How to Integrate Grammar into Your Writing Instruction (for K-2)

Why do we teach our students grammar and conventions skills?

Is it…

A) so they can fill out worksheets?

or

B) so they can become stronger writers?

Yeah, you guessed it — it’s B. 🙂 We’re trying to help our students become career and college ready. And that requires real writing … hopefully not filling out worksheets!

Given that, it makes sense that we should teach grammar in the context of writing, yes? Our students need to see how they can apply grammar and conventions skills to their own writing.

And research backs that up! (You can read all about best practices in grammar instruction in this post!)

At the same time, it can sometimes feel challenging to integrate grammar instruction into writing instruction. How do we make skills relevant for our kids? How do we cover all the necessary grammar skills?

In this post, I’ll explain how I teach grammar in the context of writing. These ideas are mostly relevant for K-2 but can also be applied to other grade levels!

Photo Credits: Molly Coulter Photography, TpT

Best Practices Basics

We’ve already established that teaching grammar in the context of writing instruction is a best practice. But there are a few additional concepts I’ve learned that I want to share with you:

Best Practice #1: Kids need to have had ample time to discuss and learn about a convention / grammar skill BEFORE we ask them to apply it to their writing.

When we’re teaching kids about proper nouns, we can’t expect that one little lesson will be enough. Sure, after one lesson, they might be able to state what a proper noun is and even give some examples … but are they going to capitalize Disney World in their writing? Probably not yet.

We need to show our students examples of a convention used correctly in real texts (more about that in my next post). We can do some modeling of how we do it in our own writing. Maybe have the kids create some isolated examples.

But before we can expect them to really use the convention correctly in their own writing, they need proper instruction and time to absorb it.

Best Practice #2: When we’re working with our students and their writing, we can’t try to correct every single thing. And we can’t teach it ALL in one year; we have to be selective and choose what’s most important to focus on.

Do you ever read your students’ writing and think, “Whoa. Where do I even begin?!” Their writing has tons of spelling errors … missing or incorrect capitalization … missing punctuation … and incomplete sentences. Yikes!

It’s easy to look at our students’ writing and just start going bananas, showing them the 245,825 different changes they “should” make.

But we need to slow our roll!

Kids don’t learn ANYTHING when we’re trying to correct EVERYTHING!

We’ve gotta focus on just one convention at a time. MAYBE two. But we have to temporarily ignore certain mistakes in order to intentionally focus on a single teaching point.

We also have to accept that some grammar skills or ideas are just too challenging for our kids right now. And that’s okay. Fortunately, our students aren’t going to stop going to school after their year with us is over! 🙂 There’s so much they’ll learn—and we can’t teach it all in one year!

Best Practice #3: When we’re helping our students with their writing, we need to let them get their ideas down on paper BEFORE we start talking about grammar and conventions.

Speaking of helping our kids edit their writing … we can’t “jump on them” too quickly about conventions.

A first draft is just that—a draft! Our kids need time to get their ideas on paper before we start pointing out their missing periods and capital letters.

I love this quote:

“It does no good to point out editing errors to individual writers before they have their thoughts together. Sometimes errors get fixed by the writers themselves when they get their ideas organized.” (Dorfman & Dougherty, 2014, p. 160)

Yesss!

I’m so guilty of wanting to immediately start “helping” my kids with their writing by getting them to fix small mistakes. But they’re not even finished getting their ideas on paper yet!

What Writing-Embedded Grammar Instruction Looks Like in Practice

With those best practices in mind … let’s talk about what writing-embedded grammar instruction looks like.

(Btw, when I say “embedded,” I don’t necessarily mean that you don’t have a separate time for grammar instruction. I just mean that you’re tying it directly into your writing instruction too.)

Here’s the general process I use:

First, you’ll want to introduce students to the convention or grammar rule. You’ll want to use real sentences and possibly mentor texts. And you’ll want to explain the WHY behind a convention. (More details on this part coming in my next post.)

Once students have seen how authors use conventions and why they use them, you’ll want to do some modeling.

Maybe you do a shared writing piece, where the kids tell you what to write and you’re modeling correct application of the target convention (i.e., periods) and thinking aloud while you do it. (“Oh, I need a period here to tell the reader that this sentence is finished!”)

Or maybe you just write a single sentence as a model. Either way, you’ll want to think aloud and show students how and why you’re applying the convention or grammar rule.

Next, you’ll want students to try it out themselves. (It helps to start with a quick task rather than having kids dive into their own writing immediately.)

Maybe you have them work with a partner to create a sentence. (“Write a sentence about our class hamster, and use at least one adjective to describe him.”) Or maybe your kids are just speaking their example sentences out loud at first, and then eventually writing them down.

Once they’ve practiced in isolation (and they may need more than one practice round), your kids may be ready to apply the skill directly to their own writing.

Maybe you have them add a sentence or two to a piece of writing. Or maybe you have them edit part of their writing.

Keep the task small, manageable, and focused on the target convention. If they mis-use or forget other conventions, that’s okay—as long as they’re applying what they’ve just learned!

It often takes my students several go-arounds to really be able to apply something to their writing. (Meaning that I have to directly ask them to do something repeatedly before they do it on their own.)

In the next section of this post, I’ll give examples of specific grammar skills and conventions that kids can apply to different genres of writing.

But before we move onto that, I want to mention: in their book Patterns of Power, Jeff Anderson and Whitney La Rocca share a step-by-step process for having kids apply grammar and conventions to their writing. Their process is a little bit different from what I’ve described here, but it follows a similar guided release of responsibility. (It’s a great book for 1st through 5th grade teachers to have.)

Suggested Grammar Skills by Genre

One of the tricky things about writing-embedded grammar instruction is that a conventions/grammar rule doesn’t always apply to what kids may be currently working on in writing.

Sure, some conventions apply to all genres—like using a period at the end of a sentence. But some (like pronouns, for example) don’t necessarily apply to all genres.

Therefore, coordinating your grammar and writing instruction takes a little bit of advance planning! When I was creating my writing units, I mapped out ahead of time which conventions we’d practice in each unit. (You can do this at the beginning of the school year or when doing long-term planning for your writing instruction!)

Anyway, here are my topic suggestions for each genre (this will vary a bit by grade level):

Narrative

  • Capitalizing names (proper nouns)
  • Capitalizing date words (like “Monday”)
  • Capitalizing the names of holidays (proper nouns)
  • Capitalizing geographic names—for describing the setting
  • Nouns
  • Pronoun and antecedent agreement
  • Verbs (including past and present tense; subject-verb agreement)
  • Adverbs
  • Adjectives – for describing characters, setting, etc.
  • Apostrophes for possessives
  • Apostrophes for contractions
  • Dialogue and corresponding punctuation marks

Informational

  • Using commas in a list (in how-to writing, kids can write out a list of supplies or ingredients; in books about animals, kids can write out a list of what the animals eat, etc.)
  • Capitalizing geographic names (proper nouns) – for telling where an animal lives, giving information about a certain part of the world, etc.
  • Capitalizing names of people – if you’re writing biographies
  • Nouns (including past and present tense; subject-verb agreement)
  • Pronoun and antecedent agreement
  • Adjectives – for giving more details about an animal, place, object, etc.
  • Apostrophes for possessives (“the giraffe’s neck is very long”)
  • Apostrophes for contractions

Opinion

  • Capitalizing words in the date and using commas in the date (if you’re writing persuasive letters, for example)
  • Capitalizing product names (proper nouns) – great for when kids are writing about their favorite food, toy, etc.
  • Nouns
  • Adjectives – for having kids use descriptive language to describe something they like or do not like
  • Apostrophes for contractions

This isn’t necessarily a complete list, but hopefully it’ll help you get started! Remember that some conventions DO lend themselves to all genres, like capitalizing the beginning of a sentence or ending punctuation marks.

An Example

Now that we’ve talked about best practices, a process for teaching grammar in the context of writing, and suggested grammar skills for each genre … let’s put it all together for an example lesson!

Here’s a 1st grade example on using commas in a list:

You write these sentences on the board: 

I bought paper, pens, and envelopes at the store.

They served pizza, soda, cake, and ice cream.

You ask students, “What do these sentences have in common?”

Your kids (hopefully!!) notice the commas and/or the fact that both sentences are lists. If they don’t “get it,” prompt with “Look at the punctuation marks.”

You explain that writers sometimes need to use list sentences, where they list out more than one noun, adjective, or verb. When writers use list sentences, they have to separate out the items so that the reader can easily read them.

You have the kids identify each one of the list items in the sentences. Then, you use colored markers and/or circling to have the kids help you identify each comma in those sentences.

Then, you present an example or two of list sentences from books that you’ve previously read aloud to students. You place the text under the document camera so that students can see the sentence clearly. Again, students name the items in the list and point out the commas.

Next (in the same lesson or on a different day), you write a list sentence (something relevant to the kids) and model how you use commas. You think aloud about WHY you’re adding those commas as you write. You may write more than one example sentence.

Next, the kids brainstorm list sentences. Let’s say that you’re working on how-to writing, so you have students create list sentences with materials or ingredients for a familiar how-to topic that you’ve discussed before (i.e., how to make hot chocolate).

Your students first say their invented sentences aloud to their partner and then write them down on paper or whiteboards. You support students in adding commas to their lists and provide corrective feedback as necessary.

After that, you could supplement this with some kind of hands-on activity. You could also discuss what happens if you change the convention (in this case, what is the effect on the reader if the writer does NOT include those commas?)

Last but not least… your students may be ready to apply the convention to their writing. Your kids are writing how-to books, so you have them take a finished how-to book and add a list sentence that describes the materials the reader will need in order to complete the “how to.” (This can be a whole writing minilesson in itself.)

And then you’ll need to help them practice again … and again … and again, before they’re independently writing list sentences with commas!

It may take even longer for them to be able to edit their own work, finding places where they’ve left out commas and inserting them.

So … having kids applying the skill to their own writing was the very last step in this whole process! Although I want to help my students make the connection between grammar and writing, they’re not actually applying a skill until they’ve had enough time to observe, experiment, and practice with my support.

Conclusion

I hope this post was helpful to you! In my next post, I’ll share more ideas for integrating grammar into your shared reading or close reading instruction.

To learn more about my writing units (with embedded grammar instruction), please click HERE.

Happy teaching!

References

Anderson, J., & La Rocca, W. (2017). Patterns of Power: Inviting Young Writers into the Conventions of Language Grades 1-5. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Dorfman, Lynne, and Diane Dougherty (2014). Grammar Matters: Lessons, Tips & Conversations Using Mentor Texts, K-6. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Ruday, S. (2013).  Five Recommendations for Teaching Common Core Grammar to Elementary Students. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.




Best Practices for Teaching Grammar in K-2

When you think about your own experiences with learning grammar, what comes to mind?

As a student, I remember diagramming sentences…using a musty old grammar book with yellowed pages….exercises that put me to sleep…and generally disliking grammar altogether.

Can you relate?

As a teacher, I’d never want my own students to have the same experience. But at the same time, I see grammar and language arts instruction as absolutely essential! We can’t leave them out of the curriculum entirely.

If you’re a primary-grades teacher like me, you want to give your students a solid introduction to grammar, AND you want to keep your grammar instruction engaging!

So I’ve designed a series of blog posts to help you do just that. Today is the first post in this series, and we’re going to explore best practices for teaching grammar.

These practices apply to all elementary grades, but my blog is primary-focused, so that’s what we’ll focus on.

(And yes, I include Kindergarten in my definition of primary…but of course, grammar instruction in Kindergarten looks extremely different than it does in other grades!! We’ll talk more about grammar in Kinder in future posts!)

Okay. Let’s dive in!

Want your grammar activities and grammar lessons to be super effective? Read this post to learn how to teach grammar in Kindergarten, first grade, and second grade!
Photo Credits: stoatphoto, Shutterstock

I think it’s helpful to explore what NOT to do before we get into best practices!

What Doesn’t Work in Grammar Instruction

As it turns out, the grammar instruction I received not only put me to sleep…but it was also ineffective.

But you don’t have to take my word for it! Here are a couple of quotes from the research (all of these are different studies, but I found them in Grammar Matters (Dorfman & Dougherty, 2014):

“The study of traditional school grammar…has no effect on raising the quality of student writing.” (Hillocks and Smith 1991, 248)

“The teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in actual composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing.” (Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, and Shoer 1963, 37-38)

In a nutshell, grammar worksheets, sentence fixing (sometimes known as D.O.L.), and sentence diagramming don’t usually help kids learn grammar skills. In fact, they can actually have a negative effect on students’ motivation and overall literacy learning. Yikes!!

So maybe your first reaction to this is: “Well, then, let’s do grammar games and more hands-on activities!”

And I’m 100% on-board with you in wanting to make grammar fun!

But we have to be careful. It’s not just the worksheet itself that’s “bad.”

It’s the activities ON the worksheet that aren’t effective. Because they don’t help kids apply their grammar learning to their writing.

If you look back at those two quotes above, they both mentioned writing as the ultimate goal. I mean, that’s why we teach grammar, right? So our students can learn to write well. (And of course, it can also help with oral language and reading.)

So in trying to avoid the “traditional” grammar instruction that’s been shown to be ineffective, we have to be careful not to accidentally replicate it.

Taking a worksheet and turning it into a game still doesn’t change the nature of the activities that kids are doing. Does that make sense? It’s subtle, I know.

So then, what should we do instead?

Best Practices in Grammar Instruction

We need to teach grammar so that kids can actually apply it to their writing.

That means that much of our grammar instruction should take place in the context of writing instruction so that kids take what they learn and use it in their own writing!

We’ll talk more about this in my next post, but here are a few examples:

  • Teaching adjectives when you’re teaching students how to write more complete descriptions of animals for their nonfiction books
  • Introducing commas in a series to help students list out ingredients/supplies in recipes or how-to books
  • Having students identify verbs in their own personal narratives

Of course, before students can apply a grammar skill or a convention to their writing, they have to learn it. And that’s where reading and mentor texts come in!

As I mentioned in the previous section, having kids fix incorrect sentences (sometimes called Daily Oral Language) is not, by itself, an effective way to teach grammar and editing.

We don’t want to repeatedly expose kids to incorrect examples, because then all those errors “stick” in their brains!

Instead, we want to show our students how authors use conventions successfully! To fill their minds with good examples!

We discuss grammar and conventions in the context of real texts, so students can see how authors use them correctly.

In a shared reading book or a close reading passage, for example, we can have students identify verbs…find a capital letter…locate the punctuation mark.

And once we’ve discussed a correct example with students, we can also discuss how the text would be different if the target grammar concept was not used (Ruday, 2013).

For example: What if the author hadn’t used this exclamation point? How would that have changed the meaning of this paragraph?

In sum, grammar instruction is most effective when students see it used in real texts and when students have an opportunity to apply these skills to their own writing.

Makes sense, right?

The Importance of the “WHY”

As we teach grammar skills in the context of real reading and writing, it’s also important to help our students focus on the WHY.

The English language might seem a little nuts at times, but there’s always a reason why a convention or grammar rule exists.

There’s a reason why we capitalize sentences, right? A reason why we use a question mark…or an adjective…or a comma.

Our students need to understand reasons—not just memorize rules.

Asking our students, “Why did the author do x?” is a powerful question! So is, “How can you get your reader to y?”

Both of these inquiries get students thinking about why authors use conventions, as well as how they can use conventions to accomplish certain things in their own writing.

Supporting Students with Special Needs

If you teach students with special needs, the good news is that you can still apply everything I’ve shared in this post!

Research recommends that, for special education students, we “[s]ituate grammar instruction in an authentic writing context where students apply learned grammar skills to writing and connected texts” (Graham, MacArthur, & Hebert, 2019).

Recognizing What Students Already Know About Grammar and Celebrating Diversity

It might seem like our students have poor grammar skills in their oral language…or just don’t know much about grammar when they arrive in our classrooms.

But they actually do. If a child can speak (or even just listen), they’ve subconsciously absorbed a whole lot about how our language works!

And this is true even of our students who are learning English as a second language or who speak a “nonstandard” dialect of English.

Even as we teach our students conventions and grammar, we need to recognize and welcome students’ home languages and ways of speaking.

I think these quotes say it best:

“Upon entering school, those who speak language and dialects other than standardized English (Hudley and Mallinson 2011) are often asked to disconnect from them in favor of mastering the “correct” way of speaking. Rather than building on students’ prior knowledge, celebrating linguistic diversity and the wonder inherent in multiple ways of speaking, grammar programs all too often silence home language and dialects; in the process, they also silence children’s lullabies, jokes, and family stories” (McCreight, 2016, xvii).

“Does it not smack of racism or classism to demand that students put aside the language of their homes and communities to adopt a discourse that is not only alien but has often been instrumental in furthering their oppression?” (Delpit, 1994, 297) (McCreight, 2016, 45)

Teaching grammar is complicated and nuanced, and we have to find ways to celebrate and acknowledge what students already know.

We can discuss how people speak differently to their friends, their families, authority figures, etc. We can discuss how characters in books speak differently than we do to our peers.

This is definitely an area of grammar instruction that I’m learning about and want to pay more attention to!

Conclusion

Grammar instruction doesn’t have to be something we dread; we can really bring it to life for our kids by focusing on how it matters in real books and their writing!

Check back in the following weeks for my upcoming posts in this series—we’ll dive into topics like how to integrate grammar into writing and reading instruction, how to find time for grammar instruction, and more!

Happy teaching!

References

Anderson, J., & La Rocca, W. (2017). Patterns of Power: Inviting Young Writers into the Conventions of Language Grades 1-5. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Dorfman, Lynne, and Diane Dougherty (2014). Grammar Matters: Lessons, Tips & Conversations Using Mentor Texts, K-6. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Graham, S., MacArthur, C. A., & Hebert, M. (Eds.) (2019). Best Practices in Writing Instruction (3rd ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

McCreight, J. (2016). Celebrating Diversity Through Language Study: A New Approach to Grammar Lessons. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Ruday, S. (2013).  Five Recommendations for Teaching Common Core Grammar to Elementary Students. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.




From Scientist to Second Grade Teacher: Renea’s Journey into Education as a Second Career

Thinking about switching careers?

Changing career paths as an adult can be really intimidating. But it can also be 100% worth it!

For this post, I interviewed Renea A., a second grade teacher in Georgia. She didn’t follow a “traditional” path into education; rather, she decided to become an elementary school teacher after a successful, multi-year career in the sciences!

Whether you’re happily employed as a teacher, considering a second career in education, or thinking about switching career paths in general, I think you’ll love hearing Renea’s story. It’s so inspirational!! (I think you’ll especially love hearing how she ended up making the change in the first place!)

You can listen to our chat here:

I also had it transcribed in case you’d prefer to read! Click HERE to read the transcript.

Know someone who’s considering a career change? Please share this post with them—and you can also pin the post for later, using this image:

Thinking about changing careers and becoming a teacher? You'll love hearing about Renea's journey and transition into education! Listen to our interview in this post.




Monkeys in the Gymnasium: Stories of Teaching Abroad

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to teach in another country?

There exists whole group of teachers who move from school to school, country to country … getting to experience life and education all over the world!

Sounds pretty amazing, right?

Kindergarten teacher Kristi Budworth has taught in multiple countries, and she currently teaches in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She was super generous and allowed me to interview her about her experiences!!

Kristi’s school is literally in the middle of a rainforest. And yeah, sometimes monkeys get into the gym!!

Sidenote: I was totally cracking up when Kristi told me about “monkey drills.” But now I know what NOT to do if I ever encounter a monkey …

Okay, enough about the monkeys. You’ve GOT to watch this interview!! Kristi’s experiences are fascinating, and you’ll love hearing about her school.

Watch our interview here:

If you want to save this post for later, pin this image:

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to teach in another country? You'll love hearing about Kindergarten teacher Kristi's experiences teaching in Malaysia and other countries. Watch the interview in this post!
Photo Credits: Garnier Rimolo, Shutterstock

If you liked this interview, you’ll also love my interview with Carolina G. She teaches in the Dominican Republic at a different kind of school! You can see that interview HERE.

Questions for me or Kristi? Leave us a note! Happy teaching!




Teaching in an Expeditionary Learning School in the DR: My Interview with Carolina Garcia

As teachers, we want our students to become the leaders of tomorrow. We want them to make their communities better places to live. We want them to become agents of change!!

In our busy day-to-day classroom life, however, sometimes all of this gets lost. Math facts and reading levels take precedence over students using their learning to serve the community.

But at Carolina Garcia’s school, these values are at the forefront of everything they do!

Doulos Discovery School uses an expeditionary learning model. This model is all about having students actually apply their learning to make their community and country a better place to live.

Sounds amazing, right? I was so excited to interview Carolina and learn more about her unique school in the Dominican Republic.

Even though her school might be a bit different from yours, there’s so much we can learn from what they’re doing—and can apply it to our own teaching!

Check out our interview here.

Don’t have time to watch now? Pin this post for later!

Carolina's school in the Dominican Republic is unique for so many reasons. What stood out to me is their focus on growing kids who can serve and lead the country! Check out this post for the complete video interview.
Photo Credits: prokopphoto, Shutterstock

I hope you enjoyed this interview as much as I did! Feel free to leave questions for me or Carolina below!

Happy teaching!




How Whole Brain Teaching Can Solve Your Classroom Behavior Problems and Make Teaching Fun Again!

“It’s worked with EVERY SINGLE kid with behavior issues,” Heidi told me. “Every single one!”

My jaw dropped. If only I’d known about this years ago, I thought.

Sooo … what’s this magic “thing” we’re talking about?!

It’s Whole Brain Teaching!

First grade teacher Heidi Martin is a Whole Brain Teaching (WBT) trainer who discovered WBT years ago. She had a tough class (wait till you hear how many kids … and how many boys!!) and was desperate to find something that would help with behavior issues.

She stumbled on Whole Brain Teaching, started exploring, and the rest is history. It’s totally transformed her teaching!

Annnnd…Heidi was generous enough to let me interview her the other day!

In the interview, she explains exactly what Whole Brain Teaching is (it addresses both academics and behavior) and how it can make teaching FUN again!

I was so excited that I was basically drooling throughout the interview. 😂😂😂 I’d had a very limited understanding of Whole Brain Teaching methods until we chatted—but, oh BOY, did I like what I heard!

I think you’re going to love these strategies as much as I do. Watch our interview here!

Amazing, right??

Here are the links we mentioned during the interview:

https://wholebrainteaching.com/

https://www.instagram.com/droppinknowledge2/

https://www.instagram.com/wholebrainteaching/

https://www.facebook.com/Whole-Brain-Teaching-111745338861758/

https://www.youtube.com/user/ChrisBiffle

You can pin this post and save it for later using this image:

If you have a tough class, need some new classroom management strategies, or just want to make teaching fun again, you're going to love this post! Heidi Martin explains what Whole Brain Teaching is and how it can transform the academics and behavior in your classroom. Click to watch the interview or save the post for later!
Photo Credits: wavebreakmedia, Shutterstock

Do you use WBT? I’d love to hear your experiences as I dive a little deeper myself!




Ask me anything: A special education teacher answers your burning questions!

Ever wondered what goes on in the special education resource room? Or how to help your students who are struggling and may need special education support?

In today’s post, I have answers for you!!

Photo Credits: stockfour; Shutterstock

One of my blog readers, special education teacher Krista Perine, has generously offered to answer your questions!

Here’s a little about her:

Hi!  My name is Krista Perine and I’m so glad I was able to help Alison out!  I am finishing up my 7th year as a special education teacher in Las Vegas, Nevada, and still love what I do!  I actually started out my teaching career in the general education setting as a high school history teacher before pursuing my masters degree in special education.  I graduated from Northern Illinois University in December 2012 with my MS.Ed in Special Education with a Learning Behavior Specialist I concentration, all while working full time as a special education teacher!  I have some type of special education teaching experience in almost all grades, from Kindergarten to age 21. In the past, I mostly worked with students with behavioral and emotional needs in different capacities (i.e., in co-taught classrooms, resource, and therapeutic/residential schools), but for the past 2 years I found my passion working with K-2 students with specific learning disabilities in a self-contained classroom.

I’m so grateful that Krista was willing to do this!

I put out the call for questions on my Facebook page and Instagram: what do you want to know about teaching special education? We got some great questions, and here are Krista’s answers!

Question: What are some good activities to strengthen working memory?

Krista’s answer: Great question!  I find that using a lot of hands-on activities and movement is a great way to help strengthen working memory, and it can be used for any subject, including behavior!  For example, I use a program for teaching letters’ names and sounds to my students that incorporates movement for each letter, which gets them moving and connects their learning to a specific movement and increases their likelihood of remembering the letter sound!  For math, my students were struggling with “greater than, less than,” and off the top of my head I came up with a little name for the “alligators” (for example, “Gary Greater Than”).  I then had them make alligator mouths open and shut in the direction of the alligator’s mouth and say “Chomp chomp!” which represented that alligator eating the bigger number, and now my students almost always gets this answer correct!  For behavior, having those call backs are a big help to getting their attention, and it’s fun for them.  Any time you can have your students moving always helps!

Question: Do you have ideas for effective communication between gen/sped in the busy school environment?

Krista’s answer: Become friends with the gen ed teachers!  Honestly, that’s how I get my students’ needs met—you become friends with them, and then they’re more likely to interact with you more and be okay with you interrupting their class to talk to you.  🙂  But in all seriousness, providing them with an “IEP at a Glance” worksheet is really helpful for them. I also have them fill out a questionnaire/progress monitoring sheet about how they’re doing in your class, and that’s really helpful.  I have them fill it out before they have IEP meetings and for the end of the year report cards.

Question: How can I help my students with special needs the most in a full class?

Krista’s answer: Make it easy for everyone—differentiate for all of your students.  You will always have those students who are lower academically but will never receive sped services, but you know they need help, right?  Scaffolding and providing differentiation is the best way to do it; it’s easy because you have to do it for everyone now 🙂  Also, relationships are key!  Get to know your sped student(s) and their family.  Their parents are more likely to help you out too!

Question: How do you teach sight words?

Krista’s answer: Like I mentioned before, I make it as interactive as possible.  I use hand motions to get them to remember what the word is, and I have them practice!  I always introduce them during their morning meeting, and we work with them throughout the day.  Make them part of games (i.e., hopscotch with sight words).  Also, a big motivator to get these students to learn them is to have a sticker chart that they can get for each set of 5 sight words they learn 🙂

Question: Is there a good resource for tracking attention?

Krista’s answer: A stopwatch/timer.  Set it for 5 minutes (or for however long you’d like) and each time it goes off, check to see if the student is paying attention to you.  (An easy tally sheet can help you with this).  Also, check for understanding in simple ways that won’t make them stand out.  You can provide red/green cards, and if your student is having problems, but has difficulty asking for help, have them turn the red card side up, and that can help you determine if they’re paying attention.

Question: How do you support reading comprehension in K students on the autism spectrum?

Krista’s answer: I have heard great things about Reading A-Z and the Unique Learning System.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of experience with these programs, but my coworkers use them, and they love it.  I have used -Wh questions supported with pictures, and that really helps my students out!

Question:What are the signs that a K student should have a speech assessment or referral?

Krista’s answer: I unfortunately don’t know a lot about this, but I do know that all of my students have difficulty with the letters “l, w, r, s and y.”  For example, if their letter r sounds like a w (i.e., red=wed), that could be a sign to watch for.  My recommendation is to ask your speech pathologist and determine if that is something that you would need to watch for.

Question: What are some key strategies for engaging/distracting children into learning activities?

Krista’s answer: If I understand what you’re saying, is “how can I trick my students into learning?,” well that’s easy.  Make it fun!  Have them play games that involve sight words (memory/match), make it interactive and hands on.  Also, make it relevant to them.  Do they like basketball?  Have a basketball game in which you hold up a letter and they have to give you the sound.  For each sound they get correct, they get to shoot a basket.  Once they see that the activity is fun and engaging, they’re more likely to participate!

Alison’s note: I didn’t know all of the acronyms in the question below, but if you don’t either, don’t stop reading – Krista has some great ideas that you can use to track and monitor behavior for any purpose!

Question: As a gen ed k teacher, what data/ tracking tools could I use easily to look at emotional needs that cannot be met by one teacher? I would want to use the data to bring to the IST table in hopes of getting the student the proper placement of an ICT setting. Hopefully trying to prove OHI as a classification. Ideas?

Krista’s answer: An ABC Chart with times, duration, and/or frequency.  A=Antecedent, B=Behavior, and C=Consequence.  The antecedent is what happens right before the behavior (i.e., you were giving instructions).  Behavior=what they child did (i.e., screaming).  The consequence (and this is the key!) is what was done immediately after the behavior (i.e., you ignored student).  Having a tally mark of what happens during these events in 30 minute increments really helps.  Also, provide an intervention timeline (what you did to help reinforce good behavior) to determine if that helped decrease the behavior (i.e., student would get a sticker for each time they didn’t scream after directions are given).  Behaviors always get worse before they get better, so I always say try the intervention out for 3 weeks before changing to something else.  Keeping data for 3 weeks or more is the best practice!


These were some GREAT questions and great answers, right?! Thanks so much to Krista and to everyone who contributed questions.

If you’re looking to learn more about reading interventions, you can check out this post.

Krista also mentioned that she’s happy to answer reader questions, so let us know if you’ve got one! 🙂 Happy teaching!




Superhero Teachers: Stories of Teachers Overcoming Intense Personal Challenges

Teaching is one of those jobs where you can’t kick back and “take an easy day.”

Regardless of what you have going on outside of school…regardless of if you’re not feeling well…you have a class of little ones who NEED you. They need your attention, your love, your encouragement, your instruction, your support.

Teaching’s hard enough as it is, but when you have other challenges going on outside of school, it becomes all the more difficult.

Normally, my blog posts focus on literacy instruction and teaching strategies. Today’s post is very different.

In today’s post, I’m going to share 2 stories from teachers who faced incredible challenges outside of school.

They struggled to balance school with their personal battles. But they did it. These ladies are so strong, and I’m so grateful that they were willing to share their stories with me and with you.

Story #1:

This story was written by Karen D. In it, she shares how she overcame family addiction and divorce, all while teaching and raising her son. Here’s her story, in her own words:

Divorce is hard. Teaching is hard. Living both simultaneously is a nightmare. Trying to maintain my professional life while going through a very ugly breakup and divorce was extremely difficult.

My ex-husband, who will be named Lee for this blog, became addicted to opiates during our marriage. When our son was 9 months old, I found out about the addiction (which he hid very well) and all of the bad habits that came with it.  Those revelations were the beginning of my change in personality. I began to change from my role of happy mother/wife/teacher to a very stressed, angry and controlling version of myself. I distinctly remember my first incident of controlling behavior in my classroom. I came in from a long weekend and a bulletin board was hung where I hadn’t asked for it to be hung. I was livid, irrationally livid. I just kept saying “who did this?” with an incredulous voice. Another teacher came and took it down quickly to appease me and make me stop. This was just maybe a week after Lee came clean about everything, and I was trying to keep control in one aspect of my life, and it was going to be my classroom.

Slowly, the chaos of his addiction began affecting me, and it slowly bled into dealings with co-workers. At one point, I was asked to chat with my principal. Another teacher on my team had complained extensively about my attitude and frostiness toward the other teachers. I remember bursting into tears and letting it all spill out. This was the day before Lee was heading to a treatment center. He had been caught stealing meds from customers while on the job and was being charged with theft. Coming clean to my principal allowed me some grace in dealing with this co-worker. She stood by me in our meeting, and I apologized to my co-worker while still giving no more details outside of having some “personal struggles.” I was not ready to share what was really going on. Throughout his time in treatment, I continued about my business.  I trained a new teacher and helped her set up her classroom while also helping a long-term sub manage her assignment. I had two different lives happening, and I was determined to keep them separate after the meeting with my principal and co-worker.

I was only able to keep this juggling act up for so long. As Lee’s addiction worsened, I resorted to hiding cash and credit cards in my desk. I had to call in because Lee wrote a bad check for daycare, and I was turned away at the door. I had to call in when his car was repossessed from lack of payment. It was never ending; seeing notices of him getting into my bank account to send himself a check, getting overdraft charges and calls from my credit card companies because he had maxed them out when I thought I had hidden the card well enough. He was arrested for multiple speeding tickets and was blowing up my phone during a parent meeting to bail him out. I somehow stayed the course while students were in my room. During this time I was chosen as Teacher of the Year. I detached as soon as those kids were in my care, and I could focus on them and them only, and shut out the chaos. I think back and don’t know how I managed to do it.

I finally had two major breakthroughs; I filed for divorce and came clean to my team, all in the same week. I was tired of the chaos and of lying to people. Some had noticed my wedding ring was off, and all I did was stop the gossip. This was when things began to change. Little treats would show up on my desk overnight along with notes of support. For my birthday I was given a very nice movie gift card to give me something to do for myself. My demeanor improved too; I was happier and more relaxed. Through it all I had always kept my cool with the students; working with them was its own type of therapy. Unfortunately, my fellow teachers felt the brunt of all my emotions.

It’s crazy to reflect back on all of this. There was so much that happened. I think I tried to forget about all of it. I never lost my passion for teaching, and it drove me to focus so much on work. Teaching was an escape; confiding in my co-workers made the pain bearable. Teaching kept me afloat during this tumultuous time in my life.

I’m so moved by Karen’s story. Isn’t her strength incredible??

Story #2:

This story is written by Pamela G. It’s her story about battling cancer—which she’s still in the midst of. I think we can all learn from her comments about priorities and keeping challenges in perspective. Here’s her story, in her own words.

I’ve been a teacher for 19 years. During that time I have put my heart and soul into my job. It has been my everything! I have worked hours creating, making, and developing things for my students in my classroom. I’ve taught kindergarten and first grade.  I’ve been in charge of committees, programs, training, PLC’s, grade level events—you name it, and I’ve probably done it. There have been so many opportunities and challenges in the past 19 years, but nothing compares with the news I received on December 27, 2017. I was told I had colorectal cancer. Needless to say, my world changed in an instant. I was referred to an oncologist, had a port surgically implanted, and began the process of chemotherapy within 2 weeks. I hadn’t even processed all this information. I had been dealing with cancer in my family for a long time, so it wasn’t unfamiliar water. My mom has a mutated form of ovarian cancer and has been fighting for over 15 years. So I had some knowledge, but nothing prepared me for the journey that lay ahead. I continued to work, only taking time off for chemo and then carrying the 48 hours of medication with me to school. I worked as much as I could. By March I had a reaction to the medication, so chemo was halted. Things were going well until I developed anemia and ended up in the ER. I was taken in for a procedure and had stints placed in my large intestine. Eventually, I ended up back in the ER and this time in surgery. I had a hole in my abdomen to clean my large intestines out so I could have surgery on the tumor. Naturally, my time at work was done for last of the school year.

I was slated for surgery in May. The tumor was removed, but within a week I was very sick. My blood pressure sky rocketed; my JP tubes were contaminated. I ended up back in surgery and had an illeostomy. At the same time I developed MRSA and was very sick. I was in and out of ICU for three weeks. I kept thinking I would return to work. I eventually ended up leaving the hospital six weeks later. I had lost 75 pounds and was very weak. During the summer I did PT and worked at home to regain my strength. I went back into surgery in August to reverse the illeostomy. Things went so much better! I was able to return to work at the end of August, but not without some challenges. I had no stamina. I couldn’t lift things or climb on a ladder. Setting up my classroom was a challenge, because I never packed it up. The entire staff boxed up my room. So I was cleaning and setting up at the same time. When I started on my closet I saw my blue bag. I had left it there, thinking I would be back the next Monday for it. There were still papers in it. It was kind of creepy. But I got my room set up and began the school year.

In this brief period I learned so much about myself and being an educator. First, this is my career and I love it, but I put it ahead of my family. No more! My family is way more important, and I cherish the time I spend with them. Second, there will always be challenges in teaching. They are unavoidable. But they aren’t the end of the world. At one point in the hospital I was on death’s doorstep, so the challenges of teaching are nothing compared to fighting for your life! Third, always treat everyone with kindness. I tend to be so type A I forget about the importance of building those solid relationships with people. This is what is most important. Please understand that in no way am I saying that teaching isn’t the best and toughest job in the world. It’s all about perspective. And mine has shifted 360 degrees!!

While times may be tough and my battle with cancer continues, I still know within my heart that everyday I wake up I am blessed! I am blessed with the people I love, my fur babies, the children I am fortunate enough to be teaching, and the connections I make with others. None of us knows what lies in our future, but what we do know is how we can embrace the challenges and enjoy those blissful moments of life.

I’m so grateful that Pamela was willing to share her story! We’re all pulling for you, Pamela!!

Pamela also mentioned that if you’re going through something like this right now, she’s happy to chat. Contact me (Alison) via email if you’d like to get in touch with her.

So many thanks to these strong ladies for sharing their stories with us. If you’re going through something difficult of your own, I hope these stories resonated with you.

If you have a teacher friend who’s struggling, feel free to share this post with them. Here’s an image you can pin:

Teaching's hard enough as it is, but when you have other challenges going on outside of school, it becomes all the more difficult. In this blog post, teachers share their stories of intense personal challenges they faced and overcame while teaching at the same time.
Photo Credits: Dean Drobot, Shutterstock




Five Ways to Use Epic! in the Classroom (That You May Not Have Thought Of!)

If you’ve heard me talk about literacy centers before, then you probably know that I think the website Epic! is amazing for the listening center!

Epic! is free for teachers, and it gives you and your students free access to fantastic books that they can listen to and read.

Epic! is a digital library of children’s books, and I love the way that the site presents book choices to students. Kids can choose their interests, browse by category, and see eye-catching book covers. Epic! makes listening to and reading books incredibly appealing.

Even though I usually recommend Epic! for use in the listening center, there are SO many other great ways to use it. In this post, I’m sharing five OTHER ways that you can use Epic! in the classroom!

Epic! is great for a listening center in Kindergarten, first grade, or second grade. But this educational technology also has SO many other uses! Read this post for 5 great ways to use Epic! in the classroom.
Photo Credits: NIRUT RUPKHAM, Shutterstock

Note: This post was written in collaboration with Epic!

#1: Research Projects

Every year, my students LOVE the opportunity to do mini-research projects. They read about a nonfiction topic and then write about what they’ve learned.

However, a big problem has been a lack of nonfiction books at lower reading levels. Maybe I can find one book at the library that’s at a reading level appropriate for some of my students, but a true research project requires more than just one book!

Epic! makes doing research easy, even for students who are beginning readers. They can listen to books on Epic! to help supplement any print books you can find for them.

My students always feel so proud to share what they’ve learned—and Epic! is a great help for giving them access to information.

#2: Fluency Practice

Epic! is also a great tool for developing students’ fluency. When they listen to a book read aloud on Epic!, they’re hearing strong fluency modeled.

Then, students can read the SAME book a couple of times (clicking through the pages without turning the audio on). Rereading the same text repeatedly builds fluency.

Students can then read the books to a partner or to their parents at home (if they have access to technology).

#3: Teaching Visualization and Listening Comprehension

Epic! now has a section for “audio books.” These audio books include a text read aloud, but you can’t see any pictures or inside pages of the book.

While you can always find a print version of the book and show students the pictures as you read, an audio book by itself is a GREAT tool for working on visualization.

You can give students a little background on a story, start the audio book, and then pause it periodically. Students can discuss and/or draw what they’re visualizing (you will want to model this first).

Although I love picture books for readalouds, these audio books are super useful for practicing visualization and working on listening comprehension.

#4: Engaging Your Reluctant Readers with Comics

Some reluctant readers are hesitant to read “regular” books but love reading comics! Epic! has quite a few comic books available.

I also teach my students to make comics as part of the writing center or our writing units. Speech bubbles, thought bubbles, and other components of comic writing can be easily transferred to “regular” writing. Kids love making these comics, but they also need to see some examples first. Epic! has a number of examples that you can use as mentor texts!

#5: Narrow Reading

Vocabulary knowledge and background knowledge play a huge role in a reader’s ability to comprehend a text. The more we can develop both of these areas, the better our students become at reading comprehension.

Narrow reading is a great way to develop students’ vocabulary and background knowledge. Narrow reading is reading about the same topic across multiple (usually nonfiction) texts.

Narrow reading gives students multiple exposures to some of the same vocabulary words, which makes it more likely that students will actually learn the words.

Narrow reading also exposes students to similar content, which builds deep background knowledge of the topic.

But it can be difficult to get access to multiple books on the same topic—especially if you’re looking for books at certain reading levels or appropriate for a certain grade level.

I’m always requesting books at the library, searching through my own stacks…that takes a lot of time, and sometimes I just can’t find the books I need.

I’m thankful that Epic! gives me access to many more books, and all I have to do is log in! Epic! is a great tool for having your students engage in narrow reading, because there are usually a couple of books available on a topic, and you can supplement with print books of your own.

Conclusions

Do you use Epic? If you have other suggestions for how to use this awesome site, I’d love to hear them in the comments.

And if you’re a teacher who hasn’t signed up for a free account yet, what are you waiting for?! 🙂Sign up for your free account HERE.

Happy teaching!




A Surprisingly Easy Process for Planning and Prepping Your Lessons on a Yearly, Monthly, and Weekly Basis

I’m a reading specialist, but I actually have a math-oriented brain. I love logic, organization, and breaking things down.

So it probably comes as no surprise that I ADORE lesson planning! The process of planning is fun and exciting to me. (Does that make me a huge dork?)

Here’s what I like about planning: I like staying organized. I like getting ahead. I like doing long-term planning and looking at the big picture. And I like the fact that I actually have control of my written plans…because we all know that we definitely don’t have control over whether our plans actually go how we want them to. 😬😬😬

I do think there’s so much value in carefully planning your lessons and doing long-term planning—even if you don’t share my strange love of organization. 😉 If you have a set planning routine in place, you’ll feel less overwhelmed and less likely to fall behind!

So in this blog post, I’m going to share my exact process for long-term and weekly lesson planning. I’m going to break it all down and explain how I stay on-track and ahead of the game!

If your brain doesn’t love organization like mine, I hope this post gives you a place to start. And if your brain does love organization and you’re already a lesson planning master, I hope this post gives you some new ideas and inspiration—and I’d also love to hear your tips in the comments! 🙂

Want some lesson planning tips to help you stay on top of your classroom teaching? This post gives lots of detail about how I do my long-term and weekly lesson planning!

Yearly Planning Process

First, I want to mention that I’m a reading specialist. My planning process looks a bit different now that I teach mostly reading intervention. What I’m sharing here is the exact process that I used as a classroom teacher (before I became a reading specialist).

So let’s start at the very beginning—the very beginning of the school year! Or actually, the summer. I don’t even attempt to do long-term planning at the very beginning of the school year, to be honest! I’m too worried about setting up my classroom and keeping myself together for the first day, back to school night, etc.!

Over the summer, or at least a few days before I start working on my classroom, I lay out the units that I want to teach. (I typically teach all subjects in units—reading, writing, math, science, and social studies.)

I take a list of my units and the length of each unit, and I lay them out over the school year. Using a monthly calendar (like this free one from Scattered Squirrel), I write the unit name or number next to each week. I also build in about 3 extra days for each unit, if I can. I like color coding, too!!

Want some lesson planning tips to help you stay on top of your classroom teaching? This post gives lots of detail about how I do my long-term and weekly lesson planning!

(I’ve sometimes used small sticky notes in the past, instead of writing in ink; this enables you to move them around as necessary.)

Honestly, I don’t always end up sticking to this calendar 100%. Sometimes units finish a bit later or earlier than I intended.

But I do feel that it’s best to start the year with some kind of plan. Otherwise, you can accidentally spend too long on a unit and feel rushed for the rest of the school year.

This process is pretty easy—unless you don’t have defined units or any kind of curriculum with a pacing guide! Then it gets a bit tricky.

If you’re starting from scratch, I recommend deciding on your units before the school year begins.

For reading and writing, I like to cover each genre at least twice during the year. For example, if a fiction reading unit comes second in the school year, we might revisit fiction reading again in the fourth or fifth unit of the school year. The skills in the units grow in difficulty, but this gives students more than one chance to be successful with a genre. (If you don’t teach in genre units, you can still apply this principle by making sure that students revisit each skill or strategy multiple times throughout the school year.)

Anyway, if you’re choosing your units, make a list of the standards and/or topics covered in each unit. This will help ensure that you cover all of the necessary standards or topics.

Don’t feel pressured to list out every lesson or activity at this point; you’re just doing some general, long-term planning to keep yourself on track. Once you have a basic outline of each unit, try the weekly calendar mapping procedure that I described above.

And that’s it—that’s about all I do before the school year starts! But then, as soon as I can, I begin my monthly planning process…

Monthly Planning Process

Okay, so to be completely honest, my “monthly” planning process is not all that monthly. Sometimes it coincides with the beginning of the month, but often it doesn’t.

I usually go through this routine shortly before I begin a new unit of instruction, maybe a week or two in advance. So it’s usually more of a “unit” planning process than a monthly one—but again, you can adapt it to meet your own needs.

This “chunk” of procedures is all about staying ahead and knowing what’s coming up next. Here’s what I do:

  1. I list out the lessons I intend to teach during the upcoming unit. I make a few notes about the content of each lesson and what materials I might need. (If I have a defined curriculum resource to use, I’ll just read through the materials I already have and highlight anything that needs to be prepped, located, or purchased.
  2. I take that same planning calendar (where I wrote the units out by week) and note when I intend to teach each lesson—making sure to account for days off and special school events. I don’t typically write in the full lesson title, just the number of a lesson.

Want some lesson planning tips to help you stay on top of your classroom teaching? This post gives lots of detail about how I do my long-term and weekly lesson planning!

Once I’ve done that, I can then take any necessary steps, like requesting books from the library, preparing heavy-prep materials, etc.

When I first started teaching, I really only planned for one week at a time. But that created these problems:

  • Certain projects and activities required me to go purchase materials, order something, request books from the library, or do a lot of cutting. I wouldn’t always have time to do that when I planned only a week out.
  • When a volunteer came in unexpectedly, I wouldn’t always have something for her to work on. I wouldn’t know what we’d need in a week or two, so I couldn’t make the best use of her time.
  • When I want my students to do an activity independently during centers / Daily 5, I typically need to have them practice with me—whether it’s in a whole group or small group setting—before I “unleash” them to do the activity on their own. But if I don’t know what centers activities will be coming up, then I can’t adequately practice with my kids before I assign a task as an independent activity. (This used to be a big problem for me, and you can read more about that HERE.)

Weekly Planning Process

The yearly planning and monthly / unit planning help me stay ahead of the game, but I wait to make my final plans until the Thursday before the following week.

I typically plan for next week’s lessons on Thursdays. Thursdays work well for me because at that point in the week, I can usually guess what we’ll be able to finish during the current week.

Also, if we started a new skill during the current week, waiting until Thursday to make future plans gives me a chance to see how students are doing with the skill. I can then plan for re-teaching during the following week, if necessary.

So on Thursdays, I type my lesson plans into a planning template. I don’t have a specific tool or planner that I use. I usually just create a simple spreadsheet-type setup that follows the order of my school day. I’m constantly tweaking what I use!

In addition to typing up my lessons, I keep a whiteboard with recurring tasks that must be done every week. Each week, I make a checkmark once I’ve completed the task for the following week. On Friday afternoons or Mondays, I erase all the checkmarks and start all over again.

This weekly whiteboard contains all my teaching to-dos for the week and helps me stay in track! Want some lesson planning tips to help you stay on top of your classroom teaching? This post gives lots of detail about how I do my long-term and weekly lesson planning!

You’d think that doing the same things every week would mean that I remember them all without this checklist. But…I don’t! Plus, I feel like having this checklist frees up “mental space.” I’m not worrying about what I’ve forgotten to do, because it’s all there for me.

If you prefer to use an online re-usable checklist, you can use a free tool like Trello.

Conclusions

That’s my whole process right there! It’s nothing fancy or complicated, but it works really well for me.

If you’re looking to make planning easier or quicker, I have many resources to support you! My writing lessons, reading lessons, and guided reading lessons are all written out for you and ready to use. Having those complete lessons on hand will drastically reduce your planning time and help you stay on top of your planning!

And if you have any planning tips to share, I’d absolutely love to hear them in the comments. Happy teaching!