Tag Archives: content area literacy

Two trains are heading in the opposite direction…: Teaching problem-solving

I’ve always hated the train problem; you know, the one in the title?  I’m not sure why; I think because I would typically read through it once and become defeated since I couldn’t immediately come up with an equation I could apply. Therefore, it must be hard.  My experience has been that most students feel this way about problem-solving.  The STEMtistic below says it all.


Our education standards for mathematics expect that students are engaged in problem-solving.  The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Principals and Standards for School Mathematics has verified that problem-solving is an integral part of learning.  OK, then how do we rewire students’ brains so that they don’t fear math problems?  How do we help students access the math?

To start, we need to teach our students how to read like a mathematician. 

We need to teach our students how to bring the linguistic and math clues to the surface.

We need to engage students in understanding the problem before they try to solve it – or worse, freeze and dismiss it all together.

Close reading is eduspeak for reading deeply for a purpose. It is more than just skimming. In the literacy world, close reading includes three phases:

  1. Reading for Key ideas
  2. Rereading for craft and structure
  3. Rereading to integrate knowledge and ideas.

I’ve been to several trainings on how to close read science and social studies texts and articles, but I have never been trained on close reading in math; I didn’t think it even applied.

Then came those 5th grade classroom teachers I was privileged to visit last month. During one of those visits, I saw close reading . . .  in math!

The close reading strategy was called the 3 Reads Protocol. In this protocol, students read the problem three times, each with a particular focus. While the strategy was used in a 5th grade classroom, it can be used just as effectively at the middle school and high school levels.

Below was the problem given to the 5th graders:

On the first read, the problem was read chorally (as a class) then covered up and students were asked, “What is the problem about?” Students talked to their study partners about what they remembered of the situation – not the math, just the context. Students answered that the boy in the problem was doing some of his homework before dinner and some after.

Next, students read the problem aloud a second time with their partner and were asked to determine the key quantities and key words from the problem.  After 2 minutes of partner time, the teacher listed the quantities and words on the board.  The students answered with the obvious fractions, then included a smattering of words such as completedbefore, after, remaining, dessert, and the rest. Students were asked why these words were important and how the quantities were related.

The third read,  again with a partner, focused students on the question, What is the problem asking us to find out?  After determining this, students were asked to draw a diagram that included the quantities and their relationship. Some students started with a tape diagram, others with an area model.

Only after these three readings and active thinking did students begin to actually solve the problem in partners. There was a lot of math discourse happening around the room that continued for a good 15-20 minutes.  During this time, the teacher walked around the class, listened in, asked questions about student thinking, and noted which students she would call on during the whole class discussion.

Students were then brought together as a class.  The teacher asked specific partners to share the models they had drawn.  As each model was shown, the teacher asked questions of the class such as:

  • How does _________’s diagram show 3/7?
  • Where is ¼ in ________’s diagram?
  • How are ¼ and 3/7 related in this diagram?

She made sure to ask students who had made models that had taken a divergent path to explain their thinking and asked the same questions she had asked the students with the correct models. Once the teacher went back to the class list of key words, the class came to an agreement about which model (s) made the most sense and the answer that was correct.


After whole group discussion

We want kids to learn how to solve problems on their own. We need to give them strategies to do it!   Like any skill we want to master, teaching kids how to read closely in math will take time, practice, and coaching – especially if we want to change attitudes about word problems in general.

So, try the 3-reads protocol in your math class! Like most new strategies, it is not likely to go super smooth the first time. Don’t give up! Try it again and get your students out of the bathroom and cleaning up in math instead!

BTW:  I solved the train problem…eventually!

Train Problem - SOLVED!





Two Tools: Screencasts & Rewordify

I came home Thursday all jazzed from the day, and my husband asked what was up (as if I don’t always come home jazzed from the day). “I just created my first Screencast about this online tool called Rewordify!” I answered enthusiastically. Reminiscent of Jimmy Fallon’s tween character, Sara (with no “h” cuz h’s are Ew!), he replied, “Screencast? Never heard of it,” or something like that. (Aside: I fully suggest you check out Jimmy Fallon’s skit, EW! on your own). So, you won’t be in the same bind as my husband, keep reading!

About Screencasting: A BIG shout-out to Venisha Bahr, our new District K-8 Media Specialist, who introduced Screencasting to me through one she created to teach me how to share my CCSS Literacy Symbaloo. Upon further inquiry, she showed me how use the tool, and created “How To” Screencast (see below) for you! Fortunately, we teachers each have access to QuickTime on our new Apple MacBook Air which allows us to make and share simple Screencasts. There are several other apps out there, both free and not, like Jing and Camtasia, but they would require you to submit a Tech Ticket or to contact Tech Support to have them downloaded onto your laptop.

So, why Screencast? Probably the main use of Screencasting is for tutorials. As I was reminded while planning a recent professional development presentation, it’s good to deliver material to our students in multiple formats (linguistic and non-linguistic). Screencasts are short (around 3 min) instructional clips that teach us how to do something on the computer…so if you’re trying to show the class how to access something on Google Drive or how to use library resources or how to use an online tool, you can Screencast it!

I’ve also been researching how Screencasting can be a powerful tool for feedback (remember that high-yield instructional strategy I blogged about a couple weeks ago?). You could try having students submit an assignment electronically and then Screencast your response. You can highlight specific parts for audio/visual feedback. I know what you’re thinking: how will my students ever be able to access that feedback when our computer labs are lacking accessibility, and they don’t all have access at home? I wish I had a good and consistent answer for you, but creative solutions must be available. Tap me to help if you’re interested in exploring this line of Screencasting. I’m a big believer that two heads (especially with open minds) are better than one!

On Rewordify: Way back at the beginning of this post, I mentioned I tried my own Screencast about a tool I learned about called Rewordify. Basically, Rewordify is a web tool whose main feature allows you to enter text manually or through the copy/paste function, then click a button, thereby simplifying the text by providing synonyms for difficult/unfamiliar words. It doesn’t fully change the Lexile of a piece of text because sometimes simplifying means adding more words to explain a complex meaning. Check out my “How To Rewordify” Screencast below:

Rewordify could be a great tool to use to differentiate instruction for individual students or small groups. Sometimes the tool provides more than one option for simplifying, so I’d recommend skimming the changed text before handing it off to students. Still, it’s a time saver and provides a FREE service that may allow you to reach more of your students.

The Hard Work of Non-Fiction

Happy Dance! I just got notification of a blog post from indent, written by two staff developers for Columbia’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project! My reaction might seem a bit bold to some of you, but when that notification arrives in my inbox, I know something good is going to stimulate my professional brain.

I seriously considered re-posting the entire series I just finished reading on that blog, but it’s a bit long, and I figured if you choose to follow the link or their blog, more power to you. The intention here is to cut to the chase to provide you the strategies and language for beginning to work beyond main idea in non-fiction text. Call this a paraphrase, if you will; I give full credit to Kate and Maggie.

Anchor Standard #6 of the ELA Common Core State Standards states College and Career-Ready students should be able to assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.” Here are some proficient reader practices:

  • Notice the words the author uses to help determine how the author might feel about the topic and then use that feeling to determine a possible point of view.
  • Determine the author’s point of view by imagining which side the author would take in a debate on the topic.
  • Read more than one text on the same topic in order to be able to recognize different viewpoints about the topic.
  • Determine what information is missing from a text. Then readers can wonder why the information may have been left out. That reason for omission can help determine the author’s point of view.
  • Pay attention to numbers, facts or statistics that are used in a text.  By analyzing what the numbers, facts or statistics are showing, a reader can help determine the author’s point of view.

Isolating and explicitly teaching any one of the above practices will better equip students to determine a text’s purpose or author’s point of view. Below are some language frames for helping students begin to articulate their learning about point of view:

  • When the author says ___ it makes me think he/she may believe…
  • The author seems to be making the point that … The sentence or words giving evidence of that point is ___
  • The author doesn’t say anything about ___, so I wonder if he/she thinks…
  • If the author was debating this topic, his or her side might be ___.  I think this because…
  • The visual images in the article (photographs, illustrations, diagrams) are included to maybe make the reader think or feel ___. Therefore, the point of view might be…
  • When the author uses words like ___, ___, and ___, this tells me he/she might feel ___ about the subject.
  • If the central idea of the text is ____, then the author’s point of view might be ___ because….

And finally, this helpful chart might be a visual way to help break down the process of determining point of view with students.

Here’s a Sample of attending to Anchor Standard 6 adapted from a lesson found on Achieve the Core, one of the great CCSS Resources we reviewed here. This is difficult work, and we’re here to help you find your way!

SBA News from the Field

A couple of weeks ago, Beth had the opportunity to participate in one of five Smarter Balanced Alignment Workshops. She applied for the workshop via the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) late last Fall and was notified of her participation in early January, when she was assigned to one of two Grade 11 ELA teams. This week’s post is dedicated to information she learned in the two-day meeting:

To provide a bit of background, Smarter Balanced developed “content specifications to ensure that the assessments cover the range of knowledge and skills in the Common Core State Standards” (Smarterbalanced.org) for both ELA and math. The consortium further scaffolded the alignment process from Claims (the broad statements of learning outcomes), like Claim #1: Reading, where students are expected to demonstrate they can “read closely and analytically to comprehend a range of increasingly complex literary and informational texts;” to Assessment Targets (which provide more detail about the range of content/Depth of Knowledge), like “Summarize central ideas/key events using key relevant details, to Evidence Statements, such as “The student will determine or summarize key events in a text using supporting evidence.”

From there, the consortium developed in the neighborhood of 20,000 ELA/literacy and mathematics items/performance tasks (assessment questions) spanning the assessing grades (3-8 & 11). At a glance, the workshop’s intent was to have a group of educators evaluate:

  1. Whether or not assessment items (Selected Response, Constructed Response, and Performance Tasks) are aligned to their proposed Depth of Knowledge (DOK);
  2. Whether or not assessment items are aligned to and reflective of Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium Claims, Assessment Targets and Evidence Statements; and
  3. Whether or not assessment items are aligned to the appropriate Common Core State Standard(s).

Over the course of the two days, each 11th grade ELA team examined roughly 2 Performance Tasks, 50 Constructed Response, and 240 Selected Response items! Similar numbers of items were reviewed at each grade level as well. What wasn’t finished on site was completed from home. With ten pairs of eyes evaluating the same items at each grade level, confidence rose across participants that SBAC is working hard to ensure a valid, reliable and fair assessment for students.

Math folks, for insider information on the SBA Alignment Workshops in your content area, check in with Keelie Keown at Sam Barlow HS. She participated in the Week 4 Workshop on an 11th grade math team.

In addition to our alignment work, a few things were clarified from SBA administrators:

  • The classroom activity which accompanied early versions of performance tasks but are absent in the online practice tests, are indeed alive and well. Such activities allow teachers to lead a topic discussion with students, prior to administering the Performance Task.
  • Estimated testing times for assessments are just that, estimates. Performance Tasks, for instance, were designed to be completed in two hours. Those of you involved in our own GBSD Practice Performance Tasks at 7th or 10th grade prior to spring break, may beg to differ with that statement as we witnessed more than a few students return incomplete or blank booklets.
  • 11th grade ELA Performance Tasks (PT) can be Argumentative or Informative in nature. Up until my participation in the alignment workshop, I had not seen an Informative high school PT.

In all, the experience was a rewarding one! The assessments are sure to be rigorous, but they also appear to be heading in the right direction to assure validity and reliability.

Teaching Reading in Math? Seriously?

Principal:  How would your math instruction change if your data team goal was based around students improving their OAKS Reading scores?

Shannon:  Seriously?! Wow! (Thoughts going a mile a minute in Shannon’s head.  Would it change?  Of course it would.  How?  What do I do now to teach students to be better readers in math?  There must be something….) Let me get back to you.

Dear Principal:

My students have a math assessment that they need to show proficiency on.  I would not and could not take time away from my math instruction. Any explicit reading instruction must go hand-in-hand with my math instruction and help – not hinder – my students’ math skills.

With that said, the first change I would make to my instruction is to explicitly teach about how to locate information in a math book.  Then I would continue to do what I do now, and hold every student accountable for using their math book and math notes as a resource. Giving instruction on how to locate information in a math book would probably allow my students to be more successful with this!  Novel idea!

In order to locate information in a math book, students need to understand how a math book is structuredResearch says that there are more concepts in each sentence and paragraph of a math text than any other textbook.  Math texts have little redundancy, and include a mixture of words, numbers, and math symbols in the same sentence.  There are graphics that are often critical in the understanding of the concept.  In addition, there are sidebars filled with historical facts, connections to another culture, and random colorful pictures.  Do my students come to me knowing what to pay attention to and what to ignore?  Only after this initial instruction about the structure of the math book would I begin to repeat and repeat and repeat the same questions,  “Where does the math book tell you how to do that step? What do your notes tell you about how or why that works?”

Not only would the students benefit from having a better understanding of how to locate information in their math text and notes, but I would benefit too.  With class sizes so large, I need the students to be able to use resources, in addition to me, to give them support.   Understanding the structure of the text, and citing evidence from the text are reading standards 1, 4, and 5.  Students would also be practicing math practice #3: Construct viable arguments.

The second change would be to include more explicit instruction on how to read for understanding. I would incorporate more word problems and application problems.  There would be a lot of modeling and talking (meta-cognition?) about how I approach the problem, how I monitor my comprehension, and how I continue to evaluate my progress of completing the problem. There would be highlighting, underlining, and circling going on everywhere in the classroom!  I would stop interpreting (spoon-feeding?) for my students.  And, it will take time and patience.

Is it worth the time and patience to explicitly teach, then incorporate more word and application problems?  I think my answer has to be yes.  One of the three shifts of the Common Core standards in Math is rigor.  Common Core defines rigor as a balance of procedural fluency, conceptual understanding, and application.  Application has always been the leg of the stool that gets chopped off because of time.   With this new reading goal, however, and with the emphasis on application in the math standards, I would make it a priority.  Especially helpful to me would be the three-act tasks many in the math community have been working on.  Most of these tasks are ready to use.  I would be challenged to be brave in trying something different like this in my classroom, to switch my thinking so that I view the tasks as just as important as procedural fluency and conceptual understanding.

If I teach the structure of the math book more thoroughly, engage students in citing evidence from the math book (and notes), model-model-model how I read and solve word problems, and find a better balance of procedure fluency, conceptual understanding, and application, I am convinced students would improve their reading skills.

Thanks for the disequilibrium.  Teaching reading in math: It just might work! 


Nonfiction Text Sets

Last month, Beth had the opportunity to attend the Teachers College Reading Writing Project (TCRWP) Winter Coaching Institute, and was overwhelmed by the myriad resources available for teachers. A virtual gold mine can be found in the form of Digital Nonfiction Text Sets compiled by TCRWP staff. Text sets range from Pop-Culture, to Social Studies, and Health and Science. Within those broad categories, topics such as Green Energies, Japanese Internment Camps, Child Labor, and Competitive Sports in School are covered.

Every title included has been screened for appropriateness and authenticity, a time saver for sure! In about 30 minutes, we were able to run portions of about eight articles through the Lexile Analyzer, which identified a range between 900L-1400L or roughly upper middle-high school levels. Still, with appropriate levels of scaffolding, vocabulary support, and some reading aloud, students can achieve success.

Embedded in these sets are several video clips, political cartoons, and other “texts” for which students will need to develop skills to read and analyze. In a blog post a few weeks ago on this very site, we provided an activity from Carol Jago on close reading with non-traditional texts such as photographs and YouTube videos. Often times a simple provocative question can get the get the gears turning.

At the institute, the Middle School Cohort Beth was a part of discussed the difference between providing opportunities for students to read vs. teaching them reading strategies. Providing an opportunity means selecting text, assigning students to read and perhaps answer some questions about it. There’s definitely a place for that in independent work, but as we’re charged with helping students become college and career ready (which in part means students are able to read at more sophisticated levels) we need to fill their toolboxes with strategies for accessing challenging texts. Teaching such reading strategies can be done across content areas. We found this cool resource: Charts to Support Nonfiction Reading, also from TCRWP, which provides some ideas for actually digging into this kind of reading.

Featuring one chart today, here’s a way to break down summarizing or retelling information, providing frames for student thinking, speaking, and writing:

Nonfiction Retell

Depending on your audience, you can recreate this chart for whatever level you’re teaching. You may also choose to provide an exemplar, (an example of a proficient response, which could be past student work) for your reading/writing purpose, so students understand what reaches the standard.

We’ll take a closer look at some of the other charts in future posts. If you want support in your classroom as you move forward, you can leave a comment, or email us for assistance. Keep Calm and Read On!

Online Literacy Resource Treasures

We collect resources all the time but sometimes have difficulty getting them out to folks in a timely manner, so we’re adding this venue to our repertoire.

We were introduced to a couple of new (to us) literacy resources, appropriate for ELA, SS, & SCI folks. Read on and try them out!

1. Readworks.org – So get this, a reading passages depository with Lexile leveled fiction and non-fiction AND evidence-based questions to go with them! And, that’s not all…it’s FREE, and that’s a very good price! I did the online tour of the site, and learned that you can search passages by grade level, Lexile level (minimum and/or maximum), domain (subject area and not just science, but physical science or life science, for example), and skill/strategy, like Cause & Effect, Main Idea, or Point of View). Sounds like a panacea, right?  Here’s the fine print: This is a K-8 resource (but if you have struggling readers in HS, no reason not to try them out). I tried a search with the following criteria: 6th grade, Lexile Level Min 400, Max 800, Domain: Life Sciences, Skill/Strategy: Any. It came back with about six options, but the Min Lexile was 730 and the Max was 780, so some limitations. Still, we take what we can get, especially for FREE. There are also Lesson Plans/Units (choose from Comprehension, Novels, or Skill & Strategy) available through Grade 6.

2. Booklamp.org – A book match data base that allows the user to plug in a book title (I tried The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a non-fiction title) and hit Return on your keyboard; the site looks for what they call “similar book DNA” and pops up with suggestions. For Henrietta, I received 35 non-fiction titles and 14 fiction titles. I also tried out The Hunger Games and got back 41 fiction and 8 non-fiction titles. So, is that it, you may ask? Nope. Here’s what Booklamp itself describes, “Enjoyment is our goal. We want you to glimpse the same world of possibility when you arrive at our site as you would walking in the front door of the largest, oldest, most mystical library you’ve ever seen. We want you to feel that wonder of worlds to be uncovered. If we could hire an old man that looks like a wizard to sit at the front desk, hand you a lit candle and a treasure map when you came in the door, we would.” The ELA half of us thinks this is a kinda cool philosophy.

3. Newsela.com – Many of you already have been experimenting with this, but if you haven’t tried it out, it’s worth a look! This site also provides Lexile leveled (from 4th grade to College-Ready) articles in a variety of subject areas (science, law, arts, war & peace) for FREE. In addition, teachers can register (also for FREE), and create class lists providing access for students and a monitoring tool for teachers. Several articles have CCSS “anchors” where the aligned standard(s) pops up when the user rolls the cursor over a grey number in the corner. These anchored articles also have short CCSS-aligned Selected Response (multiple choice) quizzes, that might be appropriate as a formative assessment for or a student progress tracker for others.

4. ODE – We know, we know.Searching the Oregon Department of Education’s website acan be frustrating. But there’s some cool stuff here to support CCSS across content areas: ELA, Social Studies, and Science. Once you get to the Content Area Resources page with the link above, click on your subject.  In the content areas, there’s a link to Instructional Strategies for Literacy, videos and primers on literacy integration, and more. For ELA, there are helpful links including instructional strategies, rubrics, and even a searchable database for tasks, units and student work from New York.

We hope you find these helpful resources. Of course, this list is incomplete; we didn’t want to overwhelm you. We promise more in the future. By the way, the Comments section below is a great place to share literacy resources you may have stumbled across, too!