Tag Archives: reading strategies

Five Fiction Picture Books to Start the School Year Right! – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

Why use picture books in the intermediate classroom? Won’t the kids think they are babyish? Well, that might have been true once (although I could make the case that it was NEVER true), but in recent years, authors have been putting out some amazing picture books aimed at older readers, and even for adults. A high quality picture book has sturdy paper, brilliantly colored illustrations and engaging text. I use picture books in my classroom all year long. Here is why:

  • I can read them in about 10 minutes!
  • They are easy to reread. I often read a picture book for one purpose, and then revisit it for another purpose.
  • The pictures help carry the meaning of the story and provide important scaffolding for ELLs and students with low language skills.
  • Students love to reread them. A picture book doesn’t feel like a major commitment. Even in fifth grade, some students feel overwhelmed by reading chapter book after chapter book. High quality picture books can fill a gap and give students a little rest while still keeping them reading!
  • Students need to be exposed to a wide range of non-fiction, and picture books are a great way to bring that into the classroom. Over the 25 years I’ve been an educator, content standards have narrowed considerably, and it is causing students to be less engaged in school. I don’t blame them! Picture books are a great way to widen their horizons and help them find topics and content that interests them. I meet required reading and writing standards AND engage students in interesting content at the same time.

Following is a list of my favorite fiction books for starting the school year. Be sure to check out tomorrow’s post to get the list of my favorite non-fiction picture books for back to school. I will read all of these books to my fifth graders in the first month of school. There is a lot of junk out there, but I promise, these will all be great reads in your classroom too! Links are to Barnes and Noble in case you need to add any to your classroom library.

Odd Velvet

Odd Velvet by Mary E. Whitcomb

This book was published in 1998, and I have probably read it to a group of students every year since it was published. There is plenty here for all ages.

The main character, Velvet, is odd. It’s not just her name, it’s everything about her. She doesn’t have fancy clothes or a big box of crayons, and she doesn’t even like talking dolls! Then, using just eight crayons, Velvet wins an art contest, and the kids begin to see her with new eyes.

This is a lovely story for the beginning of the year because it is a story of learning to accept those who are different from ourselves. As you are building your classroom community, it’s a terrific message to send.

I use this book to launch my Graffiti Wall every year because the language is so marvelous. Be sure to check out the blog post and video where I explain how to do that!

Enemy Pie by Derek Munsun

It’s shaping up to be the worst summer ever. Jeremy Ross has just moved into the neighborhood, and he is public enemy number one! When the protagonist (who is not named) explains this to his dad, dad instantly gets it and helps hatch a plan – to invite Jeremy Ross over and feed him enemy pie. Dad makes the pie, and all the boy has to do is spend one day being nice to his enemy. As the boys spend a fun day on the trampoline and in the tree house, the protagonist realizes that Jeremy isn’t so bad after all, and he warns him not to eat the pie – the act of a true friend!

Enemy Pie (Reading Rainbow Book, Children's Book about Kindness, Kids Books about Learning)

This is a wonderful book to share with kids at the beginning of the year and talk about friendship. What makes a good friend? How can making assumptions about someone stop us from noticing their good qualities? Your kids will love the fun illustrations (by the same illustrator as Odd Velvet!) and you will love the way the discussion moves your classroom community forward.

The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes

The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes by Mark Pett and Gary Rubinstein

Chances are, you will have at least one perfectionist in your class this year – one student who is afraid to take risks because they might fail. Chances are, it will be one of your highest performing students. This book is for that student.

Beatrice Bottomwell is known far and wide for never making mistakes. She never forgets her homework, she always makes a perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the perfect amount of jelly, and she has won the city talent show three years in a row. She has fans waiting to greet her as she heads to school each morning. When she slips and falls carrying the eggs for a muffin recipe, she catches the eggs before they break. She is perfect! But she can’t stop thinking about her Almost Mistake. And she is so afraid of making a mistake that she won’t join her friends as they play on the frozen pond after school.

The night of the school talent show comes again, and everyone, including Beatrice, expects that she will win. But, her juggling act goes awry, and Beatrice finds herself standing on stage, covered in water, and trying to figure out how to handle the situation. That’s when the book becomes so perfect for the perfectionist. Beatrice laughs. And the audience laughs with her. What a wonderful way to handle utter humiliation!

This book is a really great model for handling life’s difficulties, whether students are perfectionists or not. Again, read this early in the year and have conversations about handling failure. If you make failure fine for your students, risk taking will be much more likely in your classroom.

The Other Side

The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson

This book is told in first person by a young, black girl. As you can see in the cover art, she lives on one side of a fence, and a little white girl lives on the other. Both girls are warned not to go on the other side of the fence because it is dangerous. Eventually, the girls realize that there is no rule about sitting on top of the fence, and in that middle ground, they meet and become friends.

Woodson has such a lovely way with words, so you could easily read this book just for the language. But, it is also a great book to read and discuss the artificial barriers that keep people apart. You can easily bridge to the artificial barriers that likely exist in your own classroom: race, class, language, economic status, cool kids… I have always found that bringing up those issues early in the year before too many problems arise is the best strategy for preventing them from sidetracking your classroom community. This book will help your students find their own middle ground.

Miss Malarkey Leaves No Reader Behind by Judy Finchler and Kevin O’Malley

This is the book I use to introduce my Reader’s Interest Survey. Be sure to check out the blog post about how I do that, and grab the Reader’s Interest Survey on TPT!

Miss Malarkey is determined to find each student a book they will love before the end of the year. The main character is pretty sure she will fail. After all, he hates reading. Maybe you’ve met a student like that….

One by one, his friends and classmates all get bit by the reading bug. But the main character remains completely unimpressed by books. Undeterred, Miss Malarkey keeps trying as he comes up with one reason after another to dislike her picks.

I think you can see why I love this book for the beginning of the year. I tell my students that I am just like Miss Malarkey. I am going to get to know them really well (starting with the Reader’s Interest Survey) and I am going to help them find books that they love. This book opens that door and starts to build our relationship around books.

As June rolls around, Miss Malarkey has gotten to know each of her students, especially the main character, very well. That knowledge of her students helps her find the perfect book for him. She gives him one, final book, hoping to hook him, and she does!

Using picture books in the intermediate classroom opens so many doors and helps you accomplish so many standards! I hope that these books, and the others that you will discover on your own, help you have a more literate classroom this year!

More Ways to Use Picture Books in YOUR Classroom!

  1. Satchel Paige – Striking Out Jim Crow – This blog post talks about how to use this book to hook fans of graphic novels and sports. It’s a great gateway book that leads to more reading!
  2. Twelve Fantastic Picture Books to Teach Black History – This blog post has so many teaching points, including a full video demonstration of one of the lessons, that I needed two posts to cover it all. Check out both parts here!
  3. Players in Pigtails – This is a marvelous historical fiction book about the All Women’s baseball league featured in the movie a League of Their Own. It’s a delightful picture book to share with students!

Lesson Plan – Teaching the Civil Rights Movement

As we celebrate the holiday in honor of Dr. King and move into Black History month in February, I want to share one of my favorite resources for teaching the Civil Rights Movement with you. As an extra bonus, these BOOM Cards are digital, so you can use them no matter your teaching situation! Here is how I used these BOOM Cards this year in person, AND how I modified the lesson last year for remote learning. Whatever your teaching situation, I’ve got you covered!

In Person Instruction

Activate Background Knowledge:

I begin the lesson by asking students, “What are Civil Rights? Who has Civil Rights? Do you?” This question activates students’ background knowledge and also their curiosity. In truth, the phrase Civil Rights is used so frequently that it has kind of lost its meaning. So, we have a brief discussion about Civil Rights.

This year, one of my students gave a great example. He said that Civil Rights are the rights that people have but that he doesn’t have as many civil rights as adults because he is a child. He used driving as an example. My class had a great discussion about the rights, and responsibilities, of being a driver. We then talked about other examples of people who had, or did not have, Civil Rights. They mentioned voting rights, rights to an education, and the right to choose your own job.

Objective:

After we activate background knowledge and curiousity about Civil Rights, I give students the objective for the lesson. Along with this main objective, they will also have the opportunity to practice inferring and deepen their understanding of key vocabulary.

After completing these digital task cards, students will be able to summarize key events from the Civil Rights Movement and place them in order on a timeline.

Teaching the Content:

For this lesson, I ask each student to log into the BOOM Cards on their own computer, but sit in groups of three. As the lesson progresses, we will bounce back and forth from whole class to small group to independent work.

The task cards begin with the arrival of the first Africans on the White Lion. (If you want a more detailed resource about that, be sure to check out this resource – The First Africans; a leveled reading passage with comprehension questions.) I ask my students to read the text on the first task card to themselves. Then, in their group, I ask them to discuss what they see in the image on the Task Card. In this case, a picture really is worth a thousand words.

The next two Task Cards talk about the Emancipation Proclamation and Jim Crow laws. I teach students how to read Emancipation Proclamation, and then ask them to read the next two cards in their group. As a class, we discuss the mearning of the word segregation, and the students answer the question on the task card independently.

The next three task cards deal with desegregating the military, schools, and busses. Students read these task cards in their groups, and then we discuss boycotts. I begin the discussion by asking students, “Do you think a boycott can be successful at changing something in society?” It’s a good discussion because the text evidence is all about the Supreme Court making the changes, and so students are divided on whether or not they think the boycotts were effective.

-Lesson Break-

This is usually a good place to break the lesson up. One of the things I love about BOOM Cards is that they automatically save a student’s progress. I think it is more powerful to spread this content over two days than to cram it all into one day. The kids need time to process this information, and they usually come back on the second day even more eager to learn the next part of the story.

If you break the lesson up, begin the second day by projecting the task cards your students have already read. I gather the students on the rug WITHOUT their computers and we go through the first task cards together. This helps remind them of what they already know, and also gives ELLs and struggling readers a chance to revisit key vocabulary and ideas.

The next card teaches students about the sit-ins at the Woolworths counters. We discuss what it means to be denied service and then I ask, “Do you think a sit-in will be effective?” Just like with the boycotts, students are usually mixed on their views.

The next card is about the Children’s Crusade, and in my opinion, is the card that students have the strongest reaction too. For that reason, I always read that task card aloud to them. After I read the card, I turn to the next card and we analyze the photo of the Children’s Crusade as a class. Together, these two task cards really are the meat of the resource. Once we have discussed the photo, students usually have no trouble making an inference about the photographer’s purpose in taking the photo.

At this point in the lesson, it is time to release students to work independently on the rest of the task cards. I always try to gradually release responsibility to the students, and this is a good place to get them to work independently. They will answer a question about the March on Washington, organize key events on a timeline and fill in the blank to answer vocabulary questions.

Remote Learning

The basic flow of the lesson is the same, whether or not I teach in person or remotely. However, these digital tools help the lesson go better remotely.

Activate Background Knowledge:

I use a Jamboard for this. I asked each student to respond to one of the Jamboards. Engaging students remotely is very difficult. By giving them a choice (which question do you want to respond to?) and requiring their participation, I was able to hook the students. We then briefly discussed and organized their responses to group similar ideas.

Objective:

This doesn’t change for remote learning.

Teaching the Content:

For remote learning, I did not break the lesson up over two days. I began the lesson by reading the first 3 slides to the kids and working through them as a whole group. I then sent them to Breakout Rooms to work on the rest of the slides as a group of three – again, gradually releasing resposibility to the students. I checked in on the groups often to help keep them on track. And then I ask each student to complete, in addition to the BOOM Cards, a padlet answering the question, “Which event from the BOOM Cards do you think was most important in increasing Civil Rights for African Americans? Why was it important?”

I hope that this lesson plan helps you see ways to use these BOOM Cards in your classroom, no matter what your teaching situation is. If you have never used BOOM Cards, you can get a free trial here. Start with these FREE BOOM Cards about the Women’s Suffrage Movement from my TPT store, and if you love them, grab the Civil Rights Movement BOOM Cards. I think you will find that they are a versatile tool for your classroom, no matter your teaching situation.

Happy Teaching!

Making a Spiral Thinking Strip

Making a Spiral Thinking Strip is easy! This craftivity will make a small book with 16 pages. It’s perfect for summarizing a chapter book (see this blog post on using it to summarize Bridge to Terabithia for more info on that!)

Spiral Thinking Stips are also great for:

  1. Recording math fact families
  2. Sequencing
  3. Gathering text evidence
  4. Making words with prefixes or suffixes
  5. and many more ideas!

Make sure to scroll to the bottom of this post for a video demonstration of how to make the Spiral Thinking Strip!

Materials

To make a Spiral Thinking Strip, all you need is a piece of paper and a pair of scissors. In this example, I used a standard 8.5 x 11 piece of printer paper. You can use a larger size if you want, and the size of your “pages” will be larger. It is most helpful to use thin paper because of all the folding.

Directions

  1. Fold the piece of paper in half 4 times to make 16 sections.
  2. Open the paper completely. You should see four rows and four columns.
  3. Place your scissors at the fold which separates the final column from the third column. Cut on the fold until you have cut 3/4 of the paper. Do not cut past the fold that marks the top row.
  4. Turn your scissors. Cut down the fold between the top row and the second row. Stop when you get to the first column. Do not cut all the way to the edge!
  5. Turn your scissors. Continue cutting, creating a spiral by cutting each fold until you get one space away from the edge or a cut. Then turn and cut inward again.
  6. Once your have your spiral, fold back and forth, like a fan, until you reach the final rectangle. And now you have a Spiral Thinking Strip!

I have found these little “books” to be a versatile and fun foldable for students. Give it a try and leave a comment to let us know how you used it in your classroom!

How to Video

Summarizing with a Spiral Thinking Strip

Summarizing is so key for reading success. According to Hattie’s meta-analysis, summarizing has a .79 effect size on achievement, which is almost double the average! Clearly, summarizing is an important strategy to teach kids to improve their reading achievement!

What is summarizing?

Summarizing is the skill of giving a brief statement of the main points. An important part of summarizing is discerning what is important, and what is NOT! Sometimes students go on and on and on in their summaries. That’s actually a retelling, not a summary. Retelling is a much lower cognitive skill and basically involves short term memory. Summarizing is a much more difficult skill, and involves decision making about what should be included and what should be left out. A good summary should lead the reader to the theme of a fiction work. For more information about summarizing, I higly recommend Strategies at Work by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis.

Classroom Example – Bridge to Terabithia

Right now we are reading Bridge to Terabithia in my classroom. My students are really responding to the realism in the book, and they are connecting personally to the main characters, Jess and Leslie. It is a subtle book, and the main characters have a really complex friendship. So, that makes it a perfect book to practice summarizing with. As with most summaries, the difficult decision is what to leave out of the summary. Each chapter has several events that students connect with. For example, in chapter 1, we meet Jesse’s family. He is the only boy, and he is surrounded by difficult sisters. Most students identify with Jess, but for different reasons. Some identify with him because of his mean older sisters, others because he does an outsized share of the chores, and still others sympathize because May Belle follows him everywhere. In addition to meeting his difficult family, in the first chapter, students find out Jesse’s deepest ambition – to be the fastest runner in the fifth grade. Some students identify with that goal, or have the experience of working hard to achieve a goal themselves.

As with most summaries, the difficult decision is what to leave out of the summary.

Then, I tell students that we are going to write a one sentence summary of each chapter. One sentence! You can hear them gasp, can’t you?

This is where the power of summarizing lies. Students must first identify all of those important aspects of the first chapter. Then, they have to synthesize, or put them together. Finally, they have to craft a well written sentence. Together, we decided that a compound sentence was necessary. For the first part of the sentence, we synthesized all of the difficult aspects of Jesse’s home life to read “Jess, the protagonist, has a rough home life.” We then summarized his amibition with this sentence, “He dreams of being the fastest runner in fifth grade.”

Then, we connected the two sentences to create this compound sentence, which summarizes the main aspects of the chapter nicely. “Jess, the protagonist, has a rough home life, and he dreams of being the fastest runner in fifth grade.” Students record that sentences in their Spiral Thinking Strip, and then keep it to add on to each day.

In one lesson, students have practiced:

  1. Synthesizing events
  2. Identifying important events
  3. Writing Compound Sentences

And of course, many of them have fallen in love with a new book and a new author! Not bad for 20 minutes!

Why use a Spiral Thinking Strip?

Well, Spiral Thinking Strips are versatile and great for many reasons!

  1. They only take one piece of paper.
  2. Students think they are fun, and teachers do too!
  3. The small size of the “pages” limits students and helps them understand that summary statements need to pack a lot of information in a small space.
  4. When students finish, the “pages” are automatically sequenced, another key aspect of a strong summary.

This video shows the completed Spiral Thinking Strip from Bridge to Terabithia.

To learn how to make a Spiral Thinking Strip, check out this How-to blog post and video!

Spiral Thinking Strips are one instructional strategy that will help your students master the key strategy of summarizing. Give it a try in your classroom today, and leave a comment to let us know how it goes!

Using Digital Escape Rooms to Connect with Content

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!

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

Using Word Walls for Explicit Vocabulary Instruction – 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, explicit 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. This blog post will help you identify best practices for using Word Walls to improve vocabulary instruction in your classroom!

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. For example, I recently taught a Science lab about Matter, and pulled these Word Wall cards out of the pocket chart as I introduced the lab. Then, students grabbed the Word Wall Cards and put them at the stations where they were testing for different properties of matter.
  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. That post explains the three tiers. What you need to know for today is that explicit instruction in Tier 2 words is a best practice for vocabulary instruction. 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.

This Word Wall set includes both of these words, plus 30 other landforms. Check it out today!

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!

Nab Some Non-Fiction – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

In yesterday’s post I reviewed five essential fiction picture books for starting the school year right. The CCSS calls for equal amounts of fiction and non-fiction in the intermediate grades, and that means picture books too. So today, we will dive into five essential non-fiction books for starting the year right. These are books that

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Twelve quotes to inspire students to make friends with a book

Books have been great friends of mine for my entire life. They have helped me through times of sorrow and grief, they have taught me the skills to master challenges, they have helped me escape to new worlds when this one was a little too much to take. Books are constant and continual friends for me.

So, it is probably not a surprise to you that I want my students to have books that are friends as well. When I first mention the idea, some of my students roll their eyes. They are fifth graders, after all, and eye rolling is a skill they excel at and practice often. But, as the year rolls on, I notice many students quietly making friends with a book. Activities like Bring-a-Book-to-School Day help, and so do Quote Marks.

Quote Marks are simply book marks with encouraging, and sometimes funny, sayings on them. I generally post the quotes in the Book Nook, sometimes sticking them in surprising places for students to find as they peruse the shelves (for example, the quote from Diane Duane goes on the wall behind her tub of books). I put the same quotes on book marks and let students choose the ones they like. I also use the quote posters as Quick Write prompts to really get kids thinking about the quote. Many of the quotes express the author’s view of books as friends, so they reinforce that I’m not the only one crazy enough to think that!

I’ve put together some of my favorite Quote Marks as a resource on TPT. Click here to grab it!

These are the quotes I’ve used in the resource in case you prefer to make your own.

“If you don’t like to read, you haven’t found the right book.”

J.K. Rowling

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

Groucho Marx

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

Neil Gaiman

“Reading one book is like eating one potato chip.”

Diane Duane

“Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.”

Lemony Snicket

“…books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.”

Roald Dahl

“It is well known that reading quickens the growth of a heart like nothing else.”

Catherynne M. Valente

“Think before you speak. Read before you think.”

Fran Leibowitz

“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”

Charles W. Eliot

“That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.”

Jhumpa Lahiri

“Books are good company, in sad times and happy times, for books are people – people who have managed to stay alive by hiding between the covers of a book.”

E.B. White

“You know you’ve read a good book when you turn the last page and feel a little as if you have lost a friend.”

Paul Sweeney

For more tips on how I use this in my classroom, check out this video. Thanks for stopping by today, and Happy Teaching!

Finding the Time – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

It’s mid-August and many of you are already back in school. We are not back yet, but yesterday I opened my planner for the first time. I love the feeling of that empty planner – so much potential! So much learning! So much time!

And yet, I know in January, I will be feeling just the opposite. I will wonder where the time has gone and if I have spent it well. So today’s post is not about a literacy strategy. It’s all about you, and the decisions you make that have a major impact on your student’s achievement. Today, we are going to talk about the schedule.

There are many things out of our control as teachers. For example, this year, my school is piloting a new math curriculum and a new SEL curriculum. I can’t control that. The PE and library schedule is out of my control. Recess scheduling and pull-out schedules are also out of my control. When you think about the time in the day, much of it is out of my control. But, always, I can find some time everyday when ALL (yes, all!) of my students are with me for Independent Reading. I found the time when I taught kindergarten and I find the time now that I’m teaching fifth grade. I made that decision twenty-one years ago when I first read Fountas and Pinnell’s Guiding Readers and Writers and I’ve never changed my mind. I’ve changed just about everything in my practice since then, so why is this a constant for me? Because it is the single most important thing I do to raise reading achievement, build critical thinking skills and provide emotional support for my students. Don’t believe me? Here is the research.

Raising Reading Achievement through…. Reading

It seems like a no-brainer. If you want to get better at something, you have to practice it. Just this afternoon I had a conversation with my daughter about strategies she can use to improve as a basketball player. We talked about dribbling and layups and reading books about basketball strategy. Not once did I suggest that she do a few worksheets about basketball. That would be a pretty ludicrous idea. And yet, how much time do students actually spend practicing reading each day?

Researchers have been asking that question for decades. Just how long should students read each day? Should they read in school or at home? Should the teacher read while they are reading? There are hundreds of studies that support the importance of daily reading. Here are links to just a few:

  • This study found that 15 minutes of daily reading had a positive effect on students’ reading comprehension ability, word recognition skills and fluency.
  • This study found that 15 minutes is the magic number to begin seeing accelerated reading growth due to independent, daily reading.
  • This study found a correlation between reading at school and improved comprehension, but no correlation between reading at home and improved comprehension.

So, enough research. There are hundreds of studies that you can Google if you want to know more. But I think it’s a good moment to unpack this with a real-life example.

One of the biggest influencers on my practice as a reading teacher was a young girl named Amy. Amy was 8 years old and spoke another language at home until she came to school at age 5. I was privileged to be her 3rd grade teacher. At the beginning of the year she was reading at a second grade level, which wasn’t bad considering she had only been speaking English for three years. She was in my lowest Guided Reading Group, reading books at levels J and K. Third graders typically read levels M, N, O and P. And I had a high reading group that was reading “The Whipping Boy” by Sid Fleischman, which is a level R. I noticed that Amy had chosen to sit really close to the Guided Reading table, and that she had checked out a copy of “The Whipping Boy” from our school library. After a few days, I could see that she was really interested in the book and our conversation, so I invited her to join us. I was convinced that she needed to be instructed at her Instructional level, though, so I asked her to continue in her low reading group AND participate in the higher level group. A few weeks after we finished “The Whipping Boy”, I assessed Amy’s reading level again. To my utter shock, she had grown from a level J to a level N! I couldn’t believe it, so I had a colleague re-assess her. Same thing! That’s when I realized Amy’s motivation and interest in the book had done what no amount of direct instruction could do – caused her ability to grow more than a year in a few weeks. And she never went backwards. For the rest of the year, she kept up with my gifted students in the higher reading group, and in fourth grade, she even surpassed some of them.

Obviously, Amy is a very special student. Few students have the motivation to do what she did. But Amy taught me that motivation is more important than home life, economic status, language skills or current reading ability. And I have seen that pattern emerge time and time again since Amy first helped me see it. When students become motivated to read, their achievement goes up.

And how do we increase motivation to read? By giving students time to read, and to be read to. But, there are some essential components that make the reading time more effective. First, students must be allowed to choose their own books. Choice is key in human motivation. But, teachers need to be ready to step in to help match students with books (see my posts about Book Ballots and Book Talks for strategies on how to do that!) Second, students should read a wide variety of texts. Build a classroom library that exposes students to newspapers, magazines, books, short stories, poetry, non-fiction, literary fiction…. When students read widely, they become more curious and hungry to read more. My Book Bingo can be a fun way to encourage choice and reading of different genre. Finally, students will be more motivated to read if they set goals around their reading. I like to have students set goals about how much reading they will do and what type of reading they will do. More on that in a future blog post.

Increasing Critical Thinking Skills through Reading

Back in 2004, I read Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement by Marzano. It’s a terrific read and I highly recommend it if you want to learn more. One of the key ideas in the book is that students today lack background knowledge about all sorts of things. They can’t find Mexico on a map; they don’t know when (or why) the War of 1812 was fought; they think that milk comes from cartons, not cows. If that was true in 2004, it is even more true now. According to a study cited in this blog, during the 2015-16 school year, a survey of 9.9 million students found that 54% of students read fewer than 15 minutes a day. Marzano found that the best way for students to build background knowledge was through wide reading. If students are reading less than 15 minutes a day, they are not building background knowledge. And background knowledge is key for critical thinking.

Take, for example, the critical thinking skill of formulating a hypothesis in science. In order to formulate a reasonable hypothesis, you have to have some background knowledge. Last year, I asked my students to formulate a hypothesis about fish dying in a lake in the Adirondacks. I gave them data on wind patterns and pollution from factories in Detroit. I assumed that they would know that pollution kills fish. So, I was surprised when one of my students hypothesized that the pollution was not causing the fish to die. Luckily, I pushed them to explain their thinking. This particular student had a freshwater fish tank and had observed algae-eating fish, and they hypothesized that the fish in the Adirondack lake would eat the pollution, just like the algae-eating fish. Their hypothesis was based on background knowledge from their small corner of the world. In this case, limited background knowledge really hindered their ability to formulate a reasonable hypothesis.

Providing Emotional Support through Reading

I learned what it meant to be a normal, teenage girl, growing up with the awareness that my life could end with any knock at the door by reading Anne Frank’s diaries. I experienced the thrill of saving my brother from death at the hands of the White Witch by reading “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. I thrilled to the noise of the crowd as the Black Stallion surged across the finish line, and I felt as though the victory was mine. I felt less lonely during the pandemic by reading “The Pillars of the Earth”, an historical fiction book about plague times. Book have helped me become more empathetic, more courageous and more confident. Books have given me solace in times of trouble and eased my pain in moments of sorrow. This year more than ever, we need to tap into the healing power of books so that our students can emerge from these difficult times and find their own healing and their own voice.

And the research backs up my experience. There is a type of therapy called bibliotherapy that uses reading and books to help people heal. One study of 96 students with mild depression found that bibliotherapy was an effective strategy in treating their depression. Other studies have also found that reading is helpful in decreasing anxiety and depression. If you’ve ever experienced the calm of a classroom full of students, all on task, all quietly reading, you can easily understand how that experience helps people find inner peace.

But how do I find the time?

By now, I hope I’ve convinced you that quiet, choice reading time is an essential part of every classroom, everyday. And now, we find ourselves back at that schedule. Where do we find the time?

First, you have to ask yourself a hard question. “What can I take out of the schedule?” Here are a few suggestions that you might consider taking off your plate. Only you know what will work best for your students, but removing one or more of these might give you the time you need for effective reading practice every day.

  1. Worksheets – As I mentioned earlier, you wouldn’t have someone work on their basketball skills by completing worksheets. Why use them for reading improvement when you could simply have the kids read?
  2. Accelerated Reader or other test-based motivation program – When was the last time you read a book because you hoped to take a test on it? According to the What Works Clearinghouse, there are two valid studies about AR. One found a very small gain in comprehension. The other found no gain in comprehension. Neither found an improvement in fluency. So, if you use AR, it should be a very small part of your literacy block. It hasn’t been proven effective enough to take center stage.
  3. Weekly spelling lists – Again, there is ample research that weekly lists do not improve spelling ability. We DO need to teach how language works, but this approach is not effective.
  4. Rote language activities – Activities like copying definitions from the dictionary, coloring posters about idioms or figurative language, grammar packets…. Ask yourself if your students will grow more with time reading or time spent on rote tasks.
  5. Handwriting practice – How useful will this be to your students? I could make the case that students should be exposed to cursive, but I don’t think it merits a lot of instructional time. Where do you fall in this debate?

As you really start analyzing your schedule, you may find moments that you can grab for Independent Reading. If you commit to finding the time, you will find it. Start by finding 15 minutes a day, and stick with it. Don’t let anything interfere with it. Then, make it 20 minutes a day, and really commit. Before you know it, you will have found 30 minutes a day. That’s when you will start to see it really making a difference.

So, this year, once again, I figured out a schedule that includes our math pilot, our SEL pilot (during SS time

0 and at least 30 minutes of reading time each day. I am still agonizing over what to take off the plate and what to include. And in January, I will probably ask myself where the time has gone. If all goes well, by January I can tell myself that about 45 hours of the time went to purposeful, student-centered, choice reading. And then I’ll breathe a sigh of relief that something is going well, and I will dive back in. I wish the same to you, teacher friend!

This is my schedule for this coming school year.

Book Bingo – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

Let’s talk genre. What is it? Why should we teach it? How does it help kids read better anyway?

Genre is a French word that means a kind or category. The English word gender comes from the same root. The word genre (plural genres) is generally used for artistic works. Music has different genres, and so does literature.

That’s all pretty interesting, but why spend precious time teaching about different genres? Well, as a teacher, part of my job is to unlock the different academic disciplines for my students. I want them to think like historians and scientists and artists. Genres unlock the organizing principles of the discipline of literature. As students learn about genres, they come to a deeper understanding of how texts work. And that leads to deeper comprehension.

The first thing to teach is some basic vocabulary. All books fit into the main categories of fiction and non-fiction. Please don’t teach your students that fiction is stories and non-fiction is facts. Instead, teach them that fiction comes from the writer’s imagination, although it can be based in reality. Non-fiction is literature that focuses on real people and real events and reports them factually. However, a good non-fiction writer can weave a story into the facts that can make it just as compelling as the craziest fantasy story!

Fiction comes from the writer’s imagination. Non-fiction focuses on real people and real events and reports them factually.

I begin teaching genre on the first day of school. For more about that, read this blog post on how I get students engaged with books right away, and every day. Once students have some familiarity with genres, we play Book Bingo with the whole class. Feel free to use your own Book Bingo, or check out this one on TPT. The first time we play, I use the included Caller Cards to name the genre for students to mark. That builds familiarity with the different genres and helps students grow their vocabulary.

The second time we play Book Bingo with the whole class, I don’t use the Calling Cards. Instead, before we play, I go to my Book Nook and grab one book to represent each genre. As we play, I place the book under the document camera and students use clues from the cover, the blurb, and even the inside of the book to infer the genre. The resource on TPT includes this Recording Sheet so that you can keep track of the books you have shown your students and easily know if they have a Bingo!

The second version of the game has several benefits. First, students are using the characteristics of the genre to make inferences. That is great critical thinking! Second, you are introducing students to 25 books from your classroom library, and they often find one they want to read. After we finish playing, I leave the books on the chalk tray for a few days, and most of them disappear into the hands of my students!

It is great to have students identifying books by their genre, but it’s not enough. I also want students to read widely across different genre. Wide reading is essential for building background knowledge. So, the next activity I use is an Independent Book Bingo card. Each student has their own Bingo Card and Recording sheet, and their goal is to Read-a-Bingo. Once they have read a book, the record the title and genre and cross it off. Five in a row is a Bingo!

The first time I use the Bingo cards as an independent activity, I ask the students to read five picture books. That lowers the affective filter and helps all students feel successful. Reading five picture books across different genres is also a great way to introduce the genres to students. A high quality picture book is not a huge commitment, and is a great way to build background knowledge and also to expose students and help them learn which genre they really enjoy.

Book Bingo is a fun way to bring genre to life in your classroom. This video post gives you a few more tips on bringing it to your classroom. Happy teaching!

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