Archive for March, 2014

In the Classroom with Jen: Engaging Our Youngest Readers

We continue our series with author and first-grade teacher Jen McDonough. This week she is sharing her classroom strategies for partner reading to make sure kids stay on task and on topic.

Engaging Our Youngest Readers Through Partner Work

jennifermcdonoughThere is nothing kids love more than hearing themselves talk. Any teacher will tell you that one of the hardest parts of the job is to get children to stop talking long enough for us to teach them something. So, why not capitalize on what is already a strength to help kids engage in reading?  All right, you are thinking at this point. We know kids like to talk a lot, but what they are talking about does not generally have anything to do with what is happening at school. Point taken. The true teaching magic happens when we can find ways to actually get kids to talk about the books they are reading and not about what they are currently creating on Minecraft. Here are a few “teacher tricks” I use to encourage my students to talk about the books they are reading during partner reading time.

1.     Find books with talkability.

By “talkability” I mean that we need to find books that give the kids something to talk about—books that engage and connect with readers, making them want to share what they have read. This can be especially hard in the lower grades, where decodable text is still front and center as the kids are learning how to read the words on the page. There is not much to discuss about a book that reads, “I see a yellow lemon. I see a purple grape. I see a red apple.”

Kindergarten and first grade are where read-alouds really need to come into play. I search far and wide for text that is easy to read but still carries a theme or message that might be pertinent to the children’s lives. I read the text aloud once—maybe twice—before I turn over the books so that the text is familiar and easier for them to decode.

Another way to help kids access books with bigger themes and more “talkability” is to have them listen to books on tape or an electronic device. By having the book read to them, the text can be more challenging than their independent levels and carry more depth and meaning. Partners can then meet and talk about the book they listened to. By late first grade and beyond, the children are able to start independently reading books that have more depth.

Finding the books can be another full-time job in itself. To lessen the load, the teachers at my school decided to work together to create an ongoing list of book titles that work well. The list can be accessed through Google Docs by all of the teachers and is constantly updated as we find new books to share with each other. Look for books that carry themes that children can identify with: friendship, feelings, or learning from mistakes, for example. I will share some of our favorites at the end of this post to get you started. Putting books in the kids’ hands that they connect with is one way to get them talking during partner reading.

2.     Record videos and make partner observations.

Another way I get kids talking about books during partner reading time is by videotaping them. I use the video function on my iPad with a Bluetooth microphone (so you can actually hear the kids over the classroom buzz of talking—hopefully about books). I record the students’ conversation and then play it for the class. Just like a coach sits down with the team after a game to critique what went well and what needs to be worked on, we do the same thing for reading partnerships. The kids discuss what they thought was going well and make a suggestion about what the partners might do to enhance their reading talk even more.

Young kids will typically say things like, “You did a good job sitting next to each other both holding the book” or “You were talking about the book you were reading the whole time.”  They might suggest strategies for getting the readers to think and talk about their books more deeply by saying, “You could talk about parts you really like and why” or “You can talk about any connections you made to the book.” Sometimes I give the students (even the kids in the partnership being watched) a two-column worksheet with a smiley face on one side and a worried face on the other so they can write down what they notice as they watch. This leads to a more focused discussion and not only helps the partnership being discussed but reminds all the students of ways they can learn more about what they are reading by talking and sharing. Knowing they need to be on task or risk being the focus of video where everyone can see them fooling around helps create an expectation about what should happen during partner reading time.

3.     Use successful partnerships as models for the class.

Finally, there are times when I come upon partners engaged in talk that is helping them delve deeper into their reading, and I jump on the opportunity to have them share their thinking with the class. I learned this “fishbowl” strategy from my work with the Reading and Writing Project at the Teacher’s College of Columbia University. The idea is to call the class over to watch the successful partners model what they are doing so the rest of the students can learn from them. Or I may wait until share time and have the partners model the work they did that day. This is another way to hold the kids accountable while showing them strategies for engaging more with their reading by talking about books with others. We know young children will grow as readers and thinkers if they are given time to talk with others about what they have read. Our job is to make sure the time is spent wisely.

Some of the books we love to give the kids are as follows. I would love to have people post book suggestions to add to the list as well!


Pete the Cat:  I Love My White Shoes by Eric Litwin
One and Zero by Kathryn Otoshi
The Dot by Peter J. Reynolds
Ish by Peter J. Reynolds


Frog and Toad series by Arnold Lobel
Fly Guy series by Tedd Arnold
Poppleton series by Cynthia Rylant
Mr. Putter & Tabby series by Cythia Rylant
Elephant and Piggie series by Mo Willems

Learning from Mistakes

Lulu and the Brontosaurus by Judith Viorst
Lulu Walks the Dog by Judith Viorst
Katio Woo series by Fran Manushkin
David series by David Shannon
Brand New Readers series published by Candlewick Press


Add comment March 26th, 2014

Now Online: Common Core Standards in Diverse Classrooms

Do you have students who need extra support and practice in comprehending complex texts, communicating complex ideas, or engaging in authentic conversations about content?

Common Core Standards in Diverse Classrooms presents a research-based framework for teaching academic language and disciplinary literacy. Authors Jeff Zwiers (Academic Conversations), Susan O’Hara, and Robert Pritchard show you how to design lessons for comprehending complex texts, fortifying complex output, and fostering academic interactions—three key practices that have the most impact on developing skills needed to meet the Common Core and other standards.

With particular attention to academic English learners, the authors identify three components of strategic lesson design as the foundation of language teaching across grade levels and disciplines. They give you practical ways to clarify, model, and guide students in the use of complex language. Four sets of annotated lessons spanning grades 2-11 support each of the key practices.

Common Core Standards in Diverse Classrooms shows you how to teach students to use complex forms of academic language, synthesize ideas, and communicate them in purposeful ways. You can preview the entire book online now!

Add comment March 24th, 2014

Register now to chat live with The Sisters

There’s still time to register for our live online chat with The 2 Sisters, Gail Boushey & Joan Moser, Tuesday, March 25 at 3:30pm ET. Submit your questions in advance or during the chat. All registrants will be able to access the recorded event afterward:

What is Daily 5? Is it easy to get started? Are any special materials or resources needed? How do Daily 5 and CAFE fit together? In this new video, Gail & Joan answer some frequently asked questions:

Add comment March 21st, 2014

Now Online: Readers Front and Center

Even with the best of intentions, standards can pressure schools and teachers to narrow the curriculum and lose sight of what matters most: the voice of each student. In Readers Front & Center, Dorothy Barnhouse inspires you to listen carefully to students and plan instruction that raises the complexity of both student thinking and the books they read.

Building on her previous book, What Readers Really Do (coauthored with Vicki Vinton), Dorothy uses rich examples to provide insights into why reading conferences are essential to understanding students’ skills and needs, and how to ask the right questions to elicit key information about readers.

Focusing on process rather than product, Readers Front & Center gives you thoughtful ways to encourage complex thinking during independent reading, small-group time, and shared reading. Each chapter features a “Toolbox” section with practical suggestions for trying out ideas in the classroom.

Readers Front & Center will affirm your beliefs about what’s at the heart of good teaching and give you specific instructional steps that lead students to fully enter, absorb, and experience texts. You can now browse the entire book online.

Add comment March 20th, 2014

The Editor’s Shelf: Of Primary Importance

This week we kick off a new occasional series on the Stenhouse blog called The Editor’s Shelf. Written by Stenhouse editor extraordinaire Bill Varner, the series will reveal the history and background of some of our books and give you a chance to revisit some oldie but goodie Stenhouse titles from the past few years. We kick off the series with a look at how Ann Marie Corgill’s book Of Primary Importance came to life.

I’m a bibliophile. Or, you could say, I’m a book geek. I love everything about them—from authors and their lives, to cover designs, to publishing lore. I can still smell the ink, paper, and glue from my first job in a book bindery. For most people outside the book business, how an idea becomes a book is a mystery. With “The Editor’s Bookshelf,” I thought we’d give you a snapshot of some of our books—the stories behind them, and why we love them.

When I first joined Stenhouse, I was told by our friends and distributors in Alabama, Toni Shay and William Hagood, about a fantastic teacher named Ann Marie Corgill—or, as I’ve come to call her, AMC. She’d taught Ralph Fletcher and JoAnn Portalupi’s son in Alabama, and also at the renowned Manhattan New School. I first met AMC at the Mid-South Literacy Conference in Birmingham, Alabama. Her presentation was terrific, and she wanted to write a book. “Great,” I said. “Let’s get started.” We started and stopped. We started and stopped. Most authors can’t churn them out like Patricia Cornwell. Since a lot of Stenhouse authors are full-time teachers, everything has to align just “write.” Or, to paraphrase John Lennon, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making plans to write.” But thanks to AMC’s dogged determination to make the book a reality, several years after I first met her Of Primary Importance arrived from the printer, fresh with the smells of the bindery.

Ever since writing workshop burst onto the scene in the early to mid-eighties, it has fought a constant battle against prepackaged curriculum. Like fast food, prepackaged writing programs are quick and easy. But fifteen minutes after eating an easy meal, I always feel the weight of saturated fat and chemical additives weighing down my mind and body. Students feel the learning equivalent after working a program. Though it may take more time and effort, a healthy, handmade meal leaves one alert, energized, and sustained. Of Primary Importance is the writing curriculum equivalent.

AMC’s book gives you everything you need to create your own writing workshop for primary writers. From establishing the learning environment and developing units on poetry, nonfiction, and narrative writing, to publishing and assessment—it has it all. It’s written in an inspiring voice that says, “Yes, you can do this.” If you haven’t heard of it, or haven’t yet discovered its classroom-tested ideas, you really should. In the world of professional books on teaching writing, it’s a precious gem.

Don Graves used to say about administrators (and anyone who told others what to teach), “Just shut the door and teach.” That’s often easier said than done, but so is everything else worth doing.

3 comments March 12th, 2014

Now Online: Intentional Talk

Classroom conversations are crucial to mathematics learning. How do you respond effectively to student ideas, keep students engaged, and use discussions to support your educational objectives?

In their new book Intentional Talk, Elham Kazemi and Allison Hintz show teachers how to direct discussions with a goal in mind, whether it be to generate lots of problem-solving strategies or to target a particular idea. Through numerous classroom vignettes and practical examples, you’ll see how to teach all students to participate in meaningful ways and support their thinking using effective questioning and teacher “talk moves.”

Different types of goals require planning and leading discussions differently. Elham and Allison show you how to do this, with printable planning templates and chapters focusing on:

  • defining & clarifying key mathematical concepts and terms;
  • comparing similarities and differences among strategies;
  • justifying why specific strategies work;
  • determining the best solution strategy; and
  • thinking through errors and building on partial understanding.

You can now pre-order and preview Intentional Talk online, in its entirety.

Add comment March 10th, 2014

Profiles in Effective PD Initiatives: Washington State

We continue our series on effective PD initiatives using Stenhouse books week with a visit to Washington State, where teachers working with the Center for Childhood Deafness and Hearing Loss are using Word Nerds to help their students become more proficient readers and writers. 

Teaching Students the Language to Learn

As soon as Cathy Corrado finished reading Word Nerds: Teaching All Students to Learn and Love Vocabulary (Stenhouse, 2013), she knew it would be a great resource for teachers of the deaf and hard of hearing. Among other things, the book stresses the importance of using visual and physical cues for word practice and building students’ recognition of word relationships so they can confidently approach unfamiliar terms.

“It’s hard to say to a profoundly deaf kid, ‘What sounds do you hear?’ Everything has to be visual,” says Corrado, who provides literacy and academic support for teachers in Washington State through the Center for Childhood Deafness and Hearing Loss (CDHL). “Things like reading mastery are really hard for struggling deaf kids. It has to be in-your-face obvious. Deaf kids have a phonetic system; it’s just not the same as ours. In building fluency, we have to show them the pattern of the rhyme but not make it entirely sound based.”

Similar to many students who have learning disabilities, children who are deaf or hard of hearing often don’t know the “language” of reading, Corrado says. They don’t have the same reference points as hearing students and may lack what’s known in special education as executive functioning, which includes the ability to select appropriate strategies for solving problems.

“We know that executive functioning skills depend on language ability. If they want to work on executive functioning, they need to work on language. And if they want to work on language, they have to work on vocabulary. That’s why the book is so good.”

Corrado says special education coordinators and teachers of the deaf in Washington State are spread out among nine geographically distant educational service districts and rarely get the opportunity to meet in person to engage in professional learning. So she decided to set up an online book study of Word Nerds, using videoconferencing.
“People volunteered to read a chapter and then we reported back at the next meeting two months later,” Corrado says. “Some people did a list of what they learned. Some people did a spreadsheet. Everybody’s notes were different, what they learned from the chapters. It was a good way to get attention to the book. It really summarized everything in a nice way.”

One participant created a graphic organizer to share key points, using the headings Information That Affirmed Current Practices, Information That Gives Us New Ideas, and Information That Needs More Follow-Up. Another participant linked the main ideas in Chapter 4 to literacy strands addressed in the Common Core State Standards.

Julia Fritz, a teacher of the deaf at Cascade Middle School in Vancouver, Washington, says she was struck by the importance of the authors’ message that the Common Core expects students, beginning in first grade, to use sentence-level context as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.

“My thought was, ‘Teachers of the deaf know this is an ongoing need for deaf and hard-of-hearing kids, but now it is being forced on us to raise the bar even higher with more of those kids in the general education classrooms,’” Fritz says.
Vocabulary is probably the weakest area of literacy development for most deaf and hard-of-hearing students, Fritz says. They share many of the common learning gaps that cause children from high-poverty and language-deficient homes to struggle in school, because families of deaf students often cannot communicate fluently and directly in their children’s preferred mode of sign language. Fritz says she was glad that the Word Nerds authors shared successful strategies for addressing the needs of at-risk populations. The book’s emphasis on Tier Two words—high-frequency words students will likely encounter in their school reading yet probably don’t know well—was an important reminder to make language nuances clear to students and explicitly teach them word-attack strategies for subject-specific terms.

“I have a student right now, and I realized on his standardized test that he’s great at math and science, but he doesn’t have a lot of words for things,” Fritz says. She’s using Word Nerds to make sure she addresses his academic vocabulary when completing his Individual Education Plan.

Developing vocabulary knowledge can be especially challenging for students who use sign language, because one sign can represent multiple meanings and synonyms. For example, the same sign is used for discontented and its synonyms aggravated, dissatisfied, and disgusted. Likewise, some words may have multiple signs—there are at least eleven different ways to sign the word run.

“You have to have specially designed vocabulary, and it needs to be very intentional,” Fritz says. For multiple meanings of words, she uses graphic organizers to explain some of the variations so students will learn to look for context clues in reading to determine the precise use and signs for words.

Word Nerds includes examples of graphic organizers, such as the adapted Frayer Model and the Graphic Organizer for Crystal Ball Words , which the authors use with students to help them think through word choices when reading, writing, and speaking. The book also recommends giving students practice using cloze sentences to understand how context clues can uncover shades of meaning, as well as finding synonyms, antonyms, and analogies to further clarify the correct terms.

Fritz says she also took many notes on Chapter 7, which stresses the importance of teaching students about prefixes and suffixes and Greek and Latin roots to help them understand word relationships and decipher longer, unfamiliar words.
“I loved this idea,” she says. “I think it’s such a huge, missing gap. We’ve gotten rid of studying Greek and Latin parts as a requirement for schools.”

Spreading the Word About Vocabulary Instruction

At the time she set up the collaborative book study for her Washington State colleagues, Corrado says she did not know about the study guide that Word Nerds coauthors Brenda Overturf, Leslie Montgomery, and Margot Holmes Smith had prepared to help educators implement the strategies discussed in the book. She later alerted her colleagues to the resource. Corrado also plans to continue discussing Word Nerds through a listserv for state teachers of the deaf.
“We all share the listserv as a common place where we can go and throw a question out and people can respond to it,” she says. “Or if they need something, I might say, ‘Try this.’ What I will do this coming year is share information about great strategies for teaching vocabulary from the book. Then you start generating a conversation about the recommendations: ‘What did you think? How did it work?’”

Corrado and Fritz say they learned a great deal from the online book study and recommend the approach to others. They also have some suggestions for maximizing the results:

  • Insist on a collegial dialogue, not just sharing notes or summaries of books under review. “The ‘cheat sheets’ are nice,” Fritz says, “but you don’t know what they mean until you have the conversation. The conversation solidifies it and makes it alive for you.”
  • Make sure all participants can access notes and important charts and visuals from the books, particularly if they are meeting at remote locations. In Washington State, not all of the educators participating in the videoconference about Word Nerds had seen the book prior to the discussion. When conversation turned to some of the useful forms included in the book’s appendix, for example, not everyone understood the references. In hindsight, organizers wished they had thought to capture some of the images on screen to refer to during key points in the conversation.
  • Do a test run before the videoconference to ensure that school or school district technology departments can troubleshoot potential problems. “Make sure everyone knows how to call back in should they get disconnected during the conference,” Fritz says. “Make sure you know how to mute your microphone because of interruptions. Make sure you’re not in a room where direct sunlight is shining on the screen, because you won’t be able to see the people or documents.”

Add comment March 4th, 2014

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