Posts Tagged ‘socratic seminars’

To Read or Not to Read: That is the Question

Don't Read Class Novels Out Loud

Class Novels

In terms of teaching literature, I live in two worlds. I am an English-language arts teacher and a reading specialist. Although the two worlds would seem to be quite complementary, this is not always the case.

As an English-language arts teacher, I love teaching the nuances of the author’s craft. I live to point out allusions, symbolism, and an occasional foreshadowing. I am ecstatic when I am able to lead my students into the “ah ha” experience of how a passage reinforces the theme of a novel. I believe that we English-language arts teachers do have “content” to share with students. Go ahead… try to convince me that being able to identify the omniscient point of view is not a critical life skill. Make my day… My students need me; they are dependent upon me to teach them this content.

However, as a reading specialist, I also believe in the skills/process side of reading. In this world, my aim is to work my way out of a job. I have to change dependence into independence. The more students can do on their own to understand and retain the meaning of text, the better I have accomplished my mission. I need to train students to become successful independent readers in college, in the workplace, and at home.

Which leads us to our dilemma. When we teach a novel or short story, how much of our instruction should be teacher-dependent and how much should be teacher-independent? My thought is that we English-language arts teachers tend to err too frequently on the side of teacher-dependence and we need to move more to the side of teacher-independence.

As a reading specialist/staff developer at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels, I have had to opportunity to see hundreds of teachers “in action,” teaching a novel or short story to students. From my experience, the predominant way that English-language arts teachers work through a text is by reading and dissecting the entire text out loud (an in class).

The reasons that we hang on to the teacher-dependent mode of reading out loud (or via student popcorn reading/CDs]podcasts) and dissecting the text are varied:

1. We want to earn our pay-checks by being the ones responsible for student learning.

2. The text is too hard for students to understand it on their own.

3. We like being the “sage on the stage.”

4. Students lack sufficient prior knowledge.

5. Reading out loud is a behavior management tool.

In sum, we distrust the readiness of students to handle the challenging tasks of reading and thinking on their own. We know that we do a better job of understanding the text than our students.

The way we casually describe what we are teaching is informative: In the staff room, a science teacher asks what we are teaching. We respond, “I’m half-way through teaching Julius Caesar,” not “I’m teaching my students such and such a Standard…”,” nor “I’m teaching Roman history through…”, nor “I’m teaching these reading and literary skills through…”, nor “My students are learning…” We tend to view the literature as our curriculum and not as an instructional vehicle. When the literature is treated as an end–in-itself, we are ensuring that our instruction remains teacher-dependent. After all, we are the keeper of the keys. We know “Julius Caesar” better than the students (and probably Will himself). A high school colleague of mine literally had memorized every word of the play and worked her students through the play from memory. That’s teacher-dependence.

How to Move toward Teacher-Independence

Create Independent Readers

Create Text-Dependent Readers

1. Lose the Guilt

We really need to relieve ourselves of the self-imposed or colleague-imposed guilt that we are not really teaching a short story, poem, or novel unless we read and dissect every word out loud.

2. Become a Coach

We need to become coaches, not spoon-feeders. Let’s coach students to become effective independent readers by giving them the skills to understand the text on their own. Here are some effective reading comprehension strategies that will move students toward that independence:…

3. Get strategic

Some reading out loud and dissecting text is essential. But when to do so and when not to do so?

A good guideline to help us decide how much to read out loud, with explanation and gap-filling, is word recognition. Simply put, if the novel, story, etc. is at 95% word recognition for the vast majority of students, then there should be less reading out loud, i.e., the reading is at the independent reading level of students. If there is lower word recognition, then more reading out loud/working through the text will be necessary (or the book selection is inappropriate for the students) for this instructional reading level. For more on how to use word recognition to inform instructional decisions, see my blog at… As a relevant aside, I feel that word recognition is a much better indicator of an appropriate student to text match than a lexile number.

4. Trust Your Judgment-Not Just Data

Of course, using this rather clinical criterion of word recognition has its limitations: maturity of theme, unfamiliar historical context, amount of allusions or figures of speech etc. After all, we all know students who “read” the last Harry Potter book and Twilight with enjoyment, albeit limited comprehension, when their word recognition rate was at the instructional end of the spectrum, so motivation is an important factor in determining what can be left to independent reading.

5. Focus on the Pay-offs

Independent reading of text has significant pay-offs. Reading independently at the 95% word recognition level of text will expose most readers to about 300 unknown words in 30 minutes of reading. Learning 5% of these words from the surrounding context clues of the text is realistic. This means that students will learn about 15 new words during a typical reading session.

6. Experiment with Alternative Instructional Approaches, But…

Reciprocal teaching, literature circles, GIST strategies, partner reading, jigsaw. Yes. But don’t leave out what should be the primary instructional approach: independent reading with teacher and peer support. My FREE download below will be a helpful start toward this goal.

If our goals are to foster the abilities to read independently with good comprehension/retention and to inspire young adults to read for purpose and pleasure as lifelong readers, then we’ve got to cut the cords and become more teacher-independent and less teacher-dependent.


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

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

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

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

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

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

Get the SCRIP Comprehension Strategies FREE Resource:

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How to Grade Literary Discussions

Graded Literary Discussions

How to Grade Literary Discussions

The longer I teach, the more I become a capitalist in my ELA classroom. Although I would love to have students participate in rich literary discussions out of their love for reading and passion for truth, it’s a rare student who speaks up out of such pure motives. Over the years, I admit it. I have succumbed to incentives and with good results. Life is compromise.

Students need to know that their participation in class discussion is an important part of their overall grade. Otherwise, many will avoid participation or perceive the group discussion as being of minimal importance. In the school setting, rewards such as grades, extra credit, treats, stickers, privileges are all weapons which the creative teacher can employ to motivate class participation in discussions. Short term, explicit rewards tend to work better than long term ones.

Here is how I organize a graded literary discussion. I select a student to record the points that classmates will earn. The recorder writes tally marks for positive discussion contributions on my class seating chart. The recorder gets two points for this task, but he or she gives up the opportunity to participate in the discussion. I have no problems finding student recorders for this task.  Having a student recorder frees me up to lead the discussion without worrying about properly crediting responses. After a correct student response, I signal the recorder with my index finger and the recorder places a tally mark next to the name of the student. If the response is particularly insightful or directly responds to the response of another student, I may signal two fingers, for two tally marks. The latter must, of course, be accompanied by a resonating class “oooh!”

A good feature of this graded discussion technique is that it tracks student responses. During class discussion, I can survey the tally marks to determine who is failing to contribute or who is contributing excessively. I let students know that I will call on them, whether they raise their hands or not. I can also ensure that I am “calling on” male and female, ethnic sub-groups, etc. fairly. For the next graded class discussion, I have the recorder use a different color pen to differentiate the separate discussion grades.

Students perceive graded discussions as being fair and objective. Try announcing that the class will have a graded literary discussions the next day and students might just “cheat” by reading the assigned text and anticipating/preparing for your questions at home. What a shame! Of course, you could provide your discussion questions in advance and level them according to Costa’s Levels of Questioning, Depth of Knowledge, or Bloom’s Taxonomy, but the students might wind up teaching themselves. What a shame!

But, how can a teacher design a group discussion and lead the discussion to help students help themselves learn? Check out How to Lead Effective Group Discussions.

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary  Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics and include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary  also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video of the Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary  program.

Pennington Publishing's Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary
Grades 4-8 Programs


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How to Lead Effective Group Discussions

Techniques for Group Discussion

Group Discussion Techniques

Knowing how to lead effective group discussions is a vitally important skill for both the classroom teacher and the corporate executive. Knowing some tricks of the trade will increase student/audience participation and prevent avoidable boredom from rearing its ugly head.

Transitions and Pacing

Transitions between questions are important in leading group discussions. A good group discussion leader builds upon what the audience says of importance and maintains a rhythm and flow to the discussion. A skilled discussion leader knows when to pepper the discussion with brief commentary and when to allow the audience to control the transitions. Audience members can be taught to respond to the previous answer and then move on.  They can also be taught to disagree agreeably and avoid an ad homonym argument. Paraphrasing is an important skill that can be practiced in group discussions.  Ending the discussion while there is still interest (and hands raised) can be done by announcing, “We can take three more comments.” If the discussion is bombing, end it quickly. There is no use in kicking a dead horse.

Discussion Management

Physical positioning is important when eliciting audience answers. Make sure that responses can be heard by every group member by moving to the opposite side of the room or cupping your hand to your ear or by asking “Can you hear him or her?” to distant audience members. Participants need to know that they are not just addressing the leader, but that they are also speaking to the entire group. Reinforce this by occasionally asking for another audience member to paraphrase someone else’s response.  Don’t, however, use this as a weapon to catch those “napping.”  Ask, “What do you think about that?” or “Who disagrees with that statement and why?” or “Can someone add to that?”

Frequently, good group discussions can sometimes break into parts, with smaller groups discussing the subject such as in dinner conversation.  If planned, or controlled, a “Pair-Share” can be effective; however, if prolonged, audience members will tend to wander into off-topic conversations or distracting behaviors. Usually, the movement of the leader to the location of the conversationalists will frequently extinguish the behavior without interrupting the flow of discussion. Proximity controls behavior.

In a discussion, it is sometimes helpful to alternate between sexes, between those of differing perceived abilities or job functions, or even among different ethnic groups to ensure that all are receive fair hearings. Picking labeled 3 x 5 cards or popsicle sticks (in the school setting) will ensure equitability. Audience members should be forewarned that they might be called upon even though their hands are not raised, so they should practice good listening strategies. Sometimes it is effective to begin a discussion without raising hands with the leader calling upon the audience members. Explain calling on participants without raising hands allows for the leader to fairly choose among all, and that it provides “wait time” so that those who do not think as quickly on a particular question can have enough time to develop their thoughts.

Dealing with over-zealous audience members can present a problem, especially during “wait times.” Interrupt interrupters with comments such as “Let’s give everyone a chance to reflect on this point.” In the school setting, forewarn students that you never pick those who shout “Oooh, ooh, ooh,” “Pick me, pick me!” or wave hands. Students who raise their hand too often can be assigned a limited number of “discussion star” moments per discussion to prevent their monopolization of the discussion.

Modeling Appropriate Discussion

Body language is extremely important in a discussion leader. Communicate openness and good listening skills by making eye contact, not turning your back on the speaker, and listening to the entire train of thought.  Interrupt only if the speaker is off target or goes on a tangent. Avoid folding your arms or putting your hands in your pockets. By not repeating student answers, we stress the importance of a student-centered discussion. This also forces students to listen to each other. Occasionally it will be important to translate or even paraphrase a particularly long student response, but do so sparingly. Ask others to do this, if necessary. Encourage participants to make eye contact with each other by reminding audience members to “talk to them, not just me.”

Praising and Correcting

Praising should be catered to the response, rather than to the individual. Specific praise that teaches is better than a general blessing. For example, “I like how you compared such and such to the idea in the last chapter” is better than “Super, duper, most excellent answer!”

Incorrect responses need to be dealt with honestly, clearly and quickly. Group discussion leaders who strive to maintain the self-esteem of the individual by praising or validating incorrect responses run the risk of confusing the participant and the rest of the learners and disrupting the scaffolded nature of a well-planned group discussion. It is better to say a simple “No,” than “Not quite,” “Good try,” or “Can someone add to that?”

Getting the Whole Group to Participate

It is important to develop a consistent “wait time” to allow and encourage the whole group to think through an answer after each question.  Easier questions need less wait time than harder ones.  This models careful, considered thought, rather than, as many group discussions are all too often a race of the quick wits. Allow silence to be understood as a normal course of events in a discussion.  Fill the silence only to clarify a question, if you believe that it was not understood, or to encourage more participation.  How long of a “wait time” is a matter of teacher judgment.  As a rule of thumb, if at least half of the hands are not raised in the group, then there is a problem in the question sequencing, question wording, or the perceived pay-off is not worth the effort.

Regarding pay-off, audience members need to know that their participation in class discussion is an important part of their overall grade* or evaluation. Otherwise, many audience members will avoid participation or perceive the group discussion as being of minimal importance. In the school setting, rewards such as grades, extra credit, treats, stickers, privileges are all weapons which the creative teacher can employ to motivate class participation in discussions. In the business setting, clever discussion leaders can also provide rewards. Short term, explicit rewards tend to work better than long term ones.

*In the classroom, one pay-off method that words well is to have a graded discussion in which the teacher selects a student recorder to score the points earned. This frees the teacher up to lead the discussion without worrying about properly crediting responses. After a correct student response, the teacher signals the recorder with the forefinger and the recorder places a tally mark next to the name of the student.  If the response is particularly insightful or directly responds to the response of another student, the teacher may signal two fingers, for two tally marks. The latter must, of course, be accompanied by a resonating class “oooh!”  A good feature of this technique is that it tracks student responses.  During class discussion, the teacher can survey the hash marks to determine who is failing to contribute or contributing excessively.  It is also a very objective means of grading such a subjective student performance area.  Students tend to perceive this graded discussion as being quite fair.

Using a Common Language of Discussion

Teachers find that using a common language of discussion promotes focused group discussion. For English language-arts teachers, check out the SCRIP Comprehension Strategies (FREE bookmark download below). Included in the author’s popular Essential Study Skills (What Every Student Should Know)the SCRIP acronym stands for Summarize, Connect, Re-think, Interpret, and Predict. Perfect for prompting focused discussion.

To summarize the author’s argument…

I connect Marci’s point to what David said…

One way to re-think what the character says is…

I interpret this to mean…

I predict that the outcome of these actions will produce…

How to Grade Literary Discussions

So, how can a teacher design discussions, especially literary-based analyses, to hold students or colleagues accountable for their preparation and participation? Check out this related post.

The author’s Essential Study Skills is the study skill curriculum that teaches what students need to know to succeed and thrive in schoolOften, the reason why students fail to achieve their academic potential is not because of laziness or lack of effort, but because they have never learned the basic study skills necessary for success. The 56 lessons in Essential Study Skills will teach your students to “work smarter, not harder.” Students who master these skills will spend less time, and accomplish more during homework and study time. Their test study will be more productive and they will get better grades. Reading comprehension and vocabulary will improve. Their writing will make more sense and essays will be easier to plan and complete. They will memorize better and forget less. Their schoolwork will seem easier and will be much more enjoyable. Lastly, students will feel better about themselves as learners and will be more motivated to succeed. em>Essential Study Skills is the ideal curriculum for study skill, life skill, Advocacy/Advisory, Opportunity Program classes. The easy-to-follow lesson format of 1. Personal Assessment 2. Study Skill Tips and 3. Reflection is ideal for self-guided learning and practice. Contact the publisher for affordable site licenses.

Pennington Publishing's Essential Study Skills

Essential Study Skills

Get the SCRIP Comprehension Strategies FREE Resource:

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