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:

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!

Power up writing in your balanced literacy classroom

Helping our students learn to write across the curriculum and across genres is a powerful way to provide lifelong skills. We want to give them confidence and the desire to write. Making the transformation from idea to composition can be intimidating to many students. So how can we make writing a fun learning experience?  Powerful teaching strategies are the answer!

First, any age student can sketch and label. This strategy asks students to sketch something memorable (their room at home, visiting a relative, going to a favorite park, a family gathering).  Ask them to draw the setting (note how this uses reading vocabulary) in as much detail as they can. Then ask them to label the picture with words and phrases (my overstuffed bookshelf, my pet guinea pig, orange blanket, tire swing in tree, etc.).  Ask them to study the picture…what story do they want to tell about it? Use the words and phrases to help get the writing rolling!

Second, have fun with genres by having buddies write about the same topic, different genre. For instance, a pair of students could be given the topic, “the Super Bowl.” Students then choose to write a short story using either nonfiction, fiction, or poetry. In the nonfiction story they could write what might be a real story (such as a news report) about a football game. In the fiction they might give a football player a super power such as jumping over many other players. In the poetry they might select meaningful words about the competition to express ideas and emotions about the game.  The pairs of students can compare how the same topic, but different genres, changes how it was written. Practice this approach with the whole class with a topic such as “my new shoes.” A shared writing lesson could demonstrate the different genres they might select when thinking about topics.

Third, persuade students that persuasive writing is all around us!  Search commercials for students at such sites as iSpot TV’s Kids’ commercials or Top five Super Bowl Ads with Kids . Choose some appropriate ones to show your students. Ask what the commercial writer used to persuade the viewer.  What language was used (they will want to think about the power of words in their own writing). This is a perfect place to double up on your literacy and content instruction. Ask students to choose an informational content book (picture or chapter book) and write a “commercial” to convince other students to read it.  You might even show a few movie trailers of age appropriate movies to demonstrate how we entice the viewer, but don’t give away the best part!

Finding ways to have fun with writing will engage even the most resistant student. Novel approaches, fun topics, peer support, and your excitement about writing will all help students become confident writers!


Getting beyond “googling it” – developing research skills

Research is an important first step to writing. Being ready to write means we have enough information and have carefully considered how to approach our topic. Moving beyond “Google it!” is critical to the development of robust research skills. From the idea in our head to the finished paper, there are seven important steps to get ready to write.

  1. All research begins with good topic selection. Researching a topic is always better when you have a personal interest. Teachers know if students have some say in what they write about (and thus need to research) they are better engaged and more likely to produce a quality piece of writing.
  2. Time to pose some questions. What do you want to know about your topic? At this point we can ask anything about our topic, our next step will help us narrow our questions.
  3. Use those questions to conduct a presearch.  A presearch is when we look to see if we have a viable topic to write about. If our topic is too big, we may be overwhelmed by the information available. If our topic is too narrow, we may be frustrated by too little information. This phase helps us refine our questions and maybe even ask some new ones.
  4. Our presearch and topic questions help us select key words.  These words will focus our search for information. No matter what resource we want to use (books, websites, finding experts to interview), key words make the search manageable. We are less likely to drift off our topic when we have strong key words.
  5. Time for some in-depth research. Using the key words to guide us, we begin our search. We might use any combination of books, websites, documentaries, or interviews to collect information. The more diverse our resources the more accurate our findings will be.
  6. While searching, taking effective notes is imperative once we finally begin to write. Our notes should include information about each resource so we can return if needed or appropriately cite.
  7. Finally, we need to organize our notes so we can prepare a sort of outline of the findings about our topic. These notes, effectively gathered and organized, make the transition to writing much easier.

These seven steps not only make our writing better, but also make it easier to begin. We have plenty of information, we know our topic is solid, and we have answered important questions. If you are a teacher, the goal is to help students become independent researchers. Anyone who writes, whether you are 8, 28, or 88, being an efficient and capable researcher is a lifelong skill.

Harrison, D.L. & Fresch, M.J. (2017).  7 Keys to Research for Writing Success. NY: Scholastic.

Balanced literacy: Teaching each student’s instructional need

Every day a teacher has the opportunity to make a difference in a child’s reading and writing life.  What other career can have such an impact on a student’s life? Teachers know students come to them with varying mastery of skills…varying depths of knowledge about vocabulary and content…and varying willingness to risk new learning. How do we meet individual needs, keep students engaged, and develop a sense of community?  Balanced literacy seeks to meet students where the greatest need exists. Some students may need additional practice reading to develop fluency and improve comprehension. Some students may need experiences in doing quality research to inform an upcoming writing task. And others may need to deepen their knowledge of English and the many words that will assist them in reading content texts.

Teachers want students to have fun and to maintain (or improve) their self-concept. But, allowing students to slide along and not be challenged to develop reading and writing skills does them no favor. In fact, it makes the teaching (and learning) task much harder. So, how do we stop the slide? We begin with formative assessments – those quick check-ups on how a student is using his or her literacy skills.  The word “assess” means to “sit beside” and these type of assessments do just that…allow us to sit beside our students and see them use their skills “on the run.”  How do they decode unknown words? How much prior knowledge do they bring to a reading text? What do they know of constructing their own written texts? How can we stretch, but not frustrate a student to guide them into new learning? We want students to feel the joy of learning and accomplishment. Targeting individual needs is key to building success. Success that lasts a life time.

Picture books can help with fourth grade slump

(Adapted from “Picture Books Across the Curriculum: Meeting the Challenges of Intermediate-Grade Learners”  Dragon Lode, 33 (1), Fall 2014, 46-62.)

In this blog, and in more to come, specific lesson ideas are provided for using content picture books in the intermediate grades.  In her research, Jeanne Chall (1983) first drew attention to the fourth grade slump. “It is at this age that decoding skills are expected to be largely in place and it is at this age when these young children are increasingly expected to read and learn from expository texts” (McNamara, Ozuru, & Floyd, 2011, p. 246). As new content, complex vocabulary, critical reading, and various genres of writing are demanded of them, many students are struggling (Sanacore & Palumbo, 2009). According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2013), nearly 60% of fourth grade readers are below basic skills in reading. Unless addressed, these deficiencies are compounded as students reach the intermediate grades. The problem, claims literacy expert Dorothy Strickland, is that “the emphasis on reading comprehension with respect to content has been neglected” (quoted in de León, 2002, unpaged). So, teaching content in engaging ways with materials that are readable for students of intermediate grades is critical.

The vocabulary intermediate students read and write is an important factor in comprehension during content studies. Swanborn and de Glopper’s (1999) meta-analysis of 20 studies that examine incidental word learning, suggests that students will only “learn about 15% of the unknown words they encounter” (p. 261) when reading. Balance that with the claims that intermediate students need to be learning 20 new words each day (Graves, 2006), and it becomes clear that students must read widely. Raising the percentage of words students learn will require them to read beyond textbooks. Teachers must discuss word meanings, use them in context, and encourage students to explore them further in their reading and writing. Trade books can be the ideal place to expand exposure to important vocabulary.

We start with Science.

While the month of April has “Earth Day,” we need to think year round about recycling and the garbage each person adds to landfills. Did you know each person makes about four pounds of trash per day? What happens to all that garbage? Our local landfills must deal with it, but some cities are running out of room!

Burying garbage was no longer legal in Islip, New York, so some businessmen struck a deal to send it to North Carolina. The Garbage Barge by Jonah Winter (2010) tells the tale of how Islip tried to send 3168 tons of garbage to another city. However, when Cap’m Duffy St. Pierre sailed the Break of Dawn into the harbor of Morehead City, North Carolina he is promptly turned away by the police. And so the 162-day saga began – sailing to New Orleans, Telchac Puerto (Mexico), Belize, Houston, Florida, and back to New York. Based on the true story of a garbage barge that could not find a place to unload, students are sure to be intrigued by the dilemma Cap’m Duffy faced. The “hand built” (p. 2) illustrations are unusual and eye-catching.

Show students the illustration at the opening of the book of Break of Dawn leaving the harbor. What do they see that could have been recycled? Which items might have been reused, rather than sent to the dump? Have students investigate how trash is handled in your town or city (many local garbage/trash companies have websites with educational resources). Do homes in your area separate recyclables from other trash?

Have students bring in two plastic bags. In one, place the recyclable items, in the other, place items that cannot be recycled. At the end of the day weigh both bags. How much weight did recycling save? Could there be alternatives to the items that ended up in the trash (for example, a banana peel is not recyclable, but could go in a compost pile). Extend this activity by having the students wash recyclable items and create illustrations similar to those in the book.

Connect the book to other content areas, such as Social Studies (mapping), Mathematics (charting the weight of the recycled trash versus non-recycled trash), and Language Arts (Readers Theater..there’s lots of good dialogue in the book).

Here is a suggested text set to expand the lesson.  These books connect to the topic, but also add other genres and level of reading difficulty.

Greenwald, S. (2010). Watch out, world – – Rosy Cole is going green. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Students will identify with Rosy’s trials and tribulations about a class project on saving energy. Detailed information is given about how to create a compost at the end of the book. (Fiction, Picture Book)

Latham, D. (2011). Garbage: Investigate what happens when you throw it out with 25 Projects. Illus. B. Hetland. White River Junction, VT: Nomad Press. Science projects abound in this guide. Questions discussed in Garbage Barge (Winter, 2010) can be explored with these 25 projects. (Nonfiction)

Miller, C. C. (2008). Garbage, waste, dumps, and you: The disgusting story behind what we leave behind. Mankato, MN: Capstone Press. This book explains what happens when garbage leaves our homes. The facts are sure to jump-start lots of discussion. (Nonfiction)

Torrey, M. (2009). The case of the gasping garbage (Doyle and Fossey, science detectives). Illus. B. J. Newman. New York: Sterling. What is gurgling in the family’s trashcan? This mystery is solved with science and fun. (Fiction, Picture Book)


Fresch, M.J. & Harkins, P. (2009). The Power of Picture Books: Using Content Area Literature in Middle School. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Winter, J. (2010). Here Comes the Garbage Barge! Illus. Red Nose Studio. New York, NY: Random House/Schwartz & Wade Books.