Archive for the ‘English Language Arts’ Category

Flooding the Gap

Friday, August 24th, 2012

Author:  Kathy Clapsaddle, Coordinator, Special Education

Vocabulary matters.  We know that children from poverty come to school with a significant vocabulary gap.  Make that a 30 million word gap in words heard by age 4 (Hart and Risley, 1995).  Similar statistics hold true for children with language learning difficulties.  Those oral language gaps can translate to a 5 year difference in reading age level by kindergarten.  So how do we bridge the gap?

Brabham and colleagues (2012) suggest a strategy called “vocabulary flooding.”  Traditional reading programs only teach around 400 words a year, but typical children learn 3,000 words or more a year.  That’s 10 words a day.  But it’s not just increasing the number of words taught.  We also need strategies for organizing and teaching words so students don’t drown in the flood!   Here are 2 ideas.

Concept eggs help students understand relationships between related words and learn new words for known concepts.  Consider organizing a word wall with concept eggs to allow students to make connections between words.   As students read new texts and learn new words, they can add additional words to the egg.  This also translates to a vehicle for finding new and better words for writing.


Students often struggle with understanding broad category words (e.g., furniture) and how exemplars fit into that category (e.g., couch, table, dresser), specifically how those different-appearing items are related.  Semantic feature charts visually show those relationships.



Place to Sit




















Think of other tools in your toolbox for helping students make connections between words.


E. Brabham, C. Buskist, S.C . Henderson, T. Paleologos, and N. Buagh, “(2012).  Flooding Vocabulary Gaps to Accelerate Word Learning,” The Reading Teacher 65(8) (2012), 523-533.

B. Hart & T. Risley, Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. (New York: Paul. H. Brookes Publishing, 1995).

STAAR Writing: A short story in 26 lines or less with an interesting plot and engaging characters…. REALLY??

Monday, February 13th, 2012

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

A very short, short story by Ernest Hemingway

I have a 9th grader (a boy no less)!  While some boys may enjoy “the inner music that words make,” mine does not.  So when I learned that he would have to write a short story, with an interesting plot and engaging characters in 26 LINES OR LESS I panicked!  I began looking for mentor text that would support his STAAR endeavors!  I didn’t find any short stories in textbooks; well, not short stories that were less than 26 lines.  I found lots of excerpts, but no mentor texts.  Then I turned to the ‘un-academic’ database…..GOOGLE.  That’s where I found my answer:  micro-fiction or flash-fiction. I wasn’t concerned about whether it is called micro or flash fiction; I was just thrilled that there was a genre out there that modeled for my son (and his other 9th grade counterparts) of what they were supposed to write!

Flash fiction is a genre of short story writing that presents “a singular moment, a slice of life, a sketch” in 55 to 1000 lines.   In an information age of Twitter and hyperlinks, flash fiction is a way to engage our reluctant students in the elements of short story writing.  Even if we take the Hemingway story as an example of flash-flash fiction, we can see that there are characters (some implied), there’s a plot, there’s conflict—in just 6 words! Imagine the fun kids could have with 50 to 900 more?!

At the latest TCTELA conference, Harvey Daniels used an example of flash fiction for literature circles.  He examined a work titled “Waiting,” by Peggy McNally that came from Jerome Stern’s Micro Fiction.  Let’s examine how many short story elements McNally used in just 255 mere words:

[click sample for a larger view]

So, is writing a fully developed short story in 26 lines (or less) a bit daunting?  YES!!!  But it is comforting that this is neither a new task nor a new genre.  It’s a genre that is published and, therefore, there are mentor texts for my son to digest.  On June 22, ESC XIII will offer a workshop on the topic of short story writing with David Rice, a world-renowned author (workshop # SU1223130).  He will share strategies that will prepare students for the STAAR literary composition.   Until then, you may want to access some of these resources:

Books Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Fifty Really Short Stories, edited by Jerome SternFlash Fiction Forward, edited by James Thomas and Robert ShapardSudden Fiction: American Short Stories, edited by Robert Shapard and James ThomasField Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, edited by Tara L. Masih



Masih, T.L. Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction. Brookline: The Rose Metal Press, 2009.

Stern, Jerome, ed. Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Fifty Really Short Stories. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.

Thomas, James, and Robert Shapard. Flash Fiction Forward. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. 

TEKS Referenced / TEKS Based Resource Calibration

Monday, February 13th, 2012

There is so much “stuff” here …what do I use?

I don’t seem to have any “stuff” to use…what do I buy?

Money to spend this year?  Budgets to create for next year?

These are but a few questions heard in meetings, hallways, teacher lounges and the like.  Sometimes the sheer volume of materials to wade through is overwhelming while other times it may feel as if there just isn’t any resource to be found.  This may differ from content to content and even differ from unit to unit within any given content.  If you have ever felt as though you are simply racing against time and the system itself to “fit it all in” or as though you are spinning your wheels because students seem to “have it” only to just as easily have “lost it” over any given time frame, perhaps simplifying the instructional decision process by simply targeting the intent of the TEKS will help.  Admittedly this is far easier said than done, but wouldn’t we all love it if at the end of day we had a base of solid “go to” resources absent of ambiguity and rich with potential?  As the practice becomes second-nature, arguably an art form, we are able to focus our time and energy on each of our students with confidence that we are covering appropriate content and at the appropriate cognitive levels for our students.

Certainly we can launch an in-depth study of works by Robert Marzano, Mike Schmoker, and others noteworthy in their field…but really?  Do we all have that kind of time?  Although their work on defining Standards-based vs. Standards-referenced education serves as wonderful appetizers to full blown educational debate, when push comes to shove we are in our classrooms with our students each day and we make countless instructional decisions fueled solely by the intent to help and serve our children in their journey.  Part of the beauty of teaching is keeping hold of an eclectic set of items and resources because you just never know when or if you can use it again. Part of the danger of teaching is keeping hold of an eclectic set of items and resources and pulling from this comfort zone regardless of assignment or how many years have passed.  Admit it: there is a purple mimeograph copy somewhere in your files.   It may even be entitled something very similar to something you currently teach.  Does that make it the best instructional choice?

Consider this:  TEKS based vs. TEKS Referenced Materials.  Has a ring to it, doesn’t it?  If we focus on TEKS based materials in our original or main instruction we are then able to support and supplement with TEKS referenced and additional TEKS based items.  After all, we teach children, not subjects.

TEKS based:  resources tightly aligned with the content and cognitive level of the standards

  •  Example: A lesson addressing Science TEKS student expectation 2.7c focuses on distinguishing natural vs. manmade resources; combine this with Scientific Investigation and Reasoning TEKS student expectation 2.2d where students record and organize this information using pictures, numbers, and words within their science notebooks (TEKS 2.4a).

TEKS referenced:  resources loosely aligned with the direct standards but support the overall understanding of the concept; they may be considered “in the same ball park.”

  • Example:  In addition to reading non-fiction text on natural vs. manmade resources, a guided                         reading group explores a fictional leveled-reader short story in which the characters choose resources to gather and build a class project.

We would not rely on the TEKS referenced story to address the TEKS directly or to support student experiential learning, but we would choose this title to help support and solidify the idea of choosing and using resources which in turn helps the overall conceptual learning related to the standards.

One final word of caution:  sometimes less is more.  Let’s suppose that you begin your elementary unit on life cycles and you have come across a poster that you believe includes your grade level’s standards.   All six of the elementary grade levels contain TEKS related to life cycles.  For argument’s sake we will take the role of a 4th grade teacher covering 4.10c: explore, illustrate, and compare life cycles in living organisms such as butterflies, beetles, radishes, or lima beans.  Does the poster below support this student expectation in the TEKS?


image found, February 2012 at  

One could argue that the basic information is indeed found within this poster (content).  Of course just having a poster doesn’t elicit the required cognitive level of the standard and that would have to be incorporated into the lesson itself, but take another look at the content.  Sometimes resources are lacking content but other times, as in this case, they contain too much content and the original intent is lost for many students.  The extraneous information can easily muddy the water for many students.

What is the moral of our story? When considering resources, whether to utilize for TEKS based instruction or to purchase for future use, one must consider three questions:

1. Does the content align to the TEKS?

  • (Consider: TEKS based or TEKS referenced. This impacts how you would use the resource.)

2. Is the student cognitive level at the depth and complexity required in the TEKS?

  • (Consider: Are there means to combine a content student expectation in the TEKS with a process skill or other skills-based TEKS to increase the rigor?)

3.  If the answer to Question 1 and/or Question 2 is no, then you must ask if a small adjustment or tweak (resource calibration) could be made relatively easily to calibrate the resource to the standards.

  • No?  Then it is time to “retire” or share this resource with another grade level or course, if appropriate.  By the end of the unit, you will have streamlined your toolkit and saved time in the long run.

Remember, we all have favored lessons, resources, and vendors.  Companies and non-profits may even provide a correlation document aligning our state standards to their product.  For example, textbook publishers assign TEKS throughout the publication. As professional educators, there is no substitute for evaluating and calibrating resources before we use them.

Of course we know that things are much easier to say than to do in real time, but this practice can easily become second-nature and prove invaluable when designing lessons.  Want more information or practice evaluating and calibrating a variety of resource types?  Region XIII has offered several professional learning sessions doing just that; keep an eye on E-Campus, join the content list-servs, or request a visit from a specialist to learn more.


Rhetoric: It Ain’t a Four-Letter Word, Y’all!

Monday, February 13th, 2012

“The very ordinariness of rhetoric is the single most important tool for teachers to use to help students understand its dynamics and practice them.” (Roskelly)

Whether aware or unaware, the 21st Century student is steeped in rhetoric on a daily basis—Facebook, Twitter, movies, advertisements, conversations, school, books, music.  Colleges have instituted a freshman level course on it—to help students think more critically.  Its origins are as old as philosophy.  AP English teachers have been teaching it for decades.  What is it?  Why should I care?  How can it help me with STAAR?

According to Edward P.J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors, “rhetoric is the art or the discipline that deals with the use of discourse, either spoken or written, to inform or persuade or motivate an audience, whether that audience is made up of one person or a group of persons.”  The origins of rhetoric began in 5th century Greece.  At this time, the primary purpose of rhetoric was to aid public speakers.  During the Middle Ages, rhetorical techniques began to be applied to the art of letter writing.  But it was not until the Renaissance and the invention of printing that we saw the art of rhetoric being applied to all forms of writing.  It is hard to ignore rhetoric’s ubiquity in our everyday lives and its strong historical background.

With the advent of the STAAR, rhetoric’s relegation to AP level courses is no longer justifiable.  If we are to prepare students to – take a deep breath –  “analyze whether a writer’s historical support for an argument is relevant” (analytical composition on released STAAR), take a position on whether what a person thinks or does is of greater importance (persuasive released),  “explain whether a person must always be acknowledged in order to have accomplished something” (expository composition on released STAAR) or to “analyze how words, images, graphics and sounds work together in various forms to impact meaning” (eligible TEKS), we must equip them with some basic rhetorical skill sets.  Even if not all students will be tested on the persuasive essay, ALL students could encounter questions regarding persuasive techniques in the multiple choice sections of STAAR and MOST of the tested compositions will benefit from rhetorical understanding. Furthermore, our goal as educators has always been for students to communicate and think critically in order to be successful beyond their school years, test or no test.

Teaching rhetoric does not have to be complicated, like memorizing the technical term for every type of metaphor ever invented (metonymy and synecdoche, really???), but we can start simply with the 5 Canons of Rhetoric: the connection between speaker, audience, subject (context and aim).


The 5 Canons were established as a way of codifying rhetoric.  Not only can the Canons be used to deconstruct arguments but also a means to construct them; it’s the idea that we read like writers and write like readers.  (I will be speaking of the Canons as a generative tool for students’ writings but, conversely, students can use them to understand readings.) The 5 Canons are Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory and Delivery.  Though Memory deals solely with spoken rhetoric, the other four Canons are still relevant in our modern classrooms. First, Invention is the act of finding something to say, i.e. a topic and then, as Aristotle would posit, “discovering the best available means of persuasion.”  In 20th century composition studies, this act is called prewriting.  During the Invention phase, the writer considers the subject, audience and speaker.  What does the writer know about the subject? Will he/she need to research?  What examples can be used to provide support for the writer’s thesis?  Who is the audience, what does the writer know about them and how can he/she move them?  How can the writer establish credibility so as to come across as trustworthy?  What tone should he/she use?  During the Invention phase, the writer must also consider context and purpose.  What background information might the reader need in order to better understand the argument?  What is the aim or purpose of the argument?  To explain?  To move to action?  To console?  As we know, we lay the groundwork for good writing during the prewriting phase.

The second Canon is Arrangement, the selecting and organizing of ideas and arguments.  Arrangement mirrors the
drafting phase.  Naturally, compositions should have a beginning, middle and an end, but this organization is vague and TEA has communicated, “NO FORMULAIC WRITING WILL BE TOLERATED ON STAAR!”  If a formula is perceived, students compositions will drop into the lower score category.  So what’s a teacher to do?  Rhetoric has a solution.  Teach

students how to read like writers by having them analyze the organizational structures of “real” writers.  If we’re looking for 26 line sample essays to show students organizational patterns, then we’ll be looking for a long time because they don’t exist (especially not right now).  Once students become proficient at discovering the myriad ways authors organize their writings, we can have students play around with these structures in their own writings.
There is no simple answer or formula.  Students need to be able to create their own text structures, to look at the information they have compiled during the prewriting phase and decide the best method of arranging it.  Flexibility is key.  It’s messy but it is the only way to put the five paragraph essay out to pasture.




The third Canon is Style, “proper words in the proper places.”  In English classes, Style is comprised of diction, imagery, details, figurative language and syntax, to name just few.  Style can be incorporated during the drafting or the revising phases (or both).


The fourth Canon called Memory involves the memorizing of speeches.  Since it doesn’t pertain to our classrooms, I will mention it and move on.  We can make students aware of the fourth Canon and explain its importance to speeches but it is mostly irrelevant to the written word.Finally, the fifth Canon is Delivery.  In Ancient times, Delivery referred to body language, voice volume and inflection, but in modern composition studies it is more closely related to Publishing.  In this phase, we can teach students how to merge“words, images, graphics and sounds…to impact meaning” (eligible TEKS) through the use of technology.   This is 21st Century communication (and a tested student expectation).  Instead of using computers merely to type up final drafts, we should be teaching them use every available means possible to communicate their ideas—using computers to their fullest potential.  Students should be considering things such as: What is the best mode of delivery?  A Power Point? A blog?  A Prezi?  A Website?  How can I embed graphs, images, sounds and/or video to strengthen my aim?  Finally, we can have students present their final products to authentic audiences such as their peers, other teachers, or special guests from the community.  It is important for students to realize that people write for real world situations and not just for teachers; providing authentic audiences for our students is one of the best ways to make writing purposeful and fun.  The caliber of writing students produce exponentially increases when they consider delivering their writings to “real” people. (Insert image 5)students aware of the fourth Canon and explain its importance to speeches but it is mostly irrelevant to the written word.

OK—if you’ve gotten this far, you must surely realize that I am a rhetorician at heart.  It’s my “jam,” as I like to say.  But I also hope you can see rhetoric’s relevance with regard to the He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named…aka STAAR.  If we’re looking for answers, this is about as close as we’re going to get.If you’d like to learn more about this subject, Professor Tom Buckley will be presenting a workshop titled “Rhetoric 101.”  Tom is the resident rhetorical guru at UT Austin—and my former teacher and current friend—where he prepares future generations of teachers how to teach writing.  Look for it coming soon to an E-Campus website near you!Corbett, Edward P.J., and Robert J. Connors.  “Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student.” 4thEd. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.Lunsford, Andrea A., John J. Ruszkiewicz, and Keith Walters.  “Everything’s an Argument.” 3rd Ed. New York: Bedford, St. Martin’s, 2004.

Roskelly, Hepzibah.  “What Do Students Need to Know about Rhetoric?”  AP Central. Website. 12 Jan. 2012.

Concise and Precise: Important Tips for STAAR Writing

Monday, December 12th, 2011


What do Maurice Sendak, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner have in common? None of them made their point in 26 lines. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. And that’s what Texas students will be expected to do on STAAR.  We can, as Sendak said in Where the Wild Things Are, “Let the wild rumpus start!”  Or we can create purposeful, thoughtful assignments that allow our students to showcase their writing talents.

Before we start talking about instruction, let’s begin with the end in mind.  We know that students will be required to write within specific genres for each grade level. We know rubrics are available to us at

Genres for STAAR Writing

Grade 4 Personal Narrative Expository
Grade 7 Personal Narrative with extension Expository
English I Expository Literary
English II Expository Persuasive
English III Persuasive Analytical

Thanks to Victoria Young, Director of Reading, Writing, and Social Studies Assessments at the Texas Education Agency, we know about what characterizes the field test papers.

Characteristics of Score Point 3 or  4 Papers Characteristics of Score Point 1 or 2 Papers
  • Good form/purpose match
  • Introduction and conclusion short but effective
  • Explicit thesis
  • Sustained focus
  • Economical use of space – tight, specific, logical development; no wasted words
  • Specific use of language and appropriate tone for purpose
  • Well crafted
  • Narrow and deep focus
  • Clear beginning, middle and end
  • Strong conventions



  • Wrong form for purpose (e.g., writing a story in response to expository prompt)
  • Weak, evolving, or non-existent thesis
  • BIGGEST PROBLEM: Wasted space
    • Repetition
    • Wordiness
    • Extraneous details of examples
    • Looping/meandering
    • Meaningless introductions and/or conclusion
  • General/vague use of language or inappropriate  tone for purpose
  • Poorly crafted
  • Weak conventions



(Presented at the Texas Assessment Conference, December, 2011)

So what does this mean for classroom instruction? We must teach our students to write concisely and precisely, including nothing superfluous and stating things clearly. This is what the TEKS require. We can teach much through comparison and contrast.  Consider the following.

Moving  from Exploding the Moment to Concise and Precise

Blah sentence

Explode the Moment

Precise but concise

He walked through the door. He grasped the cold doorknob and turned it slowly to the right.  He pushed the door inward.  The hinges squeaked and cold air rushed past the opening door.  The room was dark.  His eyes darted to the right.  Nothing.  He pushed the door open a little farther, and slowly moved his right foot into the room.  His shoe creaked a bit as it hit the polished hardwood floor. He crept through the door, hoping to be as quiet as a mouse.
I walked into the kitchen and saw my mother holding a skateboard. Upon opening the gate to our backyard I wondered if there was a surprise in store for me.  My hands began to sweat with anticipation as crossed the yard to the enclosed patio.  I had to remind myself that it wasn’t the gift, but the thought that counted as I ran into the kitchen.  The door slammed behind me as I was greeted by the sweet smell of chocolate cake and my mother.  She was beaming as she held out my gift: the red skateboard – the red skateboard I had pointed out to my mother in the toy store window! As I darted into the kitchen to grab a snack, I was amazed when my mother handed me the skateboard of my dreams.
We have more homework in middle school than we did in elementary school. In middle school we have way more homework!  I do more homework now than I ever have.  I have at least two hours every night.  In elementary school, there was no homework.  What a change!  Running around the sunny playground during recess with my blond best friend worked just fine for me. Now I slave away on homework like a dog.  Who ever invented it is someone who I’d like to have a word with. I recall elementary school as an idyllic time where my biggest worry was who I was going to play with at recess.  Now that I am in middle school, I worry about getting all my homework done.

(Definitions and antonyms from

Students who are able to contrast Explode the Moment with precise and concise writing and who are able to identify from their own reading examples and non-examples of concise and precise writing are better to able to write their own effective pieces.

Have you ever considered using Twitter to help students narrow down their writing? The 140 character limit per tweet is made for concise and precise writing! Many “performance artists” emulate different writers’ styles – a good step toward readiness for writing an analytical essay.

@InTheGreenLight: “Fatigue was a drug as well as a poison.”  (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

@bcollinspoetry:  “I am a lake, my poem is an empty boat, and my life is the breeze that blows through the whole scene.”

For more on this phenomenon go to

If you like the idea of using Twitter, but want a more closed environment, consider using TodaysMeet ( Like Twitter, there is a 140 character limit per post; unlike Twitter it’s a controlled room. You set up the room and send the link to those you want to include. You can also set how long you want the room to be available (as short as 2 hours or as long as one year). Try it now by accessing

There are many other tools and approaches for teaching students to write concisely and precisely. Careful planning and revision have always been critical to any piece of good writing.  It’s something that we’re teaching already, as required by our standards. Being able to write concisely and precisely within the space of 26 lines makes these skills even more critical. When we ensure that our students master the standards, we ensure that they are world ready and STAAR ready.


Additional Resources Writing concise sentences: examples of wordy sentences. You can enter your more concise  revision and then you also see a suggested concise version of each sentence. Eliminating wordiness: examples of wordy sentences, and one way each might be fixed.  Writing concisely. Getting rid of the dead wood. More on using social media. Texas Assessment Conference presentations are posted here.


Grouping for Learning

Monday, December 12th, 2011

Placing students into smaller groups can help ensure student achievement.  Grouping practices not only impact achievement, but also improve attitudes toward peers and the subject matter.

Instead of this:

found at on 12-6-11

We could have this:

found at on 12-6-11

This level of engagement can be achieved through the use of grouping.  There are various reasons to form groups.

Situations that can be opportunities for grouping include:

  • Inquiry-based projects and investigations
  • Activation of prior knowledge
  • Exploration and expansion on subject matter
  • Reflection, review and reteach
  • Intervention
  • Enrichment

While students are in groups, the instruction can be centered around the teacher or the students.  A small group of students may be working in a teacher-centered group while the rest of the class participates in student-centered learning.

Teacher-centered instruction enables the teacher to differentiate student learning.  You can differentiate by re-teaching, providing enrichment and/or feedback or reinforcing a recently taught skill.


Instructional Focus

Group Formation

Small Group

(same ability)

  • Instruction targeted to specific student  needs
  • Intervention
  • Enrichment
  • 3-5 students
  • Based on assessment data

Small Group

(mixed ability)

  • Practice concepts already introduced
  • Reinforcement
  • 4-6 students
  • Based on students’ learning styles or interests

Student-centered grouping allows for students to co-construct knowledge with their peers, thus allowing for teachers to pull small groups.  These student-to-student interactions also improve student engagement and retention.

Many options exist for carrying out student-centered groups.  The two listed below represent two ends of the spectrum, but a combination of both could be used depending on the content, age of the students and the intended outcome.  The key is students working together in a self-directed fashion to achieve a learning objective.




  • 3-4 students per group
  • 3-5 stations designed to support the TEKS and learning objectives
  • Explicit instructions given at each station to enable self-direction
  • Students may do all or a few of the stations. Work may be completed in one period or across multiple days.

Collaborative Group

  • 2-5 students per group
  • 1 inquiry-based project or activity designed to support the TEKS and learning objectives (may be tiered to adjust for student ability and prior knowledge)
  • Each group is working collaboratively to complete the activity

When educators hear the term “grouping” often we visualize an elementary classroom, but research strongly supports the use of many grouping strategies across all content areas and grade levels.  Students of any age benefit from the opportunity to discuss content with their peers, co-constructing a deep understanding of key concepts.  In addition, grouping builds habits of mind necessary for college and career success.

It may take many forms, but student grouping, in any iteration, is a valuable tool for increasing engagement, retention of content and overall achievement.

Making Connections: Points of Instructional Integration and Skill Building

Monday, December 12th, 2011

Our goal as educators is that our students grow into productive citizens with a wealth of skills to draw from. We want to foster learning so that students are critical thinkers and problem solvers who are able to make connections and apply their learning in new and novel situations. The TEKS call for critical thinking, problem solving, and making connections. STAAR calls for critical thinking, problem solving, and making connections. Life calls for critical thinking, problem solving, and making connections.  This necessitates that our instruction include and build critical thinking, problem solving, and making opportunities for students to make connections.

In modern education, we are under more and more time constraints with fewer resources. We often feel we are trying to do it all and it seems there just is not enough time. It is easy at times  to become focused on the pure content within our grade level or subject matter, and forget that the skills we wish to build are transferrable skills that apply to all content and simply may look slightly different based upon the context.

As a result, we sometimes find ourselves and our lessons looking somewhat like a solved Rubik’s cube. Although within this particular game, getting all colors onto one side and isolated from the rest of the colors indicates you have “solved” the puzzle; in education this represents ideas, skills, and learning in isolation.

We want students to be able to operate within all of the colors and, in fact, NEED students to be able to operate in a more integrated fashion for STAAR and beyond.

Consider the term interdependence for a moment. What does it mean?

A dictionary definition would be “a relation between its members such that each is mutually dependent on the others.”  For students understanding content and their world, such a definition means nothing and holds little relevance. We learn about interdependence within Science. In fact, this is a key concept in science.  For example, the entire understanding of food chains relates to this idea among many others. Students may build an understanding of this vocabulary word within the Science context and examples, but can they apply it outside of these specifics?

  •  What might “interdependence” look like within Language Arts?

Characters are often interdependent. 

  • What might “interdependence” look like within Social Studies?

Countries in time of war and peace are interdependent upon each other. Economic systems, global economics, are interdependent upon one another.         

  • What might “interdependence” look like within Math?

Concepts such as part/part/whole and balanced equations include ideas of dependence and interdependence.

Would it be better to build on the idea in its entirety with multiple examples in order to assure students can transfer and apply knowledge or would it be best to know this term simply through a dictionary definition, a specific example such as a food chain, or within a specific content? Even if the word is introduced as a new vocabulary term in science, we want and need students to have word study skills that might enable them to determine what this unfamiliar word means, especially within multiple contexts.

That is one specific example with the intention of planting the seed for making connections and continuing learning throughout the day rather than in isolated periods of time or content.

Aligning TEKS to TEKS, side by side can be a daunting process when one considers the number of standards Texas has and how little time there is within a given day.  However, there are a few manageable ideas to begin to take the first small step(s) toward integrated learning throughout the day.  By doing so educators are able to “shave” time off of discreet stand-alone lessons and students are able to see connections and apply their learning across content and contexts.  These processes have the potential to increase efficiency and effectiveness by capitalizing what already exists within the TEKS and conceptual connections.

Within lesson design, we must look for opportunities to make connections and build skills across content.

1. Look across content units within the same time period: big ideas/concepts.

Are there opportunities for direct and explicit support or purposeful awareness or both?  For example, in 3rd grade Science your landforms unit may be within the same time frame as the Social Studies unit on landforms.  This is direct explicit support.  Or perhaps you teach English in 7th grade and the Texas History class covers political change in Texas as a result of the Civil War.  Through resource choice, instruction can support purposeful awareness and support the overall connections and learning associated with the Texas political climate without actually directly teaching the Social Studies TEKS within the English classroom.

2. Focus on transferrable skills across content and context:  TEKS skills strands

Every content has a skills strand, or skills-based student expectations, embedded within the course TEKS.  These are the very skills needed to approach and access content in order to make connections and increase comprehension.  Focusing on the skills across the course of the day rather than “period to period,” regardless of the content, builds practice and repetition and therefore increases skill levels.  For example, if we consider the 3rd grade TEKS and the skills embedded, we can identify basic skill categories, including data collection, analysis, inferring, forming conclusions, and problem-solving.   Similar skills found within these and other categories can be found in Language Arts, Math, Science, Social Studies, Health, and Technology Applications.  Learning effective data collection across content areas allows the students to see the skill applied within different contexts and in new and novel situations, resulting in deeper and broader understanding.

In the end it is the student who ultimately benefits from this direct explicit support and purposeful awareness.  We know the brain is wired for making connections.  By asking where there are opportunities to make connections and build skills during the lesson design process, we make more efficient use of our time while increasing the overall effectiveness of our instruction.

What Does Progress Monitoring Really Look Like?

Monday, December 12th, 2011

We are almost at the halfway point in the year and you have groups all over your classroom and so does everyone else in the school.  The questions start to echo off the walls: Is Mary in the right group?  Are they progressing fast enough to close the gap by the end of the year?  Am I doing this strategy correctly?  How do I group the students to get the most progress in the least amount of time?  Is this strategy working or not?

A critical key component to successful progress monitoring is setting reasonable goals.  We do not want to waste time implementing an ineffective strategy or taking data and then not using it to help guide our instruction.  If you have not set goals for your class as a whole and for individuals who are struggling, then you are going to have a very difficult time trying to get them where they need to be.  Consider the following analogy (Adapted from V. Lynch, C. McGuigan, and S. Shoemaker, “An Introduction to Systematic Instruction”).

Suppose you are taking a trip.  Contrast the difference between taking that trip having specified your destination and taking the trip with no special endpoint in mind.  For example, you leave Seattle this morning with a goal to reach Mexico City by nightfall three days hence, as opposed to merely leaving Seattle.  Without a specified destination and projected arrival time, you know neither in which direction to go nor how fast to travel; having established a goal, you know both these facts (head south and really hustle).  With this information you can judge whether the direction and the rate at which you are traveling will get you to your final destination on time.

If you have not set specific goals for the end of the year yet, it is not too late.  You need to meet with your colleagues/team and decide what the specific end of year goal is for each of your students.  Look back at your data and determine how many students have already met the goal, how many are close to reaching the goal already and how many students have a long way to go.  There are many research based standards for establishing performance goals using baseline data including DIBELS (, AIMSWeb (, and “Formative evaluation of academic progress: How much growth can we expect?”  School Psychology Review, 22, 27-48 (  You can also use normative peer data to establish a reference point for the initial goal for an individual. Not only is it critical to set a goal for your students but a key factor in determining success is teacher responsiveness to the data.  “Goal ambitiousness seems to positively affect student achievement.” (Fuchs, Fuchs, & Deno, 1985)  In other words, teachers and students who set their goals higher and continue to increase those goals progress at a more rapid rate than do peers who select lower performance goals and do not change them.  It is also crucial for teachers to follow specific rules for how to be responsive to the data instead of just collecting and graphing it.  Having clear and measurable goals allows teachers  to work as a team with other teachers and with the students.  There can be meaningful and concise communication with regard to how and what students need to improve, and whether they are indeed progressing.  Student progress will help keep the groups flexible as teachers adjust the groups according to student level of progress and program modification.

Let’s look at how to use goal setting, scores along the goal line, and program modification to make decisions about student progress.  If the student’s current level of performance is more than one-half of the peer norm, and if we had more than 30 weeks left in the school year, we would consider setting the goal at the current peer norm.  Since we do not have 30 weeks left in the year,  we need to reduce the goal to a level that we estimate to be attainable.  Initial goal setting may be done through estimation because it can be adjusted if the goal turns out to be unreasonable.   The main point here is to set a goal for every student so you know where you are headed.  Progress toward that goal is then represented on a student graph using a goal line.  When 4 consecutive scores exceed the goal line, raise the goal.  In contrast, when 4 consecutive scores fall below the goal line, modify the program.  Draw a vertical line on the graph to indicate where the program was modified and continue to graph the scores.  The new goal line will need to be parallel to (but lower than) the goal line beginning at the student’s present level of performance.  You may also adjust your groups at this time to regroup students who are progressing without modification and students who will all need an adjustment to the program.  Keep in mind that you will need to progress monitor the lowest 40% of your students more often than the others.  You will also need to monitor the programs in which more students are struggling more often than the programs in which most of the students are progressing along their goal line.

Program modification includes a myriad of options.  It is important to first look at the implementation integrity to make sure the program is being used in the way it was designed.  There are a number of implementation integrity checklists created by Alecia Rahn Blakeslee at  Once you have determined the integrity of the intervention, you can start to look at ways to modify it in order to meet the needs of your students and your campus.  Deb Simmons has created a chart that displays alterable variables in programs. This chart is available at  There are several other guidelines to consider when modifying any program.  Supplemental groups should optimally include no more than five or six students.  Intensive groups should optimally include no more than three or four students.  Put the most qualified staff with the neediest students.  Your campus may want to do a personnel resource inventory with ALL staff (general education, Title l and special education teachers, G/T, ELL specialists, paraprofessionals, trained volunteers) to see who has knowledge, skills and experience with the strategies you want to put in place.  Scheduling is another important factor.  Possibly have teachers teach core subjects at different times of the day or different periods so the support staff can schedule time in each classroom and students can access additional time in other classrooms.  You can list each teacher and support personnel’s schedule in 15 minute increments.  Any 15 minute section that they are not teaching core content is a possible intervention time.  This could be a way to provide the additional intervention time for the supplemental and intensive groups.

RtI implementation takes a commitment from all the staff and administrators.  Students will be successful if we use our time and resources effectively and efficiently.  At this point in the year teachers and the leadership team need to be looking at the goals for all students and their progress towards those goals.  It is critical to be responsive to the data that have been collected to modify the program after implementation fidelity has been established.  There are many resources to guide you through this process.  For more information please refer to the RtI Blueprint for Implementation- School Building Level at and the Progress Monitoring Leadership Team Content Module at

ELAR – Formative Assessment

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

Formative assessments are an integral part of the instruction process, providing feedback to both the teacher and student with the goal of improving learning.   Without formative assessments, teachers wouldn’t be able to make timely adjustments to instruction to ensure student mastery.  These adjustments can be anything from a re-teach for those who did not master the concept to an enrichment activity allowing students to apply their concept/skill in a new way.


reteach to enrich scale


Exit tickets (Fisher and Frey, 2004 ) and SOS Summaries (Dodge, 2009) are two  quick, easy, prep-free ways to assess FOR learning.



Exit Tickets are slips of paper or index cards in which students respond to a prompt or question pertaining to the day’s lesson.  The question or prompt shouldn’t take more than 3-4 minutes to complete.   Often they are referred to as “tickets out the door” because students cannot leave the classroom until they have handed the teacher their response.  After all the responses are collected, the teacher reviews them and uses the information on them to determine what adjustments need to be made to instruction.  The teacher determine which students (if any) need a re-teach, which students need additional practice through a reinforcing or elaborating  activity, and which students showed mastery of the lesson and can move onto an enrichment activity.  Fisher, D., and Frey, N. (2004) point out that there are three categories of Exit Ticket prompts.

  1. prompts that document learning
  2. prompts that emphasize the process of learning
  3. prompts to evaluate the effectiveness of instruction



Prompts that document learning Prompts that emphasize the process of learning Prompts to evaluate the effectiveness of instruction
The most important thing I learned today was…


Summarize today’s lesson in 25 carefully chosen words.


Write three things you would say to explain this to a younger child (or adult).


Choose one word that summarizes today’s lesson.  Explain why you chose that word.


I need help with…


What would you like to review during the next session?


How did you feel about__?


What did you do to participate today?


What is something you are doing to help yourself learn?

Rate your understanding of today’s topic from 1-10 and explain WHY you rated yourself that.


The best part of class today was…


What did you not like?


Secondary example of an Exit Ticket:

secondary ticket example



The S-O-S Summary (Dodge, 2009) is a formative assessment that ELAR teachers can use before, during or after instruction.

Before: to assess student attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge about a topic.

During: to assess what students are coming to understand about the topic.

After: to assess if attitudes and beliefs have been influenced or changed as a result of new learning and if they can better support their opinion.



S – Statement

Student reads the statement provided by the teacher.


O – Opinion

Student decides if he/she agrees or disagrees with the statement.


S – Support

Student supports their opinion with evidence, facts and examples.


Statements you might pose in an ELAR classroom:


There was a better solution to ______________.

____ is of value.

The character was justified when __________.

The author implies ______.

This passage suggests ___________

This character feels ______.

The story would be different (same) if the setting were changed to __________.

The effect of ___________ was most significant to __________.

______ is similar to ____________.

________ reminds me of ____.


The author has a bias.

The author believes ____________.

The lesson the character (or the author) is teaching is _____.

The passage (or the author) implies/suggests_______.

The tone of the passage is _________.

The writer’s overall feeling toward ______ is______.

_____fulfilled his/her dreams.

_____ is a good (or poor) choice for a title.

_____ is more successful.



Elementary examples of S-O-S Summary:








Fisher, D., and Frey, N. (2004).  Improving Adolescent Literacy: Strategies at Work.  New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Dodge, Judith. (2009). 25 Quick Formative Assessments for a Differentiated Classroom: Easy, Low-Prep Assessments That Help You Pinpoint Students’ Needs and Reach All Learners. Scholastic Inc.