Posted in Classroom Management, Other

“Signing” Social Contracts

Boost Buy-In for Class ExpectationsLast year I wrote about a B2S lesson that was wildly successful.  If you didn’t get a chance to read it, you can find it here. Today, I wanted to build on it by telling you how we formalized our social contracts—in a way that made them an oft-referenced classroom fixture.

Social contracts emerge from thoughtful discussion and spell out the expectations the students and teacher have for one another.  Those expectations are written out,  and all the stakeholders sign the document to signify their agreement to uphold it.  Then, it is posted in the classroom as a visual reminder.

I’ve used social contracts for many years, but to be honest, after the first quarter I rarely referred to them—until I found a way to make them more personal.

While mulling over ideas for an upcoming lesson on multiple meaning words, I had an epiphany.  Instead of having students sign their name to a list of rules and expectations—why not have them create a sign identifying a specific contribution they’ll make to enrich our class community. I’d photograph them holding their sign and post the pictures around the room.  Think “pet-shaming” with an affirmation instead of a rebuke.

Part of the process of creating a social contract involves brainstorming specific acts that exemplify each ideal.  So, when we got to that step, I simply had students write their chosen action on a small whiteboard, then I snapped a photo of it.  To reinforce each person’s role in community-building, I asked students to describe their chosen action using an “I will…” statement.  (As you can see, this direction was not always followed…but it WAS day one, after all.) Don’t forget to create your own sign for each class identifying steps you’ll take to establish a respectful and productive classroom.

Now, our school is very particular about photographing students, so I framed each shot so it did not show student faces. Even if your school doesn’t have this restriction, it actually works in your favor to frame shots this way.  Not only is it visually interesting, but students love to study the photos and guess who was behind each sign.

Displaying the resulting document is an important part of the social contract process.  So, I grouped the photos by class, arranged them using PowerPoint (Word works just as well), and printed them out on poster-sized paper.  If your school doesn’t have a poster-printer, you could simply print and group the photos by hand – or better yet, have students arrange and paste photos on a poster.  Then, display them in the room all year.

Using photos differentiated our social contracts from others around the school.  It personalized our agreements in a way a signature just does not do.  It also added a level of engagement that, for whatever reason, called our attention back to the ideal of working together again and again.

 

Posted in Other, Reading

Best Books for Reluctant Middle School Readers

It’s a vicious cycle. Students who do not read well avoid it at all costs. Yet, reading more is precisely they must do to overcome those deficits.  In What Really Matters for Middle School Readers reading expert Richard Allington points out that a key component for improving literacy is expanding the daily volume of “high-success” reading.  He defines that as text students can read independently with 98% accuracy.  Sadly, for struggling readers, school issued grade-level texts are not likely to meet these criteria.

How can those tasked with closing the reading gap for these students overcome this Catch-22?  One element, of course, lies in teaching students the vocabulary and strategies to build their reading proficiency.  Another element, the one this post will focus on, is giving reluctant readers the opportunity to engage with Hi-Lo books—high interest texts written at a lower reading level.

Last year I was fortunate enough to work with Kristin Badger, a school librarian who made such books a priority.  She created a special section in our library and stocked it with over a hundred Hi-Lo titles from Orca Publishing.  These books cover topics of interest to those from ages 10 to 14, but with reading levels ranging from grade 2 to 6.  They look just like your typical tween books and are not identified as “easy” reads, so there’s no stigma attached to checking them out.  Kristin visited all of our intensive reading classes to unveil the new section and let students in on their “secret” purpose.  My 7th and 8th grader remedial readers devoured them—so much so that the library had to purchase more to keep up with demand.

There are many popular mainstream books as well that appeal to middle school readers who struggle.  My classroom library–nearly ten years in the making–includes hundreds of popular books, many geared to the standard-level and struggling readers I teach.  (Read my tips for starting a similar class library and get my 100+ book list here.)  Here are some of the books my students really enjoyed.

NOTE: I’ve linked each title to its Amazon write-up, but I get no compensation—zilch, zip, nada—if you click the link.  These recommendations are based solely on what my struggling readers really read.

THE CROSSOVER by Kwame Alexander

Guys can’t get enough of this novel in verse about basketball and coming of age.  That’s right!  Your struggling reader, middle school boys will clamor to read this book that features different styles of poetry in each chapter.  Even better, this award-winner is the first in a series that includes Booked (a soccer story told in poetry) and Rebound (a Crossover prequel that ups the interest-factor by including graphic novel panels alongside the poetry).

I, FUNNY by James Patterson

James Patterson is such a gifted writer, and since he turned his attention to novels specifically crafted for the middle-school set, he’s put out numerous books that could appear on this list.  This one, though, is the book I can’t keep on my library shelves.  As the name suggests, it’s hilarious—often in a bathroom humor sort of way—that prompts readers to laugh out loud (which piques their peers’ curiosity, ensuring the perpetual popularity of this title).

I SURVIVED… (series) by Lauren Tarshis

These true-life tales are written in a narrative style that makes it easy to get lost in the story.  They are a quick read—just over 100 pages—each focusing on a historical battle or natural disaster that is a sure-fire way to engage the boys in your class.  There are even teaching resources you can use with many of the books to test comprehension or practice reading skills like figurative language or inferences.  The top reads in this series (for my students at least) were The Sinking of the Titanic, The Eruption of Mount St. Helens, and The Shark Attacks of 1916.

OUT OF MY MIND by Sharon Draper

This book reminded me of Wonder, though it proved even more popular among my reluctant reader girls.  The determined female protagonist is a key reason.  The subject matter—dealing with a disability that makes communication a challenge—was another.  Your students will cheer for Melody she finds fights to be heard and appreciated for who she really is.

SMILE by Raina Telgemeier

I was surprised to find that both boys as well as girls enjoyed this graphic novel series by the author of the Babysitter’s Club books.  I LOVE that graphic novels encourage struggling readers to build vocabulary by offering visual context for words like amicable, catastrophe, epicenter and negligence (all found within the covers of this book).

UNGIFTED by Gordon Korman

Reluctant readers can identify with the middle-school underdog protagonist who challenges other people’s perception of him.  Written at a 730 Lexile level (approximately 4th grade), it’s nonetheless designed to appeal to the middle school crowd.  I also heartily recommend other books by this prolific author (more than 50 middle school/teen books), including Restart (about bullying) and The Unteachables (that you just might enjoy even more than your students).

WARCROSS by Marie Lu

This one is for your reluctant girl readers!  Written by award-winning sci-fi author Marie Lu, it has all the ingredients for success – romance, a powerful female lead, a videogame competition, and espionage!  Be forewarned, the action includes some violence, language, and a steamy hot tub scene (all tween appropriate, in my opinion).  This isn’t your unicorns and rainbows book for girls—it’s much more engaging than that.

WHO WAS. . . (series) by Penguin Publishing

Designed to appeal to student in grades 3-6, these books were still quite popular with my middle school readers.  With over 200 titles to choose from (I’m including the related series: Who Is, Where Is, and What Is), students can use them in conjunction with classroom texts to build background knowledge on numerous historical people and places.  Netflix has even created a sketch comedy series based on these books.  (Wouldn’t that be a fun way to introduce reluctant readers to the series?)  My students’ faves in this series were the books about Michael Jordan, Walt Disney, and Abraham Lincoln.

These were the top picks in my classroom. I’d love to hear about the books that hooked your young readers.  Leave a comment below.

Posted in Other, Reading

Tips for Building Your Classroom Library

Build it, and they will READ!  New language arts teachers at my school have asked me if they really need to spend money on classroom books.  I get it.  Books are expensive, and new teachers are already opening up their own wallets for furnishings and other class necessities.  Further, many may reason that the school library is already providing students with easy access to books.  But if you truly want to encourage independent reading (and you should, but that’s another post), you absolutely must have a selection of engaging, quality books on hand in your classroom.  You don’t have to break the bank to do it either.  Here are my tips for curating a classroom library that will entice even the most reluctant readers to dive into a good book.

Tip #1: Making Books Accessible

There are two reasons why having books in your classroom makes reading more accessible.  First, students come in contact with your class books every single time they enter your room.  They don’t have to make a special trip to the library or wait until the whole class visits.  Second, books from the classroom library are often available when school library books are not.  For example, my reluctant readers often forgot to return school library books they’d checked out, making them ineligible for new check-outs.  Also, popular titles are often on waiting lists, so having them on hand in your classroom gives your students an alternative way to enjoy them.

Maximize this accessibility by showcasing your books.  Organize books using student-friendly categories like Adventure, Biographies, Science Fiction, Graphic Novels, Books Girls Like, and Books Boys Like.  Then, group them in labeled baskets, with the covers facing out.  Publishers put a lot of effort into enticing readers to pick up a particular title—catchy titles and appealing cover art.  Take advantage of their marketing to sell your students on reading.

Struggling readers often need different books than those typically carried in a school library.  Who knows your student’s interests and reading ability better than you?  My library offers many Hi-Lo titles with teen themes written in language accessible to struggling readers.  In addition, I stock several popular novels translated into Spanish to encourage my English-language learners to dive into books they can later discuss with their English-speaking peers.  If you’re lucky enough to have a responsive media center specialist at your school, they may be able to order these types of books as well.  Frankly, I just found it infinitely faster (Amazon Prime 2-Day Shipping) and easier (no paperwork) to purchase some myself.

Tip #2: Buying the Right Books… Inexpensively

It won’t matter how many books you make available in your class library—if students don’t find them interesting, they’ll gather more dust than readers.  I’ve put together a list of books that have been wildly popular among my middle grade students [here].  It took nearly ten years to assemble them all, and I rotate new titles in throughout the year (and remove those that are no longer in demand).  A great resource for identifying promising new titles are state reading lists that employ volunteer librarian-readers to peruse several hundred relatively new titles every year before making their recommendations on the very best of them.  These lists are generally crafted to reflect a wide range of reading levels and student interests.  Two of the most well-regarded MS book lists are issued by Florida’s Sunshine State Young Readers and Texas’s Lone Star Reading List.  If you want a turnkey solution, Scholastic has grade level collections recommended by reading expert Laura Robb.  These collections include two copies each of 50 different books at reading and interest levels appropriate for that grade.  Truthfully, I have a few sets of duplicate books for use with reading circles, but I prefer to devote my limited budget and shelf space to as many different titles as possible.

Like all teachers I am, by necessity, frugal.  The only time I pay full price for a book is when I’m purchasing it at a book fair that supports my school.  Most of my books come from eBay auctions or other used booksellers like Thriftbooks or Better World Books (which supports libraries and literacy campaigns).  Where possible, buy hard cover books (they hold up ten times longer with my tough-on-books middle schoolers) rated Very Good, Like New, or New.  I also solicit donations from parents of any age-appropriate books their children have already read by including a slide in my “Open House” presentation and a mention on my class webpage.  Also, find out when your local library is having a sale by checking the Book Sale Finder website.  This is a great place to stock up on quality hardbound books.

Tip #3: Managing Your Collection

When your goal is to put books into the hands of your students, you need to establish an easy system for check-in/check-out and follow-up for missing titles.  If you use a smart phone or iPad in the classroom, there are many free or inexpensive apps that simplify this process such as Bookcrawler, Level It Books, and Book Buddy Pro.  I personally liked Book Buddy.  But for many years, I went Old School, pasting book pockets and inserting library cards inside the cover of each book.  When students checked out a book, I’d file the library card with their name and date (students were trained to do this on Week One) in a small plastic card file.  I organized cards by student last names (to identify students who already had a book out), but you can also organize them by date (to track when books are due) or by title (simplifies reshelving returned books).

One thing I highly recommend is that teachers write their last name on the pinched pages of the top and bottom of each book.  Bookplates with your name on it are nice, but it’s too easy to overlook a lost book left on a bus seat, kitchen counter, or lost-and-found bin if it isn’t prominently advertised as being borrowed.  Before I did this, I’d say I lost several dozen books each year.  Once I added my name in bold black letters, my returns spiked—and I only had to replace six or seven books at year’s end.

This brings up a good point.  Expect to lose a few books each year.  Consider it a fixed cost–like the hundreds of “loaned” pencils we will never see again.  If the book was a popular classic, I replace it.  But if it was an aging fad fiction title (think: Twilight, Maze Runner, Divergent, or any book that has since been made into a tween movie) I use the loss as an opportunity to update my collection.

You probably already have several books lying around that you’ve read either in consideration for a novel study or just to converse with your students about them.  If so, your library is already under construction.  Once you’ve accumulated at least one book for each student you teach, you’ll have enough to start lending them out (not every student will borrow your books).  Until then, just making them available for students to read in class will go a long way toward establishing a culture of loving literature.

Posted in Other

A Checklist to Help Pack Your Classroom

The last round of testing may signal the imminent arrival of summer for students, but teachers still have two big hurdles ahead of them: finalizing grades and packing up the classroom. While I can’t do much to help with the former, I can offer some tips based on years of experience that includes changing classrooms (many, many times) and moving to a new school (thankfully, just once).

Whether you’re moving or just required to pack up to facilitate classroom maintenance, my End-Of-Year Classroom Checklist can help you break this daunting task into manageable steps that take the hassle out of packing up your room. It even includes a suggested timeline that can help you stay ahead of the stress. Of course, you can adapt it to fit your situation and needs.

Anywhere from two to three weeks before the end of the student school year, I start by organizing technology. By starting with “invisible” classroom changes first, I’ve found it minimizes disruption and helps students stay focused on any last-minute projects or make-up work. To be honest, I start my year by organizing files and email as described on the attached list, so by the end of the year I’m just double-checking to be sure I’ve saved all my files and communication in the correct spot. But it’s never too late to create this type of file organization to archive important digital records. I enlist the students’ help in “wiping” student computers—removing any photos or student files residing on computer hard drives. If your school requires you to disconnect your computers, keyboards, mice, and network cables, be sure to take a picture with your cellphone beforehand, so you have a template when the time comes to reconnect everything (and still have it function properly).

One to two weeks out, I start clearing out bookshelves and cabinets, beginning by asking students to take home their consumable workbooks, interactive notebooks, and writing portfolios. Student volunteers always help me reorganize my classroom library. I already have books tagged and grouped by genre (Adventure, Poetry, Graphic Novels, etc.) in sturdy stackable baskets. I’m fortunate to have both open bookshelves and cabinets with doors. We stack all the books inside the cabinets to keep them from getting dusty (or overly exposed to heat and sun) over the summer.

When I first started teaching, I kept everything… every file, every gently used composition book, every student-drawn card. It accumulated so quickly it became unmanageable. Now, I toss all of my extra handouts; I’ve got digital copies that are easier to find. I throw away half-used supplies, most of which dried up over the summer or were eschewed by my new students as “old and gross.” Even those treasured student-created masterpieces are eventually discarded (at home) after I snap a picture of them for my digital “memory book.” After all, it’s the thought that counts, isn’t it? That stays with me forever.

I don’t dismantle bulletin boards or take down classroom posters until the final week students are in school. I create new anchor charts each year, so I offer the old ones to students who wish to take them home. Take photos to help you replicate them down the road.  If you use fabric, like I do, as a bulletin board background, you can leave it in place as long as it isn’t tattered or faded.  However, I  like to replace the bulletin board borders with fresh ones each year to freshen up the room. If removed borders are in good shape, you can roll them up and store in a plastic tub, or stack and secure border strips with a binder clip and hang them on a command hook in a closet or other out-of-the-way spot.

I cannot stress enough how helpful it is to use student labor to organize, pack, discard, and move materials in your classroom. I used to feel guilty about it, until I realized how much they enjoy helping. Even my 8th graders felt honored to play a role in preparations for “next year’s kids” and vied for the chance to move baskets of books to my new classroom. Of course, it never hurts to reward them with some small token of your appreciation as well.

While I may start thinning out items that have accumulated in my desk over the course of the last few weeks of school–by now I’ve amassed an astonishing collection of fidget toys, coins, rubber bands and one miniature rubber chicken (don’t even ask)—I generally save the final desk clean-out for the last day of post-planning—sans students. Again, be ruthless in getting rid of items you don’t really need. The more you purge now, the less you have to sort, pack, and move later.

Record-keeping is tricky, but I’ve found that keeping student files (attendance records, behavior documentation, ESE accommodation lists and details, parent communication, and retake exam documents) for ONE YEAR ONLY has been more than adequate. Some schools also require teachers to save and submit all lesson plans. I keep mine digitally and just turn in a thumb drive where required. When discarding anything containing student information, be sure to shred it or use whatever security protocol your school has in place for disposing of sensitive data.

Last, a few thoughts on packing and storage. I use a mix of cardboard boxes and milk crates. Where possible, use standard sizes to make stacking and storing them a breeze. Some teachers love clear plastic bins, but I don’t find them to be sturdy enough for me. Secondary teachers tend to move from room to room more often, and thin-walled plastic cracks easily when hoisted about, especially when bins get heavy. Plastic milk crates are more durable, and you can see the contents inside. Plus, mine pull double duty as “Lost and Found,” “Returned Books,” and “Student Folders” containers during the school year. Label everything–even furniture–with your name, and classroom number. Include a content description for any boxes you can’t see through.  Boxed belongings and furniture often moves inexplicably over the summer. Properly labeled furnishings find their way back to you again.

Hopefully, these tips will help make this year’s classroom pack-up a little easier, so you can truly enjoy the last few days with your kiddos. You’ve made a tremendous difference in their lives! Enjoy the respite you so richly deserve.

[PDF Checklist]   [Word Checklist]

Posted in Assessment, Reading

A New Resource To Help Students Read Old Classics

Getting a Grip on Classic LitClassic literature is tough for today’s students. The formality, complicated sentence structures and use of archaic words is intimidating. It’s a pretty safe bet, though, it will be part of your state or district’s end-of-year testing. When reviewing my state’s released tests, I found that every one of them—from grades 5 through 10—included text written over a hundred years ago. So, how can we help students prepare, not just for the reading skills they’ll need to master, but for the stamina and confidence required to tackle these uniquely complex texts?

First, it’s important to understand just what makes classic literature so daunting. Take this excerpt from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

ARCHAIC USE OF WORDS
Seventh graders at our school must tackle this text, and even though it doesn’t contain the even more forbidding thee, thou, and thine (a triple-threat which actually has to be translated into present-day English pronouns), it brings my struggling readers up short every time. Does “Mind!” mean the author is being introspective, addressing himself (as he certainly appears to be later in the paragraph)? Is “Mind!” a command to behave? (My students are apparently familiar with this usage.) In fact, here it means neither and “Mind!” is instead a lost meaning of the word asking the reader to “pay attention.”  Forging ahead, students are then derailed by “ironmongery” and the less familiar use of “trade” to mean business (not a swap).

COMPLICATED STRUCTURE
Old English is quite verbose. Whereas today’s communicator often wants to “get right to the point,” many classic texts feature a great deal of introspection and complex sentence structures that often interrupt one idea with another, parenthetical thought. At times it can be redundant, “…I know, of my own knowledge…” or “I might have been inclined, myself…” It is also painfully formal “You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically…” Obviously, Dickens was never influenced by the Nike motto: Just do it!

All of this is to say, Old English is troublesome because it is not something students encounter every day. Which got me to thinking… what if they did?  What if I could indoctrinate my students in the ways of Ye Olde Tyme texts with brief, but repeated exposure to same? For just a few minutes each day, we’d apply a reading skill they’d already learned to a couple of paragraphs of more challenging classic literature. It was also important to me that they get vocabulary support, where needed, and immediate feedback on their efforts. I combined this idea with my desire to review the important reading skills we’d been working on all year and started creating daily warm-ups that feature challenging texts.

This is how I’m prepping my kids for the state test. Every day, they complete one half-page activity during the first four or five minutes of class. I leave a stack of them at the front of the room, and—with minimal direction—students quickly learned to pick one as they entered and immediately work on it. After I’ve taken attendance and handled whatever pressing business presented itself (inevitably), we review the answers together. I call on student volunteers (or volun-tolds) to share their answers along with their thinking. This creates an opportunity to model valuable test-taking strategies. “What is the question asking for?” “Why isn’t ____ the right answer?” “Why is the answer you chose correct?” The review can be as brief or as extensive as your time or situation requires. If I have time while students are working, I circulate—making a point to consult with any student who seems to be struggling.

I mix it up a little. Some days they get a literary text, other days it’s informational. Even many of the nonfiction pieces are more challenging classics: a speech by Amelia Earhart, a political cartoon from the 1920s, the classic “Yes, Virginia…” New York Sun editorial. That variety, too, is good preparation for year-end assessments.

Using these warm-ups, my students grew more confident and more proficient reading complex texts. A colleague who spotted them at the copier one day asked to use them, too. Our classes couldn’t be more different. She teaches gifted and advanced sixth graders, while I was teaching 7th and 8th grade struggling readers. When we compared notes later, both groups benefitted (and we enjoyed how engaging the task was… truly bell to bell learning).

Even better… this activity takes very little time—about five minutes a day. With so many standards to cover and review before test day, this was a no brainer. We covered dozens of different skills, built vocabulary, and increased student confidence and stamina with complex texts.

If you want to try it in your classroom, I’m including a link to a free one-week supply—five unique warm-ups to give your students practice with classic and complex texts. Since they’re basically targeted mini-assessments, you could also use them as exit slips or quizzes, too. I’d love to know what you think!

Posted in Reading

Simplify Text for Struggling Readers #2

In last week’s post, I showcased three resources I use that offer the same text at multiple reading levels to help you scaffold reading tasks for less proficient readers.  Sometimes, though, you don’t have the luxury of choosing your own texts for use in the classroom.  Or, you may have a specific text you want to use written at a level not yet accessible to some students.  In that scenario, these resources can be helpful.  While you may have to register for access, all of these tools are online (no downloading or installation of apps) and they’re FREE.

REWORDIFY (rewordify.com)

This website lets you copy and paste existing text (or key it in if there’s no copy option), highlighting difficult words and substituting simpler alternatives.  For example, if a text reads “A brutal cold descended on Chicago…” Rewordify translates this to, “ A violent/difficult cold move downward/originated upon Chicago…”  As you can see, it’s helpful for identifying words struggling readers are likely to stumble over, and for suggesting a simpler way to say each one.  Unfortunately, the resulting text still needs to be reviewed by human eyes and a brain and tweaked to produce the more readable “A terrible cold moved down into Chicago.”  Frankly, I use this more to identify vocabulary words I want to teach explicitly than as a translation tool.  Some teachers like to teach students to use it themselves as a vocabulary-building/support tool.  Rewordify also has a library of 300 simplified classic texts.

PROS:  Ease of use; identifies challenging vocabulary and suggests simpler word/phrase substitutions; automatically generates word lists and vocabulary-building activities.

CONS:  Translations are often cumbersome and make it difficult to follow the passage’s train of thought.

 

SIMPLISH (simplish.org)

Like Rewordify, this site allows users to input text by typing, copying and pasting, or by providing a URL.  With a click of the button of your choice, the text is then simplified or summarized.  I know teachers who love this tool, but my tests yielded less than stellar results.  (It kept “sensing” that my English-language sample text was Italian and therefore required a premium account.)

PROS:  Quickly translates a given text into simple English.

CONS:  Inconsistent results; unable to “read” and translate some texts correctly.

 

TEXT COMPACTOR

Using a simple formula that measures how many times a key word is used in each sentence, this website condenses text into a tight summary.  It doesn’t actually substitute words, but it does analyze the passage, eliminating what it perceives as unimportant details to focus readers on the main messages.  It’s a time-saver for summarizing news articles (where writing tends to be more formulaic), but don’t even bother using it with narrative texts.

PROS:  Helpful for summarizing, especially when teaching students to determine central idea in nonfiction.

CONS:  Doesn’t work with literature.  Does not reword text, just eliminates elaboration and detail.

 

D-I-Y TEXT MODIFICATION

If you teach Language Arts, chances are you already have strong writing skills.  Plus, who knows your students–and which words they’re likely to stumble over–better than you do? If you want to modify a given text yourself, you’ll find the following tool helpful for measuring the text’s original level and checking the readability of your redrafts.

Lexile Analyzer

Input the text you want to analyze, click a button, and this tool tells you the Lexile range, mean sentence length, mean log word frequency, mean log word frequency, and word count.

To simplify the text use the following techniques:

  • Substitute complex words for simple words (ex. “brutal cold” becomes “very cold”).
  • Shorten complex sentences into two or more simple sentences.
  • Delete unnecessary details (ex. “an entomologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey” becomes “a scientist”)
  • Use simple Subject-Verb-Object sentence structures.

PROS:  Quickly analyzes texts and reports Lexile range.

CONS:  Results are reported in a 100L range rather than a specific Lexile level.

Making complicated texts accessible to those students who struggle to read on grade-level text is critical to their long-term success.  Hopefully these suggestions will help reduce the burden of delivering such scaffolding, leaving you more time to focus on building relationships and creating lessons that inspire!

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.)

NEWSELA (newsela.com)

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.

 

READWORKS (readworks.org)

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.

 

TWEEN TRIBUNE (tweentribune.com)

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

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.

DIRECT 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.  In another post I describe the Greek and Latin word study routine I built into independent reading.

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: https://www.middleweb.com/36437/read-alouds-are-great-for-the-middle-grades/  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.

INDIRECT VOCABULARY ACQUISITION

#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