Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Word Nerds Unite! Vocabulary Instruction in Secondary Schools

"Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes."  ― George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

So wrote Orwell in 1946. Could you imagine what Orwell might say in the age of instant messages, text messages, emoticons, and Twitter? Actually, Orwell might have liked Twitter, as he argued for brevity, and careful use of the English language, as his 6 rules illustrate:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. (Orwell, 1946)
Many teachers today lament the decline of the English language; but, as educators, are we prepared to take action? It's not enough to cringe at the sight of a misplaced apostrophe or the sound of a mispronounced word.  Just as I believe that every teacher is a teacher of reading, I believe that every teacher is a teacher of vocabulary.

An excellent American educator, author, and recent workshop presenter at the Reading for the Love of It Conference in Toronto, Janet Allen, has taken up the torch and is willing to shine a light on vocabulary instruction. Similar to Orwell, Allen recognizes that "language is power, and those who can use language effectively have an advantage over those who can't or don't" (2007, 102). Moreover, Allen argues that
"...our goal as educators has to include making sure students have access to the words for speaking and writing. This belief that we are teaching content for transfer's sake rather than content for content's sake will influence every instructional decision..." (2007, 102)
I've  always struggled with vocabulary building in the classroom; I'm often left wondering if my disjointed application of word games and strategies works, because, like Allen posits, I don't see the transfer of new words to students' vocabularies. Interestingly, I wonder if I was more successful in this transfer of skill outside of the English classroom: I'm thinking back to lessons in my Canadian Law classes when I spent considerable time helping students decode the language (which relies heavily on Latin). My students were able to integrate phrases like actus reus and mens rea into their vocabulary during the course; my hope is that when they see these phrases in news articles about Canadian criminal law, they'll recognize them. Allen confirms, for me, the idea that we have to include vocabulary comprehension in all subject areas: "Teaching vocabulary is teaching new labels for known or familiar concepts; teaching concepts is teaching students about something for which they currently have little or no understanding or familiarity" (Allen, 2007, 92).

What to do?

Allen suggests, in her workshop (and readings below),  four comprehensive vocabulary programs to help students build vocabulary, in all of their classes, regardless of subject (often, to prove her point, she uses science and history examples).

  1. foster word consciousness: for example, use word walls (and have students keep their own version in their notebooks); 
  2. teach individual words (aim for ~350 new words a year): take 5 minutes during class to teach "stopper" words, or words that student will struggle with
  3. teach strategies to learn new words independently: explicitly model how to use context clues -look for local context (inside the word with roots, prefixes, suffixes), brain/ background knowledge, use sentence context, and then global context (meaning everywhere else in the text).
  4. increase the amount of reading

These four practices are fairly straightforward and present a viable solution to Allen's (and Orwell's) assertion that "vocabulary instruction is at least one of those foundational practices that continues to fall short of meeting its goal: producing students who can read, write, and communicate effectively because they have access to a large reservoir of words" (Allen, 2007, 88). It is certainly possible to not only improve our vocabulary instruction in schools, but also to create the delight that comes from word play and the understanding of complex texts. Students love the playfulness that can be generated through word of the day challenges or word games at the start of a class.

Allen, J. (2014). "What gets in the Way of Success in Reading?" Workshop at Reading for the Love of It Conference. Feb. 20,     2014.
Allen, J. (2007). “Mastering the Art of Effective Vocabulary Instruction” Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice. K. Beers, R.E. Probst, L. Rief, Eds. pp. 87-104.
Allen, J. (2000). Yellow Brick Roads: Shared and Guided Paths to Independent Reading 4-12Markham: Pembroke Publishers.
Allen, J. (1999). Words, words, words: Teaching vocabulary in grades 4-12. Markham: Pembroke Publishers.
Orwell, G. (1946). Politics and the English  Language. Access Feb. 26 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Using Graphic Novels in the Classroom

Too many assumptions exist about graphic texts and comics; chief amongst them is the belief that the texts are low-level vocabulary and content which are best for reluctant readers. Many of today's graphic novels test that belief as they are rich, sophisticated texts which challenge readers intellectually, emotionally, and as readers.

J.B. Carter writes to clarify misconceptions around using graphic novels in the classroom - mainly that they are intended for younger audiences or only reluctant readers. Instead, Carter points out that they are complex, rich texts which need careful consideration for use in the classroom. And while yes, some reluctant readers and some boys might be more likely to read these texts (as suggested in the Ontario Ministry of Education's Me Read? And How!), graphic novels are an "art form" which have appeal to a multitude of readers. Likewise, Teri Lesesne suggests that the graphic element is especially appealing to teens, as evidenced by the fact that there is a wealth of titles in Young Adult literature (65). Both point out that graphic texts - like all texts - need to be seamlessly integrated into classrooms in appropriate contexts.

Carter cites the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the "need for authentic reading and writing experiences, textual investigations that help bridge the gap between the school world and the lived world, between narrow notions of what it means to be literate and broad notions of what it means to actually succeed as an intelligent adult in contemporary society." Graphic texts may do this for some audiences. But, as with any text, appropriate selection and instruction must occur. Many students - especially reluctant readers - have little experience with the complex conventions and themes of many graphic novels. Lesesne argues that the "visual scaffolds are the hook they need to enjoy the reading experince" (67),  acting as an entry point to explicit instruction in visual and/or media literacy. Schwartz is cited by Lesesne:
"Graphic novels offer value, variety, and a new medium for literacy that acknowledges the impact of visuals. These novels appearl to young people, are useful across the curriculum, and offer diverse alternatives to traditional texts as well as other media." (67)
Teachers must choose texts based on their students' readiness, appropriateness of content for the curriculum and the school community. I particularly like using graphic novels in Literature Circles, especially in other subject areas such as Native Studies (especially the senior courses). After students are introduced to the conventions of the text and the format of Lit Circles, they are free to read the text in order to understand the deeper meaning of the text. In Native Studies, this is especially useful for exploring sensitive topics which better deserve an emotional or personalized approach, such as residential schooling. Students respond to the graphics as well as the stories on an emotional as well as an intellectual level, which is an important component of the issues around residential schools.

Graphic Novels to explore Native Studies (click on the links for video book trailers):

Brown, C. (2003). Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography. Drawn and Quarterly.

Dembicki, M., Editor. (2010). Trickster: Native American Tales. Fulcrum Publishing.

Hill, G. (2010). The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book. Arsenal Pulp Press.

Robertson, D. A. & S.B. Henderson. (2012). 7 Generations: A Plains Cree Saga, Winnipeg: Highwater Press.

Robertson, D. A. & S.B. Henderson. (2012). Sugar Falls: A Residential School Story. Winnipeg: Highwater Press.

Robertson, D. A. The Life of Helen Betty Osborne: A Graphic Novel. Winnipeg: Highwater Press.

Wright-McLeod, B. (2011). Red Power. Fifth House Publishers.

Photo of excerpt from 7 Generations courtesy Portage & Main Press


Carter, J.B. (March 2009). “Going Graphic.” Educational Leadership. Vol. 66. No. 6. pp. 68-73.

Lesesne, T.S. (2007). “Of Times, Teens, and Books.” Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice. K. Beers, R.E. Probst, L. Rief, Eds.  pp. 61-79.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2009). Me Read? And How! Ontario teachers report on how to improve boys’ literacy skills. Queen's Printer for Ontario. 

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Literacy in the 21st Century

Well, it's 2014. Isn't it time to make the shift to a 21st century framework in our education system? Just what is 21st century learning? Fundamentally, I believe it's a pedagogical shift of thinking that prioritizes learning over teaching. Our system has been undergoing this change for some time, but it's still glacially slow, especially at system levels.

Much of the groundwork is being laid by classroom teachers and is often led by technological innovation. My concerns about 21st century learning are generally twofold: as someone who believes that all teachers are teachers of literacy, I want to ensure that we do not lose the significant gains made in literacy in Ontario. More teachers believe that they bear responsibility for teaching literacy today than they did 10 years ago. Secondly, we have great opportunities with new technologies as many teachers are re-engaged in professional learning (especially after a rough year with the government last year) and are keen to experiment in their classrooms with tools that promote creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and above all, changes that empower student voice and choice.

What is 21st century learning?

Source: Ontario Minister of Education's Student Advisory Committee, August 2012

With the re-vamping of the EduGAINS website (re-launched this past January), the Ontario Ministry of Education's 21st Century Learning branch officially launched an online presence, but it's still a little light on substance, citing a continuation of the consultation process it began in 2010.

The Ministry does identify 4 areas of priority for 21st century learning:

  • "Engaging students as partners in their own learning
  • Harnessing the capacity of technology to engage learners and to optimize and amplify student learning and achievement
  • Emphasizing and teaching important higher-order skills such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity and entrepreneurship
  • Supporting educators in preparing our students for a rapidly changing, technology-driven, globalized world." [All text quoted directly; emphasis mine].

Much of this clearly draws from Michael Fullan's Great to Excellent (2013) report. As a "Special Advisor to the Premier" (note that this was former-premier, Dalton McGuinty), Fullan argues that "Six C's form the agenda: character, citizenship, communication, critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration and teamwork, and creativity and imagination" (8), which seems to be the basis for 21st century learning in Ontario. While the Ministry continues with the research and consultation phase, using the Fullan report's ideas, many school systems are already grappling with defining 21st century skills for themselves.

For me, a focus on literacy must be maintained. But, what is literacy in the 21st century?

In Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice (2007) from editors Kylene Beers, Robert E. Probst, and Linda Rief, we are offered a collection of essays that attempt to provide teachers of adolescents "an edited collection where many voices came together to explore the many facets of adlescent literacy: reading writing, motivation, young adult literature, vocabulary, comprehension, and assessment, to name a few" (xi).

In her opening chapter, Beers presents a compelling argument about the changing nature of literacy, tracking different forms of literacy: such as signature literacy of the colonial era, to recitational literacy that characterized education through to the early modern era, to the emphasis on textual analysis that characterized the post-war to late 90s (7-8). Underlying the entire collection is the belief that 21st century learners are different and are a reflection of their times, in as much as students of previous times were a reflection of their times. Beers' acknowledges the role of Thomas Friedman's 2005 The World is Flat  and Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind (2006) in defining the skills that today's students need in the conceptual age:
"making meaning and connections will be valued as will focusing on the multiple possibilities of any situation over seeking one solution. In this age, creative thinking will be the key to success. ... [I]n the flat world, producing, not consuming, information is the measure of success." (8)

Students are viewed as creators or producers of text. Nowhere is this more evident than in student use of technology; many students are engaging with texts outside of classrooms in ways that are more meaningful and more authentic to them. In all of her books, Beers excels at including students' voices, such as the student blogger engaged in environmental issues but failing English; my own observations reveal students independently creating blogs, fan-fiction, computer games, or complex digital tracking systems for hockey drafts and pools. I often try to remind myself to create these authentic tasks, but old patterns (and lesson plans) die hard. Change is slow. And improving EQAO scores and or even our own testing too often remains a goal of our classes; it's the old argument that we're preparing grade 10 Academic level students for university. Why don't we just focus on preparing students for the world rather than another system (university) within this world (and one which many will not attend)?

Beers is pretty clear about the role of standardized testing in school improvement planning; what she labels academic literacy, or the literacy needed for school texts and tests, is of limited value to the students of today (6). Instead, she offers 4 areas of learning that are fundamental to academic achievement: digital-age literacy, inventive thinking, effective communication and high productivity.

Similar to Beers, Jim Burke draws on both Pink and Friedman extensively, using Friedman's argument that "a flat world is a competitive world in which, thanks to digitization and the Internet, work will increasingly go to the people with the best skills, who can do it with the necessary time constraints, for the best price, regardless of where they live (152). He provides his students with real world examples of this by bringing community members into his classroom to discuss the realities of literacy in their workdays. Burke uses Friedman's list of skills necessary in the flat world to generate his list of 21st century learning in which students will need to be:

  • great collaborators and orchestrators: the ability to effectively combine different individual skill sets in any situation (be it with geographical, political, cultural, linguistic challenges) for the benefit of a team goal (153)
  • great synthesizers: "take the many (perspectives, texts, ideas) and synthesize them into one new idea and form that draws on all the others that came before it" (154)
  • great explainers: the ability to provide, with clarity and in specific contexts, explanations of complex processes and products (154-55)
  • great leveragers: "managing oneself despite a constantly evolving workplace that demands new skills and abilities from its workers" (155)
  • adaptors: given the changing demands of workplaces, this is the ability to adapt one's current skills and knowledge to meet the needs of different situations that will arise (156)
  • green people: the ability to think of inter-connected systems (as in nature) as well as those who will capitalize on the emerging opportunities in "bio-inspired solutions to our looming energy and environmental problems (Friedman in Burke, 157)
  • passionate personalizers: "the ability to take a basic service and transform it into something only they can do or that meets some local need the community has" (158)
  • great localizers: the ability to use global resources and technologies to create local solutions (159).

At the core of Burke's thinking are students: he is attempting to ensure that the skills taught in his high school English classes are relevant to both students and the community at large. I would argue that this is akin to Fullan's notion of citizenship. One of the clear functions of schools is to prepare our students for society; today, the notion of socialization is called character education or citizenship education, but the goals are the same: prepare students to be good citizens. Or as Burke frames it,

"If Friedman's is a flat world, it is also a brave new world, one in which we are inextricably a part, and where success and well-being go to those who learn how to live in it despite its ever-changing demands."

I share Kylene Beers' concerns for the students of today and hope to foster her vision of schools of the future:

"Schooling is still primarily about teachers distributing information and then students giving it back. Some schools understand the importance of inquiry, the value of collaboration, the critical need for creating and questioning and wondering. They understand the learning potential when students self-select writing topics and reading material. They have come to appreciate the absolute necessity for using technology as a tool for learning and not an electronic workbook for remediation, the difference between writing  as a way of understanding and writing as reporting, and the inescapable truth that the measure of success must be more than a single state-mandated, minimum-standards test." (11) 
I believe in schools that are responsive to students' needs, that encourage student voice, that focus on critical and creative thinking while grounding everything in literacy (and numeracy for that matter), all while maintaining high expectations for students. I believe that this vision of schools needs to be collaboratively developed within school communities -- staff, students, parents/guardians, community members, administrators -- all have a responsibility in developing effective programming for students.

I also believe we can deliver this in Ontario schools. Our teachers, administrators, board level staff -- and yes, I would even argue the Ministry of Education -- also believe in 21st century learning.  And, while much of the innovation will continue to come from teachers' classrooms, soon some clarity of thinking and coherence of goals will need to come from people in leadership positions. As the Ministry shifts to K-12 models (which is well underway in the division responsible for literacy), systems have the opportunity to envision better ways of meeting student needs.


Beers, Kylene. (2007). "Introduction" and "The Measure of Our Success." Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice. Eds. Kylene Beers, Robert E. Probst, and Linda Rief. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. pp. ix-xvii and pp.1-13.

Burke, Jim. (2007). “Teaching English Language Arts in a ‘Flat’ World.”  Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice. Eds. Kylene Beers, Robert E. Probst, and Linda Rief. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. pp.149-165. 

Fullan, Michael. (2012). "Great to Excellent: Launching the Next Stage of Ontario's Education Agenda." Retrieved from .

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Do You DI?

Why should you differentiate your instruction?

In Ontario, differentiated instruction (DI) has been actively promoted by the Ministry of Education since 2007. The Ministry has advocated for the use of DI to "foster instructional, assessment and evaluation practices that support student engagement, learning and academic achievement for all students in Ontario schools". ("2011 DI in Action Survey" p2).  Fundamental to the DI strategy in teacher learning was the intent to offer multiple opportunities for teachers to learn about DI (DI workshops, DI mentoring/coaching, online webinars, DI summer programs, DI brochures, and teaching/learning examples, many of which are available on the GAINS website). 

A 2011 survey conducted by the University of Ottawa revealed several interesting findings related to Ontario teachers' attitudes about DI:
  • Teachers gave a very high rating to the statement, "Encouragement from school administration to try new practices or strategies" (Avg 4.06 out of 5)
  • Well over 80% of teachers either strongly agreed or agree with the statement, “I believe that by implementing DI, student engagement can be significantly improved.”
  • Some of the top professional learning strategies for implementing DI were identified as:
    • Planning and teaching with a colleague focusing specifically on DI 
    • Mentoring by a DI-knowledgeable colleague 
    • Working with a DI-knowledgeable learning team facilitator 
    • Co-assessing student work
  • Although teachers felt confident and supported in implementing DI they indicated that developing DI practice requires time; 
  • Most teachers are implementing elements of DI but some are unsure of the deeper implications and rationale for its use, and of its application to specific grades and/or subjects; misconceptions are evident.
As a result, the Ministry of Education concluded that school boards, administrators, and staff needed to continue their work by creating a deeper understanding of DI (with a particular focus on improving attitudes at the secondary level), which could happen by considering a range of professional learning approaches to promote and foster DI implementation. Additionally, I would argue that this study (along with others like it, such as the TLLP program), contributed to the current focus on job-embedded collaborative inquiry.

I have been fortunate to participate in projects like those with GAINS and DI projects such as those initiated in boys' literacy research on best practice and published in Me Read? (And How!). Some of the best professional learning sessions I have attended were as a result of Ministry initiatives for cross-panel work involving these documents. Me Read? And How! was created as a direct response to  Me Read? No Way!; both documents outline a variety of strategies and programs (much of which were about differentiation, before it was called DI) created by schools to respond to poor rates of literacy in boys.
"It is critical that we provide classroom experiences that respond to the interests, needs, and learning styles of all students, and that we explore ways to engage boys and girls equally as readers and writers." (Me Read? No Way! p.5)
Research has shown that differentiation works; students respond to an approach that takes their needs, interests, learning styles, and readiness into account.
"In a recent article entitled “What Students Want From Teachers” (2008), students identiļ¬ed what they needed in order to be engaged in the classroom. Their comments fell into the following categories (pp. 48–51):
➔ Take me seriously
➔ Challenge me to think
➔ Nurture my self-respect
➔ Show me I can make a difference
➔ Let me do it my way
➔ Point me toward my goals
➔ Make me feel important
➔ Build on my interests
➔ Tap my creativity
➔ Bring out my best self    (as cited in Me Read? And How! p6)
 Much of the above list speaks directly to the need to differentiate in order to engage the learner. In secondary schools, one of the biggest challenges is engaging the reluctant reader. It's so important to include their voice and choice when selecting texts for reading. In Education for All, teachers are reminded of the importance of differentiation for reading (especially for students with special needs):
"The instruction that students with special needs receive may not be different in content from that of other students, but teachers may need to deliver that instruction with more support and guidance, with more intensity, and with more opportunities to facilitate growth." (p93)
Using research-based, high-yield instructional strategies has become the backbone of our board's BIPSA; ultimately, it's important that we are using the right strategies and interventions at the right time. To determine appropriate interventions and supports, assessment once again becomes so important for teachers. We need to ensure that we are constantly assessing for student growth.
"Effective teachers will, however, vary instructional strategies and methodologies to provide students with special needs with the increased intensity and duration of instruction they may require. At the same time, teachers need to keep all students engaged and active in the learning process".  (Education for All, p 94).


Ontario Ministry of Education (2009). Me Read? And How! Ontario teachers report on how to improve boys’ literacy skills. Queen's Printer for Ontario.

Ontario Ministry of Education (2004). Me Read? No Way! A practical guide to improving boys’ literacy skills. Queen's Printer for Ontario.
Ontario Ministry of Education (2005). Education for All:The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy and Numeracy Instruction for Students With Special Education Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6. Queen's Printer for Ontario.

Ontario Ministry of Education, Research, Monitoring and Evaluation Team, Student Achievement Division (2011). "2011 DI in Action Survey: Toronto Region Part of the Evaluation of the Ontario Ministry of Education’s Differentiated Instruction Professional Learning Strategy" and "Key Learnings and Recommendations from the Evaluation of the Ontario Ministry of Education’s Differentiated Instruction Professional Learning Strategy".