In production

OK, I admit it: we, at Stenhouse, get a tiny bit giddy when we see a new book cover design. And then we get even more giddy when after long, long months of work, we get to hold and read the finished product. I think the only person happier than us at that point is the author.

Last week we received two cover designs for two upcoming books by Ralph Fletcher and Paula Bourque. We are sharing them here because they are beautiful and because we think you’ll be excited to hold these two gems in your hand soon! To sign up to be notified when the books arrive in our warehouse, visit our website!



Close Writing  approved cover

Add comment August 3rd, 2015

2015 Blogstitute Wrap-Up

Another summer — woosh! Gone! We hope you were able to read our 2015 Blogstitute series and that you will start the school year energized and full of ideas! Here is your chance to catch up on what you missed:

The Messy Process of Talk and Revision by Jeff Anderson and Deborah Dean
How to Write a Reading-Based Argument Prompt by Jennifer Fletcher
Nurturing Responsible Learners by Mary Anne Buckley
Running Down the Details by Kate Messner
Digital Distraction or Engagement? by Jen Roberts and Diana Neebe
Moving Beyond the 4×4 Classroom by Kelly Gallagher
What Yoda Can Teach You About Engagement and Motivation by Kim Yaris and Jan Burkins
Classroom Talk — A Vehicle for Student Learning and Engagement by Liz Hale
Words Still Matter by Janet Allen
Reflections on Another School Year by Mark Overmeyer
Vocabulary Practice in Grades 5-8 by Brenda Overturf

7 comments July 29th, 2015

Blogstitute: Vocabulary Practice in Grades 5-8

Here it is — the last day and the last post for our 2015 Summer Blogstitute. It comes from Brenda Overturf, coauthor of the new book Vocabularians along with Leslie Montgomery and Margot Holmes Smith. She outlines how to nurture learners who acquire and use new words with confidence. She believes that when students actively engage in learning vocabulary in creative ways, they enjoy their experience with words and remember them.

vocabulariansActive and Creative Vocabulary Practice in Grades 5–8
By Brenda Overturf

For the last few weeks, I have been taking an acrylic painting class. Although I loved art when I was in school, I have not attempted this type of work in many, many years. So I was a bit startled when the teacher, a career artist with a master’s degree in fine arts, left us with this homework close to the beginning of the course: “Get your supplies and begin painting!”

At home, I laid out paint, brushes, and the other things I had purchased from the list. Then I eyed the blank canvas. Where to begin? Of course, like any modern person, I flipped open my laptop for some helpful tutorials. But I was quickly confronted with a number of unfamiliar terms. Linear and aerial perspective. Positive and negative space. Blocking. Tinting. Shading. I vaguely remembered my teacher saying some of these words, but I certainly did not know enough to approach the canvas with confidence. It is only now, with my last class coming up, that I can read the same websites and not only better understand the terms but also envision myself engaging in what they mean. I’m the same learner, but now I have tried creating linear and aerial perspective and positive and negative spaces. I have blocked, tinted, and shaded. I am more confident and can use these words with ease. The only difference in my knowledge is that I know some words that are important for understanding and now have a bit of experience to connect the meaning.

Teaching Vocabulary in the Middle Grades

Vocabulary learners need rich experiences with words and their related networks (synonyms, antonyms, homophones, etc.) in order to develop word schema and truly make new words their own. Dutifully looking up words in a dictionary and copying the definitions doesn’t count (in fact, it may even hurt). All students need to learn individual words and word-learning strategies, and to develop word consciousness, within a literacy-rich environment.

Research tells us that we need to experience a word seven to twelve times to truly remember it, so vocabulary learners also need multiple exposures to words over time. The structure of most elementary classrooms enables teachers to provide experiences with targeted words throughout the day. However, this is not so easy to do at the middle level. With compartmentalized classes and specialized disciplines, teachers must have an intentional plan to provide vocabulary instruction that helps kids learn.

In Vocabularians, I describe a process for teachers of middle grades students to plan vocabulary instruction together within a school, team, or professional learning community:

  1. Carefully select a small number of words important to understanding upcoming lessons in different classes and that students will see in text. These words will be designated for deep study for each two-week vocabulary cycle.
  2. Introduce each selected vocabulary word in context. Encourage students to infer the meaning of the word and engage them in discussion that allows them to explore the context in which the word is introduced. Reinforce these words across the team or grade level.
  3. Invite students to create a “vocabulary exploration” of each word selected for deep study. Add the vocabulary exploration to a journal or section of a binder to be used as a reference.
  4. Flood each classroom with other words important to content or that students discover in reading.
  5. Teach morphological awareness as multisyllabic words are introduced for deep study or as they are encountered in text.
  6. Provide opportunities for active, engaging vocabulary practice that include movement, discussion, art, drama, music, writing, technology or media, and test-taking skills.
  7. Assess vocabulary in ways in which students will be tested. Include words that students have studied previously so there is a cumulative effect. Provide ways for students to self-assess and monitor their own progress in vocabulary development.

Students need “thick” vocabulary experiences—where they really wrestle with words—to help them develop deep knowledge. Step number six of this plan emphasizes active and creative practice as part of learning vocabulary. It is no secret that students are more motivated and learn at higher levels when they are doing something they find interesting. The Association for Middle Level Education agrees. This organization has outlined five characteristics of appropriate curriculum, instruction, and assessment for early adolescents, one of which is that students learn best when they engage in active learning. Physical activity and projects using the arts can be highly motivating to young adolescents who need to move frequently and enjoy social interaction. Active learning can also help meet the needs of students who learn best through multisensory instruction to develop visual, auditory, and kinesthetic-tactile pathways to language learning.

Active vocabulary practice can also help students meet standards. For example, the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts include a number of references to determining the meanings of unfamiliar words and phrases. They can be found in the standards for reading in literature, informational text, history/social studies, and science and technical subjects. They can also be found in standards for writing and are implied in speaking and listening, but the emphasis on vocabulary learning is in the language standards. When a science teacher calls out “Prove it!” and challenges his seventh-grade students to find evidence about a word’s meaning from the context of the science passage or from the meanings of the affixes and roots, students are hard at work on reading in science and technical subjects standard four, language standards four and six, and speaking and listening standards. To the students, it is first a game to find the clues.

Illustrated Vocabulary

One of the active practice strategies that students enjoyed in Vocabularians is called Illustrated Vocabulary. In this strategy, students write one of their words for deep study on a sheet of paper. We ask them to write it neatly and make it dark, using block letters. Then we ask them to create an illustration using the letters as the foundation of the drawing, adding details to establish the definition.

When I first showed middle grades teachers the kind of thinking that elementary students had produced with this activity, they were impressed. For example, David illustrated the word nomadic, a word from a social studies lesson. He turned the lowercase “n” into a Native American boy. The “o” became a basket. The “m,” which he drew larger than the others, became mountains with arrows that indicated movement over them. The “a” became a buffalo, the “d” was transformed into a teepee, the “i” was a tree, and he made the “c” into another Native American. As he explained to me, “Some Native Americans were nomadic. They had to cross mountains to go to another village to find food.” Does David understand the word nomadic enough to use it in his speech and writing? Will he remember it the next time he sees it in text? It is obvious to me that this word belongs to David forever.

Middle grades teachers who tried this strategy for themselves were pretty impressed by its complexity. When their students tried it, teachers were even more impressed. It is a deep-thinking activity, causing students to plumb depths of knowledge as they creatively explore the meaning of a word. Math terms became fire engines, ladders, and bouncing balls. Social studies vocabulary transformed into ancient Roman ruins. Words from Shakespeare turned into a fight between feuding families. All kids, including English language learners and underachieving students, could participate enthusiastically.

Create a Community of Vocabulary Learners

Mark Twain once said, “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.” Providing opportunities for active, engaging vocabulary practice that includes movement, discussion, art, drama, music, writing, technology, or media can help students experience carrying that metaphorical cat. We want students in grades 5–8 to become vocabularians who can acquire and use new words with confidence. When students actively engage in learning vocabulary in creative ways, they enjoy their experience with words and remember them.

9 comments July 22nd, 2015

Blogstitute: Reflections on another school year

This is the last week of our 2015 Summer Blogstitute and I am excited to bring you this post from Mark Overmeyer (Let’s Talk), who has some wise words to share as you reflect on the past school year and prepare for the next. We have one more post coming to you on Wednesday, so this is your last week to look back on previous posts and leave a comment for a chance to win 12 free Stenhouse books. Follow us on Twitter using #blogstitute15.

Reflections on another school year
By Mark Overmeyer

lets-talkTeachers often create goals for the summer: they plan to work in their gardens, finish house projects, and try to get to those books they set aside earlier in the year. I am the same way, but I also spend the early part of my summer reflecting on what I learned in the previous school year.

Perhaps because I have lived my life in school years since the age of five—moving from school to college to teaching to graduate school to consulting—I tend to reflect more in the summer than in January, the traditional time for resolutions and reflection.

Here are three lessons I learned during this school year that have helped me reflect on how I facilitate writing workshops:

  1. Conferences are important, but writing time is more important. Conferring plays such an important role in our work with readers and writers. The opportunity to talk with a student one-on-one is priceless. However, what if a student needs time to write more than he or she needs the chance to talk with you? I ask this question because of my many interactions with primary students in writing workshops this school year. On at least three separate occasions this year, when I began a conference with the question “What are you working on as a writer today?,” the response was “I am working on my writing. I don’t need help.” One kindergarten writer told me, “I need to get my writing done. I need to work alone.” Most of the students who tell me they need more time to write are under the age of seven. As writing teachers, we have so much to learn about independence and agency from our youngest writers. Because of so many students asking for more time, I often start a conference now with something like this: “I would love to have the chance to talk with you about your writing. Can you talk now, or do you need to get some more work done before we talk?”
  1. Love the resisters. We have all taught resisters. They might sit passively during the first few days of writing time, hoping you don’t notice how little they produce. Or they may actively resist writing early in the year, saying something like “You aren’t going to make us write a lot this year, are you?” These resisters are so good at what they do: they avoid, they wander around the room during writing time, they keep saying they don’t know what to write about, or they just sit. Instead of being frustrated with resisters, I learned this year to find them fascinating—and to love the resistance. Fourth-grade teacher Sandy Mulligan in Colorado Springs has helped me to see resistant writers in a different light. Sandy actively decides to love her resisters. When she meets a fourth grader who hates to write, she doesn’t worry at first about why. She just says, “I am so glad you are in my class! This is your year! We are going to figure it out together. You are going to LOVE writing with me. I promise.” And she is right. It takes a while with some of her students, but when I have visited her classroom in May the past two years, I have asked students what they think about writing, and they love it. All of them. I merely ask “What do you think about writing?,” and they spontaneously yell out “We LOVE IT!” Sandy has students just like yours: Some come to her classroom with struggles in life and struggles in learning. Some come to her classroom ready for whatever life brings them. Sandy is relentlessly positive about writing, and her workshop is filled with joyful work. It is not a place filled with chaos, or with the message that everything written is wonderful. She has high expectations, and she provides scaffolds and safety nets when needed. From what I have witnessed, in classrooms where the writing workshop has meaningful purpose and is filled with joy, resisters stop resisting. Not always at first, but I have learned to never give up. I have learned from Sandy—and Elizabeth and Keith and Cheryl and Shelly and Monique and so many other teachers like them—that if you love your resisters, slowly the walls of resistance will break down and writing will happen. And happen. And happen. At some point, you won’t be able to stop them from writing, which brings us to my next lesson . . .
  1. In effective classrooms, writing is its own reward. I have felt this way for more than twenty years, but I was reminded of how rewarding writing can be in so many schools this year. I witnessed students clapping in at least ten classrooms when writing workshop was about to begin. I heard many students groaning when writing time had to end, begging for more time to write. Anne Lamott would be proud of the teachers in these classrooms. My favorite quote about writing is from her classic book Bird by Bird (Pantheon, 1994):

Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward. (xxvi)

One of my teaching goals every year is to hear students ask for more time to write. Sometimes I intentionally go past our writing block to see if anyone notices. When students are lost in writing, whether they are five or fifteen years old, they don’t want to stop. In the most effective workshops I visit, students are not rewarded for writing more, and they are not punished if they are not quite ready to write on any particular day. Teachers in these classrooms set up rituals and routines the first day of school that allow and expect writing to happen. If we avoid writing early in the year by setting up notebooks for a week, or if we skip writing a few times a month because of assembly schedules, students may think of writing as difficult, boring, or unimportant.

As teachers, our feedback comes not just during conferences but throughout each day. The longer we wait to start writing workshop, or the more quickly we end it before the school year is over, the more likely some unintended feedback might sneak in—the message that, somehow, writing is inherently unpleasant and should be avoided. Why not start Day One, Minute One? What better way to get to know your students than to start with, “I am so excited to meet you! We aren’t starting with rules. We aren’t starting with putting away supplies just yet. Let’s get to know each other a bit. I can’t wait. I am going to share something I wrote so you can learn about me, and then I am going to invite you to think, talk, and write a bit so I can get to know you. This is going to be a great year.” When we start with rules and supplies, our message is “School is a place filled with rules and school supplies, and these are of primary importance.” When I start with writing, my message is “I want to hear from you. I care about you. I want to know what you think. This is a place where we will learn from each other through writing.”

I wish you all a summer filled with relaxation, rejuvenation, and reflection.


17 comments July 20th, 2015

Blogstitute: Words Still Matter

We have the amazing Janet Allen on the blog today, with an inspiring post about the power of words and how to make vocabulary instruction a part of everything you do in your classroom! Janet’s latest book is Tools for Teaching Academic Vocabulary. We have one more week left in our Blogstitute and we’ll hear from Mark Overmeyer and Brenda Overturf! I hope you will join us again and follow us on Twitter using #blogstitute15!

tools-for-teaching-academic-vocabularyWords Still Matter
Janet Allen

I was working with literacy coaches last week when one of them sighed and said, “What a year.” It was quiet for a moment, and I could literally see others stopping to personalize her words to the school year they had just experienced. Three simple words had given us pause not because of the complexity of the words but because, for each of us, those words called up hundreds of other words and images. And, while I hadn’t been in my own classroom for many years, I certainly had many experiences that reminded me just how much words matter.

When I left my classroom in Maine in the early 1990s, I filled my van with boxes that contained my students’ words, my teaching journals that were filled with my reflections and resolutions, and my favorite books. Other, less-significant items were left in the hands of movers. Today I’m in the messy process of moving again. This will be my fourth home since moving to Florida and today, as with all other moves, I packed my books, my journals, and my students’ words. I think it is because I know the power of words that I have spent so much time writing about vocabulary instruction. Unfortunately for my students, it took me a long time to find effective strategies to help them become inquisitive word learners and powerful word users.

As with many of you, for me summer was always a time for teaching resolutions. Or, it was once I hungrily read one book after another—books I wanted to read and not ones I had to read. One of the most common summer resolutions for me was to figure out a way to teach vocabulary more effectively. A teacher from Ohio once shared with me a fourth grader’s words from a self-assessment of his handwriting. He wrote: “I don’t think my handwriting has improved because I have been doing it ‘half fast.’” On reflection each summer, I felt as though my teaching of vocabulary the previous year could have been described in the same way. In spite of my resolutions, each year I fell into the trap of seeing vocabulary as something we did but not part of everything we did. I now know that teaching vocabulary has to be a part of everything we do.

When I decided to write Tools for Teaching Academic Vocabulary, I had already written two books focused on vocabulary: Words, Words, Words and Inside Words. In each of those books, I focused on an array of teaching strategies and graphic organizers to support students in learning a variety of words across all content areas. In writing Tools for Teaching Academic Vocabulary, I set out to clarify that word-learning depends on a variety of factors—purpose for knowing the word, how it differs from similar words, and how and when to use the word. I believe the instructional tools we use depend on how deeply we want students to know a word. I used Graves’s (2006) research and organized the tools based on four components of a comprehensive vocabulary program as a reminder that a focus on words that lead to academic success needs to be addressed in all activities and in all classes. In fact, a district where I worked required that teachers use this tool to ensure they were focused on words from informal conversation and reading to direct instruction.


I don’t want to keep you from that summer reading for too long, so let me just highlight something about each of the four components.

Rich and Varied Language Experiences

Rich language experiences mean that students will have opportunities to encounter interesting words each day. These encounters should be so varied that the words draw them into learning many more words than you may have intended. As I was writing this, I received an e-mail from Joy Hakim (author of A History of US and The Story of Science) sharing her new e-book, Reading Science Stories. I was immediately so engrossed in reading these narrative nonfiction pieces that I had a hard time stopping to continue writing (and unpacking). I laughed out loud at her engaging use of language:

Most priests and teachers and ordinary people have a hard time dealing with the astonishing idea that the universe does not revolve around us. Copernicus’s discovery leads to another idea that many find hard to accept (and a few find exciting): if Earth is not the center of the universe maybe the universe was not made just for us. (2015, 123–124)

While you may know someone who still doesn’t understand this concept, there is no doubt in my mind that readers will learn a great deal of academic, domain-specific words when they are embedded in a text with such rich language.

Teaching Individual Words

Teaching individual words is where you would be very likely to use a graphic organizer, concept map, or academic vocabulary cards. These words are typically related to the content or text students will encounter; they are so important, they deserve the extra time and attention. I receive lots of e-mails with humorous accounts of students attempting to write sentences with words they have looked up. Often the dilemma is that they didn’t know the target word and they also didn’t know the words used to define the target word.

In this section of the flipchart, I focused on four types of words necessary for academic success:

  • General academic words (such as analyze, hypothesize, and paraphrase)
  • Domain- or discipline-specific words (such as factor, integer, and rational numbers)
  • Topic-specific words ( such as argumentative, menacing, and gregarious when writing a character analysis)
  • Passage-critical words (such as strain when used in a completely different way—e.g., in talking about a flu or other illness)

One of the most difficult aspects of this component will be choosing the word or words you want to teach. Remember, you can’t teach students every unknown word in any text. This is a good place to think about how deeply students need to know a word in order to support comprehension and communication.

Teaching Strategies for Learning New Words

Given that most teachers can teach about 350 new words a year through direct instruction, teaching strategies for learning unknown words independently is critical. Stahl and Fairbanks summarized the problem: “Since a vocabulary teaching program typically teaches 10 to 12 words a week or about 400 a year, of which perhaps 75% or 300 are learned, vocabulary instruction is not adequate to cope with the volume of new words that children need to learn and do learn without instruction” (1986, 100). I decided to focus on the three strategies that have been shown to have the greatest impact on learning new words independently:

  • How to Use Internal Context Clues: Prefixes, Root Words, Suffixes
  • How to Use External Context Clues to Learn New Words
  • How to Use Resources to Support Learning New Words

Knowing how to create an effective strategy lesson using a hook, direct instruction, guided/independent practice, and closure is critical to this component of a comprehensive vocabulary program.

Fostering Word Consciousness

In Jennifer Donnelly’s book A Northern Light (2003), the narrator reminds us that interesting words embedded in interesting texts make words more memorable:

I tried to put my mind back on Paradise Lost, but it was hard going. Somniferous was my word of the day. It means sleep inducing, and it was a good one to describe that dull and endless poem. Milton meant to give us a glimpse of hell, Miss Wilcox said, and he succeeded. (60–61)

I love that one of the components of a vocabulary program is heightening students’ awareness of words. Riddles, games, political cartoons, interesting texts, lateral thinking puzzles, and hundreds of other activities help students become more conscious of language. Two of the characteristics I look for in this component are inquisitiveness and risk-taking. When students start to question a word’s meaning or attempt to use words other than safe words, you know they are developing word consciousness. I will always remember three boys who hung out in my room so much that I sometimes forgot they were there. When the principal stopped in my room after school to talk about a department issue, one of the boys decided to jump into the conversation. I gave all three my “teacher look” and ushered them out of the room. As I closed the door, one of the boys said to the others, “We wouldn’t have gotten in trouble if you hadn’t been earsdropping!”

Words Still Matter

Words do indeed still matter. Many of you have folders with notes from students with words you want to keep forever. Others of you have words you have kept to tell your story. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that words are about more than a standard or checking off an instructional requirement. And, since I believe that words still matter, my hope for you is that this summer will be your summer to spend time with words—reading, writing, sharing, and storing. There is no doubt in my mind that effective instruction is critical, but I believe that our love of words is also critical. I wish each of you a word-filled summer as you anticipate supporting others in growing a love of words. Nearly 100 years ago, Horace Mann said, “When growing things, one former is worth a thousand reformers.” I don’t know about you, but those are words I needed to hear.


Donnelly, J. 2003. A Northern Light. New York: Harcourt.

Graves, M. F. 2006. The Vocabulary Book: Learning & Instruction. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hakim, J. 2015. Reading Science Stories. E-book, published by author.

Stahl, S. A., and M. M. Fairbanks. 1986. “The Effects of Vocabulary Instruction: A Model-Based Meta-Analysis.” Review of Educational Research 56(1): 72–110.



10 comments July 15th, 2015

Can’t wait to see you at ILA!

We are excited to be heading to this year’s ILA conference in St. Louis! Stop by booth #1313 to receive 25% off all of our titles, and to pick up one of our new tote bags (see below)! Many of our authors will also be on-hand to sign their books, answer your questions, or just to chat. We hope to see you there! Full a full list of author presentations, click here!

Author Schedule at Our Booth


10 a.m.: Kelly Gallagher, author of In the Best Interest of Students (NEW), Write Like This, Readicide and more

11 a.m.: Jennifer Jacobson, author of No More “I’m Done!

1:30 p.m.: Georgia Heard, coauthor of A Place for Wonder

2:30 p.m.: Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan, authors of Assessment in Perspective

4:15 p.m.: Steven Layne, author of In Defense of Read-Aloud (NEW), Igniting a Passion for Reading and Life’s Literacy Lessons


10:30 a.m.: Julie Ramsay, author of Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing?”

11:30 a.m.: Stephanie Harvey, author of Nonfiction Matters and coauthor of Strategies That Work, Reading the World, and more

12:15 p.m.: Dorothy Barnhouse, author of Readers Front and Center

12:45 p.m.: Brenda Overturf, Leslie Montgomery, and Margot Holmes Smith, authors of Vocabularians (NEW) and Word Nerds

1:30 p.m.: Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris, coauthors of Reading Wellness (NEW)

2:30 p.m.: Janet Allen, author of Tools for Teaching Academic Literacy (NEW), More Tools for Teachchg Content Literacy, and more

4 p.m.: Rose Cappelli and Lynne Dorfman, coauthors of Poetry Mentor Texts, Mentor Texts, Nonfiction Mentor Texts, and more


Add comment July 14th, 2015

Blogstitute: Classroom Talk — A Vehicle for Student Learning and Engagement

We hope that you are still with us on these hot summer days as we continue our Blogstitute today with Liz Hale, author of the recent book Readers Writing. In this post Liz talks about how her thinking evolved around classroom talk and how she harnesses its power to enhance her teaching. Follow us on Twitter using #blogstitute15 and be sure to leave a comment for a chance to win free books at the end of this year’s Blogstitute!

readers-writingClassroom Talk: A Vehicle for Student Learning and Engagement
By Elizabeth Hale

If you had asked me what I thought about students talking in the classroom during my first year of teaching in Boston, I probably would have thrown my hands up, looked to the sky, and said, “It just drives me crazy!” Back then, classroom talk was something that seemed to work against my teaching, not support it.

The longer I was in the classroom and the more instructional strategies I learned from colleagues, workshops, and professional literature, the more I understood how classroom talk is one of the most powerful vehicles for teaching and learning, from both a cognitive and an affective standpoint. Of course, this change required a shift in my perspective on what classroom talk meant. Rather than see it only as student-generated talk that disrupted teaching and learning, I began to understand that it could be a purposeful tool for student learning and engagement.

Many teachers understand that productive and beneficial classroom talk does not just happen but is something that needs to be initiated and supported by the teacher, even if it eventually becomes student driven. The more defined the form and purpose of classroom talks are, the more productive they tend to be. In my books Readers Writing: Lessons for Responding to Narrative and Informational Text (2014) and Crafting Writers, K–8 (2008), the main instructional focus is writing. But embedded throughout the lesson structures and instructional strategies are purposeful times for students to talk. They are critical vehicles to help students learn about, and care about, what we teach them about writing.

Here are a few specific ways I use student talk to support learning:

  1. Turn and Talk to name what is being taught or modeled

In this first, twenty-second turn and talk in a mini-lesson, all students are asked to tell a partner the name of the craft technique or “writing about reading” strategy that was just modeled within a paragraph of writing. This consistent expectation supports accountability and engagement as well as memory retention.

  1. Turn and Talk about the “why” of the lesson

In this also-very-brief turn and talk that comes in between teacher modeling and students writing an entry in their reader’s or writer’s notebooks, everyone briefly tells a partner what he or she is learning or why the “writing about reading” strategy or craft technique is beneficial to know. Here, I am supporting not only accountability of learning but also student ownership: I want them to be able to verbalize and understand how a particular strategy will help them as a reader or writer.

Sometimes I do this same kind of turn and talk before the direct instruction part of the lesson. For example, in one of the Readers Writing lessons, I ask, “So why do you think writing about the relationship between two characters is a good strategy to use in your reader’s notebooks? Why not just write about one character at a time? Tell your partner what you think.” The purpose here is less about reinforcing a concept just taught and more about getting students to think analytically about what they learn.

  1. Partner Share of writing

After any kind of independent writing, whether it is in a writer’s or reader’s notebook, I always have a partner share before the whole-class share. This takes a little extra time, but it is worth it! I have seen so many students who previously did not care about their writing start to become more invested during independent writing because they knew that, every time they wrote an entry, it would be shared with a peer.

Classroom Talk: The Benefits

Making room for purposeful student talk—whether in the context of literacy instruction, read-aloud, or content subjects—does take thoughtful planning, attention, and time, but here are three reasons why doing so is worth the effort!

  1. Student Learning

Unlike listening, talking is an active way to process ideas. You can learn by listening, of course, but it is a more passive way of learning. Production of speech is cognitively more demanding, and so talking about one’s ideas, as opposed to just thinking or listening, can result in deeper processing of information (Cazden 2001). In fact, scientific research using brain imaging shows that certain areas of the brain are more active when talking is about to occur than when a person just listens or thinks about an idea (Carota et al. 2009).

  1. Student Engagement

While there is much to be said about how students learn as they are talking out ideas, talking also greatly benefits student learning and engagement that occurs before and after talk—and you probably don’t need to conduct a study to agree. Think about the teacher workshops you’ve been to and how much your engagement differs depending on whether the speaker just talks at you for hours or makes time for you to process what you are learning with someone next to you. When you get to talk every now and then, your ability (and desire) to absorb information from the speaker can be maintained at a high level.

  1. Lesson Management

Unbeknownst to my first-year teacher self, classroom talk can also be a preventative management tool! This is a simple matter of human nature. Again, put yourself in your students’ shoes. If you sat in a chair all day right next to people your age, five days a week for 180 days, it would be hard—if not impossible—to always be quiet, listen, and pay attention. By channeling the desire to talk into academically productive ways, student learning not only benefits but can often curtail the off-task talk that is otherwise likely to occur.

Shifts in Perspective

I realized that, for me, taking advantage of talk in the classroom required two shifts in perspective. The first was getting over my fear of losing control. Especially in my first year of teaching, I thought that unless I was facilitating and directing all conversations, students would just start talking about anything and everything. It took a few years to understand that creating places for student talk, both short and long, actually gave me more control in terms of management, because I valued the reality of the receiving end of instruction. The second thing that shifted for me was redefining what learning was. I had a hidden assumption that, unless I was in that role of facilitator and was present to hear and give feedback to every spoken idea, students would not really be “learning.” What I do as a teacher still very much matters, of course. But now I place a lot more value on what all of my students’ minds experience in terms of processing what I teach than on whether I am there to hear everything they say. After all, the goal of our teaching is less about what we do every day in our classrooms and more about what our students’ minds experience. Bringing different kinds of talk into your classroom, even though it will take some trial and error along the way, is an investment in how your students experience learning.

What other forms of classroom talk have teachers found useful in supporting student engagement and learning? I would love to hear your ideas!


Carota, F., A. Posada, S. Harquel, C. Delpeuch, O. Bertrand, and A. Sirigu. 2009. “Neural Dynamics in the Intention to Speak.” Cerebral Cortex 20: 1891–1897.

Cazden, C. 2001. Classroom Discourse: The Language of Teaching and Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

11 comments July 13th, 2015

Now Online: Worth Writing About

worth-writing-aboutI tell them that at the end of the unit most of them will have produced the best piece of writing they have ever produced, and many of them will have come to see themselves and their lives in new ways. They look at me skeptically. How do I know this will happen? I know it, I say, because it happens every year.

Eighth grade teacher and YA novelist Jake Wizner inspires you to teach memoir writing and guides you through the process in his new book, Worth Writing About.

Jake helps you navigate issues that are unique to adolescent memoir writing—such as balancing significant experiences with what’s too personal, and separating fact from truth—and provides useful prompts for students who may think that their lives aren’t interesting enough to write about. Using many examples of student writing, he shows how to teach understory, perspective, beginnings, endings, and titles.

A final chapter includes tips on how and when to assess students, giving feedback, revision, and grading. The appendix includes advice on modifying instruction for students with IEPs and over a dozen memoir excerpts to use as models.

Preview Worth Writing About in its entirety now!

Add comment July 10th, 2015

Blogstitute: What Yoda can Teach You About Engagement and Motivation

Well, it’s not really Yoda who is doing the teaching in today’s post, but the lesson remains the same: to keep your students motivated, you have to keep them engaged. Kim Yaris and Jan Burkins, authors of Reading Wellness, bring you a lesson in physics, Star Wars, and the art of making small adjustments to your teaching, that will have a big impact.

X-Wing Fighters, Superheroes, and the Difference Between Engagement and Motivation
By Kim Yaris and Jan Burkins

Always with you what cannot be done. . . . You must unlearn what you have learned.–Yoda

Randall Munroe—author, former NASA roboticist, and creator of a science and mathematics webcomic that has a cult following—volunteered to teach a weekend class at MIT on the physics of energy, which he talked about on NPR’s TED Radio Hour. The class was for interested high school students—students obviously motivated to learn science and math, since they were signing up for a weekend physics class. Midway through the lecture on the first day, as he was staring at students’ bored expressions during his explanation of how to calculate the joules of energy (x) required to move a five-kilogram weight, Munroe noticed that these highly interested students had checked out. Suddenly he realized that, even though these students were interested in physics, his explanation of the content had made it abstract and seemingly irrelevant to them.

In such a situation, with students leaning away and looking uninterested, it would have been easy for Munroe to default to blaming them for their lack of motivation. As we work in classrooms alongside teachers, literacy leaders, and administrators, it is not uncommon to hear educators talk about the low motivation levels of students. Inevitably, however, “unmotivated” students are being asked to sit through lessons that are heavy with teacher talk and light on engaging texts and reading experiences.

So what did Munroe do about his seemingly disengaged students in the weekend physics class? He asked a better question. Rather than talking about how to solve for x, which is completely abstract, Munroe told students that, using the formula for potential energy, they could figure out how much potential energy it took for Yoda to lift the X-wing fighter in a scene from The Empire Strikes Back.

Once Munroe told students that this X-wing problem was a relatively straightforward calculation—all you have to know is the mass of the X-wing, the distance Yoda lifted it, and the gravitational strength on Dagobah—the students were suddenly running ahead of him, figuring things out before he could even get to them. They immediately went to a Wikipedia article to find out the mass of the X-wing, and they used YouTube to estimate the distance it was lifted. Once Munroe asked a more engaging question, the seemingly unmotivated students were suddenly leaning into the math and science work, drawing from their energy, not the teacher’s. Munroe was able to watch them problem-solve as he gathered formative assessment data and scaffolded in ways that supported rather than supplanted their efforts.

In the end, of course, they learned a lot of science, because they were actively engaged in applying it in ways that were relevant to them. Since then, Munroe has made it his full-time job to draw comics that ask and answer interesting questions, making abstract mathematics and science relevant enough for people to engage themselves. Ask yourself, which text would you more likely engage with to learn about physics: this one:










Or this one?











This connection between student engagement and learning holds true beyond physics, of course. In fact, research from Gallup indicates that a 1 percent increase in student engagement is positively correlated with substantial increases in achievement scores.

Students are naturally curious and enthusiastic learners. If your students appear unmotivated, assume the best of them and look for ways to affect their motivation by making changes to the learning experience. For us, the bulk of the engagement work during a reading experience happens before the lesson, when we select a text. Text selection is to student engagement during reading instruction as interesting questions are to physics students.

Here are a few questions that may prove helpful as you explore ways to engage (vs. motivate) students:

  • Are the texts you are using too difficult for students, requiring extensive teacher talk to scaffold them?
  • Are you spending weeks and weeks on books that should take only a day or two to read and understand?
  • How can you show more than you tell? Can you use visual art, video clips, or other images to engage students?
  • How much actual reading do students do? Is extensive time spent on teacher explanations and/or student documentation?
  • How much of the reading instruction is about aspects of the text—genre, structure, form, theme—rather than about responses to and connections with the text?
  • How much say do students have in what they read? Where can you give students more choice?
  • How relevant are the texts for students? If the marginally relevant texts are required, how can you make them more relevant?
  • How much are students moving? Do they sit for one long period after another, with little or no opportunity to get their blood circulating?
  • Do students know that you think of them as motivated, smart, and capable?

Just as Randall Munroe discovered that a simple shift in questioning could make a profound difference in the tenor of his learning environment, shifting your focus from motivation to engagement can lead to similar responses from your students. Even minor adjustments can have a powerful effect on learning.

May the force be with you!

8 comments July 8th, 2015

Blogstitute: Got Common Core?

Today’s Blogstitute post comes from Christine Moynihan, whose latest book is Common Core Sense: Tapping the Power of Mathematical Practices. In this post Christine introduces the GOLD framework that helps make the Standards for Mathematical Practice more accessible to elementary teachers. Be sure to leave a comment or ask a question for a chance to win 12 Stenhouse books! On Twitter you can follow along using #blogstitute15.

Got Common Core?
By Christine Moynihan

FC FINAL CommonCoreSense.inddSomething I hear from many teachers is that it is challenging to be up-to-date on everything that teachers should and must know in order to be effective practitioners. This is especially true for elementary teachers, who are asked to be content experts in reading, writing, grammar, spelling, science, social studies, and, of course, mathematics. Not only do they need to have expertise in these curriculum areas in terms of content, but they must also be experts in the best instructional practices that will support their students in learning in each of these areas. (I’m not even going to go into how they also have responsibility for social and emotional growth, health and wellness, behavior management, and the list goes on. . . . )

So, as a former classroom teacher, I get it. As a former curriculum specialist, I also get it. As a former principal, I most certainly get it. As a current educational consultant, not only do I get it, I hear it all the time—there is just so much to know, so much to learn, so much to do. As a result, when I ask a variation of the “Got Common Core?” question, many teachers respond that although they “get” the basics of the Common Core in terms of the standards for mathematical content for their specific grade levels, they believe that they have a somewhat light understanding of the standards for mathematical practice. Most teachers report that what they know about the MPs has been by way of an introductory look at them at a professional development session and/or staff meeting, with little or no follow-up.

My major purpose in writing Common Core Sense: Tapping the Power of the Mathematical Practices emanates from my desire to help teachers gain a foothold in understanding the MPs and how they can affect their practice. The book is meant to be a vehicle for making the eight Standards for Mathematical Practice more accessible to elementary teachers, for I see them as the core of mathematical proficiency. As I wrestled with how to do that, I defaulted to something that has always worked for me as a learner—to devise some kind of a framework, a mnemonic of sorts, to aid in understanding and then activating that understanding. Because I had been saying over and over again that “the gold of the Common Core really lies within the mathematical practices,” I constructed the GOLD framework to help teachers see some of the major components of each MP and then think about what they may look and sound like in classrooms, and what might need to be done to support the incorporation and implementation of the MPs into daily practice.

The Framework:
Go for the goals—What are the major purposes of the practice?
Open your eyes & observe—what should you see students doing as they utilize the practice? What should you see yourself doing?
Listen—What should you hear students saying as they utilize the practice? What should you hear yourself saying?
Decide—What do you need to do as a teacher to mine the gold?

I identified three major goals for each mathematical practice, fully aware that there are many more goals to be found within each. In the link you will find what I have identified as the second goal of Mathematical Practice #3: Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others. What’s not to love about MP3? When you can analyze your thinking enough that you can clarify it, defend it, justify it, and represent it, you have learned something that will be valuable in all areas of life. In terms of mathematics, that ability leads you straight to the path of being mathematically proficient—a goal we all have for our students. I hope that the chart for the second goal I identified for MP3 can help in your work to make this MP come alive for the students in your classrooms.

Accept that viable explanations of mathematical thinking must be organized, reasonable, and justifiable/laden with proof.

8 comments July 6th, 2015

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