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    Effective Instructional Practices: Go Big But Go Small, Too!

    By Mark Weakland
     | Sep 13, 2021
    EffectiveInstructionalPractices_680w

    Instructional practices are all about how we teach students. Recently, while perusing the pages of the International Literacy Association’s Instructional Practices online resource, I was struck by the expansiveness of the listed methods: project based learning, student engagement through classroom libraries, collaborations between schools and the communities, and many others. To these powerful “big picture” practices, however, I would add a number of small, hour-by-hour instructional techniques educators can use to produce greater gains in student learning, especially for those who struggle to read, write, and spell. Here are three.

    Wait time (think time)

    Wait time is a technique that engages students, promotes language use, builds background knowledge, and increases comprehension. When students are given time to think before answering, their brains have time to more deeply and completely process questions and directions, recall facts and figures, and synthesize information.

    At its core, the technique involves asking a question or requesting an action and then requiring students to think silently for a period of time before raising their hands to answer or before turning to talk to a partner. Three seconds of wait time is appropriate for the short attention spans of pre-K and kindergarten students. Increase the time to five seconds for 1st and 2nd graders. For older students, give six or seven seconds. The general behavior of different groups may call for more or less think time. Also, vary the amount of time depending upon the task. Students will need more time when a question calls for a more complex answer.

    Direct and explicit instruction

    When presenting critical literacy elements, from phonic patterns and vocabulary word definitions to comprehension strategies, be direct and explicit in your teaching. In other words, take the shortest paths possible to learning. For example, when I first present information on letter sounds, spelling patterns, and vocabulary words, I do my best to avoid asking students questions such as “Who knows what sound this letter makes?” and “Does anyone know what this word means?” Likewise, I steer clear of doing a discovery activity. Instead, the first thing I do is directly and explicitly tell students what I want them to know, see, or do. Why? Because it doesn’t harm anyone, and it greatly helps students who are at risk of reading difficulties.

    Researchers and clinicians have been pointing out the power of direct and explicit instruction for years. The technique—which is easy to use, time efficient, and highly effective in getting kids to initially learn basic information—often involves specifically telling students what you want them to learn, explicitly modeling actions, and having students immediately repeat the information and actions with you and then to you.

    This is not to say exploration, construction, and discovery should be tossed in the dumpster. The human mind is built for exploring and constructing, and so having students discover spelling patterns and make inferences based on text clues are instructionally valuable things to do. Nonetheless, I typically begin with direct and explicit instruction. Why?  First, to be as efficient as possible. Second, to minimize the possibility that incorrect learning will occur. And third, to support students who need it. Later, once my at-risk learners have developed some foundational knowledge, I bring in differentiated exploration and discovery activities.

    Repetition and distributed practice

    It pays to assume that some students will need many exposures to master skills and remember information. This is especially true for children who have or may have a reading difficulty such as dyslexia. As Dr. Richard Gentry writes, one way to easily support children with dyslexia is to “embrace repetition” in their instruction “because the brain ‘loves’ repetition for developing automaticity in almost every skill.”

    Effectively using repetition means more than repeating words and sentences over and over again. Rather, it is giving learners multiple chances to actively practice skills in multiple ways. To program for the number of exposures some students need, think in terms of differentiation, gradual release, and multi-modal presentations.

    It helps to think of repetition as something other than mindless drills. Rather, consider it a discipline that leads to competence and freedom.  As a musician, I know my repeated practicing of scales and rhythms lets me to have fun later on at a gig, where I can then improvise during a jazz tune or effortlessly read a musical score. In the realm of writing, students benefit from repeatedly practicing skills, including word spellings, grammatical rules, and text organization, all of which lay the foundation for crafting pieces that engage, inform, and entertain readers. Meanwhile, in the area of reading, skill repetition leads to reading fluency (accuracy, rate, and prosody), which in turn leads to greater comprehension.

    Repeated practice should never be mindless and doesn’t have to be boring. For example, make skill practice more engaging by distributing it in small amounts over the course of the day rather than in monolithic blocks. Likewise, make the repetition of spelling-phonic patterns more interesting by presenting them in a variety of ways: in flip books that can be read, in word ladders that can be written on white boards, and on tiles that can be physically manipulated to make words.

    Conclusion

    When used hour-by-hour and day-after-day, small but powerful instructional practices (teaching techniques) can complement large-scale ones. The end goal of all effective practices is the same: increased student achievement and happiness.

     

    Learn more from Mark Weakland by registering the on-demand recording of his ILA Webinar “Preventing and Overcoming Reading Difficulties, Pre-K–3,” sponsored by Corwin.

    Mark's book How to Prevent Reading Difficulties is available to buy now from Corwin. Use coupon code ILA2021 during checkout for 25% off and free shipping on this book when you purchase at Corwin.com by October 1, 2021.

    ILA member Mark Weakland is an author, consultant, teacher, and musician. He is the creator of teacher resource books, award-winning music projects, and almost 80 books for children. Follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkWeakland.

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    Learning Academic Vocabulary Through Lunchtime Chats, Hands-On Activities, and Complex Texts

    By Jami Witherell
     | Sep 09, 2021
    Students at lunch

    I started sharing lunch outside on the playground with my students when we returned to in-person learning last spring. We had the best conversations. It was an unexpected gift of the pandemic. One day one of my second graders asked me to share some important words. “You know, big ones, like esophagus or large intestine,” he said.

    “Hmm,” I wondered loudly, making a point to show I was really thinking. “Like maybe bolus or villi?” I answered, smiling.

    “Yeah, but like ones we don’t know,” he replied grinning.

    Practicing Academic Vocabulary and Building Knowledge

    The reason esophagus and large intestine came up in our lunch conversation was because of a unit in our English language arts curriculum focused on the driving question, “How does food nourish us?” Students began their study of food by building knowledge about digestion.

    The student who asked me to introduce some big words over lunch is learning multiple languages and was acquiring some seriously scientific language and background knowledge through our texts and writing tasks. These are words that students don’t use daily: esophagus, nutrients, digestive system. By the end of this unit, I wanted every student, including the multilingual students who needed extra support with academic vocabulary, to feel successful in their understanding of the digestive system and in reading complex texts.

    It’s a challenging task for students who may not already know a lot about the digestive system. And it is even more challenging for students learning English and acquiring the vocabulary to accurately describe what happens in the digestion process, a process they cannot actually see.

    Education researcher Susan B. Neuman wrote in her article “Comprehension in Disguise: The Role of Knowledge in Children’s Learning“ that comprehension of a text requires that students bring what they already know, or background knowledge, to what they want to learn.

    As a classroom teacher, I wanted to provide a hands-on experience to my students to help solidify the knowledge they were building in class.

    Hands-on Learning through a room transformation

    The solution I came up with was to transform the classroom for a day and allow students to experience the inside of the digestive system to deepen their understanding of how it works. I collaborated with my grade-level team to create four stations that students could visit: the mouth, the esophagus, the stomach, and the small intestine. I loved that it provided all learners an opportunity to apply new and more technical vocabulary(esophagus,digest) with words they already knew (mouth, stomach).

    At each station, students learned essential vocabulary, such as system, digest, absorb, and saliva. They would need to know these words for conversations at each station and for their writing. Then, students used specialized topic-specific words—like the word bolus at the esophagus station and villi at the stomach—necessary to complete the different tasks and activities at each station.

    At the esophagus station, for example, students labeled the parts of the digestive system on a diagram. After students created food in the first station, they delivered their food to the esophagus station. Here students took the food and rolled it into a bolus or a ball that would fit down the esophagus (a cardboard tube).

    The third station took students to the stomach, where they experimented with a piece of bread and a plastic bag of vinegar to represent how the stomach breaks down food. The students acted as the stomach muscles to break down the bread. Finally, students used a marble run to create a physical representation of the small intestine. They designed the interlocking pieces and then ran a piece of food, represented by a marble, through the system.

    On the day we transformed the room, I spent my time at the mouth and esophagus stations, helping the modeling clay food travel from one station to the next, engaging in conversations, supporting students with vocabulary when needed, but most important, listening. I discovered students used academic language during deep and meaningful discussions about the workings of each station.

    As you might imagine, this hands-on learning was a lot of fun for the students. But what did it have to do with English?

    Rooting it all in literacy

    For one, my students had to expertly capture the steps of the digestive system’s process—both in speaking and in writing. All students ended the lesson by talking about their experiences at each station and what they would write in their final piece. All students completed the writing, and all learners were able to participate and feel successful in the experience and in their writing. They also had plenty of time to improve their reading skills at each station.

    And at every step, they added to their base of knowledge. Students were not only more prepared to answer the question “How can food nourish our body?” but also able to explain the steps in a process, which set them up for success later when we studied the way certain foods travel from farms to our dining rooms.

    Room transformations are a great reminder that students can have fun while building essential knowledge. Adding vocabulary practice ensured that the words and the experiences won’t soon be forgotten and are transferable to their writing.

    Remember where we started, out at that picnic table? We ended up making “Lunch With Language” a regular thing, and it’s something I hope to bring back this coming school year. Mixing casual conversation with emerging vocabulary is fun for students, and that should be an important goal in its own right for every school coming out of the pandemic.

    ILA member Jami Witherell is a second-grade teacher at Newton School, a public elementary school in Greenfield, MA. She is also a Massachusetts Teacher of the Year 2022 semi-finalist and a seasonal associate with Wit & Wisdom, published by Great Minds. In that role, Witherell provides professional development to teachers using the ELA curriculum. Her room transformation was brought to life with the support of DonorsChoose.org and was named one of the top 5 wackiest requests of the 2020–21 school year by the organization. Follow her on Twitter at@ms_witherell.

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    The Freedom of Literacy

    By Trenèe Chimère Lurry
     | Aug 05, 2021
    FreedomOfLiteracy_680w

    Literacy opens the door and opportunity to freedom—to engage in a world separate from the one in which you reside. If you allow yourself to enter, your options are endless. Frederick Douglass said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” Literacy offers that opportunity. It opens a door to freedom that can be conceived only once it is obtained.

    However, lacking in this ability connects to a prison of the mind, a prison that holds many of our Black and Brown children hostage, and a prison that can prevent all students from experiencing the joy that we know literacy can bring to their lives.

    Teaching to dream

    Finding the joy in literacy requires the ability to dream. We know our students come with many different needs and differences. But the ability to dream should be afforded to everyone regardless of skill level or ability. A dream is a cherished ambition, aspiration, or ideal.

    As educators, we must believe for our students what they sometimes do not believe for themselves. Your dreams for your students’ achievements and expectations go hand in hand and can open the door for a reality that can supersede your greatest expectations. Having great aspirations for your students will increase their desire to reach them.

    Research has proven that high expectations improve performance. What you believe about your students can be a motivating factor in or a deterrent to their progress. You may see scores you don’t like or a curriculum that does not support your aspirations for your students. But I urge you: Do not allow your eyes or your present reality to deter your dreams. Believe what can be. Help your students by allowing them the freedom to dream. Let the dreams that you have become the goals that you set. Communicate the dreams you have about your students to them so they know you believe. Make your dreams visible so students can see them. Display vision boards so students can connect with what you envision.

    Help make dreams become reality. Push for necessary changes to curriculum. Do not let policies stifle the possibilities that are endless when dreams and high expectations collide.

    Time for change

    I can speak confidently because of my special education background. I have seen students find their joy in literacy. For eight years, I was immersed in it. I taught high school life skills. My struggle daily was having to use a reading program that lacked both a focus on phonemic awareness and texts that were grade-level appropriate. Students’ reading levels were between first and fourth grade but their ages were 14–21.

    Once my district found a program that concentrated on phonics, as well as grade-level culturally responsive texts with diverse representation and relevant topics, dreams became realities. I saw Lexile levels soar 30 to 50 points in three months. Confidence that I never saw before in the eyes of my students appeared, and I saw the doors of opportunity and possibility open, and areas of darkness become lightened.

    Opportunities were on the horizon for my students. That same possibility can exist for more students if we just begin to shift the narrative and change our perspective. I never stopped dreaming no matter what my reality was. Because of that, I firmly believe that all students can walk in freedom and the joy of literacy.  

    Trenèe Chimère Lurry has been a special education teacher for the past eight years. She is a firm believer that representation matters and there is a greater need for it in our schools. This led her to pursue her master’s in educational leadership, which she completed in May 2021.

    This post is a companion piece to the July/August/September issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine, which focuses on the theme of Joy in Literacy Instruction.

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    The Literacy Teacher Edit, Part 2

    By Katie Caprino
     | Jul 26, 2021
    kids at classroom library

    A fan of Netflix’s Get Organized With The Home Edit, I immediately thought about connections to literacy instruction. In Part 1 of this blog series, I discussed THE connections to writing. In this blog post, I share ideas about how to apply THE method to cultivating resources.

    The Library Edit 

    Here is how I recommend applying THE to curating your face-to-face or virtual classroom library.

    Edit: Take stock of the texts available to your students by asking the following questions:  

    • What topics are present and not present? 
    • What types of genres are present and not present? 
    • What student reading abilities can or cannot access these texts?  
    • In what media are books available and which are not available?  
    • Whose voices are present and whose are not present?  
    • What settings are present and not present? 
    • What cultures are present and not present? 
    • What perspectives are present and not present? 
    • What abilities are present and not present? 
    • What makes sense in terms of different (physical, virtual, or both) piles? How should books be organized (e.g., by spine colors, levels, genres, topics)? 
    • What organizational products (e.g., bins, shelves, virtual libraries, lists) work for my readers? 

    Depending on your students’ ages, you could have students edit their at-home libraries at the same time you edit the class library. Teachers of students working remotely can learn a lot about book access and the types of books that are more accessible than others. Consider what books need to be added to your library and which should be donated or be stored elsewhere.  

    Assembly: In this step, you put together your classroom library according to the structure determined in the editing phase. You may put physical books on particular shelves that make sense for students’ heights. Virtual libraries can be assembled on Google slides in ways that maximize accessibility. 

    Upkeep: You will want to make sure that students are a part of maintaining the books within the library. For example, if books are organized according to genre, students need to know genre characteristics. If new books come into the library, you and your students might think about which books to donate or put in a storage bin or another virtual library slide for now. 

    Applying THE process to classroom libraries is not a one-and-done event. As you acquire more physical books or find additional virtual libraries online, THE process will have to be continually applied. Having students edit the library each year or at the beginning of each quarter will reveal new steps for the library. Different groups of students may like certain topics more than others, for example. Make sure to allow your students’ reading interests and abilities to inform the editing of your classroom libraries. Students’ insight into your classroom library can be helpful and meaningful as we aim for our ultimate goal: cultivating lifelong readers. 

    The Technology Resources Edit

    And, finally, here is how I apply THE to the myriad technology resources I have come across during this period of remote teaching: 

    Edit: If you are like me, you have lists of technology resources that colleagues have created. My list was small at the beginning of the school year, but now it’s becoming quite long. Inspired by both Stephanie Affinito’s post “Organize, Collaborate and More With Google Keep” and THE process, I embarked on organizing my technology resources links so that they can be useful. 

    First I copied and pasted all of my URLs in one document. Then, I color coded my resources to create labels such as Early Literacy Resources, Virtual Classroom Backgrounds, Secondary Methods Resources, Children’s Picture Book Virtual Libraries, and Young Adult Virtual Libraries. Then I critically reflected on the quality of the resources and pared down each list to the top five resources. That was the hardest part for me!

    Assembly: Once I had my labels and top five resources, I used Google’s Keep function (Padlet is another tool that might work for this) and created sticky notes for each of my categories. I then created lists with the resources’ hyperlinks.

    Upkeep: Upkeep will be hard, especially considering that a quick look at social media can add more resources to my running list. But with every new resource I find, I consider whether this new resource should replace an old one or maybe be kept in reserve to switch in later. Either way, maintaining my resource lists will help me find my resources more quickly so that I can incorporate them into my teaching or recommend them to my students more easily. 

    Go Forth and Edit 

    I hope that these blog posts give you a few ways to think about applying THE to your classroom writing instruction, libraries, and technology resources. Please let me know how you applying THE method to your literacy instruction and professional development! 
     
    Katie Caprino is an assistant professor of PK–12 New Literacies at Elizabethtown College. She teaches and researches in the areas of children’s, middle grade, and young adult literature; technology integration in the literacy classroom; and the teaching of writing and blogs frequently at her blog
    Katie Reviews Books (katiereviewsbooks.wordpress.com). You can follow her on Twitter @KCapLiteracy.

     
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    The Literacy Teacher Edit, Part 1

    By Katie Caprino
     | Jul 16, 2021
    TheHomeEdit_680w

    I always look for ways I can apply my passion for literacy to various media. So when I came across Netflix’s series Get Organized With The Home Edit, based on Clea Shearer and Joanna Teplin’s company The Home Edit (THE)—which was started via social media, a fact I love as a professor of new literacies!—I couldn’t stop making connections between each episode I viewed and teaching literacy.

    In this blog post, I describe THE method and share how you can apply the tenets of Get Organized With The Home Edit to writing instruction. In a future post, I’ll detail how you can apply the method to your classroom library (in-school or virtual) and digital resource curation.

    THE process 

    Shearer and Teplin articulate three key elements of organization in their Netflix show and first book The Home Edit: edit, assembly, and upkeep. 

    When they meet clients who need organizational help, they ask them first to edit their material. Clients take everything out of a particular space and create groupings for analysis. Decisions are made about which items to keep and which need to be donated, stored elsewhere, or thrown out. 

    Then the organizers think about a sustainable organizational scheme that meets form and function. As much as they want a pretty ROYGBIV-colored bookcase, they also want kids to find their books or games more easily. The beautiful labels on bins, baskets, racks, and rotating organizers are aesthetically pleasing, but they also help clients maintain the devised organizational structure.

    Then the assembly step comes in. Shearer and Teplin set up the space with their labeled organizational product in ways that are beautiful and that make sense with a room’s function and the flow of activities that will take place there.  

    The last element in the process is upkeep. Clients’ abilities to sustain the organizational design is essential to maintaining a calming lifestyle in which everything has a place. Shearer and Teplin recommend a one-in, one-out policy; that is, replacing an already-there item with a newly acquired one. They also recommend getting other people involved in the space’s organizational structure. 

    Applying THE to writing instruction

    I was excited when Shearer and Teplin discussed how their organizational process related to the writing of their book

    Organizing a book is no different from organizing a space: You have to take inventory of everything you want in there, clean out what you don’t, sort items by type, identify how   to make those items as accessible as possible, and then make the whole thing look nice. (p. 22) 

    Here are my ideas for applying THE to your writing instruction. 

    Edit: Invite students to take a piece of writing and highlight (with physical highlighters or in a computer program) like parts in the same colors. For example, if they are writing a piece about dinosaurs, have them highlight information about the time period in which the dinosaurs lived in green, information about their size in pink, information about their diet in blue, and so on. Then have them cut their paper or copy and paste sections so that they can organize like elements into groups. Student writers may also decide about sections to keep or get rid of here. 

    Assembly: Now that the organizational structure has been determined, students can articulate to you or to their writing group about how their paper sections are organized. They can have meetings with their writing group to make sure that the paper flows in this new organizational structure and to check if any sections need to be shortened or lengthened for balance. Students can then write a new draft of their piece. 

    Upkeep: Students can meet with you or with their writing group members to discuss how the organizational structure exercise improved their writing and how their peers were able to give them suggestions for their writing. Here is also where I would suggest that you engage students in conversations about how they might use strategies learned in this experience to future writing assignments so that they are reflecting on how they will “upkeep” this writing skill. 

    [Note: This UNC Writing Center color-coding video inspired my writing tip.] 

    The next time you find yourself watching Get Organized With The Home Edit, consider how you can apply its ideas not only in your home but also your classroom as well. I would love to see how you’re incorporating THE in your literacy instruction, so feel free to share your ideas with me!

    And if you want a few more ideas about how I applied THE method to editing resources, look out for my second blog post in this series coming soon.

    Katie Caprino is an assistant professor of pK–12 New Literacies at Elizabethtown College. She teaches and researches in the areas of children’s, middle grade, and young adult literature; technology integration in the literacy classroom; and the teaching of writing and blogs frequently at her blog Katie Reviews Books (katiereviewsbooks.wordpress.com). You can follow her on Twitter @KCapLiteracy.

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