* Brain-friendly spelling

What does neuroscience tell us about spelling instruction?  An excellent resource for understanding brain-friendly teaching in this area is “The Best of Corwin: Educational Neuroscience,” edited by David Sousa.  (Corwin has been at the forefront of educational research for many years; click on the link to access webinars, free resources, and more.)

educational-neuroscience

In her chapter on The Literate Brain, Pamela Nevills reiterates what we already know.  Memorizing a set of words each week is NOT the way to develop capable spellers.  Instead, she suggests a sequence of skills by grade level.  These are also paired with reading instruction on the same skills.

  • Kindergarten- letter-sound associations
  • First grade- vowel sounds with decodable words, along with exceptions
  • Second grade- complex vowel and consonant patterns
  • Third grade- multisyllabic words, the wonderful schwa (unaccented syllables), and common prefixes and suffixes
  • Fourth grade- Latin-based prefixes, suffixes, and roots
  • Fifth through eighth grade- Greek roots and content vocabulary.

Nevills asserts that only about 4% of English words cannot be spelled using predictable spelling patterns and those are best learned through repetition and memory.  My experience confirms that estimate.  For struggling readers and writers, this is great news!  Students who learn spelling and syllable rules early and systematically actually change the structure of their neural pathways.

What are the implications for classroom and special education teachers?  Learn these rules and patterns for yourself and your kiddos.  There are many available resources online.  Encourage your PLC or grade level team to incorporate these skills into reading instruction.  Reading instruction, especially decoding words, does not end at third grade!  A bonus for teachers in Educational Neuroscience:  Each section provides student demystification of our brain processes for that topic, including a scripted discussion starter.

I’ll share more about this terrific resource in later posts.  

* Christopher and me: what to read?

If you’re following this blog, you know I am tutoring my nephew, Christopher.  He’s A Sweet Dude (ASD) who flies into the house 4 times a week, calling out, “Aunt Katharine!  Aunt Katharine!”  When we started working together, I was a bit daunted by his weaknesses in language, social skills, reading comprehension, and writing.  But you would not believe his amazing progress!  He is a real trooper, working as hard as he can during long sessions after school.  Christopher writes 5 paragraph stories using graphic organizers, with over 80% of the work unaided by me.  That’s a huge reversal from his inability to write independently at all when we started.

Christopher’s progress in reading is equally strong.  While he still does not enjoy reading out loud, he understands that it helps him read more carefully; allows us to discuss unfamiliar vocabulary; and provides opportunities for analysis of characters and plot and making inferences and predictions.  I give him a “speeding ticket” when he races past punctuation, his eyes widening with delight as he gets ticketed.

How do I decide what books for him to read?  Like many kids on the autism spectrum, Christopher can identify words at grade level, but his comprehension lags well below that.  His preferred interests are video games, but given his eagerness for tutoring, I don’t need to stick with Mario Bros to keep his attention.  I look for books which are at his word-recognition level and will require him to learn needed skills.  Most importantly, I match the essence of him.  Christopher has a wacky sense of humor and loves anything gross, with shades of mischief and mayhem (yes, we are related!).  That brings to mind Roald Dahl, right?  We started with “The Twits” and have graduated to “James and the Giant Peach.”  These books provide a socially acceptable way to talk about nostrils and cabbage-shaped aunts and sad events to which he has strong personal connections.  Would you believe I have to force him to stop reading?   It’s all good.

James and the Giant Peach 2.jpg

 

 

* Anonymous scholars

This month’s Teaching Children Mathematics features an excellent article entitled “Learning From the Unknown Student.”   What’s that about?   The idea is to expose students to effective strategies and prompt analysis of others’ mathematical reasoning by using “anonymous scholar” work.  The unknown student provides an avenue for sharing an alternate problem- solving approach without leading students to believe it’s the Teacher Way of doing math.  I typically employ a variation of this strategy in writing and social skills, but it is equally effective in math.

Let’s say I want a student to recognize a common error in her writing, perhaps an abundance of incomplete sentences.  But this kiddo does not see those mistakes and is already hyper-sensitive about correction.  That’s when I introduce “a student from last year” whose writing is replete with the same errors.  Now my student becomes a helpful editor and delights in using effective strategies to catch those errors, such as reading the sample out loud and using a rubric or checklist.  I have found that students are much more relaxed about revisions and editing when they have sliced-and-diced someone else’s work.  Where do I find these student samples?  Some are actually students from last year.  Others are copied from Google images or a search such as “writing samples, grade 2.”

For those students who struggle to add a specific feature to their writing, such as an effective opening sentence, I will use commercially-prepared mentor texts (Empowering Writers is a good choice) and graphic organizers with built-in prompts (usually created by me).  There’s no point in replicating my students’ dismal classroom experiences, where other kids seem to write effortlessly.  Those scholars are not anonymous.

In social skills instruction, I tell anecdotes or write social stories about anonymous scholars who struggle to make friends or follow directions.  I have also referred to “a student at another school, but I can’t tell you his name.”  It’s amazing how my students immediately verbalize highly effective strategies for dealing with these issues.  For the younger set, we watch puppets literally wrestle with familiar social and academic glitches.  Sometimes I wonder what kind of teacher I am, since Rocky the raccoon and Sandy the pup never learn to take turns, listen to others, or manage their frustration!

In the examples I’ve shared, there is a downside to using anonymous scholars.  A student with very low self-esteem may attempt to build his confidence on the back of that pitiful kid who can’t add 1 + 1.  However, I think that is more easily managed than erasing 50% of the answers on a math page, then telling the kids they are improving.  Who would believe that?  silhouette

* Vocabulary A-Z

Vocabulary A-Z is a classy online resource to support vocabulary development under the Learning A-Z umbrella.  Vocabulary weaknesses may underlie reading comprehension problems and are often characteristic of students with language disabilities, dyslexia, autism spectrum disorder, and English language learners.  Vocabulary A-Z offers pre-made lessons linked to Reading A-Z; in fact, they’re also linked to Science A-Z, Harcourt Trophies, Macmillan Treasures, Scott Foresman Reading Street, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Journeys.

How does it work?  Teachers can select from pre-made lessons, as noted above, or find pre-made vocabulary lists from three grade levels: Tier One for grades K-1, Tier Two for 2-5, and Tier Three for grades 6+.  You may search for words under function (primarily parts of speech, but also compound words, articles, figures of speech, and more) or subject area content (including computer technology).  Another section of vocabulary resources are linked to Learning A-Z resources, with a whopping set of materials for English Language Learners.  Finally, vocabulary lists are available under “Special Lists,” which would relate well to special ed reading instruction.  These lists include Dolch, Fry, and Marzano words, as well as Common Core academic vocabulary.

What if you want a personalized list?  I typically create my own word lists from Vocabulary A-Z, which is another useful feature of this resource.  With the massive lists noted above, I have yet to add a word not already available on site.

What kinds of activities are included?   The vocabulary lessons are designed for a five-day sequence of instruction, which is easily editable, by the way.  At all grade levels, the vocabulary activities include: matching word cards to definitions and/or sentences, analogies, cloze sentences, concept development, and comprehension assessment.  The Vocabulary A-Z graphics are similar to the Frayer model, a graphic organizer used to develop vocabulary comprehension through examples, non-examples, sentences, pictures, and definitions.  More teacher suggestions are included in many lesson plans, with more active learner involvement for Tiers One and Two.

Other positives:  As a special educator, I appreciate the emphasis on parts of speech for all vocabulary, which I have found effective in supporting both reading and writing.  The vastness of the vocabulary lists, as well as the ability to select the activities I prefer, make Vocabulary A-Z a terrific resource for individualized instruction.  For classroom teachers, the pre-made lists would be great time savers with a heterogenous large group.

Costs?  Time is money to a teacher, so this site is a no-brainer.  Right now, Vocabulary A-Z is on sale for $29.95 for a year’s subscription.  That’s $10 off the regular price.

My rating:  5 out of 5 stars   starstarstarstarstar

 

* Tools for Christopher: graphic organizers

Christopher, my ASD (Adorable Sweet Dude) nephew, continues to improve his writing skills.  When we started the writing process, I did all the work, despite our use of topics relating to his narrow range of interests.  Christopher did not know how to start, how to keep going, and how to finish.  He didn’t have a clue and became agitated unless I intervened.  No surprises there.  Here are some strategies which have helped him become a much more proficient and independent writer.

  • Graphic organizers are a powerful support for kids with writing struggles. I’ve created them using Google docs, primarily for its talk-to-text feature but also the ease of sharing with parents and other teachers.  Why are they so helpful?  They provide the organization, the skeleton, of the writing process.  With enough practice on each type of organizer, kids assimilate this way of thinking.  Christopher has not yet started to branch off from this “formulaic” writing, but I have no doubt that he will.
  • Talk-to-text (under Tools) requires consistent practice for developing proficiency.  Kids tend to speak too loudly, quickly, and without normal intonation.  Christopher and I do enjoy the odd phrases which pop up as he dictates his work, such as ‘Sea butterflies power’ for ‘These activities are….”  A side benefit of practicing with this tool is that Christopher has learned to articulate more clearly and monitor his volume.  (To use this effectively at school, he can’t sit there screaming at the computer!)  This tool also provides practice in rehearsing a complete sentence before writing, which has led my nephew to edit his ideas.  Cool.  He has also learned to speak (and read) in different “gears,” so that he doesn’t fly through texts with no understanding.  Third gear is TOO fast!  A side note: He has learned such control that he can tease me with  word-by-word phrasing, an impossibility when we first started.
  • Keyboarding is vital for students in today’s world.  To please me, Christopher now places both hands across the keys as he continues to type with one finger.  He needs to learn keyboarding, but with all his other deficits, I admit this is low on the list right now.  We can’t address everything  at once, or he’d be overwhelmed.

Here’s a sample graphic organizer that Christopher just used.  He completed it with about 20% support from me.

As he wrote his story from this organizer, Christopher enjoyed checking off the boxes.  By now, he is also about 80% independent at the writing stage.  Most of my intervention is keeping him on task and pointing out the descriptive words in his organizer.  I showed him how boring it is to start every sentence the same way, so it is now an internalized “rule” for him to consider alternate styles. He has become quite adept at varying sentence structure because he “hates to write boring sentences.”   What a terrific, hard-working kiddo!

 

 

* Sometimes the simple tips are the most useful — jean’s writing

Don’t over complicate your writing process. Sometimes I think I make writing harder than it needs to be. A recent post by Tiffany Sun at The Writing Cooperative reminded me of some simple tips. Now don’t get me wrong, if writing were easy everyone would be on the NYT list. I don’t mean that but […]

via Sometimes the simple tips are the most useful — jean’s writing

* Christopher and me: evaluation

Christopher is my autistic nephew, a sweetheart of a kid with many delightful qualities.  You might remember how determined he was that all his sibs got an equal share of candy at Halloween.Max skeleton 2

Christopher is loving, attentive, eager to please, and confident in his math skills.  When I wrote my post on reading comprehension strategies for ASD kids, I was hoping for an opportunity to tutor Christopher.  Voila!  Opportunity realized.

I started with an evaluation of Christopher’s skills.  His teachers reported at least a 2-year discrepancy between his reading accuracy and comprehension, something I had already noticed informally.  He makes excellent use of phonics, which is not typical of kids on the spectrum, in my experience.  Sure, he has easily memorized many words, but he can also decode unfamiliar multisyllabic words in isolation.  By self-report, he “HATES to read and stinks at it.”  I explored his problem-solving skills using the LinguiSystem TOPS-3 materials, suppressing giggles at his idiosyncratic answers.  I also faltered in confidence.  Out of the ten categories involved, he was somewhat proficient in one of them.  Christopher’s responses were often “in the ballpark,” but he lacked the ability to reason effectively.

Here are some of the (modified) questions and his answers:

  • James bought a pair of socks and gloves.  What do we call sets of two things?  “2 socks” (repetition of question) “2 gloves”
  • Melanie wrote her science report again.  Why?  “Because she wanted to return it.”
  • What do you see after you pop a balloon?    “A lot of red paper.  It’s everywhere.”
  • Kim’s mom is buying new shoes for her.  Kim wants shoes with Velcro.  Her mom wants to buy shoes with shoelaces.  What is the problem?  “Everything will not be peaceful.”  Two solutions?  “She’ll tell her mom she wants to give them away.”  (Another solution?)  “She’ll ask one more time that she really wants Velcro fasteners.”
  • Mom got a grocery cart in the store.  What will she do now?  “Use the food to cook for dinner and lunch.”
  • Today is July 10.  The milk container in the fridge says, “Use by July 3.”  What is the problem?  “They can’t use it for a year until the next July 10.”

We started with general information, the basis for problem solving.  His knowledge base seems unconsolidated and is full of gaps.  After one session, we took a “field trip” to the nearby post office because he was dreadfully confused about all sorts of mail questions, including how you could get a package to someone who lived far away (let me tell you, walking there is not the solution!).  Christopher was disappointed that he couldn’t see the “factory” when we arrived at the post office….

I told myself, “Baby steps.  Baby steps.”  Indeed, after a week of intensive work on general information and practicing wh-questions, Christopher showed strong improvement.  We used highlighting tape, practiced new vocabulary related to reading comprehension, role-played answers, used talk-to-text for writing on his favorite topic, and supplied powerful motivators.  The 1-to-1 instruction and the systematic nature of our work also helped.  As you can see from his responses above, Christopher is in the game but just not in position.  I look forward to the next month’s progress and will keep you posted!

 

* Writing is like weightlifting: If you’re not careful, you’ll pull something — Ned’s Blog

I’m sure you will enjoy Ned Hickson’s humor!  In his own words, he’s a gas!

It struck me this morning at the gym while diligently pumping iron from a seated position at the smoothie bar. There are a number of similarities between reaching your fitness goals and writing goals. In both cases, you will likely fail if you attempt too much too fast. Especially if you’re trying to show off and accidentally flatulate […]

via Writing is like weightlifting: If you’re not careful, you’ll pull something — Ned’s Blog

* Writing failure, writing success

After my two-part analysis of writing failure experienced by a twice exceptional student with dyslexia, here are some effective writing strategies to consider for older elementary students.

  1.  Address writing anxiety, which alone can derail all other attempts to learn new skills.  Dealing with anxiety is different for each student, but should include a strong validation of the institutional failures that led to the writing crisis.  There were many missed opportunities by the school/teachers/specialists to address a student’s difficulties before they became crippling.
  2.  Continue to work on phonological and spelling weaknesses by tackling multisyllabic words.  Teach spelling rules and patterns.  Teach syllable types, syllabication rules, and meanings of prefixes and suffixes.  Megawords is an excellent program for addressing these skills.
  3. Teach parts of speech if these have not already been addressed.
  4.  Provide ample time for students to learn new vocabulary associated with skill practice in #2 above.  Use crossword puzzles, games, word searches, mad libs, skits, and conversation to add these words to a student’s working vocabulary.
  5.  Teach vocabulary related to character traits.  By the later elementary years and into middle school, students will be required to analyze character development and use appropriate adjectives.  Many of our dyslexic students, despite high IQ’s, are still using descriptive words such as “nice” and “happy.”
  6.  Attack the disconnect between details and main ideas from “both sides.”  Have the student generate (dictate) lists of details and dictate main ideas (topic sentences/blurbs).  Also provide main ideas and require students to generate as many details as possible.  The first approach seems to work best, in my experience.
  7.  Graph or otherwise record increments of growth.  After years of struggle, these kids need to know they are climbing out of the abyss.
  8.  Allow kids to read and write on topics of interest.
  9.  Teach prewriting organizational strategies, such as graphic organizers.  Help kids use as many consistent shortcuts as possible for recording their ideas.  I suggest symbols and simple drawings.
  10.  Keep writing to a minimum until the student is well-equipped with spelling and organizational skills.
  11. Make use of technology, such as talk-to-text features and spell check.   All these kids should be able to use a keyboard efficiently.

It IS possible for students to recover from years of dismal writing experiences.  Supportive parents and teachers are crucial in validating a student’s effort and providing the requisite skills for success.  Who knows?  They may end up writing you a thank you note!

notepad-925996_960_720

* Anatomy of writing failure, part 2

In my earlier post, I described the first two years of a student’s journey into writing failure.  This twice exceptional student with dyslexia not only had little effective writing practice, but developed considerable anxiety about a daily task which was far beyond his skill level.  At that point, he began receiving private intervention, thanks to his parents’ legitimate concerns.  An evaluation indicated that he was unable to blend two sounds together!  Imagine telling this kid to s-t-r-e-t-c-h out the sounds in a word in order to spell it.  By this time, his peers were writing paragraphs.  He was overwhelmed, still struggling to organize his thoughts, unable to spell, and terrified of writing.

notepad-925996_960_720.jpg

I know you can do it!”  “Try harder!”  These directives and other efforts to “motivate” this youngster were the most common responses to his dilemma.  Despite meaning well, motivation was NOT the issue.  This student lacked the basic skills to comply.  The additional pressure was “crazy-making,” and to his credit, the student had only a few meltdowns at school.  On the other hand, he became a nightmare at home because that was the safer place to release his tremendous sense of confusion and distress.  This intolerable situation continued for almost 2 more years.

Opportunity #1:  Again, provide systematic, specialized instruction to address his significant phonological weaknesses.

Opportunity #2: Provide speech-language therapy to support his weak phonological skills and considerable articulation errors.  Address his weaknesses in categorization of ideas and word finding.

Opportunity #3:  Again, work around the need to spell until the student has the prerequisite skills (see specialized instruction above).  Allow recording, dictation, and copying.  Use technology.

Something to think about:  For good or bad, this gifted student’s life was irrevocably altered by these years of acute anxiety and invalidation.  His summers have been occupied with daily tutoring to “catch up.”  Despite remarkable improvement in reading and writing, he continues to struggle with articulation, phonological weaknesses, organization of ideas, and spelling.  This scenario occurs all too frequently in reading, writing, and math.  Without vigilant parents and effective teaching, his outcome could have been horrendous.  As I noted in a previous post, it is estimated that 50,000 gifted students drop out of school each year.  How many of those are twice exceptional?  Can we afford to lose even one?

Next: What are some effective strategies for teaching writing to older students?