Saturday, June 30, 2012

Vocabulary at the Center part 3

Vocabulary at the Center by Amy Benjamin and John T. Crow is primarily a book for teachers of secondary English. That being said, the text does have implications for other content areas. I have already written about how our beat ourselves over the head approach most commonly taken by teachers, especially English teachers, is a self-defeating ritual waste of educational time. Now I will begin to explain what the book recommends- deep, thoughtful instruction of a limited and useful vocabulary.

Vocabulary is the key to comprehension. Year in and year out I have had students who score well on the standardized tests of reading, but understand not what they read in school. Their limited prior knowledge and vocabulary preclude understanding. While there is not enough time in school to teach all important vocabulary, there is vocabulary that must be taught. Marzano and others have published lists of academic vocabulary that can be used as source of this vocabulary. These terms often cross curricular areas and are assumed to be understood. Indeed, many of our students do know the words. There remains, however, a significant group that are lost when asked to read textbooks and articles. As we are asked to increase the rigor of our reading selections, this group will be left farther behind. It is incumbent upon us to address the needs of students in ways that do not make them dread the printed word.

The authors suggest instruction that makes students manipulate the words, think about them and interact with their peers with them. An example of this is as follows:

Clinquant: glittering, especially with gold or tinsel
·    Comes from the French clinquinquer meaning to clink
·    Why is clinquant onomatopoetic?
·    Examples of usage:
Ø     A clinquant Christmas tree.
Ø     A clinquant evening gown.
·    What other examples can you come up with?
·    Synonym(s)?
·    Antonym(s)?
·    Shakespeare used it in Henry VIII: "To-day the French,/ All clinquant, all in gold, like heathen gods,/ Shone down the English"
·    What is the relationship between clinquant and bling?
·    Have you ever worn anything that could be called clinquant?
p. 104

As you can see this sort of deep inquiry forces students to think about a word in many ways to develop a variety of connections and links to words to facilitate memory. While the student is unlikely to actually use this word in conversation, it would be a delightful addition to a description.

I would see a content teacher using this kind of approach with critical vocabulary. The interesting thing is that in the other content areas, the vocabulary that students are asked to use are usually words that will receive a good bit of repetition and use.

For example:
Photosynthesis: The process by which green plants and some other organisms use sunlight to synthesize foods from carbon dioxide and water
o       Analyze the etymology: photo- = light; syn- = together, with, same; thesis = place, put
o       Identify other words that you know using the various roots and how those words are similar
o       Find the word in a sentence from the text that includes the word
o       Draw a picture of the definition
o       Act out the process of photosynthesis
o       Create a definition in your own words
o       Identify three living things that carry out photosynthesis and three that do not.

Many of these activities might be part of an introductory lesson on photosynthesis. Then the teacher would go into greater depth, perhaps with labs to explore various aspects of photosynthesis.

Another example might be
1. an overthrow or repudiation and the thorough replacement of an established government or political system by the people governed.

2. Sociology
. a radical and pervasive change in society and the social structure, especially one made suddenly and often accompanied by violence. Compare social evolution.
a sudden, complete or marked change in something: the present revolution in church architecture.
a procedure or course, as if in a circuit, back to a starting point.
a single turn of this kind.
o       Analyze the etymology: re- again; volvo- turn about, roll; tion- used to form nouns from verbs
o       Identify other words that you know using the various roots and how those words are similar
o       Find the word in a sentence from the text and identify which definition is appropriate for the sentence.
o   Identify the various forms of the word revolution: revolve, revolves, revolt, revolting, revolutionaries, ...
o       Why was the war for independence called the Revolutionary War?
o       Demonstrate the earth revolving around the sun.
o       Find pictures of two types of art or music that show a revolution. Think realism- impressionism or surrealism; romanticism - blockism; Picasso's early work to his blue period; gothic - romanesque; pop- hip hop or rap; Victorian - Flappers
o       What might your parents do to cause you to want to stage a revolution?
o       Fidel Castro said, “A revolution is not a bed of roses.” What did he mean?
o    We say that Earth revolves around the sun, but not the Earth revolves every 24 hours. It rotates every 24 hours.
o    Revolution is a formal word. We do not refer to revolution when speaking about turns in a board game. Think of another way we should not use revolution.

There are many avenues this lesson could take, depending what subject you teach. Social studies could study the differences between social and political revloutions. Science could then go deeper into astronomy, the movement of bodies in space, and their impact on Earth. English could read about important documents related to American history and write rhetorical speech for or against revolution. Math and technology could discuss ratios of gear revolutions. This list goes on.
Clearly, going into this kind of depth takes time. If we are not willing to commit the time necessary for students to actually learn the words, however, we might as well not teach them vocabulary at all. Because of the time required, we must pick our words carefully. We can pretest and give students words they really do not know or words they only partially understand. We can teach them word attack skills and memory skills to help them get the words into their long term vocabulary. Then we can have intermittent practice so that they do not forget them. Establish a word wall or notebook and reward using the new vocabulary. Perhaps with this kind of deep instruction, their verbal and written vocabularies will reflect the instruction that we have gone to such work to provide.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Vocabulary at the Center part 2

I think Judy Willis is the one that commented that things enter memory based on what they have in common and leave based on how they are different from others. Since hearing this idea, I have watched it be played out over and over. If people have nothing to anchor an idea to, the idea is usually lost. If they do not differentiate the new information from the old, the new will be lost. Yes, there are exceptions, but it rings true most of the time. This is the thought with which I am reading Vocabulary at the Center by Amy Benjamin and John T. Crow.

The authors point out the futility of most vocabulary instruction. We all know that the vocabulary list presented on Monday and tested on Friday is forgotten by Saturday. Yet, we persist in using this strategy in the misbegotten hope that something will stick; that those SAT words will magically reappear in all their glory in the face of the test, that student essays will be beautifully turned out in poignant, poetic phrases. This is one of our insanities as teachers.

The authors point out the different ways of knowing a word. Receptive and productive vocabulary are the two ways of knowing words. A SLP would say receptive and expressive. The receptive part is being able to read or hear the word and understand the gist. We clearly see this with small toddlers who can understand us even though they only have a few words they can speak. Then there is the productive part where we can effectively use the word in speech or writing. This is certainly the goal of our instruction, in spite of a poor choice of path to get there. By providing lots of experience with words, we build the framework that is necessary for productive understanding of words.

Marzano frequently asserts in his vocabulary trilogy the importance of selecting words. Only so many hours exist in the day. Every word on the list cannot be explicitly taught. Explicit teaching is critical. The words we teach need to be carefully selected. Words that cross disciplines, that students are likely to be exposed to on multiple occasions and that are part of our cultural vernacular are good candidates for instruction. For most people, words are how we hang our memories, thoughts and ideas. Temple Grandin, perhaps the most famous educated person with autism in America, thinks in pictures and many other with autism might do so as well, but the vast majority of people need words. Teaching people words allows us to tell a small child to use his words, not his hands when he is angry. It allows us to understand the ideas behind the Bill of Rights. It allows us to share our emotions- "Love is like a red, red rose..." (R. Burns). Virtually all aspects of school are based on words. Therefore, we owe our students to teach them a rich variety of words to learn and share information.

As I go forward with this book, I keep these thoughts in mind. I know we can do a better job teaching words. It is essential if we want a literate and globally competitive population. 

Vocabulary at the center part 1

I am reading Vocabulary at the Center by Amy Benjamin and John T. Crow. I did not start with this idea, but as I was writing, it developed and I thought I would capture it. The sad thing is that this is what teachers do day in and day out.

10 Misbegotten strategies of vocabulary instruction:

1. Present list Monday, test on Friday. Repeat with a new list on Monday.
2. Randomly select words for the list or just use that SAT vocabulary list. It is virtually the same thing.
3. Pick every hard word from the reading- if they don't understand the words they can't get the meaning of the text- who cares if they have never seen the word before and are not likely to see it, perhaps ever, again.
4. Ask students to use the word in a sentence. They will do it poorly 90% of the time because they only know the surface meaning of the word, but keep it up. Maybe they will catch on.
5. Select words that are specific exclusively to minute subject areas- after all, if you don't teach it, no one will. Epigenics or fardels anyone?
6. Let your only practice be x means y. They will, for the test, know that x=y.
7. Do not show how words are connected, similar and/or different from concepts they know. That is work they can obviously do on their own. Have thesaurus will misuse words.
8. Be sure they do not hear the words more than twice. Who cares if they can say them. They have that schwa thing to help them know how to pronounce it.
9. Do not ever show them how to change the word with prefixes or suffixes. Students worth their salt can figure out that on their own. Inlogical anyone?
10. Make the lists long. There are lots of vocabulary words to know. The more you present- the more they will forget.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Text complexity: Raising the Rigor in Reading

Text Complexity: Raising Rigor in Reading by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and Diane Lapp is a book that describes how to identify the level of rigor in a text. Although they provide a single chapter on techniques for teaching rigorous texts and they intersperse a few examples of approaches throughout, this book is first and foremost to help teachers understand what makes a text complex.

The authors discuss the three components of complex texts as identified in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS): quantitative measures, qualitative measures and reader factors. As a teacher, it is important to be able to identify when a text is rigorous. Some texts are deceptively rigorous or deceptively approachable. Winnie the Pooh, a young child classic, is rated by the Flesch-Kincaid Index as having a readability of grade 4.7. This book targets younger children. Conversely, I remember my kindergartener bringing home a book with simple sentences such as “Tim danced a waltz. Tim danced a fox trot. Tim danced a rumba.” My reader struggled with this book because he was not familiar with the names of the dances. The sentences were short and simple, but the vocabulary was meaningless and so he did not understand the story. Below is a graphic illustrating the three pieces of rigor.

Several important points are made throughout the book. First that students need to read material at a range of levels: independent reading to build vocabulary, fluency and reading habits; instructional reading to teach vocabulary and comprehension; easy frustration reading to teach strategies for approaching challenging material. If the material is too frustrating, however, the child will be turned off and glean nothing. When very difficult texts are presented, they should be presented in small morsels. Rereading is necessary for understanding complex material. If you spent an hour struggling to read it the first time, going back over it to read it a second or third time is unlikely to happen. If it takes five minutes to read it, you will have better luck. You can build to longer passages, but the start must be small with lots of guidance, questioning, and both peer and group discussions. Think alouds present a fantastic opportunity to model how to approach these difficult passages. They encourage recursive reading using previously taught skills and development of new ones.

Another important part of approaching complex material is annotation of reading material. Identifying confusing or unknown parts, a strategy utilized by Kelly Gallagher in his twenty questions and article of the week passages (see Deeper Reading, 2004), is an important comprehension monitoring step. From there you can teach concepts, vocabulary, strategies, etc. Alternatively you can present a purpose to the students. For example identify how Poe uses the concept of time to develop the story of “The Tell Tale Heart.” Students can highlight where time is referenced and then link those reference to the plot development. Annotation requires that students have texts that they can write in or alternative techniques such as highlighting tape, sticky note application, or old fashioned paper notes with pages and paragraphs identified. These strategies need to be taught- not once but over and over. Then they need to be reinforced, over and over.

One of the interesting pieces of information that the authors present is the significant reduction in the level of text difficulty of today’s textbooks as opposed to seventy-five years ago. After WWII the level of text complexity slowly declined. This accelerated in the eighties and nineties.  I suspect one of the major reasons for this decline is that increasingly more students with disabilities were added to classrooms and expected to be taught and learn with their peers. At the same time, retention has been identified as a negative factor and graduation rates have expected to go up. Teaching moved to a lowest common denominator rather than a weed them out approach. Dealing with the new dynamic in the classroom requires new skills, more support and new strategies. This is the challenge of the modern teacher: how to best meet the diverse needs of students within her classroom. No one said the job was going to be easy.

In order to meet the demands of the CCSS, teachers need to increase the challenge of the reading material students are presented with. At the same time, they need to address the diverse needs of students in their classrooms. What may be challenging for some, will be too easy or impossibly difficult for others. Teachers are the critical link in making the puzzle work.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Aligning IEPs to the Common Core State Standards for Students with Moderate and Severe Disabilities

As the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) role out, schools are frantically training teachers in order to gear up for the anticipated tests. Our department passed out Aligning IEPs to the Common Core State Standards for Students with Moderate and Severe Disabilities by Ginevra Courtade and Diane M. Browder. Although I am placed in a private school working with high school students with mild disabilities, I dutifully read the book.

The book is an easy read, full of many examples of how to adapt CCSS to students with significant learning challenges. It does not, however, provide any extended examples beyond elementary school. If I were a general ed teacher whose class sometimes included students with significant disabilities, I think this book might be useful to calm my fears about how I was to approach addressing the needs of students with significantly different needs into my class while focusing on the CCSS. I would then intensely rely on my special ed teacher to perform massive curricular adaptions and suggest ways in which to incorporate the child into my class in a meaningful manner.

I worry that the push to CCSS with students with severe disabilities may result in focusing attention and resources on things that take away from time spent on essential life skills. The authors suggest that a picture board be used for nonverbal students to teach standards. One such example included the images and words: microscope, cell, slide [microscope], radio, computer, button (p. 110). The last three, I presume, were "words" in the child's vocabulary. For a child who uses a response board, teaching the first three seems outside the realm of usefulness. Focusing on the grade level curriculum detracts from time spent on life skills that will make the child's life better. Teaching functional vocabulary and words that increase opportunity for choice seem like a better use of time. This seems especially true as the individuals age and the time remaining for instruction dwindles. After all most fully functioning adults will never use the word microscope in their daily conversation, but will want to identify that they do not like mushrooms. If you only have 50 words/phrases at the 6th grade, choosing new terms to add seems especially important.

The authors do acknowledge the need for addressing self-determination and real life skills among this population. They also see value in including nonacademic but essential skills. The balance of how to address curricular and life skills and when to move from mostly curricular to mostly life skills remains an essential determination by the team of professionals and family members. The state saying focus on CCSS should not take away from the judgment of on site people.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Thinking about YOU Thinking about ME

Michelle Garcia Winner’s book Thinking about YOU Thinking about ME is a thoughtful text on teaching perspective taking skills to individuals with social cognitive learning challenges. People meeting this descriptor are often on the autism spectrum. They demonstrate significant weaknesses in their ability to recognize that other people have independent thoughts and/or see the world differently than themselves. This egocentric viewpoint results in many of the social challenges that they experience. Since social skills impact people throughout their entire lives, this book can be used as a framework across an entire life. Whatever the starting point of the individual, you can find information to help them build perspective with this book.

The cornerstone tool of the book is the Social Thinking Dynamic Assessment Protocol®. This informal assessment is used to identify social weaknesses that are frequently not assessed or identified on formal measures. Michelle emphasizes the importance of informal assessments because socialization is an informal and dynamic process that is both skewed by rigid assessment protocols and lost sight of in individual assessment settings. High cognitive functioning can often lead to invalid social testing results because 1:1 in untimed settings, the student may “know” the response, but if the skill is never used or the child takes a long time to identify the “answer,” social impairment results.

From a teacher perspective, this book lent a great deal of food for thought. Most of my interactions with students are in individual or very small group settings. Observing them in their general classrooms is certainly something I have done, but without a framework of social awareness, I have missed a great deal of the complexity of the interactions. I could identify hyperactive behaviors, off task v. on task behaviors, direction following, attentiveness, and whether the student got the gist of instruction. Examining the social interactions, truly the realm of the speech language pathologist, remained a surface level activity. 

Michelle advocates a process of breaking social activities into very small steps, identifying where the breakdowns occur and teaching those specific steps in the therapy session. She then argues for taking those skills into the community. For example, once someone can ask for help in the clinical session, go to a store and have them approach the staff for help with something. Teach both families and teachers the skills that need to be practiced and reinforced. Reinforce with natural consequences and verbal praise. Do not be afraid of explicitly stating the real negative social consequences of behaviors. Students who offer soliloquies on their topic of interest are not accepted as friends because peers do not connect with the child and view him or her as self-centered. Understanding real positive and negative consequences provides motivation for change. Individuals on the autism spectrum may not make the connections between their actions and the reactions of the people around them without explicit instruction.

Michelle’s website,, has useful tools, books and ideas that can be helpful in getting started. There is a wonderful blog entry at that has an overview of the variety of books that Michelle has written and the age groups that they target and general overview of the social thinking products.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Teaching the boring moment

I am in the midst of reading Thinking about YOU Thinking about ME by Michelle Garcia Winner. This book is a well written and practical text on teaching perspective taking to individuals with social cognitive learning challenges. The diagnoses that primarily comprise these people are autistic spectrum disorder and nonverbal learning disability.  I am continually impressed with Michelle's grasp of the needs of the individuals and her ability to communicate her curriculum. If you are working with people in these populations, her work is a great tool.

Yesterday the item that hit me profoundly was "teach about the boring moment." Everyday we experience boring moments: waiting in lines, listening to "boring" discussions, not having something to do... For people with social cognitive learning challenges, their list of boring may be much larger than for the general population because of their restricted interests, limited skill sets and/or egocentric worldviews. I know with my son, the complaint of boring rears its ugly head on a regular basis, accompanied by increasingly inappropriate behaviors.

Michelle argues that it is important to teach people that there will be boring moments in the day, lesson, experience, and it is up to us to accept and deal with it. The first step is recognition of the omnipresence of these boring moments. They exist. They can even be put on the agenda. Once acknowledged, people need to fake interest or the preferred activity, whatever it may be, may be delayed or removed. I think this is a valuable lesson for many students who think a teacher's job is to provide entertainment all day. If we can teach appropriate responses to boring moments, many lives will be improved.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Teaching conversation to children with autism

Teaching Conversation to Children with Autism: Scripts and Script Fading by Lynn E. McClannahan and Patricia J. Krantz discusses an ABA (applied  behavioral analysis) approach to teaching conversational skills. For a brief explanation of ABA and autism see .

The authors begin the book describing the scripts and fading techniques that they utilize. Audio card reader machines such as Language Masters are utilized in conjunction with Voice-Over and Mini-Me voice recorders to provide audio scripts that are imitated and later faded. Even if an indivudual chooses to use a teaching approach independent of these devises, the progression of skills remains valid. The voice recorders, however, may be utilized to help children with limited verbal skills to interact with neurotypical peers.

Of critical importance is selecting where to start with the training. The authors repeatedly indicate the importance of starting where the child is. If there are only three non-word utterances, that is where the training begins. Training is focused on things of interest to the individual. In no place does the teacher select things that are easy, convenient or deemed necessary independent of student interest and/or ability. Slowly expanding the repertoire to incorporate a broader range of interests and experiences is important, but going too fast will result in failure.

The research conducted by the authors suggests that although they teach conversation through scripts, introducing a variety of scripts and heavily rewarding non-scripted responses does, generally, result in an expansion in non-scripted conversation. They have used their methodology with children ranging from toddlers to adolescents, from non-verbal to echolalic to verbal, and from non-readers to readers.

This book details a process for moving individuals from non-language users to independent conversationalists. It is very behaviorist, a methodology that some people object to. Even so, it clearly indicates the progression that needs to be taught and uses techniques that can be applied in the general education classroom. Some of its proposals, such as making a phone call and continuing with a script even though the person on the other end tries to take the conversation elsewhere, could be awkward to implement and are not conversationally natural. Teachers need to be sensitive to this challenge to promote natural conversations and appropriate responses.