Interacting With Text: 3 Ideas to Help Students Think Deeply About Texts

If you teach intermediate grades, you know that getting students to think deeply about texts is one of the most important things we do.  Gone are the days of simply retelling who, what, where, when, why, and how--and welcome to the world of analysis, reflection, and written response.

It's all good--but it is TOUGH for many students to make the leap from merely retelling to interpretation.  Today I thought I'd share three different things I have done as we have studied the book "The Tiger Rising" by Kate diCamillo.  This is a complex little novel--and it is a text that will be best appreciated when studied closely--it is filled with deep characters, interesting flashbacks, and ethical decisions.  I use this book every year because I get such bang for my buck--but I decided to try a few different things this year, and I thought I'd share!

1.  The Day She Let Us Write in Our Books...

"Close Reading" is a big buzz word nowadays--and I think it's important to realize that the purpose of "close reading" is to train students to slow down and process on texts.  There is no "formula" for doing it, and I always get nervous when people teach close reading as a process where students have to read a section of text 3, 4, or even 5 times with a different purpose each time.  Is that real reading?  Do students internalize this--or apply it to their daily reading?  I'm not so sure.

Instead, I teach the students a simple strategy for reading challenging texts.  First, pay attention to things that are important, confusing, or cause reactions.  I do this for a reason--they need to read closely so they are ready to write and talk about texts.  We meet in book clubs to talk about The Tiger Rising, and our close reading helps provide them with great "food for thought".  In the past, I have done this book as a read aloud, but this year the book was on sale for $1 in Scholastic Book Clubs and I bought a class set so students could actually read aloud with me an "annotate" as we work through it.

The students LOVED knowing that they were being given a book "like a grown up" and many had stories of people they knew who--gasp--wrote in their books.  Some literally hugged their copies.

It took us a while to get going...but I let them do close reading "step #1" as I read...if they felt something was important, they underlined.  If they were confused, they circled.  If they had a emotional reaction, they marked it with a "!".

Some students went a little crazy at first...nearly everything was underlined as being important, so we had some great discussions about that...and I made it very clear that the purpose of "step 1" was to simply track their place so they could go back and reflect--the important part.  (I may or may not have said, "Even a chimpanzee could underline  text...the annotation is what shows your thinking.")

As we got deeper into the text, the annotations got better--and students learned how to use their annotated texts to guide their book club discussions.  Although there were days where I guided their book club discussions with specific questions, having their annotated texts with them was a great way to keep discussions going.

2. The Day We Got to Write Notes in Class

A second way to interact with texts is using "partner journals".  This also takes some time to get going...students need lots of modeling and practice.  Here's how it works.  Students are given a partner to work with, and we talk about COMMUNICATION.  As I read a chapter, I would stop after 2 pages or so (preferably leaving off at a juicy part!) and ask them to record their thinking on the left side of their notebook.  I reminded them who their audience was--their partner--and that they needed to make sure their ideas were clear.

After a few minutes of writing, they switched journals and needed to READ their buddy's work--and then use accountable talk stems to write back.  "I agree with you because" or "To add on..." or "I disagree with that because" were our starting points, and I was shocked at how challenging this was for my students!  It was fascinating to watch students struggle to read each other's messages--what a valuable lesson!  We have done it a few times and we are getting better--but we still have a lot of work to do with writing quality reflections and responses.

3. The Day We Gave Ourselves Stickers

One final fun way to interactive with text goes back to our book clubs.  As we read The Tiger Rising, we were tracking our main characters as well as "big ideas" in the text.  We are writing literary essays this quarter, so finding these big ideas is critical.  I've been throwing in some great picture books along the way, especially books by Patricia Polacco and Eve Bunting.  To get students talking one day, I sent them back to their book clubs to have a discussion about "big ideas" in two of our picture books.  We came back as a large group and shared them out.  We had 7 or 8 of them listed on the board, so I asked the simple question...

"Which of this big ideas is the biggest?"

You could hear a pin drop.  I sent them back to their book clubs to have a discussion where they worked to decide what they thought were the most important one or two ideas--and they had to come to consensus.  I gave each group 2 sticker dots, and after their discussions they chose a representative to come forward and "sticker" the ideas they thought were most important.  The discussions were AMAZING...and we came up with 2 great potential thesis statements at the end.

I hope these three ideas get you thinking about ways to get your students thinking about these more complicated texts we present to them.  After all, students really DO enjoy these deep discussions...we just need to work to find ways to make their interactions with text meaningful, authentic, and accessible.  Interested in my unit on The Tiger Rising with discussion points, teaching ideas, and journal questions.  Check my store for this and other novel studies!

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Flexible Seating Ideas On A Budget

Flexible seating doesn't have to break your bank account. Sure, we'd all love to get a $5,000 grant to transform our classrooms-- but that probably won't happen. So instead,  I wanted to share some simple and effective ways to introduce flexible seating options into your room without having to buy stock in IKEA.

Personally, I LOVE flexible seating.  Although if I'm going to be technical, I prefer the term flexible learning spaces because it needs to be more than just what they're sitting on.  It should include spaces within the room that can facilitate learning, collaboration, and problem-solving.

This year the fifth grade team at my school decided to give flexible seating a try.  Each teacher came in with some different ideas that they wanted to try and incorporate; the results have been pretty incredible.  

And remember, none of the teachers spent large sums of money either. Instead they repurpose furniture, reclaimed old basement items, and scored big at garage sales. Shiny and new only lasts so long in a school...with don't go spending big bucks when you don't have to.

Dropping the table heights (above) and adding miniature rugs was one option.  Many students  love to sit criss-cross or stretch their legs, which ends up being perfect. (Below) The classic yoga ball, which was one of the precursors to flexible seating.

These barca-loungers were being thrown out over the summer.  Teachers can't pass up free, so they picked them up, sanded them down, and painted a couple of coats on. 

(Above) This is an old primary-age table used with $10 IKEA chairs.

This is possibly my favorite flexible seating option-- this desk is incredible!  It's low to the ground, has a slanted top, and kids can stretch their legs out.  Chances are this was originally made for little first graders, but it works well for upper elementary kids.  Vintage can be new again.  Unless there was a La-Z-Boy around, this would be my first option.

Don't get stuck with the mindset that flexible seating MUST be with brand new furniture.  The best forms of flexible seating isn't the tool, it is the ability to give students options.  

This table (above) was sitting in my basement, when I decided to offer it up to one of the teachers for their room.  It's about 40 year old and works like a charm, plus there's a leaf that you can add into the middle.

Bar stools and high tables.  You can set them in the back so they see over other tables or set them around the edges.  Whatever works, but you're living the high life (yeah, I dad joke).

When you think about flexible seating do not get caught up in the brand new shiny items.  Chances are pretty good that many items from your basement, the scary closet at school, or even a garage sale. 

These fifth grade teachers have found that some students that still crave the "classic desk" too, so you might want to keep a couple around. Flexible seating is a constantly evolving process for every classroom. How many of us need to rearrange desks because we're never happy? 

You can find more from me at Digital: Divide & Conquer where I tackle project based learning, technology, and the space in between.  


5 Reasons To Use Guided Math in the Classroom

If you are used to teaching math in a whole class setting, the thought of implementing guided math groups can be intimidating.  I have been there!!  I have tried many times to use guided math groups, but gave up.  This year, I decided that I was going to use small groups and won’t cave in if it becomes challenging.  There have been many days that I want to throw my hands up and say forget it, but I’m sticking to it.

Here is why… I just finished with Parent/Teacher conferences, and I have to admit that this is the first year that I have felt 100% confident in where my students are and where I KNOW my students are.  My ability to confidently conference with parents about their child’s math ability is a result of using guided math groups in my classroom.  After 14 years of teaching, I am confident that using guided math groups is the reason!

Here are the top five reasons you should be using guided math groups in the upper elementary classroom.  

1.  Engagement

“When a teacher tries to teach something to the entire class at the same time, chances are, one third of the kids already know it, one third will get it, and the remaining third won’t get it. So two thirds of the children are wasting their time.”  ~Lillian Katz 

This is so true and explains a lot!  The thought of two-thirds of my class wasting their time is a huge eye opener!  Why not use the time that we have to engage our students in meaningful math activities that provide opportunities for them to grow as mathematicians?  Using guided math groups provides these opportunities.  

2.  Immediate Feedback

While teaching students in a whole group math setting, it’s merely impossible to provide immediate feedback to every single student.  If using guided math groups, it’s you with a small number of students.  Providing immediate feedback is 100% doable.  One teacher with six students is a lot more manageable than one teacher with 25 students. 

3.   Differentiated Instruction

Reason number three for using guided math groups ties in closely with reason number one, engagement.  If we have students that already know a concept, why do they have to continue practicing it?  Let them move on, provide them with enrichment.  What about the students that will get it quickly?  Let them move on also, provide them with enrichment to meet their needs.  What about the students that don’t get it?  We can’t move on just because two-thirds of the class gets it.  We need to teach it in a way that they will get it.  That’s where small guided math groups come in.  

4.  Students Talk About Math

In a class of 25, providing students with opportunities to talk about math is limited.  So, let’s talk math.  In a class of 25, if you are using a cooperative learning strategy where students turn and talk with a partner, engagement is 50%.  So, 50% of your students had the opportunity to talk about math. In small guided math groups, students are with you for 15-20 minutes every single day.  This provides an ample about of time for those students to turn and talk, ask questions, explain their thinking, etc.  You have just increased talking about math to 100%.  Can’t get much better than that! 

5.   Know your students’ mathematics ability

Implementing small guided math groups will allow you to know exactly where each and every one of your students are.   Honestly, in a class of 25 it is hard to know where every single one of your students are at all times.  You may have an idea, and their individual work to prove it, but knowing each and every one of them as a whole mathematician isn’t always accurate.  Using small guided math groups will help you know exactly where they are at all times.  

Where to Start

So, you may be asking where you should start.  I feel that my guided math groups are always a work in progress, but I have found out that the most important piece for success is consistency.  Be consistent, create a routine, and stick to it.  Stick....To...It!

You can find out specifically how I am implementing guided math HERE, or if you are a third grade teacher you can find Guided Math Made Easy resources HERE.  

6 Strategies to Simplify your Homework Systems

Is homework stressing you out? Here are my top 6 strategies for simplifying your homework systems.

One of the biggest questions I get from teachers is "How do you manage your daily homework system without eating up too much time?"  The struggle is real!  Teachers are already on a time crunch every single day.  Who has time to collect, check, and review homework too, right?  Well, I've got some great strategies that I believe will help you save time and make your homework way more effective than it has ever been before. Let's get started!

Seems obvious, but it needs to be said. Don't wait until you are ready to start your school day to begin your homework routine. If possible, it is best to start your routine the minute your students begin entering your room.  Waiting can cut into some seriously needed teaching time.  That's not good for anyone!  Also, keep an open mind. Depending on your schedule, it may be best to go over homework at the very end of the day.

Assuming you teach upper elementary or higher, you should totally be delegating the job of "homework checking" to a responsible student.  As students would walk in my classroom, they knew the first thing they had to do was take out their weekly homework sheet and leave it on their desk.  Then, my "student of the week" or whichever student I felt could handle the job, would go around with my checklist and simply check for completion.  Just a simple "yes, they did it" or "no, they didn't do it".  Done.

Is homework stressing you out? Here are my top 6 strategies for simplifying your homework systems.

I never grade student homework! First, it is WAY too time-consuming to grade.  Second, it really isn't fair.  Being that the work is technically being done at home, each student has different advantages and disadvantages.  Sally shouldn't get punished by a low score because her parents weren't available to assist her, while Jimmy gets a 100% because his parents corrected all of his errors.  See what I mean?
After checking to see who completed their homework, we go over it.  I don't like to waste time writing every problem on the board, solving it, and asking if there are any questions, because that is a waste of time and just not necessary.  However, I do love projecting the answer sheet on the front board.  I allow my students a few minutes to check over their answer.  Then I use maybe 5-8 minutes to answer any questions.

IMPORTANT NOTE: This is probably where you are thinking "This can't work! Students aren't going to ask questions".  This couldn't be further from the truth and here is why.  From the first week of school, I establish a few key ideas about homework. 1) Your homework is there is help you understand what you still need to work on.  2) It is okay to get something wrong, as long as you try. 3) You are accountable for your own learning. If you don't understand something, it is your job to ask.

Very quickly my students understand that homework review time is purely for their own benefit. There isn't any pressure and there are no hard feelings about not understanding something because that is the whole point of this time.

I love using the homework sheets during small group instruction time.  THIS is the time where I actually go deeper into the problems my students may have struggled with and I use it to guide my instruction.  By doing this, I have turned my homework into an instructional resource for myself and my students.

This is really the MOST important strategy (save the best for last). Keep your nightly homework simple.  If you don't want to spend hours going over homework each day, don't give hours of homework.  Find an effective homework system that gives just a handful of practice problems per night. You can Click Here to learn about my favorite homework system! You can also grab a FREE sample to try out in your classroom HERE! (for Reading, Math, and Language)

Is homework stressing you out? Here are my top 6 strategies for simplifying your homework systems.
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Focusing on Fluency in the Upper Elementary Classroom

Ask your students what it means to be a fluent reader. You’re likely to get a wide variety of answers. Chances are good that your students will provide correct answers… partially correct, anyway. As we teachers know, when it comes down to it, reading fluency involves multiple components.

Activities to help build reading fluency in your upper elementary classroom! Multiple FREE printables, including posters, bookmarks, partner plays, and more!


First, there’s accuracy. It is easy to recognize how accuracy is related to reading comprehension. If students are failing to read several words accurately, the meaning of the text will be changed or lost. Knowing your students’ accuracy rate is critical because it will help you provide the correct reading materials for them.

You can identify a student’s accuracy rate by finding the percentage of words in a text read correctly. A fellow reading teacher once shared this simple recording sheet with me, and explained how she used it to track her students’ accuracy. As you can see, each recording sheet contains a section with 100 small boxes. Ask a student to read aloud to you. Draw a tick in a box for each word your student reads correctly. When your student misreads a word, draw a line across the middle of the box. Above the line, write the word they said. Below the line, write the word that was printed in the text. When you run out of boxes, you have hit 100 words, and you can easily calculate your student’s accuracy percentage.

FREE Recording Sheet you can use to assess your upper elementary students' reading accuracy, fluency, and comprehension. What a great addition to your reading binder.

Guided reading gurus Fountas & Pinnell have set the following accuracy rate guidelines for students reading at a Level L (end of second grade) or higher:
  • A student reading with 98%-100% accuracy with satisfactory comprehension is reading at his or her independent level.
  • A student reading with 98%-100% accuracy with limited comprehension is reading at his or her instructional level.
  • A student reading with 95%-97% accuracy with satisfactory comprehension is reading at his or her instructional level.
  • A student reading with an accuracy rate of 94% or below is reading at his or her frustration level.
    FREE Recording Sheet you can use to assess your upper elementary students' reading accuracy, fluency, and comprehension. This is a great addition to your reading binder.
    Click HERE to access this recording sheet.


Another significant element to consider is rate. Is your student reading too fast? Too slow? I have found that many students think that the faster you read, the more fluent you are. We teachers know that this is not the case. When I find a student who reads too fast, I will say, “Whoa! My brain just cannot process what is being read when you read that fast! Would you please start over, and this time read a bit more slowly so that I can process what you’re reading to me?” I’ve also done a comparison reading with students: I read aloud a nonfiction passage super-fast and then ask them a few questions about what I read to them. When they are not able to answer my questions, I read at an appropriate rate. After they are able to answer the same questions I asked before, we discuss the connection between reading rate and comprehension.

When I work with students who read too slow, I find texts at their independent reading level and have them read the same text multiple times, increasing the speed with each reading.


Prosody is reading aloud with expression, smoothness, and stress. Prosodic readers pay attention to punctuation and italics. It is evident that they are comprehending the text because they know how to match their tone and pitch to what is being read. I tell my students that when a prosodic reader is reading, it is fun to listen to him or her.


I have used several materials to teach fluency tips to upper elementary students. First, I use the posters and the interactive notebook foldable shown below. After I have introduced the posters, students create the foldable to glue into their notebooks. Behind each flap, they write their own notes to help them remember how each word is related to fluency. (Click on either of the images to download these free printables.)
FREE Fluency Posters! This blog post also lists multiple activities to help build reading fluency in your upper elementary classroom!

FREE Fluency foldable for your students' interactive notebooks...with matching posters! This blog post also lists multiple activities to enhance the reading fluency in your upper elementary classroom!

I also have bookmarks for students use as they are reading. Occasionally I hand students a sticky note, and ask them to jot down a note explaining how reading fluently helped them comprehend the text. I expect them to address at least one of the fluency components in their explanation.
Would your students benefit from fluency self-assessment? This blog post also includes several free printables to help build fluency for the readers in your upper elementary classroom!


I LOVE helping students work toward becoming fluent readers! My favorite method is to use partner plays. These are great reading center options. Students can read the script with a partner while the teacher is working with small guided reading groups. These scripts require exactly two readers, allowing students plenty of opportunities to read. I recently added a comprehension worksheet to each of my 4th and 5th grade partner play sets, so students can respond to questions about the scripts they read.

I also find partner plays to be powerful intervention tools. When I work with individual students as part of an intervention, I take one part, and my student takes the other part. Then, the student can hear me model fluent reading, and try to emulate that himself or herself. Plus, the students love partner plays!! If you want to try out one of my free scripts, click on the image below.
FREE partner plays for multiple grade levels! Enhance the reading fluency in your 2nd-5th grade classroom!

The following image shows some of my favorite published books that can be used as fluency-building activities! Students love the wacky lyrics found in the Alan Katz books! Whenever I have used these books with students, they beg to read their favorite pages again and again, and don't even realize that they are building fluency as they do the repeated readings. The You Read to Me, I'll Read to You books are great for students who are working to improve their phrasing while reading.
Activities to help build reading fluency in your upper elementary classroom! Multiple FREE printables, including posters, bookmarks, partner plays, and more!

Using italics strips is another favorite activity. When I first became a reading teacher, I was surprised to discover that the majority of my 3rd, 4th and 5th grade students plowed through words in italics with no change in intonation whatsoever. I created italics strips to address this issue. 
Do your students understand the importance of italics in reading? These italics strips will provide students with many opportunities to interact withto interact with italicized words.
Each set contains 100 strips. Set 1 features the first hundred Fry words, set 2 features the second hundred Fry words, etc. Therefore, the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth set are the ones geared more toward upper elementary.

Thanks for stopping by today! I hope you'll be able to use a few of these fluency-building ideas with your upper elementary students!


A Writing Strategy That Works for Upper Elementary!

This writing strategy has been an effective approach for thousands of teachers.  Read on to find out what truly works for your upper elementary students and download the editable pacing guide to plan writing lessons for the year!

"I have used your ideas for several years and find this writing strategy effective in my fourth grade classroom.   It helped motivate my students to grow into amazing writers and made them proud of their work.  Using a scaffolding approach to writing is genius!  Thank you for your ideas!"-  a veteran teacher.

An effective writing approach with mini lessons for paragraph, narrative, opinion, informative writing.  Free pacing guide.

Being a writing coach, I come across teachers who question the effectiveness of their writing lessons.  I have no doubt that they are good teachers, they just need a guide to teaching the fundamentals of writing in an ORDER that makes sense.   With that in mind, I would like to share a writing strategy that really works!  You will find a step-by-step approach that has mini lessons in an order designed so each lesson builds upon the previous one.  

To begin the year, upper elementary students need a review of sentence structure.  This foundation will be helpful in all future writing assignments.

A.  Subjects/Predicates
B.  Fragments
C.  Complete Sentences
D.  Run-Ons
E.  Compound Sentences

Next, upper elementary students need a good understanding of paragraph elements, which will be especially useful when teaching essay writing.

A.  Topic Sentences
B.  Relevant Details
C.  Closing with Clinchers
D.  Hamburger Model

Before you begin introducing types of writing, spend time explaining the writing process and expect them to use it EVERY time they write an essay!

A.  Prewriting
B.  Rough Draft
C.  Revise
D.  Edit
E.  Peer Editing
F.  Final Copy

Teach narrative writing as your first writing piece of the year.  It works well because it covers so many writing skills that are not needed in other types of writing.  (Ex. character traits, dialogue).  When teaching lessons for this first writing piece, choose a prompt and follow lessons A-Z using the same prompt.  It will take several weeks, but don't get discouraged!  Students will begin to see their writing develop into a beautiful piece of writing.  I found it also effective to allow students to partner up for this first piece of writing.

A.  Narrative Writing Elements
B.  Prewriting-Brainstorming
C.  Task, Audience, Purpose
D.  Graphic Organizers
E.  Introduction (Character, Setting, Plot)
F.  Body (Power of 3, Suspense, Climax)
G.  Character Traits-Developing Character
H.  Dialogue
I.   Conclusions
J.  Rough Draft  L'AmourK.  D.A.R.E. to Revise (explain revising)
L.  Delete
M. Add (Transition Words)
N.  Add (Million Dollar Words)-can also use with exchange.
O.  Rearrange
P.  Exchange (Sentence Variety)
Q.  Exchange (Jammin Conclusions)
R.  Exchange (Crafty Title)
S.  C.U.P.S.  (explain editing)
T.  Capitalization
U.  Usage
V.  Punctuation
W.  Spelling
X.  Peer Reflection
Y.   Final Copy
Z.   Share

After this first essay is completed, then move onto other types of writing and use the narrative lessons as a resource!  This step-by-step approach provides students with a solid understanding of how to build a quality piece of writing!

***To teach these lessons, I suggest you model examples.  Other essential teaching tools:  Provide an anchor chart, mentor text, practice, and opportunity to take notes for each mini lesson.

As promised, download the FREE WRITING PACING GUIDE HERE!  The mini lessons for sentence structure, paragraph writing, narrative writing, opinion writing, and informative writing are in a scaffolding order with opportunities for review and extra practice.

This writing pacing guide helps with long term goals for teaching writing for the year.  The mini lessons are in an effective order.

If you are looking for a program with all of this plus more, click here to find your grade level!

Writing workshop program filled with creative teaching lesson plans, anchor charts, mentor text, model writing, interactive pages, practice, forms, writing checklists, writing rubrics.

"Start writing no matter what.  The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on."  -Lewis L'Amour

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