Follow on Bloglovin

Wednesday, December 31, 2014


Has spelling gone the way of the dodo bird? Not in my classroom! While some see spelling as a waste of time, I disagree.

Research shows that effective reading instruction includes spelling. In "Why Teach Spelling," the Center on Instruction shares research that links inclusion of phonemic, orthographic, and morphological instruction to strong reading instruction (Snow, Burns, and Griffin, 1998) and notes that a meta-analysis found a strong (0.79) effect on reading fluency in grades one through seven (Graham and Herbert, 2010).

It's great to know that research supports spelling instruction, but I have other reasons:

  • Reason 1: Vocabulary Connection - In my classroom, spelling is linked to vocabulary. Students are expected to learn how to spell the fifteen words presented in our vocabulary book each week, as well as five content words that I select from math, social studies, or science. This allows me to focus even more heavily on words that I really want my students to learn. As I give the spelling test, I talk about each word one more time.
  • Reason 2: Correcting Misspelled Words - Each student also gets five personal words. I cut scrap paper in fourths, write students' names on the top, and add misspelled words as they occur. Any words that are misspelled on the previous week's spelling list go on the list first. As I grade papers, I write correct spellings of misspelled words on the top margin of the paper then transfer them onto the students' lists before returning the papers. If a student asks me how to spell a word, it automatically goes on the list. (By the way, I never ask students to look up words that they don't know how to spell. How can they look it up if they don't know how to spell it? How silly!) Yes, the twenty-something little pieces of paper with personal spelling words cause me some extra work. Many would consider it a royal pain. But I still do it. Why? It works!
  • Reason 3: Study Skills - Fourth graders need to build their study skills. I feel that regular study of spelling words helps kids develop habits necessary to succeed in middle and high school. Learning to spell 25 spelling words each week gets them in the habit of studying.
Here's how the spelling/vocabulary schedule in our class goes:
  • Monday - Hand out a list of spelling words (vocabulary and content); assign first two sections in vocabulary book. Do I go over each word? No. It's all there in black and white, and students can read for themselves. This is the one subject that I ask students to handle independently. (Again, building study skills...)
  • Tuesday - Assign second two sections in vocabulary book. This is the first year that we do not grade (or even check) the vocabulary book. It's too time-consuming, and we have agreed that not all practice needs to be checked or graded. I provide them with an answer sheet, and they can check it if they want to. You might be wondering about students who don't do their vocabulary book pages. Well, they fail the test (which is pretty hard). Then we have to have a tough discussion. And it doesn't happen very often.
  • Wednesday - Administer spelling pretest. I give the pretest on a half-sheet of lined notebook paper. For this test, students only take the first twenty words (vocabulary and content). After checking their pretests, I give them three papers: their graded tests, their personal words, and a form like the one below. Students write their names on both sides, circle words they missed on both sides, and write their personal words on the bottom of the left-hand side. They cut the paper in half, keep the left-hand side for studying, and return the right-hand side and the small sheet with their personal words for use on Friday's posttest.
  • Thursday - Administer vocabulary test.
  • Friday - Administer spelling posttest. On the top twenty, students take only the words they missed. For the individual words, pairs of students trade personal lists and administer them to one another.

Other teachers may say, "I don't have time for spelling in my crowded curriculum." But I choose to make time. How much time does this program take? Less than fifteen minutes each day!

If you've been following my blog, you know that this series was written for my new student teacher. Hopefully, this post provides insight on my teaching style. The name of my blog, "Teaching . . . Seriously," tells part of the story. But there's more. I aim to create a community of learners who embrace the struggle involved in daily learning, who enjoy the rush that new skills and knowledge bring, and who are personally accountable for their own learning. It's a lofty goal . . . but a good one.

As 2014 draws to an end, I look forward to learning and growing with you in 2015!


P.S. Two free sites on the Internet really help my kids study their spelling and vocabulary words: and Check them out!

Monday, December 29, 2014


How many words should a fourth grader learn in one year? Three thousand, or about eight words per day, according to "Vocabulary Acquisition: A Synthesis of the Research." Wow! That's a lot of words. Let's take a look at strategies that teachers can use to increase their students' vocabularies.

Most vocabulary acquisition is incidental. In other words, kids build their vocabularies through everyday experiences: watching television, playing video games, talking with their parents, and listening to their teachers. My number one instructional strategy is talking "up."

At this stage in my career, it's natural, but with a little practice, any teacher can do it. Let's look at some examples:

Teacher: Yes, you're right, the character does seem to be lazy, but in my mind he's simply lethargic, or lacking energy. Here the teacher is purposely using an appositional phrase to introduce a new word. She does not stop the flow of the conversation to discuss the word; instead, she will consciously circle back to that word several more times that day or week. Knowledge of the word will not be assessed, but you can bet that many students will add it to their vocabularies. Notice, too, that the teacher's phrasing helped students to understand the word's connotation; although lethargic and lazy are synonymous, they have slightly different meanings.

Teacher: This classroom is chaotic today. Do you know what that word means? [Kids briefly respond.] Yes, in the case of our classroom, it means disorganized or disorderly. Ugh! [Teacher writes chaotic on the board and chaos beneath it as she continues talking.] But don't you just love this word? Look at the way it's spelled. Surprising, isn't it? Chaotic is the adjective form of chaos, which in Greek mythology described the messy void from which the universe was formed. This would be a great word for some of you to add to your personal spelling lists. Well, anyway, what are we going to do to improve our chaotic classroom? In this example, the teacher stopped briefly to explore a word. It will be linked to some specific classroom management procedures, and she will use the word again in this context.

Teacher: This poem evokes such nostalgia. Wow. It sends me back to a simpler time in my life, a time to which I'd love to return. Nostalgia is a feeling of longing for a time gone by. What objects or moments in your life evoke nostalgia? [Students relate experiences in their lives. Teacher writes nostalgia on board and makes a bulleted list from student comments.] Would you say that being nostalgic is a happy or sad feeling? [More discussion.] Here students are building solid understanding of a word by generating examples. Again, we introduce an adjective form of the word.

Teacher: In the mid-1800's, various waterways were connected through a series of canals, or man-made rivers. How do you think boats traveled through canals? Interestingly enough, canal boats, which were also called packets, were pulled through the canal by horses or oxen. No, they didn't swim; instead, they walked along paths beside the canal. [Teacher draws simple picture of a horse pulling a canal boat. Students sit up and take notice.] Drawing a picture helps students understand the concept; telling them something unexpected makes them remember!

Again, most new vocabulary comes through day-to-day interactions, not assessed instruction. By purposely sprinkling the school day with new terms, a teacher can maximize vocabulary growth in her classroom. This is why talking "up" is my top strategy.

Content Area Vocabulary
It's impossible to discuss a topic without knowledge of related vocabulary. So, yes, I do focus on content area vocabulary. And, yes, I do assess content area vocabulary. If a student does poorly, I work with him or her and reassess. Content vocabulary is critical. Here's an example:

Word Parts
For 2015, I resolve to do a better job teaching word parts. Sure, we dissect words to find roots, prefixes, and suffixes. Sure, we talk about compound words and forming verb tenses with ed and ing. But that's not enough. Kids need more systematic exposure to Greek and Latin word parts.

This winter, my students will explore the ways Greek and Latin entered the English language. Infoplease offers a brief explanation, as well as lists of common Greek and Latin word parts. They'll keep a journal of roots, their meanings, and words containing those roots. We'll also use word strips to focus on specific roots, like this:

Vocabulary in Context
How should we handle unknown words? It happens to everyone! In order to better understand spoken and written language, students need to develop skills for finding meaning of words in context. At one time, I thought this was intuitive, but believe me, it's not! As I began purposely teaching students to use context clues, their faces lit up with new understanding. "Who knew?" they seemed to say.  Kids must know how to use clues in the sentence, understand appositives, and look at previous and following sentences.

E Reading Worksheets offers a bounty of free worksheets for practicing these skills. After only a few sessions, my students made noticeable gains in using context clues. I keep a stack on my desk to use whenever we have a free moment.

Formal Vocabulary Program
Research shows that direct instruction of vocabulary is probably the least successful strategy, but hey, it's a strategy! Our vocabulary book introduces fifteen new words per week. Considering that we want the students to learn more than eight new words every day, that's pretty meager. But that's okay. The main purpose for using the vocabulary book is to generate and practice vocabulary skills. It asks them to work with synonyms, antonyms, analogies, and more.

Vocabulary Contest
Our class participates in the WordMasters Challenge, a national vocabulary contest. In each of three rounds, students learn denotations and connotations of 25 words then test their skill on a difficult analogy-based test. The reason I like WordMasters is that it gives my class an opportunity to explore 75 words in depth.

While this introduction to vocabulary in my classroom was written for my student teacher, I hope it has provided food for thought to even the most seasoned teacher!


Saturday, December 27, 2014

Building Reading Comprehension

How can we help students build their reading comprehension?
  • Encourage students to read independently. "Independent Reading and School Achievement" reports that a study by Anderson, Fielding, and Wilson (1988) found that "students who scored at the 90th percentile on a reading test spent five times as many minutes as children at the 50th percentile, and more than 200 times as many minutes per day reading books as the child at the 10th percentile." Other studies have also established strong relationships between independent reading and reading achievement.
  • Use scaffolding techniques to make challenging texts accessible to all readers. In "Scaffolding: Strategies for Improving Reading Comprehension Skills," Patricia Babbitt lists the following teaching strategies from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (1997): comprehension monitoring, cooperative learning, graphic organizers, story structure, question asking, question generating, summarization, and multiple strategy.
These ten strategies work best for me:

  1. Encourage independent reading. Once students can read fluently (as my students can), I believe that their own personal reading is the single most significant factor to improving reading comprehension. My students track their independent reading and comprehension using Accelerated Reader. Goals range from 20 to 35 points per grading period (although some students read a lot more than this and some do not reach the 20-point mark), and we strive for 85 to 90 percent correct.
  2. Choose engaging texts. If kids love the books they're reading in class, they'll be more engaged and much more likely to select engage in additional independent reading.
  3. Choose "just right" texts. To improve reading comprehension, teachers must select books that are not too easy, not too hard, but "just right." They must be challenging enough to promote growth, but not so challenging that comprehension is unattainable.
  4. Use prereading strategies. I liken this to a movie trailer. Give students just enough of a sample to intrigue them and connect to prior knowledge. As our class prepares to read By Freedom's Light, for example, we will explore the Underground Railroad and the life of Levi Coffin. Students will be introduced to terms such as abolition and secession.
  5. Work on visualization techniques. My weakest readers have not yet connected with the text. They do not see, hear, or feel a story. Asking students to explicitly describe a scene (including sensory details) helps. Questions such as, "How does the character feel? How do you know?" and/or "How would you feel? Why?" also help kids connect to the written word. Readers - - - those who love to read - - - experience a story. Nonreaders - - - those who don't really care to read - - - have not learned to connect.
  6. Ask students to retell each section. This strategy is not for everyone; again, this is to be used with weaker readers. If they're not connecting, they're not remembering. Ask them to retell shorter sections and ask prompting questions before moving on.
  7. Establish literature circles. Kids love this! During our last novel, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, my students met in groups of three. They summarized each chapter and orally discussed questions that I had prepared. I moved from group to group, making sure everyone was on-task and understanding, marking participation points on my clipboard. It was such a welcome change from paper and pencil activities.
  8. Map the text with graphic organizers. This strategy is great for nonfiction texts. Students can use Venn diagrams to organize information in compare/contrast texts, a multiple-legged stool for finding the main idea, a timeline or flowchart for sequential texts, etc.
  9. Train students to ask questions. Should students ask themselves questions before, during, or after reading a text? The answer is yes, all three! Before reading they should be looking at pictures, titles, headers, etc. to make predictions and connect with prior knowledge. During reading, students ask what will happen next, how a character feels, etc. And after reading, students need to ponder the entire experience to draw conclusions and evaluate.
  10. Ask questions. Teachers are great at asking questions, but you might notice that this comes last on my list... Is it possible that we ask too many questions? I think so. Choosing questions carefully will help weaker readers connect to the text, all readers think more deeply, and keep reading instruction interesting for all.
As we get ready for 2015, I hope this list of strategies for reading instruction provides food for thought to the newest member of my class, a teacher candidate from Purdue University, and to all of my other readers. 


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Constructed Response

Instruction of reading in intermediate grades has changed since we were in school. Heck, it's changed in the last few years! As my student teacher prepares to teach reading, the first thing I need to explain is the constructed response.

What is a constructed response? Simply said, it's a longer response to an open-ended question. A multitude of Common Core State Standards require constructed responses. Let's take a look at some literature standards at the fourth grade level. (Related Indiana State Academic Standards are noted in parentheses.)

  • RL.4.1 (IN 4.RL.2.1) - Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
  • RL.4.2 (IN 4.RL.2.2) - Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text; summarize the text.
  • RL.4.3 (IN 4.RL.2.3) - 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).
  • RL.4.6 (IN 4.RL.3.2) - Compare and contrast the point of view from which different stories are narrated, including the difference between first- and third-person narrations.
  • RL.4.9 (IN 4.RL.4.2) - 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.
Responses for the standards listed above can be written using a single paragraph (although RL.4.9 is much more complex). In my class, we generally use a sandwich analogy to help students remember essential parts.

Beginning the year with RL.4.1 makes sense. In this unit, students learn how to answer explaining and inferring questions. This example relates to the beginning of The Wind in the Willows.

Direct instruction on answering explaining and inferring questions took one class period. The next day, we answered a question together. Then, over the course of the next three days, students answered questions independently. Each day we shared our answers and discussed the criteria for an excellent response. The sandwich analogy came up time and time again. Finally, they were ready to read and answer a question to be taken as an assessment grade. They were on their way to conquering the constructed response.

Over the next few months, students learned to construct different types of responses. Each time, we moved through a complete learning cycle over a period of five to seven days: direct instruction with modeling, guided practice, independent practice, and assessment.

For RL.4.3, students scanned the text for a character's words and actions. Next, they determined his/her prevalent characteristic(s) to write a topic sentence. Notice that it's a slight variation of their first experience with constructing responses.

Learning to determine and defend point of view (RL.4.6) required knowledge of first- and third-person pronouns, as well as the ability to discriminate if the use of "I" or "me" was in reference to the narrator or simply used when one character was speaking. Instead of a one-word answer ("first" or "third"), students learned to use the sandwich structure to provide the story's perspective in the topic sentence, provide evidence from the text in the middle, then wrap it up with a conclusion. Again, a slight variation on the strategies they had used before.

Finding a theme (RL.4.2) was more difficult. Students had to find three connected details. Then they asked themselves, "What message is the author sending to me with these connected details?" This allowed them to determine a theme, which was expressed in the topic sentence. The evidence followed, then the paragraph was wrapped up with a conclusion. The sandwich analogy didn't make sense for some students during this unit, so we switched to a chain, like this.

Comparing and contrasting folklore (RL.4.9) proved to be the most difficult of all. Students analyzed and compared four elements of each story: characters, setting, plot, and theme. They then determined whether the stories were more alike or different and wrote a topic sentence. The similarities and differences were written as evidence. Our class is still working on mastery of this standard.

So, there you have it: the constructed response. Today we've explored how students can construct responses to literature. Surprise! They must also learn to construct responses to informational text. But that's a discussion for another day.


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Student Teaching

My class will soon welcome a new member: a teacher candidate (AKA student teacher). Today's post marks the first of many that will acclimate her to the day-to-day business of teaching, especially the thinking that goes on behind the scenes. I hope that these posts help you too, whether you are just starting out or would simply like to see inside another teacher's classroom (and head).

Let's begin our journey.

At the beginning of the year, my students and I created a display of Six-Word Selfies. At that time, I shared my motto:

Number One was capitalized on purpose. Learning is king in my classroom. Everything else - - - every instructional decision, every managerial strategy, every daily move - - - hinges on one thing: learning. I think about it all the time:
  • How can I teach that more effectively?
  • Who didn't get it?
  • How can I help them understand?
  • How can I help them see the way my own brain processes it?
As you become a teacher, you will begin to ask yourself these questions and many more. 

Welcome to the most glorious profession of all: teaching!


Monday, December 22, 2014

Fixing Choppy Paragraphs

A teacher friend of mine was delighted with the content of her students' constructed responses, but the paragraphs were choppy. "How can this be solved?" she asked.

Sentence similarity was the likely culprit here. It was time to "get into the flow." Let's take a look at some strategies that can be used for constructed responses.

Click on the page to download a two-page document.

Which strategies work best? Intermediate-level standards focus on use of linking words to smooth out writing. In my opinion, however, varying sentence lengths (long, flowing sentences to explain and short sentences to punctuate) and beginnings works best. If your students have sentence savvy, they can also vary the sentences' structures.

Variety really IS the spice of life. When teachers help kids vary their sentences and word choice, writing magically improves.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Diagon Alley

Take a look at the first finished building for our miniature Diagon Alley! Two students in my fourth grade class built Madam Malkin's Robes. I love the way you can look in the windows!

From the top, you can see a variety of robes displayed along the walls, as well as Madam Malkin's desk and tape measure. Very creative!

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was the perfect book for my class. It really sparked their interest in reading, and many of them have continued on to Book 2. I'm so thankful!


Sunday, December 14, 2014

Fun Vocabulary Game for Kids

Kids in my class love playing Hedbanz, so I decided to capitalize on it. Before our geometry test (which was loaded with vocabulary), I typed the terms, made six copies, and cut them with the paper cutter. It was quick and easy.

I gave one set of terms to each group of four students. They took turns pulling a slip of paper and holding it up to their head. Other kids in their group could shout out synonyms or definitions, pantomime, or draw pictures to help the student with the term figure it out. Everyone was engaged!

Fifteen minutes of this game did the trick! I encourage you to try it in your classroom.


Saturday, December 13, 2014

Fun with Harry Potter

We've been having a ball with Harry Potter!

Kids can go "through the wall" at Platform 9-3/4.
(This is our classroom door covered with a sheet.)

Letters to Harry
(attached to ceiling with thread)

Character Analysis

Wizards' Sweets

By far the most popular activity has been creating stores (out of shoe boxes) from Diagon Alley. Students are still busy building these!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Handling Harry Potter

Harry Potter has the power to change my class's humdrum attitude about reading. I just know it. With that said, how should I handle Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in my classroom?

Francis Bacon once said, "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." Until now, those categories have guided me well. Books chosen as classroom novels have been the chewed and digested type - - - those we can pick apart and analyze. But I don't want my students to learn from Harry Potter. No, I want them to become personally involved with him, to love him. This book was meant for enjoyment, discussion, and fun.

My class and I talked it over. They agreed to read the chapters at home so we can do related activities and projects each day at school. I will require only one written assignment: a brief summary sheet.

After reading the first chapter, we summarized it together in only one sentence: After Harry Potter's parents were killed by Voldemort, he was dropped off at his muggle aunt and uncle's house by Professor Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall, and Hagrid.

Each chapter of J. K. Rowling's seven books plays a part in the telling of one long, complex story. Next, we considered the purpose of Chapter One. We decided that it introduces key characters and gives necessary background information.

In addition to the cool projects we'll be doing, students will meet in literature groups each day. I've decided to provide discussion questions to get them started. 

Students met in their literature groups for the first time yesterday. Excited chatter could be heard all around the room. This, obviously, was a book they loved to discuss.

Work your magic, Harry!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Harry Potter Is in the [Class]Room!

Over the past decade, his celebrity has died down. But, wow! He hasn't lost his charm!

My students are good readers, but only a few are "hooked" on reading. Of course, like any good promoter, I hyped the Harry Potter series. Yesterday, with impeccable timing, Harry Potter arrived in my fourth grade classroom. Just listen to what's happened:

  • "I don't want to go to recess. I have to keep reading!"
  • "This is the best book I've ever read!
  • "I can't wait to read more!"
  • "When will we begin building the model of Diagon Alley?"
  • "Can I read more chapters than you have assigned?

Thank you, Joanne Rowling! You have singlehandedly piqued my students' interest in reading!