Tuesday, February 28, 2012

How Do We Teach Readers to Read For A Purpose?

I am reading a number of books right now.  The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey is a book I am reading for pleasure. The story is set in Alaska in the early 1900s. In my mind, I can picture the struggles of the childless couple who are homesteading in the Alaskan Wilderness. As I read, I notice details the author has included to help me form mental pictures of the characters and their motivations. I look for the "bread crumb" plot trail that is being left through the story that keeps me guessing about what might be coming next.    Reading for pleasure is the first level of reading. It is an invitation from the author to listen in on his thoughts, interact with his ideas and come to our own conclusions.   Most of the reading our students will be expected to do needs to go beyond reading for pleasure.  As teachers, we need to provide our students with multiple purposes for reading. This will help  our students to see that sometimes it is ok to read for a simple purpose, for example to identify basic ideas or find specific information. Reading for information teaches students to become better skim readers, hunting for key words and dates. Skim readers may not even begin at the beginning!   We also need to show them that sometimes they need to become more "reflective" readers so that they will not miss out on that opportunity to really process the ideas being shared by the author or make connections between concepts to form big ideas.

I am also reading  Rubbish, The Archaeology of Garbage by William Rathie and Cullen Murphy. This is a non-fiction book detailing the research conducted by the University of Arizona's Garbage Project.  It is giving me new insights into my own spending practices and making me much more aware of what I am throwing away and why.  The book is full of data tables and data analysis. This type of information serves as a series of  "reading speedbumps", forcing the reader to stop and reread, question and process the information being presented before moving on in the text.  By offering our students material that introduces them to new points of view or scientific research, we give them a chance to compare the author's world view to their own and make decisions about how to stretch and change their thinking based on this new information.  By exposing students to content that is unfamiliar to them, we allow them to process the new information and make connections to their own knowledge. In order to be a truly productive reader, students must learn how to make a commitment to the author, understanding their own purpose in reading and the author's purpose for writing.

By middle school, students should be reading 50% literature and 50% non-fiction. By high school this ratio jumps to 30% fiction and 70% non-fiction.   Teaching Close Reading strategies will help our students understand their own purpose for reading and begin to consider the author's purpose for writing.


Monday, February 20, 2012

How to Write Text Based Questions...and Why We Need To Start Doing This Now!

Shifting.   There is a lot of shifting going on in education - shifting content, shifting funding, shifting expectations, shifting responsibilities, shifting blame, shifting accountability.   The most important shift, the one that each of us actually has some control over, is the shift in thinking about how we teach our students.  The authors of the  Common Core Curriculum have identified 12 shifts in thinking that must occur if the true intent of the depth of understanding and rigorous learning embedded in the Common Core are to be realized.  Many teachers are waiting to see what the "new assessments" will look like.  They are also waiting to see the final model curriculum or the finalized standards.   The message from the ODE is DON'T WAIT...start changing the way you teach now and your students will be prepared for the new assessments.

For the next few weeks I will focus on some of these shifts, beginning with the ELA focus on Text Based Questions and Close Reading Skills.   Starting in elementary school, students need to be given opportunities to read literary and content based materials.  The shift is in how, as teachers, we "tee up" this reading experience for our students.  Instead of giving students a summary of the reading before they read it, we should instead offer up some "essential questions" to help guide their reading. This allows students to struggle with the reading to begin to build their own understanding of the content.  Instead of asking students to "take notes" on the reading, we should model how to identify patterns in the text, question what the author intended by including a passage or word in the text, and make inferences based on prior knowledge.  This is a shift from the teacher as interpreter to the teacher as moderator in the discussion between the author and the student.  The kinds of questions that we ask about the text also needs to shift away from questions that encourage students to draw on their own opinion or personal experience without making any direct connection to the text to questions that require students to go back into the text to support their answer.  I chose the HS sample to include in the blog because almost everyone is familiar with the Gettysburg Address.  In the resource links that follow, you will find similar examples for elementary and middle school classrooms as well.

The Gettysburg Address - Sample HS Lesson Using Text Based Questions and Close Reading 
Text Specific Essential Question - To Guide the Teacher 

  • What did those who fought at Gettysburg do that those who have gathered cannot?

Text Based Student Question - to Guide the Student

  • What does Lincoln describe as the impact of those who fought at Gettysburg?

Non-text Specific Essential Question - Requires NO knowledge of the Gettysburg Address, focus is on individual opinion and student experience.  The second question doesn't even really go with the theme of the Gettysburg address.

  • Lincoln says that the nation is dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.” 
  • Did Lincoln think that the North was going to “pass the test” that the civil war posed?

Non-text Specific Student Question - Does not require the student to go back into the passage to answer this. Student doesn't even have to know about the Gettysburg Address.

  • Why is equality an important value to promote?


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Mind the Gap

Have you ever been to London? Mind the Gap signs are posted all over the Tube Stations (the public subways).  The gap is the space between the station platform and the train.  One misstep and the distracted passenger may find himself sprawled across the tracks.

This past week my focus has been on "Minding the Gap" many of our students are facing as developing readers and writers.   There is a significant difference in the quantity and quality of the words a young child hears on a daily basis if they are in a lower socioeconomic home rather than a higher socioeconomic home.This table illustrates the research done by Hart and Risley in 1995.

Family StatusActual Differences in Quantity of Words Heard in an hour at homeActual Differences in Quality of Words Heard in an hour at home
Welfare616 words5 affirmations, 11 prohibitions
Working Class1,251 words12 affirmations, 7 prohibitions
Professional2,153 words32 affirmations, 5 prohibitions

 Research they conducted looked at how many words a typical child would hear in an hour, a day, a year and eventually in the first 4 years of life. The gap is stunning.  The child in the lower socioeconomic home would hear 13 million words in 4 years compared to 45 million words heard by the child of the higher socioeconomic home.  They found that not only did children from the lower socioeconomic levels hear fewer words in an hour, but that the quality of words heard was also diminished from that of the words heard by their higher socioeconomic peers.

 This gap in vocabulary continues to grow as they enter kindergarten.   Stop and think for a minute about the disadvantage of having a limited vocabulary as a student moves through school.  It becomes harder to really understand the content words of a text if you are struggling to understand the basic vocabulary.  Writing papers and stories becomes more difficult.  Making connections between new ideas and prior knowledge becomes harder if a student is lacking the varied word experience of her peers.   Imagine being asked to draw a picture of a springtime garden or a sunrise over the ocean. You are given a brown crayon and a red crayon.  The person sitting next to you is given the Crayola 64 color box..with sharpener. You will both be able to draw a picture, but the person with 64 colors to choose from will certainly have more options.  You begin to see how important a varied vocabulary is to all students. This gap has some significant impact on the success of students in the classroom. It is our challenge as teachers to provide opportunities for all of our students to add words to their vocabulary toolbox. There are many effective ways to do this.  What research does show is that doing rote vocabulary memorization is not the most effective way to build long term vocabulary skills. Let's look at some strategies that have been proven to work well for all students:

Living Word Wall:  The key word is placed in the middle of the working area.  Students then add pictures, sentences and related words to the wall.  The teacher refers to the wall often and encourages the students to use the word in their classroom work.

Frayer Model:  This is a graphic organizer that puts the key word in the center.  The top left corner of the paper contains the word.  The top right corner is definitions - both dictionary and in their own words. In the bottom left corner, the students can draw a picture or provide examples to go with the word and the bottom right corner is usually used to include words or pictures to show what is NOT the word...or providing connections to other words or concepts they already know. Maybe include using it in a sentence. Once students have made a Frayer model - have them think pair share to exchange ideas or do a gallery walk to allow them to see and comment on other student's interpretations.

Marzano Notecard:   Similar to a Frayor model, but more portable, the notecard starts with the word in the middle.  The top left corner is the dictionary definition. The top right corner is the student's definition. The bottom left corner is a diagram or picture - this works especially well with science terms. The bottom right corner is a list of other related terms.  On the back, the student writes two sentences that not only use the word, but make a connection to other terms in the content area or a real world situation.

Two in One:  In this strategy, students must write sentences using the vocabulary words for a unit or for the week.  The twist...they must use two words in one sentence.  They may change the form of the word if necessary.

As we work toward aligning to the common core, one of our tasks will be to focus on the vocabulary students will need to know in order to access the content of our courses.  If you are interested in learning more about helping students to build vocabulary, look through the resources below.


  • The Tennessee Academic Vocabulary Project   worked with Marzano and is aligned to the Common Core
  • Interview with Andrew Biemiller   Dr. Biemiller is an expert on identifying words students need to know to be successful throughout their academic life and beyond.  
  • Examples of Frayer Models
  • Wordsift   Great tool for helping kids see vocabulary in context.  You can cut and paste text into the tool.  It will make a word cloud out of the 50 most frequently used words in the text.  The words can be color coded by subject area. Each word is linked to a google image search. Each word gets pulled into the thesaurus and you can quickly see related words.  Each word can then be seen in its original context.
  • 6 Steps to Teaching Vocabulary - Marzano (ASCD EdLeadership Sept 2009)

Reference :Hart, B., & Risley, R. T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.