What Looks Right? (Teaching Self Monitoring in Spelling)

I’m writing with a fun, easy, and big-bang-for-your-buck strategy that supports student self-monitoring.  (How many things in life can you you describe that way?!)
As with anything recommended by Pat Cunningham, What Looks Right? helps your students build literacy skills, and is easy for them to use at the same time.
When students are unsure of how to spell a word, this strategy asks them to write down the word using both (or all) common spelling patterns that could potentially be used in that word.  For example, nail could be written “nail” or “nale.”  Then, they’re asked to choose which one “looks right,” and to check this spelling in a dictionary, or with a more proficient speller, as needed.  This builds exactly the spelling process that most struggling spellers don’t generally use on their own – and relies on the notion that proficient spelling is a combination of using learned phonetic patterns, and the learner’s visual memory.  Making use of either one of these to the exclusion of the other results in spelling errors – but using them together builds self-monitoring and greatly increases the likelihood that a writer will use correct spelling.
This strategy could be introduced with early elementary children who are strong spellers, could be widely used in second through third or fourth grades, and would definitely be appropriate to introduce with any struggling student in the older grades.
See the attached pages for a longer explanation of how to use the strategy, two examples of the strategy as it was used with students, and a shorthand, “cheat sheet” for a reminder of how to use the strategy after you’ve already become familiar with it.
The following pages were taken from Month by Month Phonics for Third Grade, by Pat Cunningham and Dorothy Hall, 2003

Making Plans to Read During Winter Break

Aside from the good news that Cliff Lee is returning to Philadelphia (woo-hoo!), another happy occurrence I’m enjoying during these chilly December days is my leisure reading.  As a lifelong enthusiastic reader, I don’t need anyone to remind me that an upcoming vacation means having extra time for many of my most favorite things, with reading at the top of that list.

Donalyn Miller, the self-proclaimed “book whisperer” of internet fame, wrote this week (December 11, 2010) about the importance of our students continuing to read during extended school breaks.  I’ve attached a link to her blog post from this week below, but I’ll also summarize it.

She advises that teachers should help students think about and plan for three things before they leave to begin a break:

  • how they will find ample time to read over the break – and set realistic goals for how much reading they’ll do (think about downtime, travel time, reading habits that could be formed),
  • how they will choose enough books and which titles they’ll read (what are they “on” about right now, what are they looking for in something to read), and
  • how they will make a written record of their plan, to ensure they stick to it.

I hope you enjoy reading Donalyn’s blog, and sincerely hope you’ll try this exercise with your students.  If you do, let me know how it goes, and if you’re interested, let me know what YOU plan to read during the break.

I myself will be finishing Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (which has been life-changing!), working my way through some of the Amber Brown series for a project I’m working on with a teacher, beginning the new textbook for a course I’m taking in January, and starting the Dinosaur Cove series with my kids.

I look forward to hearing what you’re all up to!


Digital Storytelling Tool

At my monthly Language Arts meeting at the DCIU, I learned about a number of different ways to use technology to support literacy instruction.
One of them was through use of a website called Animoto.    www.animoto.com
Animoto is a video-creation tool that is extremely simple to use, yet gives you impressive, professional-looking results.
You are able to upload images, text, short video clips, and music, and Animoto arranges them all  for you into a video that can be shared as a web link.  (Animoto also has an App for the iPhone.)
Feel free to visit the site and see a tutorial about how it works, and watch their Example Videos.
Some ways I can think of to use Animoto:
  • share videos containing images and text about the children at work (wish I’d heard of it sooner – it’d be great to have running in the hallway while parents wait for their turn at conferences!)
  • demonstrate the big ideas (and images) that the children have learned in a unit of study
  • retell the main idea and/or most important points from a work of fiction or nonfiction (Animoto only allows about two lines of text, so children really must boil ideas down to their essence in order to use text in their slideshows.)
  • recap a field trip or special event for families who couldn’t be there
Animoto has free upgraded accounts for educators, which can be applied for at their homepage, above, and scrolling to the bottom right.  Under Animoto for… you’ll see “education.”  Click here to apply to create an educator account – this must be approved, which they say can take a couple of weeks.  So, if you apply today, you can get busy making video slide shows soon!
When you’re in the “Animoto For Education” page, you’ll be able to see actual examples of ways other educators have used Animoto – from an alphabet letter/sound recognition slide show to one on bully prevention.
I’ve already created a couple of their free, short (30 seconds or less) videos – and it’s been easy and fun!

Have a great time using this with your students!

What Teachers Want

Below, I’ve summarized the top three main ideas from a short article from the August issue of the Journal of Staff Development – with the engaging title, What Teachers Want.

I’ll talk about these three ideas in terms of the kinds of staff development in literacy we’ll be undertaking this year.

So, what do teachers want, as they choose from among the MANY professional development options out there?

This study found that teachers preferred:

1) Having opportunities to connect with other teachers

Many RTM teachers have worked together for the past three years to design and implement new writing units of study, and their use is spreading.  If your team isn’t a piloting team yet, please talk with someone who is – there are great things going on with this pilot!  These teams of teachers will be working closely within their teams, with me, and with larger groups across buildings, in order to refine the use of these units and eventually create schools in which we all use writing workshop, at every grade level – and our students will benefit from this “connectedness” and unity of approach.

As well, we’re continuing with the use of literacy lab classrooms for reading this year.  All five of last year’s literacy lab teachers have returned to their roles, and they’ve decided as a team that they’ll each focus on the implementation of a series of reading units of study in their classrooms during this school year.  I know you’ll have a wonderful experience if you participate in one of the lit lab visitations this year – both as you observe in the classroom of a fellow teacher, and as you discuss best practices with the team of teachers who visits that day.

2) Crafting new methods of instruction

Again, for many months, our writing workshop pilot teachers have worked together to create well-crafted, clearly-written writing units of study together, based on the materials we already have within the district, some new materials, and some materials that other districts have shared with us.  This collaboration time has been exciting to watch and join, and has resulted in the opportunity to continue to share methods and materials in our classrooms, because we’re all on the same page.

Our reading literacy lab teachers have also worked together to find and create the materials they need to lead the children through reading units of study.  To give you an idea, the reading units of study in the upper grades includes units such as: Building a Reading Life, Following Characters into Meaning, Navigating Nonfiction, and Tackling Complex Texts.  These reading units are not thematic units, but rather deep units of study that teach children how to develop the habits of strong, purposeful, lifelong readers.

3) Receiving support for reflection about the results of the work I do in my classroom

Our writing pilot  teachers will be formally working together monthly (and I’m sure informally, more regularly than that) to unpack the work they are doing this year – talking about assessment, talking about the work their students are doing, watching me teach, watching each other teach, etc.

Our reading lit lab teachers meet frequently as a team, and an observation in one of their classrooms always leads to lively and productive cross-building conversations about great teaching.

While the writing pilot and the lit lab classrooms are two large initiatives which will take up a good deal of my time this year, of course, I’m always available to work with you on any other literacy-related questions, concerns, or ideas you might have.  I can talk things over with you, co-teach, co-plan, demonstrate, or help you find resources for the great work you’re doing.

The Key Word Strategy

Synthesizing is one of the most challenging things we ask children to do, and yet the children who can demonstrate it clearly have full and rich understanding of the text they are reading.

The Key Word Strategy is a high-utility, easy-to-implement comprehension strategy.  It asks children to pause as they are reading a challenging text, and then to think of a single key word or short phrase that sums up the section of text they’ve just read.  It makes them slow down their reading in difficult texts and narrow down their focus while reading and consider main ideas.  This strategy also encourages close reading and re-reading, since students will need to return to passages about which the meaning is unclear.

Students can be given small sticky notes and asked to place the key word or short phrase on the sticky note, and leave it on top of the section of text they were reading.

BONUS: A reverse of this strategy is called “Story Impressions,” in which you’d give students a chronological list of key words or phrases from a passage, and use it to build background knowledge, explore vocabulary and predict before reading.

The Key Word Strategy is a beautiful thing, in large part, because of its large “bang” for your (relatively small) buck.  It requires little advance preparation, but is a perfect strategy to throw out to a group of children (or an individual child) when you see them losing hold of their comprehension, particularly in nonfiction texts.

It is also a simple enough strategy for beginning readers, since there is relatively little writing required.  As children begin to approach second grade, this strategy can also be translated into a t-chart graphic organizer on another sheet of paper.

The left side of the t-chart can be labeled “section headings,” and the right can be labeled “key words.”  Students can then keep track of all key words, phrases, and ideas for each section of a book they read.

Reading Conference Checklist

I’m attaching a revised version of the Reading Conference Checklist I shared with you in September.  A number of RTM teachers have had input into its re-creation.
I’ve been using it, to see what I think, as have a few other teachers, and we’ve all found that it’s a helpful resource, at a variety of grade levels, for guiding and focusing your thinking while listening to children read.
It’s my hope that it can provide you with a framework that helps you to name both what your students are doing, and what they are NOT doing.  It also is VERY quick and simple to use – as not every part of it needs to be filled out each time you meet with a student.  Over time, using has helped me begin to approach my reading conferences differently, keeping an eye out for a wider variety of reading behaviors.
I hope you’ll find it useful, and please let me know if you have suggestions for revision!

Test Prep Magic

As PSSA season approaches again, I found a well-written article by Heather Wolpert, offering some helpful hints on getting our kids ready for standardized tests.

Her list included:

1. Practice bubbling (meaning that no task is too small to rehearse with children as they prepare for being comfortable during testing)

2. Teach Them How to Speak Test (making a list of common words associated with test instructions and discussing with students what the authors mean)

3. Stare Your Own  Data in the Face and Model Improvement

4. Show Them the Data and Set Individual Goals

5. Make Confidence-Building Part of Test Prep (including writing “golden lines” to their peers, words of encouragement for success that were taped onto desks)

The full article can be found here: