Recently a teacher asked me if I could recommend a grammar workbook for a struggling reader and writer who was being instructed both in-class and remotely. The student’s mother, wanting to help her child learn grammar at home, was looking for an easy to use grammar workbook.
My reply to the teacher and parent began with a confession: I’ve never taught grammar with a workbook. Thus, I had nothing to recommend. Rather than workbooks, I believe grammar is best taught through authentic writing and reading. [If anyone reading this blog who knows of research that says otherwise, please let me know! Seriously.]
While there is certainly a time and place for some isolated skill practice, grammar can be effectively taught within the realm of authentic writing and reading tasks. And even when it does come time for some drill-the-skill, teachers and parents don’t need workbooks. Modeling plus sentence writing will do.
In this post I hope to explain my philosophy of grammar instruction, beginning with standards, moving to instruction, and ending with authentic reading and writing activities that allow students to employ the grammar they are learning. I also hope to show that we can use common sense to figure out what grammar standards to really focus on. If all goes well, kids will deeply learn a handful of grammar concepts super useful for mastering writing and reading.
If you’re going to teach grammar without a workbook or basal literacy program, you will need a quality grammar scope and sequence. Grade level standards can be a starting point. I am most familiar with the Common Core national standards but any reputable state standards will do.
With grade level standards in hand, reflect on the needs of the student/child. Pick the level that is most appropriate for your whole group, differentiated small group, or an individual. For example, if you are a parent with a fourth grader and you feel she is missing a fair number of 2nd grade concepts, then teach 2nd grade grammar standards. Don’t worry that the standards will be age-inappropriate. When lower grade standards are taught to upper grade children through authentic writing and reading tasks, the tasks automatically present the concepts in an age-appropriate way.
Next, condense, re-state, and prioritize the standards
My belief is that in each grade level, there are only a handful of grammar concepts that are vital to learn (and therefore teach). The ones that are vital increase a child’s ability to write excellent sentences and paragraphs. Additionally, they contribute to reading fluency and comprehension.
To make teaching manageable, look for standards that say pretty much the same thing and merge and condense them. At the same time, re-state the standards in ways that make sense and directly connect them to real world tasks, i.e. writing and reading! Finally, put less practical, rarely used standards aside for the time.
Here’s an example of my process using five Common Core Grammar Standards, 5th Grade
Of these five, I think 1.B, 1.C, and 1.D say basically the same thing. Additionally, 1.E can be put aside – it just isn’t that important for day-to-day writing. What is important? Using conjunctive and prepositional phrases; writers use them all the time to effectively convey information, organize thoughts, and engage readers. Writers also need to correctly use verb tense. So, after merging, culling, and re-stating, I have these two standards to teach:
It will take students quite some time to master these two standards.and so I’ll want to teach them repeatedly and in a distributed way.
BONUS: Click on the File Cabinet tab at the top of this page (next to the Blog tab), look at the top left hand column, and click on the PDF that says Grammar Standards Reimagined. It's an example of how I condense, re-state, and prioritize grammar standards, in this case all of the Common Core Grammar standards, 5th grade. The first two pages of the doc are the actual standards. The third and fourth pages show my take on the standards – merged, restated, prioritized, and now useful and do-able!
Next, teach the vital standards through genre writing
Using grammar concepts helps students become better writers. Conversely, writing helps them better understand grammar. Therefore, have students practice grammar in writing! What types of writing? Why the three genres, of course: narrative, informational, and opinion/persuasion.
For example, let’s imagine I want to teach a student to use prepositions to create phrases that give information and add interest. First, I’ll model the concept within narrative writing. I can also model it within informational writing. Here’s a narrative example (prepositional and conjunctive phrases are in italics).
On the weekend, I enjoy riding my bike. When I first start, I peddle slowly. Later I whiz along. I ride on winding country roads, up and down hills and along flat fields. When the weather is warm, I ride for two or three hours. When I am done, I am tired but happy.
Who is the king of the solar system? Jupiter! Jupiter orbits between Mars and Saturn, far from the sun. It is the largest planet, much larger than Earth. In most places, you can easily see this planet without a telescope. Not long after the sun sets, look for a brilliant point of non-twinkling light just above the horizon.
Don’t forget about reading
After students write pieces, they should read them multiple times out loud. Students can read their writing to see how it sounds and to find mistakes. Reading aloud is also great for sharing, showing others what good writing sounds like, and general enjoyment.
Also, grammar can and should be discussed and understood within the context books and articles. Therefore, read books and articles to and with students and as you read, discuss a grammar element. Here is my merged and rewritten Common Core Grammar standard (5th grade) that speaks to this:
Finally, remember what types of instruction are most effective
In a nutshell, first model everything, then guide students as they practice, and finally allow students to practice independently (I do, we do, you do). Here’s a bit more detail on this:
In my next post, I’ll give a simple schedule a parent or teacher could use might do for grammar teaching for the week. Meanwhile, don’t forgot about the bonus document in the “File Cabinet.” Happy writing and reading!
My last blog post promised more easy-to-do activities; this post gives another one. But first, a brief recap of what language comprehension is and why it is so important to skillful reading.
Reading arises when both word recognition and language comprehension are well developed and richly interacting. Neither is more than another; both are made up of multiple components. For example, the components of language comprehension include background and topical knowledge, vocabulary knowledge, an understanding of grammar and syntax, a grasp of metacognition strategies, and the ability to regulate your focus and employ your strategies. All of these, as well as the components of word recognition, must be firmly if skillful reading is going to occur.
SEE, THINK, WONDER. See, Think, Wonder comes from Harvard University’s Project Zero, which promotes visual thinking. I was introduced to it while working with the wonderful teachers of Nicholas County, West Virginia, where many of them enthusiastically endorsed the activity, saying it did wonders (pun intended) for building background knowledge, setting the stage for learning, and helping students develop the ability to ask and answer questions. For all students, but especially young children and English language learners. it is an activity that builds oral language. For older students, it functions as both an activity and a reader-used strategy.
Set up. As with the Slide Show, you will need a strong sense of the background knowledge you want to build. It could be a science theme like seeds and plants, a reading genre like biography, or a story setting like Mrs. Wade’s bookstore in Destiny’s Gift. Unlike the Slide Show, you’ll only need one picture. It could be scanned from your text, copied from an internet source, or pulled from an existing Slide Show. Or keep it super simple by opening up a book and sharing a big, bright picture with students gathered at your feet. Regardless of how you present it, pick your picture carefully. You’ll want it to be closely aligned to your story or theme, detailed enough to produce lots of language through discussion and questioning, and not too far beyond what they know and understand (their general background knowledge).
Modeling. To teach it, begin with a think aloud. Show the picture to your students and tell them what you see. Be as concrete as possible and use “I see…” statements. Next, move to “I think…” statements. Finally, model “I wonder…” statements.
Here’s an image that could be used to kick off any first grade science unit on the structure of plants. It’s also appropriate for introducing a story like A Seed is Sleepy by Sylvia Long or Up in the Garden, Down in the Dirtby Kate Messner.
And here’s an example of language a teacher might use when modeling a See-Think-Wonder based on the picture.
Guided practice. Once you have modeled the strategy, move to guided practice with the whole group. Show an appropriate picture, give your students 10 seconds to notice things in the picture (like a detective looking carefully for clues), and then randomly call on individuals to tell you one thing they see. Don’t let them tell you everything they see, as some will try to do. Teach them to share one observed item at a time.
After you have modeled this strategy with the students and then guided them through it as a whole group, put them into groups of 2, 3, or 4 and have them try it for themselves. I’d suggest you just allow them to talk at first, rather than writing it down in three columns or completing some type of worksheet. Writing can come in later, when older students have a much firmer grip on using the strategy (see Figure 4.5). Also, writing everything down can be laborious for some students, while talking can be enjoyable, so why not give kids time to talk via an educational activity? Meander among the groups and listen to the talk, nudge into line any groups or individuals that are straying from the topic, and positively reinforce those groups and individuals who are exhibiting behaviors that are appropriate to the task. Later, spend a few minutes back in the whole group for a debriefing session. You can point out comments that were especially pertinent and provide praise for those who expended excellent effort.
When to use it. See-Think-Wonder is both an activity and a strategy. As an activity, it builds language comprehension. Promoting “See-Think-Wonder” as something students do prior to independent reading turns it into a strategy that sets the stage for learning, activates prior knowledge, and generates questions that increase engagement. For example, this might take place in a guided reading group, when you hand out books, talk about the title, and then say, “Do a picture walk through this book and ask yourself, ‘What do I see, what do I think, what do I wonder?’” Likewise, explicitly show a whole group how to use it prior to reading science or social studies text. Say things like, “Good readers take the time to see, think, and wonder about the pictures, maps, and diagrams in the books they read. We are practicing this strategy so that you can use it independently. When you use this strategy, you become a reader who understands more."
First, A Bit of Background Knowledge
To become a skilled reader, a child must master sound-letter combinations, combine letters into phonic “chunks,” automatically recognize words, link words to specific meanings, make connections between text ideas, understand genre, integrate background and topical knowledge, employ strategies to stay on task, and much more. In previous blog posts, I’ve tried to describe and explain how this complexity interacts in a process that ultimately gives rise to skillful reading, and I’ve used two reading models to do so: the Eternal Triangle and the Simple View of Reading.
The Simple View of Reading, expressed as a formula, R = WR x LC, tells us skilled reading arises when both word recognition (WR) and language comprehension (LC) are well developed and richly interacting. It’s important to note the formula does not emphasize one variable more than another; the focus of this blog, language comprehension, is just as important to skillful reading as word recognition (or decoding) is, and this means teachers of reading must know how to 1) build it in all students, 2) assess how much of it students possess, and 3) differentially target and teach students who lack any of its specific elements.
Each of the Simple View’s variables – decoding and language comprehension - are made up of multiple components. Compiled from the writings of Hollis Scarborough and David Kilpatrick, the chart below provides a summary of many of them. Ironically, the Simple View of Reading is not simple! Nonetheless, Scarborough and Kilpatrick can help us in our quest to understand what we must teach if students are to learn how to read and avoid reading difficulties.
A Simple But Effective Activity
Now that we have some background knowledge on language comprehension, let’s dive into the nuts and bolts of how we might strengthen it in students, be they first, fourth, or even ninth graders. I have three language comprehension activities to share and I’ve chosen them because in COVID times, they can be done either in a classroom or online. Also, all are relatively easy to do (once you learn their routines) and in sum they present multiple components of the language comprehension variable. This post describes and explains the Slide Show. In upcoming weeks, I’ll give See-Think-Wonder and the Interactive Read Aloud.
The Slide Show
We all know the power of YouTube videos. In a matter of minutes, one clip can convey a lot of information. But my favorite activity for quickly communicating background and topical knowledge, as well as building vocabulary, is a modern-day slide show.
In the ancient days of my youth, slide shows were all about hardware. There were real slides (translucent film fitted inside a frame), a hard plastic carousel that stored them, and a slide projector that beamed light through the slides and onto a screen. Today’s slide shows, however, are software-based, made from digital images culled from the internet and pasted into a slideshow app. Unlike video clips, slide shows have no animation or narration, meaning you can create space for contemplation, letting students ponder a particular slide, asking questions about it, and soliciting comments.
Set Up. To create a slide show, you need an app like PowerPoint or Keynote, one that has a slide show function. You also need a strong sense of the concept or content you want to teach. Examples include the idea of erosion, a reading genre like fairy-tales, or a specific story setting, like a farm in Wyoming (Stone Fox), the summer of 1968 in Oakland, California (One Crazy Summer), or the woods on a cold, winter night under a full moon (Owl Moon).
After you have decided what to teach, do a Google Image query and start sifting through pictures. Choose engaging ones that also tie into the words and concepts you will touch upon in your upcoming story, theme, or unit. The trick is to pick information-rich photographs that both pique the interest of kids and provide talking points for vocabulary and background knowledge. Next, import the pictures into your slide show app and make some brief notes (mental or written) about the information you want to impart as you show each picture. Now you’re ready to go.
Modeling. It’s always a good idea to model the behaviors you want your students to exhibit, so first model how to notice things on each slide. Using direct and explicit language, explain to the children what they are seeing in each picture and give definitions for vocabulary words, like this one, which goes with a slide in the figure below. “This boy is wearing a kimono. A Japanese kimono is a traditional kind of clothing. In Japan, people wear kimonos for special occasions.” Build in appropriately sophisticated language whenever possible and intersperse the noticing with questions. “What do you notice in this picture?” and “What do you think this picture is showing?”
The slide show above could be used to build knowledge prior to reading books that reference Japan, such as Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein or Grandfather’s Journey and Kamishibai Man by Japanese-American author and illustrator Allen Say. Under each photo, I’ve included examples of what I might say to students as I show each slide. These comments are not part of the slides and I don’t show text to students. No matter the content, the overarching goal is to orally build language comprehension through showing pictures and giving information verbally.
Slide shows can be as long or as short as you want them to be. However, if you make them too short, they won’t give enough information, and if you make them too long, you’ll eat up too much time and your students may lose interest. Keep in mind the age and attention span of the children you teach. A show of twelve to twenty photos is a length to aim for, and total time for the activity is less than 15 minutes.
When to use. I recommend showing a slide show prior to reading a historical novel or any book with a setting unfamiliar to many students. Earlier I mentioned Stone Fox, a chapter book about a sled dog race. Before my 3rd grade guided reading group began this book, I showed them a slide show that included pictures of racing sleds, sled dogs, mushers, homestead farms, a map of Wyoming, and various types of people you might see in Wyoming, both current and historical. Although the students and I could have talked all morning about the pictures (the kids were into them, especially the ones featuring dogs), I set a time limit of 15-minutes because it was also important to start reading. It can be tricky to find the right balance between too little and too much discussion but with practice, you’ll figure out what works best.
The ultimate goal of a slide show is to build a child’s language comprehension by adding background, topical, and vocabulary knowledge to a child’s mental lexicon. Then, when it comes time to read, this knowledge is available to the reader. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a slide show with a dozen or more pictures really adds up!
Sources and Citations
When I first started to present workshops and trainings, I often told teachers my two classroom mantras were “read, read, read” and “write, write, write.” Reflecting on my instruction at the end of a teaching day, if I felt I had given my students many opportunities to read and write, then I knew my instruction was on the right track. After deeply diving into brain-based reading, however, I’ve added a third teaching mantra: “Patterns, patterns, patterns!”
Studying Patterns and Building Words
Once students have mastered sound-letter associations, such as the sound /b/ is represented by a B and /sh/ is represented by the S-H digraph, they are ready to begin exploring larger patterns called phonograms, often called word chunks or word families. From this point on, I will use the terms interchangeably. Typically, word families are presented at the rime level, which is the part of a one-syllable word that stretches from the first vowel to the end of the word. For example, the rimes of bake, ink, home, and clump are ake, ink, ome, and ump.
Patterns are terrifically important because they move children toward whole word reading and spelling. Teachers who teach pattern recognition hijack the brain’s natural ability to recognize patterns. But don’t worry, this hijacking is a positive act. When we teach students to notice patterns, we help them see how words are made up of and relate to one another through predictable chunks. Keeping one chunk the same (the rime) but changing its initial letter or letters (the onset) produces a list of words that rhyme. Also, when students engage in activities that focus on letter patterns and their associated sounds, they may be more likely to recognize the chunk in other written words (which helps them to decode), as well as hear the sound chunk in words they want to write (which helps them to encode).
Researchers Wylie and Durrel famously showed that some word families are more common than others (Wylie & Durrel, 1970). They referred to these families as phonograms. Figure 6.8 gives a list of the 37 phonograms they identified as most common. The list is an excellent starting point for phonics-spelling instruction in the primary grades.
Activities that show how words work at the pattern level take many forms. My favorites involve manipulation, especially manipulation of materials that are easy to store, transport, and clean up afterwards. All the following activities can be easily made; many can be purchased.
When you first introduce an activity, model its use. Then model it again! If you don’t have enough materials to run the activity for a whole group, consider pairing the kids (with each pair getting a white board, egg carton, magnetic journal, etc.) or using the materials only in small group settings or in a word work center.
You will need two sets, one set with phonograms or families such as ack, ain, ill, and ot, and one set with consonant and consonant blends, like d, g, br, and fl. Students work in pairs. One student tosses each block and puts the blocks together to form a word. It might be a real word; it might be a nonsense word. The other student reads the words. Next, the students reverse roles. You can buy blank blocks as well as blocks printed with onsets and rimes from online vendors such as Oriental Trading Post or your local craft store.
Flip books have two sections, one comprised of onsets and one of rimes. The first flap is the onset (consonants and consonant blends), the second flap is the rime. Students create words by flipping the pages and reading each combination. Sometimes the words are real (bake, cake, flake, stake) and sometimes not (dake, glake, prake). Onset-rime flip books can be purchased, but it’s easy to make them; all you need is a spiral bound book of index cards. Cut the cards down the middle, write in the onsets and rimes with a marker. Card books in colors (yellow, green, blue) let you categorize the rimes: yellow for vowel-consonant-E (lake, lade, lime), pink for vowel teams (steam, stow, stay). Students can work and read on their own or in pairs (one flipping and one reading).
Ping pong balls in egg cartons.
The balls typically can be purchased in bulk for under $15 and are available in various colors. You could buy two colors, one for onsets (like t, s, p, gr, sh, fl) and one for rimes (like ame, ill, est, ore, and unk). You’ll also need a sharpie and an empty egg carton. Organize the onsets and rimes in ways that are most beneficial to your students. (See Figure 6.8c.) Students pick one onset (t) and one rime (ame) and then pair them to make a word (tame). Next they read the word. Then they either swap in a new onset (sh to make shame), bring in a new rime (est to make test) or put both balls back and build a completely new word.
Wheels and sliders.
Students turn the wheel or slide the slider to form new words and then read the words. Wheels and sliders can be purchased but you can also make your own with colored cardstock and round-headed brass fasteners.
Personal white boards.
On their board, students write down the target rime and then spell and read words by swapping beginning letters in and out. If you want to make your own board, go to Lowe's or Home Depot and buy a 4 x 8 sheet of white panelboard, from which you can get twenty-four 12 x 16-inch rectangles. If you ask nicely, it's a good bet someone at the store will cut the pieces for you right then and there. Take the pieces home, sand the edges with fine sandpaper and boom, you have 24 white boards for less than a buck a piece!
Every day I find myself thinking of teachers and the difficulties they will face this fall. In the best of times, educating students is a tough thing to do. In the midst of a pandemic, and with large swaths of our government and populace not effectively responding to it, the challenges seem overwhelming. Still, I know teachers everywhere are taking steps to learn how to teach online, finding ways to keep themselves and their students safe in classrooms, and getting on with the business of teaching children to read, write, and do arithmetic. With that in mind, this post offers thoughts and ideas for teaching beginning readers using foundational reading activities that can work in school and hopefully at home.
In February, my post focused on building phonological skills to an advanced level. To do this, teachers use classroom activities that move young students towards advanced phonological awareness, from large chunks of sound like syllables to the smallest bits, phonemes. This post explores ways to connect those syllables, rimes, and phonemes to the letter sequences that represent them. The end goal is to build the lexicon of words, “the brain dictionary,” that all children use to read and spell.
Segment to Spell spelling grids
Activities such as pushing and pulling pennies in and out of sound boxes (Elkonin boxes) can be used to teach students phonemic segmentation, blending, and manipulation. In Segment to Spell, these boxes are repurposed to hold the written letters and letter combinations that represent individual phonemes. In this way, students can be taught the alphabetic principle: sounds can be represented by letters, letters represent sounds.
Letter boxes (or spelling grids) help students segment the sounds of words and then spell each discrete sound with an appropriate letter or letter combination. Grid activities like Segment to Spell are typically used with the youngest readers and writers but they’re also appropriate for older students who haven’t mastered the alphabetic principal, especially regarding vowels. I used letter boxes frequently when teaching general education classrooms of third graders who were reading below grade level.
Outside of specific programs, spelling grids can be purchased as whiteboards (for writing) or magnetic boards (for manipulating magnetic letter tiles). You can also make your own write-and-erase spelling grids by printing grids on card stock and laminating them or drawing them on white boards with permanent marker. These inexpensive options could be sent home for use with remote teaching. Finally, you can go the worksheet route, giving students a printed sheet with 3 to 4 spelling grids on each side and then having them pencil in their letters.
Each box in a spelling grid represents one phoneme. Students listen to a word, segment the word into individual phonemes, and then fill in the boxes of the grid with the letter or letters that spell each sound.
Students in various stages of spelling and reading development can use spelling grids. Young ones might use three-box spelling grids to spell CVC and CVCC words such as sip, bat, rich, and lock. Older students with more advanced vocabulary and/or knowledge of spelling patterns might use the same three-box grid to spell gaff, church, and thought.
When leading a group of students through this activity, support them by telling them upfront how many boxes will be filled. For young children, use grids with a prescribed number of boxes. For example, give only three box grids when presenting three phoneme words (like pen, fit, and porch). For children who have advanced to the next level of understanding, use a single grid with five or six boxes. Allow these students to decide how many boxes they will fill to spell any given word. Reinforce that the first sound goes in the first left-hand box and that not all boxes on the grid may be filled. For example, in a five-box grid, the word chin fills just three boxes, freight uses four, and stretch uses all five. Some teachers don’t like to see empty boxes at the end of a spelling grid. Others, like myself, don’t mind.
Here’s a suggestion for a teaching routine:
Another option is for students to stretch the word and then segment by pushing up individual sounds one at a time (as if they were using invisible pennies). Each time a sound is pushed into the box, the student immediately writes the letter or letters representing the sound.
Visit my YouTube channel, Mark Weakland Literacy, to find video examples of many of these activities. bit.ly/MWLit_YouTube_Channel
I was contacted recently by a Title I coordinator with a question: “What is meant by real, connected text?” The coordinator, currently working with her teachers to research and then restructure their district’s reading interventions, asked the question with regards to a point made by David Kilpatrick in his 2015 book, Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties, namely, and I’m paraphrasing here, that effective reading interventions share the following:
Because reading research tells us “the components of effective reading instruction are the same whether the focus is prevention or intervention” (Foorman & Torgesen, 2001), we know Kilpatrick’s trio is just as important to classroom reading instruction as it is to reading interventions. But what, exactly, is meant by real, connected text? How much time should students be given to read it? And in what settings are the various types of text appropriate? I’ll tackle the first question this week and the last two later in August.
What is real, connected text?
Defining educational terms is challenging. Our field seems to constantly create, redefine, and deconstruct its vocabulary but rarely discards any of it. Still, I’ll try to give a definition, starting with the “connected” part of the phrase.
I take connected to mean multiple sentences, contiguous on a page or presented over pages, relating to each other in ways that ultimately tell a story or present cohesive information. These sentences, a.k.a. connected text, can be found in:
Unlike the term “real text,” authentic text has been repeatedly defined by others. Here’s what the Florida Department of Education, which says: “Authentic text may be thought of as any text that was written and published for the public… written for “real world” purposes and audiences: to entertain, inform, explain, guide, document or convince” (FLDOE, 2020). Educators like Scott Thornbury and Lesley Morrow also weigh in, saying “…text is authentic if it was originally written for a non-classroom audience” and “[authentic text is a] stretch of real language produced by a real speaker or writer for a real audience and designed to convey a real message” (Thornbury, 2008; Morrow, 1977).
An example of text most would classify as authentic is Nancy Shaw’s entertaining Sheep in a Jeep, a picture book featuring simple sentences of varying structure; colorful, active illustrations; a plethora of phonic patterns; and a variety of engaging verbs (go, yelp, push, grunt, shove, leap, splash, thud, shout, cheer) which provide the reader with, as Catherine Snow puts it, “rare and sophisticated” vocabulary. Although teachers and parents can use this text to expose children to language and teach concepts (sequence, verbs, using context to gain meaning, and so forth), the book was not originally written with teaching in mind.
Definers of "authentic text" often go beyond books to classify blogs, novels, pop songs, newspaper articles, recipes, and road signs as authentic. Some also include radio shows, podcasts, photos, and video clips as examples. For me, podcasts and video clips won’t contribute much to teaching students the fundamentals of how to read written words and so I’ll put them aside. And while environmental text certainly helps children understand that text is an integral part of the world, I don’t think it is a central tool of K-3 reading instruction. So, in the end, I define connected, authentic text as text 1) that features connected sentences over one or more pages, 2) is not created for instructional purposes, and 3) is one of the main tools for fundamental reading instruction, K-3. Varieties of text that work within this general definition are poems and rhymes, picture books of all kinds, and chapter books, simple and more advanced, both narrative and informational. Once again, many of these types of texts can exist in digital format although I think the science of how well digital text works to teach reading is still in its infancy (and there are many unanswered questions).
A broader definition of “real and connected”
My sense is that Kilpatrick’s real and connected is a bigger category than authentic. Thus, in the file drawer labeled "real and connected," I’ll include books written specifically to help children learn how to read. Here I am thinking of the leveled books and predictable (pattern) books often used in kindergarten and 1st grade instruction.
Unlike authentic text, leveled readers are written with instruction in mind. Typically they support young readers with controlled vocabulary, a measured number of words in a sentence, and sometimes a repetitive sentence structure. For example, the first four pages of an early leveled reader might be this:
These types of books also fold in supports typically associated with picture books, such as photographs and illustrations. Also like authentic books, these texts present children with multiple, relating sentences in a book form (with title, cover art, and illustrations) that often tells a story or gives topical information. Finally, I’ve found that young children are excited when they finish one of these contrived texts and the excitement that springs from their reading success is a very real thing.
Text written with teaching in mind
Other pieces of text I categorize as “real and connected” are the informational articles and short, fictional stories found on sites like Readworks.org. Specifically authored for a website or program, these passages are written with reading levels and teachable content in mind. Like leveled readers, they typically have measured vocabulary loads, controlled sentence structure, and confined sentence lengths. Even with their constrained writing, these informational passages and short stories seem real to me (and almost authentic) because they closely follow text forms (newspaper articles, short stories in magazines) that are written without instruction in mind.
Is decodable text real?
Writers create decodable text with a narrow teaching focus in mind: giving beginning readers practice in breaking the code through carefully constructed sentences that use a small number of phonic patterns. The construction of decodable text consistently points students towards the strategies of “look at the letters,” “look for patterns” and “sound out the word.” This is why decodable sentences and paragraphs are an important part of many curriculums, such as Barton Reading and Wilson Reading among others, that aim to help students who have dyslexia. By using a limited number of phonic patterns, decodable text gives students who need it more repetition and distributed practice in phonic decoding, and fosters literacy development by helping beginning readers build detailed and accurate replicas of patterns and words in neural circuitry (Shaywitz, 2020; Duke, 2019).
Because decodable text is written by authors who use very narrow parameters to accomplish a specific task, some may see it as the opposite of real or authentic. But I’d say it becomes more real and authentic if it makes sense as a story and builds topical, background, and vocabulary knowledge (Hiebert, 2020). In my mind, the best example of highly controlled text that is real, connected, and perhaps even authentic is Dr. Suess’s Green Eggs and Ham. After using only 225 different words to tell the tale of The Cat in the Hat, Suess’s editor bet him he couldn’t write another book using fewer. He did, using only 50 words to write Green Eggs and Ham. A classic in the world of children’s literature, this highly controlled text features memorable characters, humor, conflict, resolution, and character growth.
Use it all to read, read, read
In the end, all of this might be mere semantics. The big idea is to get kids to read, read, read! No matter what text you have available, do your best to program opportunities for children to read. It's best when students are reading everything and anything, from traffic signs and recipes to poems, website articles, graphic novels, and picture books. Give more support for those who need it. For example, if some students need more practice in breaking the code, give them additional opportunities to read decodable text. But don’t forget to also give them rich, authentic children’s literature. Support all students through read alouds and a kick butt classroom library laid out in browsing bins. No one type of text will teach all children to read and certainly you can’t teach all children with only one reading textbook!
In my next blog I’ll discuss programming time to read all types of text, every day and for long periods of time.
Sources / Citations
Reading fluency - the ability to read accurately at an appropriate rate and with proper expression and phrasing - is essential to reading comprehension (LaBerge & Samuels, 1974; Stevens, Walker, & Vaughn, 2017). Thus, it makes sense to use classroom practices that build all elements of fluency. Parents can also play a part in helping their children build fluency through reading activities. One especially effective and efficient practice is repeated oral reading.
Repeated oral reading provides less skilled readers with the opportunity to hear a model of fluent reading and then practice it (multiple times) in a way that minimizes errors. Additionally, when students read together, especially with a teacher or parent, those who feel shy or nervous are supported, their stress of reading independently is lessened, and their self-confidence is boosted.
Using the practice of repeated reading typically leads to improved reading performance, with the biggest payoffs being more accurate word reading, improved oral reading fluency, and more reading comprehension (Shanahan, 2020). The effect can be especially powerful for low performing readers (Zawoyski, et. al., 2014). Still, some schools don’t make use of this powerful practice. As dyslexia researcher Sally Shaywitz has pointed out “…the proven effectiveness of guided repeated oral reading to increase fluency is too often ignored. That is unacceptable. In fact, the evidence is so strong that I urge adoption of these programs as an integral part of every school reading curriculum throughout primary school” (Shaywitz, p. 233).
Fortunately, it is easy to understand and then adopt the practice of repeated reading. Here are the key ingredients of the practice, as well as descriptions of a few variations.
All versions of repeated reading have a few key ingredients. They are:
Pioneered by reading researcher Jay Samuels, Repeated Reading been shown to be effective at improving the oral reading fluency of elementary students, including those with learning disabilities (Kim, Bryant, Bryant, & Park, 2017; Stevens, et. al., 2017; Lee & Yoon, 2017). This particular variety of the practice is capitalized because it is a specific routine. According to Timothy Shanahan, “Repeated Reading is a particular method … to develop decoding automaticity with struggling readers. In this approach, students are asked to read aloud short text passages (50-200 words) until they reach a criterion level of success (particular speed and accuracy goals)” (Shanahan, 2020). Key components of Samuel’s Repeated Reading go above and beyond the previously mentioned key ingredients and include instant error correction, peer mediation, and a specific criterion (or specific goal of speed and accuracy). If you would like to further explore the specifics of Repeated Reading, I refer you to this posting on the Iowa Reading Research Center’s blog:
Repeated reading of the uncapitalized kind can be young students reading a previously read book during independent reading time or as the first activity in a guided reading group. It can also be choral or echo reading during small group instruction or with a large group during poetry practice.
Choral and Echo Reading
Choral reading is when students read in unison with the teacher. Echo reading is when the teacher reads first and then the students echo it back. For kindergarten students, the echoing is typically one sentence. To determine the number of sentences for older students, I consider the demands of the text and the abilities of the students. If students need support and sentences are relatively difficult (longer and/or with higher decoding demands), perhaps one sentence will do. But if sentences are shorter and easier to decode, pick two or three sentences to echo back. Otherwise, students with good short term memory will simply “parrot back” a sentence without ever reading it.
How To Do Choral and Echo Reading
Repeated reading in the form of echo reading can occur in either the whole group or during a small group situation like a guided reading group. When working with students who need a lot of support, I incorporate regular bouts of echo and choral reading. It looks like this:
Let's imagine the students have just finished whisper reading this piece of text.
Here is what the routine looks like with a 3rd grade guided reading group.
Fluent reading unfolds smoothly, with expression, and in broad brushstrokes of phrasing. To drive the point home, consider putting out a can filled with small paintbrushes. Then allow your students (independently or in small or large groups) to grab a paintbrush and re-read a poem or passage by pulling the brush smoothly below the sentences. It’s a kinesthetic feedback trick that keeps kids engaged as they re-read. Read like a painter, not…like…a…pointer!
Fluency is Much More Than Rate
Regardless of whether you use echo reading, choral reading, paintbrush re-reading, or some other form or combination of repeated reading, the students’ goal is always the same: to read the words of the text accurately, at a reasonable pace, and with expression and phrasing that sounds like oral language.
Notice that the definition of fluency I gave is much more than rate (or pace) of reading. In “The Great Fluency Rush” that followed the 2000 release of the National Reading Panel’s Report, fluency work was everywhere in schools, assessments like DIBELS and programs like Read Naturally were ubiquitous, and reading rate sometimes became synonymous with fluency. I like to say that “rate was overrated.” In some schools, rate is still overrated! So, I am glad that researchers like Shaywitz and Shanahan, and organizations like the Iowa Reading Research Center, are here to remind us it is important to build accuracy first and not lose sight of expression and phrasing (Shaywitz, 2020; IRRC 2019; Shanahan, 2020). As the IRCC puts it, “Reading quality rather than reading speed.”
SOURCES and CITATIONS
Playful, lyrical, musical, moving,
Hopeful, joyful, anguished, blue.
Concentrated yet expansive,
To the norm they may not hew.
Read in classrooms and on stages,
Through the ages, old and new.
Small but mighty, I applaud them, and
Wonder if you laud them, too.
Why Use Poems?
For me, a poem is like a pop-up book, or maybe Yoda and a can of Popeye’s spinach. A poem is minute but mighty, compressing a ton of surprise, wisdom, and fortifying energy into a small space.
Efficient and powerful, poems are perfect for teaching, and then having students practice, a wide variety of important literacy elements, including comprehension through close reading, asking and answering questions, genre and author study, vocabulary building, grammar and sentence structure study, phonic-spelling patterns, fluency, and speaking and listening. Additionally, poems are relatively easy to find and manage. They can be used for shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading. Finally, most children find poems engaging and enjoy reading and presenting them. I attribute this to the brevity, rhythm, and rhymes of poems, as well as their ability to evoke a wide variety of feelings and wonderment. When striving readers fluently read and then present poems to others, they gain a real sense of accomplishment and success
All in all, poems are an effective tool for teaching primary grade reading. What follows are places to find them, thoughts on leveling them for differentiated teaching, and a flexible routine for using them to teach a variety of important early reading skills.
Where to Find Poems
Old school nursery rhymes, traditional poems from years past, and poems from modern and contemporary authors are all at your fingertips, easily found online. Here are three sites to get you started.
By The Way: Shakespeare for 3rd Graders
I found this Renaissance classic in the Poetry Foundation’s children’s section. In mid-October, pass out the witchy-poo pointer fingers, model a good ghoul voice, and let your third graders have at it. By Halloween, some will be clamoring to present!
Published poetry collections are the ultimate source of classroom text. Collections often include upwards of 100 or more poems meaning you can generate a collection of appropriate poems for your class in no time. Here’s a list of twelve respected and beloved children’s authors and a poetry collection from each to get you started.
Collecting and Storing Poems
Between well-stocked websites and comprehensive print collections, you can amass dozens of poems for kids to read in a short amount of time. Storing them as PDFs or word document files allows for easy sharing with other teachers. For use during shared reading time, print poems on poster-sized sheets or present them on SmartBoard slides. For guided and independent reading, copy poems as single sheets.
My mother, now retired, presented two poems a week to her first graders. During my years in third grade, I presented about three poems a month. But knowing what I know now (the power of poetry, the myriad ways it can be used), whenever I teach children, I use three or four poems every two weeks. Presenting a number of poems allows you to differentiate for different reading levels, provides numerous possibilities for classroom activities, gives students choices on what they read, and provides options when creating personal poetry anthologies for each student (more on this at the end of this section).
Loosely Leveling Poems
Leveling poems enables a number of instructional best practices, including providing choice, challenge, and support. Some poems come with a Lexile or grade level. For those that don’t, you can type a poem into a website or word document and generate an ATOS or Flesch-Kinkaid grade level and readability score. But I find these scores are often misleading, sometimes egregiously so. That’s why I roughly determine the appropriateness of a poem for any particular group of students by considering the following:
To illustrate, here are two poems I might present to second graders:
Comparing these two poems, I see that although Macaroni and Cheese has a complex layout (the poem is written for two or more readers), it has half the number of words of Bed in Summer, fewer phonic patterns, more repeated words, more contemporary language, and relatively simple subject matter. Thus, I think Macaroni and Cheese would be appropriate for readers who need more support. Meanwhile, the Stephenson poem would be appropriate for shared reading because its meaning is more complex, its subject matter more nuanced, it would lead to more questioning and inferring, and some of my striving readers might find its number of words frustrating to read without support. Finally, I would assign the Stephenson poem to my more advanced readers for independent reading, although I would give all my students the choice to read both.
Routine for Teaching Reading Skills Through Poems
After I have decided on the two or three poems I want to use, I generally follow this 3-day routine to teach a variety of reading skills, from applying comprehension strategies to noticing phonic patterns and re-reading for fluency.
First Day (15 t0 20 minutes)
Personal Poetry Anthologies
Personal poetry anthologies grow and expand as the months goes by, reflecting a child’s personal preferences. Each poem in the anthology provides an opportunity for students to re-read and build fluency during independent reading time, as well as share their reading with others.
Regardless of whether you use the 3-day routine (given previously) or not, put the poems each child has read into a 3-ring binder with his or her name on it. If students are able to do their own 3-hole punching and operate a binder, then so much the better. I give students the option to take a second or even a third poem, each one typically at a different level of difficulty. Thus, after two months, some children will have a dozen poems in their anthology while others may have only four or five.
If your budget and/or storage space is limited, you can store poems in a two-pocket folder with or without fasteners. If you don’t use fasteners, I suggest you gradually staple the poems into packets of six to eight poems (so papers don’t go flying if the poems fall out). Illustrating the cover of the poetry book is always a fun and engaging thing to do at home or in the classroom.
What can a child can do with her poetry anthology? Here's a list of poetry reading possibilities: During independent reading time, read your poetry anthology...
By The Way: Paintbrush Reading
Fluent reading unfolds smoothly, with expression, and in broad brushstrokes of phrasing. To drive the point home, consider putting out a can filled with small paintbrushes. Then allow your students (independently or in small or large groups) to grab a paintbrush and re-read a poem or passage by pulling the brush smoothly below each sentence as it is read. It’s a kinesthetic feedback trick that keeps kids engaged during re-reading. Read like a painter, not…like…a…pointer!
Note for Parents and Teachers
To help with National Poetry Month, I’ve put free PDFs and sound files of some of my most popular poems online. Just go to this File Cabinet tab on this website (top of the page, immediately to the right of the blog tab). Then look in the right hand column. There you will find PDF poems and dramatic readings of A Bug, A Bug!, poems for two voices, like Nuh Uh! and Mac & Cheese, and more. The mp3s are super fun readings done by actors Chris Laitta & Biff Baron.
According to Kilpatrick (2015) and Scarborough (2001), metacognition, background knowledge, and topical knowledge are components of language comprehension, one of the two variables that describe the Simple View of Reading (the other being word recognition). Other components of this important variable include vocabulary knowledge, grammatical and syntactical knowledge, and self-monitoring. The more a student has of each, the more chance he has of understanding what he has read. Additionally, when the many parts of language comprehension are strong, reading difficulties are less likely to occur. Conversely, if the parts are weak, reading difficulties are more likely to occur.
Making meaning is foundational to what it means to read; one’s ability to construct meaning from written text is dependent on knowledge. When language knowledge is combined with the automatic recognition of correctly spelled words, the brain’s reading circuits are connected and the reading process can unfold. In a 2018 overview of the reading process, researchers Anne Castles, Kathleen Rastle, and Kate Nation said this: “When children begin to learn to read, they usually already have relatively sophisticated spoken-language skills, including knowledge of the meaning of many spoken words.” We know, however, that due to differences within families, languages, and social and economic environments, some children come to school with deficits in spoken word (language) knowledge. So, to head off reading difficulties caused by a lack of language comprehension, we have to build language comprehension knowledge of all types, especially background knowledge.
It’s well known that background knowledge is essential for reading comprehension (Coppola, S. 2014; O’Reilly, T., Wang, Z., & Sabatini, J., 2019). Just think about it: to construct a mental model of what you are reading, it helps to know something about the text topic. The knowledge can consist of specific information, general information, or both. Regardless, the more a reader knows about any topic, the easier it is for him to read a text, understand it, and retain its information (Neuman, Kaefer, & Pinkham, 2014). Thus, a teacher will find it easier to digest the concepts presented in this blog than a fighter pilot or financial advisor.
Interactive read aloud
Reading to children is a simple pleasure. When infused with thought-provoking questions and purposefully modeled reading strategies, reading aloud becomes an effective and practical way to build language comprehension. More specifically, interactive read alouds can build background knowledge, topical knowledge, vocabulary knowledge, genre knowledge, and the ability to use metacognition strategies (such as predicting or visualizing).
In any give classroom there is a wide range of reading achievement. Thus, reading out loud gives some students a way to access and discuss a book written well above their independent reading level. For other students, a read aloud piques interest in a book they can read independently at a later time, once it is placed on a book-shelf or in a browsing bin. Finally, an interactive read aloud not only generally strengthens components of reading comprehension, but it also provides explicit opportunities to model specific reading skills, such as fluent reading, re-reading, and defining vocabulary from context.
It all begins with a carefully chosen quality children’s book, one that is engaging, of any genre, and full of rich vocabulary and concepts. You’ll also need a strong sense of what language comprehension components you want to focus on and an understanding of how to teach them. Let’s tackle this last element first.
A series of purposeful activities makes up a typical interactive read aloud. They can include any or all of the following, done for a variety of purposes:
Title talk, picture walk, and/or book walk.
Rich and complex practices like an Interactive Read Aloud demand rich and complex study, more than what this blog can provide. Perhaps you’ll want to check out these resource books and material, as they might help you take your instruction to a higher level.
For decades, the educational community has known of the importance of phonological awareness. Many researchers pointed it out prior to 2000 (Bradley, L. & Bryant, 1983, Stanovich, K.E. & Siegel, L.S., 1994, Ehri, L.C., 1998), but it really moved front and center when the National Reading Panel report named it as one of the Five Big Ideas of Reading. The Panel said that teaching phonemic awareness not only helped preschoolers, kindergartners, and 1st graders learn to read, but also helped older readers with reading problems. (NICHD, 2000).
Since that time, reading researchers like Sally Shaywitz (2003/2020), Maryanne Wolf (2008), David Share (2011), and Mark Seidenberg (2017) have been highlighting the research on and importance of phonological and phonemic awareness. Here’s Seidenberg talking about it in his book, Language at the Speed of Sight: “For reading scientists, the evidence that the phonological pathway is used in reading and especially important in beginning reading is about as close to conclusive as research on complex human behavior can get” (p. 124).
In his 2015 book on preventing and overcoming reading difficulties, David Kilpatrick spotlighted phonological and phonemic awareness within intervention programs, saying that the especially effective ones "…aggressively address and correct students phonological awareness difficulties and teach phonological awareness to an advanced level” (Kilpatrick, 2015). Robust teaching is critical to the development of orthographic mapping: if children cannot analyze and discriminate between the individual sounds of a language, it is very difficult for them to assign letters (alone or in combination) to each sound, and if sound-symbol associations are not mastered, reading and spelling cannot develop. Kilpatrick also mentioned a study that shows how “training in phonological awareness and letter-sound skills reduced the number of struggling readers by 75%” (Shapiro & Solity, 2008).
But why wait until students are struggling to teach phonological awareness to an advanced level? To prevent reading difficulties, let’s teach advanced sound analysis skills in regular education classrooms at the Tier I level.
What follows are classroom activities that begin moving young students towards advanced phonological awareness. The first focuses on large chunks of sound – syllables. The second has to do with the smallest bits of sound – phonemes.
Hands Together, Apart, and Away
Advanced phonemic skills include adding, subtracting, and substituting phonemes to make new words out of existing words. Set the stage for this by teaching students to delete or add larger sound chunks such as syllables. One practical way to do this is to practice the deletion of one word in a compound word. Then, practice a more advanced version by replacing the deleted word with another word, thus forming a new compound word. To help children better understand how these deletions and additions work, use hands together, apart, and away.
To do this activity with hand motions and preserve “reading left to right,” you’ll need to turn your back to your students and present the back of your hands. With your hands together, thumb touching thumb, say a compound word like “Daylight.” Pull your hands apart and say the compound word as separate words: “Day, light.” Next, put your hands back together and say, “Daylight.” Then, ask your students to say daylight without day. Model taking away your left hand and gently shaking your right. If they don’t know the remaining word, say, “Light.” Ask your students to say daylight without light, taking away your right hand and gently shaking your left. If they don’t know the word, say, “Day.”
Here are other words to say as you move your hands to show syllables and syllable deletion:
An advanced form of Hands Together, Apart, and Away is not using hands at all! Bump up to an even higher level by using three syllable words. At this point you will definitely give up the use of your hands to segment syllables (unless you are an octopus). Have students say a three-syllable word like November. Then ask them to say only the first syllable, the last syllable, or the middle. A more advanced version is to ask them to say the word with a syllable deleted. For example, “Say November without the No.” (Vember) Or say, “Say November without the last syllable.” (Novem).
Stretch and Zap the Word. Then go beyond!
Sound stretching helps students hear the individual sounds of a word. Later they can segment the phonemes more discretely by zapping out the sounds.,
Use the I Do, We Do, You Do sequence to first model the action and then have students practice.. To stretch a word, tell your students to imagine the word as a big rubber band. Or if you live in western Pennsylvania, tell them to imagine a “gum band.” They’ll know what you mean. Grab hold of either end of the word (make two fists and hold them close to each other in front of you). Then slowly pull your hands away from each other, stretching the word out, holding out the vocalization of each phoneme as you stretch.
After the rubber band is stretched as far as it can go and all of the phonemes have been drawn out, snap the band back together with a handclap. When students clap, they say the word. In this way, phonemes are brought back together to make a word. For example, flip would be modeled ffff-llll-iiii-p, (clap) flip! And dream would be d-rrrr-eeee-mmmm, (clap), dream!
Some teachers teach this technique as “bubble gum words,” stretching the word out from the mouth as they were stretching a wad of chewed bubble gum. Is this disgusting? Perhaps. But if kids are engaged, do it. We do whatever it takes to get students to learn, right?
Second graders stretching a word
Add zapping to the stretch routine to help students phonemically segment words and feel that segmentation in their bodies. To model zapping, first say the target word as you make a fist. Next, segment the word into the sounds you hear, pumping your hand and throwing out a finger for each sound you say. For example, the word it gets two pumps. The index finger comes out when you say /i/. The middle finger comes out when you say /t/. Finally, draw your fingers back into a fist, blending the sounds together, and saying the word - it!
When giving words, it is important for you to say the word and have your students repeat it with you (I Say, We Say) before the zapping begins. I Say, We Say gives a model of the correct pronunciation of the word prior to sound segmentation and an opportunity to repeat that correct pronunciation. After all, one cannot segment phonemes correctly if the word isn’t pronounced correctly.
Here is an example of a teaching routine I ran in classrooms. If I used a total of six or seven words, it took about five minutes. My instruction was direct and explicit, used modeling, and proceeded at a brisk pace. The point was to work in lots of practice so the kids could master the technique. Once mastered, children can use zapping as an independent strategy for spelling and reading unknown monosyllabic words. In this lesson, we’ll imagine the teacher is working with a group of second graders on the r-controlled syllable.
With short bursts of repeated practice distributed over time, students can master the art of stretching and zapping in just a few weeks.Then they will be ready for more advanced work: sound identification and sound deletion. For example, after students have segmented stork as /s/ /t/ /or/ /k/, ask, "What is the first sound?" The answer should be /s/. Then ask, "What is the final sound?" and "What is r-controlled sound?" The answers are /k/ and /or/. Sound identification is a more advanced form of phonemic analysis than simple segmentation.
Finally, ask students to delete a sound. For example, and once again using stork as the target word, ask your students to "Say stork without the /s/." The correct response is /tork/. Then ask them to "Say stork without the /k/." The correct response is /stor/.
Sound deletion activities are a great way to build advanced phonemic awareness. They also have the added benefit of being sensitive to some types of reading difficulties. This means that sound deletion tasks can provide clues as to why a child is having a difficult time learning to read and write, and here I am thinking of students who have dyslexia due to phonological processing impairments.
One last thing: if you prefer to use a program, and you are looking for effective, low-cost options, here are three excellent resources:
I am a teacher, literacy consultant, author, musician, nature lover, and life long learner.