Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

Book recommendation: Phoebe and Her Unicorn by Dina Simpson

Book cover

Book cover

Phoebe is skipping stones one day when she hits a unicorn, who, of course, grants her a wish. And so Phoebe and Marigold Heavenly Nostrils become best friends.

This lovely comic strip chronicles their adventures as precocious Phoebe and not-so-modest, ultra-fabulous Marigold navigate elementary school, bullies, parties, and ordinary life.

Kids will enjoy the colorful illustrations and situations; adults will devour the allusions and witty word play. Love it!

For teachers: Publisher Andrews McMeel Publishing offers a free teacher’s guide with CCSS-aligned activities for grades 3-5.

Book info

Age Range: 8 to 12 (But enjoyable for all ages)
Format: Paperback
Dimensions: 6 x 9
ISBN: 9781449446208
Publication Date: 9/2/2014
Pages: 224
Ebook available too.

Read a Banned Book


Defend the right to read.

Celebrate freedom of speech and thought by picking up a book. Banned Books Week is a great opportunity to remember –and remind others– that access to books is important and must be defended.banned-books-week-logo-2016

How to use reading to teach editing

My top three strategies

Sustained silent reading/DIVA (Dive Into Vicarious Adventure) time to immerse kids in a self-chosen “word flood.” The point is for students to do what Krashen calls “extensive reading,” in order to develop a sense of how language is used in authentic situations. Extensive reading also helps students to develop a sense about how grammar works and how words are spelled, as Simmons points out.

Reading Like a Writer literature units and discussion. When my students and I discuss literature, we reflect on and analyze the elements of fiction: setting, plot, characters, conflict, theme, point of view, tone, etc. But we also consider why the author might have made the choices she or he made while writing the text, and what different choices we might have made had we been writing the piece ourselves. We apply the insights gained through these discussions during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), when we spend the month of November writing first drafts of original novels.

Read-aloud editing. I also frequently ask students to read their own writing aloud to themselves, in order to use their ear to help their eye. This technique is surprisingly effective in sensitizing student writers to the mistakes in their own writing, as often students tend to speak better than they write (at least grammatically speaking!)

Effective literacy instruction

Recommendations for effective literacy instruction based on my teaching practices

In my junior and senior high school English classes at a private all-girl k-12 prep school, I teach higher-order literacy skills through the selection and use of excellent age- and level-appropriate materials, the strategic use of a daily sustained silent reading (SSR) program, and frequent, direct, explicit vocabulary instruction.

Good materials – In our school, we English teachers have the freedom, flexibility, and responsibility as a department of choosing textbooks, workbooks, and supplementary readings that challenge our students and help them develop their language skills in a consistent, deliberate ways. From seventh grade until twelfth grade, we have chosen to have a comprehensive literature textbook, a vocabulary workbook with three hundred new words, a grammar workbook with the same topics revisited year after year in slightly more complex and challenging ways, and supplementary readings (an average of three novels per semester). We work with materials that have been created for native English speakers, since by the time our students reach middle school they are basically bilingual and can do the work at that level of proficiency.

DIVA time – After much research on best practices of literacy instruction in high school, I decided to implement a sustained silent reading program in my classroom. At the beginning of each of my classes, the students and I have ten minutes of pleasure reading, which we call DIVA time –an acronym for what I think reading is: Dive Into Vicarious Adventure. We have created a classroom library full of English language books that are interesting to teenage girls, and from which the students can borrow freely. Each student must keep her book with her until she has finished reading. Rules for DIVA time are simple: 1) Choose any book –in English– you like; 2) Always bring your DIVA book to class; 3) As soon as you arrive at the classroom, sit down and start DIVAing; 4) No talking during DIVA; and 5) Keep track of your reading by writing the title, author, and number of pages in your Daybook, each time you finish (or switch) a book. That’s it. I try to interfere as little as possible with the reading process, since the point is to help the students discover for themselves that reading can be pleasurable, that they can read actual books, and that they are READERS. We have been DIVAing for half a semester, and I see improvement already, particularly in the girls who self-identified as non-readers. In the longer term, I expect to see an improvement in their vocabulary, reading comprehension, and attitude towards reading. We shall see how it goes.

Direct, explicit vocabulary instruction – In our school we are committed to direct, explicit vocabulary instruction, particularly of the academic vocabulary students need to perform well in national standardized tests. We have vocabulary workbooks, quickly quizzes, online flashcards, monthly and quarterly review tests, etc. But that’s not all we do. Every day we call our students’ attention to words: fun words, weird words, spooky words, foreign words, antonyms, synonyms, roots, affixes, etc. Since we teachers love words, we convey that same appreciation of language to the girls in everything we do. So far, it’s working too. We are seeing steadily rising scores and best of all, the students frequently tell us anecdotes about how they used their new words in non-school contexts!

Building background knowledge = better readers

In our school, we build students’ background knowledge, and thus, their ability to activate schema to decode texts and increase their reading comprehension, by focusing on two key strategies: explicit vocabulary instruction and extensive reading. These two strategies, which Nigel Stott recommends in his article “Helping ESL Students Become Better Readers: Schema Theory Applications and Limitations,” form the foundation of an integrated approach to building the English language proficiency of our middle and high school students to native or near-native levels.

As a teacher of eleventh and twelfth grade English, here is how I do it:


Each week, we discuss the two new ten-word lessons from our Holt Vocabulary Workshop, focusing on word components (affixes and roots) as well as how to transform the given word to other parts of speech. The students complete practice exercises using the words (sentence completions, synonyms, analogies, sentence writing) and access the lessons on, where they can play word games and print flashcards as preparation for the weekly quiz. The 25-point quiz focuses on vocabulary in context and application through short answer questions. To force students to have multiple exposures to the words, and thus increase the likelihood of recall and incorporation into their working academic lexicon, I give monthly 50-point, 5-lesson review tests and quarterly 100-point, 10-lesson review exam.

In addition to this formal vocabulary study, we notice and discuss interesting words that we find in our literature selections and in the students’ free-choice independent reading. The students get a kick out of recognizing their new words in other contexts, and they encourage each other to incorporate the new vocabulary into their everyday interactions. Since I value words and reward word-sense, my students tend to feel comfortable playing with words as well. This playfulness comes in handy during the implementation of the next strategy: extensive reading.


I want my students to be immersed in what Kelly Gallagher in his book Readicide calls a “word flood,” a print- (and vocabulary-) rich environment that tempts kids to experiments with words, first through reading and then through writing. From seventh grade on, our students have assigned supplementary novels that they read on their own. By eleventh grade, the kids read three classic novels per semester; assessment of each reading is done through an objective test, and an in-class essay, as well as completion of a study guide (the students can work collaboratively and choose which questions to answer).

In addition to this mandatory independent reading, my students also have fun independent reading time: the first ten minutes of each class is devoted to silent sustained silent reading. The only rule is that the student must read a self-chosen book written in English. No homework, magazines, or Spanish allowed! I have already noticed how even my most reluctant readers look forward to this time, and how everyone, even the bookworms, has improved her reading fluency.

I believe this two-pronged approach of targeted, explicit vocabulary learning and extensive reading will lead to more –and better—readers who are also more effective writers, standardized test-takers, and lifelong learners.

Teaching Reading

Phonics or whole language? It’s all moot.
Since I teach English to eleventh and twelfth grade students at a private k-12 school where we expect our students to be fully bilingual, by the time the students enter my classroom they are competent readers, so the whole phonics vs. whole language debate is moot. But our English Department is committed to direct teaching of grammar, vocabulary, reading, and writing skills, which in our school means that we spend time teaching discrete skills as well as integrating them in context.

For example, our students have separate grammar workbooks, vocabulary workbooks, and literature textbooks, as well as supplementary readings (novels and plays). My students take weekly vocabulary quizzes on twenty new words and monthly vocabulary review tests, and every few weeks we practice targeted grammar concepts through worksheets and writing. I integrate all the skills through the literature units, which are heavy on discussion and writing; it is through the literature that we use the new vocabulary, practice grammar, and apply metacognitive reading and writing strategies. In addition, this year I implemented a sustained silent reading program, where for the first ten minutes of every single class, my students and I read self-chosen fun books. The purpose of this in-class reading time is to encourage students to become lifelong readers (and learners) and also to create an environment amenable to what Stott, Krashen, and other scholars have called “extensive reading.”

Krashen on extensive reading
In “The Reading-Spelling Connection,” Stephen Krashen argues that since research shows that direct teaching of spelling and spelling rules is ineffective in increasing students’ language skills, a more practical and successful approach for building spelling competence would be to focus on developing students’ natural “spelling sense” –a feel for “the correct spelling of a word when presented with alternatives on a spell-checker” (np)—through extensive reading. As Krashen points out, the best-read writers have the fewest spelling-related problems. Therefore, Krashen suggests a two-pronged approach to the spelling issue, based on the age of the student:
• in the early years, “let spelling develop naturally through massive reading,” while
• in later years, “provide older students with some guidance in the use of spell-checkers and spelling dictionaries” and teach them that “good writers delay editing concerns [including fixing spelling issues] until the final draft” (np).

I agree with Krashen and Stott on the importance of extensive reading, because “until students read in quantity, they will not become fluent readers” (Bamford and Day, as quoted in Stott, np). That’s why this year my kids and I spend time every day reading for pleasure in the classroom. It’s also the reason why I have invested in creating a classroom lending library full of books designed to tempt teenage girls into developing a reading habit. I call our sacred reading time DIVA time, which stands for Dive Into Vicarious Adventure. After all, that’s what reading is –the opportunity to live vicariously through someone else’s words.

%d bloggers like this: