Planning language arts can be hard. There are three common mistakes that I find many people make when planning out their program.
Focus on the expectations instead of big ideas
This is one that many teachers get caught up in.
There is so much to cover it is hard not to use the expectations as a checklist.
However, when we do this we fail to focus on the big ideas of what we are actually teaching.
When you do this you are looking to pull resources from all over the place that doesn’t really feel like a complete picture. It is an organizational nightmare and will make you feel disorganized and overwhelmed.
Instead, focus on the big ideas and then pick resources that go with this. Once this is planned you can determine which expectations are covered with this material.
You plan in units
This is a big one and one I made myself. It seems logical. You plan one learning activity at a time.
But language development isn’t as linear as this so why is our instruction?
Students need time to practice their skills in language and see how they are interconnected.
When we plan in units we fail to show students how one skill is used with another skill.
Writing an adventure story is similar to writing a fairy tale or even a poem. But when we teach in self-contained units students fail to see how these are related. This often causes them to not apply learned concepts from one activity to the next. So it is like we are starting from scratch each time we start a new unit.
Using a spiralled approach to teaching language with concepts integrated together and tied to a big idea is more effective and efficient.
The person making all the decisions is you…the teacher.
Finally, the third big mistake made by teachers is not embracing choice and voice in the classroom.
The person making the choices is the one doing the most work and learning the most things.
Is that person you or your students?
It should be your students.
Students should have a say in what they are reading and writing.
Language is personal, how we use it, what we think about it and what we say is uniquely you.
So how do we develop students use of language when they are simply told what to do and what to write. When we do this they passively accept what is happening and disengage in the learning.
To engage students and help them develop their ideas, opinion and voice within our language program (while also differentiating instruction) choice is key.
So what should your language program look like?
I would love to show you. But this will take more than a quick blog post.
You are invited to join me for my free masterclass.
Spelling tests teach kids how to memorize not how to spell. This is why I don’t use spelling tests in my classroom. I am sure that you have been told many times in your teaching career that you need to get rid of your spellers, stop doing spelling tests, and teach kids how to spell in context right?? Of course you have. So you throw out your spellers and promptly never teach kids how to spell a word correctly again (primarily because you don’t know how). Ok maybe you try but really, you have read their writing…their spelling is horrible and grammar?? Who needs to know what nouns are anyways. But then you feel guilty because they don’t know what a noun is sooooo….ummmm….. you teach a lesson on nouns. Yes! Eureka! Teacher of the Year for Grammar goes to….. Ok so perhaps this is me or you share a similar cluelessness about teaching grammar and spelling. But you know what I am starting to figure this predicament out I may just have a solution.
It has been my quest to solve the problem of how to teach grammar in context. If you have read through some of my older blog posts you will know that I love picture books and use them in my classroom weekly. You may also know that I have a slightly obsessive need for things to match and coordinate within my classroom. (Yes I colour my staples to match my Bulletin boards…but that is a different story) So this desire to have everything match in my language lessons persists. If I am to teach spelling and grammar in context where is the context in which I am supposed to teach it. Well I look at a whole picture book and wonder this is so large and there are so many concepts how am I supposed to pick just one to focus on? Which one should I focus on? Then I came across a book by Jeff Anderson called Mechanically Inclined. In his book he talks about teaching the concepts of grammar in context of good literature such as a picture book but that you need to strip back the layers of the book and just choose a sentence. Just one sentence that highlights a concept in grammar or spelling that students are having a hard time with. I teach junior so getting into the complexities of comma splices (something I admittedly struggle with) and clauses may be a bit beyond my students ability and need. However they do need to know what a noun and verb is and how they are used in sentences. How to make complete sentences and where to use a comma. How to use quotation marks, spelling rules for suffixes, homophones, apostrophes for possession or plurals, etc.
Last year I started this with some of the grade 2 students I teach once a day for Core English. (This is a prep coverage – no worries I am not leaving my 4/5 anytime soon.) I started experimenting with simple grammar concepts like nouns and verbs, pronouns etc. I WAS SO IMPRESSED with how well they were picking up age appropriate grammar concepts. Sometimes I wondered if they had a better grasp of spelling and grammar than my 4s and 5s. I only started using mentor sentences with junior students at the end of the year and although I didn’t see the same progress because I didn’t do it as regularly. These mentor sentence lessons did help students make specific corrections to our final reports that they were writing.
How to Teach Spelling and Grammar With Mentor Texts
A) Look at the curriculum
get a general idea of what spelling and grammar ideas you are expected to cover. Next look at the grades previous to you and determine what they needed prior the grade you are teaching. Make a List. Below is my developmental list for my grade four and five students. Numbers four and five are for my class and the previous parts of the list refer to the grade level expectations prior to my grades.
Spelling and Vocabulary
High Frequency Words Spelled Correctly short vowels and simple long vowel patterns, rhyming patterns,
High Frequency Words. Spell words out loud, segment words, sort words by common sound patterns. Follow rules for adding suffixes
Spell familiar words correctly short and long vowel patterns, visual similarities, rules for changing base word when adding suffix
Spell subject specific words correctly. Silent letters, syllables, Apply knowledge of vowel patterns to new words. Letter patterns and combinations regular and irregular plurals
Subject specific vocabulary. silent p divide words into syllables, irregular plurals,
Grammar and Mechanics
A capital letter and an ending punctuation mark. Nouns and personal pronouns
use punctuation question marks, periods, exclamation marks, commas, some quotation marks
quotation marks, commas, capital letters and final punctuation. Use the parts of speech appropriately Proper Nouns, possessive pronouns, action bears in present and simple past tense, adjectives and adverbs, and question words
the apostrophe to indicate possession, and quotation marks to indicate direct speech. Common and Proper Nouns, Simple verb tenses. Subject Verb agreement adjectives and adverbs, prepositions and conjunctions
use of the comma beforehand or but used to join principal clauses. Quotation marks for direct speech and punctuation marks placed inside quotation marks. Common Proper and Abstract nouns, collective nouns, adjectives, comparative adjectives, helping verbs. adverbs
B) Use a writing sample.
Have the students write you something. See what they need. Look at the list above and try to determine if they have the grammar and spelling background knowledge to be able to meet your expectations. If most do not then I would recommend started with a lower grades expectations are covered enough that you can move on with your curriculum.
C) Choose a story and pick a sentence
Choose a story that fits the other components of your language program. From the story pick a sentence from the book that highlights that concept for your students need or will be learning about. Post it for students to see and ask them what they notice about the grammar and mechanics of the sentence. Only pick one focus a day. One day you could focus on spelling patterns and the other day you could focus on grammar and mechanics. Keep is Simple and just pick one spelling and one grammar concept per week/sentence to focus on. Try to avoid the too much to soon trap.
D) Mini Lessons and Independent Work
Because I am choosing to integrate these into word work centers. I teach mini lessons (5-10 minutes) to work on the teaching phase of the mentor sentence. According the Mr. Anderson this means getting students to notice things about the text. There should but a guided focus on the teachers part to steer the lesson in a direction that is conducive your planned teaching lessons.
In my Classroom
I have structured my language block to be able to accommodate word work centers. Centers will focus on grammar and spelling (and some printing and writing because that is always a problem) Students will work through these centers during the week to supplement their Readers and Writers Workshop. They have 40min of a 100min block for reading and writing in a day. I only expect that these word work activity centers will take about 5 -10 min a day. They are easily accomplished during a weekly writing cycle. My centers are
Focus on Grammar – Using a Mentor Text Sentence
Focus on Spelling – Using a Word Sort
Focus on Writing – Imitation sentences that use the spelling or grammar focus in a new sentence modelled after the Mentor Text Sentence.
Focus on Printing or Cursive –
I also will spend 5-10 min each day on a spelling or grammar mini lesson that uses a mentor sentence (both grammar and imitation), word sort, or printing/cursive writing. If you are interested in seeing my Mentor Text Word Work Centers you can check them out here.
Every day I am given 100 minutes of uninterrupted language arts time in my schedule. In that time I must plan out how to get everything done. My goal is to plan all of my lessons so that they flow together and fit, not so that they are a disjointed mess of “LETS CRAM IT ALL IN” I do this by focusing on Themes, Mentor Texts, and Student Choice.
One of the things that I am asked most by new and old teachers is how do I structure my language block so that it makes sense and is not a planning nightmare. This is especially important in a split grade because in reality you are dealing with twice the curriculum. (this doesn’t affect my planning as much as it does my assessment of language skills)
If you haven’t already read how I set up my physical classroom space for literacy instruction check out my previous post here
What does my Literacy Block Include
Independent Reading Responses
Creative Writing/Writers Workshop
Grammar and Work Work
Reading Mini Lessons
Writing Mini Lessons
Yes all of these things are included in my language arts time. However not everything happens in one day. I take a whole week to make sure that I do these things.
Here is a sample of my schedule
So a brief overview of this schedule. (perhaps some future posts may be needed about these elements in more detail.
1) Independent Reading – I strongly believe that students need to read for enjoyment everyday. I don’t monitor it, I don’t track it, I don’t value one type or reading over another. Students read what they want to read during this time for fun. This also serves as a quiet activity after recess to help them regain focus and prepare for their language arts time. As a student I loved reading but hated that teachers ruined my reading time by making me write down what I was reading or picked what I should be reading. So I don’t do it. I monitor the students, especially my struggling readers, and make sure that they are reading. I have a larger classroom library that I am slowly weeding out old books (I am a bit of a book hoarder) as students are using more digital books and materials to read. Some of my students favourites last year were TinTin, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Video Game review sites and forums, and Wonder.
2) Read Aloud – I LOVE PICTURE BOOKS!!! honestly I think this is my favourite teaching material in my classroom. I use picture books as my read aloud/Mentor Text every week. I choose books that fit my theme for the month (see my long range plans) and I focus on specific reading strategies such as determining importance, finding the main idea, making connections, making inferences, point of view, synthesizing (putting it all together). My read aloud is the basis of my entire language program. I usually take about three days to read a picture book because I only read what I need to that day to help the students focus on the mini lesson that I am using. I know in my schedule above it has read aloud and mini lesson but really these two components work together. My time between these two components is flexible. (see my post on my language unit on questioning and predicting)
Reading independent practice is a time for students to apply previous lesson independently. I like to think of this as a two week cycle. I teach them through modelled shared and guided instruction how to do something in week one then they practice this in guided or independent time the following week. Their independent activity each week is always based on something I taught them prior to the beginning of the week.
3) Word Work – Mentor Text Centers – If you haven’t heard of mentor sentences they are based on a concept by Jeff Anderson. After reading his book I was inspired to integrate some of his ideas in to my word work centers. It essentially helps students learn about grammar in context of well constructed sentences. I am sure that you, like me, have been told that teaching spelling and grammar out of context is pointless as students do not internalize these lessons and apply it to their writing. ME TOO!! My dilemma was that my use of mentor sentences needed to rely less on photocopy handouts and more on interactive centres. Think Daily 5 meets Mentor Sentences. Here’s how it works:
Look at your students writing samples, or formal writing assessments and determine a grammar or spelling rule that they are struggling with.
Go to your read aloud and choose a simple sentence that has a spelling pattern or grammar concept that want to cover.
Print out that sentence on chart paper (and with younger students make a copy that they can glue in their book)
Read the sentence with students and have them “Examine” the sentence (and when your principal walks in you can even tell them you are doing inquiry learning in language too) Have them look for parts of speech, suffixes, rhyme, or whatever else is appropriate for your grade level. Use this sentence to form the jump off for your word work centres or activities. Use word sorts, practice cursive or printing with the sentence, build a word wall, etc. etc.
Then students develop their own look alike sentence based on the mentor sentence and using the key learning from the week in their look alike sentence. So if you focused on adjectives then their look alike sentence would have lots of adjectives. Or if you focused on suffixes then they would try to integrate words with suffixes into their sentences
For example “Whisker’s claws caught on the string, scattering buttons like sunflower seeds” – Memory String by Eve Bunting. Students would notice the parts and elements in the sentence you might focus on similes or irregular past tense verbs or suffixes, and then finally their look alike sentence could be “Joe’s long jagged toenail tore through the sock, ripping a hole as big as the Grand Canyon “
Writers Workshop – I have really come to enjoy this time with students. This part of my writing time is also focused on student choice. (Which I firmly believe increases student engagement) I have a wheel of writing (found for free in my store) I show students the various options and then they vote and choose the three that they are most interested in. These are what we focus on. I may do guided writing activities when they are writing or whole class lessons based on the student interest. I post this wheel in my classroom and students can write any form that is on the wheel but they always have a choice. When students are ready they move on to another form of writing. Students also write a different draft of writing each week for me. This can be intense and sometimes it is almost two weeks for a draft but they are drafting constantly. This means that not everything goes through the writing process. Once per term (we have two terms in a school year) students will choose a piece of writing and take it through the writing process. This way students learn to love writing and not worry so much about the tedious parts of editing and revision. It also allows them to choose a writing sample that they are very passionate about.
My writing Mini Lessons are a combination of what I need to teach and what the students need to learn. Much of what I teach during this time is generated by the information that I gather from reading student work. For example last year my students struggled initially with organizing their ideas, gathering data, and asking questions. This was a main focus.
Shared Reading – This so far has been the most frustrating part of my language program. I have many shared reading posters and workbooks but they all seem a little disjointed. Shared reading for me is reading that the students do with me that is much more focused on a particular reading strategy. My frustration is that these seem very disjointed from the rest of my reading program. This is a goal of my to remedy this year. I will let you know how this goes as I am developing as I go 🙂 (who knows perhaps there might be a product in there that I can share with you too)
Well I can already tell that this is something I need to revisit again…if you would like more details on any of the above please leave a comment below and I will address it in future posts.
In my classroom right now my grade 4s are learning about Rocks and Minerals. I have tried to focus more this year on using experiments and inquiry in my units. I have taught the rock cycle before but it has always fallen flat. This component of the Rocks and Minerals unit needs to be taught in a more engaging way. So in doing research for my TPT unit I cam across an activity that uses crayons melted over hot water.
On Monday I knew that I wanted to do this with my class but as usual I wanted to try it out first at home just to make sure that it worked well. Students are rarely good when an experiment doesn’t work out the way you need it too. So to prepare I stole some crayons from the little ones craft cupboard, ruined a cheese grater, and began to prepare the materials for my at home practice experiment.
But then I had an idea…..
A few days before a student showed me a video he had made of him drawing a picture with his iPod touch. He had used the time lapse feature in the photos app to film himself. It was great! So sitting in my kitchen I thought that filming this experiment of the Rock Cycle would be a great opportunity to try filming with Time Lapse Video. However of course I could just simply film the experiment I was inspired so I decided to write a story about the rock cycle to go with the experiment so that I could use it to help reinforce the concept of the Rock Cycle in a memorable way. So my Video was born. Check it out below, then keep reading and I will tell how I made it.
Writing The Story
Once I was inspired to add a story to the video I needed to plan it out and think it through. So I wrote it out a rough draft of the story. Once this was done I made sure that my draft was off to the side when I was writing live on the video so that I reduced the amount of mistakes that I made when writing. Writing out the story as I video taped was nerve wracking but very easy. The time lapse feature makes is look very cool on playback.
Steps in the Experiment
Each step of the experiment was a different video clip. I filmed these one at time. This was imperative that did this correctly because I didn’t have additional crayons so I needed to make sure that although I could rewrite the script I couldn’t redo the experiment portion. I rehearsed it then filmed it. I put my phone in the kitchen cupboard above my counter and turned on the under cabinet lights to reduce the shadows.
Putting it All Together
This was actually the easiest part. I used iMovie and this app is so user friendly to create a stunning video. I simply selected each video in order, zoomed and flipped the original videos so they were how I wanted them to look. I cut and clipped each video to make them fit together and transition nicely. To zoom in to certain parts and focus on the writing I duplicated the same video and then zoomed into the bowl so that you could see the crayons melting into an igneous rock.
Finally I switched to KeyNote and made my opening and closing slides then opened the slides to see them full screen and screen captured them. I added the new photos to my video and recorded my voice over the final image so that it would direct people back to by blog here or to my TPT product.
In the Classroom…
My students loved the video and it helped to consolidate their learning and review the steps that I had just demonstrated to them in class. They were also very inspired to go out and try to create their own videos about things. I am sure that I will have a lot of time lapse videos in my future.
If you would like to check out my Rocks and Minerals TPT Unit see it here.
Being able to ask good questions is an important part of the inquiry process. However it is often difficult task for students to ask the type of questions that lead to authentic inquiry. When given a topic then asked to post questions students will often ask lower level thinking questions or questions that are unrelated to the theme they are studying. Asking question this is a theme that my colleagues and I are exploring in more detail at my school. Through this focused exploration, and my experiences with my students struggling through generating inquiry questions I have come up with a tips that I wanted to share with you.
All Questions are Important
Much of the focus on inquiry is on the higher order thinking questions from the Q chart. However what I have learned is that all of the questions that the student can ask are important. At the beginning of an inquiry project students may ask lower-level fact-finding questions these questions are important for students to ask and will form the basis of a student developing their understanding. Eventually they will be able to ask higher order thinking questions. What I found is it students have a difficult time asking higher order thinking questions when they don’t have the necessary background knowledge needed to investigate deeper into their topic.
Students may be able to ask the question but the may not be ready to find the answer.
Some students who were given the formula to create a higher order thinking questions were able to do this successfully. However what I have found is that just because they’re able to ask the question doesn’t mean they’re ready to find the answer. Being able to ask a good inquiry question does not mean the student is ready to find the answer to that same Big idea question. First the student must understand the facts. Getting them to ask WHO, WHAT, WHERE, and WHEN questions will help them to build the necessary background knowledge that they need to eventually be able to answer the inquiry question.
Conference by asking questions of their questions.
Some of the most viable conversations I had with my students were of me asking questions about their questions. Through this process we were able to refine and evaluate the types of questions that they were asking in order to encourage them to dig a little deeper into their topics. Sometimes I found that through my questioning students discovered that they already knew the answers to the questions they needed to ask but through this conferencing process they themselves were able to discover this. I believe this was much more valuable than if I had just given them the answer, or in this case the question.
Questioning should be more than just one lesson
In social studies and science having the students ask questions should happen all throughout the unit not just the one lesson right before they begin their inquiry projects. Students should ask questions before the unit begins (provocation) this will help assist teachers to understand what they already know and where the students want to go. Refining these questions throughout the teaching and learning process and asking new ones as we go along will help students to understand the topic of study in more depth.
Asking students to ask a question is a very general and open ended task. I can’t count how many times I have given students and overall topic and asked them to generate questions and then have been disappointed with the types of questions that I get. Many of them are so off-topic, basic or lack variety that I struggle to move them towards higher order thinking questions with what they give me. This time, before we asked questions, we generated a list of keywords. I asked them “what have we been learning about?” The words they gave me made up the list of our keywords. From there I asked students to make questions to put on an anchor sized Q chart that used our keywords. I was surprised at the difference of the type of question students were able to ask when given these parameters.
Direct teaching still happens
Just because our focus is on student inquiry does not mean that direct teaching no longer happens in my classroom. It does and it is important. Skills such as summarizing need to be explicitly taught, developing an understanding of new vocabulary is necessary in order for students to understand the information that they will read. Directly teaching my students about economic sectors was an important task that needed to be completed before students were able to complete an inquiry project looking at the environmental impacts of a primary sectors in Canada. The economic sectors seem like such a complicated concept for grade 4 students to understand but in reality when it was taught to them directly they easily got the concept. They were the better prepared to choose an appropriate topic on the environment for inquiry that also met curriculum expectations.
As I learn through implementing inquiry based learning into my own classroom I will continue to refine my understanding of how this process works. Please join me on my continued journey at implementing inquiry into my classroom!
Do you have any great revelations about questioning in your classroom please share in the comments below