Archive for January, 2010

Response to Intervention: What Just Won’t Work

Having served as a reading specialist at elementary, middle, and high school levels (and even part-time at the community college level), I have taught numerous reading and writing intervention courses and trained teachers to doing so. With the new emphasis on Response to Intervention (RtI) voices of real-world teaching experience need to begin shouting quickly and boldly to be heard. Although I commend the International Reading Association (IRA) for assigning reading assessment a prominent role in their Response to Intervention (RtI) document; however, the language of the document betrays certain pedagogical presuppositions and is, at points, flat unrealistic. For reference, the document is found at  Let’s take a look at one section of this document to see if my analyses ring true.

On page two, the IRA Commission lists these guiding principles under the subheading of “Assessment”:

“Assessments, tools, and techniques should provide useful and timely information about desired language and literacy goals. They should reflect authentic language and literacy activities as opposed to contrived texts or tasks generated specifically for assessment purposes. The quality of assessment information should not be sacrificed for the efficiency of an assessment procedure.”

Clearly, the commission has in mind the content, form, and delivery of diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments, particularly reading assessments.

Presupposition #1 Authentic Text is Better than Contrived Text for Assessment Purposes

Since when did reading assessments have to use authentic language? As a writer of numerous reading and writing assessments, contrived text is often essential to produce an effective assessment. In fact, it is nigh on to impossible to create assessments with internal validity that don’t use contrived text. Good assessments isolate variables to ensure that we really do test what we are supposed to be testing.

One example should suffice to demonstrate how unworkable and unreliable authentic language can be when used for reading assessments. At random, I opened up to the middle (pp. 679-680) of one of my favorite novels: Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I skimmed to find the beginning of a start-to-finish passage of typical length for a one-minute fluency assessment and copied such below.  Feel free to time your reading out loud, keeping track of word attack accuracy, unknown vocabulary, and comprehension as you read.

‘Glory be to God in Heaven,

(6) Glory be to God in me…

(12) ‘That verse came from my heart once, it’s not a verse, but

(24) a tear…. I made it myself… not while I was pulling the captain’s

(37) beard, though..’

(39) ‘Why do you bring him in all of a sudden?’

(49) ‘Why do I bring him in? Foolery! All things come to an

(61) end; all things are made equal. That’s the long and short of

(73) it.’

(74) ‘You know, I keep thinking of your pistols.’

(82) ‘That’s all foolery, too! Drink, and don’t be fanciful. I love

(93) life. I’ve loved life too much, shamefully much. Enough!

(102) Let’s drink to life, dear boy, I propose the toast. Why am

(114) I pleased with myself? I’m a scoundrel, but I’m satisfied

(124) with myself. And yet I’m tortured by the thought that I’m a

(136) scoundrel, but satisfied with myself. I bless the creation. I’m

(146) ready to bless God and His creation directly, but… I must

(157) kill one noxious insect for fear it should crawl and spoil life

(169) for others…. Let us drink to life, dear brother. What can be

(181) more precious than life? Nothing! To life, and to one queen

(192) of queens!’

(194) ‘Let’s drink to life and to your queen, too, if you like.’

(206) They drank a glass each. Although Mitya was excited

(215) and expansive, yet he was melancholy, too. It was as though

(226) some heavy, overwhelming anxiety were weighing upon

(233) him.

(234) ‘Misha… here’s your Misha come! Misha, come here, my

(243) boy, drink this glass to Phoebus the golden-haired, of tomorrow

(254) morn..’

(255) ‘What are you giving it him for?’ cried Pyotr Ilyitch, irritably.

(266) ‘Yes, yes, yes, let me! I want to!’

(274) ‘E — ech!’

(275) Misha emptied the glass, bowed, and ran out.


Words Read in One Minute ____ – Miscues = ____ Net Fluency Score

How did you do? Difficult passage? Not so, according to the Flesch-Kincaid readability scores: Reading Level 1.1  Reading Ease 94.6. Average Word Length 4.0.

As illustrated above, using authentic language is far from an accurate means of assessing one’s fluency. Would you use this 1.1 grade level passage as a diagnostic assessment and follow with a Dr. Seuss 1.1 grade level passage to formatively assess progress two months later? Of course not. Most real-text reading passages of a length suitable for fluency assessments have similar variables as in the Dostoyevsky passage above: They are necessarily out of context and they include unfamiliar language, including names, idiomatic expressions, vocabulary, and culturally-based word choice.

Authentic text does not meet the standards of reliability we need to measure baseline ability or growth. The results cannot be generalized in any meaningful way. Even using the same source for subsequent fluency assessments provides no guaranteed compatibility. Most importantly, authentic language does not give the reading diagnostician the information needed to differentiate instruction. We need to isolate variables with contrived text to insure that we are using accurate reading assessments to inform our instruction. And this is true with all forms of reading assessments, including reading comprehension and phonics (mysteriously not even mentioned in the RtI document) diagnostic instruments. How could a comprehension test effectively measure how much a third-grader understands without using a controlled vocabulary? How could a phonics test measure a sixth-grader’s ability to decode without using nonsense words to isolate the variable of sight word knowledge?

Presupposition #2 Quality Assessments Must be Inefficient

On page two, the IRA Commission lists these guiding principles under the subheading of “Assessment”:

“Assessments, tools, and techniques should provide useful and timely information about desired language and literacy goals. They should reflect authentic language and literacy activities as opposed to contrived texts or tasks generated specifically for assessment purposes. The quality of assessment information should not be sacrificed for the efficiency of an assessment procedure.”

Now, the commission does not say that quality assessments must be inefficient, but by their own criteria they effectively preclude efficient assessment design, form, and delivery. See their referenced document: Standards for the Assessment of Reading and Writing developed jointly by the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English (2010) a a case in point.

It would seem that the IRA Commission wants to have its cake and eat it, too. The commission equates assessment quality with authentic language testing. Authentic language testing involves long in-context reading passages, whole-to-part (e.g. miscue analyses), no nonsense words, multiple measures, etc. and necessitates individual administration. Ever done a complete Individual Reading Inventory?  Pretty time-consuming—hours for an individual student. Individualized assessments require significant training to both correctly administer and accurately interpret results. Inefficient and flat unrealistic. Job protection for reading specialists, special education teachers, and reading coaches?

Although using inclusive language to encourage teachers to be responsible for diagnostic assessments and progress monitoring, the real-world application of the above RtI principles would be to maintain the status quo:

1. Reading specialists, special education teachers, and reading coaches as the “keeper of the keys” and 2. Intervention instruction based upon canned-all-students-start-on-page-one programs, rather than upon diagnostic assessments that will enable teachers to differentiate instruction.

In the real world, there is not enough time to assess students, according to the IRA principles. Teachers do not have the requisite training to assess, interpret data, and accurately inform their instructional decision-making, using the inefficient authentic language assessments. In fact, many of the teachers assigned to reading intervention classes are not the most experienced teachers.

My suggestions? Let’s leave our presuppositions behind and live in the real world. Let’s get off our high horses and train teachers to use simple whole-class, multiple-choice diagnostic reading assessments, so that they can effectively differentiate reading instruction for their intervention students. Sacrifice authentic language? Have a negligible impact on accuracy (debatable) by assessing whole-class? Oh, well… well worth the sacrifices, if teachers will be able to use assessments to inform and differentiate instruction for their intervention students.

Here are some free diagnostic assessments, created by a team of reading specialists, that are user-friendly, simple to score and analyze, and designed to enable teachers of all levels of expertise to differentiate reading instruction: assessments Now, that’s RtI that does work.

The Teaching Reading Strategies (Reading Intervention Program) is designed for non-readers or below grade level readers ages eight-adult. Ideal as both Tier II or III pull-out or push-in reading intervention for older struggling readers, special education students with auditory processing disorders, and ESL, ESOL, or ELL students. This full-year (or half-year intensive) program provides explicit and systematic whole-class instruction and assessment-based small group workshops to differentiate instruction. Both new and veteran reading teachers will appreciate the four training videos, minimal prep and correction, and user-friendly resources in this program, written by a teacher for teachers and their students.

The program provides 13 diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files). Teachers use assessment-based instruction to target the discrete concepts and skills each student needs to master according to the assessment data. Whole class and small group instruction includes the following: phonemic awareness activities, synthetic phonics blending and syllabication practice, phonics workshops with formative assessments, expository comprehension worksheets, 102 spelling pattern assessments, reading strategies worksheets, 123 multi-level fluency passage videos recorded at three different reading speeds, writing skills worksheets, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards (includes print-ready and digital display versions) to play entertaining learning games.

In addition to these resources, the program features the popular Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable books (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each 8-page book introduces two sight words and reinforces the sound-spellings practiced in that day’s sound-by-sound spelling blending. Plus, each book has two great guided reading activities: a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns and 5 higher-level comprehension questions. Additionally, each book includes an easy-to-use running record if you choose to assess. 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. These take-home books are great for independent homework practice.

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

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

FREE DOWNLOADS TO ASSESS THE QUALITY OF PENNINGTON PUBLISHING RESOURCES: The SCRIP (Summarize, Connect, Re-think, Interpret, and Predict) Comprehension Strategies includes class posters, five lessons to introduce the strategies, and the SCRIP Comprehension Bookmarks.




Get the SCRIP Comprehension Strategies FREE Resource:

Get the Diagnostic ELA and Reading Assessments FREE Resource:

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Teacher Professional Organizations

Teachers have an opportunity to join key professional organizations to collaborate, advocate, and increase their levels of professional expertise.

Professional Organizations for Teachers

Founded in 1977, the American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL) is a professional organization of scholars who are interested in and actively contribute to the multi-disciplinary field of applied linguistics. AAAL members promote principled approaches to language-related concerns, including language education, acquisition and loss, bilingualism, discourse analysis, literacy, rhetoric and stylistics, language for special purposes, psycholinguistics, second and foreign language pedagogy, language assessment, and language policy and planning.

ACT is an independent, not-for-profit organization that provides more than a hundred assessment, research, information, and program management services in the broad areas of education and workforce development.

The American Educational Research Association (AERA) is concerned with improving the educational process by encouraging scholarly inquiry related to education and by promoting the dissemination and practical application of research results. Its 20,000 members are educators; administrators; directors of research, testing or evaluation in federal, state and local agencies; counselors; evaluators; graduate students; and behavioral scientists.

The American Evaluation Association (AEA) is an international professional association of evaluators devoted to the application and exploration of program evaluation, personnel evaluation, technology, and many other forms of evaluation. Evaluation involves assessing the strengths and weaknesses of programs, policies, personnel, products, and organizations to improve their effectiveness.

The American Library Association (ALA) is the oldest and largest library association in the world, with more than 64,000 members. Its mission is to promote the highest quality library and information services and public access to information. ALA offers professional services and publications to members and nonmembers, including online news stories.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) is the professional, scientific, and credentialing association for over 110,000 audiologists, speech-language pathologists, and speech, language, and hearing scientists. ASHA’s mission is to ensure that all people with speech, language, and hearing disorders have access to quality services to help them communicate more effectively.

The mission of the Association for Library and Information Science Education (ALISE) is to promote excellence in research, teaching, and service for library and information science education.

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) is an international, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that represents 160,000 educators from more than 135 countries and 66 affiliates. Our members span the entire profession of educators—superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. We address all aspects of effective teaching and learning—such as professional development, educational leadership, and capacity building. ASCD offers broad, multiple perspectives—across all education professions—in reporting key policies and practices.

The California Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (CATESOL) mission is to promote excellence in education for English language learners and a high quality professional environment for their teachers. CATESOL represents teachers of English language learners throughout California and Nevada, at all levels and in all learning environments. CATESOL strives to: improve teacher preparation and provide opportunities which further professional expertise, promote sound, research-based education policy and practices, increase awareness of the strengths and needs of English language learners, and promote appreciation of diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds.

The California League of High Schools (CLHS) supports delivering relevant, standards-based instruction, meeting rigorous testing goals and proving once again that our high schools are exceptional places for students to learn and prepare for college and careers.

The California League of Middle Schools (CLMS) is committed to supporting middle grades educators and their students. A non-profit membership association, CLMS is dedicated to improving the professional knowledge of middle level educators so that early adolescents may experience academic success and personal well-being.

The California Library Association (CLA) provides leadership for the development, promotion, and improvement of library services, librarianship, and the library community. We help members excel in a fast-changing job market. We’re a resource for learning about new ideas and technology, and we actively work to influence legislation affecting libraries and librarians.

The International Dyslexia Association (IDA) is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping individuals with dyslexia, their families and the communities that support them. IDA is the oldest learning disabilities organization in the nation.

The International Reading Association (IRA) is a professional membership organization dedicated to promoting high levels of literacy for all by improving the quality of reading instruction, disseminating research and information about reading, and encouraging the lifetime reading habit. Our members include classroom teachers, reading specialists, consultants, administrators, supervisors, university faculty, researchers, psychologists, librarians, media specialists, and parents. With members and affiliates in 99 countries, our network extends to more than 300,000 people worldwide.

California Reading Association The professional membership organization of California reading and content teachers. Dedicated to improving literacy in California, this organization sponsors a wonderful annual conference.

The Linguistic Society of America (LSA) works on behalf of linguists and the discipline of linguistics, often cooperating with other scholarly societies and alerting members to issues that may concern them in their own universities or other workplaces. At the same time, LSA also addresses a wider public, offering news on linguistic findings, answering queries about language, and supporting different efforts to disseminate linguistic perspectives on language issues.

Promoting educational excellence and equity through bilingual education, the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE) is the only national organization exclusively concerned with the education of language-minority students in American schools.

(CABE) The wonderful California membership organization for bilingual education.

The National Council for the Teachers of English (NCTE) works to advance teaching, research, and student achievement in English language arts at all scholastic levels.


The Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc. (TESOL) has approximately 14,000 members in over 120 countries, and is recognized as a non-governmental organization (NGO) of the United Nations Department of Public Information. Its mission is to ensure excellence in English language teaching to speakers of other languages. TESOL values professionalism in language education; individual language rights; accessible, high quality education; collaboration in a global community; interaction of research and reflective practice for educational improvement; and respect for diversity and multiculturalism.

The College Board is a national nonprofit membership association whose mission is to prepare, inspire, and connect students to college success and opportunity. Founded in 1900, the association is composed of more than 4,500 schools, colleges, universities, and other educational organizations. Among its best-known programs are the SAT®, the PSAT/NMSQT®, and the Advanced Placement Program® (AP®). The College Board is committed to the principles of excellence and equity, and that commitment is embodied in all of its programs, services, activities, and concerns.

The writer of this blog, Mark Pennington, is an educational author of teaching resources to differentiate instruction in the fields of reading and English-language arts. His comprehensive curricula: Teaching Grammar and MechanicsTeaching Essay Strategies, and Teaching Reading Strategies help teachers differentiate instruction with little additional teacher prep and/or training.

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How to Teach ESL Writing

I teach seventh grade English-language arts in a multi-language school in Sacramento. Filipino, Mexican, Hmong, Mien, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, Ukrainian, and Korean students, each with their primary languages in tow, keep this veteran teacher learning and experimenting with writing instruction. Additionally, the student population at our school is highly transitory. Kids come and go. At times I feel like an ER doc.

In fact, the analogy is quite appropriate for an ELA teacher who treats the writing challenges of English Learners (EL). For those of you who don’t watch the plethora of medical dramas on television, the ER doc is responsible for triage.

Triage (pronounced /ˈtriɑʒ/) is a process of prioritizing patients based on the severity of their condition. This rations patient treatment efficiently when resources are insufficient for all to be treated immediately. The term comes from the French verb trier, meaning to separate, sort, sift or select.[1] There are two types of triage: simple and advanced.[2] The outcome may result in determining the order and priority of emergency treatment, the order and priority of emergency transport, or the transport destination for the patient, based upon the special needs of the patient or the balancing of patient distribution in a mass-casualty setting (Wikipedia).

Now this is not to say that EL students are all incurably sick; many are gifted thinkers who already are successful students. However, glossing over the specific needs of developing EL writers and hoping that they will “catch up” in their writing when their oral language and reading abilities in English “catch up” is simply akin to medical malpractice.

Having diagnosed and treated a wide spectrum of EL writing over the years, my most useful two triage tips are 1) effective diagnosis and 2) prioritization of patient needs into two types of treatments: emergency and long-term care.

1) Diagnosis—In spite of my twenty-nine years in the classroom, I am a surprisingly inaccurate “gut-level” diagnostician. I make assumptions based upon prior experience and stereotypes, despite the fact that I know better. I’m human. However, I’ve learned to rely more and more on effective diagnostic assessments to take the “me” out of my diagnoses. A few, easy-to-use whole-class reading, spelling, and grammar diagnostic assessments inform me how to differentiate instruction for my EL students.

2) Treatment—In writing instruction, teachers of EL students face two key decisions:

  • What must be treated now and what can wait.
  • What is immediately and easily treatable and what will take time to treat.

In grading written work, in sharing during student-teacher writing conferences, and in planning differentiated direct instruction, an effective teacher has to have a workable “treatment plan” for teaching EL students to improve their writing. Following is my plan based upon the key two decisions shared above. To stay consistent with our analogy, I will classify the two treatment options as emergency treatment and long-term care. I list specific symptoms, i.e. examples of student writing problems, but in no particular order.

Emergency TreatmentSymptoms

Pronoun CaseHim gave she her sandwich.

Relative ClausesThe girl which I know is pretty.

Demonstrative PronounsThis desk over there is my favorite.

Pronoun ReferencesThey keep them pencil for himself.

Verb Tense ConsistencyI go to school and will study very hard.

Simple Verb FormsI done know that already.

Subject-Verb AgreementThe students speaks English.

Common Irregular Verb FormsI buyed him a candy bar.

ArticlesHe has basketball to shoot to practice for a games.

Adjective PlacementShe is a teacher very smart.

NegationI don’t need no help.

Simple coordinating conjunctions (BOAS) but, or, and, soIf she won’t, but I’ll quit.

Common subordinating conjunctionsBecause I don’t know English, I don’t write.

Plural and Singular NounsI did my writings in pens.

Predictable Sound-SpellingsWen he understands me I kin hep him wit his hoamwurk.

FragmentsAfter I go to the movies.

Long Term CareSymptoms

Idioms (especially in prepositions)I look in the table for the book.

Figures of SpeechShe gave her effort her best.

Word OrderI can hear what is the girl singing.

Denotative VocabularyI took the metro from here to my aunt’s house in Canada.

Connotative VocabularyShe runs very slowly.

InflectionsTo gain the confident, I try to speak loft of English.

Verb PhrasesI miss to study for my test.

Sophisticated Verb Forms(Progressive) She will be presented her project tomorrow. (Perfect) I will have gave him two dollars at lunch.

Uncommon Irregular Verb FormsI lended her my notebook.

Correlative ConjunctionsEither you study, so you don’t; both I don’t care.

Sentence VarietySubject-Verb-Complement in every sentence.

Run-onsShe opened the door she helped him sit down after lunch.

SubjunctiveIf I was richer, I would give you presents.

Irregular SpellingsThat was wierd.

Why not make sense of EL writing instruction with a curriculum that will help you efficiently integrate grammar, usage, diction, and syntax into writing instruction?

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, 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, 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, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) program.

The author also provides these curricular “slices” of the Grammar, 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).

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

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

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