For the past several years, the typical American public school classroom has been overrun by business and politics. The Common Core Standards, as well as federal and state mandates to “hold teachers accountable” for students meeting those standards, have placed a stranglehold on teachers. Collectively, they have had a deleterious effect on rich reading and writing instruction in the classroom. This said, for the present moment, let us suspend the current state of affairs and pretend that what goes on in a classroom is simply dependent upon one thing – the needs of our students.

Reilly is twelve years old, and in seventh grade. Diagnosed with dyslexia when she was in third grade, she spends her days in a self-contained special education classroom for all mainstream subjects. “Specials” like art and gym are general education classes. Reading has been such a frightening experience for Reilly over the last seven years of schooling that all of her teachers are given strict instructions each year to refrain from asking her to read anything aloud in front of her peers.

As a reader, Reilly’s identity has been constructed primarily at school. She described herself as a failure since kindergarten, when she first had difficulty sounding out letters and words. Her perception of her own ability to read is so fragile that her IEP requires counseling twice per month to support her self-esteem.

But last Friday, during her twenty-ninth session with me, she asked if she could bring a friend. Under her own volition, she read out loud to a peer. This led me to the quintessential question. How did we go from a mandate that she never read in front of another student to her asking to read with a friend?

Over the last nine months, Reilly and I have carved out space to help her revalue herself as a reader. Using rich texts such as Winnie Flies Again (1999) and The Napping House (1983), we began with miscue analysis and moved on to Retrospective Miscue Analysis (RMA). The idea, in the very beginning, was to prove to her that she was actually reading (she did not think she was). Her focus on fluency and decoding through various intervention programs obscured her vision of her own meaning making process as a reader.

We used RMA as a tool to demonstrate the remarkable high quality miscues she was making, and how high quality miscues are indicative of the incredible predictions her brain was making as she read. She came up with all kinds of excuses. I am just using the pictures. I memorized the book. Each time I quickly came to her defense, pointing out other amazing things she did, like her predictions that were either spot on, or far better than the author’s original story.

Over time, miscue analysis and RMA helped Reilly build a strong foundation upon which she was able to build strength as a reader and writer. We rewrote picture books using her powerful language. We wrote original stories using dictation and voice to text applications. She read her writing to me, I read to her, we did shared readings together. We illustrated her stories and conducted research online when a topic piqued our interest. The last “research project” was a query online to determine whether the cafeteria was serving the lunch it claimed to be serving on its online menu. Our work is authentic and always begins from her vantage point.

What has become abundantly clear, is that in contrast with the innumerable interventions that can be bought, and for the time being shall remain nameless, none is as powerful as a student and teacher working with authentic texts for authentic purposes. As powerful, authentic classroom assessments and practices, miscue analysis and RMA are the rich instructional engagements for all readers no matter where we find them, and how broken they may appear, especially to themselves.

Thomas, V., & Paul, K. (1999). Winnie flies again. N.P.: Oxford Children’s Press.

Wood, A., Wood, D., & Hartman, D. (1983). The napping house. San Diego, CA:            Harcourt Brace, Inc.




GIVING READERS THE WORD by Kenneth S. Goodman and Yetta M. Goodman


Recently, Stephanie McAndrews, director of the literacy program at Southern Illinois University. Edwardsville, asked the following question on the Literacy Research Association listserv.

Does anyone have any research to support not telling students words during assessment using running records or miscue analysis?  While I strongly advocate against telling students words during assessment as it discourages problem solving and self-correction, several manuals (DRA, AIMS web, etc.) still advocate for it.

We responded and decided to write this post because it is important for teachers to consider how they respond to oral reading miscues.

Our view of “telling kids the word they are stuck on” while they are reading aloud comes from many years of studying oral reading miscues. We have concluded that the teacher’s role is to provide as little support as possible during the oral reading itself, other than encouraging readers to continue reading on their own. Retrospective miscue analysis (RMA) research provides evidence of students’ growth as a result of discussions they have about their reading. After an oral reading and retelling, the reader and the teacher talk about the reader’s miscues and strategies to highlight and explore the reader’s strengths. RMA helps readers discover that only they are in charge of what they do to make sense as they read.

We ask teachers to consider:  “Is reading always knowing the next word? Or is it making sense of text?” Many readers suffer from the “next word syndrome” and develop the notion that “good readers” always know all the words they are encountering.  But how does a teacher know which word the reader is stuck on? Is it the next one after the one already read?  Eye movement research make clear that readers’ eyes fixate at a point in the text well ahead of the last word read aloud. When the teacher “gives the reader the word,” the reader is often unaware what word the teacher is referring to. If the teacher and the reader are focusing on different segments of the text, insecure readers (often those needing the greatest support) become confused. Sometimes readers hesitate at a “known” word that they read frequently without miscues because it doesn’t fit with what the reader has predicted. Telling the reader the word without taking into account what the reader is doing sends the message, “Say it anyway even if it doesn’t make sense.”

The messages teachers send in their responses to readers become important instructional information for the reader. Teachers can send unintended messages that keep the reader focused on sub-skills and distract them from meaning making. When the teacher says, “Look at the word closely for the little words in the big words,” or “Check the beginning and ends of the words to make sure the sounds are right,” the reader interprets this as “Here’s the right way to say the word; say it my way and you’ll be fine.” Rather than taking a risk to make personal meaning, readers become very good at manipulating the teacher’s help. If they pause long enough and keep their eyes cast down, or look up with a pleading expression, they can get the teacher to say the word. If the reason for telling a word to a student is to get through a lesson, then that also becomes the pupil’s goal.

However, if the purpose of reading is to make sense as we believe, then the teacher must be patient and cheer for the learner as a problem is solved even when the solution, while meaningful,  isn’t the expected word. Miscues provide insight into the ways in which the reader is transacting with the text for meaning making purposes. If readers are “given the word” such evidence becomes unavailable to illuminate the successful strategies they use to make sense as they read. In RMA discussions after a reading, the reader and the teacher explore thoughtfully selected miscues to consider what the reader was thinking about when the miscue was made.  Perhaps the reader is following an unintentionally taught strategy – such as sounding out a word. Or perhaps the reader is using prediction and confirmation strategies that reflect the reader’s knowledge and his or her search for meaning making.

In our RMA conversations, students use their own miscues as evidence that they are engaged in making sense. The messages we send to readers while they explore their miscues includes: “Can you make sense of that? Why do you think so? What else could you have done to make sense? While you were reading, what do you think the author was trying to say?” When the reader asks for help during a reading, we remind the reader to keep on reading, to think about what they have already understood and what they think will happen next. “Keep reading to see if you can figure it out.”

Working in this way, readers continue to develop meaning making strategies and become more confident as they revalue their own reading and thinking strategies. We help readers understand that they are in control of their own meaning making. Readers need to know that how a word sounds doesn’t provide the best information for understanding. The reader’s focus needs to be on comprehension — making sense.

MAX’S 5-SECOND MISCUE by Kathleen Olmstead

Editors’ note: Miscue analysis is a “window on the reading process” because it reveals strategies readers use as they construct meaning. Miscue analysis is also a window to understanding how literacy develops in young children. In this post contributor Kathleen Olmstead uses her understandings of reading to reflect on her son’s literacy development and expresses her concern that preschool may go the way of what have been called “assembly line first grades” and “sweatshop kindergartens.” A former kindergarten teacher, Kathleen is currently Assistant Professor of Literacy at SUNY Brockport and Director of the Summer Reading Clinic. ~ Alan, Yetta and Prisca, Editors Blog

MAX’S FIVE SECOND MISCUE by Kathleen Olmstead

It seems everywhere I go with Max, conversation leads to preschool.  “Why isn’t he in school?” a neighbor walking his dog asks.  “Where are you going to send him? When are you going to send him?  Have you observed the           school yet?  Do you know the            school is $6,000 a year but if you send both kids you get a discount?”  A playgroup mom asks me if I had observed preschools last year to reserve a spot for Max this semester.  Hmmmm.

Max just turned three, and it seems that this is the magical age where I am supposed to send him away to be educated for his own good.  As a kindergarten teacher I always encouraged early learning and opportunities for socialization; however, as a mom and a literacy studies doctoral student I have become concerned.  My personal paradox is frustrating, so I struggle to understand it.

Names like “Kiddie Academy” and “Ivy League Preschool” worry me.  Preschool has become a lucrative and competitive business for some.  Slogans that promise “ALL of our students READ” cause me to question among other things, our society’s push for early formal schooling.

As demonstrated by Max’s reading “car” for H-O-N-D-A, he has made meaning and is content with his understanding of the world. It makes sense.  Max often makes miscues like when looks at the letters B-R-I-T-A on a pitcher and happily proclaims “water,” or reads “go” for the word S-T-A-R-T.  Goodman, Flurkey, & Goodman (2007) in their chapter from “Effective Young Readers” in Critical Issues in Early Literacy conclude that the miscues of very young readers “reflect their current knowledge and beliefs about texts and the reading process” (p.10).  By “kidwatching” (Owocki & Goodman, 2002), I am learning much about my very young but effective reader and his constantly evolving understandings of language and literacy.  It has been remarked that this evolving nature of literacy learning is analogous to losing “baby teeth.” I love this comparison, not only for its sentimental value but for its accuracy.  Max’s knowledge changes daily just like his physical growth, and I struggle to capture it before it’s gone.

It is evident that Max’s miscues demonstrate his growing understanding. We want to best support his language development.   We want him to continue to love learning and reading and have confidence in his growing abilities. We wonder will sending him to preschool support his language development?  What will happen to his confidence when he is taught that his reading is “wrong”?  What will happen to his enthusiasm when he is told he should use phonics and “sounding it out” like many educators suggest?  Will he look at the figurative B in the word Brita and know, that it could not possibly be the word water?  Will he, like so many other vulnerable young readers taught to focus on phonics, give up on making sense?

I know from personal experience in my work with so called “struggling readers” that overcoming a child’s poor self-esteem is often the toughest obstacle in demonstrating “reading success”.  In addition, an abundance of research exists that informs us of the detrimental effect developmentally inappropriate formal schooling can have on students. I am reminded of Frank Smith and his notion that it is sometimes amazing that children learn in spite of what they are taught.  I think of Denny Taylor’s work in Learning Denied and From the Child’s Point of View. So I reject the idea of learning “more and more” “younger and younger.”  I believe that a learning environment that respects children’s natural literacy development is essential.  In her book From the Child’s Point of View, Taylor (1993) asserts that educators should

“…support and enhance children’s learning opportunities, guiding them both in direct and indirect ways as they develop personal understandings of literacy that are both socially constructed and individually situated in the practical accomplishments of their everyday lives.” (p.33)

In apprehension of the dittoed easy word readers and index card boxes filled with sight words, I avoid preschool visits for now.  “Maybe in January,” I tell all the people. “When he is older.”  I know I am clutching on to Max’s baby teeth, his days at home—days filled with playgroups, story times, imagination and play.  And his proud, happy miscues too.  I imagine for my children a school that nurtures a love of reading that gives opportunities to enjoy books and play with language in meaningful ways.  One brave day I will venture out and see if such a place still exists.


Goodman, D., Flurkey, A., & Goodman, Y. (2007). Effective young beginning readers. In Y. Goodman & P. Martens (Eds.), Critical issues in early literacy: Research and pedagogy (pp. 3-16). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Owocki, G., & Goodman, Y. (2002). Kidwatching: Documenting children’s literacy development. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Taylor, D. (1991). Learning denied. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Taylor, D. (1993). From the child’s point of view. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Kathleen Olmstead can be reached at



In order for individuals to progress as readers it matters that they:

  • Understand that reading is a meaning-making process;
  • Believe in their ability to make sense of text;
  • Find reading pleasurable/believe that it serves some function for them (Halliday, 1973; Pinnell, 1985) so they choose to read;
  • Self-monitor (stop when something does not make sense); and
  • Have a repertoire of effective and efficient skills and strategies for problem-solving meaning.

Those of us who developed this list (Stephens et al. 2012; Stephens, 2013) came to understand that when individuals have the first three characteristics, they spontaneously stop when something does not make sense.  These readers then have a meaning-making problem they want to solve and use skills and strategies to do so. We refer to those individuals as having a “generative theory” of reading and of themselves as readers. We chose the term “generative theory” because we found that individuals who understand reading as meaning-making, have a sense of agency and choose to read are positioned to progress as readers. We have seen that, despite years of skill and strategy instruction, students who do not have these characteristics make little progress as readers.

Our conceptualization of What Matters means that teachers must first find out whether their students already hold a generative theory. The two most effective and efficient ways to learn this about individuals are Miscue Analysis (Goodman, Y. & Burke, 1972; Goodman, Y., Watson, & Burke, 2005; Goodman, Y. & Marek, 1996) and Kidwatching (Goodman, Y., 1978; Owocki & Goodman, Y. 2002). Miscue Analysis allows us to understand the cues and strategies students are using when reading; it also helps us determine if they approach reading as a meaning-making process or focus on getting words “right.” With Miscue Analysis, we can learn whether or not students stop when something does not make sense and what they do, if anything, to problem solve, to make sense of text. Kidwatching, which is a critical aspect on its own and a part of Miscue Analysis, allows teachers understand how students feel about themselves as readers (their sense of agency), whether or not reading serves some function for them and, as a consequence, if they choose to read.

If students do not already hold a generative theory, then teachers must create conditions under which students can develop or deepen such a theory. Creating those conditions is the first curricular move that teachers need to take if their goal is for all of their students to progress as readers. Allington (2011, 2013), Cambourne (1988, 1995), and Johnston (2004, 2012) have all written texts which help teachers create these conditions. Allington suggest that students should be reading books for which they already know 98-99% of the words. This allows them to focus on meaning and build vocabulary. Cambourne lists eight conditions under all which learning – including developing a generative theory – occur: immersion, demonstration, expectation, responsibility, employment, approximation, engagement and response. Johnston demonstrates the power of teachers’ language and suggests that we teachers study our language so that we can create dialogic classrooms in which students have a sense of agency.

Under these conditions, students develop and/or extend a generative theory, spontaneously self-monitor and use various skills and strategies to problem solve meaning. Kidwatching plays an important role here. Teachers often discover that under the right conditions, students reveal skills and strategies that were previously not evident. Consider the second grader who came to the word tortoise and stopped. I asked, “What are you thinking? The child responded, “I think it is a very big turtle.” My comment was “It is a very big turtle; the word the author used is tortoise.” This short exchange demonstrates that the child was predicting and making inferences during reading – a skill his or her teacher might have thought the student needed to be taught.

That “teaching reading” should begin by knowing readers and helping them develop a generative theory is not yet practiced often in classrooms. In many classes, teachers often begin reading instruction with the fifth item on our list, skills and strategies. However, (a) students have no use for skills and strategies until they have a problem to solve and they do not encounter problems until they hold a generative theory; and (b) under the right conditions, students often demonstrate that they already possess many of the skills and strategies that teachers believed they needed to teach.

There are times though when the skills and strategies that students use to problem solve are not particularly effective or efficient and strategy instruction can be helpful. Recently, for example, a second grader was reading about tsunamis and how they can destroy an entire town. He stopped at the word entire and tried to sound it out. I wanted to keep the meaning going and so suggested he just skip the word and see if what he was reading made sense. He seemed rather shocked at the idea that he could just skip a word, but he did so, and almost begrudgingly indicated that he now understood that tsunamis could destroy a town – the whole town.

When students are learning if a word is necessary for meaning, I suggest teachers scaffold students into putting a green post-it flag for times when they skip a word and the sentence made sense; a yellow post-it flag for when they substitute a word that did make sense; or a red post-it flag for when they skip it and it does not make sense. The green and red flags help teachers understand the problem-solving that students are doing; the red flag signals to the circulating teacher that the student would like some help. When the teachers talks with students who want help, I suggest that teachers focus on meaning (which this student had), and supply words that are not predictable.

This kind of responsive teaching, though, comes last in the “instructional sequence.” First, teachers must learn, through Miscue Analysis and Kidwatching, whether their students hold a generative theory. Teachers then ensure that they have created the conditions that allow all students to develop or extend that theory. Miscue Analysis and Kidwatching will also enable teachers to learn what problem-solving strategies their students already have. They often hold strategy sharing sessions (See chapter about Tim O’Keefe’s classroom in Stephens, 2013) so that students learn from one another. They teach through response and provide customized feedback when the student is challenged by a meaning-making problem.

Traditional teachers sometimes consider this approach “counter intuitive” as reading skills and strategies historically have been taught in isolation. Students have and are being “taught” (but likely not learning), solutions to problems they have not yet encountered, do not yet want to solve, or do not yet believe they can solve.

Traditional teaching, however, has not improved the trajectory of students as readers. Whether looked at forward or retrospectively, the pattern is the same: students for whom reading was not easy in kindergarten often are labeled as “struggling” readers by third grade (if not sooner) and continue to be challenged by reading throughout their school years and into their adult lives.

Those of us who created the What Matters list and named the first three characteristics “generative theory” have seen all our students make considerable progress as readers. First and foremost, they are readers – individuals who find reading pleasurable and choose to do so. Second, they are efficient and effective problem-solvers of meaning. They predict using semantics and syntax and, as appropriate, confirm using grapho-phonemic information.

Our deep hope is that more teachers would start by creating the conditions that support the development of a generative theory and use Miscue Analysis and Kidwatching to inform customized, responsive teaching.

Diane Stephens


Allington, R. (2011). What really matters for struggling readers: Designing research-based program (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.

Allington, R. (2013). What really matters when working with struggling readers? The Reading Teacher, 66 (7), 20-30.

Cambourne, B. (1988). The whole story: Natural learning and the acquisition of literacy in the classroom. New York, NY: Ashton-Scholastic.

Cambourne, B. (1995). Towards an educational relevant theory of literacy learning: Twenty years of inquiry. The Reading Teacher, 49(3), 182–192.

Goodman, Y. (1978). Kid-watching: An alternative to testing. National Elementary Principal, 57(4), 41–5.

Goodman, Y., & Burke, C. (1972). Reading miscue inventory. New York, NY: Macmillan.

Goodman, Y. & Marek, A. (1996). Retrospective miscue analysis: Revaluing readers and reading. New York, NY: Richard C. Owen.

Goodman, Y., Watson, D., & Burke, C. (2005). Reading miscue inventory: From evaluation to instruction (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Richard C. Owen.

Halliday, (1973). Explorations in the functions of language. London, England: Edward Arnold.

Johnston (2004). Choice words: How our language affects children’s learning. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Johnston (2012). Opening minds: Using language to change lives. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Owocki, G, & Goodman. Y. (2002). Kidwatching: Documenting children’s literacy Development. New York, NY: Greenwood.

Pinnell, G. S. (1985). Ways to look at the functions of children’s language. In A. Jaggar & M. T. Smith–Burke (Eds.), Obseving the language learner. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Stephens, D., Cox, R., Downs, A., Goforth, J., Jaegar, L., Matheny, A., Plyer, K., Ray, S., Riser, L., Sawyer, B., Thomspon, T., Vickio, K., & Wilcox, C. (2012). “I know there ain’t no pigs with wigs” Challenges of Tier 2 intervention. Reading Teacher, 66(2), 93–103.

Stephens, D (Ed.). Reading assessment: Artful teachers, successful students. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.


The Essential RMA:

Richard C. Owen:

Twitter In the First Grade Classroom

For retrospective

Molly Meck’s blog post is a wonderful illustration of how young children begin to control written language conventions at early ages. They do it because they have the need to communicate and because they’re in a place that encourages and supports their efforts. It’s exciting to read about. What will the upcoming school year bring?

connect capture create

Three years ago as I began my journey at a new tech focused school,  I set up a classroom twitter account. Through that whole year I gained 12 followers about half of which were spam twitter accounts. The next year I didn’t touch my classroom twitter account once. A great deal of this was due to my discomfort and misunderstanding of the technology. I wasn’t sure how to use twitter to share anything other than reminders directed towards families.  Last summer I traveled to NYC to be part of the Teachers College Writing conference. TC heavily uses twitter to tweet out quotes, information, articles, the list goes on and on. Bravely, one day I tweeted out a quote that struck a chord with me and hashtagged it #tcrwp and was thrilled when my tweet was retweeted. I began to follow teachers and presenters I met at the conference. From this…

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