Posted in Writing

Uncommonly Good Commentary

In a workshop designed to deepen teachers’ understanding of our state writing assessment, I was struck by just how much emphasis is placed on student commentary. It makes sense. That’s one place where the author’s voice can be most clearly heard. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the places where my students seem to struggle the most.

When the new standards were first introduced, I invested a lot of energy teaching students how to analyze a text and find relevant evidence to back their ideas. But, ever since that workshop, I spend even more time showing them how to add their own commentary to build on that foundation of evidence. Keep in mind, I teach those who struggle with reading. Essay-writing is twice as formidable to them. So, I have to provide lots of examples and mentor texts to model how authors elaborate on their ideas. And, I have to break down each example to show them what makes it tick.elaborationhandout

Here’s what works for me. I focus on six types of commentary: facts, examples, definitions, reasons, importance, and process. At this point, I don’t try to distinguish between elaboration and explanation… I just lump all six together as elaboration.  This handout defines and gives examples of each of the six. My goal is to expose them to these six elaboration techniques as much as possible, so when their role is to author an essay, the possibilities will come to mind.

elaboration-ticketsOf course, you can present the techniques and challenge students to try their hand at writing each one, but unless your students already have a firm grasp on writing, this may prove difficult. Instead, I have them analyze numerous examples of each technique, so they start to see patterns and can replicate those patterns on their own. To that end I created an elaboration game that requires students to match examples of elaboration with the technique used to write it.

I use small numbered cards, twenty in all, each elaborating on one of five different topics.  I print up several sets  of these cards, each on a different color paper, so several students on the activity at one time without mixing up cards.  (I place each set of cards in an envelope or small baggie to keep them organized.)  Each student also gets an answer sheet.

The answer sheet has five boxed “paragraphs” consisting of a topic sentence and cited evidence only. Each ticket elaborates on one of the paragraphs. Students must first sort the tickets by topic, identifying which tickets match each paragraph.  This step passively teaches them how authors use key words and synonyms to add cohesion to paragraphs.  Next, students  analyze each example of commentary to determine if it uses a fact, example, definition, reason, statement of importance, or describes a process to elaborate on the given topic.  In this step, they learn to look for signal words and text structures associated with each technique.  Students record their answers by noting the card number next to technique it represents under the appropriate paragraph.  When they finish, they can check their work against the answer key.  Or, I’ll review their work, put a check mark on the correct answers, and have them revisit and reanalyze incorrect answers.

Another teacher wanted to use this as a quick review for her students. So, she printed a class set of the table containing the numbered examples and saved the time of cutting apart each ticket. This worked for her since her students can easily handle multi-step processes. My kiddos need to take it a step at a time, sorting by topic first, and then analyzing the author’s technique. Plus, the manipulative aspect keeps them more engaged.

We both agreed, however, that all of the students benefitted from the extra exposure and practice.  elaboration-AS

Posted in Vocabulary

Tiny Cards – Big Results

In my previous post I addressed the importance of moving knowledge from working memory to long-term memory.  Of course, practice is an important factor, but did you know you can speed up retention by carefully timing that practice?  Spaced repetition uses a research-based formula to present information in the most efficient order for learning.

Now, one of the biggest challenges my struggling readers face is a puny vocabulary.  The deficit impacts their comprehension.  It also causes them to miss test questions measuring concepts they know because they’re unfamiliar with the vocabulary in the answerchoices.  As you can imagine, I put a lot of time into developing their vocabulary.  I find I get the most bang for my buck by teaching root words and affixes – since I can teach one root, and they can extrapolate from that the meaning of dozens of new words.

Recently, I discovered a flash-card program that lets me combine the power of spaced repetition with the power of root words… and I was amazed at the results.  In just 15-20 minutes of practice with TinyCards, my intensive reading students learned 25 root words with 80% accuracy.  We continued to revisit the cards from time to time, and on our end-of-quarter test students demonstrated they had not only retained the knowledge of these common roots, they were able to apply it to new word identification with the same 80% accuracy.

The TinyCard program is free, and I’m sharing a link to the root word cards referenced above.  I added simple illustrations to my card set, since illustrations have been proven to increase retention.  If you decide to try it, or if you’ve used these cards before (or a similar program called Anki), I’d love to hear about your results as well.


Posted in Games

Game-Changer: Practice Disguised as Play

We’ve all been there.  You deliver a brilliant lesson.  It is engaging, students readily grasp the new information and demonstrate their understanding by applying it to the task at hand.  Fast-forward a few weeks (let’s call it “test day”), and students now appear to be struggling with a concept you were sure they had already mastered.  It’s not that the original lesson failed; the information you taught just didn’t transition from working memory to long-term memory.

Now, take that same lesson, add a few techniques proven to aid the retention of knowledge–repetition, use of multiple formats, and emotional engagement–and those new ideas become truly unforgettable.  Using games, which include all of the aforementioned memory-boosters, to practice new skills can take learning to that next level.

First, games provide for repetition, and unlike the traditional worksheet, well-designed games give students immediate feedback.   Games are multi-sensory, using touch, color, and sound to engage and stimulate players’ minds and bodies.   Also, games with multiple players who either collaborate or engage in friendly competition require interaction and foster authentic social and emotional connections.   Finally, unlike graded assignments, games are often perceived as low-risk activities by struggling students.   Some of my reluctant readers who chronically “misplace” paper and pencil assignments are among the first in line to play learning games that challenge them to exercise the exact same skills.  They also have more stamina for repeated practice when it is delivered in game form.


Some skills and standards naturally lend themselves to game-play.   Anything calling for students to analyze a sentence or paragraph, such as text structures, author’s purpose, context clues, or figurative language, can be made into a game using task cards to score points or move around a game board.   Teaching character traits?  Challenge students to write a few descriptive sentences detailing positive traits about a classmate on index cards.  Read the cards aloud, and challenge students to identify the student.   Need to reinforce a lesson on cause and effect?  Create a series of cause-effect card pairs, distribute them among students, challenge them to circulate and compare cards until they find their “match.”


For instance, one card might read, “I left them in the oven too long,” and another would read, “The cookies burned.”  You can even add a writing task to practice transitions by challenging students to then write a sentence that joins the cause-effect statements with an appropriate signal phrase.  I tell my students that they have to combine the sentences, writing their card’s statement first and their partner’s statement second, so they learn which transitions signal causes and which signal effects.  So, one student writes “Since I left them in the oven too long, the cookies burned.”  Their partner writes, ” The cookies burned because I left them in the oven too long.”  (If you’d like to try this in your classroom, you can download my cause-effect matching cards here.)

Technology can also be employed for game-style learning reinforcement.   I often use  Quizizz as a warm-up to review material we’re going to build on later that day.  Read.Write.Think. and  Shepperd Games have a variety of read-to-play Language Arts interactives that promote literacy.

Whether you’re using online games, task cards, game boards or the ubiquitous Jeopardy PowerPoint, games are a sure-fire way to get student buy-in for deliberate practice.


You may also be interested in…


(This is a paid product, but the free preview includes 12 figurative language task cards.)


Posted in Writing

Quickest Way to Score Essays

rubricsIn my book, grading student writing is one of the most daunting tasks faced by any teacher.   Considering the time it takes to read each heartfelt word your students have penned, analyze their technique, comment on strengths and offer advice on how to improve it — at a minimum we area talking about two hours per class per paper.   Expediting that process would give us back some of our lost personal lives, and it would also give students more timely feedback.  Toward that end, I never attend an NCTE conference without hitting at least one session dedicated to this worthy goal.  Over the years, I have discovered and tested many innovative methods, including: post-it scoring (where students choose which trait they want you to assess for each piece), audio feedback (where teachers record comments about highlighted text, usually in digital format), and peer-review (which involves students using checklists to offer constructive criticism to one another).  Each method has its pros and cons, but in the end they did not really shave much time off the task.

Eventually, I always returned to the trusty rubric… where the complicated writing process is broken down into its most basic components and a quick stroke of the pen rates student performance on each of these elements.  After grading (literally) thousands of student essays, I was able to identify common areas of strength and weakness, reflecting that in the progression toward mastery that each column of the rubric defines.  I created one for each targeted skill, and I am happy to share some of mine with you here.

Typically, I use the rubrics to either grade student writing overnight (I usually break up essay-writing paragraph-by-paragraph), meeting with students the next day for a one-to-one (and one minute long) mini-conference about their writing.  If I am pressed for time, I sometimes even score the work during the conference as I meet with each young author.   Each rubric offers a quick assessment of the targeted skill, and makes it easy to identify the area where students most need to improve.  At the same time, the next steps are already spelled out.   Below, I am including links to three writing rubrics I developed and have honed over the years.   I’m including both PDF and MS Word formats, and information about the fonts I used, so you can edit them to meet your own needs.

Writing Rubrics (zip file)

After meeting with students, I often “prescribe” a video tutorial for them to review before they make revisions.  In a previous post, I shared tips on using and creating lesson videos.  You will also find links to several of my free writing tutorials in the menu to your right.   Enjoy, and don’t forget to subscribe to get more ideas and freebies from All-Star ELA.

Posted in Writing

Multi-Task With Tutorials

videosTeachers are masters at wringing every second out of our limited instructional time.  Last year, though, as I graded student writing –and made a list of all the topics I needed to go over with my kiddos–I realized there simply was not enough time to cover it all during class.   While I knew many teachers were flipping the classroom, assigning reading or lessons at home that were then practiced during class, I had never seriously considered it since I was hard pressed to get students to spend even ten minutes finishing work they had begun in class.

I usually hold mini-conferences with my young writers, either individually or with small groups, discussing what they did well and what their next steps should be.    At times I feel like a broken record repeating, “Before diving into your opinion on this topic, you have to grab your reader’s attention and give them a reason to care about it.”  Finally, it occurred to me that I could create a video of these same mini-lessons, and instead of having to deliver each one personally, I could use my conference time to triage student essays and then prescribe the lesson that would benefit each student the most.

The multi-media format appeals to a variety of learning styles, and it lets me use color and graphics to highlight important concepts and I can include lots of model texts.   To create each video, I started with a Powerpoint presentation, then I scripted it and used the Record Slide Show feature to narrate and animate each slide.   The program even let me save it in different formats, so I could upload them to the internet and put links on my class webpage.

Students tell me that they often go back to the videos again and again, or pause and play them while they write.   It was effective, too.   Their writing improved by leaps and bounds. In fact, my struggling readers and writers averaged about the same on the state writing assessment as did the advanced and gifted students at our school.   I can tell you we were all celebrating their achievement!

Best of all, this year, when it was time to tackle text-based essays again, I already had several solid lesson videos I could reuse.   This leaves me free to work on adding to my collection.  I’m currently working on one that focuses on the introductory paragraph in an essay.  I will be making it available for free as well.  If you want to be notified when I post it, please subscribe.

Happy writing.



cause-effect essay


Posted in Other

All-Star ELA

Most teachers KNOW exactly what their kids need to reach the next level, which is why it is so frustrating when you don’t have the time needed to develop the lessons and materials you envision. Collaboration is the key; it just needs to take place on a larger scale than a single school community to be truly effective.

Here, I share ideas and resources I’ve tested in my own classroom. Every week, I’ll add something new — with lots of freebies and monthly giveaways.