Author Interview: Susan E. Israel

From a young age children beg their parents, “Tell me a story!” The pull of a good story is irresistible.

Author Susan E. Israel has found a way to apply the power of stories to professional development. Her book, Breakthroughs in Literacy: Teacher Success Stories and Strategies from Jossey-Bass, is a collection of two- to three-page stories that relate pivotal moments in students’ literacy development. In each section Israel adds her own reflections plus literacy breakthrough actions that can be implemented immediately. The combination of short stories paired with practical insight makes this book a bit of professional development that even the busiest teacher can work into her day.

We asked Susan Israel to share more about her book and the lessons she learned while writing it. Let us know more about the literacy challenges you face in your classroom. Leave a comment on our blog by October 10; one lucky teacher will win a copy of the book!


Why did you decide to focus on success stories rather than adopting a more typical format used in professional books?
Writing about success stories helps teachers realize instruction that is powerfully engaging and motivational. Rather than being bound to a scholarly approach citing relevant theory and research, the storytelling format allows the authors to freely communicate their thoughts, reflections, and insights, as well as the breakthrough strategies that lead to their teaching success.


When it comes to literacy, what’s the one thing you think teachers should do more often?

The one thing I think teachers should do more often is to see literacy as a tool to change the world. If every teacher helped one student or adult in poverty learn to read, we might be able to see a change in the next generation, as well as a decrease in poverty.

The second thing I think teachers should do is learn everything they possibly can to be better teachers. That is what I do all the time. I learn from stories and I learn from research. I also learn by watching other really great teachers. Teachers get into a routine with their lesson plans and instruction, but the world is changing; the best thing teachers can do is read to learn so they can help all students be successful.


Which lessons from the book can teachers implement right away?
Two particular lessons are very easy for teachers to incorporate. The first one is to celebrate small successes. We tend to look at academic successes once, at the end of the semester or year; but all the while in between, students who struggle with skills are making small gains. Celebrating these small successes will really make a difference in students’ motivation to learn.

The second lesson is that teachers who had literacy breakthroughs did not begin by selecting strategies to teach and finding activities or fun ways to get students to learn. Instead, they did a backward approach and first understood the need of the child. That surprised me and is something I will have to explore in greater detail in another book.


How have these stories impacted your work as a literacy researcher and writer?

The stories have impacted my way of thinking about literacy as a tool to build self-esteem and love for others. Guiding a child to literary success takes dedication and perseverance. Teachers in this volume never gave up on the child who they were trying to help. In some cases, they could have taken the easy way out and just moved on to the next thing, but they did not. These stories made a significant impact on the way I think about literacy and reading. In fact, I now believe that reading is a virtue. To teach reading is an act of love.


What will you work on next?
I am collecting more stories about students who are from diverse populations, specifically ELL or those in poverty. I am also collecting adult reading success stories. If you have a success story to share, you’re welcome to send it to In addition I have decided to start my own press, which is called CRQ Press. The first book from my press is titled The Language of Literacy: A theme glossary for educators, politicians, business people, and literacy advocates. The literacy glossary is arranged around key themes.


I look forward to hearing more about your challenges and breakthrough moments in literacy. Remember, post your comment by October 10 for a chance to win this exciting new book!


5 thoughts on “Author Interview: Susan E. Israel

  1. I teach writing to K-2 students. The biggest challenge I face is with the student who can read by sounding out words that are already on the page, but can’t write those same exact words by trying to pull the sounds out of his head and put them on paper. He has great ideas, and is able to remember key themes and characters from stories he’s read to try to incorporate into his own writing, but he can’t seem to get the ideas out through his pencil in an understandable format. Your book may have some ideas for me to try with this student. It sounds like a wonderful resource.

  2. Thank you for pointing out that we need to think of our students’ needs before, during, and after we plan and teach lessons. It’s so challenging to “get through” all of our content that has to be covered, that i find myself just plowing through lessons to “get it all done”. Instead, I ned to focus more on the individual learner, and plan for what they need to do for that skill. I would love the read your book so that I am able to ponder this dilemma more…

  3. I’m a second grade teacher who until recently has been working at school in an inner city area. Literacy is always a challenge because they do not have the experiences and sounds awarness necessary to start learning reading when they reach Kindergarten. By the time they reach me its hard when they are already so far behind. However, by using teachnology and constant practice I’ve seen great gains made in my classroom. Thank you for writing about those sucess stories; its sometimes hard to see your gains when you are in the middle of it.

  4. I completely agree that teachers should be reading to learn as well! Constantly I go to various resources to better my teaching strategies and my classroom.

    Teachers sometimes forget that we should be looking at indvidual students as much as possile to tailor our teaching to what they need. It’s always wonderful to hear success stories and strategies that others have used to help someone!

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