Sunday, May 21, 2017

Finding Time for Productive Vocabulary Play

Today I am pleased to present this guest post from Lesley Roessing, Director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and Senior Lecturer in the College of Education, Armstrong State University. Lesley is the author of No More "Us" and "Them": Classroom Lessons and Activities to Promote Peer Respect and Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically and Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core both From Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

By Lesley Roessing
What can teachers do when they have only a partial class period, a day of high absenteeism, or students who have lost focus because a holiday break is overshadowing academics and every other class is showing movies? What can teachers do when their six students athletes are leaving early for a championship game, when the nurse’s office is calling students one-by-one for dental checks, when 60% of the class is out because they have Confirmation practice, Take Your Child to Work Day, or the flu, when class will be interrupted by a fire drill or an assembly, or when class follows a grueling morning of standardized testing? These interruptions and distractions happen more frequently than we would care to admit, causing teachers to lose productive academic time. So how can teachers use this time and maintain academic integrity? Play word games.

Vocabulary is a reading skill. Vocabulary is one of the greatest predictors of reading comprehension. Knowing lots of words supports fluency; the more exposure to words, the better readers read and comprehend. Teaching vocabulary is a strategy for increasing reading comprehension in all disciplines. But this isn’t a blog about vocabulary-teaching strategies—it is about finding time for more vocabulary exposure, more time with words, and using that disrupted time to do so. Research shows that two strategies for increasing vocabulary knowledge are active engagement and motivation, i.e., wordplay. Teachers can employ those interrupted, distracted periods for active engagement and wordplay.

I always had six or seven Scrabble boards in my classroom. I favor the turntable type for two reasons: the spaces for tiles are recessed so if students bump the board, the pieces do not fall off. Also the board can be turned without disturbing the letters, and students don’t need to move to see the board. These boards may be more expensive but last much longer and are often available at yard sales.

On Scrabble Days, I divided the class into groups of four and gave them the time to play. Often I would let them use dictionaries to find words because, when they employed a word from the dictionary, they had to explain the word to their group, and, in that way, all were learning more words. The rules can be altered to earn fewer points for words discovered this way, but my goals for the activity were engagement, word usage, and learning new vocabulary. Scrabble is differentiated because students work with words they know or are able to read and understand.

In disciplines other than English/Language Arts, such as science, history/social studies, math, health, art, music, a requirement can be that the words formed have a connection with the discipline, no matter how tenuous. When challenged, the player has to make the connection. For example, the word cell would have a different connection to science than to history or social studies. In history class, a student might say that a particular historical figure spent time (or should have spent time) in a prison cell because of his illegal actions (giving examples of those actions). In English-Language Arts, players can earn extra points for literary terms, such as simile.

My other “Go-to” vocabulary game is Taboo. In Taboo the goal is for the player’s teammates to deduce a word from the player’s verbal clues. To elicit answers, the player cannot say any form of the target word or the five other words that are listed on the card beneath the word, those words being “taboo.” Players have to explain their words, provide synonyms of the word or the taboo words, or give examples of the word for their team to be capable of discovering the answer. This game can be played with as little as ten minutes, and a point tally can be maintained for each team.

In a content area class, the students can create cards featuring the vocabulary words learned or to be learned or disciplinary terms, adding the five words players would be most likely to associate with the word and are, therefore, taboo. They then can play History Taboo, Science Taboo, Math Taboo, Health Taboo, etc. with the cards.

I always maintained that if an administrator were to enter my classroom and inquire about what the students were doing, the unequivocal answer would be “word study,” citing the appropriate standards, such as the CCSS Anchor Standards for Language Vocabulary Acquisition and Use.

Sometimes those little hidden minutes can be a gift to try something new and academically valuable.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Invented Spelling: Discovering How Words Work

I was excited when my niece Jennifer shared this wonderful piece of writing by her daughter, Callie. It reminded me of the joy I would take in my young students' developing understanding of how words work when I was in the classroom. Invented spelling is truly joyous because of the great value it brings to the learning/teaching interaction. I have long considered it unfortunate that the discoverer of invented spelling, Charles Read, named it that. When we use the word spelling in any context, many teachers, students, and especially parents go directly to a binary paradigm - spelling is either right or it is wrong. Invented spelling, however, is not really about spelling, and it is certainly not about right or wrong; it is about discovery and problem solving and creating communication. It is about figuring out how words work. All of us want children to discover how words work, so if we called invented spelling "word discovery" it would likely be an easier sell for everyone.

The advantages of invented spelling are clear.

  1. Invented spelling encourages children to match the sounds they hear in words to letters (phoneme-grapheme correspondence). This ability is strongly correlated to learning to read.
  2. Invented spelling allows students the independence to get their ideas down on paper without having to be concerned (for the moment) with correct spelling. So, a young writer can create an exciting story about The E Noormus Teradaktl, instead of being limited to words he can spell and writing a boring story about The Big Duck.
  3. Invented spelling provides the teacher with a clear window into what a child knows and does not know about how words are constructed, and provides data for making further instructional decisions.
Let's take a look at Callie's writing above and see what "windows" into her knowledge Callie (who is in kindergarten and who turned 6 in March) provides. Callie writes that her Mom's favorite flower is a DaFDel. First of all, any adult looking at this would immediately know that this word is daffodil, so we can say that Callie is successful in communicating her ideas through writing. Also, Callie hears beginning and ending sounds in syllables DaF and Del, and has some understanding and ability to hear vowels in syllables. Callie leaves out the middle syllable represented by the single letter o, probably because she hears it as part of the "F" as in "Fa." That syllable is particularly hard to hear and even harder to spell - I remind myself how to spell the word by over-pronouncing it as daf-o-dil as a spelling reminder. Further note that Callie represents the final vowel with an e, understandable when we realize that the i is not clearly in evidence as we sound out the word.

Clearly, Callie has a number of the words she uses here in her sight word vocabulary: to, it is, at, the, with. We might be surprised to see the irregularly spelled word sewing spelled correctly, unless we knew that Callie's mother is a skilled seamstress. The word sewing has particular power for Callie and so it is a part of her sight vocabulary.

Typical of developing readers and writers, Callie leaves off the silent e in wake and time presumably, of course, because they are silent. Similarly, r-controlled vowels such as the u in purple cause problems for the young writer. Notice also that both wakup and foskol are treated as one word and we can probably hear in our own heads what it sounds like to Callie when her Mom calls her to wake up for school.

Finally we come to my favorite from this piece, Grches, which of course praises her mother's ability with grilled cheese sandwiches. Once again we notice the expected difficulty hearing the r-controlled vowel in grilled and that grilled cheese is currently all one word for Callie. Callie does not presently hear the -ed in grilled.

Obviously, Callie is showing all the indications of being ready to apply her knowledge of letters and sounds to learning to read and to becoming a conventional speller. As Callie's teacher, I would continue to give her lots of opportunities to write, often in story or retelling form rather than on worksheets and continue to work with her on stretching out the sounds of words to listen for all the sounds. Of course, bugaboos like r-controlled vowels will continue to provide challenges until such time as Callie has more visual exposure to words through reading and spelling instruction.

All teachers can provide their students with supportive invented spelling instruction. The first step, of course, is to make sure that young learners have lots of opportunities to write their own stories, to respond in writing to read alouds, and to keep a journal to chronicle their thoughts, ideas, and activities. Secondly, teaching kids to s-t-r-e-t-c-h out words and listen to the sounds as they try to match those sounds to letters and then consistently asking them to use this strategy will help. Finally, we can help students use the strategy by responding to the "How do you spell....?" question with a gentle, but insistent suggestion to, "Stretch the word out and give it your best shot. We can always fix it later. "

Inevitably when talking about invented spelling the question arises, "When should we stop using invented spelling?" My answer is never. I still use invented spelling as a tool today. When I write, I do not interrupt the flow of an idea to check a spelling. If I am not sure how to spell a word, I put down my best guess and return to it later, because the thought is what matters most and the thought can be lost if I interrupt my flow to look up a spelling. 

But I know what your concern is. At some point, kids spelling has to move toward the more conventional. For most normally developing kids this will happen in a progression that leads to more and more words spelled conventionally and fewer and fewer inventions. That is what we need to be looking for - steady progress toward the conventional. Further, we need to be sure that children develop a spelling conscience - that is the desire to spell things correctly as a courtesy to the reader. Developing a spelling conscience requires three things - an awareness that spelling matters, writing activities that matter to the writer (Why worry about spelling, if what I am writing doesn't matter?) and a sense of audience for the writing (Why worry about spelling, if no one is going to read it anyway?). As kids move to creating final drafts of their writing, from about third grade onward, we should expect conventional spelling, but we must remember that some students will continue to struggle and need our assistance to be fully conventional spellers, and some students will struggle with this throughout their schooling.

For kids who do not develop normally in their reading, writing, and spelling, the use of invented spelling is not the reason for their struggles. Other interventions may be needed for these students, but invented spelling does not cause kids to have difficulty learning conventional spelling, in fact, it helps all students. Who do you think will be the first to learn how to spell the word enormous in the story I told above? The child who approximates the spelling of enormous for his first grade story or the child who plays it safe and writes about The Big Duck. I am betting on the inventive speller.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

An Onset-Rime Approach to Decoding for Struggling Readers

I had the pleasure of spending some time with a group of dedicated elementary teachers in New Jersey this past week. The focus was on using Running Records as a diagnostic tool. At the end of the presentation, I asked the teachers to each describe a student they were working with who was having a great struggle in learning to read. One teacher described a struggling first grader whose issues revolved mostly around decoding and particularly around vowel sounds. The teacher described her efforts to teach the vowel sounds to this student, but that the proper vowel pronunciations did not seem to stick when transferred to real reading situations no matter how much instruction or how much reinforcement was provided.

I have had many similar discussions with teachers over the years, as well as having worked with many children who struggled with vowel sounds. There is a very good reason that some children have difficulty with vowel sounds. When compared to consonants, vowels are abstract, impermanent. They do not track naturally to speech patterns and are heavily influenced by the letters around them.

The go to instruction when kids struggle with vowels is to double down on instruction of vowel sounds in the hopes the child will improve. This approach is typical of what is generally called a traditional or synthetic phonics approach. Traditional phonics is based on the flat-structure model of language utterances which views the spoken syllable as consisting of phonemes in sequence with no intermediate structures of importance (Cunningham, et al., 1999).

The vast majority of linguists today, however, view the spoken syllable as having a hierarchical structure (Cunningham, et al., 1999). That is that a spoken syllable is not just a string of sounds, but also can be broken down to an onset (an initial cluster of of sounds) and rime ( the vowel and the letters that follow). In linguistics the onset is the phonological unit that begins the word (like b in the word bat, or fl in the word flight) and the rime is the string of letters that follow, usually the vowel and following consonants (like -at in cat and -ight in flight). When a vowel sound is embedded in a rime that vowel sound gains a permanence across other words (rat, fat, splat) (right, sight, slight). This focus on onset and rime means that we do not have to teach abstract notions like r-controlled vowels or the schwa, but spend our time presenting these vowels in their word-based context (girl, bird, third or better, human, separate).

There is considerable research evidence that onset and rime approaches can be helpful to struggling readers. A number of studies by Treiman (1983, 1985, 1986) indicated that it is generally easier for children to segment spoken syllables into onset and rime than into individual letter sounds. Moustafa (1997) and Cunningham (2004) both recommend an onset and rime approach to decoding instruction. Gaskins (2005) found this approach to be particularly effective with children who are identified as learning disabled or dyslexic children. And Hines (2009) found that color-coding onsets and rimes for at risk first graders positively impacted decoding behavior.

Based on my understanding of a hierarchical structure model and the research on struggling readers, I recommended the teacher who was working with the struggling reader in the scenario above try an onset and rime approach. What does onset and rime instruction look like?

You can find many activities online for onset-rime instruction. A good onset-rime lesson has children combining a variety of onsets (consonants, consonant blends, and digraphs) with familiar rime patterns (-at, -ig, ack). A useful tool for student use can be found in this Read, Write, Think lesson. In my own instruction, I liked to place the onset-rime instruction in a real reading context and then follow the reading with a making words activity using word bins or index cards. As an example, here is a poem form my book Snack Attack and Other Poems for Developing Fluency in Beginning Readers.  

Snack Attack

My mind has slipped off teacher’s track,
Because it’s nearly time for our snack.
Mine is waiting in my backpack,
In the coatroom, high up on the rack.

I try to remain cool and laid back,
But I’m hungry as a lumberjack.
Just can’t wait to look inside my sack.
I’m hoping for cookies, perhaps a whole stack.

Teacher says, “Now it’s time for your snack.”
And I hear my lips give a quick, “Smack!”
Can’t wait to tear into a pack
Of Cheese Doodles or Crackerjack.

Now the coatroom is under attack,
But woe is me and alas and alack!
Guess whose mom has forgotten to pack
Even one raisin to eat for a snack.

After reading the poem aloud to students and practicing the poem chorally several times with the students to make sure the poem was familiar, I would follow up with some word work in word bins like this. Alternatively,  onset and rime index cards can be constructed for the same purpose and used at the beginning of a guided reading lesson or as a literacy center in the room.

Box 1

b               st
r               fl
sn             p
l               wh
j              t

Box 2


Word Box

______________        _____________

______________        _____________

______________        _____________

______________        _____________

Over time and with more instruction, more rimes can be added to Box 2 to provide greater challenge and reinforcement for readers.

This work can also be reinforced when prompting children as they are reading by saying, "Do you see a chunk you know?' or "How does the word start?" or "Does this chunk look like a word you know?" These kinds of prompts may help students focus on chunks and may be more helpful than just saying "Sound it out."

As literacy teachers, we need to develop a repertoire of strategies that research has shown have promise when working with beginning and/or struggling readers. Onset-rime instruction is one strategy that has proven worthy of being in that repertoire.

Works Cited

Cunningham, J. W., Erickson, K.A., Spadorcia, S.A., Koppenhaver, D.A., Cunningham, P. M., Yoder, D. E., & McKenna, M. C. (1999).  Assessing decoding from an onset- rime perspective. Retrieved from

Cunningham, P.M. (2004). Phonics they use: Words for reading and writing. (5th ed.) Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Gaskins, I. W. (2005). Success with struggling readers: The Benchmark School approach. New York: Guilford.

Hines, S.J. (2009). The effectiveness of a color-coded, onset-rime decoding intervention with first-grade students at serious risk for reading disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice. 24(1), 21-32. Retrieved from

Moustafa, M. (1997). Beyond traditional phonics: Research discoveries and reading instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Treiman, R. (1983). The structure of spoken syllables: Evidence from novel word games. Cognition, 15, 49-74. Retrieved from The_structure_of_spoken_syllables_Evidence_from_novel_word_games/links/54c69c850cf22d626a34fe8f/The-structure-of-spoken-syllables-Evidence-from-novel-word-games.pdf

Treiman, R. (1985). Onsets and rimes as units of spoken syllables: Evidence from children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 39, 161-181. Retrieved from

Treiman, R. (1986). The division between onsets and rimes in English syllables. Journal of Memory and Language, 25, 476-491. Retrieved from

Sunday, May 7, 2017

School Choice: Addressing Safety in the Schools

An article last week in the New York Times, noted that a recent study conducted for the US Department of Education found that student participation in the Washington, DC voucher program actually lowered student math scores when compared to peers who stayed in public schools. This is just the latest in a series of studies that have found that voucher and other choice schemes like charter schools most often do no better and very often do much worse in improving student achievement, at least as it is measured by that Holy Grail of corporate reform based measures, the standardized test.

The results have been so bleak that, as Diane Ravitch has pointed out, choice champions have backed away from arguing that school choice is necessary to save poor children from failing schools and now simply argue that choice is good, well because, choice is choice. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, says that schooling should be like Uber, as long as people have choice quality is not the issue. An article two days ago in the Washington Examiner echoed the sentiments of DeVos saying that test scores aren't the issue, choice is. Who cares if a school's test scores are low, as long as a parent makes a choice, the quality doesn't really matter. The author of this article, Jason Russell, says school choice should be like choosing cereal. Cheerios may be better for you, but all parents should be able to choose Lucky Charms if they want (I am paraphrasing Russell here, but this seems to be his point).

Those of us opposed to school choice schemes can sit back and laugh at these choice champions twisting themselves into knots to justify a market based approach to public education or we could turn our attention to what I think is really behind parents choosing voucher schools or charter schools. The clue is in the New York Times article. Families who participated in the voucher program in Washington, DC reported that, while the test scores indicated lower achievement, the schools were safer by a wide margin. University of Arkansas professor, Patrick J. Wolf, who was an adviser to the study, said that many studies showed that parents were trading academic rigor for safety. Of course they did. Any parent would.

How does a public education advocate defend the public schools to parents who want a safe learning environment for their children? First a few clarifications. When I speak of safe schools in this context, I am not speaking of the safety issues that are raised by horrific incidents like those at Columbine or Sandy Hook. These safety issues, as horrid as they were, are one off tragedies, perpetrated by very troubled individuals. I am speaking, here, of the day to day existence in the classrooms and hallways and cafeterias of inner city schools, filled with children impacted by years of poverty and neglect, located in neighborhoods that are crime and drug infested. Often these schools are not safe; often the walk to school is not safe.

Many charter schools, like the KIPP chain and others who copy KIPP practices, have responded to the issues of safety by opting for the harsh discipline of the "no excuses" model. No excuses is a euphemism for military style discipline that includes drilling students on classroom and hallway behaviors and shaming students who are not readily compliant for even the smallest infractions. It is a kind of "broken windows" policing policy brought inside the school.

This approach appeals to many parents, who may see chaos and ineffective efforts to address safety issues in the local public school. Many of these no excuses schools have been successful in creating a physically safer environment for students. But there is a cost. This physically safer environment is gained by sacrificing an emotionally safe environment. In a no excuses school, children are essentially cowed into compliance and if they struggle to comply they are shamed in front of their teachers and their peers. Since this treatment is being meted out by largely middle class teachers onto largely poor and minority students it smacks of colonialism, of not so much educating children as preparing them for a life of subservience. I addressed that issue in this post.

Parochial schools, too, have long had a reputation for strong disciplinary practices. Even when I was in my school days, parents would threaten my public school friends with Catholic school if they didn't straighten up and fly right. A choice of a parochial school may be appealing to a parent looking for that safer environment.

As public school advocates we must be able to come to parents with alternatives that reassure them that the schools are safe for their children to attend. If we think vouchers and charter schools are the wrong answer, what is the right answer?

The short term answer requires a doubling down on safety inside the public schools. It means spending money on the kinds of things that will make the schools safer. Here I am not talking about armed guards and metal detectors, but impacting the social and emotional issues that children bring to school with them. This would mean, at a minimum, smaller class sizes, readily available counseling services, readily available school health services, better paid and better trained para-professionals to monitor student behavior in hallways and other gathering places, a staff commitment to safety inside and outside the classroom, and leadership that puts safety at the forefront without sacrificing the purpose of a free and open learning environment. It means spending the money necessary to make sure that the children are in the safest, most nurturing environment possible.

The long term answer, however, is more complex and even more difficult. It begins with the understanding that our schools are reflections of our communities. If the community is in crisis, the public schools will be in crisis. If the neighborhood is unsafe, the neighborhood school will be unsafe. Any effective approach to safer schools must include efforts to make the community safe. This means, of course, working to overcome the impact of poverty and neglect on the community. This means taking a holistic approach to changing people's lives after years of policies that exacerbate income inequity and segregation. It means a national assault on the very real problems of the inner city. It means spending the money, expending the effort and recognizing that only a full frontal assault on poverty and its consequences will ever move the country along to the kind of inner city public schools we all want.

This is what makes the reformers' school choice rhetoric so dangerous and so appealing to its wealthy proponents. Choice gives the appearance of addressing the issue, without really addressing the issue and it does so on the cheap. Choice doesn't cost the wealthy the kind of money that a full on anti-poverty program would cost them. It does not require the income redistribution that would be necessary for real change. It is reform on the cheap and it is reform designed to create a compliant work force for the wealthy in the future. It is a reform, ultimately, that allows those of us who are better off to find a rationale to escape the responsibility for the less fortunate among us.

Real change in the schools will require real change in the prospects for families living in inner city neighborhoods. It demands a long term and long range commitment, not only to making public schools work, but to making a more just, safer society work. It demands a higher minimum wage, ready access to quality child care, ready access to quality health care, ready access to family counseling services, ready access to employment programs, ready access to reliable public transportation. Anything short of this full commitment is doomed to fail our children and we will pay for this failure with an unsafe future for all of us.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Read Aloud in Middle and High School? Of Course

Literacy blogger and distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Timothy Shanahan, is back with another post that is sure to make more holistic literacy specialists grind their teeth in frustration. Many will read his post as a condemnation of reading aloud with older students. And it sort of is, with qualifications.

Shanahan says that the best way to improve student reading is to have the students spend time reading and so any teacher read aloud must be brief, targeted, and occasional. But far from being an indictment of read aloud, his post suggests several places where reading aloud to older students is appropriate.

·        As an efficient way of sharing information that might not be otherwise available (like   a memo from the principal)
·         For modeling targeted skills like fluency or reading comprehension strategies
·         Reading short pieces or a first chapter of a text as motivation for kids to read more
·        Because reading aloud can be a pleasurable activity for all (Shanahan, 2017)

I would agree absolutely that kids mainly get better at reading by reading – independently and widely. But, as I am sure Shanahan would agree, that time students spend reading must be engaged reading and it must be reasonably successful reading. Students do not get better at reading by merely looking at a page of print, they must be engaged with that page of print, trying to make sense of it. Students do not get better at reading by reading texts that are too difficult for them unless they have some sort of mediation from other texts or from the teacher. It is at this juncture between engaged, successful encounters with text and disengaged, unsuccessful encounters with text that we can find our greatest rationale for using read aloud with older children.

The Case for Read Aloud

As read aloud guru, Jim Trelease, has said, “If you stop reading aloud [when kids are older], you stop advertising.” Many students, and especially many secondary students, are not terribly motivated to read. Anyone who has spent time in the middle school classroom knows that a large part of the job is leading the child to the water and convincing him it will be refreshing to dive in. Read aloud is a great ally here, because the great authors and their wonderful ways with compelling stories and vivid words draw students into a world they want to be a part of. Teachers can use read aloud to “advertise” for a particular author, or expose children to a different genre.

Another thing we “advertise” when we read aloud is our own personal passion for reading and the joy we take in sharing something that we have read with others. And so we read aloud to older students to show them what is out there that they might enjoy, to encourage them to sample other genres that they may not have tried as yet, and to model the joy and knowledge we get from being a reader.

Research supports the use of read aloud for motivation. Qualitative studies by Ivey and Broadus (2001) and Ivey and Johnston (2013) found that student read-aloud was an integral part of a reading engagement strategy. As the authors said in the 2001 study

For the students in our survey, it is clear that high- engagement reading and language arts classrooms would include time to read, time to listen to teachers read, and access to personally interesting materials [emphasis mine].

In addition, Vacca, Vacca, and Mraz (2017) say that read aloud “can provide important background knowledge that enhances student understanding of assigned readings (p 322).” Difficult concepts in science and social studies can be made clearer through read alouds of picture books and other easy to digest texts that fill in gaps in students’ conceptual understanding of a topic. I think every content teacher in the middle school and high school should have a large supply of picture books and popular texts to read aloud to help students navigate the often-challenging textbooks they are expected to read for class. In this way read aloud is helping students be more successful in their reading and, therefore, making it more likely they will read assigned material. Employed this way, read aloud sets students up for more successful and deeper comprehension of assigned reading material.

How Much Read Aloud?

The benefits of read aloud with older students are clear. The question now becomes, “How much read aloud?” To answer this question all teachers have to assess their own instructional situation. Many middle and high school teachers have as little as 40 minutes of class time a day. Can we justify read aloud in these brief time periods with all we have to address in the curriculum? Shanahan says that read aloud should be brief, targeted, and occasional. I see his point, given limited time resources and the known value of kids spending as much time as possible reading material on their own. Nonetheless, I would come down on the side of read aloud that is sometimes brief, but sometimes extended; sometimes targeted, but sometimes just for fun; and occurring frequently.

Shanahan has made the argument for the benefits of brief and targeted read aloud. The argument for extended read aloud flows from my understanding of the role of read aloud in fomenting student engagement. Sometimes we must take the students beyond the brief passage and into the rich world that only can be found through the shared experience of a complex, well-written, full-length novel, read over time, discussed in a way that comprehension is socially constructed and enjoyed as a whole class experience.

Sometimes, also, our goals cannot be targeted on a particular reading strategy or on filling in some missing background knowledge, but rather aimed at exposing students to texts and genres they might not pick up themselves, so that students can begin to see the breadth of what is available to them in the reader’s world.

And sometimes we just want to give our class time over to the unique pleasure of a well-written book, well-read. From my experience these are very special times in the classroom; times that give me the chance to say to some reluctant reader, “Remember that book by Robert Cormier I read aloud to the class? Here is another book by him. I bet you would like this one, too. Why not give it try?”

A few years ago, Joseph Sanacore wrote an article praising read aloud as a strategy with older readers (1992). In the article, he offers some tips for read aloud. I would like to share a few of his tips here.

·         Select material you love and you think your students will love.
·         Practice reading the selection several times.
·         Encourage active listening through having the students look at the title and any illustrations and have them make predictions.
·         Read with expression and vary your intonation as appropriate for the text.
·         Ask open-ended questions after the reading to help students talk about what they have heard.
·         Choose from a wide variety of text types.

To this list, I would add talking about new and interesting words you encounter in the text. Many researchers have found that reading aloud combined with direct explanations of words and discussion is a powerful way to expand student vocabulary (Duke, N. et. Al, 2011).

So yes, please continue to read aloud to older children because it is an educational best practice. Ultimately, we seek to develop students with both the skill and the will to read. Read aloud can help. We just need to be sure we are using this powerful tool in the service of accomplishing this goal and also be sure that all students get plenty of opportunity and time to read independently.

For further reading, I would recommend Steven Layne's excellent new book, In Defense of Read Aloud: Sustaining Best Practice, from Stenhouse Publishers. 

Works Cited

Duke, N.K., (2011) Essential Elements of Fostering and Teaching Reading Comprehension. In Samuels, S.J. & Farstrup, A. What Research Says about Reading Instruction. Newark, DE: International Literacy Association.

Ivey, G. & K.Broadus, Just Plain Reading: A Survey of What Makes Students want to Read in Middle School Classrooms, Reading Research Quarterly Vol. 36, No. 4, (pp. 350-377)

Ivey, G. and P. H. Johnston. (2013). Engagement With Young Adult Literature: Outcomes and Processes Reading Research Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 3, pp. 255-275.

Sanacore, J. (1992). Reading Aloud: A Neglected Strategy for Older Students. Viewpoints. Retrieved from

Shanahan, T. (2017) How Much Reading to Kids in Middle School? Shanahan on Literacy. Retrieved from

Vacca, R., Vacca, J. & Mraz, M. (2017). Content Area Reading. New York: Pearson.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

What Kind of Knowledge Does a Teacher Need?

I have one of those minds that is a treasure trove of useless information. My friends tell me I should go on Jeopardy!. I had a long unbeaten run in Trivial Pursuit broken (by my wife) just a few years ago. I can tell you that Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Robin Roberts of the Phillies, won 28 games and lost only 7 in 1952. I know that the tenth President of the United States, John Tyler, had 15 children. I can name all the states and their capitols and recite The Gettysburg Address. But unless you are playing parlor games (remember them?) or taking standardized tests, this knowledge is not particularly useful for anything.

But speaking of those standardized tests, I have recently been tutoring college juniors on the Praxis II tests that they must pass to be licensed as a teacher in New Jersey. While some of the questions on the tests do try to tap into knowledge that is necessary for teaching, many of the questions are of the random fact variety, a Jeopardy! quiz that puts your teaching license at risk. Fortunately, most of the teaching candidates at Rider pass these tests fairly easily, but some, often students with a history of being poor test takers, struggle mightily. 

One of the challenges prospective elementary teachers face is that they must pass tests in 4 subject areas: English/Language Arts, Mathematics, Science and Social Studies. Only the English Language Arts test is actually focused on pedagogy. The others are content knowledge tests for the most part. As a former history major and current reading specialist, I tutor English/Language Arts and Social Studies. Here is a question from the practice test that the testing company (ETS) provides as an example of what students need to know to pass the Praxis in Social Studies:

     Which of the following organizations was most responsible for the increased tensions over the shortage of a natural resource during the 1970s?
  • content knowledge (Knowing your stuff)
  • general pedagogical knowledge (Knowing how to help students learn stuff)
  • curriculum knowledge (Knowing the "tools of the trade")
  • pedagogical content knowledge (Knowing how best to deliver and assess content so that students can learn)
  • knowledge of learners and their characteristics (Knowing how my students best learn)
  • knowledge of educational contexts (Knowing the norms of the community where you work)
  • knowledge of ends, purposes, and values (Knowing why are we engaged in this enterprise of schooling)

This is quite a list, of course, and just reading it can make the task of teaching seem daunting indeed, but the concept that most interests me for the current discussion is this idea of pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). According to Shulman, pedagogical content knowledge is

the blending of content and pedagogy into an understanding of how particular topics, problems, or issues are organized, represented, and adapted to the diverse interests and abilities of learners, and presented for instruction.

Donovan, Bransford, and Pelligrino (2000) explain further that

Pedagogical content knowledge is different from knowledge of general teaching methods. Expert teachers know the structure of their disciplines, and this knowledge provides them with cognitive roadmaps that guide the assignments they give students, the assessments they use to gauge students’ progress, and the questions they ask in the give and take of classroom life.

Obviously this is a level of knowledge that cannot be Googled. How does a teacher get this knowledge?

Shulman suggests four ways: 1) study in the content area, 2) study of the materials to be used for instruction and assessment, 3) formal educational scholarship, and 4) the wisdom that comes only from practice itself.

So yes, it is very important that students develop expertise in the content they will teach (1), but it is just as important that they get the opportunity to interact with actual materials they will use for teaching (2). It is also important that students study all the important research that has gone into how students learn (3), but just as important that prospective teachers get lots of time in the classroom to practice the craft under the watchful eyes and wise guidance of experienced practitioners (4). 

The concept of PCK should be driving the formulation of a course of study for all prospective teachers. Often there is little match between the content students are learning in their history, English, science and math classes and the content they will be teaching in an elementary or high school class. Often their is too little time spent in the study of the likely materials that new teachers will be using in the classroom and their never seems to be enough time for students to spend in the classroom gaining the wisdom of practice itself.

A continued focus on PCK is also the professional responsibility of the practicing teacher. What Shulman calls "the wisdom of practice itself" can only come from a teacher continuing to read the research, keeping abreast of new developments in the discipline, continually reviewing curriculum and assessment materials and practices, and reflecting on what works and what doesn't.

One thing is certain, a licensure program based on standardized tests is never going to be an effective way to identify students who are well-qualified to be teachers or inform a practicing teacher's evaluation. At best, these tests measure a very narrow band of the PCK all teachers need. At worst they provide a false picture of student achievement and teacher performance.

What does a teacher need to know? As the list above indicates, pretty much everything, but most especially a teacher needs pedagogical content knowledge. All of us would do well to inventory our own level of PCK to make sure we are up to the challenge and to ensure that our students are getting the best we have to offer.

I am pleased to say the students that struggled with the Charles Dickens question above, left with a list of books they needed to read over the summer. That is a place to start, but only a start.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

School Choice: The Faustian Bargain

Yesterday, Secretary of Education and school choice champion, Betsy DeVos and school choice opponent and President of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten toured a public school in Ohio. The New York Times reported that the two were there seeking some common ground in the school choice debate. While the school that DeVos and Weingarten visited is in a heavily Republican district in Ohio, the voters there are no fans of school choice. As one voter put it, vouchers are "like theft." "It's saying we passed a levy to go to our school district, and it's going somewhere else." Exactly. School choice is theft of our tax dollars and theft of our democracy.

Choice sounds so democratic, so quintessentially American that voucher and charter school champions keep using the term to hoodwink people into thinking that choice in schooling is a good thing. I suggest that those of us who oppose vouchers and charter schools call school choice what it is in the eyes of that Ohio voter, tax theft. The government collects our taxes in order to provide essential services to all of us. There is no choice involved, we all must pay taxes (unless, apparently, we are hugely wealthy). Those essential services include providing for a military, promoting research on health and welfare, providing for police and fire protection, and funding public schools. When money is diverted from the support of the public schools, it amounts to, as the Ohio voter said, theft. Or maybe another way to say it is "taxation without representation", since voters have no voice and no oversight of how tax money is spent in schools that receive money through vouchers or charters.

It should be readily apparent that corporate education reformers are anti-democracy. In city after city around the country democratically elected school boards have been replaced by boards appointed by the mayor or governor. In Philadelphia, an appointed board has been in place for nearly two decades and the deterioration of the schools has continued unabated. In Detroit, in Betsy DeVos' home state, the state took over the schools and has systematically led them into chaos. And let us remember that DeVos has spent millions to get legislation passed in Michigan that limits any kind of oversight for voucher and charter schools. So quite literally these schools are stealing public funds with no accountability as to how they spend it.

Every truly public school is held strictly accountable for how it spends its money thorough yearly audits. Every public school is also held accountable by periodic elections for members of the school board. If stakeholders don't like the direction of their schools, they can vote in new board members who are more to their liking. Yes, it can be messy. Democracy can be messy, which is why corporate reformers try to do away with it.

When parents send their children to charter schools or voucher schools, they are looking for a better opportunity for their children. We can all understand the appeal of that. What parents may not realize is that they have entered into a Faustian bargain. In order to get this shiny new toy of a voucher, they must give up their voice in their child's education. No elected school board, no independent audit, no budget vote, no say in school policies.

In this drama, Betsy DeVos plays a willing Mephistopheles, offering choice, but getting you to sign away your voice. Without a voice, there is no democracy.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Comprehending Non-Fiction: Setting Kids Up for Success

In a discussion about students and reading content text yesterday, I heard a familiar refrain from a group of elementary teachers. While some readers were highly successful in reading non-fiction, many others struggled to comprehend content text even when that text for all appearances was "at their reading level." My question for the teachers was, "What are you doing to set the children up for success?"

In content literacy what the teacher does before, during and after reading is crucial to the successful comprehension of content text. By consistently using what Vacca, Vacca, amd Mraz (2017) call the B-D-A Instructional Framework, teachers can set all of their readers up for greater success in reading challenging text.

What does this instruction look like?

Before Reading - Before students read the teacher must assist the students in activating and building background knowledge relevant to the text, spur student curiosity and interest in the text, and help students establish a purpose for the reading. Activating background knowledge is a matter of asking the students to list anything they might already know about the topic and discussing how this knowledge will help them understand what they are about to read. Sometimes when helping students activate background knowledge it becomes clear that students lack the background to successfully read the text. When this happens the teacher can show a brief relevant video, read aloud from a picture book or article that fills in some background knowledge for the students, or simply give a brief lecture that helps fill in some gaps in student knowledge.

Before reading, teachers will also want to introduce key vocabulary and concepts that the students will encounter in the reading. What key words will the students need to understand to successfully comprehend the reading?

It is also crucial to consider student motivation for reading the text. Here it is important that the teacher model her own enthusiasm for the material and provide the students with several exmples that assist the students in seeing the personal relevance of the text. Perhaps most important the teacher can use the process of activating and building background knowledge by asking questions that arouse student curiosity.

Finally, before reading it is also important that students understand the task they are being asked to complete. What is the purpose for this reading? What will the student need to do with this information? What questions will the student need to be able to answer as a result of this reading? Being clear with the students on what the reading task demands will help them focus on key information.

Excellent strategies for pre-reading include anticipation guides, PReP and ReQuest. Click on the links for information on how to use these strategies.

During Reading - The purpose of a during reading activity is to guide students in an active search for meaning. As teachers we easily recognize the important parts of a text assignment, many students do not. The lessons we have learned from years of study, and years of reading dense college textbooks and professional materials, are not lessons our students have yet learned, so we need to help them navigate a text while they are reading.

One of the best ways to guide student reading of a text for improved comprehension, but also for improved understanding of how to handle dense content text, is the selective reading guide. In creating a selective reading guide, the teacher reads the text, determines the key concepts that the students must learn form the text, then develops a "guide" to the reading that assists the students in accomplishing the task. The selective reading guide literally tells the student where to be looking and what to be looking for in the reading and generally then asks them to do something with that reading. Here is an example of a selective reading guide. You can learn more about reading guides here.

Other kinds of during reading guides include structured note-taking and three-level guides, also designed to help students focus on important information as they read.

After Reading - The purpose of after reading activities is to assist the students in consolidating and clarifying their understanding. Research indicates that students retain more of their reading if they process that reading by talking or writing about what they have read. A simple turn-and-talk strategy, is one form of after reading activity. Teachers can also have the students do a quick write to jot down thoughts immediately after reading.

One of my favorite after reading activities is the RAFT, which stands for Role, Audience, Format, Topic. In RAFT students are given a writing task that allows them to demonstrate their understanding of the reading in an engaging and integrative way. Here are some examples from various disciplines.

Social Studies - After reading about Lincoln's plans for reconstruction following the Civil War students might be asked to take on the role of Lincoln, writing to the audience of Congress, in the format of a letter, on the topic of Plans for Reconstruction.

Science - After reading about the water cycle, students might be asked to take on the role of a water drop, writing to the audience of other water drops, in the format of a travel brochure, on the topic of A Journey through the Water Cycle.

Mathematics - After studying square root, students might be asked to take on the role of a square root, writing to the audience of other whole numbers, in the format of a love letter, on the topic of Explaining Our Relationship.

You can learn more about the RAFT strategy here.

There are, of course, integrated strategies that provide guidance to students throughout the reading process. For the most part these are all based on the KWL, which asks students what they know, what they hope to learn and what they learned at various stages of the reading process. Most teachers are very familiar with the KWL and it is a well researched, effective strategy that can form the basis of our understanding of the B-D-A Instructional Framework. Read more about the KWL here.

Whatever strategy we choose to use, we must remember that if we want our students to be successful comprehenders of informational text, we have the responsibility to set them up for that success.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Teacher Evaluation: It's About Relationships Not Numbers

In an article this week in Education Week, Van Schoales, CEO of A+ Colorado, an education reform think tank, declared that Colorado's model for teacher evaluation was a failure. This was a model that seemed to possess all the "right stuff" of teacher evaluation that corporate education reformers hold dear (VAMs, growth models, standardized tests, removing teachers who were not performing based on these scores). This is the same model that was supposed to make Colorado "ground zero" for education reform. This is the same model that was lauded by Arne Duncan and the Obama administration as a blueprint for the nation. Schoales says the model, rolled out with much fanfare and hoopla, has failed. He blames implementation (you know all those messy things like trying to implement all this when only about a third of teachers actually teach tested subjects and that teachers were never actually included in the planning).

Yes, Schoales says this was a great idea, implemented badly. While I praise Schoales for admitting the scheme doesn't work, he has learned the wrong lesson. The very idea upon which this evaluation scheme was built was so flawed that there was never any hope of it being successful. Others have recounted in great detail how value added measures (VAMs) are hopelessly flawed. Both the American Education Research Association and the American Statistical Association have declared VAMs misleading and of limited use. Audrey Amrein-Beardsley has written a great book about it.

But the real flaw in all these reformy teacher evaluation plans is in a failure to see what teacher evaluation really is built on. Teacher evaluation is not built on value added scores, or rubrics, or student scores on standardized tests or even primarily on classroom observations.  The great flaw in these reformy schemes, including those MET Studies promulgated by Bill Gates, is that for all their "data" they fail to recognize the most basic of drivers behind evaluation - trust. Teacher evaluation is built on relationships. It is built on the trusting relationship between teachers and supervisors.

Reformers can't see this very simple and most basic fact of teacher evaluation because they are focused on a fool's errand of seeking objectivity through numbers and a plan designed to weed out low performers, rather than a plan designed to improve performance of all teachers. These folks could have easily found out the flaws in the plan. All they needed to do was spend some time in schools talking to teachers and supervisors. To the extent that current teacher evaluation schemes interfere with teachers and supervisors developing trusting relationships, they are pre-ordained to fail.

I spent 15 years as a public school administrator charged with evaluating teachers. I knew going into the job that my main goal would be to provide teachers with useful feedback for improvement and that if the teachers were going to be willing to implement that feedback, they were going to have to trust me and trust that the feedback I gave was well-informed. I also knew that, while part of my job was to identify poor performers and place them on an action plan for improvement or remove them from the classroom, that the vast majority of the teachers I would be working with, say 95%, were competent professionals who would not be targets for removal. It only makes sense that an evaluation program spend most of its time on professional development rather than on trying to identify low performers.

And so, like most supervisors in public schools across the country in the pre-NCLB/RtTT days, I set about building relationships, listening to teachers, providing information and demonstration lessons, leading book clubs, observing instruction, and sitting down with teachers to provide constructive feedback. To the extent that I could show teachers I knew what I was talking about, the teachers would buy in. Sometimes in these discussions, I would just listen and learn. These evaluations were two-way streets and sometimes the teachers had better understandings than I did. More than a few times I changed an observation report after a conversation with a teacher showed me the thought behind instructional choices that I did not recognize.

When I had to act on a poorly performing teacher, my work on relationships paid off again. As a supervisor who worked to gain the trust of individual teachers, I also worked to gain the trust of the teachers union. Reformers want to paint the unions as the enemy, but coming out of the teacher union movement myself, I knew that it was not in the interest of the union to protect poor performers. Of course, the union's job was to be sure that members got due process and some administrators would see this as obstruction, but I did not find it so. On the several occasions when I needed to recommend the removal of a teacher, the union representative and I worked together to make it happen in as respectful a way as possible for the individual, but with the clear goal of improving educational outcomes for the students.

As I visit schools these days, I worry that the trusting relationship between supervisors and teachers is being undermined by policies that encourage a "gotcha" mentality, rather than a growth mentality. Data can help inform teachers, of course, but when the data is built on arcane statistical formulas that are far removed from the reality of the classroom and built into assessments that are far removed from the instruction in the classroom, that data and the people who deliver it will be seen by teachers as untrustworthy. Here is how I put in my book, A Parent's Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century (Garn Press).

Successful evaluation systems must be built on trust. Teachers do not trust the results of value-added measures for good reason; they have been shown to be unreliable, unfair and invalid. Trust is built through informed supervisors and reflective teachers holding professional conversations with each other around classroom practice and student performance. Once trust is established, the hard work of instructional improvement can begin (p 129).  

I am not one to pine for the "good old days" and I do believe in bringing new ideas into the schools and in the importance of having a good teacher in every classroom, but to the extent that corporate education reform policies and practices are destroying the trust between teacher and administrator, I have to say we are moving backward rather than forward. Do we need sound teacher evaluation policies? Undoubtedly. Will we get there with VAMs, rubrics,and standardized tests? Never. Can building trust between all stakeholders help? You bet.

If you do not have a subscription to Education Week and cannot access the Schoales article, Diane Ravitch has a good summary here.

My take on what teacher evaluation should look like from a two part series I wrote four years ago can be found here and here.