Author Archives: scotton23

Getting into Goals – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

Today, my students set their first reading goal of the year. I can hear your gasps. It’s October 15! One tenth of the year has gone by, goal-less! What were you thinking (I can hear you ask.)?

No, I did not fall and hit my head, nor was I abducted by aliens for the first month of school. One of the things I’ve learned over my many years of setting goals with kids is the importance of going slow to go fast. We have been very busy building reading stamina, getting to know each other as mathematicians and increasing our writing fluency. And we have gathered data. All of that work came together today to help my students write thoughtful, achievable and important goals in reading.

Here’s what happened in my classroom today. I hope that some of this vignette is useful to you, so I’ll be pretty detailed, and also let you in on my teacher moves.

As the kids came back from recess, I asked them to grab their data binders and a pencil and gather on the rug. During the first month of school we had already organized the tabs in the binders and students had tracked their reading with the Weekly Reading Record and their Quick Writes with the Writing Fluency Graph. Today, my goal was to have students look at the data they had already gathered and use that to inform their goal. Starting with the data helps students know their strengths and challenges, so they are more likely to write achievable and meaningful goals.

As the students gathered, I showed them a copy of the Book Shelf Recording form from my Student Data Binder resource (grab it on TPT today!) Immediately they connected it to the class bulletin board where we have been collecting book spines all month. Yippee! I’m always delighted when my students make connections. Makes me look like I know what I’m doing. 🙂 (I created our class bulletin board using the spines from this so-cute bulletin board resource by Lotts of Learning.)

I let the kids know that they were going to be creating their own personal Book Shelves to record their reading for the year, and I gave them copies, including the My Bookshelf Key. Then, the magic started to happen. Kids were moving around the room, checking the bulletin board, checking their reading logs on EPIC books, looking through their data binders at their Weekly Reading Records. Conversations sprung up.

“Is Ada Twist, Scientist a Science Fiction book?”

“What about Loser? It is Realistic Fiction?”

“Where would I put this book about Theodore Roosevelt?”

All the work we have done with genre was coming together in the focused buzz from every corner of the room and kids were talking about BOOKS!

Then I asked them to leave the data binders behind but bring their brain to the rug. And I said, “Has anyone ever talked to you about setting goals?” Of course, they all nodded and some kids piped up with examples from school and sports.

So, then I asked, “And, did the goals work? Did you improve?” This time the responses were mixed. Some kids said yes, and others said no.

Finally, I asked them what they knew about New Year’s Resolutions. One of my boys explained what they were, and then another boy blurted out, “But most people don’t keep them! My mom always says she is going to start going to the gym, and she never does!” I promise I didn’t ask him to say that, but it was too, too perfect!

“Well, they say a goal without a plan is just a wish,” I replied. “So, today, we are going to learn how to set meaningful goals and achieve them!” I then asked them what they thought might make a good goal area for Reading. They came up with this list:

  1. Number of books read in a year
  2. Speed
  3. Trying new Genre/Wide Reading
  4. Minutes spent reading

Not one kid said they thought they should make a goal about their reading level. Of course they didn’t! Reading levels are for teachers, not kids! (For more on that, be sure to check out this blog post.) Then we had a conversation about how many books they read last year. Five books seemed to be the general consensus. I told them that smart people who studied education had learned that about 40 books is the right number to help a student be ready for the next grade level. I was very clear. Thirty-five books is good, sixty is also good. And if they only read 5 last year, then 10 as also good! The goal should be based on their data, including number of books read last year and number of books read so far this year.

Next, we focused on genre. One girl said she thought she could read 5 books in each genre category. There are 15 categories, so we did some math and decided that was too much! She decided to read one book from each genre category, and then choose two favorite genre to read more widely. She then broke the goal down by month, and decided that in the month of October she would read at least three different genre.

Finally, we talked about a goal based on minutes. The kids agreed that would be easy to track on the Weekly Reading Record. As for fluency, no one wanted to set a goal around that because we decided that you might reach a maximum speed and not be able to go any faster, no matter how much you practiced. The last 15 minutes before lunch, you could have heard a pin drop in my classroom. Kids were moving their pencils, flipping the pages of their data binder and THINKING!

The students are really taking their goals seriously, and I couldn’t be more proud of them! I said at the beginning of this blog post that it’s important to go slow to go fast. We certainly have rolled out the goal setting slowly. Next week I will continue to move slowly through the data tracking process, and we will revisit the goals at least once a week. In November, my students will take their data binders home for their first student-led conference. It will probably be January before they are setting and tracking goals in all the academic areas. I have learned over many years of experimenting with goal setting that the slower I go in the beginning, the more ownership the kids develop and the faster they will go in the end.

I hope this post has helped you think about a few things to try in your classroom. Goal setting is so powerful, and if you roll it out carefully and thoughtfully, your kids will soar.

Happy teaching!

Connect with Content – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

It’s Monday morning, and I spent a few minutes this morning mulling over my weekend reading. Saturday morning found me, coffee in hand, perusing the New York Times for the latest news. Saturday I also reviewed some websites about fixing a running toilet and finished a mystery I’ve been working on this week. Sunday I spent some time reading about how to fix florescent lights, started reading a book on life for Colonial Women, researched a fix for a problem with my Google Classroom, read some lesson plans on teaching language skills and read the first few pages of a new mystery. You may be noticing a trend – three fourths of my weekend reading was non-fiction. Take a minute and think about your own life as a reader. How much non-fiction do you typically read compared to fiction? Most adults read more non-fiction, so I suspect you will find that to be true for yourself as well.

When I was reading those websites about fixing things in my house, I used lots of essential skills like skimming and scanning that don’t work well in fiction but are essential for non-fiction reading. I don’t have time to read an entire blog post that won’t answer my questions, so I skimmed the headings, scanned the text and found my answers. (If you’re wondering, the toilet is fixed and the electrician will be here Wednesday!). I used the Table of Contents to help me find the lesson plans that my students need, and the captions and photos helped me digest and understand the news in the newspaper. The CCSS call for equal reading of fiction and non-fiction, and even if your standards don’t include that requirement, it’s important that intermediate grades step up with non-fiction to prepare our students for a successful adult life.

I’ve written about the importance in other posts. Be sure to check out Nab Some Non-fiction – a post about 5 essential non-fiction picture books to start with and also some of my reviews of other great non-fiction texts (Click the Biblio-files tab for all the links!) And this post from the ASCD website clearly explains why non-fiction matters. Non-fiction reading not only helps students prepare for their adult life, it improves their reading comprehension, builds vocabulary, and increases grades in science and social studies classes. And still, most of us struggle to bring in enough non-fiction. My district adopted reading program includes only about 10% non-fiction, nowhere near the 50% required my state standards.

So, how do we fill the gap? How do we get kids jazzed about non-fiction, and hook them on content? One strategy I’ve used to bring more non-fiction text to my classroom is Digital Escape Rooms!

Why Digital Escape Rooms?

Well, first and foremost, Escape Rooms are fun! But why digital, you ask? Kids are already spending too much time on screens. Shouldn’t we move away from that every chance we get?

Well, yes and no. The first Escape Room I tried was a paper and pencil format. It took me approximately 2 hours to copy, cut, stuff the envelopes, place them around the room, gather the boxes, locks, etc., and get things set up. For me, that time commitment is not practical, so I turned to digital Escape Rooms. Kids get all the fun of an Escape Room and you have no prep. That’s right, no prep! Just assign through your Google Classroom (click here for a blog post with step by step instructions) or other LMS and then watch the fun! And, you get automatic results if you use a Google Form Escape Room. The digital format makes this a more practical option, which means you’ll use it frequently. Your students will be doing a lot of reading, and they will also gain practice with the riddles and ciphers embedded in Escape Rooms, helping them be more successful!

The amount of non-fiction text in a digital Escape Room can vary, so if that is your goal, make sure you check it out carefully. This digital Escape Room about the States of Matter includes an embedded non-fiction text that teaches the science content and then asks students to answer questions about the text to unlock the doors. Click the image to check it out on TPT!

This Google Form Escape Room contains both fiction and non-fiction texts in addition the story that carries students through the adventure. One fiction text is a traditional Irish myth about the formation of the Giant’s Causeway and the other is a retelling of a traditional tale about a leprechaun. The non-fiction text is a biography of St. Patrick. All of the texts include comprehension questions that help students move to the next section of the adventure. Click the image to check it out on TPT!

Adventure in the Chocolate Factory contains text and video about the history of chocolate, and the chemistry behind the making of the world’s favorite flavor. Again, the focus is on comprehension, and the questions help students focus on content. Click the image to check it out on TPT!

Digital Escape Rooms are an easy way to bring more non-fiction text into your classroom. I hope that you give one a try. I think you’ll love it, and so will your students! I’m always creating more Escape Rooms, so be sure to follow me on TPT and check back frequently to see what I’ve been cooking up!

Happy teaching!

Miss Rumphius’ Writing Territories

Have your students ever said to you, “But, I don’t know what to write!” If you’ve been teaching for a more than a day, I imagine you’ve heard that. And then you have gone through the arduous, painful process of helping them find an idea. It might sound something like this.

Teacher: Well, what do you like to do?

Student: I don’t know.

Teacher: Did you do anything fun this weekend?

Student: No.

Teacher: Have you ever gone somewhere special?

Student: My grandma’s house.

Teacher: Great! Write about that!

And then you get a minimal piece of writing because the student really doesn’t feel excited about grandma’s house and has nothing they feel like saying about it. Or, you get a blank page.

Well, if you’ve ever been there, you need to start talking to your students about their Writing Territories. A Writing Territory is something the student knows a lot about and is passionate about. I introduce the idea every year by reading “Manfish” by Jennifer Berne. This blog post and FREE download have more details about that first lesson.

Today, I want to talk about where you go next. In the first lesson, our goal was to inspire writers, to help them see that they have many areas of expertise, just like Jacques Cousteau, and that what they have to tell the world is important. That same goal carries over into this lesson. We are going to continue inspiring writers and helping them find their voice by connecting to what they love.

For the second lesson, I begin by reading Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. This is a truly beautiful book about a woman who lives a life doing the things she loves. She travels, she makes friends, she lives by the sea… At the end of her life, she has one, unfulfilled goal – to make the world a more beautiful place. She isn’t sure how to do that until one day, inspiration strikes and she becomes the Lupine Lady.

The theme of the story will resonate with students differently than the the theme of Manfish. As I finish reading the book, I ask the students to consider how they make the world a more beautiful place. I tell them that I make the world beautiful by teaching , and I add that idea to my Writing Territories List. I also add in trips that I have taken and my favorite flower. Then, I ask students to return to their Writing Territory lists, and add to them.

It is important for students to revisit their Writing Territories lists often because they will learn and grow and develop new territories. It should be a messy, living document that you add to and elaborate frequently. One way to do that is to read a great book about someone who lives their passion, and then ask students to add to their lists. I often turn to books for inspiration in my own writing, and I want my students to do that same. (If you’d like a resource to help you do that, check out Make Friends with a Book Writing Prompts.)

Miss Rumphius is a beautiful book that I been reading to students for 20 years. It has inspired many great writing pieces for my students, and it will for yours too!

Happy teaching!

Susan

Five Ways to Use Poetry – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

Poetry is perfect for accomplishing many of your literacy goals. One of the great things about poetry is how short it is. You can accomplish a lot in a short amount of time! This blog post will feature 5 ways I use poetry in my classroom, with links to resources to help you do the same! (The FREEBIE is at the end, so read on!)

Close Reading

One good way to use poetry is for a close reading, especially if your students have not done them before. The purpose of a close reading is to teach students the skills they need to analyze a text deeply. Poetry is perfect for that because poems generally have a literal meaning that is readily apparent, but also a deeper meaning that emerges through close reading. Another reason poetry is terrific for a close reading is because the text is generally short, usually no more than a page. And finally, if a poem has rhythm and rhyme, it can make the text more accessible to students, and also more fun to reread. If your students hate the repeated readings required by close reading, try poetry!

In my classroom, I like to begin the year with poems about school, and our first close reading is of Mary Had a Little Lamb. We read the entire poem, not just the part that is generally known, and we also read a non-fiction text that tells the story of how the famous poem was written. Check out the Poetry Break – Poems about School Resource on TPT!

Vocabulary

Poetry is also perfect for teaching vocabulary. Many Tier 2 words (check out this blog post for more information) can be encountered in poetry. In this example from my Limericks Poetry Break, the context of the poetry helps students learn two Tier 2 words – brute and resembled.

Engagement

The rhythm and rhyme of poetry makes it perfect for getting students up and moving, which can be really important for engaging students who may not love the quiet sitting that often accompanies reading – especially boys. Poetry is meant to be read aloud, in fact, making it perfect for Task Cards like these, also from my Poetry Break – Limericks resource.

Loving Language

Finally, poetry can help your students fall in love with language. Similes, figurative language, hyperbole, alliteration, onomatopoeia…. These poetic devices help students find the beauty of English. And of course, these devices also show up in well written fiction and non-fiction, so learning to love the language and understand it through poetry increases student’s comprehension of other texts. For example, consider this poem, Sick by Shel Silverstein. This is a terrific example of hyperbole, and so fun for students. That poem is featured as a Poetry Break in Poems About School.

The alliteration and repetition in A Ring Upon her Finger by Christina Rossetti make this a great poem for easing in. If you, or your students, are nervous about poetry, give it a try with one of my print and teach units. These units include everything you need to help your student analyze poetry, write poetry, and learn to love poetry!

Poetry Breaks

I love fun and spontaneity in my classroom. One way I do that is with Poetry Breaks. A Poetry Break is exactly what is sounds like. I find a poem that I want to share with my students. Then, when they least expect it, I hold up the Poetry Break paddle, and read them a poem. We talk about it briefly, and then I reread the poem. Then, we return to our regularly scheduled lesson. Eventually, I give the paddle to a student and ask them to plan a Poetry Break. They LOVE it, and it gets them reading LOTS of poetry! Want to try it in your classroom? Download this FREEBIE which includes an overview of the strategy and a Poetry Break paddle of your own – everything you need to bring poetry to your classroom!

Take a Break for Poetry today! You’ll be glad you did!

Happy teaching

Susan

Goal-Setting – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

As I’m sure you know, goal setting and data tracking is an important strategy for raising student achievement. John Hattie found that student self efficacy (what I like to call ownership) resulted in a .92 change in achievement – well over the .4 hinge point that marks a successful educational initiative. And, goal setting leads directly to a feeling of self-efficacy, so it is well worth our time to teach students to write effective goals and to reflect on their growth. (For an overview of all of Hattie’s work, click here, and grab his book, Visible Learning, if you don’t have it already!)

In this blog post, we are going to focus on how to help students make meaningful goals in reading. We will discuss appropriate areas for goal setting, writing meaningful goals, how to track data, and how often to reflect and set new goals. If you want a resource that will help you do all of that, check out Student Data Binders. There are 110 Student Sheets in all the academic areas plus Leadership and Social Skills!

Grab this on TPT and get everything you need for ALL the academic and social areas!

Writing Meaningful Goals

The first word I want to focus on is meaningful. It has become quite a trend in education to have students track their reading level – AR, DRA, BAS…. Whichever system you use, you may be asking students to keep track of their reading level. You may have them set a goal around their reading level, you may have them make a beautiful graph of their growth….

If so, please STOP! Reading levels are not meaningful to students. When I was teaching 3rd grade in a building that was highly focused on data, we had a training on goal setting, and were encouraged to have our students set goals based on their reading levels. Something felt weird to me about it, but I believe in goal setting and I believe in using reading levels to drive instruction, so I went along with it and had all of my students set goals to improve their reading levels by at least 3 levels during the year.

My son went to kindergarten in the same district that year. I will never forget the day he came home with a paper from his teacher that said he was a Guiding Reading Level J. That is 2nd grade reading level, so I was understandably excited! He wasn’t. He was pretty disgusted by the whole thing because his teacher told him he could only read books out of a certain tub, which was mostly filled with Little Bear books. He was not a fan of Little Bear. He felt restricted by his reading level, and just wanted to read books about Cars (the movie, which he loved!)

As a teacher, I learned an important lesson that day. Reading levels are for teachers, not for kids, and not for parents. I finished the year with my 3rd grade students and their goals about reading levels. I bet you know what happened. Not much. Kids don’t know what it takes to move from a level M to a level N. So, the goals weren’t meaningful to the students, and little progress was made. My students certainly felt no ownership of their learning. It was almost like their goals were being done to them instead of with them – just like my son.

If you don’t believe me, trust the experts. Fountas and Pinnell have written and tweeted extensively on this in the Reading Teacher, EdWeek, their blog, and other places. They are pretty clear that reading levels are for teachers, not students or parents. The link to their blog includes some really helpful phrases to use with parents. Check it out!

So, that was a really long intro to goal setting. 🙂 If we aren’t having students set goals around reading level, what does that leave us? Well, what is meaningful to students and in their control? These are some areas that make meaningful goals for students.

  • Genre/Wide Reading
  • Number of books read
  • Fluency
  • Increasing reading stamina

As you get to know your students individually, you will probably find other areas, unique to each reader, that are meaningful and worthy of a goal. You, the teacher, bring your expertise and knowledge of what it takes for students to move to the next level. The student brings the interest and motivation. And in the space between, a meaningful goal will emerge.

“You, the teacher, bring your expertise and knowledge of what it takes for students to move to the next level. The student brings the interest and motivation. And in the space between, a meaningful goal will emerge.”

For example, you know that a student who cannot read a grade level text fluently is likely to struggle with decoding so significantly that they lose track of meaning and are unable to comprehend a text. You also know that strategies for increasing fluency include close reading practice decoding multi-syllabic words in context. So, together, you and the student might write a goal like this:

“By the end of October, I will increase my fluency from 84 words per minute on a fifth grade level text to 90 words per minute on a fifth grade level text. I will use my Menu time to complete the Multi-Syllable Words Task every week in October and I will reread our close readings one extra time each week.”

This goal is SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Based. And it is meaningful because it is entirely in the students’ control, and it will help them achieve. Just make sure that the idea comes from the student and that they feel excited to use their menu time to complete those tasks. If you impose the goal, you will find a far lower rate of growth than if the student chooses a goal that is important and fun for them. Choice is a key motivator, so give kids choices!

This Goal Setting Sheet is included in Student Data Binders, which you can grab on TPT!

Tracking Data

Once your students have meaningful goals, you will need to find a way for them to track their goals, and also the time for them to do that work. If students don’t reflect and track regularly, they will lose motivation and the goal will lose its power.

I have a weekly time on Fridays for students to reflect on their goals. Students grab their data binders and track their data from the week. These are some of the data tracking sheets that I use. One way I differentiate in my classroom is with student goals and data tracking. All students track their books read on either the Weekly or Monthly form (depending on which one helps them be successful). All students track projects and tests on the Standards-based form. The other forms are given to students only if they match their goals.

How often to change the goals

I have experimented with this a lot. Yearly goals are way too big for most students. They lose motivation and falter over time. Weekly goals take too much class time and are so small that they don’t result in much growth. Quarterly goals are not bad, but for me, monthly works the best.

First, a month is not a huge span of time. It’s long enough to create a lofty goal, but not so long that students lose motivation. Also, monthly goals can be seasonal. Frequently, students write goals in October around reading a certain number of spooky books. In February we talk a lot about kindness, students sometimes make goals around reading and recommending books to friends as an act of kindness. Monthly gives these fun options and helps keep the goals varied and interesting.

Second, if a student does not meet their goal, they get 10 chances each year to try again. When we set yearly goals, I found that students often realized in January that they could not meet their goal under any circumstances, and so they stopped trying. With monthly goals, students get a do-over every few weeks! That really fits the growth mindset that I try to help students build.

Finally, monthly goals give students lots of practice with goal setting and reflecting. By the end of the year, students will set 9 reading goals and 9 math goals in my classroom. They will set 8 writing goals and 8 leadership goals. And they will set 6 Science goals, 6 Vocabulary goals and 6 Social Studies goals. (As you probably noticed, I don’t have students set all the goals in the first month. We increase the number of goals as the year progresses.) My students will be pretty good at writing SMART goals by the end of fifth grade!

Goal setting and data tracking are important tools that help students take ownership in their learning and achieve at higher levels. I hope that this blog post has given you some ideas and that you bring goal setting to your classroom. My resource on TPT can be helpful, so grab that, or make your own, and give it a try!

Happy teaching!

Susan

SpeedWriting – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

You’ve heard of SpeedDating, right? Well, one day I thought to myself, why not try SpeedWriting? And my kids loved it! Here’s how it works.

The idea is that students are trying a variety of Writing Prompts to see which one(s) seem a good match for them. Once they’ve found a prompt that inspires them, they get to write about it!

I usually have 24 – 26 students, so I hang 12 Task Cards around the room. Each Task Card has a prompt on it for the students to write about. These are sample Task Cards from my Writing Prompt Resource – Make Friends with a Book. Grab them on TPT!

I separate the students so there are 2-3 students at each prompt. Each student has their Writing Notebook and a pencil. I start the timer for 1 minute if I have a class full of reluctant writers, and 2 minutes if they are more confident writers. The students write about the prompt until the timer goes off, and then they rotate to the next Task Card. The timer starts again and students write about a new prompt. Within a few minutes, students have rotated to 12 different Task Cards and written 12 different responses. After 12 minutes, I ask students to return to their seats and spend another 30 minutes writing. Sometimes these writing prompts turn into something that students work on over time, polish and publish, and sometimes it is just something they work on for a few minutes.

What is so great about this is students are exposed to lots of ideas at once, and almost always, there is one that really grabs them. In fact, they almost always find more than one prompt that they like to write about! Another benefit is that students build stamina and writing endurance, and they become more flexible writers and thinkers. Lots of great benefits! I use SpeedWriting once a month or so, and my kids look forward to it every time!

Please grab this free download to help you try SpeedWriting in your classroom. This one-pager walks through the steps, and it is included in 12 Book-Themed Writing Prompts on TPT. Check it out today!

QuickWrites – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

QuickWrites are a really easy strategy that gets kids writing and only take about 5 minutes a day! Interested? Read on!

Just as we want our students to become more fluent readers, we also want them to become more fluent writers. QuickWrites are an awesome way to make that happen. A QuickWrite is exactly what you think it is – something a student writes about for only a short amount of time. You give the students a prompt and set a timer. Their goal is to keep their pencil moving the entire time! Even if they are writing the same word over and over, that pencil keeps moving. Because they only write about the topic for one minute, it is more like a game than a long-term commitment. I’ve learned over the years that once students start the pencil, even if they write their name over and over and over again, eventually, the ideas will flow. This strategy will improve students’ ability to write on a topic and awaken their imagination and bring new ideas to their writing!

Because I know that choice is an important motivator for kids (well, for all humans, really….), I give my students one prompt, and one minute. Then, I give them another prompt, and another minute. Finally, I give them a third prompt, and one more minute. Within less than 5 minutes, my students have written something about three different prompts.

This is one of the prompts that I will give my students during our first QuickWrite of the year. (It’s part of my Make Friends with a Book Writing Prompt resource on TPT if you want to grab it.)

After my students work on three different QuickWrites, I ask them to go back and count how many words they wrote for each prompt during the one minute timing. They graph their highest number of words, and that is my writing lesson for the day. Students are free to continue writing on one, or more, of their QuickWrites or work on a writing project of their choosing for the rest of our writing time.

Download a FREE copy of my Writing Fluency Graph here! If you like it, be sure to check out my Student Data Binder resource on TPT for more goal setting, data tracking and student reflecting resources. There are over 110 Student sheets included, so something for everyone!

What I’ve learned is that using QuickWrites about once a week improves students’ ability to put pencil to paper and get the ideas flowing. Also, the QuickWrites are a bank of ideas. If a student gets stuck and can’t come up with an idea for an assignment, one thing I encourage them to do is return to their QuickWrites. Often, they find something there that they can adapt to meet the requirements of the assignment. And since they have already done some writing on that topic, it can feel easier for them to get started.

My QuickWrites resources include the prompts in 4 different formats so that you can use them with lined paper, primary paper, as a prompt that students glue into their journal (which is how I use them) and in a center. Another way to use the writing prompts is for SpeedWriting. This blog post gives you all the details and includes a free download to bring SpeedWriting to your classroom!

Check out Make Friends with a Book and my other Writing Prompts on TPT today and let’s launch a great writing year together! Happy teaching!

Using Word Walls to Teach Tier 2 Vocabulary – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

If you’ve read any of my other blog posts, you probably know that I’ve spent a significant amount of my career teaching ELLs. You may also know that, even when I’m not teaching ELLs, direct vocabulary instruction is always an important feature of my classroom. I try to spend just a few minutes a day on direct instruction of vocabulary. My goal is to teach 500 words a year – and even that is a small fraction of the words that I should be teaching. If you missed it, check out this post which summarizes the research on why direct vocabulary instruction is critical.

Getting Started

Word Walls are a key strategy in helping me meet that goal of 500 words a year. As you are setting up your Word Wall for the year, here are a few things I have learned over the years.

  1. The power of a Word Wall is in its interactivity. A pocket chart is the best way to ensure that. I’ve tried stapling words on the wall in the past, and I find that when I do, they just sit there. When I put them in a pocket chart, kids can grab the cards and use them, and so can I. So, to keep my Word Wall a living, interactive part of the classroom, I use a big pocket chart.
  2. Another benefit of the pocket chart is that I can add words that come up unexpectedly in class. I prepare Word Cards that I use intentionally, but I also seize the teachable moment and add words that we encounter in books, videos, conversation….
  3. Because I use a pocket chart, I can’t fit all of the words for the year at one time. So, students keep a personal Word Wall as part of their Writing Notebooks. Before I remove the Word Cards for a unit, I make sure the students have the words in their notebooks. I also store the previously learned Word Cards in an alphabetical accordion folder so that students can find them if they need them later on.
  4. Make sure you choose a spot that is easily visible and accessible. One year I put my Word Wall in the back of the classroom, and kids didn’t use it. Even though my students’ desks face all directions, there is something about the front of the classroom that communicates importance. Put your Word Wall in the front if you can.

What do you include on a Word Wall?

If you missed it, be sure to check out my blog post on Tier 2 words. I explain the three tiers in that post – something that you really need to understand to help your Word Wall be most effective. My Word Wall is mostly Tier 2 words because they are the ones that my students need direct instruction with. I also include some Tier One words if I want my students to be sure to spell them correctly, and I add Tier 3 words when they come up.

If you don’t already have one, a COBUILD Dictionary is a great tool to explore. Besides all of the other things that a dictionary can do, COBUILD dictionaries tell us how frequently a word is used in written English. Very common words are Tier 1, and need little to no instruction. Very uncommon words are rare, and also need little to no instruction because, in all likelihood, the average reader will never encounter them. For example, abecedarian is a Tier 3 word. You may be an abecedarian when it comes to the COBUILD dictionary. But unless that word turns up as an important idea in a book or other context, I won’t spend direct instruction time on it in class.

As teachers, we want to put our energy into teaching our students the things they will likely need to know. For example, this link will take you to an online COBUILD dictionary where you will see that the entry for isthmus has two out of five dots colored. This tells you that isthmus is one of the 30,000 most frequently used words in English. So, some direct instruction is probably warranted.

Plateau, with three colored dots, is one of the 10,000 most frequently used words. And it is a word that students struggle to spell, so it is a perfect word to spend direct instruction time on, and should receive greater focus and deeper instruction.

Adding Words to the Word Wall

There are many great ways to do this, so let your creative mind flow! But, if it’s late and your brain is tired, here are a few things I generally do as I introduce words.

For example, I use my Word Wall for my Landform vocabulary every year. If you need Landform Word Cards, check out this set on TPT. Each card has a photo of a landform in the US, so I double my impact by teaching important Science and Social Studies content!

This resource includes 32 terms. At the beginning of the unit, I choose the Tier 1 words that my students likely already know, and quickly add them to the Word Wall. It should take about 10 minutes of class time. The goal is to make students aware that the words are there, that they should know them, and that they are responsible for spelling them correctly, now and forever. I play a game I call Categories to introduce these words. It sounds like this.

Teacher: Class, today we are going to play Categories. I have 10 words. Our category is landforms. The first definition is “a piece of land that rises higher than everything around it.”

Student: Mountain?

Teacher: Good guess. This landform is smaller than a mountain.

Student: Hill?

Teacher: Right!

And then I place the Word Card under the document camera to show the students the word, definition and photo. Then it goes into the pocket chart and we move on to the next word. In this way I review 10 words that most of my students already know and I create a place in their brain to hold more words that fit the category of landforms.

The next day, I introduce a Mystery Word that fits in in our category. Mystery Words are always Tier 2 words, and I will spend the majority of my direct instruction time on these words. I choose a word that the students should encounter in reading or other context that day, and I remind them that it fits the category of landform. In the morning, I write the first letter on the board, and then blank lines for each letter (like the game of hangman). As the day progresses, I add a letter here and there until the students guess the word. Often, they guess the word when they encounter it in the text. Then, we look at the Word Card and add it to our Word Wall.

Finally, if there are Tier Three words that I want the students to learn, I present them in a quick, direct instruction. I simply tell the kids the word and the definition, and then use it in a sentence. Then, I challenge my students to work together to come up with a sentence of their own. Finally, we add the word to the Word Wall.

That’s a quick overview of how I use Word Walls in my classroom. Of course, the power is in the revisiting. More on that in future posts.

In the meantime, if it’s helpful, grab some of my Word Wall sets on TPT, or make your own. Here’s to a year filled with Words, Words, Wonderful Words!

Getting Pencils Moving on the Page – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

Yesterday’s blog post featured a somewhat unusual idea for launching Writer’s Workshop. After the initial flurry of writing about the crazy dancing teacher, some students struggle to find their next idea. That’s where today’s idea comes in handy.

Manfish, by Jennifer Berne is a marvelous picture book about Jacques Cousteau. He was a true Renaissance Man – inventor, environmentalist, explorer, cinematographer…. The book beautifully traces his life and his development of his many talents. It’s a perfect opening to inspire students to identify their own talents and interests.

This free lesson plan on TPT walks you through how to use the book to introduce the idea of Writing Territories to your students and then help them brainstorm to find their own writing territories. The detailed lesson plan includes a brainstorming sheet for students. I have students paste those in the front of their writing journals so they can easily revisit them throughout the year. The free download also includes a checklist that will help you keep track of student progress.

The real power of this lesson actually comes after the lesson. Once students have brainstormed their writing territories, the revisiting is key. The first revisit happens in a writing conference with me. During that conference I am working to get to know my students, so I do more listening than talking. I also often try to help the students narrow their topics down.

This is a copy of one of my student’s brainstorm after half of a year. She started with the first 5-6 ideas. As the year continued, we revisited this from time and she added to her brainstorm.

When I met with this girl during our first conference of the year, we started by looking at her Writing Territories sheet. I noticed that she had listed her family as one of her territories. That is a very general topic, so I asked her to be more specific. We discussed each member of her family and analyzed which ones she felt she could write about. She said that her little sister and her dog would both be funny to write about, so I had her add them to her list. By narrowing her topic down she had a better chance of writing a well organized story. Later in the year, she narrowed even further by identifying her Writing Territory as “11 year old girls with annoying little sisters”. Not long after she wrote a pretty funny story about her youngest sister. Narrowing the focus during a brainstorm can often set a story or essay on the right path, even before the writer begins.

This student also added ideas during the year. She loved Science, so she added the solar system, and then narrowed even further to Saturn. One of her best pieces of writing for the year was her informational piece about the journey of the Cassini spacecraft and its study of Saturn.

To help get students to add to their list, we try to make it a living document. I show mine and add to it frequently, and I ask the students to open their notebooks and begin a Workshop by reading their list. I also say things like, “Oh, what an interesting idea. Why don’t you go add that to your Writing Territories list?” Even if it’s math class, I try to encourage the students to find their own voices and their own ideas and add them to the list.

I hope this lesson helps you and your students find topics to write about. Grab the free lesson plan on TPT today!

Launching Writing Workshop – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

This idea is a guaranteed winner – I promise!

Every year, on the first day of school, my students come back from lunch to see a mysterious box, covered with a cloth. Then music starts to play. I usually use 2001, A Space Odyssey because it is SO dramatic! As the music crescendos, I whip the cloth off the box. It is wrapped, so I rip that off too! Of course, I’m not saying anything while the music plays, but I’m dancing around in a goofy, ridiculous way. All the kid’s eyes are glued to me and not a few jaws are dropped as I rip open the box and start throwing tissue paper around the room.

The Writing Journals are revealed!

Finally, at the most dramatic moment in the song, I reach in, my mouth wide with awe and delight, and I reveal – a writing journal!

I then proceed to bestow them upon the fortunate students in Room 205. After my craziness, as you might imagine, every student has something to write about. So, when the music dies and the hubbub quiets, we have our first writing session of the year.

For the first Writer’s Workshop, I keep it short. Kids have likely lost their writing stamina over the summer, and I’m interested in having them enjoy the time and get something on the page. We go through all the steps though.

  1. It is quiet when we write so that everyone can do their best thinking.
  2. You can write wherever you want to in the room. Just make sure you choose a good learning spot for yourself.
  3. When we finish one piece, we start another.
  4. Sharing is always encouraged, and always optional.

I like to begin our Writer’s Workshop together in this dramatic fashion for a few reasons.

  1. Kids always have a story to share with their families on the first day of school.
  2. I like to confound their expectations and surprise them as much as possible in the first week of school. Fifth grade is like no other class they’ve experienced.
  3. Writing is exciting to me, and I want it to be exciting to my students.
  4. It’s just fun, and fun is always a good thing!

If you are thinking of going digital this year, check out my Customizable, Digital Writing Journals. I use a notebook AND a digital journal in my classroom.

If you want a little taste of how this looks in my classroom, check out the video. I hope you find some inspiration to dress up your own Writer’s Workshop this year. You can do it, I know you can!

Happy teaching!

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