Saturday, October 24, 2015

Mercy Watson to the rescue! How one student becomes a reader.

This is the story of a student in my class, we will call him Nathan. Nathan reads below grade level and receives academic support services for both reading and math.  In September Nathan struggled to complete the reading survey that I gave to my third grade class.  Even when I read many of the questions to him he was confused-he didn't know himself as a reader.  He worked hard to answer questions, but the survey was handed in incomplete.   He readily admitted he didn't like to read, or "sort of" liked to read.  But this is not why I am writing this post.

Early in September Nathan found the Mercy Watson series of books in our class library.  I would like to say that I introduced this wonderful basket of books to him, but most likely I did not, because Mercy Watson books are considered too difficult for him according to his benchmark reading level. Having said that, I rarely, if ever, tell a student No, they can't put a book in their reading box.  I do however help them navigate the book selection process - some students need more guidance than others. Choice is the key element to my reading workshop.  Students chose the books that go into their book baskets, but they must be a good fit book, one they can read independently. (Students are free to read any book during our Free Choice reading time.)   This is where the story really begins - during "shopping time", when students in my class select good-fit books from our class library to put in their personal book baskets for independent reading.   Nathan asked to put a Mercy Watson book in his basket and I said yes.  I prepared myself mentally to have some other book choices ready for him when we met later to read Mercy Watson.  I felt fairly confident that Nathan would struggle and decide to choose a different book.  But Nathan proved me wrong.

As I conferred with Nathan he stumbled over word after word, often reading nonsense words and he lacked fluency.  I dutifully continued with our conference and taught him a decoding strategy that he readily applied.  Of course he was struggling and this book definitely wasn't a good fit, but I knew he wasn't ready to let go of this book.  I asked, "Do you think this book is a good-fit, just-right book for you?"  He replied, "I think so."  I realized he had probably never experienced reading a book that was on his independent reading level!  No matter how many lessons I had done on choosing a just-right book he couldn't relate...yet.  So the book stayed in his basket.  I made sure there were other books that were a better fit, just in case.  I made a note to meet with him again soon.

Every time I met with Nathan I thought, "this will be the day" he figures out Mercy Watson is too hard for him.  But each day we met he kept rereading that Mercy Watson book and practicing the strategies that I showed him.  He had even began collecting the tricky word on post it notes so that he could practice and show me them later. Before long he was discussing the content of the book with me.  It was clear his comprehension was sound and he really liked the story!  Then a few more amazing things happened.

During shopping time and free read time I observed Nathan chatting up Mercy Watson with fellow classmates and even taking them to where the basket of books was located.  Other students started to check out Mercy Watson books.  Nathan even told the AIS Math teacher who pushes into our room about Mercy Watson!  One day he showed me a page in the book that had a picture of all the books in the series and said he was looking for two that were missing.  After asking classmates it was clear that 2 of the books had gone missing. (Yeah, this happens sometimes...a book finds a new home.)  He wrote the titles down on a post it note and asked if I could get them for the library.

So what can we learn from this story?  Choice matters.  Time to practice reading matters. Students are individuals, not levels.  All the data we collect on them should be used to help us help them!  And most of all, we are teaching children to read and write so that they can read for enjoyment, connect with other humans, and learn about the world - we are NOT teaching them to to read and write so they pass a test.  I know this.  I believe this.  I try to remember this ever day in my class.

It's October and Nathan is still a below grade reader.  That's okay.  He's a reader now.  And he knows what he likes to read, and he can't wait to tell you.

By the way...those missing Mercy Watson books...I ordered a new set and they came in the mail today.  I can't wait to hand them to Nathan on Monday morning.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Word Study - inspiration from Word Savvy by Max Brand

One teaching goal I have this year is to improve my word study, in particular my vocabulary instruction.  I will admit that I have been working on this goal for awhile!

Last year I moved to a new school and new grade, a change I embraced and was looking forward to. Over the last ten plus years I had done individualized spelling with my young students in first and second grade. Vocabulary was embedded in my read alouds, but I knew I needed to go deeper. I wanted to see my students use new vocabulary in their language and writing, but the truth was that it rarely happened.  I've been reading a lot about best practice in word study, trying to get a handle on what exactly I needed to do to improve my lessons. I thought a lot about how to fit in these crucial lessons. I always had the best intention and planned for word study, but often when schedules get tight these lessons seem to be the first to be "rescheduled".  Each day as a third grade teacher last year I knew I was missing opportunities and I knew one lesson and a worksheet wasn't the answer. But how could I create a word study program in my classroom of diverse learners including many English language learners that would be meaningful and improve my student's spelling, vocabulary, word solving and comprehension? And I knew whatever I created had to be easy for me to incorporate and teach my students. Just like my reading and writing workshop, which has a predictable routine that my students could rely on, I wanted to do the same for word study. I also knew that time, or lack of time, was a problem. I needed routines that both myself and my students looked forward to and could automatically incorporate into my day.

Last spring I read Word Savvy by Max Brand. It was so inspiring for me and came to me at a crucial point. As I began thinking about my back to school lessons this fall I started taking notes and planning how I would create a stronger word study program in my classroom. How could I take what Max was doing in his fifth grade classroom and make it work for me and my third graders?

Read Like a Writer
This idea wasn't new to me - I use this idea in writing workshop.  I often reread mentor texts with the eyes and ears of a writer.  Asking students to notice writers' craft so that they might use the same ideas in their own writing.  But Max says that if we want students to go beyond the surface level of words we need to start by "modeling our own curiosity with words."  He suggests embedding this in read alouds right away, at the beginning of the year.  Max has his fifth graders collect these interesting words in their Reader's Notebooks during read alouds.  Max also teaches his students how to note and identify important words, particularly in content areas and non-fiction.

How's it going for me?
During my class read alouds I have definitely made sure I'm modeling my "curiousity for words" regularly. This wasn't too hard, since I read aloud regularly and have an authentic love for literature that I share often with my students.  I just needed to make that mental plan for making sure I hit that point each day.  Word Study and Read Aloud time merged.  A great way to save time! Within the first week I had my students using their Reader's Notebooks to jot down interesting words and phrases while they listened.  I encouraged them to share what they were writing.  A handful of students were jotting, most were not.  We kept sharing and talking and a few more students started jotting.  Some were writing down the words that they heard others share.  That was okay.  A couple of students shared some amazing and deep thoughts about words and phrases, especially after I modeled for a few days.  What did I learn and notice?  First, they can't spell the words and often can't read what they wrote. This isn't really surprising because the words they choose are hard words! 2. They mostly want to know what the word means - that is why they thought it was interesting. (Future teaching) 3. Most students can't listen and take notes. (Not surprised.) 4. Many students are poor listeners and struggle to focus on the story.  The good news is that I can tell my students love read aloud time and they will improve with time! The next steps are getting a lot of these words up on display in class so we can refer to them and use them in our language and writing.

Our school has a motto this year.  Since we are a grade 3-5 school, this is my students' first experience with the motto.  Each day it is recited on the announcements.  So, I decided to use it as a non-fiction text and focus on some vocabulary that we thought was important.  We did this over several days.  And these wonderful words are referred to all the time, so I know students will use them in their oral language.

Discovery Note Taking

I've taught and used various KWL and R.A.N strategies for note taking or deconstructing non-fiction texts.  And of course their are plenty of graphic organizers out there.  But I like the Discovery Note Taking tool that Max uses with his students because I think it is versatile and can be used for all types of non-fiction.  I also think it directly reflects the types of thinking we do as we read non-fiction.  So far I have used it to model my thinking as we read an article on Wonderopolis.  I should mention that this was our third reading of the article.  On the second reading I asked students to highlight important words in the article as they read independently.

Future Plans

Word Savvy also includes a section on Spelling as well.  This year I have decided not to do traditional weekly spelling lists and tests.  Of course I will continue with my spelling and word study instruction, but I will assess differently.  I'm really trying hard to look at student writing to determine spelling instruction.  As a third grade teacher I think that decoding and word solving are also an important part of the Word Study umbrella and need to be linked together.  I want my students to make connections between writing and reading tricky words.  Max's book also has a section on word walls, another topic that I would like to improve upon.  I hope to write about my experiences throughout the year.  Word Savvy by Max Brand is a great book.  It's a quick read full of great ideas.

Please share your thoughts about Word Study!