* 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!



* Reading A-Z

R A-Z 9Reading A-Z is a mega-site for all things reading, one of 7 amazing sister sites under Learning A-Z’s umbrella.  (In a previous post, I described the abundance of useful features in Writing A-Z.)  Reading A-Z just keeps getting better and better.  It was launched in 2002 as a resource site for teachers with printable leveled books and a small selection of decodable books.  Its expansion since then has been phenomenal.  Reading A-Z continues to provide books, now more than 2500 (including English, Spanish and French versions) at 27 reading levels.  But this site goes far beyond downloadable books.  From the new project-based selections to tools for assessments, this site has a wealth of materials for individual and classroom use.

Considering the breadth of resources provided, Reading A-Z is extremely well organized.  I decided to use screen shots instead of words to illustrate what your membership provides. Under the Resources tab, teachers can access the following types of books by category (their decodable selection remains small), related resources (such as trade book lessons and literature circles), and materials by content area.R A-Z 1

The Key Reading Skills area features materials related to fluency, comprehension, writing, and vocabulary. To support comprehension of visual materials, there are recipes, schedules, pie charts, maps, flow charts, and much more.  Their Close Reading Packets are terrific.  I have subscribed to Vocabulary A-Z (in pink below) and it’s equally well done.
R A-Z 2

Under Foundational Skills, you’ll find excellent guidance on teaching phonics and phonological awareness to regular ed students, a portion of whom will struggle significantly if not provided these components of reading instruction.  R A-Z 3

Common Core/21st Century resources include supplemental materials for the “regular” reading lessons with an emphasis upon academic vocabulary, graphic organizers, and close reading features, among others.

R A-Z 4

Under Assessments, Reading A-Z’s timed fluency passages and retell rubrics for fiction and nonfiction are especially worth using.  The benchmark passages are aligned with the Fountas and Pinnell leveled reading system.R A-Z 5

For ELL and Bilingual students, many books are already available with a regular subscription, but to access their full range of materials, you must purchase an additional license.

Instructional Uses organizes resources into sections for specific use, such as summer reading or project-based packs. This section includes thirty graphic organizers and a wide selection of matching and other games.  They also provide useful forms, tips, and labels for teachers.

R A-Z 7

Books are usually available as single sided, double sides, and projectable; they may be printed in black and white or color in most cases.  Each book is accompanied by a lesson plan, discussion cards, worksheets, and comprehension quiz.  Teachers may “file” any materials in an online filing cabinet with easy access to individualized folders.  The cost of a yearly subscription to Reading A-Z is very reasonable.  Learning A-Z also offers membership discounts, typically before the school year starts.  If you’re not sure whether this site is for you, there are free 14 days trial for all Learning A-Z sites. I highly recommend Reading A-Z!

* Graphic Organizers

Brain-based research supports the use of graphic organizers in providing an overview of instructional units.  I have found that these road maps, as I have referred to them with students, assist kids in understanding the hows, whys, and whens of specific units.  For example, I have used graphic organizers in writing instruction to give kids an overview of a final product (such as a letter, research paper, or how-to story), including a list of skills they will need to acquire in the process.  These maps also indicate the steps we will follow.  The following is an example of a student version of a map for letter-writing.

Letter writing graphic organizer

With teacher support, students can see what skills they will learn and the steps they’ll follow in writing a letter.  To make this a more powerful tool, kids make a personal connection from the start by indicating the recipient of their letter and what form of “art” they will include (both brain-based strategies).  Since I have typically worked with kids who are easily distracted and function at widely varying levels, I am not likely to post this type of map on the wall.  Instead, students have access to their own copy, which can be easily adjusted for reading and developmental levels.

In my teaching experience, the most commonly used class-wide graphic organizers are K-W-L charts (what I KNOW, what I WANT to know, what I have LEARNED).  I never found these charts very useful for a number of reasons, although group or individual discussions of any of these points could be helpful.  Why not? First, my groups have been diverse and not everyone could meaningfully contribute to the first two categories.  For the same reason, I have preferred individual maps (or graphic organizers) so each student will have a variation of the map which best suits their needs.  I do want students to identify what they have learned, but with special needs students, I have often had to guide that understanding as well.

This raises the question of how best to use concept maps for teaching.  To what extent should students have a road map for what they need to learn?  Mariale Hardiman’s Brain-Targeted Teaching Model provides numerous examples of effective graphics that prepare students for their learning adventure by providing an overview of where they are going and what they’ll do along the way.  I almost always use some sort of graphic for guiding our way, but prefer to use maps with “shorter” steps.  For a student who is well behind in reading, math or social skills, for example, it would be overwhelming to see the long road that lies ahead.  Instead, my graphics zoom in on the next few steps of the way.  The examples in Hardiman’s book were designed primarily for units in content areas such as social studies, where the big picture can help activate prior knowledge and create excitement and anticipation.  For students struggling to read, identifying “vowel teams” can be just as significant.

I think the use of graphic organizers can help students understand why they are working on specific skills, which is a crucial understanding.  Kids learn best if they grasp the usefulness of a skill, or some evidence that they will be happier on the “other side” of what appears to be a chasm.  Here’s a sample map for an anxious student who has no idea why he must learn anything about decimals (and who fears it will be impossible). However, he is very interested in using money and wants to buy some pets.  This chart can be easily turned into a checklist for him to track his progress in learning the needed skills.graphic for learning decimalsHe already has some understanding of many of the skills listed above, but he thinks that these skills are useless.  His map includes a skill he has solidly acquired, identifying place value of whole numbers, to generate some hopefulness about his ability to reach the goal.  The relative size of the “Why” section is to help keep his eye on the prize.

Honestly, I will never use maps or organizers for everything I teach, primarily due to time constraints (such as blogging instead of lesson planning!).  When I run into difficulties, as with the student described above, you can be sure I will start creating graphics.  Besides supporting student learning, these step-wise maps force me to examine my own teaching.  Am I following an appropriate sequence of skills for this student?  Am I helping him make meaningful connections between these skills?  Am I giving him a reason to learn?  Graphic organizers encourage both teachers and students to reflect on the learning process.