Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Joy of Scribbling

How many of you love to write?  Probably not many of you are jumping up and down about it.

If you have pre-school age children, they are likely the most prolific writers in your home. They are fascinated by trying to control a pencil, crayon or marker. Don't have an abundance of paper? No problem! They will record their thoughts on any available surface.

What about your school age children? Do they love to write just as much? As a teacher, I often heard the mantra, "I hate to write!" Honestly, I struggled to not agree with them.

What is it about writing that appeals so much to preschool children, but brings out dread in older children and adults?

Just like with reading, we only get better at writing by doing it. School gives children plenty of opportunities to write, so we should have great writers, right? Yet, even some of the students who love to read, don't enjoy writing.

The difference between our pre-school and school age children and their love for writing is very simple: choice.

Typically, students have few choices about what they write in school. While many of us feel like it is important to give choices to students as to what they read, we feel very limited in the amount of choices we can give students in writing.

The standards for writing are fairly specific about the kinds of writing that should be expected from students in each grade level in addition to what they should have mastered from previous grades. Being creative inside those expectations is something that teachers are relearning.

Authentic writing, writing that is important to our real lives, is something that we have lost touch with in education. Few teachers ever experienced authentic writing in school.

We were taught to write five paragraph essays with an introduction, a body and a conclusion. The essay, like all paragraphs, should have a topic sentence, supporting details and a conclusion.

The best writing teachers have always known to make writing authentic, and most teachers, I think, have tried to include some real-world writing in their teaching. Many teachers, though, have not felt like they had the time or haven't known how to do this.

We all know the joy a pre-school child has sharing their scribbles with us. They have some very engaging and complicated ideas shared on a piece of paper when they read their writing to us. (Sometimes it is on the wall or a piece of furniture.)

Usually, it is something very important like a letter to someone they love,  a book they are writing, or the menu for the restaurant they opened in their rooms.

As we continue to push literacy in the state and across the country, I hope we can bring the love of writing that pre-schoolers have into the classroom.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

November is National Family Literacy Month!

 According to the National Center for Families Learning (NCFL), family literacy is when “two generations or more -- parents, children, and/or extended family members – are actively engaged in learning together.”

There are many things we can do as parents and teachers to promote family literacy. One of the easiest ways is to read together. The bedtime story is such a great way for family members to spend time together and read.

Doing homework with your child also promotes family literacy. Chances are, your child is learning the same material you learned in school, but in an entirely different way.

Having your child explain what she is learning will help her cement her knowledge and help you think about things in a different way. Valuing our children and students as teachers will increase their confidence.

Enjoying hobbies together is another way to promote family literacy. Both the child and adult are actively learning something they enjoy.

One of my favorite blogs, ReadWriteThink, gives several ideas of how teachers and families can work together to promote literacy.

Kick off National Family Literacy Day by inviting parents, grandparents, and other family members to your classroom for a family-school reading day.
                Invite students' family members to read a favorite story from their childhood, or their child's favorite bedtime story. (Grandparents can share both their child's and their grandchild's favorites!)
                Provide a collection of books for families to share during a group reading session. Invite families to get comfortable by bringing a cushion, beanbag chair, or pillow.
                Introduce families to some of the games & tools provided by ReadWriteThink. Encourage them to use these engaging tools at home to enhance their reading and writing experiences.
                Provide each family with a certificate of participation or a bookmark at the end of the event. Ask a local bookstore for a donation, or print certificates and bookmarks from your computer.
                At the close of your event, be sure to remind parents about other National Family Literacy Day events in your community.
Remember that family literacy is something that should be encouraged all year round. Invite students and their families to brainstorm ways they can keep their family engaged in reading on a regular basis!

Click on this link, ReadWriteThink, to find many more ideas and websites to promote family literacy. Also visit, National Center for Families Learning (NCFL) for even more great ideas for learning as a family.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

What comes first?

What came first, the chicken or the egg? Most of us learned this riddle in elementary school. No matter how many ways you look at it, you can equally justify both answers. The whole point is, no one really knows, but you can't go wrong with either answer.

Fluency and comprehension work the same way.

Fluency is reading with appropriate speed, accuracy and expression. When children learn to read, they read one word at a time usually pausing to figure out unknown words or waiting for confirmation that they said the right word.

We all have experienced listening to someone who is not a fluent reader. Usually. It. Sounds. Like. A. Robot. We also refer to this as word calling. Sometimes, the reader will ignore punctuation, or mispronounce words without stopping to correct themselves or seek assistance.

Fluency is a signal that someone is comprehending what she reads, but fluency is also necessary for comprehension.

I know that may not make sense at first, but lets think about the person who is reading robotically. He is not reading far enough in a phrase to see what is happening to make the words sound like what we would consider natural.

At the same time, have you ever tried to comprehend while you are listening to someone who word calls? By the time she gets to the end of the sentence, you have likely forgotten the beginning.

So what can you do to help build fluency?

  • One of the most important parts of reading to children is that they hear what a reading voice sounds like. They hear the expression you put into your words. They watch for and learn punctuation.
  • Have your child reread what you read aloud, and  have him try to sound like you did.
  • Make sure your child has a healthy dose of what you might consider easy books. When she doesn't have to struggle with unknown words, she can focus more on punctuation and reading with expression.
  • Encourage your child to reread familiar books. Every time we read a book, we get something new out of it. The more familiar we are with the text, the easier it is to read fluently
So, what comes first, fluency or comprehension? 

Answer: They develop at the same time with practice. You have to practice both to see gains in reading.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Just Right Book

Most of us know the fairy tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears...

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Goldilocks. She went for a walk in the woods. Soon, she came upon a house. She knocked, and when no one answered, she walked in.

At the table in the kitchen, there were three bowls of porridge. Goldilocks was hungry. She tasted the porridge from the first bowl.

"This porridge is too hot!" she exclaimed.

So, she tasted the porridge from the second bowl.

"This porridge is too cold," she said

Then, she tasted the last bowl of porridge.

"Ahhh, this porridge is just right," she said happily and she ate it all up.

We all love that "just right" feeling. None of us would like to wear a pair of shoes that are too small or too large. The thought of the pain caused by those ill fitting shoes makes my feet hurt!

If we aren't interested in food that is not "just right" or shoes that aren't "just right", why would students enjoy books that aren't "just right"?

All reading teachers in the elementary schools have been assessing students using Fountas and Pinnell Benchmarking System to determine the current level of text to use for instruction with your child.  These levels are denoted by letters of the alphabet. For example, your child may be working in class using level H texts.

That means that the teacher believes the student will make the best progress if she uses level H texts with your child. For independent reading, your child is likely to be most successful reading texts that are two levels below her instructional level.

There is a lot more to reading and finding a just right book than determining a child's reading level, though. Here are some things to consider when helping your child select a just right book:

1. I believe the most important consideration in helping your child select a just right book is his interests. How many times were you forced to read a book you absolutely hated? How motivated were you to pick up that book every night? I'm an avid reader and enjoy many types of books, but I still have a list of books I hated in high school.

2. Consider the amount of text per page compared to the number of pictures. Pictures actually serve a purpose in reading. They are a great support to less skilled readers. Often, pictures can help beginning and early readers figure out unknown words and comprehend the story. Graphic novels can be a great choice for readers who are self conscious about reading thin books but still needs the support of pictures.

3. Vocabulary is incredibly important to reading. A traditional, easy test for students to perform to determine if a book is too hard is the "Five Finger Rule." A child should turn to a page in the book and hold up a finger for every word they do not know on a page. If there are 5 or more words, the book is considered too hard.

I want to make two points about the five finger rule, though. We have to be careful when we help a child determine that a book is too hard. If it is about something she is really interested in, she will be more motivated to use her own knowledge and other resources to comprehend the text. We definitely don't want to discourage that.

On the other hand, the most current research says that a reader needs to understand 98% or more of the words on the page to truly make meaning from the text. Usually, that is fewer than 5 words.

When in doubt, read the book side by side with your child if she is interested in it. That experience will help broaden her vocabulary, increase her background knowledge on the topic, and give you a few one on one minutes with her.

If you feel like your child is reading books that are way too easy for him, you can work with him to find books that might be more appropriate, but remember, text level is not the only consideration. There is a lot of value in a child reading books that are below his level. That will help him build fluency.

I'm sure you remember the phrase, "practice makes perfect!" Really, though, it is perfect practice that makes perfect. There is not much value in a child skipping over all of the words she doesn't know.

Remember, a book cannot be "just right" if your child won't read it. Help your child find books he likes, so he will spend time reading.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

I don't like that kind of book!

Genre gap is a fancy way of saying that we don't like to read a certain type of book and have a limited experience reading those texts. Teachers work hard to craft well rounded readers and convince them to read across genres, or styles of writing.

I personally have two genre gaps in my recreational reading. I do not enjoy reading poetry as a rule. I prefer the description and development of prose, non-poetry, writing.

There is something comfortable to me about paragraphs with sentences that have a predictable structure. In poetry, authors have a lot of leeway in how they structure their writing to express themselves.

My second genre gap would be non-fiction. This is crazy, really, since my first love is history.

I am sure many of you will groan, or even roll your eyes, when I say that I prefer the textbook version that is direct and to the point. There are few biographies or other non-fiction works for adults that capture my attention.

I share this with you to let you know that being aware of your personal preferences is half the battle. The other half is to make sure you expose yourself, and your child, to many styles of writing and encourage them to find the books that are the exception to their dislike of a certain style.

Poetry for kids has come a long way since I was in school. I remember what I think of as "academic" poetry. While I love poems by Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost and Langston Hughes, I don't sit down and read poetry for pleasure.

Children's poetry, though, is so much more than just nursery rhymes. Charles R. Smith has published many poems for sports fans. Judith Viorst who wrote Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, has published poetry for children and parents. Shel Silverstein's poems appeal to children of all ages.

Go to No Water River site for a "Big List of Children's Poets."

Non-fiction for children, specifically what we call informational text, is a great genre. Children's authors have written many books about real world topics that are educational and interesting.

These authors make facts attainable for young readers. The pictures and graphics in these books are designed to capture the attention of children.

If your child is interested in a certain hobby, take them to the library to find books about that topic. You may even find a few that interest you, too.

Check out Reading Rockets for great information on non-fiction that is available for children.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Happy International Literacy Day!

September 8 became International Literacy Day in 1965 to raise awareness of the importance of literacy and the obstacles faced by those who are not literate.*

According to, 775 million people in the world are functionally illiterate. Likewise, a study conducted in late April of 2013 by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults in the U.S. can't read. 

That's 14 percent of the population. 21 percent of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates can't read. **
This means that about a quarter of the adults in the United States can't read and write well enough to perform the duties of a job, or help their children with homework.

What can we do?

We need to do everything that we can to encourage students to learn to read and to make reading pleasurable for students.
Teachers work hard to create a literate environment for children. We have to go a step further and help create a love of reading outside the classroom. Try a few of the tips below to help your children become readers:
  1. Read to your children. 
  2. Give books to your children as gifts. Let them know how important they are.
  3. Talk to your children. Not all literacy has to do with reading and writing. The more conversations you have with your children, the more words they learn and use on a regular basis.
  4. Tell stories. Like conversations, students will learn a lot about how words are used and how a story is told when they listen to someone tell a story. What a great way to pass on family history and share a few funny stories about your siblings!
  5. Go to the public library. It is a great resource for books, and libraries offer free programs that promote literacy. There are a couple of branches for the Lancaster County Library. Check them out by clicking on the link.
Soon, there will be some exciting new ways to encourage  reading and share literacy experiences with your children in Lancaster. Check in again soon to find out what they are.


** "The U.S. Illiteracy Rate Hasn't Changed In 10 Years,"

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Why do I have to read 20 minutes every night?

 It’s that time of night. You know, when your child has finished all of her homework assignments and you remind her that she hasn't done her twenty minutes of reading.

A serious whining session may begin. “Why do I have to read twenty minutes every night? Do I really have to do twenty minutes? Can I do ten tonight and then thirty tomorrow?”

If your child enjoys reading, this is something that is not very familiar to you. In fact, some of you may have to convince your child to put his book down to do his other assignments.

I have always been a reader. In fact, I call myself an escapist reader. When I want to check out of reality and all of the stresses, I love to pick up a book and escape to another time and place.

Until I became a teacher, I had no idea that not everyone did this. Part of me is saddened that some children and adults alike find reading to be unpleasant if not torturous. 

Reading is one of those skills, though, that is critical no matter what you plan to do in life. Even if you have no desire to escape into a book, it is something we do every day.

Teachers have known it for years, and research has shown, that the more you read, the better you read. There is also a connection between reading and academic achievement.

Students who read at least twenty minutes a night have some obvious academic advantages, but I know that is not a compelling argument for a child who would "rather be doing a zillion other things," or who is just ready for bed.

Here are a few tips to help your reluctant reader and hopefully, make reading time more peaceful and productive:

  1. Help your child find just right books. There are no benefits to staring at a page or two for twenty minutes. If a book is too hard, your child will not comprehend the text. Her vocabulary will not grow because there are too many unknown words to use context clues, and there will be little to enjoy if she doesn't know what is happening. There are some benefits to reading and rereading books that are easy, but at least some of the time should be spent with books that will expand her comprehension and develop new vocabulary.
  2. Just "chunk it." If your child really dislikes reading, divide the twenty minutes into smaller chunks. Read part of the time right after his afternoon snack, some of it between other homework assignments, and the rest right before bed. While there are definite benefits to increasing the amount of reading your child does, it is not necessary to do it all at one time.
  3. What are her interests? We all like to find out more about things that we are interested in. Who would voluntarily go to a movie about something they hate? Go with her to the library and help her find books on things she is interested in. While teachers and librarians try really hard at school to help students find books they'll enjoy, you know her better. You may be able to look into topics you know she likes but has not mentioned at school.
  4. Read with your child. It is very important that your child knows that his reading is important to you. Read the book with your child and share interesting parts of the story with him. Talking about books adds to your child's engagement with the book. It will also help you and him monitor his comprehension.
  5. Model reading. It is very powerful for your child to see you read. So you don't like fiction? Read the newspaper or a book about your hobby. Many of us have reading associated with our work. Let your child see you read a technical manual or a report.
Is your child an eager reader or a reluctant reader? Leave a comment below about some of your child's reading struggles and/or successes.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

To test, or not to test?

          “To test, or not to test?” 
                                 That is a relevant question.

It’s the beginning of another school year, and I am sure you parents have many conflicting emotions.

Some of you may be thinking, “I am so glad my children have something to do without planning every minute of their day.”

Others may be thinking, “We need another week to get ourselves ready for another school year.”

For some of you, this year will have milestones for your children like the first day of kindergarten, the beginning of middle school, or even graduation from high school.

Regardless of the grade in which your child is entering, there is one constant that we have all come to expect with schooling: testing.

For some of you, testing was just another part of life. For others, you recall the anxiety you felt and worry about how it will affect your child.

One of the biggest reasons for test anxiety in students, which may transfer to parents and entire households, is that the reasons for testing are not understood.

In this week's blog, I will explain the types of tests that elementary students will encounter this year, I will give you the names of specific tests that your child can expect to take this year, and I will tell you how the test results are used to improve your child’s education.

The first type of assessment your child will encounter is formative assessment. Formative assessments are given to collect information so that teachers can create an instructional plan for your child. 

Formative assessments are not graded. The information collected can be used to develop curriculum, indicate appropriate instructional methods, and to create assessments to show student growth (Brisson and Slater, “Assessment Primer”).

The majority of your child’s literacy assessments will be formative.

·      Kindergarten
o   For the first time this year, students will take the Developmental Reading Assessment, 2nd Edition (DRA2+).  

This assessment will be given at the beginning of the year to collect information about reading readiness and at the end of the year to know how much progress students have made. 

The results of the second test will help first grade teachers plan for students at the beginning of the next year.

o   Teachers will administer Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System (F&P) readiness assessment at the start of the school year. 

Students will take the Literacy Readiness assessment at the beginning of the year so that teachers can know if children know their letters, letter sounds, simple sight words and other early literacy skills. 

o   In November, teachers will assess students with what is called a running record

For this assessment, students are given a book to read and the teachers follows along making note of any errors students make and documenting reasons they believe that students may have made those errors. 

This gives teachers the best information for how well a student reads, and they can then give students reading materials and specialized instruction that will help them grow in their reading abilities.

·      Grades 1 - 5
o   Students will take NWEA Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) two to three times a year. MAP assesses student skills in math, language and reading.

This test adapts or adjusts to a student’s ability as they take the test. Students who are strong in certain areas, get questions that are increasingly more difficult.

Conversely, students who are weaker in an area would e given less challenging questions.

The results of MAP give specific and detailed information about students’ knowledge of certain skills and how they apply them. 

MAP is given two to three times a year: at the beginning of the year, in the winter, and at the end of the school year if deemed appropriate by the principal.

o   As in kindergarten, classroom teachers will assess students with a Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System (F&P) running record

For this assessment, students are given a book to read and the teachers follows along making note of any errors students make and documenting reasons they believe that students may have made those errors. 

This gives teachers the best information for how well a student reads, and they can then give students reading materials and specialized instruction that will help them grow in their reading abilities. 

Students in grades 1-5 will take this assessment three times a year. The first time will be at the beginning of the year, the second in December or January and the final one will be at the end of the school year.

A summative assessment is the second type of assessment that your child will have during a school year.

Summative assessments are used to figure out how much someone learned after instruction as compared to a benchmark or standard.

The most common summative assessments are the graded quizzes and tests given by classroom teachers.

Summative assessments are a “one shot deal” and the results of these tests are used to determine if a student has made acceptable knowledge gains.

Because summative assessments make an evaluative statement about what a student has or has not learned, they are the assessments associated with test anxiety. (Click here for tips on helping your child deal with test anxiety.)

·      Grade 2
This is the first time your child will encounter a summative assessment given by the district. All second graders take a Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT)

This is generally the test people are referring to when they talk about an IQ test. 

We know now that IQ is not static and can change over a person’s life for many reasons, so this score is not intended to determine a child’s long term educational abilities. 

This test is given at the beginning of second grade to help determine if a student qualifies for Gifted and Talented instruction. There is nothing that your child needs to do to prepare for this test.

·      Grades 3 – 5
o   All students in grades 3-5 will take the ACT Aspire

This state assessment in reading, writing and math is given at the end of the academic year to determine if a student is proficient in the standards taught during the school year.

o   Students will also take the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards (PASS) at the end of the year. Currently, this test is given to determine proficiency in science and social studies for the school year.

Navigating the world of assessments can be tough for students and parents, alike. 

The majority of the literacy assessments given to students in elementary school are for instructional purposes. They are designed to help teachers create instructional plans for your child.

Sometimes, it is difficult to understand why your child is being tested on something, or it can be hard to understand what tests results mean.

You should always contact your child’s teacher if you do not understand something about a test your child has to take.

Use the link at the bottom of the screen for a complete list of assessments for all the grade levels. Click on the highlighted links in the narrative  for more information about the topics.