Why read aloud to children?

During this pandemic, families are finding more time for read alouds and read alongs. Why are these times spent with young learners so important? Here’s a few reasons. I hope I will convince you that they are not just time fillers…but valuable learning experiences.

  1. Children learn from models. Show them the fun and value in reading…they will want to take part in that activity under your guidance and eventually independently.
  2. Reading and hearing books expand vocabulary. The larger our listening vocabulary the more knowledge we bring to reading and learning. Those words we heard will eventually be words we can read on our own.
  3. Discussions about the characters, settings, and plot help children understand the arc of a story. You might even learn some of their deep thinking about topics.
  4. You can just have fun…no book reports, no post reading list of question…just get some joy out of sharing a book!

Some rules of the reading aloud road:

  1. If you or the child are bored by the book…pick another one!
  2. Have fun with voices, sounds…anything to make the experience more exciting.
  3. Vary the books you read…sometimes fiction, sometimes poetry, sometimes nonfiction..try a biography of someone of interest to your family.
  4. Learn what the child is interested in…pick some books that connect to that topic. You can nudge them into other topics when something in “their” book taps into a new interest.
  5. Be willing to reread…and reread…and reread. There is comfort in the familiar and sometimes one book just has to have several reruns.

Want some additional advice from a children’s author? Check out Mem Fox’s site for reading aloud. You will love it (and her!).

Happy reading!

Three steps to researching: Modeling the work of authors

Research skills are important for all students to develop. Despite the increased emphasis on inquiry, few resources assist teachers in guiding students through the sequence of the vital first steps of writing. Some resources give general guidance, but robust, systematic instruction is needed. Modeled on the work of a children’s author, the authors provide a grades 3 through 6, classroom tested plan. Three clearly described steps help students stay engaged in research by (1) selecting a topic of personal interest, (2) conducting a presearch to determine what type of information exists about their topic, and (3) using various resources to dig deeper to gather quality information. The goal is to help students develop important prewriting skills and learn to become independent researchers.

Read the full article featured in The California Reader:

Teaching prefixes and suffixes to improve word analysis

Teaching students the meaning of Greek and Latin affixes can help them “decode” unfamiliar words. If they can separate a prefix and/or suffix as they attempt to work across a new word, they may be able to independently construct the meaning. For instance, the student sees reattachment and they know re means again and ment means an action, then they are left with attach…so reattachment means the act of attaching again. While reattachment might look intimidating, being able to separate the prefix and suffix leaves a decodable and understandable word – attach. Baumann, Font, Tereshinski, Kame’enui, and Olejnik (2002) found teaching morphemic analysis not only helped students learn about the words studied, but they were able to apply that knowledge to new words. So, which affixes should we spend time on with our students? White, Sowell, and Yanagihara (1999) suggest beginning with the top 20 prefixes and top 20 suffixes (and their variant spellings such as in/im/ir/il-).

The top 20 prefixes: un-, re-, in/im/ir/il-, dis-, en/em-, non-, in/in-, over-, mis-, sub-, pre-, inter-, fore-, de-, trans-, super-, semi-, anti-, mid-, under-

The top 20 suffixes: -s/es, – ed, -ing, -ly, -er/or, – ion/tion/ation/ition, -ible/-able, -al/ial, -y, -ness, -ity/ty, -ment, -ic, -ous/eous/ious, -en, – er, -ive/ative/itive, -ful, -less, -est

A useful starting activity is to show students a word such as unable. Ask students what part of the word is the prefix (un-) and what it means (not).  Therefore, unable means (not able). Cut the prefix from the word. Show how it was added to the base word (able).  Ask students what other words they know that have this prefix. Make a list on chart paper. Distribute note cards or slips of paper to students. Ask them to write a word from the list on the note card.  Tell them to cut the prefix off, glue the two parts to a sheet of paper, and write the meaning of each part. Have students share their words. Repeat the activity with the word careless (-less meaning lack of). Begin a chart on the wall where students write words they come across in their reading that have a prefix and/or suffix. Ask them to also provide the word’s meaning. This chart can be a handy reference when they are reading and writing independently.

You can differentiate this activity by the words you choose. Fresch and Wheaton (2004) utilized research based word lists to organize words by spelling feature and grade level. For instance, for re (meaning back or again) they suggest words such as react, redo and refill for grades 2/3; rebound, restore, and rediscover for grades 3/4; and reinvest,  rearrange, and reproduce for grades 4/5/6. Glossaries in the content books you are using can be a useful resource for finding words. Students needing more support are given words they can more easily decode, students who are up for the challenge can be given words that have both a prefix and suffix (such as semitropical). As well, students can be challenged to find words with affixes in their independent reading materials. While they are searching in books they can comfortably read, they are focusing in on a specific type of word. This is a quick formative assessment as well as you observe which students are tuned into affixes as they interact with various kinds of print.

These activities are undeniably informative and fun!


Baumann, J., Font, G., Tereshinski, C.A., Kame’enui, E.J., and Olejnik, S. (2002) Teaching morphemic and contextual analysis to fifth-grade students. The Reading Teaching, 52 (3), 222-242.

Fresch, M.J. and Wheaton, A. F. (2004). The Spelling List and Word Study Resource Book.

White, T.G., Sowell, J., and Yanagihara, A. (1999). Teaching elementary students to use word-part clues. The Reading Teaching, 42 (2), 302-308.

Word study activities for home schooling

This pandemic has put families in the forefront for finishing out their students’ school year.  Teachers are sending ideas, updates, suggestions, even worksheets to complete.

BUT if you are looking to up the game, engage your student, and maybe even expand your own knowledge of English, here are some suggestions:

Explore word histories. If your student has content vocabulary to learn, make these words more memorable by reading about the origin. For instance:

    • Math – ZERO means “empty”
    • Social Studies – GLOBE means “to roll together or stick” (at one time maps were only flat and rolled together)
    • Science – COMET means “having long hair”
    • Art – CLAY means “sticky earth”
    • Physical Education – MUSCLE means “little mouse”
    • Language Arts – J.K. Rowling used many origins to help name her characters – Albus (white – like his beard) Dumbledore (archaic word for bumblebee – he was always humming about), Harry means “leader, ruler,” Vol de Mort means “flight of death”
    • A great resource is

Explore the history and origin meanings of idioms.

    • “Beat around the bush” – talking about something in a roundabout way. From 1752 when wealthy noblemen didn’t want to go into bushes themselves to hunt, so servants were sent in to beat the bushes.
    • “Put all your eggs in one basket” – risking success by counting only on one thing or idea. A proverb from the 17th century – if you gather all your eggs in one basket and drop it,  you lose all your eggs.
    • A resource that includes short, engaging videos explaining the meaning, usage, and origin of idioms is

Have a homograph competition in your house!

Homographs are words that look the same (HOMO means “same;” GRAPH means “write”) but sound different.  For instance: The wind made the tail of the kite wind around the tree branch. He has the high jump record they will record in the school yearbook. He moped around the house because Dad said he could not buy a moped. 

How many can you think of? Try thinking of the two pronunciations of these words:

    • bow
    • dove
    • rebel
    • refuse
    • sow

Homographs can also be words that are written and spoken the same, but have two different meanings.  I’m in a jam because I spilled strawberry jam on my white shirt. I will run to the store to buy pantyhose, I have a run in this pair.

Hunt for retronyms

At one time World War I was called the Great War. But, because we had a second war, the first one had to be “back” (RETRO) “named” (NYM). Thus…World War II caused the name of the Great War to change to World War I.  Cloth diapers came to “be” when we starting having disposable diapers. Railroad cars were simply “cars” until the arrival of automobiles. Look around and see if you can discover some retronyms.

I’ll share more ideas in future posts…but have fun with your student making discoveries about the English language.

Joyful learning: Creating learning experiences students will never forget

How do we engage students every day in every lesson? We want them attentive, inquisitive, and ready to participate. Yet, at times we seem to be challenged to provide exciting learning for many of our students. In my book Engaging Minds in English Language Arts Classrooms: The Surprising Power of Joy (2014; ASCD), I provide multiple ways for teachers to choose engaging over boring, out of the ordinary over hum-drum, and thought provoking over drill and kill. In future blogs I’ll share some of these lesson ideas…but recently I gave my book to a friend, Greg Levers. Greg is a retired California probation officer. After reading the book and thinking about the idea of “joy” in teaching and learning, Greg shared this story:


While delving in the first portion on your book, I couldn’t help but think of an experience I had as a piano student. I was an adult and this was not in a classroom setting but still, the “power of joy” has some bearing. My instructor, Russel Baldwin, was a professor of music, a world-class pianist and I was in several of his classes. He was the mentor for Jimmy Webb who wrote many popular songs including “My Beautiful Balloon” and “McArthur Park.”  Mr. Baldwin was a nice man but he could be very intimidating.

I needed “keyboard training” as my major was composition.

“Can I be great?” I asked.

“No, not starting at age 19. You are too social You won’t spend 10 hours a day in the practice room. But you can still be very good.”

So I would go to his home in Redlands every Saturday, very close to where we turned around by the mansion a few months ago and I would be unprepared. I was partying too much on Saturday night and uninterested in the bland assignments, the same material his five-year old students would play. He was clearly frustrated with me.

“Could I pick a piece of my choosing?” I asked.

He thought about that. “What piece?”

“I really love the sound of Fur Elise.”

Mr. Baldwin had a look on his face like there was a better chance of me flying with my arms than playing Fur Elise. But, perhaps because Beethoven was looking down and trying to convey, Let him try! he relented.

“This is probably a mistake but go ahead. See what you can do with it.”

He probably figured I couldn’t do any worse. I returned the next Saturday and while I hadn’t mastered the entire piece YET, many measures were perfected. He was obviously surprised and told me my entire piano assignment WAS NOW Fur Elise.

I eventually played the piece in a recital as one of his students. I couldn’t play much of anything else but I could play that composition.

The point being that, even as an adult, I did not become motivated without a challenge and the “power of joy.”


Now, I ask you…do you have story about feeling the joy in learning? What difference did it make in your life? Feel free to respond below with your own story or contact me at!


Playing with poetry to develop phonemic awareness

This article has been extremely popular on Researchgate…so thought sharing it here might reach even more readers.  Co-authored with children’s author and poet, David L. Harrison, the article has reached over 3000 reads.  It speaks to making the skill of phonemic awareness (the ability to hear the sounds of a language) playful and engaging.

Have a look!

Word Study: How to Engage Reluctant Learners

(Revision from author’s original publication in Adolescent Literacy in Perspective, March 2007, pp. 8-11.

Think of the middle and high school students you know. Which activity do you suppose they would choose?

Activity A: Read the following two stories. They are word histories. Tell these stories to two classmates. Listen to eight different stories about words from classmates. Add those words to this sheet (be certain to spell them correctly), and record a few key words to remember their history.

  1. coconut—Portuguese and Spanish explorers landed on tropical islands and found that the palm trees dropped “pods” that contained a large nut that appeared to have a face on it. Using the Portuguese word, they called it coco, meaning “grimace.” English explorers adapted the word into a compound word – coconut. We have used this word since the early 1600s.
  2. expedition—This word has its beginnings in the Latin prefix ex– (meaning “out”…think of the word exit) and ped– (meaning “foot”…think of the word pedal). At first it meant to “free one’s foot” from a snare or trap. The idea of freeing oneself to go forward was used by the military in the seventeenth century. The word came to mean a long, organized journey, the purpose of which is determined by a particular need. (When you tell this story, see if you and your classmates can determine how expedite is related.)

Activity B: Memorize the spelling and definition of the following ten words:

  1. coconut—”The fruit of the coconut palm that is a drupe consisting of an outer fibrous husk that yields coir and a large nut containing the thick edible meat and, in the fresh fruit, a clear fluid called coconut milk.” (Webster’s Third New International Diction-ary, 1993, p. 437).
  2. blah, blah, blah…and so on.

If your students are like the students I know, they pick Activity A because:

  1. It involves talking. (Need I say more?)
  2. It employs peer teaching rather than teacher preaching.
  3. It helps create memories about words, which has greater impact on long-term memory, especially for students who are challenged to memorize isolated units of information.

Word study is an across-the-curriculum activity that not only expands vocabulary, but also teaches content. So, how can we add these word histories to our students’ repertoire? Begin by looking at the words you regularly teach as vocabulary and determine which ones lend themselves to exploration of word histories. There are many excellent resources for finding these (see Appendix A). And you do not have to be the sole “finder” of these stories. Providing students with print and online resources to find word histories is just as instructive to them and adds that peer talk strategy to the work.

Next, use words from your content area to create word webs and activities that show relationships between words. I liked to play “Find your family” with my preservice teachers as a way to create small groups (I never “counted off” in a literacy class). Any related words can be printed on cards and passed out to students, who then hunt for their words’ “relatives.” After the group is formed, we review the family relationships before moving on to a small-group activity. For instance, I might use the vis/vid (Latin, meaning “to see”) family with video, visual, visible, and visor to create a group of four. Some science “families” might be thermo (heat), scop (watch), bio (life), and hypno (sleep). Social studies could use geo (earth), port (carry), acro (height), and vol (turn). Language arts might use graph or scribe (one is Greek, one is Latin, both meaning “to write”), nym (name), and dict (speak). Math has many; such as cent (hundred), meter (measure), quad (four), and forma (shape). A natural extension is to create webs with these roots on posters, which can be continually added to as students find more relatives in their reading. Think of multiple words from your discipline that have a meaning connection. When sharing the families, you can make the point that words that are related in meaning are related in spelling. In fact, using that knowledge can help students who are stumped by a spelling. “Gee, I can easily write bombard, so the word bomb must have a b at the end even if I don’t hear it.” Another activity that students enjoy is “You complete me.” The name of the activity makes a point—you can’t just memorize the spelling or meaning of a word and “know” it. There are actually three important aspects of a word: (1) the word, (2) its definition, and (3) its language of origin (and what that word meant in the original language). For instance, (1) a ballad is (2) a popular song that is generally narrative and suitable for singing and is (3) from the French word balade, meaning “dancing song.” I put these three parts on separate cards and have the students find each other to complete the information about a word. The group of three shares its completed set with the larger group. I have the information on overheads so everyone gets a visual of the set as the parts are revealed. I’m always impressed with how much of this information the students remember weeks later.

Word sorting is an important strategy for developing word knowledge. This active, hands-on strategy utilizes the brain’s natural penchant to sort. You can create open or closed sorts, depending on your purpose and population. The closed sort has key words that are the known categories the students use to sort the remaining words. This is useful when you are dealing with difficult language concepts or if you have an inclusion classroom or ELL students needing guidance in such work. An open sort allows the students to decide on the categories. As long as they can justify their groupings, you accept them. Of course, you can always ask them to re-sort using key words if they are missing the point you want to make. For instance, students could be given words such as chateau, cholesterol, chalk, chain, character, chaos, chief, chandelier, chemistry, and charlatan. The categories are the three sounds of ch. Once the categories are established, take the next step and ask them why ch has these three different sounds? Chalk is from the Old English sound of ch, chateau is from the French, and chaos is from the Greek. This explains the reason we have three sounds for ch; words came to us from different languages. This also explains most of those words we sometimes feel we should call “exceptions.” In fact, 84% of English is predictable when you understand patterns and histories.

One other way to utilize word histories is to introduce eponyms related to content studies. These are words that come from people’s names. Our content areas abound with them: Fahrenheit, Celsius, boycott, leotard, raglan,  sandwich, derrick, Braille—the list goes on. Try to find cross-curricular stories that students will love to repeat (this is the sort of gossip I buy into!). Telling the story of silhouette is a good example of this. Etienne de Silhouette was a French finance minister during the mid-1700s. While it was tradition for aristocrats to have their children’s portrait done, Silhouette, being a man of finance, did not want to spend the money for an oil painting. So he asked the artist to simply outline the children’s features. (This is one explanation—there are others.) Art, history, and commerce all merge in this one story! And speaking of the class system, many of our multiple words that mean the same thing are due to invasions, the plague, and a large peasant population. Until the Norman conquests in 1066, the peasants spoke a Germanic-based language. The aristocracy spoke French (which is Latin-based). Thus, two complete languages joined, and “English” was born. So a poor farmer raised chickens (Germanic roots), but a rich aristocrat ate poultry (French roots). The noble class would perspire (French) or exude (Latin), but the peasants would sweat (Germanic). This is the number one way to kick those essays up a notch—get beyond the Germanic and explore the equivalent French or Latin root word. Rather than having your character ask (Germanic), he could question (French) or interrogate (Latin). This takes some word webbing and discussions to move beyond the “common,” because the 100 most frequently spoken words we use every day are Germanic; and of the next 100, 83 are Germanic. It is also fun to look at the nuances of language. Headlines help us teach how the arrangement of words and multiple meanings of the same word can throw off a reader. Some headlines I have collected are:

  1. “Something Went Wrong in Jet Crash, Experts Say” (Gee, you think?)
  2. “Iraqi Head Seeks Arms” (How’s he doing on those legs?)
  3. “Stolen Painting Found by Tree” (That is one smart tree!)
  4. “If Strike Isn’t Settled Quickly, It May Last a While” (Now there’s an observation!).

Students will enjoy the multiple ways these can be read and interpreted. I shared a few of these with some middle school students and soon after they were searching the newspaper each day to find one of their own. Oddly enough, they even read many of the articles! So, of course, we had to write a better headline once we actually knew the content. I know, it was a sneaky way to get them to pick up (or download) the newspaper, but it worked! We need to explore (not memorize) the English language to find these rich stories, relationships, and historical roots. We provide for every student, no matter how reluctant, a new way to look at spelling and vocabulary. And we share one of the essential human needs—storytelling in social settings.

Appendix A: My Favorite Resources for Word Histories 


Almond, J. (1985). Dictionary of word origins. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press.

Beal, G. (1992). The Kingfisher book of words. New York: Grisewood & Dempsey.

Branreth, G. (1988). The word book. London: Robson Books.

Bryson, B. (1990). The mother tongue. New York: William Morrow.

Davies, P. (1981). Roots: Family histories of familiar words. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Feldman, G., & Feldman, P. (1994). Acronym soup: A stirring guide to our newest word form. New York: William Morrow.

Fifer, N., & Flowers, N. (1994). Vocabulary from classical roots. Cambridge, MA: Educators Publishing Service.

Flavell, L., & Flavell, R. (1992). Dictionary of idioms and their origins. London: Kyle Cathie.

Fresch, M. J., & Wheaton, A. (2004). The spelling list and word study resource book. New York: Scholastic.

Funk, W. (1950). Word origins. New York: Wings Books.

Gove, P. B. (Ed.). (1993). Webster’s third new international dictionary of the English language unabridged. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster.

Grumei, W. (1961). English word building from Latin and Greek. Palo Alto, CA: Pacific Books.

Hoad, T. F. (1993). The concise Oxford dictionary of English etymology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jones, C. F. (1991). Mistakes that worked. New York: Doubleday.

Kennedy, J. (1996). Word stems: A dictionary. New York: Soho Press.

Klausner, J. (1990). Talk about English: How words travel and change. New York: Crowell.

Lederer, R. (1990). Crazy English. New York: Pocket Books.

Limburg, P. (1986). Stories behind words. New York: H. W. Wilson.

Merriam-Webster. (1991). The Merriam-Webster new book of word histories. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster.

Metcalf, A. (1999). The world in so many words: A country-by-country tour of words that have shaped our language. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Sarnoff, J., & Ruffins, R. (1981). Words: A book about the origins of everyday words and phrases. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Shipley, J. (1945). Dictionary of word origins. New York: Dorset Press.

Umstatter, J. (2002). Where words come from. New York: Franklin Watts.

Vanoni, M. (1989). Great expressions: How our favorite words and phrases have come to mean what they mean. New York: William Morrow.

Voorhees, D. (1993). The book of totally useless information. New York: MJF Books.

White, R. (1994). An avalanche of anoraks. New York: Crown Trade Paperbacks.


Behind the name: The etymology and history of first names,

Etymology: Word origins. Fun with words,

Word Origins,