Posted in Writing

How to Synthesize Key Ideas in a Conclusion

Before I knew better, I used to ask students to merely summarize their key ideas in the conclusion. But as I noted in the first post in this series, I’ve come to realize middle school students are capable of much more than I’d allowed myself to believe. Every sentence, even those whose purpose is to remind readers of key points, should build on the previous information. Every. Single. Sentence.

Moving Beyond Summary to Synthesis

Now, if I’m being honest, I do ask students to summarize their key points when drafting the conclusion, but only as a jumping off point. In fact, I ask them to write these summaries without rereading their body paragraphs. This often yields a fresh way to convey each key point—or at least identifies the absence of a single cohesive line of thought.

Next, I have them look for a common thread among the ideas, something other than the topic itself. This is a challenging step as it requires critical and analytical thought. You might want to prime the pump by having them warm up with some analogies. I’ve used this analogies worksheet to get students into the groove of identifying patterns and relationships.

I once had students write about the qualities of a hero, and one summarized their body paragraphs as follows.

If students identify a connection between two of the ideas—in this example they noted #1 and #3 both require self-sacrifice—ask them if that trait might also be true of #2. This often leads to deeper insight into their topic as they recognize previously unseen relationships. In this case, the student noted that justice, too, requires self-sacrifice since it requires the individual to give up personal freedoms for the good of the community at large. Once such a commonality is identified, have students explain the link and note its significance. The result is a sentence that synthesizes the ideas, and one worthy of their conclusion.

Sometimes, try as they might, students just cannot seem to find a connection between their key points. This is where I offer an alternative strategy… the “So What? Why Should Anybody Care?” strategy. Answering these questions about each key point will also lead them to deeper thinking. So what if a hero is courageous? It means they’re willing to face something unpleasant or dangerous, and put their own comfort and safety aside. Why Should Anyone Care? Well, if everyone put their own comfort and safety aside to help others, it would make for a much more supportive society. It would also mean that those lives that someone sacrificed to benefit must have a certain value, maybe even a responsibility to do something important with them.

Remember all of those “Making Connections” lessons we used to teach before Common Core? Text to Self, Text to Text, and Text to World. That’s what synthesis is all about… making those connections and being able to commit them to writing. Synthesizing key ideas is more powerful than summarizing them because it tells readers that the author has had this larger purpose in mind all along (even if they only just discovered the “bigger truth” while crafting their conclusion). Yes, it is a more difficult writing skill to master. But with a little help, your students can learn to do it, and the extra effort is what gives it immense value.

Posted in Writing

Thesis Restatement – It’s so much more than its name implies

The word conclusion means the finish or the end. But it also means coming to a decision, making a judgement about something you’ve been contemplating. An essay’s final paragraph should be and do both! In my previous post, I revealed why learning to write an essay conclusion is a critical skill. *Spoiler Alert* It’s not about a state test score. It’s much more relevant.

The conclusion begins with a thesis restatement. While it’s safe to say that means it rephrases the thesis, if that’s all it does, the author has missed a golden opportunity. Since the restatement appears after the essay’s full body of evidence, it has more room for creativity. Think of it this way, if the thesis is the controlling idea of the essay—its brain, so to speak—then the re-statement is the essay’s heart.

For instance, in an essay describing the benefits of being vegetarian, the writer’s rather formal thesis…

A vegetarian diet reduces the risk of obesity and serious health conditions like heart disease and diabetes, and it is good for the environment

…is restated with the more emotionally compelling:

Healthy bodies and a healthy earth—the vegetarian lifestyle promotes a harmonious and natural balance.

Before I continue, a few words about conclusion transitions are in order. Years ago, it may have been enough to tack the phrase In conclusion or In summary onto the front of the restatement. However, today’s readers expect more. A simple, but less hackneyed, transition (like one of those listed on this student handout) is now the minimum. Even better is a subtle transition elegantly woven into the fabric of the sentence itself, one that connects the final line of the last body paragraph to the first line of the conclusion. This link can be a single word, an idea, a continuation of imagery, or an extended metaphor. Here’s an example.

“Even today, Darwin’s work is a lightning rod for controversy.
Though a storm of public criticism arose with each of their groundbreaking theories, Copernicus, Pasteur, and Darwin sparked powerful and positive changes in the world of science.”

Now, let’s dive into three ways you can teach students to write a strong restatement.

#1 Use synonyms for key words

Start by having students highlight key words and ideas in their thesis statement. Then, challenge them to brainstorm a list of synonyms (or phrases and/or acronyms, such as “unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)” instead of “drone”). I let them work with partners or in groups responding to the same prompt and urge them to use the classroom thesaurus or online thesaurus.

#2 Change the sentence structure.

I ease novice writers into this part of the process by having them simply reverse the order in which key ideas appear. For example the thesis,

“Local governments should set aside undeveloped land to be used for public recreation, nature preserves, and future infrastructure”

is reordered (and reworded) to become

“Public parks, wilderness areas, and future expansion projects will only be possible if local governments set aside the land for them now.”

More accomplished writers are encouraged to reframe the thesis by adding elements like subordinate clauses and prepositional phrases. The finished product might look something like this.

“Only by acting now to preserve it, can local governments ensure there will be enough land for the parks, wilderness areas, and public projects yet to be built.”

#3 Be more expressive.

Ideally, the restatement should be more expressive—more passionate and more pointed—than the original thesis. By the end of the essay the writer has (presumably) connected with his or her readers and constructed a framework of reason and evidence. It is from that vantage point that the author now delivers his or her final charge to readers. The restatement is a confident and heartfelt expression of the essay’s core message. And it’s a great place to showcase voice.

You can teach students to ratchet up expression by incorporating words that convey emotion. Instead of writing “Invasive species affect their new habitats by…” Write “Invasive species wreck their new habitats by…”.  If you haven’t already taught or reviewed connotation, this is the time to do it.

Did you notice how the above example also draws a conclusion, identifying the effects of invasives as decidedly negative? This is another aspect of adding expression, sharing a salient deduction. It doesn’t matter if the essay is informational, either.

The writer’s opinion about their subject matter should be evident in the restatement. The previous example—from a cause and effect essay—made it clear by using the word wreck that the author believed the effects of non-native species were problematic. In argumentative essays, opinion comes naturally. But even informational essays should reveal the author’s judgement on the subject. The restatement in a process essay might explain why the process is valuable. In a compare and contrast essay the author can identify the most important similarity or difference. Another way to add opinion to the restatement is to note the subject’s broader implications. The following example illustrates.

“Native Americans did not merely influence American culture, they largely defined it by instilling a deep respect for nature, the idea that a community is responsible for the welfare of all its members, and the belief that children are society’s precious hope for the future.”

Clearly, the thesis re-statement is much more than its name implies. It’s where shrewd and skillful authors can flaunt their voice, their power of deduction, and their talent for words. It’s where the author’s fervor for their message can also rouse the reader’s heart.

Posted in Writing

Wrapping Up a Text-Based Essay

Consider this my public apology to all the students I shortchanged over the years. Writing an essay conclusion—a genuinely good one—is a struggle. But for an embarrassingly long time and for many reasons (overzealous pacing, undervaluing the skill, and yes, grading exhaustion), I gave short shrift to teaching students how to write a skillful and satisfying conclusion.

I guess I wasn’t expecting much from 6th graders in the way of brilliant endings. So, when a true “drop the mic” conclusion crossed my desk one day, it was an eye-opener.  Maybe middle schoolers were capable of more than even the scale-score 10 released writing exemplars might lead one to believe.

The essay in question was an argument for allowing gum in schools. It was engaging, used sound arguments and spot-on evidence. The conclusion recapped key points and wove them into a convincing body of reason. But it was the final line—just three creatively conceived and artfully applied words—that rocked my teaching world. It ended “Chew on that!”

This cheeky challenge haunted me and ultimately inspired me to revamp my writing instruction. Yes, a conclusion should begin with a transition that signals completion.  But those transitions should go beyond the boilerplates “In conclusion” and “In summary.”  Yes, a conclusion needs to restate the writer’s thesis, but it should do that in a fresh, pithy, cut-to-the-chase way.  A conclusion shouldn’t just summarize key points—it should meld them into one cohesive and purposeful concept. And that final line… well, a moment of brilliance here is like the striking of a church bell.  It’s clear, it’s commanding, and it resonates for a long time afterward.

Over the next week or so, I’ll be posting more detailed ideas for teaching essay conclusions. While it can be daunting for students, there are many techniques you can use to help them demonstrate a deep understanding of their topic and its broader implications.  There are also tricks for coaxing out those clever endings.

Middle school writers can move beyond mediocre—with a teacher who expects and encourages more. Expert-level conclusions are tough because they demand critical and creative thinking. They require writers to identify the essence and the importance of their message. In truth, that’s what makes writing conclusions one of the most valuable skills we’ll ever teach. In a frantic world, the ability to get to the heart of the matter is a super-power. Consider the power of my student’s admonition to “Chew on that”—a brief turn of phrase that turned my writing instruction on its head.

Posted in Other, Writing

Accommodations for Dysgraphia

We’ve all had those students… the ones whose written papers bring to mind a Cy Twombly paining. And while messy handwriting might be nothing more than carelessness, it can also be caused by dysgraphia—a disorder that affects the ability to sequence and control fine muscle movement.  In my previous post I detailed how to recognize dysgraphia, often referred to as “impairment of written expression.” Here, I focus on how teachers can provide extra support to help students who struggle with it.

STRETCHING

For students with dysgraphia, the act of writing can be physically taxing if not outright painful.  In the same way warming up before a run can ready your muscles for the workout ahead, having students warm-up their hands before writing is a big help.  Encourage students to wiggle and stretch their fingers before writing. Better yet, give them a stress ball or putty for a pre-writing workout.

WRITING TOOLS

Pencil grips help dysgraphic students hold their pen or pencil correctly, reducing strain and increasing maneuverability. Unfortunately, older students are often reluctant to use them.  So, use the fattest cushioned grips you can find and offer them “to make the pencil more comfortable,” knowing in your heart that the increased diameter tends to force their hand into the desired tripod position.

Specialty lined paper can also aid students with letter placement and alignment. Paper with raised lines is best since it gives tactile as well as visual cues. (It’s also a must-have for students with visual impairment.) If that’s not in your budget, use regular graph paper or print out this specially lined notebook paper I created to help with spacing.

Allow students with dysgraphia to type assignments on the computer. It eliminates some of the barriers to writing (pencil placement, holding the paper in place, alignment, erasure issues) while it strengthens muscles in their hands.  Even cursive writing can be easier than print since they don’t have to lift the pencil up and down quite as much.

NOTE-TAKING HELP

Students with dysgraphia also benefit from note-taking assistance. Their struggles with the physical act of writing diverts attention from your lesson.  Instead, print out notes for them (one reason why I create most formal lessons on PowerPoint) or ask another student to scribe for them using carbon-paper (@30 cents a sheet, but reusable) or carbonless forms (@10-cents a sheet).

HANDWRITING INSTRUCTION

While there’s not enough time to provide one-on-one instruction for handwriting in middle school, you can provide students with a folder of handwriting worksheets they can work on whenever they have some free time.  Although some experts claim most middle school students’ handwriting is too deeply ingrained to change, I’ve seen several motivated boys become much neater writers simply by giving them the tools to practice it.  Of course, if you’re fortunate enough to have an occupational therapist visiting your school, ask for their help.

Remember in my previous post when I talked about my husband’s soul-crushing “chicken scratching” experience? In high school, his drafting teacher gave him nightly lettering practice that he labored over at home. The long hours paid off by retraining his muscle memory for writing. Today, he gets compliments on his neat, easy-to-read handwriting.

DIFFERENTIATING PRODUCT

Differentiate the product used to assess mastery by allowing dysgraphic students to respond orally, or when that’s not feasible, use graphic organizers.  Graphic organizers can help in two ways. First, on lengthy writing assignments, using a graphic organizer or outline helps students focus their thoughts before they must code them in writing. If possible, let them turn in writing “drafts” as graphic organizers.  Graphic organizers can also be used to show mastery of reading skills like plot, character traits, or text structure. Use these for literary text and these for informational text.

Reduce the volume of writing required.  Allow students with dysgraphia to highlight text evidence instead of rewriting it.  Permit students with dysgraphia to use agreed- abbreviations or symbols when writing (w/ for “with” or + for “and”). Share this list of common symbols and abbreviations as a reference tool. Wherever possible, remove handwriting, capitalization, and spelling as a grading criteria for written assignments.  Test the latter two with a computer-based quiz or multiple-choice/check-the-box assessment.

If you want to learn more about dysgraphia and what you can do to support students who have it, I highly recommend Reading Rockets as a resource.  You’ll find literally hundreds of articles about it—everything from handwriting samples, to assistive technology, to the latest brain research.

Posted in Other, Writing

7 Signs Your Student Has Dysgraphia

Decades later, my husband can still recall being called out by an English teacher for turning in a written assignment that looked like “chicken scratching.”  Even though he’d tried his best, his handwriting—weirdly spaced with shaky lines– looked like it was produced by a very young child.  The teacher accused him of being lazy, but he was actually struggling with dysgraphia.

Dysgraphia is a nervous system disorder that affects fine motor skills used for writing.  It’s often associated with other learning disorders such as ADHD or dyslexia.  While it used to be an official diagnosis, now it appears on IEPs or 504s as “impairment in written expression.” Of course, I’ve also encountered dysgraphic students who had yet to be diagnosed.

So, how do you know if a student has it?  There are some tell-tale signs teachers and parents can look for.  First and foremost, students with dysgraphia are often described as having “messy” handwriting, with the following characteristics:

  • Irregular spacing
  • Unevenly sized letters
  • Writing above or below the lines
  • Erratic pencil pressure
  • Poor spelling, omits letters or words
  • Capitalization errors, including mid-sentence caps
  • Frequent scratch-outs and erasures

Students with dysgraphia may hold their pen or pencil in a tight or claw-like grip.  They may hunch over their paper or turn their hand (or paper) at an odd angle to write.  These students often avoid writing assignments and write much more slowly than their peers. Also, because so much mental energy is dedicated to task of production, it’s hard for students with dysgraphia to compose their thoughts while writing.

An official diagnosis can be made by psychologist or neuropsychologist, or an occupational or physical therapist can test motor skills.  However, if you suspect a student has dysgraphia, there are a number of ways you can help them.  In my next post, I’ll detail ways teachers can differentiate for students with dysgraphia, and how one teacher’s intervention made all the difference for my own significant other.

Posted in Writing

Building a Body of Writing Resources

When our state changed writing standards several years back it became especially challenging to find quality, targeted instructional material.  While creative writing prompts were abundant (Imagine you could have any job for one day…), resources for writing text-based essays were few and far between.  Even materials from our textbook provider seemed to have been hastily thrown together.  The example essays did NOT match the requirements of our state writing assessments.  The source texts were only loosely aligned to the prompt, and to one another.

Frustrated, I began creating my own…literally researching and writing my own text sets and exemplars.  I made video tutorials  and practice activities to reinforce skills like analyzing the prompt and elaboration (always a challenge, that one).  Now, I’m fine-tuning those original lesson presentations with lessons learned over time, and I’m making them available to other teachers in an editable form.  Because we all have our own tips and methods to pass on — especially when it comes to writing.

Each new lesson presentation is available to my followers for FREE immediately following its introduction.  This post is to let you know I just released a PowerPoint on Body Paragraphs, and over the next month I’ll be uploading new presentations for Citing Text Evidence and Writing a Conclusion.  I’m also working on a new essay packet and additional practice activities suitable for use in literacy centers.  All materials will be available through TeachersPayTeachers.com.  If you’re not already following me there, you may want to consider it.  Followers receive an email notice every time I upload a new product.

I appreciate your support.  I appreciate what you do for our students and our collective future.  (I don’t think any of us hear that enough!)  I’m honored to be a part of it!

Posted in Vocabulary

How To Set-Up a Greek and Latin Roots Study Routine (and Why You Should)

Before readers can comprehend a text, they must already know of 90%-95% of the words it contains.  Look at the sentences below where nonsense words have been substituted for real words to simulate gaps in the reader’s vocabulary.  Can you identify the action taking place?

Arkling, our final runner tiffled bambily across the finish line. (70% known)

Readers can identify that a runner is crossing the finish line in a race, but what’s important about it?  Are readers supposed to be happy for them or sharing disappointment that they were last?

Next, imagine this was sentence was testing your ability to use context clues.  Could you determine the meaning of tiffled?  As an ELA teacher or literacy coach you are obviously proficient in using context clues to decipher word meaning.  Unfortunately, without prior knowledge of the words arkling and bambily, that skill is only marginally helpful.  Is Arkling someone’s name? Using syntax and suffixes you can infer that tiffled is an action verb and bambily is an adverb describing how the runner tiffled.  Still, it’s not enough to truly comprehend the idea this sentence is trying to convey.

Now, let’s look at the same sentence, as read by someone whose vocabulary is more developed.

Wincing, our final runner tiffled unevenly across the finish line. (90% known)

Now, we can use the context clues wincing and unevenly to determine that tiffled means limped or hobbled.

A puny vocabulary can mask proficiency in other skills as well.  I remember analyzing mid-term scores with my PLC one year.  We were stumped by how many students missed a question about character traits.  They’d mastered the skill on formative tasks, and it was easy to infer that the character in question enjoyed bullying others.  After some investigation, we determined that it was the wording of the answer items that had stumped them.  Many of our students didn’t know what the term malicious meant, and so they’d dismissed what was, in fact, the correct answer choice.

One way to quickly cover a lot of ground in word-learning is to systematically teach word roots – those meaningful word parts that can be combined with prefixes, suffixes, and other roots to form new words. For example, the Latin root -mal- means “bad” or “evil” and the adjective suffix -ous means “characterized by” or “full of.”  Armed with this knowledge, even if students had never encountered the word malicious before, they could determine its meaning “characterized by evil.”

What makes teaching roots so powerful is that knowing what a single root means can unlock the definition of hundreds, if not thousands, of new words.  The root -mal- is a component of over 2-thousand individual words (at least according to my word game cheat site The Free Dictionary).

So, what’s the best way to teach root words, prefixes, and suffixes?  First, you need to determine which word parts will benefit your students the most.  Some districts publish word part lists like this one, specifying which roots and affixes should be targeted at each grade level.  You can also preview texts and make note of which word parts students will encounter while reading them.

It’s also important to make word structure a regular component of your instruction.  Learning word parts is not a “one and done” situation.  Students need to see and use that word part multiple times before it is incorporated into their vocabulary.

Last year, I did this by challenging my students to become “Word Watchers.” At the beginning of the year I taught students about base words, root words, prefixes, and affixes, showing them how knowledge of these word parts could be used to determine the meaning of new words.  Each week thereafter, I targeted a high-value root, prefix, or affix that students could be expected to encounter.  On Monday, I presented a micro-lesson:  added a Word Part Poster to our classroom Word Wall, called students’ attention to the target word, and shared examples.  Together we determined if it was a root word, prefix, or suffix.  Next, I passed out bookmarks with the same information on it.  I directed students to look for words containing that word part every time they read during the week.  They had to find three examples and record them on their bookmark, noting the word, underlining the word part, defining the word, and identifying the source.  (Students on access points searched for the example word itself or another word formed from its stem.)  At the end of the week, I reviewed the words on their bookmarks with them and they pasted them into their comp books.

This exercise ensured that students were exposed to the weekly word part multiple times.  It got them into the habit of looking for roots and affixes as they read.  It also created a reference they could use again and again throughout the year.  Assigning a summative grade for this standard was a simple matter of adding a few questions to each of our quarterly exams.  I culled the existing test passages for words containing the word parts we’d studied, and asked students to analyze or define them.

As an alternative to posters and bookmarks, you could post a weekly word part on a class bulletin board (or even write it in a reserved space on your whiteboard).  You might also substitute post-it notes for bookmarks—inviting students to record examples of the targeted root or affix on the note and sticking it beside the posted reference.

This practice, along with use of the digital root word flash cards featured in this previous post, helped my students make impressive vocabulary gains.  And because we returned to these word parts time and time again, I’m confident they’re still benefiting from the work we invested in learning them.

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