4 Reasons We Just Can’t Break Up with Basals (& How to Finally Move On)

The typical basal-reading program lesson frequently boils down to something like this:

  • Assigned shared text read aloud.
  • Definitions of carefully-bolded vocabulary words copied down.
  • Comprehension worksheets filled out.
  • Students and teachers alike feeling bored to tears.

The truth is, putting kids through this kind of soul-less exercise will produce authentic readers no more than the mastery of connect-the-dots sheets will produce artists.

And we know it. Master teachers refer to the need to “finesse and hybridize” basals to make sure they’re effective. ¹ (which also makes basals’ claims at “research-based effectiveness” shaky since there’s real possibility they take credit for master teachers’ adjustments).

There are so many other ways to help our students develop the reading skills they need while protecting and nurturing their love of reading. Here are a few of the messages I believe we keep getting from basal program companies to convince us otherwise.

#1: Inexperienced teachers need me!

Basals assert that new teachers won’t be able to navigate the waters of literacy instruction without their careful direction. However, if our solution for offering literacy support to new teachers is to let them muddle through a sub-par program, we’re doing a disservice to both our teachers and our students.

Furthermore, even with all the details of a basal program (many of which supply ideas for differentiation, activating background knowledge, etc), “only a well-trained teacher can make the multifaceted decisions involved in developing such instruction”² anyway. Outsourcing this training to a one-size fits all manual is simply inadequate.

P.S. Going basal-free doesn’t mean you have to/should abandon a framework. One phenomenal example is a a workshop framework by Pam Allyn that I reviewed a couple years ago.

#2: You can’t be sure students will develop skills without my guidance.

In a workshop/units of study model, not only do students develop literacy skills, but they do so with a greater degree of context and response to the ongoing trajectory of student learning.

Meanwhile, basal programs tend to spend disproportionate amounts of time drilling specific skills, such as the ones involved in reading comprehension. Consider this:

“It is critical to note that these and other reading programs allocate as much or more actual time to rehearsing comprehension skills than they allocate to teaching any other element in their language-arts program…In reality, when children experience problems comprehending text, it is much more likely due to the child’s lack of knowledge of the subject matter…The notion that we can teach students a set of skills that they will be able to apply to new and unfamiliar texts or situations is a process that cognitive psychologists call “skills transference.” This is regarded as an inordinately difficult task for our brains to pull off and, therefore, is not a practical educational goal. But it is a goal set forward by every major reading program on the market.”³

In addition, even if students develop said skills, if they never apply them because all those basal worksheets suffocated their love of reading, what’s the point? As educator Ross Cooper wrote, “First and foremost, we must promote a love of reading, not a culture of literacy-based micromanagement.4

#3: You won’t have ready access to ability-appropriate text!

Twenty years ago, this may have been the case. But just consider this small sampling of today’s possibilities:

  • Shared texts via projectors/document cameras
  • Newsela (engaging, level-able text at the click of a button)
  • Wonderopolis (text based on “more than 90,000 Wonder questions submitted by users” and differentiation features such as selected-text-to-audio and hover-to-define-vocabulary)
  • DOGO (kid-friendly news that’s also leveled at the click of a button and includes assignments, vocab, and Google Classroom integration)
  • Savvy multimedia librarians that can help identify/pull relevant texts during the immersion phase of units.

#4: You won’t have as much time without me to meet students’ individual needs!

Basal models assume that most kids’ learning takes place right at the top of the bell curve, with “differentiation tips” for the few kids on either side of the curve. But the truth is, every journey is unique. The sooner we disentangle ourselves from all the micromanaged requirements of a basal, the sooner we can spend our time where it really counts: 1-1 conferences, responsive mini-lessons, mentor text studies, student ownership/agency, etc.

No matter what promises are made to the contrary, we need to remember that “there’s no simple solution, no panacea, or miracle cure for reading. The range of ways to solve reading achievement challenges is as broad as the range of student profiles.”²

Sources:

1. http://digitalcommons.brockport.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1507&context=ehd_theses

2. https://www.naesp.org/sites/default/files/resources/2/Principal/2009/J-F_p26.pdf

3. http://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Basal_readers.pdf

4. http://www.bamradionetwork.com/edwords-blog/3-reasons-to-rethink-your-basal-reader

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

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Provocation into the Power of Words

I recently came across the following image from one of my favorite comics, The Awkward Yeti, by Nick Seluk:

Language Emoji
via The Awkward Yeti, by Nick Seluk

The modes of communication have undergone such dramatic, exponential change in the past couple of decades that it makes sense that communication itself is also undergoing change. But even as language gets sometimes stripped away to basic emojis, it’s significant to examine the enduring principles of powerful word choice.

Resource #1: “The Power of Words”

Resource #2: “A Child Of Books” by Oliver Jeffers

via Amazon
via Amazon
via Amazon

Resource #3: Infographic by Grammar Check

5 Weak Words to Avoid & What to Use Instead (Infographic)
Source: www.grammarcheck.net

Provocation Questions:

  • What makes words powerful?
  • How does developing better word choice impact our lives? How does it impact our societies?
  • How is vocabulary use changing in the 21st century?
  • What is the relationship with words and language? How are they alike and how are they different?
  • How does powerful word choice impact message people share with their audiences?
  • How is powerful word choice relevant even as communication evolves?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

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3 Lessons from Blogging for More Authentic Literacy Teaching

I expected that this opportunity to blog regularly would bring benefits to my writing over time — if nothing else, at least train words to flow a little more easily as I typed more and more.

But I did not anticipate the powerful lessons about writing that would also come my way, lessons that I can and most certainly will apply when I return to the classroom. They all stem from a place of authentic, raw honesty about what it really means to be in that writing arena.

1 Writing elements and structure are not about ticking off a checklist; they are about making your writing more enjoyable to read. When I skip out on a conclusion on a post, I might have convinced myself at the time that the rest of the content was sufficient and that a conclusion would just be excess. But more often than not, I know that what it really came down to a “good enough” mentality.

When I return to the classroom and we’re breaking down those elements of good writing, we will search together for that sense of completeness. We will analyze how and why pieces do or do not feel quite right, and I will work to help them discover and seek out each of those elements for themselves.

2 “Write only what you alone can write” (Elie Wiesel) Most of us have probably heard some variation of this advice before. But it was only when I really started to take it to heart that I began to understand. If I stuck to writing just what I thought was supposed to go on an educational blog, or if I just wrote about those trending topics all the time, I knew my desire to write anything at all would dry up. The surest way of making writing feel like a burden is to deny it any sense of personal touch. After all, the entire point of writing is connection; if we never connect with what we write ourselves, how can we expect to find meaningful connection with our audience? 

I know that in the past, I have spent far too much time trying to help my students prepare for those state writing assessments or otherwise drilling template, soul-less writing. Even if those tests don’t go away, we can still prioritize the notion of identifying and conveying the messages within each unique individual.

Trust the authentic writing process. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just follow one linear, well-defined process and produce good writing every time? The above-mentioned state writing assessments would have had me and my students thinking so (and we worked hard to meet all those requirements — 1 thesis statement, 3-4 reasons, 3-4 details per reason, x # of transition key words, and on and on).

The reality is, the authentic writing process requires a lot of trust. Trust that as we live our lives and engage in the things that matter most to each of us, inspiration (those stories only we can tell) will come. Sure, the viciously practical part of me might prefer to have the next 6 blog posts all neatly planned and ready on the assembly line. But if I am to truly discover the rich stories and powerful observations woven into the fabric of real life, then I must engage with real life, compartmentalizing less and engaging more.

I’m far from a perfect blogger or writer now. But I know I can hope for greater capacity and joy in the future as I work to live and write as authentically as possible.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

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If You Give A Kid A Spelling List…

If you give a kid a spelling list…

…she will need words that are on a developmentally appropriate, differentiated level.

If the words are on the right level…

…she will want to break them down for patterns, connections, and language concepts.

If she is breaking them down for bigger concepts…

…she will want to know why spelling matters in general.

If you show her why it matters…

…she will want to take ownership over the way she practices it.

If she is practicing spelling with more ownership…

…she will begin to find more autonomy elsewhere in her learning.

This “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie” (by Laura Numeroff) thinking arose from reflecting on how spelling is great example of the need to challenge the status quo.

Spelling has looked the same for decades in many classrooms: everyone gets the same list on Monday, practices copying down the words throughout the week, gets tested on Friday.

This pattern often persists despite all we’ve come to know and continue to learn about spelling instruction and development (see the checklist for evaluating spelling programs on page 35 of this document by D.K. Reed at Center on Instruction).

Some of the most important changes include the following:

Instead of the same words, we should be differentiating. I enjoyed using the program, Words their Way for this purpose, as I was able to assess students within their individual stages of spelling. Quite apart from reaching students’ developmental needs, I also appreciate approaches that do not make spelling a one-size-fits-all situation that unfairly challenges only those who are below “grade level.”

Instead of mandating uniform spelling practice each day, we should be teaching students to recognize how to allocate their word study time. Even when spelling is differentiated, it will still come more easily for some students than others, which results in wasting valuable time. A framework that helped me adopt this approach was Daily 5 (for literacy; Daily 3 for math).  It was wonderful to watch my students make informed decisions about their learning time rather than just passively checking everything off the teacher’s list each day.

Instead of focusing on memorization, we should be helping our students break down and investigate each word. This better scaffolds students in their language acquisition, building upon their grasp on patterns in phonology.

When we step back to see an even bigger picture, we see that these changes are not only about better spelling instruction, but about broader 21st century principles including student ownership, inquiry, and personalized learning.

 

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

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What We’re Still Not Getting About How Teaching & Learning Has Changed

Last month, I followed Pernille Ripp’s 7th grade English class’ progress through a project on refugees. I even pointed to it in a recent post as an example of Twitter’s potential for learning. And on Tuesday, Microsoft shared a beautiful Youtube video of their experience:

After witnessing how all this learning and growing has unfolded, I was saddened to encounter the following comment on the Youtube video:

pernille-ripp-youtube-comment

It’s not the first time we’ve heard this kind of rhetoric, nor will it be the last. The “reading, writing, ‘rithmatic” camp is still alive and well.

However, what those who are of this mindset still don’t understand is that this is English in today’s world.

A world in which we’re flooded with false, misleading, and clickbait-y “news.”

A world in which current events no longer sit quietly in the morning paper, and instead are loudly debated at all times from the devices in our pockets.

A world in which the negative is amplified and distorted truths go viral.

So when the standards instruct us to “engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions with diverse partners on grade 7 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.7.1), is it beyond English instruction to tackle an issue that is very much a part of their lives?

Or when we’re to teach students to “Delineate a speaker’s argument and specific claims, evaluating the soundness of the reasoning and the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.7.3), is it beyond English instruction to seek out civility and compassion to help bring clarity to current events fraught with misinformation?

The truth is, we can’t just direct our students to the encyclopedia anymore. The volume and quality of the information our students receive every day from the Internet is staggering, and we simply cannot pretend that it does not shape their learning process. Especially since with greater global access comes greater global citizenship. Thus, dramatic is the difference between asking a student from 1990 vs. 2016 to “Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient to support the claims” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.7.8).

In the complexity of teaching and learning today, 21st century educators know that we are tasked to teach our students how to think, not what to think.

Or, as Pernille put it so well herself at the onset of this project,

“My job is not to make you think a certain way, my job is to make you think.  So whatever your opinion may be, all I ask of you is to have one based on fact, rather than what others believe.  Keep your ears open and ask a lot of questions.  That is the least you can do as the future of this country.”

Keep up the great work, Pernille, and all other teachers dedicated to helping their students make sense of this dynamic and exponentially shifting world!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

 

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Idioms that Don’t Translate & More for A Language Provocation

So embedded are our own culture’s idiosyncrasies that we generally take them for granted. This is particularly true when it comes to our idioms. That’s why, when I came across this list of 40 idioms that don’t translate on TED-Ed, I just knew it would make an intriguing provocation.

idioms
via TED-Ed

Other resources for students inquiring into language might include this animated map of “how Indo-European languages may have evolved:”

Or this video, also from TED-Ed on how our languages evolve (might be a little complex for younger students, but you never know…):

Provocation Questions:

  • Why do humans use figurative language?
  • How do you think idioms from certain countries are related to the way of life in that country?
  • How does language diversity affect our world?
  • How are human beings connected through language even when we speak different words?
  • How does becoming more fluent (readers and writers) in our own language help us? How does studying other languages help us?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

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What Happened When We Ditched Our Boxed Spiral Review Program (Mountain Math/Language)

I used to love Mountain Math and Mountain Language.  The spiral review. The simplicity of swapping laminated cards each week. The security of knowing my students were practicing concepts that could show up at the end of year tests.

ML in my classroom

During Independent Study time, students would grab a fresh answer sheet and try their hand at weekly examples of 20 grammar concepts (ie, parts of speech, dictionary guide words, spelling corrections, syllables), and about 22 math concepts.

However, the summer after my second year of teaching, I began to doubt. Was it worth the sizable chunk of time spent every week? Did it help struggling students to improve? Did it help not-struggling students to grow? Were there better ways to help them with retention? Most importantly, what was the big-picture program design more about: students becoming better readers, writers, and mathematicians, or standardized test drill?

As a fifth grade team, we reflected, and came to realize that while it did have some merits, the program was an opportunity cost for better things. We scrapped it cold turkey and worked together toward more purpose, more thoughtfulness, more curative effort, and more reflection.

What Changed in Language Arts

Wrap-Ups:

I was already committed by that point to wrap-ups for most lessons, but I became even more acutely aware of their necessity. Wrap-ups became a golden time for connection-making and conclusion-recording.  I began to be more mindful in helping my students highlight specific concepts that occurred naturally in our lessons.

Bulletin boards:

With the extra space, I got a second large bulletin board installed on my wall, and designated one for reading workshop and one for writing workshop. As we shared our connections and defined new concepts (especially during wrap-ups), we would record and display them on our bulletin board throughout each unit.  Not only did this serve as a helpful visual reminder as we built upon unit concepts, but the connections to grammar ideas became more organic–which resulted in greater student ownership and retention.
my literacy bulletin boards

Independent Study Shift:

Our school’s practice of dedicating about an hour of independent language arts study time underwent a gradual transformation over the next few years as we worked to identify better ways for students to practice language arts while teachers met with small reading groups.  Eventually, we realized that students could learn how to prioritize that time themselves, if only we gave them the tools to do so.  And so we adopted the Daily Five, which helped us lay out a better structure in teaching students to make purposeful choices for how they spend their time.  Choices included read to self, read with someone, word work, work on writing, and listen to reading. I loved the shift in the mentality even more than the shift in the program selection.

Mini, teacher-designed Grammar Practice:

We started to design and select our own mini-grammar practices wherever we noticed students could use extra practice. When I went on extended parental leave, this was still an imperfect process, but I was excited about the direction and potential for growth.

What Changed in Math

Because we did not rely as heavily on the Mountain Math program, things did not shift quite as dramatically in that subject. Our most tangible change was implementing mini formative assessment quizzes. This involved creating small, two to four question quizzes each day based on the previous day’s study, often throwing in one bonus review question.  As a result, we became more deeply and continually aware of the class’ understanding, and became better equipped to course-correct as needed.

What Changed in Me

In the end, this was a story about shifting ownership–both for my students and for me.  I became more aware my students’ needs because I did not just rely on a program to “cover” concepts. I became more confident in my students’ abilities to choose what mattered most for their own learning–especially as I searched out meaningful tools to help them learn how. The bar was definitely raised for us all, but I have found it to be one of the most worthwhile changes in my teaching career so far.

If you’re interested in other ways to challenge the status quo, check out our post, “What Happened When I Stopped Teaching History in Chronological Order.” 

Featured Image: Domiriel

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