Help students independently investigate and interpret unfamiliar words using context clues.
Elementary & Project-Based Learning Specialist
When it comes to reading, one of the most significant challenges students face is vocabulary. If students come across a word they don’t know while reading, it can have a substantial impact on their comprehension and their confidence. I witnessed this as a classroom teacher, and I’ve heard it from many of the teachers I now coach.
Searching for clues
One of my most tried and true strategies, which I used in my own classroom as an elementary teacher, and one I continue to offer to teachers, involves encouraging students to read texts like a detective who is searching for clues. Asking them to engage in this way encourages students to look for clues that can help unlock meaning, offer insights, and assist them in interpreting unknown words.
But these clues — often referred to as context clues — go beyond the language immediately surrounding unknown words. Clues might be found in the paragraph before or after an unknown word or phrase. Sometimes there are clues in the text features, including pictures, visuals, captions, or word boxes. We need to support students in treating the whole text as a series of clues that can help them become familiar with specific vocabulary words as they read independently.
Monitoring for meaning
Our Monitoring for Meaning resource can support students with this process, particularly when it comes to identifying and investigating difficult words. It offers a helpful template that prompts students to:
This resource asks them to use their best guess and then either confirm or revise their thinking after using a dictionary. Furthermore, it prompts students to lean on their prior knowledge to help decipher new words.
Literacy teachers have the demanding and important task of teaching reading, and while there is no single strategy that can guarantee success, encouraging curiosity and investigation while reading is a high leverage way to support students in becoming competent, confident readers.
Encourage curiosity and caring in young learners, and support an understanding and appreciation of differences.
Elementary & Project-Based Learning Specialist
Conversations about race are not easy. They can bring about feelings of fear, anger, and frustration, and as a result, these conversations are often avoided. However, grappling with topics of race and diversity are truly important, especially with young children who are cultivating their understanding and their perceptions of the world. Experts argue that children are never too young to learn about kindness, fairness, and human rights. Research states that children “as young as three months old...may look differently at people who look like or don’t look like their primary caregivers.”
As a parent of a soon to be two-year-old and a professional development consultant who works closely with educators of young children, I am committed to seeking ways to engage in and facilitate my own conversations about race, especially in today’s world, as well as share strategies with educators that they can use in their own classrooms. What follows are a few strategies I’ve curated and adapted from my own musings and readings, as well as some concrete strategies inspired by one of our reimagining education initiatives: Literacy Unbound. These strategies can be particularly helpful when it comes to facilitating conversations about race with young students and cultivating skills, mindsets, and capacities that will serve us well today, and in the future.
The importance of asking questions
One of the most effective ways to grapple with topics of race and diversity is to ask questions. This is particularly effective with elementary students, as they commonly ask many questions of their own. By encouraging their curiosity and caring, and creating a safe space for them to be inquisitive, you can help pacify concerns, address confusions, and support an understanding and appreciation of differences. Additionally, you can raise your own questions focused on topics of race, diversity, and exploring differences to get students thinking and recognizing how they can be advocates of positive change. Here are some examples of questions that I turn to, curated and adapted from websites like PBS.com:
These questions can be a part of morning circle time, a weekly reflection or journal writing prompt, or even as a theme for a bulletin board, where students can share their responses using post-its or index cards (or, while online, students can add their thoughts online to Padlets and Jamboards).
Introducing & exposing students to diverse books
As Dr. Aisha White, Director of the P.R.I.D.E. Program at the University of Pittsburgh, explains, books — especially picture books — are a safe place to start when talking to children about race and racism. She suggests selecting picture books that offer multiple perspectives and explore various entry points for addressing complex topics. Some popular texts she suggests include:
These texts can be read as part of designated read aloud time, as part of a school-wide, character building initiative where the books are read in every classroom, or as a central text that guides and inspires a larger unit of study.
But as Dr. White explains, it’s not enough to just read the book. “If a parent (or educator) just reads the book and doesn’t have a conversation — doesn’t start to talk about racial disparities and racial discrimination and racism in America — then it won’t really affect a child’s attitudes toward race…it comes back to…having a background knowledge before speaking with their children, and being brave enough to have the tough conversations.”
What does it look like to support students in reading complex texts more closely, more carefully, more creatively, and more critically?
Sparking conversations around texts
Literacy Unbound, one of our signature initiatives, aims to unbind traditional approaches to the teaching of reading and writing using drama and play-based strategies to spark conversations that are inspired by questions raised in a specific, shared text. Teachers and students are brought together in this process as critical and creative thinkers, which helps foster a space for collective inquiry and exploration.
Using drama and play can be particularly effective with young students, especially when looking to support engagement and participation, while also providing a safe entry point for complex and challenging conversations.
Let’s look at a few strategies from Literacy Unbound to see how they can be effective and what they can look like when applied to one of my favorite texts, The Other Side, by Jacqueline Woodson. The Other Side follows the story of a little Black girl named Clover who sees a little white girl across a fence, but is told by her mom that she can’t cross to the other side of the fence because it isn’t safe.
Facilitating conversations about race with young students is no easy task. It takes courage, patience, and a lot of thoughtful planning and reflection on the part of educators, parents, and caretakers. Moreover, it takes a lot of persistence. Being open-minded and developing understanding, kindness, and an appreciation of others who are different from us is not something that happens after reading one text or engaging in one conversation.
As Glenn Singleton and Curtis Linton note in their book Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools, courageous conversations about race require that we stay engaged and anticipate feelings of discomfort, as well as expect and accept non-closure.
We encourage you to create space for these conversations with your students and reimagine the ways in which you can spark curiosity and critical thinking around race and equity in a safe and supportive classroom.
About the text
Published in 1899, The Awakening tells the story of Edna Pontellier, a young woman from Kentucky who marries into an upper-class Creole family in New Orleans, Louisiana. As Edna becomes increasingly alienated from the domestic demands of marriage and motherhood, she meets a young man who offers her a glimpse of an alternate path, one of her own choosing. Biographer Per Seyerstead writes that with The Awakening, Kate Chopin “broke new ground in American literature… revolting against tradition and authority; with a daring which we can hardly fathom today.” The Awakening transcends its historical setting as it speaks to women’s agency and desire, issues which remain fraught in contemporary society.
Invitations to Create
Finding ways to engage students in the reading of classic texts can be difficult, particularly when so much teaching and learning is happening remotely. Invitations to Create — a method from our Literacy Unbound initiative, which reinvigorates students and teachers through project-based, collaborative curricula developed around challenging texts, ultimately increasing student engagement and building classroom community in the process — offer engaging multimedia prompts that are designed to support students in their reading and understanding of a shared piece of literature. Each invitation offers an opportunity to reflect, analyze, and synthesize the text at hand.
Our Invitations to Create provide key opportunities for educators to move students from talking about the text to experiencing the text. Through Invitations to Create, students can feel the story in ways that might not otherwise be possible — they can talk from within a text, and speak directly from the perspective of the characters. This process allows rich meaning-making to happen, and will allow you and your students to find ways to experience literature together, even while apart.
Each invitation is focused on a meaningful quote that our team identified as a hotspot for further thinking, discussion, and creation. Additionally, the hotspots are accompanied by multimedia connections such as photographs of the New Orleans landscape, maps from the 1890s, audio clips of the quotes, and connections to current events or related media. These connections are meant to inspire further thinking, engagement, and curiosity for students while they're reading. Who is Edna? Why is she struggling with being a wife and mother, and is the end inevitable?
To access additional free K-12 resources from our team, please visit our Resources page.
Breathe new life into book clubs and place students at the center of their reading experience.
G. FAITH LITTLE
21st Century Learning & SEL Specialist
Time moves forward, as it always does. We can take this time to reflect on lessons learned when we unexpectedly and quickly shifted from teaching in the classroom, to teaching remotely, and then into a next normal of blended in-person and virtual learning spaces. One big takeaway from this time of critical reflection is that we aren’t starting with a blank page. Whatever the season, we can adapt tools we already have to meet the challenges we’re facing.
Breathing new life into book clubs
New tools can breathe new life into our planning and our teaching, and creating a new tool doesn’t need to be done from scratch. By connecting Ten Tips for Successful Book Clubs with our Global Mindset Framework, we can quickly create a new resource that integrates teaching 21st century skills into each reading opportunity we plan for our students.
Book clubs offer many benefits to student readers, including:
A successful book club for your students will:
Understanding the Global Mindset Framework
Now that we’ve framed some of the characteristics of book clubs, we can connect each facet to our Global Mindset Framework. This will help us streamline our work when planning for our next book club iteration, or beginning a book club community with our students.
The Global Mindset Framework is the articulation of 21st century skills students need to navigate their present and their future, sorted into five categories of capacities: caring, collaborative, creative, critical, and global. The framework addresses key questions that teachers and school leaders struggle with as they attempt to make key concepts relevant to children in a changing world.
To understand the Global Mindset Framework, we can look to the Global Learning Alliance (GLA). The GLA is the outgrowth of our groundbreaking research on the features and practices surrounding 21st century teaching and learning. It has evolved from the seeds of a research project and is now a consortium of schools and universities around the world dedicated to understanding, defining, applying, and sharing the principles and practices of a world-class education within a wide range of educational contexts.
21st century capacities
Global capacity: The capacity for students to step outside the confines of their own familiar social world to understand distant realities in order to engage productively with the world.
Critical capacity: The capacity for students to develop their full critical cognitive capacities in order to be discerning and informed citizens of the world.
Collaborative capacity: The capacity for students to develop habits of observation, reflection, and collaboration, and to be able to communicate in multiple modalities such as through images, words, sounds, gestures, or an integration of these modes in order to actively contribute to various discourses in the world.
Creative capacity: The capacity for students to follow their curiosity by questioning or imagining in order to contribute positive improvements or inventions to their world.
Caring capacity: The capacity for students to explore compassion, empathy, and self-awareness in order to develop caring partnerships with themselves, their communities, countries, and world.
Activating 21st century skills
Using the template below, we can imagine how we might combine various capacities from the Global Mindset Framework with our tips for success to generate a profile of a book club that integrates 21st century skills into student learning. We want to keep moving our teaching forward to meet the needs of today’s students, but we don’t often feel we have the time we need to recreate our plans. By layering the Global Mindset Framework over our book club planning, we can revise what we’ve already got going for us instead of starting from a blank page.
Connecting skills to next steps
Using the template above, we can customize our profile to fit a specific book — in this case, we'll use Malala Yousafzai's I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World. In this model, we start with our to-do list; we imagine some of our options, and what we need to collect to complete our plan.
The task before us all is to educate students today for the world they’re poised to lead tomorrow, and as we recognize that we can no longer sustain a 20th century in a 21st century world, we must remain flexible in order to meet the dynamic needs of our students. As we look for ways to build upon the expertise and techniques already alive in our classrooms, we can easily create opportunities for students to build 21st century skills, shifting from teacher-centered instruction to an environment that puts students at the center of their reading and writing experiences.
Uncovering the meaning of unfamiliar words while reading independently is a keystone skill for students from the time they start to read, all the way through college and beyond.
Monitoring for Meaning is an adaptable tool that guides students of all ages through this process, supporting them as they move through the cognitive steps of identifying and unpacking new words. As students work to decipher the meaning of difficult or unfamiliar words, they are empowered to access their prior knowledge and use available context clues to form their definitions, before turning to additional resources.
To access additional free K-12 resources from our team, please visit our Resources page.