Teaching Listening

As we move into the application of the Common Core literacy listening standards, our students must be able to listen to oral presentations, take notes and and then use that information to construct logical informational and argumentative writing pieces. For example, on one of the Smarter Balanced listening assessment items, students are asked to listen to an oral presentation and then identify the “central idea” of the passage.  Many teachers have asked me how to find high quality videos and audios for supporting text-based units for their students.  Some great sources of high quality video and audio can be found on the following websites:



National Geographic

Gilder Lehman



If you know of other outstanding resources for locating high quality video and audio resources, please be sure to let us all know.

Text Complexity and Close Reading for Common Core

I recently did a guest webinar on text complexity and close reading that you may be interested in checking out for my friends at Teach N’Kids Learn, Inc. The webinar was recorded and can be accessed by clicking this link: Karen Tankersley on Text Complexity and Close Reading for Common Core. You will need to register to view the archived video but there is no charge to watch so I hope you will take advantage of this 30 minute video Presentation.

Why Students Struggle and What You Can Do About It

While our brains are hard-wired for language, they were never designed for reading or writing. Those are behaviors that we have added to the tasks that we ask the human brain to do in our society. As a result, there are many reasons one child make not make as much progress in learning to read as another child may make.

Learning to read begins at birth or according to some experts, even while the child is still in the womb. The background knowledge that a child brings to the schoolhouse door does make a difference  and has a direct correlation to how successful that child will be in school. Researchers say that the two strongest predictors of school success are a child’s proficiency in phonemic awareness and the size of the child’s vocabulary. We know that the gap between good readers and struggling readers develops as early as by the end of first grade. Without effective and timely intervention, this gap will continue to grow until there may be a gap of 4-5 years or more by the child’s high school years. Without help, struggling readers will most likely never catch up and they will either “tune out” or “act out” in classrooms all across the country.

All young readers must have a solid grasp of phonemic awareness to understand the “lilt” of the language and the sounds that various letters and letter combinations make. Secondly, they must be able to decode the words they encounter by understanding how to apply the English phonetic system to words. Beginning readers commonly learn to identify initial sounds first, final sounds second and then learn to distinguish how medial sounds change the meaning of the word. For example, the medial sounds in “book,” “back” and “beak” change the entire meaning of the word. Children must quickly recognize the meaning of the word and then be able to make sense of the context in which the word appears. Reading is about meaning out of the symbols on the page. If a child gets no meaning from the words, then reading has not taken place.

Much like math skills and understandings build, so too does reading skill. A child who has poor phonemic awareness skills will struggle with developing strong phonics skills. A child who has poor decoding skills, will find it difficult to become a fluent reader with good comprehension skills. The threads of reading must be solidly woven under each child if they are to become capable readers. Teachers must use good assessment techniques to find the “holes” in a reader’s tapestry and then work to fill those holes with appropriate and targeted instruction. Until the holes preventing the student from mastering the level where they are “stuck” are filled, little progress will be made moving to the next level of reading mastery.

Reading is a participation sport! Like the tennis player or the golfer, students only become better readers when they practice reading. We must take the time to model reading by reading orally to our students. We must find what interests our students and help them find text that is at the appropriate level of difficulty and motivating to read. Without meaning and joy in reading, students will continue to struggle and fight attempts to help them become better readers. We must help our students develop strong vocabularies and good background knowledge so they can relate to the material they read.

Reading must also be a social activity. As adult readers, we talk to our friends about books we have read or articles in our favorite magazines to reflect upon ideas or clarify meaning for ourselves. Our students must be given opportunities to talk about, think about and ask questions about the meaning of the text they read. Only when we act the ways I have outlined in this article will we succeed in helping our students become strong and informed readers who are ready for tomorrow.

Learning Sight Words

Beginning readers need to learn to identify the sounds that letters and phonemes make so they can sound out new words. For the beginning reader, this is done through explicit and direct instruction in phonics. Being able to decode a word is a skill that even adult readers use when they come across a new word while reading so children definitely have to have a good grasp of the sounds that various letters and letter combinations. While a solid understanding of phonics is essential, it is not enough since decoding requires a significant amount of mental energy. Just as learning the multiplication tables is a foundational skill for young children in math, developing a large number of words that children can recognize “by sight” without having to stop and sound them out is essential for fluent reading. For this reason, as children are continuing to expand their phonemic awareness and phonics skills, it is also important that they practice the common sight words that they will encounter in their reading.

Edward Dolch and Edward Fry both identified word lists of the most commonly found words that elementary students would encounter in their readings. While some of the words on these lists can be decoded using normal phonic skills, others are irregular or have unique pronunciations and should simply be memorized. Having students practice these words until they can easily identify them without having to think about them can greatly increase a child’s reading fluency. When children read more fluently, they can devote more cognitive energy to comprehension and thus they enjoy reading more. Personally, I prefer to use the Dolch words with primary readers and the Fry words with struggling upper grade readers but either list can be used to help children expand their recognition of sight words.

Academic Vocabulary Lists for Classroom Use

I recently learned about an excellent website where you can find 10 academic word lists for high school student use.   At this site, you will find the most frequently occurring word in the family along with the related word family variations for the word. For example, the word “authority” cites “authoritative” as well as “authorities” as related words to the main word. When students can link words by family, they have longer retention and have a better understanding of the words and their derivative uses.  The list contains 570 word families. See the tab “How to Use this List” for some great tips to maximize retention and word learning.