Teaching Idea

Intensifying Your Classroom Routines

Michael P. Ford


From his new book Intensifying Classroom Routines in Reading and Writing Programs, the author shares a pattern for a series of lessons that extend and intensify the popular shared writing strategy of morning messages. A new morning message each week is the basis for reading and writing lessons on four strategies for figuring out words: using specific sound analysis, learning high-frequency sight words, applying structural analysis, and considering context clues. Specific lessons are described.

Musician John Coltrane once said, "You've got to look back at the old things and see them in a new light." In visits to classrooms over the past 30 years, I have seen three common components in almost every literacy program: shared writing, shared reading, and a word wall. In observing all three through the years, I have often wondered if teachers were maximizing the power of these popular routines. For example, I often saw that shared writing through classroom morning messages seemed routinized, repeating the same experiences over and over again. Routines were conducted with limited regard for curricular expectations or student needs.

I began to ask if teachers could intensify these routines to provide more intentional instruction to target and impact learners in more productive ways. I developed a systematic approach to help teachers, techniques which I recently shared in the book Intensifying Classroom Routines in Reading and Writing Programs (Ford, 2017).

Intensification involves increasing intentionality to maximize the power of the routine to reach more learners with what they need to be proficient. The model focuses on systematic planning, explicit instruction, common language connecting reading and writing, and gradual release of responsibility. As I share this teaching idea, I will look at the shared writing often represented in the use of the classroom morning message to provide a glimpse into how intensification can be used to get more instructional mileage out of a common routine. My goal is to show one way to maximize the power of routines to offer more intentional teaching in classrooms.

I will focus on how to systematically plan for a five-day cycle using shared writing with early readers. These students have developed most concepts of print, along with a foundation in phonemic awareness and alphabetic knowledge. They are starting to use different strategies to figure out words, including sound along with visual, structural, grammatical, and semantic clues. They are learning multiple strategies for searching, monitoring, and cross-checking the words they encounter or record in print (Schwartz, 2005). They get better at using what they know about sounds and letters to decode and encode words, to recognize and produce more words automatically on sight, to spot patterns they can use to analyze longer words, and to grow in the ability to use context clues for unknown words.

Intensified shared writing for early readers and writers will involve one weekly large group classroom message that will be revisited each day in different ways. The routine will be structured in a five-day sequence with each lesson lasting about 15 minutes. Each visit will involve explicit instruction on one of the four word level outcomes: sound analysis, sight vocabulary, structural analysis, and context clues.

Intensification involves systematically visiting each area at least one day a week (small doses of instruction), but consistently each week with other classroom messages (an accumulated effect). Common language will be used to help students make connections between reading and writing. A gradual release model will provide direct explanation, demonstration, modeling, guided practice, and monitored independent practice. The sequence that follows illustrates one possible way¾not the only way¾to intensify this routine; and it should be modified for your students' needs.

Day One: Interactive Writing and Rereading of the Message

Plan a classroom message that could be used for shared writing and a week of daily activities in the four key word study strategies. Keep your message relatively short. In planning, think about what your students need to know in each of the four areas of word identification. Before you start writing, make sure that all students are able to clearly see and hear in order to benefit from the instruction.

Start with the first part of your message. Use the first sentence for the "I do" phase of your lesson as you explain, demonstrate, and model. For example, you might begin with a simple sentence like "The days are warm."Use think alouds as you write, using explanation and demonstration to call attention to the four word-study strategies—perhaps similarities in sound and spelling of are and warm.

Invite the learners to join in on writing at least one additional sentence—something related to warm weather, like "We saw birds and flowers." Have the students monitor your use of strategies or prompt them to show you what they can do with the same strategies. This "we do" phase of the lesson allows you to guide the students as they start to practice and apply the strategies. Provide appropriate feedback. Continue to use think alouds to make your internal processing public for your students, especially as you provide information about the four word-study strategies.

With the final part of the message, let some of the learners take over the writing process. This becomes the "you do" phase of the lesson; let them show what they can do independently under your watchful eye as you provide appropriate feedback. They might want to add more things that they see, or they may want to come to a conclusion: "It is spring." End by rereading the message to experience the whole text again. Build in self-evaluation and lesson links so learners can see how what they learned can be used in other contexts.

Day Two: Specific Sound Analysis

Day two of the cycle is designed to help students work on specific strategies related to sound analysis or phonics. Begin with a quick reading of the previously created message, linking to instruction that was introduced on day one. Highlight words and strategies that will be the focus of sound-symbol instruction. You might focus on the phonogram –ing, using spring as the anchor word. Students should have a whiteboard and marker.

Help students understand that they can use the sounds and letters in words they know to help them learn new words. To involve them actively, you might have them make four boxes on their white boards and write spring in the first. After a think aloudin which you reason through the process of adding r to -ing to write ring on their whiteboards, you can repeat the process to write words like king and sing. Model how you use sound strategies to figure out some additional words in the message. You can intentionally insert a miscue and show how you use a sound-based strategy to cross check and correct it.

Focus the day on explicit instruction, which could include specific sound-symbol relationships, common phonograms or rimes, or consistent vowel-consonant generalizations. The lesson should be connected to the message but does not have to be limited to that text. Other samples and examples can be used to show the sound analysis strategies in a variety of contexts.

Day Three: High-Frequency Sight Vocabulary

Day three of the cycle is the time to help students work on sight words. Students should each have a copy of the message. Use a quick reading of the text to link to instruction conducted on the first two days and to highlight high-frequency words: and, is, it, see, the, and we. Remind students how often they hear and read these words. Explain that when we see and spell a word many times, we can remember what it looks like; when we do, we can read and spell words faster.

Model how you use visual strategies to figure out some of these sight words. Have students look for these words in the class message, finding them on the big class copy as well as their individual copies. You might insert a miscue on a sight word and show how you use a visually based strategy to cross check and correct. Focus the day on explicit instruction on high-frequency words. The lesson should connect to the message text, but other samples and examples can be brought in to show high-frequency words in a variety of contexts.

Day Four: Structural Analysis

Day four is dedicated to helping early readers and writers with specific strategies for structural analysis. While rereading the message text, highlight words that will be used in teaching structural analysis: for example, plural words like birds, days, and flowers. Continue to link to previously introduced instruction (e.g., king, ring, sing).

Each student should have a two-column sheet of paper. Help students understand that they can change a word they know by adding something to it or taking something away from it so that it makes more sense or sounds better. Illustrate how you use structural analysis strategies to figure out words in the message: bird/birds, day/days, flower/flowers, spring/ring. Students can write examples on their two-column charts (Column 1 for the simplest form of the word, Column 2 for the expanded word). Try using a word that doesn't fit grammatically and requires a structural change to an ending to sound right in the sentence: "The day are warm" or "We saw a birds." Or show how you use syntactic, structurally-based strategies to cross-check and correct. Examples beyond the text can be used to show how the strategies help with longer words in other contexts.

Day Five: Context Clues

Day five shifts attention to using context clues. During a quick rereading of the text, highlight words that will be the focus of context clue instruction. Model how you can use context clues to figure out these words in the message, with a focus on thinking about what makes sense and sounds right.

Begin by explaining to students that if they can't read a word, they may be able to figure it out by using the words around it¾by thinking about what would make sense and sound right. Call attention to the context of the message: "The days are warm. We saw birds and flowers." What if the final sentence was "It is budtime." Ask if the students can figure out what budtime means. They can tell it is another word for spring because the words warm, birds, and flowers are all words that tell about spring.

Final Thoughts

I hope this teaching idea has provided a new vision of how to intensify the use of an old routine like shared writing to increase its power to reach more students with what they need to grow as independent, strategic readers and writers. Subsequent classroom messages can be planned systematically to address increasingly complex and sophisticated strategies through repeated use of the structure each week as students grow in their competence and confidence. If this routine is also aligned with shared reading and word wall activities, intensified with a similar structure, all three of these common routines may increase in power to better serve students.

Michael Ford is a professor emeritus from the Literacy and Language Department in the College of Education and Human Services at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. He has been involved with literacy education for more than 30 years as a first grade and Title I teacher as well as a researcher, consultant and teacher-educator. He is the author, co-author, or co-editor of 12 books, including Intensifying Classroom Routines in Reading and Writing Programs upon which this article is based.


Ford, M. (2017). Intensifying classroom routines in reading and writing programs. North Mankato, MN: Capstone.

Schwartz, R. (2005). Decisions, decisions: Responding to students during guided reading. The Reading Teacher, 58(5), 436-443.