the continuum, which is based on the richness of proficient progress in reading and the other language arts, we thought constantly about those students who were having difficulty meeting the curriculum goals. What kind of—and what level of—instruction would they need? For many years, we had been implementing a range of interrelated practices in classrooms. We worked to teach for strategic actions across these contexts and to differentiate instruction through guided reading and other forms of small group instruction.
We also worked with teachers to provide supplementary small group interventions for those students who were struggling. We decided to systematize our supplementary work by designing a small group intervention that would be highly structured and sequenced, intensive, and highly engaging for students. We called it Leveled Literacy Intervention (LLI) because it was based on the work we had done on the continuum and it allowed teachers to make highly intentional teaching moves based on the gradient. That was over six years ago.
We persuaded Heinemann to do something they had not attempted before—to create and publish some great children’s books. We knew the books had to be good; so often, struggling readers get the worst texts or those that all the other children have already read. We had a great time working with wonderful children’s authors and illustrators as we created books that would engage readers. At the same time, we designed a research-based framework for intervention lessons and began to try out our intervention with teachers and children. We used already published books from many sources and we prepared highly systematic lessons; the response was good and we learned a great deal. As we observed the high level of student success we felt a need to make the intervention available to more teachers and children.
But as we began our work on LLI, we realized that we needed a way to reliably assess children’s reading levels so that we would (1) know who needed intervention immediately; (2) know where to start LLI lessons; and (3) be able to document progress to release children from the intervention. We channeled our time into designing, producing, and field testing our Benchmark Assessment System, 1 (Levels A–N) and 2 (Levels L–Z) that gives every teacher reliable data for placing all students on the F & P Text Level Gradient™. This system is turning out to be very useful for classroom teachers and intervention teachers. When everyone in the school uses the same literacy assessment, continua, and language—moving from observation, to analysis, and then to instruction—a common conversation occurs across the school staff. The comprehensive system also includes tools for diagnosis so the teacher can design in-depth evaluation as needed.
Once we determined levels and goals, we needed to identify language for teaching that matched the precise behaviors the readers needed. So we developed a useful flip chart, The Fountas & Pinnell Prompting Guide, Part 1 for Oral Reading and Early Writing. This tool gives teachers precise language to teach for, prompt for and reinforce effective behaviors during oral reading and during writing. The Prompting Guide is also available as an iPad and iPhone app. We will soon publish a second Prompting Guide that will focus on the deep understandings that students need to think beyond and about texts.
While field testing and developing more children’s books for LLI, we began work on a volume that we hope will be of use to both classroom and intervention teachers—When Readers Struggle: Teaching That Works. After all, when readers and writers have difficulty, they are not the sole responsibility of one or the other. It is the combination of classroom instruction and intervention support that leads to acceleration in learning.
Once we started building the LLI system, we talked with teachers and tried to include everything they would need—300 beautiful full-color titles on nonfiction and fiction topics; high-quality take home books to support home reading; student folders; writing books; home and school materials to extend learning; ongoing professional development through the included DVD and the professional book When Readers Struggle; a Prompting Guide; a data management system, and a technology package that would allow teachers to quickly print out all the materials they would need for lessons. Right now, LLI offers 300 lessons for students who need to learn to read up to level N, and that usually means kindergarten, grade one, and grade two students, although LLI has also been effectively used for students in grades 3 or 4 and special education.
Currently, we are working with children’s writers and illustrators to create texts to extend LLI to Level Z. Leveled Literacy Intervention will be extended through the publication of four more systems to serve students across the upper elementary grades and middle school. This work is exciting; the challenge is to create engaging texts that students can read and that also offer age appropriate material.
Of course, many students learn to read and write in a first language that is not English. With the wonderful success of our Benchmark Assessment System, we received continuous requests for a system of equal quality in the Spanish language so it could be used with children whose language in learning to read and write is Spanish. We worked with a team of Spanish speakers, Hispanic authors and illustrators and created an original system (not a translation) of benchmark books and tools in the Spanish language, Sistema de evaluación de la lectura. Alongside the benchmark books of course we needed to work with the team to create Continuo de adquisición de la lectoescritura: Guía para la enseñanza, PreK–2 (A Spanish adaptation of The Continuum of Literacy Learning: A Guide to Teaching, PreK–2) so the teachers could make the direct link from the systematic assessment to systematic instruction. The Fountas & Pinnell Prompting Guide, Part 1 for Oral Reading and Early Writing is also available in Spanish.
As we continued to try to address the challenges educators face in schools, we quickly realized that teachers need to observe many examples of teaching and learn how to observe and analyze reading and writing behaviors. We had collected over a hundred examples of teaching in schools around the country. We decided to make them available as a library of teaching to help teachers, specialists, literacy coaches, and staff developers learn how to use The Continuum of Literacy Learning as a tool for planning and assessing teaching. This led us to the completion of The Continuum of Literacy Learning Teaching Library: Professional Development Teaching Collection, PreK–2 and 3–8, just made available with an extensive User’s Guide that includes reading records and student writing for analysis. An extensive tool, this will ground all teachers in the district in looking at and understanding how to use reading and writing behaviors as evidence for making powerful teaching decisions in every grade and in every literacy instructional context.
Our work in intervention led to an outside evaluation that was compelling in its effectiveness with a wide variety of children (see www.heinemann.com/fountasandpinnell/researchLLI) so this led us to further development of the LLI intervention for grades 3 and up. Our recent years of research on the literacy of intermediate and middle grade students led us to a unique model that addresses the unique needs of readers in the upper grades. Once again we began with wonderful children’s authors and illustrators to create books for LLI 3–8 systems (Red, Gold, Purple and Teal) that will enable teachers to take their lowest achieving students through Level Z. It is exciting to have a new lesson framework that addresses the unique decoding, vocabulary and comprehension needs of readers in the intermediate and middle grades.
During the development of LLI 3–8, we began work on The Fountas & Pinnell Prompting Guide, Part 2 for Comprehension: Thinking, Talking, and Writing. This flip chart is a tool to support teachers in engaging students in thinking, talking and writing about books.
As we speak, we are bringing to closure one of our most interesting and exciting professional books, Genre Study: Teaching with Fiction and Nonfiction Books. This professional book gives teachers a deep understanding about each type of fiction and nonfiction text including poetry. Following this practical and detailed guide to different types of texts, we describe the process of genre study so that teachers can engage their students in learning about each genre by getting inside the books and noticing their specific characteristics. In the process of writing this book we learned a great deal about how genres have changed across the years and how engaging the study of genres can be for all teachers as well as their students.
As we look at our work, we sometimes feel we were working on one long publication over the last fifteen years. Together they make a cohesive and coherent set of professional resources and tools to make teaching efficient and transformative and to scale up excellence: a comprehensive instructional management system for getting all teachers and school leaders on the same page, with the same understandings, the same language and the same goals.