Posted in Reading

Simplify Text for Struggling Readers #1

The trend in recent years has been toward mixed-ability classrooms, meaning it’s up to teachers to adapt material to meet the needs of students at many different reading levels.  Nowhere has this been more apparent to me than in my Intensive Reading classes, where a single class may include 8th graders whose reading level ranges from roughly grade 2 to grade 8.  If you’re reading this post, no doubt you know how challenging it is to differentiate for such a range of ability-levels, and you’re looking for a viable solution (translation: a method that does not consume all your personal time and mental energy).

Good news:  There are several ways you can modify texts, or find modified texts, to make them accessible to all students.  In the next two posts, I’ll describe the ones I use often and with success.

(By the way, these are FREE RESOURCES because…well, I’m a teacher, too.)


This resource contains thousands of informational articles, each written at 5 different reading levels.  Along with each article are vocabulary exercises (Power Words), writing prompts, and standards-based questions to measure reading comprehension.  The program automatically assigns the reading level that most closely matches their grade, but students can adjust it up or down to suit them.  That said, teachers can assign an article at a specific reading level.  Students must complete the article and activities at that level before they can access it at a different level.  If you have students who get text-to-speech as an accommodation, you’ll need to use the Newsela app or a browser plug-in to deliver it.

PROS:  Easy to set up accounts and classes using Google, Microsoft, or Clever.  Articles are available and assignable on multiple reading levels. There are even Spanish language versions of articles.

CONS:  Nonfiction articles only. Assignment level customizable only by class, not by student.



Both literature (fiction and poetry) and nonfiction are available on this free site for teachers.  There are hundreds of articles available for grades K-12, searchable by topic, genre, and Lexile level.  Though most articles are only available at one Lexile level, Readworks is developing “Step Reads” which offer an additional level of readability.  Articles include a text-to-speech function; however most use a computer-generated voice.  Check out the eBooks, though, for engaging graphics and human-voice reading.  Each article includes vocabulary and text-based questions.

PROS:  Includes fiction and poetry as well as nonfiction, text-to-speech for articles and activities.  Easy to create classes, assign and track student progress on assignments.

CONS:  Limited supply of differentiated texts.



Offers many high-interest and topical news articles, each on four different reading levels.  It’s free to teachers and students with simple account/class setup.  New articles are added every day, and many include simple multiple-choice questions.  It includes an optional “student comments” feature you could use to encourage text-based writing.

PROS:  Engaging articles and graphics, all with a range of reading levels. Includes lesson plans that can be adapted for different grade levels.

CONS:  Nonfiction news articles only; quizzes test simple recall rather than deeper comprehension;  broken links made navigation frustrating at times.


In my next post, I’ll share tools you can use to simplify any text with a quick cut and paste!

Posted in Vocabulary

Fab Five for Vocabulary Instruction

Disclosure: This post contains one or more affiliate links, which means I may earn a small commission should you click on the link and purchase the recommended product.  This doesn’t cost you any extra money, nor does it influence my recommendations.  It does help cover the costs of hosting this site, though.  Thanks for your understanding and support.

One of the cornerstones of reading comprehension is knowledge of vocabulary.   In fact, experts believe that comprehension is possible only when students already know 90- to 95-percent of the words in a given text.1 That’s why effective vocabulary instruction is vitally important for every level and subject.

On average students need to learn between 2-thousand and 3-thousand new words each year, just to keep up with their peers.2   Those who read outside of school will easily manage this, since just 20-minutes of independent reading a day puts children in contact with over 2-million words.3  But, what about students who don’t read outside of school?  What about those who come from homes where English isn’t even spoken?  These students, along with those whose vocabulary acquisition has already been hampered by a learning disability or deficit socio-cultural environment, will fall further and further behind without focused vocabulary instruction.

If you’re looking for the ONE silver bullet strategy to teach vocabulary, you’re not going to find it here–or anywhere.  That’s because studies have shown students need both direct and indirect instruction. They also need multiple exposures to a word in different contexts to truly learn a new word.4  This need for repetition makes sense given the four levels of word knowledge that exist:

  1. I never saw it before.
  2. I’ve seen it before, but I’m not sure what it means.
  3. I recognize it in context; it has something to do with…
  4. I know it.

Even though students need variety in vocabulary instruction, there are some practices proven to be highly effective.  I call these the “Fab Five” Vocabulary Strategies, and they include both direct and indirect instruction.


Teachers should strive to teach about 400 words each year through direct instruction.2  (I know that would make for some intimidating weekly word lists, but you can leverage knowledge of word roots and affixes here.)   Even though direct instruction implies a teacher-led activity, actively involving students in the learning process, by using discussion, graphic organizers or self-evaluation tools, increases understanding.  Of course, it is also important that the words be relevant.  The best way to ensure this is to link vocabulary instruction to texts the students are currently reading.  Peruse class texts in advance to identify potential vocabulary words you can use during explicit instruction.

#1 – Analyzing Word Structure

Morphology involves segmenting words into their component parts:  base words, roots, prefixes and suffixes.  Students who learn the meaning of common roots and affixes (prefixes and suffixes) can apply that knowledge whenever they encounter a new word that contains a known component.   For example, a student who knows that –port- means “to carry” and -able means “able to” can assume that portable means “able to be carried” even if they are encountering the word portable for the first time.  They can then apply that knowledge to new words containing these word parts:  transport, portal, or transit.   There are a number of great resources for employing word structure analysis in your classroom, such as this one from Read.Write.Think. or this one from the Florida Center for Reading Research.

My post on tinycards also included a link to existing root word flash cards I’ve used with great success.

#2 – Read Alouds

Yes, you should be reading aloud to your students, even in middle grades and beyond.  Defining unfamiliar words encountered while reading improves student understanding of word meanings (by 10%) and re-reading the text aids retention of words by 12%5.  I actively involve my students his this process (another retention-booster) by having them record any unknown words on a sticky note as I read the selection (or use one of the much more dramatic readings provided by our textbook).  We spend a few minutes after reading to list all their words on the board. (I also “play a game” where I try to spell it correctly without looking in the book, to model phonetic spelling and focus their attention on this aspect of the new words as well.  They love to “catch” me making a mistake and correct me. Sneaky, sneaky teacher.)

Want to know more about reading aloud to older students?  Check out this article by Valentina Gonzalez:  or this book: 

#3 – Semantic Word Maps (aka “Graphic Organizers”)

Use graphic organizers to encourage students to interact with new vocabulary.  The Frayer model is an effective one, where students list examples and non-examples of the word, as well as key features and characteristics.   I also use a chart like the one modeled here to guide students through Marzano’s 6-Step Vocabulary Acquisition process.  You can even modify and display student-created word maps using a Graffiti Wall like the one pictured to the right.  Here, the Frayer model was adapted to include artistic elements, then displayed so students (and the teacher) could easily review new words (which reinforces retention).

#4 – Context Clues

Nothing new here.  You are probably already teaching your students to use context clues (words surrounding an unfamiliar term that hint at its meaning) to determine the meaning of unknown or multiple meaning words.  Modeling use of all the different types of context clues and pointing out the signal words associated with each type will help them maximize word acquisition during independent reading.  Here are the types of clues I teach and the order I use:  definition, restatement, synonym, comparison, antonym, contrast, example, cause and effect, and inference.  When I first started teaching, I tried to teach all nine types at once.  I quickly learned it is more effective to introduce them one at a time, allowing students to spend more time practicing them and keeping the strategy at the forefront.


#5 – Independent Reading

As noted before, students need repeated exposure to a new word, anywhere from four to eight unique encounters6, to assimilate it into their vocabulary.  And, there’s no better way to ensure students are exposed to new words than by encouraging them to read self-selected titles at a level that is simultaneously accessible and a bit challenging.  (Remember, they must already know 90% to 95% of the surrounding words to make sense of new ones.)

Early in the school year, I teach students the five-finger method for determining if a book is at the “right” level.  Essentially, they read the first page, holding up one finger every time they come across a word they aren’t sure about.  At the end of the first page, if they’re holding up five fingers, the book is too hard.  (“Wrap those five fingers around the book and put it back on the shelf,” I tell them.)  If they’re holding up four fingers, the book will be tough, and may require them to read with a dictionary nearby, but they’ll learn a lot.  Three fingers is ideal, engaging and informative.  Two fingers means the book will be a fairly easy read.  Finally, if they’re holding up just one finger (or worse, none) the book is too easy.  In our class these books are called “brain candy.”  Like candy, you can eat a little bit just for fun, but it’s not a healthy diet.  I allow students to read one brain candy book a year for class credit. (“One for fun, then read to feed.”)

It’s important to track this independent learning, so you and students can review what they’re learning.  In a future post, I’ll share my method for tracking reading and teaching writing at the same time.  But, you could also use one of the graphic organizers mentioned above to have students document new vocabulary words.  Some teachers also like to use a reading journal, reserving space in the back for a student-created glossary.

If it seems like the line between direct and indirect vocabulary instruction just got a bit blurry, that’s because it is.  We need to explicitly teach students vocabulary strategies they can continue to use outside of the classroom.   Throughout their lifetime, they will encounter new words, conversing with friends, reading texts in other content areas, as they learn a new profession someday.   Teaching vocabulary means equipping them with word knowledge they need to immediately make sense of a specific passage, but it also means training them to utilize skills for understanding the tens of thousands of new words—some of which haven’t even been coined yet—the future holds for them.


1 Hirsch, 2003

2 Beck, McKeown, and Kuncan, 2002

3  Texas Reading Initiative, 2002

4 Stahl, 2004

5 Biemiller and Boote, 2006

6 Apthorp et al., 2011

Posted in Other

Inspiring Back-to-School Lesson Idea

Yesterday was the first day of school in our district, and I wanted to share a lesson I debuted that exceeded all expectations!  In fact, I’ve never been so excited or felt so connected to students AFTER JUST ONE DAY as I do right now.  That’s why I dropped everything to share it with you.

Our middle school asks teachers to develop social contracts with students.  If you aren’t familiar with the term, it’s basically a signed document listing the expectations that students and their teacher agree to have for one another.  The idea is that everyone takes time to consider the classroom environment they’d like to have and acknowledge their role in creating it.  There’s a standard list of questions (What would you like our class to look like?  What do you expect from the teacher?).  Generally, a student records responses for the class to discuss and eventually agree to endorse.

It’s a solid concept that does start the year off on the right path.  However, in a middle-school setting where students and teachers have 7 to 8 different classes, you can imagine how repetitive the process gets to be.  So, this year, we were given license to adapt the process to suit our individual classroom content and style.  And that’s what led me to try something new.  Here’s what we did.

Before students arrived, I arranged the desks into groups of four.  I greeted them at the door as they came in, introduced myself and invited them to sit in the group of their choice.  (If you have a student survey, collect student data on index cards—or any simple task that requires no more than a few lines of directions written on the board—this is an excellent way to keep everyone engaged while you greet those still arriving.)  Once the bell rang, I took care of the usual housekeeping items: personal introduction, attendance, name pronunciation, and need-to-know basics for entering or leaving the room… you know, the standard stuff. 

Next, I introduced the day’s activity with this presentation. (Just in case your perfectionism is as bad as mine, here’s a copy of the speaker’s notes I mapped out.  I updated them to reflect improvements made after delivering the lesson five times.)  After identifying the standard and Marzano-scale associated with it (yes, we do these for EVERY lesson, even on Day 1), I asked if anyone was familiar with TED Talks.  In most cases, I had to explain that TED Talks were speeches given by someone who was an expert on the topic, a speech that was filmed and loaded to the Internet so anyone could share the expert’s information.  I noted that we were going to watch a TED Talk called Everyday Leadership.  Next, I show the video (just 6-minutes) without interruption.

In the video Drew Dudley tells the story of a girl he met during her first day of college.  Unbeknownst to him, she was so full of fear and self-doubt that she’d made the decision to quit school, but through one humorous interaction between strangers, he put her at ease and in the process changed her life.  She didn’t tell him until four years later, and in revealing how his small act of kindness made him an important person in her life, she in turn helped him realize his own value in the world.

After we watched the video, I presented students with questions to discuss with their group and briefly reminded them of the collaborative discussion traits outlined in the lesson scale we went over (listening while others talk, adding comments and asking on-topic questions).  Then, I circulated as groups talked, prompting as needed.  I expected to do more redirection of off-topic conversations, but the subject and story-telling in this video was so engaging students stayed focused almost without exception.  After a few minutes of discussion, I asked each group to choose a spokesperson to share their answer with the class.  I let them know the role of spokesperson would be shared, so a different person would be speaking for the group on each question.  Incidentally, watching how each group selected their speaker–not to mention circulating during the discussion–helped me spot the natural leaders, the quiet-but-thoughtful ones, and those who struggle with comprehension or focus.

If your schools allows treats, while students discuss the second question you can pass out lollipops to everyone.  It breaks the ice, puts everyone in a positive frame of mind, and it’s a rare opportunity where enjoying sweets IS reinforcing the point of the lesson.

As students shared their thoughts, we learned a lot about one another’s values, experiences, and communication style and ability.  The greatest insights were revealed when students shared their “lollipop moments.”  Before asking them to discuss this, I acknowledged that this particular question required them to be brave.  Sharing an important moment in your life, especially in a group of people you don’t know well, means risking vulnerability.  At this point, we’d already seen the video and discussed how the girl felt scared and alone until Drew’s actions showed her the people around her were nervous too.  I shared my own “lollipop moment” to spark the conversation, and then I circulated, listening thoughtfully as students candidly shared moments where they’d been either the recipient or giver of a small act of kindness that had a big impact.

While I can’t reveal specific confidences, I can tell you that the real-life stories my students shared of poverty, fear, generosity, and hope reminded me of my own potential to impact these children and make a difference in our world.  Don’t you just love it when a lesson you design to inspire others, fuels your own passion in turn?  I can say with some degree of certainty that my students felt the same.  As they worked on the culminating activity – identifying one word that summed up the actions of either Drew or the girl (kindness, generosity, appreciation) and brainstorming other acts that demonstrate that trait—they were already modeling helpfulness and respect toward one another.  I could see that those values, and the idea that our classroom was a safe place in which we could trust one another, were already taking root.

Over the next few days we’ll formalize our social contract, spelling out these values that we now embrace.  More than ever before, though, this contract has spilled over the edges of the page and the ideals it represents are already embedded in our class culture.  Thanks, Drew!

Posted in Other

Cap Off the Year with Common Craft Video Project

Slide2No doubt you’ve seen a common craft style video—a one-take “How To” production that uses 2-D illustrations and hand gestures to explain a process. Here’s an example of a common craft video that explains how to create a common craft video. Incidentally, I use this very example to introduce the project to students. While Mr. Fogle states in the video that it takes about 15 minutes to complete the project, my classes work on it for two weeks. Equipment needs are minimal: a video camera (iPhone or iPad apps are ideal), a desktop or space on the floor as your “stage,” and a light source (I use a clip-on work light  purchased for less than $10).

The project basically entails six steps: 1) Form groups, 2) Choose a topic, 3) Write the script, 4) Design the props, 5) Rehearse the video, and 6) Record the video. I perform a seventh step, editing, which takes me about an hour using a video editing app on the iPhone we use to record student videos. A fun “premiere day” serves as the culminating activity – usually the last day of school – where we all eat popcorn and watch everyone’s finished projects.

Slide1Step 1: Form Groups
Students work in groups of four, and again, I like to let students choose their own groups. Before they do, though, I tell them what skills need to be represented in each group. First, they need a writer to write or type out the script. Next, they need an artist to design the props. Third, they need a fluent reader to narrate the video. Finally, they need a camera operator who will also direct the video. You can combine the roles in a pinch, but you will need at least three students per group to manage moving the props on and off camera.

Step 2: Choose a Topic
I challenge students to think back on the things they found intimidating about starting middle school: opening a locker, changing classes, reading class schedules, rewards system, and so on. I let them pick their topic, so I get instant buy-in. At the same time, I caution them that only the best video for each topic will be shown at next year’s 6th grade camp (a two-day orientation for incoming students), so they have an incentive to branch out and be creative when choosing topics. This has resulted in some very creative ideas over the years, including “How to Make Friends” and “How to Get on Your Teacher’s Good Side.”

sCRIPT Step 3: Write the Script
The script includes BOTH the narrator’s lines and a description of the props and hand gestures that will be used to illustrate each scene of the video. Script-writing requires them to break down their topic into management steps or components, and to come up with a way to depict each one. I give students this script template to guide them through the creative process. Once the script is written, they also have to time each scene to be sure they have content to fill at least two, but no more than three minutes of video.

ApropsStep 4: Design the Props
In most cases, props consist of simple line drawings, though a smattering of small objects (pencil, combination lock, etc.) can be used to add visual interest. Caution students against using more than two actual objects as it creates visual clutter. Illustrations MUST be 5”-7” tall and should include bold outlines (refer to Mr. Fogle’s How-To video). Black and white drawings work just fine, but most of my groups like to spend time coloring their artist’s creations—and I usually let them linger over this relaxing activity since this time of year they are often testing in at least one or two classes every day. Remind students to make a “Good” and “Bad” card prop to hold up at the end of the video to mark whether or not it is their final take.

AstageStep 5: Rehearse the Video
Show students how to use a desktop as a “stage.” Alternatively, you can use a piece of poster board or a length of bulletin board paper on a desk or on the floor. Use painters tape or draw lines (I sometimes draw lines on the desktop with marker–it scrubs off with a magic eraser) marking which areas will appear onscreen and which will not be seen in the video. One student (on the left) will push props onscreen at the appointed time, while another student (on the right) will pull props offscreen at the end of the scene. Have them practice this process while the narrator reads the script aloud. The director should time them and provide feedback about the speed of the narration and movements. I tell students that when they are happy with their performance, and have done it at least twice without error, they are ready to record.


Step 6: Record the Video
If you have a quiet place, like a small office or walk-in supply room, it’s best to use this as your “recording studio.” That way, other students can practice quietly in your classroom while each group is recording their video.  I use an old iPhone as a camera (shown above), but any digital video recording device works.  The camera should be positioned a few feet above the surface where the props will be displayed. If you have a tri-pod, that’s great. For years, though, I used a cardboard box with a small hole cut in the bottom for the camera lens to peek through. I positioned it above a sheet of black poster board lying on the floor.  This year I upgraded my equipment, using a tripod with an iPhone mount that came with a handy remote “record” button.

Set  up the camera first, then use painters tape (placed just offscreen) to mark the edges of the visible portion of the poster board. As each student group is ready to record, I show them how to operate the camera, turn on the shop light (bounce it off a wall or sheet of paper rather than aiming it directly at the props to avoid washout), and remind them to count silently to three at the end of their final take before displaying the “Good” card onscreen. Honestly, even though they’ve practiced, they usually get overly excited and flub their first or even second take… so plan on allowing about 6 or 7 minutes for each group to record their final video.

video appStep 7: Editing
If your students are tech savvy, you could have them complete this step. However, I generally handle editing myself simply for the sake of convenience.  Since these are one-take videos, I edit them right on the iPhone using the iPhone app.  (If you’re using a digital camera or laptop to record them, this software suite is a very user-friendly option, that lets you add titles, special effects, and more.)  Editing is where the “GOOD” and “BAD” cards are so important. (Thank you again, Mr. Fogle, for this brilliant idea.) All told, I’ll have roughly 100 video clips to review (2-3 per group X 36 groups). Anything less than 45 seconds long can be deleted without viewing since it’s obviously an aborted attempt. You don’t have to watch each video, just skip to the end and look for the good or bad card, and delete those ending with the bad. Once you’ve culled out the bad videos, trim the end to eliminate the frames displaying the good card. If you’re a perfectionist (and let’s face it, it’s a cross many teachers must bear), you can use the cropping tool to make sure the props are centered, and no edges show onscreen.

popcorn1As I mentioned early, I usually have a video premiere day the last day of school where students get to watch everyone’s videos. It’s a lot of fun, especially if your school will let you serve popcorn, and the kids enjoy their moment in the spotlight when they get to share their group’s creation with peers. I’m fortunate to work at a school that encourages the sharing of student-created resources as well. So, in addition to sharing their videos with my other classes, selected student-videos are also shown to next year’s incoming 6th graders during a summer camp orientation program, and teachers show them during the first weeks of school to introduce school procedures and culture. I’ve even been permitted to upload them onto a YouTube channel to facilitate distribution and sharing (which adds a whole new level of cachet and incentive to create the best of its kind each year).

This brings up an important point about privacy and security. One of the advantages to using a common craft style video is that it does not show any student’s face or features (a big no, no in our district). I also caution students NOT to include their names in either their video title or credits – for privacy reasons.

Posted in Games, Vocabulary

Step Up Your Game with Word Ladders

Word games are a wonderful way to incorporate vocabulary activities into your classroom.   Word searches and crossword puzzles reinforce spelling skills, and if you use word definitions as clues rather than giving students a word bank, it aids retention of new vocabulary and encourages critical thinking.  The word ladder is another brain-building activity involving word play.

Word ladders challenge players to identify a string of words all having the same number of letters.  In fact, each word shares all but one letter with the word immediately above or below it.  Using the given clue for each word, players must change just one letter to form a new word that satisfies the given definition or clue.  The simplest puzzles, suitable for younger children or ELLs, involve just three- or four- letter words and have fewer rungs, or words, moving through words like walk… talk…tale… and tile.  More advanced puzzles use longer words with more challenging vocabulary, like halved… halted… halter… falter… filter… and so on.

Word Ladders


Here are some word ladders I created for my 6th grade intensive reading classes (where every day either begins or ends with vocabulary practice).  I start them out with four-word puzzles, until they get the hang of it.  Then we progress to five- and six-word ladders.  I let them work with a partner, so students engage one another in dialogue about the target words and definitions (a sneaky way to add an auditory learning component).  The first time they work through a word ladder it might take them 7-10 minutes, but as they gain experience with this activity, they can easily complete one in under five minutes.  For me, this makes word ladders the ideal bell ringer or enrichment activity for fast finishers.  The activity is inherently fun, and students love to compare their finished puzzles with their peers’, so it’s a self-checked learning activity that requires no grading!

You can create your own word ladders with this free puzzle-maker by  If you want to build a puzzle using specific words (or create a themed puzzle) you can generate a word ladder list on this site created by Stanford professor Keith Schwartz.

Word Ladders online

Looking for something a little more turnkey?  You’ll find read-to-play online word ladders at (for grades K through 3) or  There are word ladder apps for the iPad like this one by Ventura Educational Systems (costs less than $1).   Access print-ready word ladders at  This scholastic resource for grades 4 through 6 is the book that first introduced me (and by extension my students) to word ladders.  I still use it as a go-to for quick bell ringers or extension work.

If you’re looking for a low-prep, high-value vocabulary activity to add to your teaching toolbox, I heartily recommend Word Ladders.

Ladders Carroll

Posted in Reading

Teaching Inference

One of the first reading skills I address each year is making inferences.  It’s the cornerstone of using context clues, identifying character traits and motivation, analyzing plot, theme, and more. In addition to its obvious necessity for reading comprehension, they’ll make inferences for science, history, and other subjects.

Now, most students are already able to make inferences.  They can read a friend’s body language and identify whether that friend is excited or distressed.  What many need to be explicitly taught, though, is the components used to make inferences—background knowledge (or schema) and evidence—and how to search for that evidence.


A graphic organizer like this one, created for my standard sixth grade class, encourages metacognition and helps students know what to look for when an idea is merely implied, but not readily apparent to them.  Believe it or not, the most difficult part of this assignment is usually teaching them to identify their own background knowledge.  That skill must be modeled.  It may also be necessary to prod their thinking with probing questions, like “How did you know?  What background knowledge do you have on this topic that help you make an informed inference?”

It is often also necessary to stress that an inference reflects the “most likely” scenario, and not just something that is remotely possible.  For instance, if I read a text in which a character appears fully dressed, wet, and it is raining outside and ask students to infer why the character is wet, inevitably, someone wants to suggest that “they fell in a lake” or “they went swimming in their clothes.”  (Sixth-graders are notorious for playing the “what if” game and seem to love to let their imaginations run wild on this one.)  While I praise their creativity, I point out that since the most likely reason is that the character just came in out of the rain, other response—no matter how creative—are not accurate inferences.  So, in addition to teaching them how to draw a conclusion using evidence and schema, they also need to weigh all the possibilities, choosing the one that is most likely.

In a previous post, I wrote about how I use pictures to introduce inferences to my students.  I also use several free online resources including this virtual pen pal activity.  I can also recommend this YouTube video by MrSato411.  Younger students might appreciate these interactives: Riddle Game or the PBS Detective Game.

So, start the year strong with a review of this critical reading skill, or use these resources to review inferences with students who are struggling to “read between the lines.”

Posted in Reading

Using Pictures to Teach Reading

Slide1One of the more challenging aspects about teaching reluctant readers is engaging them in their own learning. I get it. I am the world’s worst at bowling. When date night rolls around, and my hubby says, “We haven’t been bowling in a while,” I cringe and quickly offer alternatives to an activity that’s certain to end in frustration. On those rare occasions when I roll a strike, however, I am elated. I shout, I strut, I bask in my success… and, important parallel here, I eagerly agree to play again. Helping my reluctant readers feel the thrill of success—one that’s relevant to reading—encourages them to see themselves as capable readers and to commit to the learning process.

Reluctant readers, while not as proficient with text, are generally very good at reading other visual cues. Using pictures to introduce reading skills gives students a frame of reference to understand the basics of the skill, and it shows them they already possess the skills they need to master it.

Many reading skills can be equated to interpreting visual images. For example, I often use photos to introduce mood in literature. I show students a series of images and challenge them to analyze the mood conveyed by each. Once they’ve identified the mood (and their success rate is 100%), I challenge them to tell me why. They study the picture and name specific characteristics (the colors are dark, the weather is stormy, there’s a dark alley with a shadowy figure) that lead them to conclude the mood (dangerous). Now that I’ve trained the students to study small details to determine the mood, I substitute short text for the visual images. You can even use a one-paragraph description of the same image you just showed them, so they can see the connection between the visuals and descriptive text.

I’ve used this method to successfully teach inferences, mood and tone, cause and effect, point of view, and main idea. It is the perfect way to introduce context clues, or use picture warm-ups to reinforce the concept of context clues in subsequent lessons. Not only do students find pictures engaging, they are also quite memorable. Years later, I’ve had students come to me saying how much they enjoyed–and learned from—those lessons. One former struggling reader confessed, “I don’t know what you did… but I’ve gotten A’s in English ever since.” Inspiring words for any teacher.


Posted in Assessment

ELA Assessment Made Easy

Today, I wanted to address the topic of assessment.  Maybe it has something to do with the state writing test my kiddos just took, or maybe it’s because I just finished writing an end-of-quarter exam for my intensive reading students.  But, it’s been on my mind a lot lately.


I’ve always thought test-writing for English teachers was especially challenging.  Not only do we have to author the questions, but we’ve got to search through mountains of passages–or write our own–to find texts having the qualities we’re assessing:  figurative language, text organizational structures, plot and conflict, theme… you get the picture.  (Of course you do.  If you’re reading this, you are either an English teacher or someone with a vested interest in the profession.)  Not only do texts have to model the right content, they must also be at the appropriate reading level.

Another consideration of mine is making sure classroom assessments use question stems and types that mirror those on high-stakes exams.  That way, my students gain experience with the testing format as well as the content.  For years, this was the most onerous part of writing tests for me.  Multiple choice?  Sure.  But, how was I supposed to add drop-down boxes to a paper test?  Or drag-n-drop questions?  Or specify choices of “hot-text” answers?  A few online test creation programs offered these tools, but none allowed me to add passage sets, or even scrollable texts that students could re-read when analyzing questions and answer choices.  And they certainly didn’t do it at a cost that I, a lone teacher, could afford.

Then… I found Edulastic. Edulastic

I’d been searching the internet (yet again) for online testing platforms, when it came up in one of my searches.  I clicked, and began measuring it against my wish list.  Question style variety?  Matching, fill-in-the-blank, essay-style…check, check, and check.   Drop-downs, hot-text, drag-n-drop… yes, yes, yes.  Passage-based questions with onscreen, scollable text (dare I hope?)… YES! It’s all there!  At this point I was sold, and my inner skeptic started kicking in.  “Yeah,” it whispered, “but I’ll be you have to create an account for each kid and manage all of those passwords.”  Nope.  They can log in with their existing Microsoft 365 or Google accounts.  “Well, then,” my cynical internal dialogue continued, “It’s going to cost a fortune once your free trial is up.”  Nope… nada.  It costs me nothing.  “It’s probably hard to use, then.”  Easy-peasy.  I created my first test in about forty minutes, and it was a smorgasbord of question types.   To this day, I have only good things to say about Edulastic.


Once I had entered my team’s common assessments into the test library, I could choose to share them schoolwide (or district-wide) and we all enjoyed the immediate feedback on student performance.   Our school also lets us differentiate test content, so struggling readers and advanced students take slightly different versions of the same assessment.  Once one of the tests was built in Edulastic, we could easily duplicate it and modify the questions as needed.  The reports on results are easy to interpret, and we can quickly identify the most-missed questions.  Since each question is associated with a learning standard, we can see which standards have been mastered and which ones need revisiting.


I know what you may be thinking.  Edulastic made our job as teachers a bit easier, but did it really benefit the students?  Absolutely!  When the results of the state reading assessment came out, our grade-level team had the highest-scoring students of any school in the district (and our district is #1 in the state).  Do I work with a highly-skilled cadre of educators? You bet.  Did Edulastic help familiarize our students with the online testing format, allowing them of focus their energy on reading and critical analysis.  It did.

Over the summer, Edulastic asked me to be an ambassador (unpaid, though I did get a free upgrade to their pro account and a branded travel mug).  I would be recommending the product to other teachers regardless.  The pro account did give me access to some even more powerful features, like text-to-speech for students who get that as an accommodation.  I have even more reports at my fingertips, too, so I can measure their mastery of standards across multiple tests.  If you can swing the $99 upgrade fee, I think it’s worth it.  They even had a BOGO sale this fall, and several peers took advantage of it.