Monday, January 27, 2014

You say "tomato", I say "tomato": Word pronunciation, meaning, and spelling

I had an interesting (almost sweet for a story about an eighth grader) experience last week when I was working with a student (let's call him David) on a reading fluency exercise.  He is in his first year out of bilingual, and he struggles, to say the least.  This kid is a cool kid - well-liked, adorable, and goofy.  But he does everything in his power to avoid doing his academic work.  His teachers may complain that he is unmotivated and lacks focus, but I can hypothesize that what is really going on here is that David is trying to "save face" by deflecting any attention away from his lack of skill, which affects his academics.  The best way to do this?  Goof off in class.  You get your peers' attention, a few giggles, and inevitably you get adult attention also. 

So David and I were sitting in the hallway a few weeks ago running a fluency passage.  We use The Six-Minute Solution (Sopris, 2003) for quick and painless fluency training in our short amounts of intervention times that we have.  I cannot even remember the topic of the passage we were reading, but I will forever remember the conversation we had right before David began reading to me.  I always read the passage before the kids to model good fluency and to show them how even I can improve daily on my reading fluency when I practice.  After I read the passage, I looked at David, and he asked, "How do you pronounce that word?"  To me this was a big deal, because he usually doesn't ask - he just mispronounces words over and over again, and with his accent, sometimes it is difficult to determine what he is mispronouncing and what mispronunciations are dialectic.

The word was comfortable.  I pronounced it for him the way I pronounce it (COM-fer-ta-ble), and I could see him testing it out before he started reading.  During his read he stumbled on the word, but he did manage to pronounce it the way I had pronounced it.  I pondered this while I monitored his reading, and similar experiences with other ELLs popped into my head.  Ask a kid to pronounce that word.  I just asked my ten-year-old, and she looked at it, said it (com-FOR-ta-ble) twice, and then a light bulb went on in her head before she said, "COM-FTER-BUL!"  At that point I had to look the word up in the dictionary because I was curious how the dictionary said it should be pronounced, and what did I get?  Multiple pronunciations - both mine and theirs with an ADDITIONAL pronunciation (for kicks, I guess).  Fabulous. 

This situation brought me to the dozens of times when I have worked with students one-on-one or in small groups on reading and spelling.  Our big kids have been mispronouncing certain words for so long that, even when they DO know spelling rules, they misspell because they hear it and repeat it in their heads, naturally changing the pronunciation to how they think it is pronounced and have heard it pronounced over and over again by parents, siblings, and neighbors.  Part of our job is to help them understand that there are some words that may be pronounced differently, and explain how the spellings of those words may or may not follow spelling rules. 

I'm giggling now, because I am recalling a story a colleague shared with me about an issue where one student couldn't place a common phrase into context.  The student, who was writing a story in class, started the story with, "One supana time."  Clearly this student lacked the background knowledge in fairy tales to understand that the phrase was "Once upon a time."  There is nothing wrong with this, except that we assume that our kiddos will have knowledge to read, spell, and write, and some of them just don't.

Another example comes from a sixth grade classroom last year when I happened to be in a room where a teacher was asking students to give definitions or examples of words written on the board.  She asked one sixth grader, who I knew to have trouble with multisyllabic words larger than two syllables, about the meaning of a word (the specific word escapes me now, but it was a -tion word).  He stared at her, fear stricken, before he said he didn't know.  I  KNEW he knew the word, so I said, "I think you do know the word," and I pronounced it for him.  I am a believer in probing some kids until they see success, and I knew I could push him a bit.  The second he heard the word, he said, "Oh, THAT'S what that says?  I know that word!" And he went on to explain it to the class. Success.  I also knew that this student was a good reader as long as you kept his words to one and two-syllable words.  This particular word had three syllables.  That's how specific some of these reading deficits are!

My point here is that we take for granted that these kids can read or have the background knowledge to produce what we think they should.  They all can't - not yet, anyway, and they are brilliant at hiding that fact.  So how can we be absolutely certain we are covering our bases, as teachers of all content areas?  Here are some ideas.
  • No matter what content area you teach, pronounce any and all vocabulary words over and over and over and over again.
  • Require your entire class to pronounce them back.  Who cares of they think it is silly.  Just tell them that you want to be sure everybody has the correct pronunciation of all of the words.  If you're working with names in social studies, this is an easy justification because some names are just tough!  If they bawk at it, bawk back and make them say them in a British accent or like Dracula or something. 
  • If you're out of "bell ringer" exercises (or even if you are not), have students pronounce and spell vocabulary words back and forth to each other in partners.  Don't forget to pronounce them FIRST.  If you have two kids in a partnership and neither one of them knows how to pronounce one of the words, they will inevitably practice it wrong.  Throw in a few words that are not content area vocabulary words but are found in the text just for kicks! The kids will never know the difference!
  • Consider the fact that your students may run across other words in their reading that look unfamiliar.  If you know that you have struggling readers in your class (which you all do!), then reading a text book independently and silently is probably not the best way to expect your students to tackle the text.  Be sure to group (or preferably pair) students appropriately. 
  • Please do not put a gifted reader into a group of struggling readers or pair them up to support the struggler.  Space out those strugglers amongst your regular kiddos so that they can get some support and do the same with your gifted readers.  In my opinion, struggling readers and gifted readers can be grouped or paired together, but not for reading.  The gap is too wide.  I know you might be temped because you think it might give the struggler a good model, but there are plenty of good models amongst the average readers, and there is such a thing as looking at a gap and feeling like you'll never be able to jump it.  I imagine that is what it feels like to some of the struggling readers when they work with a gifted reader.  Plus, gifted kids are gifted and generally know it.  They're smart enough to know why they've been partnered up with certain people, and the minute the struggler opens her mouth, the gifted student will know.  There is no partnership at this point, and both students may feel like they can't wait for the activity to be over.   And to be honest, not all gifted readers feel like it is their calling to help those who struggle.
  • If your text books come with supported or modified text, use it, but use it with care. Don't just give it to kids who struggle with your content, use it with kids who struggle with reading and need reading support.
  • Look to your reading specialist, interventionist, data collection specialist, or special education staff to help you identify your strugglers.  There may be data in your school that you don't even know exists!  I hold all of our reading data, and I try to communicate it as much as possible, but with seven hundred kiddos and more than fifty people working in our building, not all information will get to everybody who needs it.  Sometimes you have to ask.  If you notice a student who is not meeting your expectations, look for answers and start with one of these people.

So the next time you notice a student who misspells words, ask the student to pronounce them for you.  Chances are, the problem may lie with the idea that he struggles with the pronunciation.   If you read my previous posts on students who lack vocabulary, you will understand that many of these kiddos are encountering some of these words for the first time and are building their oral vocabularies as fast as they can.  We need to continue to expose them, but we have to expose them properly and thoroughly.  Don't take for granted that they "should know", because some of them just don't.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Using Station Teaching in the Middle School Classroom to motivate readers

I've been working with struggling readers long enough to know that when they don't want to do something, the likelihood of it getting done is slim to none.  Our job as teachers of strugglers is to first make these kiddos WANT to do it or feel like it NEEDS to be done.  We would call this motivation.  Sometimes this doesn't work, and we need to just not give our students time to decide if they want to do it.  That is one of the beauties of station teaching and something I witnessed last week while working and observing in classrooms.

Earlier in the week I had a chance to visit in our seventh grade language arts class designed specifically for struggling readers.  Students in this class hit the same curricular targets, but the teachers in our intervention classes use more accessible text, class sizes are somewhat smaller, a special education teachers is scheduled in each of these classes for a co-teaching model, and I can drop in to work with smaller groups and coach these teachers easily because the kids are all lumped together. In my experience these kiddos are more likely to participate instead of hide behind their peers because there is nothing to hide and nobody in there to "make them feel stupid".  We choose kiddos to be placed in this class when we have seen that the differentiated model of the regular language arts classroom doesn't seem to be working, and many of these students make double the gains of what their peers do in the regular classrooms.

I knew that the teachers in this class had been planning for a station-teaching approach, and I was excited to see it in action.  On this particular week they were just starting out with training their students how to move between stations, work independently, and work under short time constraints.  The teachers had created four stations with different activities.  Each activity hit a specific target and aligned with a selection of text (all connected in some way).  One of the stations was a teacher-led station while the other three were more independent.  These two teachers are lucky because there ARE two of them in the room.  One can lead a station while the other one moves from station to station monitoring the work that the students are doing and answering questions.  We even discussed the possibility of planning me into the mix so that two of us could lead a station while the other one monitored and answered questions of the other two stations.  Students were at each station for about ten minutes before they moved on to the next one.  All materials and directions needed for the station were supplied. 

This type of teaching made me look back at my old approach to classroom instruction, and ironically the special education teacher who was in this class was the same one I had my last few years of classroom teaching.  She and I were able to reflect on that experience and how some of the theories were reflected in this type of instruction. 

The philosophy of station teaching works for a variety of reasons.  First off, at least one station is guaranteed small group instruction by a certified teacher.  Research shows that small group instruction works because each student can get that individual attention he/she needs, and there's no where to hide in a small group.  Sometimes (as seen in the picture at the left), we can even squeeze in some one-on-one time!  It also works because learning is bound to be more social.  As a part of the groups, students were told they could use each other to help them get through material with which they struggled.  There were a few times when students took advantage of this and worked  in partners or in small groups, and it was nice to see them try to rely on each other until the monitoring teacher became available to answer a question.  If you read my summer blog on social learning, you'll know that many of our students (especially our middle schoolers) lean more toward social learning because it makes them feel like they're a part of a whole. 

Finally, students were at each station for about ten minutes before they were moved on to a different station with a different activity.  I find this to be one of the most brilliant components of the approach because of the lack of focus so many of our kiddos have - especially our strugglers!  They struggle for a reason, and some of them struggle because they have very short attention spans. Others have short attention spans BECAUSE they struggle.  Whatever came first, the idea that we move these kids (physically and academically) from one  activity to the next keeps them fresh and engaged.  They don't have TIME to lose focus, and very few of them did!

So how can something like this work in another classroom?  Especially because most of us do not have the luxury of having an extra body in the classroom AND many of our classes are sitting with thirty-plus students.  Here are some ideas to consider while mulling over the idea of station teaching:
  • Splitting your "groups" into partners might help in terms of management.  If you have eight students in a group that moves to a station, have them split into work partners so that they're not trying to work in a large group of eight kids.  The activities in these stations should have clear directions, and at least one student who is a natural leader should be put into each group to explain things. 
  • Use the timer for both group work and transition time.  Saying, "You have one minute to pack up and move," gives students parameters in which to move and keeps everybody honest, because we all know that transitions can sometimes turn into disasters if not carefully constructed.
  • Think about activities that you would normally do whole-class and how you can create stations out of those activities.  Plan four days of stations when you might plan four days of different activities.  Then move your kiddos to a few stations each day.  Try 20 minutes per station each day and have students visit each station twice to keep their mind fresh. 
  • Make a station hands-on or more social so that students have a station or two to look forward to. 
  • Give explicit directions for each station.  Include pictures and any materials needed for each station.
  • Make a station or two a familiar activity such as a writing activity or reading log, so that students aren't met all period long with unfamiliar activities. Too much in one day may be overwhelming.
  • If you can pull in a student support specialist (reading specialist, speech therapist, social worker, school psych, or even an administrator) you could create some more teacher-directed stations.
  • If you want to do a teacher-directed station, create the rest of your stations to be VERY easily implemented, or you will spend the entire time repeating instructions.
  • Lay the groundwork for what is expected by the end. 
  • Train your students from the get-go.  Maybe even plan a few weeks of independent stations so that you can monitor their group work before you try to weave in a teacher-directed station.  You want your students to be able to work independently and be productive, but without guided instruction on this, the entire thing may fall apart before it even gets started!
Ideas for stations might be things like:
  • reading an easily accessible article with a specific purpose
  • vocabulary organizers using the text book or technology
  • completing a writing activity
  • playing a game (my husband, the music teacher, created a pretty impressive music card game that would be PERFECT in a station)
  • a guided reading activity
  • independent reading with a reading log
  • an activity that requires students to reflect on work they have done or edit/revise somebody else's work (with specific parameters)
  • a very easy kinesthetic activity or lab (with specific directions and purpose)
  • puzzles related to the topic
  • watching short video clips with a specific purpose
The idea of station teaching is daunting at first glance, but imagine the engagement as students move from activity to activity.  If you can't imagine it, ask a colleague to considering working on it with you.  We started to get crazy in our "oooooo, this could be awesome if . . . " conversations as we imagined two classrooms where stations were going on in both, and students traveled from room to room working on different activities.  It was at this point that we had to shut ourselves down because we knew we were moving too far too fast!  But there is potential for lots of neat stuff to happen here!  And the social aspect paired with the smaller blocks of time is just what the doctor (or reading specialist, in this case) ordered for our kiddos who are unmotivated and apathetic. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Partner Reading in the Science Classroom - A Perfectly Packaged Lesson

Today I had the privilege of observing in a science classroom.  As a part of our school improvement team, I was trying out the idea of learning from colleagues through observation, and although classroom observation is a part of my job normally - my purpose was different today.  I went in with the plan to learn how my colleague implemented partner reading in her classroom.  What I got was a lot more than that!  I wish you all could have been there, but since you can't, I'll do my best to explain what I saw today and give my thoughts about it.

I should preface this blog by telling you that the day before, the sixth graders participated in an activity involving gathering information on different types of alternative energy from posters around the room and stating some opinions about them.  A perfect way to pique the interest of  middle schoolers - ask them to tell you what they think.  So today, their teacher referenced this activity at the beginning of the lesson and then asked students to set up a notes sheet outline with spaces to gather information from their reading (she had a clear example on the board) and a paragraph frame (It was at this point that I became giddy with excitement - a CRISS strategy!!!).  What I loved about this task was that students had the background knowledge gathered from the group activity the day before AND now they were being given purpose for today by simply setting up notes and an exit slip!  Brilliant!  I also loved the fact that she remembered her strugglers and had copies of these things made for them.  She gave all of her students the option of using one of her copies, and I was shocked to see how few students actually requested the premade copies.  My guess was that, being January, those who were fully capable had been told long before that they were capable and had stopped asking for the adaptation.  The picture to the right shows the frame that their teacher used.  The note taking outline was nothing more than a list of important vocabulary words.  Simple and effective.

After setting up their notes and their paragraph frames, the sixth graders were given a quick demonstration of the partner reading activity that they had obviously practiced over and over - it was basically a "read and say something" strategy from Project CRISS.  Their teacher referenced a poster that she had off on the side wall (see picture to the left) that had clear directions for the activity.  After going over directions, she then asked for a volunteer to help demonstrate the practice.  She had chosen a piece of text from an alternative source (not the text book) that was a little over one page long and very well organized - a manageable piece of text for a short reading period.  Her volunteer was given the option of being partner one or two.  He chose partner two, of course.  After that she reminded the class that they were all going to pretend to be partner two while she read, and she reminded them of the expectations listed under the second step on the poster.  As she read, I watched them all, and probably all but two were tracking the text with a pen or their finger! They were following along, just like the poster said to do! Once she finished reading the short paragraph, she asked her partner to tell the main idea of the paragraph. She asked a few questions to lead him to the right answer, and then she pointed out that having a conversation while deciding on the main idea is okay.  Then her partner read, and they repeated the exercise.  I am not convinced that she even had to do this demonstration, as it seemed like the kids really knew what was expected, but it was nice to see the strategy modeled first before seeing the kids in action. 

Finally, the sixth graders were told that after they were done reading, they should fill out the paragraph frame while waiting for the rest of the class to finish their reading.  They immediately got to work.  Let me just tell you - one hundred percent of those sixth grade students were actively engaged in the reading activity!  One hundred percent!  While most of the class worked independently, their teacher moved from group to group, stopping to work with the kiddos who received photocopies of the note taking sheet earlier.  She knew which kids needed support, and she focused on giving them support while they read.  The actual reading took maybe fifteen minutes for most of the class.  Some took longer, but she had structured the activity to allow her to continue working with the strugglers while the rest of the class moved on to the paragraph frame.  It was lovely to watch. 

Why did it work?  Well, I can give you my two cents on it and let you make your own decisions.  First off, the teacher's classroom management was obviously impeccable.  The kids knew expectations, and she never sat DOWN!  She was on her feet the entire period circling the room.  Even if a kid DID want to do something goofy, there was no time before she was around the room again.  Second, the students had their interest piqued from the activity the day before, so they were already somewhat invested in the topic.  Third, they knew what they were doing from the beginning.  She set this up when she had them set up their notes, look at the board for the agenda, and write out their paragraph frame.  They also were given explicit instructions, had a poster for support, had the option for differentiated note taking, AND had a demonstration of the reading activity.  Finally (and most important from a reading specialist standpoint), they were given time to work together in an intimate setting - so there was very little chance for even our most shy of shy kiddos to hide.  She also encouraged her students to help each other out with tough vocabulary, which I think was important.  It was a one-on-one activity, and nobody was more important than anybody else.  All important = all engaged.

Afterwards, she and I chatted for a few minutes, and she was disappointed that she hadn't gotten to go over the notes with the kids.  She had prepared phrase cards to be taped on to the board on the notes page to guide students through filling in their prepared notes sheets from the beginning of the period.  Another wonderful idea.  Of course, my mind started going further and expanding on this activity, but I'll save that for another blog.

For now, let me just say that I was glad to have had the experience of going in to observe.  It is rare that I go into a classroom with the sole purpose to observe and learn from the teacher.  My purpose is usually support of struggling readers or observe these readers to help the teacher support them more - and through THAT I generally bring back something I, myself, have learned from this teacher.  This time was different, and I can't say I was surprised one bit at the quality of instruction these students were getting.  Bravo to this sixth grade teacher, and lucky us for having this gem in our building!