Reading Strategies for Middle and High School Students

Reading is one thing that many students struggle with. Some students get the underlying messages right away, while others need a little extra help. By the time students reach the high school level, we hope their reading levels have improved from their elementary years. While the majority of students' understanding have improved by the time they reach high school, there are still many students who get frustrated and struggle to read. Below, I will explain and discuss five important and helpful strategies that teachers can incorporate into their lessons, in any class that they teach.

1. Inference: As we read, we can use inference to further reading comprehension. When we infer while reading, we use knowledge that we already have and combine that with evidence from the text passages to come to conclusions with what we are reading. Students can formulate a question they may come upon while reading. In order to answer that question, they need to first determine what they already know about the subject in the text and then look for evidence in the text that supports their question. This information will help to lead them to their answer.
If you're in the neighborhood of trying something different, I have created these FREE Reading Strategies Bookmarks. I thought that these bookmarks would be a great addition to an existing novel study and an opportunity for students to try something new. Simply, give each student a bookmark during various sections of a novel. The bookmarks will give students an opportunity to look at specific elements in the section of the book they are reading one at a time so that students are not overwhelmed by having to examine more than one thing at a time. Students need a bookmark anyway, so this bookmark is a win-win for both students (as they will learn more reading strategies), teachers (as they can use these bookmarks over and over) and the book itself (no more corner-page creases!) 😄 

Tip: Consider printing the bookmarks on cardstock paper for more durability!

2. Questioning: While students are reading their text, they can start to create questions as they go along. They need to actively question what they are reading. Questions they have may be about the text, or about what the author means by a specific sentence or paragraph. By questioning, students are now thinking about what they are actually reading and can analyze passages more deeply and thoroughly. There comes a connection between the reader and the text, which also helps to increase comprehension. 

Due to the fact that many of my students were struggling to come up with effective questions during their lit circle discussion, I created this Reading Response Interactive Notebook Flipbook, as a guide to help their discussions. This flipbook provides students with sentence starters, before, during and after reading questions. It's a handy tool that can be referenced over and over.

3. Summarizing: One of the more difficult types of reading strategies is summarizing, mainly because students don't know what they are supposed to do. Some students end up providing too many details, while others not enough. By doing either, they may miss the main point and end up making no sense at all. With proper and frequent practice, summarizing will help students to write down the main ideas of a longer passage, help them to focus on key points and ideas that the author wants the reader to understand, and be able to use keywords and phrases properly.

4. Main Idea: Finding the main idea of a text is sometimes difficult for students to understand. Students need to first understand the focus of the text, then they can figure out what is so important about that focus. Combining the two creates the main idea of a passage. Students can do this with any text by finding supporting evidence in the text that describes the focus.

5. Synthesizing: Synthesizing is another difficult strategy for students, so frequent practice and modeling is essential for students. Synthesizing works as a reading strategy by breaking down all of the parts of a text into pieces, such as the characters, the plot, the climax, and the setting, while discussing or thinking about how they all come together to create one whole text. As the students read the text, they will begin to think differently about the text. They will learn more information about characters that will promote them think differently. Their opinions will change, as their comprehension increases.
I hope one, if not more of these strategies will work with your struggling
students. These strategies require repeated practice, so if students are able to continue to use them regularly, they will have a much better understanding of them, as well as the fact that they might be encouraged to read more and challenge themselves with different books!

Looking for more reading strategy ideas? Check out these ideas from the other Secondary English Coffee Shop bloggers!

How to Grow a Secondary Classroom Library

I've redone my classroom library from scratch... twice
I've dabbled with book scan apps, tried different sign out clipboards, begged for more books, made ROOM for those books, tried different bins, and experimented with how I could make the secondary classroom library really work for us.

I ultimately found the combination of things that worked for us and have updated this post in an attempt to help teachers who might be just starting out OR looking to affordably expand their shelves. 

Dealing with a classroom library CAN feel like one more project that you don't have time for, especially if you teach a specialized course like British Lit or Speech and aren't so sure if your classroom - or curriculum - needs one. However, we know that the rate of choice reading tends to drop dramatically in the high school years, and English teachers are the last guardians of reading who can help teens realize that they can read well, can read for fun, and can make time for reading after all. A classroom library isn't just a book case; it's symbolic of the life we want our students to lead. 

Fortunately, improving (or starting) yours can happen after one small change rather than a massive overhaul as you might fear.

Here are several tried-and-true ways to give your bookshelves a boost in an English class for teens or tweens. 

FREE: Classroom Library Starter Sheets!
Click here to get several checklists and forms that are referenced in the list below and will help you get started!

1. Rethink your checkout system

My students weren't filling out the checkout clipboard to borrow my books, and if they did, they didn't return to the clipboard when returning the books. It wasn't working. 

So, I partnered with my school library to buy a zillion adhesive book pockets and old school library cards. Each book got a pocket with a card in it; the card just says the title. When students want a book, they walk the title card from the book to the display pocket with their name on it. When students are finished, they put the card back in the book and return it to the shelf (which is color coded by genre and discussed later in this post). 

The bonus? Not only was this faster than the clipboard, but I could easily see who was reading what AND who had which book. 

2. Make your wish list public (and partner with book stores!)
Not all books need to be purchased with your money. During student teaching, my classroom didn't have a class library. Fortunately, the local Half Price Books store was willing to do a book drive for me; I could make a table of requested books and see in a given timeframe if store patrons would buy any for us. Though you might have more luck with smaller stores/chains than bigger ones, you never know who might say yes!

If you decide to make an Amazon wish list, don't be afraid to share it! You never know who in your personal community will have the means and desire to contribute. AND THEN, I strongly recommend checking out ThriftBooks or an independent bookstore to finish shopping for whatever is not purchased by others. 

If you need ideas for books to put on your wish list, you might like some of my book lists here: 

3. Assign a classroom "librarian"
Either assign a student helper, or get weekly volunteers, to keep the library in check (so you don't have to). This person can fix messy shelves, do a book talk, or update whatever routines/displays you have in place. The double bonus is that you have less to do, and the students feel increased ownership of the space.

4. Shuffle the books once per week
Depending on how you're storing/shelving them, "fluff" the books once a week and shuffle them so that new covers are visible in the front, at the ends, or in the displays. Doing this will keep books from getting out of sight and mind, and it will also help the space look like it's seeing activity (and not some outdated zone).

5. Make permanent peer recommendations
No offense to book talks (which I love), but I like to use this FREE template to make peer nominations that will last longer. If they rate books by metrics they care about, students can more independently choose the right books for them.

6. Student AND teacher book talks
I'm decent at giving book talks, so the titles I pitch to students typically see an uptick in momentum, BUT a peer-given book talk can be infinitely more powerful. Make sure you're not the only one recommending books in your room, and you won't be sorry about the time you spent doing it. (PS - why not use that book talk as a public speaking grade? Find out more about that here.)

7. Color code books and shelves
This is single-handedly the most important change I made to my classroom library: using skinny duct tape to color code books by genre. (See photo below.) Now, my students know where to find certain books, where to put them BACK (!), and how to browse more efficiently.

I used to put books in color-coded bins as well but have since abandoned that practice because students browse better when they can see the books and spines rather than have to hunt through a basket or bin. 

8. Give students time to use it
I get it - depending on your curriculum and schedule, you might have less-than-zero time to give students for free reading, book talks, or browsing the library. BUT, you can remind teens during their in-class work time on OTHER tasks that "Now would be a smart time to use the classroom library if you need it!"

9. Elicit student requests and "dibs"
Print the FREE starter sheets above, stick them on clipboards, and start getting student input on what books they think you should buy, which books they want to read next (and want "dibs" on when it's available next), and which student currently has which book. (I've tried more complex check-out systems, but as far as simple paper ones go, this form is my favorite!)

10. Make easy, eye-catching displays
No, we're not in elementary school anymore, BUT you want the library space to be visually appealing "enough" that students are drawn to it like moths to a flame. The more their eyes and bodies linger by books, the better, right? Evaluate the amount of wall or shelf space you have, and then ask if you need a consistent color theme, student-made posters, teacher-bought posters, book recommendations, books on spinning shelves, or other eye candy in your space.

(Want more inspiration? Check out my Pinterest board of classroom library ideas!)

11. Be honest about why "traffic" is low
Not seeing a lot of student traffic by your bookshelves? Be honest about why. Is it because they don't like reading or have motivation issues? Do they not have a choice reading requirement, and thus don't HAVE time or MAKE time to read? Do they dislike the space or the books? Don't have enough given in-class time to peruse it?

If you are honest with each other about the reason(s) why, you can problem-solve more easily and save some frustration about why your hard work isn't seeing student appreciation.

12. Assess a choice novel

Even without a full-blown independent reading program, your standards or curriculum most likely CAN justify assigning a choice novel/text. Whether it's once per month, quarter, semester, or year, requiring a choice novel will help your library see more action (and help your readers try new things).

See a sample list of activities that can go with any novel by checking out some of my activities here


The Bottom Line

Many of us became English teachers to help students close gaps and love the written word for the long term, not just in the 45 minutes or so that we have those students in class. Having a classroom library that works - and doesn't just looks pretty - is a huge asset toward that goal, one that is totally within your reach.

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5 Ways to Inspire Your Writers

Sometimes our students need a little nudge when it comes to writing. It would be lovely if they all came to our classrooms excited about putting pen to page, but when they aren't, there are several things we can do to jump start their creativity.
One of my favourite ways to get my students' creative juices flowing is with brainstorming carousels and gallery walks. I especially like to use this strategy when we're working on idea development. I adhere titles on the top of pieces of chart paper and then put each one up on the wall in various areas of my classroom. Next, I group my students and send each group to a piece of chart paper. There, they need to brainstorm words, ideas, phrases, etc. to develop or describe what is written in the title. After several minutes, groups will rotate to the next poster where they are instructed to add new details to the paper. We repeat this process until they've added detail to each topic. Finally, groups go on a gallery walk to read what has been added to each poster. When they return to their seats, they will choose one of the topics as a basis for a writing assignment. Reluctant writers will have a whole arsenal of ideas to get them going, and even the stronger writers will find inspiration from their peers.

Writing lessons and activities

This works beautifully for any type of writing: descriptive, narrative, persuasive, etc. I use it quite often as pre-writing for literary analysis. I'll put the name of a character, a theme or a motif at the top, and the kids will use the brainstorming carousel to fully flesh out their ideas for each one. If you'd like to try an activity like this, you can grab a selection of titles here. Just print them off and adhere them to chart paper. Alternatively, you could just leave the title at a station and have the kids write on looseleaf.

I love using group challenges to jump start my writers. First of all, a little healthy competition is always good.  Students will dive excitedly into an activity when they know they can "beat" their classmates -- and offering candy as a prize amps the competition up considerably! These challenges are not just for fun, however, because writing as a group also helps the reluctant writers--they get to see the thought process and ideas of others and hopefully learn from their classmates. Even if they use the ideas that are generated from the group, rather than their own original ones, they have a starting point for their own writing.

Writing lessons and activities
My students absolutely love doing writing challenges in class, because they are a fun and engaging way to practice and illustrate their learning. One of my favourite challenges is my sour key exercise, which you can read about in more detail on my blog. I use this exercise to show my students the importance of brainstorming in the pre-writing stage, and also to teach them about perspective. You can grab the perspective cards I use for the exercise here.
mentor texts for middle and high school
English teachers are always telling students that they need to show, not tell. That's something that we need to do when we teach too. Mentor texts can be used to show students what engaging and effective writing looks like. Using them has been a game changer for me. In fact, some of the best student writing this semester came from inspiration from mentor texts. I used the passages on the left this year for a mini-lesson on character development, and was blown away by what my kids created. Even my weakest writers were able to use them as a model to write a reflection about their childhood. If you'd like a copy of it, just click here.

You can check out my Mentor Texts, as well as the ones on Moving Writers. There, you'll find an amazing collection of texts, arranged by genre, that you can use to teach and inspire your students.  In both collections, the passages can be used for both reading and writing workshop.writing prompts

Writing prompts are low pressure writing, an opportunity for kids to experiment and to increase their writing skills. I love looking for interesting photographs and videos to use as prompts, especially ones that will elicit a variety of responses. I just project the image and instruct students to tell the story and let them follow whatever path they choose. Another task I like to give them is to brainstorm the various types of writing the photo could inspire. For example, is the picture of the sneaker an ad? Or is it the basis of a narrative? Perhaps it could inspire an essay on the importance of exercise or following one's dreams.  The whole point is that these photos can be interpreted in a myriad of ways, and so the students can let their imaginations run wild -- or even just find a little inspiration if they have trouble coming up with ideas. 

Recently, The Metropolitan Museum of Art introduced Open Access at The Met, making over 375,000 images available for use under Creative Commons Zero. It's an amazing resource for finding images you could use for writing prompts. If you're looking for something a little more quirky, try Gratisotography.

Video prompts are my go-to for inspiring response to issues. I show my students clips that are relevant and thought-provoking, so even my most reluctant writers are moved to respond. My favourites are ones that are a little controversial, that can cause some debate after we view them.  I've got a collection of ones that have been successful with my students on this blog post.

Too often kids just want to sit down and have the words magically spill off their pen on to the page, without much thinking or effort. But we know that great writing takes great effort -- and a number of important steps. Students usually need a reminder that it's important to slow down and not skip the stages of the writing process. For me, this is always time well spent.

We focus a lot on the idea generation stage in my room, and add in a component that doesn't always require a pen or keyboard: speaking. When I'm trying to work something out, I need to talk about it. Just the act of speaking my ideas out loud helps me see them better. I also get some of my best ideas when I'm out for a walk, so I like to combine these two experiences with my students. During the pre-writing stage, I will often send them for a walk 'n talk around the building or the grounds. They go with pen and paper, so when inspiration strikes, they can record it.  If you aren't comfortable with letting your students wander unattended, you can do a modified version of this in the classroom--just push the desks back and let them stand up to talk with each other as they expire their ideas.

My favourite strategy -- and by far my most successful one for getting students to focus on the process -- is to use learning stations that require them to look at one area of their writing at at time. I'm always so pleased to see the effort they put into improving their work, and the final results have improved drastically since I started using this approach.

Writing Process
My Descriptive Writing and Narrative Writing Stations are also designed to get students to focus on the steps necessary to create amazing pieces of writing.

It's taken me two decades to collect all of these tools and strategies for inspiring my writers, and I know that I'm not yet done learning how to do so. Do you have any tried and true tricks for helping reluctant or stuck writers? If you do, we sure would love to hear about it in the comments.

My fellow coffee shop teachers have some ideas for inspiring writers that you may want to check out too:

Presto Plans: Journal Writing Prompts
The Daring English Teacher: Descriptive Writing
Stacey Lloyd: Paragraph Writing Task Cards

Thanks for reading!

Preparing Students for Standardized Tests

Right about this time of year, teachers really start to feel the pressure that comes along with high-stakes testing. Personally, I know that as an 11th-grade teacher, my colleagues, my school, and my district are all counting on me to prepare my students for the test as best as I can. And while educators across the nation know that the results are not a direct reflection of a single teacher for a single grade-level, it is still difficult to not feel the pressure. I am the last English teacher my students will have before they take a test that means a great deal to the school.

So how do we cope with the stress of high-stakes testing, prepare our students as best as we can, and continue to teach the content we love so much that inspired us to become educators in the first place? Well, it’s tricky, but it can be done.

First and foremost, test prep should not be teaching to the test! The last thing our students need is a drill and kill curriculum delivery method that prevents authentic learning. This only hurts our students in the long run. Instead, we need to understand what is on the test and how we can incorporate that into our lessons without presenting it as test-prep.

Whether you are preparing students to take the SBAC or the PARCC, here are several different ways you can help prepare your students for three components of the test.

Textual analysis is the backbone of the test. Not only do students need to be able to read and comprehend comprehensive texts, they also need to be able to analyze, dissect, and interpret it as well. One skill that I emphasize throughout the year is the ability to identify an argument and the evidence in which an author uses to support the argument.

Here are some questions I use throughout the year with any text to teach this concept.
  • What is the author’s purpose? Provide textual evidence that demonstrates this purpose.
  • What is the author’s main argument? What evidence does the author use to support the argument?
  • Evaluate the evidence the author uses to support his or her argument.

In order to give my students a foundational understanding of how to analyze text, there are two lessons that I teach toward the beginning of the year, or at the beginning of my argument unit. The first lesson I teach is a lesson about annotating text that helps students learn how to annotate and break down text. This lesson (Annotating Text Made Easy) includes a step-by-step demonstration of how to annotate text, and it gives students the confidence they need for annotating text on their own.
The second lesson that I find is very helpful is a rhetorical analysis lesson that dives deeper into the subject.  

In addition to knowing how to read, interpret, and analyze text, knowing academic vocabulary is also critically important. If students go into the test with a strong knowledge of academic vocabulary words, they will have a better understanding of the question.

Here is a FREE Quizlet Study Set of these words for you to use them in your classroom. You can copy the list and assign it to your students, and you can also play Quizlet Live with your students!

In order to help my students master academic vocabulary they will encounter on the test, I provide them with academic vocabulary lessons throughout the year. My Academic Vocabulary Bundle includes more than 200 academic vocabulary words, plus activities, puzzles, and quizzes!

Just as students need to be able to analyze text and point out the main argument and supporting evidence, they also need to be able to include these elements in their own writing. I recently blogged about my writing philosophy, and this method of grading helps students improve their writing. In order to score well, students need to include multiple detailed, specific, relevant examples in their writing.

One way I incorporate this into my lesson is through daily bell ringers. I will project a question and require students to answer with a two-sentence or three-sentence response. It can be any question that requires an example, and this works for novels, current events, or nonfiction.

Once students master the two-sentence response, I move on to a three-sentence response. For the third sentence, students add on an explanation of the example and how it supports the answer of the question.
What Students Should Know:
  • Different types of writing
  • How to revise writing to make it more clear
  • Transitions that help readers understand sequence and order
  • Basic writing organization

To help students prepare high-quality written responses, I have them use these writing checklists in class. When using these checklists with my students, I first have them read and reread the prompt, answer the questions about the prompt, write their response, and then check their response using the checklist. You can download these checklists and a classroom poster for free HERE.

One lesson that helps my students with this portion of the test is my Topic Sentence and Body Paragraphs writing lesson. With a detailed, step-by-step PowerPoint, I teach my students about the basic format of a paragraph. I walk them through all of the various elements of the paragraph, and include color-coded examples to help them learn the concept. Students need to know how to write a paragraph with a topic sentence, evidence, and explanation.

Listening is a difficult portion of the test for the students because they are so used to having the text in front of them. We emphasize reading, close reading, and annotating so often, that we sometimes force our students to rely on visuals as a crutch.

In order to prepare my students for the listening portion of the test, I focus on listening activities. I love Listenwise because I can always find a story that is relevant to the novel I am reading with my students, and it has questions for students to answer with every single story. When I use Listenwise in my classroom, I display the questions on the overhead, explain the questions to my students before we listen to the story, and emphasize to my students that they will need to answer the questions with evidence from the story. Then I play the story for the whole class, and my students work individually to answer the questions.

This is somewhat difficult for the students in the beginning, but after a while, the students get better at the listening tasks. As a suggestion, if you’ve never done a listening activity before, start with a shorter story to begin with, and then build to a longer story.

Here is another resource to help you prepare your students for standardized testing.
Presto Plans - Standardized Test Terms Poster and Activity

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