Increase Language Coming Back to School

I love to hear “chitter chattering” as I walk through the halls of my school. I love to hear the excited hum of students when they are passionately sharing ideas and even the slow lull when a student is thinking and trying to make sense of an idea. These sounds of children sharing and thinking remind me that learning is taking place and that students are formulating new ideas from the information they were presented.  Learning does not fully take place until an idea is taken, processed and extended or applied in some form.

In a blog last year entitled:  Why Student Talk Matters ,  I stated the following:  The speaking and listening piece allows our students to access the difficult text by having support while they process and think.  This shows the power of Language. We use the word “Language” often and what we mean by that is the communication of thoughts including reading and writing.  Listening and speaking are vehicles in which our students gain skills to read and write.  They must master one while learning a topic before they tackle the next. We know when we are teaching something difficult such as electricity, our students must listen to gain knowledge, talk about it so that they can process the information and then read about it.  Continuing discussion and processing helps students have the vocabulary necessary to write. If our students can write about a topic–they understand it. Each of these four domains (Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing) are interrelated and interact and affect one another–summation—these are reciprocal.

Our English as Second Language students rarely participate in conversations about academics, ideas and knowledge. Low socioeconomic families do not ask students to justify ideas, provide evidence, articulate positive or negatives.  This is only happening in our classrooms.  The more our classrooms are filled with academic discussions that require student to use and apply knowledge we are increasing their vocabulary and helping student to connect and own their learning.

Here are 6 simple ideas to infuse Language and “Student Talk” into your classrooms as you go back to school.

Idea #1: Throw and Answer

Learning to answer and formulate ideas into complete sentences helps students when they begin writing.

  1. Throw a ball to a student and ask a question about anything just to get to know them and practice using complete senteces.
  2. Student answers back in a complete sentence.
  3. If student does not restate question or cannot remember the question, they must sit down for three ball tosses.

*No winner to this game but a fun way to practice listening and speaking expectations.


Idea #2:   Play “Get to Know You BINGO.”

  1. Students move around the room asking other students the questions on the Bingo Board.
  2. Student must restate the question and answer the question for the student. Then they sign the box of the question they answered.
  3. All boxes are filled in to finish.
  4. Offering a prize for completion is always fun.

See Bingo Board Example here:  Bingo Board


Idea #3:  Read Aloud

  1. Read aloud a book which is above the reading level of the class to expose them to rich vocabulary.
  2. When you come to a great vocabulary word—stop—ask—What do you think this means?
  3. Reread the sentence. Have student turn and talk about what they think the word means and why.
  4. Discuss whole group.


Idea #4:  Act Out the Rules

  1. Divide students into the number of groups to correlate to the number of rules that you have.
  2. Give each group a rule.
  3. Give them 10 minutes to produce a skit to teach the rule to the class.
  4. Set the timer.
  5. Have each group present their skit.
  6. Have the audience turn and talk after each skit to put the rule in “their own words.”
  7. Discuss the rule in whole group and have several students rephrase the rule in their own words to solidify thinking.
  8. Have students turn and talk to each share an example of why this rule is important.
  9. Discuss whole group.
  10. Continue with next Skit until all are complete.


Idea #5:  Sing a Song/Rap about Safety

  1. After reading or discussing the safety procedures, have students create a song or rap to tell others what to do for that safety situation (Tornado, Lock In, Fire, etc.)
  2. Give students 10-15 minutes to work. Encourage them to brainstorm ideas and then put it to the tune of a song they know.
  3. Stop students after given time and tell them they have 5 minutes to “practice” for show time.
  4. Have each group perform their song.
  5. Have students turn and talk to share the most important detail that they learned and why it is important.
  6. Discuss whole group.


Idea #6 Character Trait Hunt

  1. Put a character trait on an index card or half sheet of paper for each student.
  2. Put this word on each child’s back.
  3. The students walk around and as they meet one another—they have to either verbally explain or act out the word on the child’s back but they cannot use the vocabulary word.
  4. After about 10-15 minutes, each child will be paired with a partner to “guess” their word and explain why they think that. The person cannot tell them if they are correct or not but can respond with another explanation or “act out.”
  5. Put students with a different partner and repeat
  6. Let students look at their word.
  7. They should write their name on the back of the card and a real world example of the word.

Character Trait List from Read Write Think

Optional:  Pair students to share their examples or discuss whole group.

Remember language is the vehicle in which we gain knowledge.  Take time to let students talk and do not “steal their discovery.”  Letting go of some control and letting students speak can be scary but the results will be worth it.  Students who are struggling need 100 exposures to a concept before it “sticks.” We have to let them express what they know so we can see if it has truly “stuck.”



What Does ELA Rigor and Complexity Look Like?

This week has been filled with cleaning, decorating, organizing and previewing materials for students.  Looming over these activities and our new school year is the challenge of raising our ELA expectations. What does that look like?

Some people think rigor or complexity in a reading classroom is simply asking higher order questions, doing a close reading, and giving more difficult text but it is actually MORE than that!  You probably have heard in math that rigor is obtained through procedural fluency, conceptual understanding and real world application.  I think these same elements of rigor are needed in the ELA classroom in the following form:  strong standards, high level text, knowledge of the reader, authentic tasks, application of strategies and explicit instruction.

Last week, I shared that the Common Core standards are already written in a scaffolding manner. (See this link to review this information:  Blog on Fiction Text Structure )   The standards address all domains of literacy including listening, speaking, reading and writing.  When teaching a concept it is important that students first hear the information, learn to speak the concept through language, read about it and then apply their learning through writing. This encourages students to think conceptually because you are moving them through the concrete to abstract developmentally.  In addition, to using these domains, the standards are building on one another to maximize higher order thinking and deepening of understanding by revisiting a text for different purposes. These standards are the “blueprint” for conceptual understanding.

Tip 1: If you are encouraging student to student interaction, you are deepening understanding of the topic and increasing the opportunity for students to build vocabulary and formulating ideas for written responses.

We think of text as being the most important element of rigor. If we want to challenge, we give more difficult text. Right?  Not exactly!  Text becomes complex and rigorous if you consider both quantitative (the mathematical reading level) and qualitative (quality of text and structure) measures.

See chart below.



Looks within the text for the depth of the writing and complexity.

  • Figurative or Literal Language
  • Concise or Strongly Descriptive
  • Levels of Meaning or perspectives
  • Non-conventional text structure, narrator or writing style
  • Tier III vocabulary
  • Singular or multifaceted Plot
Measures the word frequency and length of sentences.

  • Lexile Level
  • Any mathematical reading level

You have to use both of these together to determine what will challenge your students. For example, Harry Potter and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day have similar lexile levels but clearly the depth of these texts are very different. There is actually a rubric (called a placemat) that can help you determine if your text is complex. You can find this document at North Carolina Department of Public Instruction in their ELA livebinder.  This placemat addresses how to ensure a text is complex by looking at various variables.

I like to use my “homemade” version for K-5 because it just seems more manageable to me. Click here to Access:  Complexity Rubric


This “homemade” rubric helps you decide if the text is complex by examining different elements of the text (Qualitative and Quantitative) such as text structure, language, point of view, amount of background knowledge needed to understand text, vocabulary and the reading level.  Each element is given a point value to determine if the text is “above average.”

Tip #2:  Take into account the reading level AND the structure of the text when choosing a text for students. If the book has a lower reading level, than you will need to pull out the figurative language or multiple perspectives of two characters to make it more complex for your students. If you have a higher text, you may first look at basic 5W questions and then move into the higher concepts using the order of the standards.  It is important to always ensure students have basic understanding before digging deeper.

The reader and task is the next element you must consider in choosing complex text.  How proficient is the reader with multiple problems?  Can the reader distinguish figurative language from literal text?  Does the reader have sufficient background knowledge to pick up on subtle hints and inferences embedded in the text? When answering these questions, it helps you to decide where you need to scaffold and support readers with direct instruction and modeling.  Making sure the task is appropriate but not “too easy” is a challenge.

Tip #3:  Really think about what you are asking students to do with a text. What is the purpose of the task? The task should be real world or application of knowledge—not just simply regurgitating the story elements or sequence. These basic activities can be completed through annotation, reflections, class and peer discussions.  A task should be saved for applying knowledge or skills learned by the reader. Examples of great authentic tasks can be found at the following site by John Mueller:  Some pretty amazing ideas here.

The last elements are strategies and instruction which could take several blog posts to cover. So, the basics are that the instruction should be focused on the reader and allow the reader to discover rather than for the teacher to “teach it” or tell it to others.  Instruction should include higher order questioning that requires students to ground their answers in the text with evidence. This requires students to reread and discover new ideas within the same text. Strategies that help students learn are ones that scaffold learning but do not give answers. Think aloud, modeling, close reading, annotation and discussion—all require students to gain information but do the work themselves which is an important part of ensuring text complexity.

Tip #4:  Really think about the strategies you are using and if they are appropriate for the group of students you have. Consult this resource which I inerited many years ago (not sure of the original source) and modified it over the years. The chart shows best practice strategies and their effectiveness for certain students.  Check it out here:  Instructional Strategies Matrix

As you can see, RIGOR and COMPLEXITY in reading is not an easy task. Rigor is attained by instilling conceptual understanding through the domains of literacy, having students matched appropriately with text and task to ensure they are stretching to their maximum with the proper scaffolds in place.  Procedural fluency in reading is when students can clearly apply the strategies as they read to fully comprehend the text. Real world application is matching task to text and ensuring that the task has relevancy and requires students to use their knowledge in new ways.  Teachers must really know the text,  reader and the standards because each element must work together.  A text is just a text—until you pair it with the correct standard, reader and task.

**We will talk more about this in the coming weeks…begin to dabble with looking at the different elements as you plan! Remember to ask questions because that is how we make sense of new information. You are not learning if you do not start out a bit confused–questions help you sort it out and make meaning!








Deeper Into Fiction Text Structure

As a new school year begins, fiction is the first reading hurdle teachers begin to tackle. Last year, in three posts about fiction text structure, I shared the following:  skeleton-6Without YOUR skeleton your body would have no shape and would not function. We have to help students see how an author creates the text by writing it with a structure or literary elements.


big five

The basic elements that “hold fiction up” can be referred to as the Big 5.

It is not enough for students to simply tell you the character names, the setting, problem, etc. They must dig deeper to see how the author crafted the connection between all of these elements—that is where the depth or rigor comes in to the process. So, what does rigor look like with these elements…?

To begin, you must introduce literary elements by defining the term. An element is a “part or piece” of something and literary refers to literature a.k.a. fiction—so, literary elements are the pieces of a fictional story.  But taking it to the next step is crucial. These parts or pieces work together as one unit or structure so each piece depends on the other.  We need to make the connection to our students, even our youngest students, that these pieces work together to create a story.  These same pieces are used repetitively so once they see the pattern—they can make predictions and have better comprehension because they know what to expect.



Here is how I introduce story structure to students…notice how it looks like a mountain.  This is the analogy I use with students.

We must explicitly teach students as they are learning to read that text is predictable.  Each story or chapter that they read is much like a mountain in that the actions HAPPEN-PEAK- and then WIND DOWN to the conclusion. The characters and setting are introduced in the beginning (Exposition) to help the reader learn important background information needed for the story.  As the characters interact and the events begin to happen a problem occurs in the story.  The rising action and climax is the action trying to solve the problem (often involving the pattern of three).  The story begins to wind down by the problem being solved.  As text becomes more complex and there is more than one plot happening—the structure changes. But, by the time students are reading at this level—their comprehension is strong enough to learn about flashback/foreshadow and other literary devices.


Here are questions and tips for the literary elements you teach that will help you deepen thinking and help students make connections between the “pieces” to the whole.


It is important that students understand that characters are normally introduced in the beginning of a story. The author takes time to describe the character so the details are important to making predictions about the character’s purpose in the story. Really focus students on actions, dialogue, thoughts, feelings because it is the way the author has to “show you” inside a character.  You can equate this to a movie—an author has to tell you in words what you normally would observe. Show a movie trailer and ask the students to write down words to describe the character as they watch.  Make sure you ask them to substantiate their thinking with evidence from the movie.   Let them turn and talk after and brainstorm with a peer.  As a class discuss character traits and their evidence. Have students write phrases an author might use to describe the character to see the connection between an action and trait.  Be sure to ask students questions to help them look for connections between characters (relationships), motivations and inclinations which can lead them to making better inferences and conclusions.



  • What does the character look like? Do any of the physical traits make you judge the character different?
  • How does the character act? Do their actions make you like or dislike them? Why?
  • Are the characters similar or different? How? (Good vs. Evil?)
  • How does the character feel about ________________?
  • Is one character more important than another? Why? How do you know? (primary and supporting characters)
  • What is the mood of the character? What caused the mood? (significant event)
  • What character traits do they posses? What dialogue, actions, thoughts or feelings help you determine your opinion?
  • How would the character act in a different situation? How do you know?
  • How does the character feel about ____________? Why?  What can we infer from the character from this?
  • What is the mood of the character? What caused the mood? Did the mood change? How is the mood of ____________different from ____________________?  What can we infer about these characters?  Why did the author decide to make their feelings different?


Getting a quick answer for setting such as outside, inside, a forest, etc. is normal but really makes students dig to see that descriptions of the setting help to let you know if suspense is building or if a change in a character may be ready to happen.  Read sections of description and have students sketch what they think the author described. Have the students label their descriptions with key words from the text. This activity builds vocabulary, helps build connections and more importantly helps you to see if students are able to visualize as they read.



  • Are you surprised by the setting of the story or does it seem appropriate? Explain
  • Are the characters comfortable in this setting? Is one more comfortable than another? Why?
  • Is the setting described by the author? What details are given that are most vivid? Why?
  • Does the setting help the reader create a mood in their mind? If so, what mood? What words make you feel this way?
  • What word best describes the setting? Why? What was the most vivid adjective used by the author to describe the setting? Why?
  • Read an excerpt aloud. Have students sketch the setting or character. Have them label with details from the text.
  • Would the characters have to change if the setting was different? Explain


When Setting Changes

  • How did the characters change or react to the new setting?
  • What caused the new setting? (significant event)
  • Did the setting cause a mood change in a character? more than one character? different moods? Why?
  • How is the setting different? How will if affect the characters differently?


Events directly correlate with the character’s mood and actions.  When students notice a mood—have them tell you what event is happening because this is significant.  Stories have a main problem and students need to know that as they read more difficult text, they will encounter plots with several problems throughout the story.  Learning to note the problems, which they affect and if they are a primary or secondary problem is crucial for students to understand more complex text. Really examining events helps students understand why we learn cause and effect and how the pieces of a story begin to fit together. Out of sequence the story does not make sense.



  • What is the problem?
  • Who caused the problem? Why?
  • Is the event a problem for all characters? Explain why it might be different for different characters.
  • Why is this a problem for ________________ and not for _______________? What does this tell us about these characters?
  • How will the problem affect _____________________? Explain
  • Did the problem cause any other problems? Explain?
  • Is this a primary problem or secondary? How do you know?
  • Does the problem cause a character to change their mood or belief in something?


To solve a problem, an author will often go through a series of attempts (pattern of three).  Helping students see that these attempts are the author’s way of keeping you interested (suspense).  Solutions are normally found close to the end and are a sign that the story or chapter is wrapping up.



  • Was the problem completely solved?
  • Were all characters pleased with the solution? Explain why or why not.
  • Are there any effects from the solution?
  • Does the solution cause another problem? Explain
  • How does the solution affect each character?
  • Can you make a prediction about what will happen next?
  • How does the solution teach a lesson? Do all characters learn a lesson?


The Common Core Reading Standards are already in a scaffolding pattern as they are written.

The first 3 standards are classified as Key Ideas and Details because they are examining basic pieces or elements of a text.

  • RL.1 and RL.2 focus on general understanding of the text including the basic Who, What, When and Where questions. L.2 begins to have students see how pieces fit together to determine a theme or main idea.
  • RL.3 begins to examine a character. Looking deeper at text, illustrations and other characters to determine more about a character. (CHARACTERIZATION:  Direct and Indirect)


Standards 4-6 go deeper into the text and require rereading and close reading to examine text in a different way. These are classified as Craft and Structure because students are digging into the literary elements and looking for relationships.

  • RL.4 demands students to dig deeper into the text at words and phrases. What are the meanings? What do they tell us about a character, setting, mood or event?
  • RL.5 begins in K-2 as understanding the structure of fiction is different from non-fiction and basic sequence of events. As students gain understanding and move to more complex text, they are asked to examine how events fit together and how one section, event, or chapter may build on the next and work in an interrelated fashion.
  • RL.6 is the point of view standard which requires students to first distinguish their own opinion from the author and the story. Once they master this skill they can begin to see how multiple characters see ideas, events, and dialogue differently and how it affects events, characters and the problem/solution.


The final three standards are the most complex because they are the Integration of Knowledge and Ideas standards.  These require students to use multiple ideas together, find connections and make comparisons and contrasts.

  • RL.7 requires students to examine illustrations and how they contribute to the text. This moves into the tone and how the author’s phrases, word choices and descriptions can directly affect characterization, settings, events and plot development.
  • RL.8 is not applicable to fiction
  • RL.9 is the standard that has students compare and contrast. Not just comparing an entire story to story but looking at different elements and examining them across texts or excerpts.


As you begin planning this year, think about how you will use a text and move students from one standard to another within that text. It is by rereading and reexamining the text in different ways that you move students to the depth of the standard. Simply asking questions is not enough but moving students in a pattern that requires them to rethink, reread and formulate new ideas will lead to better comprehension of the text.  I challenge you to reread the same text for several days and continue to deepen the students understanding with a higher level of questioning.


Happy Fictional Text Planning!  Remember I am available if you need help!



Earlier Posts on Fiction Text Structure: 

Fiction Text Structure:

Fiction Text Structure for K-2 Students:

3-5 Fiction Text Structure:





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