Staying Vigilant With Just Right Books

  • Staring at a page
  • Staring at a page upside down
  • Staring at an illustration and making assumptions about a text
  • Staring at a page while dreaming about lunch

What do all of these actions have in common? Well, they all look a lot like reading, but they’re not.

Reading is comprised of a variety of skills including decoding a text and extracting meaning from it. Early on in their schooling experience, many students pick up on what it looks like to read a book. From pre-school and for some even earlier, their teachers (and hopefully family members) are modeling reading for them. This can be wonderful because children can pick up ideas about what they should look and sound like while they are reading. This can also become a huge detriment, because children can appear as though they are reading when in fact they are not. How can you tell? Certainly not by staring at them…but there are some things you can do to figure out whether or not a child is truly reading and comprehending a text.

The Problem

Children who appear as though they’re are reading, convince us that they do not need support, when in fact they do. Often, when the school or classroom library is extensive, children have a difficult time choosing a book and end up taking one that is not necessarily appropriate for them to be reading independently. An even worse issue occurs when a child is inconsistent with bringing books home. Students should be reading books! If they’re not, we need to be asking whether it is an issue of access or remembering…if it’s an issue of access, always feel free to email me. I will help you find resources!

Some Solutions

1. Many teachers model choosing a “Just Right Book.” A “Just Right Book” is a book that is on an appropriate level for a student to be reading independently and be making sense of on their own. Families can help their children choose an appropriate book too! Here are some steps that can help you to find a book that is “Just Right”:

  • Read the summary on the back or inside the jacket
  • Make sure the book sounds interesting and that you can read and understand the summary
  • Flip to a random page inside the book and use the “Five Finger Rule.” To apply “The Five Finger Rule,” read through the entire page and count the words that you do not know on your fingers. If there are more than five, you should probably take a different book.
2. Strong teachers check in with their students as often as possible. Checking in can mean a variety of things. See the list below for some ideas on how you can engage in productive check-ins with your children:
  • Sit in with a child and ask him/her to read you a page out loud.
  • Sit in with a child and ask him/her to read a paragraph and then summarize it for you.
  • Sit in with a child and ask him/her to listen to a page that you read aloud, and then summarize.
  • Sit in with a child and either listen to him/her read, or read a page silently. When the page is done, ask a few simple questions about the part you read.
*Note: If the child is unable to read most of the words on a page, or if the child is reading the words but unable to answer any questions about the text, something is not right! At that point, its time to talk to a teacher, or write in to EdGeeks to find out more about your child’s needs.
3. Be Vigilant! Engage in these check-ins as much as possible. If your child is bringing home books that he/she cannot read independently every night, it could be detrimental to your child’s growth in literacy. A child learns to read by reading in a variety of different ways, but independent reading is definitely a factor. While reading with your child is always encouraged, it is also important to allow our children to take ownership over their literacy by reading on their own.
Why Do Children “Fake” Reading

Children notice what their peers are reading. Reading often becomes a confidence issue in school. Often, children will want to read a book that is too hard for them just because their friend read it. It is important to have conversations with your children about this issue. Kids need to understand that there are plenty of different kinds of reading that they can do…It is better to read some books on our own and other books with a family member or friend. Reading appropriate books independently will lead to growth in literacy skills. I don’t know that I’d agree wholeheartedly with the phrase “practice makes perfect,” but I definitely would say that practice reading makes readers grow stronger.

Of course we always want our children to embrace challenge and to push themselves to their potential, but that is not the same as choosing a book that will lead to frustration, or worse, tears. We do not want our children to be spending time staring at books upside down, or daydreaming about play-dates because the texts are not readable just yet. Here are some lines to use with your child:

  • “I love Harry Potter too! Let’s try reading that one together at night!”
  • “When we were reading together, I noticed that it was tricky to answer some of the questions. It is so important that we understand what we are reading. Why don’t I help you choose a book tomorrow and we’ll try to read a few pages together?”
  • “I notice you keep talking about reading the book your friend was reading. You seem so interested in it. Let’s see if we can find it on an audiotape!”

The most important thing to remember is that while we want to find “Just Right Books” for our kids, we don’t want to take away reading confidence or interest. If our children are interested in reading something more challenging, we need to find a way to feed that interest before it goes away. Giving children multiple experiences with reading is critical to their growth. These experiences can include: shared reading, books on tape, independently reading, read aloud, book clubs, etc.

Resources That Can Help

If this piece helped you, check out Top Secret!, a previous post which divulges secrets to  the art of book leveling.

Also, be sure to check out Marisa’s Dream Library. It is a growing project that is in its early stages but has some great books for different age and ability levels.

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Scholastic’s 100 Greatest Books for Kids…be sure to check this out!

This is a really great book list that combines books for kids of all ages. There is a really fun contest as well. It’s a great resource for teachers and families who are itching to get their kids into reading but don’t know where to start! Thanks to my dear friend Ari Joseph for sharing this with me.

Cool! Thanks scholastic.

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I Can’t Believe I’m Saying This But…I Love My Kindle!

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I have been anti e-readers for awhile now. I wasn’t against them for other people, it just wasn’t my thing. I was one of those people who kept saying “But I just love the feeling of a book,” and the truth is, I do. We have an extensive collection of books that has been growing over the years and I absolutely love our home library. Personally, I think our library is the most stylish feature of our apartment. That being said, I received a Kindle this holiday season and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I can’t put it down. Don’t worry, it doesn’t mean I am going to get rid of my library or that I’ll never hold a paperback again, but I can’t deny the fact that I am enjoying my Kindle.

Why am I discussing my personal experience with a Kindle on a blog about education? Great question! Three of the students I work with also received e-readers over the holidays. Over the past month I have been either using their new tech toys with them, or asking about their experiences. All three of these students have home library collections and have access to books in their school libraries. They do not bring their devices to school to use in place of books, but rather use them at home for personal reading at night. The kids are raving about their e-readers and what I’ve been able to conclude after the past month is that kids love e-readers because:

  • They get to feel like grownups because e-readers are for grownups
  • They get to go book shopping on a website
  • They love touching the screen to get to the new page
  • They love being able to look up a word by tapping the screen if they don’t understand what they are reading

The word of the day is BALANCE. I’m not going to spend time weighing the pros and cons of e-readers for children. You can find that on plenty of other sites. What I will do is give you the facts. My students are engaged in reading e-books. Whether it is about feeling more “grownup” or craving the use of technology, e-readers are making these students want to read more. Whether to e-read or not to e-read is a family choice. What I propose is to take a BALANCED approach to using technology to support literacy.

The concept of BALANCED Literacy is usually in regards to offering multiple modalities of literacy instruction to ensure student progress. What types of activities might you find in a classroom that practices BALANCED Literacy?

  • Shared Reading and Writing
  • Interactive Read Aloud
  • Interactive Wordwall
  • Word Study
  • Guided Reading
  • Independent Reading
  • Writing Workshop
  • And much, much more…

In essence, what I am proposing is that we continue using all of the methods above which are proven to support student growth in literacy, and somehow fit technology into the mix. Home is a great place to do this, especially to heighten interest in focus during independent reading (or reading with a family member) each night.

If we had a flawless system for developing our children’s literacy skills and developing a lifelong love of reading, this might be a different conversation. Right now we need to study our children, and listen to what they are saying. With the current state of the educational system, we cannot afford to ignore any tool that heightens interest in literacy.

Interesting in checking out some e-readers, here is somewhere to start.

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Organic Strategies for Test Prep: Listening Comprehension

Preface: This post belongs to a series of posts that discuss organic strategies for test preparation. State testing is always a sticky issue and I want to steer clear of the “stickiness.” This series of posts does not aim to discuss the controversial nature of teaching to the test, but rather aims to inform both families and teachers of options for more organic ways to approach test-prep in the classroom and/or at home by finding ways to integrate testing strategies into strong teaching.

Special Note: While reading, please keep in mind that my teaching has been done in New York City so my background knowledge lies mostly with NYS tests. While some of the specifics may differ from your state, I believe that the strategies and ideas will be applicable regardless of location.

Listening Comprehension can be assessed in a variety of ways. This post will discuss ways to prepare students for listening comprehension assessments that are composed of fill-ins, short responses and multiple choice questions. A large focus will be on how strong note-taking skills play a large role in the success of students on listening comprehension assessments. I will have a future post on writing in response to literature/extended response.

What is Listening Comprehension? Listening comprehension is the ability to understand words that are spoken aloud. I love teaching listening comprehension because it gives those students who struggle with decoding a chance to comprehend texts on a much higher level. Listening comprehension is what “saves” some students in terms of reading confidence. For example, I worked with a sixth grader who demonstrated the ability to read independently at a second grade level due to difficulty with decoding and fluency. This student, however also demonstrated the ability to comprehend texts at grade level when they were read aloud. For this student, we made sure to balance listening comprehension and reading comprehension during instruction to make sure that we encouraged him as a reader and boosted skills in both areas. Listening comprehension is a very important skill for many students and as always, it must be explicitly taught, practiced and reinforced!

How is Listening Comprehension Assessed? As always, there are formal and informal ways to assess. Many of the informal classroom assessments involve the teacher reading a text aloud and asking students to “retell” the text and answer comprehension questions. In an ideal classroom setting, a teacher sits with each student individually to listen to their oral retell of a text. Often times, we must rely on a student’s written abilities when we assess listening comprehension. For most formal assessments such as standardized tests, listening comprehension is often assessed by having students listen to a text read aloud, and then using their written skills to communicate their understanding. One problem with this method of assessment, is that students who struggle with writing, often come across as though they are unable to comprehend a text. In actuality, if they had been given the opportunity to demonstrate their comprehension using their oral skills, they might have scored much higher. That being said, we must still give students the skills they need to experience success with listening comprehension through boosting their writing skills.

Why Are Listening Comprehension Assessments So Challenging For Students? In my experience, the key reason that listening comprehension assessments are so challenging for students is that most readers rely on the fact that they can go back into a text to look for information. On a listening comprehension assessments, the student usually hears a story one or two times, and must rely on memory or note-taking skills. The student may not go back into the text. The key here is teaching students how to take notes effectively, which is a challenging skill to teach. Too often, we assume that note-taking is obvious and does not need to be explicitly taught. That is incorrect. Students need to see note-taking modeled and even receive feedback on their own note-taking skills in order to become a stronger note-taker.

How Can We Help? We can do a lot to help! Most students don’t take notes naturally during a listening comprehension assessment (unless they have been taught to do so). That means, most students do nothing to ensure that they will remember information at a later time. If we can teach them how to take some format of notes, even if it isn’t perfect, we are helping them a great deal! I suggest doing this in the classroom on a daily or at least weekly basis. Students should not practice taking notes specifically for a test, this skill should be integrated into all aspects of their learning. If we explicitly model note-taking for our students, and hold them accountable for taking notes regularly for class assignments, we are indeed preparing them for the test. Here are 4 things you can do in your classroom to engage students in organic test prep for listening comprehension.

  1. Balance Reading Comprehension with Listening Comprehension: Make sure that your activities are varied. If students are asked to read independently on Monday, make sure they get to listen and respond on Tuesday, etc. Students need practice in both areas.
  2. Model Note-Taking for Students: Whether you have a Smart Board, a white board, a chalk board or chart paper, be sure to model note-taking for your students. DO NOT expect that if you say “okay class, now take notes” that they know what to do. Model how to prioritize information by thinking aloud. For example, you might say “Hmm, I am going to skip over that piece of information and write this one instead because it is more important.” Then discuss why it is an important piece of information. Eventually, you can and should be teaching short hand note-taking to improve efficiency.
  3. Collect and Offer Feedback on Student’s Notes: Offer feedback to students regularly, just as you would on their writing assignments. Students need to know when they are on or off track. Some examples of feedback:
    • Great short-hand. Next time really think about which details are most important.
    • Excellent job prioritizing information. Next time, try using your own words.
    • I love your information, let’s work on organizing your thought by using this simple chart!
  4. Teach Students How to Create Their Own Simple Graphic Organizer: Offer students a simple graphic organizer that they can create before listening to any text that is read aloud. It should be simple enough that a student can remember it and be able to independently recreate it on a blank page in under 1 minute. That way on the day of the test, they can get their page setup and be ready to take notes by the time the text is read aloud. I suggets including the following words somewhere in your organizer: Where? When? Who (characters)? Problem? Solution? and I often have a section that says “extras”.

Here are some ideas and strategies to improve Listening comprehension. Explicitly teach these strategies and demand that students use them on all classwork and homework to get extensive practice before the big day!

  • Read aloud a story and have students create a graphic organizer to take notes on the main idea, character, problem and solution.
  • Read aloud a non-fiction text and have students take notes on a graphic organizer to practice fact-collecting.
  • Read aloud a non-fiction text and teach students how to take bulleted notes without a graphic organizer for efficient fact collecting.
  • Doing a science experiment? Read aloud the procedure and have students take notes in sequential order.
  • Practice re-phrasing ideas through group discussions to support students with their note-taking.
  • A great teacher I knew taught students how to take “caveman notes,” which is in essence short-hand. He taught them that even though cavemen did not speak in full sentences, the main idea was always there. I thought it was brilliant!

Listening Selection, Grade 5, 2010

Questions, Grade 5, 2010 (Some questions are multiple choice, some short response)

Families and Teachers: You should know that there are a ton of resources out there to help you prepare for different kinds of tests. I must say from experience that many of these resources are bland and are not highly engaging for students. I recommend looking at prior tests to familiarize yourself with the material, and then using more exciting resources to tailor your practice. I usually take a text that I would like my students to read anyway (ie: news article or story) and read the text aloud the first time before giving it to them to read on their own. That way they can practice taking notes, but they can also refer back to the text for more details. Here are a few resources that I use:

EdInformatics (A website where you can find prior NYS tests in all areas and use them for practice)

NYSED APDA (A website where you can find prior NYS tests in all areas and use them for practice)

Scholastic Printables (Reading Comprehension passages)

Use the News (A previous article from EdGeeks about how to use non-fiction publications such as newspapers and magazines to increase engagement in reading.)

Do you have other resources or strategies that you use to practice listening comprehension? Share them here by leaving a comment!

Do you have further questions? Submit your question by leaving a comment and I will get back to you with a prompt response!

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Terry Doherty from The Reading Tub Shares About Family Literacy

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to guest blog for Terry Doherty at the Family Bookshelf. Today, she is joining EdGeeks as a guest blogger and I am absolutely delighted to have her! Terry Doherty is such an amazing resource for EdGeeks. I absolutely love The Reading Tub and Family Bookshelf because they promote literacy in the home through reviewing and categorizing books and offering ideas about ways to encourage a love of reading amongst children. EdGeeks is so lucky to have Terry Doherty guest blog today on the importance of literacy in the home environment and some simple ways to integrate literacy into your daily routines.  

Literacy Development in the Home Environment

If I say the word “literacy,” what do you see? A book? A teacher? A notebook? A cereal box? Your kids’ drawings? Toys?

What would you say if I told you that all of those things play a role in your child’s literacy development. It is true! Long before your child hears his first school bell, he has been building his literacy skills at home. While a book might seem obvious, some of the other things may not.
  • Pretend play – whether it is racing dump trucks around the sandbox or playing dress up – is a daily opportunity for literacy development. The stories kids create and act out not only build communication and vocabulary skills, but expand their imagination.
  • Sorting blocks by size or color and doing simple puzzles help kids think logically and begin to distinguish differences amongst objects. Later, when they are learning their letters, that same skill will be used to distinguish a “b” from a “d” from a “p.”
  • Those first artistic masterpieces are our kids way of learning to grasp, grip, and build the muscle strength they need for forming letters and numbers later in their writing.

But what about the teacher? Well, she is staring back at you from the mirror! Parents are our children’s first teachers. Remember that “oops” when your toddler repeated something you wish she hadn’t? They learned that from us!  We can teach them some good stuff, too! Literacy is the first building block of the “good stuff.”When you look at literacy in its entirety, it is VERY EASY to take everyday activities and turn them into literacy building blocks. As you walk through the store, ask your two-year-old to spot something red or round; or ask your four-year-old to find a yellow square. Get them focused on something they think is fun, but that also boosts literacy development. This makes shopping faster and easier, too! Last but not least, let your kids catch you reading! When our kids see us reading – cereal boxes, cookbooks, the newspaper, books – they absorb the message that reading is important. Modeling reading and spending time sharing books with our kids are two of the three linchpins to learning.

The last linchpin is having things to read at home! If your child can own a book that’s all his, that is great, but don’t discount the library. The goal is to surround your kids with different kinds of materials. Magazines, catalogs, books, junk mail – they all expose them to images and ideas that feed their desire to learn. So now you’re asking, “but what if I don’t actually like to read books?” Literacy isn’t a Norman Rockwell painting! It is a living, breathing part of our daily lives. Sorting and opening the mail, sending an email … these are all pieces of literacy that our kids observe. If you feel strongly about books but are uncomfortable reading, the library has lots of children’s books on CD/tape that you can borrow. Enjoy a quiet moment to sit and listen together.Literacy isn’t something you need to “add” to your to-do list, it is integral to daily living. From conversations at the breakfast table to cuddling up with a bedtime story, each day offers countless opportunities to give our children a strong foundation for learning and ultimately, lifelong success.

Thank you so much to Terry Doherty for sharing these helpful tips, tools and ideas about literacy with us. Learn more about Terry Doherty here:




twitter: (literacy, reading news), (books & reviews)




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Guest Blog for The Reading Tub: Bridging the Gap Between Home and School

I always love guest blogging! A few months ago, I met a new blogger friend, Terry Doherty. Today’s post was written for her blog The Family Bookshelf, which is connected to her website The Reading Tub. Make sure to check out both the blog and the site as a resources for book lists, reviews and ideas for creating a literacy-rich environment at home. A special thanks to my new friend Terry Doherty for supporting EdGeeks! Later this week, she will share ideas on literacy in the home…stay tuned!

Bridging the Gap Between Home and School

“Better parents can make every teacher more effective.”

-Thomas Friedman, NY Times

When things don’t go the way we want, we look for someone to blame. Right now, education in our country is not where we would like it to be. I have met some inspiring teachers throughout my career, as well as some who I have found…well, uninspiring. I can say the same of the families I have come across. There is always a range. I don’t think placing blame necessarily does anything for the problem – the problem is too large. What we can do in an effort to be proactive on the matter is try desperately to bridge the gap between home and school, which will support families and teachers in building a partnership rather than working independently.

I am a special education teacher by trade and the bulk of my experiences have been in Collaborative Team Teaching settings. A CTT class is wonderful for many reasons, but first and foremost because a team works together to provide support to a group of students. A teacher is never alone in regards to decision-making in a CTT class, because there is a team of teachers, related service providers and often paraprofessionals working together. I propose that we approach the parent-teacher relationship as a co-teaching experience.

Let’s take a logical approach to this issue. The hours in a student’s day are split between their home environment and their school environment. If families and teachers are working alone, chances are they are not thinking alike. Consistency is key in the success of a student. Consistency can be in reference to the teachers in a school, the adults in a family, but I’d like to think of the bigger picture…consistency between the home and school environments.

Fact: Working together to support a child has a greater effect than working alone. That being said, bridging the gap is easier said than done. Creating is my small contribution to the cause but let me put forth some ideas for ways that teachers and families can work together to improve a child’s education:

How Families Can Bridge the Gap

How Teachers Can Bridge the Gap

  • Put time into reading any notices sent home by your child’s teacher
  • Support your child with their homework in whatever way you can
  • Ask your child’s teacher for feedback on your child’s in-classroom performance
  • Ask your child’s teacher how you can support his/her work in the classroom
  • Show that you take your role as a parent seriously by using educational resources such as websites for learning
  • Assign family reading time as homework to boost family involvement
  • Invite families in for a parent-teacher night and discuss a particular topic
  • If a family asks for help, try modeling for them as you would for a student
  • Loan materials to your families (ie: books, math games, etc.) so they can practice skills at home
  • Send out an invitation for family members to come spend a period in the classroom



Why is consistency key to a student’s success in learning? Because without consistency, we send mixed messages to our youngsters. For example, when I taught second grade math, there was much confusion in regards to strategies for adding 2 and 3-digit numbers. The school’s curriculum guided students through a variety of strategies that did not include “stacking,” which is the good old-fashioned vertical way that many of us learned to add in school. Families would always come to me and say, “I taught my son/daughter stacking last night because that’s the best way.” It was challenging for me, but even more so for the students. They were learning one strategy at home, and then being asked to use the opposite strategy in school. Both their parents and their teachers were telling them that their way was “the right way.” This resulted in chaos, confusion and inefficiency for many students. I remember making that topic a “must discuss” during parent-teacher conferences that year. My co-teacher and I modeled the strategies for families so they could walk away understanding how to support their kids at home in math. I highly recommend choosing a focal point or a strategy to share at teacher conferences. Although it is a short amount of time, it can be valuable when focused.

Here are some other situations where a lack of consistency between home and school can be detrimental to a student’s success.

Teacher Says… Parent Says…
“It is so important that you get your homework in on time. If it is late, I will deduct 5 points.” “Don’t worry about it, it’s not a big deal if it’s one day late. I’ll talk to your teacher.”
“I don’t care about spelling on your first draft, that’s why we edit.” “You can’t hand in your writing with all of those mistakes.”
“You must always be sure to show your work when adding, even if you already know the sum.” “Why are you wasting time…you already know the sum. Just write it down.”
“Your homework is to complete the worksheet.” “Your teacher must have showed you what to do. What was the strategy your teacher gave you?”
“This is how you multiply two-digit numbers.” “This is how you multiply two-digit numbers.”


If you were a child, whom would you listen to?

Tough choice. Bridge the gap.

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Organic Strategies for Test Prep: Reading Comprehension

Preface: This post belongs to a series of posts that discuss organic strategies for test preparation. State testing is always a sticky issue and I want to steer clear of the “stickiness.” This series of posts does not aim to discuss the controversial nature of teaching to the test, but rather aims to inform both families and teachers of options for more organic ways to approach test-prep in the classroom and/or at home by finding ways to integrate testing strategies into strong teaching.

Special Note: While reading, please keep in mind that my teaching has been done in New York City so my background knowledge lies mostly with NYS tests. While some of the specifics may differ from your state, I believe that the strategies and ideas will be applicable regardless of location.

Reading Comprehension can be assessed in a variety of ways. This post will discuss ways to prepare students for comprehension assessments that are short response and multiple choice. I will have a future post on writing in response to literature/extended response. 

What is Reading Comprehension? If you google “reading comprehension,” you will find many definitions, most of which are full of jargon. A simple definition: reading comprehension is the ability to understand written text.

How is Reading Comprehension Assessed? Reading comprehension can be assessed in a few different ways. There are informal classroom assessments that ask a student to read a text and respond verbally to a teacher. The student may be asked to give a verbal response to a question, and/or give a verbal re-tell (summary) of the text. In regards to formal testing, one popular form of assessment is to have students independently read a collection of reading passages and answer a series of literal and inferential questions. Literal questions are about basic facts that have been presented in the text. Inferential questions rely on student interpretation and ability to “read between the lines” and understand what is not necessarily written in the text.

Why Are Reading Comprehension Assessments So Challenging For Students?

Stamina is one key factor. Without stamina, students can tire easily, especially when presented with multiple passages in one sitting.

Confidence is another issue. If a student lacks confidence in reading and/or understanding texts, they may be overwhelmed at first glance of the amount of work…or even give up.

Vocabulary works together with comprehension. Students who possess a wide vocabulary often experience greater success with comprehension, because their knowledge of words and definitions supports them in making meaning of the texts they read.

Anxiety is another factor that impacts reading comprehension. Many students, whether they struggle in reading or not, experience high levels of anxiety over comprehension assessments.

How Can We Help?

1. Model, teach and practice stamina: Stamina doesn’t just happen! It is something that must be practiced and built up throughout the year. It’s like excersize…we need to push students to read for increased periods of time. If they come into school in September able to read for 15 minutes, we must push them to read for 20 minutes. Set goals with students, for example: “By January, you will be able to read independently for 30 minutes.”

2. Model and teach confidence: I know this sounds strange, but we can and must teach students, especially our struggling readers, how to demonstrate persistence when faced with a challenging text. The worst thing they can do is give up! We can teach students how to use what they do know to solve problems. We can teach students to take a mental break for a moment if they need to re-focus themselves. I have even given students a “mantra,” something they can say to themselves silently that will boost their confidence like “Marisa thinks I am awesome :-D.”

3. Explicit Vocabulary Instruction: There will be a different post on vocabulary test-prep but I think it deserves a moment in the spotlight in this post as well. Explicitly teach students to underline words they do not understand and to try a variety of strategies to figure out what it means. Strategies can be:

  • Using context clues (use the words surrounding the tricky word to figure out what it means)
  • Using root words (are there any other words that sound/look similar to this word and make sense in it’s place? ex: secretive)
  • Using prefixes and suffixes
Here are some strategies to improve reading comprehension. Explicitly teach these strategies and demand that students use them on all classwork and homework to get extensive practice before the big day!
  • Read the passage twice.
  • Underline crucial information the second time you read the passage (ie: Characters, dates, places, etc.)
  • When answering a question, go back into the text. Find the part in the text that supports your answer and underline it.
  • Underline the specific question right before the question mark! (Sometimes questions are packed in with unnecessary details. We want to help kids identify what the question is asking by simplifying it!)
  • A controversial strategy is teaching students to read the question before reading the passage. I am not agreeing or disagreeing philosophically with this strategy, but I will say that I have seen it improve student accuracy on comprehension assessments.
  • Offer practice with multiple choice questions in reading and teach students to use the process of elimination for challenging questions. Students should immediately cross out any answers which they know are absurd.
  • For short response questions, teach students to restate a piece of the question in their answer for example: Question: Does Elizabeth enjoy spending time on the farm? Response: Elizabeth does not enjoy spending time on the farm because…
  • Offer sentence starters to help students’ work flow for example, “In the passage it says…” or “The article states…”

Grade 6 NYS Book 1 2010 From (Multiple Choice)

Grade 6 NYS Book 2 2010 from (Long Response)

Families and Teachers: You should know that there are a ton of resources out there to help you prepare for different kinds of tests. I must say from experience that many of these resources are bland and are not highly engaging for students. I recommend looking at prior tests to familiarize yourself with the material, and then using more exciting resources to tailor your practice. Here are a few resources that I use:


EdInformatics (A website where you can find prior NYS tests in all areas and use them for practice)
NYSED APDA (A website where you can find prior NYS tests in all areas and use them for practice)
Scholastic Printables (Reading Comprehension passages)
Use the News (A previous article from EdGeeks about how to use non-fiction publications such as newspapers and magazines to increase engagement in reading.)

Do you have other resources or strategies that you use to practice reading comprehension? Share them here by leaving a comment!

Do you have further questions? Submit your question by leaving a comment and I will get back to you with a prompt response!

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Brave New Voices

Last year I stumbled across an amazing show on HBO called “Brave New Voices.” BNV is an ongoing spoken word event created by Youth Speaks. The HBO show gives you an inside look at this national youth competition. The show is highly engaging and the performers take the audience through a wide range of emotions. Teenagers from all over the country write and perform poetry. This project gives our youth a voice and a platform to share it. The project fosters creativity and outside-of-the-box thinking amongst students. Let’s use it!

First, I’d like to give you a visual so here is one of my favorite performances. It is a favorite because I think the way these two students intertwine themselves is mesmerizing and the topic makes me smile.

This show is inspiring to me for a variety of reasons, but mostly because we can use it as a teaching tool to inspire middle and high schoolers. Some of the poetry is inappropriate for middle schoolers, and some are even inappropriate for high schoolers so using this as a teaching tool requires a little bit of pre-reading/pre-watching. Many of the pieces are about controversial topics so it is important to choose the ones that best suite your needs. That being said, many of the pieces are important even though they are difficult to watch, so let’s keep an open mind.

Why Use Brave New Voices As a Teaching Tool

  • Kids get inspired by watching their peers perform
  • The students on this show approach difficult subject matter with a fresh eye that can lead to juicy discussions in your classroom
  • The performances will teach your students that writing can make you get the chills

How to Teach Using Brave New Voices As a Teaching Tool

  • Show a video of a performance before writing to get inspired.
  • Photocopy or project the words to a poem and then show students the video performance. Compare the two are forms.
  • Use these videos to come up with interesting writing topics.
  • Check out the incredible HBO/Brave New Voices website. It as a great resource that shares videos, features students and even offers the text version of some of the most creative performances (See below.)
If you fall in love with BNV like I did, and want to use it to teach your students…you might want to consider purchasing the DVD’s. They offer a variety of pieces to choose from so you can find the best fit for your students.
[amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]B004W75BUQ[/amazon-product] [amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]B0027PA09M[/amazon-product]
Top Pieces:

I love the piece at the top of this post because it is fun. Many of the poems performed on BNV are bold, emotional and even difficult to watch at times but all of them speak volumes. Here are my two other favorites:

Favorite Color by Jay Davis, 16 Years Old

This young poet gives me chills and evokes emotion that I didn’t realize existed. Her piece is heart-wrenching yet eloquent, and all I can think about when I watch her how intimidated I might be if I sat next to her in high school English. She is amazing.

Love Letter to Albuquerque Public Schools by Miguel Figueroa, Reed Bobroff, Olivia Gatwood, and Khalid Binsunni 

I’d like to end with this…I went back and forth thinking about whether or not to include this link on EdGeeks. It is controversial in nature and uses language that is not be appropriate for all viewers…but it was the most inspiring piece to me. It really made me think about classrooms around our country today. In many ways it feels inspirational to hear students who will not stand for being told to shed pieces of themselves, particularly their creativity. Thank you to Team New Mexico for making me stop and think…and for bringing a little controversy to the table.

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Incorporate Non-Fiction Text Into Your Home or Classroom Book Collection

The non-fiction genre is one that children either love or hate. The way I see it, kids who truly understand what non-fiction is love it. The kids who think that non-fiction is full of dense text with challenging or impossible vocabulary, usually run for the woods when they hear it’s coming! I have always wondered where this misunderstanding comes from. Could it be our own adult perception of non-fiction? Perhaps the rigorous non-fiction assessment that children must endure? It could even be the fact that children are often paired with non-fiction topics that are uninteresting to them or with books at levels that are too challenging. Whatever the reason, I say we put a heavy focus on encouraging our kids to love non-fiction! Here is how:

Do you read books about things you’re not interested in? Me neither! Peak engagement by choosing book topics that your child is interested it. Does your child love horses? Find a book series that teaches about horses! This should be obvious! When trying to get your child to read non-fiction books, pick something interesting. You can even use a survey like this one to see what your child might like to read about.

Get a subscription to a children’s magazine or newspaper. Whether you are a parent or a teacher, you can be using non-fiction publications as a way to build interest in your young readers. Click on the link above to see some examples of children’s publications that might be appealing to your child. I cannot stress enough how much children love to read about things that are happening in “real life.” It makes them feel mature and important!

Here are my top 3 picks for non-fiction book authors/collections:

1. Heinmann Raintree is an amazing publisher of children’s and teen non-fiction books. I love using these books in the classroom because they come in sets by subject area and believe it or not they are all aligned with the standards so they’re easy to tie into curriuculm. Some of my favorite collections are:

[amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]1434228061[/amazon-product] [amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]1434227820[/amazon-product] [amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]1434228096[/amazon-product]

Sports Illustrated Victory Superstars

[amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]1429648546[/amazon-product] [amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]1429648570[/amazon-product] [amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]1429648554[/amazon-product]

Action Science Collection

[amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]1410910113[/amazon-product] [amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]1410910105[/amazon-product] [amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]1410910083[/amazon-product]

You Are In Ancient…

2. National Geographic is and always has been a great resource for families and educators. We all know they have a fabulous magazine collection (differentiating for younger and older kids) and that their websites offer interactive games and activities…But did you know that they also publish fantastic non-fiction books for kids? Here are my top picks:

[amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]142630594X[/amazon-product] [amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]1426308647[/amazon-product]

Weird But True Books

[amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]1426300913[/amazon-product] [amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]0792255836[/amazon-product]

Jump Into Science Books

3. Nicola Davies is the author of a super collection of non-fiction books. What makes her books so unique is that they include both narrative text and factual text. This added narrative feature makes her texts highly engaging and accessible for young readers. Here are my favorite Nicola Davies books:

[amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]0763623113[/amazon-product] 

One Tiny Turtle

[amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]0763610801[/amazon-product] 

Big Blue Whale

[amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]0763624381[/amazon-product] 

Bat Loves the Night

And here is my favorite non-fiction book of all! Perhaps it’s because I’m a Native New Yorker. This book makes reading interactive and fun!

[amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]0792279824[/amazon-product]

Go Wild In New York City

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Home-School Connection: Words Their Way

The Challenge: Student is struggling with spelling and/or sight word recognition.

Concrete Examples:

1) You notice that your child is mis-spelling words on a regular basis…even words that he/she has had extended practice with.

2) You notice that your child is struggling to read words that have similar patterns. You wish your child would recognize these patterns but for some reason they are not sticking.

The Strategy: Today’s post is not a strategy but rather a program that has created success stories for many of the students I have worked with in the past. I will discuss the difference between how it can be implemented in the classroom and at home to support both spelling and reading.

How it Works: Words Their Way is referred to as a “word study” program and the foundation of the curriculum is based on studying words and word patterns through sorting words into different categories. This is a hands-on program where students actually get to manipulate word and picture cards into different categories or groups. What I love most about this program is the teacher-resource manual, which has a ton of information, proposed schedules and activities. The curriculum spans from grades K-5, however I have used the program with middle school students as well.

“I see and I forget, I hear and I remember, I do and I understand”


I have always loved this quote from Confucius, and I just love that it is printed right in the Words Their Way resource book! It is a brief, yet important reminder that there are multiple ways that students learn and therefore multiple ways that we must teach.

For Teachers: There are many components to this curriculum. If you are a teacher reading this, I highly suggest purchasing the teacher-resource book. It gives so much information and makes the program so simple because once you understand the main elements of the program, you really just need to photocopy the sorts from each book. If you are a teacher and have questions about using Words Their Way, please feel free to submit them on the Parent-Teacher Conference Page of EdGeeks and I will respond promptly.

For Families: I always recommend that families look at teacher-resource manuals as well. This may sound odd to you, especially if you have no teaching experience, but I think it is important to understand how a program works from a teaching perspective. This program is challenging to implement in the classroom with so many students, but you are at an advantage if you are working at home. While the program has many different resources that can be used in the classroom, I think you can modify the curriculum to fit your needs at home. I highly recommend using the following two resources at home: Words Their Way Sorts and Words Their Way Word Study Notebooks.

Words Their Way Sorts (These books come with loads of word and picture sorts at a variety of different levels. If you click on each link, you can look inside the books to see what level you think your child might be at. If you have any questions about appropriate leveling, feel free to post a comment on the Parent-Teacher Conference Page and you will receive a prompt response!)
Emergent Spellers 

[amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]0135145791[/amazon-product]
Letter-Name Alphabetic 

[amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]0135145805[/amazon-product]
Within Word Pattern 

[amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]B003XRFH82[/amazon-product]
Syllables and Affixes

[amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]0135145775[/amazon-product]
Derivational Relationships 

[amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]0135145783[/amazon-product]

The Words Their Way Word Study Notebooks are a lot of fun to use at home. They come in levels K (Kingergarten), A, B, C, D and E (becoming increasingly more difficult.) These are student workbooks that your child can write in, tear pages out of and cut apart! Each book is filled with word and picture sorts and activities. The word study notebooks look like this:

[amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]1428432345[/amazon-product] [amazon-product image=”″ type=”image”]076527566X[/amazon-product]

I suggest the following schedule if you are using the book at home:

Day 1

1. Tear the sort out

2. Cut out the words/pictures and review the words/pictures with an adult

3. Try sorting the words one way then return them to the envelope (Possible ways to sort: words that start with P, words that have the Ch sound, words for animals, words ending in -es)

Day 2

1. Try sorting the way you sorted yesterday

2. Try sorting 2 different ways

3. Glue your sort into the chart

Day 3

1. Look back at your sort, review by touching and saying each word/picture

2. Complete the follow-up activity (usually writing and/or drawing)

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