Looking Closely at Student’s Reading and Writing

Looking Closely at Student’s Reading and Writing

post by Diana Palacios, The Educator Collaborative Fellow

Looking Closely at Student’s Reading and Writing

Teaching a child to read is a complex process. There are many prerequisite skills, including having a strong oral language foundation, learning letter sounds and their corresponding graphic representations, and not to mention, all the metacognitive skills that support meaning-making. As a reading intervention teacher, part of my job was to identify the needs of students and develop a plan for intervention, as well as support my colleagues using the Response to Intervention (RtI) model. This was one of my favorite things to do. A few months ago, an incident occurred that helped me connect to an analogy about how we as educators need to dig deeper into how students are processing to help us make more informed instructional decisions.  

On the first Friday evening of May, while my daughter was washing the dishes, she accidentally cut her finger with a recently sharpened knife. To spare you all the gory details, we wound up in the emergency room and left three hours later with six stitches on her left index finger (my daughter’s finger is no more than three quarters of an inch long at most). The physician’s assistant recommended we see a hand specialist because she had limited mobility in that finger. 

When we finally saw the hand surgeon, he asked my daughter to curl up her fingers. Her injured finger would flex up, but the top part of her finger would not curl in, and he thought she may have cut her tendon (which would require immediate surgery due to the time frame for repair). Being the inquisitive person that I am, I wondered aloud if maybe she couldn’t curl up her finger because of the inflammation and scar tissue that was forming as the wound was healing. So he proceeded to explore her arm further. He said that tendons were like rubber bands and that they run up along the arm, and that by pressing on them the fingers would respond by curling up. As he told me this, he began pressing along the length of her arm trying to locate the tendons. He worked precisely, and as he continued to speak, her fingers began to curl up as he pressed each tendon in her arm. They all curled up perfectly except for the index finger. He then took an ultrasound of her finger to look for the tendon. We could see it clearly until we got to the injured area. My sweet girl was in surgery four hours later to repair the tendon. 

While my husband and I sat in the waiting room, I couldn’t help but think about the doctor, an orthopedic hand specialist, and how he knew what to look for and where in order to determine what direction–which step– to take next. It was at this moment that I made the connection to the work we do as teachers of literacy. Do we, as teachers, know where the “reading tendons” are? Better yet, do we know where the “literacy tendons” are (as we know that reading cannot be developed in isolation)? Do we notice what behaviors children are demonstrating and what we ought to do next? Do we press on, looking for additional behaviors that may indicate the source of difficulty children are experiencing? Looking closely at reading miscues and analyzing student writing can help us dig deep to provide the targeted instruction they need. 

Revealing Readers

The work of Marie Clay on miscue analysis is absolutely fascinating to me. She proposed that children’s mistakes while reading provide windows into how they are processing text through the cueing systems of meaning, syntax and graphophonic knowledge. By knowing and analyzing a child’s miscues in reading, we can provide  more specific, targeted and individualized instruction. (Click here to learn more about miscue analysis through the use of running records.)

The other day, I was listening to my seven year old niece as she read aloud. Without meaning to, I jumped back into my reading teacher mode (you can take the reading teacher out of the classroom, but you can’t take the classroom out of the reading teacher!). I did a quick running record of her reading and learned so much about her as a reader in a short period of time. I learned that she was really good at inferring what the characters were feeling, yet she wasn’t as confident with recalling story details. She had good vocabulary and sight word knowledge, and despite her reading rate being a little slower than I would have liked, she had great intonation and she read with expression and prosody, especially when reading dialogue. When it came to word reading, she didn’t always read through the whole word, but she could figure out most multisyllabic words with a little effort, and she knew many vowel-team and r-controlled vowel sounds. Knowing this about her as a reader will help me plan what books I will have out and what word games we can play the next time she visits. 

Revealing Writers

One crucial piece of data that I always need to have when discussing and developing intervention plans for children is a sample of their writing. Writing, like reading, provides many insights into how students are processing language, what they know, and what they have yet to learn. The obvious data that you can get from writing samples are high frequency and sight word knowledge, as well as knowledge about what phonics rules the child knows or doesn’t know. Writing can also provide us with windows into how children are connecting phonemic awareness to the phonics they know, and what areas in which they need additional support. Most teachers I’ve worked with in third grade and up do not usually give phonological awareness or phonemic awareness a second thought, but by looking at multisyllabic words and noticing what chunks of spelling are missing, teachers can get a clearer view of what syllabication rules and morphological word parts need to be explicitly taught. 

Another insight to be gleaned from student writing is the understanding of syntax, or the language structures that children may or may not have. Noticing how sentences are being constructed may provide insights into their functional oral language. Are they writing in complete sentences? Are they only using simple sentences and not using more complex vocabulary? Before constructing your writing lesson, determine first if children have the ability to incorporate these same elements in their talk. One of my favorite writing quotes is by James Britton, a famous British educational researcher who wrote, “Writing floats on a sea of talk.” Giving children of all ages opportunities to talk purposefully throughout the day can help them increase their awareness and use of language that sounds appropriate for the respective age and language level of the writer. 

Informed Practice

Personalized learning and student centered instruction are just a few terms being used right now that focus on really knowing children, understanding their needs, and being able to develop an instructional plan for individual and small group instruction. By taking time to notice and analyze a child’s literacy behaviors, we can make better instructional decisions for the students we serve. 


While my daughter has come a long way since having the tendon in her finger repaired, she is still healing, and won’t be fully healed for another 3-6 months. A huge part of her recovery, almost 8 weeks, was spent in physical therapy. Her surgeon, while having to do some really specialized work in not only identifying, but also repairing the tendon, was only a small yet crucial part of the healing process. In my next blog post, I hope to discuss what the role of the physical therapist and repeated practice had on my daughter’s road to recovery and how that connects to literacy practices in the classroom.