By COURTNEY BROWN
“Writing to learn” is a powerful concept that has long been espoused by literacy educators. In practice, writing to learn includes low-stakes writing assignments that generate authentic responses to prompts on a variety of topics. The goal of writing to learn is simply to unpack a subject, and the primary audience is the writer him/herself.
Some of the most powerful writing to learn practices include personal, expressive writing that allows us to reflect on how we are feeling and thinking. This may take the form of quick-writes in response to a question, journal entries, or letters to ourselves and others.
Although personal, expressive writing is not necessarily a measurable outcome of learning, it is possibly some of the most important writing that we can ask students to do. Personal writing not only helps students develop their voice, but offers them precious space to reflect and process their feelings and thoughts, in order to feel emotionally strong and balanced. James Britton adds that expressive writing helps students academically, to “discover, shape meaning, and reach understanding.” As we plan instruction, whether remote or in-person, creating space for expressive writing is crucial, especially during times of crisis or change.
During the remote learning period that has surfaced due to the COVID-19 crisis, teachers and schools across the world have worked overtime to reach and engage their students. Yet, even in cases where students appeared to have adequate access to digital devices, attendance was often lower than usual, particularly in middle and high schools in low-income neighborhoods.
Prioritizing mental health
When Principal Dr. Charles Gallo and his team at the New York City Charter High School for Computer Engineering, and Innovation in the Bronx — where I partner as an instructional and curricular coach — questioned students and their families about their low attendance, students reported feeling isolated, unmotivated, and in some cases, depressed, despairing, or scared. Dr. Gallo realized that his students’ social-emotional health and well-being needed to be tended to first. His students weren’t learning if they were not engaged, and they couldn’t engage if they were scared, depressed, or lonely.
Swiftly responding, Dr. Gallo encouraged teachers to use their professional judgement to deviate from their planned units and lessons to prioritize students’ mental health and engagement by offering students opportunities to reflect and process their emotions and experiences around the pandemic.
Encouraged by their principal, AECI faculty incorporated journal writing into their classes, which eventually evolved into plans for a schoolwide interdisciplinary project, grounded in personal, reflective writing. Students would craft responses to relevant essential questions, such as: How has the COVID-19 crisis had an impact on your personal life? How has it had an impact on society? What do you propose to solve or address the crisis?
In a digital world, where distance may make it challenging to interface with each student and check in about how s/he is doing, online options — such as Google Docs and Padlet — offer valuable asynchronous opportunities to read and respond to student writing with advice or supportive words.
While sharing personal writing online demands trust and confidentiality, some students have shared that the experience of writing into a Google Doc (as opposed to a notebook) makes them feel braver. For students who don't have access to devices, journaling in a notebook or on paper is a terrific low-tech option for reflection.
Incorporating these practices into your lessons can be as simple and informal as asking students to respond to a prompt that connects with the day’s topic. If you want to dig in further, consider some of these ideas:
An entrypoint to abstract thinking
Dr. Gallo and his faculty first incorporated journaling into their instruction as a way to help students process and express their complex and troubling feelings. Expressing oneself through writing (whether on paper, by typing a note on a phone, or working within a Google Doc) allows us to identify and understand our thoughts, which in turn, helps us become more confident, calmer, and balanced. When we reflect on and process our thinking, we can also start to make crucial connections to comprehend more abstract concepts and ideas. This is how learning begins to happen.
At AECI, students’ responses to how has the COVID-19 crisis had an impact on your personal life? became an entrypoint into an exploration of the more abstract second part of the essential question — how has the COVID-19 crisis had an impact on society? In Math and Science classes, students used their writing as a springboard for interpreting data that showed how COVID-19 affected their communities. In History classes, students connected the current pandemic to the Black Plague and the 1918 Spanish Flu, using resources such as historical journals, information from the New York Times, and the Smithsonian.
A call to action
Following their investigation of the connections between personal experience and the societal impact felt by COVID-19, AECI students began to address the final essential question: What are your recommendations for addressing or solving the COVID-19 crisis? In keeping with the stages of Karen’s Hesse’s Depth of Knowledge framework and CPET’s Rigormeter, students moved from exploring their concrete realities to analyzing data and evidence, developing their own theories, and, finally, proposing a call to action.
The project at AECI will culminate in a schoolwide portfolio of student writing and artwork, as well as letters to politicians that will incorporate supporting evidence from each discipline and propose solutions to elements of the COVID-19 crisis. Although AECI is focusing specifically on COVID-19, this type of interdisciplinary project can work for any relevant topic that’s applicable to your community.
For many of us educators, the demands of content, testing, or curriculum can leave us feeling as though we don't have time to incorporate personal writing into our lessons. However, when we recognize the benefits that come from creating space for students to make sense of their thoughts and feelings, we can see how this work is essential to student engagement, and how it can support the introduction of new content. When students feel emotionally balanced, personally engaged, and connected to a topic, real learning can happen — during times of crisis and every day.
TAGS: COURTNEY BROWN, LITERACY, RESOURCES, WRITING
By LAURA RIGOLOSI & SHERRISH HOLLOMAN
Literacy is defined as “the condition or quality of being literate, especially the ability to read and write”, and in education, literacy is often perceived as something teachers “teach” their students. But how can teachers increase their own literacy? And why is it important?
Along with a team of CPET educators, we recently partnered with teacher leaders in the MinHang section of Shanghai, focusing on teacher research. With the goal of preparing teachers to write a research proposal by the week’s end, we spent five days in December exploring the key aspects of teacher research, including research questions and rationale, data collection and analysis, literature review, and drawing conclusions.
During our week of preparing teachers for research, we were reminded of the various types of literacy which extend beyond traditional reading and writing to include digital, media, computer, and content literacy, to name a few. For our purposes, we focused on the “literacy” of research, and found that key concepts remained true, even in Shanghai.
Humor helps just about everything
As we explored the research process, we began by brainstorming various teacher research questions that interested our group. Since we don’t speak Mandarin, we needed a translator to communicate, and were lucky enough to have Kaya Wang alongside us, who loved to laugh and make our participants laugh! Kaya posed this research question in our brainstorm: In what ways does teacher humor impact student participation? As facilitators, we know a good question when we see one, so we highlighted this question and used it for the rest of the week as we modeled each aspect of teacher research.
What a difference laughter makes in any classroom! When we asked our group of teachers to complete a model review of literature on the impact of teacher humor, their research, in and of itself, became funny. By the time they began practicing research using questions of their own, they understood the process of developing and analyzing a compelling question, and they had a bit of fun, too.
As facilitators, we realized how powerful it is to sneak the concept of humor into our teaching. It made all of the participants want to participate, and allowed them to understand the concepts we were teaching within the context of humor. When others walked past our classroom and heard laughing, they took a look inside...was this the classroom for “teacher research?” Why was there so much laughter? It made us examine how crucial the model is, and how delightful classrooms can be if humor is involved.
If you don't know, you don't know
While in Shanghai, we spent one evening at a grand spa with pools, baths, reading rooms, a dining area — it was lovely. Remember, this was before Coronavirus, so we had none of the concerns we would now have about going to a spa.
When it was our turn to get a massage, the masseuse was asking questions (in Mandarin) and when we gestured that we didn’t understand, she spoke louder (we shrugged) and even slower (we shrugged again). We had no translation book and no phones on us (everything was in our lockers), so there was no way to translate. In an act of desperation, she took out a worn, laminated sheet to help communicate — except the characters on it were in Mandarin, so this did not help!
When we discussed our spa experience later, we laughed about the misunderstandings (did we mean to get scrubbed down with a loofah sponge?), but also discussed how often this dynamic happens in classrooms. There are so many students in our care who do not have a strong background in English, and while speaking slowly and loudly may seem like a way to bridge a language gap, it won’t be helpful if the listener does not have a solid foundation in the language.
If only there had been basic images or a few key words on that laminated piece of paper, we would have been able to better understand our options and the fees associated with them. (And I’m not sure we would have chosen the painful loofah scrub.) While this is not a new concept, we revisit it often, especially when creating curriculum or trying to reach online learners. When creating content, we remind ourselves of our time at the spa, and strive to incorporate clean, useful visual cues for those we're teaching.
Great teachers make great students
At its core, research is challenging. When factoring in our language barrier with the Shanghai team, the challenges increased. But time and time again, we were reminded of the importance of allowing ourselves to be students, as well as teachers. We learned as much from the educators in Shanghai as they did from us.
At one point, we ventured out to order dinner from the Pizza Hut beside our hotel. After fumbling our way through trying to order a cheese pizza from the menu, the waitress held her phone near us and we learned about a wonderful translation app that made ordering easy. We spoke in English, and the app translated our words into Mandarin. This gave us great confidence as we navigated through Shanghai on our own, and in our sessions with MinHang teachers. This interaction (at Pizza Hut, of all places!) helped remind us of the importance of providing multiple entry points when navigating new content and concepts, and allowed us to position ourselves as learners in an unfamiliar environment.
We found that everyone played the role of student at various times throughout the week — whether discussing research or language, we all experienced the challenges and benefits of learning. Our ability to reverse roles with those we were meant to be teaching served as a tool for professional growth, for all of us. K-12 classrooms can benefit from this role reversal, too — intentionally offering points in our instruction for student expertise to flourish will allow for increased literacy opportunities through modeling, and will offer everyone (teachers included) the chance to practice lifelong learning skills.
Our time in Shanghai broadened our own definition of literacy and how it can involve humor, visual elements, or at least a hefty dose of translations. What began as an institute focused on teacher research morphed into a collaborative learning experience that challenged assumptions and led us to conclude that there are lessons of literacy in many of our daily interactions — whether in your classroom, a local restaurant, or grand spa in Shanghai. As teachers become more entrenched in the literacy opportunities around them, they can expand their practice and deepen their craft.
TAGS: LAURA RIGOLOSI, LITERACY, SHERRISH HOLLOMAN
By ROBERTA LENGER KANG
Differentiation can happen in many ways, with varying levels of complexity. Our Differentiating Like a STAR resource, designed to help educators consider entry points to differentiation, offers strategies in four categories: data, task, text, and grouping. Within each category, we outline three levels of instruction — the more stars included, the stronger the differentiation. By identifying pathways to expand differentiation, you can add depth and complexity to your lessons.
Differentiating instruction through text selection and literacy support is essential during a time of remote or blended learning. While learning remotely, students increasingly rely on learning through reading, rather than in-person lectures or teacher presentations. As students are exploring new content through texts, we can design multiple entry points to support engagement, content knowledge, and skill development.
We use texts to inform our instruction at three critical levels:
When teaching in person, we often differentiate for students based on their reading levels. We may be used to differentiating a text by using a common reading support like a vocabulary word bank, or guiding questions to build comprehension. More advanced forms of text differentiation include providing multiple texts on the same topic and allowing students to make a selection. This ensures that students will have access to the main content information at the reading level that is the best fit for them. When we’re providing the highest level of differentiation for students, we’re matching specific students with an “on-level” and a “stretch level” text to support their understanding of the content and stretch their reading level.
Whether we’re teaching in-person or remotely, our biggest challenge is finding meaningful texts at different levels. You may be interested in exploring websites like Scholastic, Newsela, or Readworks — each of which offer access to texts organized by subject, topic, and grade level. A strong practice would be to identify the following:
If students are struggling with the lowest leveled text, consider adding additional scaffoldings (like the word bank or anticipatory summaries).
We define "high-tech" as unlimited, individual access to an internet-connected device.
Provide vocabulary support: Consider linking to sites like vocabulary.com, where you can create class lists, group students, and customize vocabulary lists (or select from pre-made options). You can also use this option to create quizzes and other vocabulary-building games, which will provide a complement to any reading assignment.
Build student choice and autonomy by offering students a central text — for everyone to read — and then inviting students to contribute to a classroom library by finding two additional texts on the same topic. Going forward, students can select the texts they want to read based on those that have been identified for the class’ digital library.
Use a formative reading assessment to identify targeted texts that can be incorporated into instructional tasks. We can use a resource like Google Forms to develop a differentiated task for students, and embed a select passage from the text into the form itself, while asking questions related to comprehension. If students answer the questions incorrectly, they can be routed to a text that’s targeted for a lower grade level. If students submit a mix of correct and incorrect responses, they can be routed to a text that matches their grade level. If students answer all questions correctly, they can be routed to a higher level text.
Whether providing access to vocabulary instruction that’s parallel to the reading, or helping students discover texts at their own levels, differentiating by text level is a great way to ensure all students have a way to access the lesson.
We define "low-tech" as at least one hour of individual time on an internet-connected device.
Add hyperlinks to potentially difficult words embedded in a shared text. This type of vocabulary support makes it easy for students to view the definition of a word, without leaving the document they’re reading. If you’re preparing an assignment in Google Docs or Word, simply highlight the word you want to define and add a hyperlink to an online dictionary. Help students utilize this support by asking them to summarize key parts of the text or define some of the vocabulary terms in their own words. This option does not require that students spend more time online, and will allow them to complete the assignment on paper rather than on the computer if that’s a better fit, given their access to technology.
Offer student choice when posting an assignment to your online learning platform. Consider providing 2-3 texts as options and giving students a choice of which they’d like to read, or plan to strategically assign texts to students based on their reading levels. You can also invite students to read two out of the three texts, and offer additional points for reading multiple selections. Each interaction will help students absorb the content information, build their vocabulary, and challenge them to stretch to the next reading level. Teachers are sometimes cautious when doing this in person, as it can stigmatize students and highlight their level of academic performance. But in a remote learning setting, each task can become personalized, and this strategy can be implemented without these same concerns.
We define "no-tech" as less than one hour on an internet-connected device.
Add-on resources can accompany your lesson, and create scaffolds and supports for students as they read. For example, if a task includes a reading passage, comprehension questions, and a short response, you can create an add-on resource for vocabulary, which will provide definitions of words included in the passage. At a minimum, this word bank can help students make sense of the passage. For additional credit, we can ask students to create visual definitions of the vocabulary words, or define them in their own terms. Their work can be created using pen & paper, and then submitted by taking a simple photo.
Ask students to synthesize content in their own words: Similar to the low-tech option, this begins with offering multiple texts as part of your assignment, and inviting students to choose the text that’s the best fit for them. From there, we can ask students to share what they’ve learned by writing about the topic as if they’re passing on their knowledge to students who are at a lower grade level. For example, if I’m teaching middle schools students who are learning about the three branches of government, I can extend my students’ reading task by asking them to write an explanation of this topic for third graders. The translation of the information from an on-level text to students at a lower grade level will help students think critically about what they understand.
Whether we’re teaching in-person or online, differentiating texts for students’ reading levels is complicated. We want to use everything we know about our students to match them to the right text at the right time, and provide the best scaffolds that will help them to stretch without slipping.
TAGS: DIFFERENTIATION, LITERACY, REMOTE LEARNING, RESOURCES, ROBERTA LENGER KANG
By CRISTINA ROMEO COMPTON
Distance learning can be challenging, especially for our young, emerging readers. In the classroom, young students are exposed to print-rich environments, and are supported and guided through a multitude of literacy activities such as phonics, guided reading, shared reading, and direct reading instruction. Now that learning is taking place in the home, there are growing concerns about the deficits young students will experience, particularly when it comes to reading. What can we do? How and when should we do it? And how can parents prioritize reading practices at home?
As a Master’s student, the focus of my thesis included understanding and improving the reading habits and attitudes of my third grade students. I launched my study by administering a survey, and provided them with a number of statements including, I like to read, I prefer reading to watching TV, and I read more than I watch TV. I had students read each statement, and then circle an emoji that best matched their feelings about the statement (ranging from positive to negative).
My students’ responses, along with my observations, were pretty discouraging. I noticed many of my students didn’t want to read, or would read for a few minutes before putting their book down and saying, “I’m done.” I was determined to do something. In the next phase of my work, I reached out to parents of those students with particularly negative responses to the survey, and asked if they would be willing to participate in my study. Their participation included signing a contract in which they agreed to engage in three specific literacy practices at home: reading aloud, shared reading, and independent reading.
It is these three literacy practices that I think parents should prioritize, as I believe they are simple, effective, and particularly helpful when it comes to supporting reading development outside of the classroom.
Reading aloud promotes fluency and exposure. Exposure plays a significant role in reading development and cultivating a positive attitude towards reading. The parents who participated in my study agreed to read to their children for 20 minutes a day, at least three times a week. I would encourage all parents to do the same. If you can do nothing else, read aloud to your child! Expose your children to as many books as possible, and regularly engage in read alouds. This can be incorporated into a lunch break, added to a bedtime routine, or even occur first thing in the morning — whatever works best for you. If this feels too difficult, there are many read aloud resources available online that can support you, such as Epic, which offers a massive digital library for children aged 12 and under, and YouTube, which offers free access to a variety of voices and titles to choose from.
If you’re ready, interested, and able to step up your read aloud game, you can engage your children further by asking simple questions: What do you notice? What does this make you think? What are you learning about ____? This kind of work promotes comprehension and inferencing skills.
The tried and true think-aloud protocol — in which you share what you’re thinking and what you’re predicting — can also be a powerful model for children. I even do this with my 8-month-old. As her mother I know she’s brilliant (of course!), but can accept she is clearly too young to do deep thinking work on her own, so I point to the pictures and the words in each book, narrating what they are, for as long as she lets me. It’s never too young to cultivate a love for books!
Fountas and Pinnell define shared reading as a reading experience in which children and their teacher engage in multiple read alouds of an “enlarged version of a text that provides opportunities for students to expand their reading competencies. The goals of the first reading are to ensure that students enjoy the text and think about the meaning. After the first reading, students take part in multiple, subsequent readings to notice more about the text.” From there, students discuss the text, and parents or educators determine next steps for support.
Ideally, parents would be able to put on their teacher hat while reading with their children, tracking and pointing to the words together, sounding words out along the way. Shared reading like this can help improve the rate at which children read, increase their fluency, and add to their enjoyment for reading.
Don’t be discouraged if this feels outside of your reach. Shared reading can also mean simply engaging in shared reading time, without any additional components. Each family member can select a text of their choosing, and read near each other. Whether this happens first thing in the morning, as you read the newspaper or your favorite magazine and enjoy a cup of coffee, or before bed, as you are winding down the day and in search of some quiet time. Being exposed to others who are reading can have a positive effect on a child’s attitudes and habits around reading, as it did for my young readers.
The final activity in my study involved an agreement from parents to provide quiet and uninterrupted time and space to engage in independent reading for at least 20 minutes a day. One of the biggest challenges to reading at home, according to my third graders, is the lack of space and opportunity to read alone. Children are often sharing rooms, household tasks and chores need to be done, and child care responsibilities need to be managed. This, I’m sure, has only been exacerbated during the COVID-19 crisis, as everyone is now living and working from home. Home can feel even more chaotic than before, and quiet time can be a challenge. However, if you can find a calm space where children can engage in independent reading even for even small periods of time each day, it can have a positive impact on reading abilities. This space might be the corner of a room, on a bed, or even in the bathroom. We have to get creative!
If you’re ready to level up your independent reading game, task your child with practicing one simple strategy while they read. This might include asking them to jot down questions as they read, notice and note (What do you notice? What does this make you think?), or it could involve a challenge to find words that start with certain letters or that contain certain blends, such as Bl or Cr. It doesn’t have to be complicated, just one strategy that will allow children to practice on their own, and then share with you.
The last tip I’ll leave you with is: if it feels like these strategies aren’t working for your readers, be prepared to throw all these strategies to the wind. Put the book down, and try again later. This is a challenging time — stress and emotions are running high — and we all know that the dynamic between parents and children, when it comes to learning, can be difficult and unpredictable. Some days our children want our help, and sometimes they don’t want anything to do with us! Give yourself some grace and flexibility. Trust that what you’re doing is enough, and remember that one day will not create lasting, negative implications for your child’s reading abilities. Be kind to yourself and to your children, and remember that tomorrow is another day.
TAGS: CRISTINA ROMEO COMPTON, LITERACY, REMOTE LEARNING
By COURTNEY BROWN
A student’s command of a range of vocabulary can predict not only their academic success, but even their future job opportunities. This may seem like a bold statement, but in fact, research supports it!
As Marzano and Pickering attest, “One of the key indicators of students' success in school, on standardized tests, and indeed, in life, is their vocabulary. The reason for this is simply that the knowledge anyone has about a topic is based on the vocabulary of that information.” (Marzano & Pickering, 2005).
The correlation between a student’s mastery of academic vocabulary and their success becomes even stronger as they move into high school, where they encounter a broadening variety of discipline-specific vocabulary, in which each word may actually represent a new complex concept. Consider a solution in math vs. a solution in science; a ray in math vs. a ray of sunlight in a poem; function as a noun in math vs. function as a more general verb. As students reach higher grade levels, they face increased demands to gain more specialized knowledge and to differentiate between meanings in each context. It can be a little overwhelming!
To make teaching and planning for vocabulary development more manageable, I find it helpful to begin by taking action in two ways.
Supporting students to manage unfamiliar language as they read
This includes offering students tools to identify words using context clues, replacing words, identifying words by their roots or similarities to other words, or for ELLS, using cognates. Many of these tools help students read fluidly and fearlessly, taking on the challenge of unfamiliar words as hurdles to jump or work around, not roadblocks that stop them.
CPET’s Dr. Roberta Lenger Kang created a simple, adaptable Monitoring for Meaning resource that students can use to figure out, track, and archive words independently as they read. Students can keep the chart right it in their notebooks and regularly build it as they encounter new words.
Identifying specific vocabulary and concepts to teach in each unit
When you plan to teach the key terms for each unit and then strategically reinforce and review the words throughout, students have a much better chance of learning and recalling key words and concepts. Sorting and categorizing, using and seeing the words in a variety of contexts, and learning through games or puzzles helps new concepts take root in the minds of your students. Consider the impact of games such as Pictionary, Taboo or Jeopardy, all of which make learning vocabulary more engaging, and in turn can make vocabulary more memorable.
TAGS: COURTNEY BROWN, LITERACY
By DR. ROBERTA LENGER KANG
When my son was five years old, his Kindergarten teacher assigned the class 20 minutes of reading for homework every night. We would sit on the couch together, and he would read to me. We didn’t get but two or three pages into the book when his mind would begin to wander, he’d start making silly jokes, or pretend to get really sleepy. I tried to be persistent. I’d prop him up on my lap, and encourage that we point at each word on the page together, sounding them out one by one. He would just sit silently.
I asked him what was wrong, and after some time in silence, he mustered the courage to whisper, “There’s a word on the page that’s bothering me.” That’s what he said -- bothering. It was as if the word was out on the playground taunting him to jump off the swing, or in the cafeteria ready to steal his lunch money. The word was bothering him.
This was the first time it occured to me that reading is an emotional experience.
The second time it occured to me was when I presented a workshop on reading complex texts at Teachers College. The workshop was designed for a group of middle school teachers from New York City who were embarking on a literacy initiative at their school. As part of my workshop, I wanted to explore what makes a text complex, and why. I passed out seven different excerpts from seven different fields (legal, medical, literary, mathematical, computer science, crafting, and sports) and asked the teachers to read the texts and rank them according to easiest to most difficult. While everyone was engaged in reading, I saw one teacher pick up one of the texts, promptly put it back down again, and then push the paper all the way to the edge of the table where it flew off and fell to the floor.
In debriefing the experience, I asked the teacher to share with the group the strong response he had to this text. He said, “The moment I looked at it, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to understand it, and it made me feel sick to my stomach. I just wanted to get the paper as far away from me as possible.”
Reading is an emotional experience
We’ve all had this happen to us from time to time. For some, it’s when we’re reading an old English poem, or maybe it’s reading through a mathematical proof, or reading the instructions for filling out paperwork for the IRS. The big a-ha moment for us as educators is that the same reaction we might have when it comes to reading complex texts, may be the same reaction our students are having on a daily basis when we assign texts in our content areas.
Here’s something else I learned from this workshop: there isn’t one type of text that’s easy, and another type of text that’s difficult. I’ve conducted this same workshop with hundreds of educators and every time, I find that different people find complexity in different texts. Our experiences with text complexity are typically based on four criteria:
It’s these four criteria that inform the emotions we feel while reading. The more criteria we’re able to match to the text, the easier it seems to us. The easier the text is to read, the better we feel about ourselves. The better we feel, the more our confidence grows and our interest in reading increases. The fewer criteria we’re able to match to the text, the more difficult it seems to us, the worse we feel about ourselves. Our confidence decreases and our interest in reading decreases.
Helping students find meaning in texts
It’s possible we’re inadvertently creating spaces where students become less interested, less confident, and less comfortable with reading because of these emotional interactions with “difficult” texts. But there are some simple solutions that we can implement if we carefully consider the four criteria for making meaning:
These four steps are not always easy, but if we’re planning with these essentials in mind, we have the power to rapidly transform resistant or reluctant readers in any content area.
TAGS: LITERACY, READING, ROBERTA LENGER KANG