Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Parents Need to Be Doing More Reading at Home with Their Striving Teens….or Do They?

When children are little and are first developing communication, it seems fairly intuitive that speech is the building block of communication for our little ones. It is through speech that children learn to understand their world and communicate with others--each speech interaction becoming in some way a learning experience (That is a dog! Look at the tree! Is this Yellow? Yes, I’ll read you this story again! Can you say b-b-b-ball?).

The link between oral language and the written word is just simply irrefutable when we think back to how our own children developed first speech and then reading abilities. However, if we need some research to support this language connection, the National Reading Panel (NPR) commissioned a report, to evaluate the evidence and to come up with recommendations on the most effective ways to teach reading. The panel came up with five components that are central to teaching reading.  

Page 1 Parent Talk Handout
Rights reserved. If you would like to use this poster, contact me (and we will give permission!)

The first two of the 5 essential components of reading, as identified by the NPR, deal directly with speechy-type areas:  phonemic awareness and phonics instruction. The first being an awareness of the smallest units of speech sounds and the latter being the connection of those speech sounds (phonemes) to letters.

Arguably, two other components in the NPR’s framework are also highly speechy. Fluency, which is the ability of a reader to read with appropriate speed, accuracy and expression. And vocabulary, which can be learned incidentally through listening to others speak.

For those of you who are interested, the last component of the NPR’s reading model is comprehension, which is defined as “complex cognitive processes that readers use to understand what they have read.”

Clearly speech and reading are connected. One of the best descriptions I  have heard about the relationship between speech and reading is much less scientific, but fairly compelling: text is just talk set down in squiggles. Adults seem to naturally intuit this as they play and interact with toddlers first learning the language and first learning to read. Many solid literacy practices are somewhat second nature for caregivers. This clarity starts to wane, however,  as our children become teens.

Fast forward to the teenage years in the classroom.

We have a student who is a struggling, striving, reluctant or resistant reader. The teachers are doing everything they can think of to support the reader in school, but recognize more has to be done to get this student’s reading abilities caught up. So they start to send home reading for the parents to do at home with the student, and/or maybe they are frustrated that the parents are not doing more reading at home with their child. I think many of can imagine how this turns out in many cases. Let’s stop this scenario here.

What if, instead, we took a look back to:
  • The formative literacy practices that helped children  learn language;
  • The science behind how to teach reading (NPR’s recommendations);
  • Our own intuition about the connection between talk and written language;
  • And our belief that teens are still developing language (they are not done learning yet!)

Thinking about these things, what if folks who worked with teen striving readers asked parents to go back to some of those early language and literacy development activities that parents were familiar with, felt confident in, and were less anxiety-inducing than reading with a teen who hates to read (these practices should receive a  bit of a “teen upgrade”, of course).  

What if we asked caregivers to shore up the reading efforts and language development activities of the school by working in the oral language domain? What if caregivers did more of the one-on-one TALK with students (The one-on-one talk which is so difficult to find time for during the school day) and left the FORMAL READING INSTRUCTION and PRACTICE to schools? How would this scenario play out? I’m not sure, but I would love to find out.

Page 2 Parent Talk Handout
Rights reserved. If you would like to use this poster, contact me (and we will give permission!)

Here at EIPS my colleague Stephanie Dodyk and I have been working on a one-pager (double sided) TALK handout for caregivers of teens to assist them to support language development through speechy talk stuff. Here is a link to that document for those of you who might be interested in giving this a try. I would love to hear how it goes or if you have any suggestions for improvement. For all you non-EIPS folks out there, I have the document link permission to our school domain only. If you would like a me to share a copy, please send a request with a note and I will share it with you!

Yours in (Oral) Literacy,

Janice and Stephanie

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

So My Students Read Below Level. Now What?

This is a complex question...and one that almost every post on this blog seeks to answer in some form, from some angle. Today I will be talking about HI LO books. This is an especially pertinent topic at secondary levels.

Just to backtrack for a moment, if you have a student that is not reading at the level of your planned class novel or text, then you must do one of two things:
  1. Provide an instructional scaffold so that the student can read above his/her level, or
  2. Use a different text

The first option will be fodder for a different post. This post will address the second idea: using a different text, specifically HI LO texts.  Just recently I spoke with a junior high principal who said,  “I get what appropriate reading levels are for elementary schools (thank you Fountas and Pinnell for A-Z levels and thanks for Guided Reading levels), but what does this really look like in secondary schools with 'big' kids?”

What is a HI LO Book?
So the term ‘HI-LO’ as a descriptor for a certain kind of books has been tossed around in the field of education for awhile. The “Hi” stands for  “High Interest” and the “Lo” is short for “Low Vocabulary”. This is the type of book that is written for a target age group (often secondary kids) with ideas and themes that are relevant for this age group, but written with words and sentence patterns that are simpler, and thus more understandable. And because they are more accessible (in that striving readers can comprehend them) and more engaging (in that they are targeting a particular age group’s issues/identity) they are often a good fit for disengaged and/or striving readers.  

Where do I Find The Hi Lo Stuff?
In the olden days tracking down HI LO books was a bit of challenge. Publishers had not fully jumped on the HI LO band wagon. Today, more and more publishers are producing HI LO books. Most of these are still in novel-like format, but some resources are now tackling texts for content areas and/or ELL Readers. See below for a link to a list of several kinds of HI LO Resources.

The HI LO Complication for Secondary Students---Enter the Adolescents
The complicating factor about HI LO texts for secondary students is that because reading comprehension is a complicated cognitive task, it is extremely variable from kid-to-kid, but also from situation-to-situation for the same kid. For example, a student who has low comprehension on one text, could successfully read a text that is several levels harder in a different context or with a different piece of text. This is where motivation, background knowledge and interest kick in. A student could read above his/her acknowledged reading level if:
  • she is interested in the matter being covered,
  • he has considerable background knowledge in the content area of the text,
  • she is motivated to get through the reading,
  • he was provided sufficient instructional supports,
  • she was reading in a social situation (shared /partner reading, talking)
  • he had choice in picking the text

This is why CHOICE, CONFERENCES and ACCESS to a wide range of reading materials is so, so, so important for adolescent readers. I have previously blogged about the guiding questions teachers can ask themselves as they think about getting the right book into the hands of their students here.   

Below are examples of HI LO books. These include publishers’ HI LO texts, as well as “regular” books that can act as HI LO for secondary readers, which you can find at your nearby bookstore. Here are some general guidelines for selecting HI LO books for your collections:

1. Publisher Designated HI LO Books
Several publishing houses offer HI LO books. Most of these are novel-like texts, although there are some resources on this list that are for content areas.  Click here to view the (in progress) list.

2. Thin, Approachable books.
Fragile readers will often steer clear of books that appear too long, thick or hard. Shorter, thinner books are usually better.  

3. Books with Short  (episodic) Writing
There are lots of these books in bookstores these days. Sometimes our secondary kids can persevere through a shorter text. These are students who may ‘give up’ or lose comprehension on a long piece of text. So a secondary student reading at the elementary level, may be able to read grade level texts that are shorter. Examples of some of these include:

4. Cool Topics
Books that appeal to teens because of their pop culture or teen identity tie ins, can motivate readers to pick up above level texts and to be successful with them.

5. Books with Pictorial Support
There are a lot of ‘grown up’ books that are visually heavy, providing a lot of pictorial support for the text. In particular National Geographic does a wonderful job of this. Infographic anthologies, graphic novels, magazines and a lot of ‘interesting nonfiction’ does this well. Many of the examples on the above bullets are full of visual support. Here are a few more:

6. Harness the Power of Background Knowledge and Interest
One of the best reading strategies is simply to know stuff about what you are reading. So if you have a student who is a striving reader, but who knows a lot about hockey, then hockey books will be HI LO reading for that student. Same goes for interest.

7. Harness the power of your Library and Library Staff
If you are lucky enough to work in a building with library staff, get them involved in your quest for finding the right book for your students. They have a vast knowledge of books and the school collection.In fact, as my wonderful library technician friend Denyse told me, "a large part of our job is to help striving readers find books. Our roles in the school library should  include having the extra time to take a few minutes to sit with these readers and help them get on the right track as far as what they want to read now and in the future.  If we spend the time each week developing these one on one relationships we now have the ammunition to help them and the teachers build reading strategies and next read lists." I couldn't have said it better myself. I have blogged about Read Next Lists in the past. Read about them here

Although there are several ways to start thinking about what constitutes a HI LO text for your students, the key to remember is that for adolescents the HI LO question goes deeper than just here is a HI LO book. The whole process requires conversation and understanding about who your students are as readers. Resources match the student, not the other way around. It’s tricky work--because by the time we get striving readers in the secondary grades, they are fragile readers and we must handle them gently.

If you need some help thinking about how to resource your classroom or library with HI LO books, feel free to give me a call. Or if you know of a really good resource, I’d love to hear about it.



Update (Oct 20, 2017): For folks interested in HI-LO resources, you may also be interested in reading this pas post about Online Free Leveled Resources for Secondary Students.

Monday, August 28, 2017

9 Ways to Introduce Kids & Content Areas the First Days of School

The first days of school can be tough for secondary teachers. There is a pressing need to get going with content delivery. However, at the same time we recognize that kids need time to get to know the other kids in the class-- especially because many secondary students report that they don't know the names of the kids sitting next to them (at the midpoint in the semester).

Research is clear that reading and writing float on a sea of talk,” so we deed to ensure that kids feel comfortable taking, talking, and talking in class. So in the spirit of trying to build language rich classrooms where small groups of  kids can get to know each other, while learning content, here are 9 secondary-friendly activities for the first week of school and beyond:

  1. Non Cheesy Icebreaker for first Day of School by Laura Randazzo. This is a great way to get kids talking and thinking on the first days of school in a low-risk way. A quick overview: kids are put into groups, have sentence starters, use sticky notes which they put on the wall under their assigned sentence starter, then rotate to the next station. At the end of the rotations, the groups organize all the sticky notes (from the whole class) into categories and present. There’s small group, synthesis and a suggested homework assignment...tons of flexibility here for get-to-know-you as well as room to adapt activity into an intro to class content. Click the link for the entire activity.
  2. Pickles and penguins (in groups with doc camera). Named after the board game of the same name. Each group gets a small handful of image cards. Have small groups try to link their images to the one you are projecting. The point is for the groups to rid of cards by providing a connection from their card to the projected one….consider requiring students to form connections between the cards using your content ideas/vocabulary ...or use images that are related to your content area.
  3. Would you Rather? - “ ThoughtCo. blog writes, "This party game is perfect for use in the classroom...It's easy and lots of fun. Would you rather find true love or win the lottery? Would you rather be bald or completely hairy? Would you rather tell your best friend a lie or your parents the truth? Give your students impossible questions to answer and help them ease into learning together.” Modify this activity by asking student to create would you rather statements using academic vocabulary or ideas--would you rather be an electron or a neutron?
  4. I’m Searching for Someone Who - This is an oldie, but a goodie. Have kids fill in their favourite things for each column and then find someone who has also filled in the same favourites. To make it more content related, change some of the  columns from personal headings  (favourite movies) to concepts in your class that they should already know or will meet in the coming year. An introductory academic conversation...and get-to-know-you activity.
  5. Find Your Match- Each kid gets an index card and has to “find” his or her “match” For example card one might be Beyonce and the matching card might be Jay-Z. You could add a little sub-match to each card, that deals with an idea or concept in your subject area. Or have one side be pop culture related and the second side be an academic concept--for example of side is “fraction” and the matching card is “percent.”
  6. Introduction to your Content Area -  “For some teachers, the first step is helping students to understand what they are going to learn this year. But you don’t always want to start right off with a lecture or worksheet, so try one of these:
        1. Get Them Guessing -Prediction activities can be a great way to activate students’ prior knowledge on a topic and get them excited about what lies ahead in the course. 
        2. Guessing Game 1: Give them a series of true and false statements about the content of the course and have them guess the right answers.
        3. Guessing Game 2: Or do a demonstration experiment and have students guess about the results.If you teach English, try this trick: get a movie of the first novel students will read and show one brief, suspenseful or exciting scene. Make sure to stop the film so that students are “left hanging” and tell them they’ll have to read the book to find out what happens. You may get kids begging to start the book!” (
  7. 6 Word Memoirs - A little more challenging, but if “reading is breathing in and writing is breathing out,” then this little writing activity works for supporting literacy as well as thinking skills. Have kids write a six word memoir about their summer vacation, what they think your content area is about, what they like the most about your content area, etc.
  8. Begin with a Book (non ELA Teachers)  Starting with a read-aloud that models thinking in your subject area is an engaging way to introduce your class as well as support literacy. Click this link to learn more about readalouds and to get read aloud book suggestions. writes,"this approach is especially effective for non-language arts teachers. Find a book that puts a different spin on your subject and share it (or part of it) on the first day.
        1. Maybe a children’s book on animals is a fun way to begin studying biology.
        2. A coffee table photo book might provide striking images for students to think about as they begin studying history.
        3. For older history students, consider taking an excerpt from a book like Guns, Germs, and Steel; Founding Brothers; or Citizen Soldiers. These books describe history in a different way and may grab the attention of students inclined to “tune out” their textbook.” Read More from's site here.
  9. Book Browsing for ELA teachers A great way to start on the independent reading in your class and get your kids on their way to reading 25 books this year
        1. Book Viewing - How cool would it be to start your year by placing 100 books on desks in your classroom and having kids in small groups pick through them? 
        2. One variation of this might include a structured Book Bachelor Activity based loosely on the Bachelor TV show (That CG!) where students all have one book on their desk and they have to decided if they are going to commit to that book or pass it on to the next person. At the end of this activity, each student date only  have one book. 
        3. Have students organize your classroom library into categories that make sense to them. 
        4. In small groups have students use books spines to create found Book Spine poetry.
All of these activities provide students the opportunity to talk and get to know each other as well as the content area and each supports language and literacy development. I'd love to hear what you folks out there are planning for your first days of school!

Wishing you all a great start up!


Friday, May 5, 2017

The Single Most Effective Strategy to Improve Reading

I spend a lot of my days talking and thinking (and sometimes writing) about how to improve students’ reading. I often get calls about what strategy is the most effective. The answer isn’t super cool or super secret. In fact, the answer is simple: provide time for kids to read. The benefits of finding regular time in the school day for students to read are indisputable. Time spent reading is the number one way to develop reading skills. Don't get me wrong, there are lots of other strategies that are great too. But hands down: students who spend more time reading, improve more in their reading. Full stop.

Aside from the vast body of research that tells us this is true, there is a clear, common-sense kind of reasoning here that is also appealing. For example, how does one become a better runner? He or she spends time running. How does one become a better painter? He or she spends time painting. So, it follows that the more time one spends reading, the better he or she will read.

Now there are a few caveats to this. And this is the important part: the independent reading time (you may know it as SSR, DEAR, BOB time) is only effective if the students are supported in their independent reading time by the teacher. This does not mean that the teacher is reading alongside the students during reading time. Instead, the teacher needs to be actively supportive. This active support includes the 4 things listed below. I am including a lengthier description of number one in this post. Subsequent posts will speak to the other three.

1. The teacher spends time modelling and teaching students how to self-select books from a variety of genres and at an appropriate level. We might assume students know how to select a book for themselves. This is often not the case.  Many of our readers, especially our striving readers, need help with this. Edutopia has brilliant article on ways to help secondary students become familiar books so that they can make choices about their reading. Reading level also factors into book selection. Miller and Moss (2013) give us these questions to consider when guiding student choice:

    • Could a book that is easy to read be just right for a child working on fluency?
    • Could a book above a child’s level be just right if he has extensive background knowledge about its content and/or is highly motivated to read it?
    • Could a book be just right for a child working on comprehension if the words are easy to read, but the content is challenging?
    • Could a book be just right for a child working on decoding if she knows most of the words, but not all of them, and the content is easy?
    • Could a challenging book be just right for the child who is highly motivated to read it?
    • Could a book that’s easy to read be just right for the child who needs to build background knowledge on a specific topic?

2. The teacher confers with students.
3. The teacher monitors and provides feedback to the students.
4. The teacher holds the students accountable for their reading.

Stay tuned for a more detailed explanation of activities 2-4. If you’d like a quick PD read that you can read in one sitting and will tell you everything you need to know about independent reading, I highly recommend No More Independent Reading Without Support.  

I hope you are making time to read for your students in your classes/schools and that you are ensuring that there is support for them as they do it. Feel free to drop me a line if you have questions or comments. Many of you who have heard me present may recall that one of the BIG LITERACY ideas that I always refer to is Each Year Every Kid Reads 25 Books. The research on independent reading is certainly one of the pillars upon which that BIG idea rests.

I hope you all get to enjoy the sun today!



Friday, April 21, 2017

5 Resources To Know About if You Work For EIPS

It’s been a bit since I last posted. The reason for that is that EIPS teachers have been hard at work doing awesome things and I have been busy at work curating other digital repositories. So, today I wanted to take a moment to talk about some of that work. For future reference, these sites and resources are all linked to this blog.

EIPS has two cohorts of secondary teachers that are working together to explore the topics of CHOICE and INDEPENDENT READING in secondary classrooms. We have been using Penny Kittle’s Book Love as one of the cornerstones in the project.  Some of the questions that brought us together were:

  • Do you struggle with getting your students to actually read the books you assign?
  • How do I get kids to be excited about reading?
  • How do I challenge every reader in my class?

These groups of teachers  have been working to create materials that support Independent Reading in classes...and in which in fact, support all kinds of reading. The site is constantly evolving and  is definitely worth a look-see. It houses resources on the following topics:

2. Discipline Literacy Site Support Site

This site was created to support the “But I Am Not A Reading Teacher” session for content teachers. It is still in its infancy and I expect it will grow. Currently, it houses a variety of resources that secondary content teachers may find interesting as they think about what literacy looks like in their specific subject areas. Here is a brief overview of the resources it hosts:

3. Literacy Strategies Site

This very practical  site is linked to the top of this blog. Here I post cool ready-to-use  literacy strategies. The site has no particular order...but there is a list down the right hand side of the site. This site is a good place to go “shopping” for some literacy ideas. Most of the ones I post here involve movement or are targeting  specific skills we know support literacy development. Each entry will link to resources, examples, videos, etc.

4. The Mighty Book Smackdown

Think reading meets March Madness. In this tournament style competition, books face down each other until there is one winner. The Mighty Smackdown started this year in March and will wrap up by June. The site is home for EIPS teachers’ musings and reviews of recent YA fiction. It’s a lively community of teacher-readers blogging about books for students. Here are the books in this year’s tournament. And Here are the blog posts so far.

5. ASLC Lit Picks

This is not an EIPS created site, but it is pretty awesome. This is a site, created by the Alberta School Learning Commons Council, is the home to a ton of book reviews for students in K-12. The reviewers are all Alberta teachers and the book reviews are based on the following:
  • Curricular Connections
  • Engagment of Story
  • Readability
  • Descriptive Language
  • Illustration Excellence
  • Non- Fiction texts: integrity of data and source

Hope you find something useful in the links above. Please feel free to send me comments or suggestions.