“Who’s your favorite listener?” I’d never thought about this question until this morning, as I was reading UNLOCKING THE POWER OF CLASSROOM TALK: Teaching Kids to Talk with Clarity and Purpose, by Shana Frazin and Katy Wischow. But then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. (Full disclosure: Katy Wischow is a dear friend. And she’s smart and funny, as you will see if you read this book.)

Frazin and Wischow provide numerous nuggets for thought such as this one. Their book is full of practical guidance about why it’s important to “teach talk” and how to target instruction to meet the key purposes for talk—i.e., talking to building relationships; to play with ideas; to clarify, analyze, and argue; and to report. And they reflect thoughtfully on the relationship between listening and talking. They also offer concrete strategies for building students’ listening skills by examining the key purposes of listening—to build and strengthen relationships, to get information, to reach a shared understanding, and to change or grow your thinking.

What makes this book so accessible is its use of specific, field-based examples. The authors show themselves in the classroom, testing ideas and “naming what’s noteworthy” to clarify why those strategies work.

I also appreciate that they criticize and propose alternatives to strategies that don’t work well—or have limitations—such as assigning group roles. For example, they suggest “teaching kids to track the content they talk about, like character, plot, theme, craft, or vocabulary. Kids can periodically pause to reflect on what they have talked a lot about or a little about and use this to set goals. Everyone is responsible for all the content, not just one person whose role it is.” They add: “This can be more engaging than group roles—when we narrow kids’ work in a conversation, we unintentionally limit their engagement to waiting until it’s their turn to ‘do their part.’” Amen!

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NEW Grammar Resources!

Hi, all—I’ve been working in the field with teachers, testing out lessons based on my book USING GRAMMAR TO IMPROVE WRITING.

I’m excited to report that these lessons are WORKING! When asked to reflect on “What surprised you about this grammar lesson?” students have responded with comments such as, “I never knew a sentence could be only two words long!” and “This was FUN!!!”

For the free resources from my book, go to the TLC “USING GRAMMAR TO IMPROVE WRITING” page.

For ten new lessons based on this book, go to the TLC “GRAMMAR” page.

If you’re not already a TLC Website subscriber, you can sign up HERE for 50% off (so: only $25 for the year, to gain access to 1,200+ literacy instructional tools). Use the code TLCBOOK50 (NOTE: ALL CAPS).

Please feel free to Email me directly if you have any questions:



Posted in Curriculum, ELA Common Core Standards, Grammar, Instruction, Language Standards, Lesson-planning, TLC Website Resources, Using Grammar to Improve Writing BOOK, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment



I am super-excited to announce that my latest book is now available!

HIT THE DRUM: An Insider’s Account of How the Charter School Idea Became a National Movement is a page-turning narrative that tells the stories of dozens of key individuals who jumped in–before there was a “movement” or a “sector”– to spread the idea and help to launch charter schools.  The first charter school law passed in MN in 1991.  Currently, 44 states plus DC have laws, and more than 7,000 charter schools serve 3.2 million students.  This book explains where the idea of chartering came from and why and how it spread so rapidly.  It also looks at how charter school leaders have developed and nurtured other important innovations that have begun to take hold in the field.

Whether you actively support charters or not, I think you will find this an interesting read.

To order your print ($19.99) or eBook ($3.99) copy, go to AmazonBookShop, or Barnes & Noble PS–The eBook version will be available on May 8.  The print version is in Amazon’s “pre-order” period till June 3: Please order NOW to ensure that Amazon will stock enough copies to meet the demand, and you will get your book(s) promptly on June 3.

Also, I would be super-grateful if you would help spread the word to friends via FB and Twitter.  And if you feel strongly, please know that 5-star Amazon reviews really help, too.

Thanks so much for your support!!!



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PARCC RST Prep: How to Connect Note-taking to Sentence Writing

Whether you are in the throes of “test prep season” or not, it’s important to teach students how to take effective notes (i.e., brief and suited to the question at hand) and turn those notes into sentences (then paragraphs and essays). Following is a two-day lesson sequence I originally designed to support PARCC Research Simulation Task prep. It’s helpful for that, and it’s helpful IN GENERAL. Too many students think of taking notes as “an extra, unnecessary step” instead of what it truly is: a crucial driver of effective writing.


Step 1: Students turn prompt into a question (2 minutes). (+2 minutes to discuss)

Step 2: 15 minutes to read article, take T-chart notes based on question, and answer 4 MC questions.

Step 3: “Turn and talk to compare notes with your neighbor.” (1 minute)

Step 4: Call on several students to discuss notes and differences.

Step 5: Show teacher’s notes on projector (30 seconds). Ask scholars: “What differences do you notice?” (Key takeaway: my notes are much shorter and include paragraph numbers)

PITCH: We’re going to work on improving our note-taking skills so that we can take notes that set us up to write effectively. If you take BRIEF notes that ANSWER THE QUESTION, you can turn those notes into sentences, which become your strong paragraph/essay! Today we will focus on WHAT EFFECTIVE NOTES LOOK LIKE.

Step 6: Open Word document on projector. Toggle between the text and this document. Ideally students should also have a copy of the text on their desks.

  • Go through each paragraph one by one and ask students: “Does anyone have a note for this paragraph? If so, what is it?” (Type it up on the screen for all to see.) “How does this note answer the focus question?” Solicit 1-2 more notes (which will be similar, probably, not identical).
  • NOW, let’s look at these example notes and discuss how to SHORTEN THEM. “Notes do not have to be whole sentences!!!” Engage class in helping to shorten the given notes (from 10 words to 3-4, say). Remind them: “We include the paragraph number—Why? How does it help to include that number?” (Students should explain that it enables us to go back into the text and find details we did not write in our notes.)
  • Continue going through this process PARAGRAPH BY PARAGRAPH. In cases where the teacher has a note that the students lack, tell them you have a note and ask: “How does my note answer the question?”

Step 7: Last 10 minutes: Go over the multiple-choice questions. Be sure to ask students why certain answers are NOT correct. Ask what strategies they used to figure out the answer (e.g., POE, looking back at the text to find context for the answer, etc.).





Step 1: PITCH: We ended up with great notes for the text we were working on. Today we’re going to see how HAVING GOOD NOTES CAN MAKE WRITING EASY!

Step 2: Because this is a body paragraph for an RST essay, we need to start the paragraph with the title and our “is about” sentence. E.g., “Mindset” is about….” ***Make sure to create Google Classroom document for students to type paragraphs into.*** “Skim over the text (Don’t forget to reread the blurb, which often gives helpful summary info!) and decide what you think this text IS MAINLY ABOUT. Then tell your neighbor.” (Cold-call and record a useful response).

Step 3: Next, we need to look at our first note and turn it into a sentence. (Model this and/or ask for help, then record the sentence). Second note: “Can we write a note right away from the second note or do we need a transition (e.g., “Also” or “In addition”) in order to turn it into a sentence?” (Again, model this and/or ask for help, then record the sentence.) “Try the next note on your own!” (Actively monitor and help students who are stuck. Some will be done instantly. Tell them to move on to the next note. Keep supporting and exhorting them to continue until all of the notes are done. [After the first few sentences, you should not type anything; you should be circulating.]

Step 4: Students’ sentences will be similar but not identical. Ask students: “What was challenging about turning notes into sentences? What will you take away from this lesson?” Hopefully, they will say, “Wow, this was easier than I thought,” and “Now I know how notes can help me write!”

TIMING: If time permits, you should launch students into the next text—note-taking. Lather, rinse, repeat. Gradually release until they can do this on their own. With the 3rd text, they should be able to move from notes to text without any input.

***For more ideas about how to prepare for PARCC or whatever your state assessment is called, please check out the TLC “PARCC Prep” page. As a reader of this blog, you’re entitled to a 50%-off discount membership to the TLC Website. Click here and use this code: TLCBOOK50. NOTE: The code must be entered in ALL caps in order to work.)

Posted in ELA Common Core Standards, Instruction, Lesson-planning, Note-taking, Paragraph writing, PARCC, Research Writing, Test Prep, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


If you work with students from underserved communities and want to secure FREE/DISCOUNTED BOOKS for them, you should check out First Book Marketplace!

“First Book is a non-profit social enterprise that provides new books and educational resources—for free and at low cost—to schools and programs serving children in need, ages 0-18. Our purpose is to raise the quality of education for all children by making sure they have access to the resources they need to be successful in school and in life. If you are a teacher at a Title I school, health care provider, school support personnel, librarian, early learning professional, community program or after-school staff, or you serve kids in need in another capacity, click here to join our community for free!”

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How to Use to Make Your Life Easier

I’ve mentioned before here. Now I’d like to emphasize how useful this Website can be!

If you want to use a text that might be too much of a stretch for some students to read independently, you could copy and paste that text into and have students work with the simplified text.



Nearly a year and a half after Hurricane Maria, stories of hope and progress are emerging in Puerto Rico, just as the island’s tropical vegetation is flourishing once again. While there is still much work to be done, and some rural areas might not fully recover for years, the capital of San Juan has been humming along for months. With a few exceptions, shops, hotels and restaurants are operating as usual, and there are some noteworthy additions to the city’s lively dining scene. The cultural landscape is energetic as well: Lin-Manuel Miranda made headlines with his reprisal of the lead role in the musical “Hamilton,” which played at San Juan’s main performing arts center last month, and galleries in Santurce and Old San Juan are showcasing thought-provoking works by local artists. As always, you’ll find picturesque beaches, heady cocktails, contagious music and gregarious locals, more eager than ever to welcome visitors to their sunny corner of the Caribbean.

From “36 Hours in San Juan” by Paola Singer, NY Times, 2-7-19


Nearly a year and a half after Hurricane Maria, stories of hope and progress are newly appearing in Puerto Rico, just as the island’s (related to areas near the Equator/hot and humidgreen plants is growing/healthy/showing and waving once again. While there is still much work to be done, and some areas away from cities might not fully recover for years, the capital of San Juan has been humming along for months. With a few exceptions, shops, hotels and restaurants are operating as usual, and there are some important additions
to the city’s (full of life and energy) dining scene. The cultural (wide view of a nature scene/wide area of beautiful land) is (full of energy) as well: Lin-Manuel Miranda made headlines with his payback of the lead role in the musical “Hamilton,” which played at San Juan’s main performing arts center last
month, and galleries in Santurce and Old San Juan are showing off to people (something that causes people to start thinking) works by local artists.

As always, you’ll find beautiful beaches, very intelligent (but a little too much to take) cocktails, (able to be caught from other people) music and talkative locals, more eager than ever to welcome visitors to their sunny corner of the

Note: Be sure to check the results because sometimes gives synonyms that do not fit (e.g., “is growing/healthy/showing and waving” should be “are growing/healthy” in this case).

If you’re teaching vocabulary, here are a couple of ways to use

  • When you find context-laden sentences from that are a bit above your students’ grade level (e.g., because sentences from The New York Times tend to be at 8th grade or higher), you can paste them into com and have students work with the simplified text.

EXAMPLE for the vocabulary word “flourished”:

ORIGINAL: A global Spanish flu epidemic that flourished after the war claimed 650,000 American lives — five times the number of U.S. troops who perished in the war itself.

REWORDIFIED:worldwide Spanish flu widespread disease that flourished

after the war claimed 650,000 American lives–five times the number of U.S.

troops who died in the war itself.

  • When you want to create quiz questions that involve, say, a paragraph using vocabulary words, you could write the original version using the vocabulary words, then paste that paragraph into com and give students the modified version, with the words/phrases that have replaced the vocabulary words underlined. They would then have to insert the appropriate vocabulary words.


DIRECTIONS: Improve the paragraph below by crossing out the underlined weak words and replacing them with stronger words from our word bank.   Write the stronger word above the crossed-out word. Make sure to use the correct form of the word. I am looking for 4 vocabulary words to be used, but if you see other opportunities to use stronger vocabulary, I will give you extra credit for doing so (2 points each).

WORD BANK: flourish, emerge, rural areas, tropical, vegetation

Nearly a year and a half after Hurricane Maria, stories of hope and progress are newly appearing in Puerto Rico, just as the island’s (related to areas near the Equator/hot and humidgreen plants is growing/healthy/showing and waving once again. While there is still much work to be done, and some areas away from cities might not fully recover for years, the capital of San Juan has been humming along for months.

***For more ideas about how to teach vocabulary effectively, please check out the TLC “Building Robust Vocabulary” page. As a reader of this blog, you’re entitled to a 50%-off discount membership to the TLC Website. Click here and use this code: TLCBOOK50. NOTE: The code must be entered in ALL caps in order to work.)

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[This post originally appeared in slightly different form on MiddleWeb.  It is excerpted from my book Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action, and adds some new ideas.]

When you ask teachers what they would call Do Nows if they couldn’t call them that, they come up with terms like warm-up, quick review, and first steps. My favorite is brain defibrillator. The point is, people come up with different titles because they have different perspectives on the purposes of Do Nows (or whatever you want to call them)—and for good reason. Do Nows can be used for different purposes: to review material, introduce new material, or hook students, for example. When used routinely, Do Nows establish a norm of urgency in the class: every day you walk in and start working immediately. No dawdling.

Here are some general rules for Do Nows:

  • Keep them short. The typical range is four to seven minutes, with no more than two to three minutes to go over it. Any longer than that and it’s not a Do Now; it’s an activity.
  • Make sure students have the required skills. Don’t expect students to try something completely unfamiliar unless you’re in the mood for chaos. Students need to have some background knowledge or experience, or else they’re likely to ask lots of questions.
  • Provide clear directions. Be as specific as possible. No one should raise a hand and ask how to do the Do Now. Students must be able to complete Do Nows silently and independently. When I taught high school English at North Star Academy in Newark, New Jersey, every Monday as students entered my classroom, I gave them a hole-punched handout that listed the Do Nows and homework assignments for the week. Students completed the Do Nows in their marble composition notebooks, which I collected every two weeks and graded for completion. No one ever asked me, “What’s the Do Now today?” or “What’s tonight’s homework?” In addition to maximizing efficiency in the class (we wasted no time copying from the board), this protocol helped students develop time management skills: they could anticipate assignments that were coming up and plan accordingly. Also, parents appreciated receiving the document via Email to support their children. Note: If I needed to revise a planned Do Now or homework, I would write it on the whiteboard in red marker and point to it.
  • Practice makes permanent. That’s the good news. But if you practice the wrong thing, it’s also the bad news. So, make sure your students are practicing things correctly. For more thoughts on how to practice effectively, check out Practice Perfect by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, and Katie Yezzi.[1]
  • Avoid “copy the error” syndrome. As I noted in The Literacy Cookbook, some teachers make the colossal mistake of requiring students to copy grammatically incorrect sentences in order to correct them. The problem with this approach is that the original version can be burned into students’ brains, and at best, the process of correcting will only neutralize the errors.[2] A better alternative is to employ the approach that I advocate in Using Grammar to Improve Writing: show students grammatically correct models that they can then imitate.[3]
  • Consider how your Do Nows relate to your objectives. Although it is not wrong to use “evergreen” Do Nows (which review skills you are constantly working on, such as paraphrasing or inference), ideally students should be able to see a logical connection between the Do Now and what you are trying to accomplish in the day’s lesson. For example, the Do Now’s vocabulary words appear in the text they will be closely reading today.

Do Nows can be high-leverage tools to establish academic urgency in your class, especially if you do the following two things:

  • Hold students accountable. As I noted in this blog post on combatting learned helplessness, if you assign classwork and go over it before holding students accountable for it, then they’ll realize that they can wait till the timer rings, then copy the answers as you go over them. So they don’t even try to do the work. They sit quietly or chat with a neighbor, which is more fun. Instead, you should circulate and assign credit (with a stamp or initial) as students work, collect it before reviewing, or provide and give credit for “notes from discussion” that students must complete in addition.
  • Use Do Nows to shine a spotlight on high-quality student work. The beginning of the class offers a fresh start. When students know that you’re going to use what Doug Lemov calls “Show Call,” a technique to feature their work at random (like cold-calling but visual[4]), they tend to put more effort into it. A 5th-grade teacher I’ve been working with lately has used this approach to great effect: she actively monitors student work during the Do Now and puts stars on two or three excellent papers. As she collects papers from the rest of the class, she asks the “stars” to stand up. One by one, she places their work under the document camera, invites them to read aloud what they wrote, and asks their peers to explain what these “stars” did well. This is a powerful opportunity for students to praise one another (building a positive classroom culture) and to identify exactly what makes the exemplars effective so that others can imitate them later. This approach also adds a buzz of excitement and competition during an otherwise mundane exercise. PS—I’ve also seen teachers use Show Call to highlight exemplars of the previous day’s Exit Ticket, achieving similar purposes and impact.

The bottom line is that Do Nows done well can signal the beginning of a beautiful lesson.

[1] Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, and Katie Yezzi, Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012).

[2] Sarah Tantillo, The Literacy Cookbook: A Practical Guide to Effective Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening Instruction (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013), 103.

[3] Sarah Tantillo, Using Grammar to Improve Writing: Recipes for Action (BookBaby, 2018).

[4] Doug Lemov, Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2015). For a detailed description of “Show Call,” see 290-299.

Posted in Do Nows, ELA Common Core Standards, Lesson-planning, Literacy and the Common Core BOOK, Using Grammar to Improve Writing BOOK | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to Help Students Explain Their Ideas in Writing

[This post originally appeared in slightly different form on MiddleWeb.]

By Sarah Tantillo with Bianca Licata

Probably the most common problem we see in students’ writing at every level is their struggle to explain. Even students who can generate a claim or argument and find relevant evidence still struggle to articulate how the evidence supports their argument.

Some students do not even realize that they should explain their ideas, and we have to convince them to (as I have written about here).

Recently I sat down with 8th grade ELA teacher Bianca Licata to analyze the problem of ineffective explaining in student writing. We identified some causes and potential solutions, and then she began to test our ideas.

Reason #1: They feel paralyzed by formulas.

One reason students struggle to explain is that they feel constrained by writing formulas. Teachers might believe it helps to scaffold the work by giving students formulas such as “RACER” (Restate, Argue, Cite Evidence, Explain, Raise Insights), but students often take these formulas too literally and are afraid to diverge from them, so when they want to say something that doesn’t fit the formula, they feel paralyzed.

While these formulas can be valuable for students to fall back on when expected to produce a particular type of writing under time constraints (e.g., PARCC testing), good writers do not adhere strictly to formulas.

In good writing, even one sentence might include both evidence and explanation. For example, in “There is never enough room for all of the textbooks, workbooks, independent reading books, binders, and notebooks, much less the pens, pencils, and erasers,” the first five words function as explanation while the remaining items qualify as evidence.[1]

We need to show students good writing that is not formulaic and analyze what makes it good. We need to ask, “What do you like about that sentence?” and encourage students to imitate exemplars (Note: It also helps to give them an exemplar and a non-exemplar and ask them to explain why they prefer the exemplar).

But before we give them a model to work with, we need to encourage them to have the confidence to express their original ideas on the page, pressure free. And how do we help them develop write-able ideas in the first place? This brings us to the second major problem at play.

Reason #2: They conflate “How” and “Why.”

Many students combine “how” and “why” in their explanation. This problem goes back to the Grade 2 Reading Standard #1 (“Ask and answer such questions as who, what, where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text”), which I consider not only the most important reading standard but also the most important writing standard, as I’ve explained here. In brief: you must be able to answer “how” and “why” questions in order to infer and explain. If you can’t, your writing will be “listy,” not explanatory.

Many students can answer “why” questions with “because,” but they don’t know what to do about “how” questions. This is partly our fault as teachers: If you ask a “how” question and allow students to answer with “because,” you are accepting an inaccurate response and, even worse, teaching the whole class the wrong thing.[2] Too many students become comfortable with “because” and use it as a default, especially when they are given an argument that they have to support, when it is not obvious that the question being asked is a “how” question.

The other day, a teacher asked students to support this argument about a text they’d read: “Martin is a vicious bully.” Although they came up with useful, relevant evidence, they explained it incorrectly. For example, they wrote, “He shows he’s a bully because he spits on people,” which seems to answer a “why” question, but this is not why he’s a bully. The text doesn’t explain why he’s a bully; it only shows how he is (i.e., by spitting on and punching people). To use the evidence logically, they would have to write: “He shows he’s a bully by [describe his actions here].”

To address the how/why conflation challenge, we need to do two things: 1) When we give students a prompt or an argument to support, we need to ensure that they are aware of the implied question. We should ask them: Is this asking a “how” or a “why” question? 2) We need to give students “how” verbiage. Bianca and her colleagues and I took five minutes in a meeting to generate a variety of “how” responses. Here are just a few:

HOW Verbiage: How to Answer “How” Questions

  • The character demonstrates this by…
  • The character’s actions/dialogue/thoughts/description show that ….
  • We see how…
  • She makes this clear by…
  • The author develops this idea by…
  • The speaker expresses this view by…
  • The author develops the theme by constantly using examples of…
  • These steps explain how…


Bianca took this list a step further and customized some language to fit the assignment her students were working on, a five-paragraph essay evaluating whether or not a Greek mythological figure of their choosing was a hero according to Joseph Campbell’s tenets of heroism:

  • The character demonstrates he/she is/is not a hero by…
  • The character’s actions show that he/she is/is not a hero by…

While students struggled to incorporate these stems independently, they nonetheless made attempts. Prior to this assignment, students reviewed in several iterations how a figure is characterized by the author’s use of concrete traits (physical appearance) and abstract traits (thoughts, ideas, feelings, reactions, choices). Students were able to articulate how the characters demonstrated heroism through their combined traits, but in the final paper fell back on explaining why. Bianca concluded they would need more practice with the “how” verbiage.

Also, although students wanted to express their opinions clearly, there was a dissonance between how they (clearly) verbalized their claims and explanations versus what they wrote (less cogently) on the page. Often what they wrote minimally reflected what they were able to articulate in conversation. This struggle pointed to a third problem.

Reason #3: They need to hear what they think.

Whether they are extroverts or not, students tend to need to hear what they think in order to know what they think. During writing conferences, I’ve often found that when I point to a sentence and ask, “What were you trying to say here?” they can immediately say something coherent, no matter how garbled their writing was. While some may have processing issues, most simply need to talk through their ideas a bit—to hear their ideas—in order to translate them into print.

Bianca and I decided to emphasize this point in several ways. First, we would bring this phenomenon to students’ attention during writing conferences so that they would consider “talking to themselves” as a strategy when writing—i.e., that they should listen to their inner voice or whisper to themselves to bring out their ideas.

Second, we would continue to utilize frequent turn-and-talks to give students opportunities to rehearse with a partner. And third, we would launch prewriting “Peer Café Talks”—called that because students would speak in a café-level voice and carry on a casual conversation as if they were in a café, but keep it “academic.” At a basic level, this meant students would talk to a partner about what they wanted to say, then write that down.


Bianca designed a Do Now to invite students to reflect as follows:

Think of a time when you and someone else talked through a difficult problem (any problem!), discussed it and found a reasonable conclusion (any conclusion!), or verbally shared ways to start writing. Did talking through your issue with someone help you, and if so, how? Explain. Write for the entire Do Now time!

She needed to clarify for students what “problem” meant. Some students said, “I don’t have problems with people,” immediately assuming “problem” meant “confrontation.” In response, she prompted students to think of problems they may have encountered in, say, math class, or science, or even in writing when they struggle to get started. After this, students perked up, and a resounding “Oh!” told her they got it.

After about 5 minutes, the class discussed their responses, which varied between arguments they’d had with parents to trying to understand Algebra. Everyone reached the conclusion, however, that sometimes we might know our own arguments/thoughts, but others don’t, and it takes time and conversation to figure out how to solve a problem.

From here, she asked students to raise their hands if they’d ever had a hard time putting their thoughts on the page, or if they’d ever conferenced with her or another teacher who told them after talking through their thoughts, “That’s great! Write exactly that!” Most students raised their hands. She then walked students through the “interview” questions [download Handout #1] they would ask one another.

BACKGROUND NOTE: Prior to this activity, students had read “Phaethon,” “Pegasus and Bellerophan,” “Otus and Ephialtes,” or “Daedalus” from Mythology by Edith Hamilton. They had used a narrative organizer to plot the parts of the narrative, including the protagonist’s concrete and abstract traits in order to track how the character changed as a result of key events.

On the day of the Peer Café Talks, students used their prewriting organizer and their books to answer questions.

Bianca based the interview questions on the rubric-checklist that she would eventually use to score their essays (it’s in Handout #1). Students sat diagonal to one another, two students per table, with their laptops open. Using Google Docs, she shared the “Peer Café Talk” table with discussion questions (Handout #1) with all students, but only one in a pair opened the file, renamed it, wrote their names on it, and re-shared it with their partner. Students would take turns interviewing one another and typing their partner’s responses in the table.

Bianca paired up with a student to model what this would look like by projecting the table on the overhead so students could see how she typed exactly what the student said into the document. She also showed students how to push one another verbally to expand their partner’s ideas with questions like, “What do you mean when you say…?” and “Can you tell me more?” Once students were engaged, she circulated to help any that were struggling with their thoughts.

Here’s a completed student sample [download Handout #2 ].

Bianca noted some challenges she had not anticipated:

1) Sometimes a pair consisted of someone who had read and someone who had not. This left the person who had read to conduct their own café talk, which defeated the entire purpose of talking. Solution: Make sure people are paired with someone else who is prepared. Everyone else who isn’t prepared needs to do the reading or complete an alternate assignment.

2) Students need to discuss different stories. Students who chose the same story often shared the same belief that the protagonist was not a hero and had the same reasons for why their protagonist was not a hero, so they found it difficult to respond to the questions differently. She told them to paraphrase one another and to push the conversation, but it was still a challenge. Solution: Make sure students have different stories, different opinions, or different characters that they are choosing to analyze. There needs to be some disagreement in order for the questions to be genuine.

From Prewriting to Writing/Revising:
After the 8th graders completed their Peer Café Talks, Bianca showed them how to copy and paste their ideas onto a separate document where they would use the rubric to revise their essay. Revising their ideas into an essay took some time. They had difficulty understanding how to use their rubric-checklist as a template for organizing their thoughts; they struggled to believe that all they needed to do was copy and paste, then revise.

Once they accepted that the task was as simple as that, they had a much easier time revising, and several students who had previously struggled with essay writing produced noticeably more robust, clear writing. Read essays from the two students featured in Handout #2 and Bianca’s responses to them here: Partner 1 and Partner 2.

By contrast, for students who (for one reason or another) were unable to complete their Café Talks, writing the essay was much more difficult, and some did not finish. Bianca needed to sit with them one on one to help them complete the assignment.

The Peer Café Talks approach seems promising!

Of course, students must walk through this process multiple times before they internalize the underlying concept. Bianca and I agree that it’s a worthwhile investment of time. By taking the leap to talk through their ideas, students can strengthen their writing in lasting ways.

[1] This sentence is drawn from my “desk paragraph” demo lesson in Using Grammar to Improve Writing: Recipes for Action (Bookbaby, 2018), pp. 21-27.

[2] For more on this topic, see Doug Lemov’s explanation of the technique “Right Is Right” in Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2015), pp. 100-107. You can also explore Lemov’s Field Notes on “Right Is Right” here.

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How to Blend Grammar into Daily ELA Instruction

[This post originally appeared in slightly different form on MiddleWeb.]

One of the most common concerns I hear from ELA teachers is “I want to teach grammar, but I’m not sure how to fit it in.” This post explains a systematic approach.

As a general rule, before you write detailed lesson plans, it helps to create a 35,000-foot overview that captures your weekly routines. Over the course of the year, depending on the genre(s) you’re focusing on, you might revise these routines.[1]

Below is a sample overview that maps out ways to integrate whole-class vocabulary, reading, and grammar/writing work with narrative reading and writing—shifting the focus of the work accordingly. This generic overview can be modified based on the grade level(s) you teach, and it assumes you have at least 45 minutes of ELA instruction per day. If you have more time, great. If you have less, you might need to adjust your plans. Or change your schedule.

Narrative Reading and Writing

  DAY 1 DAY 2 DAY 3 DAY 4 DAY 5
Do Now (8-10) Intro 1st 4 new VOCAB words Wordplay for 1st 4 VOCAB words Intro 2nd 4 new VOCAB words Wordplay for 2nd 4 VOCAB words Quiz on all 8 VOCAB words
Class Focus


CLOSE-READ a story/ narrative. Intro GRAMMAR points relevant to narrative writing. Show Call narrative writing. (5) GRAMMAR pointà Revision. (5) PARTNER READ a story. (20) CLOSE-READ a story/ narrative. Show Call writing. REVISE yesterday’s writing.
Exit Ticket


WRITE: Practice some aspect of narrative writing OR write about today’s story. Use these GRAMMAR points to write a narrative. Complete DDAT organizer re: character analysis. WRITE: Practice some aspect of narrative writing OR write about today’s story. REVISE yesterday’s writing.
HW Wordplay for 1st 4 vocab words; IR Wordplay for 1st 4 vocab words; IR Wordplay for 2nd 4 vocab words; Revise yesterday’s narrative. Wordplay for all 8 vocab words; IR Complete Exit Ticket if class time did not permit it.


  • Regarding Do Nows, the assumption is that students will spend 3-5 minutes (max) doing the work, then another 3-5 minutes going over it (so: 8-10 minutes total). For details on how to design and implement vocabulary instruction, see this post.
  • An Exit Ticket may take more than 5 minutes (e.g., a paragraph that students begin writing during the Class Focus time might require 10-15 minutes); in that case, the Exit Ticket is more a reflection of what you intend to collect.
  • Regarding homework (HW), I recommend including independent reading (IR) on top of whatever else you require. It never hurts to remind students to read.
  • Please note these are rough outlines for a five-day cycle. Day 1 doesn’t have to be Monday. And if you’re on a six-day cycle, simply add a column.


  • Early in the year, it helps to review the most important reading standard, RL 2.1: Ask and answer such questions as who, what where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text. For more on this standard, check out this post.
  • For another effective approach to close reading, check out this post.


Which grammar points should you target? Here are three options—and you will probably use all of them:

  • A quick scan of students’ Exit Tickets after class will help you identify immediate needs.
  • If students are writing stories/narratives, consider grammar standards that relate particularly to that genre, such as L 3.2.c: Use commas and quotation marks in dialogue.
  • Take a look at this K-12 Selected Language CCS Tracker (free download), beginning with the kindergarten level, to see where your students need support.



The text for this day might be a continuation of the text from Day 1, or it might be a different text altogether.


During the Class Focus, while students are revising, you can (and should) conduct writing conferences; students might also employ the Partner Feedback Protocol. For an explanation of these revision strategies, check out this post.

Here’s the bottom line: It’s easy to get pulled into emphasizing aspects of the curriculum that we feel comfortable with. Taking a systematic approach such as this one can make it easier to ensure that we fit EVERYTHING in.

[1] This post is derived from Using Grammar to Improve Instruction: Recipes for Action by Sarah Tantillo (BookBaby, 2018). To see sample overview maps for other genres, check out pp. 262-266.

Posted in Curriculum, ELA Common Core Standards, Grammar, Instruction, Lesson-planning, MiddleWeb, Reading Instruction, Resources, TLC Website Resources, Using Grammar to Improve Writing BOOK, Vocabulary, Writing, Writing Feedback | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Narrative Writing Feedback Tools

Following up on my recent post about writing feedback in general, this post offers two tools targeting NARRATIVE writing specifically.

As I’ve said many times before, I don’t believe in “peer editing,” which strikes me as “the blind leading the blind” (because “I think you need a comma there” is not helpful). My friends at Great Oaks Legacy Charter School* have been trying out various approaches and come up with two useful alternatives: 1) a modified form of the “Partner Feedback Protocol” mentioned in my earlier post and 2) a “Peer Support Narrative Checklist,” which focuses on specific strategies they’ve taught.

*Many thanks to Amanda Amanullah, Sanjana Hossain, Bianca Licata, and Alison Paludi for their persistent efforts to improve and for sharing what they learn in the process!

First, here’s the modified “Partner Feedback Protocol.” Student sit side-by-side in pairs. One partner reads aloud his/her narrative all the way through while the other reads along silently. Then the author reads the piece again, this time a bit more slowly, and this time the audience partner can tap the desk twice after any sentence to provide feedback, either to ask a question requesting clarification or elaboration or to offer praise. The author should make a note of the question (to address later) but not answer it orally. Nor should the audience member offer advice. This is not a negotiation or coaching session! Its purpose is simply to give the writer some authentic feedback from an interested reader.

Sample questions and praise are included in the “PARTNER FEEDBACK PROTOCOL FOR NARRATIVE” (a free download) below. NOTE: For younger students, you may want to shorten the lists to make them more accessible.


Clarify Elaborate Praise
Who/what is this specifically about?


Which character is speaking in this dialogue?


Where is this taking place?


Why is this taking place?


How is this taking place?


What exactly is happening here?


What do you mean by…?


What is the conflict?


What is the climax?

How does the character feel at the moment, and how could you show that?


What is the character thinking right now?


What does this scene look like? What sensory details can you add?


What are the characters doing as they speak?


How can you foreshadow this event?

I really liked it when you wrote…


I like the way you described…


Your character _____________ is very realistic because….


The scene you created is very realistic because _________________.


I would like to ___________ the way you did because it _______________.


This story was very suspenseful because you ________________.

For another approach, check out the “PEER SUPPORT NARRATIVE CHECKLIST,” (another free download) which includes Narrative Peer Support Questions. NOTE: As with any rubric/checklist, this checklist should only include strategies/elements you have explicitly taught.



□ Introduce the setting.

□ Introduce the main characters.

□ Introduce the conflict.

□ Use descriptive details.


□ Description

□ Dialogue

□ Action

□ Thoughts

To create SUSPENSE:

□ Slow down the pace.

□ Include details about SOUND and TOUCH.

□ Include character thoughts.

□ Use figurative language.

To create CONFLICT:

□ Your character WANTS something he can’t have.

□ There are PROBLEMS solving the problem.

□ Your conflict is introduced at the BEGINNING.

□ Your conflict comes to a breaking point in the CLIMAX.


When you revise a narrative, look for 4 different things:

1)         Is the STRUCTURE of the story clear? Is there a clear CONFLICT in the exposition that gets RESOLVED?

2)         Does the narrative use SPECIFIC DETAILS to SHOW RATHER THAN TELL?

3)         Does the narrative use STRONG DIALOGUE?

4)         Do the PARAGRAPHS MAKE SENSE?

For more support on narrative writing instruction, please check out the following resources:

PS—If you do not already subscribe to the TLC Website, as a reader of this blog you are eligible for a 50%-off discount membership. Click HERE and use the discount code TLCBOOK50 (NOTE: The code is ALL CAPS).

Posted in Instruction, Narrative Writing, PARCC, Resources, TLC Website Resources, Using Grammar to Improve Writing BOOK, Writing, Writing Feedback | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment