Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Nonlinguistic Representations

While graphic organizers (and other forms of nonlinguistic representations) have been part of many teachers' "bag of tricks" for decades, recent brain-based research highlights the necessity for teachers to consistently and pervasively incorporate nonlinguistic modes of learning into the daily meaning-making work that students do.

Bob Marzano, Debra Pickering, and Jane Pollock (Classroom Instruction that Works, ASCD 2001) note that "the more we use both systems of representation--linguistic and nonlinguistic--the better we are able to think about and recall knowledge" (p. 73). In the typical classroom setting, however, students primarily read and listen to gain knowledge, thus using only one system--linguistic or verbal--to learn. The more we as teachers as construct instructional opportunities that require students to visualize, draw, improvise, move, use manipulatives, and do other non-verbal manipulations of concepts, the more their brains are actively making meaning.

Nonlinguistic representations should add to, elaborate, or deepen a student's knowledge (Marzano, p. 74). As the student has to "transfer" facts, concepts, and knowledge to a "different" form (representation), his level of understanding increases. A novice user of nonlinguistic representations will find a plethora of online graphic organizers from which to choose (just google graphic organizer), but the real learning happens as students become adept at creating their own organizers to help them make meaning.

The organizer can't be the end itself--it is only the vehicle or tool to get at meaning. Using some sort of nonlinguistic representation because "it's required in my lesson planning" can result in busywork for both student and teacher, rather than a tool to get at deeper understanding. When planning a lesson, think about some of these questions:
  • How can I help students organize this information more efficiently?
  • What's another way to "see" this information?
  • How is this new information like something else my students might already know?
  • What background information do they need to understand this?
  • What is really important or key to understanding and what is "extra"?
  • How might I scaffold this information for my nonlinguistic learners?
  • How am I asking my students to think?
  • How is the information they need to know organized?
Answers to these questions can guide you to effectively using nonlinguistic representations to increase your students' understanding.

Friday, January 29, 2010


The adoption of Learning Focused Solutions by many districts has put summarizing on everyone's radar. According to the research by Bob Marzano, Debra Pickering, and Jane Pollock (Classroom Instruction that Works, 2001), students who have been given instruction in summarizing and note taking and who use those skills on a regular basis show a percentile gain of 34 points and an average effect size of 1.0. That's significant!
Summarizing has such a great benefit because in order to summarize effectively a student must be able to make a myriad of inferences about the text, to analyze the information being summarized, to distinguish between what's important and what's support, to make decisions about the content, the author's purpose and intent--all upper-level, interpreting and extending meaning thinking skills.

How can we encourage and facilitate our struggling students to do more and more effective summarizing? The first and probably most essential steps are to scaffold and model the thinking.

Scaffolding might be done in the form of giving students graphic organizers to structure their thinking. Rick Wormeli, in his book Summarization in Any Subject (2005), uses an "Analysis Matrix" and adapts it to a variety of texts and purposes. For both literary and informational texts, he lists some main themes or concepts/ideas from the reading listed in the left column in rows. Then three columns to the right are titled "my opinion," "my group's opinion," and "the author's opinion." Thus, students are given the main topics (the scaffolding) but then must decide, based on their own reading and group discussion, what they and others conclude. A variation on this is an maxtrix used in a science class: on the left side of the matrix the individual rows might be "Questions to Ask:" Purpose, Amount, Size and Shape, Nucleus, Where Formed. Then the columns to the right would be Red Cells, White Cells, Plasma, Platelets. From their reading and research, the students would fill in each part of the matrix.
Other graphic organizers like 2-column notes, cluster graphics, cause-effect organizers, etc. can give students assistance in "seeing" what to look for and how to find important information in their content texts. Students who need more support would have more information already included on the graphic organizer.
Scaffolding thinking for kinesthetic learners could take the form of "acting out," "body sculpting" or creating "freeze-frames" of important concepts or ideas. Here the students would have to "portray physically" or act out the main ideas. This task calls for collaboration, discussion and compromise, and explanation.

Modeling on the part of the teacher is also a critical step for struggling learners. Many of them don't know what it looks like (or feels like) to do summarizing. Even with more mature students, using think alouds--where the teacher goes through the steps but also makes apparent his/her thinking and problem-solving by talking out loud while doing the steps--can make "aha" moments more frequent.
In Classroom Instruction that Works, Marzano et al. describe at least six different models that can be used to teach students how to effectively summarize information. They describe a "rule-based" strategy that takes students through several steps to produce a summary (1)delete trivial material, 2) delete redundant material, 3) substitutede superordinate terms for lists, 4) select or invent a topic sentence). It's obvious that a teacher would have to do extensive modeling for some students to be able to do this on their own.
Marzano et al. also stress the importance that structure of a text has on the ability to successfully summarize. Understanding how a text is organized or structured is a key step for a reader to be able to analyze the information in the text. The authors give six different frames for teachers to use with their students, based on six different structures of text organization. Again, modeling for students how to think about and use these frames to summarize text is critical.

As teachers we know how important it is to be able to summarize information effectively and efficiently--we do it all the time in our professional and personal lives. It's up to us to give our students opportunities to learn how to do this critical skill as well, and scaffolding these opportunities and modeling exactly what we do in order to summarize are necessary parts of our jobs.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Homework and Practice

From Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock (Classsroom Instruction that Works)
The chapter in Classroom Instruction that Works (ASCD 2001) was one that gave me many opportunities for self-reflection and evaluation of my own practices. Using convincing research, Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock review what best practices say should be the purpose of homework and offer very practical, common-sense advice for teachers to make the most of their homework assignments.
A most compelling fact is the research on the benefits of appropriate homework: the authors use research from Harris Cooper that shows that at the high school level, homework produces “a gain of about 24 percentile points” (61).
They state two common purposes of homework. The first is practice, but when assigning homework for this purpose, the teacher must insure that the work be “structured around content with which the students have a high degree of familiarity” (63). Practicing a skill with which the students are not familiar can create misconceptions, reinforce errors, and frustrate students. The second common purpose is to prepare students for new content or have them elaborate on material that has been introduced.
If homework is assigned, it should be commented on, say Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock. One study they used reported that the effects of homework vary greatly, depending on the feedback that the teacher provides (64).
Finally, the authors give several tips to guide teachers in their homework planning:
1) Establish and communicate a homework policy to both students and parents. The authors give suggestions for parents to make homework more productive.
2) Design homework assignments that clearly articulate the purpose and the outcome of the work. It’s important for students to know the point of the assignment: Are they supposed to practice what they’ve learned in class or prepare for new information that’s been introduced?
3) Vary the approaches to providing feedback. This doesn’t mean that the teacher needs to grade every piece of homework students do, but some sort of feedback helps reinforce the value of the work. In fact, when the purpose of an assignment is to do help students practice a skill, students can often provide their own feedback of the progress by tracking and monitoring their success.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Reinforcing Effort and Providing Recognition

From Classroom Instruction that Works

As part of a weekly installment highlighting the 9 instructional strategies that increase student learning and achievement from Robert Marzano, Debra Pickering, and Jane Pollock’s book Classroom instruction that Works (ASCD: 2001), this blog focuses on the chapter on reinforcement and recognition. In this chapter, the authors offer a refresher course on the power and importance of effort and how we as educators can influence our students simply by how we respond to their work.

The first striking point they make is that we as classroom teachers can explicitly teach students about effort and the connection between effort and achievement. One way to do this is to talk about effort and its rewards, to give students concrete examples and encourage their own observations and connections. A second thing we can do is to ask students to periodically keep track of their own effort and its relationship to achievement or success. On pages 52-53 of Classroom Instruction that Works, the authors include a rubrics and tracking charts that might be tools to assist students in their self-reflections of their efforts.

The second important part of this chapter is a discussion of the research and theory behind providing recognition of student progress. Marzano et al. say they prefer the word “recognition” over “reward” or “praise,” as they feel “recognition” more appropriately identifies the purpose and intent of teacher comments about student effort and work. The research these authors quote is compelling. For instance, using Cameron and Pierce, they quote: “Rewards can have a negative impact on intrinsic motivation they are offered to people for engaging in a task without considering any standard of performance” (Marzano, p. 56). Thus, if teachers reward students for just “doing” the work, student performance is not improved. Instead, they suggest that recognition makes the most difference when it is personal and specific. The authors include a very informative chart called “Guidelines for Effective Praise” (p. 56). This chart makes a great self-reflection tool for educators to evaluate their own responses to their students.
A few other tidbits from this chapter:
*Abstract symbolic recognition is more effective than tangible rewards (p. 57).
*Rewards are more effective when they are linked to specific standards of performance. (p. 56)
*Verbal praise is a powerful motivator that positively alters student attitude and behavior (p. 57)

If you'd like to check out the other blogs using information from Classroom Instruction that Works, here are the blog entry dates:
Jan 8: Similarities and Differences
March 10: Summarizing and Note-taking

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Similarities and Differences

From Classroom Instruction that Works

In the blog entry for January 8, I wrote about instruction that asks kids to look at “similarities and differences,” based on the research of Robert Marzano, Debra Pickering, and Jane Pollock, in their book Classroom Instruction that Works (ASCD: 2001). This great resource gives strong evidence for the effect that the individual classroom teacher has on student achievement. In this researched-based book, the authors describe 9 instructional strategies that affect student achievement. Following is a brief overview of those 9 essential strategies:
1) Identifying similarities and differences (see Jan. 8 blog)
2) Summarizing and note taking
3) Reinforcing effort and providing recognition
4) Homework and practice
5) Nonlinguistic representation
6) Cooperative learning
7) Setting objectives and providing feedback
8) Generating and testing hypotheses
9) Cues, questions, and advance organizers
For the next few weeks, I’ll discuss a different strategy per blog entry.

The second strategy Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock discuss is summarizing and note taking. Being able to summarize is critical to academic success, and most students need help sorting out the important information from the minor details. Helping kids locate important information and then restate it briefly and concisely improves their comprehension.
How can we help our students understand that summarizing is not just rewording a text or information, but synthesizing and “translating” it into a form they understand? According to the authors of Classroom Instruction that Works, “both [note taking and summarizing] require students to distill information into a parsimonious, synthesized form” (30).
Good summarizing requires a reader to delete some material, substitute some words or phrases for others, and keep some things. Marzano et al. use Brown, Campione, and Day’s “rules” for summarizing (32):
1. Delete trivial material that is unnecessary and material that is redundant
2. Substitute superordinate terms for lists (e.g., “pets” for “dogs, cats, birds, guinea pigs”)
3. Select a topic sentence or invent one if a topic sentence is missing
Modeling and having students work in pairs to practice these three rules with specific passages is an effective way for students to begin to learn how to summarize. It is also important for students to practice summarizing with a variety of differently structured texts. Is the passage structured by cause/effect, problem/solution, narrative, argumentation, definition, etc.? Knowing the organizational pattern of a passage can make summarizing much more efficient.
Marzano et al. suggest that teachers use “summary frames” to help students understand the structure of texts. Their text includes models of 6 different summary frames, series of questions that are designed to highlight critical elements in different types of text.

Note taking is related to summarizing, as in order to take effective notes a reader needs to determine what information is the most important and state it in a brief form. An effective teacher can make the difference in his/her students’ note-taking abilities by providing scaffolding of some sort: outlines of reading to guide note taking, graphic organizers appropriate to the text or lecture, modeling of note-taking techniques, etc. Marzano and colleagues conclude their chapter on summarizing and note taking with this statement: “Although we sometimes refer to summarizing and note taking as mere ‘study skills,’ they are two of the most powerful skills students can cultivate. They provide students with tools for identifying and understanding the most important aspects of what they are learning” (48).

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Test-taking Strategies

Here are a few quick test-taking strategies for kids to keep in mind as they prepare for the spring’s high-stakes tests:

1) Don't waste time or space on a fancy introductory sentence if the answer space is just a few lines. Spend all your effort and time on the support or details that prove you know the answer. Cut to the chase--make your first sentence very clear and direct and to the point.

2) Write neatly enough that someone other than you can read the answer.

3) Even if you aren't sure of the correct answer, don't leave the answer space blank. In math, explain what you did to try to figure it out-- your explanation of what you did to figure out the answer is part of what you get credit for. In reading, try to figure out what the question asks and write something down, even if you aren’t sure if your answer is right. For either test, partial credit is better than no credit!

4) If you are going to have to answer questions about a passage that you will read, glance over the questions really briefly before you read the passage. Then highlight, take notes, or underline things in the passage that may help you answer the question.

5) The space you are given to answer the question is a dead giveaway of how important (how many points) the question is worth.

6) Use the space you are given. If there are 11 lines for a short essay answer, then if you only use 3 lines, you can pretty much bet you won't get much credit. If there are 11 lines, the scorers expect a response that has some support from the text.

7) Less is often more--instead of 7 examples that are just a list with little support, two or three examples that have explanations show more depth of understanding.

8) Before you turn in the test, reread your responses quickly. You'd be surprised at the little mistakes you might be able to catch.

9) In the reading test, always use information or details from the passage in your answer. That's why it's called a "reading" test.

10) When you are doing one of the two writing tests, always keep in mind what they are scoring you on---WRITING! Make sure you use transitions, that you use elaboration and support.

11) Avoid the 5-paragraph organizational plan. Think instead of 1) a good introduction that gets the reader's attention and lets him know the point of your essay, 2) some very specific, well-detailed/elaborated support, held together with logical transitions, and 3) an ending of some sort (it doesn't need to be a summary ending).

12) Organization and development are the most important criteria for a good essay response.

13) Read the question very carefully before you start to answer it. Highlight or underline the words in the question that tell you what you need to do.

14. You are allowed to highlight or mark up the test booklet, so jot down any notes, highlight important words, underline possible support as you read. Just remember though, that you are only scored on what you write in the answer booklet.

15. Get a good night’s sleep!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Tips for making small group collaboration work

So you’ve decided that you want to increase student engagement in class. Having students work in small groups is certainly a way to get students involved, but unless you build in some structure, the students can waste time or get off task quickly. Here are a few guidelines to follow when you plan cooperative learning activities in your class:

1) Give the groups very specific tasks to accomplish. Rather than say, “Discuss in your group,” provide more structured guidelines: “As a group come up with three alternatives . . . ” or “List four reasons why . . .” or “Figure out two different ways to solve . . . .” Make sure your directions are very clear and easy to follow.
2) Set very limited time frames for the activities. Giving a small group five minutes to solve a problem will leave little room for socializing. Consider less time—you can always stretch it if the groups are still working. If you need your groups to work for an extended period of time, perhaps break the time up into smaller portions with “deadlines” for each smaller time segment.
Often when there are discipline problems related to small group work, the culprit is one of the above issues—or both.

3) Keep the groups small if you can. In a group of six or seven, it’s easy for a student to hide in the crowd. There is no crowd in a group of three. If you have to have larger groups, then consider assigning (or having the group assign) different roles or tasks to each group member.
4) If you haven’t used small group activities before, model explicitly what you expect to happen. Even be as specific as to how the group will share with each other, what each member’s expectations will be, how the individual members should record their work, how the group’s consensus will be shared out with the class, etc. If you find that some groups get off task, look at what happened to cause that and stop and model to the class what behavior you expect. Modeling is a positive approach to trouble-shooting problems.
5) Don’t have students remain in the same groups for extended periods of time. Mix it up regularly so groups don’t develop “bad habits.”
6) Small group work can be as simple as “turn and talk to your neighbor.” Just remember to be very specific with the task and limit the time.