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Feeling Confused?

confused monkey
At a seminar I attended recently, the presenter asked for an audience member to look up the word “leverage” to clarify a point. A helpful gentleman volunteered and read through four distinct definitions of “leverage” before finally reaching the one that accurately matched the presenter’s meaning.

When confronted with a word that has multiple uses, “looking it up” can add to the confusion.

In addition to multiple definitions for everyday vocabulary, there are subject-specific definitions which are especially challenging for ELLs in content-area classes, like most science and social studies classes.

In the article “Academic Language and ELLs: What Teachers Need to Know” Lydia Breiseth offers these examples of words whose meanings change by subject:

Word Meaning/Use
  1. Lunch table (Social language)
  2. Periodic Table of Elements (Science)
  3. Table of Contents (ELA)
  4. Multiplication tables (Math)
  5. To table (delay) the discussion (Social Studies)
  1. Plot of a story (ELA)
  2. Plot of land (Geography)
  3. Plot ordered pairs on a graph (Math)
  4. To plot a government coup (History)
  1. Branch of government (Social Studies)
  2. Branch of a river (Geography)
  3. To branch out (Idiom)
  1. Your foot (Health)
  2. One foot in length (Math)
  3. Foot in your mouth (Idiom)
  4. Foot of the mountain (Geography)
  5. To foot the bill (Idiom)

For students already struggling with literacy and content-area knowledge, having to read through multiple definitions to select the right one is painful and distracts from the meaning of the text. Far more helpful is providing the precise definition for a specific context.

And it’s not just words!

Later in the same article, Breiseth brings up Debbie Zacarian and Judie Haynes, who coined the term TWIPs (Terms, Words, Idioms, and Phrases) in their book Teaching English Language Learners Across the Content Areas, for important language structures. The article provides these examples that further illustrate how important content specific definitions are:

Terms The boiling point of water is 212° F.
Words The Declaration is now on display in Washington, DC.
Idioms She came to town once in a blue moon.
Phrases Based on the data, we agree with the scientists’ conclusion.

Analyzing texts, identifying vocabulary pitfalls, and developing instructional materials to address those challenges are the time consuming tasks that discourage you from using fresh, authentic materials in their classes.

LessonWriter automatically performs all those tasks on any reading material, so you can teach what suits your students best and still deliver high quality literacy support.

And with LessonWriter’s Differentiated Instruction options, definitions, jargon and slang can be taught as needed to some students and not to others where they may be inappropriate or distracting. Explicit instruction in slang, for example, is often helpful to second language learners but not to native speakers.

Join now to get started customizing language learning support for your students today.

3Haynes, J. & Zacarian, D. (2010). Teaching English Language Learners Across the Content Areas. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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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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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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