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Archive for February, 2010

Differentiated Instruction: The What and the How

Rick,

… My point is that teachers need to be the ones making informed choices about how to differentiate instruction, not students. Student choice re: content and process is at best “the blind leading the blind.” I do agree with your practical emphasis on what works, as long as the teacher sets the agenda.

Mark Pennington (February 16th, 2010)

Mark,

I think there’s still room for a student’s sense of what he needs to learn to help teachers orchestrate the learning experience. For example, a student might claim that flash cards don’t really help him learn vocabulary so much as a another strategy does, and he’d like to use this other strategy. He asks the teacher about using this other strategy, and effective teachers usually say, “Let me get out of your way and let you learn.” If we’re not teaching the process itself, it doesn’t matter how students learn it, as long as they learn it well. We don’t want to limit students to our imagination. Students have important insights into their own learning that our curriculum and student overload doesn’t always allow us to see. This does not change the teacher’s agenda, and it would be a mistake to summarily dismiss such input from our thinking as we teach.

Rick Wormeli (February 17th, 2010)

Rick,

As a staff developer and district reading specialist for five years during the 1990s in Elk Grove Unified (the third largest school district in California), I had the opportunity to visit countless elementary classrooms. Student-choice learning including “Learning Centers,” “Free-Choice Fridays,” unsupervised “SSR” (student selected books with no accountability), “Learning Style” assignments in which kinesthetic learners acted out, rather than wrote essays, “Multiple Intelligences Learning” in which students could choose to create a written report, oral report, a song/rap, or create a model (countless sugar cube castles, DNA double helices, dioramas)… I could go on… were prominent features of many classrooms. Not only was a substantial portion of the daily content in the hands of students, teachers also devolved the methods of learning to their students via the “in” educational instructional fad which promoted student-choice learning. Reading test scores hovered in the 40th percentiles for years, especially in the middle and lower SES schools.

Enter a swing in the pedagogical pendulum, away from constructivist student-centered learning to teacher-directed, standards-based learning and away from whole language reading instruction to phonics-based reading instruction. Elk Grove Unified adopted Open Court® Reading—which utilized a scripted instructional block and “workshop” in which reading instruction was differentiated according to formative data. Most teachers, at first, hated the tightly-bound curriculum, and especially the differentiated “workshop.” Learning how to organize and implement differentiated instruction was very challenging. Both teachers and reading specialists experimented and shared successes and failures of their “workshops.” As teacher expertise improved, reading scores jumped within two years to the 60th percentiles and have remained there for a dozen years. Certainly, the change in the what of instruction mattered, but the how of instruction may have mattered more. Most of us credited the teacher-directed differentiated instruction of “workshop” as the key factor in improving student scores across all demographics.

Beyond that eye-opening elementary experience, I’ve taught sixteen years at the middle school level, eight at the high school level, and three at the community college level. From my own teaching experience, and (more specifically) the learning experiences of my students, I’ve gleaned a few more morsels about whether teachers or students should be in charge of the what and how of learning.

A nine-year-old, twelve-year-old, sixteen-year-old, and twenty-year-old all seem to share a few common developmental learning characteristics: First, most would take the path of least resistance to reach their goals. Few are mature enough to include learning skills and concepts as key components of these personal goals. Students want the grades and the related self-satisfaction; they want access to the next class and/or school; they want to keep their parents off of their backs–in other words, they are human. We were once as they are.

Our understanding of the characteristics and proclivities of our students should inform both the what and the how of instruction. Consider this: students don’t know what they don’t know. To devolve the what of instruction to student choice is to abrogate our responsibilities as the informed, objective decision-makers.  Teaching professionals know what our students do and don’t know. Furthermore, to delegate the how of learning to students seems akin to educational malpractice. Do we really want to entrust the how of instruction to an eight-year old student and agree that Johnny knows best how to learn his multiplication tables? Do we really want to allow middle schoolers to choose whether they can listen to their iPods® while they silently read Chapter 24 of their social studies textbooks? Students don’t know how to best learn what they don’t know. How could they? If they did know the how, they would already know the what, especially if what was perceived as relevant to their immediate wants and needs. They don’t. We teachers do best know how they learn. We have the training, results, and informed judgment.

Now, I’m not a stuffy autocrat who says “My way or the highway” and, of course, there is always another imaginative “way to teach this.” Sure, some choice can increase student motivation and “one-size fits all” ways to problem-solve or learn a concept or skill may not get the job done for some students; however, even these choices are most efficiently and effectively teacher-driven and modeled. For example, in composition, some students prefer to draft first and revise thereafter; others prefer to integrate the drafting and revision process. Wouldn’t a teacher-led “think-aloud” modeling these two composition processes make sense? Students learn which option or combination thereof works best for them through teacher direction, not from a sink or swim, work it out yourself, trial and error process. Far from “getting out of the way and letting them learn,” teachers need to actively direct both the what and how of the learning process.

Frankly, I am much more concerned about the what, than the how, in terms of differentiated instruction. If teachers buy-in to assessment-based instruction, based upon diagnostic and formative assessments, the battle is chiefly won and DI (differentiated instruction) is an easy sell. However, most teachers aren’t there yet. There are reasons that teachers resist differentiated instruction, and until teacher buy-in, the how of instruction is a relatively fruitless pursuit. When more teachers get there, we can continue the “skirmishing” re: student choice and the how of effective instruction and learning.

Mark

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics and include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) program.

Pennington Publishing's Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)
Grades 4-8 Programs

 

The author also provides these curricular “slices” of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) “pie”: the five Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits Grades 4−8; the five Differentiated Spelling Instruction Grades 4−8 programs (digital formats only); and the non-grade-leveled Teaching Grammar and Mechanics with engaging grammar cartoons (available in print and digital formats).

Grammar/Mechanics, Reading, Spelling/Vocabulary, Study Skills, Writing , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Reading Intervention: How to Beat the Odds

Shocking: Less than one-third of America’s high school students are able to read or write at grade level. Even more sobering: Fewer than one-in-six low-income students have these essential skills (Perie et al., 2005). In high-poverty urban high schools, only half of incoming ninth-graders are able to read at the sixth/seventh-grade levels (Balfanz et al., 2002). Overwhelming: Only one-of-six students entering middle school two or more grade levels behind reading skills ever achieve grade or age level reading ability.

What Has Not Worked

Ignoring the Problem: Some educators have mistakenly believed that because students learn at different rates, students will “catch up” in their reading as they become developmentally ready. We can’t afford to place our heads in the sand with this approach.

Wishful Thinking: Some educators have mistakenly believed that students will “catch up” in their reading when they are exposed to the “right” reading materials. “If only we could find an author or genre at Johnny’s level, he would teach himself to read.” Johnny needs much more than appropriate reading materials and self-motivation.

Reading Modeling: Some educators have mistakenly believed that if parents and teachers read enough to their children/students, they will “catch up” to grade level reading. Reading is all about content, but it is also all about skills. Remedial reading students do not learn to read by the process of osmosis.

Survival Skills: Some educators have mistakenly believed that once students master basic reading skills, say those traditionally learned by the end of third grade, they need no more “learning to read” instruction. So, the focus on “reading to learn” becomes hodgepodge survival skills which won’t equip students to read secondary grade level content.

“Canned” Reading Programs: Some educators have mistakenly believed that a “canned” teacher-proof reading program will be able to “catch up” remedial readers at the upper elementary, middle school, or high school levels. As the predominant means of remediating reading deficiences, has this approach worked? No.

What Can Work

Student-based Reading Instruction: Students who are reading below grade-level are the “highest risk students” in any school. Their special needs are not limited to reading difficulties. Low self-esteem, depression, and “acting-out” behavioral patterns are common. Responding to the whole child is a key ingredient in improving reading ability. See Social and Emotional Problems Related to Dyslexia.

Assessment-based Reading Instruction: Standards-based tests may provide a rough indicator of students with severe reading problems. However, when used as a sorting method to form “reading ability” classes, this mis-application of data does more harm then good. Proper diagnostic screening assessments are essential tools to ensure proper placement and remediation.

Teacher-based Reading Instruction: The most important variable in successful reading intervention is the teacher. The teacher must be placed in the key decision-making role, and not be made subservient to a “canned” curriculum that dictates what and how to teach. As a reading specialist, I have constantly had to push and prod administrators and district curricular specialists to support teachers in this role as the key decision-makers. All too often, well-intentioned administrators and curricular specialists have de-valued teacher professionalism. Despite the claims of reading intervention publishers and salespeople, there is no “teacher-proof” reading remediation. This being said, secondary teachers (usually English-language arts teachers by default) usually have little instructional reading background and have probably only taken one or two post-graduate reading strategies courses. True enough, but teaching professionals are expert learners and are motivated because they want their students to succeed.

Collaborative Commitment: Both administrators and teachers must avoid creating self-fulfilling prophecies. All too often, new teachers are selected to teach reading intervention courses. Rarely does a veteran teacher step up and demand to teach a reading intervention course. Only the “best and brightest” will ensure success of a reading intervention program.

Differentiated Instruction: The reading intervention teacher has to commit to the concept and practice of differentiated instruction. Each secondary student has different reading issues and will learn at different paces. Both content (the what) and the methods of instruction (the how) need to be adjusted to the needs of the students. These needs must be determined by teacher judgment of relevant diagnostic and formative assessments and not by the dictates of the “canned” curriculum. Any curriculum that does not afford the teacher with the flexibility to differentiate instruction will guarantee failure.

Flexibly Structured Reading Instruction: The structure of a successful reading intervention program must match this pedagogical approach to ensure success. If we are serious about improving the odds (one-in-six) of success for our “highest risk” students, course schedules must be built around the needs of students, enabling in and out transfers of remedial reading students to accommodate their needs. The needs of these students must be afforded the highest priorities to ensure success. Optimally, the reading intervention should be compensatory and not reductive. The goal should be to “catch up” and “keep up” these students. Substituting a remedial reading class for a student’s English-language arts class may do more harm than good.

As we move in the direction of affirming teacher professionalism with the evolving RtI process, we are beginning to emphasize a collaborative approach to determine how to best meet student needs. Here’s hoping that we reduce the odds of failure and increase the odds of success for these deserving students.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use—a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instructional levels. Get multiple choice diagnostic reading assessments , formative assessments, blending and syllabication activitiesphonemic awareness, and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 586 game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Phonics Books. These eight-page decodable take-home books include sight words, word fluency practice, and phonics instruction aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Each book is illustrated by master cartoonist, David Rickert. The cartoons, characters, and plots are designed to be appreciated by both older remedial readers and younger beginning readers. The teenage characters are multi-ethnic and the stories reinforce positive values and character development. Your students (and parents) will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Everything teachers need to teach a diagnostically-based reading intervention program for struggling readers at all reading levels is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, English-language learners, and Special Education students. Simple directions and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program, with or without paraprofessional assistance.

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Reading Strategies

Teaching Reading Strategies

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23 Myths of Differentiated Instruction

“Differentiation is simply a teacher attending to the learning needs of a particular student or small groups of students, rather than teaching a class as though all individuals in it were basically alike.”

“The idea of differentiating instruction to accommodate the different ways that students learn involves a hefty dose of common sense, as well as sturdy support in the theory and research of education (Tomlinson & Allan, 2000). It is an approach to teaching that advocates active planning for student differences in classrooms.” 
Carol Ann Tomlinson (2000)

Most advocates of differentiated instruction (DI) would certainly agree with Carol’s definition. However, educators who venture much beyond that simple statement may quickly part paths with their colleagues regarding how best to accomplish that mission in the classroom. DI is certainly not an easily-identified, monolithic movement. Indeed, the movement is multi-faceted. There is no DI uniform.

Educational organizations, publishers, researchers, and presenters have jumped on the DI bandwagon over the last dozen years and DI is now big business. Everyone tends to define DI in ways that best suit their pedagogical presuppositions and/or interests. However, the basic principles of DI cannot be co-opted by any group because DI is fundamentally just good teaching.

With Response to Intervention (RTI) now taking center stage throughout many school districts today, it is increasingly important to shed light on some of the key myths of DI. Teachers who have resisted implementing DI because of these myths may be encouraged to re-visit how they teach their students.

Educational Philosophy

1. Contrary to popular belief, differentiated instruction has not been completely kidnapped by constructivists. Constructivism is an educational philosophy predicated on the belief that learning occurs best when students construct their own “rules,” “mental models,” and “meaning-making” to integrate new experiences into their existing schemata and prior knowledge. As applied to differentiated instruction, constructivists including the likes of Carol Ann Tomlinson, Amy Benjamin, and Rick Wormeli, believe that students should be provided multiple options for taking in information and making sense of ideas and that teachers must adapt the curriculum or mode of instruction to the student. Many DI teachers fundamentally disagree with constructivism and believe that trained and informed teaching professionals make the best choices regarding what and how their students need to learn.

2. No, Howard Gardner did not invent DI. The theory of multiple intelligences has lost favor over the last few years. No brain scientist has yet found a “musical intelligence” section in the cerebral cortex. Many teachers who differentiate instruction do believe that students who haven’t yet learned certain skills need to be taught differently, but not necessarily because those students lacked a particular form of “intelligence” and, instead, need to learn via another of the seven intelligences.

3. Learning styles, multi-sensory instruction, and the importance of environmental preferences are long-standing educational constructs. All are based upon minimal research. Still popular with special education teachers, learning style inventories do not provide reliable diagnostics about how to differentiate instruction. Auditory and visual processing deficits can be diagnosed, but no research has yet demonstrated which instructional strategies work best for these learners.

Instructional Strategies

4. Some teachers and administrators reject DI because of the mistaken belief that DI rejects direct instruction. Nothing could be further from the truth. Much of DI instruction involves direct, explicit instruction as in pre-teaching concepts and/or skills or direct whole class instruction followed by small group and/or individual review.

5. A commonly held belief is that there is only one way to differentiate instruction and that is through small groups: heterogeneous cooperative groups or homogeneous ability groups. Small groups are certainly key DI instructional strategies, but not the only ones.

6. Many veteran teachers or special education teachers think that DI means individualized  instruction. Some picture SRA® reading kits with color-coded reading comprehension cards and  individual students anxiously lining up to have their work corrected by the teacher to see if they will advance to the “silver” level. Some DI teachers do individualize instruction, but many prefer other instructional methods.

7. Some teachers equate DI with open-ended assignments that focus on self-exploration, based upon student choice, such as with some components of Learning Centers or Writers Workshop. Some assume that DI classrooms are Montessori®-style “open classrooms” with self-guided, unstructured learning. Students only learn when the task is perceived as being meaningful or relevant. In other words, the curriculum is defined by the student. Actually, most successful DI teachers are excellent classroom managers, are extremely organized, and are very much in charge of student learning and the curricular content. DI classrooms may be student-centered, but they are very much teacher-directed.

8. Some have heard that problem solving, critical thinking, inquiry learning, and “big picture” learning are key features of a DI classroom. Some see visions of classrooms plastered with Bloom’s Taxonomy and Costa’s Levels of Questioning posters. Good differentiated instruction challenges students of all levels at all levels of thinking, but these characteristics and/or instructional methodologies are not exclusive to a DI classroom.

9. Interdisciplinary thematic instruction is not joined at the hip with DI. The flexibility and cross-over potential of this instructional approach may lend itself to DI strategies, but there is no necessary connection in the way that some advocates insist.

10. The authentic assessments movement has no hand-in-glove connection with DI. Some teachers who differentiate instruction do use authentic assessments; some do not. DI does not necessitate varying assessments according to the preference and/or perceived needs of individual students.

11. Many think that the “basics” are ignored in a DI classroom. Some have heard that only whole-to-part, deductive reasoning and learning are emphasized.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Much of differentiated instruction is skill-centered and inductively builds knowledge through layers of learning from basic to more complex, from part-to-whole.

12. Many teachers believe that DI requires different instruction, different assessments, different grading, and different assignments for different students. Actually, most DI teachers use the same instructional methodologies, the same assessments, the same grading system, and many of the same assignments for all of their students. Teachers may emphasize different instructional components, but many of the tools are the same for all students.

Who Receives Differentiated Instruction

13. “DI is only for students with learning disabilities,” some say. “Every child must have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and teachers are held accountable for adapting their instruction to the prescribed needs of each student. Response to Intervention (RTI) is all about the procedures to ensure that these IEPs are enforced.” Not true. Although “mainstreaming” or “full inclusion” models have placed students with identified (IEP) learning disabilities or special needs students back into the classroom, DI is not just for these students. DI is for every student.

14. “DI is only for heterogeneously mixed classes, not for tracked programs including remedial (intervention), regular, and accelerated (honors) divisions.” One of most ubiquitous beliefs about DI is the erroneous assumption that it is only intended for diverse classrooms. Although many teachers who practice DI fundamentally disagree with tracking, differentiated instruction deals with meeting the needs of individual students, not groups, per se. Thus, many teachers practice DI in very homogeneous settings.

15. “DI is forced upon teachers to meet the needs of Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) students in order to qualify for state funding.” There may be isolated situations in which teachers are required to differentiate instruction because they have identified gifted students in their classes; however, this would certainly be the exception, not the rule.

Curricular Rigor and Fairness

16. Advocates of DI may be surprised to hear that many think that DI eliminates standardized curriculum and cannot be standards-based. Actually, DI can be used to “catch up,” “keep up,” and “move ahead” students in reference to grade-level standards. In fact, teachers practicing DI usually reference their diagnostic and formative assessments to an established instructional scope and sequence, based upon state standards.

17. Some teachers, parents, and administrators think that DI “dumbs-down” the level of classroom instruction because kind-hearted teachers are loathe to “leave any child behind” and will slow the pace of instruction or adjust curriculum accordingly to ensure “success for all.” Actually, DI teachers tend to focus more on individual mastery of established objectives and less on whole-class mastery. Teachers who do not practice DI are more likely to “teach to the center,” in terms of the academic abilities of their students.

18. Many teachers believe that DI “pigeon-holes” students and lowers their self-esteem. Because DI does involve frequent diagnostic and formative assessment to adjust instruction to the needs of the learners, students become well-aware of their relative strengths and weaknesses in given academic areas. Instructional practices, such as flexible ability grouping, can contribute to this potential problem. However, sensitive and well-trained teachers need not succumb to creating negative self-concepts in their classrooms. And, pretending that students do not have different abilities and levels of skills mastery will not increase self-esteem. Improved self-concept, at least in part, derives from increasing expertise and reaching individual goals—exactly the instructional foci of differentiated instruction. Instead of lowering expectations by ignoring individual differences, DI raises expectations for individual students.

19. Some think that DI is inherently undemocratic. They say that the bright students or students with a strong work ethic get extra work or open-ended assignments to keep them busy while “freeing up” the teacher to spend more of her time addressing the needs of underperforming students, who get “modified” assignments, i.e. less work than “regular” or “accelerated” students. Or, worse yet, the bright students are recruited as peer tutors. Thus, industriousness is rewarded with more work and laziness is rewarded with less work. And grading is adjusted as the capstone to these foundational inequities. There may be some truth to this myth in many DI classrooms. The over-arching issue of fairness and how fairness is applied within the walls of the classroom reflect teachers’ personal political and pedagogical philosophies. Some, for example, would argue that it is inherently unfair that students are ill-prepared for their grade-level instruction through no fault of their own.

20. Students who are the beneficiaries of DI won’t be able to compete in the real world. Students not used to working to the highest standards will be ill prepared for gateway tests, such as the SAT® and ACT®. If students aren’t exposed to challenging, high-level skills and concepts, they will be doomed to failure. Actually, DI teachers try to bridge the gap between basic and advanced skills and concepts. They design instruction to help students “keep up” while “catching up.”

Teacher Commitment

21. Some teachers resist DI because they wrongly perceive that managing diverse instructional strategies and on-going assessments takes a genius. However, teachers of all ability and experience levels can begin differentiated instruction with proper training and support. Furthermore, DI is not an “all or nothing” proposition. Most teachers layer in different aspects of DI over years of instruction.

22. Some say that DI requires way too much preparation, assessment, correction, and record-keeping. This may have been a truism years ago, but clever teachers have since developed effective short-cuts to planning, assessment, and paper work. DI need not be a cause of teacher “burn-out.”

23. Some proponents of DI intimate that differentiated instruction solves all educational problems and ensures student mastery of key concepts and skills. However, you “can lead a horse to water, but you can’t always make him drink.” Some students exposed to the best DI will continue to fail.

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics and include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) program.

Pennington Publishing's Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)
Grades 4-8 Programs

The author also provides these curricular “slices” of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) “pie”: the five Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits Grades 4−8; the five Differentiated Spelling Instruction Grades 4−8 programs (digital formats only); and the non-grade-leveled Teaching Grammar and Mechanics with engaging grammar cartoons (available in print and digital formats).

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Teaching Essay Style: 15 Tricks of the Trade

“Never start a sentence with But.” Countless middle school and high school English-language arts teachers cringe when their students faithfully repeat this elementary school dictum. “Never use I in your five-paragraph essay.” Now university professors similarly cringe and shake their heads at the straight-jacketed rules placed upon their students. However, maybe there is a method to our madness. Perhaps these writing absolutes serve a useful purpose for coaching developing writers. Perhaps the little white lies that we teach our students are actually our tricks of the trade.

Instead of bemoaning past “bad writing instruction,” we should celebrate the fact that our students did remember these rules. After all, writing teachers of all levels are always shocked at how little transfer students make from grade to grade or from course to course. Anything that students retain from previous writing instruction can be used by resourceful teachers as “teachable moments.” Perhaps it’s time that we trust our colleagues that they understand best what works for their students at their age levels.

Teaching all of the seemingly arbitrary rules and enforcing them in student writing practice makes sense. As writers mature, 7-12 English-language arts teachers and university professors can encourage “rule breaking” with sly nods and winks. Without knowing the rules, developing writers cannot make informed choices about which ones to break and when they should break them to serve their writing purposes. In fact, the best writers are rule-breakers. E.B. White revised and updated Strunk’s Bible of writing style, yet he consistently chose to break the rules in his own writing. He knew enough to consciously deviate from the norm.

Writing teachers should worry more when their students unconsciously deviate from the norm. Of course, other forms of prose and poetry have their own stylistic rules to learn and break. But this article will concentrate on those of the essay. So, following is a list of the Teaching Essay Style: 15 Tricks of the Trade.

  1. Require students to write in a formal voice. No figures of speech, slang, clichés, abbreviations, flowery language, or contractions. Teach them to dress in a tuxedo or bridesmaid dress when they are in a wedding, not baggy pants or skinny jeans with flip-flops.
  2. Teach students to write in third person. It’s not that the I is inappropriate in all essays. The problem is that the use of the I requires a sophisticated rationale and limited usage. For example, qualitative research requires the I; however, quantitative research does not. Let the post-graduate supervising professors teach their students to break this rule. Furthermore, the “no I rule” forces a certain degree of objectivity and requires students to focus on the subject, rather than on the writer. These are the real concerns of K-12 and university professors.
  3. Teach students not to use their to reference singular non-gender nouns. Approving such sentences as “The student likes their classes” transfers to other more egregious pronoun reference problems as in “Those desk in the back of our room belong to them guy.” Also, no one likes reading he/she, him or her, s/he or the like. It does make sense to teach students to pluralize when at all possible, but the use of he or she throughout (please don’t alternate!) is no crime.
  4. Teach students to vary their sentence structures. “Never more than two simple sentences back-to-back and never follow a complex sentence with another complex sentence” will increase readability. “Have no more than 50% of your sentences follow the subject-verb-complement pattern” helps students focus on sentence variety.”
  5. “No more than one to-be verb per paragraph” will force students to avoid passive voice and strengthen nouns and verbs.
  6. Require your students to write in complete sentences. “No declarative sentences beginning with but, and, or, so, like, because, how, when, where, or why, unless you finish them” reduces fragments.
  7. “No unparallel verb structures” helps eliminate verb tense errors and awkward writing. For example, “Going to the store, to get some gas, and maybe have a cup of coffee are appearing on my agenda for today” can be eliminated with this rule.
  8. Require transitions between paragraphs. Sophisticated writers may have no need, but your students do to write coherent essays.
  9. Teach your students to choose simple words, not their weekly vocabulary words. Precision is better than pomposity.
  10. Demand specificity and do not permit generalizations, except in conclusions.
  11. Don’t allow your students to make parenthetical remarks. Most misuse these.
  12. Never allow repetition for emphasis. Developing writers do not have the skills to use this rhetorical strategy properly.
  13. Never allow double negatives. Students will confuse their readers.
  14. Teach students not to over-state evidence and to limit their conclusions.
  15. Teach students to place pronoun references close to their subjects to avoid ambiguity and dangling modifiers.

Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision andrhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum,Teaching Essay Strategies.

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Essay Strategies

Teaching Essay Strategies

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Grammar Instruction: Establishing Common Ground

Perhaps no instructional issue in English-language arts produces more contentious debate than the issue of how best to teach grammar. When most of us refer to grammar we mean the structure of the sentence, the components of the sentence, word choice, the order of words, style, and usage. Some will also include punctuation, capitalization and even, perhaps spelling in the grammar stew.

All too often we bog down in our discussion over the issue of instructional strategies. Should we teach these skills explicitly through direct instruction? Should we teach these skills implicitly at the point of student need? Should we teach these skills in isolation? Should we teach these skills in the context of writing? What are the most efficient and effective means of instruction? Which instructional strategies produce the most retention? How can we differentiate instruction?

It may be that we begin, but quickly end the discussion of how to teach grammar because in posing these questions we are placing the “cart before the horse.” Perhaps a more useful starting point for our discussion would be to come to consensus about what we expect students to know and when. Establishing a common ground on this issue can help us determine what to diagnostically assess in order to determine our students’ relative strengths and weaknesses. Only at this point does it make sense to discuss the instructional strategies that will address the needs of our students.

This goal of consensus can be easier said than done. Teachers are inherently protective of their own instructional sovereignty. We all enter teaching to be “queens and kings of our own castles.” We are, by nature, independent thinkers. Collaboration requires some levels of releasing that sovereignty and replacing some of that independence with dependence. Additionally, we are all afraid of exposing our deficiencies. Many of us have received little grammar instruction and less training in how to teach the skills outlined above. Colleagues can be intimidating. It’s hard to admit our weaknesses. Much easier to keep our ostrich heads in the sand regarding grammar and focus our efforts on what we do know.

However, for the sake of our students we need to acknowledge our “elephants” in the room and begin to trust our colleagues. A climate of collaboration can be nurtured among teaching professionals. This risk-taking climate takes time and requires sensitive leadership. Group norms need to be established and practiced to ensure success. But, the results will be worth the efforts.

What Should Students Know and When?

At first blush, teachers will latch onto to Common Core Language Strand Standards. Fine as a starting point and undoubtedly more rigorous than previous state standards which tended to emphasize grammar, usage, and mechanics instruction only in the writing context; however, standards only offer a basic blueprint for grammatical instruction. The devil is in the details. Defining these issues in meaningful ways that will impact both instruction and learning necessitates detailed conversations. We need to get specific.

It makes sense to establish a set of skills and expectations to be mastered at each grade level. Defining a specific year-to-year instructional scope and sequence (the Common Core Standards are far too generic) with colleagues provides a game plan and also defines the content for assessment. See the following author tag for a comprehensive instructional scope and sequence for Grades 4-8. These skills and expectations need to be hammered out in the context of vertical teaming and articulation. The complexity of English grammar and the recursive nature of grammatical instruction necessitate grade-to-grade level discussion and consensus-building.

At my middle school, we began the conversation with seventh and eighth grade teams. We then got release time to meet with our elementary and high school colleagues. We began the process of building a scope and sequence to help us move students from Point A to Point B to Point C. Our goals were to adopt a common academic language, establish grade-level expectations, and build in review to address the recursive nature of grammatical instruction. We found much more common ground on these goals than many of us had expected, especially because we have not addressed instructional strategies at this point of the conversation.

How Do We Know What They Know and Do Not Know?

Having agreed to 72 skills and expectations for our middle schoolers in our comprehensive instructional scope and sequence, we then began designing diagnostic assessments to inform our grammatical instruction. Our criteria for the diagnostic assessments included the following: The assessments must specifically focus on the 72 “common ground” components of our instructional scope and sequence. The assessments must be whole-class, easy-to-administer, easy-to-grade, and easy-to-record. The assessment components should be “teachable.” One such set of diagnostic assessments, based upon 72 “common ground issues” that we are using as starting points are my own multiple-choice Grammar and Mechanics Assessments.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Having established what students need to know and when, and having developed diagnostic assessments to determine what students do and do not know, the real fun begins. At this point, we are beginning the process of sharing the instructional strategies that seem to best meet the needs of our students. Explicit or implicit instructional strategies? How can we establish benchmarks to formatively assess skill acquisition?  How can we differentiate instruction, according to the results of our assessments?

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics and include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) program.

Pennington Publishing's Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)
Grades 4-8 Programs

The author also provides these curricular “slices” of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) “pie”: the five Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits Grades 4−8; the five Differentiated Spelling Instruction Grades 4−8 programs (digital formats only); and the non-grade-leveled Teaching Grammar and Mechanics with engaging grammar cartoons (available in print and digital formats).

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