Posts Tagged ‘Mark Pennington’

Don’t Use Mad Libs to Teach Grammar

Mad Libs: Not for Grammar Instrction

Don’t Use Mad Libs to Teach Grammar

This morning I woke up to the usual pinging of Pinterest pins. As a teacher-publisher, I use Pinterest to market my ELA and reading intervention programs. I normally create a few pins per day in those subject areas. As a result, my daily allotment of “Fresh Pins” are, of course, targeted to those areas.

One of those pins this morning was titled “12 Fun Ways to Teach Grammar in Your Classroom.” I’m familiar with the author and her products (quite good, by the way) and so I read her article. After all, who doesn’t want to add a bit more fun to one’s teaching? Her 12 ideas were contributed by other teachers, posting on her Education to the Core Facebook Group.

One of the 12 suggestions is MAD LiBS™. For the few who are not familiar with this game and published materials, now the property of Penguin Random House, the procedures and name were created and coined in the 1950s. According to Wikipedia, more than 110 million copies of Mad Libs books have been sold since the series was first published in 1958.

The Mad Libs format consists of a short story in which a number of key words are replaced with blanks. Under each word is some categorical term, such as a part of speech. The person who is it (the assigned reader) asks the others playing the game for an example of the categorical term, such as a noun.  The reader does not read the story, and so the other players must provide an example of the noun without any story context. The reader elicits word or phrase examples for the rest of the blanks until the story has been completed. Then the reader reads the story out loud, including the randomly chosen words. The results can be funny or not; the sentences and story may make sense or not. Usually, the results are a mixed bag.

In my own family, Mad Libs were standard road trip entertainment, along with the license plate game (looking for plates from different states), for our yearly car vacations. As a teacher, I naturally (and irritatingly) took advantage of each game to remind my three boys about the parts of speech and U.S. geography respectively. Notice that I, as the dad and teacher, had no control over introducing the content, but was restricted to reviewing or reinforcing previous learning regarding out-of-context Mad Lib categorical terms and whichever car or truck we passed or passed us on the highway. The reviewing and reinforcing were incidental. According to Merriam-Webster, incidental in this context means “occurring merely by chance or without intention or calculation.” Incidentally (the other definition of the word, meaning “being likely to ensue as a chance or minor consequence”), Hawaii is the hardest to find!

Certainly, both of these games exposed gaps in my sons’ learning (or their teachers’ instruction). However, because of the adhoc nature of the games, I certainly could not infer all of my sons’ grammatical or geographical gaps or determine how one gap related to other gaps. For example, if one of my sons came up with caves for the Mad Lib noun, did this mean that he understood the difference between proper and common nouns or the complete definition of common nouns as ideas, persons, places or things? I couldn’t tell you. The game provided no means of meaningful formative assessment.

Now, before you throw your vast collection of Mad Libs books into the school dumpster, I would continue reading just a bit more.

As a rainy day activity or carefully contrived review activity, teachers may find some merit in playing once in a while. The Mad Libs publisher even has a teaching resource page with a few fun games.

However, with respect to being one of “12 Fun Ways to Teach Grammar in Your Classroom,” (my emphasis) I would beg to differ. Mad Libs should not be used to teach grammar. Now some would argue that providing a context for incidental learning is, indeed, teaching. Some may suggest that many forms of incidental learning, such as vocabulary acquisition through independent reading are essential. Fair points, but incidental learning is effective and necessary in some academic areas, but not in others. Grammar, or the structure of our language, is not conducive to incidental learning. To argue that we should teach the structure of our language in an unstructured way is downright silly. You wouldn’t hire an architect to design a home who would forego blueprints and direct the contractor to “just start building from the front door and see what happens next.” Neither would you teach someone to play Monopoly by adding relevant rules only upon each role of the di. True teaching in some academic areas, such as grammar, needs a plan.

As an ELA teacher since the 1980s, grammar has always been an important component of instruction in my classroom. Not the most important component, but important.  As a teacher-publisher, I have created numerous products for teaching grammar, usage, and mechanics over the years with evolving instructional formats. On my Pennington Publishing store, I provide traditional programs, interactive notebooks, and literacy centers for both grade-level instruction (aligned to the Common Core Standards) and remedial instruction (focusing on the Common Core Progressive Skills Review Standards). All three instructional approaches make sense to me because they follow a coherent instructional scope and sequence. Each program begins with a plan and follows with lessons and activities designed to fulfill that plan. With respect to grammar, that plan is linear (it moves from A to Z), but it is also recursive. Instruction cycles back within each year and year to year to remind and reinforce and then to build upon past learning. The Common Core State Standards follow this approach with both grade-level and progressive skills review Standards.

What does not make sense to me is incidental methodology for teaching grammar. It’s teaching without a plan. It’s a road trip without a clear destination or without using a nav system. Incidental learning is the very nature of the Mad Libs game and is why Mad Libs should not be used to teach grammar. The game may provide some benefit and fun for learning reinforcement and review, but it certainly should not be a chief focus of the teacher’s instruction. By the way, Mad Libs is not the only incidental approach to grammar instruction. I would also classify Daily Oral Language (D.O.L.) as a random sample instructional approach. I would also say that the grammar mini-lessons approach, built around issues some students are facing in the context of their own writing would certainly falls into this category.

Want a full-year grammar and mechanics instructional scope and sequence for grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8?

Get the Grammar and Mechanics Grades 4-8 Instructional Scope and Sequence FREE Resource:


Teaching Grammar and Mechanics for Grades 4-High School

Teaching Grammar and Mechanics Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and High School Programs

I’m Mark Pennington, author of the full-year interactive grammar notebooks,  grammar literacy centers, and the traditional grade-level 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and high school Teaching Grammar and Mechanics programs. Teaching Grammar and Mechanics includes 56 (64 for high school) interactive language conventions lessons,  designed for twice-per-week direct instruction in the grade-level grammar, usage, and mechanics standards. The scripted lessons (perfect for the grammatically-challenged teacher) are formatted for classroom display. Standards review, definitions and examples, practice and error analysis, simple sentence diagrams, mentor texts with writing applications, and formative assessments are woven into every 25-minute lesson. The program also includes the Diagnostic Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics Assessments with corresponding worksheets to help students catch up, while they keep up with grade-level, standards-aligned instruction.

Grammar/Mechanics, Literacy Centers, Writing , , , , , , , ,

Teacher Hygge

5 Strategies to Teacher Hygee

Teacher Hygge

Everyone could use a little more hygge, especially teachers. You’ve heard about it and searched how to spell it, but what is it?

Essentially, hygge is the Danish (and some claim Norwegian) term for that moment in life when you sigh, smile, and say, “Life is good.” It’s the cozy, comfortable, and fun lifestyle. Some say that it derives from hugge, the old Norse word for hug. Hygge is not solely introspective; it is also other-focused. Hygge is about the individual fitting into the community. That’s my version of mindfulness. I call it “Summer Teacher Mindfulness.”

To achieve hygge, teachers need to recognize and take advantage of the rhythms of our teaching lives. Summer is the perfect time to play (not work) toward this goal with the five strategies of “Summer Teacher Mindfulness.” Now, put aside all the stuff you’ve heard about mindfulness training. No one has the copyright or monopoly on this term. It need not have a religious connotation, but it can and does so in a variety of religious practices: some Eastern and some Western. My concept of mindfulness is simple: Take time to decompress and restore a proper work-life balance. Take time to enjoy our profession and be re-encouraged about the importance of our career paths.

My five “Summer Teacher Mindfulness” strategies are simple to understand and implement: Relax, Re-group, Re-connect, Re-commit, and Re-train. No, I’m not writing a self-help book on these strategies; I’m no expert. These strategies are nothing new. Take them as reminders of what you already know to be true as a teacher. Notice, I don’t claim that these will work for every profession; I only know what I know as a teacher. Check out the article detailing these strategies here.

Summer Teacher Mindfulness and Hygge

Summer Teacher Mindfulness

Note that the sequence is important. It moves from an inward focus to an outward goal, taking care of yourself so that you can do so for others. Teaching is a sacrificial profession: we do give up some personal prerogatives for the benefit of our students. No need to list them here. But, learn the wisdom from Jesus’ words: “Love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39 New International Version). You can only sacrifice what you have to offer.

So let’s get practical here and talk about what teachers do during summer vacation. Yes, I know the term is an oxymoron. No teacher I know has the summer off. Some of us have other jobs to pay the bills. Most teachers spend some (or a lot) of their summer taking graduate coursework to expand their knowledge base (and improve their position on the salary schedule), or they attend professional development training. Most teachers also use the summer months for grade-level team or individual planning. Think curricular maps and lesson plans. My experience is that this process involves the latter three strategies: Re-connect, Re-commit, and Re-train. It’s the cart before the horse. How much better to learn and plan after the first two strategies: Relax and Re-group?

Beginning the summer in the right place makes the rest of our “vacation” go so much better. We re-connect with our friends, families, and colleagues in a relaxed state of mind with an openness to new ideas and fresh, out-of-the-box approaches. We are in the proper mental state to re-commit to the love of our lives: teaching and our students, and we can prepare for the newness of our fresh start to the school year by re-training with new things to try. Following the process is simply rejuvenating. That’s the feeling of teacher hygge.

After relaxing and re-grouping, want to re-connect, re-commit, and re-train without re-inventing the wheel? Check out these grade-level English-language arts curricular maps for you summer team and individual planning.

Curricular Maps for Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Summer Plannin’ for Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Summer plannin’ made easy! Day by day grammar, mechanics, spelling, and vocabulary plans for next year! A FREE curricular map completely aligned to the CCSS and ready to write in your planner. Want the grade-level CCSS alignment documents? They’re in there!

No need to re-invent the wheel this summer by applying the Common Core State Standards to your grade-level curricular mapping. For those “other than reading and writing” subjects we all need to teach (think grammar, mechanics, spelling, and vocabulary), check out these twice-per week curricular listings:






Following each curricular map are sample lessons from my own program (designed to teach each lesson in the curricular map), followed by the CCSS alignment documents.

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

Summer Teacher Mindfulness

Re-charge Batteries with Summer Teacher Mindfulness

Summer Teacher Mindfulness

It sometimes seemed as if it never would arrive, and then it showed up so surprisingly soon: summer! Built into every teacher is a certain life cycle, even if the teacher is teaching year-round, or (God-forbid) summer school. The anticipation of the weekends, holidays, breaks, and summer vacation is often more rewarding than the thing in-it-of-itself. This summer, let’s make the thing better than the lead-up.

I’m Mark Pennington, a teacher publisher and ELA teacher/reading specialist. Of course I want to sell you books, but I also care about my profession. Teaching is the love of my life, as it is for many of you. However, the research (with which I will not bore you) shows that more and more teachers are entering the profession with idealistic high hopes of truly making a difference in others’ lives, but crashing and burning within a few years. Even for veteran teachers, a 7, 17, or 27 year itch or even PTSD can threaten a meaningful career.

I’m not self-help guru, but I recently read an article in the Washington Post by Megan McDonough in which she highlights some of the thoughts of Finnish author, Miska Rantanen in his book, Pantsdrunk. Read that title again; you can’t make this stuff up.

I like people from Finland because one of my lifelong friends was a Finnish foreign exchange student back in high school and because everyone has heard that the Finnish educational system is the best in the world. My friend, Mika, says it isn’t, but that’s beside the point. Anyway, I saw the Finnish name, Miska, and decided to read the article. It’s about different cultural approaches to the latest American pop craze: mindfulness. The article confirms a few practices which I and some of my happiest colleagues have been doing during the summer to re-energize and re-charge.

All foreign language terms come from the Washington Post article.

One of the points of the article is that mindfulness means different things to different cultures. It’s purposes and practices can be completely different. It can also be religious or purely secular. If you are studying Zen Buddhism or the early Christian meditation practices, you will get different approaches and purposes. (The former’s goal is emptiness, while the latter’s goal is filling.) If you are a secular type, you may beg, borrow, and steal from either, any, or none. (My wife and teaching colleagues would agree that I’m an equal opportunity annoyer.) Anyway, the author’s purpose and mine is not to harmonize these different ideas of mindfulness and pretend that they are all the same. My purpose is to describe a few practices that seem to work for me and other teachers.

Since anyone with access to the Internet and a blog can coin a term these days, I’ll call it “Summer Teacher Mindfulness.” Since “Summer Teacher Mindfulness” is my own term, I get to make up my own ideas and practice. Join in if it makes sense to you. Teachers only. This is an exclusive club 🙂 like the staff-only bathroom.

Please feel free to add on your own ideas for each of these five steps in the comments section.

Summer Teacher Mindfulness? My take is that teachers need summer to Relax, Re-group, Re-connect, Re-commit, and Re-train.


It’s been a long year and you’ve worked hard. Perhaps no other profession is as emotionally draining. Non-teachers don’t understand how much students, colleagues, administrators, and parents take from you. Just like your phone, you have to re-charge your batteries. I say it’s okay to focus on yourself a bit. Didn’t Jesus say, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39 New International Version)? We focus on the first part, but can only do that well if we take care of the last part.

The Danes call their approach to a relaxed lifestyle, hygge (HOO-ga). They emphasize simple, cozy, comfortable living. Check out my related article, “Teacher Hygge” and learn how to take concrete steps toward living the good life. Nothing you don’t already know, but an encouragement to restore FUN in your life. Also, download my free grammar, usage, mechanics, spelling, and vocabulary curriculum maps in that same article to make your summer plannin’ easy.


Relaxing allows us to take stock of our lives, to put things in perspective, and to see ourselves as we really are (warts and all). I’m a reading specialist and so I think about a technique to improve comprehension called metacognition. Essentially, metacognition means to think about thinking. That’s re-grouping. It’s deliberate and may take a portion of your summer, but my view is that we often skip this step and move from a week’s vacation (Relax) to re-connect to0 quickly with others and our profession. If you’re doing lesson planning on your Hawaiian vacation, you are are not relaxing nor re-grouping.

For me, two practical steps of re-grouping are walking and reading. I jump full-throttle into these summer disciplines as soon as I’ve relaxed a bit. These recreational

Teachers and Ikigai

Ikigai for Teachers

disciplines do just that: they re-create. The Japanese re-group with nature through movement. They call it ikigai (Ee-KEY-guy), or “reason for being.” The Norewegians re-group by embracing nature and use the term, friluftsliv (FREE-loofts-liv), to describe open-air living. I imagine Norwegians really have to make use of their summers for this practice, given the gloom they live in for much of the year. As soon as I’m done with this article, I’m going on a short hike.


We can’t lead self-focused lives forever, nor should we. We are teachers. Our focus in the teaching profession is giving the who and what plus how. We give of ourselves to students. If you haven’t figured this out yet, you won’t last long in our profession. Teaching is all about relationships. But in the summer we need to practice building (and re-building) relationships. A teacher’s positive relationships with family, friends, and community statistically correlates with positive professional relationships. So call your mom; hang with friends; get to know an unknown neighbor and do some volunteer work.

The Dutch practice these social re-connections and term it gezellig (Heh-SELL-ick). I don’t think the Dutch have Facebook or Instagram in mind. It’s all about re-connecting in person.

Of course we do have to (let’s go with “get to”) re-connect with what we teach and how we teach it.


Before you re-connect with work planning, take time to re-commit. I’m serious. Every teacher needs a solemn ceremony (it may need only last until you finish reading this article) to re-affirm our contract. It’s like reciting wedding vows in a re-commitment ceremony.

Recently, I attended my niece’s graduation from nursing school. The graduation involves a group recital of the The Nightingale Pledge, named in honor of Florence Nightingale. It’s a modified version of the Hippocratic Oath. The recitation is followed by a pinning ceremony in which registered nurses receive a specially designed pin bearing the name of their nursing school. It’s a tangible reminder of their professional commitment.

My summer re-commitment involves taking out and contemplating a simple framed pencil drawing, completed long ago by a friend upon receiving my teaching credential from U.C.L.A. It’s a simple drawing of a classroom scene in which I’m sitting among my students. You have your own re-commitment ceremony, but do it. Remind yourself of the privilege it is to teach and your idealist commitment to do so when you first began your teaching career. You didn’t get into this profession for the money; although, the vacations are not too bad 🙂

Part of a teacher’s re-commitment should include a commitment to a balanced work and home life. The Swedish practice this balance, “not too much and not too little” in their cultural philosophy called lagom (lah-GOM). One practice of lagom, which I plan to incorporate in my “Summer Teacher Mindfulness” is a daily break involving either a hot beverage or a treat. Yes to both.


My strong advice is to do something new. Intentionally abandon some of what has proven to work for you and your students and try something different. For me, I’ve loved the flexibility of change within our profession. I’ve changed subject areas (history to reading to ELA), grade levels (I’ve taught elementary, middle school, high school, and community college), and schools. In the last few years I’ve tried literacy centers, interactive notebooks, Socratic seminars, and more. I’ve taken on new committee assignments and served on different district task forces. You get the idea. Change is good. We teachers love to learn and so re-training fills that need.

I will make one suggestion for re-training. Consider re-training your mindset from teaching to learning. Be about what and how students learn, not only about what and how you teach. There is not a distinction without a difference.

One way to focus on learning is to shift from a class to an individual student mindset. Here we go back to the relational component of our profession which I’ve already discussed. The best way to re-focus on the individual student’s needs? Assessment-based individualized instruction. That’s what my Pennington Publishing ELA and reading intervention resources are all about. Of course, we also teach grade-level Standards, but quick, accurate, whole-class assessments can determine what and how you teach to individual students. Want the assessments (absolutely free) that I use? Grammar and Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Sight Words and Syllables, Reading Fluency. Click below and I’ll send the assessment downloads with recording matrices to your email address. What a great way to re-train this summer!

Get the Diagnostic ELA and Reading Assessments FREE Resource:

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

Don’t Teach Grammar Mini-Lessons

Grammar Mini-Lessons

Don’t Teach Grammar Mini-Lessons

Don’t teach grammar mini-lessons for two reasons: this instructional methodology is implicit and ineffective.

Currently, the top Google search for “new research on teaching grammar” brings up this article from The Atlantic, written by Professor Michelle Navarre Cleary:

The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar

A century of research shows that traditional grammar lessons—those hours spent diagramming sentences and memorizing parts of speech—don’t help and may even hinder students’ efforts to become better writers. Yes, they need to learn grammar, but the old-fashioned way does not work.

Case settled? Not exactly. In educational research it is much easier to disprove than to prove. Educational researchers frequently employ the null hypothesis in their experimental design. In a nutshell, a grammar program research study might have the following hypothesis: “There is no statistical significance between the achievement of grade 8 students taught with such and such grammar program and those not taught with said grammar program as measured by such and such assessment over such and such a period of time.”

By design, any findings would have to be extremely limited and the control group, unless unexposed to any literacy activities in hermetically-sealed isolation chambers, would have so many variables that any findings would be questionable. Such has been the case with the century of research on grammar and usage acquisition and its transfer to writing. Two separate issues, by the way.

What the good professor is advocating is learning grammar implicitly from reading and writing, especially the latter. She suggests mini-lessons in the context of writing as a superior method of writing instruction (Notice: not grammar instruction).

We know that grammar instruction that works includes teaching students strategies for revising and editing, providing targeted lessons on problems that students immediately apply to their own writing, and having students play with sentences like Legos, combining basic sentences into more complex ones. Often, surprisingly little formal grammar instruction is needed. Researcher Marcia Hurlow has shown that many errors “disappear” from student writing when students focus on their ideas and stop “trying to ‘sound correct.’”

These grammar mini-lessons are part and parcel of the implicit instructional approach: “If you do something over and over again, you’ll eventually stop making mistakes and get gooder at the task.” It’s akin to playing Monopoly for the first time without reading the rules. No, you don’t eventually learn to play by playing and being interrupted by occasional mini-lessons on what to do when passing “Go.”

What’s Wrong with the Implicit Approach in Mini-Lessons?

  1. It is simply inefficient. Waiting to teach a mini-lesson as students need the grammatical tool always comes with this advice: “When you notice that some of your students are having capitalization issues regarding article titles, pull a group of students needing the instruction and teach the relevant rules.” Of course, other students may need that same instruction, but have not yet evidenced the problems in writer mini-conferences with the teacher. Furthermore, why not teach the capitalization rules for all proper nouns. You know you are going to have to teach another mini-lesson next week on the capitalization of song and poem titles. Lastly, the beauty of the Common Core State Standards is the grade-level expectations and the mastery approach to learning. The CCSS Language Strand has quite explicit grammar, usage, and mechanics grade-level Standards.
  2. It is haphazard and disjointed. A traditional grammar approach provides explicit, planned instruction. An isolated mini-lesson on combining sentences by starting with a prepositional phrase will not make sense unless students have a solid foundation of subjects, predicates (a prepositional phrase never includes the subject or predicate), the characteristics of a phrase and a complete sentence, the role of commas with introductory phrases, etc. All other academic disciplines build upon foundations: no math teacher would do a mini-lesson on long division before teaching the multiplication tables.
  3. It does not connect to other  language instruction. An isolated mini-lesson on semi-colons does not connect to related lessons on comma-conjunction rules, independent and dependent clauses, the use of phrases in lists, etc. The amount of scaffolding required to teach a mini-lesson on mis-use of the semi-colon is significant. Interestingly, the most popular approach to grammar, usage, and mechanics instruction, Daily Oral Language, is at the forefront of criticism by those favoring the mini-lesson approach for not connecting to other language instruction. See my article “Why Daily Oral Language (D.O.L.) Doesn’t Work” for more.
  4. It falsely teaches students that grammar is an editing skill alone. Aside from the sentence combining practice, advocates of the mini-lesson approach teaches students that grammar, usage, and mechanics instruction is all about mistakes, rather than about tools to enrich speaking and writing.

Why Are Grammar Mini-Lessons So Ineffective?

  1. There is no corroborating research. Those advocating the relegation of grammar, usage, and mechanics instruction to mini-lessons have zero research studies to confirm a positive correlation with this approach on either grammar or writing assessments. It’s easy to throw stones at traditional grammar approaches, but it does not follow that mini-lessons are the best and only alternatives. The professor in The Atlantic article only cites anecdotal evidence that learning grammar from writing does, indeed, work.
  2. We’ve been there and done that. Decades of ignoring explicit grammar instruction have not seen increased reading or writing ability in our students. The Common Core authors in Appendix A crush the notion that implicit instructional approaches produce better results than explicit ones. Hence, the unpopular (among grammar mini-lesson fans) inclusion of a separate Language Strand. Even the most recent National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) position statement in the NCTE Guideline now stresses the importance of direct instruction in these areas (even including parts of speech and sentence diagramming) with the caveat that instruction must be connected to reading, writing, and speaking. Regarding instructional approaches, the NCTE position might surprise some die-hard anti-grammar fanatics.
  3. There is less grammar teaching in mini-center classrooms. It’s just true. Those who use mini-lessons devalue the important contributions that grammar, usage, and mechanics instruction bring to developing readers and writers. Or, as is often the case, teachers did not learn grammar as students and did not learn how to teach grammar, usage, and mechanics in teacher preparation classes. Grammar can be scary and teachers seek their own instructional comfort levels.
  4. This instructional philosophy trickles into other language instruction. The implicit instruction of grammar mini-lessons bleeds into other areas of language instruction. Typically, those who teach grammar mini-lessons follow suit in vocabulary instruction. Again, the days of teaching only vocabulary in context and assorted mini-lessons on context clues has not done the job. The Common Core State Standards require a variety of direct vocabulary instruction at each grade level to improve the academic language of our students. See an example of the Vocabulary Acquisition and Use Standards, again found in the Language Strand to see if these Standards are conducive to a mini-lesson approach (They are not). In reading instruction we abandoned the “whole to part” strategy years ago following the 1985 National Reading Panel Report with its reading research consistently supporting the explicit, systematic approach to reading development. Interestingly, many teachers who now teach direct vocabulary and reading instruction have hung on to the implicit approach to grammar, usage, and mechanics instruction.

Of course, teachers want to know how best to teach grammar, if mini-lessons do not work. No, there are other alternatives beyond simply passing out drill and kill worksheets or DOL. Check out my article, “Grammar and the Common Core” and my grades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and high school Teaching Grammar and Mechanics programs.

Grammar/Mechanics, Literacy Centers, Spelling/Vocabulary, Study Skills, Writing , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Dyslexia Is Not Real

Dyslexia Does Not Exist

Dyslexia Is Not Real

The International Literacy Association (ILA) recently (2016) released a position paper on dyslexia. The paper is mildly critical of those who tend to attribute reading difficulties to dyslexia. The paper, like many organizational position statements, pitches a few softballs at the International Dyslexia Association (IDA).

The IDA fired back with its own critique of the ILA’s position paper. In its response, the IDA criticizes what it perceives as misinterpretations of the research studies regarding dyslexia.The game quickly changed from softball to hardball.

The ILA had its ducks in a row (Was the organization anticipating a response from the IDA?) and tore into the ILA’s critique with an addendum to its original position paper: “Dyslexia: Response to the International Dyslexia Association.” In the addendum the ILA questions whether dyslexia is, indeed, a diagnosable condition, disputes the IDA’s advocacy of a one-size-fits-all solution to reading problems, i.e., systematic, explicit phonics instruction, and advocates abandoning the term, dyslexia, altogether. Quite a strong position paper from such a venerable reading institution!

As a reading specialist, I whole-heartedly agree with the International Literacy Association, even though I provide a strand of systematic, explicit phonics instruction in my own reading intervention program (among other approaches to reading remediation).

Why dyslexia is not real and why educators should stop using the term.

The International Dyslexia Association offers a variety of definitions regarding dyslexia (bolded terms mine):

“Dyslexia is a neurological condition caused by a different wiring of the brain. There is no cure for dyslexia and individuals with this condition must learn coping strategies” (

“Dyslexia is, above all, a condition that impedes reading acquisition” (

Essentially, in these two definitions the IDA uses condition as if dyslexia is an identifiable, measurable reality. It is not. When advocates of dyslexia trot out brain scans of struggling readers purportedly with this condition and compare to different-looking scans of good readers, they beg the question. In other words, they assume what has not yet been proven. We know so little about the brain and to attribute brain abnormalities to dyslexia is simply poor science.

And such a strange use of the term, condition! By way of contrast, sunburn is a good example of a real, identifiable, and measurable condition. It can be diagnosed with reliable and valid measures. It is positively correlated with overexposure to ultra violet rays. It has predictable effects: pain, increased body temperature, and sometimes chills. It can be treated with aloe vera (some claim) and heals over time. It can be prevented by using sunscreen. Sunburn has all the qualities of a real, identifiable, measurable condition; dyslexia does not.

Following is another more detailed definition of dyslexia, adopted by the IDA Board of Directors, Nov. 12, 2002 (bolded terms mine):

Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge (

Notice the multiplicity of reading problems purportedly attributed to dyslexia. Any first year grad student knows the unlikelihood of establishing a statistically significant correlation between a single cause and more than one effect. Just as any savvy consumer knows how to spot an invented condition by its wide variety of effects (effects which just so happen to be shared by many of us).

For example,

In 1990, E. Denis Wilson, a medical doctor in Florida invented what he modestly called “Wilson’s Temperature Syndrome” –a new condition he claimed was widespread, and causing a huge array of symptoms: fatigue, headaches, irritability, fatigue, dry skin, asthma, allergies and more. Wilson claimed his condition could be diagnosed by measuring body temperature. A lower than normal temperature confirms the diagnosis. According to Wilson, it was the slight reduction in body temperature that apparently causes the body’s metabolic pathways to function-sub-optimally, causing the vague symptoms reported. Your medical doctor doesn’t diagnose Wilson’s Temperature Syndrome because it’s a fake disease (

To popularize invented conditions, proponents frequently promote simplistic diagnostic tests. Of course, I tested positive (as will most people) on the “Wilson Temperature Syndrome” test. By the way, I also tested border-line positive on the International Dyslexia Association’s “Dyslexia Self-Assessment for Adults” (Fran Levin Bowman, M.Ed. & Vincent Culotta, Ph.D., Copyright, 2010, All Rights Reserved).

Such tests lend credence to the notion that the condition is more prevalent than many would believe. The “you are not in this alone” assurance tends to be a key marketing strategy. The International Dyslexia Association claims that “Dyslexia affects 1 in 10 individuals, many of whom remain undiagnosed and receive little or no intervention services” (

Wilson recommended the use of thyroid hormone (T3) to treat his syndrome. Note that an invented condition always seems to have a snake-oil cure-all.

Magic Elixir for Reading Problems

Snake Oil Cure-All for Reading Problems

The International Dyslexia Association has systematic, explicit phonics instruction as its treatment and plenty of resources in its website’s bookstore.

But why not simply agree to use the term, dyslexia, as a catch-all word for reading problems? Indeed, many reading teachers and reading specialists have chosen to adopt this definition to make peace with their special education colleagues (who tend to view dyslexia as a learning disability). As an aside, many in the homeschooling movement have also bought into the dyslexic diagnosis as a key reason why some students have not achieved reading or math success in the public schools.

It would be tempting to do so; however, continuing to use this term, dyslexia, is counterproductive. The IDA’s classification of dyslexia as an incurable learning disability precludes using the term as a convenient synonym for reading problems. Although many struggling readers are certainly well-served with the explicit, systematic phonics approach advocated by those in the dyslexic camp, this instructional remedy and others should not be promoted as mere coping mechanisms. Reading specialists and reading intervention teachers know that targeted, assessment-based instruction can cure reading problems, not just provide simple band-aids.

To close, I agree with the conclusion of the International Literacy Association in its position paper addendum responding to the criticisms of the International Dyslexia Association:

“In other words, there is no empirical basis for the use of the term dyslexic to distinguish a group of children who are different from others experiencing difficulty acquiring literacy (“Dyslexia: Response to the International Dyslexia Association“).

Reading is a complex and multi-faceted process. Let’s abandon the use of dyslexia–an artificial and counterproductive construct with no research base.


Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. My own snake oil to sell 🙂 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 instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activitiesphonics workshops (explicit, systematic phonics instruction) with formative assessments, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable eBooks (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each book introduces focus sight words and phonics sound-spellings aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Plus, each book has a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns, five higher-level comprehension questions, and an easy-to-use running record. Your students 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.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Or why not get both programs as a discounted BUNDLE? Everything teachers need to teach an assessment-based reading intervention program for struggling readers is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program.

What do teachers have to say about the program?

I just visited your website and, oh my, I actually felt my heart leap with joy! I am working with one class of ESL students and two classes of Read 180 students with behavior issues and have been struggling to find methods to address their specific areas of weakness. I am also teaching three senior level English classes and have found them to have serious deficits in many critical areas that may impact their success if they are attending college level courses in a year’s time. I have been trying to find a way to help all of them in specific and measurable ways – and I found you! I just wanted to thank you for creating these explicit and extensive resources for students in need. Thank you!

Cathy Ford

By the way, I got Sam and Friends a few weeks ago, and I love it. I teach ESL in S Korea. Phonics is poorly taught here, so teaching phonics means going back to square one. Fortunately, Sam and Friends does that and speeds up pretty quickly. I also like that I can send it home and not charge the parents – we all love that.  I like it a lot! It’s also not about something stupid, like cats and dogs. 

Joseph Curd

I work with a large ELL population at my school.Through my research in best practices, I know that spelling patterns and word study are so important. However, I just couldn’t find anything out there that combines the two. The grade level spelling program and remediation are perfect for my students. 


Literacy Centers, Reading, Spelling/Vocabulary , , , , , , , , , , ,

Teacher Talk Top 60

What Teachers Say

Teacher Talk

We’ve all heard them; most of us have all said them. Every profession has its share of cringeworthy and overused chatter: snarky comments, self-promoting babble, passive-aggressive suggestions, unwanted offers of support, gossipy grumblings, better-than-thou judgments, guilt-you-into observations, and shift the blame remarks. For teachers it’s in the staff room, in the work room, in the pod, in 504 meetings, in parent conferences, in admin evaluation meetings. Following are my Top 60. Would love to hear more of your favorites.

  1. “I’m counting the days.”
  2. “Why can’t they go to the bathroom during their preps?”
  3. “It sounds like your kids are having a lot of fun today in your class; I can hear it in my room.”
  4. “There is no in team.”
  5. “I don’t teach to the test.”
  6. “Did anyone borrow some of my soda in the fridge?”
  7. “Do you have a lot of copies to make?”
  8. “I wish I could pull-off wearing that outfit of yours.”
  9. “I just cleaned out the microwave last week.”
  10. “We tried that years ago.”
  11. “Would you watch my class for a minute?”
  12. “It’s a research-based strategy.”
  13. “I’ve got to get a real job.”
  14. “That sub did not follow my lesson plan.”
  15. “I know you must have taught ___________ last year, but the kids don’t know it.”
  16. “Back in the day…”
  17. “That’s funny; he behaves just fine for me.”
  18. “I never use drill and kill worksheets.”
  19. “You can do it during your prep.”
  20. “You need to differentiate instruction.”
  21. “The district says that…”
  22. “Can I sneak in to make just one copy?”
  23. “Have you met his parents? Now wonder that kid is messed up.”
  24. “It looks like you could use some help.”
  25. “I graded essays all weekend.”
  26. “You look tired today.”
  27. “Let’s review our group norms.”
  28. “I teach the whole child.”
  29. “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”
  30. You need to handle these accommodations.”
  31. “You’re so smart giving a multiple-choice test for your final; I’m stuck grading all of these essays.”
  32. “We support you 100%.”
  33. “I teach to the Standards.”
  34. “We’re role models.”
  35. “Those who can’t do, teach; those who can’t teach, teach P.E.”
  36. “Does anyone have anything to teach this afternoon?”
  37. “They want us to carry guns, but they won’t trust us to control our own thermostats.”
  38. “Thank you in advance for your help.”
  39. “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission.”
  40. “I’ll be done in just a minute.”
  41. “I’ve just got too much on my plate.”
  42. “Is it ___________ Break yet?” Thanksgiving, Winter, Spring, Summer
  43. “I use group work all the time.”
  44. “I run 12 literacy centers every day.”
  45. “Does anyone have an agenda for this meeting?”
  46. “I have to leave a bit early today. My kids…”
  47. “Hmmm… What Standards are you teaching to?
  48. “Could I pick your brain on this?”
  49. “It’s all about the kids.”
  50. “You need to work smarter, not harder.”
  51. “I wish I knew how to spend less time grading like you do.”
  52. “We have to learn to do more with less.”
  53. “They cut down our custodial time again?”
  54. “The problem is I care too much.”
  55. “She’s not working up to her potential.”
  56. “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.”
  57. “This class is really bad (low) this year.”
  58. “Can you believe what admin wants us to do now?”
  59. “I follow best practices in my teaching.”
  60. “That’s the way we’ve (I’ve) always done it.

Mark Pennington is the author of assessment-based ELA and reading intervention curriculum for grades 4-high school students. Check out Pennington Publishing for the finest in teacher-created curriculum, over 600 useful articles with FREE resources, and FREE assessments. Don’t forget to enter discount code 3716 at check-out for 10% off your entire purchase.

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

Literacy Centers for Grammar and Mechanics

The Language Conventions Academic Literacy Center

Language Conventions Academic Literacy Center

The Language Conventions Academic Literacy Center Grades 4–8 (eBook) program provides 56 grammar and mechanics lessons, designed to teach the first three Language Standards (the L.1, 2, and 3 alignment documents for grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 follow the lessons). Each Grammar and Mechanics lesson consists of four pages and takes 20 minutes to complete collaboratively within the literacy center.

You and your students will love these rigorous, interactive lessons. This is a full year, twice-per-week program that will produce measurable results. You, your students, their parents, and administrators will see these results on the biweekly unit tests in which students are required to define, identify, and apply the grammar and mechanics rules, concepts, and skills they have learned in the Language Conventions Academic Literacy Center.

The first lesson page is in the interactive Cornell Notes format and provides the content and skills in the Mechanics Notes and Grammar and Usage Notes sections. The Links and Response sections provide online resources for additional grade-level practice. Space is provided in this section for students to list key ideas, comment, make connections, and write questions. Additional space is provided at the bottom of the lesson for students to summarize the key mechanics and grammar content or skills.

The second lesson page duplicates the lesson text of the first page, but adds examples for the students to copy in the spaces provided on the first page. The Links and Resources sections provide online resources for extended learning (acceleration) and additional practice (remediation). If your students have access to phones, tablets, or computers, they will love the links to songs, videos, chants, and you will love the extra practice resources (over 100 resources).

The third lesson page provides students with practice for both the mechanics and grammar content and skills. Students individually apply the lessons with identification, error analysis, sentence revisions, and sentence combining in the writing context.

The fourth lesson page consists of the practice answers. Students self-correct as a group to learn from their mistakes.

All the literacy center support materials are included: Group Norms Poster, Leadership Roles Poster, Literacy Center Signs, Literacy Center Task Cards, and 10 Rotation Options. Plus, easy-to-follow directions to ensure your success.

You and your students will see measurable progress in their speaking and writing as you use these well-crafted lessons.


WANT TO TRY BEFORE YOU BUY? Download and teach the first 8 Language Conventions Academic Literacy

Grammar and Mechanics Academic Literacy Center

Language Conventions Academic Literacy Center

Center lessons . Click the link following the product description HERE.

We are confident that once you preview or test-drive this quality program, you’re going to buy the full-year Language Conventions Academic Literacy Center.

Add this literacy center to your own rotation of literacy centers or combine with my full-year, 20-minute, twice-per-week, Standards-based grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 Academic Literacy Centers, which include 1. Reading: Reading Fluency and Reading Comprehension 2. Writing: Sentence Revision and Literary Response 3. Language Conventions: Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics 4. Vocabulary: Vocabulary Worksheets and Vocabulary Study Games 5. Spelling and Syllabication: Conventional Spelling Rule Spelling Sorts and Syllable Practice 6. Study Skills: Goal-Setting, Essential Study Skills, and Reflection/Application. Make sure to check out the value-priced Academic Literacy Centers BUNDLES for grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8.

Also take a look at my four Remedial Literacy Centers for grades 4-8 intervention. Each center provides comprehensive diagnostic and formative assessments with corresponding literacy center lessons. These full-year, 20-minute, twice-per-week remedial centers fit perfectly within the group rotations provided with the Academic Literacy Centers: 1. Remedial Spelling Literacy Center 2. Remedial Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics Literacy Center 3. Phonics Literacy Center 4. Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. Make sure to check out the value-priced Remedial Literacy Centers BUNDLE. Help your students catch up while they keep up with grade-level instruction.

You and your students will love these literacy centers!

Prefer more traditional grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 grammar programs with mentor texts, simple sentence diagrams, formative assessments, plus diagnostic assessments and over 100 corresponding remedial worksheets? Check out our grade-level specific series:Teaching Grammar and Mechanics.

Or are you into interactive grammar notebooks? You’ve got to check out our grades 4-8 Teaching Grammar and Mechanics Interactive Notebook with Cornell Notes, grammar cartoons, online resources, writing application, and fantastic 3D graphic organizers for each of the 56 lessons.

Grammar/Mechanics , , , ,

RtI Reading Assessments

FREE RtI Reading Assessments

RtI Reading Assessments

From time to time I get questions from potential customers or competitors regarding Response to Intervention reading assessments. Customers ask me about the assessments included in my Teaching Reading Strategies reading intervention program and accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. (Don’t worry… the usual book advertisement will follow the article :).) Competitors (fellow teacher-authors and educational publishers who are developing their own Response to Intervention resources ask as well. Two such questions came my way recently, so I thought I’d answer each in this article to save myself from similar future responses. Bear with a few technical definitions, a bit of historical educational context, and some personal experience and I’ll reward you with a set of useful phonemic awareness and reading assessments for your tiered RtI classes, early-late reading programs, individual tutoring, and literacy centers. Of course ESL, ELD, and special education teachers are critically important in this discussion as well. Gone (or at least going) are the “protect your own program castle” mentalities which separated these teachers from whole-school Response to Intervention.

Here are the two questions regarding my reading intervention program:

Q. Are your assessments and teaching resources Standards-based? Are they specifically aligned to the Common Core State Standards? (from an elementary principal)

A. Yes, my assessments and corresponding teaching resources are aligned to the Common Core State Standards as detailed in Appendix A. Because the assessments and resources are remedial-based, they encompass multiple grade-level Standards and the prerequisite skills articulated by the Common Core authors that are necessary to scaffold these Standards.

No, I didn’t get an order from that principal.

Q. What types of assessments should I create for my reading programs? (from a teacher-author on the Teachers Pay Teachers site).

A. It depends upon what teaching resources you are creating for your curriculum. My teaching resources are assessment-based, so I developed criterion-referenced, comprehensive diagnostic assessments for discrete, teachable pre-reading and reading strategies, such as phonemic awareness, phonics, sight words, syllabication, spelling, and reading fluency in my Teaching Reading Strategies reading intervention program with formative assessments for each lesson. I provide teacher-observation assessment in my accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. In these 54 booklets (includes teenage characters with mature plot themes), teachers assess and teach understanding with 5 comprehension questions; teachers assess phonics and sight words acquisition via 30-second word fluencies; and teachers use custom running records for each story.

How I developed the pre-reading and reading assessments:

Years ago I served as an elementary reading specialist in a large California school district following the demise of the “whole language” method of reading instruction and the resurgence of phonics (at least in the South and West) after the National Reading Panel 2000 report. As our district made the move away from whole language to the K-3 phonics-based Open Court curriculum (with intense professional development), our primary reading scores quickly moved from the 45th to 75th percentiles on our normed state assessments.

Grades 4 to adult teachers, exposed to the same reading professional development, wanted help, as well, for their struggling readers. Our existing diagnostic assessments: the Names Test, Basic Phonics Skills Test, the Slosson Oral Word Recognition Test, etc. were normed tests and indicated which students had phonics deficits. The 15-word Qualitative Spelling Inventory (think Words Their Way) indicated which student had spelling deficits. Older struggling readers were not hard to identify and most all had significant phonemic awareness and/or phonics/spelling deficits. As a site reading specialist, I trained teachers to administer and analyze all of these assessments (and more). One teacher expressed what they all were thinking.

Why should I have to give and grade all these normed tests when I already know which kids need help in their reading? The tests don’t tell me what exactly I need to teach. Give me an assessment that is teachable and I’ll give it, grade it, and teach to it… but I want the instructional resources to do so.

She was exactly right, and her request was reasonable.

Over the next five years, I developed and field-tested these comprehensive phonemic awareness, phonics, rimes, spelling, and sight words assessments. Most of the assessments have audio files for easy whole-class (or small group) administration. Recording matrices are included.

And, yes, I developed the assessment-based instructional resources to teach to each assessment.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading StrategiesDesigned 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 instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activitiesphonics workshops with formative assessments, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable eBooks (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each book introduces focus sight words and phonics sound-spellings aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Plus, each book has a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns, five higher-level comprehension questions, and an easy-to-use running record. Your students 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.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Or why not get both programs as a discounted BUNDLE? Everything teachers need to teach an assessment-based reading intervention program for struggling readers is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program.

What do teachers have to say about the program?

“This is just what I need! I have been searching for a resource to help my middle school SPED kiddos catch up to their peers and I can’t wait to implement this incredible product in my classroom!!!” Rating: 4.0

Reading, Spelling/Vocabulary , , , , , , , , , , , ,