Book Review: Where the Wild Things Are

I think books should be rated in numbers from 1 to 1000, that number representing the number of times that you are willing to read the book to the child, and a second time the number of times the child wants to have the book read. On that scale, Where

To Find Out Who is the Wildest Thing of All, Read the Book

the Wild Things Are is a 1000/1000. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of the magical story of the boy who “wore his wolf suit and made mischief.” But in the area of stimulating creative thought and reflection, the book is a winner as well, because it raises more questions than it answers. The first of which is, how did Max leave for a year and come back the same day? And then there’s the question of whether the Wild Things are really naughty or not. A story about imagination, about freedom and life’s consequences and yes, about redemption, with some of the most remarkable illustrations in a children’s book I’ve ever seen — well, it is simply a classic classic.

What is a struggling reader?

Is my child reading well enough?  Sometimes you know it’s going well — and sometimes you’re not sure.  Your child’s marks in reading are low, or your child has been nominated to reading tutorials after school, or you’re home schooling and your child doesn’t like books like your friend’s kids.  You feel like something might be wrong but you hope that it’s going to be okay.  Somehow.

Yeah I’ve been there.  I had the two oldest daughters who were star readers and then my son came along and he didn’t like books too much.  He didn’t read in kinder, he didn’t read in first grade … long story short in fourth grade I did an extensive intervention following suggestions from Writing Road to Reading and he caught up, but … it wasn’t easy.

How do you know if your child is a struggling reader?  Teachers use a system of book difficulty; if the child can read grade level text at a reasonable rate, it’s not an emergency, generally.  But for parents and home schoolers, who don’t have a leveled library, the problem is harder.

The way to check this at home is, one, use a reading decoding test like the San Diego Quick Assessment.  This test determines your child’s ability to decode text, that is how “hard” the words your child can handle are.  But there is a second question:  how fast can your child read?  This is the fluency question.  Basically, in elementary, the fluency expectations are as follows, in words per minute read.  Find a book your child is comfortable with and wants to read, and see how far they get in a minute.  If they’re reading much slower than their grade shows, they are behind in reading mastery.  How far behind?  That will have to be the subject of a future post.  But if they’re reading at  half the speed suggested or less, I would say you need to consider interventions/extra help, certainly.

Grade                                                                Reading Speed

1 40-60
2-3 60-100
3 100-130
4 130-160
5 160-180
6 180-200
7-8 200-220


We were Reading Independent Books when Independent Books Weren’t Cool

Back in my glory days of homeschooling, my daughters did a basics phonics program (I remember how basic:  it was a set of letter cards from the corner store) in first grade. Once they learned the sounds of the letters I turned them loose on books.  The earliest books were the I Can Read Series.   Hop on Pop , The Foot Book and Red Fish Blue Fish; Are You My Mother, Danny and the Dinosaur,  the Frog and Toad series.

And then, when they had mastered those by reading them all over and over, we used to go to the library and check books out once a week.  We would go to the Easy Readers section at first, then we went on to the regular children’s section.

By second grade they were expected to read an hour a day, after lunch, but often read more on their own time.  Because we had no TV and no computers, there was little to distract them from books.

I admit the two of them never had trouble learning to read.  But nevertheless, it was a big moment for me when, having found out from some home school magazine that I should check their math and reading achievement,  they took the California Test of Basic Skills in 4th and 6th grade, and they had topped the scale – both above 98% in reading.  It was then that I realized our home schooling program was really working.

In today’s classroom, independent reading in finally “in”.  No one has to convince me about this being good for kids — I was teaching independent reading before it was cool, and we also had the first SUV on the block, back in 1994.

Reading Skills: The 5 “Have-to-Master” Objectives for First Grade Reading

Reading GirlThis morning I read a blog post by Lisa at “Golden Grasses. “ “Dispelling the Educational myth of the Fly-Over” discusses how so much in education is “covered” in a way that is so minimal it leaves the student unable to remember what was taught. I’ve long believed in the benefit of going deeper into fewer topics than is generally expected according to the district or state’s curriculum framework. The State of Texas TEKS has 124 objectives, to my count, for first grade reading alone. That seems like way too many.

Some of these objectives – phonics and oral language, for one – are a significant part of the school day, all year long; these objectives are just way more important than others. Some of the objectives reinforce each other.  And some represent the summation of all: if you’ve got students reading by themselves and creating book reports about what they’re reading, they’re covering just about every objective in first grade literacy independently.

But back to the beginning: how do we prevent the “Educational Fly Over” that Lisa writes about? Well – in a regular classroom, it’s difficult since all the students are going at a different pace. However, trying to use hands-on support activities with the books you’re reading aloud, reading a group of of books on the same general topic aloud, re-reading the same book and performing various comprehension exercises on it – will all allow the students to get a “deeper not wider” experience.

And just for today, I’m going to map out the five “have to” reading objectives for 1st grade – do not send the student on without these or trouble is on the way:

1. Understand how English is written and printed including that spoken words are represented by letters; letters are sequenced by alphabet; know capitalization and punctuation.
2. Demonstrate phonemic awareness/be able to break words into component sounds.
3. Decode words using consonants, vowels, consonant blends, digraphs and dipthongs.
4. Read with appropriate fluency (that’s generally about 40-60 words a minute by the end of first grade).
5. Comprehend a variety of texts and predict, ask relevant questions, and summarize what has been read.

And by the way – if the student has mastered #4, fluency, and they read 60 words a minute, and understand what they’ve read and can talk to you about it – it’s a pretty good likelihood that they’ve mastered the lion’s share of the 124 total objectives.

Interventions for reading: 7 steps for teaching the struggling reader, or any reader

  1. Phonics Instruction: Make or buy cards of the 70 Orton-Gillingham phonograms (the letters and groups of letters that make sounds in English) and the discrete sounds each phoneme can make. Teach the phonograms by holding up the card, showing the letter or set of letters, saying the sound(s) that phonogram makes, and having the student recite the sounds. Once the student(s) know the phonograms orally, teach them to write them as you say them.  Teach this skill to mastery of all the phonograms.
  2. Phonemic awareness: Teach students to break words into their component sounds.  Start with simple three-letter words such as “dog” (d-o-g)  and cat.  Have the students say each sound in the word separately.  As they master the simplest words, go on to harder words.  Remember to listen for sounds, not letters (super: s-oo-p-er, five letters but four sounds.)Teach them to clap syllables and then teach them to segment the syllables in order.
  3. Blending: Write a word on the board.  Say “sound” and point to a letter.  The student says the sound.  Then point to the next letter and do the same.  When the student has said all the sounds, say “blend,” and run your finger across all the letters.  “Blend” is the cue for them to say the word.   If they don’t get the word right, do the drill again.  If the students are slow at developing this skill, you can scaffold by using word families (words with different beginnings but the same ending) to reinforce the skill.
  4. Read and track: Have a book for every student doing the exercise and for yourself.  Tell the students to put their finger on the first word.  Read the passage and have the student(s) put their finger on the word as you read.  They may read chorally (all together) or may listen to you or to a tape, but their finger must follow along with the spoken text.
  5. Scaffolded reading: The text is at the right level for scaffolded reading if the student is getting more than 9 words out of 10 correct.  If he is not, use easier text or go back to steps one to three. Once the student can blend and track text, find a passage of text or a book made of simple words you believe the student should be able to sound out.  Give the student the passage and tell him to read it.  If he is stuck, point to the word and say “sound it out.”  If he can’t, give the initial sound.  If he still can’t, supply the word and go on.  If the student miscues (reads one word wrong in a sentence) at the end of the sentence, ask, “Is that right? Read it again.”  Have the student go back over the sentence and find their error.
  6. Dictation: Have sentences of words the students know how to spell.  Give the student a pencil and paper.  Say the sentence.  Repeat if needed until the student has written it down.  Give the student a colored pencil and show the correct writing of the sentence.  Have the student correct their own work.
  7. Teacher Review of Independent Reading:  Once the student can independently read a text and think about text at their reading level, allow students to read self-selected books and write reports or make drawings to report back to the teacher on what they’ve read.

9 things to do to do when students don’t learn

A question that showed up on twitter yesterday intrigued me greatly:
“Don’t tell me you believe all students can learn. Tell me what you do when they don’t.” Rick DuFour

It happens in the best of classrooms.  The instruction is delivered and the bulk of the class is moving forward.  But one, or two, or three or four students aren’t getting the material.

The steps for the teacher at this point are several.  If the reason for the lack of movement seems to be academic, it’s pretty simple:

  1.  Use or create an interpretive assessment to break down the process you are trying to teach and figure out at what point the student is “not getting it.”  In primary this could be things like counting, phonics, knowing how to break words into sounds, listening and following instructions, or listening comprehension (following a story’s details and creating meaning of the words).
  2. Use small group instruction to reteach those skills at a level the student can practice them.
  3. Check back in two to three weeks and see if the student is improving.  Go through this process repeatedly all year long.

But what if the reasons the student is not moving are more holistic:  attitude or willingness problems.  These problems have affected most students I have seen with learning gaps.  For these students, the most important interventions are in terms of personal behavior and relationships.  These interventions are administered all day long at appropriate times

4. Full class interventionTeach the routines!  When students know how to get in line exactly, they generally do it right.  If they are confused, there’s room for error and disruption.  Break each routine down into steps and teach the steps.

5. Praise good work and give the praise to the ones who struggle as soon as they demonstrate success.

6. Individual Interventions:  If the student is off-task, a change in seating, frequent encouragement, and recognition of success are some of the steps to take may help.

7. Put the name of the struggling students on a card near your instructional space (writeboard or Smartboard) and call on those children most frequently using differentiated questions that they can answer.  Provide scaffolding if needed.  Continue daily.

8. If the student is immersed in the social life  of the class and won’t focus on the work, a two-minute daily one on one conference and the teacher’s reassertion of her commitment to the student will often help. Make yourself a social support and the student may become less peer-dependent.

9. If the student is defiant and unwilling, it may be necessary to discuss the matter with the parents, first on the phone.  For more severe cases, if behavior doesn’t improve, the teacher may request the parents to come to the building.  And if that doesn’t work, a conference with teacher, parent, student and administration has helped. These interventions are time consuming but as long as they are always motivated by the fact that the student needs to learn, I have found parents to be concerned and cooperative.

Have I covered it all?  Fellow teachers, what do you do when the student isn’t progressing?

Next week:  More on this topic:  Practical (and classical) reading interventions for primary.

Reading Scores Review

In which I explain why the class’s reading scores aren’t quite what I would have hoped … but that at the same time, they’re better than I should have been able to expect … I would argue that the classical methods (phonics drills, class recitation, grammar) I am using with the class had a very positive effect in the face of several difficult situations. Istation scores 2016

It can be hard being a teacher, when you’re judged by data.  The above reading chart shows that the class on average gained a year in reading skills .  That is the expectation of administration, and it has been met.  However, this interpretation does not fully reflect the situation … my class had a superlative year! If you look at the data in more depth, you would find that ten of the students gained at a 1.5 pace (learning 1.5 months  of reading per month of enrolled time) most of the rest gained a year, and two students gained only 6 months,  despite all efforts.

Some factors not reflected in istation’s Summary graph …

  1.  Approximately 18 students left and entered the class, many arriving and then again leaving midyear.  Only nine remained all year. This is an incredible level of mobility, which stresses everyone.
  2. Several of the students who left were some of the higher readers.
  3. At Christmas, four new immigrant children, one of which knew no English, entered the class with very low reading scores. By May, all of these had made a fast rate of progress, gaining 49 points, 27 points, 19 points, and 17 points, where 14 points is a year, in four months.
  4. The class has at this time six children who have exhibited severe behavior (I began the year with nine).  Nevertheless, learning has continued at what I can only call a rapid pace despite various distractions (fellow teachers you know what I am talking about).

Overall, I am proud of our results.  At the end of the year, in running record tests, 8 of the children are on level for second grade, eight are six months or less behind, and four are further than 6 months behind. Having begun with only two who were on grade level in September, that is pretty darn good!

Math Facts are Fundamental

I can remember when I was in school an important part of the math curriculum was sheets of math facts.  We needed to do 100 of them in 5 minutes to show mastery.  The structure of our work on math facts was simple:  in first grade, you mastered addition facts, in second; subtraction; in third, multiplication, and in fourth, division.

Today in the midst of complicated curriculum and math lessons that include five distinct steps, it would seem that more and more students do not know their math facts.  And I think the reason is simple:  When I look in our state curriculum objectives I do not find math facts at all, let alone an expectation of mastery such as 100 facts in five minutes.

Before the calculator was ubiquitous, knowing math facts was critical for doing such chores as balancing your checkbook.  But just because we have calculators doesn’t mean that math facts are unimportant. Math facts practice improves mental agility.  Last year when I was in fourth grade my partner teacher complained heartily about the fact that there were students who counted on their fingers.  And students who didn’t know their multiplication facts are in real trouble when it came to long multiplication, not to mention other processes.

This leads me to return to the conviction I started with in home school:  The students must learn their math facts!  It is not going to go away because of calculators or because their mastery was not listed in state teaching objectives.  Here are some resources you can use to help practice: offers self-generated worksheets for one, three and five minute drills in the four functions. 

IXL First Grade Math (there are other grades I put the one I teach as an example) various on line drills to help practice the facts.

Fact Monster Math flashcards: on line practice


The case of the student and my foot

In the spring, it can be hard to keep the class engaged. Sometimes these days they’re sitting on the carpet and I’m hard pressed to get the requisite 8 out of 10 to listen (8 out of ten was the shorthand when I began teaching for determine if the class is engaged.) So it was, yesterday in the early afternoon, when I was trying to get them ready to go into their independent work stations and a girl in the front was staring at my foot. I moved the foot over. Her eyes moved with it. I moved the foot back. Her head turned.

I looked down at the foot.  Loafer and no socks.  I began to feel nervous.  What was she looking at?  I told myself to ignore it.

That’s when she reached out to try to touch it.

I broke down and stopped telling the Ruby Group that today they were in the Listening Center and asked her point blank, “Daisy, what is it that’s so interesting about my foot?”

She looked up and said with complete composure and certainty, “Mrs. C, you are almost old.”

I was shocked and dismayed. “You can tell that from my foot?”

“Yes, look at how the veins are sticking up.”

I drew myself up and said with dignity, “Daisy my veins have always stuck out, that’s the way I was born.” Nevertheless at that second I was swearing to myself never to come to work in sockless loafers again.

Meanwhile, immediately every kid in the class started looking at their hands and wrists to see if they could see their own veins. Daisy traced the inside of her wrist, where you could see tiny blue lines.

“I have to tell you the truth, Daisy, you really shouldn’t call people “old.” I said. “I mean, I’m pretty low key about stuff like that but some people might have their feelings hurt.”

“Okay, Mrs. C,” she said. “I understand.”

The next day, not wanting to wear socks in May, I wore a dress so long it covered my feet. But then when I wanted to demonstrate how to sit “criss-cross applesauce” on the carpet I had problems because the dress was getting tangled on my knees and ankles.

There are many times when teaching is a conundrum.  Learning to instruct the phonics, classroom management, staying comfortable but not looking weird … it’s all a balancing act.  And students know more than you give them credit for.  Daisy’s analysis of my foot was definitely higher order thinking, even if I didn’t like her conclusions.  I wondered, are other teachers learning similar things about themselves from the students?  And how do they handle it?

7 Reasons to Home School and 3 Reasons Why Some People Shouldn’t

It doesn’t happen often but on a couple of occasions a parent in my class will say they have decided, after the year is over, to start to home school.  I always react with support and happiness as, in general, I believe that child will get a better education than can be provided in a classroom.

  1. Homeschooling is, in general, a stronger academic platform – that means your children can learn more, faster when they are working at home.
  2. Homeschooling allows you to create the curriculum that you think your child needs, or to hire someone else to send you the curriculum, to spend extra time on the subjects that are causing trouble, and to move ahead in subjects that are going well.
  3. Homeschooling frees you from having to be in the same place at the same time every day. It absolutely lowers stress levels.
  4. Homeschooling provides great social opportunities for both children and parents to build lasting friendships.
  5. If you know how to build a better mousetrap, you will have the freedom and the time to do so. And so will your children. That means there will be some time to work on you own creativity.  And for the kids, there is no better way to get time for them to study music, art, sports, chess, or any other endeavor in which they have a special skill.
  6. Religious practice in the home is greatly enhanced by the time freed up by homeschooling, and by the central focus given the parents instruction.
  7. You will know and understand your child in a way that few parents do. When they grow up and leave, you will have the peace of saying, “I truly spent the best time and the most time I could with them.”

So, why aren’t more people home schooling?  Because of these three groups who shouldn’t:

  1. You should not home school if you have something else, such as a career, art endeavor, or hanging out with your friends, that you wish to do more than homeschool. Homeschooling is a job, it is not akin to dropping kids off at the school, you have to report to the kitchen table just about every day and set out the schoolwork, and follow up to make sure it gets done.  This can be easy for some parents, and hard for others, but it’s pretty much impossible if the parent doesn’t really want to do it.
  2. You should not home school if doing so would place your family in a seriously difficult financial situation. What is “seriously difficult?”  You’ll have to be the judge.  But, as the Bible says, “He (or she) who does not provide for his own family is worse than an unbeliever.”  Kids need shelter, transportation, medical care and food first.
  3. You should not home school if your husband/wife is against it. Even if you deeply want to do it, if you are married, and your spouse is really opposed, in my opinion it’s not worth it.  What’s “really opposed?”  Again, you be the judge.  You’ll know when you know.