Nov. 27 – Student Conferences

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I like to get feedback from students at every point possible throughout the semester.  It starts during the first week of class, when I block out time to meet with each student individually.  This means canceling classes for at least a day, usually two.  I have debated whether or not these initial conferences are worth the lost class time, and I even tried doing without them one semester.  When I didn’t have those meetings in the first week I never felt like I knew the students as well, and I realized that I use the information gathered in this initial meeting throughout the semester.  I returned to those first-week conferences the next semester and have done them ever since.

I have students fill out information forms before our meeting, and the information they provide gives me a basis for an introductory conversation.  Aside from the usual demographic stuff I ask them about their reading – what do they like to read, what do they most want to improve about their reading, what is their greatest strength as a reader?  Sadly, far too many students draw a total blank when trying to answer that last question – “I don’t have any strengths.”  sigh.

I also ask them if they are upset about being placed in a non-credit “developmental” reading class.  Most say they are resigned to taking it, though many don’t understand why they have to do so.  Some are honest and say that yes, they are angry about being forced to take a non-credit class they don’t think they need.  I find that acknowledging and addressing that resistance right away as honestly as I can is the most effective way to defuse it before the mood of an entire class is affected.

I also meet with students at the end of the semester in lieu of a final exam.  We talk about the semester and what should come next for them.  For many students it is a formality but for some it is a powerful moment of affirmation and connection, and for me it is a time to say “Well done” or “I know you’ll do better next semester.”

And now, in addition to these two meetings, I think I want to start having midterm conferences as well.  I have avoided them for a couple of reasons up until now: the additional lost class time and the question of how to just meet with the students I need to meet with, i.e. the ones who aren’t doing as well.  I thought about allowing A students, or perfect attendance students, or some such criterion students a pass on midterm conferences, but that seems to send the message that if you’re good you don’t have to do this thing, which makes “this thing” not a very appealing thing at all.  But why take the time to meet with students just to say “you’re doing great, keep it up?”  Or even more so, with the passively competent students who have absolutely nothing to say and look at me like I’m crazy when I thank them for coming in and ask if they have anything they want to talk about.

But I think it is so important to meet with the shaky students – the ones I might not lose if I reach out at the right time.  It’s so hard to know, and I do try to remember that I am not the only influence in their lives; so many of my students’ lives are so complex, with so many demands and challenges, that sometimes it seems a miracle they get to class at all.  Maybe I will come up with a journal assignment that will give all of my students something to say in a mid-term conference.  That way it is at least not a punitive event, and we might even have some enlightening conversations.  And maybe those good students need to hear that they are doing well.  Sometimes it’s easy to forget the quietly competent.  Don’t want to do that.  Here’s to all of the quietly competent – I think I will make these conferences as much about them as about the strugglers.  That will certainly make for a change of pace, and it will provide me with a new challenge as I design my conference plans next semester.  huzzah.

Nov. 20 – Teaching Vocabulary: Choosing the Words

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Semester after semester, ever hopeful, I try out new vocabulary activities that promise acquisition without insult.  I want to make use of the research: research that tells us that simply providing a list of words to memorize is not going to add those words to students’ lexicons, brain research that tells us that we remember image and rhyme much more easily than we do text.  (And I must add that I feel I am living on the edge and throwing caution to the winds by not citing each instance of that research.)

The way I get around the first challenge – what words to teach – is to have the students create their own lists of words they’ve encountered more than once but still don’t know.  This semester, to make that process easier and give me material to use to teach the words, I made a list of all the words in two cartoon vocabulary books:  Picture These SAT Words by Philip and Susan Geer and Vocabbusters GRE: Make Vocabulary Fun by Dusti and Deanne Howell.  I chose those two books because I wanted to help students learn how to create images to go along with new words.  I’ll write about that effort in a follow-up post.

I gave all the students a copy of the list and had them choose the ten words they would most like to learn.  Then I tallied up their choices, took those choices and came up with eight new words to learn each week.  I then made a list of who requested which words and used that list to make sure that everyone had at least one word included in the weekly words.  And I added a few of my own (serendipity and discombobulated are high on my list of necessary words.)

Their new word list each week included the word, common definitions, synonyms, some kind of image, and at least three context examples.  Context examples are crucial for teaching students how we actually use the words – I will write on that too in a follow-up post.

I have learned that choosing words that students actually want to learn is the first step in a successful vocabulary acquisition project.  As a result, some students go out of their way to demonstrate their new words in every piece of writing they turn in.  I do love them when they do that, and finding reasons and ways to love my students is what it is all about.

Nov. 16 – Of Mosques and Mosquitoes

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Photo by david takes photos. Made available by Creative Commons license.

Yesterday in class we read Ishmael Reed’s “America: The Multinational Society.”  While the primary challenge of his writing style for my students was the length of his sentences (the students were convinced that there had to be of a run-on sentence in there somewhere!), it was their interpretation of the  word mosque that surprised me and unexpectedly enhanced my understanding of their reading process.

I have four sections of the same class, reading the same essay.  In the first hour, when the student who was reading came to the word mosque he first read it as mosquito.  With a few gentle giggles from his classmates, he corrected himself and we moved on.  Then it happened again in the next section – when the student who was reading came to mosque, once again mosquito was seen and spoken.  And again third hour.  And yes, fourth class read exactly the same thing.  So clearly this was not an aberration, one student only glancing at the first few letters and making a best guess from there.  Four students, 100%, every single time.  We had us a pattern.

To me those two words – mosque and mosquito –  don’t look that much alike.  Although they start the same way, the length and endings are clearly distinct.  But every one of the students who read the sentence which contained mosque saw mosquito.  I think they know the word mosqueand they definitely know the word mosquito, so I am thinking it is more about the technical aspect of what exactly our eyes are looking at when we interpret words on the page.  My theory is that they look at the first few letters and then guess at the rest.

I think I need to explore word recognition techniques and tools.  This seems like it may be another key that will help us move toward fluency.

Nov. 15 – Reading Aloud

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Image from Briarpress. Made available by Creative Commons license.

As a college reading instructor, I find the most effective way to teach the skills and strategies of reading complex text is to have the students, in a circle, read aloud.   I know the trauma of reading aloud is epidemic (“the other students made fun of me,” “my teacher would always make me read and everyone laughed” ad nauseum) but the practice is so beneficial to both students and teacher that I believe it is worth confronting the trauma head-on.

When I first present the practice at the beginning of the semester, I can see the panic in far too many eyes.  I assure students by telling them they always have the right to pass when it is their turn.  I don’t mind if they never read aloud all semester, and I most sincerely mean that.  Enough students read from the very first day to keep the practice going, and I rarely have students who pass on reading aloud every class.  The most frightened student I ever had passed for the first two months of the semester, and when, with the class’s encouragement, he finally found the courage to read aloud, he was cheered by his classmates.  In addition, each person only reads one sentence at a time, so it isn’t a huge burden.

And now, let’s look at the benefits.  The students hear each other stumble over vocabulary, over end-of-the-line hyphenations and confusing sentence structures.  They hear their classmates mis-pronounce words, mis-read words, and skip lines when they read.  They learn they are not alone in their struggle to make sense out of printed text.  Their fluency and confidence improve, sometimes dramatically, as the semester progresses.  Students frequently identify reading aloud and the circle as their favorite part of the class, and some have said that reading aloud has given them the confidence to make presentations in their other classes as well.

The benefits to the teacher also abound.  I learn just how many words they don’t really know.  I can hear when the sentence tangles them up, so we can stop and pull it apart.  I can hear when they are reading with interest and engagement and when the text has lost them.  I can stop and make connections, point out signal words and constructions, bring attention to text structures that will help them make sense out of the text.  I can help them focus on what is important, on introductory and concluding sentences, on lists, on similarities among details that will help them identify the main point.  And, at the end of the hour I know that every single student in the class has read that piece of text.

I have even brought the practice home.  My partner and I are reading The Happiness Project and we have been reading a section a day, taking turns reading aloud.  It’s been such a great way to share a book, and my students were delighted (or at least intrigued) to learn that I am reading aloud at home as well!

Burnout Blues


Art by Gwen Meharg –
made available by Creative Commons license

The semester has been over for several weeks now.  I stopped writing this blog midway through the term because I was so discouraged by teaching students who frustrated me in so many ways:

  • students who told me they were too lazy to do the work, and were willing to fail a required, non-credit remedial reading course and be forced to take it AGAIN rather than be bothered to do the work;
  • students who failed quizzes even after I stood at the board and said “This is going to be on the quiz.  This is what I will ask and this is what I am looking for in your answer.”  I don’t think I could possibly have made it any clearer, and yet students who had been sitting in that class and taking notes, missed those questions on the quizzes.  How???
  • one student who had HUGE anger issues.  No matter how gently I corrected her, she flew into a rage and told me she didn’t even allow her mother to speak to her like that.  When her foul language and rudeness finally drove me to pull her out of the classroom and talk to her in the hall, she told me there was no point in anger management because she’d taken every class out there and none of them worked and that’s why she kept going to jail;
  • a young woman who was excited about the ideas we were exploring and participated actively in class, but only showed up one or two days a week out of five.  She consistently reached out to me to arrange to make up work she had missed but then didn’t show up for her appointments, and when I  asked her why, had no explanation except “I don’t know”;
  • Bored, resentful students who didn’t belong in this level of remediation but were placed there by the university because they did not take the placement test as instructed by the Admissions Office.  Our university places students in the lowest level reading class if their ACT scores indicate the need for placement testing but the test isn’t taken.  We do additional placement testing the first two days of classes, but students’ schedules are set and rarely are they willing to shift classes around to move to a higher level.  Unfortunately that means that students with the weakest reading skills are placed in classes with others whose skills are much stronger and who are deeply bored by the time and level of detail needed to help the weakest students improve;

I just got so TIRED.  I even applied for an administrative position (twelve months????) and recently learned, after two interviews, that I did not get the job.  That means I will be returning to the classroom this fall, and I must find my way through this miasma of discouragement – I don’t want to be one of those teachers (I was going to qualify “teachers” with “developmental” but then realized I have seen this bitterness in every level of university instruction) who dislike their students and resent the challenges inherent in teaching them.

When I was considering the administrative job I realized that there were projects I still wanted to try out in a classroom, lessons I still wanted to teach, new ways of teaching the same old stuff I wanted to explore, (and summers I wanted to enjoy!)  So I am going to work hard this summer on visualizing myself in the classroom, grounded in calm.  I am going to do some work noodling around with the concept of expectations and try to see what part that played in my crash-and-burn.  I am going to think about how to re-structure my instruction to help students more successfully make the transition from high school to college.  Colleagues and I have talked about how  freshmen orientation focuses on the social aspects of college life and not the academic expectations.  Social engagement in college is certainly important but it doesn’t necessarily help them pass their classes.  How can we help them understand and truly internalize what it takes to be a successful student?

I need to build in a higher level of accountability for students without making my own workload unbearable.  I need to help them understand the consequences of their choices before those consequences lead them to suspension.  I need to work miracles.  Miracles, find me now.

Three Habits That Slow Down Your Reading

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Some of the reading habits we develop over the years serve us well (and I promise future posts about those), but there are three habits that will dramatically slow down our reading if we let them.  Each of these behaviors can be helpful at times, but should not be an unexamined reading habit.



1.  The first behavior to look for is regression, or the habit of continually re-reading a section of text.  There are times when we need to look back because our reading expectations were confused, we mis-read a phrase, we forgot which character (just discovered lurking in the woodshed) has red hair, or for a myriad of other reasons based on our active reading.  However, when I hear a student say they have to read everything three or four or eight times before they understand it, I know that regression has become their reading habit of choice.

Think for a moment about how we make sense out of text.  It is from left to right, top to bottom.  The words and sentences and paragraphs depend on sequence for sense.  When we start to circle back after every line or every paragraph (few readers who regularly regress can go more than a few lines before wanting to go back) we lose the sequence and thus the sense of what we are reading.

We are also telling our brains “Don’t worry about paying attention this time through.  We’re going to be looking at this several more times, so you can catch it later.”  Not the productive mindset of an active reader.

Stop wasting time on mindless regression and learn to choose when you need to go back to clarify a specific point.  Learn to re-train your brain to pay attention the first time through.  There are many tools to teach you to build up your concentration muscles (another upcoming post, I promise), but first you need to break the habit of regressing.

One simple technique can help you decide if this is a problem for you and give you the tool you need to break the habit if necessary.  Take a 5×8 index card and a piece of easy reading.  The text should be easy enough that there is no legitimate reason to have to go back and reread.  Lay the text flat on a desk or table to minimize the physical awkwardness of moving the index card.  Then use the index card to cover up each line as you finish it, and do not lift up the card to re-read.  As you are reading, pay attention to how it is making you feel.  Are you getting irritated at not being able to look back?  Are you finding yourself lifting up the card to reread, or wanting to?

If you do fight the card, and do find yourself frustrated at the disappearance of the words as you read them, first write a short journal entry describing this experiment and your feelings as you read with the card.  Then start practicing with the card and add to your journal record to track your progress.  Always choose easy text, whether a magazine article or other nonfiction text.  (Don’t use a favorite novel unless you know you regularly regress while reading fiction.)  Read for five minutes at a time, using the card to cover each line of text as you finish it.  Do this daily and as you build your awareness of your own reading process you will learn to break the habit of regression.

Reading Word by Word

2.  The second habit is one we learned at our mother’s knee – reading word-by-word.  The … cat … sat … on … the … mat.  This can also be an effective tool when we need to disentangle complex text, but it should not be our normal reading mode.

We don’t make sense of language in single words – we make sense in phrases.  If you read the words of a sentence one by one, by the time you get to the end of the sentence you have forgotten the beginning of the sentence.

The fix for this isn’t quite as easy because, for most of us, the behavior of our eyes while reading is an automatic process.  Practice expanding your peripheral vision – look at a word and see the words to either side of it.  Do this across a line of text and start to see phrases.  Practice regularly with easy text and don’t worry about the sense of the passage – this exercise is designed to help you start to read in phrases rather than isolated words.

Another tool to try is Live Ink, a wonderful program for reading that takes block text and turns it into a much more readable cascade of phrases.  You can get a beta version of the software at the above link,  which gives you a box to plug in any text you can cut and paste.  The visual experience of seeing each phrase on a separate line is another way to help retrain your brain to see phrases instead of individual words.


3.  The third habit that slows down our reading is vocalizing.  As with the above two habits, there are times when reading aloud can strengthen our understanding.  Often our ears help us make sense of what our eyes don’t understand.  But it shouldn’t be a habit.

Most of us speak at about 100-125 words per minute.  This is much slower than we want to be reading, especially given the quantities of assigned reading to get through in college.

If you aren’t sure if you vocalize, read with your hand over your Adam’s apple to see if you are vocalizing and your hand over lips to see if you are sub-vocalizing.  If you are pretty sure you do vocalize but can’t catch yourself, hold a pencil or a piece of paper between your lips and see what happens.

The best technique for breaking this habit is increasing your speed.  Push yourself to read faster than you can vocalize.  Force yourself to feel rushed, to feel uncomfortable.  Remember that it is only when we move out of that comfortable place of reading as we have always read that we can grow into the efficient, effective readers we are capable of being.

The Direction Resistance Syndrome

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From the first day of class I have been talking to my students about the value of reading directions,fighting the urge to say “We don’t just write these directions for our health, y’know?” (among other, less-publishable expressions of frustration.)

I tell them about the faculty survey I conducted, asking faculty “What do you see as the biggest problem for students involving their reading?”  EVERYONE (and how often do we get a unanimous faculty decision???) said that not reading the syllabus and not reading directions were huge problems for their students.  So I tell the students that.  Over and over and over and ….

WHY are so many students resistant to reading directions?  As a college reading instructor, I know that they resist reading in general, but even when we read the directions in class and I give them a hard copy as well as an online link to those selfsame directions, I get work that is clearly a result of NOT reading the directions.

I gave my students what I thought was the coolest assignment ever.  They created their own collection of interesting blogs on Google Reader, then used those blogs to practice skimming for two weeks.  They were to write a journal with daily summaries of one blog post they had skimmed that day and a final reflection on the process and what they learned about skimming.

Well.  Most of them didn’t turn it in, and most of those who did left out the final reflection, which of course was what I was most interested in.  I spent a couple of days working through my frustration before I talked to the students.  I have found that when I go to them with any anger in my heart I have already eliminated any possibility of being heard.  And I do have a (teensy) bit of a temper, so I am careful about this.

I decided I would rather give them the opportunity to experience the skimming activity for partial credit rather than go the punitive route and just give them zeros for the undone work.  But I was NOT going to explain the assignment again.  I told them my decision, that those who had not turned it in at all would have an additional two weeks to do the project for partial credit, and those who had turned in a partial assignment would have those same two weeks to go back and read the directions and make sure that they had followed them.  Any necessary adjustments would also earn partial credit.

I had a line of students waiting to ask me if they had done it right.  “Go back, read the directions and make your own decision about that.”  Students who had not turned it in explained “Well, I was confused.” In a voice that took great effort not to be raised, I replied “You had TWO WEEKS (okay, I wasn’t exactly successful at the not-raised-voice) to come to me.”

My original title for this post was “The ‘I Was Confused’ Excuse” because I really wonder what goes on in students’ heads when they explain that they didn’t do the work because they were confused.  Is being confused an excuse for not doing anything?  Even after I have told them over and over (and over…) that when they don’t understand they should ASK?

Out of thirty-five students doing this assignment, I had one beautiful response – a page and a half about how hard it was at first so he practiced – he would skim and write a summary then go back and read the post to see if he got it right – I am in love!  A few students had paragraph-long reflections that were okay quality but huzzah they had done it.  One student had only turned in the daily summaries and after my announcement, went back, added titles to each summary and re-submitted it, still without the final reflection.

I am wondering what more I can do to teach them the importance of this seemingly simple task.  Since one of the basic premises of my teaching is to problematize teaching issues and turn them back to students, I think I will ask them that question.  Maybe another reflection journal? – Why do students routinely ignore directions even when it is damaging their grade?

We will see in two weeks what gets turned in this time around.  [cue suspense music]  Until then, READ THE DIRECTIONS.

How Does Texas Determine Prison Facilities? 4th Grade Reading Scores | The Atlanta Post

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Photo by Tim Pearce, made available by Creative Commons license

I came across this article from the Atlanta Post and felt my heart stop.  Good Lord.  Fourth grade???  If a child can’t read at grade level in fourth grade let’s get that prison cell ready.

I honestly don’t even know what to say here.  This appalls me at such a deep level that I find myself wordless in fury and grief.  Spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to incarcerate the child who has become the man who cannot read.

And heaven forbid we even the playing ground the least bit by making sure that every child gets a good education.  Better spend the big bucks and build more cells to lock ’em up.

The article cites such heart-breaking statistics about the levels of illiteracy in the prison system, and yet every year more and more students come through the schools, not having learned to read.  I am not blaming teachers, parents, students, or anyone else, but we have to find a way to do this better.

Let’s all read aloud to every child we can reach.  If one method of teaching a child doesn’t work, try another.  and another.  What if each adult claimed a share of the responsibility to teach every child to read?  I don’t know The Answer, but we have to do better than this.

2011 © HeyTeach101 &

Don’t Trust the Dictionary


photo by Joelk75 @ flickr

I have found a new site that solves a major vocabulary-teaching problem.

When teaching new words to my students, I used to struggle with the gap between dictionary definitions and common usage.  If students create a sentence based solely on the dictionary definition of a new word, nine times out of ten (made-up statistic) the sentence will sound wrong.  Trying to explain why it sounds wrong was a challenge I often struggled to meet.

So I started requiring the students to use online dictionary sites that include context examples.  It is surprisingly obvious when the students have made up sentences rather than copied legitimate example sentences, which taught me that the dictionary definition is not enough to help them learn to use new words appropriately.

Last semester we used a variety of dictionary sites, and I had the students rate them according to their usability.  I wanted sites that included context examples, but there wasn’t a lot of consistency about whether or not a site included context examples.  Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t.

Well, eureka!  I just discovered Wordnik, a site that exists to provide definitions and a multitude of example sentences.  I have revised my computer lab assignment, and now the students will be required to use Wordnik first, then find a similar definition and context sentence (if available) at another dictionary site.

Check out Wordnik – way cool!

2011 © HeyTeach101 &

Building Blocks of a College Reading Class

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photo by riekhavoc on flickr

As I prepare to teach our most basic reading course for college freshmen this fall, I find myself trying to distill what I know about teaching reading to its most basic, crucial components.  I will have these students five days a week, which is intimidating but also freeing – I know that active, creative teaching strategies take time, and meeting every day will give us that time.

So, what is at the heart of reading instruction?  At first I thought I would go micro to macro: start with the smallest parts – words and then details.  Once the students understand the words and recognize the details, the comprehension skills – identifying the main idea, seeing organizational patterns in text, recognizing author’s tone and purpose, etc. – will all start to fall into place.

But as I was writing this (the first time, before Word Press ate it and I had to start over), I realized that before I have students break down paragraphs for words and details, I want them to learn to preview the text before reading. So few students know how to do this or realize how crucial it is for understanding; many students identify previewing as the most useful skill they learn in my reading classes.  Previewing gives us a framework we use to make sense of the details.  So, our semester will consist of playing with words, discovering the power of standing on the mountain top and experiencing the view, then learning to analyze the details.

Today I tried out my plan when I met with a new adjunct teacher, gave her the textbooks and a brief summary of this post as a way to help her decide what to focus on as she begins to plan her classes.  Went well.  She was pleased and encouraged and said this approach made a lot of sense.  (She was also relieved that I didn’t expect her to cover the whole book, but that’s another post for another day.)  Sense is good.  I’m never quite sure how well sense translates to classroom success, but remain ever hopeful.  I’ll let you know.  It’s all in the details.

2011 © HeyTeach101 &

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