Thursday, December 27, 2012

PowerPoint: Finding Topics and Main Ideas

I've updated the Topics and Main Ideas PowerPoint that was previously on Slideshare. It covers finding the topic of a text, looking at multiple referents, and finding main ideas.

You can view it at Slideshare, or download the updated version at TeachersPayTeachers.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Going back, back, back to the text

This year, I'm really focusing on helping my readers to return to the text to find answers. Intermediate readers often have a once and done philosophy--"I've read it, I'm done, let's move on." But returning to the text is often essential for deeper reading and thinking tasks.

How does this skill develop? Like summarizing, it's not something that we can just tell students to do. There are two main ways to help students learn to return to the text. The first way is to help them navigate through a text, so that they realize they can find answers efficiently. The second way is to give readers meaningful literal tasks that require them to return to the text.

Navigating a text
This is the first page from a collection of
Problem and Solution texts.
As soon as we start with nonfiction, I coach students to find their way through a text. At first, this is very directed. "Put your fingers on the second heading," I'll say, or "Use your pencil point to touch the third paragraph under the first heading. What word do you see?" It's easy for me to see who is using the headings and who is not.

After a first silent read of a text, I also like to have readers partner-read a text by sentence. Many struggling readers do not notice sentence and paragraph boundaries. When they read sentence-by-sentence, these boundaries matter! "Hey, it's my turn!" a partner will say indignantly.

What if you only have texts that don't have headings? Use different texts for instruction. For example, many popular Seymour Simon books have neither headings nor page numbers nor captions. These are fine to have in my classroom library, but not very useful for instruction. It takes a long time just to get everyone (literally) on the same page.

Finding words in a text
Readers often scan for specific words in a text. Simple vocabulary activities can be engaging and help students to become better at finding specific words. In the activity above, readers had to make predictions for how a word might be used in the text "Research Stations of Antarctica". Notice that I gave them the definitions.

Before they read, students had to make a prediction for how the words would be used. "Dormitories" was a word that they had learned in a previous text, so many predicted that the text would show that researchers or scientists sleep in dormitories in Antarctica. "Souvenirs" was a new word. Many students predicted that students would take rocks or ice back to their homes as souvenirs of Antarctica.

After reading, students went back to the text to find how the words were actually used. (I gave students the choice of whether to do this as they did their initial read, or whether they wanted to just read first and then look for the words; most students chose the latter.) Some of the words were in bold print, while others were not. It was fascinating to listen to them talking with each other about how to find the words! In some cases, they needed to read the sentence containing the word and the previous sentence to figure out how the word was used.

This activity is good for intermediate readers because there is a clear goal, and because they can judge their success (Did I find the word or not?) fairly easily. This provides a foundation of searching skills for students to use as they encounter more difficult tasks in text.

Other updates
Introduction to Text Structure: I've posted a new collection of text structure texts. This includes five texts about chinstrap penguins, five texts about peregrine falcons, and two assessments. My "Text Structure for Young Readers" PowerPoint is also included, along with a study guide that includes all of the texts in the PowerPoint.

Writing a Summary of Nonfiction: This PowerPoint is available free once more. (It is also included in Paraphrasing and Summarizing Lessons.) I took it down a few months ago in frustration at how my free things have been showing up re-posted under other people's names on docstoc and authorstream. However, I've gotten a few emails inquiring about it, so I'll give it another try. Case in point: My entire Understanding Text Structure PowerPoint is on Prezi, with new graphics, under someone else's name. Sigh.

Spelling: New spelling units are done. If I've been sending them to you, drop me a line at and I'll send them your way.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Finding Topics and Main Ideas

Kids have to be able to find topics and main ideas to understand nonfiction text. I look at these lessons as the foundation for all of our nonfiction work in the months to come. This week, I worked on topics and main ideas with several different groups of readers. Here are some thoughts on my experiences.

Do not: Assume that students already know how to find topics and main ideas in text
I've been teaching about this for more than a decade. Many kids are masters of skimming by when it comes to topic and main idea. They've learned to read the teacher, looking for the clues that you are subconsciously giving, instead of reading the text. I often resort to pretending that the text has a different topic to avoid giving these clues. Then the students have to convince me what the topic is!

Do: Look for repeated references in a text
To the adult reader, the topic of the text above just jumps right out: Weddell seals! But younger readers who are still reading word-for-word often do not take in the "whole view" of the text. For these readers, it's important to show them how to underline the repeated words in the text. We found every example of Weddell seal in the text above. As we did this, students saw quickly what the topic was.

Do: Look for multiple referents
Some texts, though, are tricky. Consider the text to the right. The topic, Southern elephant seals, is only mentioned once. The seals are referred to with the pronoun they and the referent these seals. Teaching topics with struggling readers is the perfect time to address multiple referents.

What did one of the readers suggest as the topic of this paragraph? Think about the way that struggling readers scan for words that they know. Yup--she said this paragraph was about elephants. On the one hand, this is a discouraging answer. On the other hand, it shows that she is trying to scan for a topic. She just needs more practice with going back to the text to refine her hypothesis.

Do: Have students work in pairs
Pairing students up to talk about their thinking is a great way to find out misconceptions. It's also a great way to find out new thinking tricks! My on- and above-grade level readers worked to sort cut-apart paragraphs. They had to read each sentence, and then determine the topic and the main idea. Listening in on the conversations was a fantastic way for me to hear what readers were thinking. For example, one pair was discarding the actual main idea sentences because they didn't sound "interesting" enough. (Main ideas often do sound boring, don't they? It's the details that are interesting.) This was a whole new way of looking at the task. I acknowledged their thinking, and then explained that main ideas often do sound boring. This helped them as they worked on their next paragraph.

In another group, I overheard a brilliant reader talking offhandedly as she sorted cards: "Detail, detail, detail, detail." When I asked her what she was doing, she said, "Well, first I just find the sentences that sound detail-y, the ones that have numbers and stuff. Those aren't going to be the main idea, so I set them aside." Again, this provided me with some insight about how students go about the task, and some good student language to use when helping struggling readers.

Do: Take it right back to text
I like to think of nonfiction instruction as following a whole-part-whole model. We look at a text and read it for an initial understanding. Then we look at a part--in this case, topics and main ideas. The next step is to take the idea back to the text.

For my struggling readers, I went right back to the familiar "Welcome to Antarctica" text that we had already read. We looked at the paragraphs and applied the same strategies to finding the topics and main ideas. Doing this with familiar text was helpful for them, as they could focus on the task instead of gaining an initial understanding.

For the other group of readers, we went right on to a new text, with the students applying the idea of topic and main idea to their work on a note-taking sheet. These readers thrive on novelty, so the challenge of a new text and a new concept really engaged them.

This is the first year that I have managed to pull together completely "united" activities, in that everything goes back to the Antarctica topic study we are doing this month. And I love it. The card match activity, the topics and main ideas paragraphs, and our core texts all reinforce one another, leading to great questions and use of vocabulary.

Additional Resources
Finding Topics and Main Ideas: Free Powerpoint from TeachersPayTeachers. (Note: My husband uses this, and always complains about the template that I of these days I'll fix it up! The texts are good, and the sequence of instruction.)

Main Ideas and Details in Nonfiction Text: The Antarctica paragraphs are in here, along with many other items about supporting main ideas. A non-Antarctica version of the sorting sentences is included. (I'll get around to posting all of the Antarctica stuff eventually.)

Summarizing, Paraphrasing, and Retelling: I learned a great deal about main ideas and topics as I researched this book. You'll find more on implicit main ideas, as well as research on how readers process main ideas.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Update on Spelling

Over the summer, I wrote about making a master word list and creating our own grade-level spelling list. We're now a few months into the project and I thought I'd take a moment to reflect on our progress.

The Master List
I started the master list last year. My goal was to create a list that could be filtered and arranged to find the absolute best words for vocabulary study. I took words from the Academic Word List, the Fry Words 200-500, the Common Core, and several other sources. Then, I gathered data on the words--how many syllables? What is the root? Is it a compound word? What syllable type is the first syllable? What phonograms does the word contain?

The result is an Excel spreadsheet of over 1,800 words. It's been useful for making spelling and vocabulary lists. For example, when I wanted to teach the root fin, I could quickly find important words that had the root. To teach words with long vowels, I looked under the open syllables category. (I am still sending out copies of the list if you'd like one.)

Our Fourth Grade Topics
We created a list of fourth grade spelling topics based on the Common Core and the Fountas and Pinnell Literacy Continuum. Here is an overview of the lists that we selected:

-Long/short vowel sound review
-Greek and Latin roots
-Silent letter combinations
-Homographs and homophones
-Multiple meaning words
-Synonyms and Antonyms
-Noun forming suffixes
-Adjective forming suffixes
-Other suffixes
-Compound words

You'll notice that it's heavier on word meanings than spelling patterns. This is a tough issue. But with limited time for instruction, we decided to lean more heavily toward the vocabulary and look at spelling patterns as they fit into the words we selected.

To adjust for varying ability levels, we have two "tiers" within each list. Our words were selected from the Master Word List. The first tier includes words with more basic spellings. The second tier includes words that are more complex. Students are assigned a list based on their pretest score. Right now, we're at the silent letter combinations.

How it's going
We're moving along! It is a challenge for students. I'm glad to come back to self-corrected pretests, as I think that this is a really meaningful activity for students. I think that I have some of the old-fashioned country schoolma'am within me. I like the structure of a list, a set of homework activities, some carefully planned lessons, and a test. I think that there is some value to memorizing spelling words--as long as the words are carefully selected to be relevant and meaningful.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Planning for a Nonfiction Topic Study

As I've watched my sons develop into readers, I noticed how they both started to delve deeply into a preferred topic in second grade. My older son read about airplanes and the physics of flight, while my younger son has read everything about cats. Watching these two readers has helped me to think about how topic knowledge is inextricably linked to reading skills. Their background knowledge about a topic helped them to attack and read increasingly more difficult texts.

It seems logical, then, that we should try to replicate this in our classrooms. But topic studies have gone in and out of style. When I started teaching (in the 90s! imagine!), thematic units were popular. But they weren't really structured. The idea--at least as it was communicated to my inexperienced teacher brain--was to gather as many resources as you could on a topic or theme, and then have students create some big project related to the theme.

As time passed and guided reading became popular, themes fell out of favor. Leveling was everything. I was told that trying to gather resources on a topic was useless. We'd never be able to afford to get every book at the levels we'd need, and it was far more important for kids to be reading texts at their levels than it was for them to study a topic. I got around this by starting to write my own texts, apologetically at first. But the more that I watched my own children become readers, the more I realized that seeing the same topics over and over was really important.

Now, topic studies are in style again. Yay! What I like about topic and theme studies as discussed in the Common Core is that they are to be structured with increasingly complex text. This mirrors what I see with Zachary and Aidan...the facts they learn from the easy text become necessary background knowledge to help them comprehend more complex text.

As I plan for this year's version of the Antarctica nonfiction unit, I've tried to be more conscious of how students are building their knowledge. I'm hoping to marry certain concepts about Antarctica with concepts about nonfiction. Here is the plan.

1. Choose your nonfiction skills to teach.
This year, I'm starting with paraphrasing. Then I'll move on to topics and main ideas, text features, and finally synthesizing. In the past, I did text features first. But this year I decided to change it because I want students to see how text features help to convey topics and main ideas.

2. Choose core texts.
I'm a weekly planner, so I choose texts for each week. At the beginning, I'm using some texts that I've written. This will help to build up the background knowledge that kids will need to get to the ideas in the more complex texts. But I'll also be using Trapped By the Ice, texts from Beyond Polar Bears and Penguins, and the LTER blog. As you choose texts, it's important to consider how ideas appear again and again. What are the most important concepts you want to wring from the topic? How are these concepts represented in texts?

3. Create a unit anticipation guide.
I love anticipation guides for a unit. Many details about Antarctica are counterintuitive--for example, the fact that polar bears don't eat penguins, and that summer and winter in the Southern Hemisphere are the opposite of here. The anticipation guide is a concrete way for learners to recognize what they have learned from reading and how their ideas have shifted. Presenting learners with opportunities to "rewire" their background knowledge is vital for learning. (For more information on this, see the research by Graham Nuthall...his articles have been so influential to me!)

4. Gather guided reading and auxiliary texts.
This process may take a few years. I pick up books wherever I can. It becomes a sort of "stone soup" situation--everyone working on the unit has a few things to contribute. Surprisingly, even texts that seem only tangentially related often offer kids some little gems of knowledge that they can weave into their schema.

5. Create a list of unit vocabulary.
This year I've started to be much more intentional with my vocabulary teaching. What words do kids need? Which words show up again and again? I do a weekly homework packet in my classroom, and I've included five vocabulary words (along with a related text) in each packet.

It all sounds like a great deal of work, and it is. But it is so worthwhile to hear kids sharing ideas and reflecting on what they've learned across texts. Whether topic studies are in style or not, they are a wonderful way to help students learn.

I'm hoping to put together what I've done with the Antarctica unit into a file. Until then, write to me if you would like any samples. (Please include your email address if you leave a comment! Otherwise, it's tough to figure out how to respond.)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Comparing Texts with Pop-Up Books

Just as I like to work on summarizing throughout the year, I also like to work on comparing texts. Kids naturally enjoy finding connections between texts. If I model this early in the year, we can make strong connections all year long.

I decided to start with two quick pop-up books. The first reason for my choice was a practical one--I wanted really short texts that we could read in five minutes or less. But the second reason was a little deeper. I wanted to show students how even very short texts can communicate a theme in words and pictures.

Book 1: Beautiful Oops
This was an impulse purchase a few weeks ago...and it has now become a classroom favorite! As we read it, we talked about several details:
-The author's use of intentional mistakes
-The playful illustrations and bright colors
-The theme that is expressed
-How the text and pictures support the theme

Book 2: Big Frog Can't Fit In
Of course, my students love the books of Mo Willems, so this has already been passed around the classroom on free-reading Fridays. As we read this, we talked about:
-The problem and solution expressed in the book
-The use of pictures and pop-up elements
-The theme that is expressed
-How the text and pictures support the theme

After we read the books, we completed a chart to compare them, looking at the themes, the illustrations, and the text. One student added a new detail: "Both books show a problem that has to be solved!" When we used the chart to write a paragraph, I modeled starting with the heart of the comparison--why these books are being compared.

Beautiful Oops and Big Frog Can't Fit both express deep ideas through playful words and pictures.

Using my new Elmo wireless tablet (okay, it is really awesome to be able to write on the board from across the room!), we developed the rest of the paragraph by explaining how both books are similar and different. I made a big deal out of the phrase "on the other hand", talking about how sophisticated and grown-up it sounds. :)  

After we did this together, students worked in clock buddy pairs to compare the books Molly's Pilgrim and Weslandia. At this point in the year, I give them a chart with criteria to consider. For these books, the criteria included the themes, how the characters are bullied, how the conflicts are resolved, and so forth. When students went to write their paragraphs, they chose the details from the chart that they wanted to develop. As a result, every pair's paragraph had a different focus. But most were solid and interesting, not bad for early in the fourth grade year! (Ten groups did experiment with "on the other hand", showing me that making a big deal out of the phrase must have made an impact.)

Pop-up books often don't have much of a place in intermediate classrooms...but these books are so engaging that they can really be useful tools.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Teaching Point of View

Find classroom-ready materials for teaching point of view: Point of View Stories and Activities

Point of view is now a fourth grade skill! Hooray!

Cheering was not actually my first instinct. But I've taught point of view to fourth graders over the past three weeks, and I've learned that it is not actually as hard as I feared it might be. Here are some hints to get started.

Start concrete
When I taught point of view in sixth and seventh grades, I could jump quickly into the abstract. We went right into looking at texts and writing them from different points of view.

With my fourth graders, though, I knew that I needed something more concrete. Enter the basket of stuffed animals! I started with the class favorite, Larry the Lobster, and wrote two sentences:

I live in the ocean.

Larry lives in the ocean.

I asked students, "How are these sentences different?" They could see that the sentences were written differently, and grasped at how to verbalize the difference. Then, I showed two more sentences on index cards:

He eats crustaceans.

I eat crustaceans.

I called on students to categorize the cards. Which ones were the most similar? Why? It was only after they could explain the difference between who was narrating the action that I introduced the terms first person and third person.

Next, students chose stuffed animals for writing buddies. On white boards, they tried writing two sentences about their stuffed animals--one in first person, and one in third person. Once I looked over their sentences, they recopied them onto index cards. We regrouped and took turns classifying each student's sentence and guessing which stuffed animal was the star of the sentence.

Read and share
Once students had an initial understanding of point of view, we had a huge storm. We were out of school for two days and then spent two days in classes at the high school--how exciting! Our school did not have electricity, but the other schools in the district did. The teachers were wonderfully accommodating and the students were great.

The best part about being in the high school was the high school helpers! I have three students who come up to my school to volunteer in the afternoons. When we were at the high school, they came to our temporary room during their free periods to help out. (Did I mention that they are awesome?)

I split my reading class into three so that students could hear read alouds from each point of view. Luckily I had been planning to do a presentation before the hurricane interfered, so my suitcase was filled with books. I needed short, easy books that high schoolers could quickly read aloud.

Shortcut by Donald Crews is one of my favorite go-to books for teaching so many different ideas. Personal narratives, intertextual connections, suspense, use of long and short sentences....and now point of view!

Mr. Gumpy's Outing by John Burningham was a good choice of a third person book--short, easy, and clearly third person.

It's tempting to leave out second person. "No one uses it much," I've heard teachers say. But if you're taking the time to deal with first person and third person, second person is not that tough. Besides, kids love second person. It's the language of the Choose Your Own Adventure and Interactive History books! During our rotations, I read the second person book, choosing excerpts from the Underground Railroad Interactive History. We talked about why authors might choose second person, but why some readers really resist reading texts that are written this way.

While these short read alouds weren't what I originally planned, they worked out wonderfully to teach reading in an unfamiliar classroom in an unfamiliar school.

Deal with dialogue
Once we returned to our own school, with the excitement of our adventures behind us, we continued our study of point of view. A card match activity was fun--students received cards with pieces of a story in either first person or third person, and had to find the student with the corresponding card.

Dialogue continues to be a challenge for students. Often, students will see text like this:

"I can help paint!" Ben said excitedly.

Students see that word I in the dialogue and say that the story is in first person. In these cases, I ask students: Who is telling the story? Is the narrator a character in the story? I try to lead them to think about what the story is really saying. Then, if they are still confused, I just say---"When we talk about point of view, don't pay attention to the dialogue. Look for what's happening outside the dialogue." And sometimes this works.

I'm working on putting together some materials for teaching point of view in the intermediate grades. So much of what I found is geared toward middle school students! If you would like some materials, write me an email. (Again!)

Friday, October 26, 2012

Story Synthesis: Best Activity Ever!

There are some activities that transcend classrooms, ages, and ability levels. These are the golden activities that have big ideas that can be explored and examined again and again. Even better are the amazing activities that don't require a great deal of preparation.

The Story Synthesis is one of those activities. It's very simple--I learned about it from a kindergarten teacher. But I've done it again and again, with different groups of students, and it never fails to captivate and engage them.

The basic idea 
Split the class into groups. One half of the class creates characters, and one half creates settings. They do this apart from one another, preferably in secret. (If you say that something is "Top Secret", it instantly becomes alluring and exciting!) Then, they get together. They have to introduce the characters to the setting and create a story. What kind of conflict could arise from this situation?

This year's version
This year, I had students work in pairs to create either settings or characters. We kept the characters hidden in envelopes over the several days that it took us to create them. The settings were on large pieces of poster board and were kept in a drawer.

After students worked on either characters or settings, it was time for them to get together! I had made the groups several weeks ago (and I still had the paper that I had written them down on!), so even I was surprised at how things turned out. There were laughs and groans as the groups were created. Two girls who worked on SuperDog and Hero Fairy (best character ever!) were paired with an underwater setting. The "army guy medics" were sent to a medieval castle.

Exploring conflict and character
And this led to some interesting conversations. What kind of conflict could occur with SuperDog and Hero Fairy? How would the underwater setting affect the conflict? Which character was the protagonist? How could the conflict in the story be classified? This year, I did make a quick little sheet to give students some guidance as they worked to answer these questions. But the activity could easily be scaled down for younger students.

Playing the story
After students fleshed out the basics of their story (and learned a great deal about compromise in the bargain), they got to use the characters to act out the story in the setting. The final step, which we haven't done yet, is to write it out.

I love this activity because it gets kids quickly to deep thinking about stories. How do characters and settings interact? How does the conflict relate to both? It gets them saying vocabulary words ("The protagonist should be...."  "Medusa is the villain!"..."Mrs. Kissner, I forget. What does the present mean again?") and working with each other.

Best of all, though, is how much they enjoy it! It makes a good fun activity to sprinkle throughout our stamina-building quiet reading and rigorous Common Core activities. :)

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Core Reading with Struggling Readers

Early October brings a mix of emotions in the classroom. On the one hand, there is the elation of feeling that we have finally come together as a class. The mix of personalities has settled into a cohesive culture with its own inside jokes, traditions, and routines. (My class this year has taken to making up imaginary students to sit at the empty desks, complete with name labels and supposed personalities. And they have taken on the stuffed toy lobster, which has sat unnoticed on the shelf for years, as a special mascot. I just love to watch these things happen.)

But by early October, I also have a very clear picture of the task that I must accomplish by the end of the year. Looking at the DRA scores of my struggling readers, it was easy to feel daunted by the expectations of the Common Core to get these readers into grade-level reading selections. "How can I do this?" I asked my husband. "How can I get someone at a DRA 18 into a level 40 book?"

My husband, who teaches third grade, was a little calmer than I was. He also has a longer memory. He said, "Didn't you write a whole chapter about that in your book?"

"But it's--" I started, ready to argue, and then I stopped because I realized that he was right. There it was, in The Forest and the Trees, a long section about giving different kinds of support to readers as they work with grade level text. Right.

So I do know how to do this, I thought. As I planned for the upcoming weeks of instruction, I considered my readers carefully. The notion of before, during, and after has helped me to frame my lessons.

Before Reading: Building Automaticity
To build automaticity with the words in the grade level text, I've been making speed drills, flash cards, and word sorts. These look different depending on the text and the groups.

For Weslandia, I pulled out one and two-syllable words. One group focused on the one-syllable words. Words like loom, built, and wove are a real challenge for them. With another group, I worked on syllabication strategies. We worked on words from the text like civilization, innovation, and devise. With each of these lessons, I focused on using a decoding strategy that wouldn't just help students with words from this text, but would help them to decode words in future texts as well.

For Molly's Pilgrim, I pulled out all of the compound words. I made cards by separating them (school/yard) and then we put them back together. In this case, I focused on understanding the compound words. Many students had never heard of a "schoolyard" before, so we talked about making sense of the compound word by putting together the meanings of the other words. I included some other words on the speed drill as well, organized by the number of syllables, so that it was easy to listen to tailor the list for different readers and listen to them read the words over multiple days.

With each of these activities, I also used the words that we practiced to build predictions for the text. "In the text we'll read next week, Molly has trouble reading the word Thanksgiving. Why do you think this might be?" Then we shared our thoughts about why this might happen in the story.

Before Reading: Building Background
It's also important to build background knowledge for all readers. While we were working with Weslandia, I wrote a short little passage about the Roman civilization for students to read as their homework fluency practice. This passage got them to say the word "civilization" repeatedly throughout the week. Because we are also starting our study of Greek and Latin roots, this text built some instant connections between our reading and word study.

During Reading: Strong Sustaining Strategies
I am also working this year to give every reader the chance to independently interact with grade level or approaching grade level text. To make this successful, I have to think very carefully about the sustaining strategies that they will use. Where will they have difficulty? What can I do to support them?

The syllabication strategies we practiced before reading become very important here, as readers have to try to figure out words on their own. This goes hand in hand with the "clicks and clunks" that we've already practiced. Identifying where meaning breaks down is a necessary step to better comprehension. If struggling readers aren't aware of what difficulties they are having, they can't utilize better strategies! After we spend time reading silently, we can talk about where those clunks occurred and how we can fix them.

During Reading: Embedded Questions and Reading Road Maps
I also like to use these activities to help readers make meaning in a text. Embedded questions are simply questions that you insert into the main body of the text. They are a wonderful scaffold for helping readers to make inferences as they read. Think about the key ideas that a reader will need to gather from a section, and then write a question that cues them to think about those ideas.

Reading road maps are similar. They are based in the idea that reading is like a journey. Sometimes they are organized as before, during, and after, as this example. I've stopped trying to make mine "cute" and use a simple table design.

After Reading: Notebook Resources
After students have read the text and we've talked about our clicks and clunks, we go deeper into analyzing the story. Struggling readers and ELL students really benefit from having a notebook full of resources to help them answer questions.

For example, consider character traits. A question might ask, "What trait of the main character helps her to resolve the conflict?" A student who needs help in reading will benefit tremendously from having a list of character traits to refer to while answering this question. This list will help the reader to be able to focus on gathering the text details to support an answer to this question. Lists of themes work in the same way. When a reader has a list of universal themes to refer to, identifying and supporting a theme becomes a much easier task.

Getting students who are reading significantly below grade level to comprehend grade level text is a tough task. By planning scaffolding before, during, and after reading, I can help to make the task a little easier.

A note on materials: I've created several Common Core friendly materials for Weslandia and Molly's Pilgrim...if you would like any, please write to me or leave a comment. (Make sure that you put your email address in the comment! If you don't, I don't have any way to reach you. )

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Three ways to improve student summaries

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of pulling out my presentation suitcases and doing a presentation about summarizing. I've been presenting on this topic for about five years now, but each time is new and interesting. There are just so many nuances to teaching summarizing, so many things to consider as I try to find that right match between reader and task.

I decided to structure the presentation in a new way this time, looking at several ways that classroom teachers can easily build summarizing skills in students. Here are three that work well for me in my classroom.

I love retelling as an instructional strategy for any grade level. For students who seem to be having trouble remembering information from a text, retelling with a partner can be a good place to begin. I especially like having students use pictures or props to retell a text.

Don't neglect retelling nonfiction. Here are some simple directions that I give to students as they retell nonfiction.

Written paraphrasing
Paraphrasing is simply restating an author's words in a new way. This can be a difficult task for students who lack a wide bank of vocabulary words. Working with shorter pieces of text helps to build these skills a little at a time.

I like to project a page or a paragraph from a text and have students paraphrase the events or the information. This is pretty quick, and it lets us talk about the challenges that the text poses. What lists do we need to collapse? How can we find other ways to arrange the sentences? Besides helping students to improve their summarizing skills, paraphrasing parts of texts will also help students to put together text evidence to support their answers to open-ended questions.

(More specifics can be found in my paraphrasing and summarizing unit or in the book Summarizing, Paraphrasing, and Retelling)

Scaffolded summaries
A scaffolded summary is like a writing frame. The teacher provides part of the writing, and the students provide the rest. Scaffolded summaries can offer more or less support, depending on student needs. Here is a highly supportive summary that I gave to students as a first step into summarizing. Notice that I combined the summarizing task with a vocabulary task, putting a word bank at the top of the page. (The text is from the fourth grade Fluency Formula book.)

With a highly supportive scaffolded summary, it's important to keep the task from becoming just a fill in the blanks activity. Doing a choral reading of the entire summary can help kids to hear the academic language. (In my classroom, kids like alternating reading with boys reading one sentence, and girls the next. They also enjoy "reading like spies"--reading aloud as if every sentence ends in a deep, dark secret.)

Another way to make this an engaging task is to show students a summary with wrong answers filled in. Why are they wrong? What details from the text can show this?

As students become more skilled in summarizing, the frame can offer less and less support. Here is a scaffolded summary frame for students to use as they summarize chronological order nonfiction text. Notice that this frame is not text-specific, but can be used with any text that goes along with this text structure. (This frame is included in my text structure unit on chronological order. Frames like this are included in all of the other text structure units as well.)

Teaching students to summarize is hard. The most important thing to keep in mind, however, is that summarizing must be revisited again and again. It can't be a single unit that you teach once and then put aside. Instead, students need to see summarizing activities with every text. Whether you are retelling, paraphrasing parts of text, or using a scaffolded summary, ongoing activities will help your students to be successful.

Monday, October 1, 2012

One hour, three people, four groups: Making co-teaching work

Right now, we've come up with a very workable arrangement for our co-teaching class. It's a model that works well and limits the number of transitions. This arrangement needs one hour in which 3 people are available to share a class. Right now, it works wonderfully because I have a student teacher. Later in the school year...well, I won't worry about that for now.

One of my problems with the standard model of guided reading is the amount of time that students spend left to their own devices. There are many students who can manage this, and succeed very well. However, for struggling readers, forty-five minutes of independent work can leave them spinning their wheels instead of moving forward.

Last year, when there were three of us working with one class, we tried using three sessions. But this led to too many transitions. Parallel teaching, in which the same lessons are delivered in different groups, left us feeling even more fragmented. We wanted some feeling of together-ness, that feeling of "our class" and not "my group, your group."

So we came up with this arrangement. It works well and targets support at the kids who really need it.

Divide the class into four groups. 
We used a combination of assessment tools to do this. We've come up with two groups that are intensive and two groups that are strategic. For the sake of discussion, let's call the groups North, South, East, and West.

Begin the class with independent reading.
With kids arriving from different classes, it's important to have a calm, quiet routine for the start of class. We use the 10 minutes at the start to share information and (when all is well) listen in on readers and maintain a robust independent reading program.

The hour block is broken into 2 sessions. 
Teacher A: One teacher devotes planning and instruction to core instruction. This teacher creates a half-hour lesson to present two times during the hour long block--once to groups North and East, and once to groups South and West. This lesson is focused on using grade level text and grade level curriculum. With only 12-15 kids in the session, Teacher A can focus on really working deeply with the core text and grade level activities. When I teach the core, I have kids sitting on the carpet with clipboards, pencils, and partners.
Teacher B: This teacher alternates between seeing North and South on one day, and East and West on the other. This teacher focuses on guided reading with leveled text at the groups' instructional levels.
Teacher C: This third teacher could follow two pathways. In one scenario, Teachers B and C would both run guided reading groups, enabling all readers to have guided reading every day. In the other scenario (which we are using right now), Teacher C does word work related to the core reading selection. I'll be Teacher C in the next few weeks. Our phonics and fluency screenings show that our kids need intensive work on word recognition and multisyllabic words. I'm going to work on these topics using words and sentences that I am pulling from our grade level core texts. I'll work a few days ahead, giving kids the word background they need to be more successful with the grade level text.

Meet up again for the last 5 minutes
After the 60-minute block, kids return to my classroom. This regrouping time really is just our chance to make sure that folders are returned, books are put away, and so forth. I like to put up something fun on the Promethean board during this time--lately the kids have been loving the Scholastic book trailers available here. Sometimes I show YouTube videos related to our core reading selection. I keep this time relaxed and light-hearted to end on a high note every day.

Don't do this every day
I hate teaching plans that require superhuman concentration and stamina. When I get that breathless, overwhelmed feeling, I know that I'm not being as effective as I can be. On one day out of the cycle, we go to the computer lab for Study Island games and other computer-based practice. This gives us a chance to do progress monitoring and assessments without sacrificing instruction. We can also sit together for a few minutes in the lab to share student work and make plans for the next cycle.

Other notes
-Writing and spelling are taught outside of these sessions.
-All of us teaching the class eat lunch together every day and work really closely together. I think that this is important, but not essential. What is essential is that we all share a feeling of joint responsibility for the class (and for talking each other off the ledge!)

How do you make co-teaching work at your schools?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Stories and Activities for Teaching Theme

I'm working on some new stories and activities for teaching theme. I'm trying to create activities that draw students' attention to some higher level literary devices as well as giving them some concrete tools for identifying and supporting theme. Right now I have three different stories, best suited for readers in grades 3-5.

If you would like to test drive them with your students, leave a comment or write to me by October 1. I'll try to get things sent out by next week. I'd love to see some more followers too!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Starting off with struggling readers

One of the hardest things about working with struggling intermediate readers is knowing where to begin. Listening to one running record may suggest five different issues to attack--each separate from the regular curriculum that still must continue to be taught. Students who might be reading at the same level still have very different strengths and needs. But all of them have to be able to cope with grade level text.

It can all seem very overwhelming at times. And it is! Here are some things that I've learned that are helping me to structure my time with these readers.

Mental models
What is the purpose of reading? By the time they reach fourth grade, some students still haven't been able to synthesize decoding the words with building a mental model. It's important to remind students that this is what we're here to do. But mental models can fail for a number of reasons--lack of attention, lack of vocabulary, lack of working memory capacity.

This week, I've started each lesson with some practice in building a mental model. I do this with a quick little imagination game. "Imagine that you are walking down a long aisle," I said. "You are pushing a metal cart. You are taking boxes off a shelf and putting them into the cart. Where are you?"

Of course this is a familiar scene, and most of them told their partners that they were imagining a supermarket or Walmart. I focused them back on their mental models and their use of background knowledge. "Now think about taking that box off the shelf," I said. "Look at the box. What is in it?" Some said cereal--which, of course is what I was thinking of. But listening to their responses was interesting. One student told his partner shoes, while another said chicken nuggets. When they shared, we talked about what words were in the scene that excluded these choices. (Chicken nuggets on a shelf? I'm not shopping there!)

Throughout the week, we did more little scenes, talking about the role that our background knowledge plays in each one. I also used the visualizing assessment texts that you can find here as instructional pieces.

Clicks and clunks
Once students understand building a working model, it's easy to introduce clicks and clunks. In the past, I've started with reviewing reading strategies like inferring, summarizing, synthesizing, and connecting. But the problem with these reading strategies is that they are just more words for the kids to remember. It works fine with on and above-grade level readers. For struggling readers, though, too much terminology can clog up the process.

This is why I love clicks and clunks. A "click" is something that a reader understands. A "clunk" is something that they don't understand.  It takes only two minutes for kids to understand the words, and they start using them immediately. I introduced the concept with this graphic organizer and these two sentences:

I have tall yellow flowers growing in my garden.

This was a click for the students. They could imagine it. (In fact, some of them have even seen my garden, as I live next to the middle school!)

I have green basil growing in my garden.

This was a clunk for almost all of the students. When I asked why it was a clunk, they were able to report immediately--they don't know the word basil. But I chose this sentence because I have basil in my garden outside and on the windowsill in my classroom. I directed their attention to look at the basil, and then said the sentence again. This time, the sentence was a click! We talked about how readers can solve problems in many different ways.

Fluency in small groups
Our school has an intervention period. Based on our benchmark assessment data, we have organized the students into small groups for fluency interventions. We have five people working with about 50 kids, which makes our groups a wonderful size. Repeated reading is a proven technique for improving fluency. However, repeated reading in a large class can get very loud. Having smaller groups makes best practices like choral reading, repeated reading, and retelling much easier to manage. And I can listen to kids read frequently without worrying about what the other 25 students are doing.

Carefully selected grade level text in manageable quantities
I have always worked on grade level text with readers of all abilities. (In fact, there is a section about it in the chapter about text-based inferencing in my book, The Forest and the Trees.) With struggling readers, I like to approach grade level text in smaller quantities, and on photocopied pages that students can write on. Even though I have enough copies of this book for my entire group, I've found that struggling readers just do better when they don't see the entire book at once.

After our work with clicks and clunks, we applied the strategy to the first chapter from Toys Go Out. I love this book for early fourth graders. It is a DRA 40, and it has a high inference load, but it is very forgiving. Readers have multiple chances to make an inference, and the story is so concrete that they can build mental models easily. Several students quickly made the connection to Toy Story. As we read the first two pages, we discussed our clicks and clunks

It's important for intermediate readers to know that there are some parts of a story that are meant to be mysterious. The students grew increasingly impatient with the character of Plastic. "What is Plastic?" one boy asked, taking the book from my desk to look at the cover. What's neat about this question is that the author meant for this to be a mystery, and Plastic's identity is revealed in the next chapter.

Have someone to talk you off the ledge
Working with struggling readers is hard. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something. We all want our students to improve quickly. But struggling readers often have unexpected growth patterns. They may improve in one area, but worsen in another. They may flatline for several months. They may do beautifully on a skill with teacher direction, but fail to apply the strategies on their own. It's important to find someone who can talk you through these ups and downs and help you to find the bright spots. At my school, I'm lucky to co-teach with a special educator.

And the brightest of bright spots are often the students themselves. When working with struggling readers, it's most important to get to know the readers themselves. I use the data to help me make plans for my students...but then I try to forget about the data while I'm working with the students. We had so much fun reading the first chapter of Toys Go Out together and laughing about StingRay's mistaken ideas about a vet. Yes, it's hard, but it's also rewarding.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Start of Year Assessments

Now that the school year is underway, I am giving careful thought to finding out about my readers. What do I know about them? What do I need to know?

I begin with last year's test scores. I think that these are valuable in that they tell me what readers can do with extended texts in a rigorous situation. But these scores are not enough, especially for those who are struggling readers. Our next step is to assess students. Our team has found great success with the short assessments in the CORE book. The screening tools are quick to give and help us to see patterns.

Next, we do the oral reading fluency measures in Scholastic's Fluency Formula. I like the assessment in which we do three one-minute measures, and then take the median score as the one that we record. This helps kids to get over their nervousness of reading aloud to us!

So what next? It's tempting to stop here. But I always like to do one more extended response question, preferably one that has students support an inference with details from the text. (Examples of these are in my book, The Forest AND the Trees.) This kind of thinking and writing is heavily represented in the Common Core. But it's nothing new--being able to cite specific evidence from the text has always been a key skill for writers and readers. Once I have the responses in hand, I can match them up with the other assessments to see how readers do across multiple assessments in multiple situations. This graphic that I made for a workshop several years ago shows how I think about these responses and use them to plan instruction:

With all of this data in hand, we can start planning intervention groups, guided reading groups, and everyday classroom instruction. That is when the fun can begin!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Getting started with independent reading

It's been quite a week. We've tried our hardest to keep cool in the muggy September afternoons! Teaching in a 60-year-old building has its charms, but lack of air conditioning is not one of them.

Of course, on Wednesday night, I decided that I was hot and sweaty already--might as well go pick raspberries and flowers! The end result was a gorgeous bouquet, four pints of fresh berries to give to colleagues, and two big containers of jam.

In school this week I've worked hard to get kids working on independent reading, just like I do every fall. I'm glad that I wrote these lesson plans several years ago--I still print them and follow them each year! The start of the school year is overwhelming enough without starting from scratch.

The path to independent reading starts with read alouds. During read aloud, I can model the kinds of thinking that I'm expecting of students during independent reading. Over the course of this week, students slowly took over the task of thinking about our shared texts.

Tuesday: Students shared their thinking with a partner. I generalized the kind of thinking from what they shared ("You shared a question. Questioning is a kind of thinking that readers do.") and made a chart.
Wednesday: Students wrote their thinking on two sticky notes when I stopped at two points in the text. They shared their thinking with a partner, and we tried to categorize their thinking. ("When you make a guess about how a character is feeling, that's a kind of thinking called inferring.")
Thursday: Students wrote their thinking on two sticky notes about our read aloud, and then two sticky notes from independent reading. They tried to categorize their thinking and wrote symbols like question marks, exclamation points, or stars to represent different kinds of thinking.
Friday: Students graduated to putting their thinking on a chart that they will use over the next few weeks.

But what books do I choose to start the year? I like to change things up. One thing that I wanted to do this year was give kids a taste of books that are not easy, and that do not yield their secrets quickly. But this is not always successful when kids are hot and sweaty. So I had to be very careful in my book picks, probably more careful than those lucky teachers in chilly buildings.

Instructions by Neil Gaiman turned out to be a good choice. I spent most of last summer devouring Neil Gaiman's books for adults, so when I ran into this in a beachside bookstore I knew I had to have it. It's interesting enough to keep kids entranced, and short enough to read in just a few moments. But it leaves a reader with more questions than answers. In case you haven't read it, the book is a poetic set of instructions for a quest, shown acted out by a fox. It looks like a fairy tale, reads like procedural text, and leaves you thinking.

Previously by Allan Ahlberg turned out to be loved by some, hated by others. Perfect for teaching about reading ratings! (Hm, can you tell that I read a lot of British fantasy over the summer? Like dark chocolate, it's left a taste in my mouth.)  This story upends fairy tales by telling what happened--well, previously. Never before have I thought that the Jack who fought the giant was the same Jack that fell down the hill! The students liked the illustrations, especially the endpiece that shows the characters as babies.

My computer has broken recently. I knew it was going to happen, so luckily I made backups of everything. In going through my files, I found old, old files and felt a bit of nostalgia for things that I haven't done in a long time. This led me to choose Heckedy Peg, a used bookstore find, as a read aloud. I first met this book when I was teaching a 4 year-old preschool class long ago. The center director was a fabulous teacher who sometimes read this book to the students before naptime while I cleaned up from lunch and set out cots. While some might not want to share a book with a scary witch in it with young children, this director knew that kids need fairy tales and an element of danger. Besides, Heckedy Peg stars a wonderful mother who bravely and cleverly gets her children back. It was a big naptime hit.

 Would fourth graders enjoy this as much as preschoolers? Absolutely! They all wanted to read it again during independent reading time. One boy asked to take it home for the weekend to read to his mother. From a teaching standpoint, I love how an event in the beginning of the book (what the children want their mother to bring home from the market) leads to the resolution of the conflict at the end of the book. Many traditional fairy tales just don't hang together this well.

I have written about Crab Moon before. I love the paintings in this book. For teaching about narrative and informational text, this book is a must. It has information in it, but is still definitely a narrative. This leads to a great discussion with students about the differences between narrative and informational text.

Crab Moon also helped me to learn some important information about my readers. After the main character, Daniel, helps a horseshoe crab, he grins. I asked the students, "How do you think Daniel feels on this page?" They shared their thinking with partners, and then several shared with the whole class. The consensus was that Daniel felt "happy" (proud did not make an appearance). Despite repeatedly asking, "What in the text might makes you think this?" and rereading the last paragraph on the page, I couldn't get any student to refer to the fact that Daniel grins to support their inferences. (And I feel that I can only go so far with leading questions. If the skill isn't there, it's not there, and dragging it out of kids isn't going to solve anything.)  So I know that my work is cut out for me as far as supporting inferences with evidence from text. I'll start with this in small group reading sessions next week, using texts that support text-based inferences. 

After we read the book together, I shared my own pictures of horseshoe crabs. These led to more talking and questioning and led several students to choose the informational books about horseshoe crabs that just happened to be prominently displayed. This is the beginning of matching details from different texts, which in turn is the beginning of becoming an big things were happening.

So it's been a productive week. In between reading times we have done tons of screening assessments. While these numbers are useful, I really think that the time we share in read aloud tells me just as much about what this year's classes will be like. I'm looking forward to getting to know all of the readers even better!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Word Roots Powerpoint

What a busy two weeks! I've been working to get my classroom ready, learn new curriculum, and get my house in order for the start of school. Here are some progress reports:

Spelling Lists
Earlier this summer, I wrote that I had finished a master word list. This list of over 1000 words includes words from the Academic Word List, the Fry list, and the Common Core, organized with data such as syllables, syllable types, word roots, idioms, and multiple meanings. I've been using this list for various purposes throughout the summer--generating spelling lists, looking for important vocabulary words, and finding word roots. If you'd like a copy, please let me know.

The next step was to create a body of spelling words. My hope in making the word list was that we would be able to create a seamless spelling and vocabulary program, a program based not on the random words that fit a pattern, but on meaningful words that share similar characteristics. So far, I'm three lists into creating the rest of the program. (It's a time-consuming process--words, homework assignments, assessments, lesson plans.) If you wrote to me earlier and would like some of these lists, please write again. :) 

Word Roots Powerpoint
The third spelling list is focused on word roots. I want to teach these early so that we can continue looking at patterns of meaning throughout the year. To help kids understand what word roots are, I created a simple Powerpoint presentation. It will be free on TeachersPayTeachers until August 30.

Character Traits Powerpoint
I also want to start looking at character traits very early in the school year. I made this presentation to show students what character traits are and how we can find them through exposition, dialogue, and actions. I wanted to make sure that the presentation includes differentiated practice--there are some questions that all kids will be able to answer, and others that offer more of a challenge. Again, this will be free until August 30.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Story Elements Readers Theatre

I love using Readers Theatre in my classroom. It's so much fun to watch the students show off their dramatic talents with zany, information-filled plays.

Unfortunately, I've become very picky about scripts. I don't want scripts that are more than 3 pages long, because no fourth grade audience has they attention span to watch the performance. I don't like scripts with more than 6 characters, because the groups often start fighting.

One of my long-time favorite set of scripts has been Read-Aloud Mini Plays with Leveled Parts. (Follow the link to read the Amazon review that I wrote of it back in 2008.) I like how the scripts include parts with different reading levels. These scripts also have the right level of silliness for my fourth graders. (Unfortunately, the follow-up book only has 12 scripts, and has some uneven parts that has led to great angst in the classroom.)

I go through all of the scripts in this book in about two months. To build my script base, I have written several sets of scripts to go along with what I am teaching. These scripts are all roughly the same length, with about the same number of parts. Once we perform a set, extra scripts are kept in one spot in the classroom for students to use during free time and indoor recess. 

These scripts do not come easily. Coming up with a situation, explaining a topic, and making sure that each character has a decent set of lines is hard to manage. Making it all fit on 2-3 pages is even harder! I can usually only manage it every few months or so. Interestingly, it's not something I spread out, like the text structure packets; instead, I write these in an intensely concentrated period of time.

Story Elements Readers Theatre
Five scripts (character, setting, plot, theme, conflict) review the key story elements, with varying degrees of silliness.

Text Structure Readers Theatre
Four scripts (chronological order, compare and contrast, problem/solution, and cause/effect) explain text structures.

Purpose for Reading
Three scripts explain why readers choose books. I have always meant to add a fourth script to this set, but every time I sit down to do it my brain just--refuses.

Animal Classification Readers Theatre
Five scripts explain the differences between mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and birds.

Scientific Method Readers Theatre (whole class): This one isn't my favorite, but it makes for a fabulous substitute lesson.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Kinds of Text Mini-Books

I'm in the middle of classroom preparation right now, trying to balance the fun tasks--setting out the classroom library, making posters, and planning lessons--with the more mundane tasks of schedules and seating charts.

As I was trying to tidy up my files, I found some pictures that I had made last spring. I created these while my own children drew at the dining room table, photographed them, and forgotten about them. With a little enhancing, they turned out to look pretty neat.

Why did I make miniature books? Well--why not? I love to draw miniature little pictures. (I have an entire fairy tale clothing line in a notebook that I use during faculty meetings. Trust me, it will make you actually like meetings.)

But these were drawn for a purpose. I start each school year by talking with students about different kinds of text--informational, persuasive, poetic, and narrative. Years ago I had made some basic black and white texts for students to sort into a 4-frame graphic organizer. Kids always enjoy working with the tiny little books, and love being able to make their own. This spring, I decided to make the task a little more glamorous by creating some colorful pictures. And I would have forgotten all about it if I hadn't been cleaning up my files! There is probably some lesson there about the virtues of cleaning up, but I will pretend that I have not learned it.

You can find some lessons and activities to go along with the mini-books here. The rest of the mini-books are embedded below. Follow the link to Slideshare, where you can download them. Just let me know if you use them and what you do with them.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Two Ways to Get Kids Invested in the Classroom

(I know that I was going to write about summarizing and the Common Core again, but I just didn't feel like it. Hey, it's summer!)

I invest a great deal of time thinking about the classroom. And I want kids to be as invested in the classroom as possible. Imagine my disappointment, then, when I've had students ask, "What subject is this?" Moving from science to social studies to writing in one classroom in one morning makes for a whirlwind time. The topics that I can keep so clearly delineated in my head tend to all blur together for students.

As I plan for the coming school year, then, one of my important questions to consider is, "How can I make sure that kids are invested?" I want kids to do more than just go through the motions. I want them to know what subject it is!

Here are two things that I plan to do this year.

1. Weekly Bulletin
I started using this again in the middle of last year, shortly after the "What subject is this?" incident. This is a great tool to use to keep everyone on track. With the Weekly Bulletin, I plan out the essential questions and assignments for the week. Students get their own copies of the Weekly Bulletin. This way, everyone knows the essential questions and what they need to accomplish.

Is it hard to create? Well, yes and no. On the example, you'll notice that my Weekly Bulletin only covers the classes that I teach to my homeroom--science, social studies, and writing. Too many subjects can be overwhelming for kids (and teachers!) From a planning viewpoint, the Weekly Bulletin forces me to think about the upcoming week in advance and get everything ready. Definitely a good thing!

Morning and dismissal work becomes much easier. Students know to consult their Weekly Bulletins to look at what they should be doing. Instead of making extra work for students to do during these times, I can keep them working on our regular curriculum. With the Weekly Bulletin, I was able to accomplish at least one writing prompt per week in the content areas.

2. Self-monitoring chart
Another goal that I have is to help students pay attention to their own behavior. Can they make good choices? Are they able to see the patterns of their behavior across the day? I made a simple self-monitoring chart to help them consider this. When there are problems in the day, I ask the students to record the issues themselves. This helps them to see what is happening and take responsibility for their actions. It works well for smaller issues (forgetting a pencil = not being proactive) and bigger issues (unkind words on the playground = not thinking before acting). I sometimes observe kids putting tallies on their sheets without my prompting, both positive and negative. This kind of thinking shows that students are taking notice of what goes on.

 I change the goals at the top frequently to reflect what is happening in the classroom. Sometimes students even make suggestions for what to add there.

These two tools help students to understand what is going on in the classroom--and become more invested in our daily routines and activities.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Summarizing and the Common Core: Grades 2-4

Summarizing is very important in the Common Core. What do students need to be able to do? How can we prepare them for these demands? It can be helpful to look at the requirements grade by grade.

Grade 2, RI 2: Identify the main topic of a multiparagraph text as well as the focus of specific paragraphs within the text.

Looking at topics is a very important first step to summarizing. I tell students that a topic can describe a text in one or two words. Often, kids will overgeneralize with topics. For example, consider this book about tigers. Try showing students a page from the text without the heading. What is the topic? Many of them will go right back to the topic of the entire book--tigers. But each page in this book has a more specific topic. Can kids find this more specific topic? An easy way to have kids work with this is to cover up the headings with sticky notes and have kids try to write their own headings for each page. (By the way, my own almost-second grader loves the National Geographic kids book--I think we own just about every single one! They are well-written, widely available, and inexpensive.)

Grade 3, RI 2: Determine the main idea of a text, recount the key details and explain how they support the main idea.

Hmm..."recount the key details" sounds a great deal like retelling, doesn't it? As students progress to longer informational texts in third grade, it is important that they continue to practice retelling so that they can work on remembering important information from a text. This activity helps students to practice retelling.

I wrote this Finding Topics and Main Ideas presentation several years ago. This presentation is an easy way to help students find those main ideas and key details in text.

Explaining how details support a main idea can be trickier for third grade students, especially those who are not yet thinking abstractly. After all, the whole idea of details "supporting" a main idea is figurative. Working with opinion paragraphs (especially paragraphs that they find disagreeable!) can help them to understand how this process works. For more ideas, you can look at Main Ideas and Details in Nonfiction Text, which includes paragraphs for practice, a center activity, and a PowerPoint that clearly explains how details can support a main idea.

In third grade, students should also be expected to choose the best summary from several choices. This is a fairly easy activity to add to regular instruction. Watching which summary students choose can help you to learn about their reading processes.

Grade 4: Determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details; summarize the text.

At fourth grade, formal summarizing begins. One mistake that I have made in the past is acting as if summarizing is difficult or unpleasant. ("Oh, we'll skip writing a summary this time--you've worked so hard today!") Summarizing needs to become a routine, something that students are used to doing frequently.

This lesson can help students learn the basics.

But just talking about the rules isn't enough to help students write successful summaries. They also need more experiences with choosing the best summary, critiquing summaries, and deciding which details need to go into a summary. For texts and activities to help students become more successful, you can look at Paraphrasing and Summarizing Lessons for Nonfiction Reading.

Next time, I'll write about increasing summarizing difficulty in grades 5-7. :)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Text Structure: Description

I have to admit that description has always been my least favorite text structure. It doesn't have the drama of cause and effect. It doesn't have the happy ending of problem and solution. For a writer, it doesn't offer the challenge of compare and contrast. Description

But several people asked if I was going to create a unit for description text structure, just as I've done for cause and effect, chronological order, problem/solution, and compare and contrast. When I looked around at my files, I realized that I really did already have some texts that fit the text structure.

And I enjoyed revisiting them. I found that the text structure of description can be interesting to write, and (hopefully!) to read. As I worked on "A Ferry to Cross the Water", I entertained family members with new and exciting facts about ferryboats. We don't have many ferries around here, so we all found the idea of a cruiseferry pretty interesting.

Revisiting "Schoolhouses of Long Ago" was a pleasure. This was one of the first longer texts that I tried to write, and I was pleased to work with it again. To add some complex text, I plumbed the depths of Google Books and found a book from 1832--with an author who had definite opinions about the state of America's schools. (Whatever problems my school may have, at least we are not subject to the "depredations of stray cattle" as described in the old book!)

You can find the resources for teaching description text here. I hope that you find them useful!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Common Themes

Last spring, I made a formatted set of themes mini-posters. This year, I'm going to use them to create a bulletin board in my classroom. After we read a text, we'll put the title of the book on an index card and post it under the theme.

Here are the mini-posters on Slideshare:

Common themes formatted
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Other theme posts:
Troubleshooting theme

Teaching theme