Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

Movie First, Book Second

Read Book before Novel

Book before Novel

Want your students to get the most out of reading a class novel?

Want more of your students to actually read the whole book?

What to build internal monitoring of the text and increase comprehension?

Show the move first; read the book second.

I know it sound like ELA teacher heresy, but before you hang me like the 19 accused witches in Salem, let me plead my case.

First of all, I am a reading specialist, as well as an ELA teacher. The reading research backs up my position. If we want to build comprehension, maximize vocabulary growth, and engage the author and text, we should front load as much as possible. Activating prior knowledge, scaffolding content vocabulary, reader response theory. Pre-teaching!

My caveats up front: I don’t always show the movie before everything we read. Not every short story or novel has a movie. And I won’t show a bad movie. No one is excited to read the book after watching a bad movie.

Why watch the movie first?

  1. Watching the movie first levels the playing field. When we read a grade-level novel aloud to the class (listening comprehension), listen to an audio book, or have students independently read, we reward good readers more than poor readers. The Matthew Effect (the rich get richer and the poor get poorer) is reinforced. Good readers understand more, retain more, and perform better on reading quizzes and tests because they are good readers. It’s not a matter of more effort; it’s about reading skills. Poor readers (those reading below grade level) cannot access the same understanding, retention, and achieve the same rewards (good quiz and test grades) because the grade-level text is at the frustration level for them. The fact is that both good and struggling readers benefit from pre-teaching by showing the movie first. The movie simply makes the book more comprehensible. Students are much more likely to be able to read a novel at instructional or independent levels after knowing the characters, plot, theme, and (of course) the visualizations. One final note… no teacher would begin teaching The Diary of Anne Frank by reading page 1. Students obviously need some historical context. The same argument applies to movies first.
  2. Motivation. We all want our students to achieve the success of reading the whole book. I hear from students (not mine 🙂 all the time that they never finished a novel in middle or high school, including some of the brightest kids making it into prestigious universities. They learned to get by without reading. Online chapter summaries, essays, chat rooms, and movies make it easy. You don’t have to read to succeed. Watching the movie in class before reading takes away the “cheating” incentive. I find, and my students say, they are much more interested in reading the book after watching the movie. The movie piques their interest much more often than it supplants their interest. And yes, kids still always say, “The book was so much better than the movie.” Bottom line? They enjoy reading, say The Outsiders,more and appreciate those literacy components we ELA teachers love, when we show the movie first. As an aside, that’s one movie that is better than the book!
  3. Improved literary discussions. Starting at a higher level of comprehension enriches class discussions. Students are able to draw from the movie experience to compare and contrast the characters, plot, setting, style, etc. Students are able to analyze the decisions both filmmakers and authors make and evaluate their choices. Because the movie is able to show things that a book can’t and because the book is able to tell things that a movie can’t, students are able to synthesize these relative strengths and gain more insight. That is higher order critical thinking! 


  1. Watching the movie prior to reading the novel ruins the joy of reader discovery. University professors always assign articles prior to lectures to improve the level of class discourse. (Although I would argue that the reverse procedure might spark more reader independence and out-of-the-box thinking.) A history professor does not cringe at the thought that assigning an article in which you the reader find out that the North won the Civil War will ruin the story for you. Some of you are thinking, ah but that’s non-fiction. I say the same is true for fiction. When the last Harry Potter novel came out (and JK Rowling had announced it was the last), everyone wanted to know whether Harry and Voldemort would die. I won’t speak for adults, but every one of my middle school readers knew the answer within the first day of the book’s release. That knowledge did not spoil the ending. It enhanced the ending. If you’ve ever watched the magicians Penn and Teller explain in advance how one of their tricks is done, and subsequently performs the illusion, you know how much more enriching and enjoyable it is to watch with a bit of inside knowledge. Watching the movie first does just that.
  2. Watching the movie after reading the book is a reward. I would argue that it’s more of a gap-filler for those who did not or could not read. Teachers who lead discussions on comparing book to movie will spend far less time doing so when the movie is an end-of-the-unit activity. Showing the movie up front provides that comparison throughout the novel.
  3. I don’t show the movie at all because it confuses students when they read the book. There is some truth to this point with some movies and their books. Elia Kazan’s movie, East of Eden,uses only about half of the plot of Steinbeck’s East of Eden and there are some discrepancies and inconsistencies. However, rather than ending in confusion, a student with the guidance of a good ELA teacher gains far more from the differences than with a novel that has a verbatim screenplay. If given a choice, most ELA teachers would much rather explain and ask students about the differences rather than solely filling in the understanding blanks when reading a novel by itself.

Want five FREE lessons to teach the SCRIP Comprehension Strategies plus a FREE set of SCRIP Posters and Bookmarks sent to your email? 

Get the SCRIP Comprehension Strategies FREE Resource:

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive assessment-based reading intervention curriculum, the Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLEIdeal 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. Phonological awareness, phonics, syllabication, sight words, fluency (with 128 YouTube modeled readings), spelling, vocabulary and comprehension. The 54 accompanying guided reading phonics books each have comprehension questions, a focus sound-spelling pattern, controlled sight words, a 30-second word fluency, a running record, and cleverly illustrated cartoons by David Rickert to match each entertaining story. These resources provide the best reading intervention program at a price every teacher can afford.

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

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

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Phonics and Spelling Videos

3 Phonics and Spelling Videos

Phonics and Spelling Videos

Reading intervention students have different foundations in terms of their abilities to connect speech sounds (phonemes) to their spellings. Some of the foundations may be perfectly solid and need no repairs; some of the foundations may once have been solid, but have crumbled over the years due to neglect; some of the foundations may have been built without essential ingredients or with ingredients that were sub-standard; and some of the foundations were simply never planned, nor built properly.

To build a solid foundation for each of your students, play and practice the three free instructional videos from my Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam & Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE and teach in this order: Video 1: The Animal Names Chant; Video 2: The Animal Names and Sounds Chant; and Video 3: The Animal Names, Sounds, and Spellings Chant.

All three videos include the 43 Animal Sound-Spelling Cards and a catchy, rhythmic chant to practice selected components of the cards. Students chant along to learn or review basic phonics and spelling.

43 Animal Sound-Spelling Cards

Animal Sound-Spelling Cards

About the Animal Sound-Spelling Cards

Each of the 43 cards includes an animal photograph (not a juvenile cartoon), the phoneme (speech sound), and the most common spellings. Unlike many phonics programs, the beginning sound of the animal name perfectly matches the sound listed on each card. For example, the bear card represents the /b/. I’ve included the Animal Sound-Spelling Cards in your free download at the end of this article.


Before using Video 1, display the Animal Sound-Spelling Cards PDF and introduce each component on the cards to your students, saying

“Each card has the photograph of an animal and the animal’s name. The /sound/ is printed between two slanted lines at the top of the card. You will hear the sound at the beginning of the animal name. The different spellings for the sound are printed in black below the name of the card.”

Set the instructional expectations for your students, saying

“When I play the video, you will chant along with the music to learn each part of the 43 cards. Don’t shout; but don’t whisper, either. Say the name, sound, or spelling at the same time as the audio, not before or after. Use six-inch voices. By mastering what’s on these cards, you will become a much better reader and speller.”

When first playing each video, use a pointer or your finger to cue your students’ responses. Stress the importance of a unison response.

Video 1: Point underneath the animal photograph when the video prompts with “Name?”

Video 2: Point underneath the animal photograph when the video prompts with “Name?” Point underneath the /sound/ when the video prompts with “Sound?”

Video 3: Point underneath the animal photograph when the video prompts with “Name?” Point underneath the /sound/ when the video prompts with “Sound?” Point underneath each spelling when the video prompts with “Spelling?” Tell students to say “blank” as it’s part of the spelling.

Once students are responding in unison, stop pointing and walk the room to monitor individual responses.

A few tips…

Make sure most students have mastered the 43 animal names in Video 1 before playing and practicing Video 2. Note that Video 2 reviews the names, so even if a few students have not yet mastered all of them in Video 1, move on to Video 2. When most students have mastered the 43 animal names and sounds in Video 2, move on to the animal names, sounds, and spellings in Video 3; however, for any of your students who have not yet mastered all 43 animal names and sounds, print on card stock and cut a set of the 43 Animal Sound-Spelling Cards. Practice with these students until they have achieved mastery.

Play the video only once per day. I get my students up and moving while they chant along.

The /sounds/ are color coded: Red for long vowels; purple for vowel teams (digraphs and diphthongs); gold for r-controlled vowels; green for short vowels; black for consonant sounds; and blue for consonant digraphs. Note: The colors become important components when teaching each phonetic element in my reading intervention program. For example, when my Vowel Sounds Phonics Diagnostic Assessment indicates that seven of my students have not yet mastered their r-controlled vowels, I tell these students to bring their gold cards up to the table for our phonics workshop lessons. And I will tell the entire class to take out their gold cards and black cards to play the interactive card games, putting together the sounds and spellings to form words. My program adds consonant blends, rimes (word families), sight syllable spellings, non-phonetic sight words, Greek and Latin word parts, and more for a total of 644 game cards to play 60 different reading and spelling card games. Fun and great practice.

These videos and the 43 Animal Sound-Spelling Cards will enhance any phonics-based program. Perfect to use with READ 180 Next Generation, SYSTEM 44, Language!® Live, and more. Of course, my Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam & Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE integrates these videos into comprehensive program. And it’s a better (and much cheaper) program.

When introducing Video 3: The Animal Names, Sounds, and Spellings Chant say,

“The blanks in the spellings mean that another letter or letters must be placed in the blanks to form a word or syllable. A syllable is simply a word part with a vowel. A blank before letters means that the spelling ends a syllable. For example, the spelling ‘_ck’ must include other letters in the blank to form a word or syllable such as ‘neck’ or ‘necklace.'”

“A blank after a letter or letters shows that spelling begins or comes in the middle of a syllable. For example, the spelling ‘oa_’ must include other letters in the blank to form a word or syllable such as ‘oats’ or ‘boat.’”

Your struggling readers will love practicing their basic phonics and spellings with these three chant-along videos! Your FREE download of the Animal Sound-Spelling Cards follows these videos.


Video #1: Animal Names Chant



Video #2: Animal Names and Sounds Chant



Video #3: Animal Names, Sounds, and Spellings Chant


Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive assessment-based reading intervention curriculum, the Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLEIdeal 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. Phonological awareness, phonics, syllabication, sight words, fluency (with 128 YouTube modeled readings), spelling, vocabulary and comprehension. The 54 accompanying guided reading phonics books each have comprehension questions, a focus sound-spelling pattern, controlled sight words, a 30-second word fluency, a running record, and cleverly illustrated cartoons by David Rickert to match each entertaining story. These resources provide the best reading intervention program at a price every teacher can afford.

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

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Get the Animal Sound-Spelling Cards FREE Resource:

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“My teacher wrote, ‘Hyperbole’ in the margin of my essay. I’m not sure what she meant,” said Marci.

Tom asked, “Are you referring to your one-of-a-kind, magnificent essay, which was vastly superior to that of every other student in this class?”

“That’s the hardest question anyone has ever had to answer!” exclaimed Marci. “Hmm… Maybe I do tend to make things bigger than they need to be.”

Tom smiled and said, “That is not an overstatement.”

Avoid Hyperbole


Definition and Examples

Hyperbole is an intended or unintended exaggeration used to make a point. It is not a literal statement, nor a slight exaggeration; it is an over-exaggeration. In fact, hyper is a Greek root, meaning over. Example: In sunny California, it rains only once in a million years.

Read the rule.

While hyperbole is used often in everyday speech, in literary dialogue and description, and in poems and songs, it may not be used in formal essays or reports.

Formal essays and reports depend upon objectivity and evidence. If a writer stretches some facts or makes unwarranted generalizations with hyperbole, the reader may question other facts or analysis which are presented as is, without exaggeration. Additionally, when a writer uses hyperbole, the reader may doubt whether the author is being fair and even-handed. Or the reader may assume that the writer is being manipulative.

Write the following sentences and [bracket] the hyperbole.

  1. That Mr. Hodgkins thinks his is the only class at this school. He gives a ton of homework.
  2. I’m dying to get into that university. There’s no place I’d rather be.
  3. That complete snob expects everyone to worship at his feet!
  4. I’d walk a thousand miles to see that once-in-a-lifetime lunar eclipse.
  5. The world champion Golden State Warriors seemed to have unlimited talent.

Re-write the following sentence, eliminating the hyperbole.

Avoid exaggeration; it only works once in a million years.


  1. That Mr. Hodgkins thinks his is [the only class] at this school. He gives [a ton] of homework.
  2. [I’m dying] to get into that university. There’s [no place] I’d rather be.
  3. That [complete] snob expects [everyone] [to worship] at his feet!
  4. I’d walk [a thousand miles] to see that [once-in-a-lifetime] lunar eclipse.
  5. The [world champion] Golden State Warriors seemed to have [unlimited] talent.


For more essay rules and practice, check out the author’s TEACHING ESSAYS BUNDLE. This curriculum includes 42 essay strategy worksheets corresponding to teach the Common Core State Writing Standards, 8 on-demand writing fluencies, 8 writing process essays (4 argumentative and 4 informative/explanatory), 64  sentence revision and 64 rhetorical stance “openers,” writing posters, and helpful editing resources. 

Differentiate your essay instruction in this comprehensive writing curriculum with remedial writing worksheets, including sentence structure, grammar, thesis statements, errors in reasoning, and transitions.

Plus, get an e-comment bank of 438 prescriptive writing responses with an link to insert into Microsoft Word® for easy e-grading (works great with Google Docs),

Download the following 24 FREE Writing Style Posters to help your students learn the essay rules. Each has a funny or ironic statement (akin to “Let’s eat Grandma) to teach the memorable rule. 

Get the Writing Style Posters FREE Resource:

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Syllable Transformers

Every teacher and parent has heard about transformers: the movies, the action characters, etc. If you’re a parent of a younger child, you know all about Bumblebee.

Since the dawn of the Transformers in 1984, the spunky little Autobot called Bumblebee has been a fan favorite. Why? He was the underdog. He was small, and he was one of the weaker Transformers, but his heart was huge and he showed great bravery on the battlefield. As a result, he was an admired and gentle friend not only to humans, but to his peers as well. And it didn’t hurt that his alternate mode was a cute little yellow Volkswagen Beetle. He now has at least six other transformations!

What if we could apply that same transformer concept to beginning reading and reading intervention? We can with Syllable Transformers.

FREE Unit on Syllable Transformers

Syllable Transformers

As a reading specialist working with struggling older readers in the 1990s, I had the pleasure of learning from the late Dr. John Sheffelbine from California State University at Sacramento. John was a self-described “phonicator” and created the BPST (Basic Phonics Skills Test) in its various iterations and the Scholastic Phonics Readers. One powerful set of lessons that John developed dealt with open and closed syllables. An open syllable is one which ends in a long vowel e.g. bay; a closed syllable ends in a consonant and the vowel is short e.g. bat.

John hypothesized that the best way to learn these open and closed syllable rules was to practice them together: to see how the vowel sound transforms from one syllable pattern to another. Additionally, because educators were transitioning from the whole language philosophy to a phonics-based approach, many students over-relied on sight words and syllables, rather than upon applying sound-symbol correspondences. The instructional implications were clear that practice in real syllable patterns would not solve the problem for these “look and say” syllable guessers. The answer was to use nonsense syllables. Brilliant!

I tried John’s “Syllable Transformations” and they worked wonders. However, I could see the power of expanding John’s idea to other syllable patterns. I also tweaked his approach to make the methodology a bit more “user-friendly” and “technologically-savvy” (I typed them up and displayed them on a machine we used to call the overhead projector.)

Years later I developed my own comprehensive reading intervention program (promo below), and I included Syllable Transformers as part of the weeks 9–13 instruction in both the half-year intensive and full-year program implementation. Teachers and students love this fast-paced whole-class response activity. I’m sending all of these lessons to your email inbox with the FREE download at the end of this article.

Week 9: Open and Closed Syllables

A vowel at the end of a syllable (CV) usually has a long vowel sound. This pattern is called an open syllable. The syllable following begins with a consonant. Example: below.

A vowel before a syllable-ending consonant (VC) is usually short. This pattern is called a closed syllable. The syllable following begins with a consonant. Example: bas-ket.

Weeks 10–11: Silent Final e Syllable Rule

The silent final e makes the vowel before a long sound, if only one consonant sound is between the two (VCe). For example, lately.

Weeks 12–13: Vowel Teams Syllable Rule

Usually keep vowel teams together in the same syllable. For example, beau-ty.

Syllable Worksheets and Derivative Worksheets: Following the Syllable Transformers, we continue learning the more complicated syllable patterns with real word blending.

Check out this quick video on how to teach Syllable Transformers: Syllable Transformers


Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive assessment-based reading intervention curriculum, the Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLEIdeal 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. Phonological awareness, phonics, syllabication, sight words, fluency (with 128 YouTube modeled readings), spelling, vocabulary and comprehension. The 54 accompanying guided reading phonics books each have comprehension questions, a focus sound-spelling pattern, controlled sight words, a 30-second word fluency, a running record, and cleverly illustrated cartoons by David Rickert to match each entertaining story. These resources provide the best reading intervention program at a price every teacher can afford.

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

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Get the Vowel Transformers FREE Resource:

Literacy Centers, Reading, Spelling/Vocabulary, Study Skills , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Reading Counts! Claims and Counterclaims

Accelerated Reader or Reading Counts!

AR or RC?

The purpose of this article on Reading Counts! is threefold: 1. To briefly summarize the basics of the Reading Counts! (RC) independent reading management program 2. To analyze three key claims made by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMS) regarding the efficacy of the RC (formerly Scholastic Reading Counts!) program and provide counterclaims by reading researchers, librarians, students, teachers, and Yours Truly. 3. To promote my own reading intervention program at the end of the article with free teaching resources 🙂


I previously ventured into the deep waters of independent reading management programs a number of years ago with my article, The 18 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader. Accelerated Reader™ is the most popular independent reading management program with 180,000 book titles (January 2019) assigned a Reading Practice Quiz. RC is the second place challenger with 45,000. Teacher comments on my article tend to focus more on the abuses of the program, and less so on the program itself. Many teachers are quite defensive about their use of the AR program. Understandably so. We teachers view our instructional choices as reflections of our professionalism. Curriculum is personal. In anticipation of similar comments to this article on Reading Counts!, I would like to preemptively respond by saying, “I’m sure that you are doing your part to adapt the Reading Counts! program to the needs of your kids, and I respect your professional judgment that you know your students best.” Please don’t shoot the messenger! However, as I re-read “The 18 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader” in preparation for this article, I would have to say that most of the problems in the AR program are applicable to the RC program, as well. I won’t cover the same ground in this article. However, I will analyze three of the claims made in the RC program, which I see as being more exclusive to this program. But first, a brief overview of how the RC program works.

How Reading Counts! Works

  • A school or district pays a school start-up fee of $375.00 and is assigned a sales representative. The RC software management program is licensed for an annual fee of $4.00 per student (a lower price for 2019). The reading placement and monitoring assessment, recently re-named the Reading Inventory (RI), costs an additional $4.00 per student. So, if my math is correct, that’s $4,000.00 for a 500 student elementary school every year. Plus, more money…
  • The school and/or district re-allocate portions of their budgets to purchase books included within the RC program. Currently, RC has about 45,000 titles, but unlike the books in the AR program, the company makes money from each sale, because HMH publishes them! These purchases will necessarily become an every-year budget item. 
  • The HMS sales representative in-services school librarians, teachers, and administrators (lots of online help, as well) on how to implement the RC program. Suggestions as to how to inform and work with parents and corresponding resources are provided. The program resources are relatively easy to use, but time-consuming.
  • The classroom teacher or librarian administers the computer-adaptive Reading Inventory (RI) as a reading placement test to all students participating in the RC program. This test provides a Personal Lexile® score for each student.
  • Teachers use the Student Achievement Manager (SAM) data and management system to generate student and class reports. The reports list the results of the RI as a Personal Lexile® number (level or measure) for each student and a class Lexile average. A higher Lexile number indicates a higher reading level ability.
  • The reports also list the students’ optimal Lexile text readability levels (a numerical range). A text’s Lexile level is determined by its semantic and syntactic degree of difficulty and sentence length. Once students know their reading levels, they can select books from the Search Book Expert Online ,within these reading levels. Although the RC is a Lexile-based program, it also includes grade-level equivalency and guided reading levels in this search engine. Additional filters include grade-level interest (K–2, 3–5, 6–8, high school, and high interest/intervention), fiction and non-fiction, subject areas, genre, and curriculum-integrated books. Note that the HMS reading intervention programs, READ 180 Next Generation® and System 44® include some RC titles for their independent reading rotations.
  • Teachers and students set reading goals in terms of a point system. Each book is assigned a specific point value based upon its length and text complexity. Many teachers establish a monthly points requirement.
  • Once students have finished their books, they take a corresponding quiz on the computer, or the teacher may choose to print the quiz. Although the test bank for each quiz includes 30 items, the default number of questions is 10. The RC authors and sales representatives make much ado about the larger quiz bank of questions compared to that of the AR program. They claim that is less easy for students to cheat due to the randomized 10 question default when students are sitting side-by-side. This may be true; however, a quick search indicated plenty of RC quiz “cheat sites,” as are found with the AR program. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Students are allowed to examine their incorrect responses, but there is no pay-off for doing so if the quiz re-takes use different questions. 
  • If the students achieve a predetermined score (mastery criteria set by the teacher), they receive a “congratulations screen” and an opportunity to rate the book they read on the “Read-o-Meter.” Students can also check their own RC Student Progress Report. Points are awarded based upon the percentage of quiz questions answered correctly. If the students do not achieve mastery, the teacher may require them to read the book again and retest or re-visit the students’ RI Lexile level range and the level and content of the book. Students are able to take the 10-question quiz 3 times, because there are 30 questions.
  • Teachers generate reports on students’ quiz scores and track the amount of reading and student test scores. They can also receive alerts when a student has not taken a quiz within a given period.
  • Once individual student point goals (usually set monthly) have been mastered, the student receives a certificate of achievement.
  • The Reading Counts! Educator’s Guide provides plenty of reproducibles to supplement the quizzes, such as reading logs, story charts, book reports, parent letters (in several languages), and guides for teachers to write their own quizzes (if the school library does not have the RC book).

Claims and Counterclaims

Claim 1: Students improve their reading more when the complexity of the text they read matches their reading ability. The best test to measure that optimal match or zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978)? The HMH Reading Inventory. Why? The RI is a criterion (compared to a fixed goal, such as a Common Core Standard) and norm-referenced (compared to other students) test. This is important because the test design allows teachers to administer the RI twice more within the school year to monitor progress. The Lexiles, which RI uses, have improved readability assessments (standard errors of measurement have been minimized and the amount of comprehension variance that can be explained by text difficulty has been improved. Accelerated Reader’s STAR test doesn’t have those advantages.

Counterclaim: Given that the RI is state of the art, in terms of Lexile levels and matching students to texts, and given that the ability to administer the test three times per year does provide a valid measure to monitor progress. But, the entire design of the RC programs begs the question. It assumes what has yet to be proven. As noted reading researcher, Dr. Tim Shanahan asserts,

…Lexiles have greatly improved readability assessment … and yet we are in no better shape than before since there are no studies indicating that if you teach students at particular Lexile levels more learning will accrue.

…we have put way too much confidence in an unproven theory. The model of learning underlying that theory is too simplistic. Learning to read is an interaction between a learner, a text, and a teacher. Instructional level theory posits that the text difficulty level relative to the student reading level is the important factor in learning. But that ignores the guidance, support, and scaffolding provided by the teacher. [In doing so, educators] have striven to get kids to levels where they will likely learn best with minimal teacher support.

Matching the right books to readers is simply more complex than the quantitative Lexile approach RC uses. Content, theme, and sophistication of thought matter, as well as the age and maturity of the reader are critically important factors to consider when students select books for independent reading. Most would find the following strictly quantitative Lexile measurements, listed in parentheses, to be inappropriate criteria for these grade levels.

  • 2nd Grade: Night – Wiesel (570)
  • 3rd Grade: The Sun Also Rises – Hemingway (610); Twisted – Anderson (680); Incarceron – Fisher (600)
  • 4th Grade: Grapes of Wrath – Steinbeck (680); The Color Purple – Walker (670)
  • 5th Grade: For Whom the Bell Tolls – Hemingway (840); Kite Runner – Hosseini (840); A Farewell to Arms – Hemingway (730); Cat’s Cradle – Vonnegut (790)
  • 6th Grade: As I Lay Dying – Faulkner (870); The Sound and the Fury – Faulkner (870); To Kill a Mockingbird – Lee (870); Fahrenheit 451 – Bradbury (890)

Additionally, the authors of the Common Core State Standards, with their emphases on text complexity, specifically challenge the notion that reading instruction should focus solely on texts at student ability levels. The authors cite research suggesting that with such scaffolds as close reading, even struggling readers can access significantly more complex text than that to which they have been traditionally given access.[1].pdf

“Below are bibliographic citations for the 26 studies referenced in Shanahan (2014) regarding students making gains with more complex text when given appropriate scaffolding. In addition abstracts and full-text PDF’s of all studies are available as well. These references were provided by Shanahan in “Building Up To FrustrationLevel Text” in Reading Today Online available here:”

Furthermore, reading research has repeatedly demonstrated the important variable of prior knowledge with respect to reading comprehension. When readers have significant prior knowledge on a topic, familiarity with the genre, or experience with the author’s writing style, even high Lexile level texts can be accessible. Prior knowledge and scaffolding relevant content and context can often trump the quantitative challenges of complex semantic and syntactic text for students.

Motivation is another significant variable in matching readers to text that can override the limitations of the RC Lexile levels. My youngest son was in 4th grade when the last Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, came out. Clearly, the quantitative Lexile level of 880 should have prevented his MA reading specialist father (me) from purchasing this “frustration level” book. Instead, I dutifully ignored the quantitative data and waited in line with my fourth grader for the midnight release of this treasured book. My son plowed through the book with a high level of comprehension. By the end of fourth grade, my son was reading significantly above grade level. Thanks to motivational influence of J.K. Rowling and the dozens of peers who were concurrently reading and discussion that book during recess.

Others would agree that reader motivation is far more important than instructional reading levels in book selection. From Ricki Ginsberg’s article, “This is my Anti-Lexile, Anti-Reading Level Post” (Ginsberg is Assistant Professor of English Education at Colorado State University):

I’m a 6th grader and when I took a Lexile test for my grade, I got stuck with books I hate so much. We had to search for books in my Lexile. I am so bored of those books. I want to read whatever I want to.

I took my grandson (a few years ago) to his book fair to purchase some books with him. He chose a few, and then we went back to his classroom to get his things, where I met his teacher. She took a look at the books he had chosen, and was excited about, and said, “Oh, I think these are too hard for you. You need to choose ones more at your level.” She didn’t know that I was a teacher, and I didn’t tell her. I almost hit her, but I didn’t do that either. She was the one who pretty much stopped his excitement about reading…

As a librarian, I have fought for years against leveling books. I was supported my district years ago against AR, but my job as a librarian was shifted to support classroom curriculum instead of supporting reading enjoyment, reference process, and library skills. Now a new deputy superintendent, whose old District used a Lexile based reading program, is spending money on a program that is Lexile leveled. While library books are hardly given any budget money, tens of thousands are being spent… The skills that teachers built by learning how to “fit” a book to a student and teaching students to self-select challenging and interesting reading material is being prostituted to paying publishers for poorly written formulaic books dressed up with attractive level numbers. It is a disservice to our students that ultimately destroys their confidence in becoming independent readers.


Used with permission

Claim 2: RC provides the accountability to ensure that students are reading independently.

At the heart of this powerful program is the practice provided by its quizzes. Unlike other reading assessment programs, no two quizzes in Reading Counts! are the same, struggling readers have the opportunity to retake quizzes, and quiz settings can be customized based on individual students’ needs for extra support or challenge. This quiz quality leads to more accurate and actionable data to keep students on track for success.

[Reading Counts!] automatically generates a quiz that meets each student’s reading needs. Because every quiz provides a true formative, curriculum-based assessment, As a computer-based program, RC provides immediate feedback and unique opportunities for mastery. Students can review questions that were incorrectly answered. Because each quiz is drawn from a database of up to 30 questions, students not showing an expected level of mastery can retake quizzes with a different set of questions. Research shows that when students are provided with immediate feedback, they are able to self-correct and make academic progress (Branford, Goldman & Vye 1991).

Counterclaim: While the reading research is clear that students who read independently are significantly more likely to outperform peers who do not read on their own (Anderson, Wilson & Fielding 1998), and those who read more independently score higher on reading tests compared to those who read less (Juel, 1988; Juel, Griffith, & Gough, 1986; Stanovich, 1986), the research does not support the claim of the RC authors and editorial board that the type of accountability that the program uses (quizzes) is necessary to achieve optimal reading gains.

Each of the 45,000 RC quizzes includes a test bank of 30 questions. They are primarily recall questions with some vocabulary and a minimum number of inferential questions. Few of the questions are relevant to the big ideas or themes of the corresponding books. In essence, the quizzes are designed to hold students accountable for reading their books.

Some researchers such as Dr. Stephen Krashen, argue that free voluntary reading, without accountability, produces greater reading gains than independent reading programs with accountability, as with the quizzes in the RC program. You may wish to check out my dialogue with Dr. Krashen on in-class independent reading and accountability. I disagree with Dr. Krashen and support independent reading with accountability.

My take is that we teachers have much better methods to hold students accountable for independent reading that also reinforce effective reading practice. For example, as a middle school teacher, I use online peer book clubs and student-parent discussions for my middle school students. I’ve also taught high school ELA and supervised elementary teachers doing the same. Plenty of accountability and practice, using the motivating social nature of reading. And no in-class independent reading. It’s all homework. I’m no guru, but I’m persistent, and I get between 80–90% participation (more the first semester than the last).

I teach students and their parents how to self-select reading, informed, but not limited by word recognition measures. However, challenging books need not be the only books students read. Reading at multiple levels has clear advantages and reflects real-world reading. I also train students how to discuss their reading in their online book clubs with their peers (one daily post and two comments required using the SCRIP Comprehension Bookmarks… download follows… to prompt), and I pop in to add my 2 cents. At Back-to-School Night (I require at least one family member to attend, and arrange infinite make-up sessions until I meet with every parent or guardian), I train adults how to hold 3-minute student-led reading discussions and parents assign points for their kid’s 5-days-per-week independent reading and discussion. I’m in a lower, poverty-challenged school with 75% free and reduced lunch, multi-ethnic, multi-languages, etc. If you have tricks up your sleeves to hold students accountable for reading that don’t require additional teacher correction or huge amounts of time, please add to the comments section of this post. At the end of this article, I link to a nicely organized list of articles and free resources for ELA and reading intervention teachers with quite a few more ideas on independent reading.

In the RC program, the SAM management system tracks individual and class quiz scores and also the number of words students have read in each book. If a student doesn’t pass the quiz after three attempts, she or he loses credit for having read the book. This means that the number of words the student has read is not tallied, and the student doesn’t receive a reward certificate as quickly. If it’s the independent reading that reinforces comprehension, vocabulary acquisition, and fluency, why doesn’t the student receive credit for doing so? The bottom line is that students receive positive reinforcement for mastering quizzes, not for reading. Reading is not rewarded; passing the quizzes is.

Claim 3: RC EMPOWERS educators with reports and actionable data at the student, school and district level. As a supplementary reading program, RC REINFORCES comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency skills. 

Counterclaims: The reports do provide information to the teacher regarding who read what, at what Lexile levels, how many pages read, what quiz scores were achieved, who hasn’t taken a quiz for awhile (alerts), and more. Plenty of information about what your students are and are not doing with respect to their independent reading. All interesting information, but information which takes time to input, analyze, and report (whoever says that technology is a time-saver is crazy); and information which RI administrators (like your principal) can access and compare to that of your colleagues. Although not advocated by the authors of the RC program, most teachers do use this data in various ways to provide incentives for participation in terms of rewards and/or grades. Of course, the incentives can become problematic. See my article, The 18 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader for examples. In short, the SAM reports do provide data collection and management functions (ones which could be done by paper and pencil or a simple Excel® spreadsheet in less time at no cost); however, none of these data informs reading instruction.

Next, let’s take a look at the claim about empowering educators with actionable data. Remember, the two assessments of the RC program are the three-times per year, Lexile-based HMH Reading Inventory (used for initial placement and subsequent progress monitoring) and the 45,000 quizzes. To my mind, actionable data should mean teachable data derived from prescriptive assessments that are reliable and valid. Let’s examine whether these two assessments provide information which is teachable.

For example, let’s say the students in your class take the RI during the first week of school. One of your bright students, Amanda, scores an above grade-level Personal Lexile score of 700, while  your class average is 550. With the SAM management software, you are able to use that data to match readers to books. However, other than that use (which we’ve already shown to be of questionable value), those initial RI Lexile scores provide no data to inform our reading instruction. On the RI given 3 months later, Amanda improves to a 750 and her average quiz scores from 80–90%, but your class averages the same 550 Lexile level and has not improved its 70% quiz average.

What does that data indicate? Something appears to be helping Amanda improve her reading, but we have no idea what it is. It could be the RC program; it could be the independent reading, itself; it could be the reading instruction you are doing in class, though you may not know exactly what instruction is helping; it could be what her parents are doing at home. Regarding your class, average Lexile and quiz scores, something appears not to be working. But what is the something so we can do something about it? We don’t know. You could look at subgroups and find out that your girls have improved more than your boys, or one ethnic group over the other, etc. But how does the Lexile and quiz data inform our instruction? The short answer? It doesn’t. The RI and quizzes provide no information about which reading skills have not yet been mastered and which have been mastered by Amanda or class as a whole. Neither assessment offers the teacher any specific data regarding what to teach and what not to teachSo why test if it does not provide actionable data?

A good question. Of course, teachers have been creating diagnostic and formative assessments for years that do inform their reading instruction in specific sub-skills. Good teachers are more than willing to test when the data pinpoints what needs to be taught and practiced and what does not require repeated instruction. Like many teachers, I’ve developed my own assessments to inform my instruction. I’ve written and field tested 13 diagnostic reading assessments with recording matrices and audio files, which provide teachable data. I provide them free of charge to help your students, and because some teachers would prefer not to re-invent the wheel by creating their teaching resources to correspond to each assessment item. Yes, you can buy those instructional resources from Pennington Publishing. Simply click the link and look in the header to download and print the free assessments. Additionally, skim the Articles and Resources to find over 700 articles of interest to the ELA and reading teacher, including a slew of articles on how to create your own no-cost independent reading program that I think does a better job for students than either the Accelerated Reader™ and Reading Counts! programs.

Both the Accelerated Reader™ and Reading Counts! program authors are careful to label their independent reading management programs as supplementary programs, as they should. However, as every teacher knows, instructional time is reductive: if you add on this, you have to take away that. Because both programs are designed for in-class and home practice, AR and RC supplant other instruction, most always reading instruction. Accepting at face value the RC claim that RC REINFORCES comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency skills, my question to teachers would be… Which would help your students improve their reading more? REINFORCING or TEACHING? Feel free to download my SCRIP Comprehension Strategies TEACHING resource at the end of this article as a reward for slogging through this rather long diatribe. I look forward to your comments.


Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive assessment-based reading intervention curriculum, the Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLEIdeal 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. Phonological awareness, phonics, syllabication, sight words, fluency (with 128 YouTube modeled readings), spelling, vocabulary and comprehension. The 54 accompanying guided reading phonics books each have comprehension questions, a focus sound-spelling pattern, controlled sight words, a 30-second word fluency, a running record, and cleverly illustrated cartoons by David Rickert to match each entertaining story. These resources provide the best reading intervention program at a price every teacher can afford.

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

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Check out the quality of these programs with a resource which works for both grade-level and struggling readers to improve internal monitoring of reading: 

These five FREE lessons will help you teach the SCRIP Comprehension Strategies for both grade-level and struggling readers. This FREE download is sent safe and secure to your email, and includes a set of SCRIP Posters and Bookmarks.

Get the SCRIP Comprehension Strategies FREE Resource:

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Reading Incentive Ideas

Programs for Reading Incentive

Reading Incentive Programs

I’m not active on Facebook, but my wife passed along this post, “This Barbershop is Getting Kids to Read.” Kids are encouraged to read out loud during their haircuts at this Pennsylvania barbershop “to help boost confidence and conquer fears of public speaking.” The incentive? Kids who read a line, page, or chapter (presumably based upon age and the discretion of the barber) are awarded $3.00 for their efforts.

As kids you don’t realize that fear can carry on as an adult. I want people to feel like they have a voice and they need to use it.

Jon Escueta, Owner City Cuts Barbershop as told to NOW THIS NEWS.

A smart marketing ploy? Undoubtedly. But also a terrific business partnership to develop with local schools. Escueta says he serves roughly 500 kids in his community.

As an M.A. reading specialist, I have served in elementary, middle school, high school, and community college settings. Getting kids and adults to put down their phones and video controllers and to pick up a book is a challenge at any age. I’ve helped implement both schoolwide and classroom-based reading incentive programs. While we all want the extrinsic rewards to be replaced with the intrinsic motivation to enjoy and learn from reading, raw behaviorism does have its place. A few guidelines I’ve found to be helpful follow:

Reading incentives should be connected to literacy. Avoid such crazy ideas such as “If students in the school read 30,000 pages, the principal will spend the night in a tent on top of the multi-purpose room.”

  • Keep reading incentives fresh. Vary the incentives and don’t keep them going on too long.
  • Kids do like competitions. Class v. class, grade v. grade, school v. school
  • Establish business partnerships, such as the barbershop idea above.
  • Get parents on board, reading along with their children.
  • The teachers need to read and share what they’ve been reading with their students.
  • Providing time for kids to share about the books they’ve been reading is motivating.
  • Reading incentives can also become confused with reading accountability. I see them as separate programmatic and instructional issues.

Independent reading programs (check out this great collection of articles) need not include reading incentives; however, most teachers and parents would agree that an effective independent reading program does require a workable system of accountability. The downside of confusing incentive and accountability has been shared by parents, students, and teachers in the hundreds of comments I’ve received on my article, “The 18 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader.” One comment regarding this confusion will suffice:

As an elementary school student, I loved AR. I still have my first ever AR t-shirt, and I remember my first ever AR book (Stone Soup). The program was used 100% as an incentive. There were no requirements, no class-wide rewards or “only the top ## of scorers get this prize” prizes. Everything was t-shirts, treasure chests, and pizza parties. No teacher pushed you to do AR, and you weren’t required to read at a specific level–the higher point values of books were incentive enough. Some of us took part in friendly rivalry, but there was no real pressure on the student to participate in the program or else let down their teachers/peers. I went back to work at the elementary school I attended for a few years, and that is still how the program works. Students read for fun and take the tests for fun. No requirements, no peer pressure.

However, when I went to middle school, AR became my worst enemy. The school implemented a program that required students to take the STAR test each year, then grouped you into classes with students who performed similarly on the STAR test. We were expected to sit and read something “on or above reading level” (12.9+ for me) in silence for 40 minutes. We were also expected to get a certain number of points each nine weeks, or we would fail the class. That’s right, the WHOLE CLASS was nothing but taking AR tests. I hated it, and learned to hate reading. I RAILED against it, protested it, wrote angry articles in the school paper, and was eventually granted (along with my fellow 12.9+ers) the opportunity to take an extra elective class–2 years later.

My experiences with AR were truly at the opposite ends of the spectrum, and that was entirely due to how the program was used/implemented.


The author, Mark Pennington, provides assessment-based ELA and reading intervention programs and resources at Pennington Publishing. Check out the following FREE download to help your students and children improve reading comprehension.

Get the SCRIP Comprehension Strategies FREE Resource:

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Standards Based Grading Rehab

Assessment-based Individualized Learning

Individualized Learning

We’ve all heard the figure of speech: “They can’t see the forest for the trees.”

We teachers tend to have the opposite issue: “We can’t see the trees for the forest.”

Teachers want to see students as individuals (and we often claim that we do so), but we have been culturally inculcated to see our students more in terms of groups. Sit in any staff room at lunch time and you’ll hear the following: “My fifth period is so low.” “My kids are so caring this year.” “My last period is out of control.” “I love my EL kids in that class.”

Now, teachers don’t really see every student as reflective of the whole, but the groups do provide a means generalization and comparison. When teachers generalize and compare, they have some notion in mind regarding the object of comparison. Such objects may include other classes, past years’ classes, “the ways we used to do things,” or often “how it was when I was a student.”

This identification of students in terms of comparative groups influences both our instructional and evaluative practices. The underlying notion of the bell curve permeates our group thinking and teacher experience tends to reinforces the notion that some of any group will really get it; some won’t get it at all; and most will sort of get it. We design our lessons, units, and tests accordingly although few would readily admit to doing so.

Teachers might say, “I teach to the middle.” “My lessons are designed to teach grade-level standards.” “My smart goals include ‘25% basic, 50% proficient, and “25% advanced.'” “This is an honors class (or remedial class) and so…” “I’ll get called into the principal if I have too many D or F grades.” “My colleagues will be upset if I give too many A‘s.” “We have common final exams, so my results (or grades) have to match those of my colleagues.” Administrative pressure, peer pressure, and “being a team player” values reinforce group think.

Our traditional ABCD, and F grading system is tied to seeing students as groups. Were teachers able to teach and grade students as individuals in terms of progress toward content and skill standards, a considerable amount of rehab would need to take place. A 12 step program to change the way we teach and evaluate students might look like this:

The 12 Steps of Standards-based Grading Rehab

1. We admitted we were powerless over group think, generalizations, and arbitrary comparisons—that our instruction and evaluation had become unmanageable, ineffective, irrelevant, inaccurate, and ethically questionable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity, that is the belief in the value of the individual.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our teaching over to God and standards assessment-based individualized instruction.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves and admitted that we don’t know everything and that we are not perfect teachers with no room for improvement.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our educational malpractice.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of our professional practice and be willing to change long-established and cherished beliefs and practice.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all: to students, to parents, to colleagues, to administrators, and to our profession.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other teachers and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Adapted from Alcoholics Anonymous 12 Principles Copyright  1952, 1953, 1981 by Alcoholics Anonymous Publishing
(now known as Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.)


Mark Pennington is an educational author and re-thinker of his own teaching practice. Mark’s assessment-based individualized learning, featuring diagnostic and formative assessments is included in his grades 4–8 ELA and reading intervention programs found at www.penningtonpublishing.comCheck out and use these sample diagnostic assessments to individualize and differentiate your instruction and evaluation:

Get the The Pets Fluency Assessment FREE Resource:

Get the Vowel Sounds Phonics Assessment with Audio File and Matrix FREE Resource:

Get the Diagnostic Grammar and Usage Assessment with Recording Matrix FREE Resource:

Get the Diagnostic Mechanics Assessment with Recording Matrix FREE Resource:

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How to Use Essay Evidence

Evidence for Essays

Types of Evidence

Whether writing an informational/explanatory or argumentative essay, knowing which evidence appropriately supports the topic sentence of each body paragraph is essential. Teach your students to follow the CARVO guidelines in selecting and using essay evidence.

  • The evidence needs to be Consistent with other evidence within the same source. Evidence needs to have internal validity. In other words, the evidence must fit other evidence presented within the same source.
  • The evidence must be Accurate and unquestionable. Use other sources to double check accuracy. Not all sources are reliable.
  • The evidence has be Relevant. Appropriate evidence must directly relate to the topic. It may only be used when the context of your source matches the context of how you use the evidence in your writing.
  • The evidence has to be Varied and balanced to convince your audience. Provide both quantitative and qualitative data. Use both primary and secondary sources.
  • The evidence has to be Objective and fairly presented. Never use slanted or biased evidence to prove your point. Save the argument or interpretation of the evidence for your analysis of that evidence.

Teaching your students how to select and use evidence is a process. Student writers often fail to consider the importance of their audience in deciding what and how to support their body paragraph topic sentences. You might try this story to help them make the connection:

A friend of yours went on a backpack and saw a UFO hovering over a valley. The spacecraft landed and the aliens came out to greet the earthlings. 

To convince your peers about what your friend experienced, what evidence would they require?

Check out three types of evidence worksheets with answers and a nice wall poster!

Get the Types of Essay Evidence FREE Resource:

Get the Types of Evidence Writing Posters FREE Resource:


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

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