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    Rethinking Assessment in Word Study: Five Ready-to-Go Ideas

    By Pam Koutrakos
     | Mar 14, 2019

    We sat around a horseshoe-shaped table, shifting our weight in too-small chairs, surrounded by coffee cups and afternoon-pick-me-up snacks. Leafing through piles of papers, a colleague remarked, “Urgh. I think my class is as tired of spelling tests as I am.” We all paused. Someone laughed. We then took action, contemplating ways to shake things up. Been there? Felt that? Following are a few ideas to jump-start assessment in word study.

    Next level sorting challenge

    This routine asks students to sort words according to the pattern learned and apply this knowledge to spell new words. Sorting, categorizing, and applying exercises bring high-level critical thinking to this efficient check-in routine. In the same amount of time it takes to administer a traditional spelling test, we can assess so much more than rote memorization.



    Show off

    This check-in routine offers different options for flexibility. The simplest and quickest method is to have students turn and talk, sharing recent word learning. Have more time? Ask students to compose a written reflection or create an infographic to showcase learning. Apps such as Screencastify, Flip Grid, Powtoon, Canva, and Scratch offer digital platforms for students to show off their word knowledge.

    koutrakos-3 copy

    Interactive writing

    During interactive writing, the class cocomposes a piece of writing. Students offer ideas and the teacher writes these ideas on a shared document. Each time the class gets to a targeted word, students are invited to ponder the spelling. A volunteer writes the word on the document. By having the teacher do most of the writing, the process is a quick and efficient use of classroom time. When students participate in focused aspects of the writing, the why behind this work is clear and understood. As a bonus, interactive writing can be done during any subject.



    Use it or lose it 

    One leading goal of word study is for students to apply knowledge while reading—decoding with automaticity while maintaining fluency and comprehension. We can assess application by listening as students read self-selected texts (with target words and parts) and observing accuracy and fluency. If students stumble, we can note the self-monitoring strategies used. We may even ask about the meaning and connotation of words with taught parts. This can be done during a small group lesson or a 1:1 conversation.


    Find and fix

    Another word study goal is to consistently transfer knowledge to writing. Start by recalling recently taught word study patterns or word parts. Then, challenge students to reread recent work, find evidence of application, and correct spelling as needed. If a student does not find any examples of words with taught patterns or parts, encourage them to find authentic opportunities to integrate (conventionally spelled) pattern words. There are infinite worthwhile times and places to find, fix, and celebrate!

    Each of these ideas intend to be flexible enough to fit a variety of time frames and classroom settings. Furthermore, each enables teachers to glean information about students’ understanding of words and readiness to apply gained expertise. A great first step toward making word study assessment more meaningful? Try one new idea. Experimentation helps us see what works—and provides opportunities to see what students find most engaging.


    koutrakos-7Pam Koutrakos is an experienced and enthusiastic educator known for her positive outlook and energy. As an educational consultant with Gravity Goldberg, LLC, she is deeply committed to motivating and supporting students and teachers on their learning journeys. Pam authored Word Study That Sticks: Best Practices K-6 (Corwin, 2018) and The Word Study That Sticks Companion (Corwin, 2019). Both include assessment ideas, lessons, tools, and tips to start up and step up word study in K–6 classrooms. Connect with Pam on Twitter at @PamKou.

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    Student Choice Is the Key to Turning Students Into Readers

    By Jenni Aberli
     | Mar 07, 2019

    ela-engagementAlthough I was never really a struggling reader, from middle school until my first year teaching, I was what you might call a nonreader. I could read very well, I just didn’t. You’re probably wondering how one can major in English and not love reading. The answer is simple: no teacher instilled a love of reading in me. My teachers didn’t give me choices of what to read. Instead, I was given books I despised and then tested on them. That did not equate to enjoyment for me.

    Not until my first year of teaching did I become a reader. One of my students was a voracious reader and always had a book in her hand. I recall seeing her with My Sergei by Ekaterina Gordeeva (Grand Central Publishing) one day and asked her about it. She gave me a summary and I told her it sounded interesting. Shortly after that conversation, she gave me the book and suggested I read it. Though I didn’t want to read it, as the teacher, I was supposed to love reading, so I did. To my surprise, I enjoyed it. When I finished the book, we did what readers do; we talked about that book. Soon after, she gave me another, and another, and before long, she had turned me into a reader. I learned firsthand the value of how finding great books can turn nonreaders into readers. From that point on, turning students into readers has been my life’s work.

    When I saw the International Literacy Association’s (ILA) new initiative aimed at ensuring every child has access to the education, opportunities, and resources needed to read, called Children’s Rights to Read, I immediately latched on. As our district’s high school ELA content lead, my job is to lead the work of literacy in the more than 20 high schools in my district, and this document has become a part of that work.

    So how do we turn students into readers? We advocate for reading in many ways, all of which are part of the Children’s Rights to Read. I am a huge advocate (for obvious reasons) of giving students choice in what they read (Right no. 3) to encourage them to read for pleasure (Right no. 5). Students need to read what they love and are interested in. Those choices should be texts that mirror their experiences and languages or provide windows into the lives of others (Right no. 4).

    As teachers, we show students what we value by how we spend our class time; therefore, setting aside time in class every day for students to read is important (Right no. 7) as is providing diverse and relevant classroom libraries surrounding students with great texts (Rights no. 2, 4, 5, and 10). Finally, we must encourage and support our students by providing safe, literacy-rich environments in which students support one another (Right no. 6) and share what they are reading and learning with one another through various modes of communication, such as reading, writing, and speaking (Rights no. 8 and 9).

    I spend most of my budget purchasing classroom libraries of high-interest YA books that will hook students, and my team provides teachers with professional development to guide them in how to effectively implement independent reading opportunities. We teach them strategies such as book-tasting, book talks, book clubs, and how to integrate apps such as Padlet and Flipgrid. Currently, we are using professional resources from Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide (Stenhouse) and Penny Kittle’s Book Love (Heinemann) as well as their collaborative book, 180 Days (Heinemann) to build our own expertise and knowledge of turning our students into readers.

    Throughout my career, I have seen nonreader after nonreader turn into readers. Teachers have facilitated this transformation by giving students both access to high-interest books and choice in their reading. Our ultimate goal is to improve students’ literacy, and we know that in order to do so, students need to read. Yes, standards are important. Yes, grade-level texts are important. But unless students will actually pick up a text and read, none of that matters. The most urgent need to improve literacy demands students to read, and to do that, we must give them access to the education, opportunities, and resources needed to read. Fortunately, we have a guide for doing just that in the ILA Children’s Rights to Read.   

    Jenni Aberli is a high school literacy specialist at Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky.

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    Blast Off! Space Exploration and Literacy

    By Suzanne Slade
     | Mar 05, 2019

    computer-called-katherineWith the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing on July 20, many students will be curious about the brave astronauts who visited the moon and more recent space explorations. To help feed your students’ curiosity about space and inspire STEM reading and writing, here are several free NASA resources along with suggested activities. Select one activity, or combine several to create an in-depth unit on this timely, high-interest topic.

    Apollo moon missions

    The Apollo missions landed 12 astronauts on the moon. These explorers spent approximately 80 hours studying the moon and made many fascinating discoveries. 

    Activity 1: In Their Own Words

    Have you ever wondered what the astronauts talked about while they were soaring through space or walking on the moon for the first time? Fortunately, most of their conversations are available on the Apollo Flight Journal and Apollo Lunar Surface Journal.

    • Read: Visit the Apollo 11 Surface Journal (timestamp: 109:23:38 to 109:24:48), read the famous sentence Neil Armstrong said when he took his first step on the moon, and read how he described the surface of the moon to eager listeners back on Earth.
    • Write: How do you think Neil Armstrong might have felt when he took that first step off the lunar module onto the mysterious surface of the moon? Scared? Proud? Nervous? Brave? Tired? How would you feel if you were the first person to explore a place where no one had ever been before? What thoughts would go through your mind?

    Activity 2: Discoveries on the Moon

    • Choose one of the discoveries made by the Apollo missions from the Air and Space Museum’s list of “Top Ten” Apollo discoveries.
    • In your own words, write a short summary of the discovery and why it’s important.

    Book connections:

    • Countdown: 2979 Days to the Moon (Peachtree)
    • Daring Dozen: The Twelve Who Walked on the Moon (Charlesbridge)
    • A Computer Called Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Helped Put America on the Moon (Little, Brown)

    Exploring astronauts

    Students are fascinated by brave space explorers. Becoming an astronaut requires a lot of education, training, and hard work.

    Activity 3: Astronaut Project

    • Invite students to research various astronauts using books and/or reliable internet websites (see NASA video resource below), or provide the class with a collection of level-appropriate books on various astronauts.
      • Modification option: For younger grades, provide students with a short list of four or five astronauts to read about.
    • Ask students to select an astronaut they admire or want to learn more about.
    • Invite students to write a nonfiction narrative which shares the childhood experiences, struggles, and accomplishments of his or her astronaut.
      • Modification option: Invite students to display their astronaut research on a bulletin board or poster boards, or share projects through short oral presentations.
      • Share a few presentations each day of a week as part of a “Space Week” celebration.

    NASA video resource: Hear an astronaut describe his or her career journey in NASA’s astronaut video interviews (3–4 minutes long). Below are a few great interviews to inspire students:

    International Space Station

    The International Space Station (ISS) is a large spacecraft where astronauts live and study space. Constantly circling Earth, the ISS weighs approximately one million pounds and is the size of a football field. Since it first opened in 2000, more than 200 astronauts have lived on the International Space Station.

    Activity 4: Life on the Space Station

    • Watch a live transmission of astronauts living and working on the International Space Station via NASA TV, including “NASA TV Programming,” which is generally livestreamed video of the astronauts, and “Earth Views,” which is a live view of Earth from the ISS.
    • Find out who’s currently living on the Space Station by going to NASA Kids’ Club and following the “Find Out Who Is on the Space Station” link.
    • Write a paper about a few tasks that the astronauts living on the Space Station perform. Or, select one of the astronauts living on the ISS and write a summary of how he or she became an astronaut and what his or her role is on the ISS.
    • Project option: Find out when the ISS will be passing over your town and plan a special outing where your class can watch the Space Station soar over your school. Go to the Spot the Station website, input your location, and it will provide “ISS sighting” times (and an approximate location to help you find it) for the next couple of weeks. You can also receive alerts of future ISS sighting times and dates.

    Story Time from Space

    Story Time from Space features videos of astronauts reading books aloud from the International Space Station. This is a unique, out-of-this-world reading experience.

    Activity 5: Story Time Book Summary

    • Listen to a book read by an astronaut, then invite students to write a short summary of the book they just heard.
    • Project option 1: Students may listen to one story and write a report about the same book, or they may listen to the story of their choice outside of class and write a book summary of teacher-specified length.
    • Project option 2: Students may record their observations of the astronaut while reading. Why didn’t the astronaut sit in a chair? What types of equipment did you see in the ISS? Did you see any clues that there is little gravity in the ISS? What was your favorite part of the story? The report may also include an illustration of the astronaut reading the book from space.

    More space-themed resources

    • Challenger Centers are great places for students to participate in hands-on activities and explore. These not-for-profit learning centers are located in 27 states and four countries. Their “Center Missions” allow middle school students to experience “space-themed simulation-based experiences” led by trained flight directors.
    • NASA Kids’ Club is a NASA-sponsored website with exciting activities for students, such as test driving a rover on Mars, as well as other games and craft ideas.

    Suzanne Slade is the award-winning author of more than 100 children’s books. A mechanical engineer by degree who worked on Delta rockets, she often writes about science and space topics. Some her recent titles include Countdown: 2979 Days to the Moon, Daring Dozen: The Twelve Who Walked on the Moon, A Computer Called Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Helped Put America on the Moon, Astronaut Annie (will be read by an astronaut on the Space Station for Story Time From Space), The Inventor’s Secret, and Dangerous Jane. Find free Teacher’s Guides for these books at Find her on Twitter at @AuthorSSlade.

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    A Perfect Match: The Power of Blending Literacy and Social and Emotional Learning

    By Margaret Wilson
     | Feb 28, 2019

    school-stairsTeachers understand the importance of social and emotional learning (SEL) but are sometimes hesitant to add yet another objective to an already packed schedule. The good news is that teachers can weave SEL instruction into English language arts (ELA) lessons without adding learning time or taking away from other subjects.

    SEL is a topic that’s getting a lot of attention; a highly anticipated report urges teachers to integrate SEL throughout the school day, citing the relationship between social, emotional, and academic skills and postsecondary success. The ELA period is an ideal time to provide students with opportunities to develop empathy, communication, and collaboration skills while improving literacy skills. ELA curricula centered on engaging topics and rich reading material allow students to connect on a deep and substantive level, enabling them to better understand each other and academic content.

    Teachers can use the following proven strategies to facilitate discussion:

    Teach wait time

    Giving students time to reflect on a question before answering serves social and academic goals. This practice helps students learn to think before speaking, leading to more effective, articulate responses and deeper conversations. Teachers should pause after asking a question to give students time to formulate ideas. Explain the purpose of the waiting period so students can use their time intentionally.

    Let students lead

    When students struggle, we’re tempted to share our own responses to questions. But that signals that students can wait for teachers to do the work for them. It can also suggest that the teacher’s answer is the only right one, dismissing other possibilities and creative thinking.

    Instead of interjecting, try the following approaches:

    • Have students discuss ideas in small groups first. This eases the pressure of speaking to the whole group. It can also help students articulate their thinking and develop the confidence to express their ideas in a larger setting.
    • Provide scaffolds. Sometimes our questions fail because students lack the requisite knowledge of a text. Instead of jumping in to answer, ask more basic questions that help students to build a foundation for deeper understanding.
    • Ask follow-up questions. Help students get themselves unstuck by asking more specific, follow-up questions, such as “What evidence from the text supports your conclusion?” or “Where could we go in the text to look for clues about why the character acted that way?”

    Encourage peer-to-peer conversation

    Many classroom conversations involve students talking to each other through the teacher. But to fully develop strong communication and relationship skills, students need to learn to talk directly with each other.

    To help make this happen, consider the following strategies:

    • Avoid repeating student responses. Repeating student responses encourages them to listen to us rather than to each other. Try a nod instead. If students have trouble hearing a classmate, teach them to respectfully ask for higher volume.
    • Facilitate rather than evaluate. Often, we signal what we think of each student’s response to a question. That prevents students from reflecting on and building on each other’s thinking, and reticent students might not participate for fear of having the “wrong” answer. Instead, facilitate the conversation, for example by pointing out several insightful student comments and then asking a question to move the discussion forward.
    • Encourage students to respond to others’ ideas. Encourage students to actively listen to and connect with others’ ideas.
    • Try sentence starters, such as: “I agree with Alonzo because _______.” “I disagree with Alonzo because ______.” Ask follow-up questions based on student responses, such as “Do you agree with what Alonzo said? Why or why not?”

    Everything you do to help students learn to talk directly to each other, respectfully respond to each other, and build on each other’s comments will pay off for them academically as well as socially. Their rich conversations will lead to a deeper understanding of content and enhance their ability to communicate with and ultimately relate to others.

    Margaret Wilson is managing editor of Humanities Content Development at Great Minds, creator of the English language arts curriculum Wit & Wisdom. She is the author of the book The Language of Learning: Teaching Students Core Thinking, Listening, and Speaking Skills (Center for Responsive Schools, 2014).

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    Exploring the Nexus of Identity and Academic Writing

    By Debalina Maitra
     | Feb 27, 2019

    The day I started to work toward my PhD in literacy education, I began to believe profoundly that reading and writing are socially constructed, as many researchers (such as Mikhail Bakhtin, Michael Halliday, and Lev Vygotsky) claimed. However, when I really started to struggle with the expectations of academic writing, that was the moment I realized just how underestimated and unexplored the nexus of cultural identity and academic writing is in the field of literacy instruction.

    Then, I met many other bright international and culturally diverse scholars going through the same ordeal. My own frustrating experience with academic writing finally helped me to produce my dissertation. Focusing on undergraduate students, my study used rigorous qualitative data analyses to explore how teacher educators can better teach academic language to culturally and linguistically diverse learners.

    For my study, I interviewed five participants three times throughout the semester about their academic writing experiences and perception. The participants were also asked to share two writing samples—one they enjoyed writing and one that they did not.

    My study found that students were more likely to enjoy writing when they were able to write about their own lives. Students also appreciated when they were able to negotiate with professors about writing expectations or new ways of approaching an assignment. These findings suggest that voice and autonomy are important factors in creating more positive writing experiences.

    My study also revealed that perception and experience of academic writing were reciprocal to the students, meaning they did not differentiate between those two components. All five participants mentioned perception and experience components back and forth to refer to their academic writing approach, process, strengths, and weaknesses. My research also revealed that people with multicultural and multilingual identities often go through identity conflicts and eventually they embrace their both identities and uniquely create an amalgamation of both spaces. We, as educators, need to learn to work in that third space to maximize student potential by recognizing students’ background, ethnicity, and linguistic resources and scaffold them in that zone through those tools.

    Some may argue that certain disciplines offer more opportunities for scaffolding through culture and language. However, my study found that many students’ academic paths are rooted in their cultural identity. For example, one participant chose to study chemistry because he wanted to use his knowledge of food economics to build healthier eating habits in his Hispanic community. He wanted to create an awareness in his community of the negative health impacts associated with a high-carbohydrate diet. Knowing this, a teacher educator could more easily assign him a writing prompt that explores his specific interests in chemistry.

    Another participant mentioned that she decided to study biology because she learned to respect nature from her Venezuelan culture. She also mentioned that her writing style was more centered on personal anecdotes than on hard facts. For example, she wrote a narrative on the environment, explaining what would happen to the future generation if the environment is not protected. Teacher educators should always give students choices about their approach in academic writing or talk to students of color to understand how they are trying to proceed with their class writing.

    Certainly, high-impact teaching can cause high exhaustion, and getting to know all students and their background can be a challenge. On the basis of my research findings, I offer a few suggestions:

    • Get to know each other. Teacher educators can set up an introduction where students might introduce themselves in multimodal mode. Students can be asked about their culture, language, and countries whenever applicable. This will help students feel welcomed and connected.
    • Be flexible. Whenever possible, teacher educators can give students opportunities to write about topics that are relevant to them. That means teacher educators can adopt an open-ended writing prompt, as long as students meet the end goal of that task.
    • Establish expectations. I feel it’s crucial for teacher educators to clearly state the task, audience, process, format, and assessment criteria for a writing assignment and explain how it fits into the larger curriculum, so that students understand the expectations.
    • Be available. My research also revealed that the availability and approachability of teacher educators influenced students’ perceptions of academic writing. When teacher educators were willing to talk to students outside of class or help them shape their writing, students took advantage of the help. However, when teacher educators directed them to the writing center or other outside resources, students felt discouraged. Therefore, I recommend that teacher educators clearly communicate their availability and willingness to offer support.

    Most important, we need to accept that literacy is not just specific to content areas, but an extension of who we are. Let’s consider who we are outside of the academia, because reading and writing is not just cognitive acts to make 21st-century teaching more relevant to students’ lives.

    Debalina Maitra has a PhD in Literacy Education from University of Wyoming and a minor in Qualitative Research Methods. Her dissertation research focused on academic writing and cultural identity of culturally and linguistically diverse undergraduate students. She is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher for CAFECS (Chicago Alliance for Equity in Computer Science), a NSF-funded Research Practitioner Partnership grant in Chicago. Her research is focused on equity in computer science for culturally diverse students at Chicago Public Schools. She is particularly focusing on Hispanic students and trying to build an equity framework.

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