Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Independent Reading Inside the Box

I am currently working in two buildings with duel curriculums. Half the day is spent in Judaic studies and the other half in secular studies. While this is a great opportunity for students to learn a foreign language, deepen their understanding of their cultural background and encourage the religious devotion that the parents have elected as a focus of education, it means that the time that we ordinarily say is too short to get everything done has been slashed. Independent Reading Inside the Box by Lisa Donohue makes me think of independent options for developing reading skills. Instead of focusing on the challenge of finding teaching time in school, use the 8-box format and independent reading to use time at home for productive reading.

This book details a method for encouraging students to develop reading skills while working independently. The most important factor in becoming a skilled reader is reading. Pearson completed a study that indicated people aged 15-24 spend an entire 7 minutes a day doing independent reading (http://www.infoplease.com/entertainment/books/hours-minutes-watching-tv-reading.html). Since we know that this is inadequate to develop proficient readers, we need to find time for independent reading. Self-selected books of individual interest and ability level are an important component of this idea. Traditionally, if we require independent reading we have checklists of some type or other for parents to mark off minutes read or require a book report. Unfortunately, most book reports are drivel that do not enhance the act of reading.

Ms. Donohue's book presents an option. Her eight box method includes activities of: my reading, text elements, word skills, taxonomy of thinking and comprehension strategies. Providing self-selected books enables students to read deeply about personal interests at their comfort level which equals motivation. Providing a range of activities maintains interest. Providing short activities maintains the focus of reading. Providing different skills enables development of skills taught. Mixing writing complete sentences, using phrases to effectively describe things and illustrations allows for development of thinking through writing as well as appealing to the multiple learning styles of our children. Since the eight activities are selected by the teacher, targeted skills are used. The plethora of choices and rubrics to evaluate the work make the program manageable.

My initial concerns include the fact that the space for writing is small. Children with large or sloppy handwriting will have difficulty, but enlarging the templates would be easy enough. A second concern is the reliance on 11x17 paper. While this puts all the answers on one page, it is not necessarily an easy option for all schools. Doing a double-sided or two separate pages plan might be more manageable, especially for students who might be inclined to lose the sheet.

The approach used to develop skills and monitor and encourage independent reading would be useful up through middle school. Once students hit high school more depth is required. Modifying some of the activities would, perhaps, enable students to continue to learn from the approach. Using the 8-box method for independent reading assignments and then selecting whole class assignments to develop those CCSS skills with more challenging, non-self-selected materials would provide a balance that I rarely see in classrooms. On one hand, challenging assignments that develop stamina and ability to approach complex material above reading level, and, on the other hand, independent reading at the student's reading level to develop an appreciation of and motivation for reading, fluency, and vocabulary skills, as well as the opportunity to work on underdeveloped decoding skills. While the CCSS provides an opportunity to move students to higher levels of reading performance, without presenting a balance, more students will be turned off reading, less reading of "interesting" reading will mean less vocabulary exposure and consequent learning and reading levels will not advance as anticipated.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Word Nerds

In my continuing quest to develop my cross disciplinary vocabulary instruction I picked up Brenda J. Overturf, Leslie H. Montgomery and Margot Holmes Smith's book Word Nerds. This book jumps on the CCSS identified need to enhance vocabulary instruction in a meaningful way. As teachers in a poor urban district, Montgomery and Holmes Smith identified serious limitations in their students' vocabulary that hindered their reading. With focused study, their students rose to be successful readers.

One of the on-going themes of vocabulary instruction is limiting the number of words. Twenty words for each subject is not going to have any meaningful impact on student knowledge. Most of our traditional methods of vocabulary instruction are not instruction so much as coverage. Then we are amazed that not only do they not use the words, they do not remember them a week later. We need to get real with what the research tells us: students can learn 5-10 words per week through direct instruction. We need to get together with our colleagues, identify the critical vocabulary of success and teach those limited identified words across the curriculum. Not in our isolated subject silos, but together. No we will not cover the entire SAT list. But then again, since covering the SAT list nets nearly no new vocabulary learning, it is a waste of our limited instructional time.

What I really loved about this text was twofold. First the systematic method of instruction. Second the list of practice activities.

Regarding the systematic instruction. The authors start with giving each student a lanyard with a vocabulary word, synonym or antonym on it. This is only after these words have been introduced. This becomes integral to classroom management. Instead of lining up by rows or the color of your shirt, the students line up by their words: the word that means to be very happy and their synonyms, its antonyms. then the word that means to go on a long trip, its synonyms and antonyms, etc. The students are asked on the spot to define their word, give a synonym, antonym or 7-Up sentence. (A 7-Up sentence is a sentence with at least 7 words that uses the sentence in a correct and meaningful manner. Personally I think there needs to be more words in the sentence, but 7-Up does have a nice ring that kids latch on to.) Pair-share activities are with partners related to their words. With the students wearing their words, they are always on display much like a word wall and this increases the likelihood that the teacher will remember to use the sophisticated vocabulary and increases the chances that the students will, too. While older students might balk at the name labeling on a daily basis, it might work on a limited basis that involved movement around the room or specialized lessons only.

The selection of vocabulary practice activities is wonderful. Although the authors note that they did not come up with the activities themselves, they have complied a list of activities that are not merely  a repeat of other published sources. I particularly liked the board game idea. Although a variety of websites have templates for game boards, they can be difficult to input information into. I found that using Microsoft office and the insert shape function, I was able to generate a simple game board that was easy to insert words into. Students roll a single die and move a pawn around the board. They need to either define, say in a sentence, identify a synonym or antonym for the word, depending on the teacher wishes. A specialized die could be made that lists those options and students could roll that as well, or a spinner could easily be made. Students could practice with their vocab lists in front of them. They check each other for accuracy. See the example below that I put together for a science unit focusing on the circulatory system.