• 3 Ways to Help Students Get More from Vocabulary Instruction

    3 Ways to Help Students Get More from Vocabulary Instruction

    I have an interesting, emotional auto-response when I see or hear the term vocabulary instruction—feelings of dread and mind-numbing boredom are usually the first responses to arrive on the scene. These reactions are triggered by flashbacks of a never-ending list of words on a stark white sheet of paper with instructions to “look them up” in a dictionary and write the corresponding definitions. Sometimes, I was also instructed to write sentences using the vocabulary words. At first, this second activity appeared to hold a little more promise for being interesting and engaging, but it usually ended up being a mechanical act involving me making slight adjustments to the sample sentences found in the dictionary (just enough to avoid plagiarism) because I didn’t really understand what the words meant and consequently had no idea of how to use them in sentences. Most words on these lists held little interest for me—mainly because they were more often than not content-specific academic vocabulary words that I would rarely see again. Furthermore, the activity of writing (i.e., copying) the definitions seemed to be grossly inadequate in helping me store these words in my brain for future use. 

    It may seem that I have a negative bias towards vocabulary instruction, but truly, I do not. I know the vital importance of vocabulary knowledge for learning and comprehending text. I even knew it then. But for some reason, the processes of instruction and practice ended up feeling like mind-numbing busy work despite all my best efforts to engage.

    So what do my feelings and experiences mean? ...

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    Mar 24 2014
  • How to Promote Metacognition & "Growth Mindset" in the Classroom

    How to Promote Metacognition & "Growth Mindset" in the Classroom

    By John Mendes, Ed.D

    A crucial component to learning is being aware of our own thought process and consciously understanding how we process new information. This information allows us to have a better cognitive understanding of how our mind works, and this self-awareness will increase our overall learning efficiency. This insight allows learners to scaffold, using background knowledge and better utilizing learning strategies with focus and intent. Metacognitive skills are imperative in today’s classrooms, as we are preparing students to be tomorrow’s leaders and problem solvers.  

    Tips for Increasing Metacognition in the Classroom ...

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    Mar 19 2014
  • The 4 C's of Effective Instruction That Boost Student Engagement

    The 4 C's of Effective Instruction That Boost Student Engagement

    When I do classroom observations, I truly don’t even need to watch the teacher to evaluate instruction; I watch the students. If the processes are consistent and the instruction is clear, it is reflected in the students’ engagement, interaction, and efficiency in guided skill practice and application.  Ensuring student success comes down to what I call the Four C’s: ...

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    Mar 03 2014
  • The Crucial Components of Effective Multisensory Reading Instruction

    The Crucial Components of Effective Multisensory Reading Instruction

    One of the most powerful pieces of Reading Horizons instruction is connecting all of the language skills of listening and speaking and reading and writing in the process of dictation. Far too often in language instruction, the primary focus goes to the specific skills of reading and writing without the critical awareness that listening and speaking are precursory skills to reading and writing.

    Oral language is preparation for written language. In the book, Teaching Students with Dyslexia and Dysgraphia, Virginia Berninger states: ...

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    Jan 30 2014
  • What is the Difference Between RTI and MTSS?

    What is the Difference Between RTI and MTSS?

    The phrases “Response to Intervention”, commonly referred to as RtI, and “Multi-Tier System of Supports”, understandably shortened to MTSS, are used interchangeably among most educators. I have heard it flippantly said on many teacher blogs and other websites that the two are one in the same. This is not necessarily true. So, what is the difference between RtI and MTSS? For you reading experts who miss standardized tests (and who doesn’t?), a very simplified answer would be; RtI is to MTSS as phonemic awareness is to phonological awareness (that is, phonological awareness is commonly referred to as an ‘umbrella’ term that includes phonemic awareness). Basically, RtI is an integral part of MTSS but MTSS is more cohesive and comprehensive in the goal of meeting the needs of all learners. Here is a brief explanation: ...

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    Jan 06 2014
  • Misconceptions About Phonics Instruction - #4 - College Prepares Teachers to Teach Reading

    Misconceptions About Phonics Instruction - #4 - College Prepares Teachers to Teach Reading

    It is probably bad form to start a blog post with a disclaimer but I feel that it is necessary. Let me go on record saying that collectively, teachers are not to blame for the current literacy rates in our country. Let me also say that I love, adore, and admire every single college professor (some more than others, of course) that I had as a pre-service teacher. 

    My first teaching job was in a first grade classroom. Before school started, I remember asking one teacher, beginning her second year of teaching first grade, how she taught reading. Incredulously, this was her reply, “I don’t really know. I just read them a lot of stories, do a lot of fun activities and somehow, they just get it. It’s like watching magic happen. It’s really fun.” Since I had graduated with a reading endorsement, I knew enough to know that there was more to it than that. I learned a lot in college about teaching children to love and comprehend reading and how to manage reading time in the classroom but I realized pretty quickly that I wasn’t taught how to teach children to actually decode the words on the page. During that first year of teaching, I started to see my students’ excitement for reading decrease as they began to realize their struggles to read independently. I guess you could say the “reading magic” in my classroom became a disappearing act (go ahead, roll your eyes). 

    I will forever be grateful to the researchers who dedicated such large amounts of time analyzing the multitude of research studies that resulted in the National Reading Panel (NRP) report (NICHD, 2000). More than anything else, that report helped me solve the problem I was having teaching my students to decode. By reading the research report I learned what explicit, sequential, systematic phonics instruction was and effective ways to deliver the instruction. Most importantly, the “magic” and excitement my students had previously associated with reading returned as they became proficient decoders. As a side note, up to that point I had been using a phonics program that claimed to be systematic, sequential, and explicit but when I read the NRP report, I realized that it wasn’t adequate (even though the front of the teacher’s manual made the claim that it was aligned with NRP findings). The NRP report supplied the knowledge that I needed to modify what I was doing in the classroom until I found a program that was aligned with the findings. 

    It is interesting that, as a teacher, when I encountered a problem as basic as teaching students to decode I turned to sources outside of what I learned in college. It is also significant to note that I graduated in the spring of 2001. A full year after the report had been published. I wasn’t taught anything about the report in my reading endorsement classes. The sad truth seems to be that many of us are not taught in college what we need to know to teach reading.  ...

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    Dec 31 2013
  • 13 Best Blog Posts of 2013 - Teaching Reading Tips

    13 Best Blog Posts of 2013 - Teaching Reading Tips

    It’s been an exciting year! We launched a complete redesign of our website and our online workshop. We also released some big updates to our product for older students, Reading Horizons Elevate. Along the way our Reading Specialist, Stacy Hurst, and a few guest writers, wrote some amazing blog posts! Here are the thirteen most popular of 2013:   ...

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    Dec 26 2013
  • Misconceptions About Phonics Instruction - #3 – The English Language is Inconsistent

    Misconceptions About Phonics Instruction - #3 – The English Language is Inconsistent

    Anyone who has ever put together a large jigsaw puzzle knows the level of commitment it takes to accurately combine what may initially seem like a million little pieces into a perfect replica of the picture on the box. At first, it may seem overwhelmingly complicated until you realize that there is a pattern and a system for assembling the pieces.  My personal modus operandi is to identify the edge pieces and use them to create a frame then sort the remaining pieces by color and shape. Once I get to this stage in the process, the puzzle seems to change from overwhelmingly complicated to merely complex. This transformation not only prevents me from abandoning the puzzle all together but it allows my usually latent obsessive tendencies to thrive until it is complete. 

    What is the difference in meaning between the word complicated and the word complex? Something that is complex has many components or layers but it does not necessarily mean that it is difficult. Complex things can be broken down into simple, interconnected, related parts. The word complicated refers to something that has a high level of difficulty and inconsistency. 

    Consider a puzzle whose pieces are in the shape of each state in North America, for example. The puzzle’s complexity manifests itself in the fact that there are interconnected parts but the level of complication involved in completing the puzzle would most likely be fairly low because each piece is very distinct. On the other hand, a traditional jigsaw puzzle with many similarly shaped pieces would be more complicated than a puzzle with 50 distinct shapes. Large areas of plain color or similar colors on a puzzle, (e.g. a puzzle depicting a lot of black and white dice) could further complicate the process by making it unclear how the pieces connect. 

    Understanding the distinction between the meanings of the words complex and complicated will help explain the third misconception about phonics instruction. ...

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    Nov 20 2013
  • Misconceptions About Phonics Instruction - #2 - Phonics Instruction is Boring

    Misconceptions About Phonics Instruction - #2 - Phonics Instruction is Boring

    In honor of football season, I will begin this post with a lesson from one of NFL’s most memorable coaches. Vince Lombardi was head coach for the Green Bay Packers and the Washington Redskins. During his short career (only about a decade long) he achieved  96 wins to only 34 losses, six division championships, two super bowl victories, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Oh yeah, and the super bowl trophy will forever bear his name.

    Perhaps more impressively, he was known for turning losing teams into winning teams. In case you’re a numbers person, here are the stats; the season before he coached the Packers they claimed only one win and ten losses. Remarkably, in his first season with the Packers the team had seven wins and only five losses (they went on to win TWO super bowls). He created an equally inspiring result in only one year as coach of the Redskins. 

    What was his secret to such great success? The basics. And I am talking THE basics. So basic that the first day of each pre-season training session began with these five words, “Gentlemen, this is a football.” He went on to explain the rules of the game, the organization of players on the field, and where boundaries and end zones were located. We’re talking professional football, people! He was coaching players who had spent YEARS playing the game and he begins by showing them what a football is? He did not stop there. From the first day of training and during every single practice thereafter, the majority of time was spent overlearning the basics; blocking, tackling, and handling the ball. To get to the point, this is what Vince Lombardi had to say about excellence:

    “Excellence is achieved by the mastery of the fundamentals.”

    Do you think these football players were bored with such repetition? Maybe. Would they say it paid off in the long run? Absolutely. With mastery of the fundamentals came the freedom to put their head in the game and think on their feet when it really mattered. 

    Hopefully, you are making the connection between decoding and comprehension at this point. When students master the basic skills involved in decoding, their brains are free to focus on comprehension. This requires repetition in instruction and practice. Repetition to the point of mastery obviously worked for Vince Lombardi (and for NBA players, as Dr. Brian Ludlow describes in the following video):

    However, repetition is a major contributor to the cause of our second misconception about phonics instruction.  ...

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    Oct 14 2013
  • Misconceptions About Phonics Instruction - #1 - Most Children Learn to Read Naturally

    Misconceptions About Phonics Instruction - #1 - Most Children Learn to Read Naturally

    How would you answer this question: What causes seasons to occur?

    If your answer referred to the distance between the sun and the earth, your answer is the same as these Harvard graduates involved in a research project called A Private Universe (Schneps, Sadler, Woll, & Crouse, 1989). Before you give yourself a congratulatory pat on the back for answering like an ivy leaguer, consider the fact that the Harvard graduates were wrong. They, like many people, espoused belief in a common misconception.     

    The real answer to why we have seasons is that the earth’s axis is tilted (look here for an explanation from NASA). At first glance, the dangers of this misconception are seemingly small. After all, seasons still occur no matter what we believe to be the reason but I think the implications are larger than that. The fact that 21 out of 23 Harvard graduates involved in the study had the same misconceptions leads me to infer that, at some point, they were taught seasons occur in relation to the distance between the earth and the sun. They were taught that concept even though there is science that very clearly proves otherwise.

    There are myriads of scientific research studies to support phonics instruction for beginning and struggling readers yet misconceptions sometimes prevent effective classroom implementation. These misconceptions can be passed down from college professor to pre-service teacher, year after year, decade after decade. Even teachers who have been teaching long enough to teach their students’ children have been known to stick to what they were taught in college or what they learned during their first years of teaching. When this is the case, students who would otherwise benefit from more effective instruction are the ones who suffer. 

    This is the first in a series of blog posts that will address some common misconceptions teachers and administrators have about phonics instruction. These misconceptions have an impact on students of all ages. While I am certain there are more, I chose five prevalent and persisting misconceptions concerning phonics. They are in no specific order but each is significant enough to merit its own post.

    Misconception #1: ...

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    Oct 08 2013

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