Monday, April 13, 2015

Fine-Tuning Your Literacy Block

I recently presented at TWU's Spicola Forum. This free event provides professional learning opportunities for Texas educators and TWU's student teachers. I hope you will consider attending this next year! For those of you who missed the presentation, I wanted to share the information on this blog.

As a Literacy Coach, I see a pattern of questions asked by teachers and most revolve around the organizational structures for their literacy block. Below you will find five tips for fine-tuning your literacy block.

1: Know WHAT and Know HOW

It is absolutely critical to know WHAT you teach. In Texas, we have the TEKS that lay out the standards we are responsible for teaching. Other states use Common Core. Regardless of the name, it's important for you to know where to start. Standards should guide our instruction but do not serve as a checklist. If you spend time trying to check off each individual standard, you will run yourself into the ground. The best thing about teaching literacy is that it integrates beautifully. When standards are taught in isolation, they become skill & drill exercises with worksheets. Students will be much more engaged and have a higher quality of learning when standards are address in authentic and meaningful ways.

This brings me to the HOW: Balanced Literacy. Balanced Literacy approaches literacy instruction in a comprehensive manner, containing all components necessary for reading and writing. This allows teachers to address TEKS in an integrated, authentic, and meaningful way. The components of Balanced Literacy include: Read Aloud, Shared Reading, Guided Reading, Independent Reading, Word Study, and Writing.

To have an effective literacy block, you must know what you are responsible for teaching and know what research says is best practice for instruction. Because research is being done every single day in classrooms across the country, this requires teachers to stay up to date on current practices. You can continue your  learning by joining NCTE or ILA and subscribing to their corresponding journals, Language Arts and The Reading Teacher. Another great way to continue professional development is through Twitter. You can follow leading researchers as they share about their work in real time. Twitter also has PD nights for various topics where you can chat with other educators about what is happening in your classroom. This digital forum takes PLC's to a whole new level! 

2: Let Assessment Drive Instruction

One frustration I often hear from teachers is, "But I need a grade!" While it can be tempting to create assignments solely to get a grade, try to think of ways you can use assignments to measure student understanding, form small groups, and reach individual needs. Some authentic types of assessments include Running Records, Anecdotal Notes, Observation, Fluency Checks, Rubrics, Checklists, or Written Response. Assessments can take place during the mini-lesson, reading or writing conference, guided reading, independent reading or small group time.

Formative assessment during the whole-group mini-lesson provides opportunities to quickly see how your class is following along. I often choose to do "thumbs-up/thumbs-down" for a quick visual on who understands. I also use post-it notes where students could quickly write down a response to be added to our anchor chart. These formative assessments take a very small chunk of time but provide an immense amount of information on student understanding.

Here is an example of a quick formative assessment using post-it notes from a classroom at Willow Creek.

A reading or writing conference is a one-on-one conversation with a student about their reading and writing so far. It allows you to build a relationship around literacy and set specific goals with that child. During conferences, I took notes about our conversation and stuck them in a folder so I could access them later. With technology now, it would be just as easy to use one of these apps to do the same: Evernote, OneNote, Confer, CCPensieve.

Self-Assessment can be a valuable tool to use with students in the classroom. In my room, we always created a checklist or rubric of expectations together and the students used that to grade themselves in addition to the grade I gave. This allowed the students to become reflective of their work and sparked some great conversations during conferences.

Reading response journals are another great way to assess literacy learning. My students kept up a journal during independent reading time. We talked about this journal each time we conferred. The journal listed the book titles and genres they read along with responses to reading each day. Sometimes a reading response was in the form of a sticky note in their book to track their thinking. 
This 2nd grader is writing a response to Splat Says Thank You!

Finally Running Records were the most informative form of assessments that I used in my classroom. I conducted Running Records once a week for my students. This may differ depending on the grade level you teach and the level of your students. Running Records are the best way to quickly assess a child's ability to accurately and fluently read at a particular level. I also used this information to give them a grade for reading, but most importantly, I used the information from my noticings of their reading to make adjustments for the next week. 

Any types of assessment you do in your class should always, always, always inform your instruction. Gone are the days of weekly stories with comprehension tests on Fridays. Reading and Writing assessment should be authentic, meaningful, and student-focused. 

3: Have a Flexible but Regular Schedule

A schedule can make or break the organizational structure of the literacy block. The first thing I look at when observing a classroom is how the day is broken down. I first ensure that students are getting adequate time to read and write. Then, I look at pacing. I ask, how much time is spent with the teacher in front of the class and how much time are the students working independently or in a small group? I also look at the amount of variation from day to day. Students need consistency. It helps them know what to expect each day and it allows you to hold them accountable for those expectations. It's also important to have an element of flexibility so when something needs to change, students can adapt quickly. Determine what the essentials are for your classroom, while abiding to the expectations of your school/district, and set your schedule accordingly. 

For this fifth grade class, Allington's six essentials shaped their day.

A literacy block should include the following components:

  • Morning Meeting: A quick 10-15 min community gathering to review skills in context
  • Word Work: 10-15 minutes of hands-on working with words
  • Read Aloud: A shared experience hearing a text read aloud to integrate content areas, build vocabulary, becoming a reading model, expose students to a variety of genres and topics, and help them associate reading with pleasure.
  • Reading Workshop: 
    • Reading Mini Lesson: 10-15 minutes to connect learning, teach, and demonstrate reading skills & strategies in context
    • Independent Reading: 30-45 minutes for students to independently try strategies taught in mini-lesson, read texts of their choice, and confer with a teacher or classmate.
    • Guided Reading:Small and flexible grouping that uses leveled texts matched to reader's needs. 3-4 groups a day for 10-15 minutes per group.
    • Share: 5-10 minutes for students to share what they did as a reader that day
  • Writing Workshop:
    • Writing Mini Lesson: 10-15 minutes to connect learning, teach, and demonstrate writing skills & strategies in context
    • Independent Writing: 30-45 minutes for students to independently try strategies taught in mini-lesson, write on topics of their choice, and confer with a teacher or classmate.
    • Small Group:Small and flexible grouping that uses is focused on what the writers need. 3-4 groups a day for 10-15 minutes per group.
    • Share: 5-10 minutes for students to share what they did as a writer that day
  • Intervention & Enrichment: 20-40 minutes of intense intervention or enrichment outside of the normal literacy block to support those students who need additional help
Timing and organization may vary depending on grade level and school. Try to vary the pacing up to accommodate students that need frequent breaks. You will notice that the timing above sticks to 10-15 minute increments. Independent reading and writing time is the only long stretch of time and that can be broken up within to provide variation. Keep in mind attention span. Let go of the temptation to control the teaching. Allow your students to take ownership of their own learning. Be the facilitator.  

4:Organize Your Space

As a new staff member at Willow Creek, one of the first things I noticed was the organization of the classrooms. Every classroom is organized so it is functional, and no, not all the teachers here are Type A or OCD. We know how to have simple systems and we know how to make them work. Organization is not just about looking good. An organize classroom runs smoothly because everything has a place and students know where to access materials. I was so impressed with my pinterest-worthy school that I created a You Tube video highlighting some of the classroom organizational structures. Enjoy! 

5: Be Clear, Concise, and Consistent

Having clear, concise, and consistent expectations will make your literacy block run smoothly. Spend several weeks setting up routines in the beginning of the year. Remember, this may take up to six weeks for students to master. Give it time to work and stick to it! If you are changing routines in the middle of the year, allow adequate time for students to adapt. And yes, you will most likely spend the first week back from any long break reviewing routines and procedures. 

Even though our district is moving away from using the Daily Five for reading instruction, I still believe they have the best way for introducing routines at the beginning of the year. I used these methods as a fourth grade teacher. They conditioned my students to understand what my expectations were. It took endless repetition and reminders, but finally my students became accustomed to our classroom procedures.

Most importantly, remember that it's all about the kids. No one procedure will work for every class or individual student. You will have to adapt to meet the needs of your class.

Have any questions, comments, or suggestions? Comment below!


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