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Literacy Now

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    The Choices Teachers Make

    By Carla Kessler
     | Dec 14, 2016

    ThinkstockPhotos-104252466_x300During 24 years of teaching middle school, my one wish was for more time! Time to spend with students who needed extra assurance or help. Time to plan. Time to review and grade student work. Time to collaborate with colleagues. Time to teach all the standards. Time to cover the content of our syllabi. Time to breathe and have fun. Time, time, time!

    Sound familiar?

    As a teacher, I never stopped giving up one thing in order to take care of another thing. Children’s lives and learning were at stake! 

    I was/am an ELA teacher and worked as a learning specialist and Title I coordinator. As such, prioritizing was something I had to do not only for myself but also for others. Research, along with my experience as a teacher, told me to prioritize word learning. This meant minimizing time spent on close reading and reading strategies. It was scary, and I was fortunate to have a principal who backed me up. I knew vocabulary was vital.

    Our school was faced with more than 50% of our readers arriving in sixth grade without skills to learn from their reading. Upon assessing skill deficits, almost all of them were suffering from limited background knowledge—specifically word knowledge—and stuck at a certain reading level, unable to move forward.

    I started to experiment. I engaged my students in an assortment of best practices for word learning in my classroom for 14 years, fine tuning and streamlining. My personal action research showed me that spending 90 minutes a week, with the right strategies, could really do it! I made a difference in reading scores in just four months by prioritizing 90 minutes a week for differentiated word learning. And I was able to do this repeatedly over four years (until I “retired”)!

    Word learning is the key

    At a recent workshop, Kate Kinsella said, "Vocabulary is the silver bullet."

    And she’s not the only one. E.D. Hirsch reminded us in a speech to the Virginia House of Delegates, “The persistent achievement gap between haves and have-nots in our society is chiefly a verbal gap. There is no greater practical attainment in the modern world than acquiring a bellyful of words. A large vocabulary is the single most reliable predictor of practical, real-world competence.”

    In Classroom Instruction That Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement, Robert J. Marzano reminded us, “Direct teaching of vocabulary might be one of the most underused activities in K–12 education. The lack of vocabulary instruction might be a result of misconceptions about what it means to teach vocabulary and its potential effect on student learning.”

    So what does a teacher do?

    Make time. I know, the most controversial word in teaching—time!

    Ninety minutes—join us!

    Are you ready to take on the challenge of making more room for vocabulary instruction? Can you make time for 90 minutes a week? Join me and others in a monthlong challenge to spend 90 minutes each week on word learning! Sign up for more information about The 90 Minute Challenge! by visiting my blog page. We’ll send you interactive activities based on best practices, tips, inspiration, and other support along the way.

    Let me finish with some final poignant statistics:

    According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 22% of children in the United States are living in poverty.

    According to the Heart of America Foundation, 61% of families living in poverty do not have children's books in their homes. Consequently, children living in poverty already have a 50% weaker vocabulary than their wealthier peers at the start of school.

    I hope you want to take the 90 minutes to build student vocabulary, but maybe you think 90 minutes is unattainable? Please comment here to tell us what your roadblocks are. We want to help!

    Carla Kessler headshotCarla Kessler is the director of Learning at LogixLab LLC, creator of Word Lab Web, and formerly a Title I coordinator and learning specialist. She has been recognized as an Outstanding Educator by Delta Kappa Gamma Society International and has been recognized for her skills as a 25-year middle grade teacher, implementing curriculum that brings measurable results.




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    Putting the Social in Social Media

    By Peg Grafwallner
     | Dec 07, 2016
    graf_12_06_h300

    I am a novice at social media. It’s not that I’m opposed to it—quite the contrary—social media, even for all of its perceived negatives, can open up an exciting world to our students and provide them with experiences that some of them only dream of.

    As educators, we are encouraged to use social media in our classroom. Students might write blog posts about what they’re learning, or they might use YouTube to create a podcast, or they might create Twitter accounts for special interest projects.

    Just as we are encouraged to write when our students write or read when our students read, are we using social media to expand our repertoire of learning and are we becoming involved in experiences we once only dreamed of?

    Selfishly, I began tweeting as a way to gain a following for my website. I thought all those who followed me on Twitter would naturally follow my website. I began “following” nearly 1,000 people, assuming they would return the favor. However, I soon realized it was nearly impossible to be a mindful follower or an inspirational communicator if one is following too many people. I soon narrowed my following and, as a result, noticed the same educators joining Twitter chats I joined.

    One name that kept popping up in various educational twitter chats was Robert Ward, a middle school ELA teacher from Los Angeles, CA. During mutual chats, I noticed that his comments were similar to mine and we often agreed on various educational best practices. In addition, I would often receive a “like” or a retweet on my specific comments, most often from Robert. Eventually, when I noticed Robert joining a Twitter chat, I would join that chat, too.

    Recently, Robert published two books: The Firm, Fair, Fascinating Facilitator: Inspire Your Students, Engage Your Class, Transform Your Teaching and its companion workbook, The Teacher Tune-Up. Robert shared this exciting news on Twitter, and I offered him hearty congratulations.

    I have tried for three years to earn a publishing contract and have been turned down more times than I can count. However, when I saw Robert’s good news, I wasn’t bitter or resentful. I was truly happy for him.

    I direct messaged (or DMed) him via Twitter and asked if he could give me some writing tips. What could I do to help move toward that elusive publishing opportunity? What pointers could he suggest that would help make my writing more publishing worthy?

    He messaged back and gave me some great ideas, but his response wasn’t enough. My next question was Can we set up a phone appointment to discuss, in depth, what I could do to get my book published?

    Robert responded, and next thing I knew, we were on the phone, for more than an hour, sharing writing tips and publishing ideas. But the best part was that talking to Robert was like talking to a work colleague, a cheerleader, and a really honest evaluator all at the same time. There was no competitive spirit, just an opportunity to grow together to become the best teachers and learners we could be.

    We have traded blog sources, and he graciously offered to publish one of my original pieces on his site. To reciprocate, I’ve invited him to jointly moderate a Twitter chat with me in March. We have built a social media relationship and, although one might think that a relationship launched on social media site is nothing more than two people trying to “one-up” each other, it’s far more.

    Social media has given me the opportunity to meet someone who I would never have met. It is that profound gratitude that encourages me to build my professional network. I don’t “follow” every educator just to increase my Twitter numbers; I am drawn to a select few who have the same question I do: What can we learn from each other that will help us to support our students?

    I have no doubt that Robert and I will meet someday, maybe at a conference in Milwaukee, a workshop in Los Angeles, or a vacation to the west coast or Midwest. We’ll laugh, listen, learn, and lead, remembering that it all began with a “like”!

    peg grafwallner headshotPeg Grafwallner is an instructional coach with Milwaukee Public Schools. Learn more about Peg on her website.


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    How My ILA Membership Supported My Transition to a District Literacy Coach

    By Staci Kaplan
     | Dec 01, 2016

    LT343_ReflectionsI began a new position as a district literacy coach this fall after 13 years as an elementary school teacher.

    How did I get here?

    It’s largely thanks to the International Literacy Association (ILA), which helps educators move from teacher to leader by facilitating teacher growth through open dialogue about literacy and a commitment to increasing literacy in their communities.

    I first heard the title literacy coach while studying for my master’s in literacy education at Teachers College. However, it was my membership and involvement with ILA that inspired me to become one. I joined ILA in December 2014 and two months later received my first copy of The Reading Teacher. For several days I proudly displayed the journal on my coffee table, too excited to open it. Then on a cold and sunny winter morning, I sat down, coffee in hand, picked up the journal and began to explore. Enthralled, I read page after page.

    In “View From the Chalkboard,” teachers welcomed us into their classrooms. I knew I wanted to do that; I wanted to share. A month later, my first-ever article was accepted for publication. I wrote about my experiences with classroom talk, a practice that transforms a collection of students into a community.

    ILA allowed my voice to be heard and made me realize teachers as leaders matter.

    That was a big moment for me. I changed my focus from being an elementary school teacher for a classroom of students to becoming a teacher leader. I was motivated to dig deeper and find ways to connect with other teachers and make an even greater impact on students’ achievement in literacy. In March 2015, I received my first copy of Literacy Today. I gazed at its full-page advertisement for the ILA conference in St. Louis. I wrote a letter to my administrator requesting funding, it was approved, and off I went. During my four days at the conference, my brain was buzzing with new ways to make a difference.

    After returning, I ran into my principal’s office holding a book I purchased at the conference, telling her how it can help teachers with feedback and goal setting. “Why don’t you give a Lunch and Learn?” she said with a smile. My principal shaped my professional learning plan and, by November, I was surrounded by a group of 15 teachers who all wanted to connect, learn, and grow. Their enthusiasm encouraged me to expand and share with teachers across our district.

    I returned from the ILA conference in Boston in July, this time focusing on literacy leadership and engaging classroom instruction. After hearing Linda Gambrell of Clemson University at the Research Institute, I was inspired to embark on a yearlong mission to increase students’ reading motivation through access, relevance, and choice. I participated in sessions on mind-set, making learning visible, coaching for growth, and thinking like a leader.

    With ILA by my side, I am learning to be a leader who creates knowledge along with administrators, principals, teachers, parents, and students, to be a literacy coach who designs a space with love, hope, trust, and humility.

    From teacher to leader, that is how I came to be here.

    staci kaplan headshotStaci Kaplan, an ILA member since 2014, is a literacy coach for Summit Public Schools in New Jersey. Along with crediting ILA for guiding her in her career, she is also very thankful for the support and guidance of Lauren Banker, principal of Washington Elementary School in Summit.

    This article originally appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

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    Breaking the Cycle of Reading Reluctance

    By Flora Majdalawi
     | Nov 15, 2016

    Majdalawi 111516Although many insist on blaming some children’s disinterest in reading primarily on the distractions caused by electronic gadgets in their lives, a child who finds it difficult to read is unlikely to pick up a book and read it, gadgets or no.

    By the end of the third grade, students are expected to be able to read independently and proficiently. However, current indicators in fluency and comprehension are extremely low in many parts of the world, and a vast number of children are embarking on their fourth-grade journey while struggling with the most important skill needed for academic success.

    The struggle in reading and the reluctance to read are strongly connected. The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), a division of the American Library Association (ALA), defines the reluctant reader as “the teenager who, for whatever reason, does not like to read.” I took the liberty to extend this definition to include the children of 9 years old and above, because this is the age when they are supposed to be proficient in reading and may not be. Here, we find a vicious circle in which struggling readers become reluctant readers that don’t improve their proficiency and on and on. We learn reading by reading, and we will enjoy it more when we are better at it.  

    Addressing this issue has become a matter of priority for policymakers, educators, and publishers. Many approaches include the use of technology to encourage reading; however, the production of new, innovative, and diverse reading programs is an urgent necessity.

    I have struggled to find fun fictional reading material for children over the third grade threshold in Arabic, both as a bookstore owner and as a mother. During the past decade, production of Arabic picture books has experienced relative growth, though it is still modest and lacks diversity. The young adult genre has always benefitted from classic literature written for adults. Nevertheless, the tweens arena is sorely lacking, filled mostly with translations and sporadic original attempts. So I decided to write for tweens, and I was determined to write a series. I learned from my childhood experience that if readers like a title in a series, they will look for the next one. 

    The idea of writing a series fascinated me. It meant creating long-term characters with many stories, a variety of experiences, and a diversity of themes.

    Soon after the launch of the Hind and Saif series, I was invited to schools to meet students, many of whom were reluctant and struggling readers. Talking to students firsthand was priceless and rewarding and made me realize that I created a special niche through which I could offer my young readers an enchanting reading experience that they will seek to repeat outside the classroom, transcending any academic obligation. Such experiences are the first steps towards creating readers—lifelong readers—and thus breaking the vicious cycle of reading reluctance.

    Flora Majdalawi headshotFlora Majdalawi, an ILA member, is an Arabic children’s author and publisher. For 10 years she has focused on producing fiction and nonfiction literacy resources for primary students. She has authored more than 20 titles in the differentiated graded Arabic reading series Discover the Fun of Reading. She is also the author of the tweens realistic fiction series Hind and Saif.
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    Respecting Student Development, Differences Through Adaptive Language Classes

    By Erica C. M. Coutrim and Gustavo Fuga dos Reis
     | Nov 03, 2016

    ThinkstockPhotos-478407994_x300In recent years, educational software developers have offered the adaptive method as an innovation in language learning, but the concept of internal differentiation emerged decades ago. This response to the behaviorist approach considered that all students learn in the same way, but the development of new theories has changed this idea.

    In the case of English as a foreign language, the assumption that students have different learning characteristics was influenced by the nativist, cognitivist, and interactionist theories.

    From the nativist perspective, language learning is a biological mechanism regulated by the language acquisition device that processes input in the foreign language. Cognitivism, in turn, considers that learners act, construct, plan, and analyze their learning on the basis of internal and mental processes. The interactionist theory assumes the learners’ heterogeneity, meaning that mediated interaction among individuals with different knowledge levels, is the key to an efficient learning process.

    All of these theories (and more) have guided the development of new methods and teaching practices, but using the same method with different learners within a group counteracts the importance of heterogeneity.

    Despite the effort of language courses and schools to create an environment that uses methods to respect differences, choices made exclusively by schools become contradictory. Not only surrounding cognitive aspects but also cultural, social, and ethnographic elements that have singularized the way people behave which, in turn, affects how they learn a foreign language.

    Furthermore, the massive use of Internet tools and other technological devices in the classroom also demands the development of different literacies and the consideration of the constant differentiation during the learning process.

    The use of technology emerges as an efficient way to account positively for the differences among learners to promote self-identification, autonomy, and motivation. Therefore, technological devices and the Internet can be useful in developing individual courses for singularized individuals who are in constant transformation. But it needs to be authentic. The application of some social and ethnographic data to the same foreign language course (with modifications), the difference in progress, or the possibility of teachers determining, through technology, what and how students learn cannot be called truly adaptive. Adaptive learning must take into account all differences to create different courses with varied methods and content according to the needs of each student. Not only this, but it is necessary also to consider we are all individuals in constant development. An adaptive course must be modified according to student development during the entire process.

    It is complex but possible and promising. Adaptive learning will help create new learning environments (online or face-to-face) where learner differences are not only respected but an underlying concept in the foreign language learning and teaching processes.

    erica coutrimgustavo fugaErica C. M. Coutrim is a PhD student in Languages and Education at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. Gustavo Fuga dos Reis is an honoree on ILA’s 2016 30 Under 30 list. He is the CEO and founder of 4YOU2, a self-sustaining social entrepreneurship-focused venture that has served more than 5,000 language learners in Brazil.


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