Let’s Talk Oral Communication

Learning how to effectively scaffold instruction for English Language Learners taught me that  if you want to boost your students’ content understanding, ask them to talk about it in meaningful and purposeful ways. Ask students (and not just ELL students) to talk about content that matters, both informally to each other as well as more formally in presentations, and they’ll learn more (see, for example, “Why Talk Is Important in Classrooms” by Fisher, et al). That’s one big reason why I’m thrilled about New Tech’s revised Oral Communication rubrics, because they encourage more active conversation about content. They allow you to assess students during more casual conversations as well as during presentations, and the specific rubric descriptors help you determine how to support students with the oral communication skills they need.

Informal Oral Communication

On the informal side, there’s a new “Interpersonal” section, designed to allow you to assess and scaffold students’ oral communication skills when they’re speaking more informally about content related to projects and problems.

How might you use this section of the rubric?

  •      Socratic Seminar:  Model and practice what a particular indicator (bullet) from the interpersonal section would look and sound like. Ask students to set a goal for themselves and ask them to reflect on whether they met that goal after the discussion. Or have students self-assess, using the rubric.
  •      Fishbowl: Ask students on the outside circle to pick one student. Ask the person in the outside circle to track who the inside student responds to- maybe even draw a web. Ask them to share one piece of positive feedback and one piece of constructive feedback with the student in the inner circle, based on the interpersonal section of the rubric.
  •      Think-Pair-Shares and Round Robins (where a small group of students each share, without interruption from others, until everyone has had a chance to say something): Model, set goals, and self-assess, similar to what you might do in a Socratic Seminar. These structures might be nice to scaffold students’ participation in something more challenging, like a Socratic Seminar.
  •      One-On-One Conference: Quickly assess students’ oral communication skills based on the conversation.
  •      And lots more! Have other ideas? We’d love it if you shared in the comments below!

We’re hoping that the addition of this section to the rubric gives you more opportunities to assess, but also scaffold, oral communication for students.

Formal Oral Communication

On the more formal side, you’ll also notice that we divided the rubric into a “Presentation” section and a “Delivery” section. Our hope here was that it would be easier for you to figure out what you might assess individually vs. in a group. Specifically, we designed the rubric so that you could use the “Delivery” section to individually assess a particular student on their presentation delivery skills, while you can use the “Presentation” section to assess a group’s presentation in its entirety.

How might you use this section of the rubric?

  • Presentation practice session: Give quick individual and group feedback after a presentation practice session, or have students self-reflect or provide peer feedback. You might even use the peer assessment tool in Echo to have students give each other feedback.
  • End of project presentation: Give individual and group feedback for an end of project presentation. You might also have students self-reflect.
  • Panel feedback on presentation: Ask community members serving on a presentation panel to give feedback on particular oral communication skills.
  • Please share your own ideas in the comments!

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Supporting Students With Oral Communication Skills

Ultimately, students will only improve their oral communication skills if they have opportunities to see models, to practice, and to reflect. And that’s where we hope the individual indicators, or bullets, will help. For example, you might decide that you’re going to focus on a particular indicator for a project. You might decide that the indicator, “After listening, can synthesize main points and reference key details” is a key goal for your students.

You could try:

  • Modeling: Model how you synthesize main points when you listen to students talk about content
  • Having students practice with a graphic organizer: Create a graphic organizer where students list main points from a group discussion or presentation and then weight and combine them into one main point
  • Having students practice in small groups: Have small group discussions about important content where you periodically stop the conversation and ask one student to synthesize the main points so far.
  • Providing additional support: You might have little cards ready with sentence starters or suggested vocabulary for English Language Learners or students who might need more support.

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All of these activities will scaffold students’ oral communication skills- but they’ll also get students to dig deeper into content. By asking students to communicate informally and formally on important topics, and scaffolding and assessing them both individually and in groups using the Oral Communication rubric, you’ll build an essential 21st century skill- and you’ll also help them improve their knowledge and skills.

Posted in Assessment, Rubrics

Effective Foundational Literacy Skill Instruction and PBL, Part 2

In part 1 of this mini-series, I briefly discussed the elements of quality foundational literacy instruction.

Effective foundational literacy instruction should be:

  • Sequenced and differentiated
  • Taught using a variety of techniques
  • Taught with other literacy skills
  • Connected to meaningful reading and writing


At this point, you might be thinking- “Ok, those principles are great, but now what- especially if I’m a teacher who’s trying to do Project Based Learning as well?”

In this post, I’d like to get to the “now what.”

So, how are you supposed to get to sequenced, differentiated, phonics instruction when you’re also doing PBL? Most likely, in order to effectively sequence and differentiate foundational literacy skill instruction, the instruction will need to happen alongside the project. While you may be able to pull it within the project periodically, you won’t always be able to do so. At the elementary level, that might mean that during your literacy block, you have a few dedicated stations for word work, spelling, and phonics. The other couple of stations could involve reading and writing for the project. At the secondary level, you might have a short amount of time a few times a week (say 10-15 minutes) dedicated to differentiated word work for your students. More advanced students might tackle Greek and Latin roots while you work with students on decoding skills. Or, you might do something similar to what elementary teachers do, and have a few virtual or physical stations, some related to the project, a couple focused on differentiated foundational literacy skill instruction. I did a combination of the two in both 5th and 10th grade. Three times a week, we started with differentiated groups focusing on spelling and phonics using Words Their Way materials (highly recommended!). In addition, I’d pull students or have students do virtual “stations” during project work time where they might, say, practice decoding multisyllabic words related to the project, or practice reading a text more than once, working on their fluency.

During that “alongside” time, you can use a variety of instructional methods to help students learn how do decode.  Words Their Way is an analytic and spelling approach to phonics, but I also taught students to use onsets and rimes (analogy phonics), and with a few students, who were just learning to read, I used a systematic, synthetic phonics program from Reading A-Z. Of course, occasionally you might be able to have students practice what they’re learning within the project: students might spell, use an analogy word, or other techniques to decode appropriate project vocabulary.

So we know that we’re not just hitting phonics all the time. What about teaching students all those other skills, and emphasizing the communicative purpose of reading and writing? This is where projects, and Project Based Learning, really come in handy. Projects are a great way to build students’ oral language, since they expose students to vocabulary repeatedly in connected and deep ways. At the early elementary level, you might build reading comprehension skills and oral language through read-alouds. At later levels, you might still have students practice comprehension skills with project texts, but simply up the amount of scaffolding you provide to help those students access the texts (like audiobook versions, chunked texts, text-embedded vocabulary support, etc.). I carefully considered how to ensure that students were supported in their speaking and listening skills in every project, used word walls and other techniques to develop vocabulary, and taught reading comprehension skills with project texts.

Don’t hold students back from reading and writing for the project, simply because they still need to work on foundational skills. You might ask kindergarten students to do a picture walk through a project related text or draw, dictate, and write for the project using invented spelling, or ask middle school English Language Learners to write a piece for a group magazine, even if their written communication skills are still being developed. Ask yourself, “Does this project give EVERY student the opportunity to read to answer their questions and learn more? Does this project give EVERY student the opportunity to communicate their learning via writing and, ideally, write for a meaningful audience?” You might carefully consider how to include an individual written task that’s purposeful to the project and gives all students the opportunity to see that literacy matters. I recently saw an individual writing task in a kinder project on composting which I just loved. Students created an infographic with a combination of drawing, dictating, and invented spelling. The purpose of the infographic was to help their fellow students determine what could be recycled vs. composted in the cafeteria. While those infographics certainly won’t be perfect, they’ll show the kindergarten students that writing has purpose and meaning.

The beauty of marrying PBL and foundational literacy skill instruction is that it allows us to build students’ understanding of the world and the communicative function of literacy, even as we address the foundational skills our students need to become thoughtful readers and writers.


Posted in Decoding and Fluency, PBL

Effective Foundational Literacy Skill Instruction & PBL, Part 1

Elementary teachers, especially early elementary teachers, and secondary teachers who work with striving readers and writers who may need early literacy skill support have a real challenge on their hands- even more so, perhaps, if they’re also working hard to address deeper learning skills via Project Based Learning. I’ll try to give a few ideas for doing both in this little mini-series.

Since this is just a blog post series (and not a book!), in part 1, I’ll focus on a few basic, but important, principles and part 2 will give you a few ideas for maintaining those principles AND doing Project Based Learning.

First, I should probably note that I define foundational literacy skills as the skills students need to correctly and smoothly read the words on the page, including phonemic awareness, the alphabetic principle, phonics, spelling, and fluency.


Principle: Sequence and differentiate.

Phonics is most effectively taught in a systematic and thoughtfully sequenced way. This ensures that students receive instruction within their Zone of Proximal Development and don’t miss learning key skills that support the development of later skills. Research on children’s misspellings showed that the internalization of phoneme-grapheme correspondences is developmental and follows a particular sequence of what might be termed spelling stages. As a result, instruction should be differentiated and based on a student’s stage of development. There is less research on effective instruction in decoding of multisyllabic words and sequence appears to be less important. That said, it should still be differentiated to meet children’s needs- you don’t want to teach your 7th graders who can already decode longer words lessons they don’t need, after all.

Principle: Use a variety of techniques to develop foundational skills, especially phonics.

Research has shown that a variety of techniques can be used to develop students’ phonics skills. Analytic phonics (asking students to analyze phonemes in words they’ve already been taught to say), synthetic phonics (teaching students individual phonemes and how to blend them to say words), analogy phonics (teaching students to pronounce new words using known words, e.g. using the rime in a known word to pronounce a new word with the same rime), and teaching phonics through spelling (teaching students how to segment words and determine what letters apply) have all been shown to be effective. There’s some research to suggest that using multiple methods may be most effective, especially for struggling readers.

Principle: Teach other literacy skills too, not just foundational skills.

Too often, we narrow the curriculum to focus exclusively on foundational literacy skill instruction at the early elementary level. At the secondary level, reading interventions for striving learners sometimes address, for example, only phonics skills. This kind of narrow instruction isn’t effective. Students need to build their oral language skills and comprehension skills as well. Otherwise, early elementary students might founder as the comprehension level of text increases. Secondary students need to be able to navigate the very complex texts necessary for college and career success. Foundational literacy skills are essential building blocks, but they’re not sufficient for student success.

Principle: Connect skill development to meaningful reading and writing.

This is a continuation of the principle above, but the focus here is on asking students to use their literacy skills to learn and communicate. Students need to see that reading and writing has a communicative purpose and that texts matter. This builds motivation and student agency and helps them see why foundational literacy instruction matters. It also apprentices them into long, meaningful, literacy filled lives. And this is where PBL really, really rocks. More on that next time.


Cunningham, P.M. (2015). Best practices in teaching phonological awareness and phonics. In Best Practices in Literacy Instruction

Lonigan, and Shanahan, T. (2016). The role of early oral language in literacy development. In Language Magazine.

Schlagal, B. Best practices in spelling and handwriting. In Best Practices in Writing Instruction.

Stahl, K.A.D. (2013). Reading to learn from the beginning: Comprehension instruction in the primary grades.  In Best Practices in Early Literacy Instruction.


Posted in Decoding and Fluency

Building Agency Via Effective Goal Setting

Here come the resolutions! It’s that time of year when everyone’s thinking about what they’d like to achieve in the next year.  And it’s also when we ask students to set goals for the next grading period or semester. And it might be the time when you’re considering what you’d like to accomplish as a teacher as well.

Unfortunately, the typical practice of goal setting or making resolutions can actually be counterproductive. Setting a goal and visualizing accomplishing it can make us feel at a subconscious level as if we’ve achieved the goal already- reducing the amount of effort and learning we’ll do to achieve that goal.  And goal setting is pointless if students (or teachers) don’t believe they can get better or don’t have the skills to manage their learning over time.  At New Tech Network, we call having the tools and techniques necessary to improve and maintaining a growth mindset having agency (check out a great agency rubric here). Goal setting isn’t helpful if it doesn’t build agency.

What’s a teacher to do? Give up on goals altogether? Fortunately, there are two simple tweaks to the goal setting process that will help you and your students activate, rather than deter, the development of agency.


First, I’d encourage you to start with having students reflect on a time when they have worked hard and did learn something in the previous semester. The more concrete you can make this, the better- whether that’s having students reread writing they did 4 months ago and compare it to their writing now, or asking them to look at their rubric score from their first versus most recent project. This is a way to do what I call “catching kids growing,” and I think it’s an essential step in activating growth mindset. I say that because we as educators (and I include myself in this) tend to teach kids about growth mindset, but that’s only a start- especially if students believe we are teaching them about growth mindset just to get them to do more work. “Catching kids growing” provides students direct evidence of growth mindset in action.

Second, I’d recommend using “WOOP” (or a similar) goal setting process. WOOP stands for wish (goal), outcome (what achieving the goal will mean), obstacles (to achieving the wish), and plan (for overcoming those obstacles). WOOP goal setting uses mental contrasting, a process whereby the person setting the goal imagines possible obstacles to achieving the goal, and how to overcome those obstacles. It’s been proven to be a more effective way to set goals; I think because it’s an agency activating process. First, it acknowledges that achieving the goal won’t be easy- it won’t just magically happen as a result of setting the goal or some intrinsic strength or skill.  At the same time, it suggests that achieving the goal is possible- it will just take work. It also builds students’ learning management skills, as they consider where they might struggle and what they might do as a result.

Goal setting can be a really valuable process- if we do it in such a way that it supports, rather than inhibits, the growth of agency.






Posted in Motivation

When is a PBL “Pause” Not a Pause? More on Literature and PBL

I’ve heard English teachers advocate for a literature “pause” from Project Based Learning. This might happen in a variety of ways- teachers might advocate that the school use a portion of the day or a particular class for book clubs for students or they might argue for a “Drop Everything and Read” program.  They might stop the work of projects in an integrated class and do Readers Workshop for a while, perhaps having students read self-chosen texts and write in response. Often they pause because they’re worried that students aren’t developing the critical reading and thoughtful writing skills they’ll need for college and career readiness, but teachers may also simply want students to enjoy reading and feel that there isn’t space in the regular curriculum to foster a love of books. Either way, they’re often apologetic about that “pause”: they value PBL and don’t want to take time away from it.

I argued last time that an authentic literature reading experiences involve things like reading to learn about another worldview or perspective, reading for pleasure, reading to participate in a community, and reading to take an informed stance about some aspect of society or culture. A so-called “pause” could be a great opportunity to do some or all of the above, and because it’s an authentic literature experience, the “pause” might be more authentic than a contrived project that forcibly integrates literature. If kids get a chance to participate in a social community that values reading, read a book for the joy of it or to gain a window into another world, write a thought-piece for the New York Times, get in an argument, or just excitedly recommend the book to someone, I’d argue that the so-called “pause” from PBL might not be a pause at all.  To me, such a pause is more meaningful than a project where students create travel guides for characters in The Tempest or read The Great Gatsby because they’re pretending to be time travelers headed back to the Roaring Twenties. Of course, I could imagine a “pause” that doesn’t do any of those things- where students simply read something because a teacher has told them to (or more likely, fake read something) and write, but without any meaning. That’s not the kind of experience I would want for students, and I wouldn’t call it authentic. 

There are things we value about PBL beyond authenticity, of course. “What about voice and choice, and student-driven learning?” you might ask. Let students choose what they read, or choose from a set of books, or let them choose their community and then pick something to read that’s meaningful to that community. (Choice in reading is something I believe in anyway- more on that here.) To make the work more student-centered, teach them to drive their own learning as they tackle a long text.

“But don’t we want students to build deeper learning skills, like oral communication and collaboration?” you might also ask. “Aren’t we missing those skills in a “literature pause”? Not necessarily. You could challenge students to develop their abilities to discuss a book intelligently, building from each other’s ideas.

“But shouldn’t they be driving towards a final product or problem solution?” you might say. This is a little trickier. I could imagine a final product where students create a podcast, or review the book for a class blog, or write an OpEd. But I’m not sure that’s necessary, honestly. Perhaps students publish the literary criticism they write, or maybe the final product simply involves providing some evidence that they have created a social community that values reading and that they can have meaningful, collaborative conversations about texts.

Done well, emphasis on “done well,” I think a so-called “break” from PBL to read might actually be better PBL than many projects that integrate literature.

Posted in PBL

But What About Literature?


“How am I supposed to fit in Julius Caesar/To Kill A Mockingbird…./insert title here into Project Based Learning?” is a question I often get as a New Tech Network literacy and school coach.  English teachers understandably wonder how reading a novel or other piece of literature can be made a meaningful, authentic component of a project. It can be even more of a challenge in an integrated, interdisciplinary class, like integrated Biology and English or a Humanities class.

I understand this question, and I empathize, having been in exactly the same position. “How on earth will I include literature?” was a question that came up frequently when I taught a Chemistry and English class.  

So first, let’s just revisit what PBL is anyway. Indulge me for a moment, because I think it will help, at least a little. In PBL, students learn standards and skills by accomplishing a meaningful task or solving a problem, together. A core component of PBL is authenticity- students deepen skills and knowledge by applying them to an authentic context. In other words, that meaningful tasks or problem they’re solving should be a real-world issue, or simulate something done in the real world.

I’ve argued before that an “authentic English experience” involves reading and thinking about text, writing about it, connecting to students lives, and, ideally, such an experience involves some joy. I’d like to put a finer point on it this time and ask- “What are authentic experiences that involve literature?” In other words- when, why, and how do people in the real world read literature? For the purposes of this post, I’ll prioritize “outside of school” when I think about the “real world,” though I’ll also mention the kinds of things scholars do when they read literature.

In the real world, people, young and old, read literature to learn, gain a window into another world, and for pleasure. They read as part of a community that values reading and talking about books (I’m thinking of book clubs and blogging communities here). They research, read, and ask questions to find a book that they will love, and when they find a book they love, they tell other people to read it in a variety of ways- through podcasts, blogs, reviews, Twitter, or just over a cup of tea. They read to inform their own creative pursuits. And some people read and then turn around and say something about the world based on what they read, whether they produce literary criticism, a thought-piece for the New York Times, or just get in a long, drawn out argument with a friend. English scholars read literature carefully and then communicate a line of reasoning about that text to a community of other scholars to build a broader and deeper understanding of texts’ purpose, form, and function.

So, how can we include literature in projects? I think more fruitful questions for English folks doing PBL might be:

Why read this piece of literature? Related questions include:

  • Does the text/part of the text answer a need to know?
  • Does the text/part of the text give us a window or perspective into another world?
  • Does the text/part of the text provide one answer to a question people grapple with, or does it help us come up with new questions? Can it serve as a case study of a particular issue or problem?
  • A related, and great question for an integrated class, would be, “If the big question we want students to grapple with is …., what literature might provide one answer/serve as a case study/help us generate more questions?”

What do people in the “real world” do when they read this piece of literature or pieces of literature like it? What do they do afterwards? Related questions include:

  • Does it serve a creative purpose, inspiring other kinds of art, performances, etc.?
  • Is it a model of some kind for others’ writing or creative work? Could it be a model for us?
  • Do people discuss it and argue about it?
  • Do they write/produce something afterwards? If so, what- reviews? Literary criticism? Passionate OpEds? Podcasts?

Let me answer those question for a sample piece of literature. Let’s take Julius Caesar, for example. Why read this piece of literature? It might answer a need to know like “Why is Shakespeare so famous?”, but it probably doesn’t answer historical need to knows- at least not historical need to knows about the time period portrayed in the play. Does it give us a new window/perspective or does it help us grapple with a particular question? Certainly it might help us think about how people of the time thought about history, power, leadership, etc. and inform how we think about those things.  Does it serve a creative purpose? Absolutely, it’s usually performed, inspiring actors, and it’s been used as inspiration for numerous other pieces of art. Do people discuss Julius Caesar and argue about it? I’m sure actors, directors, etc. argue like crazy about how to perform particular sections. And literary critics and English scholars definitely do. Do people write/produce something afterwards? Yes, they write literary criticism, certainly.

Hopefully the quick brainstorming I modeled above got you thinking about possible driving questions and products for a project that includes Julius Caesar. Certainly we could have a driving question about power or leadership. I’m thinking a performance or creative piece inspired by the play would be a great final product, and students could write some literary criticism along the way. We could include a debate, bringing in the text as one possible perspective. If this was an integrated class, we could bring Julius Caesar in purposefully when we were addressing a particular driving question, in order to bring in a new perspective or help us ask questions, or perhaps as a kind of case study. If we’ve done some of those things, we’ve crafted a project that supports students in an authentic experience that includes literature, rather than shoehorning literature into a project.

A side note: if the answer to the questions above is ever, “This is one of the texts the district makes us read,” I’d encourage some creative maladjustment. Rally your students and staff and bring in your administrators, and argue for meaningful texts that serve authentic purposes. I know this is easier said than done, and I don’t say it lightly- I say it because I don’t want students to read “just because,” ever.

I hope this set of questions at least helps you get started thinking about meaningful and purposeful ways to integrate literature. What are some texts you love, why do those texts matter, and what do adults do after they read those texts? How have you thought about these questions as you designed projects?


Posted in Authenticity, Teaching Challenging Texts

Let’s Crowdsource Some Rubric Scaffolding!

So, I don’t know if you know this already, but New Tech Network has some pretty great rubrics, if I do say so myself.  You can snag those fabulous rubrics here. They’re not perfect- I’ve realized no rubric can be- but they are an attempt to embody the characteristics of good rubrics I described here.  You can use them to determine where your students are in a learning trajectory and figure out where to go next with a particular student. And you can use them to have some really fantastic conversations with your colleagues as you learn together from student work. 

But, of course, defining where you want to go next with a student is just the first step- you need exemplars and awesome scaffolding to help them get there. And that’s where you, dear reader, come in! I know there’s some great scaffolding out there.  I know we’ve got great supports out there that help students do something they can’t do-yet. I know you’re busy creating scaffolding that encourages discourse, allows for multiple access points, creates a social culture of learning, and helps “catch” students growing. And I have this ambitious goal of crowdsourcing exemplars and awesome scaffolding for each indicator and score level of the rubrics.  I’d love to fill in the blanks in all the links below.

Scaffolding the English Research or Argumentation Rubric

Scaffolding the English Textual Analysis Rubric

Scaffolding the History/Social Science Argumentation or Explanation Rubric

Scaffolding the Math Problem Solving Rubric

Scaffolding the Science Argumentation or Explanation Rubric

But I have a really long way to go- please help!  I know you’ve got some fantastic scaffolding, ready to go.  Maybe some exemplars from your own students’ work? If so, please share!

You can submit this form:

Or, if that isn’t working for you, click on this link.

Let’s do this!


Posted in Uncategorized