Just Try-It Tuesday! Reading Strategies for all Subjects

TRY IT OUT Tuesday!

It’s no secret that we often have students who don’t come to us as fluent readers. This creates a difficult problem for those of us teaching in secondary schools. While we are content experts, most of us do not have extensive training to help teach kids how to read.  This includes ELA teachers; they are experts in literature and composition – but most have not studied the complexities of helping students learn to read.

Recently, I have been reading Jennifer Serravallo’s, The Reading Strategies Book (2015). Serravallo describes many simple strategies that teachers in any subject area can embed in their classroom to help explicitly teach students skills that will help them reach a variety of reading goals.

Just Try It Tuesday: Reading Strategies for all Subjects:  this post, I just want to share a few regarding fluency.  I am no reading specialist, but it seems to me that in order for students to close-read complex texts, it is necessary for them to first develop fluency.  In most cases – students reach secondary schools with the ability to at least decode text, but many struggle to read with fluency.

Serravallo lists the following of skills related to fluency:

  • Phrasing or parsing
  • Expression or tone
  • Emphasis
  • Automaticity
  • Pace

Failure to be proficient in any of the can create a barrier for comprehension.

So what can teachers do?

  • Understand that to some limited extent that we can all be “reading teachers.”
  • Reflect on our own reading habits/strategies and discuss with students the processes we use to understand complex text.
  • Attempt to identify specific reading skills students may lack (although deferring to a reading specialist would help here).
  • Teach, model, and practice, reading fluency using strategies.
  • Attach a specific reading strategy for students to practice each time you send them into a text.

3 Reading strategies to help students build fluency:

  1. Avoid reading one word at a time

Serravallo refers to this as “robot reading.”  We have all heard students when asked to read aloud do this.  Their reading is choppy and difficult to follow along with. If they are reading this way out loud, there is a good chance that the reading in their head is just as choppy and incomprehensible.  Serravallo suggests students practice improving their phrasing by “scooping up a few words at a time” and reading them all in one breath.

This may seem simple and obvious to fluent readers – but this skill does not develop on its own.  Struggling readers are just trying to get through the text one word at a time.  It’s no wonder many often read for awhile without really absorbing any of the content.  Student’s need to practice fitting words together into meaningful phrases, and we can help them with modeling and purposeful practice.

2. Re-read for automaticity:

The next strategy is helpful when students encounter words or phrases that cause them to stumble or pause while reading.  You probably know the feeling when you come across a word your not sure how to pronounce, your rhythm is broken. Serravallo suggests that when these pauses occur it is best to “go back to the beginning” and “read the word right away like it’s a word you’ve always known.”

In order to aid comprehension, it is helpful for students to read complete thoughts with interruption. Everyone will encounter words/phrases that may cause us to stop and sound out words, but once we determine the word going back and reading it properly within the context will help readers attach meaning to it. Re-reading for a specific purpose also gives students a go to strategy when they encounter difficult words.

3. Be mindful of pauses:

Serravallo explains “The place you pause within a sentence can change the meaning of that sentence.”  She suggests that when the meaning sounds “off” to readers that they should go back and changed where they paused.  This reminds me of one of my favorite lessons on the importance of punctuation.  I would use this cartoon:

Depending on where you pause can drastically change the meaning of this sentence.  Being cognizant of pauses forces students to take into consideration the larger context of what they are reading in order to decide exactly where to pause.


TRY IT OUT TuesdaybJust Try-It: Incorporate reading strategies into your classroom each. Discuss and model reading strategies to help demystify the reading process for kids.

Reading through Serravallo’s suggestions made me acutely aware of many missed opportunities I’ve had to help provide students with specific reading tips that will build their fluency, and ultimately increase their comprehension. While it’s true time is limited due to the large amounts of content we need students to learn in such a limited time.  I would argue that taking a few minutes before diving into reading the text to explain a specific reading strategy is time well spent.

If students are exposed to these types of strategy multiple times a day these skills will eventually become a habit for our students and increase the chances that they will be able to read-to-learn across multiple disciplines.





Just Try-It Tuesday: Oh Behave! (Part II)


TRY IT OUT Tuesday!

Defining Behavior: A Step Towards Consistency

When people discuss classroom and school-wide behavior problems, it is not too long into the conversation when someone suggests, “We just need to be consistent with how we deal with this.” Typically the others involved will nod their heads in agreement and discuss how consistency among the staff will solve the behavior problems in the world.

I think they are right. If a staff all responded to a certain behavior consistently, we could affect behavior. Before that can happen, there are several problems that are often ignored.

  • 1. Schools typically don’t have clear and consistent definition of behaviors.
  • 2. Students must learn each teachers slightly different definition of behaviors, and sometimes these are not explicitly  taught.
  • 3. Because staff are working from various definitions of behaviors, consequences (positive and negative) are not consistent.

    1. Consistent School-Wide Definitions:


Before addressing a consistent way to deal with behavior through punishment or reinforcement – a staff needs a common understanding of behaviors.  School-wide definitions of positive behaviors would be a logical first step to increasing consistency in a school. In part one, I discussed a how a school-wide behavior matrix would help a staff develop a list of behavior expectations (phrased positively) in each setting of the school.

If we are going to develop a list of behaviors we want, we will also want to be clear on what it looks like when those expectations are not met.  For example, “being on time” is a great expectation to reinforce and an important skill for students to learn. However, do we all have the same definition of on time? A tardy in my class should be the same as a tardy in your class.

There may be a  teacher who defines being tardy as not being in the correct seat when the bell rings. While a neighbor teacher defines tardy as anyone who is not in class when the bell rings.  A subtle difference – but a difference nonetheless.

Teachers  have different tolerances for  behaviors, therefore react differently according to their personal thresholds.   It is not realistic to get 100% agreement on what exactly these thresholds should be, but at the least a staff should be able to compromise enough to develop a set of concrete, observable, descriptions.

Concrete VS Abstract

If we want to address behavior consistently as a staff, than we need to use the same language to describe behaviors.  This language should be concrete and easily observable – so anyone describing behavior would label it the same way.

Often times we describe behaviors in abstract ways using terms/phrases such as:

  • Angry
  • Lack of Focus
  • Lazy
  • Not paying attention
  • tardy
  • impulsive

Consider a team of teachers who share the same student who often demonstrates a “lack of focus.” This team wants to help that student learn how to focus.

Without a clear definition of concrete “paying attention” behaviors, this would be impossible.  There first step would be to discuss together exactly what we mean by “focus.”

They may meet and come up with something like this:

Focus =

  • Tracking the speaker (eyes on the speaker)
  • Sitting straight up
  • Asks/answers questions

Lack of focus =

  • Eyes away from speaker (zoned out)
  • Distracted by technology
  • Head down/ poor posture
  • Non-participatory behavior

After establishing what paying attention is/ and is not,  teachers would be able to collectively remind that student exactly how to behave and even take data (or have an observer take data)on frequency of undesired behavior to 1. Create a baseline for improvement and 2. Help students track their own progress on “focusing.” 3. Track effectiveness of any interventions teachers may try to help them focus.

Clarifying behaviors into concrete, easily observable measures will help students understand school expectations more clearly, and help make it easier for staff to work together to monitor, track , and ultimately improve behavior. By using the common language of a behavior matrix, staff can now be “annoyingly consistent” with how they address behaviors.

2. The Student Perspective: Consistently Inconsistent

Put yourself in the shoes of a typical student.  They visit 7 teachers a day for an hour.  They encounter many more in the hallways, or other school settings.  Most schools place the burden of learning and meeting behavioral expectations on the student. Yes, we may go over the student handbook the first week of school and outline all behaviors that students can’t do, but rarely do schools emphasize the desired behaviors that will help students be successful.

This general overview may be a deterrent for some kids – but that population of students seems to be on the decline.  We are getting more students who need help developing successful social behaviors. In most schools the help students receive is limited to what teachers can provide during class, while also trying to teach content.

This isn’t a bad thing, but the problem arises when a kid has 7 different teachers with 7 different sets of behavioral expectations. You can hardly blame kids who get frustrated when they get in trouble for something with one teacher, when the other six teachers don’t have a problem with it.

I am not advocating that all teachers use the same exact classroom management policies. Autonomy is important and should be protected at all costs.  I am suggesting that a school develop a common language, so they can be “annoyingly consistent” in addressing behavior.  When the student who tends to zone out during class discussion is reminded by all 7 teachers to “track the speaker” throughout the day, it just might sink in.

All this would take is for a building to define their behaviors as I have described above and labeled which behaviors are considered “minor” – to be handled by the teacher and “major” – to be handled by admin or counseling staff.  This way discipline would be more consistent. This would only work if everyone is operating from a shared understanding of behavior expectations.

From a student’s perspective, it would be nice to not have to learn and relearn – seven sets of different expectations What’s considered tardy in one class ought to be the same in other. For many schools the only consistent way we deal with behavior is that we are inconsistent.

3. Consistent Consequences

Once clear expectations are created and taught throughout the school consistently, the next step would be to develop a system to monitor and reinforce desired behavior and, if necessary, punish unwanted behavior.

I say if necessary for a few reasons – because punishment is only a temporary fix.  While it may reduce behavior momentarily – punishment has a few flaws:

  • Punishment is usually not connected to the function of the behavior. In other words, punishment doesn’t address root of the problem – only the symptom.
  • Punishing does not involve teaching a desired behavior – only suppressing an unwanted behavior.
  • Punishment contributes to students negative self-image and/or fixed mindset.
  • When students pair teachers or other staff with punishment, it  can deteriorate relationships and trust.
  • If the function of the behavior is attention seeking, punishment may actually reinforce the behavior.

When a school is finally on the same page regarding what acceptable behavior looks like and what constitutes unacceptable behavior; it is much easier to deliver consequences (positive and negative).

Positive Consequences:

Generally speaking, intermittent positive consequences, if done the right way, can be more effective in changing behavior than consistent punishment. The key is matching the reason for behavior (or function) with the consequence.

Giving positive consequences should not be confused with rewarding students. Positive consequences does not always involve a tangible reward. In fact, giving tangible rewards to change behaviors should probably done in extreme cases, and planned carefully to gradually remove the rewards.  So it’s not as easy as throwing candy to kids who answer questions to encourage students to participation.

To be effective positive consequences should be delivered under the following guidelines:

Specific Praise: Students need to know the exact behavior that earned them the positive consequence.

Timely: When possible the consequence should be delivered immediately after the behavior occurs.  This will help students connect that specific behavior to positive consequences

Sincere/appropriate:  Especially for high school students , positive consequences should be delivered in a genuine, age appropriate manner. High school students may not appreciate stickers and gold stars (although some teachers could probably make this work).  For some students a simple fist bump along with specific praise to acknowledge a student’s efforts may go a long way.

Negative Consequences:

Even if we want to emphasize the desired behaviors,we need to be realistic; on occasion, it will be necessary to deliver negative consequences. Here are a few guidelines to follow when doing so:

  • In advance, create and communicate to students a tiered list of possible consequences.
  • Deliver all consequences without emotion.
  • Consequences should match the behavior in severity.
  • Model desired behavior while delivering consequences.
  • Address the behavior – not the student. (don’t make it personal)
  • Deliver consequences privately, when possible, and walk away.  Do not engage in any type of back and forth (there is no winning).

What battles to chose?

As I mentioned before, sometimes students misbehave to receive attention – any attention positive of negative. To avoid inadvertently reinforcing the behavior you want to get rid of – choose your battles carefully.  Before attending to the misbehavior ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Does anyone else see this behavior as a problem?
  2. Is learning/teaching disrupted by this behavior?
  3. Do I have to really be paying attention to notice this behavior?
  4. Will I disrupt a lot of teaching and learning if I address it?

Ignoring unwanted behaviors can actually help eliminate them.  Especially, if the function of those behaviors is to seek attention. However, if the learning environment is affected than we must intervene and address the behavior.

TRY IT OUT Tuesdayb Just Try-It!

When reflecting on the big picture regarding behavior.  Think about how we can begin to tackle these issues as a team rather than trying to shoulder the burden on our own by agreeing to consistent expectations.

Consider these expectations from a students perspective to and empathize with the frustration they may feel when trying to meet expectations of the many adults they encounter in the building throughout the school day.

Finally, once we have a consistent focus we can begin to apply positive and negative consequences consistently – in order to reinforce and maintain desired behaviors.

Just Try-It Tuesday: Oh Behave!


TRY IT OUT Tuesday!

As of late, there has been much attention to the academic progress of our students. Our determination to not leave any student behind while racing to the top has shifted the focus of many schools to excelling at high stakes tests. While I agree, helping ALL students achieve proficiency in essential standards it  imperative – I think the overemphasis on test results taken our focus away from behavior.

A concerted effort to address academic and social behaviors may be just the thing to help those students struggling aca

demically.  If we could actually affect the motivation, behavior, or academic skills perhaps students would be better equipped to learn. While this all sounds like unicorns and rainbows, it is much easier said than done for many different reasons. For starters, all people are different, so there is no single answer to any behavioral  problem. It’s difficult to find time to


teach kids behaviors when we don’t have near enough time to teach them content, and our resources are severely limited as we are constantly asked to do MORE with LESS.

I plan to begin a series of posts related to behavior. My hopes are there are some ideas, strategies that may impact your approach to behavior, or at the very least reflect a little and be more deliberate in how you respond to students.


Just Try-It Tuesday:  What is our ultimate goal in regards to behavior?  Do we want to simply decrease bad behavior?  Or replace that bad behavior with an acceptable behavior?  Put another way:

What is more important – suppressing negative behavior or increasing Desired Behavior?

I would argue that both punishment and positive reinforcement have a role in successful discipline. Before getting into specifics, I think it necessary to understand the difference between the two concepts.

Difference Between Punishment and Positive Reinforcement:

There is a misconception that Punishment and Positive Reinforcement are things that we do to our students – when they are actually effects of things we do (intentionally or not).

Punishment occurs when a behavior is decreased.

Positive Reinforcement occurs when a behavior is increased.

For example, a track star trains for months to prepare for a a race.  He wins the race and receives a gold medal.  Because he reached his goal, he stops training. The gold medal has actually decreased his behavior and has acted as a punishment. So, it is possible to do something you think is a reward but actually functions as a punishment.

Conversely, another athlete comes in fifth place and, consequently, redoubles his training effort. He has been positively reinforced by a poor result.

So What?

This is important in the classroom because occasionally we may think we are punishing a kid, but actually reinforcing them – or vice versa. Consider the following situations:

Think about the introverted student you have in class that barely says a word.  Maybe one day during class discussion you touch on a topic that he is interested on, and he decides to comment and share his ideas.  You think his insights are beneficial to the class and want him to repeat his behavior of participating to the class, so you decide to reinforce that behavior by asking the class to give him a round of applause.  The student turns red, and immediately disengages and does not speak up again in class. Unintentionally, you have punished the student by giving him that attention – even though you meant for that attention to be reinforcing.

Now think of the student who often receives verbal reprimands, gets sent out of the class, is suspended, yet still misbehaves.  This student thrives on attention.  He will take any attention he can get.  The more you pay attention to what he is doing, the more he will do that thing that gets attention. These so called “punishments” are actually reinforcing his behavior.  Adult attention is a strong reinforcer for many students. For many students “negative attention is better than no attention.”

This is not to say that we stop disciplining students. In fact I think discipline is exactly what students need. One definition of discipline is: “training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character.”(Mirriam-Webster).  The idea here is that we teach students how to replace negative behavior with an appropriate behavior which requires us  to be more deliberate and think about whether or not our consequences have resulted in increasing appropriate behaviors. Doing so takes a  different approach. Instead of focusing most of our efforts into policing the classroom in an attempt to suppress unwanted behaviors, we spend most of our energy reinforcing the behaviors we want to see.

 What does this mean for schools?

While punishment has it’s role and should not be completely disregarded,  schools should take a positive approach to behavior.  Here’s a few ways teachers/schools can do this daily in an attempt to help all students meet behavioral expectations. Not every student will respond to these strategies – just like not every student learns during initial instruction. Some students require more intensive and targeted supports.

  • Create a school-wide set of Positive Behaviors faculty can agree to consistently reinforce (This is in contrast to creating rules that faculty will agree on punishments when kids don’t follow them). See example below:

    • Clarifying, teaching, and even practicing these desired behaviors – takes ignorance out of the equation when dealing with misbehavior.
    •  Notice the focus of this behavior matrix is on desired behavior not rules to avoid.
    • Having a common language for a staff makes it easier for a staff to increase the attention they give to positive behaviors.
    • An addition benefit of a positive approach is staff members get to spend more time being the “good guy” to students.  When students pair teachers/faculty with positive reinforcement it helps build a culture of trust which is more conducive to learning than the alternate.
  • Commit to interacting with students at a minimum of 3:1 ratio of interactions to positive behaviors compared to negative (many experts suggest 5:1).
    • Rather than “policing” the classroom and hallways singling out each student who is not exhibiting desired behavior, try to catch students being good and do something that will reinforce that behavior. Remember what works for students varies depending on the kid; it could be as simple as finding that student you dress coded three times last week who came to school appropriated dressed and saying “Looking sharp today! You are ready to learn. I like it!”

*** This does NOT mean that we ignore all misbehavior.  We do, however, think about how our attention might reinforce the behavior we are trying to decrease; therefore, we put MORE energy into  helping students repeat desired behaviors than we do trying to punish negative behaviors out of them. Sometimes this might mean we intentionally ignore misbehavior that do not interfere with the learning of others, or classroom procedures. By ignoring these behaviors and attending to desired behaviors – students will see the adults as positive people that they want to be around.


Just Try-It Tuesday Challenge:  Think about the difference between punishment and reinforcement and reflect whether your management techniques are increasing or decreasing behaviors.  Clarify to yourself and your students exactly what behavior you would like to for different segments of your class.  For example, what do we expect during independent reading, small group work,lecture, while class discussion… ? Then make it a habit of communicating those expectations to your class – and finding ways to reinforce those behaviors (this doesn’t always mean rewards).


To learn more about this topic: http://opi.mt.gov/pdf/MBI/14SessionIV/AR/PositiveReinforcement.pdf






Just Try-It Tuesdays: Episodic Notes

TRY IT OUT Tuesday!


Reading comprehension is a MUST in every content area, yet many secondary teachers have not been trained to help kids actually understand some of the complex text they encounter.

Fortunately, there are some easy to implement strategies designed to do just that.  The strategy I am going to discuss today, Episodic Notes, is a tool teachers can use to help kids pull out and summarize important information.

Just like any other strategy, episodic notes is only effective when implemented correctly.  No strategy is replaces effective instruction. What I mean by that is, you can’t just assign episodic notes, or text coding and expect the activity to do the teaching.  These techniques need to be carefully blended with other best practices (clarifying learning targets, frequent opportunities to respond, specific feedback…), to be truly effective.

I learned this lesson often early in my career.  I would read about all these strategies – and get frustrated at my students because they weren’t learning from them.  When the problem wasn’t the students; it was how I implemented and managed the strategy. So as you experiment with different strategies, remember the strategy is just a tool – you are the craftsman that must wield the tool effectively to make something great.

Episodic Notes

Just Try-It Tuesday: Episodic Notes: This strategy is extremely versatile and includes many different variations depending on the content or text.

When you look at the template you notice that students have a space on the left for graphic representations and space on the right for text. You are not limited to 3 that is just the amount I could fit on the page at the size I wanted.

Process: Teacher gives clear directions and models what type of content is acceptable for the graphic representation and what type of writing is expected on the right side.  Here are some examples:

Biology: Read pages 124-128 and illustrate each step of Mitosis.  Include written descriptions of exactly what is going on in each stage using the vocabulary in your academic notebook.

Social Studies:  Read pages 50-61 and identify 3 events that led to the Boston Tea party.  Depict each event with a symbol or image and include a caption on the right explaining each event.

Foreign Language: Review the new vocabulary in Chapter 3. Draw 3 images that involve two or more vocabulary terms and use the terms in a gramatically correct sentence. *Challenge – write each sentence in present tense and past tense.

Math:  For each word problem create your own chart, image, number line, or graph.  Explain the steps you took to solve the problem.

ELA: Identify and illustrate 3 sources of conflict the protagonist encounters in part 1 of this novel.  On the right, explain how the protagonist changed as a result of that conflict.

Universal:  Read the text and illustrate the 3 most important points the author makes. Explain why you think these are significant.

Text Structure:

Different disciplines include texts with different text structures. For example, ELA mostly features text that has a plot (novels, stories…) Social studies and Science includes text that have a cause/effect, problem/solution, or a chronological structure – oftentimes a blend of the three. Math texts are unique in that they usually chunk complex processes content into steps that gradually build on one another.

Using Episodic Notes is a great way to help make these text structures more explicit for students. While fluency and comprehension are universal reading skills, we read each type of text for different purposes.  When was the last time you went on vacation  to relax and curled up with your latest copy of Marzano’s Art and Science of Teaching? Most  of us don’t read technical books for enjoyment – we read them to glean specific information, so the WAY we read them is different.  Students need to be explicitly taught HOW to read certain types of texts. Episodic notes could be a means to that end by making the template mirror the text structures – see below:

  • Cause/effect:  illustrate the causes. Explain the effects in writing.
  • Sequence: Illustrate each step in the sequence and explain what is actually happening during each step.
  • Problem/Solution: Illustrate the problem and explain the solution.
  • Compare/contrast: Illustrate what is being compared or contrasted. Write distinguishing characteristics of each item on the right.
  • Description: Illustrate what is being described. Include quotes from the text that influenced your illustration.
  • Short Stories/novel: Illustrate important events in beginning/middle/end of story or chapter.  Include an important quote or caption for each illustration.


  • When implemented correctly this form of note taking gives students purpose for reading the text.
  • Students who are intimidated by writing a lot are more at ease due to small amount of space set aside for writing.
  • Artistically inclined students have a chance to show off their skills.
  • Students have flexibility/autonomy in regards to how they illustrate a concept.
  • Takes a little plan time and can be used with any text.
  • Teachers can quickly see whether or not students grasp important concepts in text.
  • Can help make text structure more explicit.
  • Can function as quick formative assessment – make sure you provide descriptive feedback related to your learning target.
  • By reviewing student work, teachers can pin point difficult parts in the text, or uncover student misconceptions.
  • Student responses can function as good whole class discussion starters as oftentimes two students may include 2 very different illustrations that are both applicable depending on reasoning.

Caution: Handing this template to students and giving them the hour to read the text and draw pictures will more than likely not result in them understanding the learning target. It is still necessary to provide direction before the assignment and time for them to process or extend their learning after completing the notes.


TRY IT OUT Tuesdayb

 Just Try-It Challenge: Identify a text in the unit you are teaching and teach students this strategy to take notes.  Be sure to adapt the assignment to meet your specific learning target.