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 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.

Inference

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.

Slide2
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.

Slide3