The Feng Shui of Reading

After an assistant principal observed one of my first social studies classes, he commented that the bare walls were not very stimulating and maybe I could brighten up the place. At first I didn’t really understand but after decorating with student work and posters of the cultures we were studying, the students were more engaged and the room was energized.

Feng Shui
The idea that environment influences mood and learning is hardly a new one.  Feng Shui, the popular approach to arranging physical space in harmony with the five elements of ancient Chinese physics—Metal, Water, Wood, Fire, Earth—to influence mood and energy dates back thousands of years. More recently, studies have shown that improving the classroom environment definitely improves learning outcomes.

Similarly, research shows that readers have strong preferences for how words, space, and pictures are arranged on a page and meeting those preferences improves mood and enhances performance.

LessonWriter lessons balance the three elements of modern page layout—Typography, Images, and Layout—to improve students’ experience and understanding.

Our Feng Shui of Reading uses more white space, clearer delineations between tasks, and hundreds of new thematic images to brighten your pages. Click here to to try now.

All of LessonWriter’s design features are simple, fast, and free.

Check these resources for more information on how mood influences learning and how page design affects mood.

  1. The Aesthetics of Reading , Kevin Larson (Microsoft) & Rosalind Picard (MIT)
  2. Depending on My Mood: Mood-Driven Influences on Text Comprehension, Catherine M. Bohn-Gettler and David N. Rapp
  3. Better Mood and Better Performance:Learning Rule-Described Categories Is Enhanced by Positive Mood, e Ruby T. Nadler, Rahel R. Rabi, and John Paul Minda The University of Western Ontario

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One Piece at a Time: Roots, Stems and Literacy

ImageIn my second year of teaching, my school implemented a much-needed school wide literacy plan. Over 2/3 of our students were significantly behind in reading and part of the school’s core mission was to advance students dramatically enough to allow them to take courses at a local college in their junior and senior year of high school.  Clearly 6th graders who were reading on a 2nd or 3rd grade level had a long way to go.  Like many literacy plans, the intent was admirable but the execution was, well, less than effective.

A core part of the plan was for all teachers- even math and science teachers like me- to include the “word of the day” in our instruction.  The teachers leading the program were very dedicated humanities teachers, and I wish I could say I resisted the urge to be snarky when the first week’s list consisted of the following words:  polyglot, propaganda, symbolism, insurrection, and doctrine. I couldn’t, though: I replied with a note asking them to include the formula for photosynthesis in their lessons.

Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and we revisited the intention behind the plan and decided it made a lot more sense to support school-wide  instruction of a new common prefix, suffix or Greek  or Latin root word each week.  In addition to preventing weekly turf wars over the word list, teaching prefixes and suffixes led to much better results for students.

This makes a lot of sense because learning a relatively few number of prefixes, suffixes, and roots words gives students an advantage when trying to decipher a vast amount of words.  In her book Phonics They Use: Words for Reading and Writing, Patricia Cunningham explains that,

“Four prefixes— un, re, in (and its variants im, ir, and il, all meaning “not”), and dis— account for 58 percent of all prefixed words. Add sixteen more prefixes— en/em, non, in/im (meaning “in”), over, mis, sub, pre, inter, fore, de, trans, super, semi, anti, mid, and under —to account for 97 percent of all prefixed words. Students who know how to read, spell, and attach meaning to these 20 prefixes can apply that knowledge to decode, spell, and understand the meanings of many multi-­syllabic words.”

Every lesson made with automatically includes the option to focus on one of the affixes found in the reading, so it is an easy way for teachers to support morphology instruction while still focusing on text related to specific content (Click here to give it a try!)

For More Great Resources on Word Roots, check out:

The Supplement to Massachusetts’ English Language Arts Framework
Scholastic Worksheet on Common Prefixes and Suffixes
Wikipedia’s List of Greek and Latin Roots
Anne Murphy Paul ‘s “Why Kids Should Learn Cursive (and Math Facts and Word Roots)

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Repetition is Key! Working Towards Multiple Exposures of New Vocabulary

Anyone over 25 can surely remember making vocabulary flash cards, writing words over and over to learn the spelling, and generating example sentences to try and cement the meaning of new words. Today’s students have an endless supply of mobile vocabulary flash card apps to choose from, so they don’t have to carry around a lame pile of colored index cards. Regardless of the medium the method of repetition to learn new words is not likely to fade anytime soon, nor should it according to mounds of research

In a recent article in Education Leadership, Lawrence at al. explained that, “Probably the most consistent finding related to good vocabulary instruction is that students need multiple exposures to a word to learn it well.” The National Institute for Literacy has also highlighted the importance, noting that, “Once vocabulary words have been selected, teachers should consider how to make repeated exposures to the word or concept productive and enjoyable.” Ensuring that the multiple exposures are significant and engaging is an important priority for teachers, and fortunately there is a plethora of interesting and exciting ways to reinforce new words.

Here are some ways to support multiple exposures of new vocabulary:

  • Make a lesson on and get a lesson with up to seven different exposures to new vocabulary. The pre-teach vocabulary section gives instructors an opportunity to introduce new vocabulary via whole class or small group instruction. Then students encounter the vocabulary in the context of the passage and in three separate reinforcement exercises (fill-in-the-blank, matching, and write your own sentences). Teachers can also easily create flash cards and word searches from these vocabulary words.
  • Try bringing flash cards to the next level. Have students go beyond the word and definition to also include lists of examples and non-examples. Ask them to draw a simple picture that reminds them of the new word or connect the word to a physical action.
  • Use concept maps to help students activate schema and build connections to new words.
  • Have students create word sorts. Differentiate the activity by letting advanced groups determine the categories.


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What Level is the Right Level? Finding the Instructional Sweet Spot

The right level text can be the difference between engaged students increasing their skills and comprehension, and alienated students unable to make meaning or progress. This is why skilled teachers are careful to choose texts that Image are the appropriate level for their students,; but finding the instructional sweet spot is by no means an easy task.

Lev Vygotsky coined the term Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)  to describe “the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers.”

ZPD has often been an elusive pedagogical ideal, but the push from the Common Core to include texts with a greater degree of complexity at earlier grade levels has exacerbated the need to find the right fit.  Fortunately, there are some great tools that not only help educators identify texts of appropriate levels, but also provide instructional strategies to make difficult texts more accessible to students:

  • Google has an Advanced Search Filter by Grade Level.  The filter breaks up search results into basic, intermediate and advanced, and the best thing is that categorizations are not simply the result of automated grade level analysis, but have been vetted by actual educators. Click here to read more.
  • just added a new premium feature that allows users to get  an estimated grade-level based on the Flesch Kinkaid Grade Level Formula  If you are not already a LessonWriter user click here to register now for free.
  • Also, offers several grade-level estimation calculators.

These are terrific resource for learning more about instructional techniques related to accessible texts:

How do you select text of the appropriate level for your students? We’d love to hear your suggestions.

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Ask Better Questions with Prompts Inspired by the Hess Matrix

The British philosopher Francis Bacon famously said, “Who questions much, shall learn much, and retain much.”

As teachers we’re in the business of crafting effective questions. The penalty for failure is often the vast silence of a room full of disengaged students.  But coming up with the right mix of questions and tasks is a challenge that can stump even the most expert of teachers.  It’s important to first ask questions that reinforce knowledge and understanding,  and then progress to those that promote higher order thinking.

Dr. Karin Hess of the National Center for Assessment has written extensively about exploring the level of cognitive demand in instruction and assessment.  The Hess Matrix aligns the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy  with Webb’s Depth of Knowledge in order to shed light on the intersection between the type of thinking required and the depth of understanding needed to complete a task.

Last year, at the request of school in the Bronx, LessonWriter created specialized question prompts matched to each part of the Hess Matrix and added them to Bloom’s prompts, writing prompts, and NJ HSPA prompts.  All of these provide a valuable aid for crafting questions and tasks.  For example, consider the differences between the following questions:

  • In Shakespeare’s Hamlet what becomes of Ophelia?
  • What are the similarities and differences between Juliet’s suicide in Romeo and Juliet and Ophelia’s suicide in Hamlet?
  • In Shakespeare’s Hamlet what events impact Ophelia’s actions? Identify at least two examples of how other characters’ behavior negatively affected Ophelia. Suggest specific positive alternatives to these characters’ actions and predict how Ophelia might have responded.

LessonWriter prompts make it easier to compose the right questions in the right sequence.

We hope you’ll check out LessonWriter’s question prompts based on The Hess Matrix. Not only will your questions lead to better instruction and assessment, but you’ll be modeling  better questions for your students.

Ultimately, students generating better questions themselves leads to the most enduring learning outcomes.

And check out these great Karin Hess Resources:

Video Introduction to Cognitive Rigor Matrix
Hess Matrix for ELA
Hess Matrix for Math

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Close Reading with LessonWriter

Close reading is not a new concept; engaged readers have always practiced close reading.  However, the Common Core State Standards, which challenge students to dissect and evaluate texts with high degrees of complexity, have ushered in a frenzy of discussion about how best to teach close reading.

LessonWriter provides several tools to make it easier to structure lessons that support close reading:

  • The textual analysis that the system performs extracts core components of literacy instruction and increases the accessibility of the text.
  • Differentiation groups help teachers target the right amount of support to each student.
  • Graphic organizers support important comprehension strategies like self-monitoring, questioning, predicting and summarizing.
  • Our question prompts help teachers structure questions to encourage student to re-read the text and extract, evaluate and explore the meaning behind the words.

In the Sourcebook on Rhetoric, James Jasinski explains: “The principal object of close reading is to unpack the text. Close readers linger over words, verbal images, elements of style, sentences, argument patterns, and entire paragraphs and larger discursive units within the text to explore their significance on multiple levels.”

We hope you’ll use LessonWriter to help students “unpack the texts” in your classes!

Here are some other great resources on Close Reading:

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Differentiated Instruction Made EASY!

As a middle school teacher I often faced classrooms of thirty plus students with ability levels that spanned four to five different grades levels. There was so much variance in ability, skills and academic preparedness that I might as well have been teaching in an old-fashioned schoolhouse with a row for each grade level.  I was always told that the answer was differentiated instruction.

The problem was most of my administrators had little advice on how to do this.  One year, my principal promised to present the staff with a well-differentiated model lesson, and instead he delivered an incredibly-challenging single-level, single-strategy lesson and asked the staff to journal about how infuriating an experience it was to sit through a lesson that didn’t meet our needs.  He said the point was to promote greater empathy for our students and motivation to work harder at differentiating- still he offered no answer on what this looked like or how to accomplish it.

After lots of independent research, I started to develop my own classroom practice around differentiation.  I implemented weekly learning stations to embrace a variety of learning modalities, used student activity menus to encourage agency, structured ability-level pairings for leveled work, and high-low groupings for interest-based activities, and often used four different versions of a passage to ensure that all my students had accessible texts.  The only problem:  I RARELY GOT MORE THAN 3 HOURS OF SLEEP! 

While developing LessonWriter, we wanted to produce a system that addressed the insanity.  Today, any teacher can create as many differentiation groups as she needs and use the pre-set literacy support options and accommodation settings to automate the production of different versions of a lesson.  Also, once you have your differentiation groups in place you can assign different types of comprehension tasks to different student groups.  Finally, you can easily control how much of the lesson stays common to the whole class and how different you make each version. The best part: Differentiation Groups are a FREE feature!

To see how easy LessonWriter makes differentiation, check out this quick video.

For more advice on setting up classes and differentiation groups on LessonWriter, take a peak at our QuickStart.

Finally here are some resources that I found helpful:
Dr. Carol Tomlinson’s Books and Articles on Differentiation
Great Resources from ASCD on differentiated instruction
Six Strategies for Differentiated Instruction in PBL
Kathie Nunley’s Layered Curriculum
Live Binder’s Vast Collection of Links of Differentiated Instruction
Teach’s A Quick Guide to Differentiation


Filed under Differentiated Instruction