A conversation with Gail Boushey and Joan Moser, known to many educators as “The Sisters,” will conjure far-flung thoughts of your favorite primary school teacher. They’re cheery, energetic, and generous yet sincere with praise. The biological sisters are also self-described best friends.
Boushey and Moser have taught grades K-6, special education, and reading resource, totaling about 60 years of teaching experience between them. In 2006, they published, which lays out a structure for getting students to read and write independently during a literacy block, freeing up the teacher for one-on-one conferences. , their 2009 follow-up, addresses the natural next question: What exactly should the teacher be doing during those individual conferences?
An acronym for comprehension, accuracy, fluency, and expand vocabulary, CAFE is a system designed to help teachers work methodically through literacy standards based on students’ individual needs. Teachers introduce reading strategies to the whole class, then assess and guide the use of those strategies in small groups or individual conferences. CAFE is also a visual tool—students refer back to a large poster with the strategies listed, placing a sticky note with their name next to the one they’re working on.
Since they began using the CAFE system in their own classrooms, Boushey and Moser say, their students have consistently averaged an astounding two and a half years of growth in reading per year. In fact, every single student they’ve taught, including those with the most challenging needs, has made at least one year of growth—and some have made as much as five years. It’s no wonder the two, who are now literacy consultants, consistently sell out professional development workshops and have become must-see presenters at reading conferences across the country.
In an interview with the Teacher PD Sourcebook’s Liana Heitin, Boushey and Moser discussed why their system works, how it changed their classroom culture, and the importance of staying faithful to the current reading research.
Can you describe the process of developing the CAFE system? How did you do this in a collaborative way?
Moser: In our own classrooms, it really started with “Daily 5.” We knew we wanted to work with individuals and small groups of kids but we couldn’t figure out what to do with the rest of the class. Once we figured out how to manage them, our kids were so independent that all of the sudden the dirty secret was, O.K., what are we teaching them? And how are we managing our assessments so that they really do inform our instruction?
Boushey: Before CAFE, we would assess and put the assessment away and go back into whatever teaching we were doing. CAFE really is a way to simplify our assessing, so that we can make it a guide for instruction.
Moser: And collaboration just has always come naturally for us. By the nature of our personalities, but also because we both were in the same spot with the same question. As a matter of fact, the first glimmer of CAFE came while we were on a family vacation, sitting around the kitchen table.
A concept that you emphasize in your book—and seem to have lived by in the classroom—is that “fair is not always equal.” Can you explain why this is so central to your teaching and how it applies to reading instruction?
Moser: I think it stems from the beginning of our careers where we were given a resource that was one-size-fits-all. We had one basal anthology and we did mostly whole-group instruction. Everybody got the same thing. But one of the reasons we love this job so much is that students are all so different. And every single one of them has completely different needs. Some of our kids don’t need to be met with one-on-one as often. In fact, some of the research shows that if you meet with them too much it’s even more of a hindrance. With the use of Daily 5 and CAFE, we’re able to really look at those kids and pinpoint: What are those next steps over the course of the next couple of weeks that we can support you with to help you move forward?
But somebody could argue that the kids you meet with less often, even if they’re on par with the rest of the class, might not be excelling to their potential. How do you respond to that?
Moser: We think about Kelly Gallagher’s book Readicide, where he talks about how we really want to let kids get into the reading flow, which is that uninterrupted time to read. We are by no means saying that we don’t meet with those kids. But I look at somebody like Tiger Woods in golf—we don’t want to coach him as much as we want to coach players like me and Gail. If we are doing too much coaching with him, we’re going to interrupt his flow of the game, whereas I would need a coach side-by-side.
Boushey: Our goal every single day is to meet with three small groups and nine to 12 individuals. So when we say that we’re not meeting with those accelerated kids, that means not every day. But it might be three times a week.
According to the book, the first reading strategy you teach each year is a comprehension one—"check for understanding.” Why is that at the top of the priority list? Can you teach that before students are fluent readers?
Boushey: Yes, it’s first and the reason is two-fold. We start with comprehension because if we don’t comprehend, we’re not reading. It’s also really an easy strategy to teach because we teach it with our read-alouds. So whether kids are traditional readers or preschoolers, they can start that process of checking for understanding. It becomes an anchor for absolutely everything we do. We teach it whole-group with our first read-aloud.
Moser: If we wait until kids crack the code or become more fluent to talk about comprehension, we’re really sunk. Because then we send the message to children that reading is just word calling, whereas reading is really all about comprehension. It’s all about making meaning.
How often do you assess students’ reading?
Moser: Every time we sit down and confer with a child, that line between assessment and instruction blurs. It’s a constant cycle of asking, “Are they getting that? Is my instruction taking hold? If it is, how am I going to move them forward? If it’s not, what am I going to do differently to help them?”
Boushey: We kind of laugh at each other when we hear about RTI [response to intervention] and progress monitoring because we truly have been doing this since CAFE came out. Every time we meet with a student, at the end of that we say to ourselves, “OK, did I meet the mark on that? Is my instruction working?”
We’ve come up with what we call “touchpoints,” which are just a way to quantify the work we’re doing and get a holistic score. For example, at the end of each conference or small group, we’ll give a student a one, two, three, or four—below the standard, approaching, meeting, or exceeding. So at the end of two to three meeting times, if kids are still below standard, we have to change something. We have to change our instruction. Because if we keep teaching the same way that we’re teaching, we’re going to get the same results.
How do you decide when to re-teach the whole group rather than individual students? Is it when a percentage of the class isn’t getting something?
Moser: When we look at going from small group to whole group, we’ve really changed our approach based on the most current research by Richard Allington. He says the largest a small group should be is two to three. So what we look at is, OK, if I’ve got more than two to three kids that need instruction on one of the strategies, do I want do two groups, do I want to do three groups, or is it so many kids that I’m going to teach it whole group? Would the majority of my kids benefit from that? We don’t have an exact percentage.
Part of that is because we do short bursts of instruction. The rule of thumb from [education consultant] Dr. Ken Wesson is that the average number of years your children are in age is the average number of minutes they can maintain upper-level cortex thinking during direct instruction. Let’s say you have mostly 8-year-olds. You have about eight minutes of direct instruction—whole-group, small-group, or one-on-one—where their brain function is in their upper-level cortex—where all of our higher-level thinking, all of our processing, and vocabulary development, and retention take place. So we don’t have to worry about wasting 40 minutes of kids’ time having them sit through instruction they may not need. The review is going to be in a short burst.
With the CAFE system, you’re forthright with students about their assessment scores and weaknesses so that they know what to work on independently. How does this kind of transparency change a classroom?
Boushey: Before, we’d just say, you’re reading at a 2.0 level, good luck and we’ll see you next time. Now, we may talk about the reading level but the next step is digging deeper. If we want them to become a better reader we ask, “What are one or two strategies I could teach you in the next three weeks that would make you better at reading?” And once they’re part of that discussion and part of that ownership, they feel so much more empowered.
And when you say here’s a goal and strategy you can work on … they’re not in competition with each other to become a 2.5 reader, they’re in competition to have more reading strategies so they can access any text.
Moser: It becomes a group of people working together to get better at reading. I found that it really becomes more like cheerleading. They spend a lot of time reading together and they celebrate each other’s utilization of strategies. … We hear that from people all over world, that CAFE changed their culture.
Can you explain why you made the change from using static small groups based on ability to using flexible small groups based on the strategies students are working on?
Boushey: I think the reason we used to do leveled groups was that was all we knew. We would assess kids and put them in those leveled groups. But Joan and I started thinking that when we pull kids in small groups who are reading at the same level, they still had a lot of differences. They might be reading at a 2.5, but one child needs comprehension, another one needs accuracy, another needs fluency, another needs vocabulary. So we started thinking, “How about if we just pulled them together by strategies?” That was not an easy thing.
That’s scary for a lot of teachers.
Boushey: It’s really scary. For us, it’s about how to manage it. If I know how to manage it, I might be able to do it. We created this little six-block form. When we were assessing kids, we would just write down the goal and strategy of the child and put their name in the box. Sebastian is going to need the goal of comprehension, with the strategy of check for understanding. If I assess my next student, Amanda and she needs the same thing, I’m going to put her name in that same box. So by the time we’re done assessing all our kids, we have a two-page form and we have now put kids into groups by the strategy they needed.
And whatever we’re working on in a small group, we’re working on the exact same strategy one-on-one. It goes back to the idea of “curricular coherence.” RTI’s been talking about this really a lot, too. We’re wrapping around that child, we’re not jumping from strategy to strategy. We’re going to have laser-pointed vision on one or two strategies until we’re ready to move onto another one.
The CAFE “menu” has 38 reading strategies (divided into the four categories) that you teach throughout the year. Would you recommend that teachers alter those strategies based on their state standards or the Common Core State Standards? Or should they stick with those strategies you’ve identified?
Boushey: We always say our strategies are not the end-all be-all. So if you have a program, if you have district requirements, whatever you’re teaching the whole group, that’s what gets posted on the board. We aligned our menu to the Washington state standards. The whole idea is to post the standards you’re teaching so kids can see them.
Moser: In January we released the CAFE alignment to the common core on our website .
Other than your books, of course, what should literacy teachers be reading to stay up-to-date with their instruction?
Moser: We are constantly going to publishers—Stenhouse, Heinemann, Scholastic, etc.—which usually publish all the new reads twice a year. And we pour through that list of new books. What is it that it looks like we should be reading? We really talk a lot to teachers about building your toolkit, having read many different resources to put in that toolkit so you have a lot to draw from.
That said, we really think that everything written by Dick Allington, teachers need to read. [See “,” Spring/Summer 2010, for an interview with Allington.]
We tell teachers to get on listserves, get reading these things online. The Marshall Memo, for example. There are so many that are quick and easy to skim through.
And as silly as this sounds, we are right now running a brand new feature on our website about Twitter. There are huge communities on Twitter around elementary, around every grade level, around writing, around comprehension. My goal is to set aside 10 minutes a night and to flip through that day’s posts. I am shocked at how much professional development I get from Twitter.
A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2012 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as CREATING A MENU For Reading Instruction