Category Archives: 3rd grade close reading

Orally rehearsing with key words can boost writing

Do your students struggle to compose sentences about nonfiction topics that make sense or sound right? Do they lack structure at the sentence and paragraph level? Here’s a few tricks I’ve been trying with small groups of late-early and transitional stage readers.

As part of a conversation generate key words they will use to orally rehearse and then write. I’ve started including a key word for the introductory sentence and the closing sentence as well. The “conversation” aspect of this is important. I position the students as writers with a clear audience. With late-early stage readers and the book Beetles by Edona Eckart, the students and I generated the words many kinds, glow, wings, colorful, interesting. I started the conversation by saying, “If we were going to write about what we learned, how would we start? Then what would we say?” (I don’t say, “Let’s list five words we will use.”) When a student shares a sentence aloud (after I coach or scaffold as needed), then I say, “What’s a key word from that sentence that we can write down to help us remember what we want to write?”

The photo below is from the lesson with the book Beetles. Each of these words would be used in a sentence to compose a response to the prompt What did you learn about beetles in this book?

With a transitional stage group reading The Future of Flight by Anna Harris (part of McGraw-Hill’s Wonders), the students had done a close reading of the two pages about the myCopters (small flying vehicles). The prompt for writing was “In a letter, convince someone in your family to buy a myCopter instead of a new car.” Our key words – included believe for an introductory sentence and please for a closing sentence. I started the conversation by saying, “If you are going to convince someone to buy a myCopter instead of a car, what do you want to say first?”

Then model for the students how you might use each key word to compose as sentence and draw them into orally rehearsing. So I said to the students, “Listen to me as I use these words to help me practice what I will write. I’m going to use the first word…There are many kinds of beetles. Who can compose a sentence with our second key word?”

As students practice using the key words, gently push them to use correct syntax or sentence structure. You might say, “That was tricky. Did that sound right? Let’s think about how we can make that sound right.” I had a student write “The weedy sea dragon has features that help it survive from predators.” I talked with him about how the sea dragon’s features help it avoid or escape predators and then together we revised his sentence aloud until he had the hang of it.

Ask them to practice with a partner. Students can alternate – composing sentences with every other word.

Encourage them to elaborate further (aloud) if they are ready. One student reading Beetles wanted to add details in the sentence with the key word “colorful” about the different colors of beetles. I told her “Go for it!” The key words are just triggers for remembering what they learned so if they can compose a more complex sentence or add additional sentences – yes! This also encourages students to make the writing their own and not just copy what other students are saying or writing.

With some students, after we rehearse, I ask for a thumbs up when they know what they are going to write for their first sentence. I ask each student to rehearse aloud and then I give them the “go” to start writing. Sometimes they will simply say what the student said before them – that’s okay. The writing becomes more their own the further they get in to it and the more frequently we engage them in doing this kind of guided writing, the risks they will take.

This works best in small groups. The lessons here were done as part of guided writing – which takes place after 1-2 guided reading lessons (20 minutes each) focused on reading and learning from the book.

If I’m working with a whole class, I use this approach to writing during individual conferences. I ask the student to tell me what they are going to write next. If they need me to, I jot down a few key words on a sticky note–from what they said.  Then, if I feel like they need additional kind of support,  I say, “How can we put this in a sentence? Let’s try this aloud.”

Hope this helps.



Discourage students from taking notes like this. Here’s why.

If students are reading multiple texts on a topic and taking notes on each of those sources, I require that (or strongly suggest) they write notes in phrases–just enough words to help them remember what they learned or what the author was saying or the student’s response to information. In most cases, I strongly encourage them to NOT write their notes in sentences.

Here’s why –

  1. If they write notes in sentences, the student may be easily tempted to just copy the sentences they are reading in a source and not do a lot of thinking. (How many of your students do this??????) Instead, we want them to think about what the author is trying to say or what they are learning from the source and then determine what is really important to remember. Then they can jot down a few of the author’s words or their own paraphrasing of the text.
  2. If they’ve already written sentences in their notes, they frequently just want to lift those sentences and insert them into their writing or presentation or whatever. Then they have missed an opportunity to combine details from multiple sources. When students are done taking notes from multiple sources, we want them to look across their notes and combine ideas from multiple sources. They have to be able to look at their notes and categorize details. Oh, all of these details are about what the raccoon eats! Or Yes! I see several details on how the Cherokee used their environment to create art. They may want to draw arrows between notes or circle details they want to combine with the same color of pencil. Conceptually, this is harder to do if they are looking across “sentences” versus words and phrases.

Here’s an example of what I mean by notes written in phrases (versus complete sentences)–

OKAY…I’M LEAVING OUT A LOT HERE like the fact that taking notes is a complex task. The students need to know their purpose for researching, reading, taking notes. They need clear questions they are trying to answer or grapple with as they read and take notes like How did this Native American tribe use resources in their environment to survive? or How did the members of the Jewish resistance exhibit courage during the Holocaust? or How can we be prepared for severe weather? They need a way to organize their notes like using an inquiry chart (Hoffman, 1992). See example below. (If you need more info on teaching with inquiry charts, see Chapter 8 in my book Close Reading of Informational Texts). AND they need examples of good texts to use as sources or access to a vetted set of sources before they go off to find their own. And, and, and…

Example of an inquiry chart…

Below is an example of a student’s inquiry chart. This fifth grade student was researching the Apache. Notice the questions across the top that drive her decisions about what to write in her notes. Her sources are listed on the left hand side. She’s circled details she wants to combine with a colored pencil.

The reason I wrote this blog entry is because I have an article in the February issue of EL “The Case for Multiple Texts” and on the sample inquiry chart I submitted, the editor changed my list of bulleted notes to look like sentences (although they are not all complete), deleting the bullets and adding capitalization and punctuation.  UGH.

Hesitate to do it this way. Many, many students will struggle when they go to synthesize and write or plan for presenting if they  have to look across a bunch of “sentences.” Many, many students will be tempted to just copy the sentences from their sources!

I did not get to see this change before it was published in EL. I’m sure this was an edit done with good intentions, BUT I feel the need to clarify. Encourage your students to take bulleted notes, short phrases or just enough information that they can look at it and remember what they learned.

I’d still recommend the article 😉 if you are looking for tips on teaching with multiple texts. I’m also working on a manuscript for Heinemann on this topic–the book should be released next winter.

Hope this helps.





Explode to Explain

Are your students citing “text evidence” without really having control of the meaning of the quote they choose? Do they state “in the text it says” and then fill in the next blank with a quote they may not really understand? Do they forget to explain further or elaborate?

Here’s an idea a group of teachers and I tried last week. After a lesson that provides time for the students to read and discuss the article, give them the luxury of time to contemplate what one quote from the text means – to explode the meaning of this quote in order to explain it further. One sentence in an informational text can be loaded with a lot of meaning – it’s worth the time for students to slow down and really think about what the author is talking about and the implications of what the author is saying.

For the first small group lesson (20 minutes), I introduced a NEWSELA article about the eco-boats that were hired to clean garbage from the Rio Bay in preparation for the Olympics. My introduction included defining and discussing the difference between garbage and sewage (important to understanding the article), previewing and making informed predictions about the content of the article, and then the students reading while I conferred with individuals.


For the second lesson, we talked about one of the main ideas – “Water pollution is a problem in the Rio Bay” – written in purple ink in image below.  (Remember – this is just one of the main ideas in this article.) I shared a supporting quote from the article with them – written in blue ink on chart- and we worked our way through the details in that particular quote. In the image below, notice how I jotted what the students were thinking in red ink.

I modeled talking about what this quote means using the notes in red to help me explain my thinking. Then I asked a student to do the same. THEN I asked partners to turn and talk to do the same. My goal was for them to speak fluently about what they understand this quote to mean–and then be able to write about it.


I closed this lesson by asking the students to explode an additional quote from the text that supports the main idea – “Tons of garbage and raw waste flow down rivers each day.” They wrote this quote in their response journals and attempted to explode.  I conferred heavily. They will continue to need support doing this for awhile.

For a day 3 lesson, we reviewed the notes on the quote we’d exploded together and engaged in a shared writing to explain that quote. See the image below. Then they returned to the quote they’d exploded, orally rehearsed with a partner what they planned to write and then wrote.


Notes – I determined the main idea we’d use. I chose the two quotes. This is more about saving time and cognitive energy to get to the heart of what we needed to do–thinking through and explaining “text evidence.” Later the students can take on more of this. During these three lessons, this small group of students just began to get what we were talking about as far as explaining. They need to do this a LOT to get a grip on explaining the text evidence they are citing.

In the end, there’s a lot of power in this exercise–increased comprehension, increased content knowledge, and being able to speak and write more fluently (and knowledgeably) about what they’ve read.

A big thanks to the 3-5th grade teachers in the NKC School District who went on this day long journey with me and to RENEE for being my think partner!!!

Hope this helps.


Do our students understand “definition” and “example”?

Yesterday I was giving a demo lesson closely reading a science text when I realized the students did not understand the terms–definition and example. Many nonfiction authors use definitions and examples and other types of details like cause and effect when they describe concepts like forces, magnets, weather and so forth. Readers need to recognize these types of details to understand these concepts.

The 4th grade students and I were engaged in carefully reading an excerpt from Using Force and Motion (National Geographic Reading Expeditions, Phelan, 2003)–an easy introduction to the concepts of force, gravity, friction, etc.



Notice in the excerpt below that the author introduces the topic in the first paragraph. In the second paragraph, towards the end, he introduces the topic of force and defines it – “a force can be a push or it can be a pull.” Then he gives an example of a force – “The paddle gets a big pull from the person’s arms to push the kayak through the water” and a second example – “The kayak also gets a push from the water that is rushing behind it.” In the last paragraph, he offers details about the effect of forces like the wind  – “make all objects move” and “make objects slow down, speed up, change direction, or stop.”


After students read this text, we want them to be able to say, “Oh! The author just defined what a force is when he wrote, ‘A force can be a push or it can be a pull’ and then he gave me an example of that which is when a person kayaks and they pull on the paddle, it pushes the kayak through the water. That’s like when I…”

During the lesson, I started an anchor chart entitled “What types of details does the author use to teach us?” and listed details like definition, example, effect. When I began to ask students to determine whether a new detail (after I’d modeled) was a definition or an example, they couldn’t do it. I realized that the students were not clear about what I meant by “definition” and “example.” I added definitions of the details to the chart, but there was still some confusion.


So I stopped and led a short discussion with an easier concept. We defined “fruit” and listed examples. (When I asked for examples of fruits, one of the students said, “Squishy!” so I knew I was right in his ZPD 😉 This seemed to help as we moved to carefully reading the last paragraph of the excerpt!!!!!


The more I do this, the more I’ve learned not to take for granted what students understand in grades 2-8. Even for words like definition and example, they (even middle school students 😉 may have a superficial understanding.

Below are common types of details used by nonfiction authors use. BTW – I WOULD NOT COPY THIS LIST AND HAND TO STUDENTS. Instead – I’d introduce a few at a time during close reading of excerpts of text.

  • Name of topic
    • Name of subtopic
    • Location
    • Function, purpose, or behavior
    • Duration, or when something takes place
    • Physical attributes (movement or action, color, size, shape, number, texture, composition, etc.)
    • Construction or organization
    • Explanation of how something works (may include causal relationships, sequence of details, and variables)
    • Real-life examples (see additional blog entry on teaching “examples”)
    • Comparisons (including similes and metaphors)
    • Other types of figurative language (alliteration, onomatopoeia, and personification)
    • Quotes from experts (for the purpose of sharing relevant knowledge or just sharing an opinion)
    • Attempts by author to connect with reader

Imagine if our students can understand and identify and explain these types of details while reading to learn.

Hope this helps.




“I underlined all the words! They’re all important!”

When annotating, do your students underline most of what they’ve read because they think “it’s all important”? Maybe they’ve underlined that much because they don’t know how to determine what is important? Below are a few tips and photos from a demo lesson I gave to tackle this issue. And, yes, I used the pasta analogy 😉

The article for this lesson was about a village in Costa Rica that has chosen to raise and sell butterflies instead of clear cutting the rain forest. This movement started at a school with students taking the lead on the project before their parents and other community members became involved.


  1. I started by describing the reading strategy we would be using and introducing the pasta analogy. We are going to be reading an article very carefully and underlining key words and phrases that help us answer a particular question. You can read more about the pasta analogy in a previous blog. I use this analogy to help students understand that key words and phrases or “key details” are like pasta which we want to eat and the other words are like the water you boil the pasta in – which you don’t want to eat.Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 7.11.41 AM
  2. Then I moved to activating (for some) and building (for others) prior knowledge by briefly discussing three photos related to the content of the article. I shared a map of the western hemisphere and pointed out where Costa Rica is in relation to the United States and then a photo of the rain forest in Costa Rica and a contrasting photo of what a rain forest looks like when clear cutting happens. There were no photos to support this in the article (I found all three online) and I felt like it was very important for students to understand where this takes place and this concept and how it influenced the village’s decision.img_7374
  3. Then I shared the purpose for reading which was posted on the front board and said something like: We are going to read an article about a village in Costa Rica that decides to NOT clear cut the rain forest. Butterflies help this community in some way. I engaged the students in reading the purpose posted on the front board. img_7369
  4. In the ideal world the students would read the article in advance of this lesson to get a basic idea of the content. This was not the case for this demo lesson. Instead I asked the students to spend a moment using the THIEVES strategy to preview and make informed predictions about what the text would be about.
  5. With the text projected, I modeled reading the first paragraph, then rereading to think aloud for them about key words and phrases – including thinking aloud about why these were important words or phrases. img_7372
  6. The students had pieces of blank paper folded into quarters and I drew four quadrants on the dry erase board. (When we don’t have copies of the text to mark on, this is an alternative.) I wrote the key words and phrases for the first paragraph as I thought aloud. The students caught on and started contributing words to the list. They also copied these words onto their papers. img_7373
  7. I stopped and modeled using my key word list to summarize aloud what I’d learned–I did this with a student partner who brought her notes to the front.
  8. The class and I did a shared think aloud for the 2nd paragraph and listed words together. We stopped and thought aloud about what we’d learned in both paragraphs – with a partner – using the key words we’d written. student-pasta-2
  9. I released responsibility to pairs for the 3rd and 4th paragraphs. They listed key words and stopped to summarize aloud with each other. Eventually, THESE NOTES CAN BE USED TO WRITE SUMMARIES OR HIGHER LEVEL THINKING RESPONSES TO THE TEXT.
  10. We wrapped up by discussing what we’d learned as well as the strategy of determining what is important.

The classroom teacher finished the next day by coaching the students in determining what was important for two more paragraphs. The text was an eight page article. That’s TOO LONG for this kind of reading and note taking. If you’re working with a text this long, I’d suggest jigsawing the following sections (after you’ve done one section together like we did)  – assigning small groups to read a section of a text (from one subtitle to the next) and determining key words. Then when they jigsaw, they have to share what they learned with their new group. Another option is to choose a shorter text OR because they’ve read carefully the first section, ask them to finish reading without listing key words. That careful reading of the first section should launch them towards better understanding.

Hope this helps.


Are your students’ minds wandering while they read?

Gave a demo lesson with students on how to use CODING to think about their thinking. When I asked these students if they ever think about lunch or something else while they are reading, most gave me a thumbs up! When I asked them if they finish reading and sometimes have no clue what they read because their minds were wandering, many gave me another thumbs up! Some students’ jaws dropped. How did I know? 🙂

Here are some photos from the lesson with 4th grade students. The text was an article about Rudy Tolson-Garcia, a para-Olympic athlete. I’ve included a few reminders for teaching students to self-monitor using Linda Hoyt’s coding strategy. (See a previous blog of mine for more info on this strategy.)

  1. State the objectives for the lesson–the reading strategy and the focus on content in the informational text. img_7364
  2. Zoom in on one vocabulary word that will really help the students understand the text better. I define the word, make a connection to myself, make a brief connection to the text, then ask students to turn and talk with a partner about their own connection. For this lesson, we talked about “ability” and then “disability.” img_7367
  3. Introduce the strategy – stopping to think about our thinking and then categorizing that thinking with a code. img_7368
  4. Model reading a chunk of text and rereading and then thinking by using the strategy. Write aloud in front of the students. img_7365On the sticky note in the photo, I wrote my thinking, “Wow! Rudy is an amazing athlete who has no legs!”
  5. Engage the students in reading, rereading, and then thinking aloud with you. In the photo above, the question at the bottom of the sticky “How can he swim with no legs?” was generated by a student in a shared think aloud with me.
  6. Begin to release responsibility. Ask students to read, reread, think aloud with a partner, and then write. img_7366
  7. Lean in and confer. Take the pen if it’s helpful. Below are a few of the sticky notes students wrote. Notice my handwriting in a few of the sticky notes below. When a student is stumped or frustrated, I help them compose orally and then I launch them by doing some of the writing. img_7381 img_7380 img_7382
  8. Close. Engage small groups in discussing what they learned as well as how they coded their thinking. In this lesson, they talked about what they’d learned regarding our focus question, “How does a person with a physical disability become a world champion athlete?”

VARIATIONS – We didn’t finish the article during this lesson. The article was four pages. We needed at least two lessons to do this. Another thought would be to ask students to read the whole article and then just code a particular section. The second part of the article about Rudy was more technical. The teachers and I agreed that the students would need to read a section and then go back in and code for each sentence.

The students and also agreed that one thought may need more than one code. It might be a “Wow!” and a “new information” thought. TOTALLY! We want them to run with this, making it their own in a way that helps them think about their thinking!

Hope this helps.


How do we know? Easy beginning of the year assessment

Here’s a quick and easy assessment for the beginning of the year–read aloud a text or provide short texts for students to read, then provide a prompt and ask them to sketch (k-1st) or write a response (2nd-8th).

You know your objectives for teaching as far as curriculum, but you also need to know what your students know how to do in relation to those objectives. If you are teaching for identifying main ideas and explaining textual evidence–what can your students already do to identify main idea and explain supporting details? If you are teaching for comparing/contrasting the overall structure of a text, what do your students already know about this? Etc.

For kindergarten-first grade – read aloud an engaging informational book like Grandma Elephant’s in Charge and then ask them to sketch and write about what they learned. See my blog analyzing kindergarten students’ written responses to this book.

grandma elephant

kindergarten response 1

For 2nd-5th grade students – provide an article and prompt for writing in response. Recently I visited the North Kansas City schools and gave a demonstration lesson related to identifying and explaining main ideas. Before I arrived, the fifth grade teacher asked the students to read and respond to a NewsELA article entitled “8-year-old who is blind prepares for reading competition in L.A.” The prompt for the written response was “What is one main idea in this article? What in the article makes you think so?” You can phrase this in multiple ways – as additional support for students. Ideally, for 5-8th grade students, I’d prompt with “What are two or more main ideas in the text? Explain how these main ideas are supported by key details in the text.” (Note – This would not be appropriate for students reading multiple years below grade level.) If you have some inkling of the students’ reading levels, you can print this article at different Lexile levels. (Please beware when using NewsELA – see my last blog entry.)

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This article has multiple main ideas that students might notice and explain further –

  • Amare, who is blind, loves reading. (VERY SIMPLE)
  • Amare’s hard work learning to read and reading has paid off; he is going on an amazing adventure with the Braille Challenge competition.
  • The Braille Challenge inspires blind students to read and compete.
  • Children with visual impairments like Amare can excel at reading Braille.
  • Teachers of Braille are important to children with visual impairments like Amare. Without them, these children might not learn how to read or even learn.
  • Reading Braille is one way for blind children to experience the world – by reading and by traveling to competitions like the Braille Challenge.
  • Children with visual impairments experience life differently and similarly to children without visual impairments.

We used the students’ responses to help us determine what I should teach during the demonstration lesson. In the response below, notice that this student has identified multiple main ideas (“how Amare loves reading” and “how his life turned amazing” and even “he overcomes blindness”) and offered some textual evidence to support these main ideas. When I think about teaching this student, I’m planning for helping her with organization and elaboration. When I lean in to confer with her, I might even offer her more global main ideas to grapple with like how the author reveals that children with visual impairments experience life differently and similarly to children with visual impairments.

Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 6.56.29 AM

In contrast, the student who wrote the response below has attempted to state a main idea and use quotes from the text to support this idea (strengths). The main idea is unclear, though, as is the relationship between the main idea and the quotes from the text. For this student, I might provide a clear main idea (from the list above) for him to grapple with or coach him in developing a clearer idea orally before he begins writing. In addition, I’d engage him in conversations explaining why a particular quote is relevant before he writes.

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Just looking at these two students’ responses helped me deepen my thinking about what I needed to teach as far as identifying and explaining main ideas.

Next week I’ll write about the lesson I taught after we analyzed these responses.

Hope this helps.




4 Types of Context Clues in Info Texts: Bookmark & Lesson

Ugh! Unfamiliar vocabulary in informational texts can be a huge stumbling block for our students. The image below is a bookmark a colleague and I developed for a lesson. I’ve also attached a word document with the bookmarks for easy copying. We based this on the work of Baumann and colleagues (2009).

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4 Types of Context Clues Bookmarks IN COLOR

The lesson was with a group of fourth grade students reading an article from one of my favorite websites – Science News for Students. The article was about research studies that are revealing how females and males respond differently to sports-related concussion. This was a complex text – I actually cut one section of the article (the first part under the subtitle “Probing the Chemistry”) that I thought was too difficult for the students. The article was about a page and a half total. I’ve inserted the word doc below. You could definitely use this through 6th grade or higher even.

Context Clues Science News for Students article

I’ve attached lesson procedures here if you want to try this out.

Context Clue Type Lesson Procedures

Here’s what the lesson looked like for me:

  1. Introduced the article (posted on the doc camera) with previewing and predicting. We previewed the title and deck and made relevant predictions – I modeled some and I asked the students to turn and talk with a partner as well.
  2. Asked the students to determine the author’s main idea as they read individual copies of the article a first time. Conferred with individuals as they read. The first question for each conference was: What did you just learn from the text? This helped me determine where to go next.
  3. Regrouped and wrote key words from the text on a sticky note on the doc camera–females, males, concussion, depression, sensitivity. I modeled – with a student partner – using these key words to discuss the main idea. As the students summarized and discussed the main idea with a partner, I conferred and continued to add words to the sticky note as needed: reacted, response, differences, investigate.Context clue lesson 4th grade
  4. Introduced the 4 types of context clues with bookmark posted on the doc camera. Modeled thinking through the meaning of “concussion” and modeled boxing the word, underlining helpful clues, consulting the bookmark to determine what type of clue and then annotating the type of clue on the article.
  5. Guided students in following a similar routine with a second word — prone.
  6. Asked the students to identify a third word of their own and attempt to box, underlined, consult bookmark, and annotate. Conferred with individuals. Regrouped once and shared what one student had done as far as thinking and annotating on his copy of the article (placed his copy on the doc camera). Asked students to continue identifying and thinking through additional vocabulary. Below is a scan of my annotated article that I had on the doc camera–these are my notes by the end of the lesson. So I modeled, guided, and then stepped back in at particular points to highlight what students were doing with other words.  Context clues lesson 4th grade my notes
  7. Regrouped and asked the students to write a reflection on the process they engaged in to think about unfamiliar vocabulary. I provided a sentence stem – see image below.

Context clue lesson 4th grade 2

Context Clues lesson 4th grade reflections

This was a major workout. Many of the students flew–some used the bookmark and some didn’t. Of course, there were some students who did not progress and had little to show when I finally got to them. I really think this is the kind of lesson that should be done in a small group!!!! Either way – the students need more experiences discussing how they figured out the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary and the types of clues the author used.

My objective for this lesson was not for students to say “I used context clues to figure out the meaning of the word.” Instead, I want to hear students say something like:

Well, I identified some words in the text that helped me understand this particular word. I knew the words might explain or identify the meaning of the word or the words might be synonymous or the words might just give me examples of this word. When I underlined the words and thought about the types of context clues, I realized I sort of knew the meaning from general details the author gave.

In the end, it’s not about whether the student identifies the “right clue.” Instead my goal is for the students to use the language of the context clues to explain how they made meaning.

Okay…I’ve also attached a chart with an explanation of the four context clue types and examples–as a reference.

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Four Context Clue Types Taught in Word Study Lessons

Hope this helps.



The Coding Strategy – Helping Students Self-Monitor while Reading Info Text

Do you have students who read a text and are clueless about what they read? Or when you prompt them to share what they learned from a text, they frantically look back at the last sentence they read and then spit it out verbatim?

Before we get into conversations about main ideas, author’s point of view, summarizing content and so forth, we may want to provide time for students to grapple with questions like:

  • What did I understand or learn in this text (or section of text or even just this sentence)?
  • What did I not understand?
  • I didn’t understand this, so what can I do to figure it out?

I use the Coding Strategy (Hoyt, 2008) to introduce or reinforce self-monitoring with students. After each sentence or paragraph or section of text, students stop, think, and code the text with one of the following:

*I already knew this information.

+ This is new information.

? I don’t understand this part or I’m wondering about…

! Wow this is interesting and this is why I think so…

This is an image of the bookmark I give students. I’ve attached a PDF here.  CODING BOOKMARK 11_12_15

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Here’s an easy lesson procedure:

  1. Explain the skill and strategy. Self-monitoring means to keep track of what we are and are not understanding and then to use fix-up strategies to repair meaning. Then explain the strategy. When we code our thinking, this means we read, stop, think & jot a code and write a few notes.
  2. Model using the Coding Strategy to self-monitor. Read aloud from a text projected for all students to view and write aloud codes with notes about your thinking. When I introduce this strategy to students, I read aloud, think aloud, and write codes and notes – before the students did this on their own. See image below for a lesson I did with 5th grade students.  Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 6.45.20 AM
  3. Direct students to read a chunk of text and stop to write a code with a few notes on a sticky note.
  4. Ask students to talk with a partner about what they learned from the text as well as their codes and notes.
  5. Proceed in a similar fashion with additional chunks of the text, coaching students during individual conferences, and providing time to stop and talk with a partner. Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 6.53.29 AM
  6.  CLOSE – Students can end up with very fragmented thinking if they just code like crazy and don’t also think about how all of the details they are reading are related. During conferences and at the end, I pose questions that require synthesis like “So looking at all of your coded notes, what do you think the author’s purpose was for writing this text?” or “So what did you learn from reading the whole text that was important?” Ask the students to think across their coded notes. At the end, ask the students to place their notes in the middle of a sheet of paper and draw a frame around. Then ask them to write the main idea in the frame. For more information on the frame analogy for teaching main idea, see a recent blog entry I wrote.

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Caution!  Beware. Students will use all of your sticky notes, putting just a code on each, and then not be able to recall what they were thinking when they wrote that code. Make sure they jot a few words to help them remember what they were thinking at that point.

ALSO, when you model or confer with individuals, think aloud about parts of the text you did not understand (with a ? code) or that you might not understand if you were their age. Most students do not code for what they don’t understand – and need prompting to do that. I haven’t elaborated on this here – but you need to help them articulate what they can do to repair their meaning making. Have a list of strategies in your mental pocket for this.

If you want to read more about this including looking at sample lessons and a rubric for assessing students’ coding, check out Chapter 6 “Self-Monitoring While Reading” in my book Close Reading of Informational Texts or send your questions to me by email at


Hope this helps.


The Pasta Analogy-Helping Students Determine What’s Important

Do your 2nd-8th grade students struggle with determining what is important when reading informational texts? Are they unsure of what to underline and annotate? I remember one fifth grade student saying, “Well, I underlined the whole text because it was all important!”

Two suggestions.

  1. Make sure there’s a VERY CLEAR PURPOSE for reading & determining what is important.

Here are a few sample purposes –

Purposes Related to Specific Content

  • How was the scientist Norman Borlaug innovative? Why was this important?
  • What have we learned about Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, that we never knew before? Why might this information be “exciting” as the author states?
  • Why might we consider Mary Fields extraordinary?
  • How should we be prepared for severe weather? Why?

Purposes Related to Skill Building

  • What is the author’s purpose in this text? What details in the text make you think so?
  • What is the author’s main idea? What details in the text support this main idea? (Okay…as clear as this one is, it’s still hard. You might consider liberating your students by providing the main idea – see my recent blog entry on this.)
  1. Introduce the PASTA ANALOGY to help students think about what might be important and what might be less important.

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To introduce the pasta analogy, this is a quick conversation I had recently with a small group of students:

Have you ever made pasta before? (Pause. Students nod their heads.) So to make pasta you have to boil it in water until it’s soft, correct? (Heads nod.) And then you eat the pasta, correct? (Usually, students continue nodding their heads.) Wait! Don’t you have to drain the water first? You don’t want to eat the pasta with the water, right? (Students shake their heads emphatically.) The pasta is what’s important to eat and digest, not the water. It’s the same way when you are reading to determine what’s important. There are pasta words or phrases that we want to eat and digest and then there are water words that are less important.

You can figure out what words or phrases are pasta by thinking about your purpose for reading. Today we are reading to find out how the scientist Norman Borlaug was innovative. Remember innovative means to introduce or use new methods or a new idea. So we are only reading to locate details—or pasta words & phrases—that help us understand how Borlaug was innovative.

This is an easy introduction to the skill of determining what’s important as well as to the strategy of close reading. As the students read each sentence, they stop to think, “Are there any pasta words in this sentence, words that help me think about my purpose for reading?” As I confer with students, I refer to the purpose for reading and ask them, “What are you learning that might help you understand how Norman Borlaug was innovative? What are pasta words or phrases in this sentence that might help you?”

Below are artifacts from lessons I’ve given recently – when I introduced the pasta strategy and engaged students in underlining/annotating text OR in lifting pasta words from the text and listing them on notes.

student annotated text 5th

The image above is of a 5th grade student’s annotated text – when locating “pasta” or details that helped him/her think about how Norman Borlaug was innovative (purpose).

2nd grade shared writing of pasta

For this lesson, the students were reading in a text about weather and one of the main ideas in this text was that we need to be prepared for severe weather. We identified pasta or key details related to this main idea. The image above is of the purpose for reading and the shared writing of “pasta” details we did together. The image below is one student’s “pasta” notes taken during guided practice.

2nd grade student's pasta

Of course, this always leads to orally summarizing or composing and then writing in response. Students use their annotated texts or their lists of words/phrases to orally respond to the purpose for reading – with a partner, to practice saying aloud sentences they will write, and to write.

BTW – An educator stopped me one day and told me he was using the pasta analogy with first grade students reading above grade level!

If you want to read more about this, check out Chapter 7 “Determining Importance in a Text” in my book Close Reading of Informational Texts. I provide sample lessons and a rubric-like-continuum for assessing students’ codes.


Hope this helps.