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 http://cdn.lexile.com/m/uploads/whitepapers/WhitepaperWhatisExpectedGrowth_09.pdf

2 Renaissance (2018, January 23). The Magic of 15 Minutes:  Reading Practice and Reading Growth  Retrieved from https://www.renaissance.com/2018/01/23/blog-magic-15-minutes-reading-practice-reading-growth/?utm_source=school-leaders-now&utm_medium=featured-article&utm_campaign=guide-to-reading-growth

3 Reading Plus (2014, April). Research Brief Retrieved from https://www.readingplus.com/impact-of-reading-plus-on-middle-school-students-reading-proficiency-scores-2/

4 Achieve3000 (2014). National Lexile Study 2013-14 Retrieved from http://www.collegecareer.org/resources/intervention/2013-14_NationalLexile.pdf

5 Newsela (2018, February 4). Best Practices: Two Quizzes a Week for High Reading Gains Retrieved from https://blog.newsela.com/blog/2018/2/4/best-practice-two-quizzes-a-week-for-high-reading-gains

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 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, students will 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, for example, 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 fully dressed character stands dripping in a doorway, looking at the rain 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 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 responses—no matter how creative—are not accurate inferences.  So, in addition to teaching them how to draw a conclusion using evidence and schema, I also stress the 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.

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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.

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