Posts Tagged ‘Reading’

Poetry Please

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016

AUTHOR: Laura Lee Stroud, Elementary ELAR Specialist

An Abandoned Tool

Past U.S. Poet Laureate, Billy Collins says “High school is where poetry goes to die” because it is there that many students inadvertently learn that poetry isn’t relevant to their lives. Oftentimes in working with these teachers we find that poetry remains buried and absent from their instruction, until, that is STAAR is over and we pick up poetry as a fun filler. But poetry is a powerful, emotionally clad, succinct genre teachers can use to helps students express themselves, make their words come alive and synthesize their thinking.

Building Community Through Poetry

Nowadays, in order for our students to care enough to invest in writing and reading, we must take the time to create spaces of trust. Writers thrive in spaces they can take risks, feel valued, receive feedback and learn how to write from models and mentors. Writers need to understand that an investment in learning to write well will yield lifelong returns. Creating a writing community inside of a classroom means that as teachers we must let go of some control in order to empower our student writers to make decisions about their writing.

Cultivating a writing community doesn’t happen with a week or two of “getting to know you” activities but thoughtful planning and commitment. Taking time to read and discuss thought provoking ideas, problem solving together and planned inquiry of ourselves and families, all work to build spaces our students can thrive in as writers. Students must know that their thinking, their words, their perspectives matter and without it, our goal of meaningful learning remains unaccomplished. Weaving poetry through instruction works to create this communal space. Finding poetry models your students will love and allowing them to experience reading and rereading it together, can serve as a tunnel to bonding. Repeated readings promote fluency, boost vocabulary and engage students.

Give this a try:

  1. Show a spoken word poem. Button Poetry is a great place to begin mining for poetry. Just like any other text you would select for your students, it is critical that you preview the videos for instructional objectives that align with your purpose and that you are sure the content is appropriate for your students.
  2. Pass out the words. Joshua Bennett’s Tamara’s Opus is a poem eighth grade students’ love.
  3. Play the poem again.
  4. Allow students to discuss what they liked about the poem in small groups. The purpose of letting students identify what they like about the poem is that they are able to highlight the language that appealed to them without having to identify the academic labels in the beginning stages. Remember, our goal is building community with poetry. As you give your students the opportunity to discuss poetry in this way, academic language will emerge.
  5. Have students highlight their favorite lines.[4]  Read the poem aloud to students and when their highlighted line appears, they read that line aloud along with you (and the others that have selected this line). A chorus of voices will rise to the occasion.
  6. Invite students to bring in poems they love for community viewing/reading.

Poetry in Tiny Packages

Lucy Calkins speaks of poetry as powerful thoughts in “tiny packages.”   Tiny packages allow even struggling writers the ability to write powerful poems. Jeff Anderson agrees and teaches us that even a sentence can serve as a mentor text. We can focus on what is beautiful or empowering in one sentence.  If students can feel successful writing one beautiful sentence or phrase, they can become poets. By starting out the

year with these tiny packages, all will feel successful.

Creating Community to Boost Reading and Writing Performance

As Kelly Gallagher says, “Writing instruction should be a non-negotiable core value” (2015).  If we are looking to raise our performance and learning outcomes, we must ask if sound writing instruction and time spent writing are “core values” in our schools?

Sound writing instruction is not the same as test preparation. In fact, when test preparation replaces writing instruction, test scores are not likely to improve as evidenced by researchers like Judith Langer (2000).

Research Base

Remember that the power of poetry to teach reading and writing skills is well documented in the literature. The authors of Inside Out, (Kirby and Liner, 2004) teach us how the writing of poetry contributes to good writing:

In poetry, as in all writing, the technical aspects of the poem are really of secondary importance; good writing is honest writing. The writer risks feelings with us, and we respond to the words because they touch our feelings through shared human experiences. (p.74)

Such honesty and confidence can come into play through many different writing tasks. For example, if students are able to tap into their everyday experiences, they will be able to write short stories, personal narratives and, of course, write the deep development demanded on the expository essay.

Through poetry we can teach students not only come to understand the written word more deeply, but also make more meaningful connections to text. Therefore, if we are going to teach writing, we must include poetry. Poetry has been called “the great equalizer for both the reading and writing workshop” (Dorfman and Cappelli).

Revisiting Poetry for Different Purposes

The rich language and ability to engage readers make poems the perfect choice for teaching students to deepen comprehension through analyzing and comparing texts, citing evidence, offering opinions, drawing conclusions, and talking about main ideas and themes (Dorfman and Cappelli).  When we teach poetry, we offer multiple opportunities for practicing reading comprehension that will prove beneficial to reading in other genres.  Through the  analysis of different types of literature, we  promote cognitive development and give students an opportunity to apply such skills and strategies, as identifying themes discussed in one genre–fiction, for example–to other genres like poetry, reports, descriptive pieces, and plays (Smith, 1991). And last but not least, poetry is an often-tested genre on STAAR.  As responsible writing teachers, we cannot omit poetry!

Let’s encourage our professional learning communities to take up this often abandoned genre and find new ways to teach reading and writing this summer. One way to begin a new exploration of poetry, is to register and join us for Linda Christensen’s workshop on May 18.  She will discuss her journey into poetry as a powerful genre that changes not only students’ reading and writing skills, but their lives as well.  We would love to be a part of your continued journey with poetry!

Works Cited:

Smith, C. B. (1994). Helping Children Understand Literary Genres. Retrieved April 18, 2016, from

Langer, J. A. (2000, May). Guidelines for Teaching Middle and High School Students to Read and Write Well Six Features of Effective Instruction. Retrieved April 18, 2016, from

Worsham, S. (2001). Essential ingredients: Recipes for teaching writing. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Gallagher, K. (2015). In the best interest of students: Staying true to what works in the ELA classroom.

Kirby, D. L., Crovitz, D., & Kirby, D. (2013). Inside out: Strategies for teaching writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

Preparing for the Reading and Writing STAAR the Smart Way

Thursday, February 25th, 2016

AUTHOR: Janet Hester, Secondary ELAR Specialist

Begin at the Beginning: The STAAR-Prep Dilemma

What do we do when students enter our classrooms lacking confidence and fluency in writing? For many schools and districts in Texas, the attempted answer to this skills deficit has been to drill students on writing the STAAR tasks over and over again. Twenty-six lines, over and over. And in the same manner, practice multiple choice reading and writing packets over and over again. Test-prep passage and multiple choice bubbles, over and over.

We know that such practice does not raise confidence and fluency in writing and reading. Students might improve in jumping through a very specific hoops when they are challenged to write 26 lines of expository text repeatedly, but their versatility as writers and their confidence and joy in writing will have be the price they pay for this act. In the same manner, when we curtail our engaging reading instruction for packet work, we may stunt our students’ growth. Traditional STAAR prep has led to slightly more prepared, but very burnt-out students.

We all know this. But, without these traditional practices, we are sometimes stuck on how to create a transference of skills on test day.

Transitioning to STAAR: The Test as Genre Unit

When we begin to prepare students for STAAR reading and writing tasks, we should not throw out all the good work that has come before in instruction, much of which has been presented through a reading and writing workshop model for many Region 13 teachers.

3The Test as Genre Unit is a tried-and-true method of preparing students for standardized tests while building on what has already transpired in classrooms. It is a riff played on the Genre Study Unit through which many schools deliver ELAR instruction. If your curriculum is grouped in units by genre, instruction was delivered as a genre study. Students read and wrote fiction pieces in one unit of study. Students read and wrote persuasive pieces in another unit of study. Most definitely, students read and wrote expository texts in the expository unit. 

Katie Wood Ray in Study Driven details a Genre Study Unit cycle:

Stage Description
Gather Texts The teacher, sometimes along with students, gathers examples of the kind of writing students will do.
Setting the Stage Students are told they will be expected to finish a piece(s) of writing that shows the influence of the study.
Immersion The teacher and students spend time reading and getting to know the texts they’ll study. They make notes of things they notice and about how the texts are written. They think about the process writers use to craft texts like the ones they are studying.
Close Study The class revisits the texts and frames their talk with the question, “What did we notice about how these texts are written?” The teacher and students work together to use specific language to say what they know about writing from this close study, developing curriculum as they go. The teacher, through modeling, takes a strong lead in helping students envision using what they are learning in their own writing.
Writing Under the Influence Students (and often the teacher) finish pieces of writing that show (in specific ways) the influence of the study.

(Wood Ray, 2006, p. 111)

4In our schools, this cycle might look a little different. Teachers might weave the different stages of the cycle together so they take place simultaneously. Due to scheduling in some middle school classes, students might also experience the different stages in separate reading and writing classes. However, most students will have experienced this sequence of reading in a genre and then emulating craft moves they learned to write in that genre.

When students have been immersed in reading and writing in different genres throughout the year and the STAAR test is drawing near, they are ready to begin a Test as Genre unit. A Test as Genre unit follows the same methodology as other genre units. Students immerse themselves in the genre of the test, reading passages from released tests as well as reading and discussing the types of multiple–choice questions they will have to answer. Students explore the writing tests’ tasks and prompts. As a result, they slowly begin to build a rapport with the standardized test. In this case, familiarity breeds confidence. Randy Bomer, the director of the Heart of Texas Writing Project, describes his process:

“I like to throw a huge pile of tests onto a table and invite students to browse through them and see what they notice in them. I want them to see tests not as something fearsome that controls their fate but as a dime a dozen, common as can be, which they are. I want to position the students as powerful, intelligent analyzers of these kinds of texts.” (Bomer, 2011, p. 285)

After this close study, students write passages and questions that imitate the released tests they studied following the Katie Wood Ray cycle from above. Students study writing prompts and write their own. When students have been reading like writers all year in other genre inquiry units, the Test as Genre is a logical next move in preparation for the test. They have been reading like writers all year in other genre inquiry units, reading like poets, reading like op–ed journalists, reading like short-story writers. Now, in the Test as Genre unit, they read like test makers, practicing the reader and writer moves they have been honing all year (Atwell, 2002; Bomer, 2004; Bomer, 2011; Fletcher & Portalupi, 2001; Serafini; Taylor, 2008). Region 13 will hold a full-day, just-in-time workshop on implementing this type of unit on February 29, 2016.

Using the Region 13 Elementary and Secondary Playbooks as Part of the Test as Genre Unit

In the weeks leading up the tests, not only are students analyzing passages and multiple choice questions from both the reading and writing tests; they should also be honing in on the specific expository writing craft they will need to write a satisfactory essay on the day of the test.

5With respect to the STAAR expository writing tasks, the Region 13 Product Store now sells two products that will help the accomplished and the novice teacher alike. The Elementary and Secondary Expository Playbooks offer immediate tools and strategies for a Grade 4 and English I teacher.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    The Elementary Expository Playbook breaks down the five components of STAAR expository writing: Focus, Organization, Idea Development, Progression, and Language and Conventions.

For each component, the playbook provides a chapter outlining

  • the fundamentals of what each component means in the context of the STAAR expository task;
  • two published mentor informational texts that powerfully demonstrate the chapter’s component (for example, a mentor text that employs a strong problem/solution organizational structure in the Organization chapter);
  • four STAAR expository students essays to demonstrate strong and developing examples of that writing component; and
  • several plays, or instructional strategies, to use to improve that writing component in student writing. All plays begin with the writer in mind and inspire confidence and transfer of skills on test day.

Often, teachers do not have the time to find specific mentor texts to demonstrate the skills they wish their students to emulate. The Playbook saves so much time, in that published mentor texts, strong student examples, and weaker student examples are already there, organized under specific instructional targets with helpful teacher commentary.

6The Secondary Playbook follows the same pattern of including content, mentor texts, and student essays that align to the English I expository task. Grade 7 writing teachers will definitely find support for the Test as Genre unit in either playbook.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            When preparing students for STAAR, we must instill a cheerful attitude that builds upon the skills students certainly have. Asset-based instruction reminds students of all their world knowledge and invites the students to bring this knowledge into the standardized writing and reading tasks.

For more information about the Playbooks and implementing a Test as Genre Unit, contact:

Janet Hester
Secondary ELAR Specialist

Laura Lee Stroud
Elementary ELAR Specialist


Atwell, N. (2002). Lessons that change writers. Portsmouth: Heinemann.
Bomer, R. (2004). Strong enough for tests and life. College Board Review, 41-43.
Bomer, R. (2011). Building adolescent literacy in today’s English classrooms. Portsmouth: Heinemann.
Fletcher, R., & Portalupi, J. (2001). Writing workshop: The essential guide. Portsmouth: Heinemann.
Serafini, F. (n.d.). Standardized tests as a genre. Retrieved from
Taylor, M. M. (2008, Spring/Summer). Changing the culture of “test prep”: Reclaiming writing workshop. Language Arts Journal of Michigan, 23-34.
Wood Ray, K. (2006). Study driven: A framework for planning units of study in the writing workshop. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Content in this article addresses T-TESS Planning dimension 1.3 – Knowledge of Students and Instruction dimension 2.2 – Content Knowledge and Expertise.

An Appeal to Instructional Leaders Everywhere

Thursday, February 25th, 2016

AUTHOR: Judy Butler, Educational Specialist: Dyslexia & Related Disorders

What Research has to Say About Reading Instruction, Fourth Edition, edited by S. Jay Samuels and Alan E. Farstrup, copyright 2011 provides insight into how we could more effectively build reading curricula. To be sure, developing and teaching curricula that integrate the most complex brain processes a child will ever have to engage in is not for sissy educators (if there are such beings)…and neither is reading through these research studies; however, embracing even one of these research methods is sure to raise the effectiveness of our reading instruction.

There is one chapter in particular that points out one of the most commonly neglected components of reading curriculums and yet if included, could reap the most dramatic impact upon overall reading proficiency. What chapter is it? Chapter 4: Reading Fluency What It Is and What It Is Not, written by Timothy N. Rasinski and S. Jay Samuels.

Unfortunately, reading fluency instruction has become the neglected component of reading curricula. The authors report, “The oral reading studies included as part of the U.S. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that nearly half of all fourth grade students had not achieved levels of fluency for their grade levels and that these students also demonstrated lower levels of overall reading achievement (Daane et al., 2005 Pinnell et al., 1995).”

What is happening in our primary grades that produces such poor fluency levels in 4th grade? Often we have not devoted the needed time and intensity of instruction to allow students to master or become automatic at the sound/symbol level or the word level of reading. We haven’t laid the foundational ground to build automaticity or effortless word reading. We have been content to develop accurate, but slow readers.

We also approached the issue of poor fluency by believing that increasing reading rate with passages would cause good comprehension. This route has resulted in the development of fluency instruction programs that focus primarily on increasing reading speed, with little attention given to prosody (phrasing, intonation, and expression) or comprehension.

Accuracy plus rate does not equal fluency. Low levels of fluency typically mean lower levels of overall reading achievement. We are neglecting to prepare our students for the ever-increasing demands of text complexity and text volume as they advance from grade to grade to post-secondary education.

Rasinski and Samuels presented a more informed model of developing fluency that can lead to overall reading proficiency:


(Word Recognition)  (Fluency)

Automaticity is not just reading words accurately, but also reading them effortlessly so that cognitive resources are free to process meaning. Prosody, the melodic features of oral language (phrasing, intonation, expression) is that part of fluency which connects fluency to comprehension.

In my experience training reading teachers, most teachers have not received previous professional development in how to listen to a student’s oral reading and rate the quality of their prosody using such a tool as the NAEP Prosody Rating Scale. Many of them have never been taught that fluency work should begin at a student’s instructional or independent reading level, meaning that the student should be able to read at least 91% or more of the words accurately. Additionally, very few of them have been exposed to the Hasbrouck and Tindal Fluency Norms and have not been informed of how to interpret which students truly need a reading fluency intervention.

In Chapter 4, Rasinski and Samuels cite several research studies that suggest that reading fluency is important beyond the primary grades and needs to be taught in upper elementary, middle school, and high school. Rasinski and Samuels suggest “instructional methods that aim to improve students’ word recognition automaticity and, at the same time their prosody–in both oral and silent reading.” They suggest an acronym, MAPPS, as a guide for working on fluency with students. Below is a summary of the acronym guide.

Modeling Fluent Reading for Students: Direct students’ attention to the way you read. Provide negative examples as well (not often), but discuss what interfered with listening and comprehending.

Assisted Reading for Support: choral reading, echo reading, paired reading, audio-assisted reading, captioned reading

Practice Reading Wide and Deep: wide reading offers experience with large volumes and genres of text; deep takes place when a student rereads text several times over to master deeper levels of content. Additionally, instructional routines using repeated reading built around Reader’s Theater, poetry, song, or some combination of performances result in increased overall reading proficiency and remarkable gains in rate. Rate is an outcome of good fluency instruction; it is not the aim of such instruction.

Phrasing of Words in Meaningful Groups: groups of words are phrased or chunked and read with prosody to reflect the phrasing. Students are given visual cues to reflect how words are parsed (scooping beneath words to reflect phrasing is a strategy used within the Wilson Reading System). Students can practice reading the marked text repeatedly until they can honor the phrase boundaries. Additional repeated reading can be added where the student has an opportunity to practice fluency, perhaps scooping and penciling their own phrase boundaries, or practicing with phrase boundaries deleted. A second approach mentioned is having students practice meaningful short phrases or sentences containing prepositions and high frequency words.

Synergy to Make the Whole Greater than the Sum: As important as each of these elements are, a teacher’s ability to combine them will create synergistic results!

I have witnessed, as a teacher and as a trainer of teachers, that including this component of fluency instruction, using protocols such as MAPPS, can remarkably improve students’ overall reading proficiency. The research reviewed in Rasinski’s and Samuel’s Chapter 4 yields strong support for examining our convictions and perhaps modifying our ELAR Curriculums to make fluency instruction the “hot topic” it should be.

For teacher professional development or resources, contact Judy Butler, ESC Education Specialist, Dyslexia,


Daane, M. C. et al. (October 2005). The Nation’s Report Card: Fourth-Grade Students Reading Aloud: NAEP 2002 Special Study of Oral Reading. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Washington, DC. Retrieved 2/17/2016.

Hasbrouck, J. & Tindal, G. A. (2006). 2006 Hasbrouck & Tindal Oral Reading Fluency Data. Oral reading fluency norms: A valuable assessment tool for reading teachers. The Reading Teacher. 59(7), 636-644.

Pinnell, G. S., Pikulski, J. J., Wixson, K.K., Campbell, J. R., Gough, P. B., and Beatty, A. S. (1995). Listening to children read aloud. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Washington, DC.

Samuels, S. J. and Farstrup, A. E. (2011). Reading Fluency What It Is and What It Is Not. What Research has to Say about Reading Instruction, 4th Edition. Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association.

U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2002 Oral Reading Study. Updated 26 October, 2005. Retrieved 2/17/16.

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.

The TOP Twelve Non-Negotiables in Meeting Literacy Demands in of the Coming Year

Friday, September 26th, 2014

Authors: Lenicia Gordon and Janet Hester – ELAR Education Specialists, Judy Butler-Dyslexia/504 Education Specialist, Trish Flores-ESL/Bilingual Coordinator

Colleagues, what we know is that reading scores across the state and across our region have seen a significant drop. Naturally, we will all look at our campus and district data to formulate our best responses.  We know that there could be many factors to the origin of the decline in scores: the instructional challenges vary from kindergarten through 12th grade, administrative and budget priorities are a part of the problem, perhaps the loss of STAAR M is a factor, as well as administering needed accommodations. Each of you will create plans to address your individual students.  However, we would like to offer you a synthesis of the top twelve best practices we know will help based on the research we have studied, as well as our direct observations in the field:

1)  Focus on Strengthening Tier 1 Instruction to address achievement gaps, assessed curriculum explicitly and well, and to reduce need for excessive interventions. Evaluate K – 3 curriculums to insure that phonemic awareness, phonics, spelling and handwriting are comprehensive and integrated well with contextual reading practice and balanced within the ELA block.

2)  Structured Independent Reading is a critical practice.  Consistent, unhindered time for students to read books of their choice, within their ZPD, and for which they are held accountable.

3) Consistent and protected time for writing practice for sustained periods of time in ELAR classes.

4)  Required reading for meaning and writing to comprehend in ALL content areas; these can be quick routines but must be consistent.

5)  A system for consistent monitoring of and providing practice for:

Fluency for K-3, and those students reading below grade level in grades 5 and up

Reading progress using running records

Explicit vocabulary instruction and acquisition

6)  Daily study and close reading of mentor texts to harvest for author’s craft.

7)  Application of these craft elements applied and incorporated into revision of students’ working drafts.

8)  Daily practice (through a variety of routines, strategies and practices) of summarizing, determining author’s purpose and drawing inferences from texts across genres.

9)  Provide many opportunities built-in for students to talk (oral language development) and collaborate about what they are reading and writing for deeper cognitive processing and internalization of both content and a metacognitive approach to learning.

10)  Treat testing as a “genre” whose attributes are visited in the form of mini-lessons throughout the year in small but consistent doses. Certainly check on progress through deliberately scheduled district assessments, but, do not rob instructional time unnecessarily for excessive testing.

11)  Develop a system of classroom management that makes effective use of instructional time, student collaboration during practice, and independent work possible so that students develop skills to mastery.

12)  Prioritize cognizance of and best practices for ELL’s by doing all of the above, and;

Use of leveled libraries which include a ride range of genres and culturally relevant books

Awareness of differences in sound systems across languages and alphabetic and non-alphabetic systems

Use of “bridge techniques” to develop biliteracy

Awareness of district language programs and WHEN to introduce literacy in second language

Provide solid instruction in first language

If these practices are considered priorities (and not simply options or good ideas) which are put in motion, supported, and expected by instructional leadership on a consistent basis, overall reading and writing achievement would be anticipated to rise.

The Literacy Team at Region 13 is here to support you in all of these endeavors and have suggestions of resources and professional development which can assist you in putting these imperatives into place.

Happy School Year!

Phonics Instruction for Middle and High School ELLs

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Author: Ivonne Santiago, Bilingual/ESL Specialist


Image courtesy of


Learning to read is a little bit like learning to ride a bike while you are balancing a person on the handle-bars, holding a pole, spinning plates, and focusing on the destination at the same time! (Robertson, 2009).

Reading is a complicated process and yet a critical skill. Many children struggle to become strong readers and it can be particularly challenging for English Language Learners (ELL’s). Reading at an appropriate rate with adequate comprehension is necessary. So what role does phonics play in this goal to acquire fluency and comprehension? In this article, we will explore the challenges ELL’s face with phonemic awareness and phonics instruction, why this has a place in middle and high school classrooms and highlight research-based best practices.

Phonemic awareness is the ability to notice, think about, and work with the individual sounds in words – to manipulate them. This is particularly difficult for ELL’s because they may not yet have enough experience with English to be able to distinguish sounds that differ from those of their native language. Also, they may not be able to “hear” or produce a new sound in a second language. If they cannot hear and work with the phonemes of spoken words, they will have difficulties learning how to relate these phonemes to letters when they see them in written words.

Phonics instruction teaches students to understand and learn the relationship between letters of written language (graphemes) and the individual sounds of spoken language (phonemes). It teaches children how to use these relationships to read and write words accurately. Systemic phonics instruction can be very effective in helping newcomer ELL’s, even those at fairly low levels of language proficiency, to learn to decode words. Most ELL’s will need additional time and practice to learn to hear and produce the sounds of English, to learn the meanings of words used in phonics instruction, to learn combinations of letters that make the same sound, and to learn many more sight words than native English speakers. Additional time for phonics instruction should be built into reading programs for ELL’s.

Many educators believe that students only need to learn to read once. Once the concept of matching a symbol with a sound has been learned, it can be applied to new languages. Students who have learned to read in their native language have a distinct advantage because they were able to learn this concept with familiar sounds and words. Because some students enter the U.S. schools with limited or even no history of schooling, they may lack understanding of basic concepts, content knowledge, and critical thinking skills. They may not even read or write in their home language. These students will struggle to put together the sound/symbol correspondence concept, new words, and new sounds all at once. Nevertheless, they will be expected to develop higher-order thinking skills in English and prepare for high stakes tests while mastering basic literacy in a language other than their own.

Phonics has a place in the classroom for older learners and these skills fit into the “big picture” of learning to read. (Heidi Hyte, 2012) One reason why phonics belongs in middle school and high school classrooms is because fluency is compromised when students get “stuck” on a word. When students come across difficult words, what happens? Their eyes stop on the word. They reread it again and again. They may even reread the sentence to see if they could pick up context clues. If this scenario occurs frequently in a student’s reading, is that fluent reading? No.

Second, if students are using too much “brain power” to decode words, there isn’t enough left to grasp the meaning of the text. They need to learn strategies to decode difficult words they come across in their reading. These strategies need to become automatic so that students are able to decode words quickly and effortlessly. Their lack of fluency will impede their comprehension.

Third, phonics is important to help students pronounce words correctly. How many times have you heard “Teacher, what is this word?” Once you read it to them and they hear the word pronounced, they say, “Oh yeah, I know that word!” Pronouncing words correctly contributes to better fluency and comprehension. At first, the word may look unfamiliar, but once it’s pronounced correctly, they can connect the sound of the word to its meaning.

Lastly, spelling is improved when students learn phonics. As students better understand letter relationships and phonics rules, they can start to recognize and correct their spelling errors. In turn, the development of these skills will help them become more independent learners because they are not dependent on a dictionary or a teacher to tell them how to decode words that are unfamiliar in their reading.

Teaching phonics poses quite a few challenges to middle and high school ELL’s. Phonics becomes a minimal part of the Language Arts curriculum for students in intermediate grades and above. Unfortunately, it is assumed that students have learned the sound/symbol correspondence necessary to read by the upper elementary grades. For those ELL’s who start their education in the U.S. after 4th grade, this can be very problematic because the intensive phonics instruction they need is unlikely to be a part of their daily schedule.

You may ask “What about those students that have limited literacy skills in their native language?” Students who have not learned to read in their native language or whose language does not use a phonetic alphabet may struggle to grasp the concept of phonetic relationships between sounds and letters. Also, these students must master the concept while applying it to a new language.

Phonics instruction may also be tied to vocabulary words that are unfamiliar to ELL’s. Basic worksheets with CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words are not always effective with older learners because of the lack of context and meaning. They may not recognize all the words in the these basic drills and will not necessarily apply these sounds when they encounter new words in their reading text if they don’t see a connection from one exercise to the other.

Because phonics instruction primarily occurs prior to the 4th grade, instructional materials are often targeted towards much younger children. This poses a problem for our older students because most materials are unlikely to be engaging or appealing to them. They may feel embarrassed at using “childish” materials, and they will quickly get bored by the drill and repetition. Our older students want to engage in activities that will require them to use higher-order thinking skills, which early literacy materials don’t usually have.

Despite these challenges, there are a number of strategies which can be effective for older ELL’s. Begin by building a foundation. Older ELL’s that need further instruction will be most assisted by intensive intervention, so enlist extra support. Ideally students should receive special support to continue phonics instruction from a specialist, preferably an ESL specialist.

Use hands-on activities to help teach letter-sound relationships. This can include using manipulatives such as counters, sound boxes, and magnetic letters or Scrabble tiles. Students may even be interested in making their own materials on the computer, which can then be incorporated into an art project. Students will feel more like they are taking ownership of their learning.

Students literate in their native language will already have background knowledge of how reading works. For those students whose native language is non-alphabetic, targeted support will be needed in directionality and letter-sound recognition. They may not be accustomed to reading from left to right or they are used to a system of characters that symbolize words rather than sounds, such as Japanese and Chinese.

If older students need to review their alphabetic skills, look for jazz or hip-hop alphabet chants that students will find entertaining and engaging. There are quite a few free apps such as AutoRap, Rap to Beats and Rap-A-Long that can be downloaded on mobile devices as well as iPads. Such apps can be used to create these chants; they are very user friendly and students will thoroughly enjoy using them.

Students can also write for sound. The teacher can dictate a sentence that includes one or more words that include the target phonics feature and have them write what they hear. This activity trains students to listen for the individual sounds in words and represent them phonetically in their writing.

Most importantly, incorporate strategies that make learning phonics relevant and fun! Help students make a connection between their first language and English. For students with stronger native language literacy skills (especially in languages related to English, like Spanish), help them understand that the process of sounding out words is the same across languages. Explain that some letters may make the same or similar sounds in both languages. Knowing this can help Spanish-dominant students especially if they are aware of the Spanish-English cognates.

Use authentic text and/or vocabulary words that are known to the ELL’s. You can introduce and reinforce letter recognition, beginning and ending sounds, blends, rhyming words, silent letters and homonyms using relevant literature and content materials. When possible, collaborate with the content area teachers to integrate phonics instruction into the classrooms lessons, as well as academic vocabulary instruction.

Create games like a short game of Scrabble to reinforce word building skills. An online board game from Lanternfish, an ESL website, can be used to review beginning, middle and end. Have the students play a Time Game in which they use a stopwatch to answer as many questions as possible. These are quick and easy activities that can effectively reinforce the targeted phonetic concept.

Look for high-low reading material. These texts are written on a first to third grade level but treat themes and topics that are of interest to students of middle school or high school age. These readers are available in the following genres: traditional literature, realistic fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, biography and informational texts.

Integrate phonics instruction with word study. Teach students how to identify word parts, break words down into syllables and use word families. Use content area words as much as possible for this exercise because students are more likely to encounter them in their academic work.

In conclusion, phonics does indeed have a role in the older students’ classroom. Even older students need to be taken back to the basics. Some teachers are concerned that taking these learners back to the sounds and letters of the alphabet and teaching decoding strategies will cause the students to feel that the instruction is too “elementary.” I disagree. If the instruction is delivered in non-condescending way, older students are appreciative of the fact that someone took the time to cover the foundational skills that no one else dared to.





“All About Adolescent Literacy.” Phonics Instruction for Middle and High School ELLs. N.p., n.d. Web.

“Effective Programs for English Language Learners (ELL) with Interrupted Formal Education.” Office of English Language Learning and Migrant Education-Indiana Department of Education, n.d. Web.

“English Language Learners: Literacy and Language Development.” Indiana Department of Education, 13 Mar. 2010. Web.

Hyte, Heidi. ESL Trail: Phonics for Middle School and High School Classrooms. N.p., 12 Feb. 2012. Web.

Hyte, Heidi. Four Reasons Phonics Has a Place in Middle School and High School Classrooms – Reading Horizons. N.p., 20 Sept. 2012. Web.

Robertson, Kristina. “All About Adolescent Literacy.” Phonics Instruction for Middle and High School ELLs. Colorin Colorado, 2009. Web.

Text levels: Is it important to know the reading levels of middle school and high school students?

Friday, August 24th, 2012

Author: Stephanie Heinchon, Literacy Specialist


When we think of reading levels, we visualize a group of young children at a horseshoe shaped table all reading the same book, learning to read.

As students reach middle school and high school we expect them to use reading as a tool for learning, or reading to learn.  But can all of our students decode, read and comprehend the text we place in front of them?  Is the text too easy, leaving some students bored and unchallenged?


As we reflect upon these questions, we begin to think about how to match middle school and high school students reading abilities to text levels.  Is there is a way to do this to ensure student success and engagement while obtaining content acquisition?


YES!!!!!  The Lexile Framework can help!!!!!!


A lexile measure provides a teacher about an individual’s reading ability or the difficulty of a text.  You obtain a student’s lexile level from a reading test or program. A lexile text measure is based on two strong predictors of how difficult a text is to comprehend: word frequency and sentence length. The idea behind The Lexile Framework for Reading is simple: if we know how well a student can read and how hard a specific text is to comprehend, we can predict how well that student will likely understand the text.   (Adapted from )


Lexile measures give educators the confidence to choose materials that can improve student reading skills and take the guesswork out of connecting readers with appropriate texts. By knowing a student’s lexile measure, educators can tell with a great deal of accuracy which books are appropriate for their student’s reading ability. The framework is also a great tool for differentiating reading materials and lessons. Teachers learning about lexiles will have the ability to help students become successful independent readers.


The Lexile Framework for Reading is a scientific approach to reading and text measurement.  To learn more about the Lexile Framework and its application in the classroom, join us for FA1223962 on October 26, 2012.

To view a six-minute animated video created for educators and parents, click here: