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Literacy Now

Teaching Tips
Making a Case for Reading Joy
ILA 2019 Replay
Making a Case for Reading Joy
ILA 2019 Replay
    • Teaching Tips
    • The Engaging Classroom

    Rethinking Assessment in Word Study: Five Ready-to-Go Ideas

    By Pam Koutrakos
     | Mar 14, 2019

    We sat around a horseshoe-shaped table, shifting our weight in too-small chairs, surrounded by coffee cups and afternoon-pick-me-up snacks. Leafing through piles of papers, a colleague remarked, “Urgh. I think my class is as tired of spelling tests as I am.” We all paused. Someone laughed. We then took action, contemplating ways to shake things up. Been there? Felt that? Following are a few ideas to jump-start assessment in word study.

    Next level sorting challenge

    This routine asks students to sort words according to the pattern learned and apply this knowledge to spell new words. Sorting, categorizing, and applying exercises bring high-level critical thinking to this efficient check-in routine. In the same amount of time it takes to administer a traditional spelling test, we can assess so much more than rote memorization.



    Show off

    This check-in routine offers different options for flexibility. The simplest and quickest method is to have students turn and talk, sharing recent word learning. Have more time? Ask students to compose a written reflection or create an infographic to showcase learning. Apps such as Screencastify, Flip Grid, Powtoon, Canva, and Scratch offer digital platforms for students to show off their word knowledge.

    koutrakos-3 copy

    Interactive writing

    During interactive writing, the class cocomposes a piece of writing. Students offer ideas and the teacher writes these ideas on a shared document. Each time the class gets to a targeted word, students are invited to ponder the spelling. A volunteer writes the word on the document. By having the teacher do most of the writing, the process is a quick and efficient use of classroom time. When students participate in focused aspects of the writing, the why behind this work is clear and understood. As a bonus, interactive writing can be done during any subject.



    Use it or lose it 

    One leading goal of word study is for students to apply knowledge while reading—decoding with automaticity while maintaining fluency and comprehension. We can assess application by listening as students read self-selected texts (with target words and parts) and observing accuracy and fluency. If students stumble, we can note the self-monitoring strategies used. We may even ask about the meaning and connotation of words with taught parts. This can be done during a small group lesson or a 1:1 conversation.


    Find and fix

    Another word study goal is to consistently transfer knowledge to writing. Start by recalling recently taught word study patterns or word parts. Then, challenge students to reread recent work, find evidence of application, and correct spelling as needed. If a student does not find any examples of words with taught patterns or parts, encourage them to find authentic opportunities to integrate (conventionally spelled) pattern words. There are infinite worthwhile times and places to find, fix, and celebrate!

    Each of these ideas intend to be flexible enough to fit a variety of time frames and classroom settings. Furthermore, each enables teachers to glean information about students’ understanding of words and readiness to apply gained expertise. A great first step toward making word study assessment more meaningful? Try one new idea. Experimentation helps us see what works—and provides opportunities to see what students find most engaging.


    koutrakos-7Pam Koutrakos is an experienced and enthusiastic educator known for her positive outlook and energy. As an educational consultant with Gravity Goldberg, LLC, she is deeply committed to motivating and supporting students and teachers on their learning journeys. Pam authored Word Study That Sticks: Best Practices K-6 (Corwin, 2018) and The Word Study That Sticks Companion (Corwin, 2019). Both include assessment ideas, lessons, tools, and tips to start up and step up word study in K–6 classrooms. Connect with Pam on Twitter at @PamKou.

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    • Student Choice
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    Student Choice Is the Key to Turning Students Into Readers

    By Jenni Aberli
     | Mar 07, 2019

    ela-engagementAlthough I was never really a struggling reader, from middle school until my first year teaching, I was what you might call a nonreader. I could read very well, I just didn’t. You’re probably wondering how one can major in English and not love reading. The answer is simple: no teacher instilled a love of reading in me. My teachers didn’t give me choices of what to read. Instead, I was given books I despised and then tested on them. That did not equate to enjoyment for me.

    Not until my first year of teaching did I become a reader. One of my students was a voracious reader and always had a book in her hand. I recall seeing her with My Sergei by Ekaterina Gordeeva (Grand Central Publishing) one day and asked her about it. She gave me a summary and I told her it sounded interesting. Shortly after that conversation, she gave me the book and suggested I read it. Though I didn’t want to read it, as the teacher, I was supposed to love reading, so I did. To my surprise, I enjoyed it. When I finished the book, we did what readers do; we talked about that book. Soon after, she gave me another, and another, and before long, she had turned me into a reader. I learned firsthand the value of how finding great books can turn nonreaders into readers. From that point on, turning students into readers has been my life’s work.

    When I saw the International Literacy Association’s (ILA) new initiative aimed at ensuring every child has access to the education, opportunities, and resources needed to read, called Children’s Rights to Read, I immediately latched on. As our district’s high school ELA content lead, my job is to lead the work of literacy in the more than 20 high schools in my district, and this document has become a part of that work.

    So how do we turn students into readers? We advocate for reading in many ways, all of which are part of the Children’s Rights to Read. I am a huge advocate (for obvious reasons) of giving students choice in what they read (Right no. 3) to encourage them to read for pleasure (Right no. 5). Students need to read what they love and are interested in. Those choices should be texts that mirror their experiences and languages or provide windows into the lives of others (Right no. 4).

    As teachers, we show students what we value by how we spend our class time; therefore, setting aside time in class every day for students to read is important (Right no. 7) as is providing diverse and relevant classroom libraries surrounding students with great texts (Rights no. 2, 4, 5, and 10). Finally, we must encourage and support our students by providing safe, literacy-rich environments in which students support one another (Right no. 6) and share what they are reading and learning with one another through various modes of communication, such as reading, writing, and speaking (Rights no. 8 and 9).

    I spend most of my budget purchasing classroom libraries of high-interest YA books that will hook students, and my team provides teachers with professional development to guide them in how to effectively implement independent reading opportunities. We teach them strategies such as book-tasting, book talks, book clubs, and how to integrate apps such as Padlet and Flipgrid. Currently, we are using professional resources from Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide (Stenhouse) and Penny Kittle’s Book Love (Heinemann) as well as their collaborative book, 180 Days (Heinemann) to build our own expertise and knowledge of turning our students into readers.

    Throughout my career, I have seen nonreader after nonreader turn into readers. Teachers have facilitated this transformation by giving students both access to high-interest books and choice in their reading. Our ultimate goal is to improve students’ literacy, and we know that in order to do so, students need to read. Yes, standards are important. Yes, grade-level texts are important. But unless students will actually pick up a text and read, none of that matters. The most urgent need to improve literacy demands students to read, and to do that, we must give them access to the education, opportunities, and resources needed to read. Fortunately, we have a guide for doing just that in the ILA Children’s Rights to Read.   

    Jenni Aberli is a high school literacy specialist at Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky.

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    • The Engaging Classroom
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    A Perfect Match: The Power of Blending Literacy and Social and Emotional Learning

    By Margaret Wilson
     | Feb 28, 2019

    school-stairsTeachers understand the importance of social and emotional learning (SEL) but are sometimes hesitant to add yet another objective to an already packed schedule. The good news is that teachers can weave SEL instruction into English language arts (ELA) lessons without adding learning time or taking away from other subjects.

    SEL is a topic that’s getting a lot of attention; a highly anticipated report urges teachers to integrate SEL throughout the school day, citing the relationship between social, emotional, and academic skills and postsecondary success. The ELA period is an ideal time to provide students with opportunities to develop empathy, communication, and collaboration skills while improving literacy skills. ELA curricula centered on engaging topics and rich reading material allow students to connect on a deep and substantive level, enabling them to better understand each other and academic content.

    Teachers can use the following proven strategies to facilitate discussion:

    Teach wait time

    Giving students time to reflect on a question before answering serves social and academic goals. This practice helps students learn to think before speaking, leading to more effective, articulate responses and deeper conversations. Teachers should pause after asking a question to give students time to formulate ideas. Explain the purpose of the waiting period so students can use their time intentionally.

    Let students lead

    When students struggle, we’re tempted to share our own responses to questions. But that signals that students can wait for teachers to do the work for them. It can also suggest that the teacher’s answer is the only right one, dismissing other possibilities and creative thinking.

    Instead of interjecting, try the following approaches:

    • Have students discuss ideas in small groups first. This eases the pressure of speaking to the whole group. It can also help students articulate their thinking and develop the confidence to express their ideas in a larger setting.
    • Provide scaffolds. Sometimes our questions fail because students lack the requisite knowledge of a text. Instead of jumping in to answer, ask more basic questions that help students to build a foundation for deeper understanding.
    • Ask follow-up questions. Help students get themselves unstuck by asking more specific, follow-up questions, such as “What evidence from the text supports your conclusion?” or “Where could we go in the text to look for clues about why the character acted that way?”

    Encourage peer-to-peer conversation

    Many classroom conversations involve students talking to each other through the teacher. But to fully develop strong communication and relationship skills, students need to learn to talk directly with each other.

    To help make this happen, consider the following strategies:

    • Avoid repeating student responses. Repeating student responses encourages them to listen to us rather than to each other. Try a nod instead. If students have trouble hearing a classmate, teach them to respectfully ask for higher volume.
    • Facilitate rather than evaluate. Often, we signal what we think of each student’s response to a question. That prevents students from reflecting on and building on each other’s thinking, and reticent students might not participate for fear of having the “wrong” answer. Instead, facilitate the conversation, for example by pointing out several insightful student comments and then asking a question to move the discussion forward.
    • Encourage students to respond to others’ ideas. Encourage students to actively listen to and connect with others’ ideas.
    • Try sentence starters, such as: “I agree with Alonzo because _______.” “I disagree with Alonzo because ______.” Ask follow-up questions based on student responses, such as “Do you agree with what Alonzo said? Why or why not?”

    Everything you do to help students learn to talk directly to each other, respectfully respond to each other, and build on each other’s comments will pay off for them academically as well as socially. Their rich conversations will lead to a deeper understanding of content and enhance their ability to communicate with and ultimately relate to others.

    Margaret Wilson is managing editor of Humanities Content Development at Great Minds, creator of the English language arts curriculum Wit & Wisdom. She is the author of the book The Language of Learning: Teaching Students Core Thinking, Listening, and Speaking Skills (Center for Responsive Schools, 2014).

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    Exploring the Nexus of Identity and Academic Writing

    By Debalina Maitra
     | Feb 27, 2019

    The day I started to work toward my PhD in literacy education, I began to believe profoundly that reading and writing are socially constructed, as many researchers (such as Mikhail Bakhtin, Michael Halliday, and Lev Vygotsky) claimed. However, when I really started to struggle with the expectations of academic writing, that was the moment I realized just how underestimated and unexplored the nexus of cultural identity and academic writing is in the field of literacy instruction.

    Then, I met many other bright international and culturally diverse scholars going through the same ordeal. My own frustrating experience with academic writing finally helped me to produce my dissertation. Focusing on undergraduate students, my study used rigorous qualitative data analyses to explore how teacher educators can better teach academic language to culturally and linguistically diverse learners.

    For my study, I interviewed five participants three times throughout the semester about their academic writing experiences and perception. The participants were also asked to share two writing samples—one they enjoyed writing and one that they did not.

    My study found that students were more likely to enjoy writing when they were able to write about their own lives. Students also appreciated when they were able to negotiate with professors about writing expectations or new ways of approaching an assignment. These findings suggest that voice and autonomy are important factors in creating more positive writing experiences.

    My study also revealed that perception and experience of academic writing were reciprocal to the students, meaning they did not differentiate between those two components. All five participants mentioned perception and experience components back and forth to refer to their academic writing approach, process, strengths, and weaknesses. My research also revealed that people with multicultural and multilingual identities often go through identity conflicts and eventually they embrace their both identities and uniquely create an amalgamation of both spaces. We, as educators, need to learn to work in that third space to maximize student potential by recognizing students’ background, ethnicity, and linguistic resources and scaffold them in that zone through those tools.

    Some may argue that certain disciplines offer more opportunities for scaffolding through culture and language. However, my study found that many students’ academic paths are rooted in their cultural identity. For example, one participant chose to study chemistry because he wanted to use his knowledge of food economics to build healthier eating habits in his Hispanic community. He wanted to create an awareness in his community of the negative health impacts associated with a high-carbohydrate diet. Knowing this, a teacher educator could more easily assign him a writing prompt that explores his specific interests in chemistry.

    Another participant mentioned that she decided to study biology because she learned to respect nature from her Venezuelan culture. She also mentioned that her writing style was more centered on personal anecdotes than on hard facts. For example, she wrote a narrative on the environment, explaining what would happen to the future generation if the environment is not protected. Teacher educators should always give students choices about their approach in academic writing or talk to students of color to understand how they are trying to proceed with their class writing.

    Certainly, high-impact teaching can cause high exhaustion, and getting to know all students and their background can be a challenge. On the basis of my research findings, I offer a few suggestions:

    • Get to know each other. Teacher educators can set up an introduction where students might introduce themselves in multimodal mode. Students can be asked about their culture, language, and countries whenever applicable. This will help students feel welcomed and connected.
    • Be flexible. Whenever possible, teacher educators can give students opportunities to write about topics that are relevant to them. That means teacher educators can adopt an open-ended writing prompt, as long as students meet the end goal of that task.
    • Establish expectations. I feel it’s crucial for teacher educators to clearly state the task, audience, process, format, and assessment criteria for a writing assignment and explain how it fits into the larger curriculum, so that students understand the expectations.
    • Be available. My research also revealed that the availability and approachability of teacher educators influenced students’ perceptions of academic writing. When teacher educators were willing to talk to students outside of class or help them shape their writing, students took advantage of the help. However, when teacher educators directed them to the writing center or other outside resources, students felt discouraged. Therefore, I recommend that teacher educators clearly communicate their availability and willingness to offer support.

    Most important, we need to accept that literacy is not just specific to content areas, but an extension of who we are. Let’s consider who we are outside of the academia, because reading and writing is not just cognitive acts to make 21st-century teaching more relevant to students’ lives.

    Debalina Maitra has a PhD in Literacy Education from University of Wyoming and a minor in Qualitative Research Methods. Her dissertation research focused on academic writing and cultural identity of culturally and linguistically diverse undergraduate students. She is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher for CAFECS (Chicago Alliance for Equity in Computer Science), a NSF-funded Research Practitioner Partnership grant in Chicago. Her research is focused on equity in computer science for culturally diverse students at Chicago Public Schools. She is particularly focusing on Hispanic students and trying to build an equity framework.

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    • The Engaging Classroom

    Learning and Building a Partnership Through Activities and Home Visits

    By Anasthasie Liberiste-Osirus
     | Feb 19, 2019

    honoring-diversityIn recent years, there has been a shift in diversity within our classrooms in the United States. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicates that the number of English learners (ELs) in public schools has increase between 3–10% since the fall of 2000, with the greatest influx in states such as California, Texas, Kansas, and Nevada.

    This shift in population required a shift in my personal communication strategy with parents and caregivers.

    Teaching high school reading and English skills to EL students came with its set of challenges. By the third month of the school year, I understood that I needed to think outside the box if I wanted family engagement and student success. With the growth of 6% in Georgia’s EL student population from 2000 to 2015—and most home languages consisting of Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Arabic—it was clear that certain efforts of communication with parents and caregivers were just not successful. Namely, sending long, complex documents home in English; emailing parents; making phone calls without an interpreter; and expecting parents and caregivers to show up to teacher conferences without language support.

    The ineffectiveness of my past efforts to connect provided me with a unique opportunity to develop a plan of action that was feasible and sustainable.

    The snapshot

    Taking time to learn about my EL population was essential. Becoming familiar with a student’s culture, specific traditions, language, and religious holidays not only helped me get a better understanding of students overall, but it gave context to responses and some acquisition confusion.

    Learning about your students’ culture also provides you, the teacher, with a foundation to build practical lessons that build on their background knowledge as well as improve communication between you and the student. Though most of my students spent over six months at refugee camps and had zero documentation of academic gaps or progress, they all came into my classroom with real-world experiences that enriched our daily activities.

    I took it upon myself to validate the richness of their home language and culture with lessons that supported both our district’s language and literacy curriculum and their home language—for example, finding literature from home cultures that mirrored literature classics or providing opportunity for students to develop a class dictionary with essential words for each language spoken.

    I started other activities to bolster home–school connections such as a yearly cultural showcase featuring native dances, music, and poetry where families and students were active in putting it together. Connecting with local organizations that supported many of my refugee and displaced students to assist with translations, provide tutoring, or other community resources was also vital. These interventions were done to understand and support students in the classroom.

    But was this enough to connect with parents and caregivers and their students?

    Developing deeper connections

    Though there was an obvious language and cultural gap, the navigation of learning about my students’ background beyond their enrollment record gave me a better global sense of my students and their emotional load when they enter my classroom each morning. As I learned more about my students, I realized that relationship building could be emphasized through face to face interactions.

    In Georgia, about 30% of EL students live in urban regions. One way that I made further efforts to build trust was to visit students’ homes, soliciting a native speaker to assist during visits when possible, and attending cultural events within their community.

    It became my priority not just to visit the students who were clearly unsupported and falling through the cracks but also the students who were succeeding. Weekday evening and weekend morning visits became routine. It took a bit of planning to navigate routes, coordinate with a translating volunteer, and speak to students to work out a schedule. I also worked with other teachers who shared the same students and we collaborated to make our presence known among the EL population. An average student received at least one visit within the school year, but all families received some type of written or verbal communication several times throughout the year.

    The takeaway

    A few things I learned through taking the time to learn about my students and making an effort to build relationships through home visits were that

    • Many parents and caregivers are unable to interpret the academic plans and additional programs set up to bolster their child’s educational experience. Though interested in learning, many felt overwhelmed.
    • Due to external variables (e.g., parents and caregivers working multiple jobs, unable to find child care for meeting, or anxiety surrounding lack of communication), many parents are unable to attend parent teacher conferences.
    • Poverty was a common factor that affected a parent or caregiver’s lack of availability.
    • Students are weighted down by the pressure of navigating government assistance forms, job applications, and communicating for their families.

    With classrooms averaging four different languages and cultures, connecting with families helped build a partnership that became reflective in my approach to teaching and communication between home and school.

    Understanding each student’s culture and home life allows us to vary our teaching and build on their background knowledge. Taking the time to learn about each student affirms to the student that we respect and value the wealth of experiences and knowledge they bring to our classroom.

    Anasthasie N. Liberiste-Osirus is the associate director of the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education in Haiti program.

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