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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

How to Effortlessly Pair Fiction and Nonfiction Texts

Wonderopolis Screen CaptureQ: I know that pairing fiction with nonfiction can benefit students in many ways, but I'm often at a loss to find short sources of nonfiction at an appropriate level for my students. How can I pair fiction and nonfiction easily?

Nearly any topic or theme you might address through fiction has a counterpart in juvenile or young adult nonfiction. In a previous post, for example, I discussed how famous figures from history could be explored through biographical picture books. I also shared book pairings for Animals, Invention, the Civil Rights Movement, the American Revolution, the American Civil Warthe Holocaust, Jewish Resistance in the Holocaust, and Women's History to name but a few topics.

But a resource I've been recommending recently to colleagues at conferences and through my PLN is Wonderopolis. Wonderopolis is a well designed, daily-updated collection of topics from Science, Health, Social Studies, Language Arts, Technology, and Arts & Culture.

Each Wonderopolis entry features
  • prereading questions (to provide objectives for reading), 
  • a student friendly article, with highlighted vocabulary which can be defined with a simple mouse-over, 
  • a "Wonder Words" vocabulary bank (with optional quiz),
  • a  "Did You Get It?" multiple choice quiz,
  • a list of Common Core standards, 
  • some "Try It Out" activities which can be completed as class or home extensions, 
  • and the opportunity for students to join a discussion about the topic through the site's moderated discussion forum.
A list of sources also accompanies each article, should students or educators choose to pursue further research.

The video below provides an overview of the site and its features.

So how could teachers use this site?
  • Students could access this site as a part of their daily routine (some teachers might call this bell work). The articles are engaging and the assessments are low-key.
  • Many of the topics discussed could serve as current event pieces. Some educators, with good reason, are hesitant to allow students to search out current events topics. Using this site as the source, however, guarantees that the content is school appropriate and rendered at an accessible reading level.
    What RIley Wore
  • Teachers can use this site, paired with an appropriate picture book, to initiate discussion of sensitive topics such as bias and stereotype. For example, the wonderful picture book What Riley Wore by Elana K. Arnold and Linda Davick follows "gender-creative Riley (who) knows just what to wear for every occasion." This book would pair well with the Wonderopolis article on "What is Bias and Why Do People Have It?" 
  • Teachers can pair the nonfiction articles from Wonderopolis with fiction texts. If reading a novel which discusses the Civil Rights Movement, for example, you could search that same term and find articles on Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, the Freedom Riders, Segregation, the Sit-In Movement, Ruby Bridges, and more. (Some articles may prove more challenging than others, so I recommend that teachers always preview before they assign in order to determine if assignments can be completed independently, or if they are better suited to a paired or full-class approach).
  • Students can use this site for independent reading and study. Since many of the posted articles were based upon student questions, even the most reluctant reader will likely find a topic of interest.
  • Content area teachers can supplement classroom textbooks.
How do you use this site in your own classroom?

I use this site in all many of the ways mentioned above, but I often supercharge it by adding Insert Learning elements.

Insert Learning embeds instant interactivity on nearly any web page by allowing you to add
  • highlights,
  • annotations and definitions (to accompany those highlights),
  • sticky notes (which can contain plain text, images, links, YouTube videos, or screen casts),
  • open ended questions (requiring a student response),
  • multiple choice questions (instantaneously graded), and 
  • discussion questions (the responses to which are visible to all students).
You can read more about Insert Learning in an earlier post, or watch the video below to see how I added additional interactive elements to a Wonderopolis post.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Will's Words: Learning to Love Language with William Shakespeare

Students are never too young to begin immersing themselves in the language of William Shakespeare. Will's Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk, is a wonderful place to start. Author Jane Sutcliffe and illustrator John Shelley takes us on a tour of 1600's London and its thriving theater culture, while at the same time pointing out many now-common words and phrases that originated from the quill of William Shakespeare.

The tour consists of backstage glimpses and onstage antics, while at the same time describing the scope of Shakespeare's work and his audience's reaction toward it. Students will love the images which are all-encompassing and minutely detailed at the same time. Your kids will leaf through this book again and again, searching out the secrets that John Shelley has so cleverly and humorously included in the illustrations.

Jane Sutcliffe admits that not all of Shakespeare's words and phrases were original, but are certainly recorded for the first time in his works:

We know that Shakespeare used words like no other writer before or since. The man had an amazing ear for words. At a time when the English language was changing rapidly, he noticed words in playhouses and taverns, and on London street corners. Then he put them in his plays and poems. Sometimes he was the first to write down a new word. Sometimes he seems to have made up his own. He put all those words together in extraordinary, ingenious ways.

Regardless of which activities you choose to try from below, I highly recommend Will's Words as a starting point, no matter what grade level!

But Keith... What if I don't know a lot about Shakespeare and his works? What if I hated Shakespeare when I was a student? 

In his TED Talk titled How NOT to Hate Shakespeare, actor/educator Rob Crisell explains:

For most of us in school, Shakespeare’s works were a "literary enema..." (but) he’s the world’s most famous author for good reason. No writer, not Homer, not Dante, not Cervantes, not J.K. Rowling, rivals him in terms of his art and influence. His characters have become part of our mental landscape... And how about his words? Shakespeare wrote 884,000 of them, credited with being the first to use or inventing more than two thousand of them.

So how can we explore poetry and language in the true spirit of Shakespeare? I've provided a few ideas below.

1. Featured Creatures
Suggested Grades: 3 and up

Curious as a cricket, happy as a lark, slow as a snail. See where this is going? Students enjoy creating simple similes, and their vast store of animal knowledge makes these comparisons easy.

A wonderful mentor text for this activity is Shakespeare's Zoo (Volume 1) by Laudea Martin. It was "a very old and well-loved boxed set of the complete works of William Shakespeare, which once belonged to Laudea's great grandmother... that sparked her interest in the richness of Shakespeare's written words." The author soon discovered that in many of Shakespeare's works, both famous and obscure, the Bard employed animal imagery to paint perfect pictures of human passions and pratfalls.

From the book description:

Shakespeare's brilliance shines through, not just in his most famous lines, but in every line. The tiniest snippet of his work contains fantastic wordplay and depth of imagery. This book takes some of his less-known bits about various animals and pairs them with Laudea Martin's unique illustrations assembled from textured layers.

And, like all Shakespeare, each page will become easier to understand the more you read it. The brilliant words of Shakespeare are meant to be heard, not seen, so read the words aloud and listen to the rhythm. Read them again and again, and let your imagination fill in the details of the scene.

Classroom Extensions:
  • Students can search out favorite animals using the concordance at OpenSourceShakespeare. They can illustrate the lines they find, or possibly even add to them.
  • Students can create biographical poems by first selecting adjectives that they feel describe them (pretty, busy, fast, etc.) and then selecting animals that match those adjectives. Students can pair the adjectives and animals in simile form, such as, "I snore like a lion when I'm really, really tired," and "I'm busy as a beaver every day when I get home."
  • Creating a flip book is a fantastic way to show off and illustrate the comparisons described above, and the sizes of the books can vary from tiny to huge.
  • Collect a pile of animal poem books and let students browse them and share their favorites. Then offer trade books or an assortment of animal pictures, and ask students to write a simile poem inspired by a favorite critter, perhaps using iambic pentameter to create it. The TED Ed lesson on Why Shakespeare Loved Iambic Pentameter is a fun and effective introduction to this poetry form, or use this kid friendly handout (see image to the right) from Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.
2. Reverse-A-Verse 
Suggested Grades: 4 and up

In Echo Echo, Marilyn Singer retells Greek myths via reverso poems, poems that can be read both backward and forward, typically revealing new meanings each time. "When read from top to bottom, each poem tells a well-known story from a world of heroes and monsters. When read in reverse, however, the very same words convey a whole new point of view!" (from the book flap) Illustrator Josée Masse creates dramatically saturated pictures which truly complement the duality of the poems.

When reading these aloud, be sure to assign each poem to a different reader, and see where the words lead you.

Classroom Extensions:
  • After viewing a live production of a Shakespeare play, challenge students to write a reverso poem on any one of the play's characters. Have a script handy, as students may want to include snippets of a character's lines in their poem.
  • Older students might enjoy reading Jonathan Reed's The Lost Generation, arguably the most well-known reverso poem. does a painstakingly thorough job of breaking down this poem. After discussion, challenge students to write their own reverso poems using characters from popular culture, contemporary novels, and, of course, Shakespearean plays. 
  • After studying animals for a research project, students can use that same animal as the subject of a reverso poem. In my class, I purposely assigned students those animals traditionally considered pests. As the poem is read forward, the lines recount the pest's nasty reputation, but read backward, the lines vindicate the pest for what good it may do. This Slides presentation offers a template, plus two examples.
3. Write a Sonnet Upon It 
Suggested Grades: 4 and up

For this activity, I show my students actor Matthew Macfadyen's version of Sonnet 29. Upon first playing, however, I leave the volume off. I then ask students to interpret what took place. I then play it again, with the volume up, and again ask students to interpret, first verbally, and then by rewriting the sonnet in their own words.

Classroom Extensions:
  • Have students write their own sonnet based on Sonnet 29. They can write it from one character to another (using a recent novel or play for inspiration), or they can write it to someone who has been meaningful in their life. This Google Slides presentation includes examples of both. Feel free to copy and adapt this for your own uses.
  • A similar exercise could be done with Sonnet 18 (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?...) which is likely more familiar to students. (Both Sonnet 29 and 18 can be found here in a printable version.) If you want students to examine this in more detail before writing on their own, check out this annotated version.
  • Depending upon your students' tech sophistication, they may like the idea of putting sonnets to film. In this version of Sonnet 18, the poem is read by Peter O'Toole, the film footage is sourced from "No Country for Old Men" and "The American," and music is by James Newton Howard. Students are familiar with such mash-ups, and they might enjoy a similar challenge. 
  • If needed, begin with a more contemporary sonnet that uses familiar language. This lesson plan from the Folger Library using Edna St. Vincent Millay's "What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why" provides a comfortable starting place.
4. Language Loopholes 
Suggested Grades: 3 and up

When I taught fourth grade, I overheard one student complaining that Spanish class was aggronizing. “Is that a real word?” I asked. He replied that of course it was, since it combined agonizing and aggravating!

Just a week or two later, one of my students paused by the door before leaving. “Is something wrong?” I asked.

“No,” she responded, “I’m just waiting for the eighth graders to pass. I don’t want to get stampled.”


“Yeah, it’s a portmanteau I invented. It’s when you get trampled by a stampede. You can use it if you want.” And off she went.

It's true that Shakespeare coined many new words and recorded many others for the first time, but students are often surprised to discover that new words are entering our lexicon all the time. Sometimes students are even inventing their own! Language isn't static; like any other discipline, it continues to evolve.

One case in point is the July 2009 announcement from Merriam-Webster regarding the addition of new words to its dictionary:

Hardworking word-lovers everywhere can now learn the meaning of the word staycation ("a vacation spent at home or nearby") along with nearly 100 other new words and senses added to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition. America's best-selling dictionary offers its new 2009 entries in its updated print edition and online at

"Our language evolves in many ways," said John Morse, president and publisher of Merriam-Webster Inc. "As we've seen from our Open Dictionary feature on, people enjoy blending existing words, like combining 'stay' and 'vacation' to make staycation. Staycation is a good example of a word meeting a need and establishing itself in the language very quickly. Our earliest record of use is from 2005, but it seems to have exploded into popular use in 2007."

Classroom Extensions:
  • Many of Shakespeare's original words are simple compounds, such as bedroom, bloodstained, and moonbeam. Give students time to play around with their own original compound creations.
  • Allow students to create portmanteau words to express those ideas for which no words exist. A portmanteau word is two words "jammed" together to make a new one, such as smog, staycation, emoticon, administrivia, and brunch. It differs from a compound word (where no letters are lost) and a contraction (where an apostrophe denotes removed letters). Start off by giving students a list of portmanteaus to dissect, and then allow them to create their own.
  • Challenge students to define some of the latest entries to Word Spy, The Word Lover's Guide to New Words. Word Spy is a wonderful resource for neologisms, or newly coined words. Wordspy takes on a recent word such as vegangelical and not only defines and parses it (n. An extremely zealous vegan who is eager to make other people believe in and convert to veganism; blend of vegan and evangelical) but also traces it to its earliest citation (in this case, to the blog The Smoking Vegans in 2005). Wordspy is a fun site to browse, and readers are welcome to comment on entries and suggest new words as well. Its biggest strength is that it offers citations for all the words it lists. It isn't entirely G rated, however, so it's best left to the teacher to explore.
  • Ask the question, "Just because someone uses a word, does it become a word?" To put it another way, "Are all neologisms created equal?" Sure, Shakespeare, Dr. Seuss, and Lewis Carroll coined words all the time, but do the rest of us carry enough clout to do the same?

5. Acting Out
Suggested Grades: 3 and up

In his TED Talk titled "How NOT to Hate Shakespeare," educator/actor Rob Crisel asks the audience, "Were his plays meant to be read silently or aloud?” and then answers, “Trick question; his plays weren’t meant to be read at all; they were meant to be heard, and watched, and acted. They were meant to be experienced.” He likens most students' classroom experiences with Shakespeare to "trying to appreciate a musician by studying their lyrics, but never hearing their songs."

If you think your students may struggle with original versions of Shakespeare, or if you face time constraints, dozens of adapted scripts are readily available online, such as the Macbeth adaptation pictured here.

Classroom Extensions:
  • Whenever possible, use the full scripts. In the same way that we do Close Reading with other texts, do Close Acting with selected passages. If students struggle, consider using excerpts from films that portray actors speaking the lines in context.
  • If students plan to act out lines written in iambic pentameter, then definitely check out this lesson on Living Iambic Pentameter.
  • If your students struggle with full texts of Shakespeare's plays, use a resource such as Shakespeare with Children: Six Scripts for Young Players that uses original lines from the plays, but in shorter, abridged versions. These can be performed successfully in the classroom as readers' theater if time doesn't allow for students to memorize lines.
  • Challenge students to use soliloquys or scenes in an original interpretation. This Levi's 501 commercial, for example, uses line from Midsummer Night's Dream Act 3 Scene 1 in an innovative way. 
6. Pop Sonnets
 Suggested Grades: 6 and up

In Pop Sonnets, author Erik Didriksen has rewritten dozens of pop songs as Shakespearean sonnets. Works by artists such as Bruno Mars, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Lorde, and the Backstreet Boys have been cleverly reimagined and reworked in sonnets such as these:

What thou requir’st, I harbor deep inside — 
I too possess the things for which thou yearn’st. 
So if thou want’st these hungers slak’d, my pride
should not be injur’d fast when thou return’st.
I shall not cuckold thee or break thy trust;
my wish is not to leave my lover spurn’d.
But if I will not satiate my lust,
I should be shown the deep regard I’ve earn’d.
’Tis true, thy kisses are like honey sweet, 
but so’s the gold that doth my coffers fill. 
I have no need to once again entreat
thee to be shown a shred of thy good will.
        — And so, good sir, do not my heart neglect;
        when thou com’st home, pray show me some respect.
                               ~Aretha Franklin, “Respect”

A lonely maiden from a hamlet small;
a boy within a woeful city rear’d —
they both at midnight left their ports of call
t’ward any destination volunteer’d.
A public-house is where their journeys end,
where patrons’ pipes burn long and minstrels play.
The darken’d hours have made them more than friends,
the other’s smile inviting each to stay.
Look ye on those who wander through the streets
beneath the lamplight, searching for a soul —
they comb the darken’d night in hope to meet
the sweet companion that shall make them whole.
— Ensure thy heart won’t let their spirit leave;
’tis most important thou dost e’er believe.
                            ~Journey, “Don’t Stop Believin’”

Can you still sing along with them? Surprisingly, yes! Some of them anyway. Give it a try, And then consider these additional ideas for using Pop Sonnets in your classroom:

Classroom Extensions:
  • As a warm-up to each class, post one of Erik Didriksen's sonnets on the whiteboard. Challenge students, perhaps working in pairs or groups, to identify the modern song which inspired it.
  • Challenge students to rewrite their own favorite songs in the form of a sonnet. Use the TED Ed lesson on Why Shakespeare Loved Iambic Pentameter and the handout Writing Like Shakespeare (iambic pentameter) to get students feeling the rhythm of the sonnets rather than the rhythm of the song they've chosen.
  • Lay down the gauntlet for your class musicians: Now that you've rewritten the lyrics, can they be put to music that keeps the sonnet lines intact while restoring the spirit of the original song
  • Check out the ideas for Hip Hop or Shakespeare below. 

7. Language Lost
Suggested Grades: 5 and up

In The Word Museum: The Most Remarkable English Words Ever Forgotten, Jeffrey Kacirk shares hundreds of fascinating archaic words and phrases. In the Introduction, Kacirk explains:

The English language, as the largest and most dynamic collection of words and phrases ever assembled, continues to expand, absorbing hundreds of words annually into its official and unofficial rolls, but not without a simultaneous yet imperceptible sacrifice of terms along the way. Fortunately, before they're quiet disappearance, many of these reflections of antiquity, the remnants of History which casually escaped the Shipwreck of time, to use a phrase of Francis Bacon, were recorded in a variety of published and unpublished writings, including dictionaries and glossaries.

Yes, we all studied history in school, but usually just the "big picture." Often we need to turn to the scholarly work of writers of historical fiction to get the specifics. This sentiment is shared by the author who explains:

In my schooling, I found that teachers and historians, because of their socially prescribed curricular attention toward larger social concepts, often bypass the smaller and more personal expressions of social custom and conduct, often leaving the novel as the best lens with which to view forgotten elements of everyday life… Specifically, my bias has been in favor of expressions that not only offer insights into the nature of our living language but simultaneously illustrate telltale beliefs and customs.

Some words, like anywhen (meaning at any time), make perfect sense when compared with a surviving relative like anywhere. We still use the expression "out of earshot," but we've abandoned the equally useful words armshot and eyeshot to describe relative distances.

Then we find words which make perfect sense when broken into Greek and Latin roots, such as biblioklept (a book thief), ambidexter (one who plays both sides, usually unethically as in a court case), and noctuary (an account of what passes during the night, such as Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time). Other words, such as gazingstock (an object of public notice, contempt, and abhorrence), seem to simply be compounds which have been forgotten.

Classroom Extensions:
  • Using the Online Etymology Dictionary, students can research commonly understood words to discover their actual origins. Another great resource is the on line Merriam-Webster Dictionary, which often provides detailed word histories, such as this one for ostracize
In ancient Greece, prominent citizens whose power or influence threatened the stability of the state could be exiled by a practice called ostracism. Voters would elect to banish another citizen by writing that citizen's name down on a potsherd (a piece of broken pottery). Those receiving enough votes would then be subject to temporary exile from the state (usually for ten years). The English verb ostracize can mean "to exile by the ancient method of ostracism," but these days it usually refers to the general exclusion of one person from a group at the agreement of its members. Ostracism and ostracize derive from the Greek ostrakizein ("to banish by voting with potsherds"). Its ancestor, the Greek ostrakon ("shell" or "potsherd"), also helped to give English the word oyster.
  • As a daily challenge, list one of the words from The Word Museum on the board, and offer up three definitions. Let students defend their choices before the "big reveal." In many cases, students are likely to have very convincing arguments for their decisions.
  • Similarly, list three entirely fictional words and one from the book. See if students can guess which word really existed. Before the "big reveal," you can additionally provide a context sentence with a blank left for the real word. The sentence may provide enough context for students to not only choose the correct, genuine word, but also to ferret out its meaning.
  • Have students research those words that Shakespeare coined or recorded for the first time that didn't catch on. Have students report back with their own hypotheses of why these words were forgotten when other original words weren't.

8. Hip Hop or Shakespeare?
Suggested Grades: 5 and up

Award-winning hip hop artist Akala challenges audience members at a TED Talk to decide whether a line he shares is Hip Hop or Shakespeare. More difficult than you'd imagine! The first four minutes shows this challenge, but the remainder of the video is worth a watch.

Classroom Extensions:
  • Provide students with a similar list of lines, and see how they fare. is a straight-forward, ad-free site which allows you to easily search lyrics by most popular searches, artist, keyword, and more. Many songs are accompanied by the music video which can play in a small screen to the left. Also cool is that each page includes a bibliographic citation at the bottom!
  • Even better, challenge your students to stump one another with the Hip Hop or Shakespeare challenge. They can likewise use and OpenSourceShakespeare to search up lines. Bonus points to those who can name the song or artist of the non-Shakespearean lines.

9. Shakespearean Shamings
Suggested Grades: 8 and up

I'm not sure how I feel about encouraging elementary aged students to insult each other, but for upper middle schoolers and high schoolers this could be lots of fun. I would likely start with the video If Shakespearean Insults Were Used Today, the source material for which can be found here

Classroom Extensions:
  • Direct students to complete this TED Ed lesson on Insults by Shakespeare. Good intro activity.
  • As a sponge activity, allow students to use this Shakespeare Insult Generator (printable pdf) from Shakespeare for Kids, (where you can also find fifteen minute plays from Shakespeare).
  • For fun, let students try an interactive insult generator, such as the Shakespeare Insult-O-Meter. This allows you to specify male or female, and the resulting authentic insult is displayed with the play from which it originates, as well as its literal meaning.
  • Challenge students to replace all school inappropriate words they've been using with some of these new phrases for at least a week's time. Check in to hear the results.
Other Resources for Creating Your Own Activities and Finding Your Own Way:

How to Create Readers with Sustained Silent Reading

One way that motivation and engagement are instilled and maintained is to provide students with opportunities to select for themselves the materials they read and topics they research. One of the easiest ways to build some choice into the students’ school day is to incorporate independent reading time in which they can read whatever they choose. Yet this piece of the curriculum is often dropped after the primary grades. 
~Reading Next: A Vision for Action and Research in Middle and High School Literacy

Do you want your students to love reading? Allow them to read more.

We over-complicate this. We ask students to read, but then we ply them with onerous reading logs or written responses that transform reading into a detested chore.

For over twenty years, I taught my students how to read well, but I'm ashamed to admit that I only occasionally inspired a lasting love of reading. Too few students went on to become voracious readers for me to claim success in this regard.

But that changed last year when I began to include sustained silent reading (SSR) in my classroom. For many years I followed the edict that independent reading was meant for home, and that it should be recorded in a draconian manner in a reading log. But after experiencing the headaches of these logs with my own daughters, I vowed to find a better way.

In prior years, the irony never escaped me that many times during transitional periods, I was forced to admonish students to put away their self-selected books because we were moving on to the next part of a lesson. In other words, "How dare you read in Reading class?"

If you’re a fan of the television drama Law and Order, you know that suspects are identified by determining motive and opportunity. We can grow readers by providing these two variables! In my classroom, SSR time is called SQUIRT (Super Quiet Uninterrupted Independent Reading Time). This fifteen minutes, which occurs at the start of each 90 minute block of ELA, is held sacred by providing everyone, including the teacher, the opportunity to read quietly.

Just a few benefits of SQUIRT observed since its inception:
  1. Students see their teacher, and their peers, as models for reading.
  2. Students have immediate access to a wide variety of reading materials. 
  3. Reading takes on a social aspect when students read together (even quietly) or when students are allowed to discuss selections or recommend books to classmates. 
  4. The reading session acts as a "palate cleanser," allowing students to set aside the drama of the previous class periods and prime their minds for language instruction. 
  5. Students wrestle with content taught in the classroom using books of appropriate challenge and personal interest. According to the Educational Leadership report titled Synthesis of Research/ Reading Comprehension: What Works, a prime benefit of independent reading time “is the sheer opportunity to orchestrate the skills and strategies that are important to proficient reading—including comprehension. As in sports and music, practice makes perfect in reading, too.” 
  6. Students build a vast store of vocabulary and subject area knowledge. That same Synthesis states: "Reading results in the acquisition of new knowledge, which, in turn, fuels the comprehension process. Research of the late 1970s and early '80s consistently revealed a strong reciprocal relationship between prior knowledge and reading comprehension ability. The more one already knows, the more one comprehends; and the more one comprehends, the more one learns new knowledge to enable comprehension of an even greater and broader array of topics and texts."
  7. The teacher can observe student reading behaviors firsthand.
That last benefit is especially powerful. Many teachers use self-assessments to gather initial impressions of students' reading habits and preferences. Steven L. Layne provides an excellent self-assessment in Igniting a Passion for Reading, an invaluable resource for those teachers seeking to grow avid readers. But ongoing observation yields equally valuable results.

On a daily basis I note what genres and topics interest individual students, and I also note who can persist with longer texts over time. I observe how students' book choices are influenced by those of their peers or by the book they’ve just completed. I can confidently recommend “next-reads” for individual students based upon what I've seen them enjoy. For example, the student who just finished the nonfiction baseball book Why is the Foul Pole Fair? might be interested in reading a DiMaggio biography or some short fiction by Kinsella.

Realize that Sustained Silent Reading is NOT a reading program. SSR is not intended to take the place of direct instruction or student-centered inquiry approaches to language arts. In an article at, Joan Sedita, founding partner of Keys to Literacy, additionally warns that
“Educators must be careful to not consider SSR as an intervention for struggling readers or as an activity that can take the place of direct, systematic instruction to address weaknesses in reading skills. For example, for students who need to develop fluency skills, research has not yet confirmed whether independent silent reading with minimal guidance or feedback improves reading achievement and fluency … because struggling readers are not likely to make effective use of silent independent reading.”
So how can teachers make the most productive use of SSR in the classroom? 

Below I've listed potential problems which teachers often share, along with some suggestion solutions.

Students will use this time for activities other than reading. 

Only if you let them. From the beginning, establish strict guidelines for SSR and enforce those guidelines with vigilance, especially when first initiating the program. Modeling cannot be overemphasized.

Some students will come to class without anything to read.

Create a “recommended reads” section of your classroom library stocked with popular titles, short stories, magazines, etc. This also serves as an excellent resource for early finishers to find a quick read.

How will I know that students are “really reading” during quiet reading time?

Institute occasional opportunities for students to share what they’re reading with others. Check out this fun assessment suggested by educator Catlin Tucker. Other check-ins are available, such as those suggested in No More Independent Reading Without Support. The authors explain that “when we set children loose day after day with no focus or support, it can lead to fake reading and disengagement… It’s our job to equip children with the tools they need when we’re not there.”

My administrator doesn’t see the value in this activity.

Share some of the quotes on this page, as well as research from the links collected on my original roundtable hand-out.

I can't see myself reading with them; it simply isn’t a good use of my time.

Students need to see their teacher enjoying literature. Plus, you need time to read widely in many genres and authors in order to confidently recommend texts to your students.

We teach according to the standards. Quiet reading doesn’t have a place in our curriculum.

Concepts discussed in class can be extended to discussions about students’ independent reading. If the class is studying similes and metaphors, for example, students can be asked to look for these in their own reading. Students can also be encouraged to bookmark examples of writing which they feel to be exemplary in any way.

We like the idea of independent reading, and we feel that time spent reading is necessary. But we need help teaching students to read mindfully.

For this, I would recommend Doug Lemov's Reading Reconsidered and a method he calls Accountable Independent Reading (AIR).

In a chapter titled Approaches to Reading; Reading More, Reading Better, Lemov writes, "Accountable Independent Reading involves students in reading texts independently... and allows teachers to assess whether effective reading is actually happening. Much of the reading students do in school fails to meet these criteria. And, unfortunately, the students reading the least are often the ones who need to read the most." Multiple experiences with AIR (in its various forms described in the book) help students to read more purposefully when reading on their own. See my complete write-up on this invaluable resource.

We can’t allow choice reading, but we want to use SSR for assigned reading. How can we ensure that students are engaging with the text?

Choice reading is really the point of SSR, but having students read an engaging assigned text is a step in the right direction. Accountability can be ensured through a guiding question, post-its, or a written reflection that allows students to focus on those aspects of the text which appeal to them or challenge them at their independent level. And again, refer to the AIR methods described in Lemov's Reading Reconsidered.

What excuse is keeping you from taking the plunge? I would love to hear your experiences in the comment section below.

Recommended Reading:

In No More Independent Reading Without Support, authors Debbie Miller and Barbara Moss ask, "What if there was a time when things slowed down? No rotations, activities, or worksheets—just you, your kids, and books. Would you take it?"

From the publisher: "We know children learn to read by reading. Is independent reading valuable enough to use precious classroom minutes on? Yes, writes Debbie Miller and Barbara Moss, but only if that time is purposeful. DEAR and SSR aren’t enough. Research shows that independent reading must be accompanied by intentional instruction and conferring. Debbie and Barbara clear a path for you to take informed action that makes a big difference,"

For additional online resources, access the original roundtable document presented at the "Hot Topics by Top Teachers" session at the 2016 New Jersey Educational Association Conference.

This post originally appeared as Reading for Real: The Benefits of Silent Reading in the Classroom at my How to Teach a Novel blog.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Yet Another Game to Play in Class Tomorrow!

If you're looking for a game that students will beg to play every week, this is it. I've used it in classrooms and academic enrichment programs at summer camp with fantastic results. Add this to Bug and The Mysterious Box of Mystery, and you have three solid sure-fire games for your ELA toolbox.

Big Words is an activity which promotes an increase in phonetic awareness, spelling accuracy, and vocabulary development. The game I describe below was inspired by authors Patricia M. Cunningham and Dorothy P. Hall in their book Making Big Words. The copy I purchased over ten years ago encouraged me to turn their ideas into a class-wide game which has been a huge hit ever since.

The first objective of the game is to create as many words as possible from a given set of letters. To play, each student is given an envelope containing a strip of letters in alphabetical order, vowels listed first and then consonants. The student cuts these apart so that the individual letters can be easily manipulated on the desktop. Moving the letters about, students attempt to form as many words as possible. Beginners may only be able to form two-, three-, and four-letter words, but with time and practice will be able to use knowledge of word parts and blends to form much longer words.

The second objective is to spell a single word (the Big Word!) with all the letters. In my class, that Big Word very often relates to an upcoming trip, project, or special event, and thus serves double-duty to build excitement and enthusiasm.

As Big Words is used on a regular basis, the teacher can discuss strategies for increasing word counts. Some of these strategies include rhyming, changing single letters at the beginning or ending of each word, using blends, homophones, etc. Many additional words can also be generated through the use of -s to create plurals, and -e to create long vowel sounds. Some students will discover that reading their words backwards prompts additional ideas. Additionally, the teacher can discuss word parts which can help students to understand what they read (such as how the suffix -tion usually changes a verb to a noun, as in the word relaxation).

While the book emphasizes individual practice, we prefer to play Big Words as a class game. I've outlined our procedures below. You can also access these directions as a printable Google Doc.

  1. Have students cut apart the letters, and then begin forming as many words as possible using those letters. Remind them to not share ideas with partners, and to not call out words as they work (especially the Big Word). 
  2. After about fifteen minutes, have students draw a line under their last word, and then number their list. They cannot add to or change their lists, but new words that they hear from classmates should be added once the game starts.
  3. Divide the class into two teams. Direct students to use their pencil to “star” their four best words which they would like to share. These should be words which the other team might not have discovered.
  4. Determine how the score will be kept (on a chalkboard, interactive whiteboard, etc.). The teacher should also have a way to publicly write words as they're shared so that students can copy them more easily.  Here are links to a PowerPoint scoreboard or an online scoreboard.
  5. Hand a stuffed animal or other object to the first student from each team. This tangible item will help the students, and you, to know whose turn it is to share. Tell students that only the player holding the stuffed animal may speak. Other players who talk out of turn will cost their team one penalty point. These penalty points should be awarded to the opposing team, not subtracted from a score. This will greatly reduce unnecessary noise. 
  6. Play takes place as follows: The first student shares a word, nice and loud. He or she spells it out. If any player on the opposing team has that word, they raise their hand quietly and the teacher checks to see that it is the same word. (It doesn't matter if any student on the speaker's team has the word or not). Every player who has it should check it off, and every player who does not have it should write it into their notebook. 
  7. If no player on the opposing team has the word, then the team scores 3 points. If anyone on the opposing team has the word, then only 1 point is scored. 
  8. If a player shares a word which has already been given aloud, their team is penalized 2 points! This helps everyone to pay better attention to the game. 
  9. Ironically, the Big Word counts for as many points as any other word. Feel free to change that if you prefer, but I discovered that if I make it worth more points, students waste an extraordinary amount of time trying to form the Big Word alone, while ignoring the creation of any smaller words. 
  10. Play until a predetermined time, and then if the Big Word hasn't been formed yet, provide students with the first two or three letters to see who can create it.
Enjoy the game! I know your students will.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Another Game You Can Play in Class Tomorrow!

I received some nice emails about the Bug game our class designed, so I wanted to share what we played this past Friday. I call it The Mysterious Box of Mystery.

Worst name ever.

I know, but my students loved it. Well, the game, not so much the name. Surprising, since they all lost! But they see the potential for winning, so they're psyched about playing it again.

The game is simple. Find a box, tissue-box size or somewhat larger, in which you can hide an object. Ask students to number a page one through eight, and then prompt them to ask questions about the hidden object that can be answered yes or no. Each time you provide a yes/no answer, students write a new guess, or rewrite the one they've previously recorded if they feel it's correct.

Simple, right? Perhaps you've probably played something like this before. But to increase the "mystery" of it, I created a rhyming script that I read for each of my three classes, and I never deviated from the script. One student mentioned that it made Mystery Box "really scary," and another students mentioned that it built the suspense.

Cool. But the script was truthfully designed to achieve the first objective of the game: to build better listening skills. By sticking to the script, the game proceeded without interruption, and students were incredibly attentive throughout.

When students failed to name the object in each of the classes, I revealed the objects to them: a spork for Period 1, a candle for Period 5, a clothespin for Period 7. Each time when I asked, "Was it possible for you to actually guess this with just eight questions?" students reluctantly admitted yes.

"Possible, but not probable..." mused one student.

"Not with the dumb questions we asked," responded another unhappily. "We needed to ask better questions."

"We did waste a couple of guesses," added another.

And there it is, the second and more important objective of the game: to learn to ask better questions. For example, one student asked, "Is the thing in this room?" and the answer, of course, was yes. But what she meant was, "Is this thing observable to our eyes anywhere in the classroom right now?" That question would have cut down many possibilities and likely caused all students to change their guessing strategies.

So while students were disappointed, none complained that the game was unfair or impossible. Instead, many began discussing strategies for the next time the game was played. I did promise students that I would never use an object that was rare, unique, or unknown to them; they did fear, after all, that I would make the objects harder to guess as they became better guessers.

Beginning to finish, the game took ten minutes. The script was especially helpful in keeping me, the facilitator, from veering off course. In the future, when students are allowed to facilitate the game using their own objects, the script will likewise keep the class focused.

Give it a go, and let me know how it works out for you.

If you're looking to get more games into your reading and writing classroom, I highly recommend Peggy Kaye's Games for Reading and Games for Writing. I've used both books extensively in one-to-one instruction, but many of the games can be played with little planning in the ELA classroom. These games are also a huge help if you're seeking activities that a substitute can implement that will be highly engaging for your students.

POST EDIT: We decided that students would bring in objects,and use the script to facilitate the game. They're excited for the prospect, and I 'll let you know how it goes!