Interview with Valerie Fraser: Introducing Being a Reader, Second Edition

Valerie Fraser

Collaborative Classroom is excited to announce the publication of Being a Reader, Second Edition, which will be available for the 2021–22 school year. With the launch of the second edition, Being a Reader is now a comprehensive reading program for grades K–2, adding rigorous comprehension work to the program’s systematic, explicit, and sequential foundational skills instruction and integrated social skills development.

In this interview, President and Chief Operating Officer Kelly Stuart, EdD, spoke with Valerie Fraser, Vice President of Program Development and Publishing, about the development and features of the new second edition of Being a Reader, focusing on how the program is intentionally designed to support instructional equity and support all students in becoming confident, fluent readers, independent learners, and caring, fully engaged members of their school community.

Kelly Stuart: Before we talk about Being a Reader, I think it’s important to acknowledge how the national conversation about the science of reading has evolved during recent years. When you consider this evolution, what in particular stands out for you?

Valerie Fraser: There are many committed researchers and advocates for the science of reading who have been doing this work for decades. It’s encouraging to see how recent reporting by journalists such as Emily Hanford is now bringing these important ideas to a wider audience.

In the research community, I think of Dr. Louisa Moats, who is a nationally recognized authority on literacy education, as well as Professor Nell Duke, an eloquent advocate for well-rounded literacy instruction built on a solid foundation of decoding, world knowledge, and intrinsic motivation to read. We’re also grateful to our partners at the Consortium on Reaching Excellence in Education (CORE), who do superb work with foundational skills instruction.

Finally, I always think of Professor John Shefelbine, who developed the SIPPS (Systematic Instruction in Phonological Awareness, Phonics, and Sight Words) curriculum and who spent his long career working to ensure that all students become successful, fluent readers.

Here at Collaborative Classroom, we embraced the science of reading early on during the time when the organization (then named Developmental Studies Center) transitioned from a focus on research and began to develop curriculum.

Our founding pedagogy is based in seminal research into intrinsic motivation and social and emotional learning, but as you know, all the motivation in the world is not going to help a student who cannot decode; systematic, explicit foundational skills instruction is crucial. That’s why it was an incredibly important moment in the organization’s development when we began our relationship with Dr. Shefelbine and the SIPPS program in the 1990s.

On a personal note, I had the great privilege of working with Dr. Shefelbine to develop SIPPS into the curriculum that it is today. In fact that was the first project I worked on when I came to Collaborative Classroom, and it’s still one of the highlights of my career. His research and instructional practices are part of my DNA, and so today it is heartening to see so many educators embracing the research and science of reading.

Kelly Stuart: So how does Being a Reader, as a K–2 program, fit into what the science of reading tells us about how young children learn to read during those crucial early elementary grades?

Valerie Fraser: Before I answer, I’m going to lean on a really helpful 2019 article “Implications of the DRIVE Model of Reading: Making the Complexity of Reading Actionable” by Nell Duke and Kelly Cartwright to provide insights about the research itself. This article illuminates the underpinnings of learning to read and the many factors that contribute to successfully orchestrating the reading process. I especially appreciate this article because it moves the discussion around decoding and comprehension in a productive direction—toward the acknowledgement of the “messiness” of teaching reading. Students need both the foundational skills to decode the texts as well as deeper skills to comprehend, analyze, and synthesize the various texts they encounter. It’s not either/or; it’s both/and.

Students need both the foundational skills to decode the texts as well as deeper skills to comprehend, analyze, and synthesize the various texts they encounter. It’s not either/or; it’s both/and.

Being a Reader intentionally takes account of this messiness or, if you prefer, this complexity. We are very aware that the teacher is in the best position to tailor literacy instruction. Being a Reader provides all the elements of a wrap-around literacy environment, and gives the teacher the tools, including formative assessments and “just in time” teaching notes, to adjust instruction and meet the needs of students.

The program is multi-faceted: whole-class experiences; small-group phonics and decoding instruction at students’ point of need; independent reading with conferring. The small-group component of Being a Reader is aligned with the instruction in SIPPS, both in terms of the scope and sequence and the instructional model. This alignment allows us to use SIPPS as an intensive intervention and move students seamlessly between Being a Reader and SIPPS.

In short, with Being a Reader, we are providing the solid foundational-skills instruction in the context of rich reading and instruction around background knowledge, academic language, speaking and listening skills, and critical thinking, as well as integrated social skills development. It’s a complete solution.

Kelly Stuart: How did your team undertake the work of conceptualizing Being a Reader, Second Edition? Tell us about your process and areas of focus. How did you incorporate feedback from district partners, educators, and leaders in the field?

Valerie Fraser: We are a learning organization: we know that there are always improvements that we can make to better support teachers and students. We’ve benefitted from having several years of seeing Being a Reader used in classrooms across the country and working with our district partners to gather input on what works well and where we could make the program even stronger.

That feedback was carefully studied by our core team of experienced program managers and curriculum writersmost of whom are educators themselves, and all of whom are steeped in our constructivist pedagogy and in research-based best practices for literacy instruction.

We are a learning organization: we know that there are always improvements that we can make to better support teachers and students.

We approached the revision of Being a Reader well aware of the reinvigorating conversations around education during the past several years. That’s why it was important that our revision process be outward-facing. Our curriculum development process is very connected to our field staff. These folks fall into two groups: field staff who work closely with school- and district-based leaders, and those who facilitate professional learning around our programs. Their insights from their work with district partners are always invaluable.

We also developed a panel of teacher-users across the country, and they graciously worked with us as we conceptualized the revision of Being a Reader. Based on observations and feedback from users and from our field staff, we identified several areas to explore, including digital literacy, support for English Language Learners (ELL), support for teachers’ professional learning around literacy, and instructional equity.

So, we targeted these topics, enlisting the teacher panel again to answer questions about these issues in their own practice. We also searched for recent research and thinking on these specific topics, and we partnered with outside experts who were able to review our previous curriculum and provide concrete recommendations of ways to revise.

In regard to ELL, we worked with researchers at WestEd, including Marianne Justus, and with Dr. Marco Bravo at Santa Clara University. Being a Reader now includes pre-teaching support for each book and lesson. We also categorized the ELL notes that we have always included at point of use so that teachers could immediately see what type of support might work at that point in the lesson. On digital literacy and connecting reading to writing, we worked with Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, executive director of the National Writing Project, and one of her colleagues, Professor Troy Hicks of Central Michigan University.

Everything in our curricula is focused on instructional equitythat’s the work we do. We are privileged to be in contact with Zaretta Hammond, who (as one of our board members) provides constant encouragement to do better. She raised up for us the concept of independent versus dependent learners, which is something that she emphasizes in her own work. Although our pedagogy has always had the goal of creating independent learners and building students’ cognitive skills, we had not framed it so consistently or explicitly in these terms for teachers. So, in this new edition of Being a Reader, we worked hard to bring this guiding concept to the forefront, and I think that the curriculum is more powerful because of it.

Kelly Stuart: I’d like to dig deeper into this idea of independent versus dependent learners, as well as instructional equity. Could you say more about Being a Reader in this context?

Valerie Fraser: Let’s begin with instructional equity as it relates to becoming an independent learner. Being able to read at grade level is the most important thing in elementary school: specifically to be reading at grade level by the end of grade 2. Students can’t become independent learners without concurrently becoming fluent readers; the two are intertwined.

As Zaretta Hammond has stressedand I don’t think we can say it often enoughthis is actually the instructional equity issue right here. Motivation is great, but if students are not receiving effective decoding and foundational skills instruction, we’re not moving the needle on instructional equity in a meaningful, impactful way.

Motivation is great, but if students are not receiving effective decoding and foundational skills instruction, we’re not moving the needle on instructional equity in a meaningful, impactful way.

This is at the heart of what we wanted for Being a Reader. The program is laser focused on getting all students reading at grade level by grade 2. And when Being a Reader’s core instruction is paired with SIPPS as the intervention program, everything is instructionally aligned across tiers and becomes even more effective in reaching all of our readers.

Going back to the idea of independent learners, we’ve always believed that instruction should be student-centered. It should be designed in a way that taps into students’ intrinsic motivation, curiosity about the world, and desire to learn. We prioritize student choice of topics, authentic tasks, and discussions in which students take the lead while teachers adopt a facilitator’s stance and take care not to over-scaffold.

We also intentionally expose students to key content areas and funds of knowledge about the world and use them to generate motivation and interest in big, important, multi-faceted topics.

Kelly Stuart: What features of the newly published second edition of Being a Reader are you particularly excited about?

Valerie Fraser: The single biggest difference you’ll see is that the reading comprehension instruction from our companion Making Meaning program is now incorporated into Being a Reader. The two programs were always intended to work together, and in the new second edition of Being a Reader we wanted to make that easier to manage in classrooms. Now that instruction is seamless, it’s fully integrated, and that’s exciting to see.

In addition, there are other features we’ve incorporated into the second edition that will make a huge difference to teachers and students, including reorganized materials; increased ELL support with pre-teaching and educative teacher notes; many more digital texts and explicit teaching around navigating websites in grade 2; and more “about” notes that provide context and background knowledge for teachers.

Kelly Stuart: For educators who are planning to transition from the first edition of Being a Reader to the second edition, what changes will they particularly notice?

Valerie Fraser: Besides the fact that Being a Reader is now a comprehensive reading program? Teachers who are transitioning from the first edition to the second edition will notice increased support for ELLs, more digital texts, and especially the “educative” parts of the program that we’ve enhanced with even more embedded professional learning.

They’ll also notice specific notes about equity issues appropriate to different aspects of instruction. And they will see the idea of developing independent learners called out repeatedly. We really want to get that to be the focus of instruction.

Kelly Stuart: High-quality children’s literature is an important part of Being a Reader. Can you tell us about the process used to select the trade books that appear in the program?

Valerie Fraser: High-quality literature that represents the variety of students in classrooms is of utmost importance. It’s an instructional equity issue. We prepare to select books in several ways. We begin with a checklist of criteria, and in addition, every book is read and reread by our curriculum developers and other stakeholders, discussed in depth, and considered from multiple perspectives.

High-quality literature that represents the variety of students in classrooms is of utmost importance. It’s an instructional equity issue.

Of course a primary question is: does this particular book work for the instructional focus of the lesson we envision? It needs to serve the instruction and the learning. We also consider and carefully track diversity of all kinds: socio-economic, gender, ethnicity, and more, for all books that we might decide to use.

We actually have a full-time employee whose job it is to liaise with publishers. She’s always looking for the types of books she knows we use, and that work is constant and crucial to what we do. One important side note about our book selection process is that we work with a relatively restricted number of publisher partners, so sometimes we find a perfect book that we aren’t able to put into the program, which can be wrenching.

Finally, once a book is in our programs, we always appreciate feedback from educators who are using our work and who provide thoughtful responses to the trade books we use; we read and discuss every email, every message that we receive.

Kelly Stuart: How does the new second edition of Being a Reader fit into the Collaborative Literacy suite?

Valerie Fraser: Collaborative Literacy is our comprehensive ELA curriculum: it’s complete reading, writing, and intervention instruction for grades K–6. Within that suite, Being a Reader is a complete program for K–2 reading instruction, bringing together systematic, explicit foundational skills instruction with comprehension instruction. Being a Reader works seamlessly as a module within Collaborative Literacy, but it can also be used as a stand-alone reading curriculum.

Looking specifically at grades K–2 of the Collaborative Literacy suite, Being a Reader represents one-third of the suite. It’s meant to be implemented alongside our comprehensive writing program, Being a Writer, and our fully aligned reading intervention, SIPPS.

All of these programs are designed to work together: the Being a Reader and SIPPS scope and sequences and instruction were intentionally created to be in sync with each other, so that all tiers of instruction are in alignment. Also, if you compare the lesson structures and teaching practices in Being a Reader and Being a Writer, you’ll see how much the programs are in harmony. If a teacher is already implementing one program, it’s easy and intuitive to use the others.

Finally, it’s important to point out that social skills development and SEL competencies are embedded into every lesson within Being a Reader, as they are throughout the entire Collaborative Literacy suite. Students are consistently learning how to work together, how to agree and disagree respectfully, how to articulate their feelings and experiences, and how to be caring, productive members of their classroom learning community.

Kelly Stuart: Let’s talk about outcomes. If you envision a student who starts kindergarten with Being a Reader and goes through the program all the way to the end of second grade, what would we expect to see? I also wonder about this student’s teacher. If the teacher is implementing Being a Reader, what shifts would we expect to see in his or her teaching practice?

Valerie Fraser: Our goal for every student who experiences Being a Reader is that he or she will emerge as a truly independent learner with well-developed cognitive skills. This student will be able to read fluently, decoding text with automaticity, and be able to focus on comprehension and critical thinking. The social skills development is equally important, as well. The embedded SEL in the program is intended to foster strong prosocial skills and help each student learn how to participate fully and joyfully in the classroom learning community.

For teachers, our hope is that the embedded professional learning in every lesson of Being a Reader provides a path toward new levels of awareness, skill, and confidence in their teaching practice. Educators are deepening their practice as they teach the program.

Specifically, teachers who implement Being a Reader gain a quiver of facilitation techniques and insight into how best to apply them to encourage the development of their students as independent learners. They’ll have a strong understanding of issues of equity and effective practices for supporting ELL students. Underlying all of this, educators are accumulating solid knowledge about the way in which research-based reading instruction works and how the pieces of the literacy block fit together.

For teachers, our hope is that the embedded professional learning in every lesson of Being a Reader provides a path toward new levels of awareness, skill, and confidence in their teaching practice. Educators are deepening their practice as they teach the program.

Kelly Stuart: In the midst of the pandemic, how does Being a Reader work when the program is implemented in a blended or remote-learning format? Tell us a bit about the support that is provided. Where will you go from here?

Valerie Fraser: Like everyone in education, we went through a real crucible this spring, working around the clock to support our partner schools and districts as they scrambled to transition to remote learning. It was an intense and grueling experience with a steep learning curve, but I think that our collaborative, hands-on approach and our commitment to providing robust program support and professional learning support paid off.

Then we spent the summer developing even more supports and specific guidance for teaching our programs remotely, all of which are accessible on our Learning Portal. We also created our complimentary new Reconnecting and Rebuilding Toolkit, which offers class meetings and community chats to support all K–6 educators this fall as school reopens.

This work hasn’t stopped. It’s ongoing; we are working on more remote learning supports even now. In addition to having a really committed team here in-house, we’re fortunate to have such smart, engaged, creative teachers using our programsand we’re always listening to them as we plan our next steps.


To learn more about Being a Reader, please visit our Programs page.