Friday, May 26, 2017

What Will We Do Without You, Jean Fritz?

Only when a book is written out of passion is there much hope of its being read with passion. - Jean Fritz

I read of the passing of children's author, Jean Fritz, in the New York Times this past week. Ms. Fritz was 101 years-old, yet she died too soon because her voice is needed now more than ever. As a history teacher and as a reading specialist, I had a particularly affinity for the works of Jean Fritz. Her books were all meticulously researched and highly entertaining. I could be confident that in recommending a Jean Fritz book to children that they would get accurate information and would likely find the books informative and engaging. Most importantly, though, Jean Fritz was a pioneer in the field of history for children because she was not afraid to tell the truth about our national heroes. Her portraits of famous Americans like Ben Franklin, John Hancock, Benedict Arnold, Paul Revere and others were famously warts and all accounts.

When Jean Fritz started writing for kids in the 1960s, history for children was notably homogenized and inclined toward what her New York Times obituary called "unalloyed veneration." George Washington "never told a lie"; Thomas Jefferson was a champion of  "equality" with no mention of his slave holding or rape of slave women; Andrew Jackson was the hero of the Battle of New Orleans with no mention of the "Trail of Tears." Jean Fritz would have none of that and for that, I, for one, am eternally grateful to her. I think we all should be. Her book titles signal to us that she is taking a look at American history with something of a sideways, critical stance. Can't you make them behave, King George?; Will you sign here, John Hancock?; Shh! We're writing the Constitution; Where do you think you're going, Christopher Columbus?

Here is an example of the Jean Fritz touch from her book, What's the big idea, Ben Franklin?. Fritz tells us that Franklin made up a list of rules for good behavior (like Don't spend too much money) and kept a notebook to record how he was doing.

But Benjamin liked a good time and he seldom let his rules interfere. Once he spent 6 pennies to see the first lion ever brought to America. This was a lot of money, he said, but it was worth it.

Another rule was "Don't show off", but once Ben had a little money he returned to Boston to visit his brother for the express purpose of showing off.

He swaggered into the shop letting [his brother] James and his apprentices see what a grand thing it was to be your own master. He twirled his watchchain. He jingled the money in his pockets and offered to treat everyone to a drink. (James was so angry that it took years for the brothers to make up.)

And then there is Paul Revere of the famous midnight ride. Turns out that for much of the midnight ride, Revere was without a horse, having been relieved of the horse and left on the side of the road by a group of British officers who had intercepted him. As Fritz tells it in And then what happened, Paul Revere?

Paul Revere felt bad, of course, to be on his Big Ride without a horse. He felt uneasy to be on a moonlit road on foot. So he struck out through the country, across stone walls, through pastures, over graveyards, back into Lexington to see if John Hancock and Samuel Adams were still there.

In an interview on Fresh Air! with Terry Gross this week, the historian Jill Lepore said, "When you ignore the facts of history, you turn history into religion." We should not attempt to turn children into faith based believers in a mythological American history. Children can handle the truth and we need, like Fritz, to respect them enough to give them the truth. The truth, ultimately, does not diminish our reverence for our history, but only enhances it because it is rooted in reality. Heroes, warts and all, are more believable, and therefore, more credible heroes.

In this age of "alternative facts", the writing of Jean Fritz stands as a strong reminder that thorough research and truth telling are the role of the historian, whether that historian is writing for adults or children. I for one would have loved to read a Jean Fritz book on the current political situation, perhaps entitled, What the hell were you thinking, President Trump?

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.