Powering Your PBL Course: Deeper Assessments

This blog post is part five of a series designed to support you as you plan for an upcoming school-year dedicated to deeper learning for your students via Project Based Learning.  You can find the other posts in the series below:

Many thanks to Drew Schrader for his collaboration on this series, which is cross-posted on his awesome blog, Learning Habit. Thanks to Erica Snyder at Teaching Channel for all her help with these posts as well.  You can check out her work here.

Powering Your PBL Course: Deeper Assessments

If you’ve been following along this blog series, you’ve been thinking about key power standards for your course, identifying deeper learning skill priorities, brainstorming some potential driving questions, and beginning to think about authentic applications of content in challenging, real-world contexts.  It is worth pausing in this process at moments like this to keep the big picture in mind.

powering-your-pbl-course-performanceAt NTN, we want our students to be deeper learners; we want them apply knowledge and understanding of important content to meaningful contexts, real world issues, and challenging problems. We also want them to be able to communicate, collaborate, and show agency over their learning. These outcomes are the reason we promote PBL. Our projects require students to complete tasks that provide an opportunity to develop as deeper learners. These tasks also allow us to assess where students are in the pursuit of knowledge and skills.  

Deeper assessments of applied knowledge and deeper learning skills are often referred to as performance assessments.  Performance assessments are open ended, requiring students to synthesize, apply, and/or articulate their knowledge and understanding.  As Linda Darling-Hammond and Frank Adamson note in Beyond Basic Skills, “In a performance assessment, rather than choosing among pre-determined options, students must construct an answer, produce a product, or perform an activity.” Performance assessments are not selected response; they don’t require regurgitation of memorized facts, and if you’ve administered a performance assessment, you won’t have the same answer from everyone.  This is what makes performance assessments so powerful for assessing deeper learning.  As Darling-Hammond and Adamson go on to say, “Because they allow students to construct or perform an original response rather than just recognizing a potentially right answer out of a list provided, performance assessments can measure students’ cognitive thinking and reasoning skills and their ability to apply knowledge to solve realistic, meaningful problems.”

While PBL naturally lends itself to performance assessment opportunities, carefully planning possible assessments early ensures that you won’t miss any opportunities to assess students in a more meaningful way. Traditional assessments like problem sets and quizzes can be used to help stimulate and monitor learning throughout a project, but generally speaking, robust performance assessments will be the most useful assessments in a PBL class because they assess the outcomes we care about most.


Planning Performance Assessments

Consequently, as you plan for your upcoming year, it will also be helpful to consider performance assessments that allow you to assess the outcomes you’re prioritizing.  Let’s consider the same power standard we thought about earlier, “Students will understand the structure of atoms and how that structure affects chemical properties and material interactions.” You might be considering a scenario where students  explore radioactivity and explain the process of nuclear decay using their understanding of atomic structure.

As you think about how to design that explanatory task, you should pause and consider what you will be able to assess when you look at student work from the task. Obviously you will want to consider how well it gives you evidence of learning for your power standards. This would also be a good time to look at the Knowledge and Thinking rubric for your course to see if there are particular elements of disciplinary knowledge and skill the task would let you target effectively. Maybe you see this as a good opportunity to target students’ ability to “articulate a science related issue” and explain its scientific context.  You can also consider how the task allows you to assess your prioritized deeper learning skills. Perhaps this feels most aligned to a modest written task that would also allow students to practice the feedback and revision elements of agency.  Often considerations of assessment design and opportunity help tune and tighten a project idea, giving a good general idea a much clearer focus. Getting clear on “the end in mind” from an assessment angle often has the additional benefit of stimulating new ideas about the project context and application.

As you think about your power standards and authentic applications, you might consider:

  • Ways students might construct answers to the driving questions or address issues or solve problems. What are the assessment implications or opportunities for these different ways?
  • Products that would allow you to assess students’ critical thinking and understanding of a topic. How might that knowledge and thinking show up in a particular product?
  • Disciplinary and prioritized skills you are hoping to target. What types of activities would allow students to authentically demonstrate those skills?

By prioritizing important standards and outcomes, considering authentic applications of those priorities, and carefully designing performance assessments that allow you to see how students are progressing towards that knowledge and those skills, you’re well on your way to planning projects that will help your students become deeper learners.  Welcome to the network.  We can’t wait to see where this early thinking will take your projects- and ultimately, your students.


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Powering Your PBL Course: Let’s Get Real

This blog post is part four of a series designed to support you as you plan for an upcoming school-year dedicated to deeper learning for your students via Project Based Learning.  You can find the other posts in the series here:

Many thanks to Drew Schrader for his collaboration on this series, which is cross-posted on his awesome blog, Learning Habit. Thanks to Erica Snyder at Teaching Channel for all her help with these posts as well.  You can check out her work here.

Powering Your PBL Course: Let’s Get Real

So, you’ve got your power standards, driving questions, and deeper learning skills selected from our learning outcome rubrics. Now it’s time for the magical alchemy that will turn those standards and outcomes into project ideas.  It’s time to consider authentic applications of each of those outcomes. Authentic applications contextualize learning for students, requiring them to apply content knowledge and skills in a deeper way to a real-world issue, problem, or context. They also make learning more purposeful and therefore engaging for students.

powering-your-pbl-course-authentic-applicationsIf you’re at the secondary level, you’ll consider authentic applications within your discipline and related careers and fields; if you’re at the elementary level, you might consider a wider variety of applications, or focus on social studies and science if that helps narrow things down for you. Elementary teachers especially might then consider which literacy and math standards integrate naturally with the scenarios you’re considering.

Authentic Applications of Power Standards

Here’s an example.  If you’re teaching a chemistry class, and your power standard is
something like “Students will understand the structure of atoms and how that structure affects chemical properties and material interactions,” you might ask yourself, “Why do chemists care about this standard? Where do examples of this standard show up in our lives?” You might come up with a variety of examples, from why the ozone layer matters and how it works to nuclear reactions and decay.  These authentic applications will serve as the seeds for engaging project ideas.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself about the standards:

  • Why does this standard matter? Why is this standard a power standard?
  • Where does this standard show up in the issues, causes, and concerns of our time? OR How does this standard represent a specific example of a broader issue, cause, or concern that people today deal with? (This might be an especially great question for social studies.)
  • When and how do adults in the real world interact with this idea?  
  • How do business people/journalists/marine biologists/computer programmers (consider appropriate careers within your discipline) apply this standard within their work?
  • What kind of open ended problem would require students to think deeply about this standard? (Especially great for math standards where a real world application is tough.)1902933_713790571985218_255721948_n

Authentic Applications of Deeper Learning Skills

It’s also important to consider authentic applications of the deeper learning skills, or the additional learning outcomes you identified.  As an example, if you’re teaching an English class, and one of the deeper learning skills you identified is “seeks feedback,” you might ask yourself, “When and where do professionals in the discipline of English seek feedback?”Asking for feedback on writing would be one clear example.  If you’re teaching elementary school, you might consider some of the professions you thought about in the section above. 

You might ask yourself:

  • When do professionals in _______ (discipline) collaborate, and how is that collaboration structured?
  • What do professionals in ________ (discipline) write? What kinds of topics do they communicate about orally, and what does that look like?
  • When do professionals use ________ (skill), and what does that look like?

If you’re having trouble thinking of authentic applications, you may want to reconsider your power standards and ask yourself if they’re the right standards.  Or, you might try interviewing community members in particular fields and disciplines and asking them how they use the skills and standards you identified.  A few colleagues and I interviewed professionals in STEM fields about what they read and write and found the results to be illuminating- you can see a list here. At Tech Valley High School in Albany, New York, teachers invite community members to chat about upcoming curriculum standards and topics and brainstorm authentic applications and community connections.  

This step of preparing for project based learning can be intense and may require some serious research. But it’s worth it. When you’re done (don’t forget to capture everything you’ve brainstormed and learned using our template), you’ll be well on your way to designing a series of authentic projects that will engage your students in meaningful learning.  

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Powering Your PBL Course: Driving Questions

This blog post is part three of a series designed to support you as you plan for an upcoming school-year dedicated to deeper learning for your students via Project Based Learning.  You can find the other posts in the series here:

Many thanks to Drew Schrader for collaboration on this series, which is cross-posted on his awesome blog, Learning Habit. Thanks to Erica Snyder at Teaching Channel for all her help with these posts as well.  You can check out her work here.  

Powering Your PBL Course: Driving Questions

Assuming you’ve taken care to get clear on your key course content objectives as well as the deeper learning skills you and your school value, you are in position to start working on one of the most enjoyable, though challenging parts of project-based learning design: crafting driving questions.

powering-your-pbl-course-driving-questionsA key premise of project based learning is that much of what we will learn during our lives will happen in the context of solving some sort of problem or challenge. PBL is about cultivating student inquiry. While you will come to develop your own take on driving questions and how they function in your own project design and facilitation, a good starting point is to think of driving questions as open-ended questions that invoke the big ideas or themes addressed in the project. You might think of them as the kinds of questions people in your field have asked in order to arrive at the the knowledge represented in your power standards. The role of the driving question is to provide an overarching focus for the project for you as facilitator and to stimulate student thinking and deep inquiry.

This is easier to see with examples from some NTN Model Projects:

Power Standard Driving Question
Understand internal and external factors that contributed to the the emergence of the United States as an international power from early industrialization to entry into WWI What ideas, traditions, and government policies lead to American imperialist actions?
Learners will summarize, represent, and interpret data on a single count or measurement variable. Includes measures of central tendency (mean, median, mode) and measures of dispersion (standard deviation, interquartile range, box plots, normal curves). How can we make data “say” what we want it to say?
Evolution and its underlying genetic mechanisms of inheritance and variability are key to understanding both the unity and the diversity of life on Earth. How do both nature and nurture affect who I am?
Plan and conduct an investigation and analyze the data from the investigation. What materials are best for a new playground and why?

Notice the driving question points to possible project ideas, but probably isn’t the actual project “ask.” We find it useful to think of the driving question as the more general, conceptual and transferrable question and the project as an opportunity to explore a more particular scenario that makes the abstract driving question concrete and approachable.

For those with a UbD background, driving questions are very similar to essential questions12240049_1018645684833037_1361319865851040432_n and this first chapter from McTighe and Wiggins is a great extended read to get you thinking about these and other sorts of questions in your class.  In particular, their discussion of topical essential questions probably zeros in on the right level of specificity to ensure good alignment to power standards for your course while being general enough to ensure broad application. The chapter includes a number of additional examples you might find useful as well.

As long as we are dishing out terminology, many of our teachers find having students generate a “problem statement” as part of their entry into the project to be a useful move. Problem statements often take form of:

  • How do we as <role in the project>
  • Do <task the project lays out>
  • So that <desired effect for the task>

We are not going to spend time on project ideation and problem statements in this post. We point to the distinction here to show how different questions can carry different parts of the project-design burden.  The driving question anchors the key conceptual ideas and helps with tuning the core content in the power standards. Students craft problem statements to help define the work of the project for themselves.

Many teachers enjoy creating their driving questions, but it is also challenging.  Some questions you might use to guide your own driving question creation:

  • Is it provocative? Does it help stimulate thinking and questions and point to what makes content important?
  • Is it open-ended? Driving questions are best when informed people can disagree about the answer.
  • Does it require support and justification?  Insisting answers go beyond personal opinion necessitates deep content engagement and reinforces the value of having an informed perspective.
  • Does it go to the heart of a discipline or topic? Driving questions ought to require an understanding of key content knowledge and ought to reflect standards and disciplinary frameworks.
  • Does it connect to or help generalize real-dilemmas in the field? While the driving question is typically not the project, it ought to capture the big idea the project explores.
  • Will students find it interesting? Easier said than done, but merely rewriting power standards or curricular aims as questions rarely generates immediate student interest.

The more of the above a driving question addresses, the more likely it is to do the work you need it to do in the project. Crafting the perfect driving question is an ongoing process of iteration each year. If it seems daunting, take heart in the fact that your intentions for the driving question matter more than your precise wording. So long as you are clear about the key ideas for the project and approach that with an intention to excite student thinking and provoke inquiry, you can feel confident your driving question reaches a level of “good enough” even as you revise and refine.

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Powering Your PBL Course: Deeper Learning Skills

This blog post is part two of a series designed to support you as you plan for an upcoming school-year dedicated to deeper learning for your students via Project Based Learning.  Many thanks to Drew Schrader for collaboration on this series, which is cross-posted on his awesome blog Learning Habit. Thanks to Erica Snyder at Teaching Channel for all her help with these posts as well.  You can check out her work here.  You can find the other posts in the series here:

Powering Your PBL Course: Deeper Learning Skills

powering-your-pbl-course-deeper-learningAs a teacher and now as a coach, I have big dreams and hopes for students. I want them to be able to analyze challenging literature and determine important information from nonfiction, of course, but I also want them to be motivated, engaged, and equipped with the kinds of skills they need to be successful employees, friends and family members, and citizens. It’s why I love the Hewlett Foundation’s definition of deeper learning so much- because it encompasses core academic content, critical thinking and problem solving, but also collaboration, effective communication, self-directed learning, and academic mindsets.

However, it’s tricky to know what to do “next” as a teacher when you consider teaching and especially assessing skills like collaboration and self-directed learning.  That’s where the NTN Learning Outcome rubrics come in. The learning outcome rubrics encompass Knowledge and Thinking (which you delved into in Part 1 of this series), but also Written Communication, Oral Communication, Collaboration, and Agency. They were created in collaboration with groups like the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity, and represent research on the key skills needed to be successful in academics and beyond.

The rubrics are great. Here’s why:

  • They clarify what we mean by abstract terms like “Collaboration” and “Agency.” If you look at the title of each row, or dimension, of the rubric, you’ll see that each larger learning outcome is broken into sub-skills. For example, “Agency” includes things like “Us[ing] Effort and Practice to Grow” and “Seek[ing] Challenge.” The “Collaboration” rubric includes sub-skills like “Team and Leadership Roles.”

Subskills on Agency Rubric

  • They communicate a learning progression for each skill. According to Margaret Heritage, “A learning progression clearly articulates the trajectory along which students are expected to progress to improve in an area of learning and act as a touchstone for formative assessment” (2008). If you take a look at one bullet row, or indicator, you’ll see that as you go up a score level, the depth and level of student internalization of each skill increases.  For example, when a student is “Emerging” in the skill of “Actively Participat[ing]” he or she “Stays focused for part of the activity/discussion, team meeting, or independent time but often cannot resist distraction or does not notice when or why a loss of focus ,” whereas when they are Advanced, he or she, “Actively participates and takes initiative on the activity/discussion, team meeting, or independent time and has personal strategies for staying focused.”   

Agency Learning Progression

This clarification of sub-skills plus an articulation of learning progressions allows you, the teacher, to be strategic in your scaffolding and assessment.

And the rubrics also allow you to clearly articulate your priorities for the year.  Here’s a process you might follow to prioritize and plan in a way that allows you to teach and assess all aspects of deeper learning, in every class, for every student.

  1. Familiarize yourself with the rubrics.  Find the rubrics for your band of grade levels (e.g. the grade 10 rubric if you teach grade 9), then take a look! If you have district or other rubrics, you might look at those too. I like to read the title of each dimension (row), look across the top row at the score levels, read the “Proficient” column, and follow one bullet, or indicator, across score levels to see a typical learning progression.

How to Read

  1. Consider which outcomes and sub-skills are essential for success in your discipline.  For example, scientists need to be able to write using particular organizational patterns and need to know the conventions of science writing. So that might lead you to choose particular indicators on the Written Communication rubric to focus on.
  2. Consider your students. Think about where your current students started the year, and what you hoped for them in regard to deeper learning skills. Where might next year’s students start the year? What skills would you want them to have internalized by the end of the year? What you choose might really vary, depending on whether you have 11th graders who are used to collaborating or 9th graders who have some fear and anxiety around, say, writing or math.  In addition, keep in mind that if you’re looking at a Grade 10 rubric and you teach 9th graders, “Developing” might be a perfectly reasonable goal in a particular area. Note: If you’re an elementary teacher who teaches kindergarten or first grade, this might be especially challenging, given that you’re working with a 5th grade rubric.  You might consider a few things: which outcomes are still appropriate for my students, no matter the grade level? Is there a learning progression that might work if it was tweaked a little? For example, I’ve seen kinder and first grade teachers take a section of the Agency rubric and add “with teacher support.” So “Attempts to work through challenges but may easily give up” becomes “Attempts to work through challenges with teacher support.”
  3. Talk to your team! You might prioritize particular outcomes and subskills as a grade level or content area, or agree that certain teachers will focus on particular skills, leaving other skills to other teachers. For example, at one school in the Network, teachers carefully planned out which aspects of each rubric would be focused on at each grade level, so that students (and teachers) wouldn’t be overwhelmed.

Generally speaking, I’d recommend choosing 5-8 prioritized deeper learning skills or learning outcomes, in addition to thinking about where you hope students will end up by the end of the year. This kind of prioritization and planning will help make the teaching and learning of deeper learning skills approachable, manageable, and purposeful in your classroom- and will set you up to begin project planning.



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Powering Your PBL Course: Power Standards

This blog post is part one of a series designed to support you as you plan for an upcoming school-year dedicated to deeper learning for your students via Project Based Learning.  Many thanks to Drew Schrader for collaboration on this series, which is cross-posted on his awesome blog Learning Habit. Thanks to Erica Snyder at Teaching Channel for all her help with these posts as well.  You can check out her work here.  You can find the other posts in the series here:

Powering Your PBL Course: Power Standards

Seasoned teachers know, whether they say it out loud or not, that teaching any course requires making hard choices about what material is most worthy of time and attention.  Often this question of “depth vs coverage” comes up as a “known challenge of PBL,” but in fact it is keenly present for any teacher who spends even a moment concerned with what students are learning as opposed to simply what has been taught.

powering-your-pbl-course-power-standardsMaking the move to PBL does press this issue however. One of the the most regular comments we hear at new teacher PBL workshops is, “the content will stay the same, it is just the method of delivery that will change.” Often this comes near the end of the training, and as trainers we interpret it as a positive sign that teachers are seeing how taking on a project-based approach leaves room for, and in fact necessitates, that they make use of the best of their previous teaching and learning practices. This latter part is emphatically true. But I want to let you in on a dirty secret: the content changes too.

This is the best kind of dirty secret however, the kind that feels like you are cheating, getting away with something, though in truth it is something teachers should have had permission for all along. Much of our current educational practice is built on the mistaken assumption that our task is to eliminate ignorance, that students can learn everything of importance by the time they graduate compulsory schooling. 

The late educational thinker and gadfly Grant Wiggins noted:

Until we accept the sometimes tragic, sometimes comic, view that students, by definition, are ill-equipped at the end of their tutelage for all that their professions and intellectual lives will require, we will keep miseducating them. Curriculum design could then be finally liberated from the sham of the typical scope and sequence whereby it is assumed that a logical outline of all adult knowledge is translatable into complete lessons and where a fact or theory encountered once in 8th grade as a spoken truism is somehow to be recalled and intelligently used in the 11th.

If we embrace the insight above that coverage based on exposing students to an organized outline of adult understanding in a discipline does not magically deposit that knowledge into students brains for further use even a few years later, then we can take up the more useful task of intentionally prioritizing our learning goals. Identifying power standards is a well-established process for this prioritization.This is the first step towards crafting an impactful PBL curriculum.1526255_683079495056326_1227765004_n

In his book Focus, Michael Schmoker cites other education notables like Hattie, Marzano, and Ainsworth as promoting the idea of developing a manageable number of power standards as the key reference points for curriculum design. These power standards “must not be excessive; it should account for about half of what is contained in our standards documents.” The point Schmoker and others make is that embracing the need to prioritize critical material for your curriculum allows you to prevent Wiggins’ “shame of traditional scope and sequence” and instead develop a reasonable curriculum. If you are picking up the potentially excessive “name dropping,” it is intentional. Part of what we want to dispel is the myth that PBL causes this challenge around content coverage. In reality, most of the leading voices in curriculum and instruction design argue for the same thing, without any assumptions about methodology.

It is also worth remembering that curriculum standards, even those that have been “modernized” with an eye towards a more coherent core of content, are still written by subject area experts who, by virtue and vice of their expertise, are deeply fluent in the nuances of their content.  These nuances make standards marvelous references for close reading and reflection on the contours of disciplinary knowledge, and also inappropriate if taken together for the goals for a course.

So how do you do it?

Douglas Reeves recommends a 3-part test as you review your various sources including state and national standards, district and department curriculum maps, the NTN Outcome Rubrics, professional standards for your field, etc:

  1.  Endurance – will this standard or indicator provide students with knowledge and skills of value beyond a single test date?
  2. Leverage – will this provide knowledge and skills that will be of value in multiple disciplines?
  3. Readiness – will this provide students with essential knowledge and skills that are necessary for success in the next grade or the next level of instruction?

In addition to the above criteria, here are a few general tips for the creation of Power Standards:

  • Shoot for a manageable number (7-12) and assume these might form the basis for your driving questions and project topics. Elementary teachers will likely need to repeat this process multiple times for each of the core areas they are responsible for.
  • Feel free to write your own language for the power standards, considering them a synthesis of your sources.
  • Consider the test! While much of what we are discussing is invitation to think beyond “covering standards so kids can pass a low-level test” it would be foolish not to anchor your project-based curriculum in the types of standards and skills your state or national test prioritizes.
  • Work with colleagues. If you are fortunate enough to have an integrated course and a co-teacher, coming together around your power standards and looking for the best areas of overlap is a great place to begin your collaboration. If you are working with a full department or grade-level team, you might consider using a formal protocol to identify power standards as a group.
  • Swap notes – especially if you are new. As you start to put your notes together – perhaps in a handy template – look for opportunities to share your thinking with colleagues. New teachers in particular might benefit from comparing their set of prioritizations, and the rationale behind that, with more seasoned colleagues.
  • Assume in advance that you won’t have it perfect and that you don’t need to. Bringing this level of intentionality to your planning should allow you to move forward into your first year of PBL with confidence. Committing to revisiting this map throughout the year and refining each year as you go is the route to getting closer each year.


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Teaching Kids What They Don’t Know: Literacy Edition


It’s hard, when you’re a secondary teacher and you see that some of your students read at a 3rd, 4th, or 5th grade level. Having been there, I’ll say frankly that it can be downright scary, not knowing what to do or how you can help.  And, what we often hear, if we hear anything at all, is to simply reduce the reading levels of any text we assign the students. Taking a, well, blog page from my colleague Geoff Krall at Emergent Math, I’m going to argue that every teacher (ELA, core content, electives, technology, arts) can, and should, learn how to support readers themselves.  Even if you’re the math teacher or science teacher. In fact, you might be best positioned to help these students.

Here’s the problem: assigning students a lower level text masks the issue instead of addressing it.  It doesn’t teach students the skills they need to access more difficult texts. Of course, some schools pull kids out and teach them foundational skills in a remedial class.  This is a tempting solution, but it’s usually demotivating and hasn’t been shown to be particularly effective (see, for example, Ivey and Baker, 2004).  Another solution- put it on the ELA teacher.  Secondary ELA teachers are in the same position as everyone else, however- they have their own curriculum to teach and may not know how to support kids either.

Secondary students who read at a K-5th grade level may need help in a variety of areas, but many will need support in decoding words, or sounding them out, and fluency, or reading smoothly and at the right pace.  I’d like to discuss decoding and fluency briefly today because I think these are the areas where secondary teachers have the least knowledge and experience.  And, while they aren’t the only skills struggling readers need assistance with, I find they’re the areas where those readers are least likely to receive help.  This is where you, the teacher, come in.

First of all, how can you find out if your students do, in fact, struggle in these areas? Easy- arrange a situation where you have the students read aloud to you- a math problem, say, or the first paragraph of an entry document, maybe- and note if they struggle sounding out the words or they read in a jerky or disconnected way.

And then, you help.  You can do it, I promise. 🙂 In fact, as I alluded to above, there’s evidence that pull-out, intensive instruction focused on decoding isn’t very effective for older students, and that more purposeful decoding instruction integrated into the regular curriculum yields better results.  What might that look like?


  • Take a look at the vocabulary words for a project, unit, problem, or piece of text.  Look at them carefully- how do you say them? What are the syllables and how do you pronounce each one? Any patterns that might not be obvious to struggling readers? Example: linear equation: lin*e*ar  e*qua*tion. You might note that the “ar” is pronounced “urr”, “qua” is pronounced “qway” and that “tion” is pronounced “shun.”
  • Think about ways to support students in decoding those words.  You might have a word wall where you divide the words visually into syllables, help students divide words into syllables as they read selections aloud to you, or do small group vocabulary instruction where you also go over how to say the words.  You’re building their content knowledge and supporting students where they need the most help in a way that’s meaningful to students because it’s connected to your larger unit.


  • Take a look at what you’re having students read and note any sections with dense syntax or complicated ideas or a higher frequency of multisyllabic words.
  • Consider ways to support students with their fluency as they read those segments. Model reading aloud fluently yourself.  More importantly, have students read those sections multiple times, perhaps looking for different information each time. Reading something more than once silently or aloud has been shown to increase fluency and fluency and comprehension are linked (see, for example, Rasinski, 2004, or Seok and DaCosta, 2014).  Consider ways to integrate fluent reading into your projects, e.g. by using podcasts, plays, or other deliverables that will require students to read aloud fluently.

As you can see, these ideas don’t take much time.  And think of it this way- if students can’t decode or sound out words or read fluently, they’re going to really struggle with content, any content.  And lastly- if this kind of instruction is best integrated meaningfully into curriculum, someone has to do the integrating- you!

Posted in Decoding and Fluency

Math IS Literacy- Now What?

A while ago, I argued that it IS possible to address literacy in math classes while addressing math content, and that:

“whenever you’re engaging with students in meaningful work involving mathematical symbols and language- work that helps them understand concepts more deeply- you’re supporting students’ math literacy.”

(Original post available here or on the Literacy in Learning Exchange blog here.) I didn’t address what, specifically, you might do to help students develop math literacy.  I have some thoughts, but I’d also really like to hear from math facilitators on this topic- since literacy coaches really need to learn from math facilitators about their content area!

Define “reading” and “writing” broadly.  Math is a new language- and a new symbolic system as well.  Reading and writing in math includes shapes, diagrams, graphs, equations, lines, and a bazillion symbols that have different meanings outside of math.  Of course, mathematicians and math students also read words, e.g. in proofs, graphs, and word problems. Students need to learn to read and write in all these different ways in order to be successful in math, so “literacy in math” should include them all.

Get metacognitive and model. Here’s what I shared with a math facilitator on Twitter:

For example, as an English teacher, I often try to get students to be metacognitive about their own reading, first by modeling what I’m visualizing, inferring, reacting to, and thinking about as I actively read a text, and then by having students read actively as well.  Math facilitators can do the same thing, modeling what they notice and think about as they look at a graph, shape, diagram, equation, or word problem.  For example, Geoff Krall posted this graph, originally from TuvaLabs, as a great one to generate inquiry in students.

At some point in the inquiry process, you might model what you do as an expert “reader” of math.  What do you look for first in the graph? Next? After that? What do you think about as you look at the graph? What patterns or trends do you notice? You can also articulate your thinking as you create a model of a mathematical situation, like an equation, or as you write to articulate your thinking.  This involves going beyond simply sharing the steps you take to, say, create that equation, and requires you to delve into what you noticed, what you thought about, and why you did what you did.

Be precise about little things. In math, things like conjunctions and prepositions have specific meanings. So do symbols. And those meanings might change depending on the context. Students need to be “let in” on those little mathematical secrets- the meanings often aren’t transparent to students.  And, just like with any vocabulary word, students will need multiple repetitions where they’re required to think about and use those terms and symbols in meaningful ways in order to appropriate those precise definitions. For example, as I mentioned to in my first post, the equal sign can have different shades of meaning in different situations. As Siebert and Draper note in “Reconceptualizing Literacy and Instruction for Mathematics Classrooms,” the equal sign might signal “compute” to a student or it might signal “balance” or “equivalency.” (2012, Adolescent Literacy In the Disciplines).

I love what Lisa Velazquez tells her students about the importance of being precise:

With the advent of the Common Core and other revised state standards, you might also need to be careful about the definitions of terms, like fraction, ratio, and proportion, which may be  defined differently in the standards.

Have Students Write.  I know, I know, this is a tough sell when you feel like you have so much content to cover.  But writing can help students elaborate and articulate their thinking, and appears to be associated with improved performance later.  In “How Do Secondary Teachers Apprentice Students Into Mathematical Literacy,” Anne Marie Hillman notes that “mathematical literacy lends structure to children’s reasoning, particularly in the way students verify their solutions… Teachers can help students to construct mathematical understanding by requiring them to share their reasoning and verification processes orally or in writing.” She goes on to note that writing their verifications seems to improve students’ later problem solving more than simply articulating it orally, and that writing tends to be more precise (2014, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy).  Opportunities for students to write, whether it’s to verify an answer and share their reasoning, explain a concept, or reflect on their learning, is a great way to include literacy skills without losing the math content.  If it helps, note that the writing doesn’t have to be carefully graded or assessed by you in order to be purposeful and meaningful for students.

So there are my “literacy coach thoughts” on a few key ways to support students with the development of math literacy, but I’d love to hear from math facilitators. What do you do?  Comment, or tweet me (@HortonAlix), or tag with #mathisliteracy!

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Posted in Disciplinary Literacy, Writing