Why Students Don’t Write Clearly and What We Can Do About It

LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORE[The following post originally appeared in slightly different form on MiddleWeb on Nov. 3, 2015.]

After reading yet another piece lamenting students’ inability to write clearly, I feel compelled to share what I’ve learned about this problem and offer some potential solutions.

As for causes of bad writing, we know that upbringing can be a factor. No one emerges from the womb knowing how to speak or write coherently. Depending on your home and school environment, you may or may not be surrounded by people who speak standard English. We learn to speak by imitating what we hear, and we tend to write the way we speak. Students who have been immersed in nonstandard English will have to undo, to some degree, what they have learned. Teachers must find respectful ways to show students how to code switch.

Clear writing requires proper grammar, but it needs other things, too. Many students lack the vocabulary and practice in reasoning that would enable them to build robust arguments. As Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley discovered, some children—from an early age—are exposed to many words, while others are exposed to few.[1] In a study of forty-two families from three different socioeconomic categories (professional, working class, and welfare), they observed and tape-recorded family interactions for an hour a month for thirty months. They found that children from the wealthiest families heard over 1,500 more words each hour, on average, than children from the poorest families (2,153 versus 616). Over a four-year period, this amounts to an estimated thirty-two-million-word gap.[2]

They also found that children mirrored their parents’ vocabulary resources, use of language, and interaction styles. In fact, about nine out of every ten words in each child’s vocabulary consisted of words also recorded in their parents’ vocabularies.[3] As I noted in The Literacy Cookbook, however, the problem is not merely a word gap. It’s also an explanation gap. Exposure to fewer words means that one hears fewer examples of complex/logical thinking: fewer sentences, fewer questions, and fewer explanations of ideas or arguments.[4]

So how you’re raised may affect how well you write. But upbringing is not destiny: we can and should help students build a knowledge base that will strengthen their ability to comprehend and write.

And upbringing is not the only reason children fail to write well. The truth is, children from wealthy and well-educated families often struggle, too.

One reason this problem is so widespread is that historically, our expectations have been too low. Until recently, we did not have national standards that demand clear writing. As shocking as it might seem, until the mid-late 1990s, not all states even had standards. And in some places, the standards were not necessarily adequate. Case in point: for many years, in my home state of New Jersey and in others, the standards were framed as, “By the end of fourth grade,” or “By the end of eighth grade,” and so on. That sketchy framework put undue pressure on some teachers and left others to wonder what their responsibilities were.[5]

To be perfectly blunt, our spotty national expectations have meant that some citizens—including some who are currently classroom teachers—never received proper grammar or writing instruction. And it is challenging to teach something you never learned.
One bit of good news is that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), adopted by most states in 2010, address every grade from K-12, and grades 3-5 in particular address the most fundamental grammar points students need to know. The CCSS also emphasize the importance of supporting arguments with relevant evidence and explanation, something good writers do all the time.

Unfortunately, some students are already past fifth grade and have not learned key grammar points yet. They struggle with subject-verb agreement and are not sure what a complete sentence entails. Also, they don’t know the difference between “argument” and “evidence,” which makes it difficult for them to build strong arguments (See my earlier MiddleWeb post).

As dismal as this situation might seem, there is hope. There are things that teachers can do—no matter what grade or subject they teach—to help students become stronger writers.

Probably the most important thing we need to remember is this: Good writers write one good sentence after another. It sounds really obvious when you say it, but if you spend enough time in classrooms, you will realize that most people don’t frame writing instruction in this way. Teachers tend to assume students can write sentences, so they skip to things like paragraphs, “small moments,” and essays. There is nothing wrong with these assignments. It’s just that we need to build up to them.

Even if you start by showing students a model essay—planning with the end in mind, which is always helpful—it’s crucial to attend to the details. The first time my elementary school gym teacher taught us how to shoot a layup, he didn’t simply shoot a layup and walk away, saying, “Save yourselves!” He showed us how to jump and lift the ball and drive our knee up and flick the ball so it would hit that box on the backboard. As we tried it, he gave us immediate, specific feedback. He wasn’t evaluating us. He was coaching us towards success.

What would it look like if writing teachers saw themselves more as writing coaches?

Here’s a sentence that could be game-changing: “What do you like about that sentence?” Think about what this question implies: 1) Sentences have structures that writers create purposely, which we can analyze and admire; 2) Sentences can be written well or poorly; 3) If you figure out “what works” in that sentence, you could imitate it and write your own good sentences.

In order to be able to ask that question, though, we need great texts to analyze. Not all texts are created equal. Some are dry, repetitious, formulaic, dull (I’m looking at you, most content-area textbooks!). Others are lucid and compelling. Or, poignant. Or, they percolate with wit. They make us think and feel; they take us to a particular locale and a specific, memorable instance. We can feel the writer’s pulse. Captivating models can change how students feel about reading (eliciting, “Hey, this is funny!” or, “That’s so true!”) and in turn, how they feel about writing. If we want students to think of themselves as writers, the message must be inviting—as in, “Look: you could write like this!”

We also need to teach students how to connect sentences and ideas so their sentences will flow logically and their explanations will make sense. As Peg Tyre noted in The Atlantic, teachers at New Dorp High School realized that not knowing how to use words such as “for, and, nor, but, or, yet,” limited their students’ ability to express clear thinking.[6] They enlisted the help of Judith Hochman, who has developed a method that directly teaches such words and builds students’ knowledge of sentence structures and longer-writing structures so they can express more complex ideas.[7]

Along with focusing students’ attention on excellent sentences and how to make their writing flow, we also need to stop doing things that don’t work.

Many English teachers spend hours and hours marking up students’ papers, and when they hand those papers back, the students merely glance at the grade and do nothing with the feedback. The result is that teachers become highly skilled at copy editing and students’ writing does not improve. So here’s some more good news: you don’t have to lose entire weekends to paper grading. What do you want students to do with your feedback? If they are not going to use it to revise, then extensive notes are not necessary. Consider making brief remarks on this ESSAY WRITING RUBRIC,[8] which includes a separate section for “Self-Improvement Goals” that students can set in each subsequent paper, using your comments as a guide. PS, over-editing is also pointless because editing marks alone can’t teach grammar rules; at best, they remind students of rules they already knew.

The biggest thing we need to fix is how we teach grammar. Students often neglect to apply grammar rules in their own writing because grammar and writing are frequently taught as two discrete subjects, as in, “Today is Tuesday, so we’re doing prepositions. Turn to page 57 in your grammar book.” This is not to say that you should not teach grammar content. But as the Hochman Method suggests, it must be done in a relevant, authentic context so that students can see how and why grammar rules are useful.

Unfortunately, many educators not only teach grammar and writing separately but also rely heavily on the “Daily Oral Language” (DOL) approach, in which they provide sentences riddled with random errors and students are supposed to correct them. Reading specialist Mark Pennington enumerates sixteen reasons why DOL doesn’t work, and I agree with each one. He points out that DOL is proofreading, not sentence construction; that it tries to teach writing without actually having students write; that it uses bad writing models to teach good writing; and that it doesn’t teach the whys and hows of grammar and mechanics.[9] Requiring students to fix grammatically-incorrect sentences might be a form of assessment, but it is not instruction. Students who know the appropriate grammar rules will do fine; the ones who don’t won’t learn the rules. We have to teach before we assess.

By contrast, in Mechanically Inclined, Jeff Anderson recommends a “mentor text” approach, which involves showing students models of sentence structures they can imitate.[10] For example, you might begin with a two-word sentence—subject-verb, as in, “She laughed.”—and have students write their own. Then you could build a longer sentence—say, a three-word sentence that includes a word that describes the verb, also known as an adverb. As in, “She laughed loudly.” In the process of comparing examples with classmates, students would derive the understanding that adverbs are commonly formed by adding “-ly” to an adjective. In this way, we can teach parts of speech organically and authentically. It’s a win-win cycle: as students practice applying the rules in their own writing, they build their knowledge of grammar rules and strengthen their writing.

And once they’ve learned the rules, they can decide when to break them for creative purposes. When they need to. Not necessarily on a Tuesday.

[1] Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children (Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., 2002).

[2] Hart and Risley, 197-8. NOTE: Children from professional families would hear 45 million words; from working-class families, 26 million; and from welfare families, 13 million.

[3] Hart and Risley, 176. NOTE: Specific data: 86-98%.

[4] Sarah Tantillo, The Literacy Cookbook: A Practical Guide to Effective Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening Instruction (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2012), 12.

[5] Sarah Tantillo, Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2014), xviii.

[6] Peg Tyre, “The Writing Revolution,” The Atlantic, Oct. 2012, found at: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/10/the-writing-revolution/309090/

[7] For more information on the Hochman Method, go to: http://www.thewritingrevolution.org

[8] “Essay Writing Rubric” found at The Literacy Cookbook Website: http://www.literacycookbook.com/page.php?id=87

[9] “Why Daily Oral Language (D.O.L.) Doesn’t Work,” Mark Pennington, Pennington Publishing Blog, Aug. 29, 2009, found at: http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/grammar_mechanics/why-daily-oral-language-d-o-l-doesnt-work/

[10] Jeff Anderson, Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer’s Workshop (Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2005).

Posted in Argument, Assessment(s), Curriculum, ELA Common Core Standards, Evidence, Explanation, Grammar, Literacy and the Common Core BOOK, MiddleWeb, Research, Resources, The Literacy Cookbook BOOK, TLC Website Resources, Vocabulary, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

PARCC Releases More Test Items!

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREGOOD NEWS from PARCC: “The states that make up the PARCC consortium are taking the exceptional step of releasing test items from this year’s PARCC assessment to give teachers a powerful tool to inform and improve classroom teaching and learning.” These items will give us a clearer sense of what is expected on the assessment(s).

Click HERE to see test items AND scored student samples!

As a reminder, for more information and handy PARCC prep tools, please check out the TLC “PARCC Prep” page.

Posted in Assessment(s), PARCC, Resources, TLC Website Resources | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Most Important Common Core Reading Standard

LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORE[The following post originally appeared in slightly different form on MiddleWeb on Oct. 6, 2015.]

I know we’re probably not supposed to have favorites when it comes to the Common Core Standards, but I do. I fell in love with Reading Informational Text (RIT) Standard #2.1 one day when a group of third-grade teachers that I was working with told me that their students had just bombed a test on RIT Standard #3.1 and so they were going to “reteach it.”

“Hang on,” I said, because usually what people mean when they say “I’m going to reteach it” is “I’m going to try the same approach again and hope for the best.”

We looked at the third-grade version of the standard, which is:

RIT 3.1 Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.

Then I asked them: “Can your students do the second-grade version of this standard?” We looked at it:

RIT 2.1 Ask and answer such questions as who, what, where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text.

They said, “Um, no.”

I asked, “What about the first-grade version? Can they do that?” We looked again:

RIT 1.1 Ask and answer questions about key details in a text.

“Yes,” they said. “They can do that.”

So we sat down and created a simple tool for the second-grade standard, and this 5Ws and H organizer MODEL enabled them to teach their students how to ask and answer these questions in one sitting. Since then, I have used this tool with students in other grades, as well, because it turns out that many middle and high school students need it, too.

Notice how we viewed the Common Core Standards as a ladder and targeted instruction to help students climb by directly teaching them the specific skills they needed. No matter what grade or subject you teach, you can use this approach to figure out where your students are. One day while analyzing the trajectory of RIT #1 from K-12, a 7th-grade teacher remarked: “I have a class of 25 students. I know ten are on the 5th-grade level for this standard, ten are on the 6th-grade level, and five are on grade-level.” She realized she could use this knowledge to differentiate instruction.

Identifying what grade level students are on for any given standard, however, is just the beginning. Most standards involve mastery of at least a half-dozen skills. For example, RIT #6.1, “Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text,” requires students to paraphrase, ask questions about text, draw inferences, distinguish between argument and evidence, identify evidence relevant to particular arguments, build arguments with relevant evidence and explanation, and cite sources properly. Students might be able to do some of those skills. Our job is to determine which skills they need help with in order to master the whole standard.

The beauty of RIT #2.1 is that it is one of the few standards that students can master more or less in one sitting. The information they need to know is very specific and concrete, and they can see it modeled and practice it immediately; you can tell very quickly if they are “getting it” or not.

The other reason I love this standard is that it is absolutely essential to effective reading and writing. We need to be able to ask and answer “How” and “Why” questions in order to infer and explain. Students who cannot ask and answer “How” and “Why” questions will struggle with comprehension, and they will struggle to explain ideas, both orally and in writing. No matter what grade or subject you teach, if you have students whose writing is very list-oriented with unexplained evidence, it could mean that they have not mastered this standard.

RIT #2.1 is therefore a high-leverage standard, one that—once your students master it—can have a dramatic impact on their reading and writing growth.

Posted in Analyzing the Common Core Standards, Comprehension, Curriculum, Differentiation, ELA Common Core Standards, Essential Questions, How vs. Why, Questioning, Reading Informational Text, TLC Website Resources, Trajectory Analysis | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

UPCOMING Public Events in October!

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREIn case you’re curious, here are some public events where you can find me:

Oct. 7: Reading, Writing, and the Common Core: Recipes for Action (NJPSA/FEA in Monroe Twp., NJ, 9am-3pm, $149)

“Join this noted author of Literacy and the Common Core (Jossey-Bass, 2014) and The Literacy Cookbook (Jossey-Bass, 2012) to review her strategies for effective reading and writing aligned to the Common Core. Participants will identify and practice six specific argument-and-evidence steps that effective writers use with the goal of learning how students can write an effective question-driven paper from scratch. There will also be a focus on close reading skills and the need to teach students to ask questions about the text. Participants will engage in a lesson using the Question-Inference-Evidence and Explanation Organizer and practice implementing it.”


Oct. 13: Barnes & Noble Educator Appreciation Event Featuring Sarah Tantillo: Transforming Common Core Standards Into RPM Units, Lessons and Objectives (Freehold, NJ B&N, 5:00-6:30pm, FREE)

How can we write curriculum units and lessons that help our students meet and exceed the Common Core Standards? In this workshop, participants will analyze the Reading Standards for Informational Text and learn a process for unpacking the Common Core Standards that enables teachers to design RPM (Rigorous, Purposeful, Measurable) units, lessons, and objectives. Participants will practice this approach and take away practical ideas, handouts, and strategies that they can use immediately to accelerate student learning.

Note: This event is eligible for Continuing Education Credits. Pre-registration is recommended via Email: crm2609@bn.com


Oct. 22: 2015 FEA/NJPSA/NJASCD Fall Conference: “Our Students Are Struggling: Now What?” (Long Branch, NJ, 10:45am-12:15pm, click HERE to register for the conference)

This session will answer the following questions in order to strengthen instruction and improve student achievement:

  • What data do you have?
  • What should you do if the data you have is not aligned to the Common Core?
  • Once you have Common Core proficiency data, what should you do?
  • How and why should we unpack the Common Core?
  • Once we’ve unpacked the Common Core, what should we do?
  • What will this process probably cause us to do?


Oct. 26: 2015 Illinois Charter Schools Conference: “Don’t Be Scared: Common Core Standards Can Help Struggling Students” (Chicago, IL, click HERE to register for the conference)

This interactive session demonstrates how to use data, the Common Core Standards, PARCC practice test items, and other helpful resources to bridge literacy gaps. Participants will walk away with a systematic approach that they can implement immediately to help address the needs of the many students who are behind grade-level in reading.

NOTE: For more information on my consulting work, please click HERE.  If you cannot make any of these events but would like to bring me to your school, please feel free to contact me at sarahtantillo@literacycookbook.com

Posted in Events, Literacy and the Common Core BOOK, Presentations, Professional Development, The Literacy Cookbook BOOK | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

12 Ways to Get Students Speaking & Listening: Part 2 of a two-part “Speaking and Listening” Series

The Literacy Cookbook COVER[The following post originally appeared in slightly different form on MiddleWeb on August 30, 2015, and it is based on an excerpt from The Literacy Cookbook (Jossey-Bass, 2012).]

In Part I, we looked at why oral fluency is so important. Now, here are a dozen things you can do to improve student engagement and strengthen their speaking and listening skills:

  1. Use Think-Pair-Share followed by cold-calling[1] as often as possible. For example: “Take ___ seconds (or minutes) to jot down your thoughts about ____. [Wait the allotted time.] Now, take one minute to tell your partner what you thought. Then look at me when you’re both ready to share with the class.” Use popsicle sticks to cold-call, to ensure that you’ll call on everyone eventually. Make it clear to students that you expect everyone to have something to say because they’ve all just written and talked about their ideas.

When asking students to share, you can increase the rigor (and strengthen listening skills) by asking them to report on what their partners said. Let’s face it: when invited to “share with a partner,” many students are simply waiting for the other person to stop talking so that they can say what they think. Their definition of listening, as my friend Katy Wischow once put it, involves “staring in silence.” Having to report on their partners’ ideas forces students to listen more carefully. It also gives them valuable practice in paraphrasing and summarizing. Note: the first few times you do this, be sure to warn them so that they are prepared.

  1. Encourage students to restate or paraphrase—not repeat—what their peers say. If you ask them to “repeat” what others say, you miss an opportunity for them to practice paraphrasing. Repeating requires no thought. Also, repetition is boring—we heard it the first time. Make sure students know how to paraphrase and why it’s important. When teaching students the value of paraphrasing—a vital conversational skill as well as a key critical reading skill—you might try the approach that Heather Lattimer describes in Thinking Through Genre.[2] Her colleague asks students to talk about how they responded to an excerpt from Bad Boy, by Walter Dean Myers, and each time after the first few students answer, she ignores what they said and instead tells her own reaction. The students become uneasy and reluctant to volunteer their thoughts. Then she calls on another student and paraphrases what he said before giving her own ideas. The students are surprised (and, quite frankly, relieved). Then she debriefs with the students on the different ways she conversed with students. They get the point: paraphrasing is a way to show that you are listening to the other person.
  2. Move from paraphrasing to inference as much as you can, and ask students for evidence to back up their ideas or arguments. For example: “What can you infer from what James just said? What evidence gave you that idea?” Teach students how to paraphrase and infer early in the year so that they can log many hours of practicing these skills. Also, clarify the difference between argument and evidence. No matter what grade or subject you teach, even if the terms are not new to them, the review will establish a common language in the room. Posters can serve as handy reminders. The more students are invited to explain their ideas, the stronger their inference and comprehension skills will become.
  3. Treat students as sleuths. Tell them that they are the Detectives, and you are the Clue-Provider. My high school Latin teacher was a master at this. He knew that if we had to figure things out, we would not only remember them but also be able to explain them. In his class, in order to catch all of the clues, we had to listen very carefully.
  4. Ask why as often as possible, to give students more opportunities to explain their ideas (which will boost their inference skills). Even when they give the “correct” answer, ask them why because (1) they might have guessed and (2) their explanation will teach others in the room who might not have understood the material. Note: The first few times you ask why, students who aren’t accustomed to being questioned might back away from their response or become defensive. I like to tell students, “I’m not asking why because I think you’re wrong; I’m asking why because I genuinely want to know how you think and because your explanation will help your classmates understand this better.”
  5. Require students to respond with complete sentences. This practice will enhance their fluency and comprehension. Explain why you have this expectation (which is for their benefit) to make it the norm in your class. Initially you might have to correct them a few times and model it or provide sentence starters, but students will quickly get the hang of it. I’ve taught sample lessons in classrooms where I made it the norm within five minutes. Set high standards for discourse in your room, and students will meet or exceed them.
  6. Don’t repeat what students say. Students are like cats who want more food in their bowl: they train us! If you allow students to train you to repeat what they say, then they won’t develop proper speaking or listening skills. When you repeat what students say, it sends the message that they should not to listen to one another. It also teaches them to mumble because they know you will amplify everything. Another downside is that repeating unnecessarily lengthens class discussions and undermines the ratio of student cognitive work.[3] Lemov describes an array of methods for enhancing this ratio, including unbundling (asking numerous questions to dissect a topic or problem), feigning ignorance, and batch-processing (instead of responding to every single comment, responding after several have been made), among others.[4]
  7. Use think-alouds to model how you think, including the questions you ask and the way you figure things out. Then you can invite students to pair up and practice their own think-alouds. Making thinking visible in this way makes it more accessible for everyone, especially those students who might otherwise believe that “some people just ‘get it,’ and some people don’t.” They will see that in fact reading and thinking require work. Good readers wrestle with the text.
  8. Invite students to ask questions as often as possible. But this does not mean asking, “Does anyone have any questions?” for which the answer is almost invariably, “No.” Instead, ask, “What questions could we ask in this situation?” or “What questions can we ask about ____?” Then write their questions down on the board to show how much you value them. As a default, students need to know the utility of applying Five Ws and the H (who, what, when, where, why, and how) to pick apart texts.
  9. When reading aloud, require students to listen with a purpose or question in mind. Reading aloud mindlessly is boring. It’s an invitation to daydreaming at best and disruptive behavior at worst. But you can’t blame the students; if you fail to engage them, they will find something to do. Spare yourself the agony by hooking them with a great question. For instance, invite them to make predictions based on evidence from the text so far. Then: “OK, let’s see who’s right!” and read the next bit.
  10. When lecturing or presenting new material, provide guided notes to keep students engaged. In addition to keeping students actively involved, guided notes provide models of good note taking, another important skill. They also ensure that everyone walks away with the same basic information and a review sheet for later reference.
  11. Whenever a difficult-to-pronounce word appears, engage the entire class in choral pronunciation of the word. It’s highly probable that if one student mispronounces a word, others in the room would make the same mistake. In fact, if you correct this one person and move on, chances are good that the word will pop up again and someone else will stumble over it. So, it’s better to spare this first reader the embarrassment and instead send a positive message to the whole class, which is this: “This is an important word, and we all need to know how to pronounce it. So let’s go.”

Sample Choral Pronunciation Scenario

Student 1 (reading aloud): Some people advocated for “abol—?”

Teacher: Readers, this is an important word for us all to know and use. After me (points to self): abolition! (Points to class.)

Class: Abolition.

Teacher (pointing to self): Abolition!

Class: Abolition!

Teacher (pointing to self): Abolition!

Class: Abolition!

[1] Lemov, D. (2010). Teach like a champion: 49 techniques that put students on the path to college. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, pp. 111-125.

[2] Lattimer, H. (2003). Thinking through genre: Units of study in reading and writing workshops 4-12. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, pp. 36-39.

[3] Lemov, D. (2010). Teach like a champion: 49 techniques that put students on the path to college. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, p. 92.

[4] Lemov, D. (2010). Teach like a champion: 49 techniques that put students on the path to college. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, pp.92-97.

Posted in Comprehension, ELA Common Core Standards, Inference, Lesson-planning, MiddleWeb, Oral Fluency, Paraphrasing, Questioning, Speaking and Listening, The Literacy Cookbook BOOK | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Unlocking Student Learning by Improving Oral Fluency: Part 1 of a two-part “Speaking and Listening” Series

The Literacy Cookbook COVER[The following post originally appeared in slightly different form on MiddleWeb on August 26, 2015 and it is based on an excerpt from The Literacy Cookbook (Jossey-Bass, 2012).]

Of all the ways you can improve learning in your school, the Number 1 way is to strengthen students’ speaking and listening skills and habits.

Why? Let’s start with listening. Probably at least 80 percent of what students do in any given class involves listening. And by “listening,” we mean listening comprehension. Whether listening to their teacher, their classmates, or some form of media, students must process and comprehend a lot of information aurally. If they don’t listen well, they won’t learn well. Therefore, we must train them to listen effectively.

Along these same lines, we must also teach them how to speak effectively. Obviously, speaking is an essential life skill in and of itself. But it is also crucial because of its impact on learning. Active participants learn more. Although it might sound really obvious, this truth took me a while to absorb and was finally brought home to me by one of my favorite students, Jairo.

An amiable high school student with Spanish-speaking parents, Jairo was fluent in English but rarely spoke up during class discussions. He almost never raised his hand. Before I began to use cold calling[1] to increase engagement, I made the common mistake of calling on only students with raised hands, so some students opted not to participate when they realized that someone else would do the work. Jairo took notes and appeared attentive, but he rarely volunteered ideas. Although confident in other ways, he lacked assurance in his academic abilities and avoided taking intellectual risks.

In retrospect, I think he was stuck in a “fixed mindset” (a la Dweck[2]): he believed that he wasn’t good at English and that was that. Then one night around 6:00PM, while I was working with Jairo and a few other students on research papers, Jairo had a breakthrough: he was excited about his topic and had figured out how to explain it. He worked really hard and wrote a fabulous paper.

A few days later, as I handed back the papers, I told everyone what a great job he’d done. From that day forward, Jairo opened up and began to engage in class discussions more assertively. One day when I praised him for his contributions to the class, he admitted, “I feel like I’m getting more out of the class when I say things.” Indeed, he was. The quality of his work overall improved. If you ever feel like you don’t want to push a shy child to speak up in class, think about Jairo. For far too long, I went easy on him, and he could have learned more if I’d expected more.

Effective speaking is also important because—along the same lines as writing—it demonstrates how much you comprehend. If you cannot articulate your thoughts coherently, it could be because you are not thinking clearly, you lack information, or you do not understand something. Or it could be because no one expects you to express your ideas fully, so you’ve developed a habit of expressing incomplete thoughts, which would also be bad.

Unfortunately, in many schools, incomplete thinking is widely accepted. Walk into a classroom in almost any school, and more often than not, you’ll see a teacher calling on students who respond with incomplete sentences. It’s a common occurrence for three reasons: (1) teachers want to keep things moving, so they often accept brief responses, (2) teachers’ questioning techniques solidify into habits, and (3) most teachers don’t understand the impact of this particular habit. The truth is, it undermines everything you’re trying to teach because it derails the comprehension process. When students don’t explain their ideas with complete sentences, it may signal that they haven’t reached the level of inference and explanation; they may not comprehend the topic, issue, situation, or point as fully as we would like.

Students need to practice explaining ideas in order to become stronger thinkers. The act of explaining reinforces their inference skills and overall comprehension.

High standards for discourse in your classroom will boost not only fluency but also comprehension. Doug Lemov asserts that “the complete sentence is the battering ram that knocks down the door to college.”[3] I would also add, “And it’s great low-hanging fruit for teachers who want to help students improve their reading and writing.” The oral practice of expressing complete thoughts translates into more penetrating reading and more coherent writing, plus it teaches other students (who hear these complete explanations) more in the process. It’s a win-win-win.

Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I share 12 tips for strengthening students’ speaking and listening skills!

[1] Lemov, D. (2010). Teach like a champion: 49 techniques that put students on the path to college. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, pp. 111-125.

[2] Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House.

[3] Lemov, D. (2010). Teach like a champion: 49 techniques that put students on the path to college. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, p. 47.

Posted in Comprehension, MiddleWeb, Mindset, Oral Fluency, Speaking and Listening, Teach Like a Champion, The Literacy Cookbook BOOK | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Another Helpful Reading Resource: Smithsonian TweenTribune

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREIf you are looking for more resources to support nonfiction reading, The Smithsonian TweenTribune is a FREE online educational service offered by the Smithsonian for use by K-12 grade teachers and students. TTribune consists of daily news sites for kids, tweens, and teens, and includes text (with a Lexile-leveling feature!), photos, graphics, and audio and/or video materials prepared by the Smithsonian and others about current events, history, art, culture and science.

TTribune also includes lessons, instructional and assessment tools, and opportunities for the registered users to communicate with other participants.

I have already added this link to the TLC “PARCC Prep” page! (PS, thanks to Adina Medina at HoLa CS for this lead!)

Posted in Comprehension, Curriculum, DBQ Approach, ELA Common Core Standards, Independent Reading, Inference, Lesson-planning, Main Idea, Media Literacy, Nonfiction, Paraphrasing, PARCC, Reading, Reading Informational Text, Recommended Reading, Research, Resources, Test Prep, Text Selection, TLC Website Resources, Vocabulary, Vocabulary in Context | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Socratic Seminars REVISITED

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREOne terrific method for training students in how to conduct intelligent conversations is Socratic Seminars.  Students learn how to use effective habits of discussion, explain their ideas, and support them with evidence (Take THAT, Common Core Standards!).  Different educators have different ways of conducting Socratic Seminars. In fact, since I first posted this information in 2013, a colleague suggested an improvement that I want to share here today, along with video clips of his students engaged in an actual seminar and debrief session.  Special thanks to Jamison Fort for sharing these ideas and resources!

Click HERE to see the rest of this post, which originally appeared on MiddleWeb on June 23, 2015.

Note: All of this information also appears on the TLC “Socratic Seminars” page.

Posted in ELA Common Core Standards, MiddleWeb, Resources, Rubrics, Socratic Seminars, The Literacy Cookbook BOOK, TLC Website Resources | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

GOOD NEWS About PARCC Testing in 2015-16!!!

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREThe PARCC Governing Board just issued a press release stating some sensible, good news:

“On May 20, 2015 the PARCC governing board voted to:

  • Reduce the testing time for students by about 90 minutes overall (60 minutes in mathematics; 30 minutes in English language arts) and create more uniformity of test unit times.
  • Consolidate the two testing windows in mathematics and English language arts/literacy (which includes reading and writing) into one.
    • The single testing window will simplify administration of the test for states and schools that experienced challenges with scheduling two testing windows.
    • The testing window will be up to 30 days and will extend from roughly the 75% mark to the 90% mark of the school year. Most schools will complete testing in one to two weeks during that window.
  • Reduce the number of test unitsfor all students by two or three units.”

For more information, go here.

Posted in Assessment(s), PARCC, Test Prep | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Professional Development Ideas to Support Literacy Instruction

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREThis has been a particularly challenging year in our field. As teachers and school leaders continue to wrestle with how best to prepare students to meet and exceed the Common Core Standards, I would like to humbly submit some professional development ideas for the spring, summer, and coming school year.

  • Follow the TLC Blog. If you already do (Thanks!), please tell your friends. It’s free, and it offers updated information on resources and ideas that work.
  • Subscribe to The Literacy Cookbook Website. It’s practically free ($25/year if you use the 50%-off discount code TLCBOOK50), and it includes hundreds and hundreds of field-tested tools to support literacy instruction across the curriculum.
  • Run book study groups to discuss ideas in The Literacy Cookbook (Jossey-Bass, 2012) and/or Literacy and the Common Core (Jossey-Bass, 2014). You can order these books from the publisher, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your local bookseller.
  • Consider bringing me in for workshops/coaching/curriculum development support. Below is a sampling of what I offer. For a more extensive list of workshops, click here. For a list of previous clients, click here. For my bio, click here. To see an interview with me, click here. If you are interested in learning more, please contact me via Email (sarahtantillo@literacycookbook.com) ASAP. My schedule tends to fill up quickly, so the sooner you reach out, the more likely it is that I will be available when you need me.


Using Backwards Design to Write Curriculum Units
This workshop trains participants in how to design unit plans and curriculum overview maps using the Understanding by Design (Wiggins and McTighe) approach. Typical follow-up work includes the following:

  • Participants collaborate to identify appropriate texts from grade to grade and discuss interdisciplinary instructional opportunities.
  • Participants design curriculum overview maps for their grade/subject.
  • Participants design the Unit 1 Plan for their grade/subject, with close supervision and support from the facilitator.
  • Participants continue to draft unit plans and receive feedback and support from the facilitator.

The Comprehension Process and 4 Key Critical Reading Skills
Participants review the comprehension process and apply it; review the four key critical reading skills and practice them; and practice strategies that connect reading, writing, and testing in order to improve literacy instruction.

Designing RPM (Rigorous, Purposeful, Measurable) Objectives
Daily lessons are only as good as their objectives. This workshop trains participants in how to design RPM (Rigorous, Purposeful, Measurable) Objectives, no matter what grade or subject they teach.

From Argument vs. Evidence to Effective Writing
This workshop addresses the following objectives:

  • Review why the terms “argument” and “evidence” are essential to the Common Core Standards in order to establish the rationale for this workshop.
  • Review the difference between “argument” and “evidence” in order to launch activities related to effective writing instruction.
  • Identify and practice the six specific skills that effective writers use in order to teach students how to master them.

Close Reading and Questioning, Parts I and II
Participants participate in a demo lesson using the Question-Inference-Evidence & Explanation Organizer and practice implementing it (script your roll-out & practice in small group mini-demo). Participants then engage in another approach to close reading and questioning the text.

Transforming Common Core Standards into RPM Objectives and Lessons
How can we write objectives and lessons that help our students meet and exceed the Common Core Standards? In this workshop, participants analyze the Reading Standards for Informational Text and learn a process for unpacking the Common Core Standards that enables teachers to design RPM (Rigorous, Purposeful, Measurable) objectives and lessons. Participants practice this approach and take away practical ideas, handouts, and strategies that they can use immediately to accelerate student learning.

Using Tools to Build Effective Assessments: PARCC Reading and Writing Tasks
This workshop walks participants through the process for using PARCC Sample Tests to create Common Core reading and writing assessments for students.

Effective Lesson Techniques: Quadrant Analysis Demo Lesson
By using Quadrant Analysis to analyze images—an important skill to build comprehension—participants review and practice techniques from Teach Like a Champion (Lemov) in order to strengthen overall instruction.

Building Robust Vocabulary
Based on Bringing Words to Life (Beck, McKeown, and Kucan), this workshop trains participants in how to teach vocabulary effectively.

Writing Across the Curriculum: The Document-Based Question (DBQ) Approach
Participants review, analyze, and practice the steps of reading, research, and writing in order to design a reading/research-based writing assignment. This workshop answers the following questions:

  • What is “The DBQ Approach”?
  • How does reading relate to writing?
  • What skills do students need in order to read and write effectively?
  • What should students write about, and why?
  • What do students need to know and be able to do in order to write a compelling research paper?

How to Teach with Novels/Narratives
Using resources from The Literacy Cookbook Website, this workshop provides strategies and resources for how to teach novels (across the curriculum).

Again, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me at sarahtantillo@literacycookbook.com


Posted in Analyzing the Common Core Standards, Argument, Assessment(s), Close Reading, Comprehension, Curriculum, DBQ Approach, ELA Common Core Standards, Essential Questions, Events, Evidence, Explanation, Grant Wiggins, Inference, Lesson-planning, Literacy and the Common Core BOOK, Literacy Manipulatives, Literary Analysis Writing, Main Idea, Narrative Writing, Nonfiction, Novels, Paraphrasing, PARCC, Presentations, Professional Development, Quadrant Analysis, Reading, Reading Informational Text, Reading Literature, Research Writing, Resources, RPM Objectives, Socratic Seminars, Test Prep, Text Selection, The Literacy Cookbook BOOK, TLC Website Resources, Trajectory Analysis, Unit-planning, Using Data, Vocabulary, Vocabulary in Context, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment