Category Archives: professional development close reading

Sample Lesson – Close reading with NewsELA article

Do your students need help with clearly stating a main idea? And with organization when they elaborate on that main idea? Last month I had the honor of teaching close reading of an informational article to a small group of fifth grade students for a demonstration lesson in front of 40 educators in the North Kansas City School District. With a quick assessment prior to the demo lesson, the teachers and I realized the students needed help clearly stating a main idea, elaborating further, and organizing that elaboration. Below are a few notes about the lesson I gave.

I used a NewsELA article entitled “Tortoises battle it out with Marines for the right to stay put” and I lifted this main idea from the questions for students at the end of the article: In the article, one of the author’s main ideas is that the environmentalists and the Marine Corps disagree about whether a soldier training will harm the tortoises.

Before we met, the students read the whole article.

At the beginning of the 20 minute lesson, I beefed up background knowledge by sharing two photos. On my smart phone, I showed them a map of the U.S. southwest and the location in the article – TwentyNine Palms and a photo of the Marine base. Then I asked, “What did you learn?” so I could quickly assess what they understood.

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Next I posted the main idea for all students to view and quickly defined key words – writing the definitions on the chart as we discussed their initial thoughts about this main idea. See below.

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I introduced close reading with the pasta analogy and a photograph of pasta that I’d pulled up on my smart phone.

Then we did a close reading of a three-paragraph excerpt from this article and listed key details on sticky notes. I modeled for a few sentences and then coached the students in independently reading and taking notes. I chose this excerpt (see below) because it reveals lots of details related to the main idea. During this 20 minute lesson we only read, discussed, took notes on the first two paragraphs–which detail the Marine side of the issue. The students’  teacher planned to follow up with another lesson to delve into the environmentalist side of the issue.

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Note: Because I was leading a demonstration lesson, I moved to writing – just for the purposes of teachers watching. Otherwise I would have coached the students in close reading the third paragraph and saved the writing for the Day 2 lesson.

We closed with shared writing and independent writing referring to the notes they’d taken. See the chart below. Just a note – I’d written the main idea statement prior to the lesson. Together we came up with a piece of evidence/a detail and elaborated and composed the following sentences:

The marines are trying not to harm the tortoises. They are moving the tortoises far enough away from the training that they won’t come back. This means they are trying to protect the tortoises.

And then each student chose an additional detail, turned and talked with a peer about what they were thinking about writing, and wrote a short response. (See sticky notes posted at the bottom of the chart). I leaned in and conferred with each student as they wrote.

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The students clearly needed this lesson and, if they were in my classroom, I’d follow up with a series of lessons like this with multiple articles. The 40 educators present  in this demonstration teaching lab followed up by planning in teams and teaching a very similar lesson to one student (while I observed and coached) with the NewsELA article “Tough Times for Polar Bears.” Thank you to North Kansas City Schools for supporting this kind of professional learning!

Analysis of Responses to 8th Grade Text Set & Prompt, Part 2

In the last blog entry, I shared a rigorous text set and prompt developed by an middle school ELA team. The team and I met (via Webinex) to discuss the students’ written responses. First we look at the strengths of each student’s analytic essay; then we discuss the students’ needs as writers. Integrated into this discussion are implications for our practice. You might use our insight (see notes below) to think about your own students’ writing or as part of an “looking together at student work” experience in a PLC. (You should be able to click on the images of the student work to see an enlarged image :).)

  1. Notice how these two essays (Student #1 and Student #2) are very different in how they address the prompt and yet they both address the prompt. Is the prompt the problem? This has been surfacing in my practice a lot. Sometimes we get what we ask for…                           Student #1Scan 191Scan 192                                                     Student #2     Scan 193
  2. In this next essay, notice how the student (#3) explains the textual evidence. Frequently, students do not explain the evidence or they seem to be engaged in filling-in-the-blank writing about text evidence that doesn’t reveal deep thinking. Notice how this student has systematically included explanations – but not in a way that sounds formulaic. I’d put this piece on a document camera or Smart Board or make copies–as a mentor text for the rest of the students.                                                            Student #3Scan 194Scan 195
  3. For this example, what is the student (#4) assuming or inferring their reader will understand in paragraphs 2 & 3? This is a frequent pit fall for students–they write as though you, the reader, get what they are saying and they don’t have to explain. After a pretty good introduction, this student summarizes the two resources, implying a contrast, but not stating or explaining the contrast explicitly until the end of the essay. The student attempts to make clear the similarities and differences at the end of the essay, but these ideas would be stronger if they were integrated into the earlier content as well as developed further. SO – this student is on track and just needs some coaching.                            Student #4 Scan 196Scan 197
  4. In several of these essays, the connector language (i.e., the words students use to develop their ideas) is strong:  as opposed to, both, but, yet, in both of these articles, however. The teacher has explicitly taught students this type of language. During the Webinex, we talked about creating an anchor chart with a list of these words as a reminder to students and adding to this list as the year moves forward.
  5. This writer (#5) starts with a clear introduction and then what happens?   Frequently our students lose their way, huh? I’ve started wondering how my instruction gets in the way here.  Students use a lot of cognitive energy on the intro and then their energy/focus wanes. What about giving the students an introduction that I wrote and asking them to only focus on developing the ideas, the middle part of the essay? Or just developing one idea (a well-written paragraph) with textual evidence and an explanation?        Student #5 Scan 198Scan 199
  6. And then there’s this writer (#6). There’s one in every classroom, huh? This student, while passionate about the topic he/she chose, doesn’t address the prompt. How can we check in with him or her to make sure they understand the prompt? If we have a group of students not addressing the prompt, how can we think aloud during a mini-lesson about what the prompt is asking?   Student #6  Scan 200

Okay…hope this helps.




Why I wrote this book…because I was frustrated…

unpacking complexity

Is anybody overwhelmed by the idea of figuring out a text’s complexity??? In our field, there’s a lot of talk going on about this and a lot of terms flying around like levels of meaning/reasoning/density, structure, language conventionality, vocabulary, knowledge demands and so forth. There are also a slew of rubrics out there that attempt to help us with this task. For me, it’s all a little daunting because there’s so much and it’s thrown at us all at once. That’s why I decided to write Unpacking Complexity in Informational Texts: Principles and Practices for Grades 2-8 (2015).

Writing this turned into a professional journey for me. When I sat down to write this book–on a topic my editor suggested, I quickly became overwhelmed by it all. So I just started by asking myself, What does the term “text complexity” even mean? Here’s the first two paragraphs of Chapter One (p. 7)-

What makes an informational text complex? According to (n.d.), the word complex is defined as “composed of two or more parts” (adjective) or “a whole made up of complicated interrelated parts” (noun). In the same source, the word part is defined as the following:

(1) one of the often indefinite or unequal subdivisions into which something is or is regarded as divided and which together constitute the whole; (2) an essential portion or integral element.

If we think about how these definitions apply to informational texts, then we might define text complexity as the following:

The quality of being composed of complicated or interrelated parts (one of which is the reader) that, although indefinite or unequal, are each an essential element of the whole text.

For the rest of the book, I begin a systematic look at these “complicated or interrelated” parts and what makes each of these parts complex for students as readers –

  • author’s purpose (I make the case that this drives all the other parts)
  • text’s structure (oh, boy—and it’s so much harder than just the traditional five- compare/contrast, cause/effect, sequence, etc!!!!)
  • types of details used in non-narrative texts (like location, explanation, function, real-life examples and so forth)
  • types of details used in narrative texts (like agent, agent’s disposition, use of quote to support and so forth) (oh, and don’t forget that many texts are a blend of narrative and non-narrative!!!!)
  • connective language (words like because and although and how they contribute to meaning but are often overlooked by student readers!!!!)
  • how main ideas are constructed (not just what are main ideas…but how do the author and the reader, as partners, construct main ideas…)

And so much more. My goal was to unpack all of the language flying around about text complexity and lay this information out in a way that creates a manageable picture of what makes a text complex. “First let’s look at this…then this…next this…and this is how it all comes together.” In include lots and lots of excerpts and examples from informational texts that you might have in your classroom.

I also include lesson ideas and samples of student work…because I couldn’t write about something and not do it with kids and see the results 🙂

Okay…just a few thoughts. You can read most of the intro and part of chapter one at Amazon or you can read Chapter 2 “What makes an informational text complex?” at Guilford Press’s site. You can also get 20% with Code 2E at Guilford’s site as well.

If you pick up this book, I’d love to hear your feedback. I continue to ponder and grow in my thinking about all of this and would treasure the conversation!


Close Reading 2nd Grade Text – Tricky Details for Students

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As we ask transitional level readers to engage in close reading, let’s be aware of tricky details. Below I share my analysis of one informational text that is very similar to other texts we use in our classrooms.

A few weeks ago, I taught several second grade “close reading” lessons with informational texts from the Wonders program. Wonders interpretation of “close reading” is a little too broad for me–the texts they provide are too long and the time they suggest is too quick. Instead of focusing on one question, the teacher’s guide has several questions (focused on a myriad of skills) for students that basically assess understanding versus teaching students how to read to comprehend.

That said – there is an essential question for each unit in the system and each week. That’s a good thing. For the lessons I taught, I focused on reading the text closely with students to answer the essential question. For an informational article entitled “A Look at Families,” I led a whole group lesson (20-25 minutes on the carpet – text projected by document camera, all students had a clipboard, pencil and copy of the text) and we worked on the first four paragraphs. That was it! AND that was enough! Ideally, you might do a second lesson gradually releasing responsibility further or, with students at a transitional reading level, take the text back to guided reading and complete in small groups. There were students reading below grade level – but with the type of scaffolding I offer, they were able to access this text; definitely using instructional level texts with these students during small group time. (Pre-A and emergent readers do not need to work on close reading!)  For more information on the logistics of a lesson like this, see a previous blog entry –  “I can’t live without doing” during close reading lessons.

To the text – the essential question was “How are families the same and different?” Now, really, this is two questions. For some of our students, this would be too much of a cognitive load and I might modify the question at first to “How are families the same?”

Sept 10 2nd grade essential question

The strength of many of the informational (non-narrative) texts in the Wonders system is that there are clear topic sentences. So in this text, the following four sentences stand out and lead into a description of a particular aspect of family life in different cultures –

  • All families need homes.
  • All families share food.
  • All families talk to each other.
  • All families celebrate together.

So if you’re working with students on identifying the main topic of a multi-paragraph text and the focus of specific paragraphs in the text (RI 2.2), this text lends itself to that.

The tricky part comes with the types of details that follow. Check out the following excerpt:

All families need homes. Some families live in large cities. They might live in tall apartment buildings. Many families live in the same building.

Some families live near water. Some families live in houses on stilts. Stilts are tall poles. They keep the homes safe from the water.

Okay. Seriously? A 2nd grader has to do A LOT of work here. How do these details support the topic sentence “All families need homes”? The details are actually more about “Families live in different types of homes.” That said, we can still glean some information about how families are the same and different.

If we think about the essential question, “How are families the same and different?” then we have to infer that if some families live in large cities and some families do not – or they live in small cities. So the child has to make some inferences when he or she thinks through how these details are answering the essential question – while also just making sense of what he or she is learning. (Stilts? Really?) We need to be aware of this kind of detail and coach for this kind of thinking.

I’m not saying cast this text aside. For many, these texts are the primary source of text in the classroom. I also think that students need to grapple with texts that are tricky.

One phrase I would definitely teach students while close reading a text like this is “the author is sharing examples.” After each of the next three topic sentences in the text, the author gives examples of the topic. (Better than after the first.) So after the topic sentence about all families celebrating together, the author gives the example of the Indian holiday Diwali and the U.S. holiday Independence Day. Second grade students can handle the concept of “examples.”

One of the benefits of a unit of study that has essential questions is that students do not have master the content in every article they read. I wouldn’t ask students to completely understand the concept of “stilts” or “Diwali.” Over the course of several lessons, their understanding of content will deepen and their ability to articulate how families are the same and different should increase.

My biggest caution then is to beware of the types of details authors use after the topic sentences. They may not even answer the question or they may require inferring or they may just be tricky to fathom. The solution is not to find another text – but to do your own close reading of that text and be aware of the hurdles students will have to jump to comprehend the text. You’ll notice in the image above – I studied and took notes before teaching. I can’t live without doing this. I’m a stronger reader for it – and after doing this many times, it’s become much easier to think about these texts for and with kids.

Hope this helps.



“Can’t live without doing” during my close reading lessons

Last week I had the honor of visiting multiple schools and giving demonstration lessons in 2nd and 3rd grade classrooms. For each lesson, there were 10-15 teachers observing. Afterwards we debriefed about methodology and evidence of student learning. Some amazing insight was gained – as well as a sense of affirmation for what they are attempting in the classroom already. Kudos to these teachers!!!!

The objective of all the lessons was close reading informational text with an essential question as our focus for determining what was important. Across the lessons, I found myself implementing the same tried and true approaches over and over again as far as instructional methodology. These were whole group lessons. I prefer to do this in small groups, but there is importance in doing this a few times a week with a whole group – developing a sense of community and giving striving readers access to grade level text. The lessons were 20-25 minutes.

1) The text was on the document camera or projected with a Smart board and all students, sitting on the carpet near me, had their own copy of the text on a clip board. They also had a pencil so they could do their own annotations.

Sept 10 2nd grade close reading

2) The essential question for close reading was posted and I referred to it over and over with prompts like, “In this sentence, did we read any details that help us answer this question?” This prompt does not always work like this for every text – sometimes you have to read a larger chunk of text to get at the essential question OR you may just be making sense of the text at the sentence level and later asking how what you learned helps you understand the essential question. I just find that a “driving question” helps the students stay focused and not overwhelmed by how much content there is in a text.

Sept 10 2nd grade essential question

close reading question Elijah

3)  I rarely call on individual students to share. Instead, I ask a question and when there are several hands up in the air, I ask students to turn and talk with a partner or in small groups or to read, annotate, or write independently. Then I am on my knees or sitting on the floor, listening in, assessing, conferring and coaching. I can’t not be with the students – near them, embracing their thinking and nudging them forward. When we regroup, I ask a student I worked with to underline and annotate on the projected text or I ask a group to share how they had a conversation. These are individuals or groups I coached – so I’ve set them up to share their success.

Sept 10 2nd grade conferring

4)  The students ALWAYS write at the end of the lesson – even if it’s just one or two sentences on a sticky note. I want to know what they are learning from close reading and how they would answer our focus question as a result. After I collect their annotated texts and sticky notes, I read them and look for trends in answers. Are they able to answer the question? Are they able to use key details from the text and paraphrase? Are they able to reveal how they extended their thinking through this experience? What the students write can be used to write longer responses later or it can just serve as a formative assessment for me – to help me determine where to go next and who to check in with during the following lesson.

teachers talk about student writing

Okay…so much more to say about last week. LOVED being with the kids and the teachers – in urban schools with day-to-day trials and tribulations. Have to laugh – one day we had a fire drill in the pouring rain!!!

Hope this helps.