Friday, August 29, 2014

Building Comprehension in Adolescents

Linda H. Mason, Robert Reid and Jessica L. Hagaman's masterful book, Building Comprehension in Adolescents: Powerful Strategies for Improving Reading and Writing in Content Areas, was a great read. The book starts with a description of teaching how to teach strategy acquisition and self-regulation. We know that many of our struggling learners lack self-regulation skills. These skills impact every moment of the school day. It behooves us to teach them, yet often we merely expect them or say it is not part of the curriculum and we have no time for it. We need to make time because students who have self-regulation skills allow us to teach more effectively and learn more efficiently.

Self-monitoring is the first self-regulation routine discussed. The authors describe a step-by-step process for teaching self-monitoring. After all, teachers who are busy teaching cannot effectively monitor each student's progress the way each  student can monitor themselves. They describe taking baseline data, obtaining buy-in, teaching the skills of self-monitoring and  then implementing the activity. Every other strategy illustrated in the book uses self-monitoring. Knowing that goal setting is an important feature of maximized learning and motivation, they also discuss goal setting. It is made realistic by using baseline data and modeling obtainable, intermittent goals rather than end goals (i.e. 100% of the time). They talk about self-instructions as a way to help moderate behavior. They also address self-reinforcement. Clearly the authors' goal is to develop skills that students can independently implement across a variety of settings.

The authors share strategies to address three areas: reading to learn, writing to learn and homework.  A section of the book is devoted to each topic. There is a description of the importance of the activity and when to use the strategies, a series of semi-scripted lessons to teach the strategies and pages of reproducibles to use with the lessons.

In the reading section one key aspect is the focus on reading level. In todays CCSS age, we are asking students to read increasingly complex material. When teaching strategies, it is essential, however, that the reading material be at the student's independent reading level- not at the instructional reading level or at a challenge reading level. Knowing your students and having a variety of readings at a range of levels is important when teaching the strategy. Once the strategy is taught, more complex material can be introduced. It is important to note that many reading strategies are designed to improve a students ability to gather information from text at or near their reading level. If a student is reading significantly below grade level, they need different strategies to approach and learn from readings. The authors introduce TRAP, TRAP IDEAS, and TWA strategies for reading. TRAP is a strategy for students reading at or about at grade level. This will not be a successful strategy for students struggling with the text itself.

TWA is a strategy to encourage students to Think before, Think While and Think After reading. This concept encourages active rather than passive reading which is essential for learning from reading. By asking students to internalize thinking around reading, we give them a strategy they can use everywhere to improve their skills. The strategy, like all the others, is taught with a self-monitoring and goal setting approach: baseline data is obtained, students set goals for improvement and monitor and record progress.

One of the ideas that I found useful was how to evaluate oral or written retellings. The authors provide a series of reading passages accompanied by a sheet with the main idea of each paragraph and supporting details spelled out in a checklist. Students can evaluate success on retellings against the checklist. This alleviates the teacher or student from needing to evaluate success with identifying main idea and supporting details while the retelling is occurring.  It takes the vague concept we sometimes are using to evaluate students and puts it in a quantitative format that can be easily used to gauge progress.

This book would be useful for a group to use to assist students with reading and writing in the content areas. A school-wide set of strategies could be adopted to help students become more proficient in addressing language in the content areas. If a school does adopt the strategies, teachers must be aware of who the strategies will not be as useful for so that alternative strategies can be found and taught.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Key Vocabulary Routine

Joan Sedita's The Key Vocabulary Routine: Content Vocabulary Instruction is a designed as a workbook. While the intent seems to be to buy/attend a workshop and read the material, it does stand alone. The first part of the book is a rationale for teaching vocabulary especially as it impacts comprehension. The second part introduces her routine for vocabulary instruction- one that she proposes be adopted by a school or district to minimize the need to spend time teaching the routine. The book also contains a comprehensive appendix of reproducible forms and one of sample student work. Most of these templates are readily available online. Each chapter begins with a graphic organizer illustrating the key elements of the chapter and ends with a summary.

Her five step routine is as follows:
  • preview difficult vocabulary
  • use activities to connect vocabulary to background knowledge
  • select specific words to teach in depth
  • identify opportunities to teach word learning strategies
  • promote word consciousness
The first step is preview words. This activates prior knowledge and facilitates comprehension. I found a SLP who had taken novels that his students were expected to read and annotated them, providing student friendly-definitions for challenging words or expressions. Having at least some of the challenging terms defined, went a long way to making the novel accessible. A teacher I worked with said she expected students to look up every word they encountered in reading that they did not know. This unrealistic expectation is not even true for adult sophisticated readers no less readers who may not even recognize when comprehension breaks down. Further, since using a dictionary tends to be a bad way to try and figure out the meaning of words for students, it is likely to be an unsuccessful strategy. Sedita's previewing is actually more than many teachers do with primary vocabulary instruction. She presents key words and has students complete word knowledge check lists to identify what words they know well, know somewhat or do not know.  Then uses discussion, semantic mapping, categorizing, semantic feature analysis or scaling to make connections and provide experience words so that comprehension of later reading is enhanced. Her description of sematic mapping and categorizing are more similar to word sorts than anything else.

I have used scaling in the past. I paired it with a visual- paint sample strips- to demonstrate gradations. The students immediately grasped the concept because they could see the intense color verse the pastel and connect it to variations in meaning. A number line might be a way to present the ideas to very numerically oriented students and a musical scale for musicians.

Important to note is her distinction between previewing vocabulary and selecting words/terms for in depth study. Sedita recognizes that students can be directly taught (to the point of actual learning)about 400 words a year. Not a year per subject, but a year. That means that teachers must be very careful in selecting words to teach. Her guidelines for selection are words that are:
  • essential to instructional goal
  • major concept words that are key for making connections and building schema
  • frequently encountered in reading material
  • unlikely to be learned independently through context or word analysis
  • provide good opportunities to practice word learning strategies
  • unique and increase curiosity                                                                                     p. 68-69
So when the social studies teacher presents all 25 terms the textbook highlights as critical vocabulary for the students to learn, we should not be surprised that the two week unit has kids memorize for the test and forget. Those activities (semantic mapping, categorizing, semantic feature analysis or scaling) are used to develop word meanings. Then additional time is spent with strategies such as the Frayer method, concept definition maps or two column notes. The author also advocates word walls and etymology study, but offers few suggestions with how to do this effectively. Her use of the two-column notes was very prescriptive, looking like this:

definition: mechanical and chemical processes that cause exposed rocks to  decompose or break down
part of speech: noun
synonym: erode, break down
antonym: remain the same
category/related words: geology, weather
example: water gets into the cracks in the rock, it freezes and expands which cause the rock to break
nonexample: rain rolls off the window of the car
multiple meanings: weather strip (as in around a door or window); state or condition that is common; to make heavy weather
sentence: As a result of weathering, the marble tombstone has worn down so that the writing can no longer be read.

As you can see, this modifies Cornell notes and requires extensive work on a word. It would not be practical to complete such an entry on the 35 words in the science chapter that includes this word, but, as a multi-meaning word that is used in both conversation and is a major science concept, it might make sense to apply this much time for this word. After students complete the notes, they could pair share their work and then splash on the blackboard, white board or chart paper their sentences to share with the class. Alternatively, small groups could be given different words to complete and then either share out loud or on chart paper with a gallery walk after groups were done.

The vocabulary routine then goes beyond the specific in depth words to teach strategies for figuring out words. First the author suggests explicit instruction in context clues with the direction that all troublesome words cannot be figured out through context clues. Then she suggest teaching word analysis through roots. You can refer to my last posting about Latin and Greek roots for additional information about teaching this skill.

Lastly the author recommends developing interest in words. Activities like reading and comment on unusually interesting or bland words or phrases, discussing how you went about learning a word and using your vocabulary are recommended. She also advocates word play: games, riddles and mainpulatives to reinforce the learning. She sees extensive classroom libraries as essential to vocabulary development- if students are directly taught 400 words and they learn 1200-2000 words a year through middle school, that leaves 800-1600 words for them to learn on their own. Learning words through exposure is important. For struggling readers this word exposure can be verbal or written language. That means we need to read to them as well as have them read.

This book is a quick read that discusses an approach to vocabulary instruction. Many other texts exist on this topic, several of which I have blogged about here, here and here among others. Marzano has a three book set on vocabulary instruction. For someone trying to think about changing how they approach vocabulary instruction, this book might be a good starting place.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Greek and Latin Roots

I have often heard both sides of the debate- "Latin helped me understand English" and "Latin did not help me understand English." In Greek & Latin Toots: Keys to Building Vocabulary, Timothy Rasinski, Nancy Padak, Rick M. Newton and Evangeline Newton make the case that learning Latin roots is a crucial tool for students trying to learn the academic vocabulary that we know is essential to school success. Throughout the book they cite the fact that 90% of all English words of two or more syllables are based on either Latin or Greek roots. Knowing this, how can people say that knowing Latin did not help them learn vocabulary? This question is not addressed in the book, but I believe it boils down to a) they were not taught to look for cognates, b) they were not taught how to use what they learned in Latin and apply it to English vocabulary and c) they did not learn Latin very well.

The book spells out its rationale for using root study to expand academic vocabulary. Other than the high percentage of English that is based on the roots, they note that current memorize for the test methods are unsuccessful and that vocabulary learning is essential to school outcomes.

The authors go into an in depth discussion of what is a root- base, prefix and suffix, and some of the rules for dividing words up and how prefixes in particular are added to bases. While the authors skimp in the area of suffixes, their role in changing the part of speech rather than the meaning of the word makes their job easier for people comprehend. For me, I learned that when using roots to define words, you must start with the base and move to the prefix (sort of backwards). Presoak means to wet before washing. I also learned about the assimilation of prefixes and why the change or have different forms for the same meaning and how it impacts spelling. (For example, words with double consonants near the beginning often have a prefix that has been changed to assist with euphony and pronunciation. con + rect = correct ) As a book and word lover I found this interesting.

The authors also discuss using dictionaries as sources of etymology. This helps us understand spelling and meaning at a deep underlying level. I taught in one school where the staff were offered a variety of choices for a reward and selected an unabridged dictionary. During their break times they would often gather and explore the origins of words they were curious about. While the English teachers may have spearheaded this activity, all the staff participated. having such curiosity about the words they used helped them be more specific about the words they used and helped them with vocabulary instruction they delivered.

The authors list games and describe examples of learning activities that involve word study and practice. While this book does provide an example of how to teach the words, Marzano's writings on vocabulary instruction provide greater depth of detail if one is curious. I very much enjoyed the variations that were provided for the activities. I think the odd word out game could be interesting when applied to root word study. I have used variations of this activity for vocabulary instruction in math, science and social studies classes. One example was:
  • precook
  • preheat
  • premixed
  • pretest                                                                                  (p. 79)
Identify the odd word out and explain why. Is it pretest because it has nothing to do with cooking? Premixed because it is the only word with a suffix? Preheat because it has a long vowel sound? Precook because it is the only one with a double letter? Accept different answers because they all involve understanding the words and thinking about them.

One implied thought in the book is that direct instruction of roots is a slow process. Teaching a list of roots and expecting students to memorize it for the test is no different from common ineffective vocabulary teaching methods. If you present one root a week and provide exposure to and focus on that one root at a time, you can vastly increase student understanding. To master the common roots would require a cross grade level plan with reinforcement of learned roots along the way. This is an achievable goal, it has minimal cost and can provide huge outcomes.

The book includes excellent appendixes. There are resources for teachers and students, a list of common roots, lists of non-Latin or Greek words in English and ideas for professional development. The later would be a good way for a group to begin thinking about vocabulary issues with their students even without reading the book.

We know our students need to expand their vocabulary. The CCSS reaffirm this concept with their emphasis on academic vocabulary. Many researchers have demonstrated the importance of vocabulary to comprehension. We need to help our students understand the multitude of words our common English vocabulary is comprised of. This book presents one tool for such instruction.

Monday, August 11, 2014


Daniel Pink's book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, has been increasingly noted in much of the literature I read. I finally have gotten around to this book that, although designed for more of the business world has interesting applications across education and all realms of life. His premise is that our motivational schema is flawed for twenty-first century living. In the beginning, mankind was solely motivated by survival. Then with the advent of the twentieth century we saw an upsurge in research and identification of what motivates people. Frederick Winslow Taylor and B.F. Skinner brought their ideas of rewards and punishment to increase likely behaviors- they motivate us. This brought on the education world's behavior management programs that I and many others were taught in our education programs. It has also resulted in pay for performance reforms in both the business and education worlds. (Interestingly enough, no legislator wants a pay for performance program for themselves, but they will legislate it for the teachers in their state.)

Pink describes what he calls Motivation 3.0 with the research of Edward Deci, Richard Flaste and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, among others. In this form, he describes what motivates us as Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. We need autonomy or choices to decide what, how, when, and where to do things (task, time, technique and team). Mastery is not the complete expertize of an item but the ability to work towards it in the state of flow (complete absorption of attention). Purpose is the why of doing something. The why needs to match something in us, not something in someone else. Motivate 3.0 is required for creative tasks. Routine tasks are improved by the motivational methods of classic behavior management (i.e. carrot and stick).

In some areas and in some aspects, education has latched on to these ideas. We talk about giving kids choices about what to do. We talk about knowing why we need to learn things. We talk about using methods kids enjoy, such as the computer or cell phone, to engage them. Yet, somehow we only skirt the fringes. The choice about what to do is not what to study, where to study or often even who to study with. We sometimes use the rationales of kids need to learn it because it is on the test, they need to understand it for later classes, or because it is in the book or the Common Core. We use technology often as merely a gimmick, underutilizing the powerful and expensive tools we insisted we needed in the classroom. We march them to a time honored, age-based, agrarian society schedule that has little to do with learning and much to do with the convenience and comfort of others.

How can education truly embrace some of these elements? First of all we need to recognize that some activities are truly routine tasks- anything with the standard related to fluency is probably related to routine tasks: math facts and decoding are likely to be incented by rewards after achieving mastery. More complicated activities that include terms like understand why and create are going to be concepts that need to be looked at from a Motivation 3.0 way. This does not mean that students can be allowed to not learn how to compare fractions, decimals and percents or what are the cause of the Civil War if they choose not to. It may mean that they get some choice in how they demonstrate understanding of these concepts or who they work with in groups or if they read the text, listen to a lecture or watch a movie with the same information. It may mean that when we give them time to work, they need long enough blocks of time to achieve flow- so much for our 42 minute periods. It may mean that we as teachers need to better understand the reasons why students might need to know the information today not at some ambiguous time in the future or for a test.

We know much of this because we work with students every day. They ask us why. They say they want choice in their group selection. They point out that they like to research on the computer, but may not like to type on the device. They share that they do not like to be interrupted to go to the next class because they have just gotten "into" the assignment. They show enjoyment or apathy at different methods of presentation. We need to listen to them when we design lessons.

What about how does this impact the profession of teaching. First is showcases how off base pay for performance or time in grade is toward increasing skills. If I know I need to achieve x to get a raise, I will stop at x. Similarly if all I need to do to get a raise is continue breathing and not abusing my students, I am not motivated to improve my skills. Second it means that we may need to explore alternative school times to meet the needs of both teachers and students. If we need to abide by the current times, what about changing when teachers need to be in school. Establish the critical at school time as time with students or at meetings and give teachers flexibility to come in early, leave late or work at home. Third we need to look at any attempts to script instruction and scrap them. We are professionals who need the flexibility to meet the needs of the kids who come to us with differing ability levels, interests and skills. Scripts benefit only those who cannot teach, and those people need to not be in the classroom. Next we need to look at the teams we put together. A third grade team may be necessary even if you have better friends in the fourth grade teachers. PLCs however should be self selected. When a school establishes a team to work on something, like a wellness plan, let teachers choose to participate based on who else is interested. Teachers get the idea of flow. We have all had a lesson that was going so wonderfully the end of the class was a disappointment. Perhaps we need more flexibility within our schedules. If the elementary kids are really going after the research on arctic animals perhaps that can intrude on the 90 minute dedicated ELA block. Perhaps the middle school team can each take a group on a series of days so that the social studies teacher can spend half a day working with small classes on mock trials without being told to leave at the bell. We might need to collaborate more and be less defensive of our time and space so that we can enhance the learning across the board, not just within the four walls of our classroom.

There are so many options. We need to start thinking outside the box in order to tap in to the Motivation 3.0 our children have so that they can work to excel in the creative and novel tasks we set before them. We need our employers to trust us enough to let us be flexible and do what is best for our kids and ourselves. We can do it.