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Saturday, June 29, 2013

Common Core Writing Standard 3

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standard for Writing 3 (CCRA.W.3) guides students in kindergarten through twelfth grade to "write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details and well-structured event sequences." In essence, this standard addresses the art of writing stories.

Let's take a look at what's expected in the middle grades. W.3.3W.4.3, and W.5.3 ask students to "write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences and or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences."

This is further spelled out in five ways:

  • Write a Strong Beginning (W.3.3a/W.4.3a/W.5.3a) - Third, fourth, and fifth grade students are expected to "establish a situation and introduce a narrator and/or characters" and "organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally."
  • Use Effective Technique (W.3.3b/W.4.3b/W.5.3b) - Techniques include dialogue and descriptions to develop the plot or "show the response of characters to situations." Fifth graders are also required to use pacing.
  • Add Words to Establish Order and Create Smooth Transitions (W.3.3c/W.4.4c/W.5.4c) - The Common Core lists temporal words and phrases for third graders, transitional words and phrases for fourth, and adds transitional clauses for fifth.
  • Choose Exact Words (W4.3d/W.5.d) - Students in Grades 4 and 5 begin to "use concrete words and phrases and sensory details to convey experiences and events precisely."
  • Write a Strong Conclusion (W.3.3 d/W.4.3e/W.5.3e) - Students need to provide closure to their stories.
May I offer three simple pieces of advice?

  1. Start simple. 
  2. Use model texts. 
  3. Build writing skills as the year goes on.

1. Start Simple - One of the simplest forms of narrative writing is the fable. These short pieces allow students to practice simple beginnings, simple dialogue, simple descriptions, simple transitions, simple word choice, and simple conclusions. (Did I mention that they're simple?)

I'm a big believer in "read first, write second." Start off by reading some fables as models. You can access several versions of Aesop's Fables free of charge at Project Gutenberg. Because the copyrights of these texts have expired, you may use them freely in your classroom. The Aesop for Children, illustrated by Milo Winter, includes over 100 illustrated fables (such as the one featured below) that have been adapted especially for children.

Discuss how the author employed each of the tactics listed in the Common Core: beginning, dialogue, description, transition words, concrete words (specific nouns and active verbs), and conclusion. Work together to determine what makes a story a fable (brief narrative with a moral, uses animals with human characteristics, etc.) 

This is the perfect place to teach (or review) how to write dialogue. Students only need to use a few lines of dialogue in a fable.

To plan a fable, students choose a moral/lesson, think of  brief plot that will teach the lesson, and select animals that portray appropriate human traits. Easy! As your students write these brief, age-appropriate narratives, they will take their first steps toward mastering CCRA.W.3.

You have everything you need to get started! If you want the complete lesson plans, you can purchase Writing Fables for $5.00 in my Teachers pay Teachers store.

2. Use model texts - I've already talked a bit about this with Aesop, but there's more. The first two "P's" we'll talk about today are parody and parroting. Parody allows students to adapt familiar story lines to create original narratives. Parroting challenges students to copy effective writing techniques in their own stories. Both of these will again use "read first, write second."

Parody - So much of what we read (or watch on television or at the movie theater) is parody! Authors are constantly recycling what worked before. Kids can do this too . . . with great success. 

As we discuss parody, think about texts that you already use in your classroom (or personal favorites). Consider their strengths and how your students might twist their story lines into something new. I'm going to explain how I use Cinderella stories in my classroom, but you might use something totally different in yours.

Read First - I begin by reading a few Cinderella (folklore) picture books aloud. We discuss similarities and differences then list elements common to all Cinderella stories. Each time we read a book, we analyze how the Cinderella elements are portrayed on a table that lists elements across the top and book titles down the side. Next, I introduce parody, and we read and analyze a bunch of Cinderella parodies. In my class, the culminating book is Ella Enchanted, a full-length novel, which is also a Cinderella parody. All of this (and more!) can be found in Comparing Cinderella Stories with Ella Enchanted on Teachers pay Teachers.

Write Second - This is really fun! Kids can choose whatever twist on the Cinderella story that they want. I've had everything from "Treearella" to "Mozzarella." This year, one of the Cinderella characters was even a famous football player whose family didn't like his choice for a wife. The sky is the limit! Students plug their ideas into the Cinderella elements list and start writing. In my class, we type, illustrate, and bind the stories into our own series of picture books.

Parroting - Certain authors have distinctive voice. How do they do it? Parroting involves reading one or more texts by a certain author, analyzing his or her distinctive style, then trying it on for size (again, "read first, write second"). My class worked with Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling this year and the results were astonishing. You can read about it on my May 19th blog, "Just So Writing." Next year I want to try using a different author each month!

3. Build writing skills as the year goes on - Students' writing should steadily improve as time wears on. How can we ensure that this happens? First, point out strategies used in each text you read, whether simple or complex. (For example, "Did you notice how the author used the words 'first,' 'second,' and 'third' to establish time order?" or "Wow, the author just hinted at something that might happen in the future. That's called foreshadowing. How did he do that?") Second, ask students to employ specific strategies in their own writing. Finally, let them practice with simpler assignments before you ask them to pull stories out of their hats.

This brings me to the third "P": personal narrative. Many English textbooks use personal narrative as the keystone for narrative writing in fourth grade. To me, this "P" needs to come after structured practice with parodies and parroting. Personal narrative requires students to determine the entire event sequence on their own, and many students this age just aren't ready.

For example, when I ask my students to write about a favorite vacation, inevitably they'll write a full page elaborating on waking up, getting dressed, eating breakfast, and driving to, let's say, an amusement park. Then, in one or two sentences, they tell which roller coasters they rode. Before you know it, they're back in the car heading home. Wait? What just happened? They worked hard at the beginning to do everything the teacher asked . . . and then they ran out of steam and quickly wrapped up the story.

In the intermediate grades, I've found that the most important part of instruction for writing personal narratives is focusing on one compelling part of the story and cutting the rest. I tell them to pretend they're movie directors with hours and hours of film that they need to cut down to a fifteen-minute segment. It's brutal. They don't want to cut anything! But I insist. 

There's so much more work that goes into a personal narrative, as well. By nature, the students want to tell instead of show. This sets a student on a much more complex path of "show, not tell." They begin to see the differences between describing and narrating, between passive verbs and active verbs, etc.

You might be thinking, "She didn't even mention writing original stories in today's blog." While that's the final goal, I wanted to emphasize the importance of the "3 P's" - - - parody, parroting, and personal narrative - - - in that order. You see, this isn't about letting kids write stories. It's about teaching students to write effective, powerful narratives. Some students are ready to generate original stories in Grades 3-5; others need to be inched along through modeling and targeted techniques.

I'm sure not all of you out there agree with me, but this is what's worked for me. Feel free to comment! Much of what I've learned in my teaching career has come from the great ideas of my fellow educators!

Friday, June 28, 2013

Common Core Writing Standard 2

Today's topic is informative/explanatory writing. College and Career Readiness Anchor Standard for Writing 2 (CCRA.W.2) states: "Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content."

What are third, fourth, and fifth graders required to do in regard to this standard? The main standard for all three grades asks them to "write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly." Expectations, however, vary from grade to grade.

  • Third Grade - When writing informative pieces, third graders are asked to write an introduction; "develop the topic with facts, definitions, and details;" group information logically and use linking words; write a conclusion; and include supporting illustrations. 
  • Fourth Grade - In fourth grade, students are expected to write an introduction; "develop the topic with facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations," etc; organize information in paragraphs and sections; use linking words and phrases; "include formatting (e.g. headings), illustrations, and multimedia;" employ precise/domain-specific vocabulary; and write a conclusion.
  • Fifth Grade - Expectations for fifth grade are similar to fourth but also include "a general observation and focus" (which means thesis to me) and use of linking clauses.
The Common Core spells it out clearly: by fourth grade, students must be able to write informative pieces with multiple paragraphs. Of course, traditional research papers are not the only type of informative writing. In my class, for example, students read a full-length biography and several primary and secondary sources on one person who has made a difference in the world. Each student creates a timeline of important events in the person's life then further synthesizes the information into a first-person narrative. For another project, students explore an issue before our state's General Assembly, and the end product is a persuasive letter (full of information) to a member of Congress. Although these creative and blended writing projects are wonderful, I hold firmly to the belief that each student should produce a formal research paper at least once each year.

When researching, even young children need to think about the reliability of the sources they choose. I like using the "C.A.R.S. Checklist for Evaluating Internet Sources," which originated at It asks kids to look at credibility (C), accuracy (A), reasonableness (R), and support (S). Using this checklist helps kids find the most reliable information.

How should students organize this information? It seems that note cards have gone the way of the dodo bird. I, however, still see value in them. Since fourth graders tend to lose note cards, I began using note sheets like this:

It takes a little work up front, but preparing note sheets helps my students with organization and topic development. Although students could simply use these sheets to draft their papers, I want my students to know what an outline is and how to use it. For their first research paper, I prepare an outline that matches the note sheets and have them simply transfer the information to a different format. This paves the way for organizing information into paragraphs and writing topic sentences.

I find it ironic that the Common Core insists upon citing and quoting when answering questions but makes no mention of it in the informational writing section. No matter, I ask my students to do it anyway. A simplified works cited protocol gets fourth graders started with the process. This gets them used to locating author, title, publisher, etc. in print and digital sources.

The examples above came from my "Animal Research Packet" ($5 at my Teachers pay Teachers store). I have also found that research writing is a great way to differentiate for high ability students. This free product provides some ideas for younger students:

Looking for resources and ideas for informative writing in your classroom? Here are a few additional sources:
"My Hometown" from K12Reader
"Rules of the Game" from K12 Reader

I'd love to hear your ideas and/or opinions about informative writing for middle grade students. Feel free to comment below.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Common Core Writing Standard 1

The first College and Career Readiness Anchor Standard for Writing (CCRA.W.1) asks students to "write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence." Folks, we're dealing with persuasive writing today.

How does this translate to Common Core writing standards for Grades 3-5?

W.3.1, W.4.1, and W.5.1 all read the same: "Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information" (except Grade 3 leaves off the last two words: "and information"). This standard is further broken down into four key parts:

  • W.3.1a/W.4.1a/W.5.1a - Third graders are asked to introduce a topic, state an opinion, and create an organizational structure that lists reasons. Fourth and fifth graders must also logically group their ideas to support the writer's purpose.
  • W.3.1b/W.4.1b/W.5.1b - In third grade, students must supply reasons that support their opinion. Fourth graders and fifth graders must also include facts and details to support their reasons.
  • W.3.1c/W.4.1c/W.5.1c - In all three grades, students are asked to use linking words and phrases to connect their opinions and reasons.
  • W.3.1d/W.4.1d/W.5.1d - Students must write a conclusion.
In a nutshell, the first writing standard tasks students with introducing a topic, stating an opinion, giving reasons (and facts/details in Grades 4-5), using linking words, and writing a conclusion. The Common Core does not indicate the length of the opinion piece; however, when students begin to include facts and details in fourth and fifth grades, a multi-paragraph piece is likely necessary.

In thirty years of teaching, I've tried many graphic organizers to help my students plan their writing, but one planner stands out. My fourth graders are required to plan (and write) five-paragraph persuasive essays with an organizer looks like this:

The top rectangle, in which students list their opinion and three reasons, becomes the introductory paragraph. Each of the three middle columns, which include a reason and supports (details, examples, anecdotes, statistics, quotes, research, etc.), organize information for one supporting paragraph. The bottom rectangle, with its restatement of reasons and call to action, becomes the conclusion.

Even though it's messy, I'll share an organizer I used to model this process for my class last year:

This organizer simplifies the process of writing a persuasive essay, but there's actually much more that goes into an effective opinion piece. Students must learn to carefully select a good topic and supportive reasons, as well as dig for valid facts and details to support those reasons. They must work on good beginnings and endings; powerful word choice (specific nouns and active verbs); varying sentence beginnings, lengths, and types; appropriate use of linking words, phrases, and clauses; and much more. Although this sounds like a lot for a little kid to handle, I have found that with direct instruction, modeling, and sound organizational structures, they can do it (and do it well!)

Here are a few examples you can use with your students:
I have recently added a new set of lesson plans entitled "Persuasive Writing: You Should Try It!" to my Teachers pay Teachers store. In this activity, students choose a favorite activity and try to persuade their peers to try it. A clear step-by-step process with modeling and corresponding student sheets make it a snap. Check it out!

What works for you when teaching persuasive writing to your class? Let's start a discussion!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Common Core Literature Standard 10

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standard for Reading 10 (CCRA.R.10) sums up all other reading standards by stating that students should be able to "read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently."

The overarching reading standard is translated to this phrase for each intermediate grade's literature standard: "By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poetry, in the _____ text complexity band proficiency..." Here, the Common Core directs teachers to challenge their students with complex (but appropriate) texts.

At the risk of repeating myself, I'd like to share some information form my March 16th post, "CCSS: Measuring Text Complexity: Three Factors." CCRA.R.10 deals with range, quality, and complexity. Three factors to measuring text complexity are suggested: qualitative evaluation of the text, quantitative evaluation of the text, and matching reader to text and task. To me, this is the starting point when choosing a novel for my class. The CCSS gives me clear guidance in selecting text at an appropriate and challenging level.

supplementary document provides a much more detailed information and examples on choosing an appropriate text. Section IV, "Key Considerations in Implementing Text Complexity," has been most helpful to me. It details four important points:
  1. Look at quantitative measures first. Numeric values such as those provided by the Lexile Framework help teachers pinpoint texts with appropriate sentence lengths, word frequency, and so on.
  2. Analyze the text qualitatively. Think about the book's structure, clarity, language conventionality, knowledge demands, levels of purpose, etc. 
  3. Qualitative considerations will sometimes "trump" quantitative measures. For example, a novel written in a straightforward, conventional style is much easier than a novel requiring constance inference or written in archaic language.
  4. These measures don't always work for every text. Poetry and drama, for example, are difficult to analyze for sentence length and word frequency.
While all of the standards are important, this standard helps us raise the bar on the texts we select for our students to read. As I mentioned in my June 13th blog, "The Importance of Struggling in Reading," kids need to read above their comfort level in order to grow as readers. In a brief video (1:42), Dr. Timothy Shanahan discusses the use of complex texts in the classroom. He points out that ramping up the reading level will bring challenges not only for students, but for teachers too.

How has your reading list changed due to Standard 10? What new challenges have you faced? I discussed much of this in my March blogs, now I'd love to hear how it's impacting you.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Common Core Literature Standard 9

I know what you're thinking: "What happened to Common Core Literature Standard 8???" Well, CCRR.R.8 asks students to "delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance an sufficiency of the evidence." By its nature, this standard only applies to Reading: Informational Text. In other words, there is no Standard 8 for Literature.

On to CCRR.R.9! This standard encourages students to "analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take." Wow, this standard gets those little brains working! We find ourselves at the top of Bloom's Taxonomy. What's better than analyzing one literary piece? Analyzing two, of course.

This standard directs students at different grade levels to make different types of comparisons:

  • Third Grade - Compare and contrast the themes, settings, and plots of stories written by the same author about the same or similar characters (e.g., in books from a series)
  • Fourth Grade - Compare and contrast the treatment of similar themes and topics (e.g. opposition of good and evil) and patterns of events (e.g., the quest) in stories, myths, and traditional literature from different cultures
  • Fifth Grade - Compare and contrast stories in the same genre (e.g., mysteries and adventure stories) on their approaches to similar themes and topics
  • Sixth Grade - Compare and contrast texts in different forms or genres (e.g., stories and poems; historical novels and fantasy stories) in terms of their approaches to similar themes and topics

This week I've been working on a project involving texts in different genres. First, I found a compelling and humorous poem by Oliver Herford called "Medusa." Published in The Mythological Zoo in 1912, this poem and its illustration are now in the public domain. (That means I can legally share them with you on this blog. Yay!) Next I located a story that included Perseus's quest to kill Medusa in Old Greek Stories, a book that is also in public domain. After taking an excerpt from "The Dreadful Gorgons" and adapting it to a one-page narrative, I thought, "There! Two pieces of literature from different genres and viewpoints. This will create the backbone of a great lesson!"

 Don't you just love Herford's comparison of Medusa to a woman who can't do a thing with her hair? I can see how that would make her so frustrated that she would want to give people the "evil eye"! He's cut to the heart of female frustration and helped us all feel compassionate toward Medusa.

And this traditional piece about the hero Perseus makes you understand why it's so important to rid the world of Medusa. Now she hasn't exactly done anything in this piece to warrant death, but the narrator has surely led us to believe that Medusa is bad, bad, bad.

The corresponding lesson takes students through a series of steps, each hitting different CCSS. First, each student reads one of the two texts, practices writing a thorough character description, and explores the perspective from which the text is told ("Medusa" in first person sympathizing with Medusa and "The Dreadful Gorgons" in third person sympathizing with Perseus). Second, the students pair up with someone who read the opposite text to share the literature, character descriptions, and analyses of point of view. They compare and contrast the viewpoints and analyze Herford's synthesis of character traits from traditional mythology and new, innovative ideas to create a totally new perspective on Medusa. Finally, in an optional piece, students write their own third-person Medusa narratives that sympathize with Medusa instead of Perseus.

This series of lessons addresses a multitude of Common Core State Standards and asks students to use higher order thinking skills. It is appropriate for high ability (gifted and talented) students in fourth and fifth grade, as well as all students in grades six, seven, and eight. For those of you out there who are studying the Common Core, here are its correlations with the CCSS:

  • RL.4.3 - Describe a character in depth, drawing on specific details from the text
  • RL.4.6 - Compare and contrast the point of view from which different stories are narrated
  • RL.5.3 - Compare and contrast two characters (actually, the comparison for this activity is comparing one portrayed in different lights)
  • RL.5.6 - Describe how a narrator's point of view influences how events are described
  • RL.6.6 - Explain how the author develops the point of view of the narrator
  • RL.6.9 - Compare and contrast texts in different genres in terms of their approaches to similar topics
  • RL.7.3 - Analyze how particular elements of a text interact
  • RL.7.6 - Analyze how an author develops and contrasts points of view of different characters or narrators in a text
  • RL.8.3 - Analyze how incidents in a story reveal aspects of a character
  • RL.8.9 - Analyze how a modern work of fiction draws on character types from myths, including describing how the material is rendered new
  • Also: S.4.1-S.8.1 (collaborating) and W.4.3-W.8.3 (writing narratives)
When you bring two related texts into the classroom, an entire world of instructional possibilities appear. More Common Core State Standards can be addressed, and activities automatically catapult into the realm of higher order thinking skills. I'm beginning to realize that two texts are better than one! 

I hope these texts and ideas excite you as much as they do me! Please feel free to tailor them to your own classroom needs. If you would like to use my corresponding worksheets and rubrics, they are available here on my Teachers pay Teachers site.

What other ideas do you have for College and Career Readiness Anchor Standard 9? I would sure love to hear about them!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Common Core Literature Standard 7

CCRA.R.7 pays tribute to media. It reads, "Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words."

Diverse media can transform the study of classic literature from dull to dazzling. To illustrate this (no pun intended), let's look at some opportunities to address CCRA.R.7 with Alice in Wonderland. Written by Lewis Carroll in 1865, this book falls in public domain and can be read (or listened to or sung) for free at Project Gutenberg. Here are a few of the publications available there:

"Works Based on Alice in Wonderland" (Wikipedia) lists literary retellings and sequels; comics, manga, and graphic novels; film, animation, and television; art; music; and video games inspired by the classic children's novel. Who knew that there was such diversity in media relating to this one story? My personal favorite was the statue of Alice, the Mad Hatter, and the White Rabbit in Central Park!

Let's look at some ideas for using and infusing media using Alice in Wonderland. We'll target third, fourth, and fifth grades as examples.

RL.3.7 asks third graders to "explain how specific aspects of a text's illustrations contribute to what is conveyed by the words in a story (e.g., create mood, emphasize aspects of a character or setting)." Several of the Alice books are illustrated, including line drawings and full-color representations. Students can match the text to its illustration, analyze how well the two match, and discuss how the illustrations improve or alter comprehension of the text. Or, to shake things up, you could print out pictures from a different version of Alice in Wonderland, ask your students to locate the corresponding text, and even analyze which of two pictures enhances the text better.

Sometimes authors surprise us with creative alternatives. In the text below, Carroll has created a picture with words. What  a great opportunity to discuss how visual representation can contribute to the words themselves!

Fourth graders get to have some fun with RL.4.7 too. It asks them to "make connections between the text of a story or drama and a visual or oral representation of the text, identifying where each version reflects specific descriptions and directions in the text."

YouTube videos are a perfect fit here. I like using clips that depict specific parts of a text and movie trailers. Students exercise their higher order thinking skills to compare and contrast the text and visual representation, as well as evaluate which is more effective (and tell why). For example, students might compare the section of Alice in Wonderland about the Cheshire Cat with this video clip from the 1951 Disney movie. Or they can compare one character with the film version in this trailer of the 2013 film.

RL.5.7 asks students to "analyze how visual and multimedia elements contribute to the meaning, tone, or beauty of a text (e.g., graphic novel, multimedia presentation of fiction, folktale, myth, poem)." Video clips and/or trailers work fine for this fifth grade standard, but I'd pick graphic novels. They can really pack some punch. Reading a classic novel in a comic book format will motivate your students, particularly those reluctant readers. Check out Alice in Wonderland: The Graphic Novel. Opportunities for analysis appear on every page!

So there you have it: Standard 7. The Common Core has just challenged you to have some fun with your class (while employing higher order thinking skills). Take up the gauntlet and report back here with your creative ideas!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Common Core Literature Standard 6

This is one of my favorites! CCRA.R.6 asks students to "assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text."

How does this play out in third, fourth, and fifth grades? Third graders must "distinguish their own point of view from that of the narrator or those of the characters" (RL.3.6). Students in grade 4 will "compare and contrast the point of view from which different stories are narrated, including the difference between first- and third-person narratives" (RL.4.6). In fifth grade, children "describe how a narrator's or speaker's point of view influences how events are described" (RL.5.6).

I interpret these tasks as building blocks to understanding point of view and purpose:
  1. Third Grade - Differentiate my own thoughts from text generated by the narrator and thoughts or dialogue of characters.
  2. Fourth Grade - (1) Discriminate between first-, second-, and third-person pronouns, (2) identify text generated by the narrator, and (3) determine whether the narrator is using first or third person.
  3. Fifth Grade - Analyze how the use of first- or third-person has influenced the telling of the story.
After third grade, we focus on the narrator. If students can identify which text is generated by the narrator (and which text is not), everything else falls into place.

Introducing first-, second-, and third-person subject and object pronouns in tables such as these has worked well for my fourth grades students.

Here's what I tell them:
When a text is written in first person, the narrator is normally one of the characters in the story and refers to himself using "I" or "me" (as well as "we" and "us"). When a story is written in third person, the narrator is outside of the story looking in and refers to the characters by their names or as he, she, they, him, her, or them.

This year we used some brief excerpts from well-known picture books to practice. Here's one example:

Because the CCSS asks students to provide evidence, I believe that students must not only determine the point of view but also defend it. This example provides a brief example for an excerpt from Holes.

By fifth grade, students are able to use higher order thinking skills to analyze how point of view affects the telling of the story. They can learn about the omniscient (all-knowing) point of view and consider how, for example, a first-person narrative would change if written in the third person.

How do you present point of view to your students? Please let us know!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Common Core Literature Standard 5

The fifth College and Career Readiness Standard for reading deals with text structure:

CCRA.R.5 - Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.

In kindergarten, students recognize types of texts (such as storybooks or poems). First grade readers are asked to tell the difference between fiction and non-fiction. And second graders work on the role of the beginning, middle, and end of a story. By third grade, students are ready to learn the parts of each type of literature and discuss how the parts build on one another to create the whole with this standard:

RL.3.5 - Refer to parts of stories dramas, and poems when writing or speaking about a text, using terms such as chapter, scene, and stanza; describe how each successive part builds on earlier sections.

In fourth grade, students begin a more in-depth look at the structure of each type of literature. By the end of the year, they should be able to compare and contrast the structural elements of poetry, plays, and prose.

RL.4.5 - Explain major difference between poems, drama, and prose, and refer to the structural elements of a poem (e.g., verse, rhythm, meter) and drama (e.g. casts of characters, settings, descriptions, dialogue, stage directions) when writing or speaking about a text.

Poetry is a biggie here. Fourth graders need to know terms and definitions, as well as identify them in text. A few slides from a presentation I use to introduce structural elements of poetry in my class illustrate this.

In fifth grade, students begin looking at the overall structure of a piece. Here's the standard:

RL.5.5 - Explain how a series of chapters, scenes, or stanzas fits together to provide the overall structure of a particular story, drama, or poem.

More has been created in relationship to the overall structure of nonfiction text, but this table, found on the TCI website, will give you an idea of some structural patterns for fiction. A 60-minute professional development video on this topic is also available on their site.

Today we took a really quick look at text structure. I'll bet some of you have some awesome ideas for teaching it in your classroom. We'd love it if you'd share!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Common Core Literature Standard 4

The first three Reading: Literature standards fall under the category "Key Ideas and Details." Standard 4 begins the section entitled "Craft and Structure." This standard specifically focuses on vocabulary and word choice.

CCRA.R.4 - Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

Let's look at the corresponding third, fourth, and fifth grade literature standards to see what's required.

RL.3.4 - Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, distinguishing literal from nonliteral.

RL.4.4 - Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including those that allude to significant characters found in mythology (e.g. Herculean).

RL.5.4 - Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative language such as metaphors and similes.

The first strand of all three standards directs us to work on words in context. In my classroom, we really hit this skill hard when we read Hatchet. Each year I am amazed by how difficult it is for my advanced fourth graders to zero in on the correct definition for a word in context. Here are a few examples:

"...and drone of the engine had been all that was left."
____ n. a male bee
____ n. a pilotless airplane
____ n. a humming sound

Now I can understand why some students (especially if they don't go back into the text to see more of the context) might choose "a pilotless airplane." After all, the pilot has just died, leaving Brian alone. But I have had students choose "a male bee." What?

"Or he could pull the throttle out and make it go down now."
____ v. to choke
____ n. throat
____ n. valve for controlling fuel

This exercise demonstrates the importance of not only knowing parts of speech but also understanding how they are used in sentences. "Choke" can be synonymous with "throttle" here, but the word "the" in the sentence indicates that "throttle" is a noun. Then, of course, the students also need to be trained to plug the definition into the sentence in place of the word and see if it works.

What strikes me about the Common Core State Standards most is that there's never any "quick and easy" answer. The first three Reading: Literature standards require students to look back, organize, and do quite a bit of writing. Standard 4 requires thinking. Man, is that ever painful for kids! They want quick and easy so badly! One way I have combatted this is to give time off for good behavior. 100% on a tricky vocabulary sheet like this can earn a homework pass. I figure that 100% thorough 50% of the time is better than 50% thorough 100% of the time.

So what about the second strand of each of the standards listed above?

Third Grade - Students must discriminate between literal and nonliteral. If this skill is repeated over and over throughout the year, it will set the students up for better comprehension. I can already hear third grade teachers all over the country chanting, "Is this literal or figurative?" and "What is meant by it?"

Fourth Grade - I teach fourth grade, and I'm still scratching my head on this one. I could have understood if the folks who created the CCSS required fourth graders to use Greek and Latin word parts to unlock word meanings, but "allude to significant characters found in mythology"???  Okay, if you say so. Here are a few ways I'm squeezing it into my curriculum:
  1. When reading Ella Enchanted, discuss adjectives that refer to well-known fairy tale characters found in the book (gigantic, elfin, dwarf or dwarfish, ogreish).
  2. Read Greek mythology and/or The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians series); discuss characters from Greek mythology and adjective forms of their names (herculean, mercurial, titanic).
  3. Explicitly teach English words that come from Greek mythology. (I found the list below at and thank the unknown author!)

Fifth Grade - Time to teach similes and metaphors! May I suggest two books loaded with figurative language? Since I live in the Great Lakes region, a favorite picture book is Paddle-to-the-Sea (1942 Caldecott Honor Book). Another little-known gem is The Cat Who Went to Heaven, which won the Newbery Award in 1931.

Before closing today, I want to share the most awesome resource I found online today. It's chock-full of Common Core related reading activities for Grades 4 and 5! These resources can be used for just about any story or book. Many thanks to the Florida Center for Reading Research for publishing such a great tool!

How do you emphasize vocabulary in context in your classroom? Do you have some ideas for helping students distinguish between literal and nonliteral phrases? How about ways to incorporate words related to Greek mythology or books with great figurative language? We'd all love to hear about it! Please share your comments.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Common Core Literature Standard 3

Today I'd like to continue the discussion of Common Core State Standards for literature with CCRA.R.3. Unlike the first two standards, this one changes quite a bit from grade level to grade level.

CCRA.R.3 (K-12 Anchor Standard): Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop over the course of a text. 

Let's take a look at this standard for third, fourth, and fifth grades. When I study a standard, I visualize how an exemplary student response might look. Then I think about how I can prepare students to write that response.

RL.3.3 (Third Grade): Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.

When asked to describe, most students I know will just tell how the character looks. They need to understand that a description is based on traits, motivations, and/or feelings. Some of these may be found in the text, but some will require inference. For example, if the character has goose bumps and her knees are shaking, the students must infer that she is nervous. Using a table may help students translate a character's actions into a description.

Example Prompt: Describe Little Red Riding Hood and tell how her actions caused her to get into trouble with the wolf.

Notice how these two pieces of evidence are the causes for Little Red Riding Hood's problems with the wolf. Kids need to be able to zero in on the pieces of evidence needed for the specific prompt.

Let's look at a thorough response that introduces the character at the beginning, provides details in the middle, and explains how the character's actions contributed to events in the story at the end.

RL.4.3 (Fourth Grade): Describe in depth a character, setting, or event in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., a character's thoughts, words, or actions).

You'll notice that the standard includes the words "in depth" and now includes setting and event. We also need to remember that RL.4.1 requires fourth graders to cite.

Fourth graders need to understand what "describe" means. In order to describe, they must sift through the text, find details (e.g., a character's thoughts, words, or actions), and interpret them. The interpretation helps when writing the topic sentence and conclusion, and the evidence goes in the middle. Here's an example from The Black Stallion. Instead of a using a table (which would work just fine), I've shown how students can use highlighters and notes in the margin to achieve the same goal.

Example Prompt: Describe Henry Dailey.

(Use of quotes is not required by fourth grade standards but sometimes makes answering easier.)

RL.5.3 (Fifth Grade): Compare and contrast two or more characters, settings, or events in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., how the characters interact).

This is "a whole 'nother ballgame!" Although a student might be able to respond in a single paragraph, a four- or five-paragraph response would be more thorough. Here are some suggested steps:
  1. List details about each character, setting, or event.
  2. Organize details that fall into similar categories in a table.
  3. Write an introductory paragraph that tells whether the characters, settings, or events are more alike or different (thesis) and provide the categories that are being compared or contrasted.
  4. Organize the detail paragraphs for each category or each character, setting, or event being compared/contrasted.
  5. Conclude by restating the thesis and reviewing the comparisons.
Example Prompt: Compare three literary cats.

For this prompt, the student would choose three cats, list details about each one, and select categories to compare and contrast. Then he/she would create a table like the one shown below.

The finished product would include an introductory paragraph, three or four compare/contrast paragraphs with structures similar to the fourth grade sample, and a concluding paragraph. For a really in-depth look at how this can be achieved, take a look at the nine lessons I created for this standard on LearnZillion.

So there you have it: my interpretations of CCSS RL.3.3, RL.4.3, and RL.5.3. How do you interpret these standards? Do you have any other ideas on how to help our students master them?

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Common Core Literature Standard 2

Let's continue our discussion about teaching with the Common Core State Standards for literature.

On to CCRA.R.2: Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

This seems backward. In my mind, students need to summarize first and find the theme second.

How can students learn to summarize? For younger students, I take these steps:
  1. Read the text.
  2. List what happened in the text.
  3. Cross off things the audience doesn't need to know.
  4. Write a summary that includes specific nouns (people, places, and things) and clearly states the most important events.
A great place to start (with students of any age) is with well-known fairy tales. Most kids can list the important events in "The Three Little Pigs" or "Goldilocks and the Three Bears." The class can work together to list what happened and cross off unimportant details. Then each student can write his or her own paragraph to summarize the story. Working in groups would be fun too! You could either give each group a different fairy tale title or have everyone work on the same story and compare them at the end.

Once your students can summarize short stories, they are ready to move on to longer texts. My students love focusing on this standard because it doesn't require much writing. After reading a chapter, all they have to do is summarize it in one or two sentences. Although it doesn't seem like much, their little brains are really cranking! After all, they have to zero in on the main idea of each chapter. Here's an example of how simple it is:

When the summaries are complete, it's time to find the theme. What is theme? This 11-minute video helped me understand it better. I break it down into these steps for my class:
  1. As you read the text, ask yourself, "What message is the author sending?"
  2. List connected details.
  3. Determine a theme supported by the connected details.
  4. Write a paragraph about the theme. Tell the theme at the beginning (topic sentence), add supporting details, and conclude with a summary, personal insight, or application to your life.
Step 4 may seem unnecessary, but we need to move back to CCRA.R.1 and CCRA.W.1. When we tie it all together, we can see that students need to determine and defend the theme.

How do you help your students summarize and find a theme? I'm curious to know! Let's have some discussion.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Common Core Literature Standard 1

What's the best way to address the CCSS for literature in the classroom? I've been exploring this for the better part of two years and would like to discuss it with you. Let's go standard by standard.

Each post will discuss one College and Career Readiness Anchor Standard for Reading (which correlates with a Reading: Literature Standard with the same number at each grade level). Today we'll start with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1, which we'll just call CCRA.R.1 for short.

Here it is: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

What does this standard ask students to do?
  1. Read carefully.
  2. Gather evidence from the text.
  3. Explain or infer to answer the question.
  4. Support the answer with matching evidence.
  5. Cite the text (Grades 4 up).
  6. Quote the text (Grades 5 up).
  7. Optional but suggested: Conclude.
Let's go through each of these steps.

Read carefully. This is something we always want our students to do; however, reading to answer questions requires more slow, focused reading. It's been difficult for me to know whether my students should read the questions or the text first, but this past year we settled on this sequence: read the text slowly and thoroughly, read the question, go back into the text and scan for relevant information.

Gather evidence from the text. Underlining, highlighting, and jotting notes in the margins work really well here. I know, students can't always write in their books, but this is important! Modeling is essential. After finding a question to model, I copy a few pages then model how to scan and locate evidence, as well as how to paraphrase in the margin. Many students want to highlight or underline everything. They need to see how to pinpoint only essential phrases or sentences. Making a bulleted list on a separate sheet of paper is the next step in my class.

Explain or infer to answer the question. Is the bulleted list the answer or is the answer still somewhere in outer space? This is the difference between explaining and inferring questions. If it's an explaining question, students need to summarize to answer the question. For inferring questions, they need to ask themselves, "What does all of this mean??" That brings them to the answer. Again, at any grade level, modeling is absolutely necessary. Don't forget to teach them how to use question parts in their answers!

Support the answer with matching evidence. Now they need to take a good hard look at the evidence they've collected. Encourage them to be choosy. I can personally abide by two, three, or even four pieces of good evidence. When they want to include five or six, it's getting too messy. Too much evidence shows that the reader cannot discriminate between what's important and what's not.

Cite the text. In fourth grade, students need to begin citing. What does this mean? Footnotes? No, all they need to do is tell where they found the evidence. Early in the year, students can simply refer to the text ("In Hatchet..." or "The author tells us..."). As they get more familiar with citing, they can mention the general location in the text ("At the beginning of the story..."), and finally you can help them with specific citing (" paragraph 3").

Quote the text. This is required for Grade 5 and above. It sounds easy: just find some evidence and quote it. But it's not that simple. Weaving appropriate quotes into the answer (and knowing just how much of the quote to include) is an art. Again, students will need modeling and lots of practice.

Conclude. The standard doesn't explicitly tell us that students need to conclude. It is, however, a part of the writing standards beginning in Grade 1! Bringing closure to an answer can take many forms. For example, I ask my fourth grade students to wrap it up with a personal insight or opinion. Some third grade teachers in my school district teach use "Me-Author-Author-Author-Me" to teach their students to answer the question (Me), support with three pieces of evidence (Author-Author-Author), and wrap up with a personal insight (Me).

Teaching kids to answer questions effectively is hard work but well worth the effort! Since I've been emphasizing the importance of modeling, I'd like to offer an activity for you to use in your class. Although it was written for fourth grade (RL.4.1), you can tweak it to work for any intermediate grade.

Do you have some additional ideas for teaching CCRA.R.1? We'd love to hear them. Don't be shy! Comment and tell us all!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Importance of Struggling in Reading

I just finished reading A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens for my book club. I must admit, the first few chapters had me struggling. The sentences were so long! Some of the words were unfamiliar. And the cadence with which the author wrote and the characters spoke was so unconventional. Ugh! I thought I would never get through it. Then, surprisingly enough, I found myself getting in the groove. As I became more familiar with the author's style and word choice, reading became easier. As I became more involved with the characters and their struggles, reading became more fun. When the last page was turned, I wished I could read more!

"Wow," I thought, "that must be just how my fourth grade students feel." It was a true ah-ha moment for me. 

Here's what I learned:
  1. I must give my students difficult reading assignments. Not so hard that they're drowning, but hard enough that they're struggling. That struggle demonstrates growth.
  2. The reading assignments need to be long enough to get them to the point of "got-it." In other words, an excerpt is just not going to do the trick. It needs to be a substantial piece.
  3. The texts I ask them to read need to be engaging. That engagement will help them get through the difficult piece.
The Common Core State Standards have raised the bar for texts read by students. At first, when I looked at the Lexile level required for students in fourth grade, I thought it was a bit too high. We heeded their advise and got rid of some of the easier novels our classes were reading. This year, my students struggled with some of the more difficult texts. But in retrospect, that struggle was worth it. My students were growing! They were becoming better readers.

Let me know what you think about the push for greater text complexity by commenting on this post.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

When the Tail Wags the Dog

I'm a big believer in standards, assessment, and accountability. But you know what they say about too much of a good thing!

The tail is now wagging the dog.

Let's use fourth grade science in the state of Indiana as an example.
  • Indiana adopted new science standards a few years ago. At that time, our state was going through its science textbook adoption cycle. As expected, my school district purchased new books to go along with the new standards. That makes sense, right? We boned up on the new standards and planned instruction using our new textbooks. About half way through the next school year, I happened upon some startling information: the high-stakes state science tests (ISTEP) for 2011-2012 would reflect the old standards. What??? We quickly changed gears, got out our old curriculum, and started cramming. The tail was wagging the dog.
  • Next we verified that the 2012-2013 ISTEP tests would reflect the new standards. Yep. Whew! After another summer of planning, we were ready to hit the road running. Then we downloaded the new "Science Blueprint, " a document describing the content of the test in detail. Guess what? Half of the fourth grade ISTEP science test would cover third grade standards! We realized that we would need to teach all of the fourth grade material and review all of the third grade material before March, when the first of our two rounds of testing would occur. Nothing like teaching material a mile wide and an inch deep. The tail was wagging the dog.
  • Our state is also really into teacher assessment. Its new RISE evaluation system is state-of-the-art. It's a real humdinger! Very thorough. Since my grade takes ISTEP tests, much of my evaluation would rest upon my students' English Language Arts and Math test scores. In addition, I was required to set a goal to project how many of my students would pass the science portion of the ISTEP (on standards for two grade levels). But that really wasn't enough. I also had to identify which of my students fell into the high, average, and low ends of my class; create an additional assessment for my low students; project how many of the low students would pass the new assessment; and report that data. I spent hours and hours and hours working on my RISE evaluation. Those were hours that I could have been preparing for instruction. The tail was wagging the dog.
This set of examples illustrates how politics interfere with the learning process. Assessment has become more important than instruction. How can this be fixed?
  • Federal and state policy makers need to choose one set of clear, consistent standards and stick with them over time. This is not to say that these standards cannot be fine-tuned; however, constant replacement of standards (especially big changes that switch out entire sets of content) is disruptive to the educational process.
  • Federal and state testing need to address standards for that grade level. If tests fall before the end of the year or more than one test is given per year, policy makers must clearly communicate which standards to teach before each testing session.
  • Teacher evaluation needs to be concise. When teachers and administrators spend too much time assessing teaching, the quality of the teaching becomes compromised.
  • Finally, let's just use some common sense. What is the purpose of public education? Learning, of course!
Assessment is simply that which comes at the end of the learning cycle. Learning is the dog; assessment is the tail. Let's not let the tail wag the dog!