Archive of ‘Language Arts’ category

Online Reading Comprehension

‘Kids these days are so good with computers – certainly better than I will ever be! They’re whatchya call ‘Digital Natives’. They spend so much time with technology, they know exactly what to do. What could we possibly teach them in school?’

Have you heard something like this before? It’s a popular school of thought. Unfortunately, it’s fundamentally flawed, and research indicates that schools need to start addressing the issues of Digital Literacy: the ability to communicate (read, write, speak, listen) effectively via technology. It’s not enough to simply take students to the computer lab and give them time to do research or type up their papers. Putting technology in their hands does not automatically mean you are using technology effectively in the classroom. We need to actually show them – model – digital literacy skills of locating, evaluating, synthesizing, and communicating effectively online.

Another popular yet incorrect assumption is that reading books and reading online require the same set of reading strategies and skills. I mean – they’re both just information, right? Wrong. There are several key differences between reading online and reading traditional print that educators must understand. First, online texts are multimodal – they consist of media presented in multiple forms, from text to graphics, photographs, audio, video and more. Meaning can be conveyed through size, layout, proportion, and color. Students need to be taught how to ‘read’ these new kinds of ‘texts’ and draw connections between information presented in multiple media. This is hard work for our brain! Multimedia has so much potential for reaching our students with different learning styles and needs, but we must first teach them how to utilize it. Not to mention, there are SO many distractions and distractors online – it can be a real sensory overload!

When we read a traditional book, believe it or not, a lot of the work is done for us. The author has already pre-determined your purpose for reading, the order in which you will read everything, and how the text is organized. When reading online, we get to make all of these decisions for ourselves. We start out with a question or a problem, make decisions, click away, and build a ‘choose your own adventure’ kind of reading experience. Because online texts are nonlinear, this means that no two people will have the exact same online reading experience. And since we – the readers – are the ones with the question/problem, only we can determine when we have fulfilled our online reading purpose and we can stop reading. That’s a lot of pressure!

Students require strong metacognitive abilities (awareness of our thinking) when reading online, as they must constantly reflect on everything they read, whether it is pertinent to their reading purpose, and what to do next. Every single navigational choice or click requires self-regulating reading strategies (planning, predicting, monitoring, evaluation), forward inferential thinking (predicting – what do I expect to find when I click this?), prior knowledge (of both the reading topic and prior experiences with technology), and global reading strategies such as questioning and synthesis (how does this fit in with what I already know? just read on the previous screen?). Phew – reading online is tough! We use more reading strategies more often when reading online, and we use them in unique and creative ways that are distinct from traditional print reading strategies.

So you see, we do need to address these issues in the classroom. We need to model for our students and give them lots of guided practice with reading for comprehension online. Being raised around technology does not automatically make our students proficient online readers.

One tool that is helping to bridge this gap in American Schools is the ORCA: Online Reading Comprehension Assessment. It is a 5-year research project funded by the United States Department of Education. The research team, located at the University of Connecticut, includes Dr. Donald Leu, Dr. John Kulokowich, Dr. Nell Sedransk, and Dr. Julie Coiro. The team has been generous enough to let me use this tool to conduct my own research for my dissertation before the assessment will be made available to schools across the nation.

The ORCA measures students’ abilities with 4 critical digital literacy skills: locate, evaluate, synthesize, and communicate. This is NOT your typical standardized assessment! It is designed to look familiar to students – a lot like Facebook. The students login, create an online profile, then interact with a peer named Brianna who asks questions and gives the students tasks to perform. These tasks range from reading email, searching the Internet, locating specific articles, summarizing (1 article) and synthesizing (multiple articles) the information, copying and pasting, evaluate the credentials and credibility of an author and article, and finally constructing a summative email. The ORCA measures everything a student does from the terms they type into ‘Gloogle’ (the ORCA intranet version of Google), to which links they choose from a list of search results. In the end, there are 16 tasks that are measured.

Online Reading Comprehension Assessment (c) Kristen Dembroski

For my research, I am conducting a 2-Phase Mixed Methods study that is investigating possible variables that may affect student success with the ORCA such as use of reading strategies, time spent on task, prior experiences with technology, and level of confidence. Here are my students taking the ORCA last week:

Online Reading Comprehension Assessment (c) Kristen Dembroski

In my first phase, I administered the ORCA to 123 students in 8th grade. As you can see from the average scores below, we need to adjust our 8th grade Language Arts curriculum to address the skills of evaluating online texts (is this a credible source?) and communicating that information appropriately (constructing email, citing sources, etc.)

Average scores out of 4 (n=123)
Locate: 2.54
Synthesize: 2.91
Evaluate: 1.81
Communicate: 1.33

I can’t wait for this tool to be available nationwide – I think this is going to make a huge impact on students and the way we teach reading comprehension. I’ll be sure to keep you updated on the progress of my dissertation as well – I am actually excited about this project, and I know the results will be interesting and of critical importance.



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is txting 2 much bad 4 u??

We read a great article today from Junior Scholastic titled “IS TXTING 2 MUCH BAD 4 U?” Our learning targets were reading for detail and highlighting with a purpose. We first just read through the article, had a brief discussion, then went back and highlighted the pros and cons in two different colors. Next, we identified the audience and purpose of the article. Finally, I elected a student to be the recorder (nice handwriting, right?) and the class create a giant t-chart of the pros (benefits) and cons (dangers) of texting. I was pretty impressed with the list they generated! In the interest of full disclosure, I must add that they were pretty miffed that the article appeared ‘biased’ to them – too many cons and too few pros. A great discussion though!

Texting Pros Cons (c) Kristen Dembroski


In preparation for our Argumentative Writing Unit, tomorrow we will identify the stakeholders in this topic, then write a blog entry that includes a thesis (student’s opinion on the topic) and evidence from the article.

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What is Argumentative Writing?

According to Purdue Online Writing Lab, Argumentative Writing is “a genre of writing that requires students to investigate a topic; collect, generate, and evaluate evidence; and establish a position on the topic in a concise manner.”

In a nutshell, what this means to me is that argument essays require you to take a position on a topic and justify your position with evidence (facts, examples, anecdotes, statistics, truths, expert opinions). Before the writer can take a position, he/she must consider different sides of the issue and engage in some research.

If you have been investigating and incorporating the Common Core State Standards into your curriculum, you will have noticed that the word ‘persuade’ has almost disappeared, only to be replaced with the words argument/argumentative writing. I think of persuasion as a more aggressive, one-sided stance on a controversial issue; the writer takes a strong stance on a position and uses evidence and propagandistic language to convince the reader of something. Argumentative writing, on the other hand, defends one position/claim while also addressing and responding to opposing claims. It is also more balanced, logical, and sequential in the way in which it must address and explain multiple pieces of evidence. This is the direction that the Common Core Standards are leading us toward.

A pioneer in the field of Argumentative Writing is Dr. Richard Beach. If you teach Language Arts, you’re going to want to purchase this book:


Teaching to Exceed the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards: A Literacy Practices Approach for 6-12 Classrooms

In fact, he’s written a great deal of poignant, timely texts on Language Arts and the Common Core. Here is a link to his page on Amazon.

I had the privilege of hearing him speak about Argumentative Writing at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Symposium in June of 2012. After reading several articles about his current research, I created my own Argumentative Writing Unit and Instructional Workbook for guiding my students through the Argument Writing Process.

Argument Unit (c) Kristen Dembroski        The Paper Chain (c) Kristen Dembroski

I will say that this makes a lot more sense to me than persuasive writing. The goal is no longer ‘winning’ a debate, but rather considering the issue from all angles and taking a calculated position. Not to get too philosophical here, but I do think this is a skill that would greatly benefit our politically divided country. Learning to listen to one another and address opposing claims leads us in the directions of understanding and compromising – surely these are much more ’21st Century Skills’ than winning.

Have you incorporated Argumentative Writing into your curriculum?

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Scholarship Letter Writing Unit

Scholarship Letter Unit (c) Kristen Dembroski

Currently, we are working on the Scholarship Letter unit. This is a 2-week unit on argumentation / persuasive writing in which the students apply for a fictional scholarship to attend a famous, world-renowned (yet fictional) high school. They choose their dream high school based on their interests. For example, there is a school for arts, sports, civil service, etc.

This is a very authentic, important unit to my students – they gain much needed practice with argumentative/persuasive writing, professional letter writing, and an opportunity to be reflective of their academic and personal goals. Our district’s guidance office always collects the scholarship letters and uses them for scheduling students in high school and directing them toward college applications. The students know this is an influential writing assignment, and the put a lot of thought and effort into it. I’ve been doing it for the past 6 years, and it’s one of my favorite writing units.

We spend about 2 weeks on this unit, proceeding slowly and carefully. Yesterday, we wrote body paragraph 1 together as a class, step by step. I explain the directions for each sentence/component, give students a chance to write, then we share – sentence by sentence for the entire paragraph (known in the teaching world as ‘scaffolding’). It’s definitely worth it to go slow. Below is a student’s work on body paragraph 1:

Scholarship Letter Unit (c) Kristen Dembroski

I have every student use the scaffolding for body paragraph 1, but only my writers who struggle with focus and organization receive scaffolding for the other 4 paragraphs. I create a packet for those students that has a scaffolding grid for each of the 5 paragraphs in the letter.

Tomorrow we will write body paragraphs 2 & 3, and Friday will be the introduction and conclusion. We will spend next week peer revising and editing, focusing especially on language and word choice. What’s most important at this stage is that students gain practice and confidence with the TELCon writing structure I use in my classroom. I can tell that the scaffolding is really improving their confidence and sense of self-efficacy when it comes to writing.

If you would like to purchase the Scholarship Letter unit to use in your classroom, click here!

Scholarship Letter Unit (c) Kristen Dembroski


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Rewind, Pause, Redo Day!

So here we are, 5 weeks into school, and I wasn’t liking the grades I was seeing. Students had lots of missing work, and that’s not good news. Furthermore, they weren’t realizing that 8th grade means giving more effort than 7th grade – their work was off topic, didn’t follow directions, or was riddled with simple errors. This showed me that students weren’t taking their work as seriously as they need to. What to do…. what to do…

I decided to stage a “Rewind, Pause, Redo!” Day. It meant we would be off track of our schedule by one day (I bumped my Tuesday plans to Wednesday), but I felt it was necessary and definitely worth the sacrifice.

Before school, I made instructions for 4 different stations. I then made copies of the instructions and handed them to the correct student as they entered the room. These were my 4 stations:

1. Great job! You are all caught up on your work, and you received an A on our last writing assignment. Please read your library book and work on your Independent Reading Project.
2. You received a B or a C on your first writing assignment because either your evidence wasn’t specific enough, or your links were weak or vague. Please look at my comments and focus on revisions and editing. You should also refer to the model writing piece for ideas and sentence stems. Turn in your revised writing piece by the end of the hour.
3. You received a D on your first writing assignment because your piece was missing critical elements. I have created a scaffolding grid to help you focus on one piece at a time and to make sure you don’t miss anything. Let’s work on this together this hour.
4. You have missing work. You have until the end of the hour to complete and hand in your missing work.

At the beginning of my 3 classes, I listed how many students were receiving each letter grade in their Language Arts class. Then, at the end of class, I revised the numbers so they could see how their hard work paid off. I was honestly so impressed, I was almost moved to tears. The students were incredibly proud of themselves as well. I don’t believe that students earn ‘bad’ grades because they are naughty or lazy – they just haven’t yet received the support they needed. Taking a whole class to address their questions and concerns was an eye-opener for all of us! I can’t afford the time to do this every week, but I know that taking a “Rewind, Pause, Redo” Day early on in the year set the tone for our class for the rest of the year. Here are their MAJOR improvements:

Rewind Pause Redo Day (c) Kristen Dembroski

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Writing Desk – A New Tool for Writing Workshop!

The Writing Desk (c) Kristen Dembroski

I am SUPER excited about this new tool I developed for my classroom. The Writing Desk is a reference tool to be used during Writing Workshop, such as writing a draft, peer revising, and/or editing.

I took two manilla folders and overlapped them to create a 3-way standing ‘desk’ or divider. Then I created the printouts that are glued on the 3 inside surfaces. It’s designed to look like a cork board with lots of helpful ideas and ‘post its’ tacked up. The ideas include:

* Commonly Misspelled Words
* Introductory Elements – AAAWWUBBIS
* Transition Words
* How to correctly quote
* The Do’s and Don’ts of Peer Revision
* A publishing checklist (for final drafts)
* Compound Sentences – FANBOYS
* Appositives
* Other Ways to Say ‘Said’
* Our 6 Traits CCSS writing rubric that we use for all of our expository writing
* A TEL-Con sandwich graphic organizer. If you aren’t familiar with TEL-Con, it’s an organizational structure we use in our school for writing body paragraphs. You can learn more about TEL-Con through any of the following links:

Cross-Curricular Prompt Writing: Middle & High School: Common Core Organization
Argumentative Writing Instructional Workbook Grades 7-10: The Paper Chain
Argumentation Writing Unit: Common Core: Online Collaborative Discussion

I kid you not with this story: I have a high school ‘helper’ – a former student who volunteers in my classroom, and she is helping me make these writing desks. I explained the project to her, and the first thing she says is, “No fair! I wish you had thought of this when I was in 8th grade!”

I’ll be working hard for the next week or so to create a whole classroom set. If you’d like to purchase this for your classroom, click here!

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Library & Independent Reading

This week is our first chance to go to the Library. I make a point of bringing my 8th graders to the Library every Monday. This year, however, I knew things would be a little different with the iPads. For starters, our Library is now offering ebooks on loan. For some ebooks, we have only a few licenses, meaning only a few students can ‘check out’ the ebook at a time, and for other ebooks we have unlimited licenses. The students can download the ebook from our Library app (Destiny), ‘rent’ it for a couple of weeks, and then on the due date, **poof** it disappears! This means you can check out a book without ever stepping a foot into the library! This is great for kids who are absent a lot, who go on vacation, or who devour books at a breakneck pace.

To better utilize the iPads for reading purposes, I created this handout to help my students discover new and exciting digital reading materials. There are also some fantastic tips for finding your next great reading book. You can download the entire 3-page PDF file here: How To Find a Great Book KD. Enjoy!

How To Find a Great Book (c) Kristen Dembroski

How To Find a Great Book (c) Kristen Dembroski

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Reasons We Read and Write

An activity that I always use to start the year is ‘Why we Read/Write.’ I like students to really think about the purpose of Language Arts class and the many benefits of learning to read and write effectively.

I started by reading them a children’s book – this year it was Click, Clack, Moo, Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin. I ask the students to relax, enjoy, and transport themselves back in time to when they were wee and loved to snuggle and read books with their parents.

Click Clack Moo Cows That Type

You’d be surprised – 13-year-olds love to have children’s books read to them. Afterward, I asked what they enjoyed about the book. They loved that it was humorous, colorful, and simple; it brought back many nostalgic memories. Next, I asked them, “When reading this book, what might a small child accidentally learn about?” They were surprised at their own long list: farm animals and the foods they provide us, farm life, vocabulary, letter writing, and negotiating skills. Wow – reading really has many benefits, huh?

Then I passed out a stack of post-its at each table and asked the table groups to write down as many reasons as they could generate for why people read. What they came up with was creative and insightful!

Reading Reasons (c) Kristen DembroskiSome of my favorite post-its read:
“Find answers”
“To escape your reality”
“Keep informed”

Then I shared Kelly Gallagher’s 10 Reading Reasons and asked the students to compare their list with his. For the most part, they got all of the reasons besides ‘Reading Helps us To Fight Oppression’ and ‘Reading is Financially Rewarding.’ I challenge the students to name a single job where reading is not required. Bottom line: It can’t be done!

After Reading Reasons, I ask the students to think about why we write. I again distribute post-its, and we repeat the activity on the board. Here are there amazing answers:

Writing Reasons (c) Kristen DembroskiMy favorites are:
“Express yourself!”
“To let out your feelings”
“To understand things better”
“For fuuuuuuuuuun!”
“To capture memories”

Our discussion afterward focused on using writing to sort out our feelings and to communicate and be heard by others. The students also seemed to get the connection between reading and writing, and that they are mutually beneficial.

I was so proud of the students for being positive and enthusiastic throughout this whole activity. I didn’t hear one single student gripe, “I haaaaate reading. Who cares?” Etc. I am so glad we set a positive tone right at the beginning, and I look forward to referencing this great list that we made during the year as we expand our knowledge and skills.


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My Book

It’s finally finished! My first book 🙂

The Paper Chain: An Instructional Workbook for Argumentative Writing 

The Paper Chain Argumentative Writing (c) Kristen Dembroski


It is a 77-page exciting student-friendly instructional manual and workbook for writing an argumentative  paper – perfect for grades 7 – 10. This Common Core Aligned unit addresses writing, reading, and language. These are reading and writing techniques that can be used for cross-curricular writing in Language Arts, Science, Social Studies, Physical Education… you name it! I have provided professional development at my school for these writing techniques, and the entire staff at my middle school now uses them. It’s great to be on the same page.

By using the instructional workbook, students learn how to read and write argument/persuasive papers step-by-step. The following topics are addressed:

* Argumentative Writing
* The Paper Chain: Overview
* Argument Writing: Flow Chart
* Practice Identifying the Argument
* Effective Argument (word choice)
* Practice Generating an Argument
* Generating your own Argument
* Practice Identifying Claims
* Claims and Supporting Evidence
* Generating Claims: Supporting the Argument
* Practice Identifying Evidence
* Organizing Evidence
* Claims and Supporting Evidence
* Quoting Evidence
* Credibility
* A Search for Evidence
* Collecting Evidence: Internet Search
* Is this Website Credible?
* Practice Determining Credible Evidence
* Homework: Find Your Own Evidence
* Counterclaim
* Adding a Counterclaim
* Deconstructing a Counterclaim
* Writing a Body Paragraph: Organization
* Reasoning / Links: Explaining Evidence
* The Whole Paper = A TERCon Sandwich
* Citing Sources: Avoiding Plagiarism
* Other Ways to Say ‘Said’
* Bibliography / Works Cited
* Peer Revising
* Peer Revising Sample
* Revision Checklist
* Rubric
* Model/Exemplar Paper
* How to get an Advanced Score
* Sentence Fluency: Appositives
* Why Appositives Are Important
* Appositives Practice
* Commonly Misspelled Words
* Editing Shortcuts and Practice
* Publishing
* Glossary
* Answer Key

My favorite part about the workbook is that it is filled with models, examples, and practice, as well as easy-to-follow visuals and charts. You can print out the manual as a hard copy workbook for students or – as I do in my one-to-one iPad school – email it to my students as an ebook to reference all year.

I am hoping to have this available on iTunes University soon! In the meantime, you can purchase a version from Teachers Pay Teachers here. Happy Teaching!

The Paper Chain (c) Kristen Dembroski

The Paper Chain (c) Kristen Dembroski

The Paper Chain (c) Kristen Dembroski

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Warm-ups / Journal Entries

Warmup Journal  (c) Kristen Dembroski

Do you do warm-ups or journal entries in your classroom? This is SUCH a good idea for so many amazing reasons:

1. Your students need time to center themselves and transition their thinking between subjects.
2. It insures that you will do some writing every day.
3. Routine, routine, routine!
4. Students enjoy them. They can be creative, personal, inspiring, etc.
5. It’s a great way for students to track their own progress throughout the year.
6. It’s a great place to start generating ideas for longer writing pieces.
7. You can use it to introduce the big idea or topic of the day. Students can active their prior knowledge.
8. It can be used as an opportunity to review concepts from the previous day.
9. It provides immediate feedback (informal assessment) on your students’ state of mind. You can see who’s on task, who’s having a rough day, who needs a writing utensil, and how students are progressing toward your various learning targets, etc.
10. It gives you some time to do attendance and circulate your classroom to observe students.

I aim to do a warm-up or journal entry every single day. The type of warm-up / journal changes throughout the year, of course. But I always begin the year with ideas from my favorite teacher author, Kelly Gallagher. Though I am pretty sure I own all of his books, this one is his most recent, and my current favorite 🙂

Write Like This - Kelly GallagherNot to brag or anything, but I did get to meet him in person. He hugged me. And he signed my book.

Kelly Gallagher Signature (c) Kristen Dembroski

But I digress…

Anyway, this book is filled with some phenomenal warm-up or journal ideas. The reason I love to start the year with these is because I also want a chance to get to know my students personally. Here is a list of my favorite warm-ups from “Write Like This”:

* Six-Word Memoir
* Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life
* Favorite Mistakes
* The Bucket List
* Childhood Games
* A Watermark Event
* A Treasured Object
* Top 10 Lists
* Unwritten Rules
* How Does ___ Work

His book is designed around different purposes for writing, including Express and Reflect, Inform and Explain, Evaluate and Judge, Inquire and Explore, Analyze and Interpret, Take a Stand/Propose a Solution. It’s a great reminder to us as Language Arts teachers that we must make sure to tap into each of these kinds of writing equally (I’m sure we all have our favorite, but… ). And I like to remember that each of my students (and myself, too!) have different strengths and weaknesses with each kind of writing. It’s important to explore and develop our writing skills in multiple ways.

Some other great sources for warm-up or journaling ideas are:

* Visit the “Writing Prompts” website. There are some very thought-provoking questions.
* Check out the “National Geographic Photo of the Day“. Have students write what they think is happening, a story based on the photograph, etc.
* Purchase “Descriptive Creative Writing: Show Me!” This is a complete writing workshop unit CCSS, lesson plans, discussion / activities, handouts, and rubric.

Descriptive Writing (c) Kristen Dembroski



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