Interview with Jen Serravallo

Strategies For Emergent Readers: An Interview With Jennifer Serravallo

Sep 12, 2021

Those of you who have followed me for a while now will know that I’ve been a huge Jennifer Serravallo fan for quite a long time. I carry her books into every school I work with, promote them in all my workshops and, in 2019, may have flown all the way to a tiny town in America just to hear her speak at a conference…

One thing I’ve always admired about Jen is her ability to turn current research and theory into practical teacher-friendly resources and strategies.

The thing about research though, is that it’s forever being updated and added to; what is considered ‘best practice’ at any one time can change and evolve over time. And there’s probably nowhere this is truer than in the field of emergent reading.

True to Jen’s form of staying abreast of current evidence-based practices, she recently announced a major update to the third chapter of her much-loved The Reading Strategies Book.

This chapter, now titled ‘Reading with Accuracy’ (formerly titled ‘Supporting Print Work’) acknowledges the wide body of reading research now available to educators and draws on various frameworks and models that contextualize this research. Models such as Scarborough’s Reading Rope framework (Scarborough, 2001), the Simple View of Reading theory (Gough and Tunmer, 1986) and The Active View of Reading (Duke and Cartwright, 2021). Jen’s updated chapter now provides teachers with evidence-based strategies that will “aid them in applying their knowledge of the alphabetic principle and what they've learned from phonological awareness, phonics, and spelling lessons to their reading of connected text” (Serravallo, 2021).

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to chat to Jen about her updated chapter and the learning that lead her to making these changes.


What first motivated you to update the strategies you provided in the emergent reading chapter of your Reading Strategies Book?

I believe all teachers are on an enduring quest to make learning meaningful, relevant, responsive, and powerful to the children in our charge, we have the opportunity--and responsibility--to continue learning and growing, too. I personally take this responsibility very seriously. Since writing the book back in 2014, I’ve worked with some children that needed strategies beyond what that chapter offered. These children inspired me to engage in a deep study of what neuroscientists, psychologists, speech and language pathologists, and linguists theorize and have been able to prove about the reading brain. After my reading, I create new strategies based on the research, tried the strategies out with students, and then made what I’d learned available to teachers.


Can you tell me a bit about your learning journey on this topic? (What/who informed your thinking?)

I’ve read countless articles (those most helpful to me have been by Nell Duke and Linnea Ehri), listened to many podcasts, attended various workshops and webinars (by Nell Duke, Carol Tomlin, Mark Seidenberg, and David Kilpatrick), and have studied (read, underlined, sticky-noted) a collection of books including:


What do you see as being the biggest change in research and thinking in the area of supporting emergent readers since you first published The Reading Strategies Book in 2014?

It’s been common practice to prompt children to think about meaning/context in cases when a word they encounter in their reading has a more advanced spelling pattern than what they’ve been taught to decode. But while that use of meaning/context might help them figure out the word in that instance, it doesn’t help them remember the word the next time they see it. Again and again in my reading, I read about the importance of offering students working on word-level reading skills the strategies that will aid them in applying their knowledge of the alphabetic principle and what they’ve learned from phonological awareness, phonics, and spelling lessons to their reading of connected text. This practice supports orthographic mapping (when readers make letter-sound—grapheme-phoneme—connections to bond the spelling, pronunciation, and meaning of words in memory) so that decoded words become sight words, allowing for automatic and fluent reading. So what you’ll see in the updated chapter are all strategies that prompt children to attend to the words, and use context and meaning as a way to check/confirm their reading, or to know when to go back and try again.


Are there any specific books/ podcasts/ webinars you can recommend to teachers who would like to learn more about current evidence-based strategies for supporting emergent readers?

I strongly recommend looking at Dr. Nell Duke’s work, which she generously makes available on her website. Reading Research Quarterly often has helpful articles—their recent issue (Volume 56 Issue S1) focuses on many different angles to the early literacy and research-based practices and it contains one of my recent most favourite articles on this topic called “The Science of Reading Progresses: Communicating Advances Beyond the Simple View of Reading” by Nell K. Duke and Kelly B. Cartwright. (This article is freely available and not behind a paywall). Overall, I think seeking out the research first-hand is most valuable.


Do you have any other comments or advice for teachers?

One of the most exciting things about science is that it’s ever-evolving. My advice is to keep paying attention to see what more we can learn about the reading brain—expect new developments, and be open to shifting and revising thinking when we learn more. Remember also that findings that are statistically significant are not showing that something works with ALL children, but rather that is works with a statistically significant portion of those studied. Therefore, as teachers I think it’s critical that we remain responsive, tailoring our approach to individuals. The more tools we have in our toolbox the better equipped we are to support each student with what they need.



Thankyou so much for taking the time to answer my questions, Jen. I’ve already had the opportunity to use many of the new strategies with groups of teachers and they have found them invaluable for supporting their work with emergent readers.

It’s good news for teachers who already own a copy of The Reading Strategies Book too: there’s no need to purchase a new book- you can download a free copy of the revised chapter from the Heinemann website. (I highly recommend reading the information at the start of the revised chapter to build your knowledge on the research and theory the new strategies are based on).

Have you tried any of the revised strategies with your readers? I’d love to hear about it. Share your experiences over on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook group.


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