Tip of the Week
[Re-posted from "Simple Science Strategies," April 3, 2013]
Struggling to find time to teach science in a day full of math and language arts?
Trying to move beyond fun activities to authentic learning tasks that lead to big scientific thinking?
Wondering how to take your students beyond the superficial to the higher order thinking of a real scientist?
Get a copy of The Essentials of Science and Literacy.
Who Would Enjoy The Essentials of Science and Literacy ?
- Literacy support teachers who are in classrooms during science instruction;
- Teachers in priority districts, where the traditional focus has been on increasing literacy scores;
- Teachers who like to use an integrated approach to instruction;
- Instructional coaches who are charged with helping teachers improve their practice;
- Any teacher who wants to raise the level of rigor and engagement in their literacy and science work.
Read a review of The Essentials of Science and Literacy
For ordering information:
Click on the image, above, for information on ordering this text from Barnes & Noble.
, lesson plans
, classroom environment
, Simple Science Strategies
, integrated curriculum
Most of the time I am asked to help in a school, my role is about how to support teachers, who are supporting students with learning obstacles. I have been working with many teachers this winter, discussing ways to
Here are some of the students I'm talking about:
- Very young students who have not yet mastered reading
- Elementary students whose limited vocabulary interferes with understanding
- Learners of all ages whose reading or language difficulties make learning a challenge
- Students with disabilities or differing learning preferences who need more visual or concrete scaffolding than typically provided
- English Language Learners who are trying to navigate both the language demands and content demands of their classwork
- "New Arrivals" who are only just beginning to learn English as a second language
- Adult learners who have had many years of learning struggles
In the video, below, Matthew Peterson from the MIND Research Institute
shares how the Institute's new ST Math Software helps students develop high-level mathematical thinking without using words, at all.
Homogeneous groups are a type of instructional group where learners are placed with other students who are alike in some way. Literacy instruction in most public school settings includes
time in homogeneous groups, usually based on overall reading level, using
instructional level texts as the primary reading material. This structure is
based on the work of Marie Clay, and others, who advocate that students should
be working on their instructional level,
with texts that are just a little higher than what they can read and comprehend
independently. Identifying a student’s independent, instructional and
frustration levels in reading has made reading instruction much more enjoyable
for students, and has led to better targeting of specific foci for instruction,
for groups of students.
While homogeneous groups have their place in instruction,
only using homogeneous, leveled groups can lead to some unintended problems in instruction:
- While they may progress within their instructional level groups, students in the lower groups often do not “accelerate” – that is, the lowest
performing students do not make up a year and a half’s growth over the course
of the school year, and end the year as behind as when they started the year;
- Learners work with their instructional level
texts, but students do not apply learned strategies to more challenging texts, nor learn
additional strategies for navigating appropriately complex texts (e.g., grade-level,
or above) – and these might not even be the same strategies;
- Although generally supported as a strategy for increasing performance of gifted and
talented students, scientific literature does not necessarily support homogeneous ability grouping for other groups;
- Grouping of students based on literacy level
creates de facto tracking, as other content areas may now be “leveled” because
of scheduling reading instruction;
- Students in the highest groups often do not receive an
equitable level of instruction, as they generally are more independent in
academic tasks, and can complete grade-level assignments without adult
assistance – consequently, while they start out and end the year ahead of their
classmates, they do not make a year’s growth, as they often receive less actual
direct instruction with appropriately challenging material;
- Homogeneous grouping may undermine the use of
collaborative groups and student discourse, as the lowest readers might lack
sufficient oral language skills or background knowledge to have extended discourse
and the highest students may be accustomed to working in isolation, rather than
Reading Level, vs. Literacy Level
Using the overall reading level of a student (such as her
DRA level), rather than a specific skill area, can also make instruction challenging
in homogeneous groups:
- Because reading is a complex task, reading
level, alone, is not specific enough to help the teacher select an appropriate
instructional focus for a student;
- Students in a “group” may be at the same DRA
level for many different reasons, and need different strategies from one
- The students in the lowest performing groups may
need many different skills, that planning appropriate, targeted instruction
for their groups becomes challenging;
- Reading level only measures some components of
comprehensive literacy: speaking and listening, word work, writing and other
areas are not adequately measured by the DRA or other similar assessments;
- Student groups may become static, as reading level changes more slowly than specific skill proficiency.
Why Focus on Discourse?
Forming mixed instructional groups to foster
student-to-student discourse is based on several principles:
- The best peer to model a particular skill or
strategy is one who most recently mastered it;
- Listening and speaking come before reading and
- Comprehension of a topic or concept exists
separately from being able to decode a text about it;
- Comprehension can be measured by how well a
student discusses a topic or concept;
- Talking about a topic or concept is a rehearsal
for writing about it;
- Discussion has to be explicitly taught, just
like other literacy skills.
Forming Discussion Groups
Here is one way to form groups that foster
- Rank the students in your class from 1-5 on
their English Oral Language, with 1 being a beginner, and 5 being the highest
with regard to their oral language skills (ability to converse, vocabulary use,
ability to listen to other speakers, ability to work around sticky points when
working with a group, etc.).
- Form groups of students with mixed rankings,
with a range of similar (but not the same) abilities (see the graphic for an
example), such as 1-2-3 together, 2-3-4 together, and 3-4-5 together.
- To distribute the groups among several
classrooms, you can now have a low, medium and high group, but the groups will
be heterogeneous. And, because you are grouping on a specific skill, you won’t
have “predictable” groups: e.g., you might have a student ranked as a 4 or 5,
based on oral language and group leadership, who is a struggling decoder,
Provide literacy tasks at a lower reading level
than instructional, because your focus will be on discussion strategies to
prepare a group oral response to questions. (Literature Circles work well for
To Form Groups across Classrooms
Rank the students for the whole grade level.
[NOTE: This example assumes the following distribution of
students, when ranked by oral language proficiency, just as an example. Use
your own numbers here.]
- Rank 1 – 8 students (new arrivals, with limited
English oral language proficiency)
- Rank 2 – 12 students
- Rank 3 – 20 students
- Rank 4 – 16 students
- Rank 5 – 4 students
You will want groups of 5 students for discourse. In this
example, there are 20 students per classroom, or 4 groups per classroom.
To form “leveled” classrooms (to prioritize
assignment of adult supports, for example), concentrate the 1’s in one
classroom, and the 5’s in another (you may have to adjust this, depending on
your specific numbers).
Distribute students of a given rank across a
number of groups, paying attention to dynamics among particular students
(remember, you want conversation, so you want to create groups of students who
will be supportive of one another.
Refer to the diagram, below, for one way to form mixed instructional groups, based on a oral language proficiency, across multiple classrooms. (NOTE: This same technique could be used to form mixed groups for any other skill, as well).
Regardless of the content area (math, science,
reading, writing), provide learning tasks that focus on discussion.
- For reading, instead of guided reading groups, create literature circles, and
provide discussion prompts.
- For math, provide complex problems with multiple possible solutions, and have groups collaborate to solve the problems.
science, provide a scientific claim that students must find evidence to both
support AND refute, before they select their stance on the issue.
- For social studies, create a gallery walk of artifacts for students to discuss and respond to.
- For writing, create peer editing/revising groups for process writing assignments.
Grade Level: Upper elementary
, reluctant readers
, classroom environment
, cooperative learning
, second language support
, grouping strategies
Video Clip of the Week:
For a video on improving student engagement in the middle grades, see the video clip from The Teaching Channel
, showing grade eight students in language arts class. Also, see learning stations in action in a high school English literature class, see the video, below.
For more information on how to design effective small-group instruction, please see our New Teachers' Series
, and contact us for more information.
Have a terrific week!
I have been on a mission to find videos that show some different ways to structure high school classes to better foster student-to-student discourse, especially in math classes.
Here is a sampling -- more to follow!
This video clip shows a high school algebra class arranged in a conference style, with students working in a workshop model to solve math problems, using the white board.
This full-length video shows a grade 6 math class on substitution, using a workshop model. The teacher narrates and provides background planning information.
Photo montage of the use of visuals, interactive wall space and purposeful seating arrangement to scaffold learning and foster student collaboration
Discovery learning model - a chemistry class, but applicable to math instruction, as well
Making math relevant to 21st century students, with excellent connections to technical programs