Posts filed under ‘Language Arts’

On the Other Side

So, I made a mistake. I do that pretty often, actually. But as I always say, mistakes are just another way of learning. The full story is for a different post; for now, let’s just say I let myself get into a situation where I had to read a book of a student’s choice in order to determine whether he’d actually read it or was just bluffing through his assignment. It was a very painful experience.


Now, I am a person who can appreciate diverse genres. But with all due respect to Matt Christopher, I no longer understand why kids are so into him. My past understanding was that the students liked sports, he writes prolifically about sports, so it’s a great match! But goodness, that was the dryest hundred-page kids’ novel I ever had to force myself to stay awake through. It was 90% play-by-play game descriptions – and all for a team that doesn’t even exist! They didn’t even use especially rich vocabulary; the thing read like a sportscast. The “deep” part of the plot occurred in brief dialogues between games. There was a bit of plot and character development, but on a much lower maturity level than the technical reading level of the book. Usually I’m more hard-pressed to find the opposite – mature content at a low reading level. But I digress, I didn’t come here to badmouth a popular author. Anyone who gets my kids reading deserves their publishing contract (though, arguably, the problem here was that the sports-fan student lost interest before finishing the reading)

About eighty pages in, I had a lightbulb moment. Here I was, reading about a topic I had no interest in, in a foreign language purporting to be English, and it was pure torture. I, the queen of context clues, still don’t know what a “buttonhook” is, and they must have done it twenty times in that book! Well, it’s some kind of football play, and not very important to the plot, but basically I skimmed through a lot of the action without fully grasping the finer points of what was going on, despite figuring out more than I ever wanted to know about football, because it just didn’t matter to me. And it suddenly hit me that this is what our students have to do DAILY.

That explains a lot.

Now, I still maintain that some things in life are boring and difficult, and it doesn’t hurt to get used to that. And I also know that there are ways we teachers can (and do! Well, most of us…) try to minimize the torture. But there’s nothing like switching sides for a real kicker.

I have always empathized with my students, but it does help to have the feeling driven home afresh every now and then. So, if you’re not a sports-lover, go ahead and pick up a Matt Christopher book. You might regret it, but you also might learn something!

And just so you don’t think I’m down on Matt Christopher because I don’t do football, I really enjoyed this book, also football themed:

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January 20, 2012 at 2:04 am Leave a comment

Wednesday Whatsits: What’s the ELA?

(Apologies to the rest of the universe, as this post is kind of NY-centric. I really don’t know what goes on elsewhere.)

Year after year, I run into at least a handful of students, teachers, and parents in a tizzy about the ELAs. They’re not sure what they are, why they matter, or what to do about them, but they hope I know. And is my kid going to have to take a science ELA?

For starters, please calm down. ELA stands for just “English Language Arts,” and yes, there will be a test.

What is it?

In New York State, the ELA test is given to students in grades 3-8 every Spring. It is a pretty standard language arts test, which includes short reading and listening passages, multiple choice questions, and written responses. Some grades also have a short proofreading exercise. It’s usually given in two sessions on two consecutive days.

Does it matter?

It might. Depending on your school, the results might be used for class placement decisions or to screen for academic risks. Some intervention programs use the results to determine which students should receive government-funded enrichment. School-wide averages may also be used to flag those in need of extra help. In my school, promotion decisions are never based solely on state tests, but it’s up to the schools to decide how much weight to give it.

What should we do about it?

Not much, in my opinion. The New York ELA test seems to address standard skills directly enough that you don’t need to waste much time and energy on test prep. My focus in test preparation is just to let students know what to expect so they don’t get confused and intimidated when opening the test booklet. What this looks like:

  • At the beginning of the year and throughout: Read the state standards so you know what students are expected to know. It won’t tell you exactly what to teach but will give you a general idea of what skill areas to look at.
  • All year: Give a couple of test-style multiple choice questions on each reading assignment. Weave in strategies such as reading all the choices and using the process of elimination.
  •  All year: Integrate language-arts words into your vocabulary, and make sure that students understand them. Use phrases like “character traits” and “theme,” for example.
  • All year: Consider accommodations. The day of the test is too late to arrange for extra time, directions read aloud, or such. Notice when kids are struggling in regular classroom tests and alert your school’s special needs coordinator.
  • Before the test: Do a couple of sample essays with your students. The test essays follow very specific formats, so you can easily coach your students on what is expected of them (more on that in some future post if desired)
  • About a week before the test: Print out a sample test and spend a period or so familiarizing your students with the directions and layout, which change very little (if at all) from year to year.

Note that until the month of the test if not later, my recommendations don’t really change your teaching much at all. Beyond that, there’s nothing you can really do to cram language skills.

What about the math ELA?

Now that you know ELA stands for English Language Arts, you can figure that there is no math, science, or history ELA. Trick question, but one that I’m asked all the time! However, there are state assessments in other subjects, my recommendations for those are similar though I don’t care for the tests as much, and this post is long enough without going into it! Until next time, then!

November 2, 2011 at 5:11 pm 2 comments

My Silent Victory

Teachers do a lot of talking. Sometimes I feel like my students aren’t even listening. So when I decided to try something new in word study, I just quietly hung a small sign in my office like the one pictured to the left (with the first week’s word family in that big empty space).

It didn’t take a full minute before kids started noticing and asking, but I wasn’t going to give up the game so fast. I made them wait until the regular English period before explaining that they were to find their own spelling words this week by looking in their reading and writing for examples of the latin root posted on the sign. They immediately began generating examples and comparing definitions. In fact, they were so interested in vocabulary for the next two weeks that I had to make a new class rule not to discuss vocabulary during any other period!

When we allow students to make the first move, they become invested in the learning. It is not forced upon them, but something they chose to be interested in. And when we withhold information – such as by providing a visual prompt but restraining the deluge of explanation – it engages even more curiosity. Way to build the buzz.

Verdict: For the already breathless teacher, a picture is definitely worth a thousand words.

October 24, 2011 at 11:48 pm Leave a comment


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