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Getting to Know You Part 2

27 Mar

In yesterday’s post we discussed the value of individual student conferences. As you begin to consider how you’ll structure conferences, you’ll want to think carefully about how much you know about your students already. What do you already know about their strengths and weaknesses as readers and writers? What can you do immediately to gather more information?

Here are a few suggestions for gathering more information for reading (in later posts we’ll talk about how to do this for writing). First of all, the most important thing you’ll do to gather information on your students as readers is to listen to them read. Whether they are in kindergarten or 5th grade you’ll have to listen to them read to learn about them as a reader! As you listen, note what errors they make. Do they skip words? Do they substitute words? Do they insert words? See if you can detect a pattern in their errors. Do their errors look similar to the text? Do the errors sound right (syntactically)? Do the errors make sense? Is there a particular word element the child struggles with (for example r controlled vowels or inflectional endings). Is the child missing many sight words? Doing a miscue analysis where you mark the student’s errors will help you note what reading behaviors a child is showing and will help you to see overall error patterns. If you need practice taking a miscue analysis, Marie Clay in An Observation Survey will explain it in-depth. Pat Johnson in One Child at a Time also give in-depth, easy to follow information on miscue analysis.  As you listen, you’ll also want to notice if the child is monitoring their understanding as they read. Does the child re-read and/or self-correct? Do they try to sound out unfamiliar words? What fix-up strategies does a child use? How does the reading sound? Is the reading smooth or choppy? Does the child read in long phrases that make sense? Does the child attend to punctuation? Is the reading expressive? Does the child laugh or smile at humorous parts or frown at sad parts? Is the child able to retell the main idea? If this type of assessment is brand new to you, you might want to audio or video tape the child reading so you can go back and listen again and again.

Initially, don’t try to observe too much. Keep your focus fairly narrow. For example, in the beginning you might want to just note what substitutions, insertions or deletions a child makes. Later on you could listen to a child read again to note how fluent the child is. As you gain proficiency, you will be able to deepen your ability to assess. Don’t stress too much about whether or not your initial “diagnosis” of the child’s reading is precise. You are looking for overall behavior patterns and strengths and weaknesses. The more you assess, the more you’ll get to know each child and the more accurate your picture will become.

In addition to the miscue analysis and the questions that you’ll be asking as you listen to a child read, you’ll also want to note other reading behaviors. What kinds of books does the child choose to read independently? Does the child know how to choose “just right” books or does the child routinely choose books that are too hard or too easy? Does the child choose from a variety of genres or is there one genre or series that the child returns to again and again? What is the child’s stance toward reading? Do they like to read or are they reluctant? You could give the child an interest inventory to complete, or you could compile this information by informal observation. What is the child interested in? Does the child love to draw? Is the child obsessed with baseball, princesses, horses or dinosaurs? Knowing what the child loves will aid you in helping the child choose the right books.

As you compile a picture of the reading behaviors of each child, you’ll use all of this information in your conferences to support the student. You’ll know exactly what a child is already doing well (and use this to push them to the next strategy) as well where they are weak and require support to go a little further.


Getting to Know You

26 Mar

Looking for a way to move your students even further in their reading and writing abilities? Have you considered individual conferences? Now, before you throw your hands up in frustration, let me share a few benefits of conferencing. Taking the time to schedule one-on-one conferences will yield benefits far beyond the scope of the ordinary day-to-day routines. You will gain insights into the reading and writing strengths and weaknesses of each and every student. Moreover, you’ll be able to target instruction to address each student’s specific needs. Conferencing will allow you to get to know your students, build a deep and lasting rapport, and build confidence in your students. You’ll be able to give targeted feedback and then later monitor the students’ use of the feedback or strategies that were taught.

As you consider conferencing, the question that is probably uppermost in your mind is, “How on earth would I ever find the time to do this?” The answer to this question is that you don’t find the time, you make it. There are several ways to “make” time for conferencing. One of the first ways to make time is to consider shortening small group sessions by 3-4 minutes to allow time for one conference following each small group session. You might also make time throughout the day to schedule 1-2 conferences (perhaps when students first arrive and are doing morning work, or when they return from lunch and are reading independently, etc.). It is important to remember that a conference doesn’t have to be long to have major impact. In fact a shorter conference is probably more effective in that it doesn’t overwhelm a student and it forces us to be succinct and  focused. An effective conference can be as short as 3-4 minutes.

The next consideration is organization. You’ll want to have plans in place for which students you’ll meet with, when you’ll meet with them, and ideas on how you’ll record instructional notes and/or ideas. Keeping a binder with a calendar and a page for each student can ease organization. The Daily Cafe offers fantastic suggestions on organizing for conferencing as well as ideas on planning and instructional strategies.

Start out small. Schedule just one to two conferences per day initially. See how you can modify your schedule. Experiment with ideas on record keeping. The important thing is to start! Individual conferences can be done and you will be amazed at the difference they will make in both reading and writing  instruction.

Read Aloud Every Day

22 Mar

There is an instructional strategy that has all of the following benefits:

  • Increases student motivation to read
  • Increases positive feelings toward reading
  • Builds comprehension
  • Models comprehension strategies
  • Models fluency
  • Builds vocabulary
  • Builds content knowledge
  • Helps students make connections
  • Increases the cohesiveness and unity of the classroom
  • Helps students explore and discover the world
  • Helps students learn more about themselves
  • And more!!!!

ALL of the above benefits can be gained through the simple strategy of a daily read- aloud.  Although I believe that most primary grade teachers include a daily read-aloud, the pressures and curricular demands of the intermediate grades often cause intermediate grade teachers to leave off reading out loud to students. I would argue that it is too important and too beneficial to ever leave off.  There are so many ways to read aloud to students. When the classroom is a little tense,  relieve the tension with a few jokes from a joke book, comic book, or poetry book.  Between lessons work in a few book review “commercials”.  Share that interesting article you saw in the newspaper. Read aloud picture books. Yes! Picture books are always appropriate in the intermediate grades. Some of the subject matter is quite sophisticated and children love them. Read aloud a chapter book. Work in poetry that connects to content areas. Demonstrate to students how you try to vary the genres that you select by keeping a posted chart of all of the classroom read alouds. Learn more about how to deepen your read aloud time by consulting the experts. Jim Trelease in the New Read Aloud Handbook offers great suggestions for books to read aloud as well as important pointers. Mary Lee Hahn in her book, Reconsidering Read Aloud,  gives a wide- range of tips and ideas for getting more out of read aloud. The important thing is this, though, just do it every day!!

Let ’em read: Part 1!

14 Mar

I have heard it said that Mark Twain once quipped, “The man who can read, but doesn’t, is no better off than the man who can’t read.” How true this is!! Last year, I was feeling a growing sense of dismay as I watched children who were certainly capable readers, repeatedly choose not to read. What to do? In a search for answers I turned to the experts. What I discovered, I actually already knew, but apparently needed reminding.

The answer to how to motivate even the most reluctant reader is astoundingly simple (and really aren’t the best things in life usually the simplest?!). The two biggest factors in motivating reluctant readers are: time and choice. I know, it is so simple you almost think, “There has to be more to it.” Nope – that’s it. The first one – giving students time to read  – lots of time to read- makes a tremendous difference. Study after study show that good readers  read a LOT.  We’re not talking just 20 minutes of DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) although that is certainly a step in the right direction. We’re talking long, sustained periods of reading, not working on reading, not responding to reading…just reading. How much time? Richard Allington (What Really Matters for Struggling Readers, 2006) suggests 90 minutes minimum per day of just reading.  So how do we find the time? We don’t. We make the time, by carefully reviewing everything that we do and cutting out any/all nonessentials and combining subjects where we can. If we truly believe that more reading time is essential and that it has more impact in improving reading than practically anything else, we’ll make time for it. Granted, it may be impossible to carve out a single 90 minute block for sustained reading (and most kids wouldn’t have the reading stamina for this long a period anyway), but we should be able to carve out 25 minutes during the reading block, and another 20 minutes when students first arrive and another 35 minutes during content area instruction. Once you start really thinking about it, possibilities abound (Bus room? Cafeteria? Lines in hall?).

The second biggest factor in motivating students to read appears to be largely related to the issue of choice. The more choice students have over what they read, the more motivated they are to read. Students need to be able to choose their own reading material. This makes perfect sense. I certainly don’t like for my own reading preferences and choices to be dictated.  Another factor closely related to book choice is availability of books. According to Allington (2006) classrooms with the highest reading achievement had a wide array of books. Allington suggested a minimum of 500 books for intermediate classrooms and approximately 1500 in primary grade classrooms. Libraries can be grown steadily with purchases from yard sales (the teacher’s best friend!), thrift stores, and book fair points, not to mention gifts or donations from parents.  The research is pretty clear – if a school wants to increase the reading achievement of its students it will put its resources toward purchasing more books for classrooms.

So therethey are – the two big factors in motivating readers – time to read and choice.  Let’s give them lots of books to choose from … and more time to read them!

More on Questioning

13 Mar

If almost everyone agrees that prompting and supporting students to ask deep questions is an important instructional goal, then one has to ask, “How do we encourage and teach students to ask deep, probing questions?” According to the research, there are a few successful instructional strategies that teachers can use. First of all, research indicates that students “require direct-strategy instruction in the form of modeling and procedural prompts in order to generate high-level questions.” (King A.1994 Learning and Individual Differences 6, 163-185). Ciardiello suggests that there are three basic steps in teaching questioning in a method referred to as the “Teach Quest training model”. (Ciardiello,A.  Did you Ask a Good Question Today? Alternative cognitive and Metacognitive Strategies. The Reading Teacher. 1998. 210-219.)

In the first step the teacher explains “the purpose and value of asking questions.” (Ciardiello, 1998). Ciardiello suggests intoducing and explaining divergent (deep) questions by defining them as questions which will elicit a multitude of answers and are not closed-ended. In addition to asking divergent questions, students could also be introduced to the levels of Bloom’s taxonomy and some of the question stems or verbs associated with each level. During this first stage, students learn to recognize higher-order or divergent type questions and identify the signal words or verbs that make them deeper questions.

In the second stage, the teacher models how questions can be classified. Ciardiello suggests classifying them as Memory questions (which would correlate with the Remembering or Understanding levels on Bloom’s taxonomy), Convergent questions (correlate with the Analyzing level ), Divergent questions (correlate with the Applying and Creating levels) and Evaluating thinking questions (Evaluating level).  In the second stage, after observing the teacher model how to classify questions into the different types or levels, students will review questions and identify characteristics they share. Students could also compare questions to verbs and stem questions from each Bloom’s level and/or “Cue Cards” from Ciardiello (1998).

With a rich foundation of understanding the purpose of asking questions, and a clear picture of what deep questions look like, students are ready to begin to generate their own questions (Ciardiello). Again, the teacher will instruct following a Gradual Release Model. The teacher will model how to write deep questions using a text that will engage students’ interest. The teacher will then guide the students in developing and creating their own questions, gradually releasing them to create questions independently.

In summary, teachers follow a Gradual Release Model throughout as they: 1. Identify deep questions. 2. Classify deep questions and 3. Generate deep questions. Throughout the model the teacher will need to be prepared to offer corrective feedback and extend modeling as needed.


Asking is the thing!

12 Mar

Most teachers would readily agree that questioning is a key strategy that they employ on a daily basis. While I’m not debating the value of a teacher asking questions as an instructional strategy (although this strategy can certainly be enhanced by focusing on higher order questions, extending wait- time and asking authentic questions), what I am really pondering is the value of getting students to ask the questions (rather than the teacher!). When I consider my own learning, I know that the topics and ideas that I delve into the most deeply and that I learn the most from are the ones that make me question extensively.

I’m trying (emphasis on the trying) to learn to play tennis right now. Since I have never been very athletic (too busy reading!!) learning tennis has been a major stretch for me (and I mean stretch in both the literal and the figurative sense!). While I am on the court, I am constantly asking myself and my tennis partner questions. Some of my questions regard technique, some involve strategies, and some involve record keeping. Off the court, I’m still asking questions. I’m watching videos on YouTube to figure out how to better my serve. I’m watch tennis pros and instructors for tips on building flexibility and hand-eye coordination. I’m asking friends who play tennis for tips. All of that is to say, that since this is something that I want to learn, I’m asking a LOT of questions.

Now, think about this as applied to our students. It would seem that if we want them to ask questions there need to be a few parameters to consider. First of all, the topic at hand needs to be presented in a way that piques their curiosity. To the extent that it is possible, allow for choice. If the topic is one that does not allow for a lot of choice (such as required standards) think about how it could be introduced in a way that hooks a student’s attention. Be sure that students understand the end-benefits and purpose of learning this information. In  marketing this is referred to as “benefit sale”. If you want someone to buy a product (or buy into learning in this case), you make a strong case for all of the benefits that will be gained.Tennis was something that I really wanted to learn to do. I could see the end-benefits of getting in better shape, having fun with my husband, and last, but not least, wearing a really cute outfit!

Next, work to make sure that the environment is one that encourages asking questions. Sometimes it feels risky to ask a question. What if other people laugh? What if you’re the only one who doesn’t know this information? What if someone yells at you? There are some people  I would not want to ask a tennis question. For various reasons, I don’t feel safe asking them questions. However, I also recognize the people and places who are safe to ask my questions. They are patient,  and kind and most of all they know enough about tennis and where I am in my learning to nudge me to the next level. They know that with a carefully worded answer they can encourage me to push myself just a little bit  further. Our students’ needs are the same. When we have a clear view of the learning goals, the steps that lead to reaching those goals, and the individual strengths and weaknesses of our students, we can successfully support them as they ask questions.

Lastly, helping me learn some of the terminology of tennis helps me to know what questions to ask. As I began to learn to play, I didn’t know enough to even  know what questions would help me learn more! Getting a little basic information about the topic and the vocabulary associated with it, helped me to refine what I know and need to know. Having a little introductory information helped me make my questions more explicit and specific to my needs and interests. Yes, I am interested in learning how to do a backhand. Yes, hand-eye coordination is still an area I need help with. After we have created a desire for learning in our students and given them a clear view of the benefits of learning, we can continue to support them as they ask questions by giving them enough information to refine their knowledge base and ask deeper questions.

Ann Goudvis and Stephanie Harvey suggest that questions are what push readers (i.e. learners) forward in a text (Strategies that Work, 2000).   And ultimately, isn’t that what every teacher wants – a learner who can push themselves forward in their own learning? We have our students for such a short time. If we could help them develop tools that will help them become a  more thoughtful learner, not just today, but for the rest of their lives, that is definitely a topic worth considering!

The Quest for Effective Questioning

8 Mar

Have you ever thought about the fact that the word “quest”, meaning to hunt for something, is embedded into the word “question”? Although it seems so obvious to me now, when I first stopped to think about this, I was pretty amazed. Think about the implications of embarking on a quest. If you are going on a quest you have a clear purpose and goal in mind. You also probably have some pretty clear steps in mind of how you’ll proceed. And it is reasonable to assume that the clearer the goal is for the quest, the closer you’ll come to fullfilling it. All of that is also true of the use of questioning as an instructional strategy. Before we ask the question we want to have a clear purpose in mind and a vision of the steps we’ll take. Here are a few other points to ponder as we ask questions…

  • If the question is important enough to ask the entire class, then it is important for the entire class to answer it. Consider the intitial purpose for the question. Is the purpose of the question to review information that everyone should know? If so, then let the whole class respond (this is especially true if the answer is a one-word answer). Remember the answer does not  have to be an oral response. Students can also signal (thumbs-up, thumbs-down) or write their answer on a white-board, digital clicker, etc.. OR is the purpose of the question to activate background knowledge, probe for deep thinking, build connections, or spark reflection? If so, then have the students turn and talk to each other. With turn and talk every student still answers the question, but they also receive scaffolding in the form of a peer.
  • Carefully consider how long you wait after asking the question before expecting an answer. Most researchers agree that lower-level questions demand a wait time of around 3 seconds, while higher-level questions will need more than 3 seconds. If using turn and talk  teachers can moderate wait time by directing students to think (and allowing several seconds) then having them turn and respond to a partner.
  • As much as possible, consider the “authenticity” of your questions. Kids are quick to sniff out (and resist) boring,low- level questions that are asked in an attempt to secure their attention. If you want students to process learning at a deeper level, then ask questions in a spirit of shared inquiry.


We think of questioning as a pretty straightforward strategy. Most teachers would say that they have the questioning “tool” in their teacher toolbox already. However, just like any tool-  we want to keep it sharp, by reflecting on it, revisiting how we use it, and practicing new ways to use the tool even better.