When Unfamiliar Vocabulary Gets in the Way of Word Solving–Tip #1

Ever notice a young reader get stuck on decoding a word in a text because the word is not in his or her vocabulary? Or maybe the student has heard the word, but not frequently, and it’s not easily retrievable? This can be a big problem for young readers of nonfiction at the emergent (DRA 1-3; F&P A-C) and early stages of reading (DRA 4-16; F&P levels D-I)–especially when students are reading on topics they are not familiar with. I find that many students just shut down.

So what can we do?

Tip #1 Hold the student accountable for what they CAN do to tackle that word before offering additional support.


I was working with a kindergarten student (an emergent stage reader) reading a book like On the Rocks. When she came to the word “seal,” she stopped and looked at me. I had seen her look at the picture to help herself. I asked her, “Do you know what this animal in the picture is?” and she said, “No.” I didn’t immediately give her the word, though. Instead I said, “Can you look at the first letter and get your mouth ready for that sound?” AFTER she said “/s/,” I said, “Could it be a seal?” She smiled, nodded and continued to read. It was as though she’d heard the word (probably during the picture walk), but did not know it well enough yet to retrieve it on her own.

BTW – I did not expect her to read the “ea” in “seal” or to read the middle and end of the word “seal” because she was at the point in learning to read (DRA 1-2) when we are focusing on students using the picture clue and first letter to figure out the new word on each page of a repetitive text.


In another case, a first grade student (at the early stage of reading) was reading the book Night Workers (about a DRA level 4 or F&P level D). When she came to the word “officers,” she appealed to the teacher. Seven-year-olds probably do not use the term “police officer,” huh? They probably say “cops” or “police,” right? The teacher could have given her the word “officer,” but at this stage of reading, the child should at least be able to tackle the first part of this word. We asked her to look at just the first part of the word “off” by covering the last part of the word with her finger (not the teacher’s;). She recognized that as “off”; that’s also a word she could look at and say slowly. Then we asked her to read the sentence again. She read “He is a police off…”; when she did, she realized it was “officer” and read the word. (Oh, how that kid beamed!!!) If this didn’t work – then we could have asked, “Could it be the word ‘officer’?” If the child had no knowledge of that word, then we could say, “That’s the word ‘officer.’ Sometimes that’s a word we use to describe a person who works for the police–police officer. You say it.” Ask the child to repeat it a few times.


With a first grade student reading Eyes (DRA 10; F&P F), reading the book Eyes, he read easily until he came to a word he didn’t know–“feelers.” The sentence was “This snail has eyes on the end of feelers on the top of its head.” It may have been that he didn’t know how to initiate word solving or it may have been that he knew he was going to read “where” the eyes are and he did not think he would personally know what that part of the body on a snail is called. He didn’t have the vocabulary. I started by asking him, “What can you do?” He shrugged. Then I asked him if he knew “this word” and I wrote see on a dry erase board. He quickly read the word. I proceeded to help him see the same vowel team “ee” in the word feelers and he figured out the word. We talked about how he used a word he knows to help him figure out this word BUT WE ALSO went back into the text and reread the text and looked at the photograph to discuss the meaning of “feelers.” In a sense I was able to teach the student how to tackle the word and how to make sense of its meaning as well.

My point here is that we need to encourage the child do as much of the work as they can to decode the words while also coaching them to make sense of these new words.

With that in mind, one note of CAUTION—If a book at the emergent or early stage is going to have a LOT of unfamiliar vocabulary, choose another book. If there’s a manageable number of unfamiliar vocabulary words, then give it a go.

I do have another tip (Tip #2) to help with this…in the next blog entry 😉 If you want an update the next time I blog, please feel free to follow my blog. 

Hope this helps.


Make it a habit for you and your students–reading multiple sources on a topic

Researching and writing my newest book has made it hard (UGH!) for me to teach with one source on a topic anymore. Anytime I plan a lesson with one informational source, I just want to know more about the topic of that source. And, if the topic is engaging (or we make it engaging),  I know students do, too. So how do we do this on a regular basis? My BIGGEST TIP is to just start. Anytime you have one source you’re going to use, go ahead and find a second one.  Once you see how kids’ eyes light up when they recognize a familiar topic and are able to contrast and integrate new information, you’ll be hooked on that, too.

A FEW SUGGESTIONS for the beginning of the year:

  • Read aloud sets of trade books on the same topic.  There are SO many good trade books on informational sources that can easily be read aloud. Remember, with some books you do not even have to read the whole book, you can read aloud parts.
  • As you read aloud new books in the set, ask students to turn-and-talk in response to questions like, “What can you add to your learning?” With younger students keep track of learning by engaging in shared writing of facts. When students notice a fact that is in more than one source, circle that fact on the list.

  • Pursue deeper thinking across sources with thematic questions like, “How did this woman persevere, too?” and “How was this group also innovative?” There are some fantastic newer trade books out about women that you could easily read aloud to students (in grades k-8!!!!) or book talk and then leave in set in the classroom library for partners to read and discuss.

  • Book talk “SETS” of books instead of single titles. Ask your librarians. They know what’s new and hot in nonfiction and (hopefully) can put together a great set for you.
  • With older students, check out new articles on NEWSELA.com and then find one or more additional sources.  For example, a few weeks ago,  I noticed an article entitled, “Huge sea-life sculptures made from ocean’s plastic trash.” GREAT article that reveals how an artist is bringing awareness to the problem of trash in the oceans. I searched on the site for “trash in the ocean” and a second article popped up. Skimming it, I realized that students could easily “add to their understanding or learning” by reading this second article. Another option is to look for video links. On this particular topic, easy easy, right? Tons of options. Watch a few minutes with students, while they keep in mind the question, “What am I adding to my learning?” (For quick tips on vetting NEWSELA articles, see a blog entry I wrote.)

If you’d like more information, these ideas (including sample lessons) are explored further in my new book Nurturing Informed Thinking: Reading, Talking, and Writing Across Content-Area Sources (2018) 

Okay. Hope this helps.


On the power of inquiry charts…my kids surprised me when…

Recently I had the honor of talking with Sara, a teacher in Iowa, whose students have started using inquiry charts. In a nutshell, these charts help students determine what is important and organize their notes as they read-view-listen to multiple sources. (If you’re not familiar with inquiry charts, please check out an article I wrote for ASCD’s EL The Case for Multiple Texts or this blog entry.)

Sara’s students were engaged in a shared inquiry into the giant squid. This was their first experience with an inquiry chart – so everyone was using the same research questions and the same sources. Below are two examples of their charts. Notice the questions are across the top and the sources are listed in the first column.

I asked Sara to share what she noticed about the students during this experience and as we talked, two important points jumped out at me.

*The questions on the inquiry chart should be revised if your students realize the questions are not clear enough or are too big. Sara started with the question, “How does the giant squid catch and eat its food?” As they read-viewed the sources, though, they realized there was too much information to take notes on and explain in response to this question. Sara and the students reformulated the question to “How does the squid use its tentacles to catch prey?” The students were okay with changing the question–because it made the task more manageable and helped them determine what was important. More importantly, the students LIKED that the first question didn’t work, they got to see their teacher problem-solve and they had the opportunity to help her problem solve. Formulating and reformulating the questions together has become a part of the process for the students.

BTW – this happens a lot. In my experience, developing “perfect” questions for the inquiry chart is hard. I have changed many a question once I’ve seen what students do with it. Totally okay. We want them to see the process and engage in this for themselves.

*Some sources may have more to offer students than we realize–especially when our students have started thinking across sources. I have looked at sources and thought, “Oh, no. They won’t get anything from that” and then been super surprised at what they noticed (that basically I didn’t!!!) Sara wanted to show the students a video of a giant squid. Finding a good video is hard when there have only been a few sightings of this mysterious creature. (Most of what we know is from examining dead squid that wash up on shore.) She found a video of a giant squid eating a fish. The video is raw footage taken by scientists with no narration or other helpful features. Sara thought it would be hard for the students to glean any new information from this, but it would be cool for them to watch. She was surprised at how wrong she was. They noticed all sorts of details in this video — because they had already learned so much from other sources.  Students noticed that the fish didn’t appear to change much in size over the course of the video, but then one reminded the others about how they’d read that a squid only eats grape-size pieces. Yes! That would explain what they were seeing. A few minutes later when the squid let the dead fish float away they did notice small tatters on the dead fish. This might have been where the grape size pieces were eaten away. They also surmised that the tatters might be from where the suction cups on the squid’s arms – these suction cups have razors around the edge. Woohoo! The students were using what they already knew to help them make sense of a new source. The power of reading multiple sources on a topic!!!

BTW – when the students were done with their research, they used their notes to create a life size squid in the hallway, complete with captions detailing what they’d learned.

I discuss these issues and more in a chapter on inquiry charts in my new book with Heinemann – Nurturing Informed Thinking.

Okay. A BIG THANKS to Sara for sharing stories from her class with me.

Hope this helps.


When a student can’t read a word

When students at the transitional or fluent stage of reading (DRA levels 18+ or alpha levels J+) struggle with a word, there are a few “go to” strategies and prompts I rely on. (I’ve attached a file at the end that lists these prompts 🙂

  1. “Is there a part you know?” If it’s a word that has any parts they might know, I use this prompt. For example, a student was stuck on the word “acorns” in the sentence “Some bears eat nuts, acorns, roots and leaves.”  I lifted the word “acorn” out of the text by writing it on a dry erase board and then prompted the student to “look for a part you know.” He was thrilled when he noticed the “or” and then his eyes grew wide when he noticed “corn” in the word as well. Decoding is not enough. Then I asked the student to reread and think with me about the meaning of that word.  I said, “Let’s go back and reread that sentence. (Student reads aloud.) Now what does the word ‘acorn’ mean in this sentence?” and we discussed how it must be a food like the other items listed in the sentence. I closed by saying, “When you’re reading, you need to make sure that
  2. “Can you use a word you know to help you with this word?” Sometimes when a student is stuck, I look at the word and think about what part of the word they are struggling with. For example, one student was stuck on the word “join.” I knew the “oi” was causing her problems. I wrote the word “coin” on a dry erase board and asked, “Do you know this word?”  She did and read it aloud to me. “Can you use the word ‘join’ to help you with the tricky word?” and she figured out “coin.” (BTW I’ve had this backfire when the student did not know the word I chose and then I just give it to them 😉 Then we reread and thought about the meaning of that word. She read the word in the text and we talked about what it meant.
  3. With some words, I’ll ask the student, “Can you use your finger to help you look at the parts?” or “Can you look at the parts with your eyes?”  As they do, I encourage them to think about what they know about each part. As described in a previous blog, when a student got stuck on the word “burrow” — I helped him use his finger to cover the end and asked, “Do you know that first part?” He recognized it as “bur.” Then I coached him on how to cover the first part of the word and look at “row” which he did not know. Then I wrote “snow” on a dry erase board and he used that word to help him read “burrow.” Finally I asked him to reread the sentence and think with me about what the meaning of that word is. I do not use my finger to cover up parts of the words. The student must use his finger because later when he is alone trying to problem solve, he will not have my finger to help him 😉
  4. “Was there a tricky part?” If a student mumble reads a word, hoping I won’t notice that he doesn’t know the word, I let him finish the sentence and then I say, “Was there a tricky part?” Usually they nod and then I say, “Can you show me?” and have the student point the word out. Next I say, “What can you do?” Tips –
    • Let the student finish the sentence first. If you stop them at the point of error, then you have done the monitoring.
    • Keep your finger out of their book. Make them use their own finger. That’s part of the work you want them to do when they are alone, right?
    • Sometimes I ask “Was there a tricky part?” and the student says, “Nope!” ;0 Then I ask them to reread the sentence and make sure what they are saying matches what they are seeing. If they notice their error, we talk about how what they said may have sounded right or made sense (if that’s appropriate), but it doesn’t look right.
    • If the student does not know what the tricky part was – even after rereading, then I say, “Listen to me read this sentence. As I read, I want you to notice where what I say does not match what you see.”
  5. “Are you right?” and “How do you know?” or “What can you do?” If you have students who read a word or get stuck and automatically look up at you without problem solving, you need to nip this habit. If I know a student has been taught word solving strategies and they appeal to me, I shrug my shoulders and say, “Are you right?” No nodding. No “Good job.” Make them accountable. Follow up with “How do you know (you’re right or you’re wrong)?” and support them in verbalizing how they were strategic or what they need to do to be strategic.
  6. “That’s a word you just have to know.” When a student gets stuck on a word that has a mostly irregular spelling (e.g., only, unique, beautiful), I don’t dig a deep hole for myself trying to help them figure it out. I just say, “That’s a word you just have to know. It’s _____. Let’s reread that sentence and think about what it means.” In other cases, I might give them part of the word (the irregular or tricky part) and let them figure out the other parts. For example, a student got stuck on the word “certain.” He chunked it and after he’d gotten “cer” (with a soft c – ugh!!!), I gave him “tain.” Then we reread the sentence to think about how the word was used and why. AND in yet other cases, I just think, “That’s way over their head developmentally, I’m giving it to them and going on with my life!!!” That happens.

Honestly, if the word is not in the student’s vocabulary, they may not be able to figure out the correct pronunciation. What’s most important is that they at least understand the meaning of the word. That’s why I strongly encourage students to check for meaning. When I help a student with visual cues, I always reread the text with the word and discuss the meaning of that word with students (even words like “only”). You may have to help them use context clues to figure out the meaning of the word and sometimes there are no clues so you just give them the meaning. If you need a reminder about the types of context clues students can look for when they don’t know a vocabulary word in an informational source , see this blog entry I wrote.

Prompts for Supporting Word Solving

Sources that have helped me get better at prompting for word solving (in addition to a lot of practice) –

Next Step Forward (Richardson, 2017, p. 178)

Guided Reading: Responsive Teaching Across the Grades (Fountas & Pinnell, 2017, p. 414)

Teaching Strategic Processes in Reading  (Almasi & Fullerton, 2012, Chapter 7–dense but hearty)

Hope this helps.



Our students know so little if…

When our students read just one source on a topic, I would argue they still know almost nothing about that topic or issue. I know you know this. It’s not until they read, view, listen to multiple sources on that topic that their understanding is transformed. This is not a new point. My argument is that students should read more than one source on a topic on a regular basis. I’d even argue that every time they consult a source on a nonfiction topic or issue, they should consult another source or two or more.

Give yourself a moment to do this.

Last summer my husband and I discovered a tide pool with sea stars in it.

(Photo taken by Sunday’s husband.)

I was immediately captivated and wanted to know more. There was also a little spousal argument about whether the sea star is called starfish (my husband’s term) or sea star (mine) 😉 That night, on National Geographic’s website, I found the following:

Marine scientists have undertaken the difficult task of replacing the beloved starfish’s common name with sea star because, well, the starfish is not a fish. It’s an echinoderm, closely related to sea urchins and sand dollars.

Okay. I learned something new, right? But I wanted to know more. I searched again and found this time-lapse video of a sea star eating a clam. It’s 30 seconds.

Cool, huh? Now I knew a little bit more. The sea star wraps itself around its prey to eat it. Now    I wanted to know even more—particularly about how the sea star eats its prey so I found the diagram below. What do you notice?

(Sorry – this diagram is by Pearson; couldn’t find the original source; it’s all over the internet at different sites.)

Okay. My understanding expanded. The sea star has a stomach in the center of its body (now the video makes more sense) and the sea star has tubular feet that help it grasp prey like the clam. I wanted to know more so I went back to National Geographic’s site and read this:

Unusual Feeding

Most sea stars also have the remarkable ability to consume prey outside their bodies. Using tiny, suction-cupped tube feet, they pry open clams or oysters, and their sack-like cardiac stomach emerges from their mouth and oozes inside the shell. The stomach then envelops the prey to digest it, and finally withdraws back into the body.

Fascinating, huh?

With each source I consulted, my understanding of the sea star developed depth.

I wanted to know more of course.

Then I came upon these photos (UC Santa Cruz). Take a moment to look closely.

These were taken over the course of three days (photo credit on the site to Kit Harma). This is sea star wasting syndrome that is devastating populations of sea stars on the west coast. With my understanding of the sea star–its physical features and how it eats–I had an even better understanding of how this is a horrific problem.

I kept reading because I wanted to know more and in the following days, my husband and I would check on our sea star several times–hoping that it still looked healthy and understanding so much more about what we were seeing.

My point is—What if I had stopped after reading the first source? I wouldn’t know that much. How did my learning grow because I read another source and then another?  My understanding was transformed.


How can we make this happen for our students? How can we nurture this type of informed thinking on a regular basis? Given how much misinformation is out there, this is an imperative, huh?That’s what I explored with several colleagues and wrote about in my new book Nurturing Informed Thinking: Reading, Talking and Writing Across Content-Area Sources published by Heinemann. As we explored teaching with more than one source, the students’ excitement got us hooked on doing this. It’s hard to go back to using just one source after we observed this.

In this book, I write about so much of what I learned (selecting sets of sources, making it all manageable and so forth) plus I include nine sample lesson ideas in Chapter 3.

Here’s a lesson idea for now. Use these sources on the sea star with your students to reveal the power of consulting more than one source. As they consult each source, pose questions like, “What did you just add to your learning?” Close with a question like, “Why consult more than one source?”

Hope this helps.


Hey, Mom! Guided Writing

“Who will you tell?” This is a conversation I’ve started having with students at the guided reading table before they write in response to an informational source. I usually start by saying something like the following:

When you go home tonight and your mom asks about school, you could just say, “It was okay” OR you could ask, “When I was born, did you lick me to keep me safe from predators like the mother impala does?”

They are with me at this point. Then I check in with each student, “Who will you tell about what you learned today?” The answers vary — mom, dad, grandmother, big sister, a best friend, another teacher.

This has become a regular part of my guided writing discussions with students in the elementary grades. A few weeks ago, after a group of students read and annotated excerpts from A Day in Spacethey planned (using bulleted notes on a sticky note) for what they would say to someone later that day to explain why salt on the International Space Station has to be a liquid instead of a solid like on Earth. We orally rehearsed, engaged in shared writing of the first sentence or two (as a model) and then they wrote (what they were planning to say).

The language of informational sources is tricky–it’s not how we talk on a regular basis. For many students this is an opportunity to work on oral language development as well as writing. By giving students time to orally rehearse and then write (with a real audience in mind), we are helping them develop an ear for what informational writing should sound like as well as what conversations about what we learned about the world might sound like.

The next day I checked in with the Day in Space students, “Who did you talk to last night?” They spoke enthusiastically about who they’d talked to. (A few hadn’t 😉 We engaged in close reading of another excerpt of the article–how toilets on the ISS are different than those on Earth. They left armed with key details to explain to someone beyond the guided reading table. (How many of our students are identifying key details in sources but not explaining in their writing? 😉

This can be powerful. A teacher emailed me that she’s been trying this. The students actually start the written response with “Hey, Mom!” or “Hey, _______.” She takes pictures of the students with their writing and texts to the parents during the day using the “Remind” app. Parents have commented to her that this has changed conversation at the dinner table. Woohoo!!!!

A note of caution, though. You know your students better than I do. Tailor this to meet their personal circumstances, huh? One student told me she has no one to tell. She lives with her grandma who only speaks Spanish and the student only speaks English. I quickly encouraged her to choose a teacher at the school she could tell about what she learned. During a different lesson, another young man looked despondent as the other students chose someone at home to tell. His teacher told me later that he is pretty much on his own at home. I regrouped the next day and when we decided to tell his teacher about what he’d learned, he perked up.

Hope this helps.


It’s about NOTICING when they need to compare/contrast

Lesson plan + set of follow-up sources.

It’s not just about teaching students how to compare and contrast. We also need to teach them to notice when they need to ask comparison questions. Below is a description of a series of lessons I had the honor of teaching last week exploring this idea. I’ve also included a completed lesson plan using the three phase learning plan. I’ve also included a set of follow-up sources with which you could continue exploring this strategy.

Phase One – Meet the Source

  • Introduced the source (NEWSELA article “A Day in Space” Lexile 840) with a simple gist statement: We are going to read an article about the lives of astronauts on the International Space Station. (You could ask students to read this on-line for Phase One.) (I know this is the same source I used in the last blog post. Could you have kids read it again with this different purpose? Or use one of the additional sources listed below?)
  • Explored vocabulary “daily routine” with the following three steps:
    • Kid-friendly definition (written on paper for all to see) – “tasks or chores that are done regularly (everyday)”
    • Shared a personal connection – One of my daily routines is to make coffee when I get up. 
    • Asked partners to turn and share a daily routine; provided the stem “One of my daily routines is_____.”                                                  
  • Previewed & predicted – Asked questions like “What do you think you’ll be learning about the astronauts’ daily routines?” and “What do you notice (in the photographs, subheadings, etc.)?”
  • Regrouped  – After a teaching point, I posed this question for discussion – “What did you learn about the astronauts’ daily routines?”

Meet the Strategy – Noticing and then Asking “Similar?” and “Different?”                       (Note: This may take two 20 minute lessons.)

  • Taught the word “contaminate” with three steps.
  • Introduced the strategy – When I began to read this article the first time, I noticed right away that the author was comparing life on the International Space Station with life on Earth. Let’s look back at the first paragraph and I’ll show you where I started to think that. (Shared reading of first paragraph in article.) When the author wrote, “Astronauts who live on the ISS follow daily routines just like those of us on Earth,” I started thinking, “Oh, the author might be comparing these two things and that means I need to be asking important questions as I read like: How are ______ and ________similar?” and “How are _______ and _________ different?” Asking these two questions can help me determine what’s important in the source and help me remember what I read. Placed these two questions out for students to notice.
  • Shared close reading – We engaged in reading the paragraph about the astronaut’s food that begins “Condiments like ketchup…” and goes on to explain how the astronauts’ salt and pepper is liquid and why. As we read each sentence, we underlined details that explained how this is the same or different and wrote annotations in the margines. (I cut and paste the article into a word document for the Phase Two lesson.) A Day in Space 2_22_18
  • Guided close reading – Students read and annotated paragraph that begins “They also use a different type of toilet…”  (I picked this paragraph because there are a couple of sentences that go into depth.)
  • Independent close reading – Students read and annotated paragraph that begins “After a long day in space, nothing’s better than a good night’s sleep…” that explains how astronauts attach themselves to the wall to sleep.
  • Closing (discuss content and strategy) – What did we learn about how astronauts’ daily routines are different than ours? How did keeping these two questions in mind help us as readers?

Meet the Response

  • Helped the students plan using their annotations. Below is an example of one student’s plan; her group ended up writing about all three sections they had close read.

With a second group that needed more support, I wrote the key words they generated and they only wrote about that one section.

(I will write about both of these experiences more in the next blog entry 😉

  • Leaned in to confer while they wrote.
  • Briefly shared to close.

DRAFT OF THE PLAN. Three Phase Plan Day in Space Compare

ADDITIONAL SOURCES – You could do this lesson with additional sources, nudging the students to notice if they are good sources to ask compare and contrast questions and then close reading sections and asking these questions. You could also begin to compare/contrast ACROSS these sources 🙂

NEWSELA.com articles –

European Space Agency site about daily lives of astronauts

NASA.gov site – The NEWSELA article “A Day in Space” was adapted from text at this site. You might set students up to explore this site further as they continue to ask comparison questions.

Hope this helps.




Three Phase Plan with “A Day in Space”

Here’s an example of a lesson I gave using the three-phase  learning plan that I introduced in the last blog entry. The source is an article from NASA.gov entitled “A Day in Space” (posted by NewsELA). This lesson might be used with 3rd-5th grade students or striving middle school readers. Below is a link to the filled-out plan. There’s so much of teaching that I can’t get into a “lesson plan,” though, so below is a more detailed explanation of what happened in each phase.

Three Phase Plan Day in Space

Phase One – Meet the Source

The teacher and I gave the students a hard copy of the article to read as a whole.  I started the lesson with this synopsis:

This article is about how astronauts live and work in space. One of the main ideas in this article is that astronauts do some of the same things we do, but in different ways. Let’s preview to see what we think some of those differences might be.

I also introduced the vocabulary word “hygiene” which was the topic of one section of the article entitled “Hygiene in Space.” Here are the four steps I used to introduce this word:

  1. Introduce the definition: Hygiene – the practice of keeping yourself and your surroundings clean and, as a result, healthy
  2. Help students associate: Thumbs up/down: Are you practicing good hygiene when you brush your teeth? Are you practicing good hygiene if you never wash your hands?
  3. Help students expand their understanding with Turn & Talk: Think of a way you practice good hygiene. Turn & talk about it with a partner. You might start with “I practice good hygiene by…”
  4. Link to text: There is a subheading in this article that says “Hygiene in Space!” What do you think the author will be explaining? Do you think astronauts practice hygiene the same we do?

I set the purpose for reading by saying, “As you read this article, think about this question: How is the astronaut’s day in space similar to and different from yours?”

Then the students read. The teacher and I circulated, leaning in to confer with individuals. I closed the lesson by asking small groups to discuss the following questions:

  • What did you learn about how astronauts do things differently from us?
  • What else did you learn that you found interesting?

Phase Two – Meet the Strategy

During the following lesson, I introduced the pasta analogy and then engaged the students in underlining and annotating the section entitled, “Hygiene in Space!”  Our guiding question for determining what to underline and jot in the annotations was, “How is living in space different than living on Earth?” This may seem easy, but during Phase One, when I asked this question, I got answers like, “Their toilets are different.” I DID NOT get details about the difference, though. Students did not share how the toilet is set up like a vacuum cleaner, etc. By reading closely and stopping to think about specific details that we determined were important, I was hoping to deepen the students’ understanding of this difference.

After we annotated this section together (my notes were projected with a document camera), student partners chose an additional section to read and annotate (with the guiding question in mind). Then individuals chose yet another section to work on independently. The teacher and I circulated and conferred, coaching students in how to annotate their thinking.

We closed with a conversation:

  • Let’s use our notes to help us describe the differences between living in space and on Earth.
  • What do we think about what we learned? Would you want to be an astronaut at the space station? Why or why not?
  • What did we do to read and learn strategically today?

Phase Three – Meet the Purpose for Responding

This was the prompt for the written response:

Would you want to be an astronaut who lives and works on a space station? Why or why not? Use what you learned from the article about the different ways astronauts do things and how this information has influenced your thinking.

I introduced and defined three vocabulary words students could use to describe their thinking: fascinating (def: very interesting), challenging (difficult but worth trying because you’re interested), exasperating (extremely irritating, annoying). The teacher and I decided to give the students these vocabulary words as a tool for helping them respond more thoughtfully.

I modeled choosing one and listing details (as a plan for writing) from the source that supported this; then I coached them in doing the same.

Then I drew the students into a conversation and they helped me compose a sample response. This is shared writing. Then I coached in them in writing their own responses. Later I would read their responses and write a short note to each student. Below are a few examples of what the students wrote.

This was the first of a series of three-phase lessons focused on sources about different careers—app developers, animators, bee keepers, interpreters for the deaf and so forth. I’ll try to blog more on that soon.

If you try the three-phase lesson with “A Day in Space,” I’d love to hear how it goes!

Hope this helps.


Three-phase plan for learning?

Below is a guide I’ve developed for planning and teaching with informational sources. Each “phase” can be one or more lesson periods (20-40 minutes) based on the needs of your students. My hope is to make teaching with informational sources (texts, video, infographics, etc) more manageable. There’s so much we can do with these sources, but there’s value in a regular routine focused on helping students develop a deeper understanding of a source (guided reading/writing of sorts ;). This plan tries to provide a model for that.

During Phase One, you introduce the source to the students and they have an opportunity to read, view or listen to that source. As they engage with the source, you lean in to confer and check for understanding. Then you close with a discussion of the content they learned. Your goal is for the students to get a grasp of the source as a whole.

During Phase Two, you teach a strategy that supports students in closely reading-viewing-listening to a part of the source or if the source is short, the whole source. An example of a  strategy is teaching the students how to self-monitor by coding for what they already know, what’s new information or what they do not understand. Another strategy is using the pasta analogy to help students determine what is important as they underline and annotate a source for evidence that supports a main idea. This may occur with only a part of the source. Chances are–if the students understand a part of the source really well, they will understand the whole source better.

During Phase Three, students write or create a response to the source. This can be very short–a few sentences or a quick sketch of an infographic or it can be a little longer like a letter or they might just practice discussing in detail what they learned–orally responding. This serves to deepen their understanding of the source.

What I’ve given you are the basics. There’s so much more I’d like to say, but hope to blog about. (I’m also working on a new edition of my first book Close Reading of Informational Texts due out next fall that will include more details.)

Below is a draft of a lesson plan template that you might use as a guide. I hope to blog in the near future about specific lessons I’ve given that use this template.

3 phase plan for learning 10_29_18


Hope this helps. Would love to know what you think.





Helping Students Get the Most Out of Video Sources

I’ll never forget the first time I taught students to unpack the information in a video clip. It was in a classroom studying ecosystems. I found the perfect clip. Two minutes! The content answered our essential questions. It was fantastic!

Yeah, right 😦

When I sat down to plan, I realized how complicated this was going to be. We can say a lot in just a few seconds. This video clip is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JPHqUxxyLsY. In just the first 15 seconds of the video, there is a definition of the term ecosystem:

An ecosystem is a community of living things interacting with the non-living parts of their environment.

In the next 15 seconds, the narrator says this:

There are two primary parts of an ecosystem. The biotic part is made of all of the living things, like plants and animals, fungi, and bacteria and viruses. The abiotic part is made of non-living things, like rocks and minerals, water, and energy.

And while she’s saying this, a chart appears on the screen with the words “biotic” and “abiotic” and examples for each.

Geez. That’s a lot for students to grasp in just 30 seconds! The students would have to process what they were hearing and seeing–very quickly. I knew we had to do this because video has a become a regular source of information for students and it’s a critical component of national assessments.

Here are a few suggestions based on what I’ve tried and learned since then (with some thoughtful colleagues and patient students):

  • Students need a guiding question(s) to help them determine what is important in the video. Set a very clear purpose for gathering information from the video. Ask a question or a series a questions. Or ask the students to generate questions. Students can use this question or purpose to help them determine what information in the video is important. Examples of questions include: What are the essential components of an ecosystem? How did the social activists take risks? What was the effect of the Supreme Court decision?
  • First, watch/listen to the whole clip. The students need to get a feel for the clip as a whole and start thinking about how it answers their questions.
  • Then watch the clip again and ask students for a “thumbs up” when they hear content that helps them answer (one of) the guiding questions. With the first group I taught, this was about 12 seconds into the clip. What I found, though, was that they knew the question had been answered, but they didn’t process the content enough to paraphrase what they’d learned.
  • Make it okay to view/listen to that section of the clip again and again and again. Make it okay to “rewind” and listen to a chunk of the clip a few times to try to fully grasp what is being said and revealed.
    • The students may need to watch the clip and then repeat what they just heard.
    • Then they may need to watch it, think about it some more and turn and talk to a friend about what they learned.
    • Then they may need to watch it one more time and write notes about what they learned. 
  • Prompt students to listen AND watch the video; to glean info from the visual parts of the video as well as the auditory. The students I was working with in that first lesson were working so hard to listen that they completely missed the diagram in the video. They also needed to glean information from what they saw in the video.
  • Make it okay to just use a part of the clip. In the classroom studying ecosystems, we were exhausted by the time we processed the first twelve seconds of the video. I felt like they had used that section well and we needed to move on to other sources. Teach students to determine an important part that they are really going to focus on processing.

Okay. Hope this helps.