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Should We Teach High Frequency Words?

Should We Teach High Frequency Words?

High Frequency Words?

As a teacher-publisher, I am a member of quite a few Facebook groups, Pinterest groups, etc. I sell my ELA and reading intervention curriculum on my Pennington Publishing site as well on the monolith: Teachers Pay Teachers. The latter provides a Seller’s Forum, which I infrequently visit.

A seller recently posted this topic:

Sight words – Fry or Dolch? 

I have always used the Dolch list, but notice many people using the Fry list in their products.  Does your school mandate a certain one?  Do you have a preference when looking for sight word materials?

This brings up an important topic. Both the Fry and Dolch lists are high frequency word lists. Each list was developed pre-computer age by groups of grad students counting the number of recurring words in basal readers.

Speaking of the English, teachers in the United Kingdom and many in international schools refer to the high frequency words as “tricky words.” American teachers have generally coined the term “sight words” to refer to high frequency words. This term has some important instructional implications.

Should We Teach Students Sight Words to Improve Reading and Spelling?

My take is that teaching (or more likely practicing and testing) long lists of high frequency reading words (the sight words or tricky words depending upon one’s side of the Atlantic) or using them in spelling instruction is counterproductive. Apologies to Rebecca Sitton, whose list of “No Excuse Spelling Words” still graces the classroom walls of thousands of American teachers’ classrooms. Why is it counterproductive? We need to teach students to rely on the code for reading and spelling. Just as in baseball, we need to teach students to “look for the fastball, but adjust for the curve.” In other words, apply the rule, but adjust for exceptions.

Memorizing lists of 200, 300, 400, 500 high frequency “sight words” treats language acquisition as a process of rote learning and viewing each and every word in isolation. This approach falsely teaches students that every reading and spelling word is an exception. The old Dick and Jane look-say method of reading and spelling instruction has been properly relegated to the instructional dumpster; however, high frequency instruction remains a hold-out to some degree. Why is this so? My take is because “Let’s teach the words students will read and write most often” seems intuitively correct. However, intuition is not science and should not guide our instructional decisions.

But What about Non-phonetic Sight Words?

Included within the lists of high frequency words are a subset of non-phonetic words. I call the 108 (plus or minus depending on list and how one counts inflections) non-phonetic words “outlaw words”; others refer to them as “rule-breakers.” Of the 100 highest frequency English words, many are non-phonetic because they derive from Old English.

Most reading specialists would agree that the “outlaw words” should be introduced concurrently with explicit, systematic phonics instruction. For example, I introduce the 108 highest frequency “outlaw words” two at a time in my 54 Sam & Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books.

However, teaching these “outlaw words” alongside of phonetically regular high frequency words confuses beginning and older vulnerable readers. When we teach these “rule breakers,” we need to make clear distinctions between these words which should not be sounded-out and those which should.

*Sight words assessments (also referred to as word recognition, e.g. The Slosson Oral Reading Test) shouldn’t be confused with instruction.

Before I end, let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. A few important caveats! I so see value in practicing sight recognition of sight syllables (such as Greek and Latinates, which of course do not all conform to English phonetic rules). Additionally, the approach in my programs such as Teaching Reading Strategies and Differentiated Spelling Instruction includes other non-phonetic approaches, such as rimes (word families) memorization for kids who struggle with the code and high frequency spelling patterns, conventional spelling rules, and derivational influences.

*****

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

Interested in seeing how I introduce the non-phonetic “outlaw words” and my phonics instructional sequence in my reading intervention program? Want the example words to blend for each of the sound-spellings? You’ll love this FREE download:

Get the Instructional Phonics Sequence FREE Resource:

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

Vague Pronoun References

Revising Vague Pronoun References

Vague Pronoun References

“They didn’t take the donuts,” Rhett told his teacher.

“To whom are you referring? the teacher asked.

“Those kids who make us get into trouble with their friends like they do all the time. You should punish them.”

“That’s horrible,” the teacher responded. “But it’s hard to punish vague pronoun references.”

Definition and Examples

A vague pronoun does not clearly identify its antecedent. An antecedent is the noun or pronoun that the pronoun refers to or re-names. Vague pronouns usually consist of four types:

  1. More than one antecedent could match the pronoun. Revise by repeating the noun. Example: Dishes were on the tables, but we didn’t need them. Dishes were on the tables, but we didn’t need the dishes.
  2. Demonstrative pronouns (this, that, these, or those) are used on their own. Revise by adding a noun following the pronoun. Example: That is beautiful. That painting is beautiful.
  3. The antecedent is an adjective. Revise by changing the pronoun reference from an adjective to a noun. Example: I called Jesse’s work Jesse at his work, but he never answered.
  4. The pronoun has no antecedent. Revise by adding the antecedent. Example: Although he was extremely rich, he didn’t spend it. Although he had money, he didn’t spend it.

Read the rule.

Pronouns must clearly identify their antecedents. Keep pronoun references close to their antecedents to avoid confusion.

Re-write these sentences and [bracket] the vague pronouns and antecedents.

  1. I love art galleries, especially paintings. These seems to be from the Italian artists.
  2. The books were already on the students’ desks, but we didn’t need them.
  3. I asked to speak to Maribel’s father, but she would not talk to me.
  4. Please get your paper out of your backpack and pass it forward.
  5. His math teachers taught him, but he didn’t use it in his job.

Revise the vague pronoun to clearly identify its antecedent.

Keep pronoun references close to subjects in long sentences to make them clear.

Answers

  1. I love art [galleries], especially paintings. [These] seems to be from the Italian artists.
  2. The [books] were already on the students’ [desks], but we didn’t need [them].
  3. I asked to speak to [Maribel’s father], but [she] would not talk to me.
  4. Please get your [paper] out of your [backpack] and pass [it] forward.
  5. His [math teachers] taught him, but he didn’t use [it] in his job.

*****

For more essay rules and practice, check out the author’s Teaching Essay Strategies. 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:

Grammar/Mechanics, Study Skills, Writing , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Double Negatives

Using Double Negatives

Double Negatives

“I’ve never been no snitch!” Wallace said.

“So you’re saying that you have been a snitch. You used a double negative. Didn’t you learn in math that a double negative is a positive?” asked Tess.

“Math don’t teach us nothing about English, Tess.”

“I’d have to agree with you, Wallace.”

Definition and Examples

Non-standard English often differs from Standard English because of regional or cultural dialects. One form of Non-standard English is the double negative. In Non-standard English the double negative is used to emphasize the negative; however, in Standard English the double negatives can cancel each other out and form a positive. Example: I do not have no excuses. Standard English Revision: I do not have any excuses.

Read the rule.

Don’t use double negatives in essays or reports.

Re-write the sentence and [bracket] the double negatives.

  1. Don’t tell me nothing about that situation. I don’t want to know anything.
  2. Never tell nobody about your plans, so you won’t disappoint anyone.
  3. Well, I don’t want not to come visit you.
  4. I misplaced my phone. I can’t find it nowhere.
  5. She is not unhelpful, but she doesn’t have a choice not to help when asked.

Revise the double negatives.

Never write no double negatives.

Answers

  1. [Don’t] tell me [nothing] about that situation. I don’t want to know anything.
  2. [Never] tell [nobody] about your plans, so you won’t disappoint anyone.
  3. Well, I [don’t] want [not] to come visit you.
  4. I misplaced my phone. I [can’t] find it [nowhere].
  5. She is [not] [unhelpful], but she [doesn’t] have a choice [not] to help when asked.

*****

For more essay rules and practice, check out the author’s Teaching Essay Strategies. 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:

Grammar/Mechanics, Writing , , , , , , , ,

Formulaic Phrases

Formulaic Expressions

Formulaic Phrases

“That was quite the party last night!” Bebe said.

“Yes, a good time was had by all,” Sergio said. “But it was over before it really began.”

“You love your formulaic phrases, Sergio.”

“Once I find something that works, it’s all good.”

Definition and Examples

A formulaic phrase is a commonly used expression. Example: In this day and age, most people know that you can’t be too careful. The formulaic phrase is closely related to an idiom (or idiomatic expression). Example: She walked through the door. Both are considered to be figures of speech.

In both formulaic phrases and idioms, the individual words may not mean exactly what they say. Both types of expressions often suggest, but do not state, certain attitudes. The differences are that the formulaic phrase is considered over-used, but an idiom is not, and the formulaic phrase may shift its wording to suit its purposes, but an idiom does not change.

Read the rule.

Don’t use idiomatic expressions or idioms in essays or reports.

Re-write these sentences and [bracket] the formulaic phrases.

  1. No one would support that idea. You know what I mean?
  2. I know what he meant, but these days, you just can’t say that.
  3. I’ll reconsider what you say, but at the end of the day I’ll have to make my decision.
  4. We all know what that sort of thing can lead to, don’t we?
  5. It’s this, that, or the other, don’t you think?

Revise the sentence to eliminate the formulaic phrase.

It goes without saying to avoid using formulaic phrases.

Answers

  1. No one would support that idea. [You know what I mean]?
  2. I know what he meant, but [these days], you just can’t say that.
  3. I’ll reconsider what you say, [but at the end of the day] I’ll have to make my decision.
  4. We all know [what that sort of thing] can lead to, don’t we?
  5. [It’s this, that, or the other], don’t you think?

*****

For more essay rules and practice, check out the author’s Teaching Essay Strategies. 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:

Grammar/Mechanics, Study Skills, Writing , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Meaningless Sentence Starters

Avoid There and Here

There and Here

“Why do we have to avoid using too many There and Here words at the beginning of sentences?” Peja asked.

There are reasons for that. Here they are,” Chiang said.

“I’m waiting. What’s the problem with using those sentence starters?”

“Avoid using meaningless words as sentence starters.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“I did. I told you why and showed you how.”

Definition and Examples

Using There or Here + a “helping verb” (has been, had been, will be, shall be, should be, would be, can be, could be, may be, might be, must be) or a “linking verb” (is, are, was, were) is rarely necessary and provides no additional meaning to a sentence. Example: There are the three students waiting over there. This sentence can be changed to… The three students wait over there. Example: Here is the blue pen to use to write your grandmother. This sentence can be changed to… Use the blue pen to write your grandmother.

Read the rule.

Avoid beginning sentences with There or Here + a “helping verb” or a “linking verb.” Revise to eliminate these words. To delete the unnecessary There or Here word, place the subject of the sentence at the beginning with or without its article (a, an, or the) and change the verb form as needed.

Re-write these sentences and [bracket] the meaningless words used as sentence starters.

  1. Here are plenty of samples to try.
  2. There is evidence to suggest that the owner knew that the painting was worthless.
  3. There were reasons for his actions, but we were never told what they were.
  4. Here is the envelope you were looking for in my desk.
  5. There will be consequences to your failures to act on his advice.

Eliminate the meaningless sentence starter in this sentence.

There are good reasons to avoid starting sentences with There and Here.

Answers

  1. [Here are] plenty of samples to try.
  2. [There is] evidence to suggest that the owner knew that the painting was worthless.
  3. [There were] reasons for his actions, but we were never told what they were.
  4. [Here is] the envelope you were looking for in my desk.
  5. [There will be] consequences to your failures to act on his advice.

*****

For more essay rules and practice, check out the author’s Teaching Essay Strategies. 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:

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

Wordiness

Revising Wordiness

Wordiness

“Mr. Parkins, I don’t understand your comment on my essay. It says, ‘Wordy.’”

Wordiness means using too many words to say too little, Elton.”

“Mr. Parkins, you said our essay had to be 700 words. I’ve got 702. How can it be ‘wordy’ when it only has two extra?”

“Elton, this essay has more padding than my overstuffed pillows. You turned a 500-word essay into 702 words. Better to be too short than too long.”

Definition and Examples

Learning how to write concisely (briefly) and efficiently is important. When wording is added which does not contribute meaning, teachers call this padding. Padding includes needless or repetitive information included in order to fill up a page. When too many words are used to communicate that which could be said more concisely, teachers call this wordiness. Often, a wordy writer uses noun constructions, rather than simple verbs. Examples: Instead of for the production of, the writer might say produce.

Read the rule.

Avoid using useless noun phrases, especially ones which begin with prepositions. Instead, use specific nouns and verbs to write concisely (briefly).

Read the following sentences and [bracket] the wordiness.

  1. For the purposes of this writing, I will share these very interesting documents.
  2. The majority of most of my friends urged me not to speak at this point in time.
  3. I told them of each and every circumstance with the exception of five instances.
  4. During the course of the investigation, in an effort to tell the truth, he did an interview.
  5. The audience could not hear at all what the speaker said.

Revise the sentence to eliminate wordiness.

Cease, desist, and stop wordiness.

Answers

  1. For [the purposes of] this writing, I will share these [very interesting] documents.
  2. [The majority of] most of my friends urged me not to speak at this point [in time].
  3. I told them of [each and] every circumstance [with the] excep[tion of] five instances.
  4. During [the course of] the investigation, [in an effort to] tell the truth, he did an interview.
  5. The audience could not hear [at all] what the speaker said.

*****

For more essay rules and practice, check out the author’s Teaching Essay Strategies. 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:

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

Instructional Phonics Order

Phonics Instructional Sequence

Instructional Phonics Order

Teachers often ask about the order of phonics instruction. Is there an instructional sequence that makes sense more than others?

First, let’s take a look at some general criteria which seems to make sense:

  1. The most common sounds are introduced prior to the least common sounds.
  2. Order of instruction separates letters that are visually similar e.g., p and b, m and n, v and w, u and n.
  3. Order of instruction separates sounds that are similar e.g., /k/ and /g/, /u/ and /o/, /t/ and /d/, /e/ and /i/.
  4. The most commonly used letters are introduced prior to the least commonly used letters.
  5. Short words with fewer phonemes are introduced prior to longer words with more phonemes.
  6. Continuous sounds e.g., /a/, /m/, are introduced prior to stop sounds e.g., /t/ because the continuous sounds are easier to blend.

Following is the instructional phonics order that is best supported by research and practice (and the order I use in my own reading intervention program):

Short vowel sounds and consonant sounds:

  • a, m, t, s
  • i, f, d, r
  • o, g[a,o,u], l, h
  • u, b, c[a,o,u], _ck
  • e (_ea), k[i,e], v, n, kn_
  • p, w, j, qu
  • y, x, z, _s, r, wr
  • Ending double consonants _ll, _ff, _ss, _zz

Ending consonant blends:

  • _nd, _st, _xt
  • _nt (n’t), _lt
  • _mp, _sk, _lp
  • _ft, _ld, _ng
  • _lk, _nch, _pt
  • _nk, _sp
  • “th” voiced* th_
  • “th” unvoiced** th_, _th
  • “sh” unvoiced** sh_
  • “sh” + _ed _sh, _shed

*The voiced consonant sound has a slight /uh/ sound. With digraphs (more than one sound) and blends (two or more sounds), the second letter pronunciation is softer than the first.

**The unvoiced consonant is made just with air.

Consonant digraphs:

  • wh, ch, _tch

Beginning consonant blends:

  • fl_, sl_, bl_, cl_, gl_, pl_
  • sm_, sn_, sp_, st_, sk_, sc_
  • br_, cr_, dr_, fr_, gr_, pr_
  • shr_, thr_, str_, spr_, scr_
  • sw_, tr_, tw_, spl_, squ_

Long vowel sounds and silent final e:

  • a, _ay, a_e, ai_
  • e, _ee, ea, [c]ei
  • _ie_, e_e, _y
  • i, _igh, i_e, _y, _ie
  • o, o_e, _oe, oa_, ow
  • u, u_e, _ew, _ue

r – controlled vowels:

  • ar
  • or
  • er
  • ir
  • ur

Diphthongs:

  • _ow, ou_
  • oo, _ue, u, u_e, _ew
  • oo, _u_
  • oi_, _oy
  • aw, au, a[l], a[ll], augh[t]

Syllable Juncture:

  • g[e,i,y], _ge, _dge
  • c[e,i,y]
  • Long i _y and Long e _y
  • _le
  • Schwa a, _ai_
  • Schwa e
  • Schwa i
  • Schwa o, _io_, ou_
  • ph, ch_ (/k/), _ci_, _si_, _ti_, gn
  • ough

Now, you have the instructional phonics order. Know how to teach these sound-spellings? My reading intervention program uses a multi-faceted approach: animal sound-spelling card games, connected decodable readers, phonics workshops, and blending. The blending procedure I use teaches both decoding (phonics) and encoding (spelling). I call it Sound-by-Sound Spelling Blending. Download my FREE blending lessons with example words and built-in review after my author promo. Next, check out the quick instructional video.

*****

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

Interested in seeing how the above Instructional Phonics Order is paced in my intervention program? Want the example words to blend for each of the sound-spellings? You’ll love this FREE download:

Get the Instructional Phonics Sequence FREE Resource:

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

Build Vocabulary through Reading

Learning Vocabulary through Reading

Building Vocabulary through Reading

The reading research certainly supports direct vocabulary instruction: According to the National Reading Panel (2000), explicit instruction of vocabulary is highly effective in improving reading comprehension. “Students should be explicitly taught both specific words and word-learning strategies. To deepen students’ knowledge of word meanings, specific word instruction should be robust” (Beck et al., 2002). In fact, the vocabulary standards delineated in the Common Core Anchor Standards for Language mention each of these explicit areas of vocabulary instruction.

  • Multiple Meaning Words and Context Clues (L.4.a.)
  • Greek and Latin Word Parts (L.4.a.)
  • Language Resources (L.4.c.d.)
  • Figures of Speech (L.5.a.)
  • Word Relationships (L.5.b.)
  • Connotations (L.5.c.)
  • Academic Language Words (L.6.0)

Teaching to these vocabulary standards will enrich your students depth of vocabulary knowledge and will teach your students how language and words help us learn. And reading research indicates that students can learn some 400 words per year in school through explicit vocabulary instruction (Beck, McKewon & Kucan, 2002).

However,

Numerous studies have estimated that students need to learn from 2,000–4,000 new words per year to make grade to grade reading growth. The most widely cited study indicates that students need to learn 3,000 new words per year (Honig 1983).

So, if the vocabulary standards help students master 400 words per year, how can we ensure that students learn the additional 2,600 words needed to make at least one grade level of reading growth in our classrooms? The Common Core authors discuss this solution in Appendix A of the CCSS document.  So, what is this key instructional strategy that will help your students meet and exceed that goal of 3,000 new words per year?

Independent reading.

Let’s do the math. When reading at independent levels (around 95% word recognition*), that means that students are exposed to 5% unknown words. Reading at an average 200 words per minute, 30 minutes per day, 4 days per week, means that students will read 864,000 words during the school year. If 5% of these words are unknown to the reader and the reader masters 10%** of those unknown words, this results in a gain of not 3,000, but 4,320 new vocabulary words! (30 minutes x 200 words = 6,000 x 4 days per week = 24,000 x 36 weeks = 864,000 words read in a year x 5% unknown words = 43,200 x 10% mastery =4,320.

Now, having been convinced regarding the efficacy of building vocabulary through independent reading, let’s not jump to the same conclusions that some advocates of the “whole language” approach to reading made during the 1980s and 1990s and the “balanced literature” adherents make today: If incidental vocabulary acquisition through wide reading produces a greater number of new words (4,320 in our example) than does explicit vocabulary instruction (400), let’s abandon explicit vocabulary instruction altogether.

This conclusion is flawed. Consider this question: What is it that allows the reader to mastery 10% of the 5% unknown words when reading text at optimal word recognition levels? It’s precisely the vocabulary strategies that readers internalize through explicit instruction and practice. For example, numerous studies suggest that using instructional strategies that teach students how to use context clues effectively can improve that 10% mastery of unknown words (Rhoder and Huerster, 2002, Greenwood and Flanigan, 2007). Additionally, explicit instruction in Greek and Latin word parts which appear in 50% of Tier 2 academic vocabulary can provide the structural clues to significantly improve that 10% number. Clearly, studying non-contextual vocabulary can improve the efficiency of readers to understand and master contextual vocabulary in reading.

Bottom line: Students need both explicit vocabulary instruction (those Common Core grade-level vocabulary standards) and enough independent reading to make at least one grade level of reading progress.

But, how can we be sure that it’s independent reading that teaches the most vocabulary? Don’t students learn vocabulary naturally through listening throughout their school day and at home? Don’t students get plenty of reading throughout the day in literature, science, and social studies texts? Way back in 1988, reading researchers Hayes and Athens published interesting research regarding this question. They counted the number of words above the 1,000 highest frequency words (usually mastered by most primary grade students) for a variety of listening venues such as adult-level conversations, court cases, and the nightly news. As an example, watching and listening to the nightly news exposes the viewer/listener to only 19 of these key words. In contrast, reading for the same amount of time provides a much higher exposure to words beyond the most frequently used 1,000 words. For example, reading a challenging comic book for the same amount of time exposes the reader to 53 of these challenging words. Reading a challenging book for the same amount of time exposes a reader to 75. Unfortunately, research indicates that the amount students read in a school day through teacher-directed reading tasks is miminal. Clearly, independent reading is the most efficient means of learning new words, when supported by explicit vocabulary instruction.

When should students complete their independent reading?

Many teachers buy into the research on the value of independent reading and provide in-class time for sustained silent reading. However, my take is that independent reading in class is largely both inefficient and reductive.

Again, taking a look at the math, few teachers (other than “The Book Whisperer”) at the elementary, middle, and high school levels would be willing or even permitted to allocate the 120 minutes per week of class time necessary to achieve optimal vocabulary growth. In a typical secondary ELA class with 200 minutes of instructional time per week (less with holidays and all-too-frequent instructional interruptions), the 120 minutes would take up more than half of available instructional time. Few principals would permit this encroachment upon teaching grade-level standards. As one of my own principals once told our middle school ELA department, “The district is not paying you to babysit students doing independent reading. Earn your paychecks!” The principal’s statements were a trifle blunt, but essentially correct that all instructional time is reductive. You can’t add something without taking away something.

Now some teachers might be tempted to compromise and facilitate independent reading for some time in class and some time at home. My response is “Why not all independent reading at home?” Independent reading is the perfect homework. I can hear the arguments about why this won’t work rolling in… “They won’t do it. Parents won’t support it. There’s no accountability. It takes too much time to grade and manage it.” I’m not convince. Clever teachers can solve those problems.

As a reading specialist, I’ve taught at the elementary, middle, high school, and community college levels. I recently retired as a middle school ELA teacher. Reading research indicates that middle schoolers read less on their own than any other age group. At a lower performing, 75% free and reduced lunch, multi-ethnic, multi-language school, I have success rates of 80–90% compliance with students reading 120 minutes per week at home. How? I train parents and students in how to do and supervise independent reading and daily 3–5 minute reading discussions. I get students and parents to buy in by requiring student-parent trainings. I meet with each and every parent, 130 or so. This investment of time pays off because I don’t have to grade student response journals, book reports, etc. Instead, I train and trust parents to grade the quality of their child’s discussion and I count it as 15% of the student’s total grade. I mix things up with other activities which ensure accountability, such as online book clubs in which students must post and discuss and parents and I (I can’t resist) pop-in to the mix. My point is that you, the teacher, know what will work for your students, and with some experimentation, you can figure how how to hold students accountable for independent reading homework.

Which books should students read? How should students select these books?

How do you get students to read books at the optimal word recognition levels? You don’t have to spend thousands on Accelerated Reader® or Reading Counts! You don’t have to look for Fountas Pinnell A–Z+ leveled books. You don’t have to look for grade-level equivalents. You don’t have to match student Lexile levels to published book lists. You don’t have to do running records and a miscue analysis for each student.

The key to matching students to the right books is to train students (and parents at lower grade levels) to do so. Students don’t have access to the above data, nor will they as lifelong readers. I do believe in Reggie Routman’s mantra: If the book is too difficult, it will lead to frustration; too little of a challenge will lead to boredom. Students can be trained to pick the “Goldilocks Level”: not too easy, not too hard, just right (Routman, 2003). You don’t even have to require all independent reading to be at optimal levels. Some will be less optimal; some, especially if you agree with the Common Core author’s notions about text complexity, should be more rigorous.

Boredom is a powerful disincentive. Teachers worry far too much that students will pick easier books over more challenging ones. My experience is that students learn from their own mistakes. Students want to read texts which match their maturity levels. Believe me, successful authors know how to match content and vocabulary levels to their target audiences. Additionally, motivation plays an important role in book selection. When Harry Potter books were hot off the press, my fourth grader read far beyond his tested reading levels in the last few JK Rowling novels, to be able to access what his older brothers were reading and talking about. Self-selected reading will almost always be perfectly acceptable if students are trained in how to avoid boredom and frustration.

Teach one of these two methods to help students (and parents) pick the right books for independent reading. And let me reiterate once again, not all independent reading needs to conform to these challenge levels to get students to meet or exceed our 3,000 words annual goal:

  1. The five and ten finger method (five for grades 3–5 chapter books and ten for grades 6–adult novels). Big print chapter books have about 100 words per page. Smaller print novels have about twice that number (200 words per page). Students read a random page from a book they want to read and count the number of unknown words as they read, using their fingers. If the number of unknown words is close to the 5 , say 3–7 for bigger print books or 10, say 7–13 for small print novels, that’s a good match.
  2. Select any complete page at random and count the number of words on that page. Read that same page, counting the number of unknown words as you read. Anything within the 3-7% range is a good match. For example, a reader counts the number of words on a page and arrives at 225. While reading, the student counts 11 unknown words. 11.00 ÷ 225 = .05, or 5%.

*Word recognition is simply the ability of the reader to accurately read and automatically understand a word (Reutzel & Cooter 2009). Vocabulary experts agree that adequate reading comprehension depends on a person already knowing between 90 and 95 percent of the words in a text (Hirsch, 2003). For second language learners, Results suggest that the 98% estimate is a more reasonable coverage target for readers of academic texts (Schmitt, Jiang, Grabe 2012). Most reading specialists support 95% as an optimal level of word recognition for vocabulary growth in which the reader’s comprehension is not adversely affected by too many unknown words, but enough unknown words are provided to enable incidental learning by knowledge of context clues.

**A commonly used figure by reading researchers with variables such as repetitions, word families, inflections, prior knowledge of content, primary language ability, and knowledge of and ability to apply context clues.

For teachers looking only for a solid one-year vocabulary program, check out the Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits (grades 4-8). The 56 Vocabulary Worksheets include

Pennington Publishing's Common Core Vocabulary Toolkit

Common Core Vocabulary Toolkit

Multiple Meaning Words and Context Clues (L.4.a.); Greek and Latin Word Parts (L.4.a.); Language Resources (L.4.c.d.); Figures of Speech (L.5.a.); Word Relationships (L.5.b.); Connotations (L.5.c.); and Academic Language Words (L.6.0). Students learn ten Tier Two and Tier Three words (the words recommended in Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects) each week. Want to check out sample lessons? Preview This Book.

Here are FREE samples of vocabulary worksheets from this comprehensive program–ready to teach in your class today. Each resource includes directions, four grade-specific vocabulary worksheets, worksheet answers, vocabulary study cards, and a short unit test with answers.

Get the Grade 4 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

Get the Grade 5 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

Get the Grade 6 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

Get the Grade 7 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

Get the Grade 8 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

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

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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

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