Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Teaching the Writing Process

I just found a neat video that outlines the five steps in the writing process for teachers. It was created using a tool called PowToon, which my students in grade 7 are excited about these days.

Here's the link to Steps of the Writing Process.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Teaching Reading Fluency

"Our job as teachers is to help them sound good, and that means not only matching texts to their ability but doing some very explicit teaching. they can only develop fluency by reading fluently." ~Fountas and Pinnell

When comparing the observable behaviours of fluent readers with those of nonfluent readers, you should notice differences in word-solving strategies, expression, pacing, and comprehension. In their book, When Readers Struggle: Teaching That Works, Fountas and Pinnell highlight the six dimensions of fluency, which will help you understand why you write the word "choppy" in your anecdotal notes on a daily basis but are unsure of what to do to fix it.

1. Pausing

The reader uses the visual information provided by punctuation to take pauses at appropriate points in the text. Improper pausing, or a lack of pausing, can create difficulties with comprehension.

Observable Behaviours in Nonfluent Readers: 
  • Failure to pause at punctuation marks, such as a short pause at a comma and a longer pause at a period.
  • No changes in the voice around punctuation marks, such as rising intonation at a question mark.

2. Phrasing

Moving beyond attending to punctuation, proper phrasing is about placing pauses at appropriate points in the text to create meaningful and logical phrases. Good phrasing helps the listener to understand the text.

Observable Behaviours in Nonfluent Readers: 
  • The reader's words do not sound natural like we do when we are talking.  
  • Pauses in reading are illogical or poorly placed.

3. Intonation/Rhythm

As the reader makes sense of the text, their voice changes in tone (rising and falling), pitch, and volume at different points. This is closely linked to expression, but expression requires that the six dimensions of fluency are all in place.

Observable Behaviours in Nonfluent Readers: 
  • Rising and falling tones in acknowledgement of punctuation do not occur.
  • Changes in pitch or volume do not occur, for example, to show excitement or anger.
  • The reader makes no attempt to change their voice to sound like the characters in a story. 
  • Reading sounds monotone.

4. Stress

When using proper stress, the reader emphasizes certain words to indicate his or her interpretation of the meaning of the text. Because this is based on interpretation, different readers might put stress on different words in the same text.   

Observable Behaviours in Nonfluent Readers: 
  • The reader does not attend to text features that indicate stress should be used (boldface). 
  • The reader does not make important words sound louder. 

5. Rate

The reader reads at an appropriate pace for the type of text being read. In general, it should be not too fast and not too slow.

Observable Behaviours in Nonfluent Readers: 
  • Failure to use pauses, phrasing, intonation, and proper stress and using a very slow pace.
  • Racing through a text with an inability to process the text for good comprehension.
  • Robotic or choppy sounding.

6. Integration

The reader incorporates pausing, phrasing, intonation, stress, and rate seamlessly into the reading of a text. When they are all in place, the reader is reading with expression, and  they show evidence that they understand what they are reading.

Observable Behaviours in Nonfluent Readers: 
  • Reading is not smooth.
  • Reading does not sound interesting.
  • The reader is not reading as if they are telling the story.

Resources For Teaching Reading Fluency

When Readers Struggle: Teaching That Works by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell

Fountas & Pinnell Prompting Guide Part 1 for Oral Reading and Early Writing by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell

Monday, March 24, 2014

Spotlight on Letter Identification and Letter-Sound Relationship Tasks

... a guest blog post by Erin Sebele

What is it?
Letter Identification instruction includes teaching the name, characteristics, and formation of the 26 uppercase and lowercase symbols used in the English language

Letter-Sound Correspondences are the relationships between sounds (phonemes) and letters (graphemes). This starting point highlights the connections between the sounds in words and the letters that are used to represent these sounds. Knowledge of sound-letter relationships means knowing, for example, that the /f/ sound is represented by the letter f.

Why is it used?
The goal of teaching letter identification is to ensure that students are able to recognize and name letter shapes, as well as discriminate among them before they are faced with the task of learning the letters’ sounds. After having learnt letter identification, students can begin to build their knowledge of letter sounds and their corresponding symbols.

How can it be used?
Explicit instruction in letter recognition, practice printing the letters of the alphabet and exposure to letters in print are all essential practices when teaching letter identification. Teachers need to assess students to see which letters students can name and write and to determine their rate of fluency with letter name.

Planning for instruction requires an understanding of challenges a student faces as they attempt to recognize and name letters. A person’s visual system analyzes each letter based on its horizontal, vertical or diagonal line segments. It is important for teachers to “think aloud” when describing letter shapes and features to students.

For example: Capital F touches the head, belt and foot line. It is made of three straight lines and one that goes up and down and two that go side to side. The vertical line is longer than the horizontal lines. It starts at the headline and goes straight down through the belt line and ends at the foot line. The first horizontal line touches the vertical line at the head, then goes straight out the right. The second horizontal line touches the vertical line at the belt, then goes straight out to the right.

How can it be adapted?
  • Implementation of other phonics programs, such as: Jolly Phonics, Letterland to demonstrate and support letter identification and letter-sound relationships.
  • Complete activities such as: rainbow letters, font sort, pipe cleaner letters, sticks and curves, body letters, fish for letters, alphabet scavenger hunt to support and strengthen letter identification.
How can you apply the information for your Balanced Reading program?
  • See student’s strengths and needs to form needs-based language groups.
  • Be sure to begin the systematic and explicit phonics instruction early, usually in grade one.
  • Help students understand the purpose of phonics by engaging them in reading and writing activities that require them to apply the phonics information they’ve been taught.
How can you use this information to communicate with students?
  • Descriptive feedback
  • Language groups for specific needs, particularly about certain letters
How can you use this information to communicate with parents?
  • Give the appropriate language to use at home to practice printing
  • Encourage their child to write and spell notes, emails, letters using sounds that they know
  • Consider using computer software that focuses on developing phonics and emergent literacy skills
A Sample Template
Letter Identification Test

Websites Consulted
50 Incredible Alphabet Activities
Letter Identification Assessment
Letter Identification
Word Decoding and Phonics

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Spotlight on Reading Conferences

... a guest blog post by Kristyn Sullivan.

What is it?
Reading conferences are planned talks or discussions with students about their reading. Teacher will make an anecdotal record of the discussion and next steps.

Why is it used?
The purpose of reading conferences for students:
  • to be able to read or discuss what they are reading
  • build a love of reading
  • set goals for his or her reading
The purpose of reading conferences for teachers:
  • to be able to offer feedback and suggestions for improvement
  • help the student to success appropriate reading material
  • observe or discuss students’ reading; note strengths and weaknesses and engagement
  • encourage a love of reading
  • help students to set goals
  • plan future instruction
How can it be used?
Conferences can be used daily. The teacher can set up a time during an independent work period to conference with 2 or 3 students individually per day.

Conferences should be modeled at the beginning of the year so the students know what to expect during one.

How it can be adapted?
Reading conferences can be adapted for students using the following strategies:
  • Simplified vocabulary
  • Visual aids
  • Drawing pictures
  • Could have another student sit in to translate the student's ideas
How can you apply the information for your Balanced Reading program?
  • Insight is gained into student’s interests and attitudes towards reading, which will help to build a classroom library engaging to all students.
  • Observations taken during reading instructions based on the strategies students have used to read, will help to guide future lessons and areas of focus.
  • Observations taken regarding comprehension will help to build future lessons, success criteria and activities around areas of needs.
  • Assessment data taken during conferences will helps to determine the focus for future lessons, shared or guided reading sessions.
  • Importantly, the anecdotal comments will help to effectively group students for smaller or guided reading sessions.
How can you use this information to communicate with students?
This information can be communicated to students through descriptive feedback, future conferences, as well as through future lessons.

How can you use this information to communicate with parents?
This information could be communicated with parents during interviews, or other meetings. This information could be reflected in a “how to help” pamphlet that could be sent home to parents with tips on helping their children practice their reading skills and comprehension at home. 

A Sample Template 
Reading Conference Anecdotal Notes

Spotlight on Retelling of Texts

What is it?
Retelling of text is a type of response activity used after reading in which the student restates the main ideas in a story or text to demonstrate their understanding.

Why is it used?
Teachers ask their students to retell a story or text to give them an opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of the story or the information in the text.

How it can be used?
The teacher can use retelling of texts to determine whether the student is able to:
  • Point out the main idea or message.
  • Retell the important events of a story in sequence.
  •  Retell the important ideas of an information book.
  • Describe the setting.
  • Describe the characters.
  • Use connecting words.
  • Make connections (text to self, text to text, text to world).
How it can be adapted?
Ideas for adapting retelling based on students’ learning needs:
  • Model retelling during read-alouds and shared reading and the invite the students to participate.
  • Provide prompts or props for the retell, such as charts, frameworks, picture sequences, story maps, semantic webs, mind maps.
  • Suggest creative ways for students to retell stories, such as dramatic retelling with props or puppets or illustrations. This offers opportunities to integrate the arts into your lessons.
  • Include retelling of texts in your guided reading lessons and reading conferences, and provide verbal prompts if needed (What happened first? What happened next? What happened in the end?).
How can you apply the information for your Balanced Reading program?
If you determine that students are having difficulty with any aspect of retelling, you can incorporate instruction and practice into your reading program as needed.
  • Modeled/Shared Reading: Engage the students in a read-aloud or shared reading and then fill in a graphic organizer together using lots of think-aloud to demonstrate the process of retelling a story in sequence and providing all the juicy details needed.
  • Guided Reading: Create opportunities for discussion and practice of retell. Provide images for students to arrange in the correct sequence, or ask them to use sticky notes to flag the main parts of the sequence right in the book.
  • Independent Reading: Once you have modeled how to use them, provide appropriate graphic organizers for students to use for practice. Use reading conferences to assess their retelling skills.
How can you use this information to communicate to students?
As you observe your students practicing their retells, you can make notes about who needs extra help or practice with this skill and who owns the skill. This enables you to plan future whole class lessons or to group students for extra guided instruction or practice as needed. When providing extra guidance to students, knowing what they need drives the prompts you will use when encouraging them to improve their retells. 

How can you use this information to communicate with parents?
  • Encourage parents to model storytelling and retelling of family histories (especially if the family culture has rich oral traditions). 
  • Encourage parents of ELLs to practice retelling in their heritage language because the skills and knowledge developed in the first language transfer to the student’s development of English.
  • Send instructions home to parents for use after they read with their children. This could include prompts for retelling the story.
A Sample Template
The Retell a Story/Retell an Information Book graphic organizer can be used by students as they practice retelling what they have read. This template can also be used at any stage of your balanced reading program, such as, a template for a whole class discussion, a guided reading tool, or a record for a reading conference that focuses on retelling. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Quotes About Reading Instruction and Assessment

“Because reading takes place inside the head, the process is not directly observable. Yet, assessment of this hidden process must occur in order to make appropriate programming decisions, adapt learning experiences and improve student performance.”
Reading in Toronto district schools: A resource document for teachers (Toronto District School Board)

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Using Sentence Strips for Literacy Instruction

Sentence strips provide a useful way for students to make the connection between reading and writing as they build their literacy skills. They can be as basic or complex as you like, depending on the needs of the students using them. Here are some activities that you can try.
  1. After practicing writing about a book you have read with the students, write a sentence or two on sentence strips and have the children cut them up and practice reassembling them. You might choose to practice this for the first time during guided reading time. Children can practice this during individual reading time, or they can share their sentence strips with a classmate during buddy reading time or during word work activities.
  2. When working on the proper placement of quotation marks, get creative about how you cut up the sentence strips. You can leave the quotation marks attached to words, or cut them off to make the activity more challenging. 
  3. When using pattern books, recreate the patterned sentence on strips so you can invite the children to practice changing out the word that changes from page to page.
  4. Try removing words or punctuation marks from the sentence to see if the students notice that it doesn't look right or sound right or make sense.  
  5. Add phrases to simple sentences to show how you can make the sentence more complex or interesting. 
Now it's your turn. What have I missed? Please help me expand this list by adding to the comments below.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

7 Tips for Encouraging Boys to Read

Since we all know that boys tend to be less engaged in reading than girls (for any number of reasons), it's important that teachers do whatever they can to ensure they set up their male students for reading success. Here are a few tips for teachers to consider when preparing to teach boys to read.
  1. According to, boys will read "if they are given reading that interests them." That's good news, right? Sure it is! Except that every teacher who has ever wandered through a classroom during independent reading time will have noticed that boys choose to read a variety of books. I've seen: Captain Underpants, Lego, Sharks, Harry Potter, National Geographic, and the list goes on. The trick is to ensure there's lots of variety in the class library (and even more in the school library!). It can't hurt to ask them what they're interested in reading. Why not show them some online resources, such as or Hand out those Scholastic flyers and place orders yourself. Hit up some garage sales. Do what you can to stock your library with boy-friendly reading material. 
  2. If you're a male teacher, let your students see you reading lots of awesome books. Talk about how you read every day and how much you love it. Tell them why you love it. Talk about the books you read and what was so great about them. Carry books around all the time. Join your kids in silent reading time. Read to them. If you're a female teacher, your kids will benefit from seeing you do all this too. But boys need to see other males reading, so enlist of the help of male teachers in the school, male volunteers, older male students, male administrators. And make sure Dad knows how important it is for him to be involved with the home reading support. 
  3. Set up an awesome reading area in your classroom. Experiment with the setup until you have kids begging you to spend time there. I did a Google Search and found lots of amazing ideas.  
  4. Ensure your boys have lots of access to technology. Let them read online. Let them keep an online reading log. Give them opportunites to respond to the books they read using blogs or other creative software.
  5. Set boys up for success after success after success. They like doing things well. Make sure you are giving them engaging activities to do as they respond to the books they read. Don't hesitate to turn to the arts if you're looking for alternative ways to encourage boys to express themselves. Many will embrace some aspect of art and blow you away with the things they create. Let them go for it!
  6. Give boys lots of time to talk to other boys about the books they have read and their responses to those books. Talking about it helps them structure their ideas in their heads before they write about it. 
  7. Make sure your assessments are based on real-world success criteria. The more practical and realistic you can make their assessment pieces, the better the outcome.

5 Tips for Teaching ELLs to Read

English Language Learners have strengths and challenges, just like any other English speaking student. There is no standard teacher guide that applies to all ELLs because they are all unique.
Depending on when they begin learning English, their needs will differ. For example, an ELL who begins learning English in Kindergarten or Grade 1 is fortunate that his or her peers will also be developing their literacy skills along with them. They'll probably be a little bit delalyed compared to their peers who show up at school with spoken English skills, but these young ELLs are at a distict advantage compared to their older siblings.

Picture a newcomer with limited English instruction in her home country arriving in a grade 6 class at an English speaking school in Ontario. That student is at a disadvantage because all of her English speaking peers have had literacy instruction in school for years. The good news is that the ELL has had literacy instruction in her first language for the same amount of time. She has strong literacy skills in her first language, which means she has a strong framework on which she can build her English language skills.

Unfortunately, you can't rely on all ELLs to fall into the categories I illustrated above. Sometimes they show up with disabilities, learning disabilities, or behaviour issues. Sometimes they come from traumatic situations where they had little or no regular education. ELLs are all different, and they arrive with their own set of strengths and needs. The trick is to find out what they're good at and start building on that.
Here are a few tips for ensuring that the needs of your ELLs are being met as you teach them to read in English:
  1. Support the acquisition of new vocabulary with the use of repetition, visuals, and real life situations. Post words on a word wall. Post anchor charts with pictures. Say the words over and over again and use them in authentic sentences. Show some found objects. Pass around some manipulatives. 
  2. Because a student's schema is based on his or her own experiences, don't expect a newcomer to have the same background information on certain topics that a Canadian might have. You will likely be surprised by the amount of time you have to spend building schema before you can teach what you had planned in your lesson. Plan for lots of explicit teaching.
  3. Your ELL will want to fit in and feel like part of the the community you build in your classroom. Help the students in your class get to know each other by giving them opportunities to share things about themselves, such as interests, previous experiences, family traditions, and favourite books and movies.
  4. If an ELL needs his or her teachers to lighten up the workload while language acquisition happens, it's okay to provide accommodations or program modifications. Taking the expectations down a notch for a while will enable the student to focus on learning the language without having to worry so much about the minutia of the curriculum. 
  5. Encourage your ELL to read in his or her first language. Introduce them (and their family members) to dual language books. Send home a list of comprehension questions to use when discussing books read at home, and encourage the ELL to have the conversation in either language. It's all about building literacy skills, and it doesn't matter which language the ideas are bouncing around in. Also, encourage the ELL to use dictionaries and translators as needed. I am a big fan of Oxford Picture Dictionaries. There are lots of options, depending on the needs of the student.

Differentiated Instruction in Reading: Something for Everyone

No two children learn the same way. Some like a quiet environment while others prefer a buzz. Some can sit still for a long time while others need to move around. Some prefer group work while others prefer partner work and others prefer to work alone. Howard Gardner sums this up well in his theory of Multiple Intelligences.

If you apply the same teaching strategy over and over again, you can be assured that you will be meeting the needs of a handful of students all the time. If you change it up and offer variety in your teaching strategies, you can be assured that you will reach all of your students at least some of the time. And you will have their attention because they will always be wondering what exciting activity is coming up next.

Differentiated reading instruction just makes sense. In any classroom you will find a group of kids who are interested in different kinds of books, who read at different levels, and who respond to books in different ways. Some have mastered a wide range of reading comprehension strategies, while others struggle to make meaning from what they read.

So what is the point of teaching them all the same thing? Some need explicit instruction and guidance in reading and others need very little direction before they settle into the cozy book nook and read independently. As children move along the gradual release of responsibility continuum, they start to need less modeling, less guided reading, and more time to read and respond to different texts. This frees up the teacher to focus on the ones who need more structured reading instruction, which could take the form of shared or guided reading or even group work.

A great example of this differentiation can be found in a teacher's guided reading program. She may have five groups that she sees each week, but she may schedule more time with the groups that need more consistent instruction in specific strategies. If she sees two groups per day, her breakdown might look something like this for a ten day cycle:

Group 1: 10 times/cycle (daily)
Group 2: 5 times/cycleGroup 3: 2 times/cyckeGroup 4: 2 times/cycleGroup 5: 1 time/cycle

Other ways to differentiate reading instruction include:
  • offering a wide variety of books in the classroom library (levels, fiction vs, non-fiction, authors, themes, book lengths, etc.).
  • providing choice for responses (journals, skits, letters, etc.).
  • incorporating technology into classroom activities (listening centres, recording devices, blogs, etc.).
  • varying the groups for centre activities.

Resources Celebrating Diversity

Because we teach in schools with diverse populations, and we discuss diverse issues from day-to-day, it's important to have access to resources that help us have conversations about diversity with our students. Here's a quick list of places you can go to find resources that help us celebrate diversity:
  1. Colleagues - Ask the teachers around you for ideas. They're happy to share. 
  2. Librarian - It's your school Librarian's job to have lots of ideas for you. If they aren't sure, they sure know where to go to find what you need.
  3. Bookmark government web sites like: Aboriginal AffairsEnvironment CanadaCitizenship and Immigration Canada
  4. Bookmark links to subject specific bookstores, such as
  5. Think of other organizations that support the area of diversity you are discussing, such as the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, which celebrates the art of Canadian artists from many cultures and time frames. 
  6. If you're at a complete loss, do a Google search. Other teachers have probably posted ideas or resources that will apply. 
Now it's your turn. What have I missed? Please help me expand this list by adding to the comments below.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Strategies for Communicating with Families

  1. Web site or blog – If you are tech savvy, and you know that the families of your students have access to the internet to view updates online, this is a great way to keep families up-to-date on activities going on in your classroom as well as home support expectations.
  2. Email messages – Again, if you know the families have access to email, regular updates via email are useful for all.
  3. Newsletter – A class or grade level newsletter (paper or digital) sent home on a monthly basis (or perhaps at the start of each new unit of study) is a great way to keep families connected. 
  4. Agenda messages – Last minute reminders and requests can be sent home in students' agendas. Keep in mind how reliable this method is in cases where the parents don't regularly look at the agenda.
  5. Face-to-face meetings – This is a time consuming method of communication that should probably be saved for extenuating circumstances and when the other methods of communication fail.
Now it's your turn. What have I missed? Please help me expand this list by adding to the comments below. 

Three Types of Assessment

Click on the links provided to view a list of possible assessments you can use for each type. It's important to remember that specific assessment activities can be used for any type of assessment. The most important thing is to ensure that the assessments you use are getting you the information you need.
  • Diagnostic – Use this type of assessment to determine what you students can do before you start teaching them. This is assessment for learning, which means it helps you understand where your starting point is before you implement learning experiences. 
  • Formative – Use this ongoing assessment to monitor the progress of your students as you implement learning experiences. This is assessment for learning, which means it helps you keep your finger on the pulse of your students' progress. Formative assessments can also be used for assessment as learning, which means students get engaged in goal setting and assessing their own progress. 
  • Summative – Use this type of assessment when you have finished providing learning experiences and you need to give your students an opportunity to show you what they learned. This assessment of learning generally happens at the end of a teaching cycle.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Diagnostic Assessments for Reading

  1. Running records
  2. PM Benchmarks
  3. Diagnostic Reading Assessment (DRA)
  4. Sound Start
  5. Previous year's summative assessments
  6. Survey of interests/attitudes
  7. KWL charts
  8. Class discussions
  9. Conferences
  10. Guided reading
  11. Debates
  12. Student posed inquiry questions
Now it's your turn. What have I missed? Please help me expand this list by adding to the comments below. 

Formative Assessments for Reading

  1. Conferences
  2. Descriptive feedback
  3. Checklists
  4. Anecdotal notes
  5. Reading response journals
  6. Guided reading
  7. Oral retells
  8. Feedback
  9. Running records
  10. Exit passes
  11. Self-assessments based on success criteria or personal goals
  12. Peer-assessments based on success criteria
Now it's your turn. What have I missed? Please help me expand this list by adding to the comments below. 

Summative Assessments for Reading

  1. PM Benchmarks
  2. Checklists
  3. Rubrics/success criteria
  4. Anecdotal notes
  5. Achievement of learning goals
  6. Conferences
  7. Written responses
  8. Reading portfolios
  9. Tests
  10. Projects
  11. Oral retell
Now it's your turn. What have I missed? Please help me expand this list by adding to the comments below. 

Implementing Reading Assessment in Your Classroom

There are three types of assessment that you must consider as you plan your Reading program. Before you implement a unit of study, you should know what your assessments will entail. Here's a checklist to ensure you cover all your bases as you prepare the assessments for a unit of study.
  • Think about what you want your students to be able to say and do after each of the learning experiences and at the end of the unit of study. This becomes the basis for your assessments.
  • Work backwards from here to create authentic learning experiences. Ensure your assessments are purposeful. It's a waste of time to administer assessments without a clear reason for doing so. 
  • Take some time to review the three types of assessment and their three purposes.
  • It's important to remember that your students need to know what they are being assessed on and why. If you create the assessments, ensure they are documented and understood by the students. They will definitely ask you if the assessment counts toward their report card, so it's important to be explicit about your purpose. 
  • When you administer diagnostic assessments to find your starting point, be prepared for the result to show a variety of reading levels and a variety of strategies that are being used. You should expect to teach to students representing two or more grade levels. 
  • If possible, include the students in the process of creating their assessments. If their voices are represented in a list of success criteria or a rubric, for example, they will be more invested in the outcome. 
  • In the spirit of representing the students' voices in the assessments, think about how you will use self-assessments or peer assessments. Goal setting and following up on the achievement of those goals is a great example of this.  
  • When you introduce a summative assessment, use success criteria and exemplars to ensure your students know exactly what is expected of them.
  • Communicate with the families of your students to let them know what will be expected of their children over the course of the unit of study. Review some sample strategies for communicating with families if you need some ideas.
Now it's your turn. What have I missed? Please help me expand this list by adding to the comments below.