Top 10 Tips for Working With ELL Students

Tuesday, May 13, 2014 (All day)
  • Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP

English-language-learners2 English language learners (ELLs) in the classroom are faced with a difficult task—absorbing content instruction while their English skills are still being developed. How can you help your ELL students participate more fully in the classroom so they can achieve to the best of their ability? Try these 10 tips for supporting English learners in improving their language skills and subject knowledge in tandem:

1. Be self-aware.

Know your audience and take time to reflect on the nature of the language you use. Do you use many terms that could be considered jargon? Do prepositional phrases pop up often in your speech? Do you speak fast? Do you emphasize important concepts?

2. Balance content and language complexity.

Keep language simple to help learners grasp complex content, and use more complex language when content is simple. This approach helps learners grasp difficult material more easily, reserving challenging language structures for times when English comprehension is a surer thing. Imagine how it might be to study calculus as a Mandarin language learner versus learning to count to ten.

3. Check for understanding.

After you give the class an assignment, provide opportunities for students to tell you or their peers how they plan to approach it. Including this step can help students stay on the right track by confirming that they understand what is expected.

4. Have them practice speaking English.

The more your ELL students get to practice their spoken English, the better. Provide opportunities for authentic practice (e.g., “tell a neighbor what you did at recess”) and practice through play or performance (e.g., “let’s pretend we’re the characters in this book”).

5. Make language natural.

Provide opportunities for children to express their thoughts and feelings aloud by using open-ended questions that challenge students’ reasoning. To promote discussion, offer a natural, open-ended topic that’s relevant to your learners, such as, “Adam sure was sneaky in this book, always hiding toys from his sister. I wonder what all of you think about hiding toys from your siblings or friends…?” To encourage debate, ask students to choose between one of two opinions. For example, “In The Little Yellow Chicken, do you think the chicken should have invited his friends even though they didn’t want to help? Why or why not?”

6. Create opportunities for contextual word learning.

Whenever possible, let the text deliver the meaning of words on its own. Look for texts with strong supporting visuals or with a rich and meaningful story—or both. Avoid  pre-teaching vocabulary when possible. Providing definitions doesn’t yield the same sticking power as letting the word “teach itself” to the student.

7. Provide a model when students get stuck.

If students struggle to formulate English sentences, provide a cloze sentence, (e.g., “You can say… ‘I thought the characters in this book were…’”). Write it on the board for extra support.

8. Recast with higher-level grammatical structure.

When a student makes a simple statement, reformulate it using more complex grammar, e.g., Student: “I like John. He is funny.” Teacher: “Oh, you enjoyed the main character because you thought he was funny.”

9. Make figurative language explicit.

Don’t assume that ELL students know the implied meanings of figurative language. When you use a figure of speech, follow it up with the same idea stated in plain language. For example, “It was a piece of cake; it was easy.”

10. Have students practice reading aloud.

All children need to practice reading out loud repeatedly. Reading aloud is a great way for ELL students to exercise their speech mechanism and reinforce the sound of English without the added cognitive burden of formulating words and sentences. One option for more read-aloud practice is to use Reading Assistant, an online reading tool that uses speech recognition to correct and support ELL students as they read aloud, helping to build fluency and confidence with the help of a supportive listener. It’s a great “twofer”—learners can get in more speech practice and build reading skills like phonemic awareness, decoding and fluency at the same time.

What’s great about most of the above strategies is that they benefit non-ELL students as well—especially other struggling learners.

Related reading:

Teaching Reading in Science Class: A Common Core Trend?

The Essential Nature of Developing Oral Reading Fluency



Latin and Greek Morphemes Build Vocabulary

Tuesday, April 29, 2014 (All day)
  • Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D

Teaching vocabulary

I think the next game changer when it comes to vocabulary learning, and by extension reading comprehension, will come when we make the direct teaching of morphology or meaning-bearing word patterns a priority in our school curricular programs. In particular, I feel that morphemes derived from Latin and Greek should be given particular emphasis. Why? Did you know that most of our academic words in English are derived from Latin and Greek? Did you know that when new academic and science words are added to English scholars and scientists turn to Latin and Greek roots? Did you know that most longer, multisyllabic words are derived from Latin and Greek? And, did you know that languages, particularly Spanish, are largely derived from Latin? Indeed, knowledge of Latin roots can help Spanish-speaking students bridge into English. For these reasons, the Common Core State Standards specifically and repeatedly mention the teaching of Latin and Greek roots or morphemes as essential for school literacy and vocabulary building.

It’s the multiplier effect that makes teaching Latin and Greek morphemes so powerful and efficient. Phonics teachers know that knowledge of word families or rimes (e.g. all, ing, est) can help students sound out many words such as tall, call, sing, calling, west, crest, tallest, etc. It’s much the same with Latin and Greek morphemes, except that in addition to helping with the pronunciation of words, morphemes can also help students determine the meaningof words. Knowing, for example, that terr(a)-means “land or earth” gives students a powerful clue to figuring out the meaning of words such as terrain, terrace, territory, subterranean, extraterrestrial, terra cotta,and even Mediterranean.Knowledge of one Latin or Greek morpheme can multiply students’ understanding of 20-30 or more English words. And, as I mentioned earlier, many of these words are the academic words from science and the arts that are critical to students’ content or disciplinary literacy comprehension.

If you took Latin (or Greek) in high school or college, I am sure you are aware of how Latin and Greek has connected to your own understanding of English words. Even though you may no longer be fluent in Latin or Greek, I am certain that you are constantly making connections to English words that are based on the Latin or Greek morphemes that you learned years ago.

While I think that teaching Latin and Greek morphemes in high school is valuable, I’d like to see instruction in Latin and Greek morphemes reach all the way down into the primary grades. The brain is a pattern detector. If young children can notice the structural patterns in word families such as –alland –ing,there is every reason to think that they can recognize the morphemic patterns in words as well. Introducing one or two prefixes or roots per week, and helping students notice words that contain those prefixes and roots and how their meanings are related to the roots, can be powerful instruction. Think, for example, of the numerical prefixes – if young students learn the numerical prefixes uni, bi,and tri( one, two,and three) they will be able to not only learn the meaning of unicycle, bicycle,and tricycle, they will also be able to distinguish the differences and similarities in meanings of those words.

This is not beyond the abilities of our younger students. In a recent blog entitled “ Do We Underestimate Our Youngest Learners?” psychologist Daniel Willingham notes and cites research that suggests that young children may have the ability to learn much more than we think - material that may be thought of as “developmentally inappropriate.” Our own work with vocabulary instruction with primary grade students suggests that instruction in Latin and Greek morphemes, even for younger students, may indeed be the ticket to larger and deeper vocabularies; improved abilities to analyze and determine the meanings of challenging words often found in complex texts; and, of course, improved comprehension through new strategies to engage in close reading.

Related reading:

Teach More Vocabulary, Faster, Using the Power of Morphology

Help Your Young Child Build Literacy


The iPad® and Student Engagement: Is There a Connection?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014 (All day)
  • Carrie Gajowski, MA

iPads and student engagement

When students at ACS Cobham International School (UK) got iPads, Richard Harrold saw an opportunity. As an assistant principal at the lower (elementary) school, he had been hearing glowing reports from other educators about students seeing remarkable gains when using iPads. Were the gains real? And was the effect due to something special about the iPad, or were students just responding to the newness of the technology?

Harrold decided to find out. With the help of his school’s “Project i” team, he launched a formal study with 1 stand 2 ndgraders to see if they would experience the same increases in engagement and understanding that he had been hearing about from other educators.

Harrold's study confirmed the benefits of iPads in schools:

  • iPads benefit learners of different ages, sometimes in different ways
  • iPads have special benefits for learners in the very early grades
  • The iPad makes typing easier for 1 stand 2 ndgraders

More generally, results indicated that:

  • iPads improve student engagement
  • “iPad buddies” collaborate more
  • iPads boost perseverance

The effects discovered were more than a reaction to a fun, new “toy.” In fact, to ensure that their results were not due to a honeymoon period, the team delayed the study until learners had been using their iPads for a full eight months.

These findings are exciting, especially for learners requiring intervention. Struggling students can be harder to engage and may have trouble enduring learning challenges. Giving them the opportunity to use an iPad-based intervention can motivate learners to persevere and achieve.

In a time where “grit” is getting a lot of attention as a key indicator of future success, anytime that perseverance goes up – as with iPad use – educators would be wise to take notice. But don’t rule out the appeal of classic technologies. Early-grade learners would still rather read a bound book than an ebook on iPad.


Harrold, R. (2012). Measuring the Effect of iPads in the Classroom. The International Educator.Retrieved from:

Harrold, R. (2012). The iPad Effect: Leveraging Engagement, Collaboration, and Perseverance. The International Educator. Retrieved from:

Related reading:

10 Big Benefits of Using iPads in Schools

Inspiring Students to Dream, Learn and Grow


How to Tell When Neuroscience-Based Programs are Well-Developed

Tuesday, March 25, 2014 (All day)
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

 5 key elements to look for in brain exercisesNeuroscience-based programs

I am sure you have noticed that there are many technology programs out there that claim to “build,” or improve your brain function. Every week I receive emails from companies advertising brain  games that promise to train attention and memory skills. You may have wondered, do “brain games” really work? A recent article in The New York Times entitled "Do Brain Workouts Work? Science Isn't Sure," actually asked that very question as well.

How would a memory brain game that I purchase from a website be different from a card or board game like “Concentration”? How is an attention game different or better than the concentration required to read a good book or play a card game that requires focused and sustained attention to cards played or discarded each round? Do good old fashioned paper pencil activities like crossword puzzles help with brain function? How about Bridge or Chess? Does watching Jeopardy on Television help your memory? Wouldn’t any challenging video game help us with attention if we had to stay focused for long periods of time to get to a new level?

The answers to the above questions are all “yes, to some degree.” The brain is the only organ of our body that changes each day based on our experiences. And if we do any activities that challenge memory or attention for extended periods of time it will likely be beneficial for improving those capacities. If I play bridge, for example, many hours a week, I will likely get better at the game and boost my short term (working) memory as well. But, neuroscientists who study brain plasticity, the way the brain changes with stimulation (or lack of stimulation), have determined there are ways to enhance the beneficial effects of brain exercises to maximize the efficiency and positive outcomes so that children or adults can specifically target some capacities over others in a short period of time. And, controlled research is showing these targeted exercises have benefits on other brain capacities as well.

So, for example, researchers have shown that when seven year olds do a simple computer-based exercise that targets working memory for just a few minutes a day for a few consecutive weeks they show improved working memory (we would expect that) but also improved reading comprehension compared with children in their classrooms who received reading instruction but did not do the working memory activities (Loosli, 2012). Or, aging adults in their 70's who did computer-based processing speed exercises a few minutes a day for six consecutive weeks so they could do things like react faster when driving showed improvements in processing speed (again we would expect that) but also in memory when compared to adults who did other exercises but not the processing speed exercises, and the improvements lasted for ten years without doing additional exercises (Rebok, 2014).

The question, then, is what are the critical active ingredients neuroscientists have found that need to be "built-in" so brain exercises effectively build targeted skills compared to the benefits we get from just using our "noggin" in everyday activities? And, more important, how is a parent or consumer to get through all the hype and determine which brain exercises have the important design features shown to be effective?

Fortunately, neuroscientists who have thoroughly researched this have published excellent summaries in respected scientific journals.

Here are the key elements to look for in brain exercises:

  1. High & low - Exercises are most effective when they include challenging high-level tasks (like exercises that require a high degree of speed and accuracy) while also including low-level exercises that improve our ability to perceive similar sounds or images more distinctly (Ahissar et el, 2009). We might call this the Sherlock Holmes effect - you must see the details clearly to solve difficult problems.
  2. Adaptability - Exercises should increase or decrease in difficulty based on how you perform so they continuously adapt to your skill level (Roelfsema, 2010).
  3. Highly intensive training schedules - The relevant ‘skills' must be identified, isolated, then practiced through hundreds if not thousands of trials on an intensive (ie, quasi-daily) schedule (Roelfsema, 2010).
  4. Attention grabbing - In order to maximize enduring plastic changes in the cortex, the learner must attend to each trial or learning event on a trial-by-trial basis.
  5. Timely rewards - A very high proportion of the learning trials must be rewarded immediately (rather than at the end of a block of trials or on a trial-and-error basis) (Roelfsema, 2010).

So, parents may ask, ”This sounds fine for making our average brains work better but what about my child who has been diagnosed with a learning disability or other issues like autism spectrum disorder?” According to Ahissar et al. (2009), for our children (or adults) with learning issues, distortions or limitations at any level will create bottlenecks for learning and the changes we want from brain exercises. But, according to the authors, if the exercises have sufficient intensity and duration on specific sets of activities that focus on lower-level (perceptual) and middle-level stimuli (attention, memory and language) tasks, brain changes will enhance higher level skills and learning will be easier and more advanced.

So for parents, or anyone wanting to understand which brain exercises are worth the investment of valuable time and money, a rule of thumb would be to avoid products that advertise themselves as "brain games" - because that is what they probably are. Rather, seek out programs or products that contain "exercises" that focus on specific high and low level skills like language, reading, memory and attention, and those who have research evidence to support their value when used by children like yours.


Ahissar, M., Nahum, M., Nelken, I., & Hochstein, S. (2009). Reverse hierarchies and sensory learning, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 364,285–299. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2008.0253

Loosli, S.V., Buschkuehl, M., Perrig, W.J., & Jaeggi, S.M. (2012). Working memory training improves reading processes in typically developing children, Child Neuropsychology, 18, 62-78. doi: 10.1080/09297049.2011.575772

Rebok, G.W., Ball, K., Guey, L.T., Jones, R.N., Kim, H.Y., King, J.W., . . . Willis, S.L. (2014). Ten-Year Effects of the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly Cognitive Training Trial on Cognition and Everyday Functioning in Older Adults, Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 62,16-24. doi: 10.1111/jgs.12607

Roelfsema, P.R., van Ooyen, A., & Watanabe, T. (2010). Perceptual learning rules based on reinforcers and attention, Trends in Cognitive Science, 14, 64–71. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2009.11.005

Vinogradav, S., Fisher, M., & de Villers-Sidani, E. (2012). Cognitive Training for Impaired Neural Systems in Neuropsychiatric Illness, Neuropsychopharmacology Reviews,37, 43–76. doi: 10.1038/npp.2011.251

Related reading:

Brain Fitness Is Not A Game

Dopamine and Learning: What The Brain’s Reward Center Can Teach Educators


Flipping the Classroom for Students With Learning Disabilities

Tuesday, February 11, 2014 (All day)
  • Norene Wiesen

flipped classroom special education

For many teachers, the words “flipped classroom” are nothing more than a synonym for having students watch pre-recorded lesson videos at home and then do related assignments – formerly homework – during class time. There’s no doubt that that is exactly what the flipped classroom typically looks like on the surface. But when flip teaching is done right, what matters is that it uses time differently and more effectively, in ways that can profoundly benefit all learners, including students with learning disabilities.

The flip teaching model:

Extends the learning day.

The ability to extend instructional time is a huge benefit for learners who grasp new concepts more slowly, or who aren’t able to process information as quickly as it’s presented. With flipped learning, they can rewind and re-watch a video as many times as needed until they understand the material – or perhaps until they understand what they don’t understand so they can get help in that area the next day.

Makes precious teacher time more available to students.

With instruction now happening at home on students’ time, teachers have more time to observe students as they apply what they have learned. As a result, teachers have more opportunities to watch students at work, so they can better identify student learning challenges and support struggling students with differentiated activities or targeted intervention.

Levels the playing field.

Flipped instruction puts students with learning disabilities on more equal footing for effective classroom participation. Learners who formerly may not have immediately grasped their teacher’s in-class instruction may now feel empowered to contribute to classroom discussions and ask informed questions instead of worrying about “looking dumb.”

The Naysayers and Their Challengers

Critics of the flipped classroom approach to blended learning say that access to videos can be a problem, especially in communities with a large number of learners from low-income households. Students may not have a computer or internet connection at home, may have to share already-limited computer time with other family members, or simply may not have time at home to watch lessons for the next day. The concerns are valid, but one visionary school is demonstrating that they can be overcome.

Clintondale High School, just outside of Detroit, is the first U.S. high school to move to a flipped model of learning school-wide. With a large population of economically disadvantaged learners, the school dealt with access concerns head-on by making extra time available in computer labs during the school day for learners who need it. One student who has limited time at home because of a long bus commute watches most of his lesson videos on a smartphone as he rides home from school. In just a few years, standardized test scores have gone up and the school’s failure rate has dropped dramatically from 52% to 19%.

Clintondale’s teachers note that the process is not as simple as just rearranging where and when direct instruction takes place; it’s essential that teachers get on board with mastering the technology and creating great lessons and learning activities. That way, students can get the most from every moment they spend learning and teachers can get maximum results for the time they spend creating content and supporting learners in the classroom. 

Where Gen Ed & Special Ed Meet

A big boon for schools that move to flip teaching is that general ed technology can do double time as assistive technology for special ed. It’s a benefit for everyone, helping to reduce technology expenditures, the cost of managing technology, and the time that teachers spend adapting to learners’ assistive devices.

Still, flipped classroom veterans warn that setting high behavior standards for students is a must. Students need to know how they are expected to use their time at home and at school, and what specific behaviors will enable them to achieve their learning goals. Some students with learning disabilities may need additional help allocating their time and using it effectively. But when teachers, students, and parents are all on board, flipping has the potential not only to move more students to proficiency, but also to take more students beyond proficiency to the desired goal of mastery.


Can Special Education Students Benefit From Flipped Classrooms?

Pros and Cons of The Flipped Classroom

For Further Reading:

How to create a ‘flipped’ video lecture for at-home study

Related reading:

The Flipped Classroom: A Pedagogy for Differentiating Instruction and Teaching Essential Skills

What New Brain Wave Research Tells Us About Language-Based Learning Disabilities


Teaching Persistence: How to Build Student Stamina

Tuesday, January 14, 2014 (All day)
  • Norene Wiesen

how to build student stamina Teaching persistence in the classroom is an important part of setting up learners to succeed. Students who have mastered persistence are able to work through challenges, deal constructively with failures and adversity, and achieve the goals they have set for themselves.

It’s a lot like running a marathon. The runners who make it to the finish line are the ones who persist in showing up for practices and trainings, learn to anticipate slumps and pace themselves, engage in positive self-talk during tough times, take steps to effectively prevent and treat injuries, and adjust expectations to fit reality – even if “finishing” means having to crawl the last mile.

Like a runner who has not trained to run longer distances, learners can’t persist in their learning if they haven’t developed the stamina they need to keep going when things get tough. Teaching persistence depends on first developing student stamina as a way of conditioning learners to handle sustained effort.

To help learners build stamina and persistence, it’s important to create the right learning environment:

Help Learners Develop a Growth Mindset

Learners need to know that they have the ability to grow and change, and that effort is the key. Praise them when they focus their efforts toward specific, clearly defined goals. When you say things like, “Those extra 10 minutes of reading each day are paying off – you are decoding unfamiliar words much more easily now,” you help learners make the connection between effort and achievement. The goal is for learners to become intrinsically motivated to engage in effortful learning now and in the future.

Push a Little Bit – and Know When Enough is Enough

Sometimes learners just need a little bit of encouragement to get past a hurdle. A few supportive words, like, “Think of how good you will feel when you finish those last two addition problems and you know you did the whole worksheet all by yourself!” can make all the difference. On the other hand, a learner may need to know that it’s okay to take a break and come back to a particular task when he’s feeling less frustrated. In that case, it’s important that the learner really does come back and complete the work to get the experience that he truly can “do more” when he persists.

Model Persistence

Most learners love to hear personal stories from their teachers. Telling your learners about your weekend plumbing project that didn’t go as planned – and how you got through it and completed it – is a great way to help learners see that everyone feels like giving up sometimes. It also models for them how to overcome those feelings and reach a goal – without coming off as preachy.

Teach Positive Self-Talk

Some learners need a lot of help knowing what to say to themselves to stay motivated. If a learner’s typical internal dialogue consists of statements like, “This is too hard,” or “I don’t know how to do this,” it may come as a revelation to discover that there are other options. Giving learners specific wording, like, “I know I can do this if I keep at it,” or, “If I’m really stuck I can ask a friend or my teacher for help,” can begin to change the way they think and act when faced with a challenge.

Expect More

Let learners know that you have high expectations and that you have confidence that each and every one of them can meet those expectations. Be sure they have access to the tools they need to be successful, and that they know how to use them.

Make the Most of Technology

Online tools like the Fast ForWord programcan help learners make the connection between effort and achievement. The Fast ForWord program gradually builds learner stamina for enduring increasing degrees of cognitive load. The exercises develop reading and language skills at the same time as they boost memory, attention, processing, and sequencing ability. It gives learners immediate feedback on their performance and automatically adjusts the difficulty level for just the right degree of challenge. Fun reward animations help learners see when they have achieved a goal to help them stay motivated.

Call Out the Brain

It’s never too early – or too late – to teach your students about how the brain learns. Introduce the concept of brain plasticity– the idea that the brain changes in response to how it’s used – as a way of reinforcing the idea that learning is achieved through focused, sustained effort. Help them understand that every brain is capable of making dramatic changes and leaps in learning.

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Students learn persistence in the same way that they learn sight words or multiplication tables – through repetition. Strategies like modeling persistence, connecting effort to achievement, and pushing students to do a little more than they think they can aren’t a one-time deal. But when repeated over time, the cumulative effect will likely be increased stamina, improved persistence, and intrinsic motivation for ever greater learning.

For Further Reading:

Teaching Perseverance

True Grit: 10 tips for promoting strength, resilience, and perseverance among your students.

Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century

Related reading:

Deliberate Practice: How to Develop Expertise

The Curious Mind: Interest, Drive, and the Road to Academic Success



5 Trends in Education for 2014

Tuesday, January 7, 2014 (All day)
  • Norene Wiesen

education trends 2014 A brand new year certainly has a way of getting us thinking about the future. The holidays are behind us, the first term of the school year has wrapped up or soon will, and New Year’s resolutions beg for action. It’s a natural time to look forward.

So why not get out our crystal ball once again and look into the future of education? What trends are predicted for 2014?

  1. Explicit Instruction in How to Listen
  2. The inclusion of listening standards in the Common Core heralds a new focus on listening instruction in the classroom. The Common Core raises up listening as a literacy skill, giving it equal weight to the more traditionally emphasized reading, writing, and speaking.

    In 2014, teachers will spend more time demonstrating what listening “looks like;” explaining what students should be doing with their eyes, ears, and bodies while listening; directing learners to notice when they haven’t been listening; and measuring how well learners apply what they’ve been taught.

  1. Evolution of the Teacher-Student Relationship
  2. Teachers may have more knowledge in their memory banks, but the Internet has given learners equal access to information. That simple fact continues to drive classrooms away from the information hierarchy model that places teachers at the top and toward a more equal learning community model. It’s a 21 stcentury model that regards learners and teachers as partners in education, with students creating and collaborating and teachers supporting, directing, and coaching student efforts.
  1. Increased Responsibility for Students
  2. As teachers shift to a supporting role in the classroom, they will be transferring more responsibility to students for their own learning. Increasing technology integration and personalized learning will drive students to be more self-directed and self-disciplined. This trend has the potential to accelerate learning and produce more college-ready high school grads if balanced by frequent and effective coaching from teachers.
  1. A Move Toward Project-Based Learning
  2. More schools are shifting toward project-based learning as a way of increasing engagement and creativity in the classroom. It’s not a matter of simply marking the end of a lesson or unit by making a book or a diorama; instead, project-based learning engages students in meaningful, long-term projects that are themselves the learning experience.

    Fourth-grade students might conceive, coordinate, and run their own semester-long weekly farmer’s market. They then learn as they go – how to market their goods, how to anticipate what will sell, how to total a purchase and make change, and what it feels like to accomplish all that and contribute the cash earned back to their classroom or school.

  1. K-12 Will Get Serious About Coding
  2. The voices calling for coding instruction in K-12 are starting to gain traction. Teaching code is considered by some to be equivalent to teaching a traditional foreign language—except more relevant to today’s learner who will have to be tech-savvy to compete for future jobs. Look for courses on “game design,” which sound cool and have the potential to attract students to STEM who might not think of themselves as being “the tech type.”


Davis, M.R., (2013, June 11), Computer Coding Lessons Expanding for K-12 Students. Education Week, Retrieved December 5, 2013, from

Fairbanks, A.M., (2013, May 20). Digital Trends Shifting the Role of Teachers. Education Week, Retrieved December 5, 2013, from

Lynch, M. (2013, November 22). Future Trends in K-12 Classroom Management and Discipline. Education Week, Retrieved December 5, 2013, from

Murphy, A.P. (2013, October 29). Ready to Learn? The Key Is Listening With Intention Annie. MindShift, Retrieved December 5, 2013, from

Schwartz, K., (2013, January 2). What Project-Based Learning Is — and What It Isn’t. MindShift, Retrieved December 9, 2013, from

 Schwartz, K., (2013, October 14). Five Research-Driven Education Trends At Work in Classrooms. MindShift, Retrieved December 5, 2013, from

Vangelova, L. (2013, November 13). Subverting the System: Student and Teacher as Equals. MindShift, Retrieved December 5, 2013, from

Related reading:

21st Century Learning: Preparing Students Today

Why Auditory Processing Disorders (APD) are Hard to Spot



Child Development Versus Standards-Driven Learning: Who Wins?

Tuesday, December 3, 2013 (All day)
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

Child development versus standards driven learning

There’s a tug of war going on in American schools, a tension between learners’ developmental needs and the academic rigor required to meet challenging educational standards. In the classroom, where standardized assessments are the driving force of the day, the developmental realities of learners are often overlooked and shortchanged—and it’s something we ought to be talking about.

Signs of a Struggle

My co-worker’s son, Eli, is a case in point. As a kindergartener, he was expected to sit cross-legged with his hands in his lap on an 18” x 18” carpet square for 30-40 minutes of circle time each morning—something he was often unable to do. His teacher regularly reported home that Eli needed to improve in his ability to sit still, and the enthusiasm he had for school in September quickly waned.

His mother discussed the situation with her child’s pediatrician, who replied that Eli’s difficulty sitting still was a developmental stage that was perfectly normal for a five-year-old boy. The doctor also noted that Eli was expending so much energy trying to sit still that he was probably not able to attend to what he was supposed to be learning.

Eli’s parents transferred him to a different school the following year where he was assigned a teacher who designed her learners’ activities with their developmental needs in mind. For example, she gave her socially focused first-graders many opportunities to work with other learners in pairs or groups. Eli’s motivation skyrocketed, and in addition to performing at the top of his class academically, he began describing himself as a person who liked to be challenged.

Meeting Learners Where They Are

With so much to accomplish each year, and so little time, it’s no surprise that considerations around learners’ developmental stages often take a back seat to the focus on academic rigor. But as Eli and his parents learned, a standards-based curriculum isn’t likely to be effective if students are developmentally unable to attend to the material as it’s presented.

Some educators are calling for a renewed interest in child developmentand a move toward creating more developmentally appropriate classrooms for young learners. What might classrooms look like if developmental considerations were given greater weight? Here are just a few possibilities:

  • Less sitting and more movement for five-year-olds
  • Downplaying competition when six-year-olds play learning games
  • Adequate time for seven-year-olds to complete tasks to their high standards
  • Forums for talkative eight-year-olds to explain things and try out their burgeoning vocabularies
  • Nine-year-olds understand the relevance of their assignments
  • Ten-year-olds exercise their burgeoning memorization and organization abilities
  • Written communication with eleven-year-olds creates a sense of distance that supports strong continuing relationships with adults
  • More autonomy and decision-making opportunities for middle school learners
  • Programs or activities that help adolescents adjust to their rapidly changing bodies without losing academic focus
  • Water, snacks, and exercise opportunities more readily available to learners of all ages

The Original Common Core

Long before we had the Common Core Standards, we understood that there are developmental stages that children step through as they move toward adulthood. Although children progress through them at different rates and there can be considerable overlap between stages, the stages are predictable for most children.

Learners bring their entire developmental selves to school each day, not just the cognitive components that are reflected in their standardized test scores. Classrooms that don’t take standards anddevelopmental considerations into account aren’t likely to move students as far ahead as they need to go to stay on track.

Educators may find that aligning communication styles and classroom activities with their learners’ developmental stages results in less time spent on discipline and more time on task. Loosening the reins a little by adapting to learners can support the more “serious” work of building the cognitive skillsthat matter so much in meeting today’s standards.


Wood, C. (2007). Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14.Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

Eccles, J.S. (1999). The Development of Children Ages 6 to 14 The Future of Children, 9(2), 30-44.

Related reading:

How to Support Social Development in Young Children

Building Unstructured Play Into the Structure of Each Day


How Students Learn by Explaining Their Thinking

Tuesday, November 19, 2013 (All day)
  • Norene Wiesen

learning by explaining

If you want to master something, teach it.Or so the saying goes. But is the platitude based in fact? Can students really learn better by explaining? The evidence says yes.

The Self-Explanation Effect

Research shows that coming up with an explanation can help students learn more effectively than having an explanation handed to them (Fonesca and Chi, 2010). For example, when two groups of learners study the same material but only one group is tasked with explaining it (the other group engages in alternative tasks or spends an equivalent amount of time studying), the explainers typically outscore the non-explainers on a post-test (Lombrozo, 2013).

How Explaining Helps Students Learn

How does explaining yield these results? Hypotheses abound:

  • It translates explicit knowledge into implicit know-how.
  • It integrates new information with prior belief.
  • It helps learners identify and fix knowledge gaps.
  • It resolves potential inconsistencies.
  • It engages learners in deeper processing.
  • It reinforces the use of successful strategies over unsuccessful alternatives (Lombrozo, 2013).

There’s recent evidence, as well, that explaining may be easier than predicting. Preschoolers in one study, for example, were able to explain another person’s behavior more accurately than they were able to predict it (Legare, Wellman, & Gelman, 2010).

Why Does Explaining Help Learning?

One theory says that explaining sheds light on causal relationships and causal mechanisms. For instance, when a group of children was asked to explain how an unfamiliar mechanical toy worked, the explainer group showed a greater understanding of the toy’s mechanics than did children in another group that was invited to simply observe the toy. However, the explainer group did not have any greater awareness than the observer group when it came to details that weren’t relevant to the toy’s workings—such as the toy’s colors (Legare and Lombrozo, unpublished data, cited in Lombrozo, 2013).

An alternate theory suggests that explaining helps learning because it requires the learner to relate a specific property or event to more general principles or patterns. In studies of category learning, learners who were tasked with explaining were more likely to discover patterns underlying the category structure than learners who were given alternate tasks (Williams and Lombrozo, 2010). This theory also predicts that explaining can sometimes impairlearning when the material being explained is not strongly rule-based—and recent findings confirm this prediction (Williams, Lombrozo, & Rehder, 2010).

Much is still unknown about the role of explanation in learning, but it’s clear that explaining engages the brain in a way that other tasks do not. Perhaps some of the benefit comes from the fact that explaining something clearly and accurately demands more evolved language skills than those required when simply receiving an explanation. Students who improve their language skills, as with Fast ForWord, are likely to be better explainers and learners—and that sounds like a pretty big win in the classroom.


Fonesca, B.A., & Chi, M.T.H. (2010). Instruction based on self-explanation. In R. Mayer & P. Alexander (Eds.), The handbook of research on learning and instruction (pp. 296-321). Oxford, UK: Routledge.

Lombrozo, T. (2013) Explanation and abductive inference. In K.J. Holyoak & R.G. Morrison (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of thinking and reasoning (pp. 260-276). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Legare, C.H., Wellman, H.M., & Gelman, S.A. (2009). Evidence for an explanation advantage in naïve biological reasoning. Cognitive Psychology, 58(2), 177-194. doi:10.1016/j.cogpsych.2008.06.002

Williams, J.J., & Lombrozo, T. (2010). The role of explanation in discovery and generalization: evidence from category learning. Cognitive Science, 34(5), 776-806. doi:10.1111/j.1551-6709.2010.01113.x

Williams, J.J., Lombrozo, T., & Rehder, b. (2010). Why does explaining help learning? Insight from an explanation impairment effect. In S. Ohlsson & R. Catrambone (Eds.) Proceedings of the 32 ndAnnual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society(pp. 2906-2911). Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society. Retrieved from

Related reading:

The Question Formulation Technique: 6 Steps to Help Students Ask Better Questions

Teaching Inference as a Reading Strategy: The What, the How, and the Why


How I Became an Early Reader

Tuesday, November 12, 2013 (All day)
  • Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D

early reader

Do you recall how you learned to read? Were you an early reader, someone who learned to read before starting school? I was an early reader and so were my brother and sister. Yet, we didn’t learn to read in the way that most early readers learn.

According to Dolores Durkin’s landmark study of early readers, most children who start school knowing how to read were read to on a regular basis by their parents. My family was lower middle-class and I cannot recall my parents reading to or with me in the traditional sense—sitting next to me with a children’s storybook. Indeed, after reading Durkin’s study, I had to ask my mother how I learned to read.

When I chatted with my mother about this, she reminded me that my father was a musician who played in his band on weekends at local clubs. Although his day job was as a factory worker, he would regularly come home from work, take his shower, and come into the living room with his saxophone or clarinet in hand. For a half hour to an hour several days a week he would rehearse for his upcoming gig (big band songs popular from the 1940s and 50s) while my mother, brother, sister, and I would often sit with him and sing along with the songs that we had heard him play and heard on the radio throughout our childhoods. We also had songbooks in front of us so we could follow along with the words after my mother’s lead. The rhythmic and melodic nature of these old songs made them easy to learn and remember. As we sang them week after week, we apparently began to match the words that we were singing with the printed words in the songbooks. I never thought of this as reading, but in retrospect it clearly was one of my initiations into reading the printed word.

I also remember my mother regularly reading poetry to me after I had said my nighttime prayers and before I went to sleep. Mom often had a favorite child’s poem or prayer that she would read once or twice while I would listen. After a minute or two to chat about the poem I was off to sleep.  Over the course of the next several days she would bring in the same poem and invite me to join in the recitation, eventually reaching the point where I could often recite the entire text on my own. Later, she would show me the poem in the printed form and I found I could read it to her. Although my “reading” was mostly a matter of memorization of the poem, the fact that I was matching the words I recited to the words on the page was an early form of reading. Interestingly, when my mom took me in for first grade screening (we didn’t have kindergarten in my school), I read for the teacher and found myself spending time in the second grade classroom for reading instruction.    

Now years later as I reflect on how I learned to read, I realize that many of the things my parents had done to introduce me into reading were much the same methods that have been advocated for building phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency—the Common Core foundations for reading. My parents exposed me to short, highly rhythmic and melodic texts that were enjoyable, easy to learn, and played with the sounds of language. Before I recited the songs and poems on my own, my parents modeled the texts by reading or singing them to me. Later we engaged in a form of assisted reading by reading them together as a family or with one of my parents. And then, once I had learned the songs and poems, I found myself reciting them over and over again—I had a hard time getting them out of my head. Although my parents may not have known the term “repeated reading,” that was exactly what they were providing for my siblings and me. 

Sometimes the best models for good reading instruction can be found in our own personal histories. I think I found my models and inspiration for my work in reading fluency from my own parents.  Thanks Mom and Dad!

Further reading:

Reutzel, D.R. & Cooter, R.B. (2004). The Essentials of Teaching Children to Read . Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.


1Durkin, D. (1978 - 1979). What classroom observations reveal about reading comprehension instruction. Reading Research Quarterly, 14, pp. 481-533.

Related reading:

Inspiring Fluency: One School’s Journey to Improve Reading Skills

Why We Can’t Neglect Reading Fluency – A Personal Journey




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