Thursday, September 24, 2009

Step Into the Writing Process: Tools for Great Introductions

As teachers, whether we are in kindergarten or high school, we tell our class, "you need to make sure you have a strong introduction" when we encourage them to write. But such a broad statement isn't instructional and, if the students don't already have the tools to do that, they are lost.

Over my years of teaching children to write (ages 7 through 18) and 46 years of personal experience with the craft, I've discovered that there are lots of methods for creating effective introductions. Here's a few "tools" students can add to their toolbox to help their introductions (in essays, papers, narratives -- really any writing -- zing!

1. Always use the active voice and active verbs.
2. Avoid dull, predictable sentence structure.
3. Begin with one of these:

a surprising fact or statistic

a question"

a direct quotation (even a controversial one) to give a hint of perspective

a statement that leads into the piece, changing the routine perspective

purposeful repetition of a key phrase or term

an engaging anecdote or story, can include humor.

After your students have written their draft (including the introduction), ask them to switch with a partner. Have that partner answer this question:

When I read just the introduction, can I tell what the paper is about (the topic)?

Have the pair work together to either identify strong specific elements that make the introduction a good one or help one another revise to improve the introduction by incorporating some of these ideas. Make sure you follow through with multiple opportunities to practice writing strong introductions AND ask your students to seek out actual examples of writing and use these tools to evaluate the quality of others' introductions. Make sure you include great examples in a mini-lesson read aloud (great informal way to do a book talk). After reading the introduction, ask students "Is this a good introduction?" Follow-up, most importantly, after they voice their opinion, with the question, "Why?"

For more help with writing, visit the archive for's Reading Coach (not just for reading coaches but for every teacher).

How do you help your students write great introductions?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Building Background Knowledge with the Use of Picture Books

Do your students have that "deer in the headlights" look, lost because they haven't a hook to hang this new content chapter in history, science or social studies? We've probably all been there at one time or another. You feel for them but when you read the content with them or ask them questions, you just get a blank stare. Most often, the real reason behind that is that the student has no place to begin, no frame of reference to connect to. They have no "background knowledge" or "schema". Without a place to start ("oh, I know this information already, so I can understand the new information better"), students may not be able to make sense of it.

Think of what would happen if you were thrown into the middle of an engineering project with no training in that area. It would be impossible to be successful or to learn more without a foundation. It's the same when it comes to understanding writing, historical events and times, science, math, music, art, most anything -- we all need a starting place.

To find that starting place, enter the world of today's picture books. They are more colorful than ever with exquisite art created by true talents such as Jerry Pinkney and Jan Brett. They sometimes contain complex ideas in a simple format (like Patricia McKissack's Goin' Someplace Special).

Want to find more treasures to help your students learn content-related facts and information? Start with my Amazon List to find more suggested titles that all teach music concepts (from Native American and African roots to classical and jazz legends). Share this with your music teacher if you have one. also gives you some tips for using picture books to teach standards.

Because I recognize this is an issue that impacts comprehension (and we know how important comprehension is; it is the reason we read in the first placle), I've created a new environmentally friendly resource to help you find even more fantastic subject-matter picture books (the new e-book is entitled Powerful Picture Books: 180 Ideas for Promoting Content Learning available at Inspiring Teachers. Nearly half of the picture books listed can be used with middle and high school students as an introduction to more complex text. Powerful Picture Books will soon be featured at Cool Book of the Day where you can find a new cool book for you posted there every day.

Maybe you have other content areas you need help with. My friend, Vicki Cobb and a group of over 25 of her fellow nonfiction writers have started a new blog at I.N.K.. It highlights interesting Non-fiction for Kids and is a fantastic source for finding even more great non-fiction books for kids of all ages. Non-fiction is the heart of fact-finding and most reading beyond 3rd grade is content area or nonfiction reading. Whether you are looking for science books, books about famous people, language, painting or whatever, you're likely to find a sampling there.

With these tools, you have an easy way to support your students' learning. Tap into the world of picture books (fiction and non-fiction) to use as a fun, interactive way to help your child gain the basics. You'll help them gain a position where they can soar. The great news is that picture books, chosen carefully, can even be used with students who are in middle and high school.

Even if you have students who are doing well in school, search out a picture book or two that relates to a time in history or a subject that they may not study very much in school. Put those picture books in your classroom library for those students who finish their work early or those students in your class who have been identified as gifted. The more your students grow their background knowledge, the better prepared they will be to succeed in school, on standardized tests and in life.

Happy Reading!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Reinventing the Read Aloud

Engaged Interactive Read Aloud is the best way to connect with Facebook savvy, blogging, and texting students because it mirrors that same quick, back and forth interaction, while embedding strong examples of what our brains do when we as mature readers read. I've been developing the technique for years, based on research from great thinkers like John H. Guthrie, Catherine Snow, Marilyn Adams, and S.J. Barrentine.

It takes enthusiasm, familiarity with the text, and a willingness to expose your thinking process to your students but the great news is it works with K-12th graders. And it doesn't take much time but a daily dose of even 5 minutes can make a tremendous difference in the comprehension skills of your students. That will bring a return in higher test scores, stronger reading skills and thinking students.

There's not space here to explain the entire process but here's a taste.

Step 1: Share a purpose for reading this text aloud with students. It doesn't have to be your entire purpose because your focus for them is engagement, hooking them in. However, you do want to set the stage.

Step 2: Have students predict, talk about what they know about the subject matter, prime the pump for the new information they will gain. Make sure that you do this, not in a strictly instructional way, but conversationally. Remember that you want them hungry for read aloud so you have to be a great commercial for it.

Step 3: Read from the text, explaining out loud (and using whiteboards and other tools ready at hand to illustrate) what your brain is doing as you read the first line or two. It might be an explanation of how you decoded a difficult word (make that a joint exercise - "how did I figure that out?"), it might be an illustration of how you took what you already knew to make sense of the author's statement. It might be raising a question that you want to remember as you continue to read. It might be just a wondering, pondering moment in which you think about the meaning behind the text, in many layers.

Get the idea? Remember you have to be as much a teacher as an entertainer as an enthusiastic and passionate deliverer. Try this new version of read aloud in your classroom tomorrow and let me know how it goes!

My in-service trainings this year will be concentrating on this technique which can be taught to not only professional educators but also librarians, paraprofessionals and parents. We all need to be on the literacy team.