Monday, December 20, 2010

Paths to Paraphrasing

Last week, as part of our nonfiction study, we looked at how to paraphrase sentences. Paraphrasing is the process of putting ideas from the text into your own words.  It's an important skill, one that is used across the content areas as students write summaries, take notes, and answer questions about text.

But teaching paraphrasing is tough! In order to paraphrase, readers need to have two basic skills:

Being able to replace words with synonyms-This means that readers need to have a wide range of vocabulary. When paraphrasing nonfiction, readers especially need to understand general academic vocabulary.

Being able to rearrange sentences-Readers need to be able to change the order of sentences and ideas.

Both of these are hard for fourth graders. Our first step is to look at how we can rearrange sentences. I showed students a sentence with an underlined prepositional phrase.

At the South Pole, no plants can grow.

We looked at how we could move the prepositional phrase around the sentence. Then we tried one that was a little longer:

The seas around Antarctica are filled with tiny plants called phytoplankton.

Of course, just moving around a prepositional phrase isn't paraphrasing. So then we looked at how we could replace words with synonyms:

The United States operates three research stations in Antarctica.

What words could we use to replace the word "operates"? Students came up with several that work--runs, keeps, has. Then we looked at what words we couldn't change in the sentence, like research stations. This phrase has a very specific meaning with no real synonyms. This also highlights the role of background knowledge in paraphrasing. When kids have well-developed knowledge about the topic, they have a better idea of what can be replaced and what needs to be kept.

Finally, kids tried to put it all together to paraphrase a few sentences. It takes some time to teach, but students respond well to the instruction. When we work on summarizing after the holiday break, our task will be much easier.

Looking for help with paraphrasing? Here are some ideas:

1. Work with students to develop their academic vocabulary. The Academic Word List by Averil Coxhead is a great resource for this.

2. Show students how to move ideas around in sentences. This could fit in during writing instruction or even handwriting time.

3. Work with sentences that relate to content. Kids need to have some background knowledge about the topic in order to paraphrase successfully. In fact, when readers are having trouble paraphrasing, that's a good indicator that comprehension just isn't happening!

Paraphrasing Powerpoint

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Cause and Effect Text Structure

In the text structure of cause and effect, an author explains one or more causes, and then explains one or more effects. Young readers can have many different problems with this structure. (Classroom-ready texts for teaching cause and effect: Cause and Effect Texts for Teaching Text Structure)

The underlying thinking: Kids have many problems with understanding causality. If students are having trouble finding causes and effects in real life, they will also have trouble with causes and effects in text.

Multiple causes, multiple effects: Depending on the topic, there can be multiple causes and multiple effects. Readers need to be flexible in their thinking as they read.

Tricky graphic organizers: If you are teaching students to map out ideas on a graphic organizer, cause and effect may lead to some problems. You may need to customize a graphic organizer for a text, matching the number of boxes to the number of causes and effects. Or you may want to have students draw their own depending on the text. If you use a generic organizer, be ready to tell students, "You don't have to fill in all the boxes" or "You may need to add some boxes"--over and over and over again.

Changing order: In real life, causes come before effects. But authors sometimes start a paragraph with an effect. For example, in Extreme Animals, author Nicola Davies often describes the inhospitable environment that an animal can live in--the effect--and then explains the adaptations that the animal has to live there--the causes. The cause is that the animal has many adaptations; the effect is that the animal can survive.

Picture Book for Teaching Cause and Effect
Aliens from Earth: When Animals and Plants Invade Other Ecosystems

Here is a great little book that uses a clear cause and effect text structure. On each spread, the author describes an invasive species, explains how it arrived in the new habitat, and outlines the effects of the invader. Working in groups or at a center, students could map out the causes and effects on each spread.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Reading Nonfiction: Dealing with Faulty Prior Knowledge

Reading about Antarctica creates the perfect situation to help students learn more about how to change their prior knowledge. In general, readers don't like to change their ideas. With students, this means that they often cling to faulty prior knowledge.

Kids have many faulty ideas about Antarctica. Most of them think that polar bears do eat penguins, that lots of snow falls in Antarctica, and that there's no need for sunglasses or sunscreen. How do I help them to change these ideas while reading nonfiction?

Back when I was doing research for The Forest and the Trees, I came across the work of Graham Nuthall. He was an amazing researcher, taking hours of classroom footage, coding it, and interviewing students weeks and months later to find out what they remembered and why. In a 1999 article, he explained the kinds of activities that students need to engage in to make rich connections:

"This evidence suggests that tasks need to be set up that model and give students practice in activities that involve making connections between related pieces of information and identifying implications and potential differences and contradictions. As students practice these activities and become expert in the habits of mind involved in the activities, these habits become internalized and an unconscious but automatic part of the ways their minds deal with new experiences." (Nuthall 1999)

So I can't just sit the kids down and say, "Hey, kids. Guess what? Polar bears don't eat penguins." Instead, I need to build situations that create an internal mismatch in students' schemas, so that they experience the feeling of resolving this conflict. Our Antarctica readings are perfect for this.

Is it working? Listen to what a student said on Friday: "I know that there aren't any plants at the South Pole. And if there are no plants, there can't be any animals, right? So why is there a research station there? What would they study*?"

This student was putting together related bits of information and identifying the conflict. What great thinking! This is the payoff from reading multiple texts on the same topic--kids have the time and space to think about what fits, and what doesn't.

*We'll be reading about the South Pole this week. While there aren't any animals, there is some interesting research...

Friday, December 10, 2010

Teaching Nonfiction: Antarctica

As the cold winds begin to howl, I like to bring an assortment of texts about Antarctica into the classroom. Antarctica is a great fit for fourth grade for several reasons:

Shared knowledge building-My students don't have much prior knowledge about Antarctica. As we learn about it, then, we can experience the feeling of adding to our schemas together. It's fascinating to see how kids pick up on new words and share their experiences. For example, the word "skuas" came up in two different texts. A skua is a kind of bird that lives in Antarctica, but most students had never heard of it before. When one student found a picture of a skua in a book, the others were eager to see it--I overhead one say, "Oh! A skua is a bird!"

As we read multiple texts, then, we all can experience adding to what we know. Students filled out an anticipation guide at the beginning of the unit. Then, after each text, we go back to see if our thinking has changed. Sometimes, what we find is surprising, like the fact that visitors to Antarctica need to wear sunglasses and sunscreen!

Interesting texts-In the Toolkit Texts from Heinemann, there is a nice nonfiction first-person piece about doing research at Palmer Station, as well as a map of Antarctica. (By the way, the map is available as a free sample on the website.) These texts started my unit. Since then, I've found additional books. Jennifer Owings Dewey's Four Months at the Bottom of the World is a nice example of personal journal text, while the Magic Treehouse Penguins and Antarctica book gives kids a thorough introduction to the continent.

Online resources-This blog is documenting the LTER Cruise that is about to begin for the new season. LTER means Long-Term Ecological Research, and these scientists return to the same places each year to see how things have changed. At this link, you can find other resources. And there are plenty of videos as well. When I have written to researchers with questions, they have neat!

Penguins and other cool animals- My students are fascinated by penguins each year. They like to pore over the encyclopedia of penguins that I check out of the local library, look at the names of the different types, and find out where they live. Not all penguins live in Antarctica, which is surprising for many of the students.

Antarctica is also home to some interesting invertebrates, like sea spiders and carnivorous sponges. (My students this year are especially intrigued by the carnivorous sponges. One said, "That's like my worst nightmare come true! A meat-eating sponge!")

My interest-When I started working with this topic, I knew very little about it. This helps to keep me interested! I admit to following the research season to try to learn more each year. I've learned all about the IceCube project at the South Pole and figured out how to tell the different kinds of penguins apart. This year, I want to try more of the resources from PolarTREC.

No matter what the topic, reading a series of interconnected texts helps students to make sense of nonfiction. Next week, kids are eager to read more about Antarctica--and I'm eager to help them!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Picture Books for Teaching Text Structure

Over the past few weeks, I've been working on a project to put together a list of books to use for teaching text structures. The list is finally finished! I've posted the document on Slideshare.

One of the hardest parts was finding books that have a common theme. After all, text structure is linked to content. The structure that an author chooses is connected to what ideas the author wants to convey. Using a scattered array of books, then, might not help students to see how ideas connect across texts.

But texts with similar topics can help to bridge the different text structures, and even help students consider similarities of texts within a structure. Two of my favorites for this are A Puffin's Year by Katherine Zecca and Nights of the Pufflings by Bruce McMillan. Both are organized in chronological order, and both detail how puffins come ashore to lay their eggs and raise their pufflings. However, each book explains the steps differently, and Nights of the Pufflings adds a slight wrinkle of problem and solution. Teaching the two of these books together can yield great results in both content and structure. (Plus, pufflings are really cute!)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Text Structure: Description

The text structure of description can go by various names. Some resources call it description; others call it statement and support; still others call it main idea/detail. Whatever it is called, this text structure is based on making a statement, and then supporting it with details.


The buttonbush is a plant that can be found along many rivers and streams. Although it can reach 15 feet tall, it usually only grows a few feet. Its flowers, about the size of a ping-pong ball, bloom through the summer. The flowers are replaced by brown, ball-like fruits in the autumn.

In the past, I've found description to be the easiest text structure to find,whether in textbooks, trade books, or magazines. One especially nice series is published by Peachtree. The latest one is About Raptors.

About Raptors
written by Cathryn Sill
illustrated by John Sill
Peachtree Publishing

All of the books in this series are written in a simple style. Each page contains only one sentence. There are about three main ideas in each book, supported by details. This book is an easy read, but the pictures and specific information make it worthwhile for read alouds even up through sixth grade. If you're looking for a place to start with description, these books would be a strong choice.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Problem/Solution Text Structure: When the Wolves Returned

While it's been tough to find good books that sustain the compare and contrast text structure, I've found some great problem and solution books. One that is easily available is the title When the Wolves Returned.

Why do I like this book? Like many recent nonfiction books, it's written on two levels. Simple text is included in white boxes, while the author goes into more detail in a longer paragraph. This two level readability makes it a good fit for most classrooms.

I also like the way that the author interweaves causal relationships within the problem/solution structure. This is the way that text usually works. Problems don't just appear overnight; they have causes. The relationship between the causes and effects--and how they fit with the problem and solution--are very clear in this book.

The first half of the book explains how wolves were eliminated from Yellowstone, and the effects of this elimination. This is the problem. Then, in the second half of the book, the author describes how bringing back the wolves has been a solution to the problem. Of course, to show how the return of the wolves is a solution, the author needs to explain the effects of the wolves' return.

I can see this book working well as an introduction to the text structure of problem and solution. Even better, the endpages show an interconnected web of animal photos, with a caption inviting the reader to recall the effects that the wolves' return has had on each species. Pretty neat!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Teaching Main Ideas

In a way, it was the prospect of teaching students how to find main ideas that first led me to researching journal articles. It was 2000, I was teaching reading for the first time, and I realized that I didn't know enough about what happens when reader meets text. All I could remember were my own experiences with reading the SRA cards as a student and learning how to make good guesses about main ideas. And that wasn't enough to help the sixth and seventh graders I was facing each day.

In the years since, I've learned a great deal about readers and main ideas. But even though I have read the journal articles, worked with hundreds of students, and even written chapters about finding main ideas, each year is still a challenge. Because, in the end, finding main ideas is not about what I know in my head, but about what I can help my readers to experience and learn.

Here are some of the big ideas that I keep in mind as I plan for my classroom:

Start with topics
The topic of a paragraph is the word or phrase to which all of the other ideas refer. Even though I thought that sixth and seventh graders could find the topics of a text with ease, I learned that this was not always the case. Sometimes, readers will circle the most concrete or tangible idea, not necessarily the one that is the topic. If the topic is more abstract--like watersheds, or succession, or forms of government--students will often fail to identify it.

Find paragraphs with the same topic, but different main ideas
When students confuse topic with main idea, this is the best way to show them that there is a real difference. You can do this with two opinion paragraphs that state vastly different opinions, or simply two paragraphs that communicate information about the same topic in different ways. Like the discrepant event in science (an activity that forces students to reconsider their prior knowledge), looking at these two paragraphs can help students to rethink the rules they've formed for what a main idea can be.

The first sentence is not always the topic sentence
My work with the SRA reading packets, back in my student days, taught me one important rule--the first sentence is usually the topic sentence. Right? Well, in real text, this is not always the case. Newer digital texts often have main ideas partially stated in headings (like this list you're reading right now), stated at the end, or even left unstated. Make sure that your examples reflect the real-life world of text, even bad text.

Finding main ideas is hard!
Young readers often read at the "local" level in a text, relating each sentence to the one before it and after it. Older readers often adopt a more global reading habit. Main idea is often a tough concept for third, fourth, fifth, and even sixth graders. As text becomes more complex, so do the main ideas, and a reader's task is even more difficult. Combine this with the fact that there is a great deal of poorly written, incoherent text floating around, and it's easy to see why readers have problems.

While I was gathering together items for my own unit on main ideas, about to begin next week, I put together this collection of texts, worksheets, and Powerpoints.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Text Structure: Compare and Contrast

As part of a project for a children's literature class, I'm working on compiling a list of high quality picture books that show different text structures.  But I've run into a problem with one particular structure--compare and contrast.

Many of the compare and contrast books that I've tracked down have been ones comparing similar animals. What's the Difference Between an Alligator and a Crocodile? is a good example of this kind of book.The author tells about alligators and crocodiles, how they are similar, and how they are different. What's the Difference Between a Frog and a Toad?, by the same publisher, approaches the topic in the same way. (A problem with the frog and toad book, however, is that toads really are frogs, in a technical sense, and the author throws this idea into the middle of the text in a somewhat confusing way.)

Which--okay, it is useful to see how these animals are similar and different. But aside from these, there are not many other books that exclusively use the text structure of compare and contrast. Why not?

I think it's because compare and contrast is a difficult structure to maintain over a whole text. In the real world of text, a reader is much more likely to see compare and contrast used in small amounts throughout a longer text. In a book about habitat loss, for example, a writer might use a bit of compare and contrast to show how a forest has changed over time. In a book about an invention, an author might compare and contrast previous attempts to solve a problem. In both of these situations, the compare and contrast text would help to explain the bigger point or structure of the text.

One nice example of this is in the book Sea Soup: Phytoplankton by Mary Cerullo.The overall structure of the text is a question and answer format. However, within the answers, the author uses the text structure that fits the information. An answer to the question "Are they plants or are they animals?" leads to a section in which phytoplankton is compared with plants and animals. The comparison is somewhat implicit, signaled by the sentence, "Some phytoplankton behave like plants, some like animals, and some like both." This is the case with a great deal of real-life compare and contrast text--although we teach students to look for compare and contrast cue words, many authors use a more implicit style.

What does this mean for classroom instruction? Well, I definitely will be checking out my library's copy of What's the Difference...? when I am working on the compare and contrast text structure. But I will also help students to find examples of this structure in longer texts, and to look for less obvious examples of compare and contrast.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Writing a Summary of Nonfiction: Powerpoint

Helping kids to summarize nonfiction is hard. Not only do kids have to read and understand the text, but they also have to figure out what's important, how to put ideas in their own words, and how to organize the summary. No wonder kids have so much trouble!

This Powerpoint can give you a place to start. (Some people watch late-night television when they're up in the middle of the night with a cold; I write Powerpoints!) It's short enough to do in just one class period, and can be either an introduction or a review. This slideshow presents four rules for summarizing, explains them, and models how to put them into practice with a short text.

And there are lots of pictures of butterflies, too.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Powerpoints for Teaching

As you can probably tell, I like making Powerpoints. Why? Well, it all comes down to brain science. My working memory has only about 7 slots. When you factor in taking attendance, dealing with announcements, writing passes to the nurse's office, listening to the pencil sharpener, and mediating student squabbles, my 7 slots are often at their full capacity--even before I've started the lesson!

Having essential ideas on the Powerpoint, then, helps me to regain my focus and remember what it is I wanted to teach. ("Mrs. Kissner, my pencil won't sharpen.") I can find the texts that I want to highlight and the main points that I want to share in relative peace and quiet. ("Mrs. Kissner, look! The caterpillar came out of its chrysalis!") I can also use interesting pictures to help engage students. ("Mrs. Kissner, I'm a parent pick-up today, but I forgot to hand in the note.")

Here are the principles I keep in mind when making Powerpoints.

Take pictures--lots of them! I take my digital camera with me when I go to new places. I try to take pictures of interesting or unusual things. Sometimes, I have a use in mind for these pictures. Often, I don't. When I wanted to make a slideshow about decomposers this year, I had plenty of fungus pictures at the ready--even though I had never taught about them before. (You can also use Flickr to find pictures, but I find it easier to use my own.)

White on blue I usually stick to very simple formatting, with no fancy backgrounds. I've found that white text on a blue background shows up the best, even with light coming in from the windows. I taught in an open space school for many years, and had no windows, so I am committed to keeping my blinds at least partly open all the time. I love my view! Using photos that are light in color also helps to keep everything visible.

Duplicate slide I love the "Duplicate Slide" function found under the Edit menu. This works well for highlighting bits of text and showing answers to questions. You can see how this works in this paraphrasing presentation.

Add assessment prompts  Showing a Powerpoint shouldn't be a lecture. I usually have students sit next to a partner, with a journal or a piece of paper out to write answers to questions. Once again, this helps me to think about what I want students to do ahead of time. ("Mrs. Kissner, there's a stinkbug on my desk. Again.") In this Fact and Opinion presentation, students have to answer questions and work with the content throughout.

Slides are free  I like to have simple pages. Slides are free--why not make lots? Changing the slides frequently keeps students engaged. (I once went to a conference workshop in which the presenters had 15 different ideas written in tiny font on one slide. Why, why, why?) Also, using big text helps students to see from the back of the room.

Speaking of the back of the room...Walk back and make sure that the students at the back can see. If students are having trouble, have them bring their chairs to the front. I also have students who like to sit on the floor with a clipboard.

Use the remote  Find the remote control for your computer, and use it. I couldn't stand to be chained to the front of the room with the computer! When I'm up and around, I can look at what students are writing, interact with groups, and add differentiation for students.

Simple, simple, simple  I keep the presentations very simple. I don't use many animation effects, mostly because they kind of give me a headache to look at.  I want the content to take center stage, not the way that I'm delivering the content.

Having some good instruction ready helps me to face the week more calmly! What other tips do you have for Powerpoints?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Questioning with Nonfiction

Today, at the start of my whole group lesson, I held up the read aloud we've been working through over the past few weeks--The Magic Thief by Sarah Prineas. "Why do you want me to read this today?" I asked students. "Share your ideas with your partner."

Well, the general consensus was that they wanted to know what happened. And this is what makes stories so compelling for readers--in the effort to find out what happens, they want to read on.

When readers hit longer format nonfiction, however, they sometimes feel bored or disengaged. I'm not talking about the nonfiction with lots of big pictures and cool features. I'm talking about the longer articles and sustained text that transitional readers have to learn how to read. Many students aren't quite sure of how to negotiate the switch from reading to find out what happens to reading to learn something new.

"This is where our questions help us," I told students. Then, I shared a chapter from a book called The Pledge of Allegiance. It's one that I picked up at a used book sale, one of those nonfiction books that stays in pristine condition because no one ever reads it. "Even if you think that you're not interested in the topic, you can ask yourself questions about what you think you might learn. Then, you're reading to try to find answers to your questions."

I modeled with a chapter, showing how we can leapfrog from question to question, keeping ourselves interested even as the text got longer and more complex. Tomorrow, as students work on reading an article with a partner, we'll look at their questions and see if this strategy helped them to stay connected with the text. Going from reading to find out what happens to reading to learn new ideas can be a stretch...but it is a vital step for fourth grade readers.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Thinking Ahead

When my youngest son was three, the phrase "think ahead" really baffled him. What does it mean to think ahead?

I wrote a little book about this to share with him, and sent it along to a kindergarten teacher friend. I had forgotten about it until Aidan started kindergarten himself this year. I dredged it up from the computer archives, added some illustrations, and turned it into a projectable book. Instant gratification!

You can download the compressed file, including the Powerpoint and the printable version, here.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Teaching Theme

**We're working in our literature circle groups, which means that students will soon be starting to talk about theme.

Theme presents a new challenge for transitional readers. It's not enough to just read the words and figure out who did what to whom in the story. Now they need to synthesize everything from the story to come up with a deeper meaning. For students who are just beginning to think abstractly, this is a tough task.

Students can have several problems with finding theme. At first, many students try to talk about theme by using characters and events from the plot. After all, teachers say, "Use specific details!" These students are confusing theme with summarizing. Students also tend to confuse "theme" with "moral". Many stories, especially fables, have morals. But a moral is not quite the same as a theme. When authors write a story with a clear moral, there is an underlying assumption of right and wrong, and the author clearly wants the reader to do something. Theme is more open to interpretation, and doesn't have as much of an action component.

Here are some things that I do to help students learn about themes:

Universal Themes Chart: Give students a list of common themes. Then, they can try to match stories to the themes. I've had students return to this chart again and again as they read new books throughout the year. (Write to me if you'd like a copy.)

Classroom themes chart: Use a long roll of paper and write themes across the top. Then, students can write titles that they've read (or titles from a class reading list) under the appropriate themes. The same title may appear under different themes, launching a good discussion. I love to hear students talking to each other about books that they have read and the themes they show. Students can write the titles of appropriate movies, also.

Great books for teaching theme: It's so sad that picture books go out of print so quickly! I love Mole and the Baby Bird, which you might be able to find at your local library. Pumpkins, which is still in print, is a lovely little story with an easy to recognize theme.  Older students have enjoyed Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting and The Memory Coat by Elvira Woodruff.

Theme in different genres: Help students to see that biographies, poems, and stories can all express themes. It's eye-opening for students to see how two texts from different genres and with different topics can express the same themes.

Questions about theme: These can bring about interesting conversations.
-Can a story have more than one theme? Why or why not?
-Can a story have a theme that the author didn't intend?
-Are there stories that don't have themes? What are they like?

Theme Powerpoint: I'm trying to make my Powerpoints shorter. :) Here is one that I made to be a very simple introduction to theme.

You can download the presentation at this link:

October 2012 Update: Thank you for all of your comments! Due to the volume of the responses, I can no longer email theme resources individually. You can still get the themes chart in 2 ways:
1. Download the free preview for my Teaching About Theme unit here at TeachersPayTeachers. (You will need to create an account. The universal themes chart is included in the free preview download.)
2. Look in my book, Summarizing, Paraphrasing, and Retelling.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Discussion Groups: Getting Started

Back when I decided to start some discussion groups this week, I had grand plans for how I would model the groups. I wanted to get teachers together, three or four of us, and record us having a real conversation about a book that was familiar to the students.

Well...this didn't happen! (It was hard enough for me to coordinate my own movements this week, let alone rope three people into a crazy scheme.) When it came time to model discussion groups, I decided to let some stuffed bears do the talking. Using Weslandia, which had been a read aloud from earlier in the week, I moved the bears around and used different voices to show how a discussion group should go. We talked about interesting questions versus non-interesting questions, polite ways to speak to each other, and how to invite others to participate.

It worked wonderfully! The kids loved watching the bears (and helpfully reminded me which voice went with which.) Even more importantly, the bears gave me a chance to show students some common problems with discussion groups. After we worked with the bears, we wrote down some rules for our discussion groups. I was faithful to what they put forward as rules they wanted everyone to follow.  Then, students returned to their seats to write down two questions to bring to their group meeting, I pulled Popsicle sticks to make the groups, and we jumped right in.

The groups did not go perfectly, but there were several interesting discussions. I heard good indicator comments--students said things like, "I never thought about it that way before." They all had questions to share, questions that went beyond the literal. It helped that we were reading The Magic Key, a story that I wrote. Students still had some questions about whether or not the key was magic and how the door opened.

After about eight minutes, I pulled students back together to talk about our experience. This is important in the early days of discussion groups--leave them wanting more. Students rated the experience on a scale of 0-5, with 5 being as much fun as a reading activity can be. Scores ranged from 3 to 5, and we talked about how the discussion groups are fun in a way that may be different from what they are used to.

The biggest surprise, though, came after we were finished. We had moved from the ten minutes of discussion groups and into some self-directed center time. Several girls asked me if they could borrow the bears. "We want to do another discussion group with them," they said. They pulled Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late off the shelf, read it aloud to the bears, and then took turns using the bears to ask and answer questions. Fourth graders are just too cute!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Making inferences: KSRA

What a great session at KSRA! Thank you to everyone for your insight and participation. Here is a shortened version of the Powerpoint:

Making inferences
View more presentations from Emily Kissner.

Here are some links to other materials for making inferences. They are all on TeachersPayTeachers, and they are all free. (You will need to register.)

Character Traits and Emotions

The Magic School: A story to use to model making inferences

Visualizing Powerpoint

Visualizing story and lesson

If you like these activities, please rate them. Also, check out my books from Heinemann. Links are to the right.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Making inferences: Text-based and reader-based

On October 26, I'll be presenting at KSRA--"Making Inferences, Making Meaning." We'll look at lots of fun ways to help kids make inferences.

The easiest kind of inference is the text-based inference--an inference that depends on a reader's knowledge of text. Most readers make these kinds of inferences without even thinking about it. However, some kids have trouble with these inferences, which include resolving pronouns, figuring out who is speaking in dialogue, and recognizing characters called by multiple names. (More on these inferences can be found in The Forest and the Trees.)

Reader-based inferences, on the other hand, depend on a reader's world knowledge. These kinds of inferences are often more difficult for students. Sometimes, they fail to notice the subtle hints that authors leave. Helping students to understand that details are important can be a difficult task! Here are some activities that you can use to help students make inferences about characters:

 But the hardest part about helping kids to make inferences is getting them to animate the process. That is, you can have a reader who can find the text clues, and has the background knowledge, but doesn't make the inferences. I think that this is because inferences depend on a reader's curiosity. If a reader has no questions, or is not engaged with a text, then that reader will not have a reason to make inferences. So, if you have students who are not making inferences, a first step may be to work on questioning strategies that get them more involved in the text.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Expository Fiction: KSRA Presentation

Heading to KSRA? Come and see Nicole King and I present about expository fiction--what it is, why it's a great tool for students, and how to use it to build success on the PSSA writing test.

Here is the link to the five-paragraph essay activity that I used:

Here is an embedded version of the presentation:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Text Features: Narratives

It can be easy to overlook teaching the text features of narratives. After all, kids usually seem to have an easier time understanding narratives. Also, the text features of novels and stories are not usually as obvious as the text features of expository text.

But young readers, especially those making the leap into books without many pictures, need to learn how to navigate narrative text features. During read aloud, I've been showing students some of the features of the books we've been sharing.

New paragraph for change of speaker: While it is obvious to skilled readers, young readers often have trouble  tracking the speaker in a conversation. Recognizing that authors show the speaker by starting a new paragraph helps readers to understand who is talking.

Breaks to show change of time or place: When the action in a narrative shifts, writers often signal this with a space. This tells a reader to be prepared for a change.

Different fonts to signal point of view shift: Many stories are told by alternating narrators. Authors usually show this with different fonts or styles. In The Magic Thief, for example, there are occasional excerpts from Nevery's journal. These are printed on gray paper with italic text. Readers need to be able to recognize the print features that point to the narrator shift.

Dates in diaries: When a narrative is told through a diary format, the author shows the passage of time with dates. These are usually written in a bold print to draw the reader's eye.

Looking at these narrative text features is helping my students to add features to their writing, as well. Today, a student said, "Hey." He waited patiently at my elbow until I finished with answering another student's question. Then he showed me his journal. "I'm having two people talk in my story. And I'm using a different kind of writing to show that they are different people. Look." His handwritten attempt at a different kind of font was to make the r's backwards! What a creative way to personalize the text feature.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Lessons from a paper flower

This morning, as I was getting ready to teach about the food chain, I asked my son Zachary, a sixth grader, to make me a construction paper flower. I had several puppets that I wanted to use, but no models of green plants.

Zachary agreed (I'm so lucky!) and constructed a detailed paper flower, perfectly engineered to demonstrate how my hummingbird puppet could drink nectar from it.

In homeroom, students admired the flower. "Wow," one student said, when she heard that Zachary had made it. "Zachary is so creative." She thought for a moment, and then added, "He must get that from Mr. Kissner."


Well, at least the lesson went well. You can find a Powerpoint that I made to teach about food chains here. As for the hummingbird--well, the puppet drank pretend nectar from the flower, and was then gobbled up by a hawk. So goes the food chain!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Acorn Mystery

Last week, Aidan and I visited a local park. We found some really neat acorns--smooth, shiny, and already starting to sprout! We filled our pockets to bring them home to see if we could get them to grow.

Well, the next day, we had a surprise--all of the cups and pots had been knocked over! Aidan was upset, and at first blamed his older brother. But we soon realized that Zachary wasn't to blame. Two days before, Aidan had seen a squirrel in the yard, and had taken me to see where it hid under the shed. Well, it became pretty obvious who stole all of our acorns.

This was too good of a story to pass up! I wrote it for my husband's third grade class, changing a few details and adding a flashback. I added some teaching pieces too, like a multiple meaning word page and a sheet with multiple choice questions. Here is the link to it:

When it came to making pictures, I had a problem. Should I draw a picture of a squirrel (much harder than acorns!) or not? I consulted with my husband, who decided wisely that a picture of a squirrel would change the entire reading experience. He is trying to get his third graders to read without relying entirely on picture clues. A picture of a squirrel would give the solution away. Instead, the reader needs to read the text to solve the mystery.

Whew! I'm not sure if I could have drawn a convincing squirrel.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Summarizing Stories

Today, I worked with the reading strategy of summarizing. I used the Elephant and Piggie book Are You Ready to Play Outside? to model writing a summary. (I wrote about using Elephant and Piggie books for summarizing last May...this year, I decided to start early!) This book is very easy to read, but it makes a great quick introduction to writing a summary. Students can have success very quickly and write a great summary in just a few sentences.

Because, in summarizing, I've found that early success is key. If readers get mired in a summary of a text that is too difficult, they'll be tempted to use unproductive strategies, such as copy and delete. Even worse, they might decide to summarize only a part of the text instead of attacking the entire thing. A good summary of a text that is below a student's reading level is better than a poor summary of a harder text.

With Are You Ready to Play Outside, we read a few pages, and then put the action into a sentence. Students sat on the carpet with their notebooks and wrote along with me. For each part, I suggested a word that they could use--greet, unfortunately, however, until, finally. Some students used these words, while others branched out on their own.

"What did you learn about summarizing?" I asked students. One said, "I found out that we don't have to include everything. Which is hard, because there are sometimes funny bits that we want to put in." How true! Another student said, "There are different ways to say things." And, of course, someone had to add, "Elephants do make good friends." Which is definitely true!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Text Structure: Problem and Solution

The text structure of problem and solution explains a problem to a reader, and then offers one or more solutions. Sometimes, the text examines a problem that has already been solved. More often, the author invites the reader to contribute to the solution.

Problem and solution text is often difficult for students to recognize. Writers don't always use the exact words "problem" and "solution". Instead, I tell students to look for words like these:
-developed (often used in the sense of a problem developing over time)
-solve (many students don't recognize that solve and solution are related)

Over the last few years, I've realized that I need to teach students to be critical of problem and solution texts. Often, persuasive essays use this structure. A reader needs to think, "Do I believe that this is a problem? Do I believe that these steps will be the best solution?"

Complicating issues is the fact that problem and solution text is often combined with cause and effect. How are these text structures different? If there is no solution, then the text structure is cause and effect. If there is a solution, then it is problem and solution.

Looking for problem/solution pieces? I've written multiple texts for Problem and Solution Texts.

Many picture books show elements of this text structure, especially books with environmental themes. Melissa Stewart has written several books showing problem and solution. A Place for Butterflies is one of my favorites, as well as A Place for Birds. What makes these so nice is that they have simple text, but very detailed pictures.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Nouns and "What's My Rule?"

Fun with nouns! Well--maybe. I guess it depends on your definition of fun.

While students were sharing their journal entries, I played a little game of "What's My Rule?" We do this in math class to help students recognize patterns. But it is a great grammar activity, too.

I wrote down words from the text as a student read aloud, and then the students had to try to guess the rule for the list. I started out with just nouns, but branched out into common nouns, proper nouns, and plural nouns. After I made each list, students gave the list a name based on the words that I chose. It was a fun way to reinforce nouns AND look at their role in the students' writing.

Each list turned out to be a little different! They led to some interesting discussions about how the content of the story is shaped by the nouns that students use. It was a quick way to show students how the abstract ideas of grammar translate into their everyday writing.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Reading Strategies: Questioning, Inferring, and Clarifying

This week, I worked with my students to review reading strategies. They had wonderful introductions to strategies in third grade, and really remember a great deal. I used the "Strategy Knowledge Rating" from my Reviewing Reading Strategies packet to get a snapshot of what students already know. Knowledge ratings for vocabulary can be tricky things--I've found that kids often tend to overestimate their abilities--but they are still an indicator of background knowledge.

I found that kids were very confident in their ability to predict, visualize, and activate schema, but were a little less sure of how to question, infer, and clarify. (I put the items on a chart and tabulated student responses so that we could see how everyone in the class responded.) My main goal in planning lessons for strategy use, then, was to show students how to integrate strategies, using several together to build meaning.

To model these reading strategies, and how they can all work together, I chose the book Nim and the War Effort. The muted, detailed illustrations grabbed my attention right away. But the setting and the plot made it perfect for these lessons. For my apple orchard rural kids, the Chinatown setting was new. Nim's family and culture were different than my students', but the main problem--Nim wants to collect the most newspapers to win a contest at school--was familiar. This combination of new and familiar is important for modeling strategy use. There needs to be something new to cause students to ask questions, but enough familiarity for students to be able to have some background knowledge to use for making inferences.

Day 1: We previewed the book. Students recognized that it was a narrative (hooray!) and asked questions about the pictures. We read the first few pages. After each page, I paused for students to share their questions with a partner, and then called on a few groups to share their questions for the chart.

Day 2: We continued reading, putting more questions on our chart. When we were able to answer a question, we recorded it on the chart. I led students from asking only literal questions to asking "big story questions."

Day 3: I introduced inferring. We practiced making inferences by looking at pictures from my iPhoto collection. The students know both of my sons, and so they enjoyed looking at some pictures of the boys in different seasons and making inferences about what they were doing.

Then, I told students that we can use the strategy of making inferences to answer some of our questions. We looked back at our two days of questions. Were there any that we could make an inference to answer? We read a few more pages, and then tried to answer some questions that were not stated directly in the text. I knew that we were having success when kids groaned when we finished!

Day 4: I introduced clarifying. We talked about how it's a way for us to think about the author's words and what they meant. Once again, I read a few pages, and we collected more questions and answers. By this point, the students were very invested in the story. At the pauses, kids were talkative and eager to share with their partner.

Day 5: We finished the story! What made this book perfect was the fact that the outcome of the contest was never stated directly--kids had to make an inference to figure out the ending. We talked about how, at the end of a book, we need to take some time to go back through our questions. Sometimes we'll need to make inferences to understand how it all ends.

After the whole group lesson, we practiced integrating the strategies in small groups during guided reading. I used books that were a little below the students' instructional levels:

City Green, by DyAnne Disalvo-Ryan: This book has wonderful picture support that leads students straight toward the important questions and key inferences. The name of the narrator is not revealed until page 13, making this a great book for modeling to figure out who the first person narrator might be.

Squanto's Journey, by Joseph Bruchac: I used this with a group of six boys. There were many opportunities for questioning and making inferences. The flashback structure made it a little more challenging.

Dragonfly's Tale, by Kristina Rodanas: This one was a little harder for the group. The pictures helped them to track with the story.

Train to Somewhere, by Eve Bunting: Another one with a first person narrator. Eve Bunting offers strong support for the less familiar topic. This group had some more trouble with using information from one part of the story to answer questions from an earlier part of the story.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Quiet Guided Reading Centers

I have 26 students for reading this year. They are a lively, enthusiastic bunch and immensely fun to teach.

But things have been getting a little loud. While I'm working with a guided reading group of 6-8 students, there are 18-20 other students in the room--pretty much an entire class! As a result, I've had to rethink some of my standard routines. If students are doing fluency, retelling, and word sorting, all at the same time, then we can barely hear ourselves think up at guided reading. But I don't want to just assign dull worksheets and assignments for students to complete on their own at their seats.

Here are some things that I've found are working well:

Computer: Luckily, I have three computers in my room, and I have put them all at the other side of the room from my guided reading area. The interactive tools at have been a big hit. This week, students worked with a partner to write a diamante poem.

Assessment: This came from my husband, who teaches third grade. I had a short common assessment that I needed to give this week--why not do it during centers time? The students in the group sat in a quieter corner of the room and completed the task. I liked this arrangement much better than taking up some of my precious whole group instruction time for the task.

Retelling: I love the retelling center so much. This year, I've managed to pull together three of the Playmobil fairy tale sets. Students read picture books that go along with the characters, and then act out the story with the sets. When the other groups are quiet, the bit of noise that comes from these groups is manageable.

Any other ideas for quiet activities...that aren't dull seatwork?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Acrostic Poems

I am not a huge fan of acrostic poems. In my experience, they often lead to young writers valuing form over ideas--trying to cram words into the set form without really saying anything fresh or new.

Silver Seeds, though, has changed my mind. This beautifully illustrated book of acrostics, written by Paul Paolilli and Dan Brewer, is a collection of lovely acrostics. Each one is about something related to nature. They go beyond the usual one word per line and share fresh, interesting comparisons and descriptions. I would enjoy reading the poems even if I didn't know that they were acrostics!

I shared this with my students as we were finishing up our process paragraphs. Many students had already finished their final drafts, so I wanted to introduce a different form of writing for them to try out in their journals while the rest of the students continued to finish. This book was perfect--an introduction to a form of poetry, a chance to see how they understood metaphors (surprisingly well), and an invitation to try out a different form of writing.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

South Central Reading Council: Summarizing for the 21st Century

Tonight I had the amazing privilege to present to the South Central Reading Council. What a great group of educators! Everyone came after long, hard day of school to talk, learn, and share. And the butternut squash soup was amazing.

An adapted version of the presentation is embedded below. Enjoy working with your students!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Stink Bugs

Stink bugs seem to be everywhere right now! In the news, on our window sills, and on my porch. The orchard growers in the area are very worried about the damage that stink bugs may cause.

Because stink bugs are so ubiquitous, kids find them very interesting. I decided to take advantage of their interest and write an article about them. The text is posted over at the Kids' Guide to Exploring Nature blog, as well as in printer-friendly format at TeachersPayTeachers.

As I write this, I am being watched by a stink bug. It is sitting on the window, looking in. Well, stink bug, you are not welcome in MY house!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Persuasive vs. Informational Text

Like many transitional readers, some of my fourth graders have trouble with the difference between persuasive text and informational text. We're making a crucial transition from text with a lot of graphics and features to texts with fewer helpful aids.

And, in a way, I can see their problems. Most informational text does have an element of persuasion--the author is saying, "Listen to me, believe me, I know what I'm talking about." By the same token, most persuasive text also does include some information. It's no wonder that kids are having problems!

And these problems lead to the kids being, well, easily led. Maybe they're not as impressionable as my five year old, who wants to purchase everything on every commercial. (I gave in and bought the Pillow Pet, but I refuse to get the toothpaste dispenser...despite his pleas!) But some students still have trouble recognizing when someone is trying to persuade them.

I decided that students needed to experience much more persuasive text...and learn how to be more skeptical. To direct their thinking, I shared 5 questions for them to ask of persuasive text.

1. What is this text trying to persuade me to do?
2. Who is the speaker? Is it different from the author?
3. Why is the speaker/author trying to persuade me? What's in it for them?
4. Does it feel like the speaker is using unfair tricks? (Putting other people down, making me feel bad about something, making me feel like this will make me popular)
5. Do I believe in what the speaker is trying to say?

We had fun taking apart an advertisement, an essay that I pulled from a writing book, and even Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late. They felt very grown-up and sophisticated as they used these questions...and were able to find a lot of unfair tricks.

Hopefully, this immersion in persuasive text will help students to be able to recognize it more easily--and resist it if necessary!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Narrative and Expository Text

Today, we talked about the differences between narrative and expository text. This is tough for fourth graders! When we look at books, they are pretty good at figuring out the difference between the narrative and the informational, the fiction and the nonfiction. However, with shorter pieces, they are struggling.

My fourth grade colleague (thanks, Colleen!) suggested that we look at variations of nursery rhymes, and try to figure out what kind of text they are.

Text 1
THE HILL-Two children were injured today in an apparent fall down a hillside.
The children, named Jack and Jill, were going up the hill to get a pail of water. At some point in their climb, Jack fell down. Jill soon followed. Witnesses say that she "tumbled" down the hill.
"All I wanted was a glass of water," Jill said. "But I didn't get it."
The children received minor injuries, but are reported to be doing well.

Text 2
I have never realized what a dangerous game tag could be. When my brother suggested that we go and get water, I said, "Sure!" I like going up the hill. Jack and I decided to play tag as we went up the hill.

But this wasn't a good idea. Because Jack was running, he didn't see the big rock on the hill. He tripped, and then I fell too. It was so embarrassing! I couldn't stop myself and just kept crashing and turning. It was also painful.

When I got down to the bottom, I looked at Jack. He had a cut on his head! (He was also crying.) I ran home to get our parents. I've learned an important lesson--never play tag on a hill.

What did students think? Well, as I predicted, they found these two texts to be challenging. Part of the problem is that both texts have quotations. Both also, in a sense, tell a story. Another problem is that the big feature of a newspaper article, the dateline, was of no significance for students.

The big difference between the narrative and the informational piece, as I told students, is in how they relate the events. A narrative, at its heart, reflects on events. A narrative doesn't just tell what has happened. Instead, it examines and considers the events, reshaping them and showing their significance. The fact that Jill ends the narrative by reflecting on a lesson learned shows this (in a very rudimentary form, of course!)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Comparing Texts: Narrative and Blog

Over the summer, my two sons and I loved finding out about mole crabs. When I went looking for information about them, I found that some of the main hits from the search engine turned out to be blogs.

Which got me to thinking--kids are going to be reading blogs much more often in the years to come. (Until blogs are replaced by something else, that is!) What do kids need to know to read a blog? What features should they look for?

I decided that it would be fun to write a story that connects to a blog. You can download the story and the instructional materials from Teachers Pay Teachers:

The blog post, of course, is over on the Kids Guide to Exploring Nature blog. I know that this is not a totally authentic blog. I'm going to avoid linking to other websites too much, because I want to have a very safe place with as little outward traffic as possible. But I'm hoping that it will at least get kids started with looking at some of the basic features of blogs--the posts, the reverse-time order, and the archives.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Unusual Text Structures: Geographical Order

If you're working with text structure, you may have noticed that there are some books and texts that just can't be placed in the typical categories of chronological order, compare and contrast, problem/solution, cause and effect, and description.

It can be fun to take a closer look at books that show unusual text structures. Often, these different organizational patterns are very obvious and easy for students to notice. Two of my favorite examples are by Marilyn Singer. I'd call the organization of these books geographical order, as the author moves systematically around the world to explain her ideas.

Nine o' Clock Lullaby: What's happening at 9:00? In this book, the author shows people around the world at the same moment in time.

On the Same Day in March: Written by the same author, this book goes around the world and looks at weather on the same March day.

While geographical order is not one of the official text structures, it's still interesting to think about how different authors choose to organize their ideas.  These kinds of discussions can become a building block to more complex conversations about text structure.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Writing Process and Academic Vocabulary

Every fall, I spend time teaching my writers about the writing process. They've experienced it before, of course, but I like for all students to experience the process and learn how it can help them to create stronger pieces of writing.

But the word process is an important academic vocabulary word for students to learn. It's not only important for them in writing class. The word process is also important in science, as students learn about natural processes. Students also need to use this word in math, to explain how to solve problems. Process is an important word!

This year, I started out with "process charades". Students completed a vocabulary word map with the definition of process, examples, non-examples, and a picture. We used the definition that a process is a set of steps. Then, we took turns acting out processes that we know how to do. I illustrated our processes (pretty poorly!) by putting pictures of the steps on the board. Kids were pretty ingenious with the processes that they chose.

Once students had a good handle on the process charades, I gave them a set of notecards. They could think of any process that they knew how to do, from brushing their teeth to mowing the lawn. They illustrated the cards with one step on each card. (Little note: I've taken a cue from the kindergarten teacher and started giving students thin black markers and colored pencils for these sorts of activities. The quality of their work really improves.)

Finally we were ready to move into the writing process! I had already made a simple checklist of steps in the writing process, along with a short writing prompt guiding students to write a paragraph about a process that they know how to do. Now, students saw the writing process, and they were pretty excited that they got to check off a step right away. (They had already done the planning step of making their notecards.)

Yes, following a process to write about a's tough to say, and gets the kids giggling, but they are learning the word.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Exploring Nature

I've decided to start putting some of my nature pictures and text into another blog, A Kid's Guide to Exploring Nature.

This blog will have short, easy-to-read texts about different natural items that kids are likely to see--milkweed, caterpillars, mole crabs, jewelweed, and so on. Each text will be accompanied by pictures. My hope is that it will be like a short nature walk...and an easy introduction to blogs.


Thursday, September 9, 2010

Are you nervous now?

Sharing is tough at the beginning of the year. I was happily surprised by how quickly students got to work with writing this year (thank you, third grade teachers!). But productive writing does not always mean productive sharing. Even though most students already knew each other, we're still not a cohesive group. Students are reading their work, but there aren't many questions or comments. Stories aren't coming to life.

Today, I tried to pull some of the most prolific students to share. One kid had written four pages! Each day, he started a new piece, and managed to write an entire page in our 15 minutes of journal time. I wanted to get him to the front of the room to share his writing process with the rest of the class. Outside of class, he seems talkative and confident, but was oddly reluctant to share. Finally the truth came out-- "I'm a little shy when I have to read my writing," he told me.

Of course! I totally understood. And this shyness gets to the heart of why our sharing time just has felt stilted. "I understand that you feel shy," I told him. "I sometimes feel that way too. Sometimes I go and talk in front of other teachers, and I feel nervous." I paused for a moment. "But our writing class is a safe place. Everyone in here is going to share, and so everyone feels responsible to be polite."

I could tell from his face that this pep talk wasn't convincing, so I decided to go the fame and fortune route. "Besides, we are all so curious about what you have written. How many of you would like to hear what ____ has been writing?"

Hands shot up. In the face of this universal acclaim, how could he resist? He consented to come to the author's chair and read a bit of his writing, just a few sentences. I pulled out some of the interesting bits of his process--how he writes about things that have happened to him, how he thinks about new things to write about each night, how he comes ready to put his ideas on paper.

Just as I was finishing, an entire team of administrators came into my room. This was a scheduled walk-through, on the calendar for weeks, but I still felt a shiver of apprehension. And then there was ___, at my elbow. "Are you nervous, Mrs. Kissner?" he asked--quietly enough so that our guests couldn't hear, but loudly enough for the rest of the class to hear.

The question caught me off guard. Should I put on my game face and act super-confident, or admit to my apprehension?

I decided to come clean. "Yes. I think I am, a little bit," I told him, and smiled, and the class smiled too.

"It'll be fine," he whispered.

What a moment! These are the things that bring a class together--the in-jokes, the moments of sharing, the times that don't go quite as planned but turn out much, much better. Each of these moments helps to build the writing community. Tomorrow, I think, sharing will feel a little more natural.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Ice Cream Making...Classroom Style

My school has many wonderful qualities. Situated high on a hill, it offers beautiful views of orchards and wooded hillsides. The simple three-hallway layout makes for easy navigation. Our faculty is small enough that a 13 X 9 pan can feed everyone.

Our lack of air conditioning is only an issue for a few days out of the year.

But on those days, it's really hot! Last week, while I was teaching about reading to perform a task, I thought I'd have kids practice by making plastic bag ice cream. (There are lots of recipes and activities online for this...just search and you'll get a long list.) Why ice cream? I knew that it involved playing around with ice, and I hoped it would make us all cooler! I tweaked a recipe, formatting it for easy reading, and scraped together the supplies.

What an adventure! It was memorable, from leaking bags to ice that melted too quickly. I learned several things:

1. You will always need more ice, especially on a 90 degree day.

2. The value of a "stunt classroom" is unparalleled. (For this year, we have a vacant classroom on our's wonderful to have a place to do messy things, and then leave the clean-up for the end of the day.)

3. More on the philosophical side: Most kids, and most adults too, would rather see a demonstration than just read directions. I struggled with this as we were making ice cream. On the one hand, I wanted them to practice reading the recipe. However, they knew that I knew more about the technique than was written on the paper. I couldn't blame them for pumping me for more information! (They asked questions like, "Why do we need the rock salt?" and "Why do we put the small bag inside the large bag?")

4. Some fourth graders find "What do you do before..." and "Which step follows..." questions to be quite difficult. Even carrying out the steps doesn't completely fix this problem for them. I'm wondering why this might be so. Does this carry over to other kinds of reading and thinking also? Is it a developmental issue that will resolve itself, or do these students need some targeted help?

5. Playing around with the ice really did help us all to feel cooler.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Text Structure for Young Readers

The Powerpoint that I made over the summer is now up at Slideshare. You can download it here. (It is a large file!)

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Diary of a...

This year, I started off journal writing time by reading Diary of a Worm. This funny book is useful for so many lessons. I used it to show students all of the different things that they can write about in their journals--lists of things they like and dislike, stories about their day, stories of how they have gotten in trouble, and so forth.

About five students in each class took the lesson one step further and started to write their own funny diaries. How fun! Since I'm still observing the students carefully to find out what they are like, I was excited to see them taking off with such a creative kind of writing.

And they had different methods. One student took the picture book and went through it page by page. At first, I was worried that he was copying. Then I saw that he was writing the Diary of a Dragon by looking at what Doreen Cronin wrote in Diary of a Worm, and then trying to think of a similar situation for his dragon. What an interesting writing process!

On the other side of the room, a different student was trying to write the Diary of a Banana. But I could see that he was having some trouble. Instead of using first person point of view, he was writing in third person, and seemed to be struggling to find ideas. This shows me that he's working on using different points of view in writing, but isn't quite sure of how to do it. Perfect for an early teaching point.

Yet another student had started writing Diary of a Bee. She'd filled up half a page, but then seemed stuck. I showed her how to use a field guide to insects to find out more facts about honeybees, facts that she might be able to use to write her funny diary.

I've never had so many fiction pieces so early in the year. Usually, the writing is all personal narratives for the first few weeks as students work through topics related to sports, their summer vacations, and their families. I'm intrigued and excited to see how these students develop!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Reading Folders

Today was the fifth day of school! For the first few days, I worked with the students to find "just-right" books. Now that they have settled into their books, the next challenge is to get them thinking about what they read.

Yesterday, we made a chart to show all of the different kinds of thinking that readers can do as they read. (This is based on the "Reading Is Thinking" chart in Guiding Readers and Writers by Fountas and Pinnell.) Each student received a sticky note, and wrote one kind of thinking that they do while they read. Some students had some great ideas, like "making pictures in my mind", while others drew a blank. Still others knew important words, like "schema", but weren't sure of how to put this as a kind of thinking. Students shared their sticky notes and grouped similar ones together.

After we talked about all of the different kinds of thinking that they can do while they read, I introduced the simple chart we'll use to keep track of our thinking. Then, I showed them how they can do this. Finally, they returned to their own books to try writing down at least one example of how they think while they read.

In past years, I've been very encouraging on the first day, accepting almost every approximation. Today, though, I was a little choosier. One student wrote, "I am wondering what will happen next."

Ah, the stand-by reading response! This fuzzy response plagues me every year. Not today, I decided! But it takes some work to help a reader figure out how to make this more specific.

I said, "Let's try to make this a little more specific. Why are you wondering what happens next?"

The student rattled off a pretty detailed explanation of the events of the page, so I knew he was following the story. (He was reading the second book of The Sisters Grimm--his third grade teacher had read the first book the previous year.) I said, "You just told me that Jack and Sabrina are fighting. Can you put that into a specific question about what will happen next?"

He thought for a few moments, then said, "Well, Sabrina has a sword, and I wonder if she's going to use it in the fight."

Much more specific thinking! I said, "Think about how much more detail you added! This really shows your thinking as a reader."

As I start routines, I am always thinking, "What will this look like months down the road?" It's important to make sure that students aim for specific thinking, each and every day.

Of course, today wasn't all about the winning. As the temperature climbed, I asked one reader to tell me what he was thinking. He looked at me, sighed, and said, "I was thinking about if you would let me go stand in front of the fan."

Teaching reading in August is always an adventure!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Organizing the Library

Here's a quick tip for organizing a classroom library--something that I just learned by trial and error.

One thing that is always a problem early in the school year is that fourth graders often pick out the second, third, or fourth book in a series, instead of the first.

In series for young readers, this isn't such a problem. I know this from vast experience of reading the Magic Treehouse books aloud to my youngest son! But books meant for older readers are often more complex, with each book building on the last. A reader who jumps into a series with the third book will get confused. (This isn't to say that it's impossible--I've done it, and I know lots of other readers who have. But it requires a different kind of reading, a knowledge of the genre and how series books work that's often beyond the scope of fourth grader.)

When students pick a book that is later in the series, I often have to tell them that this isn't such a great idea, and we go to find the first book. Invariably we find that the first book in the series is already in someone else's hands, which leads to disappointment. Take the Dragon Slippers series by Jessica Day George. The second book, Dragon Flight, looks beautiful and inviting. But it will be hard to understand without reading Dragon Slippers. And the kind of reader who doesn't know enough about series books to realize that it's best to start with the first is the kind of reader who just can't jump into the middle of a series.

I've solved this problem by pulling the later books of some more sophisticated series and keeping them on a special shelf behind my desk. Kids have to ask for these books. When I see that a student has been carrying around Dragon Slippers, for example, I know that she is going to be ready for Dragon Flight soon. My library shelves are less cluttered, and I don't have the problem of readers trying to read books that just aren't quite right for them.

In short: Put out the first books in the series, but keep the later ones out of general circulation. They'll be easy to find when you see that a reader is ready for them, and kids won't pick them up by accident.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The First Day!

Three more days...and then the students will arrive. While I'm sad to see the end of summer, I am starting to feel a little bit of excitement for the new school year. (Thank heavens!) I can't help but think about what I'm going to do the first day, scribbling down notes on whatever paper I can find.

My focus for the first few days of school will be to help students realize how they can be great learners. Most of my fourth graders are a little anxious about the challenges of the new grade. I want them to get learning and feel successful right from the start.

I've already planned to do the What's Missing game from the Think-ets set, probably during my first few science sessions. While my first day's schedule is not entirely finished, here are two things that I know I'll be doing.

Distraction (from The Forest and the Trees): Too often, students don't realize that they have control over their attention. They allow themselves to be distracted by all of the little things going on in the room. I have to get students to realize their role in paying attention right from the start. After all, in my room, we can have two fans blowing, classes walking by in the hallway, birds chirping outdoors, and even the town's volunteer fire siren going off right down the hill. If students allow each little noise to be a distraction, they will have a very fractured learning experience.

The game of Distraction is simple. A student reads aloud from an informational book. During the reading, I zoom around the room, trying to be as distracting as possible. The kids think that this is really funny! After the reading is over, I ask students five simple questions based on the reading. Their success depends on how well they were able to tune out the distractions and focus on the reading. Then we talk about how they were successful or not. Invariably, some students are good at this, and can explain their strategies to others. We try it a few more times so that students can try out the strategies and see success.

Schema Maps: One of the tasks for the first day of school is a school tour. My fourth graders are new to the school, so a tour is definitely needed. This year, I'm going to combine the tour with a discussion of schema.

Early in the morning, I'm going to ask students to try to create a map of our school, labeling as many features as they know. They will probably find this challenging! Then, we'll walk around the school with our original maps on clipboards. Students will be able to make changes as we go. When we return to the room, we'll make new maps to show what we have learned. This will be an introduction to schema. Students will have a concrete example of how they can add to and change their schema. And our school tour--one of my least favorite first day chores--will have an added dimension of learning.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Text Structure for Younger Readers

Well, it's taken most of the summer, but I finally finished a primary grade text structure Powerpoint. No more fighting about Powerpoints across the grade levels!

Because it has so many pictures, I had to upload it to TeachersPayTeachers in two parts. Here are the links:

Text Structure for Younger Readers, Part 1
Text Structure for Younger Readers, Part 2

This presentation focuses on five text structures: description, sequence, compare and contrast, cause and effect, and problem and solution. It includes quite a few example paragraphs and LOTS of pictures.

The paragraphs are about a wide range of topics, mostly going along with whatever interesting pictures that I had. You'll find that some paragraphs are easier than others, but all of the topics are clear and concrete.