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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.


Yup Part 2 – Teaching Suggestions


How do we help students have back-and-forth conversations about nonfiction that build understanding? Conversations that include continually returning to their notes and the text to think about what to say next?

I help students start to do this by demonstrating a conversation with a student-partner…

  1. I start by asking a student-volunteer to be my conversation partner.
  2. I ask the student volunteer to come to the front of the room WITH her notes and/or the text.
  3. I project my notes about the text or the annotated text for all students to view. For example, if we have completed or started taking notes on an inquiry chart – I will post my inquiry chart for all students to view.
  4. I pose a clear question for my partner and I to discuss like “What are critical components of an ecosystem?” or “How did members of the Jewish resistance reveal their courage?”
  5. I encourage her to look at her notes and think about what she wants to say before she responds. I might say, “What do you see in your notes that you want to talk about when we think about answering this question?”
  6. After she responds, I demonstrate how I listened to my partner and how I use what I heard her say and my notes (I point to specific details in my notes) to think about what to say next. For example, I might say, “I heard you say…and I have that in my notes right here. I’m thinking about what I can add to that. Let me look at my notes. (Pause to visibly skim in front of students.) Oh, yes. I want to add this to what you said…”
  7. Then I prompt the student to be strategic in contributing to our conversation. I might say, “Now what can you contribute to what we’ve both just said. Look back at your notes.”
  8. The student and I continue moving back and forth, continually thinking about what was said and looking at our notes to think about how to build meaning.

Other moves I make with my conversation partner…

  • “I wrote a note about this, but I didn’t understand when the author of this text wrote that…what did you think about that?”
  • “I never realized that…until I read in the text that…”
  • “I think I heard you say…what did you mean by that?”
  • “When I read…I started wondering about…but I never figured that out…”

And so forth.

The critical moves during this demonstration include –

  • Modeling looking at my notes to decide what to say
  • Prompting the student to look back at her notes before responding
  • During the demonstration, taking several turns between partners, turns that build on what was already said
  • During the demonstration, being explicit with students about what’s happening like saying, “Look at how I used my notes to think about what to say…” or “I just heard my partner say and I don’t understand that so I’m going to ask her to clarify…”
  • Modeling asking for clarification or sharing what you didn’t understand or didn’t remember, etc.

But this is not all…when students turn to think pair share after this demonstration–I lean in to listen and coach with prompts like

  • What did your partner just say that you can build on?
  • Look back at your notes. What did your partner already say? What do you see in your notes that will help you add on to that?
  • Did you understand what your partner said? Is there a part of what she said that you need to hear again? Or ask for clarification about?

Hope this helps.


Think-pair-share can go awry. Yup.


I’m a strong believer in students talking about what they’ve learned from informational texts. Good conversations about nonfiction have the potential to –

  • increase students’ understanding of texts,
  • help students clarify their thinking,
  • help students expand their understanding,
  • build bridges to stronger writing.

But a critical component is teacher support. Without teacher support, even our best students sometimes have low level, little-thinking-required conversations. Not conversations that build meaning and understanding of content.

More thoughts on what I’ve been working on in my own practice soon.


Ban “same” and “different” during discussions

A few weeks ago I visited a fifth grade class of students who’d done some amazing work researching Native American groups. They were planning to meet in groups to compare/contrast the tribes they’d researched. Before they began their discussion, the teacher, Kelli, and I led a quick discussion–we banned the use of the words “same” and “different” and we offered alternative vocabulary. The students brainstormed with us, adding to the alternative list. This was “fast” vocabulary instruction–just enough to tickle the students’ interest and challenge them to “give it a go.” See my notes on the dry erase board in the photo below. img_7692

This quick conversation added a whole new dimension to their conversations.

Special thanks to my colleague Kelli who always asks questions about teaching that push my thinking!

Hope this helps.



Be choosy, even snobby – close read just the good stuff

Do you ever look at a text and think, “Ugh. Poorly written!”? Or “OMG that’s WAY TOO MUCH information in one paragraph!”? And yet you’re doomed because you’re required to use the text or it’s what you have access to in the heat of planning a million other lessons?

We know that close reading or any kind of careful reading that leads to thoughtful conversations or written responses only works when the text is worthy of this kind of reading and thinking. There has to be enough content to work with, chew on, grapple with. When I’m in this situation, I go back to the “ugh” text and look for the golden nuggets–a sentence or a paragraph or a few paragraphs or a page even. When I begin the lesson, I let the kids read the “whole text” to get the gist and then engage them in rereading just that golden nugget section. (BTW-sometimes I just don’t use the text for close reading…it has to be worthy 😉

Last week I gave a lesson with the golden nuggets in the text–a two page article in the Treasures supplemental anthology, “California’s First People.” The students previewed the text and made predictions. I posed the purpose for reading–How did the first people in California use natural resources? Then I gave them time to read the whole two pages in the supplemental Treasures anthology.

img_7678 img_7673

After they read the whole text and briefly discussed with a partner what they’d learned, we did a close read of the second page of text. It’s not that there wasn’t important information in the first page–there was just a LOT of information–too much to chew on and think about. Each sentence was a sub-topic to itself, you know? The second page provided more details on a few particular subtopics. Below are my notes from planning. (Another BTW – the text was at their instructional level for the most part and while I want to “guide” them in understanding this text, intermediate/middle grade students can at least get the gist on their own or develop some understanding before I teach. So I don’t sweat, “Will they comprehend it all easily?” because I know I’m going back in to coach and guide them in a productive struggle with a section of the text.)


In another blog entry, I wrote about doing with a NEWSELA article for a lesson I taught.

My point is –be choosy about texts and if you’re stuck with “ugh texts,” look for nuggets worthy of your students’ time and energy. If this fails…ugh.

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.




Do you have high-reading kinders you need to challenge?

Some our of kindergarten students read above grade level. How do we keep them challenged? A colleague of mine, Lisa, engaged a small group in close reading of an informational text about energy with great success. Here are some photos and tips she shared with me.

Just some background. These nine students were reading at a late first grade level or higher in the spring of their kindergarten year. Lisa met with all nine of them at once. The text they read closely was A to Z’s Where We Get Energy – a level K text. You might just pick some key paragraphs from the text you choose. There’s no need to closely read a whole book.


  1. Take notes together and then gradually release responsibility. The students might read the whole text on their own to start so they can get some sense of the big picture.  Together closely read a sentence at a time. Discuss the meaning and then pick important words to write in their notes. Release responsibility – maybe they just tackle a sentence at a time and then you regroup. The photo below is a little fuzzy but it gives you an idea of what a student at this level can do as far as note-taking with support. img_0513
  2. Give it a couple of weeks or more. Lisa said it took several weeks – a few lessons each week. She had a wide variety of readers in her room and many other lower groups to meet with more often.
  3. Provide lots of opportunities for them to summarize their notes ORALLY with a partner. This builds bridges to writing and to speaking fluently on a topic. You might prompt them by saying, “Turn and talk to your partner. What did you just learn in this paragraph? Use your notes to help you.” Some groups will need to orally rehearse with you before they talk with a partner.
  4. Discuss how they can present their information and then let groups of three work together to tackle this task by creating some type of visual.  img_0509-1img_0511
    These photos are fuzzy BUT you can still tell there’s so much thinking that must have happened in this group – they have arrows and visuals as well as text boxes! They are clearly organizing their thinking into categories as well.
  5. Provide time for them to present! I saw pictures of these kids with their posters – oh, the proud smiles!!!!!

BTW – All kindergarten students can do some level of research. Tony Stead proved that to us in Is That a Fact?  After I read this, I was a convert to the idea that even our Pre-A and emergent readers can engage in deep thinking and learning about nonfiction topics – with their peers and on their own. 21353134

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.


New nonfiction you’ll want 3rd-5th grade to read

Some new extremely insightful picture book biographies that will appeal to grades 3-5. (BTW – I value this type of picture book as much as I do children in these grades reading chapter books. There’s so much critical thinking that can be done with these texts.) Book talk these books and then display in the classroom library. I think if we are excited enough–students will grab them off the shelf! These would also make for great reading aloud with student-led discussions and many could be used as part of a Next Generation Science Standards unit of study. If students read them independently, there’s lots of room for written response to higher level thinking questions especially related to perseverance in the face of obstacles.

I’ve linked the reviews I’ve written on Goodreads which include suggestions for instruction and higher level thinking questions.

Notice too – lots of titles about STRONG WOMEN!

MY FAVORITE of all of these is Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea by Robert Burleigh.  tharp

Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine by Heather Lang


Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas by Gwendolyn Hooks – The story of Vivien Thomas – an African American who made significant strides in medical technique but was not recognized for this because of racism.


Mountain Chef by Annette Bay Pimental about a Chinese American trail chef who played a major role in persuading key players to fund the National Park Service. Humorous and poignant.


Miss Mary Reporting: The True Story of Sportswriter Mary Garber by Sue Macy about another woman immersed in a male dominated field who persists and has a real impact.


I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy. LOVED the vocabulary in this book.


Ira’s Shakespeare Dream by Glenda Armand about Ira Aldridge, an African American, who became a leading actor in Shakespeare plays in the 19th century. Very interesting!


Hope this helps. If your students write responses to any of these books, I’d love to read their writing!!!!