Posted in Other, Writing

Accommodations for Dysgraphia

We’ve all had those students… the ones whose written papers bring to mind a Cy Twombly paining. And while messy handwriting might be nothing more than carelessness, it can also be caused by dysgraphia—a disorder that affects the ability to sequence and control fine muscle movement.  In my previous post I detailed how to recognize dysgraphia, often referred to as “impairment of written expression.” Here, I focus on how teachers can provide extra support to help students who struggle with it.


For students with dysgraphia, the act of writing can be physically taxing if not outright painful.  In the same way warming up before a run can ready your muscles for the workout ahead, having students warm-up their hands before writing is a big help.  Encourage students to wiggle and stretch their fingers before writing. Better yet, give them a stress ball or putty for a pre-writing workout.


Pencil grips help dysgraphic students hold their pen or pencil correctly, reducing strain and increasing maneuverability. Unfortunately, older students are often reluctant to use them.  So, use the fattest cushioned grips you can find and offer them “to make the pencil more comfortable,” knowing in your heart that the increased diameter tends to force their hand into the desired tripod position.

Specialty lined paper can also aid students with letter placement and alignment. Paper with raised lines is best since it gives tactile as well as visual cues. (It’s also a must-have for students with visual impairment.) If that’s not in your budget, use regular graph paper or print out this specially lined notebook paper I created to help with spacing.

Allow students with dysgraphia to type assignments on the computer. It eliminates some of the barriers to writing (pencil placement, holding the paper in place, alignment, erasure issues) while it strengthens muscles in their hands.  Even cursive writing can be easier than print since they don’t have to lift the pencil up and down quite as much.


Students with dysgraphia also benefit from note-taking assistance. Their struggles with the physical act of writing diverts attention from your lesson.  Instead, print out notes for them (one reason why I create most formal lessons on PowerPoint) or ask another student to scribe for them using carbon-paper (@30 cents a sheet, but reusable) or carbonless forms (@10-cents a sheet).


While there’s not enough time to provide one-on-one instruction for handwriting in middle school, you can provide students with a folder of handwriting worksheets they can work on whenever they have some free time.  Although some experts claim most middle school students’ handwriting is too deeply ingrained to change, I’ve seen several motivated boys become much neater writers simply by giving them the tools to practice it. [picture]  Of course, if you’re fortunate enough to have an occupational therapist visiting your school, ask for their help.

Remember in my previous post when I talked about my husband’s soul-crushing “chicken scratching” experience? In high school, his drafting teacher gave him nightly lettering practice that he labored over at home. The long hours paid off by retraining his muscle memory for writing. Today, he gets compliments on his neat, easy-to-read handwriting.


Differentiate the product used to assess mastery by allowing dysgraphic students to respond orally, or when that’s not feasible, use graphic organizers.  Graphic organizers can help in two ways. First, on lengthy writing assignments, using a graphic organizer or outline helps students focus their thoughts before they must code them in writing. If possible, let them turn in writing “drafts” as graphic organizers.  Graphic organizers can also be used to show mastery of reading skills like plot, character traits, or text structure. Use these for literary text and these for informational text.

Reduce the volume of writing required.  Allow students with dysgraphia to highlight text evidence instead of rewriting it.  Permit students with dysgraphia to use agreed- abbreviations or symbols when writing (w/ for “with” or + for “and”). Share this list of common symbols and abbreviations as a reference tool. Wherever possible, remove handwriting, capitalization, and spelling as a grading criteria for written assignments.  Test the latter two with a computer-based quiz or multiple-choice/check-the-box assessment.

If you want to learn more about dysgraphia and what you can do to support students who have it, I highly recommend Reading Rockets as a resource.  You’ll find literally hundreds of articles about it—everything from handwriting samples, to assistive technology, to the latest brain research.

Posted in Other, Writing

7 Signs Your Student Has Dysgraphia

Decades later, my husband can still recall being called out by an English teacher for turning in a written assignment that looked like “chicken scratching.”  Even though he’d tried his best, his handwriting—weirdly spaced with shaky lines– looked like it was produced by a very young child.  The teacher accused him of being lazy, but he was actually struggling with dysgraphia.

Dysgraphia is a nervous system disorder that affects fine motor skills used for writing.  It’s often associated with other learning disorders such as ADHD or dyslexia.  While it used to be an official diagnosis, now it appears on IEPs or 504s as “impairment in written expression.” Of course, I’ve also encountered dysgraphic students who had yet to be diagnosed.

So, how do you know if a student has it?  There are some tell-tale signs teachers and parents can look for.  First and foremost, students with dysgraphia are often described as having “messy” handwriting, with the following characteristics:

  • Irregular spacing
  • Unevenly sized letters
  • Writing above or below the lines
  • Erratic pencil pressure
  • Poor spelling, omits letters or words
  • Capitalization errors, including mid-sentence caps
  • Frequent scratch-outs and erasures

Students with dysgraphia may hold their pen or pencil in a tight or claw-like grip.  They may hunch over their paper or turn their hand (or paper) at an odd angle to write.  These students often avoid writing assignments and write much more slowly than their peers. Also, because so much mental energy is dedicated to task of production, it’s hard for students with dysgraphia to compose their thoughts while writing.

An official diagnosis can be made by psychologist or neuropsychologist, or an occupational or physical therapist can test motor skills.  However, if you suspect a student has dysgraphia, there are a number of ways you can help them.  In my next post, I’ll detail ways teachers can differentiate for students with dysgraphia, and how one teacher’s intervention made all the difference for my own significant other.

Posted in Writing

Building a Body of Writing Resources

When our state changed writing standards several years back it became especially challenging to find quality, targeted instructional material.  While creative writing prompts were abundant (Imagine you could have any job for one day…), resources for writing text-based essays were few and far between.  Even materials from our textbook provider seemed to have been hastily thrown together.  The example essays did NOT match the requirements of our state writing assessments.  The source texts were only loosely aligned to the prompt, and to one another.

Frustrated, I began creating my own…literally researching and writing my own text sets and exemplars.  I made video tutorials  and practice activities to reinforce skills like analyzing the prompt and elaboration (always a challenge, that one).  Now, I’m fine-tuning those original lesson presentations with lessons learned over time, and I’m making them available to other teachers in an editable form.  Because we all have our own tips and methods to pass on — especially when it comes to writing.

Each new lesson presentation is available to my followers for FREE immediately following its introduction.  This post is to let you know I just released a PowerPoint on Body Paragraphs, and over the next month I’ll be uploading new presentations for Citing Text Evidence and Writing a Conclusion.  I’m also working on a new essay packet and additional practice activities suitable for use in literacy centers.  All materials will be available through  If you’re not already following me there, you may want to consider it.  Followers receive an email notice every time I upload a new product.

I appreciate your support.  I appreciate what you do for our students and our collective future.  (I don’t think any of us hear that enough!)  I’m honored to be a part of it!

Posted in Vocabulary

How To Set-Up a Greek and Latin Roots Study Routine (and Why You Should)

Before readers can comprehend a text, they must already know of 90%-95% of the words it contains.  Look at the sentences below where nonsense words have been substituted for real words to simulate gaps in the reader’s vocabulary.  Can you identify the action taking place?

Arkling, our final runner tiffled bambily across the finish line. (70% known)

Readers can identify that a runner is crossing the finish line in a race, but what’s important about it?  Are readers supposed to be happy for them or sharing disappointment that they were last?

Next, imagine this was sentence was testing your ability to use context clues.  Could you determine the meaning of tiffled?  As an ELA teacher or literacy coach you are obviously proficient in using context clues to decipher word meaning.  Unfortunately, without prior knowledge of the words arkling and bambily, that skill is only marginally helpful.  Is Arkling someone’s name? Using syntax and suffixes you can infer that tiffled is an action verb and bambily is an adverb describing how the runner tiffled.  Still, it’s not enough to truly comprehend the idea this sentence is trying to convey.

Now, let’s look at the same sentence, as read by someone whose vocabulary is more developed.

Wincing, our final runner tiffled unevenly across the finish line. (90% known)

Now, we can use the context clues wincing and unevenly to determine that tiffled means limped or hobbled.

A puny vocabulary can mask proficiency in other skills as well.  I remember analyzing mid-term scores with my PLC one year.  We were stumped by how many students missed a question about character traits.  They’d mastered the skill on formative tasks, and it was easy to infer that the character in question enjoyed bullying others.  After some investigation, we determined that it was the wording of the answer items that had stumped them.  Many of our students didn’t know what the term malicious meant, and so they’d dismissed what was, in fact, the correct answer choice.

One way to quickly cover a lot of ground in word-learning is to systematically teach word roots – those meaningful word parts that can be combined with prefixes, suffixes, and other roots to form new words. For example, the Latin root -mal- means “bad” or “evil” and the adjective suffix -ous means “characterized by” or “full of.”  Armed with this knowledge, even if students had never encountered the word malicious before, they could determine its meaning “characterized by evil.”

What makes teaching roots so powerful is that knowing what a single root means can unlock the definition of hundreds, if not thousands, of new words.  The root -mal- is a component of over 2-thousand individual words (at least according to my word game cheat site The Free Dictionary).

So, what’s the best way to teach root words, prefixes, and suffixes?  First, you need to determine which word parts will benefit your students the most.  Some districts publish word part lists like this one, specifying which roots and affixes should be targeted at each grade level.  You can also preview texts and make note of which word parts students will encounter while reading them.

It’s also important to make word structure a regular component of your instruction.  Learning word parts is not a “one and done” situation.  Students need to see and use that word part multiple times before it is incorporated into their vocabulary.

Last year, I did this by challenging my students to become “Word Watchers.” At the beginning of the year I taught students about base words, root words, prefixes, and affixes, showing them how knowledge of these word parts could be used to determine the meaning of new words.  Each week thereafter, I targeted a high-value root, prefix, or affix that students could be expected to encounter.  On Monday, I presented a micro-lesson:  added a Word Part Poster to our classroom Word Wall, called students’ attention to the target word, and shared examples.  Together we determined if it was a root word, prefix, or suffix.  Next, I passed out bookmarks with the same information on it.  I directed students to look for words containing that word part every time they read during the week.  They had to find three examples and record them on their bookmark, noting the word, underlining the word part, defining the word, and identifying the source.  (Students on access points searched for the example word itself or another word formed from its stem.)  At the end of the week, I reviewed the words on their bookmarks with them and they pasted them into their comp books.

This exercise ensured that students were exposed to the weekly word part multiple times.  It got them into the habit of looking for roots and affixes as they read.  It also created a reference they could use again and again throughout the year.  Assigning a summative grade for this standard was a simple matter of adding a few questions to each of our quarterly exams.  I culled the existing test passages for words containing the word parts we’d studied, and asked students to analyze or define them.

As an alternative to posters and bookmarks, you could post a weekly word part on a class bulletin board (or even write it in a reserved space on your whiteboard).  You might also substitute post-it notes for bookmarks—inviting students to record examples of the targeted root or affix on the note and sticking it beside the posted reference.

This practice, along with use of the digital root word flash cards featured in this previous post, helped my students make impressive vocabulary gains.  And because we returned to these word parts time and time again, I’m confident they’re still benefiting from the work we invested in learning them.

Posted in Assessment, Reading

Free Tools to Track Reading Growth

I had an eye-opening experience once during a faculty meeting. (Sounds like the start of a good joke, right?) But, I’m sure mine wasn’t the revelation the presenter had intended.  You see, she was reporting on reading scores, comparing our students’ gains with “the average” 100 Lexile points per year.

Here’s the rub. Ours was a middle school.  While gains around 100 Lexile points may be typical for grades 3-5, reading progress slows with age.  By middle school, the average Lexile increase is closer to 70 points per year.1   Although our students had grown more than twice as much as expected by mid-year, in the eyes of that administrator—and everyone else in the meeting that day–their achievement was little better than average. Rather than affirming the approach teachers were using, the news cast a shadow over it.

This incident underscores how important it is to have a realistic objective in mind for student growth. It factors into decisions about placement, instructional pacing, and which educational materials and methods to use.  It’s simply impossible to gauge the effectiveness of teaching–or student achievement, for that matter–if you’re using the wrong performance measure.

Realistic Reading Goals

Some of you may be fortunate enough to have a computer-based program to assess student reading levels and set individual goals for each child. Unfortunately, some teachers are simply given a state test score with the goal of having every student—regardless of their current reading level–meet or exceed a threshold deemed “proficient” for that grade. In such cases, it’s up to the teacher to map out accelerated growth targets for students already at or near proficiency.  Also, while we all hope students reading below grade level will catch up to their peers by year’s end—is that goal realistic?  Achievable goals are a lot more likely to motivate (not frustrate) students.

Measurement Tools

I’ve rounded up some resources to help you set your own student reading goals this year.  Use them to create individual growth plans, confirm your reading program’s objectives, or further educate your students, parents, or colleagues (whomever they may be).

Lexile Growth Forecaster (Online Tool)

Type in a student’s current Lexile, grade, and specified dates and this online calculator will generate their projected reading growth through high school. This chart is useful for showing students and parents how their progress compares with peers. Unfortunately, it does not generate specific Lexile targets.

Growth Expectations – Setting Achievable Goals (Professional Paper)

Use the tables in this comprehensive guide to identify a specific year-end Lexile target based on a student’s fall score and grade level.

Reading Level Correlation Chart

While the Lexile framework is one of the most widely used, it’s certainly not the only reading measure.  I’ve found this chart helpful for making “conversions” among different frameworks.

 What is Typical Growth?

In the same way children’s heights and growth rates vary, so do their reading levels. The most accurate projections take into consideration a student’s grade and initial reading level. That said, it is possible to make some generalizations.  MetaMetrics, the company behind Lexiles, offers these snapshots of typical year-to-year growth.

“What is Expected Growth?” White paper from MetaMetrics, Inc. (2006)

“Aligning the Journey With a Destination” White paper from The Lexile Framework for Reading (2006) –Data points interpolated from Figure 2

There are also two important trends consider.  First, students at lower Lexile levels tend to grow more than students in higher ranges.  Second, annual growth appears to slow significantly in secondary grades. The table below, from a professional paper collaboratively authored by Scholastic and MetaMetrics, more accurately depicts typical growth since it incorporates these differences.

“Growth Expectations: Setting Achievable Goals” Professional paper by Scholastic Research and MetaMetrics (2011)

Where generalizations must be made, the most accurate growth targets can be charted by averaging the actual Lexiles for the class or student body in question, and projecting growth typical for their grade and proficiency zone.

I wanted to involve students in setting their own reading goals and tracking their progress toward them.  So, I created these forms.  They take a middle-of-the-road approach–using the average growth for different proficiency bands at each grade level. I also included a stretch goal.  It underscores the idea that greater growth is directly tied to greater effort since stretch points are directly linked to additional practice. 2-5

I hope you find all this helpful and informative as you meet your new students, set goals for this year, and map out a plan for achieving them.

1 Williamson, Gary L. (2006).  What is Expected Growth?  Retrieved from

2 Renaissance (2018, January 23). The Magic of 15 Minutes:  Reading Practice and Reading Growth  Retrieved from

3 Reading Plus (2014, April). Research Brief Retrieved from

4 Achieve3000 (2014). National Lexile Study 2013-14 Retrieved from

5 Newsela (2018, February 4). Best Practices: Two Quizzes a Week for High Reading Gains Retrieved from

Posted in Vocabulary

Supplemental Vocabulary Practice

Teachers are advised to “teach vocabulary in context.”  Yet, our textbooks often have just a few word-building questions or activities.  Students–particularly middle school students–aren’t likely to retain those new words without repeated practice.  (To dig deeper into that research read my posts on the Fab Five Vocabulary strategies and using the spacing effect to bolster learning.)  To bridge this gap, I created supplemental vocab activities for the textbook selections my students were reading.  Last year, I shared resources created for the 6th grade textbook.  This year, I’ve started adding units for the 7th grade textbook as well.

I just uploaded the latest addition–a unit targeting vocabulary from the myth “The Flight of Icarus” and the poem “Icarus’s Flight.” For the next couple of days, you can try it for FREE!  Just log into my TPT store to download the new “Icarus Vocabulary Extension for HMH Collections.  Use the TPT link or click here.  A “Rogue Wave” vocabulary unit is already available, and I’m working on one now for the informational texts in Collection One.  If you like “Icarus” please share  your experience with other TPT users. You can also comment below.

Each set includes 5-pages of activities, each designed for use as a daily warm-up or self-contained literacy center.   On average, it takes students about 10-minutes to complete each activity.  You can review the answers using the included key.

In addition to learning new words, each unit focuses on a different type of context clue–with a mini-lesson that includes a list of common signal words.  Each unit also includes a language component–with either  a grammar mini-lesson or word part analysis.  So, this resource goes beyond most vocabulary activities–by teaching students strategies they can apply to ALL future reading.  There’s also a word puzzle included in each set because… language should be FUN!

In designing this resource, I tried to incorporate many “best practices” for word acquisition, including repeated encounters with the word in different contexts and a progressive sequence of instruction for context clues and grammar (this will be most notable if you use multiple units or bundles).

I’d love to know how you use this unit.  Comment below or leave feedback on the TPT product page.

Posted in Other

25 Inspiring Messages for Teachers

As teachers, we are called on to inspire others.  That means, our own passion needs to burn brightly for us to pass it on to others.  Keeping that spark alive can be difficult given how difficult teaching is.  So, like many teachers, I post clever sayings–in my planner, near my keyboard, on the fridge–to remind me who I want to be and why I work so hard at it.  As you prepare for the coming school year, I wanted to share a few of my favorites with you.  If you like them, save them to Pinterest (because what teacher doesn’t have an “inspirational quotes” Pinterest board) or use the link below to download all 25.

Do you have a favorite quote you’d like to share?

Add it to the comments section of this post!

Posted in Classroom Management

Champs 2.0 – My Take on a Classic Behavior Management Miracle

CHAMPs is nothing new, and quite frankly, that may be the best recommendation for revisiting it. Teachers have been singing its praises for more than a decade—which speaks volumes about its effectiveness in an age where educational initiatives turn over faster than a dealer flips cards in Vegas. But I’ll be honest with you. When CHAMPs was first presented to me, I loved the idea of it, but thought, I’ll never be able to keep up with it day in and day out.

Rather than abandon it completely, though, I made a few tweaks and wound up with a system so easy and effective that colleagues kept asking about it, and my principal had me lead a school-wide workshop on it. I call my modified system CHAMPS 2.0, and I’m going to share my changes with you so you can implement it (or update its use) in your own classroom.

Now, this post isn’t a deep dive into CHAMPs itself. If you want an introduction, watch creator Randy Sprick describe it in this video overview . Or, order a copy of the CHAMPs workbook to learn all of the nitty-gritty details. For the purposes of this post, it’s enough to say CHAMPs is all about communicating clear expectations for building a positive and productive classroom environment. What I found problematic about it was how the program recommended I communicate those expectations to students—creating posters, in advance, for each activity, then changing posters whenever we transitioned to a new task.  That’s a big red flag for me.

You see, or maybe you know this from personal experience, middle school students have the attention span of a squirrel. (No judgement-just stating a fact.) We never spend more than 15 or 20 minutes on any one thing. Plus, I tend to use a HUGE variety of learning activities to keep things fresh. That translated to creating dozens and dozens of different posters that I’d have to store and shuffle through, posting and reposting that day’s selections through each class – seven times a day! Nope. I knew myself well enough to know that even if I assigned a student to be my “poster changer,” I’d have to invest time every day sorting through myriads of CHAMPs posters and prepping them for easy access.  Which brings us to my mods.

Modification #1: Display
Initially, I tried adding a CHAMPS slide to each PowerPoint presentation, but unless I could leave that slide up during each activity (and often I wanted to show instructions, text, or examples instead) it defeated the purpose of posting the expectations for easy reference. Eventually, I hit upon this solution… using binder rings and page protectors. It was simple, easy to swap out when we changed activities, and always available to point to whenever students needed a gentle reminder. I’ve seen other teachers use wall charts with similar success, but I wanted something that was easy to read from across the room.

Modification #2: Adding Time
Each letter in the acronym CHAMPs stands for something: Conversation, Help, Activity, Movement, and Participation. Technically, the S stands for “Success” and isn’t so much an expectation as a reminder of the desired outcome. Now, I quickly realized that students also need a timeframe for each activity to help them budget their time. (I realized this, of course, after having to tack the allocated time onto my CHAMPs spiel each and every time I presented a new task.) So, for my display, I changed the S to “synchronize” instead. (Actually, I gratefully credit veteran teacher and author Judy S. Gould for this innovation… offered to me during my first years of teaching. Thanks, Judy.)

While there is no silver bullet putting an end classroom misbehavior (*deep sigh*), CHAMPS is by far the most effective behavior management system in my arsenal. If I had to estimate, I’d say it eliminated about 70% of the errant hijinks and established a non-confrontational way to address the rest. It’s like this quote I found on Pinterest says of disruptive students, “They’re not giving you hard time; they’re having a hard time.” CHAMPS is just a way to reveal and remind students what they should be doing in order to thrive.