Friday, April 21, 2017

Vocabulary Every Day

As part of my doctoral work, I have been taking a class on reading instruction. I have learned lots – why didn’t anybody tell me this a decade ago! – and I have made some changes to my instructional strategies and sequence based on what I’ve learned.

Today I’m going to write about vocabulary instruction. This is something that I never really did before. You can rap my knuckles now; I was bad. I assumed that by reading lots of high quality children’s literature my students would be exposed to plenty of vocabulary and that was enough. Of course, it wasn’t. But who has time to teach vocabulary every day. Do you know how much I have to fit in?

I’ll tell you now, I can and do fit in vocabulary instruction every day. It’s less than 5 minutes but my students have shown fabulous comprehension and retention. For older students, it may be longer because you would choose more words per week. Keep it simple and the time will fly.

I use Marzano’s Six Steps of vocabulary instruction. You can read about them in depth in this flip book put out by my state education department:
The good news is you can complete the steps in any order, so my instructional sequence is a little different. And that’s ok.

Before Instruction:
I choose two vocabulary words from one of our texts for the week. I usually read between 8-10 books during shared reading, writing, and read aloud. So I choose words from one of those books and schedule it for Friday. Then I prep my slides. I use SMART Notebook but Powerpoint or Prezi or anything similar would work just as well.

Monday: I introduce the first word and give a kindergarten friendly definition. For example, my word one week was gracefully. Gracefully means moving in a beautiful way. My slide for the day has a set of four pictures that show the meaning of the word. In this case, they were pictures of dancers, a fish, and a deer. As a class we decide on a movement to represent the word gracefully. We chose raising our arms to one side in a dance-type move. I ask students to share with a partner an example of something that moves gracefully. The four pictures are still up on the board so they can look there if they need an idea of what to say. Some students use the exact pictures on the board, some students use something that is similar, some students use their own unique idea. We review the word, movement, and definition one time quickly. That’s it, about 3 minutes total.

Tuesday: I ask students to tell me the word, movement, and definition. They repeat those three things with their partner. My slide for the day is a sorting activity: four pictures that show gracefully (the same four from the day before) and four that do not. Students sort the pictures on a two-column chart. Then they draw a picture of the word on their vocabulary notebook – it’s an extra page stuck at the back of their monthly writer’s notebook, nothing fancy – and I dictate the spelling of the word for them to write under their picture. I set a timer for 1 minute while they draw their pictures to help keep us on schedule. I’m not asking for Rembrandts, just a sketch. This one is slightly longer, about 5 minutes.

Wednesday: A repeat of Monday with the second word.

Thursday: A repeat of Tuesday with the second word.

Friday: This is game day. I have saved pictures from previous vocabulary work, and I add in three each of this week’s words. They are in random order. I show the picture and everybody does the movement and then tells me the word. I call it Vocabulary Charades, but it’s not charades at all. I’ll take suggestions for a better name in the comments. We’ve accumulated enough vocabulary words now that I have two different sets of pictures so that it doesn’t get too long. I alternate weekly. As I accumulate more and more words I will need to choose to fade some of them out or split into even more sets. It hasn’t happened yet, so I’m not sure what I’ll do yet. Friday takes 3-5 minutes depending on the length of the set.

Variations: On short weeks, or when there’s an assembly or something that throws our schedule off, I will combine Monday and Tuesday into one day. It is not at all difficult and still takes less than 10 minutes.

For first grade, I would do exactly the same setup but combine the two days and add a word on game day. That way you could get five words a week in less than 10 minutes most days, 15 minutes on game day.

For second grade, I would do the same as first except have them write a sentence instead of draw a picture in their notebooks.

I don’t feel qualified to give variations for third grade and higher. Feel free to leave your recommendations and suggestions in the comments.

How do I know it works? I have two stories to tell you. We started vocabulary instruction in February of this year. The very first week, one of our words was leafy. Last week (three months after instruction), I was reading a text with the word leafy. I honestly didn’t even think about it, I was just reading. In the middle of the text, several students start waving their hands around. I stop to look, what are they doing? They were doing the movement we had made for the word leafy. They heard it in the story and immediately connected to our work from three months earlier! Story two makes me giggle. Not the first week of instruction, but early on, we learned the word quarrelsome. A month or so ago, two of my girls got into an argument. One girl turned to the other, said “You are so quarrelsome!” stuck her tongue out at her, and walked away. Choosing to use the word correctly in context shows a solid understanding of vocabulary, although in this case a lack of problem solving skills.

Do you teach vocabulary? How long does it take you a day? What are your top tips and tricks?

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Reading Strategies Book- Goal 1

 I had a conversation with a parent at Kindergarten orientation several years ago. It was the week before school would start. I was meeting the parents for the first time and introducing myself to the kids. We talked about buses and lunches and homework and all of the typical concerns parents have. I also like to show parents an example of a book kids will be reading independently by the end of the year and a sample of writing from that May. I want parents to know where we are going and why we do all the fun, crazy, interesting, exhausting things that we do every day in Kindergarten. And then I talk about ways parents can support literacy at home- reading and talking about books together, writing cards and grocery lists, telling stories. I pass out the first book club flyers as a way for parents (primarily from a low-income bracket) to acquire inexpensive books for home. And one dad tosses the flyer aside and says "I'll buy him books when he can read books."

That sentence says a lot about why this chapter is important. "I'll buy him books when he can read books." How will he learn to read books if he doesn't have access to them? How will he learn to tell stories? Relay facts? Explore places and times far away and long ago? "Supporting Pre-Emergent and Emergent Readers" is crucial, because that's how kids learn to read and learn to love reading.

There are 20 strategies in this chapter and all of them are fantastic. Even teachers of older readers may find some of these useful for students who are below level or reluctant readers. I am going to focus on three that I have used in my classroom.

Strategy 1.3 Linger Finger

This is the precursor to one-to-one correspondence. The idea is teaching children to use their finger to linger on the page, pointing at words they know and details in the pictures. Children learn to read pictures and tell the story before they learn to read the words. The linger finger helps them slow down and incorporate details and nuances, instead of flipping rapidly through the text. As readers develop to decoding text, the linger finger helps them focus on each word and track the text as opposed to sliding.

Strategy 1.5 Word Treasure Hunt

I love this strategy for students who are ready to start decoding in emergent level texts. I've had many students (and my own 5-year-old!) who were perfectly comfortable reading words in isolation but absolutely refused to read books because it's too hard or intimidating. Like most classrooms, we have 1-3 sight words a week. I put these sight words on cards in a basket in the library. Students put on their reading glasses (dollar store sunglasses with the lenses popped out), choose a card, and choose a book. Their task is to find that word as many times as they can in the text. Children are amazed at how many words they find! And as they learn more words they start reading and pointing out other sight words that they know. Invariably, they are so proud of knowing that they can read words in books! Dr. Seuss books are fantastic for this because they are "real books" that intentionally incorporate a heavy number of sight words although you can use any text of any level.

Strategy 1.6 Characters Do, Characters Say

This strategy is for literary texts. The idea is to use pictures to describe what characters are doing and what they are saying. My students loved this strategy and got really involved. This was also my opportunity to introduce the speech bubble. I put a paper speech bubble on a stick and let students hold it as they spoke for the character. What a hit! That speech bubble stick made it into our partner reading center where students took turns speaking for characters as they read together. This would also be a good introduction to reader's theater for older readers.

I hope you've enjoyed this peek into my classroom to see some strategies for supporting pre-emergent and emergent readers.  There are 17 more in chapter one that I encourage you to check out and try for yourself. Leave a comment about what has worked for you! Follow along with the rest of the book study for Jennifer Serravallo's The Reading Strategies Book at .

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

I'm back!

I haven't written a post in quite awhile. Sorry about that. Life happens. One of my professional goals this year is to work on my writing. That includes this blog, my class blog (, and writing presentations and proposals for conferences at all levels. I've also taken on some new leadership roles this year, so hopefully I can stick with it!

I changed schools over the summer and my new school uses Engage NY. It's an interesting program that I haven't worked with before. I talked with my new principal about continuing with my math workshop setup (I love my math stations!) within Engage NY. The curriculum is not set up that way at all, but she has given me a lot of freedom to make adjustments and fit what I need. As long as my data shows that students are learning and mastering math skills, I can keep the stations going. Yay!

My plan for this blog is to keep writing about the stations and what we're working on. I'll even share my class data with you - without student names of course. But if I have something else come up that I want to talk about, I might take a break from stations.

I'll use the rest of this post to talk about how to get math stations going at the beginning of the year in a kindergarten classroom. It is a management nightmare! Those sweet little babies walk in at the beginning of the year with nothing. I'm not exaggerating when I say that we spend the first day working on how to sit in a chair and how to zip a backpack. Every tiny detail has to be taught and practiced. So it is very important for you as a teacher to plan out those details. How will students know which center to go to? Will they choose? Will it be assigned? How will you know who has been to which center? How will you keep track of student progress in centers? How will you store all of the materials? Where in the room will centers be located? How many kids can go to each center? Will you grade center work? How? How long will each center be available? Will students do one center per class period or multiple? How will they switch?

The answers to those questions will be different in each classroom, in each unit, and in each season of the year. Kindergartners in August need much more structure and direction than they will in April. The structure that works in my classroom may not fit in my partner teacher's room. There is more accountability in a numbers unit than in a shapes unit. All of those variables will impact the appearance and organization of your stations.

Our very first math stations had little academic focus. I chose to locate the stations at our tables, which limits me to four stations. That means my groups are kind of big, so that may change as the year goes on. I gave each table a bucket of different manipulatives we will be using this year (dominoes, counting bears, pattern blocks, linking cubes, 3D shapes, etc) and I gave them time to explore the manipulatives. I never tell them to play, they lose focus of the importance of their work. Saying explore makes them feel like it is more official. Then, we practiced our signal for cleaning up. Because I wanted them to have lots of practice cleaning up, we rotated two or three times in each session. This let me teach the structure and routine of math stations without worrying about content mastery.

Since then we have been working on counting- lots and lots and lots of counting! Next week I'll talk about some of my counting stations and show you some pictures.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Teen Numbers part 2

Our week of teen number stations went well. Students were able to practice and talk about teen numbers in all 4 stations. About half are still struggling with writing teen numbers correctly, but they can all read and recognize teen numbers with accuracy. We will have an assessment next week to check in on their overall understanding of teen numbers.

I used 4 different stations. Three involved partner work, one was individual.

This is the rekenrek station. If you are not familiar with rekenreks, it is worth it to do some googling. They are cool tools. I have a set I made out of foam board, pipe cleaners, pony beads, and masking tape. Students drew a teen number card and used a rekenrek to show the number. They compared their board with their partner's board, then verbally decomposed the number into tens and ones. Some pairs were very independent with this, some needed more support. But they loved using the rekenrek. It's not a tool we've used often, so the novelty was engaging to students.

This is the missing numbers station, the only individual station in the rotation. These twenty frames were downloaded from, one of my favorite sites. I also made one answer key that I placed on the table for all students at the station to share. This increased students' independence at this station. Even so, this was the most difficult station for students.

This picture shows the Build It station. Students are very familiar with this activity, we have done several different versions this year to practice different math skills. In this version, students draw a teen number card and then build that number on the ten frames using manipulatives. Students love any chance to get the counting bears out. I say bears, but I have dinosaurs, hippos, and aliens too. Students feel like they get to play with toys when they pull these out, even though I've tricked them into practicing math skills! After they built the number on the ten frames, they verbally decomposed the number into tens and ones.

The final station is another that I downloaded from I copied these teen number puzzles onto different colors of construction paper. The colors are for a pure management purpose. Cards and pieces get lost on the floor ALL THE TIME! If each set is a different color, when I find one of those lost pieces, I know exactly which set it belongs to and can return it easily. Without the color coding, I have to search and check each set to figure out which one is missing a piece. Who has time for that? But as you can tell from the picture, pieces still get lost!
These puzzles have three parts: the number, the number decomposed into tens and ones, and the number on ten frames. I really like the redundancy of this practice.And don't worry, the decomposed number still shows the numerals, so students who do not have the reading skills to read the number words can still figure it out.

My team and I designed a short formative assessment we will use next week to assess student progress on K.NBT.1. The mandatory district assessment for the first half of the year will be administered in January. I hope these practice activities help students understand this concept and prepare for these assessments.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Teen Numbers part 1

One of the most challenging standards in the Common Core Math Standards for Kindergarten is K.NBT.1

"Compose and decompose numbers from 11 to 19 into ten ones and some further ones, e.g., by using objects or drawings, and record each composition or decomposition by a drawing or equation (such as 18 = 10 + 8); understand that these numbers are composed of ten ones and one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, or nine ones." (

For 5 year olds who began the year without knowing how to count to 10, mastering this standard less than 9 months later is a challenge to say the least. And my district has chosen to put it in the second grading period, meaning my students are expected to master this skill less then 5 months after they walk in the school doors for the first time.

That's a tall order.

I'm not going to debate here on whether or not that's a good idea or developmentally appropriate. I have lots of opinions on the topic, but I am choosing not to share them here.

What I do want to share are the ways I teach this standard so that my students have the best chance of developing a clear understanding of this concept when they are developmentally ready. Last week was our introduction to this topic. We worked as a whole group to break down each number from 10 to 20 using ten frames. We verbally discussed how each number looked on the ten frame, touching them physically at every opportunity. We also practiced with fingers, showing ten and ___ more so that students could physically act it out with a partner. I believe it is hugely important for young students to interact with concepts in as many concrete ways as possible.

It took us 4 days to get through all of the numbers. If that sounds like a long time, you know how intense our work was.

The plan this next week is to use a variety of math stations to practice these skills. It also gives me a great opportunity to assess where each student is individually and provide quick practice and feedback as necessary. I'll let you know how it went next week (with lots of pictures!).

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Motivation, Challenge, and Behavior

I'm currently doing a book study of Drive by Daniel Pink with a Voxer group led by Tammie Neil ( @MathNeil). I just finished chapter 5 and it has really gotten me thinking about a lot of things.

I teach at an extremely challenging school: inner city, 98% free-reduced lunch, high minority, high transiency, high truency. If you name a risk factor for poor school performance, we have it in spades. We also have the lowest test scores of the elementary schools in our district. This also translates to a lot of behavior problems. A lot.

Don't get me wrong. I love my school and I love my students. It is my passion and my calling to teach here. But I have a very realistic view of the student population. They have not been taught social skills and most of the modeling they have is less than positive. Violence is the normal in their homes and neighborhoods, so it becomes the normal in their classrooms too.

Many of my amazing, hard-working, professional colleagues struggle with behavior management, and I do too! It's hard! But I have taken up the mission of preaching good lesson planning as a behavior management system. "What? What does lesson planning have to do with behavior? We need to talk about norms and rules and expectations. We need to make color charts and point sheets and treasure boxes." Very few people think I am sincere, and I think Daniel Pink explained exactly why for me today.

"When Motivation 2.0 sought compliance, Motivation 3.0 seeks engagement."

As Pink defines it, Motivation 2.0 is the carrot and the stick, rewards and punishments, motivational system in place in schools (and businesses) since the mid 19th century. That's what I grew up with in school as did the vast majority of my colleagues. That's what we revert to, especially in stressful situations, and every day has some stressful situations.

But Motivation 3.0 is a more efficient and positive motivational system. It focuses on choice, empowerment, challenge. All of those things we who wish to be master teachers strive to incorporate into our classrooms every day. But can it work in a school like mine? Will challenge and choice help these deeply troubled kids? I very strongly and firmly believe yes. I think it is one of my main roles as a teacher to provide my students with instructional experiences that are exciting and challenging, that help lead them toward mastery, that empower them to choose their own learning. And I have found that when my students are most engaged, the frequency and intensity of behavior problems decreases. They are not eliminated, this is not a 100% guarantee, but I know it makes a difference. And my goal is for the lessons and activities that I share here to be those kind of lessons.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Economics Simulation

Basic economics is one of the topics required in kindergarten social studies. Previously, my unit has centered on vocabulary: needs, wants, scarcity, abundance, producer, consumer. But two weeks of teaching vocabulary and quizzing five-year-olds on the differences is boring and not very effective. This year, with some help from my PLN on #tlap and #bfc530, I developed a simulation that covers all of the same concepts - and vocabulary! - in a way that is much more engaging and memorable.

I've put all of my components that I made on Teachers Pay Teachers, if you're interested.

The entire simulation took 8 days. I did this with kindergarten, but you could adapt for any age group. The reflection sheet was designed for emerging readers and writers, but could also be adapted.

 Day 1 - Students decorated their Spuzzie (the name I gave the creatures in our simulation). They chose a job (farmer, electrician, plumber, tailor, doctor, toy maker) and rolled a 1-3 die. I recorded all of the info. Because I wanted the Spuzzies to survive for the entire simulation, they were drawn on cardstock. I stapled a quart size plastic bag to the back to hold all of the materials. Everything else was done on paper. We also had a brief discussion about things that people need.

Day 2 - The first day of the simulation. Each student was given a need card with things their Spuzzie needed, resources based on their job, and $10 (green paper squares). They had to use the money and the resources to fill up their need card. I specifically did not give a lot of directions, I wanted them to problem solve. Many students were not able to get all of their needs on this first day, and a few were very frustrated. We had a whole group reflection time where we talked about the problems that came up and how some students solved those problems. I did step in for a few logistical problems too, but I tried to stay out of it. Each student also completed a reflection sheet about how their day went. We did this every day of the simulation.

Day 3 - Same as day 2. They made some changes and it went much more smoothly.

Day 4 - This day they learned about scarcity. I did not introduce the word, I just told them that the farmers had a drought and there was less food. Again, some kiddos were frustrated, they couldn't get everything they needed. We had another class reflection discussion where I introduced the vocabulary for what they had just experienced, scarcity. Their discussion was amazing! I asked how they had solved the problem. One student said that he got all of his food first before the farmers ran out. One student said that she got one food resource from each farmer and went to several farmers to get everything she needed. One student said that he gave the farmers extra money so they would give him the food. These are all solutions they came up with completely on their own! I was so impressed with how close their solutions were to real life!

Day 5 - This day was all about abundance. Instead of $10, everyone got $15. I introduced the vocabulary at the beginning of the lesson this time. When I said the day was about abundance, one little voice called out, "What does that mean?"
"Well, it's the opposite of scarcity," was the only reply I managed to get out.
"Oh! So that means there's a whole lot!"
I was amazed. Instead of spending half of the lesson teaching and drilling vocab, students were self-defining new words in the first few minutes.

Day 6 - Inflation was the topic today. I raised the rent and shelter cost almost all of their pay. Some students had money saved up that they used. Other students relied more on bartering on this day.

Day 7 - This was my favorite day. Remember on the first day when they rolled a 1-3 die? This is why. Today they had babies! And of course babies have needs, so they had to gather extra resources for their babies. Most of the students were more interested in drawing and coloring their babies than gathering resources, but they got it done. They had a great discussion. The students who had 3 Spuzzie babies thought it wasn't fair that some students only had 1. The toy makers were very excited because their resources were finally needed!

Day 8 - I set one entire class period aside for reflection. We reviewed each day, sometimes using their reflection sheets to refer back to, and reviewed the vocabulary for each day. I was so proud of their retention. They were able to define the vocabulary in their own words and give examples. It was impressive! And not just one or two of my brightest kids, all of them were excited to share what they had learned. Then we talked about which day was their favorite.This was a fascinating conversation. Some liked abundance day best, and that made sense. But the best comment was from one of my girls. She said she liked baby day best because she had saved up all of her money on all of the other days so she could take really good care of her babies! What a powerful life lesson for these little kindergarteners.

I will definitely do this simulation next year. It was a lot more fun than my previous attempts at teaching economics and more effective too!