Archive for December, 2017

How to Teach Interactive Grammar

If I’m going to entice you to read this article by offering some how-to’s and free resources to teach grammar interactively, we had best get on the same page about what we both mean by grammar.

I like to think of grammar as a community’s language tools.

The tools of grammar are usually known as language conventions. A convention means “a general agreement about basic principles or procedures; also : a principle or procedure accepted as true or correct by convention the conventions of grammar” (Merriam-Webster). The Common Core authors use “Conventions of Language” for the first two Language Strand Standards:

L.1: Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

L.2: Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.

Two other points will keep us on that same page:

  1. Teachers usually separate usage from grammar as in standard and non-standard usage, or word choice, or figures of speech, etc.
  2. Teachers usually separate mechanics from grammar and usage. By mechanics, teachers mean punctuation and capitalization. Some would also throw in spelling under this category.

Since our language conventions tools are always applied in a social context, it makes sense to teach and learn grammar how we use grammar: in the social context. Specifically, I find literacy centers to be ideal collaborative settings in which students will actually use their language skills to learn what the tool is and its purpose, be able to identify it, know how to use it, and use it a bit to see its value and, hopefully, remember it.

Academic Literacy Centers for Grammar and Mechanics

Language Conventions Academic Literacy Centers

For grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8, I’ve developed twice-per-week, twenty-minute Language Conventions Academic Literacy Centers to teach the Common Core language conventions standards

Instructional Format for Interactive Learning: The How To’s

The Language Conventions Academic Literacy Center provides 56 lessons. Grades 4–8 alignment documents follow the lessons. Each Language Conventions lesson consists of four pages and takes 20 minutes to complete. Students work collaboratively to learn two tools per twenty-minute lesson: a mechanics skill and a grammar or usage concept, rule, or skill.

The first page is in 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 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).

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

The program provides biweekly unit tests in which students must define, identify, and apply the tools they have learned. Students use their lessons on the test. Teachers may elect to have students take the test individually or as a group.

The FREE Resources

How about a few interactive grammar lessons to test-drive with your students? Your download includes four grammar and mechanics lessons, the unit test (with answers), directions, and literacy center leadership roles.

Get the Four Language Conventions Academic Literacy Center Lessons and Test FREE Resource:

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Writing Literacy Centers

Writing Literacy Centers

Writing Academic Literacy Centers

As most teachers have now adjusted their writing instruction and practice into the narrowed focus of the Common Core State Standards (more research and essays and less stories and creative writing), I see a renewed interest in developing the skill sets of student writers.

Teachers have, understandably, focused on the first three Common Core Writing Standards: 1. The argumentative (essay) 2. The informational/explanatory (essay or report) 3. The narrative (story). Most teachers have had professional development in these three genre and teach all three at some time within each school year.

Additionally, most teachers are now implementing Writing Standards W.6, 7, 8, and 9 by using technology for short or extended research writing projects.

However, teachers are less familiar with the other three writing standards and few are well-acquainted with the relevant language standard. Teachers usually refer to these standards as writing skills or strategies. Typically, teachers have taught these tools in isolation as writing openers/worksheets or in the writing context as mini-lessons/editing. These skills or strategies are ideally suited to literacy center (station) lessons.

Following are the often-neglected writing and language standards:

Production and Distribution of Writing:

Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.

Range of Writing:

Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.


Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.

Teachers have used three research-based strategies to teach these writing skills or strategies: 1. Frequent, short, and focused writing practice 2. Sentence revisions 3. Literary response

How to Teach to These Standards

Fortunately, #s 2 and 3 are best accomplished by #1.

Sentence Revision (called by many other names) includes quick, focused instruction and repetitive practice in precise word choice, sentence structure (grammar, usage, and syntax), and sentence variety (varied grammatical forms, sentence combining, sentence length, parallelism, etc.)

Literary Response includes learning from accomplished writers. Teachers have used both expository and narrative mentor texts for years to model how writers communicate artfully and memorably. Typically, students respond to mentor texts in different rhetorical modes (rhetorical stance: voice, audience, purpose, and form) to develop their own writing style.

If you glance back at the often-neglected writing and language standards above, you’ll see how sentence revision and literary response activities address the components of these standards and can be taught and practiced in frequent, short, and focused writing practice.

One great way to teach sentence revision and literary response writing skills is in literacy centers (stations). The social nature of collaborative writing is especially conducive to literacy centers.


The author of this post, Mark Pennington, provides grades 4-8 teachers with grade-level sentence revision resources and literary response resources in two instructional formats: twice-per-week writing openers (or writers workshop mini-lessons) and literacy centers.

Both sentence revision and literary response lessons are provided in Teaching Essay Strategies, the Writing Academic Literacy Center Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8and in the Academic Literacy Center Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 BUNDLE.

Get the Writing Academic Literacy Center Sample Lessons FREE Resource:

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How to Teach Writing Skills

Writing is Taught and Caught

Writing Skills: Taught and Caught

Now that teachers have had plenty of professional development in how to write arguments (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.1) and informative/explanatory texts (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.2), teachers are looking at their students’ essays or narratives (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.3) with a collective sigh. Students just cannot write.

Students seem to understand the content, they know the demands and constraints of the writing genre, they can dissect a writing prompt, they know the writing process… but the words they use, the sentences they construct, and the intangible feeling our student writers convey simply do not engage their readers (teachers especially).

The Problem

Many teachers are not equipping their students with the tools they need in their tool belts. Or, just as bad, teachers introduce the tools, but don’t provide the practice students need to master the tools.

The Solution

Two time-proven solutions to these problems take little time, but do necessitate some instruction and practice: sentence revisions and literary response. Writing teachers (and writing research) have found these tools to be especially helpful for developing writers.

By sentence revision, I mean the word choice and structure of our language (the grammar, usage, and syntax). It’s the how something is written (and re-written). Think sentence variety, sentence combining, grammar and proper usage in the writing context. The skills of sentence revision are primarily taught.

By literary response, I mean writing style: primarily the style of literary mentors, who not only have something to say, but know how to say it in both expository and narrative writing. Think mentor texts and rhetorical stance (voice, audience, purpose, and form). The skills of writing style are primarily caught.

Fortunately, the Common Core authors do acknowledge the importance of teaching both sentence revisions and literary response in both the Anchor Standards for Writing and the Anchor Standards for Language (highlighting my own):

Writing Anchor Standards

Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.

Language Anchor Standards

Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.


Keep your focus on both the content and process of writing. Maintain a balance of extended writing process assignments (especially essays and stories) and short, say twice-per-week writing skill development, especially using sentence revisions and literary response activities.

The author of this post, Mark Pennington, provides grades 4-8 teachers with grade-level sentence revision resources and literary response resources in two instructional formats: twice-per-week writing openers (or writers workshop mini-lessons) and literacy centers.

The author’s TEACHING ESSAYS BUNDLE includes the three printable and digital resources students need to master the CCSS W.1 argumentative

Teaching Essays


and W.2 informational/explanatory essays. Each no-prep resource allows students to work at their own paces via mastery learning. How to Teach Essays includes 42 skill-based essay strategy worksheets (fillable PDFs and 62 Google slides), beginning with simple 3-word paragraphs and proceeding step-by-step to complex multi-paragraph essays. One skill builds upon another. The Essay Skills Worksheets include 97 worksheets (printables and 97 Google slides) to help teachers differentiate writing instruction with both remedial and advanced writing skills. The Eight Writing Process Essays (printables and 170 Google slides) each feature an on-demand diagnostic essay assessment, writing prompt with connected reading, brainstorming, graphic organizer, response, revision, and editing activities. Plus, each essay includes a detailed analytical (not holistic) rubric for assessment-based learning.


Get the Writing Skills FREE Resource:


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Close Reading

Close Reading

Close Reading: Don’t Read Too Closely

The close reading strategy is beneficial for building comprehension of both narrative and expository text. However, we do need a mid-course correction. As with many instructional strategies, teachers latch onto the “new and improved” and sometimes forget the “tried and true.”

In the following articles, MA reading specialist, seventh grade ELA teacher, and author Mark Pennington piles on the reading research and in-class experience to help teachers use the close reading strategy properly and apply the concurrent reading strategies to help their students access challenging text.

Each article includes at least one got-to-have freebie: from sample lessons to narrative and expository close reading templates.

If you haven’t yet perused Pennington Publishing’s grades 4-8 assessment-based ELA and reading intervention resources, each article with include a short promo to entice your exploration. While in mind, you should certainly check out the free downloads of ELA and reading intervention diagnostic assessments as well as the other Pennington Publishing blog articles neatly categorized according to your interests. At last count I’ve written over 600 articles in the ELA and reading field and have been overly-generous (so say my colleagues) is equipping teachers with free downloads to help teachers better serve their students.

Your comments are certainly welcome on any of the individual articles. Mark… Oh, my email is

Close Reading Articles from the Pennington Publishing Blog

Close Reading Casualties 

This article explains how the over-emphasis of the close reading strategy has decreased Tier 2 vocabulary acquisition and reading fluency. The author provides suggestions regarding how to practice reading fluency and independent comprehension strategies (including self-generated questions). At the end of the article, a free download sample of the author’s Reading Academic Literacy Center is available.

Close Reading Narrative Worksheet

The author tears into the counterproductive practice of close reading advocates, who in their desire to promote reader independence, actually achieve the converse by prohibiting pre-reading strategies designed to both access prior knowledge and pre-teach key vocabulary and concepts. Citing years of reading research, the author brings out the big guns to suggest that close reading needs a bit of tweaking to remain a viable reading strategy. Teachers will be able to download a free narrative close reading template.

Close Reading Expository Worksheet

The author provides historical perspective on the close reading strategy (actually a recycled strategy from the 1950s and 1960s) and argues that there are four key components of the close reading strategy that teachers need to keep on doing. However, there are also three key reading strategies which need to supplement close reading to increase reader comprehension and independence. Teachers will love the free download of an expository close reading template.

Independent Close Reading

In this article the author faults the exclusivity of the text-dependent questions (a key component of the close reading strategy). While agreeing with the authors of the Common Core State Standards that the old reader response strategies of the whole language movement led teachers and students to go beyond the text into the relatively irrelevant and tangential world of focusing on what the reading means to me, the close reading fanatics have dumped decades of solid reading research, which proves the validity of reader self-generated questioning strategies. Those who adhere to text-dependent publisher or teacher questions at the expense of reader questions return students to reading to answer questions, rather than reading to find out what the author means. Teachers will be able to download a useful set of resources: The SCRIP Comprehension Strategies resource includes posters for each of the five comprehension strategies to prompt self-generated questions, SCRIP comprehension bookmarks, and five lessons to teach these strategies.

Close Reading: Don’t Read Too Closely

This article has produced quite a response. The pin associated with the article went semi-viral, indicating a backlash against close reading. The author goes out of his way to state his support of the close reading strategy as one of many effective reading strategies, but cites the key reading researchers who see close reading as a good thing that needs to be better. If you’re interested in cited reading research on close reading with all the links, this article is for you. The focus of the article is historical: how close reading developed as a strategy to access challenging text. Sometimes it helps to know where something comes from to understand what it is.

English-Language Arts and Reading Intervention Articles and Resources 

Bookmark and check back often for new articles and free ELA/reading resources from Pennington Publishing.


Intervention Program Science of Reading

The Teaching Reading Strategies (Intervention Program) is designed for non-readers or below grade level readers ages eight–adult. This full-year, 55 minutes per day program provides both word recognition and language comprehension instructional resources (Google slides and print). Affordable and evidence-based, the program features the 54 Sam and Friends Phonics Books–decodables for each lesson and designed for older students. The digital and print word recognition activities and decodables are also available as a half-year (or 30 minutes per day) option in The Science of Reading Intervention Program. Both programs include the easy-to-teach, interactive 5 Daily Google Slide Activities.


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Close Reading Casualties

Close Reading

Close Reading: Don’t Read Too Closely

With the “Great Shift” from fiction to non-fiction reading since the advent of the Common Core State Standards, many teachers are finding that the academic rigor of expository text is challenging for readers of all ages. The predominant reading strategy to access rigorous text has been the widely-used close reading. The popularity of close reading has been chiefly beneficial as a means for readers to dig into these three components of text: 1. Key Ideas and Details 2. Craft and Structure and 3. Integration of Knowledge and Ideas. However, there have been some unintended casualties.

As is often the case in our profession, teachers dropped many of the effective reading practices they had been using for years to make room (and time) for time-consuming close readings. In a related article, I concur with the criticisms of noted reading researcher, David Pearson, who values the benefits of close reading, but says, “We need a mid-course correction, not a pendulum swing… but with BALANCE in mind…” (Pearson).

Specifically, I agree with Dr. Pearson that the close reading ban on pre-reading strategies is counterproductive. Additionally, I argue that the stated goal of close reading advocates (to develop reader independence in rigorous text) is undermined by the focus on teacher and publisher produced text-dependent questions… not that external questions are at all bad… but that the internal questions developed by the reader to dialog with the author have been largely replaced. The research regarding self-generated question strategies has a long-validated history. Again, in our concern that external questions must be text-dependent (a good thing), we have reductively dismissed the practice of encouraging internal reader engagement with the text (a better thing).

A further casualty of the expository-focused pendulum swing has been the decline of class novels and independent reading. As a case study, my middle school in Elk Grove, California has a large staff of ten ELA teachers. Since the advent of Common Core, the number of core novels has been cut in half and the emphasis on independent reading eliminated. Of the ten teachers, only one other teacher provides time for independent reading (10 minutes per day). I’m a lone ranger, still assigning 30 minutes per day as homework with accountability procedures. And, no… it’s not Accelerated Reader. Check out my independent reading plan and my dialog with others (including Dr. Stephen Krashen) HERE.

So, what have been the unintended consequences of the “Great Shift” and universal popularity of the close reading strategy? Less reading.

1. LESS VOCABULARY ACQUISITION With less reading, students are exposed to fewer Tier 2 academic language words. Reading a rigorous, vocabulary-dense article of, say 600 words (frequently filled with infrequently-used Tier 3 domain-specific words), exposes students to between 15 and 25 unknown Tier 2 words in a 45-minute close reading lesson. Whereas, reading a less vocabulary-dense grade-level novel in or out of class for the same amount of time would expose students to between 200 and 400 unknown Tier 2 words at a 95% word recognition level.

2. DECREASED READING FLUENCY Less reading means less fluency practice, which is highly correlated with better reading comprehension. None of my colleagues are administering fluency assessments and providing fluency practice as they did before Common Core, except Yours Truly. It’s not that these teachers were unconvinced by the merits of reading fluency. Far from it! As seventh and eighth grade teachers would say, “I hope that elementary teachers are still practicing fluency… we don’t have the time anymore.” As fourth, fifth, and sixth grade teachers would say, “I hope that primary teachers are still practicing fluency… we don’t have time anymore.” Etc.

My three recommendations?

1. Get back to pre-teaching both expository and narrative reading texts. Build accessibility into rigorous texts.

2. Provide more time for independent reading (I prefer homework, so as not to waste class time. After all, you have your close readings to do :))

3. Practice reading fluency and independent comprehension strategies (including self-generated questions).

Academic Literacy Center for Reading

Reading Academic Literacy Center

For those of you who are using literacy centers (stations), check out my full-year grades 4-8 Reading Academic Literacy Center. This twice-per week 20-minute center provides the reading fluency and reading comprehension practice your students need with expository text. Students read 43 informational articles about common and uncommon animals. Each article has between 350–450 words and provides a physical description of the animal, its habitat, what it eats, its family life, interesting behaviors, and the status of its world population.

The articles are leveled in a pyramid design: the first two paragraphs are at an adjusted third-grade (Fleish-Kincaid) level (after deleting a few key multi-syllabic words such as carnivores or long animal names such as armadillos); the next two paragraphs are at the fifth-grade level; and the last two are at the seventh-grade level. The reader begins practice at an easier level to build confidence and then moves to more difficult academic language and sentence length. The same text is used for both the reading fluency and reading comprehension articles.

The reading fluency articles include difficult pronunciations in boldface to pre-teach in the upper right corner. Word counts are listed in the left margin for fluency timings. Timing charts are provided to help students track their cold (unpracticed) and hot (after choral readings) readings.

Additionally, if tablets, phones, or computers are available, students may access and practice reading along with the YouTube modeled readings for each article. Each of the reading fluency articles has been recorded at three different reading speeds ((Level A at 95-115 words per minute; Level B at 115-135 words per minute; and Level C at 135-155 words per minute) for optimal modeled reading fluency practice at your students’ individual fluency challenge levels.

Unsure about the optimal fluency practice level for your students? The Reading Literacy Center provides a diagnostic screening assessment.

The reading comprehension articles include five comprehension questions–one question for each of the five SCRIP Comprehension Strategies. The SCRIP acronym stands for Summarize, Connect, Re-think, Interpret, and Predict. The questions are placed in the right-hand margin to help students read interactively with the text. Students learn to use these SCRIP prompts to self-generate their own questions of the text, creating the reader-author dialog, which is so critical to reading comprehension. Additionally, three key vocabulary words are boldfaced within the article. Answers to the five questions are provided following the comprehension worksheets.

Get the Reading Academic Literacy Center Sample Lessons FREE Resource:

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Remedial Literacy Centers

Grade-level literacy centers, also known as stations, are wonderful additions to any elementary or secondary teacher’s classroom. Literacy centers, in particular, offer a means of teaching key grade-level standards other than the didactic lecture approach or the pass out the same worksheet to everyone approach. However, good teachers know that not all of their students are at grade level. Certainly all students need grade-level instruction, but some need to catch up and some need to move ahead.

Many teachers who have experienced success with grade-level literacy centers also want to differentiate instruction with literacy centers. A worthwhile goal! Often, teachers try to design individual centers which offer grade-level, accelerated, and remedial activities. Or teachers try to create open-ended literacy centers which have different activities. However, in creating these differentiated centers, the centers tend to devolve into either or both behavioral management issues and/or individual work stations in which students are only members of the group for the purposes of the literacy center rotation. In other words, the key social and instructional benefits of literacy centers (cooperative learning) are negated.

So, the problem to be solved is the following: How can teachers teach to the different needs of students within the literacy center instructional approach to both meet the needs of diverse learners and maintain the social and instructional benefits (cooperative learning) of literacy centers?

The answer for remedial intervention is flexible ability grouping. Students benefit by working together on common needs. Literacy centers provide ideal vehicles for cooperative remediation in which teachers can target instruction to the demonstrable needs of the group. Targeted instruction necessitates assessment-based curriculum. Diagnostic assessments can pinpoint precisely what students need to master. Teachers can group students according to their diagnostic needs and then design literacy center lessons to meet those needs.

The focus of these remedial literacy centers becomes the learning deficits to master, not the remedial students themselves. In other words, remedial literacy centers need not be permanent groups of below-basic “bluebirds.” When learning deficits are the focus of the remedial literacy group, the bluebirds fly away from that group to either a grade-level literacy center or to another assessment-based literacy center.

Good teachers can use this model to assure that all students have the benefits of heterogeneous group and homogeneous group experiences. Literacy center rotations can easily facilitate this flexibility.

If you are committed to helping your below-grade-level students catch up while they keep up with grade-level instructional standards and you want to incorporate remedial literacy centers (stations) into your instruction, this is the Remedial Literacy Centers BUNDLE for you!

Designed specifically for literacy centers, each of these four full-year programs will target assessment-based instruction to the needs of your individual students. Following are the four programs included in this special value BUNDLE:

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 

Each of these remedial intervention literacy centers is diagnostically-based. Students take the whole-class diagnostic screening assessments, and once graded, you will know which of your students needs remedial instruction and in which centers to place them.

Because all of these diagnostic assessments are comprehensive, the test data pinpoint precisely which content and skills require remediation and which do not for each of your students.

This means that you will be able to let the assessment data inform your placement of students within these remedial literacy groups. For example, if the assessments indicate that Johnny has both diphthong and r-controlled phonics deficits while Amanda has only the r-controlled phonics deficit, Johnny will be assigned to the Phonics Literacy Center for two workshop sessions, but Amanda will join Johnny for just one workshop session. Now that’s assessment-based instruction that is efficient and prescriptive! Both Johnny and Amanda get the instruction they deserve without wasted instructional time.

The management system makes these flexible groupings work together. Whether you are using literacy centers solely for remedial intervention or adding to grade-level literacy centers (check out the author’s grade-level centers HERE), either may be implemented with success with the resources provided in these programs. For example, the resources include 10 literacy center rotation options to teach from 4 to 10 literacy centers within 40 to 100 minutes per day, 4 days per week. Literacy centers need not be a management nightmare!

You, your students, parents, and administrators will see measurable progress on the program progress-monitoring matrices with the resources in he Remedial Literacy Centers BUNDLE. And what a VALUE as compared to the prices of each individual program… it’s like getting four programs for the price of three.

Check out these FREE SAMPLES:

Get the Remedial Literacy Centers BUNDLE FREE Resource:

Mark Pennington is the author of both Academic Literacy Centers and Remedial Literacy Centers. These grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 centers are offered individually or as value-priced BUNDLES. Click to check out these Pennington Publishing programs on the Teachers Pay Teachers.

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