Sunday, October 25, 2009

Combine Writer's Workshop and the 6+1 Traits for Great Results

One of my favorite things to do when I teach young writers is to write with them. Just as it is important for teachers to be readers, it is also important for them to be writers. Do you write with your students? Here are a few ideas:

When your students are writing in class, at least some of the time, let them see you writing too. You can be jotting down ideas for a new action research project, making notes for your lesson plans for the future, or maybe, yes maybe, writing the same assignment that you just gave them.

Spend time celebrating writing in your class. One of the most important ways to cultivate writers is to create a classroom environment of risk-taking and cooperation instead of one where students are afraid of criticism or being made fun of. You can find something, even if it is a diamond in the rough, to celebrate in any student's writing. Give your students chances to share their writing and to cooperatively discuss revisions.

Play a game to emphasize avoidance of the "I don't say anything" word, "GOT". We use it frequently in our oral language but it is such a lazy word. Write a simple sentence with "got" as the verb and then have your students play "hot potato", tossing a ball or other object around. Whenever a student catches the object, they must give an active verb to replace "got" in the sentence. Have a brief discussion about levels of meaning (good word choice) afterwards.

For more ideas on writing, visit my columns at Another great resource is Purdue University's OWL writing lab. Til next time!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

A Treasure Chest of Nonfiction Resources

Nonfiction writing for children represents a pool of unique tools for educators teaching knowledge learning areas. Certainly nonfiction gives educators ways to build content knowledge. Don't forget that it also serves as a window of opportunity to motivate all students, to turn them on to reading. I've always said, "there's a book for every child" and, when you open the selection to include nonfiction texts, you raise the likelihood that each student finds that book.

I know educators and librarians don't have a lot of time to find these gems on their own so here are a few great new resources that will help you in your search:

My friend, and author, Vicki Cobb, and many of her fellow non-fiction authors just this week introduced a brand new database, website and blog, dedicated to helping busy educators and librarians tap into this world. To quote their introduction on their INK THINK TANK website "The real world has never been so interesting!"

Search this resource by subject area, national standard, grade level and much more on the database included here. There are more than 20 different contributing authors on almost any subject matter you can think of. They also have a corresponding blog where the authors of these great tools visit, share ideas and thoughts, and help us all maximize resources.

Ever feel as though your students have no hook, no foundation of knowledge, on which to build new content area knowledge? Need a quick tool to find picture books to use when introducing that content area subject matter? Powerful Picture Books: 180 Ideas for Promoting Content Learning is an environmentally-friendly, easy-to-use resource you can reference all year long. An annotated list of over 180 quality picture books, suggests one title to read for every day of the typical school year. Most of the entries represent picture books readily available in your local public or school libraries. Read aloud book 1 to book 180 in your classroom or use the interactive index to help you select the content area you need.

Each annotation includes the title, author, and publication details plus ideas (and some hyperlinks) for extending the learning. These recommended reads cover such content areas as history, writing, the arts, geography, science and more. You can find picture books applicable for use with elementary, middle and high school students.

Get your media specialist involved! Sharron McElmeel, from in Cedar Rapids Iowa Community School District, shares some great ideas for promoting nonfiction with the youngest readers in her article entitled A New Section for Young Readers: J is for Junior Nonfiction.

Maximize the use of nonfiction with your students and turn more of them on to reading as a tool for life, a way to feed their interests and explore new worlds.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Revisit the Read Aloud

Do you miss read alouds? In many of today's classrooms, reading aloud with children has been squeezed out or, perhaps even worse, has become a clinical, teacher-directed instructional piece to the point where it's lifeblood and impact have been depleted.

Take a look at an abbreviated list of values for reading aloud with students:

Pure enjoyment of great stories/growing motivation and interest in reading
Taking students to a different level of understanding of the story (Bloom’s
Taxonomy concepts)
Discussion and reinforcement of story elements
Reflecting on the text and searching for multiple meanings
Exploring the elements and format of print and story
Practicing and modeling specific comprehension strategies such as questioning,
predicting, clarifying, etc.
Building and activating background knowledge
Using inference
Understanding of the writing process, use of grammar, point of view,
writer’s voice, word choice and other writing-related skills.
Introducing and reinforcing vocabulary
Reinforcing content area learning
Modeling and Practicing “think-aloud” and visualization
Introducing and/or reinforcing summarizing skills

This list reads like a list of standards. I expect you can find at least a few of your state's embedded here.

So what's the deal? What I recommend to many teachers is to step back. Look at what you do as a reader when you read text. It is an active and interactive process. You draw on all you know about how to figure out those squiggles on the page and the meaning behind them, almost effortlessly. Our students are still learning about those through comprehension strategy instruction, decoding instruction and fluency practice. So open up your brain. Get off the "lesson" channel and just explore, think, wonder, figure out and celebrate great writing.

It doesn't have to take 30 minutes - try 5 or 10 (most picture books can be read in that length of time). Evaluate the "down times" in your day - waiting for students to arrive, during the "morning meeting"/first few minutes of class, before or after lunch, closing out the day. There IS time.

When you take this approach to reading aloud with your students, it will have an incredible impact.

Do you know about the research behind read alouds (there is actually quite a bit)? Dr. Wesley Sharp has written an excellent article summarizing some of it on Dr. Maryann Manning's take includes not only references to research but also personal experiences. My favorite principal of all time, Dr. Reba Wadsworth, has great insight into this area as well. One more resource: Katherine Goldner's action research in conjunction with her graduate studies. It so clearly illustrates the value of such "in the classroom" experiments and evaluation.

I'd love to hear from real teachers out there using (or not using) read alouds. What have your experiences been?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Tim Rasinski and The Role of Fluency Instruction

I was thrilled when my copy of IRA's The Reading Teacher came in the mail yesterday. If any of you are members of the International Reading Association, this journal is one of the best in terms of practical ideas.

This month Tim Rasinski (as he does so often) pairs with a classroom teacher. This time the two discuss how reader's theater can create an academic pathway to grow students' fluency. I hope that those of you with experience with reader's theater review this article's abstract as well as the article itself if possible. On the online version, there is even an idea for using Jan Brett's book Hedgie's Surprise in a reader's theater environment from Read Write Think. If you have not used reader's theater in your classroom, now is a great time to try it, especially with the detailed approach outlined. Tim's website also provides a great list of sources for reader's theater scripts. You can even have your students create their own as part of a writer's workshop or groupwriting experience.

One point of the referenced article is particularly important in today's classroom with an increased focus on fluency. The purpose of improving fluency is increased comprehension. I fear that in the past few years, many schools have swung the pendulum too far in the direction of focusing purely on speed and the result, as Tim and Chase talk about in this article, is children that can read like a house afire but have little understanding of what the meaning behind the text is. That can be terribly damaging to their ability to read increasingly complex text as they move forward in their schooling.

I saw this first hand as I conducted a research study on fluency and the influence of family reading on first graders' growing fluency. In a study conducted in schools in GA, AL, TX and TN, about 80% of the students we asked to read a leveled piece which included inference could not identify what the children in the story were doing (building a snowman). Many students immediately upon finishing the one minute reading (timed so we evaluate all the students within a reasonable time) asked, "how many words did I read?". It seemed they had nearly been "programmed" to ask that, even when there was no direct evidence that this is what our assessment was attending to. In fact, I recommended this response to our evaluators who heard that comment: "I wasn't paying any attention to that; I wanted to listen and see if you sounded like you were talking when you were reading and whether you understand what the story was about." Although this was not the focus on the study, it was indeed a wakeup call.

Educators must be very careful as we work with students to improve their fluency that we do not minimize or sacrifice expressiveness, pacing, automaticity in word recognition, and decoding. Worst still, if speed is our primary focus, children get the mistaken idea that fast word calling is reading. That is simply not what makes a good reader. Whether we are working with beginning readers in kindergarten or first grade, or older students still struggling with reading, we must be sure that we are sending the messages that fluency is a tool, that reading is squeezing the juice of meaning out of text. If we do not send that message loud and clear, we may see children benchmark on fluency assessments but their comprehension (tested more frequently that speed of reading and much more important) will suffer.

Certainly we want our young and maturing readers to be fluent, but we also want them to be able to think deeply and widely, analyzing and evaluating what they read, rather than simply regurgitating facts. That takes excellent, engaged teaching, giving some time to fluency, but always going back to the focus and purpose of reading, to gain meaning from that text.

I'd love to hear about your experiences with reader's theater and how you are using it in your classroom. How are you putting fluency in its correct perspective with your students?