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    Time to Revisit an Old Classic: Making Thoughts Visible Through the Language Experience Approach

    By Amy Spiker
     | Jan 11, 2022
    RevisitAnOldClassic_680w

    The tutor’s exasperated look was clear in my monitor. Her first-grade student had disappeared once again to seek out a toy to share and her literacy tutoring session had become another episode of show and tell. The tutor was looking to me, her coach, for help. It was up to me to lead and guide.

    How could we engage this student in a meaningful learning activity in this new online world?

    A pandemic challenge

    The COVID-19 pandemic brought about a rapid transition from face-to-face to online teaching for most educators. Our Literacy Research Center and Clinic at University of Wyoming had become accustomed to one-on-one tutoring in a physical space in triads: elementary student, undergraduate tutor, and literacy coach. When we had to move tutoring to an online environment, it brought many challenges.

    The largest of these challenges was how to teach writing. Our traditional approaches to supporting young writers were no longer possible, at least not without creative adjustment. When a student wrote and showed their writing, the text would often appear backward on the camera. Keyboarding for some students was laborious, and students limited their production because typing was a slow process and they lost their train of thought or lost interest, frustrated by their inability to produce a text in a timely manner.

    For the youngest of students, the challenges were numerous. They were now learning how to negotiate the online platforms while learning literacy skills. They also were not in physical proximity, so keeping them engaged and focused on the tasks became problematic. They learned to turn off their sound and their camera, and distractions were numerous as they worked in their homes. One of our first graders even began to ask her Alexa device for spellings, which brought a moment of brevity. This particular first grader is also the one featured in the opening who turned each tutoring time into a show and tell session about her toys. It became clear that we were going to need to work with her interests if we were going to engage her in reading and writing.

    Let’s try an old approach

    The tutor and I met to debrief after a particularly challenging tutoring session, and we discussed how to work with writing in an online environment. During our conversation, I found myself discussing a language experience approach (LEA) to writing for this student. This approach was one I’d used with young students earlier in my career, and I thought it might work in our new reality.

    Could we take her stories about her toys and turn them into a dictate story, typing them live as she dictated, and then use them for a text to practice reading? We decided to give this a try during the next few sessions.

    Success celebrated

    When the student appeared on camera for her next session, she had three dolls with her and was poised to tell her tutor all about them. Her tutor explained that she was going to create a story and type what was shared on the screen while the student shared. The student began sharing and the tutor typed her words.

    The student could see the words appearing and was reading along. She began making corrections and adding to what was typed. She was excited to see her story appear on the screen, and she began to elaborate and add description. She reread and added key details that were missing. At a stopping point, the tutor read her story back to her and then promised to email it to her parents so she could read it to them. The student was highly motivated, and her parents reported that she read the story about her dolls several times throughout the next few days.

    If you are interested in learning more about rethinking writing instruction, we recommend checking out our ILA Intensives hosted by Steve Graham, the 2021 recipient of the ILA William S. Gray Citation of Merit. There are two separate Intensives, one for educators who teach students 4 to 8 years old and the second for educators who teach students 9 to 12 years old.

     

    A good reminder

    LEA has been around since the 1960s. Some references even say it has been used since 1920. It has been used most recently to support adult learners and English learners. As a literacy teacher, I hadn’t thought about using this approach with young readers and writers for a very long time. This use during a tutoring session was a strong reminder of its benefits. The student saw her thoughts and story appear in written text in real time. She saw oral language become written language. She successfully authored a text that could then be used for reading practice. She was engaged and motivated and produced a text that served as a model for further writing.

    Of course, the student also engaged in her own physical writing over time in the tutoring sessions and that aspect of writing development is important. Beginning with this approach, though, served to build confidence and modeled the writing process for her, keying off her oral language and interests.

    Even though it was used out of necessity when transitioning to an online environment, the success experienced was a good reminder that this type of approach can work in any learning environment to create and support the authoring of text and to allow students to begin to form an identity as a writer and reader.

    Instructional tips

    • Find opportunities. When students seem disengaged or frustrated with writing, this can be one method for engaging them. It makes their thinking visible in print and uses their authentic language to produce a text for reading practice.
    • Connect reading. You are creating an authentic text. Encourage students to read the text for a variety of purposes and audiences.
    • Support all students. This approach can be adapted for a variety of student needs.

    Amy Spiker is the newly appointed executive director of the Literacy Research Center and Clinic at the University of Wyoming. She teaches literacy courses to preservice and inservice elementary teachers.

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    What It Takes to Teach Students to Be Strong Writers

    By Meg Kinlaw
     | Dec 10, 2021
    StrongWriters_680w

    Many parents and caregivers look at their children’s math homework and say it looks nothing like the math they learned as kids. Today, students use more strategies to solve problems and focus on conceptual understanding of math rather than just relying on memorization and tricks. But what appears to be less obvious to parents is that literacy instruction has evolved dramatically too—particularly when it comes to how we teach writing.

    Integrating reading and writing

    I remember, not too fondly, one writing assignment I gave my students in which I asked them to write about the most disgusting thing that happened to them. It led to giggles and students were paying attention that day. But were they learning much to support their success in school and beyond? Not really.

    I’ve since come to understand that good writing instruction should integrate reading and writing, connecting writing assignments to great books, articles, and texts students are assigned to read. For example, in schools I’ve worked with in recent years, students in third grade study oceans and read related books and other texts, including works of art. The students learn about one of my favorite woodblock paintings, “Under the Wave off Kanagawa,” by Katsushika Hokusai, and read about Jacques Cousteau and giant squids. At the end of the unit, students work on a writing assignment in which they explain why humans explore the sea. The students have so much to say and write.

    By connecting an engaging writing assignment like that to high-quality reading material, students work on their writing skills—such as sentence structure, vocabulary, and grammar—and they also build knowledge on worthwhile subjects.

    If you are interested in learning more about rethinking writing instruction, we recommend checking out our ILA Intensives hosted by Steve Graham, the 2021 recipient of the ILA William S. Gray Citation of Merit. There are two separate Intensives, one for educators who teach students 4 to 8 years old and the second for educators who teach students 9 to 12 years old.

    I also love a fourth-grade lesson in which teachers ask students to write about what makes a literal and figurative “great heart” after assigning them to read the scientific book all and other texts about Clara Barton, the nurse who founded the American Red Cross. Students learn about biology, anatomy, and an important figure in American history while developing their writing skills at the same time.

    No more blank stares

    This approach is very different from the writing prompts I used earlier in my career that were based only on the students’ personal experiences. Those might have included assignments like, “Write about what you did this weekend” or “Write about a memorable moment in your life.”

    The truth is, when I asked those kinds of questions, I often got panicked stares. Many students would say they didn’t have anything to write about. This was especially true for students who felt their home lives weren’t as colorful or interesting as that of their peers. This raised concerns about equity and whether we were ensuring all voices were heard in the classroom.

    I started to shift my instruction when Tennessee adopted new college and career standards about a decade ago. The standards showed me the value of connecting reading and writing assignments. Now, thankfully, classroom resources and practices are catching up with the standards, and we’re seeing much more robust literacy instruction across the grades in our schools.

    Steps you can take

    So, if you’re an educator, explore how curating rich texts around a meaningful knowledge-building topic will support all students in becoming stronger writers. Consider moving away from having students draw on their own experiences as writing topics and toward offering equitable access to shared knowledge. You will be amazed at the insightful writing your students will create.

    Encourage parents to look at the assignments coming home and consider whether they look like the writing tasks of their school days. Hopefully, they’ll say they are different and better. The homework should encourage students to engage with great books and build their knowledge on important topics, all while developing strong writing skills.

    Students have been through a lot this past year and a half, particularly when it comes to educational disruptions. But if we keep making progress in the English language arts classroom, I’m confident we can help young people develop the skills and knowledge to be great readers and writers. That’s something to feel thankful for as we settle into this school year—and beyond.

    Educator Meg Kinlaw, a new ILA member, is a curriculum developer for Wit & Wisdom, an English language arts curriculum published by Great Minds. She previously taught middle and high school students and served as an English language arts consultant with the Tennessee Department of Education. You can follow her on Twitter at @meg0701. 

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    Putting the Joy Back in Writing

    By Juliana Ekren
     | Oct 27, 2021
    Student writing

    Do you struggle getting your students to enjoy writing? Lack of motivation at writing time was a dilemma I faced until I made a few small changes during my writing workshop to emphasize objective feedback and opportunities to engage students in writing that is relevant, authentic, and challenging.

    Writing dilemma #1: Getting started

    I tend to be a teacher of routine when it comes to how I teach writing. I teach my minilesson, which includes opportunities for scaffolded practice in the large group, with partners, and then individually. As students get back to their desks and sit down, all too often I hear “I don’t know what to write!” coming from the same student. This particular student, who I will call Max (pseudonym), is one of the most academically gifted students in my class, performing above grade level for all academic subjects. Each day, Max stresses over what to write about, which in turn leads to a brainstorming conference with me to get some writing ideas flowing. Once Max has an idea, he becomes a writing machine! I began to ask myself: How can I help this student to become more motivated to get started each day?

    I realized I was missing an important step in the writing process. Perhaps students should work together with a writing partner to brainstorm writing ideas before they get started on their writing. Fien De Smedt, Steve Graham, and Hilde Van Keer stress the importance of allowing students to work in a peer writing relationship because of the positive impact it will have on writing motivation. When students are able to pair up with a writing partner and discuss topics to write about on a daily basis, they can aid each other and ignite ideas, leading to more independence from the teacher.

    Writing dilemma #2: Assigning topics

    Another writing dilemma that students commonly face is the fact that they are disinterested in the writing topic that is assigned by the teacher. Oftentimes students are not able to relate to a specific topic that the teacher assigns. If students cannot make a connection to the topic, then writing motivation plummets. By allowing flexibility in writing topics, students can pick a subject area that is of interest to them. Teachers can still provide a general guideline of how a writing assignment should be completed and even give a list of idea topics that could be chosen. What if a student still does not find a topic from the list the teacher provides? Allow students to move outside the writing topics if they can continue to follow the writing guidelines.

    Writing dilemma #3: Choosing activities that challenge

    As teachers, we are constantly differentiating in our classroom to meet the needs of our students for reading and math. Why not do the same for our writers? When students find writing activities to be challenging enough to be successful and achieve the writing goal, then they will be more motivated to write. Researchers Shui-fong Lam and Yin-kum Law state, “a task that is challenging yet achievable is motivating because it enhances students’ perceived value and expectancy of success.” When writing tasks are too easy or too difficult and not in the correct zone of learning, students will not be motivated to complete the assignment. It is our job as teachers to make sure these activities are achievable so students can feel successful. One way to do this is by adjusting the length of a writing assignment to meet the needs of individual writers. If a student struggles to write, keeping a shorter goal may be more motivating for the student.

    Writing dilemma #4: Providing feedback

    In my early years of teaching, I often found myself with my colored pen fixing spelling errors, punctuation, and grammar on my students’ writing assignments. I was never taught how to properly teach writing when I got my undergraduate degree. Proper training in how to teach writing is a key element to motivating writers. I soon learned that letting my students write phonetically and leaving their writing with spelling errors was part of the writing process for elementary students. Teachers must work toward a growth mind-set with their students, which will in turn lead towards motivation in writing. When giving feedback to students, it is important to find the positives in their work. Providing objective feedback on a student’s writing instead of criticizing errors will help keep students feeling positive about their progress. 

    Motivating writers

    By making small adjustments to your writing routine, your students will feel more motivated to write. Allowing students to choose topics of interest is one way to motivate your students. Another way is by providing tasks that are challenging yet allow them to feel successful as writers. Last, offering feedback that is objective and positive will help students develop a growth mind-set. By integrating these objectives into your writing instruction, you will motivate your students to become enthusiastic and motivated about writing.

    Juliana Ekren is a graduate student at Concordia University St. Paul in Minnesota.

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    Looking for Quick, Everyday Writing Practice for Students? Try Parachute Writing!

    By Rebecca G. Harper
     | Oct 04, 2021
    students writing

    Organization, neatness, and structure have never come naturally to me. I will be the first to admit that I am one of the least organized people you will ever meet. My to-do list rarely gets finished; I have a desktop that is a mosaic of mismatched files and downloads; my office is cluttered with books, sticky notes, and notecards; and don’t even get me started on my closet. Perhaps my penchant for clutter, chaos, and disarray is why I have such a love for writing and teaching it.

    Writing is messy

    You see, real, honest, authentic writing is messy. Real writing is that early morning, just-out-of-bed look—not the “I’m ready for my close up,” pretend this is how I look at 5:00 a.m., Instagram post–worthy version. Nah. Real, authentic writing does not just emerge polished and ready to publish. Instead, it often requires practice and work. To quote Dolly Parton in Steel Magnolias, “It takes some effort to look like this!” and writing is no different. It is a unique process, complicated and non-linear. Recursive and dynamic. The writing process is organized chaos. Fragments falling. Sentence puzzles taken apart and put back together. Words omitted. Words added. There is no one right way to write. And this is why I love it.

    And this is why students need to write often and for a variety of purposes: They need practice. Authentic writing is rarely formulaic, neatly contained, and boxed in. It can’t be reduced to a clever acronym where students fill in the blanks and respond, and it certainly isn’t something that we can race to complete. Because real writing looks messy, it requires deliberate planning and purpose, strategic thinking and decision making, and careful consideration and awareness of audience and purpose. Plus, writing often and for a variety of purposes not only helps students become better writers but also aids in their development as readers.

    The only way that students will get better at writing is by writing. Writing engagements can be used in any content classroom, at any time, and with any audience. Regardless of a student’s reading or writing skills or level, there is some type of writing that they can do daily.

    Parachute Writings

    I use the term Parachute Writings (PWs) to describe quick writing opportunities that can be easily deployed in the classroom. PWs can be dropped into just about any lesson and require limited up front preparation.

    Just like parachutes prevent skydivers from crashing into the ground, PWs offer an element of safety for students. They are quick, low stakes, and flexible, which provides students the opportunity to practice multiple writing skills for a variety of purposes and audiences in short bursts.

    PWs can be conducted with a partner or in a group setting, which offers another level of safety. Think about real skydivers: Before they attempt a solo jump, they take part in tandem jumps as part of their learning and training. Writing is no different. Building confidence in writing often is achieved through collaborative exercises and peer engagements.

    PWs can be dropped into lessons at multiple points in your teaching on a frequent, daily basis; however, you need to be mindful about when the writing should be deployed and where. Although versatile and flexible, there is a specific element of purposeful implementation when using PWs. When planning PWs and adding them into lessons, it is helpful to consider the overall objectives and goals of the lesson.

    Here are some easy PWs that you might try in your own teaching.

    • Drop Drafts are great PWs that can be used at any point in a lesson. Have students stop what they are doing and write for a minute or so (this can be in the form of a prompt or question posed by the teacher or other writing task). Remind students that this writing is only going to be seen by them so they will be more likely to write truthfully and freely. After the students finish their Drop Draft, have them crumble up their papers and “drop” them in the trash on the way out the door. Because this PW is not graded or read by peers, it can be used not only for clarification or understanding of content but also for sensitive, non-academic issues.
    • Quick writes (QWs) are some of the easiest PWs because they can take on multiple forms with the click of a pen. In a flash, QWs can transform into a whole different writing engagement based on the context and purpose of the lesson. These quick bursts of writing are often shared with peers or extended later into more developed pieces of writing. Plus, quick writes offer students the ability to read and respond to a variety of texts using any number of activator questions or thinking prompts.

      Easy QWs might involve a small excerpt of text such as song lyrics, a short passage from a novel, or a poem. You might ask students to write about what the piece reminds them of, have them borrow a line from the writing, or pick out words they like. You can also use images, movie clips, and objects for QWs. For example, one summer I used slices of watermelon as a descriptive writing QW for my students. QWs are great not only for daily writing but also for extension opportunities. If students connect with a particular QW, they can choose to extend it to a more developed piece later.
    • Hear This is a strategy that works extremely well with listening and speaking lessons, highly descriptive texts, or concepts that require students to visualize material. An easy way to incorporate this type of writing is in tandem with highly descriptive material. As the text is read aloud to the students, they draw what they hear, thus creating a physical visual of the material. After students have created this visual accompaniment to the read-aloud text, have them add words from the text on sticky address labels or sticky notes and affix them to the drawing. This is a great way to teach not only listening comprehension and visualization but also textual evidence.

    Regardless of the subject area or grade level, offering students multiple opportunities to write helps them grow into strong, confident writers. Try deploying one of these Parachute Writing activities into your lessons and watch your students soar.

    Interested in reading about more high-interest, engaging ways to get students to write? Pick up a copy of Write Now and Write On: 37 Strategies for Authentic Daily Writing in Every Content Area to learn more about easy-to-implement writing ideas for students.

    ILA member Rebecca G. Harper is an associate professor of literacy at Augusta University, Georgia. She serves as an invited speaker and keynote presenter for a variety of literacy conferences and delivers literacy professional development sessions across the United States. Her research interests include sociocultural theory, critical literacy, and content and disciplinary literacy. She resides in Aiken, SC, with her husband, Will, and children, Amelia, Macy Belle, and Vin. You can follow her on Twitter and on Instagram.

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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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