Posts Tagged ‘engagement’

Increasing Science Literacy through Weekly Article Abstracts

Monday, April 20th, 2015

Authors: Grant Kessler, Ph.D. Education Specialist: STEM, Transformation Central Texas STEM Center

Anna Wydeven, Science Specialist, Leander ISD

Stephen Marble, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Education, Southwestern University



Content area literacy is a hurdle to student attainment of science content knowledge and their ability to demonstrate learning. This article describes a pilot of a classroom-based intervention to help students overcome this obstacle. We call the approach “weekly article abstracts.” We describe the results of the pilot and share the approach, along with implementation tips, resources and references, for teachers who wish to implement weekly article abstracts in their science classrooms.



A colleague described her frustration to us: “No matter how much I do to make science content interesting and relevant, my students are failing accountability assessments!” With this concern as the catalyst for a discussion group, we heard a consistent theme from science teachers: “Students don’t seem to be ‘getting’ the literacy and expositive experiences that act as a speed bump to their science learning.” This anecdotal consensus resonates with our observations from classrooms across Texas. Analysis of assessment data frequently prescribes content-area literacy, not science content, as the most appropriate intervention for students to improve their science assessment outcomes. Students must be science literate–i.e., able to read and understand science writings and related diagrams, intelligently discuss complex contemporary issues, locate and synthesize valid information to inform decision-making, and utilize language to convey information—all of this as a foundation to build content-area knowledge and demonstrate learning (Texas Education Agency, 2009).

We probed science teachers about their experiences with literacy within the science class and found that the struggle can be attributed to the lack of adequate resources and training to help students tackle expository texts. For example, elementary language arts instruction is heavily grounded in fiction, which allows struggling readers to take advantage of plot direction as a guide. In contrast, these students often find themselves challenged to follow the expository nature of science texts.


Piloting an intervention

We wondered if there was a practical remedy to this situation. We imagined a high-impact, personalized, engaging process for teachers to use with students to develop science literacy. Consequently, we developed and implemented a strategy for 6th-8th grade students with the hypothesis that an increase in exposure to student-selected, science-related expository texts correlates with student growth in content-area literacy and science assessment outcomes (Martinez, 2008). We refer to this approach as “weekly article abstracts.”

Classrooms participating in the article abstract pilot were assigned to one of two conditions: weekly article abstracts or no article abstracts.  The backgrounds and performance levels of students within the conditions were comparable based on socio-economic status and prior benchmark performance.  At the conclusion of the pilot, the students from each condition were given a science reading passage and asked to take notes in the columns and answer assessment questions at the end of the reading. Student responses were coded to minimize bias, then assessed and analyzed by reading and science specialists.

The results of the pilot indicated that students exposed to the weekly article abstracts condition (N=138) showed statistically significant increases in content-area literacy and science assessment outcomes (p=0.001) as compared with students in the no abstracts condition (N=230).  Furthermore, teachers reported that the article abstracts provided a means for students to find relevant connections and engage with the science coursework.  Based on our positive experience with this process, we encourage its widespread adoption. The remainder of this article describes how to implement a weekly abstracts program in your classroom.


Science Abstracts 101


An article abstract is a weekly assignment that requires students to select, read and write a critique of a science-related article. Students bring their abstracts to class each Friday (or last day of instruction), where time is structured into the class period for students to dialogue about their learning and receive feedback about their work from peers. It is important to facilitate a learning-focused atmosphere for this weekly event and, as such, we highly recommend that abstracts be a required and ungraded learning opportunity. We have found it possible to structure these assignments so as to provide value without adding onerous incremental workload to the educator. It is useful to consider what science abstracts “are” and “are not” prior to adopting the process (Table 1).



Table 1. Abstracts “are” and “are not”


Implementing Science Abstracts

Introduce science abstracts by having students discuss the Dr. Suess quote, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”  Facilitate the discussion to explore factors that drive academic success, including the quantity of personally selected free reading and levels of exposure to academic language through a variety of sources (Cullinan, 2000).

Next, in a manner that is consistent with Simon Sinek’s (2009) work on how great leaders inspire action, introduce article abstracts with students by sharing and developing “The Why” for science abstracts. We believe that weekly article abstracts provide a mechanism through which each student will grow in his or her ability to find relevance and ownership in classroom learning, critically consume information, intelligently discuss current events, utilize data to drive decision-making, and demonstrate learning on assessments.

Having set a purpose that article abstracts are a crucial opportunity for students, show students the InfoGraphic Poster (Figure 1) to help them understand how abstracts are implemented and what success looks like.


Infographic - Figure 1



Students select, cite and read a science-related article.

It is critical for students to search for and select their own articles because student choice is a key motivator to assignment completion and it drives ownership and engagement in the learning process (Thompson, 2009). Students, especially struggling readers, will need explicit instruction for how to locate and assess the quality of science sources. We successfully used the Planey & Hug (2012) “Source Quality Pyramid” activity with students, which is detailed in The Science Teacher, and can be accessed from:

We have found that some students–including those without consistent resources at home–will benefit from your support to schedule access to the library or use campus technology to access science sources.  Share the suggested source list (Figure 2) with students as a foundation for students to locate articles.


 SourceList - Figure 2


Also, while students choose their own articles, they may need periodic reminders to select articles from a variety of sources so that they can most efficiently increase their level of knowledge.  We quickly learned that students don’t already know how to cite sources, so it will be a good idea to explicitly teach students how to use tools such as “”


Article Summary

The next step in this procedure is to go over the abstract details from the InfoGraphic (Figure 1) and provide students with the “How to write an abstract” handout (Figure 3).


HowTo - Figure 3 


During the pilot, a number of students were initially apprehensive about reading and writing the abstracts summary because they didn’t have experience with academic science texts. To get over this initial hurdle, you might tell the students, “It is okay to pick a short article at first–just pick something that you understand.” Students were more comfortable reading and writing about articles they understood; their hesitance was really fear of not fully understanding the academic content. We found it particularly effective when students chose articles that mapped to their individual interests. For example, some students raise livestock, others were passionate about automobiles, quilting, and even dinosaurs. In each case, encouraging the student to select articles within their own interests helped to establish the relevance of science to their daily lives, and their enthusiasm soared. Work with the Language Arts department on your campus to align strategies and approaches to reading and writing reflectively.


Students may need coaching on how to write the summary. Frequently, students simply rearrange words to paraphrase the article directly rather than truly summarizing the article.  You can scaffold teaching this process based on student need, building from the following mini-lesson:

  1. Provide each student with a brief, low difficulty science article. Have students read the article, making notes in the margins. You might provide students with sample questions to support metacognition while reading, such as, “How does this compare with what I already know? How does this connect with me?” When students are finished reading, they put the articles away and take turns to explain what the article was about with a partner.
  2. Have students write a paragraph in summary of the article, based on the discussions.
  3. Explain to students that this learning experience represents the process for writing abstract summaries. Tell the students to “Read the article, put the article away, and then pretend you are talking to a friend as you write what it was about.”


Article Critique

The summary describes what the article is about; the critique is where students think critically about what they read and learned, reflecting on its impact to their lives. Here, we ask the students to consider the article’s strengths and weaknesses and to use evidence to support claims. The critique is an opportunity for students to develop and demonstrate their critical thinking skills.


While we have found that this portion of their product does not need much additional coaching, some students may need additional support. In order to differentiate for ability levels, you can provide students with an organizer as an accommodation for the process (Figure 4).


Accomodations - Figure 4 


Students share learning and receive peer feedback

An audience plays an important role in the abstract literacy process and gets students excited about sharing with (teaching) each other as experts each week. As you structure time into your class each week for students to share, remember to take a facilitator role. Assign students into groups of two and organize the time for each student to have time to assess the abstracts together with the InfoGraphic representation of the rubric (Figure 1).  Some teachers create a bulletin board to highlight the abstract of the week, with a QR code to the selected article.


Final Thoughts

Science content literacy has become an increasingly important part of how teachers support students to learn science. Weekly article abstracts are an unobtrusive and value-added way to integrate literacy into science classrooms. While students struggle with this process initially, they quickly improve with practice. In our article abstract pilot of 368 students, those who experienced weekly article abstracts showed significant gains in their abilities to read reflectively and apply metacognitive strategies, find relevance for science content, and intelligently discuss current events, demonstrating significant growth in content-area literacy overall.



Cullinan, B. (2000). Independent reading and school achievement. School Library

Media Research, vol. 3.

Kearton V & McGregor D. (2010) What do researchers say about scientific literacy in schools? Education in Science. 240 22-23

Martinez, P. (2008) Impact of an integrated science and reading intervention (INSCIREAD) on bilingual students’ misconceptions, reading comprehension and transferability of strategies. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, George Mason University.

Planey, J. & Hug, B. (January 2012). Climbing the pyramid: Helping students evaluate science news sources. The Science Teacher, 79(1): 37-40.

Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why: how great leaders inspire everyone to take action. New York: Portfolio.

Texas Education Agency (TEA) (2009). Texas college and career readiness standards (CCRS). Retrieved from:

Thomson, A. (2009). Reading: The Future – final report of the 2008 National Year of Reading. London, UK: The National Literacy Trust.

Maintaining Student Engagement in Math

Monday, April 20th, 2015

Authors: Virginia Keasler and Mary Headley, Education Specialists: Mathematics

The STAAR test is over, the students are trying to shut down, and field trips and awards ceremonies are on the horizon. How do I engage my students so that learning continues?

What do students really say about what engages them? A recent article published in Edutopia in February of 2015, “Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement,” addressed this question.  220 students were asked, “What engages students?” The responses received seemed to fall under ten categories representing recurring themes.

  • Working with peers
  • Working with technology
  • Connecting the real world to the work we do/project-based learning
  • Teachers should clearly love what they do
  • Get me out of my seat
  • Bring in visuals
  • Student choice
  • Understand your clients – the kids
  • Mix it up!
  • Teachers should show their human side

Mathematics can be an intimidating subject for students; however, with the right math teaching strategies, educators can engage students in the subject matter and help them to better understand complicated concepts.

Now is the time to try a few new strategies pertaining to the students’ list above.

Working with peers has the potential to create students who are highly motivated and have higher levels of participation. The following short video from the Teaching Channel showcases an example of peer teaching:

While the use of concrete manipulatives is a critical component of math instruction, virtual manipulatives add to the learning experience. One technology resource for the math classroom is the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives (NLVM). Virtual manipulatives give students prompts, feedback, and answers to problems while working on problems lets the students incorporate more self-exploration. As always, you will want lead with the TEKS as you select manipulatives with which students will master content.

There are many ways to get students out of their seats. One of the strategies you may not have heard of is called Brain Breaks. Brain Breaks are a great way to re-energize your students to get their blood pumping and their brains re-charged for learning. The following websites have information and/or brain breaks in action:

Allowing students to make choices for their learning is important in a math classroom. Choice boards allow for student engagement and are great for differentiation. A choice board is a tool that ensures students incorporate a range of multiple intelligences, and/or learning preferences.

Some of the benefits of choice boards include:

  • Allowing students more freedom with a choice of activities
  • Allowing students to work at their own pace
  • Promoting independence and responsibility
  • Promoting a more positive behavior

To explore choice boards visit:

It is important to keep students engaged in their learning process. Hopefully, these strategies will help you maintain student engagement after the STAAR test and give you several ideas to take forward into the new school year.



Heather Wolpert-Gawron. (n.d.). Retrieved April 1, 2015, from

Reuse, Recycle: Word Clouds in the Classroom

Monday, April 20th, 2015

Author: Dana Ellis, Educational Specialist: Instructional Coach

Teachers are naturally resourceful. With limited budgets, they have to be. A search engine query for educational projects using recycled materials will produce an abundance of links and images from preschool art projects to high school physics contraptions. Teacher ingenuity is not restricted to paper towel rolls and plastic water bottles. In the face of tightened technology budgets, teachers are wrestling with ways to repurpose free technology-based applications in order to maximize hands-on learning while reducing district expenditures and time spent learning implementation.  It is no surprise, therefore, that talented, imaginative educators have transformed digital word cloud generators into tools for use in highly engaging content lessons. What is astonishing, however, is just how diverse educational applications of this simple tool can be. Below are just a few of the ways educators are using this easy-to-learn technology in cross content classrooms.

  1. Revising Student Essays. Students copy and paste their essays into one of the word cloud generators, turning off the common words feature. Since the word cloud will enlarge words based on frequency, students can then analyze the larger words against their essays. Students revise essays to include more precision and variety in word usage, and to reduce undesirable redundancy. As a follow-up assessment, students repeat the exercise and compare the revised essay word clouds with the originals.
  1. Content Main Ideas. The teacher groups students and assigns a textbook section or content based mentor text for reading. Within the groups, students jigsaw the material into smaller portions of text. For each sub-section, individual students read and decide on the 5 most important words or concepts of that section. When the individual students come back together to discuss the entire text, student groups pare down the individual lists created to one compiled set of 3 main idea words that represent the entire text selection. After class discussion of the text, students select one final word from the list of three to represent the main idea of the material. Student groups enter all the words from each round into a word cloud generator. As culmination for a unit, students can use the word clouds to review unit themes and ideas or write a unit reflection of main ideas.
  1. Self-Assessment. As an anticipation guide, the teacher creates a word cloud of major lesson or unit concepts. At the conclusion of a lesson or unit, students write an explanation of the concepts covered in a paragraph or two. This writing is then copied and pasted into a word cloud generator, excluding common words in the advanced features. Students examine the resulting images while comparing and contrasting their word clouds to the anticipation visual.
  1. Plot Prediction. The teacher copies and pastes a literary text (or synopsis for longer works) into a word cloud generator to create a story cloud. Either prior to reading the piece or at a strategic point in the reading, students analyze the story cloud and make predictions about the story plot and/or characters. The teacher has students discuss their ideas in small groups, providing justification based on the visual provided.
  1. Vocabulary Review. In partners, students take turns reviewing content based vocabulary from a list of academic words or flashcards. If a student knows the word and can provide a correct definition, the student types the word into a word cloud generator once and sets the card aside (or places a checkmark beside it on a list). If the student is unable to provide correct information, the word is typed twice and the card is left in the pile (or word left unchecked). Students continue through the list back and forth until all words have been addressed for both students. Students may either generate the word cloud at this point, or continue in a second round, using the same format. The larger words in the word cloud will remind students which words or concepts require more review.
  1. Utilize Shapes to Reinforce Learning. Using one of the word cloud generators which allows the user to select the shape of the resulting image, create geometric anchor charts. The teacher assigns each group a geometric shape. Students create word lists explaining the characteristics of their assigned shape, associated formulas, and real-life examples of the shape. After the lists are complete, students select the corresponding shape for the image. The teacher can then print large versions of student work for the classroom and/or smaller versions for student notebooks.

These are just a few of hundreds of classroom applications for this tool. To see more, check the resources in the  reference section of this article. To experiment with some of the more popular generators and discover even more educational uses, visit the following websites:







Happy recycling!



Dunn, Jeff. “45 Interesting Ways To Use Wordle In The Classroom.” 45 Interesting Ways To Use Wordle In The Classroom. N.p., 15 July 2010. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.

Gorman, Michael. “Word Clouds: 125 Ways… And Counting… To Use Wordle In The Classroom.” 21 St Century Educational Technology and Learning. N.p., 06 Mar. 2013. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.

Lepi, Katie. “5 Ways To Use Word Cloud Generators In The Classroom.” 5 Ways To Use Word Cloud Generators In The Classroom. Edudemic, 25 June 2014. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.

Tafazoli, Dara. “Wordling: Using Word Clouds in Teaching English Language.” Wordling: Using Word Clouds in Teaching English Language. Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, Aug. 2013. Web. 30 Mar. 2015. p 53-58.

Their World, Their Classroom: Innovating to Reach Digital Natives

Monday, April 20th, 2015

Author: Leslie Barrett, Education Specialist: Technology & Library Media Services

In Issue 15 of Insight, Cynthia Holcomb reflected on an article from the Washington Post in which a teacher spent two lethargic and inactive days experiencing school from a student’s perspective. Both articles present a simple but powerful idea that could have a significant impact on the effectiveness of our classroom practices: consider the student’s perspective. Marc Prensky did just that for his book Teaching Digital Natives. Prensky (2010) suggests we can impact the level of student engagement and attention span by delivering “what students need in the ways they need it” (p. 2). To help us out, he interviewed students from various backgrounds around the globe with the goal of finding out what today’s students want from their classroom learning environments. Surprisingly, or maybe not, he found students want the same things regardless of their socioeconomic status or global location.

Consider the list below of the nine things Prenksy (2010) found that today’s digital natives want from their learning environments. Our challenge as educators is to listen to what our students are asking from us and think about new ways we might approach our classroom practices in response.


They do not want to be lectured to.

Can we reframe student learning objectives in the form of rich questions and allow students to use their digital devices or other resources to discover the answers (with varying levels of support depending on age and ability levels)? Can we pre-curate appropriate resources that will help students independently explore the content with a higher likelihood that they will encounter reliable answers to our guiding questions?


They want to be respected, to be trusted, and to have their opinions valued and count.

Granted, respect and trust have to be earned, but are we giving them enough opportunities to earn it? How often do we allow students to weigh in and offer their opinions on classroom discussion and decisions? Tech tools like Tricider, Today’s Meet, Padlet, Edmodo, and Google Classroom allow each student to have a voice, and, along the way, pave the road for formative assessment as well as teaching digital citizenship and quality commenting.


They want to follow their own interests and passions.

How can we uncover students’ interests and incorporate those interests into instructional activities? This practice not only helps teachers build strong relationships with students, but also helps make learning relevant to them. Could we explore the power of social media to learn more about our students? Can we help them see the natural connections between the topics that interest them and standards we are teaching?


They want to create using the tools of their time.

Technology is a significant part of students’ personal lives and it is showing up more frequently in our classrooms as well. This can be intimidating to teachers who are not yet confident in their own technology skills. The good news is you don’t have to be the technology expert! Could you occasionally allow students to showcase their own tech knowledge by giving them some freedom of choice in how they demonstrate mastery of academic objectives? You provide the academic guidelines, they provide the tool; they feel respected and valued, you learn something new. Everyone wins!


They want to work with their peers on group work and projects (and prevent slackers from getting a free ride).

Let’s face it: students like to learn with each other and from each other. How can we create more opportunities for group work but still monitor students for understanding and provide academic support? How do we set guidelines for group work to help all students do their fair share? Consider asking students what THEY think is the best method of achieving this goal and how they suggest “slacking” should be handled. This is another way to give students a voice and show that you respect their ideas and input.


They want to make decisions and share control.

When we allow students to make decisions and share control we are demonstrating that we respect them, trust them, and value their opinions. This sets the stage for students to take control of their own learning. Can we find more opportunities in our instructional day to give students choices in how they learn new material and demonstrate mastery of knowledge and skills?


They want to connect with their peers and share their opinions, in class and around the world.

Allowing students to share their work with a public audience is a powerful motivator for driving quality. How can we harness the power of technology to make a wider audience possible? Could we facilitate the digital distribution of student work through a classroom blog, website, or Twitter account in order to model appropriate digital citizenship? Could we set up a Skype session or Google Hangout with an author or an expert in a particular field and have students pose questions or showcase final projects?


They want to cooperate and compete with each other.

Some students like to learn cooperatively. Some students prefer competition. Some like both. Some like neither. How can we get to know our students’ preferences and make sure we are creating a balanced variety of learning activities? Or, even better, can we create more opportunities for students to choose activities that support the same learning goal but utilize different methods?


They want an education this is not just relevant, but real.

“When are we ever going to use this?” It’s a question students have been asking for generations, and, frankly, it’s a valid one. In an age where students are developing pancreatic cancer screeners, publishing novels, and creating apps to help fellow students, are we creating enough opportunities for students to see how their classroom learning connects to their real world? Are we staying current ourselves with the knowledge and skills students need to be successful in today’s world? Where do we even start with that?


We start by asking our students and genuinely considering their perspectives.



Holcomb, C. (2015). Instruction from the student point of view. Insight: A newsletter for curriculum, instruction and assessment. Retrieved from

Prensky, M. (2010). Teaching digital natives: Partnering for real learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Strauss, V. (2014). Teacher spends two days as a student and is shocked at what she learns. The Washington Post. Retrieved from