Tag Archives: text-dependent questions

“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.


Critical thinking across multiple texts – Part I

In a 7th grade social studies class I visited a few weeks ago, the students used an evolving definition of “honorable” as a lens for reading multiple texts on warriors – ancient and modern. In the image below, the blue text was our original definition. As the students engaged in discussions about what it means for ancient and modern day warriors to be honorable, we added to the definition. Our ultimate goal was to get at the complexity of what it means to be honorable. What are abilities, qualities, achievements that demand honor? What training or life experiences are necessary? What is the role of codes of conduct? Is it possible to be perfectly honorable 100% of the time? What is tricky about this? What are sacrifices involved in pursuing being honorable?

Honorable anchor chart

Here’s an outline of the lessons we gave:

  1. One day interviewing a veteran – The class interviewed a modern day warrior, a veteran who works at their school. The students were asked to fill out an anticipatory set in advance. This was a very powerful experience that would launch their thinking as we moved forward.
  2. Two days on knights – The teacher and I modeled and then encouraged individual and partner close reading of multiple passages on knights in the medieval period – training and code of ethics. modeled annotations knightsDuring this close reading, the students underlined and annotated information in response to the question, “What are you learning that might help you think about how this warrior is honorable?” We provided lots of opportunities for 2-3 minute student-led conversations around what students were thinking regarding “honorable” and the content they’d just read and regarding how they were adding to their thinking as they read each additional passage. I quickly modeled having a conversation with a student as my partner (referring to our notes & thinking about what a partner had said before responding). Below is one student’s annotated texts.Student 1 annotated notes
  3. Two days on the samurai – A similar routine. Knight and Samurai texts
  4. Two days on modern day warriors – the marines. Students visited http://www.marines.com/operating-forces/strategic-warrior – a website that describes marines as strategic warriors and then they also visited a site that discusses posttraumatic stress disorder and includes videos (primary sources) of veterans talking about their PTSD.Screen Shot 2016-06-03 at 6.44.55 AMScreen Shot 2016-06-03 at 6.58.11 AM
  5. Time to write in response to what they’d learned – Students were given a menu of options for responding – poetry, illustrating/creating art, writing a letter of appreciation to a veteran. In the future, we’re planning to encourage students to submit to http://www.teenink.com for publication.

Throughout all of these lessons, we continued to refer to the definition of “honorable” as a way to help students articulate what they were learning.

I LEARNED SO MUCH FROM THESE STUDENTS. In my next few blog entries, I’m going to write about what the students revealed in their annotations as well as how we determined which texts to use.

And a BIG THANK YOU to CHRIS, the classroom teacher who co-planned and taught with me!

Hope this helps.



Check out these reading responses!

A few posts ago I wrote about shaking up how we ask students to write in response to texts–creating hall of fame posters, designing two-page layouts for trade books, and writing letters. One of my colleagues in the field, Britany, a fifth grade teacher, gave this a go! She asked students who’d read the book Plant Parts by Louise & Richard Stilsbury to write a letter from the root to the plant. See her prompt below.


Plant letter prompt

Below are a few of the letters. What are the strengths I noticed in these letters? They are doing so much!!!!

  • The writers have a clear sense of purpose and audience with coherent reasoning.
  • The writers attempt to use domain specific vocabulary like fibrous root, root hair, nutrients, photosynthesis, minerals.
  • There are attempts at explaining the science they learned – especially in the first letter below where the student explains the job of the root hair.
  • There’s some humor–as though the student writer is having a good time. “I’m the big guy.” “Your sad friend.” “The smallest root hair with the biggest job.”
  • There are attempts at revising – check out the arrows and additional details that are attempts at adding depth.

KV Letter to a plant

C Plant letter

EG Plant letterMC Plant letterBased on my formative assessment of these responses, where would I head next with this group?

  • I’d locate and tackle another text on plants that somehow adds to this conversation between the plant and the root, that somehow deepens students’ understanding of plant systems.
  • I’d lead the students in a close reading of text excerpts that explain particular processes and engage the students in conversation about what they are learning–retelling what they learned and discussing their reasoning as to why this is important or why the explanation of this process is important to the author’s central message/main idea.
  • Some of the writing is list like–mostly listing reasons why the plant should keep the root.  I might share the first letter as a mentor text for “explaining” further and engage in shared writing of also explaining why a particular detail is important. For example, why is it important to the entire plant that the root grows deep? The shared writing might be an opportunity to work on syntax related to explaining these concepts in writing, in academic discourse.
  • I didn’t read this book, but I’d keep an eye on the facts. So it was funny when one student wrote, “All you do is just sit and act pretty,” but I’m thinking the flower part of the plant actually has a purpose and is also vital. Maybe I could introduce vocabulary like synergy or interdependence. (Sorry, Science Teachers. I need to study and find the right term!)
  • I’d build on the students’ strength as far as the humor and sense of purpose and voice revealed in the first set of letters by listing what they did well in these letters, proposing a follow-up letter, and adding to the list additional ways they can make their writing stronger. I might add an additional purpose for writing – perhaps drafts of a children’s book that can be shared with younger grade?

Okay. Hope this helps. A BIG THANK YOU to Britany for sharing!!!! I learned so much by thinking through what the students wrote!!!!


Are your students tired of writing summaries and analytic essays?

I’m shaking up how students respond to informational texts. I’m experimenting with letters, Hall of Fame posters for a bulletin board in the classroom entitled “People Who Have Changed the World,” designing and writing content for a book entitled Did You Know, and classified ads. Regardless of the format, though, I’m still  REQUIRING students to tap and explain text evidence related to a main idea.

I tried this a few weeks ago with several groups of 4th and 5th grade students during small group guided writing lessons. (I was giving demo lessons–as a consultant in a school district.)  Here’s the routine I established for the series of lessons (4 lessons at about 20 minutes each):

  1. Lessons 1-2 closely read for a clear purpose 1-2 short informational texts and annotate or take notes. By short, I mean 1-3 pages of text. For example, one group of 4th grade students read two pages of text in their anthology on the work of public officials like city council members. The second text was a one page article from Scholastic News on Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s plan for the water crisis in Flint, MI. Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 8.49.07 AMScreen Shot 2016-02-26 at 8.49.07 AM                      The essential question was How do public officials accomplish things to help people? They took notes on a two-column chart.                               Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 9.01.14 AM                                                                                During these two lessons, there were several opportunities for students to turn and talk to a partner about what they were learning–this is a very important bridge to writing!
  2. Lesson 3 – Start with 5-10 minutes of conversation. I asked the students to review their notes and turn and talk with a partner about what they’d learned about how public officials accomplish tasks. With this group, I noticed that they needed more support in talking in depth about this topic versus just listing what they learned off their notes. So I pulled the group back together and we had a “conversation” –this means no one raises their hands. We just talk and as needed I prompt students to ask each other for clarification, to ask for more details from a peer, or to build on what a peer said. As they did this, I took notes (based on what they were saying or my interpretation of their comments) on a small dry erase board – for the students to refer to as they talked (see image below).                                                            2016-02-04 15.15.15
  3. Lesson 3 – Set a purpose for writing and develop criteria – 5 minutes. For each format I explored with students, we developed criteria. For the hall of fame poster and the Did You Know book, I used a mentor text (that I found on the Internet) which I showed them on a small laptop (see below).  For the poster and the DId You Know tasks, I asked partners to collaborate.                                                                   Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 12.08.31 PMScreen Shot 2016-02-26 at 12.08.42 PMScreen Shot 2016-02-26 at 12.08.58 PM                                                                         Below are examples of criteria we co-developed and referred to over and over again as the students wrote.                                                                                   2016-02-04 15.17.542016-02-02 10.16.33 2016-02-03 15.30.27For the 4th grade lesson with texts on public officials, the students had to write a letter to someone they think should run for public office and explain why – with reference to the texts they’d read. Notice that part of the criteria is the student must refer to the texts read–tying a main idea from the text into the letter as well as text evidence and an explanation.  For the hall of fame poster, we decided they would refer to text evidence and explain how the two historical figures (Gus Garcia and Frederick Douglass) in the top right hand corner of their poster. For the Did You Know two-page layout, they would refer to what they’d learned from texts in the text under the question and then integrate throughout the graphics, side bars, etc.
  4. Lesson 3 – Engage in shared writing – 5 minutes. Below is an example of shared writing with the students who read about public officials. I chunked this. So we picked a person to write a letter for together and then they picked their own person. We wrote an intro for our shared person letter and then they wrote one for their own person. We wrote about text evidence for our shared person letter and then they wrote about different evidence for their own person.                                                                                      2016-02-04 15.16.28
  5. Lesson 3 continued and then Lesson 4 – Students write independently (or with a partner) – 25 minutes at the writing table with me there to coach. Students continue writing their pieces – in particular, the part where they have to refer to the text and explain. These may not be completely done by the end of these lessons but I’m not worried about taking these all the way to publication. What’s important is that quality time at the table with me present to coach while they write for 25 minutes.
    They can finish independently and I can confer with them briefly about finalizing later.
    Below are examples of students’ drafted letters. Notice how they integrated information from two texts into their letters.                                                     Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 12.16.20 PM                                                                                               (BTW – Mr. Taylor is the principal at that school! Another student wrote a letter to his mom and two chose friends they thought would be good public officials.)                                         For the letter below, the group of students read a text about Jane Addams and about Gus Garcia with an essential question regarding how these historical figures advocated for people. The author of this letter chose to write a thank you note to her teacher–thanking her for advocating for students and for teaching students to advocate for others – similar to Addams and Garcia.                                                                      Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 12.18.57 PM                                                                                           There are all sorts of letters students can write – thank you, encouragement, inquiry, requests, etc.  One group read about how scientists collaborate and then they wrote a thank you note to a classmate who’d collaborated with them in some way (to build a bridge in science, to complete a math word problem, etc.). They had to include what they’d learned from two texts about the power of collaboration.    

If you’ve tried shaking up responses to informational text done at the guided writing table, I’d like to hear about it!!!

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.

Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 7.11.41 AM

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.



Teaching Main Idea and Details with Photos: Sample Lesson

A simple way to start talking with students about “main ideas” and “supporting details” is to use a photo as a “text.” When you use a photo as a text, you take away the cognitive load of reading and provide more mental space for students to grapple with concepts like “main idea” and “supporting details.”  Below are artifacts from a  lesson I gave as well as sample photos and prompts.

Procedures I used in the lesson:

1) Post a photo worthy of discussion and prompt small groups or partners to discuss by asking, “What do you notice?” For this lesson, the students were studying astronomy. I chose a photo of astronomers engaged in their practice. I provided an additional sentence starter for conversation–“I noticed that…” As the students talked, I leaned in to one conversation and coached students to elaborate on their thinking. BEWARE: You need to coach students to rely on details in the text to support their thinking. So they can say, “The astronomers use telescopes” but they can’t say, “They are looking at Mars.”

astronomers learning

Photo lesson - photo projected

2) For the next discussion, with the same photo, post a content related prompt that includes rigorous vocabulary. The prompt I posted was: What does this picture reveal about what astronomers do to acquire knowledge? This prompt gets at a possible main idea for this photo or a message the photographer wanted to convey. As I read aloud the prompt for the 2nd conversation, I used an orange marker (see image below) to write additional words defining the words “reveal” and “acquire knowledge.” Again, as the partners discussed the details in the photo (which could be details they noticed in the previous discussion), I coached for elaboration and supporting their partner’s ideas. Helpful prompts might include “Say more about that” and “What in the picture makes you think so?”

photo lesson- prompt for discussion

3) Engage in shared writing of details or notes in response to the prompt. See the image below. As students shared the details they thought revealed what the astronomers do to learn, I wrote notes on the chart paper under the prompt.

photo lesson- prompt for discussion

4) Engage in shared and independent writing of a response. Provide a main idea statement and elicit a supporting idea from the students. (Eventually, you want students to work on identifying a main idea conveyed in the photo–in small groups or on their own.) Then ask them to talk with a partner about a supporting detail they will use in their own sentence. Close by asking each student to compose a supporting sentence on sticky note and post at the bottom of the shared writing. See below!

Photo lesson - shared writing


Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 6.06.40 AM

Making a Difference Unit: What does this picture reveal or tell us about the disposition (or attitude) of these volunteers? What are they willing to do to make a difference?


American West Unit: What does this picture reveal or tell us about how arduous or difficult life was in the American West in the 19th century?


Ancient Civilization Unit: What does this painting (on a piece of ancient Greek pottery) reveal or tell us about the proficiency (or skill or expertise) required of soldiers during this period?

Hope this helps.

Guided writing lesson – a productive struggle

I had the honor of teaching a small 2nd grade group of students a guided writing lesson after we had done a guided reading lesson with an excerpt from an A to Z text, George Washington Carver, Level O. In a previous post, I wrote about the first lesson – close reading of an excerpt from this text. In the second lesson (about 25 minutes), I guided the students in using the key words they’d identified during guided reading to write a response to the text-dependent question, “What did Carver achieve?” Below are some of the words we’d written together while reading and thinking about how to answer this question. The students also had their own set of sticky notes to work from while writing.

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In the image above – you see the key words we generated together (after a shared reading and discussion on Day 1) on sticky note #1. On sticky notes #2 & 3, the key words were generated by individual students and shared when we regrouped after they read independently (still as part of Day 1). You’ll notice that I just picked a few that they shared to write on our common sticky note and that some of the students wrote additional words as you’ll see in the images of their own lists below.

We began by orally rehearsing how we would respond using the key words on our sticky notes. I coached one student in using the key words to create sentences (all orally) in response the question. Then I asked partners to turn and share how they would answer the question using their key words.

Then we regrouped and decided how to start our written response. One student suggested, “Do you know how Carver helped the farmers?” I wrote this on my piece of paper for all students to see and then encouraged them to use this student’s introduction or to write their own. You’ll notice in the examples below, they ALL wrote that intro. Totally okay, but in another lesson we might focus on different ways to start.  (See previous image.)

As each student finished writing the introduction, I asked the student to think about what we had done several times–we’d created a “next” sentence using the key words on the first sticky note. Because they had done this aloud several times – in the group, with me individually or with a partner, the bridge to writing seemed easier to cross. For a few students, I asked them to orally rehearse what they would write before writing; for other, more capable writers, I asked them to start.

Then they took off  working more independently and I coached at the point of need. One student finished her first sentence and stopped and waited for me–this would become a teaching point, “How can you continue? What will you do after you write this next sentence?” Another student knew exactly what to do and kept writing, referring to the key words on her sticky note for help.

I started a conference with students by asking them to read what they’d written so far. This is always a good opportunity for students to realize they’ve made a mistake – omitted a word, or written something incorrectly and, frequently, they will correct or revise immediately. It’s also a good opportunity for me to say, “Did that sound right?” or “Does that make sense?” or “What is the tricky part in this sentence?” Then we conferred to problem-solve. For some – there are a lot of grammatical or spelling issues – I do not try to solve all of these at once because I don’t want to overwhelm the child. I target a 1-2 issues that I think the student would benefit from having some one-to-one help.

Here are a few examples of what the students (3 out of 5–ouch! I didn’t get to collect them all :() wrote.

Student #1

Scan 186

(Note: Before the guided writing lesson, I rewrote the key words that we’d generated together in lesson 1 on a sticky note for each child; their key words were from the 2nd & 3rd paragraph of the shared reading and I wanted them all to have the whole list.)

My thoughts (keeping in mind, I only worked with this child for a short period!!!) –

  • The student is assuming that you, the reader, will understand that if the crops are smaller, there is less to sell and therefore the farmers, as stated in the response, “barely had money to pay [for food, etc.].” Still the student is grappling with some difficult content (given her age of 7-8) and she seems to have some grasp of the idea being conveyed.
  • She uses connective language – “but then” to share her logic! BRAVO!
  • She wraps up her response –she’s clearly mastered the formula of starting with a question and ending with “now you know.”

Implications for teaching –

  • She would benefit from reading more (developmentally appropriate) texts about crops and the economics of farming and how Carver helped the farmers–so she could increase her grasp conceptually. This is hard to do – but makes the case for working with text sets and reading across multiple texts on the same topic.
  • She needs to develop stamina for writing longer pieces–now I only know about her from these two lessons, but she had several key words describing what else Carver did to help the farmers and she did not extend her writing to include these.
  • She’s ready for a broader repertoire of options for beginning and ending responses–even creating some of her own with her audience in mind.
  • “farmers crops” vs. “farmers’ crops” – This might be a quick mini-lesson as part of guided reading/writing along the way.

Student #2

Scan 187Scan 190

(Note: You’ll notice my handwriting in black ink on the sticky notes. This was done during Day 1 conferences with this student. To help him articulate his thinking, I was the scribe!)

Notice how this student is a little more savvy in expressing what he understand–“the soil was getting tired”; even though he doesn’t entirely grasp the idea of nutrients in the soil, he gives explaining this concept a try. Kudos to him, you know? Again, I think the difference would be the opportunity to read multiple texts on the same topic.

Student #3

Scan 188

Scan 189

This student seems to sort of understand what we were reading and discussing. She’s working really hard to create a coherent response, strategically using the connective “another reason” and wrapping up with “now you know why.” Again – she’s dealing with a difficult concept–it’s not that this is getting in the way, it’s that the student is grappling and needs continuous opportunities with just the right support. And you know what I’m going to say next? She needs more time with this concept, this idea of farmers struggling in the late 19th century and people like Carver coming to their aid or, maybe more appropriately,  just what it means to farm and grow and sell crops.

One of my colleagues who observed this lesson, said, “It was a productive struggle for them.” YES!!! Love this term for what the students were experiencing. Here’s a quote from an educator, , I found describing this term —

Students can experience productive struggle when given a task slightly beyond their abilities. As educators provide support for tackling a challenging problem through different approaches, they can help build critical thinking skills and develop grit. The objective isn’t necessarily to get to the right answer, but to engage in this process to advance learning and develop perseverance.

The trick is–

  • to engage these students in this kind of learning on a regular basis,
  • to support them just at their point of need
    • through discussion,
    • through trying to compose sentences orally first,
    • through opportunities to write and even sketch and act out as they grapple with a difficult concept,
    • AND through the use of text sets or multiple texts on the same concepts,
  • AND to gradually release so that they are doing more of this reading, writing, and thinking on their own.

Okay…hope this helps.





Book review & text-dependent questions for War Dogs: Churchill and Rufus

War Dogs Churchill and Rufus

War Dogs: Churchill and Rufus (Selbert, 2013) has a lot of potential for teaching in grades 4-5 with students studying World War II.  While this book is listed for grades 2-5, I think it would be hard for 2nd and even 3rd grade students to understand the main ideas. For all readers, the author assumes some background knowledge about WWII–the conflict, the players, and the geography.

For 4th-5th grade students, this would be a good opportunity for partner reading or for a teacher read aloud with a focus on text-dependent questions like, “How does the author develop the idea that Churchill and Rufus are ‘war dogs’?” (CCSS RI 8 & L5). Selbert, the author, positions Churchill as “dog-like” at many points in the book–some more explicitly than others. For example, there’s a page that describes Churchill speaking to Parliament – “Winston, his shoulders set like a tenacious bulldog’s, wades to the front of the hall and begins to speak.” On another page, Churchill’s wife, Clementine, visits him and Rufus in a war bunker where Churchill’s office was during the war; the text states that she holds her husband’s hand and then kisses his cheek and, on the same page, she holds Rufus and “rubs behind his ears until he falls asleep.” Clementine is showing affection for both war dogs in a sense – Churchill and Rufus.

Selbert also includes quotes from Churchill that are critical in understanding the brevity of the war and even the ideas in the text. (FYI-Most of the quotes would be conceptually difficult for 2nd or early 3rd grade students.) The quotes are separate from the running text–see image below–and could be read carefully and discussed further after reading the whole book. A question for students to consider might be, “Why is this particular quote relevant in this part of the book?” (CCSS RI 4 & 5, L5)


Students should have the opportunity to read and reread additional features the author includes at the end of the book–a timeline of WWII, a short essay about Churchill and his beloved pets, and another short essay about Churchill himself. In the intermediate grades, a teacher might read aloud the book and then engage the students in close reading of one of the two essays for the author’s main idea or in response to prompts like, “How would you describe Churchill based on your reading of this essay? Why? What parts of the text made you think so?” or “Churchill was an important figure in WWII. Identify and explain evidence in the text that supports this idea.” (CCSS RI 1 & 2).

A strong book introduction should emphasize the meaning of the title or a short discussion predicting the meaning behind the title. I didn’t pay much attention to the title, assumed I knew what I was going to read about – Churchill’s dog—and then as I read, felt like I wasn’t learning much about Rufus. When I rethought the title – War Dogs (plural), the book made more sense to me. My point is that students shouldn’t assume the book will be mostly about Rufus–actually it’s more about Churchill and his role in WWII. Rufus, a dog, is an access point for more important content.

This book was awarded the International Literacy Association Children’s and Young Adults’ Book Award for primary nonfiction 2014 which is awarded to new authors. I am going to be on this committee this next year – looking forward to it!

Is “text evidence” becoming a fill-in-the-blank?

evidence pic 4

A few weeks ago I had the honor of working with a class of students who were writing an analytic essay in response to a text about Frederick Douglass. During this lesson, I’d posed a text-dependent question and we’d carefully read the article and taken notes.  When we moved from taking notes to using those notes to think about writing, I asked the students, “How should we start our essay? What do we need to think about doing first for our reader?” (In my mind, I was thinking, “We need to let the reader know the topic” or “We need to write an introduction”). Several hands went up, but one student’s hand shot up especially straight, her eyes wide and bright with a response. Pleased at her eagerness, I called on her. She quickly shouted, “TEXT EVIDENCE!”

No kidding. And this happened again later in the week in a different class.

For me this is worrisome. I worry that we are talking about and hammering “text evidence” so hard that students are becoming mindless, thinking that “text evidence” is the most likely answer to whatever question we ask. This mentality is popping up in their writing, too. “And the text evidence is….” is part of their responses as though they are filling in a blank. I don’t think we meant for this to happen! And I’ve been pondering how we can turn this around for students and keep them in the mode of “I need to think through this-I need to reason through this-I need to think about why I’m thinking this.”

A couple of suggestions–approaches I’ve been playing around with in my practice and thinking –

1.  If you are asking students to share textual evidence, the text-dependent question needs to require some kind of inference or interpretation of or grappling with ideas in the text; the answer should not be is stated explicitly in the text. For example, in the Frederick Douglass article, the students read–the question written by the publisher was “What did Frederick Douglass do to change the lives of African Americans?” This was answered clearly in several spots in the text — he spoke in front of audiences, he wrote his autobiography, he started a newspaper. I wouldn’t ask for text evidence to this question–why? Because the response would be, “Well it says it in the text.” Instead, a better question would be, “What character traits did Frederick Douglass exhibit in his advocacy for African American rights? What makes you think so? Use textual evidence to support your reasoning. Remember to explain why this is evidence that supports your reasoning.”

2.  Ask students to explain why text evidence is evidence that supports their reasoning–out loud with a partner and in writing. Hopefully, this forces them to think about what they are saying, to think through their reasoning. Below is a chart from a 4th grade lesson. This was from the shared writing portion of the lesson – we collaborated to develop a reason and identify evidence; then I asked small groups to talk about why this was evidence and then write on their own notes (a blank piece of paper folded into thirds).

evidence pic 2

In a fifth grade class, we used a piece of paper folded into thirds to take notes. Below are the shared writing notes that we composed together before the students were gradually released to take notes on their own. This particular piece of paper was under the doc camera and projected for all students to see.

evidence pic 3

3.  Model this thinking for them.  Think aloud, think aloud, think aloud.

4.  Provide lots of opportunities for students to just talk through their reasoning and thinking about textual evidence. This may eliminate some of the “fill-in-the-blank” language that is popping up in essays.

5.  As needed, provide language for students to appropriate in their discussions and their writing like:

  • When the author stated ___________, I was thinking…
  • When the author writes______________, the author suggests that__________
  • The author implies ______________ because she/he says/wrote________
  • The author uses an anecdote/example/metaphor to ______________
  • I had a strong reaction when I read__________because I knew the author was___
  • I wasn’t sure what the author meant when he wrote_______________but I’m thinking____________
  • I’ve been thinking about the question we are supposed to consider and the way I would respond is________________. My reasoning behind that is___________.

6.  When you start to see mindless use of phrases like “In the text it says…,” BAN those phrases and ask, “How else can you say that?” or “What are you trying to say? Let’s think through this and consider a different way to reveal this to our reader.” In one classroom, I wrote “The evidence is” on the board and drew a ban sign around it! The students gasped aloud!

7.  Reduce the cognitive load. Provide the answer to the text-dependent question and the reason and let the students just focus on grappling with identifying and explaining text evidence – orally in small groups and then in writing. It seems like we always start from the beginning in writing analytic essays. There’s no reason why we have to do this.

8.  Limit the use of formulas for writing responses.

9. Go through the process of reasoning and supporting for yourself or with a group of colleagues. I know we are crazy busy, but for many of us, this kind of thinking and writing might be less familiar. How would you answer the text-dependent question? What reasoning would you give? What would be your text evidence and why? Do it for yourself so you can coach students in thinking more deeply about what they are doing. Below are notes a group of teachers and I created in preparing to teach a lesson.

evidence pic 1

Okay…just thinking. Hope this helps.