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5 Winter Picture Books for Upper Elementary Classrooms

winter mentor text

No matter how old students get, they still love to gather in the reading corner and get lost in a good book, especially during the cold winter months. Navigating the holidays in the classroom can be tricky, and if your school is like mine, they encourage seasonal activities over any holiday-specific activities. When December approaches, I dive deep into winter, snow, and ice activities to keep the students engaged and learning all through the winter months through March. Connecting learning to what is going on outside of the classroom is not only critical, but the best way to keep students engaged and completely hooked during each lesson. These winter read-aloud books are perfect to share during reading and writing mini-lessons, after recess, before dismissal, during morning meeting, or anytime you want to stop and read a good book. These winter picture books and activities are the perfect way to welcome winter into your upper elementary classroom in a meaningful way, while providing content based lessons and addressing the standards, too!

Below are my favorite tried and true, seasonal winter read-aloud picture books* to share with students during the winter season. Read on to find out more about each book and grab the coordinating FREE student activities for each book at the bottom of this post.

winter mentor text
Owl Moon is the perfect read-aloud for so many different language arts activities. This book tells the story about a young child spending time with their father on a mid-night stroll owling, lending itself as the perfect mentor text for personal narratives and memoir writing activities and units. It is also chock full of figurative language: personification, similes, metaphors, and onomatopoeia, making it a great read-aloud to share for revising student writing. Since this book talks a lot about shadows, have students go outside, create their own shadows. Then have students work with a partner to measure and write a descriptive paragraph to describe their shadows. My favorite activity to do with this book is focused on point of view. Grab it for FREE at the bottom of this post.

winter mentor text
If you have never read Brave Irene, now is the time to read it with your students! This book is about a young girl who goes out in a blizzard to make a delivery to help her mother the dress maker. I use this read-aloud book to discuss character traits. The main character changes throughout the story, showing different traits and feelings as the story progresses. The descriptions of the character make it easy to make connections with Irene, as well as, compare and contrast her with other characters students have encountered in their readings. This book is also filled with figurative language and varied word choice, making it perfect for synonym and revisions lessons. Your students will be on the edge of their seat, cheering for Brave Irene to meet her goal. The suspense in the book, lends itself to lessons on building suspense, too! The possibilities are truly endless. Grab a FREE character analysis activity at the bottom of this post.

If you are looking for a re
winter mentor text
ad-aloud book that your students have not heard before, this is it! The Five Dog Night is the book that I look forward to reading each winter season. It tells the tale of two neighbors who help each other throughout the long and cold winter months. I love the themes of kindness and friendship that are weaved throughout this story. Each time I read this book, the students always worry for the well being of the characters, kicking off great empathy discussions in our classroom. I use this book to discuss character traits, making connections, themes, and most importantly, kindness. Grab a FREE kindness writing activity to use with this book at the bottom of this post.

winter mentor text
Wintertime is not complete without a read aloud of Snowflake Bentley. This sweet biography-story highbred is perfect to tie together seasonal activities with reading strategies. Whether you are studying informational texts, biographies, or fiction and character development, this book can help you meet your objectives. After a read aloud of this book, I always have  my students complete a Venn diagram comparing themselves to the main character Mr. Bentley. This simple activity helps the students identify something that is of great interest to them, just like studying snowflakes and ice crystals was of interest to Snowflake Bentley. Grab a FREE writing activity to use with this book at the bottom of this post.

winter mentor textThis short but sweet book is a great way to welcome winter into the classroom! It is filled with vivid word choice, strong verbs and figurative language, making it a great read aloud for any classroom. Because the text is short, it naturally lends itself for visualizing activities. Have students fold a blank piece of white paper into fourths and number each box. Read aloud the book without showing students the illustrations. Pause throughout the book frequently to allow students enough time to create their own illustrations to go along with the words that they hear. When you are done, have students compare and contrast their illustrations with each other and discuss why they created the illustrations that they did. Reread the book again, this time sharing the book's pictures with students so that they can again compare and contrast what they drew with the illustrator's drawings.  Grab a FREE follow up figurative language visualizing activity to use with this book at the bottom of this post.

When it comes to engaging students don't overlook the power of a great read aloud book, especially a great seasonal read aloud. 

winter mentor text

What winter picture books do you read each winter season to engage your students in authentic learning?
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 Winter Activities for Upper Elementary


3 Ways to Strengthen Student Questioning While Reading

questioning anchor charts

Teaching students to question is always one of my biggest goals for each school year. With the increase of technology and with almost every answer available at our students' fingertips, learning how to ask meaningful questions is now more critical than ever. Questioning is a reading skill just like predicting and summarizing that students must master as they become proficient readers of complex texts. Read on to find out how I make my classroom an environment that welcomes and encourages students to question everything!

Model Your Own Questioning

Stephanie Harvey said it best-"Passion and wonder are contagious." Your students will benefit greatly when you share all of the questions you develop and model how to track them. To do this, I keep a spiral bound notebook on my desk and every time I have a question, I stop, share my question with my students and record my question in the notebook for students to see. I keep space between each question, so that as I gather information about each question, I can take notes. Questions may be related to a lesson, topic we are studying, or even life events! Students love hearing what I am wondering about and develop important skills as they begin to brainstorm and share different ways that I can collect information about each question that I have.

Keep Wonder Books

questioning in the upper elementary classroom
Once students have seen how you develop questions and keep track of all of your wonders, allow them the same chance. Provide students with their own wonder books. I love doing this with my students for many reasons. It allows students to be in control of their learning, provides many student selected topics that can be used for future research projects, and gives students a place to "put away" their thoughts and questions, especially ones that may become a distraction during the lesson at hand. You can use anything as a wonder notebook. You can use small notebooks from the dollar store, the back of a reading notebook, stapled line paper, or create your own with the FREE wonder book templates at the bottom of this post.

Explicitly Teach Questioning

Asking meaningful questions is a skill that must be explicitly taught, practiced, and carried out daily. What better way to provide students with opportunities to question than with each new book that they read? When teaching questioning with my students I make sure that we don't refer to responses to questions as answers. I want my students to constantly be researching the questions that they have, so we respond to our questions with the term "our thinking" instead of "our answers". It is a great way to reinforce that wondering, questioning, and learning are ongoing.  Additionally, students benefit greatly from learning about the different types of questions that can be asked. We stay away from asking questions that are yes, no, or one word responses, since those do not require much thinking or researching.  

mentor text for questioningInstead, we focus on asking more meaningful questions that require readers to infer, collaborate and discuss, or research. Before expecting students to question on their own, practice together using a class size t-chart to model questioning and collect students' questions from high-level picture books*. Two books that I love to use for this modeling whole class activity are Knots on a Counting Rope, written by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault and Sam, Bangs, and Moonshine, written by Evaline Ness.  Both stories require students to infer to truly comprehend the plot. (Warning: you will all cry at the end of these books) Having students question as they read can be done with both fiction and non-fiction reading material. I have students keep track of their questions for each book on a t-chart graphic organizer. When students have finished reading the material, they go back and record their thinking on the second side of the t-chart. I love using a t-chart because students can easily make one of their own! Looking for more questioning materials, click HERE. This encourages them to question as they read in other settings besides the classroom, making it a real-life skill. Using just a blank piece of lined paper, students create a large "T" and label one side with "Questions" and the other side with "My Thinking". Hold students accountable by collecting their t-charts to monitor the types of questions that they are asking as they read. Encourage students to select their most meaningful questions that go beyond the text and add them to their wonder books!

questioning graphic organizer
Try this easy differentiation tip! Have students reread and reflect on the questions from their t-chart and select four of their deepest questions. Collect their deepest questions on a sticky mat reading organizer and confer with students about why the questions that they selected are meaningful. This extra step helps students reflect on the types of questions that they are asking and motivates them to ask good questions the next time that they read! Grab a FREE student t-chart and sticky mat reading organizer at the bottom of this post.

Teaching how to ask meaningful questions is a powerful tool that we can provide to our students. I always strive to create a classroom filled with questioning, wonder, and curiosity by following these words of wisdom from Stephanie Harvey: "Celebrate the question and learning rather than the knowing."

Questioning in upper elementary classroom

How do you elicit wonder, curiosity, and questioning in your classroom?

Check out these other great ideas for inspiring wonder and curiosity with your upper elementary students!


From Left to Right:

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4 Ways to Help Students Successfully Summarize

teaching summary writing activities

If you are an elementary teacher then you understand the struggle that comes with teaching students how to summarize. The concept of summarizing is one of the trickiest for students to grasp. Recap the whole book or chapter, but make it brief? Insert confused student faces here! While there are different strategies to teach students how to summarize, I have found that the best way to drive home the concept of summarizing is to start with teaching students what they should NOT do when summarizing. The number one thing students should NOT do when summarizing is to retell what they have read and usually, this is what they do initially!

By beginning summary writing instruction by showing students a retell, you can easily explain the difference between the two. In the primary grades, students are always asked to retell a story. Retelling is something that students know how to do, making it the perfect way to grab their attention when teaching how to summarize. It also allows students to easily make connections within their own learning. The students can self-monitor their summary writing, by asking if what they wrote is a summary or a retelling. Read on to find out how I begin tackling the concept of summary writing with my students. (Grab free summarizing teaching points to guide summarizing lessons below.)

1. Select a Book to Summarize That Was Previously Read Aloud

teaching summary writing activities

By the time I begin summarizing instruction, we have already read many different picture books. Before the lesson begins, I pull out a few of the class' favorite previously read picture books and display them. I also write a retell and summary for one of the books before the lesson begins, so that the students will have modeled writing to compare summaries and retells when the lesson gets started. Using previously read books is a great way to teach summarizing, since it allows the students to focus on the skill of summarizing, instead of trying to comprehend the story for the first time. (Read more about using previously read books during reading here.)

2. Create an Anchor Chart

teaching summary writing activities
I prepare an anchor chart ahead of time to complete with the students during the initiation of the lesson. A simple SUMMARY vs RETELL t-chart always does the trick. Then I enlist students to tell help me fill it in by telling me what they already know about both summarizing and retelling. Their ideas are discussed and recorded. Using the completed T-chart we begin our discussions on the differences between summarizing and retelling. 

3. Use Modeled Writing

I love to use modeled writing in the classroom for teaching just about everything! After we discuss our summary vs. retell T-chart, I share with the students the retell that I prepared ahead of time, of  one of the previously read books that I have displayed. Students can immediately pick the book that is being retold because it includes all the details of the story.  At this point, I enlist help from the students to cross off some less relevant details from my retelling that would not make it into a summary of the same book. Then I unveil the pre-written summary. Presto! The summary looks like the retell without the unnecessary details. This part of the lessons helps students to understand not just the difference between summarizing and retelling but also illustrates to them that they already have the skills to write summaries!

4. Practice, Practice, Practice

After analyzing the modeled writing, students are able to grasp the difference between summaries and retells. Now is the time that we practice. I send small groups of students off to write summaries of different previously read picture books, but only give them an index card to write their summaries on. This reminds the students that summaries include only the critical information from the book and are brief. When students are done, we come back together as a class and begin to share. We use our class created T-chart of summaries vs. retell to help us decide if students have written brief summaries or story retells. Students are also able to evaluate if the summaries that students share included important information since they have all heard the stories that students wrote summaries about.

Moving Forward

teaching summary writing activities 4th grade
Summarizing Organizers
This lesson is a great way to introduce summaries in your classroom, but it is only the beginning. This lesson provides the students with background knowledge to help them understand the structure of summaries and provides an anchor chart visual of what to do, and what NOT to do when writing summaries. At this point, student summary writing skills are just developing, so they need to be honed and sharpened throughout the year. (Yes, this is a year-long process!)  There are many different strategies to help students perfect their summary writing skills. My favorites include: 
  • The 5 Ws-Students answer the 5W questions about the book that they are reading to help them write their summary. Who? What? When? Where? Why?
  • SWBSA-This strategy works well when reading books with strong characters. This stands for somebody, wanted, but, so, and. Once the students complete an SWBSA organizer they can easily write a summary.
  • Story Map Summaries-Students complete a story map after their reading. Using the completed story map, students then write a summary. 

teaching summary writing activities 3rd grade
Important vs. Interesting
If you are finding that your students are struggling with including important information in their summaries, try teaching a lesson on interesting vs important information. Create a class t-chart to help students understand the difference between the two. 

Summarizing is one of the most difficult concepts to teach and requires many follow up mini-lessons to help students succeed. Students must be given many opportunities to practice writing summaries, so do not expect them to become experts right away. Hold your students accountable for summary writing at least once a week. The more that students practice the better they will become. Students should also be sharing summaries orally each day. This can be done while you confer with them one-on-one or during reading partnership time. Remember the more times a student can practice summarizing, the better that they will become! (Grab free summarizing teaching points to guide your follow up lessons below.)

What is YOUR best tip for teaching students how to summarize? Share below!

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6 Autumn Picture Books for Upper Elementary Classrooms


One of the trickiest things that I have found about being an upper elementary teacher is the ability to stay on track with content and standard based learning while celebrating the all engaging seasons and holidays in the classroom.  Even though students are getting older, they still love to celebrate the changing of seasons and each of the holidays, too! And to be honest, so do I! I always look forward to the beginning of each new month when I can take out my monthly stack of picture books, change out the door d├ęcor, and get ready to dive into each holiday. As the years go by and more and more standards are introduced and the scope and sequence gets tighter and tighter, it gets harder to squeeze in the all engaging seasonal activities! With a little creativity, engaging picture books, and content alignment, you can still celebrate each season in your classroom! 
These fall picture books and activities are the perfect way to welcome autumn into your upper elementary classroom while providing content based lessons and addressing the standards, too!

Here are my favorite read-aloud books to share with students during the autumn season. Read on to find out more about each book and be sure to grab the coordinating FREE student activity for each book at the bottom of this post. 
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The Scarecrow's Dance  Written by: Jane Yolen

picture book freebiesI cannot rave about this book enough! There is no end to the lessons that you can do following a read-aloud of this book, as it easily connects to many different reading and writing units and standards. This book follows a nighttime adventure of a scarecrow that is not sure about his place in the world. It is chock full of figurative language with similes, metaphors, alliteration, and personification. It is written in a way that students will discover these writing techniques on their own, even if you have not introduced these concepts yet, making this a great book to tie into revising lessons during your writing block. This book also filled with amazing word choice! With synonyms on almost every page for walk, like trotting, jogging and pirouetted, it pairs nicely with lessons on synonyms, antonyms, using a thesaurus, and revising a written piece for better word choice. Lastly, I love to talk about context clues with this book. Many words included are new to my students, like forlorn, making this a great way to introduce or review the use of context clues to help you understand the text you are reading. Grab a coordinating activity for FREE at the bottom of this post.

Too Many Pumpkins Written by: Linda White

autumn picture book freebieI have gone through so many copies of this book in my teaching career! We read it several times each year and the kids always love to revisit this book on their own because of the great story and amazing illustrations. Though a longer story, the kids are always engaged and on the edge of their seat with the turn of each page. This book follows the main character, Rebecca Estelle, as she tries to rid her yard of pumpkins. The story takes place over the course of a year, allowing students to see the progression of how pumpkins grow from seed to fruit.  With too many pumpkins and not enough uses, this book is a great backdrop to writing math multiplication word problems. This is a book that you will want to read again and again for different uses, one great use is summary writing. Read this post to find out how I repurpose read alouds in my classroom. Grab a coordinating activity for FREE at the bottom of this post.

Why Do Leaves Change Color? Written by: Betsy Maestro

autumn picture book free
I read this book during my first year of teaching and it has become a staple in my classroom, being read aloud to my students each and every fall season. Is there a better nonfiction author than Betsy Maestro? Though filled with high-level concepts, content, and vocabulary such as chlorophyll, pigment, and tannin, your students will easily understand how leaves change color. I love dissecting this book for its content and informational text writing style and also introduce note taking with the students. The leaf rubbing activity at the end of the book is a must and a great science art connection. Grab a coordinating activity for FREE at the bottom of this post. 

autumn picture book free

Winter is Coming Written by: Tony Johnston

This book is beautifully illustrated by the incredibly talented Jim LaMarche. (I can’t rave enough about his book The Raft, see more about that book HERE) Each page is filled with beauty with written words and pictures all about fall. It follows a young girl who keenly observes her setting, noticing each and every small detail that signals autumn is on the way. She keeps track of all she observes in her own notebooks, through the words and sketches she records. What better activities than to take the kids on an autumn walk and have them do the same! This is a great way to teach descriptive writing, focusing specifically on writing descriptive settings. Grab a coordinating activity for FREE at the bottom of this post.

Because of an Acorn Written by: Lola M. Schaefer and Adam Schaefer

autumn fall picture book freeI love this book because it is an upper elementary version of circular stories. This story leads to meaningful discussions about the power of an acorn and will give your students opportunities to predict with each turn of the page. This book is short and sweet and will not take a lot of time to read aloud, but the message of the book will stay with your students for a lifetime. Don’t forget to read the informational pages at the end that help students understand how important forests and ecosystems are to our planet. Grab a coordinating activity for FREE at the bottom of this post.

Those Darn Squirrels! Written by Adam Rubin

fall picture book freeI came across this book in the discard pile of my local library many years ago and have enjoyed reading it with my students every year since! In this story, Old Man Fookwire who is trying to feed his birds gets wrapped up in a battle of wits with the pesky seed-stealing squirrels. Fookwire and squirrels take turns devising plans and carrying them out to stop the other. This is the perfect book to connect to your STEM lessons and NGSS engineer, plan, and design standards. Grab a coordinating activity for FREE at the bottom of this post.

There is nothing more powerful than reading aloud to students. I look forward to sharing each and every one of these picture books with my students as we welcome the season of fall. I hope that you enjoy sharing them with your students, too! What is your favorite fall themed picture book to read with your students Share below!

fall picture book free

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3 Tips For Successful Reading Conferences

reading workshop conferences

Conducting reading conferences with your students is an important part of reading workshop. A teacher-student reading conference takes place during independent reading time within your reading workshop block.  During this quick one-on-one meeting time, the teacher listens to the student read, they discuss the book that they are reading through discourse about the reading strategies that the student is using, and the teacher compliments the reader and gives them a suggestion or tip to use as they continue to read. By conferring with your students you are giving them one-on-one time devoted solely to improving their individual reading skills. It is reading differentiation at its best! Reading conferences allow students to get tailor-made individualized mini-lessons suited just for them!

It is important to make the most of the time that you have for your reading conferences. This will ensure that the student you are conferring with gets reading strategy work that will help them get stronger as a reader. 
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Here are some ways that I have found that work for me to make the most of your individual reading conference time.

Be Organized

reading workshop conferencesPlanning for reading conferences can be challenging. Students that you planned on meeting with might be absent during your reading time, your mini-lesson may run over time, and students you thought were ready to work alone, may need a little extra support to help get started independently. All of these interferences cut into your reading conference time, meaning you will not meet with as many students as you had planned. My goal is to always meet with about five students each day. This ensures that by the end of the week I would have met with all of my students at least one time. To help me stay organized, I keep a reading conference log right at the front of my binder. It is completely organized to keep track of the conferences that I have had and which type of conference it was. Although traditional reading conferences are between the teacher and one student, I also utilize partner conferences and strategy group conferences as teacher conferring opportunities. These type of conferences do not occur as often, but there are days that students work together on reading tasks, so when I meet with them as a pair, we all confer together! I also mark this sheet with information that will help me keep track of student growth such as absences or when a student is pulled out of my classroom for additional services. This page serves as a great tracking system! This sheet is also helpful for planning. Before reading workshop begins, I can quickly look at this page and know which students I will need to confer with that day. Get a closer look at the forms I use HERE.

Be Prepared

reading workshop conferencesHaving a reading conference toolbox is a great way to be prepared for all of your reading conferences. Inside my reading toolbox are the essentials that I need to meet with each student for their reading conference. It contains a reading workshop conferring guide to keep me on track, a previously read picture book from the current unit of study, so that we can refer back to it together to review strategy work, conference data sheets for me to take notes on, reader take away cards so that I can leave the students with a handwritten compliment and suggestion,  and of course pencils, highlighters, pens, and sticky notes! Having student data sheets are a must! The more detailed notes you take during the conferences, the better you are able to help each student as an individual. You can use a plain notebook and take detailed notes, making sure to note the student's name, date, and book that they are reading, or you can use very detailed note sheets to track reading fluency, include  strateies, and your entire discussion. Both work well, so pick the style that works for your! Just be sure to keep track of each and every conference that you hold with each student. Get a closer look at the forms I use HERE.

Be Positive

reading workshop conferencesAlways, always, start your reading conferences off with a positive vibe, to ensure that the students are excited to see you approach them for a reading conference. When you first get next to your student for a conference be sure to give them a compliment about what they are doing. Some suggestions for compliments could include student organization, the student getting lost in the book, student taking notes, student use of reading strategies, or student fluency after you listen to them read. The more positive and celebratory that you are, the more the student will continue to do what you celebrated as they read independently. Be sure to always mix up your compliments each time you meet with a student.

Be Present: Leave Your Voice Behind

reading workshop conferencesreading workshop conferences

I love using these reader take away cards to help students stay on track while they independently read. I use them in two different ways. The first way I use them is during our reading conference. I will take quick notes on each card as we speak, including a compliment and a suggestion. When I leave, the reader gets to keep this card. They can use it as a bookmark, keep it in their reading folder, or staple it to their reading notebook page. When students forget their focus or goal, they can take out the card and remember our conversation during our conference and “hear” my voice once again coaching them along. I also use these reader cards on days that I did not meet with a student to confer, especially if a few days have passed. I will collect student notebooks or activity pages and correct it, and fill out a reader card with a compliment and suggestion just as if we were having a conference. When the student’s work is returned, they will see the reading card and know exactly what they are doing well and what they need to focus on as they continue to read. These cards are a great way to keep track of your conferences, too! See these reading cards HERE.

Reading conferences must be planned and purposeful, just like all of the other elements of reading workshop. Read more about planning for reading workshop HERE. These tips and strategies will help you to make the most of the time you have to confer with your students. If you are looking for more tips, check out the professional reading book: Conferring with Readers*. I love this book and refer to it often! It is a great professional read to help you understand the ins and outs of reading conferences.

How do you organize your reading conferences? Share below! 
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