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.

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.


Posted in Assessment

ELA Assessment Made Easy

Today, I wanted to address the topic of assessment.  Maybe it has something to do with the state writing test my kiddos just took, or maybe it’s because I just finished writing an end-of-quarter exam for my intensive reading students.  But, it’s been on my mind a lot lately.


I’ve always thought test-writing for English teachers was especially challenging.  Not only do we have to author the questions, but we’ve got to search through mountains of passages–or write our own–to find texts having the qualities we’re assessing:  figurative language, text organizational structures, plot and conflict, theme… you get the picture.  (Of course you do.  If you’re reading this, you are either an English teacher or someone with a vested interest in the profession.)  Not only do texts have to model the right content, they must also be at the appropriate reading level.

Another consideration of mine is making sure classroom assessments use question stems and types that mirror those on high-stakes exams.  That way, my students gain experience with the testing format as well as the content.  For years, this was the most onerous part of writing tests for me.  Multiple choice?  Sure.  But, how was I supposed to add drop-down boxes to a paper test?  Or drag-n-drop questions?  Or specify choices of “hot-text” answers?  A few online test creation programs offered these tools, but none allowed me to add passage sets, or even scrollable texts that students could re-read when analyzing questions and answer choices.  And they certainly didn’t do it at a cost that I, a lone teacher, could afford.

Then… I found Edulastic. Edulastic

I’d been searching the internet (yet again) for online testing platforms, when it came up in one of my searches.  I clicked, and began measuring it against my wish list.  Question style variety?  Matching, fill-in-the-blank, essay-style…check, check, and check.   Drop-downs, hot-text, drag-n-drop… yes, yes, yes.  Passage-based questions with onscreen, scollable text (dare I hope?)… YES! It’s all there!  At this point I was sold, and my inner skeptic started kicking in.  “Yeah,” it whispered, “but I’ll be you have to create an account for each kid and manage all of those passwords.”  Nope.  They can log in with their existing Microsoft 365 or Google accounts.  “Well, then,” my cynical internal dialogue continued, “It’s going to cost a fortune once your free trial is up.”  Nope… nada.  It costs me nothing.  “It’s probably hard to use, then.”  Easy-peasy.  I created my first test in about forty minutes, and it was a smorgasbord of question types.   To this day, I have only good things to say about Edulastic.


Once I had entered my team’s common assessments into the test library, I could choose to share them schoolwide (or district-wide) and we all enjoyed the immediate feedback on student performance.   Our school also lets us differentiate test content, so struggling readers and advanced students take slightly different versions of the same assessment.  Once one of the tests was built in Edulastic, we could easily duplicate it and modify the questions as needed.  The reports on results are easy to interpret, and we can quickly identify the most-missed questions.  Since each question is associated with a learning standard, we can see which standards have been mastered and which ones need revisiting.


I know what you may be thinking.  Edulastic made our job as teachers a bit easier, but did it really benefit the students?  Absolutely!  When the results of the state reading assessment came out, our grade-level team had the highest-scoring students of any school in the district (and our district is #1 in the state).  Do I work with a highly-skilled cadre of educators? You bet.  Did Edulastic help familiarize our students with the online testing format, allowing them of focus their energy on reading and critical analysis.  It did.

Over the summer, Edulastic asked me to be an ambassador (unpaid, though I did get a free upgrade to their pro account and a branded travel mug).  I would be recommending the product to other teachers regardless.  The pro account did give me access to some even more powerful features, like text-to-speech for students who get that as an accommodation.  I have even more reports at my fingertips, too, so I can measure their mastery of standards across multiple tests.  If you can swing the $99 upgrade fee, I think it’s worth it.  They even had a BOGO sale this fall, and several peers took advantage of it.

Posted in Writing

Uncommonly Good Commentary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Vocabulary

Tiny Cards – Big Results

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

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

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

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


Posted in Games

Game-Changer: Practice Disguised as Play

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


You may also be interested in…


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


Posted in Writing

Quickest Way to Score Essays

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

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

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

Writing Rubrics (zip file)

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

Posted in Writing

Multi-Task With Tutorials

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

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

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

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

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

Happy writing.



cause-effect essay


Posted in Other

All-Star ELA

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

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