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.

5 active ways to encourage vocabulary development

Research points to the importance of students knowing a wide range of words for success in reading.  Hart and Risley (2003) found significant, lasting differences in the home vocabularies of children of professionals versus children born into poverty. Additional studies show this vocabulary difference widens over time (Graves, et al., 2010). Looking for ways to close the gap is crucial for literacy development. We must consider ways to actively engage all students in learning new words. Here are 5 learning activities to increase student awareness:

  1. Shades of meaning – select words that have similar meanings, such as huge and large; asked and questioned. Pass the word cards out to students and have them find their buddy with a similar meaning. Ask them to create sentences using the word pair.
  2. Plus or minus endings – make word cards using words with –ing and –ed. Ask students to use scissors to cut the endings off. Does the base word need a letter (e) or does it have an extra letter (a double consonant)? Talk about the changes for adding endings. Search for more examples in the books they are reading.
  3. Determine number of syllables – create fun containers (such as pumpkins, boots, upside down umbrellas) and label with numbers for the syllables in the words you select (use science, social studies, and math words to double up on vocabulary development). Have students sort according to syllables.
  4. Pair the pears – on pear shape paper write homophones (tale/tail), shuffle, and pass out. Ask students to match the pairs, then to create a sentence that uses both words, showing correct usage.
  5. Hoop it up – draw two basketball hoops on a large surface. Choose two sounds for students to compare (long a/short a; hard g/soft g). On basketball shape paper write words that fit the sound patterns (bake/bag; goat/giant). Ask students to place the basketball under the correct hoop.

These are just a few ideas to get your started on active, hands-on vocabulary learning!


Graves, M. F., Juel, C., Graves, B. B., & Dewitz, P. (2010). Teaching reading in the 21st century: Motivating all learners. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (2003). The early catastrophe: The 30 million word gap. American Educator, 27(1), 4–9.

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.

Vocabulary development: Storytelling word histories

(Presentation from National Council of Teachers of English Annual Conference, 2013)


Storytelling has a long history as a way to pass knowledge to the next generation. For instance, the first fairy tales were oral cautionary stories about taking care when going into the woods alone, not trusting a stranger, or eating a suspicious apple. Generation after generation passed these stories along, committing to memory the pertinent facts and attached emotions. Indeed, “story” and “history” have common roots – both deriving from the Greek and Latin for accounts of factual events.  In time, “story” concentrated more on fictional accounts, “history” with actual events of the past.

Bruner (2002) claimed storytelling is universal and a “dominant form of discourse” (Atta-Alla, 2012).  Studies have shown that storytelling enhances language skills (Egan, 2005) and develops vocabulary and syntax (Strickland and Morrow 1989). “Storytelling is a tool that can be used in any form of [the] language development curriculum” and has particular potential in urban settings (Ali, 2008, p. 70). “Those who have observed children listening to an absorbing story have often been impressed with the quality and persistence of their attention, surely an important ingredient in any learning context” (Elley, 1989, p. 176). Storytelling can take vocabulary learning out of the memorization model and into “making memories” about words. Dewey reminded teachers not to simply “give” information to their students. Otherwise, “the information was likely to be committed to memory in a rather lifeless or mechanical way. He called this ‘static, cold-storage’ knowledge” (as cited in Phillips & Soltis, 1998, p. 39). Students are not “passive recipients of information about new words” (Wilkinson & Houston-Price, 2013, p. 592). Indeed, “teachers discovered that children could easily recall whatever historical or scientific facts they learned through story” (NCTE, 1992, unpaged).

Considering the size of the English language, memorization is not the only way to learn new words. Having students be actively engaged in encounters with words makes the learning memorable.

So where does the storytelling begin?  Try word histories. Whet their appetite with interesting stories (see end of handout – Great stories to tell). Once they get interested in these, have students research words as related to your curricular needs (content area studies, vocabulary development) or their interests.  There are many ways to engage even the most reluctant learner when he or she discovers the secrets behind English words.  Try the following suggestions to take the word stories into captivating and memorable activities.

Mystery guest – who am I?

This activity is played like the old party game of taping a name to each person’s back and they must ask questions to discover whom they are.  Choose words that the class has been using in a content area – the students’ questions should lead them to  the word. (You may want to do an example so students understand the type of questions to ask.)

You complete me

 A word, its origin, definition can be combined in a number of ways for a partner hunt. For example, make sets of cards using:

(1) book

(2) Germanic boks related to boka meaning “beech” – the wood used for writing tablets.

(3) a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers.

Mix the pairs (or trios). Students find “buddy” or “buddies” by matching a pair (Word/origin; word/definition) or trio. Or, use the cards as a “memory” matching game – 2 card matches or challenge advanced students with 3 card matches. 

It’s all about me (Eponyms)

Have students investigate these words named after people.

Frisbee (Frisbie Pie Company) Leotard (Jules Leotard)
Ferris Wheel (Washington Ferris) Sideburns (Gen. Ambrose Burnside)
Silhouette (Étienne de Silhouette) Mattel (Harold Matson & Eliot Handler)
Sandwich (Earl of Sandwich) Graham Cracker (Rev. Sylvester Graham)
Dunce (John Duns Scotus) Doberman Pinscher (Ludwig Doberman)

Link to content studies

 Many words in the content areas can provide interesting stories to make words memorable. Tell these stories or have students investigate and share with the class.

History/Civil war = deadline (prison in the field)

Math = zero (empty), twelve (two left over after counting to ten)

Inventions = zipper (B.F. Goodrich’s “Zip ‘er up!” galoshes)

Human body = south paws (baseball stadiums)

Social Studies/Mapping = Antarctica (no bears)

Economics = corny jokes (Seed catalogs); dollar (Jachymov stalers); Salary (salt)

Language Arts = sincerely (without wax); plagiarism (kidnapper)

School Community = secretary (secrets); janitor (Janus, God of gates/doors); teacher (one who “shows”); student (to be eager, diligent); school (leisure)

A rose by any other name

Encourage students to find words that are more descriptive than those of Germanic (colloquial) origin by suggesting synonyms of French (literary) or Latin (learned) origin.  Discuss how each synonym set differs. For instance:

Germanic French Latin
rise mount ascend
kingly royal regal
ask question interrogate
holy sacred consecrated
sweat perspire exude
deer venison
need require mandatory
forgive pardon amnesty

Unabridged fun

Unabridged dictionaries include etymologies before the definition. These provide the connection to the history of the word and its current use.
Some great origins to storytell

comet Ancient Greek: “kometes” – “having long hair.” Aristotle first used “kometes” to describe the heavenly body that seems to have long hair trailing from its “head.” The name was later adopted into Latin as “cometes,” which eventually made its way to English.
palindrome Greek dromos, for “running” (also origin of the speedy desert runner, dromedary). palin means “again.”



French grue for “crane”; Old French – “crane’s foot” – referred to as a pie de grue. Seeing a genealogical chart with its three-line diagrams indicating who + who begat whom, and it is evident why speakers of Old French called this figure /|\  pie de grue.



Persian shir o shakkar, or literally, “milk and sugar” – reference to the smooth white stripes alternate with rough ones that make it resemble thin lines of sugar.
funny bone This spot, that gets a “tingly” feeling when bumped, is at the enlarged end of the “humerus” bone.
globe Old French “globe” or the Latin “globus” meaning to roll together or stick. Maps were only flat at one time, and thus rolled together.




A made-up word by English author/historian Horace Walpole. In 1754, he wrote a letter claiming he’d coined this word, based on a Persian fairy tale “The Three Princes of Serendip.” He said the heroes ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.'” Serendip, is a form of Sarandip, the old Persian name for Sri Lanka.
tulip From the resemblance to a type of headwear – the turban. In the 1500s, Austria’s ambassador visited Turkey and was enchanted by the unusual flowers. The Turks’ traditional name for the flower was lale, but the ambassador’s interpreter jokingly called the blossom a tulbend, the Turkish word for “turban,” because of its shape. When the ambassador brought home several of these exotic plants, he also brought along its picturesque nickname, tulbend, which slightly changed in English.
basketball Invented by Dr. James Naismith. A Canadian, Naismith was teaching physical education at International Young Men’s Christian Training College in Springfield, Massachusetts, 1891. He needed an activity to keep the young men busy during the winter months. He cut the bottoms out of peach baskets, challenged the students to move a ball down the gym floor and throw it through the basket.
candidate Latin “candidatus” meaning person dressed in white. Early Roman politicians wanted white togas to make a good impression.


Bell ringing was quite an art during the Middle Ages. But, just like any instrument that is being learned, novice “ringers” practice for hours and not all of it sounded good!  So, a craftsman (whose name we do not know) invented “dumb or silent bells” which were weighted ropes that did not make noise.  The weights of the ropes varied, just as the weights of bells did, so novices got stronger practicing on these.
earmark From Old English herdsmen needing a way to mark their cattle (branding was not yet used).  The herdsmen notched the ears of cattle to signify which was theirs when using common pastureland for grazing.
hurricane Taino “huraca’n” meaning center of the wind. Christopher Columbus brought this word back, making its way to Spanish, and eventually English.
jeep Abbreviation for the all-purpose vehicle developed for the military. The “General Purpose” vehicle became nicknamed g.p. which was shortened into a pronounceable word.
piggy bank


In the 1400’s, household pots and dishes were made of cheap clay called “pygg”. Housewives would store extra coins in the “pyggy jars”. They became known as “pygg banks”.
canoe From the Haitian, brought by Columbus, “kanoa” meaning dugout or hollow log. When Columbus returned to Spain, the spelling changed.
starboard Old English steorbor”, “steor” meaning rudder or the steering oar, “bor” meaning a side. In the early ships, the steering mechanism was on the right hand side of the ship.
typhoon Chinese “tai fung” – big wind.
window When Norse carpenters built homes, they left a hole or eye in the roof to allow smoke to escape. Wind often blew through this hole and it became known as “vindr auga” meaning wind eye.
lunatic From the Roman moon goddess, Luna, who supposedly caused people to go mad during the changing phases of the moon.
galore Irish Gaelic go leor meaning “enough or plenty”.
caravan Persian – from karwan meaning “company of travelers”

Suggested Resources for Word Stories

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

Ayto, J. (1990). Dictionary of word origins. New York: Arcade.

Barber, K. (2006). Six words you never knew had something to do with pigs. New York: Penguin.

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

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

Bryson, B. (1994). Made in America: An informal history of the English language in the United States. New York: Harper.

Crystal, D. (2006). Words, words, words. London: Oxford University Press.

Essinger, J. (2006). Spellbound: The surprising origins and astonishing secrets of English language. NY: Bantam.

Flavel, L & R.  (1992). Dictionary of Idioms. London: Kyle Cathie Ltd.

Fresch, M.J. (2007). Word study: Ways to captivate reluctant learners. AdLIT.

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

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

Hendrickson, R. (2004). Word and phrase origins (3rd Ed.). New York: Checkmark Books.

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

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

Liberman, A. (2005). Word origins…and how we know them. London: Oxford University Press.

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

Suid, M. (2007). Words of a feather: A humorous puzzlement of etymological pairs. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Todd, R. W. (2007). Much ado about English. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

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

Wulffson, D. & Wulffson, P. (2003). Abracadabra to Zombie: More than 300 wacky word origins. Illustrated by Jared Lee. New York: Dutton Children’s Books.



Ali, M.M. (2008). Storytelling: A boon to children’s language development. Journal of Urban Education, 5 (1), 68-73.

Bruner, J. (2002). Making stories: Law, literature, life. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.

Egan, K. (2005). An imaginative approach to teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Elley, W. B. (1989). Vocabulary Acquistion from Listening to Stories. Reading Research Quarterly, 24, (2), 174-187.

Jackson, H. & Zé Amvela, E. (2000). Words, Meaning And Vocabulary: An Introduction to Modern English Lexicology. London: Continuum.

National Council of Teachers of English. (1992).Guideline on teaching storytelling. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Nazir Atta-Alla, M. (2012). Integrating Language Skills through Storytelling. English Language Teaching, 5(12), 1-13.

Phillips, D. C. & Soltis, J.F. (1998). Perspectives on learning (3rd Ed.). NY: Teachers College Press.

Strickland, D.S. & Morrow, L.M. (1989). Oral language development: Children as storytellers. The Reading Teacher, 43(3), 260-261.

Wilkinson, K.S. & Houston-Price, C. (2013). Once upon a time, there was a pulchritudinous princess . . . : The role of word definitions and multiple story contexts in children’s learning of difficult vocabulary. Applied Psycholinguistics, 34 (4), 591-613.

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.