AR Report: What Kids are Reading

Renaissance Learning’s report on What Kids are Reading has garnered national media attention, much of it focusing on perceived inadequacies among today’s readers.  A National Board Certified Teacher offers a different perspective.

Renaissance Place’s Accelerated Reader program gathers a lot of data when students take AR tests.  Kids rate books and the program counts how often tests are taken.  The results can be interesting…and misleading.  For example, kids almost always pick the top rating, so you can’t place much stock in the stars books receive on the ARBookFind site. Additionally standalone titles of perennial popularity (Charlotte’s Web) do better than really, really popular series.  Kids love Magic Tree House books, but there are so many that they split the vote.

Sometimes the reason for a book’s popularity isn’t what you think.  For example, three of the top books read by third graders (Boom Town, Officer Buckle & Gloria, and Lon Po Po) are in the Harcourt Trophies third grade reader.  Would these books be so popular among AR test takers if they weren’t in the reading textbook?

Reading level can be a misleading thing.  Just because a student is in third grade doesn’t mean she reads only books rated three point something.  A quick glance at the top books for any grade level shows you that reading level is just an average.  For example, third graders love Diary of a Wimpy Kid (5.5), but they also enjoy Green Eggs and Ham (1.5)  Books hovering around grade level are prominent, but so are outliers.

Reading levels run the gamut in every grade, both among the readers and the titles they favor.  That’s why I’m not nuts about assigning kids to a narrow reading level (2.5-3.1 would be a common reading zone for third grade.)  Kids miss out on so much and the reading level is not always an indicator of whether the child can read the book.  It’s an indicator of sentence length, word length, sentences in a paragraph, that sort of thing.

Much has been made in the media about the low average grade level of high school students’ favorite books.  Don’t wig out, America!  There are several forces at work here.  First of all, mostly younger high school kids take AR tests, and mostly kids who are in regular English, not honors are required to earn points.  Honors students read literature and write papers; AR tests rarely figure into the curriculum.   If it does, it’s just an assignment to rack up points for independent reading.  Why not get credit for Twilight under such a system?

A look at AR tests high school kids are taking reads like the bestseller list.  Some of the reading levels may surprise you. For example, The Hunger Games clocks in at 5.3, but anyone who has read it knows the issues, characterization, and depth of the novel go far beyond that.  Besides, how can you knock The Hunger Games for a low reading level when Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is lower, only 4.5?  The low reading levels are indicators of today’s writing style—clear and concise.  Short sentences and paragraphs mean low reading levels.

What differentiates the high school books is topic, not word length and sentence length.  Glass by Ellen Hopkins is considered 3.7 grade level, but would I share that novel-in-verse with my third graders?  It’s way above their comprehension level!

Use the list of What Kids are Reading as it was intended: a way to report usage of AR tests, indicating popularity of certain books.  Don’t think it indicates the end of literacy or a terrible decline in the reading ability of today’s kids.

The report also has interesting essays by some of today’s most famous authors.  Ellen Hopkin’s article about frequently challenged books and what kids should be reading is insightful.

Posted in Accelerated Reader (AR) by Corey Green @ Apr 26, 2012

 

Best Practices for Professional Learning Communities (Part 3)

Part Three: Build relationships with your part-time students

This is part of an occasional series about Professional Learning Communities— I dubbed it Trade & Teach, a practice of assessing all students in a grade level and creating leveled groups taught by different teachers. It can work really well in elementary schools, but I have noticed the trend is to reinvent the wheel in the name of teacher buy-in. Rather than that, I offer Best Practices advice from tried and true implementation experience in real third grade classrooms. If you’re not familiar with Professional Learning Communities, read the Wiki here.

It’s always important to build relationships with your students, but in Trade & Teach, it’s absolutely essential.  The students are disoriented unless you make a special effort to build community.  (After all, we’re talking about Professional Learning Communities, aren’t we?)

**In order to build these relationships, you must have students for a significant length of time.  This is just one more reason to assess wisely—and not too frequently. 

There are definite benefits to building community:

Optimizing the learning climate: If the students feel like they have been thrust into an unfamiliar classroom with a different teacher and different classmates, what do you think will be foremost in their minds?  Not learning! Give the students a chance to get to know you and each other.  Play icebreaker games or just introduce yourselves.  Find out students’ favorites in regard to the subject matter at hand.  Let students form teams based on their homeroom.  This way, they can tackle learning challenges without stressing about working with unfamiliar classmates.

Assessing & Addressing Students’ Needs:  Sure, you have a general idea of what your students need because you know how they scored on the assessment: above level, on level, or below level.  You can prepare lesson plans based on that, but your teaching will be more effective if you get to know the students as individuals.  You might tap into shared interests that can provide structure to otherwise rote practice, such as practicing paragraph writing about animals, cars or whatever your students like.  You might discover that the students are already very good at some skills but just need advice on how to show this on tests.  Test-taking lessons are very different from skills-based lessons.

Forming a Partnership: When Trade & Teach is really humming along, students benefit because they have two teachers who truly care about them.  You are the specialist, and you can coordinate care with the primary provider—the child’s homeroom teacher—and the child’s parents.  For extra games or resources to use at home, communicate directly with parents.  Got a problem or concern?  Go to the child’s homeroom teacher first, then the two of you can decide how best to approach the parent.

Trade & Teach can really help if you think a child needs targeted intervention or testing for a learning disability.  With two or more academic teachers seeing the child, it’s easier to tell if problems are part of an environment or seen across the board.  It’s harder for gatekeepers to dismiss a problem as one teacher jumping the gun if several teachers worked with the child and noticed the same issues.

This series on Professional Learning Communities Best Practices is made possible by Valerie, Donina, Bethany and Heather … an amazing third grade team!

Posted in Professional Learning Communities by Corey Green @ Nov 14, 2011

 

Best Practices for Professional Learning Communities (Part 2)

Part Two: Address students’ needs

This is part of an occasional series about Professional Learning Communities— I dubbed it Trade & Teach, a practice of assessing all students in a grade level and creating leveled groups taught by different teachers. It can work really well in elementary schools, but I have noticed the trend is to reinvent the wheel in the name of teacher buy-in. Rather than that, I offer Best Practices advice from tried and true implementation experience in real third grade classrooms. If you’re not familiar with Professional Learning Communities, read the Wiki here.

In order for Trade & Teach to be successful, the emphasis must be on addressing students’ needs.  Think about the strengths and weaknesses of students in each group, and address them directly.

I have seen Trade & Teach function in the opposite way— students split into leveled groups, but all teachers teaching the same subject—Chapter X.  All students take the same assessment a week later.  What actually happens is just leveling students, then teaching to the middle in each group.  Such a situation can arise as an unintended consequence of violating the rules of wise assessment.

Following are Best Practices for addressing students’ needs.  I have given examples for each of the 3 Rs: Reading, wRiting, and ‘Rithmetic.

Above-level students need a challenge that focuses on synthesis and application.  Regardless of the subject, they should be working on solving problems and functioning as independently as possible.  Try to put these students above their comfort zone.  They spend most of school well within it—which is not the best place for learning.

Reading: Compare a novel or short story to research on that topic.  (Examples: From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and research on Michelangelo and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Or Teammates and research on Jackie Robinson.)  Then show how the book used information correctly in some places and took poetic license in others.  Bonus: Write a short story using information about a certain topic.

wRiting: Create advanced material and be meticulous about taking it through every stage of publication.  Be sure to make the material fit the intended audience.  Example: survey classmates to assess their favorites, then create a newspaper, blog or magazine tailored to the taste of the class.

‘Rithmetic: Apply area, perimeter and geometry in designing a blueprint for a house.  Work within constraints—lot size, budget, time, materials.  Another idea: break a skill down to its component parts and design a small workbook to teach younger children.

***

On-level students need to work on skills maintenance—these are the students firmly based in the “use it or lose it” camp.  Without constant practice, they will slide, not grow.  On-level students also need challenges, but theirs should be scaffolded so students feel successful at every step.

ReadingPractice fluency by performing Readers’ Theater plays.  Focus on skills with workbooks targeted at the components of good reading—comparing, summarizing, finding details, etc.  Read a novel together with scaffolding to ensure comprehension at every step.  Different activities for different chapters will keep things interesting: summarize some, create a timeline for chapters with lots of action, and predict when a chapter ends with a cliffhanger.

wRiting:  Work together as a class to outline and then write a five paragraph essay.  Students should spend ample time at each step and get teacher approval before progressing.  This way, mistakes can be corrected and techniques can be honed.  Children at this level would also enjoy creating comic strips to give directions or teach about a topic.

‘Rithmetic: Work on problems from the grade level standards and textbooks, but stop and remedy problems that crop up along the way.  For example, this group may be fine at 3 digit subtraction, but not if it involves subtracting across zeroes.  Slow down and focus on this skill.  A good scaffolded project would be creating a picture book that depicts multiplication arrays with a fun theme, similar to the cookies in The Doorbell Rang.

*** 

Below-level students need remediation.  I show them that the root word is remedy—a cure.  They need tasks that are like medicine for their skills.  If the kids realize that each task is designed to really help them, not just take up time, these students will work harder.  Whatever the subject, the bulk of the lesson for these students should focus on just one or two skills at a time.  However, a small portion of your time (perhaps 25%) should allow students to work on tasks that require using several skills, techniques or strategies.

Reading: Try to get a sense of what holds this group back.  Is it decoding words?  Or do students look at the first few letters and guess?  You may have to break this group into 2 camps to address each type of need.  The other group can read independently or complete skills sheets while you work with students.  If you want to teach whole-class, have students practice sight words, simple Readers’ Theater scripts, or word families.  May I also suggest the wonderful Little Critter reading series of workbooks?  They are pure magic at this level.

wRiting: These students probably need to practice with basic word families and phonics skills.  They also need lots of practice with writing complete sentences.  I also find that children at this level can benefit from copying fluent but simple writing—they see the patterns and get a feel for the structure.  You can teach these children to write paragraphs or even five-paragraph essays, but you’ll need to scaffold every step.  I would have the class make one outline together, then have each student work from that.  Did I mention that there are Little Critter Writing workbooks, too?

‘Rithmetic: Basic facts!  These students must learn them.  Spend a good deal of time practicing basic facts in many ways—worksheets, copying, games, flash cards, Learning Wrap Ups, computer programs—anything that works.  These students also need lots of help with place value.  I find that sometimes, learning basic facts is a gateway to understanding place value.  As students gain more confidence writing and manipulating numbers, the place value creeps its way into their number sense and your lessons are better received.  My free software, Best Times Tables Practice EVER! and Best Addition Practice EVER! are great for this level because you can scaffold learning.  Start with easy facts and work your way up.

This series on Professional Learning Communities Best Practices is made possible by Valerie, Donina, Bethany and Heather … an amazing third grade team!

Posted in Professional Learning Communities by Corey Green @ Nov 8, 2011

 

Best Practices for Professional Learning Communities (Part 1)

Part One: Assess Wisely

This is part of an occasional series about Professional Learning Communities— I dubbed it Trade & Teach, a practice of assessing all students in a grade level and creating leveled groups taught by different teachers.  It can work really well in elementary schools, but I have noticed the trend is to reinvent the wheel in the name of teacher buy-in. Rather than that, I offer Best Practices advice from tried and true implementation experience in real third grade classrooms. If you’re not familiar with Professional Learning Communities, read the Wiki here.

Trade & Teach looks at all students in a grade, then creates groups based on students’ levels of learning or achievement in a specific area.  For example, if your Trade & Teach focus is on reading, assess students’ reading levels and form reading groups for intensive instruction.  The highest reading group, for example, should be the largest group because the highest  readers need less formal instruction, while lower readers require intensive individual attention, thus mandating a small student-teacher ratio.  Teacher buy-in results from knowing that the group skill levels are clustered, resulting in fewer strategies for student engagement and greater focus on learning. 

In order to assess wisely, you need a clear goal.  Are you trying to remediate a specific skill such as addition, writing complete sentences or distinguishing cause from effect?  Or are you teaching reading, writing or math in general?  Decide what you wish to accomplish, then design an assessment that lets you differentiate among the students in that one area.

It really helps to use just one measurement to sort students based on their learning achievements.  Minor adjustments can be made based on teacher discretion.  Overall, you’ll be glad you only have one variable to deal with for each assessment and learning objective.

After you assess, I recommend creating a spreadsheet or using an online grade book like JupiterGrades to store data.  Input all student test or assessment scores.  Then sort and print.  Draw lines and voila!  You have your rough estimate of groups.

Part of wise assessing is knowing how often to assess.  I recommend that you leave students in their learning groups for at least a month.  Assess too often and you’ll spend more time evaluating and regrouping than actually teaching.  Besides, student growth is often more apparent if you give children long enough to learn new ideas and cement them into long term memory before you assess again.

How often you assess is determined in part by the goals of your Professional Learning Communities.  If your goals are more specific skill-based, you might assess more often.  For example, you might spend a month on place value and related skills, then reassess before forming groups for a very different skill like geometry.

Overall, I like the general-goals plan for Professional Learning Communities.  If you sort students by overall proficiency in math determined by, say, a Star Math score, then you are better able to adjust instruction for students’ needs.  For example, one group might need to spend a great deal of time on basic facts while another group can focus on problem solving.  More about that in the next entry in this occasional series…

This series on Professional Learning Communities Best Practices is made possible by Valerie, Donina, Bethany and Heather … an amazing third grade team!

Posted in Professional Learning Communities by Corey Green @ Nov 1, 2011