Dig Deeper with Critical Thinking in Upper Elementary

Whether your students are reading a novel, learning a math concept, or being introduced to new content in Social Studies and Science, critical thinking activites play an intricate role to help students learn on a deeper level.  Being able to think outside the box or at a deeper level, helps students not only retain the information, but they develop an appreciation for the lesson.   This post will provide you with ideas for provoking critical thinking to use across the curriculum and FREE charts to use with your students.

dip deeper in upper elementary

1.  Think Pair Share
TPS is a strategy in which students work collaboratively to answer a question or solve a problem.   This strategy helps focus attention and engage students in comprehending the material.  The model is desgined for teachers to:

a.  Think-  Ask students a specific question about the topic or a theme in story.  Tell them to "think individually" about what they know or have learned about this topic or theme.  
b.  Pair-  Pair your students with a partner or small group.
c.  Share- Encourage students to share their ideas with their partner or small group, then as a whole group.

2.  Choice
Provide students with a choice.  Choice motivates, empowers and leads to a deeper understanding.  In many instances, it caters to Multiple Intelligence.  Choice can be provided in many ways.  You can give your students a choice of how to present a project or a choice of strategies to solve a challenging problem.  The opportunities are endless and will feed your students' innate desire for variety.  An example in math might be showing them different ways to achieve the correct answer.  

For example, students can:
a.  draw a diagram
b.  make a list
c.  create a table or graph
d.  model with objects.  

This can be accomplished with specific skills as well.  
For example:  Multiplication: 
a.  Teach the traditional way 

b.  Teach the method of lattice multiplication

Students can use the method that works for them or a combination of methods and in turn they will be able to explain how to get the correct answer better.  

It began with KWL charts to encourage students to think deeper.  This chart elicits students prior knowledge, sets a purpose for reading, and helps students to monitor their comprehension.  Begin a new social studies unit with one of these charts.  

K- What do I know?  
W- What do I want to know?
L- What did I learn?

Next the H got added:  KWHL
H- How do I find out?

Then Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano developed 21st century chart:  KWHLAQ
A-  What action will I take?
Q-  What questions do I have now?

kwl chart kwhl template

4.  Shared Inquiry

shared inquiry dig deeper

I first learned about his strategy when teaching a gifted class with Junior Great Books.  Shared Inquiry is a type of student-led discussions that are engaging and thought-provoking.  It is recommended to read the literature twice prior to the inquiry.  Students sit in a literacy circle and the teacher begins with an interpretive question that has more than one plausible answer.   For example, "Students then learn to take part in a discussion where each person actively participates and the teacher listens.  Students ask questions, respond to questions, interpret the text, refer back to the text, listen to the thoughts and idea of others.  Once you introduce this strategy and students learn how to use it, you will see them develop a deeper understanding of their reading.  Shared inquiry has three basic kinds of questions:.  Here are examples for Jack and the Beanstalk

a.  Factual- What was the name of Jack's cow?
b.  Interpretive- Does Jack believe the beans will grow right up to the sky?
c.  Evaulative- Is it necessary to take risks to grow up like Jack does?

5.  Notice Think Wonder
Another chart that is effective when looking at historical illustrations, is NOTICE THINK WONDER.  It can be used in other subject areas too.  Find a photograph that depicts an event in the social studies unit.  Display it on your smart board or give each group a copy.  I found it is best to do one step at a time.  Have students discuss NOTICE in small groups, then discuss as a whole group.  Students will be fascinated at what others are thinking and cause them to think even deeper with the next step!

Notice- Talk about the things you notice in the illustration.
Think- Then think deeper and tell what you think is happening.
Wonder- What questions do you have?

6.  Scientific Method
The SCIENTIFIC METHOD is a great tool for promoting critical thinking in science.

1.  ASK QUESTIONS- Ask: "What do I want to learn more about?" "I wonder what might happen if...?"
2.  GATHER INFORMATION- Research your topic to better understand it.
3.  MAKE A HYPOTHESIS- Make an educated guess to your questions about the topic.
4.  CONDUCT AN EXPERIMENT- Plan and follow steps to test your hypothesis.
5.  OBSERVE AND RECORD RESULTS- After making an observation, reflect on your results and draw conclusions.
6.  SHARE RESULTS- Present your results by sharing your experiment, observations, and conclusions.

7.  Poetry
An activity I found extremely effective when I want my students to dig deeper into a topic or story, is writing poetry.  I love this quote from a modern-day poet Criss Jami, "When a poet digs himself into a hole, he doesn't climb out.  He digs deeper, enjoys the scenery, and comes out the other side enlightened."  I've found this statement to be true when students write poetry about a topic they are learning.   

Ideas from this blog post were collected from:  
The Critical Thinking Consortium
Reading Rockets
Great Books Foundation
Education World

Poetry templates can be found here:

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Reading Fluency Activities for Older Students

Reading fluency gets a lot of attention in the primary grades. Unfortunately, students in grades 4-8 who still struggle with fluency don't get the attention they need. Many of these students need explicit instruction and meaningful practice for fluency in order to become competent readers.

It's not easy for teachers who work with older students to fit fluency practice into their already tight schedules. Here are a few fluency activities that you can easily work into your day.

Audio-Assisted Reading

Audio-assisted reading is when you have a student follow along in a text while listening to an audio recording (audio CD, audio book, or iPod). After the student gains confidence using the audio version, he/she can then transition to reading the text independently.

This is such an effective way for improving word recognition, as well as building proper phrasing and expression. This is also a great strategy to use in content areas such as science and social studies; often times, publishers include the audio version of the textbook for teachers to use.  You can also record your own audio-versions of close reading passages or short stories for your students to use. If you're doing a novel study, check your public library for audio CDs for the title you are using. You can also make a listening center in your classroom using jack extenders, so that multiple students can read along at the same time.  

Poetry Performances

Holding "poetry slams" is a perfect disguise for fluency practice.  Find relatively long poems (haiku's might not be the best choice:-) from your favorite authors that are age-appropriate for your students.  I love using work from Shel Silverstein or Jack Prelutsky for younger students.  If you teach middle school students you may want to look into poems by Langston Hughes or Edgar Alan Poe. Poetry offers smaller, non-threatening text for students to work with, and more reluctant readers may be more motivated by the creativity and playfulness that the genre offers. The assonance and alliteration of poetry also make this medium perfect for fluency practice.

Gather a large selection of poems and have your students choose one they would like to practice and eventually "perform".  Performances can take the place as simple readings in front of the class, in a small group, or with a partner. Students can also make a PowerPoint presentation that they narrate by reading the poem.  Presenting options are endless; the most important thing is to get them reading and rereading the poem in order to improve fluency.  

Readers' Theater 
Students LOVE readers' theater.  They get so excited by the idea of performing in a play, even though this activity does not require students to memorize any text.  Unlike a real play, there are no costumes, props, or sets needed.  

There are several free resources if you're looking for scripts.  Dr. Chase Young has written several for younger students, and Aaron Shepard has some great scripts for older students. You can also write your own scripts, or even have your students write their own, based on picture books or a chapter from a novel. BONUS: Aaron Shepard's site has a video of The Chamber Readers reading one of his scripts; what a perfect way to provide a model for your students! 

Partner Reading

This strategy pairs two readers together with the same piece of text.  You can pair your students by listing your class in order from highest to lowest according to reading ability.  Then divide the list in half. Place the top student on the first list with the top student in the second list. Continue until all students have been paired up.

Students in the pairs will take turns reading the text, by dividing it into paragraphs, subheadings, pages, etc. The students can also read the text simultaneously (choral reading). I really like this strategy for reading within science and social studies books, which can be particularly difficult for students. However, you can use parter reading for any text.

Timed Readings

Timed readings are a systematic way for students to work on fluency, and it offers a great opportunity for students to monitor their own progress. Students are given a passage they have never read before.  They will complete a "cold reading", where they read for exactly one minute.  The total words read (minus certain errors) are counted and this is their "cold score", which they graph on a chart.  They then practice reading the passage and have opportunities to listen to it read by a fluent model. Following practice and modeling, the students will then complete a "hot reading", which is another one-minute session.  Again, they count the total words read (minus miscues) to find their "hot score".  Their hot scores are then graphed above their cold scores.  

I have several sets of close reading passages that include a format for timed reading with step-by-step instructions HERE.

5 Tips for More Effective Paragraph Writing


     Teaching paragraph writing can be challenging. Not only are there multiple components and a specific structure to follow, there are also factors involved like word choice, content, and writing style. Even though it's not easy, teaching writing is one of my favorite subjects! In this post, I'd like to share with you some tips that I've found to help make student paragraph writing more successful.

1. Use Mentor Paragraphs
One of the first things I do when I teach paragraph writing, is to share lots of paragraph examples with my students. The paragraphs I show the kids are ones I have saved from year's past or ones that I make myself. I make sure to take off student names and I like to type these so they're easy to read. We look at the paragraph examples (both good and bad) and see how they're organized, if they stay on topic, use some transitions, and have a good flow. We also look at the topic sentences and the conclusion sentences in particular, as starting and ending paragraphs can be difficult for many students. Sometimes I simply project the paragraphs using a document projector on the smart board, and other times I print them out and have the students circle certain items or highlight various parts.

2. Teach Paragraph Parts Specifically
Writing a paragraph is a little like an algebraic equation. We would never start teaching a complex equation by putting it in front of a child and asking them to master it without first teaching them basic math processes, like addition, subtraction, and multiplication, and then the Order of Operations. The same is true for paragraph writing. It is way too complex to expect students to master it without teaching them specific strategies for each part. I start by teaching students to outline and color code paragraphs using star ideas (more information here on this blog post), then move to topic sentences (blog post for topic sentences here), conclusions are next, as students can re-vamp topic sentences into conclusions (blog post on conclusions here), and we end with transitions to make our paragraphs flow (click here to read more about transitions).

3. Write a Paragraph as a Class
Writing a paragraph as a class may be fun or it can be tedious, but it is a step that is too important to skip. I make a deal with my students and tell them that if they stay with me and participate, that I will do all of the writing this time for them. I've never had a class fail to take me up on this offer (and I've had some challenging classes in my 20 years of teaching!). After introducing a topic, I stand at the Smart Board and step by step, call on students who dictate sentence ideas to me, which I write down for everyone to see. By composing a paragraph step by step, you are reinforcing the basic paragraph recipe and modeling some of the thinking that goes into writing along the way. Things like staying on topic, using sentences of varying lengths, choosing synonyms for certain words to add variety and so on.

4. Choose Paragraph Topics Carefully
Once students have looked at lots of paragraphs, have had a chance to practice each part of a paragraph multiple times, and have worked together on a class paragraph, it's time for them to write paragraphs on their own...yikes! It always scares me a bit but I'm usually pleasantly surprised by what they're able to do at this point.

When you ask students to write paragraphs, one of the things I've found to be very helpful is if you can choose topics which fall in these categories:

  • Shared Experiences: Any time your whole class does something interesting together, you have a prime topic for a paragraph. Perhaps your class went on a field trip to the zoo, planted a school garden, had an interesting assembly...These authentic experiences can give students lots of concrete ideas from which to write.
  • Common Interests/Background Knowledge: I also like to assign paragraphs based on topics which all students have experience. For example, My Favorite Place or My Favorite Season or My Best Friend or One Person I Admire... Most children would be able to draw on their background life knowledge to create a paragraph for any one of these. My Favorite Vacation or The Best Amusement Park, however, wouldn't work well as not everyone in the classroom has had experiences such as these.
  • Engaging Topics: When you can hook students by offering them an idea that they consider "fun", you will have a better chance of getting some quality work. Topics like If I Were the Principal or If I Had One (or Three) Wishes or My Dream Pet... 
5. Practice Paragraph Writing
It may go without saying but once students have completed a round of intense paragraph writing training, they'll need to practice periodically to keep skills sharp. I love to spiral as many concepts as possible in my classroom and paragraph writing is no different. 

If you're looking for an easy to way have paragraph writing materials at your fingertips, I love using this Paragraph Writing Bundle. Not only does it have plenty of practice pages for each part of the paragraph, it is a no prep tool that you can use tomorrow in your classroom.

Thanks so much for stopping by! Please let me know if you try any of these tips!


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Properties of Two Dimensional Shapes

Create and Compare Two Dimensional Shapes - FREE Shape Riddles

In this post I will go over some activities that we completed in my classroom in order to cover the third grade standard 3.G.1. I hope you will be able to take some of these ideas and complete them with your own students. :)

Third Grade Geometry - Classify and draw shapes based on their attributes

Before analyzing shape attributes, I made sure my students understood some basic geometry information. We went over shape names, how to count the number of sides (easily done by counting the vertices), and basic vocabulary words (line, line segment, point, ray). If your students need practice on basic geometry vocabulary, click here to download a free printable pack

During small groups, I had my students choose two random shapes from their baggie.  They then compared and contrasted the attributes on a dry erase dot. It helps to have an anchor chart with key geometry terms you want the students to use. 

This activity was a total hit. I gave my students a riddle, and they wrote down the clues on their dots. They then used the geoboards to build their shape. This is a great time to share, because there could be more than one answer.

For example, the clues for the shape above (2 pairs of parallel lines and 4 right angles) could be a square or a rectangle. I also liked the riddle of "I am a shape with 4 sides and only one pair of parallel lines". Students enjoyed sharing their different trapezoids.  The picture below shows a rhombus, but I liked to tell the students to erase the second clue (0 right angles) and show what other shape it could be (square/which is also a rhombus ;) ). A link to the free riddle cards is found at the end of this blog post.

I saved these 'interactive' notebook activities for last. Students need to first hold shape patterns. They need to create shapes before completing just paper and pencil activities. The interactive notebook activity below was a great success. Again, it helps to have an anchor chart displayed with geometry terms you want your students to use.

 One students have a clear understanding of geometry vocabulary (types of lines, angles, shape names), I would ask students to categorize several shapes into categories based on their attributes. Their answers all will vary and it's important to give them time to share with each other.

I hope you can take some of these ideas and use them in your classroom! Below is a list of resources pictured.

- Geometry Tri-folds: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th

How to Build Acceptance in Today's Classroom

Teaching acceptance in today's classroom is now more important than ever. As tensions run high across the world with various ethnic, religious and political groups, teachers are faced with dealing with a mainstream media and social media presence like never before. It is easy for students to get a hold of videos, text, or images that display hatred towards others. Parents play a crucial role in helping their children understand acceptance, but it still falls in teachers' laps on a daily basis. How do teachers go about teaching acceptance in a world of hate and fear? We will attempt to offer some tips and guidance as you try to instill kindness, empathy, and compassion into your students.

Accepting of Differences
Prejudice and discrimination are learned behaviors. People are not born with these behaviors. That is why it is our job as educators to teach acceptance of everyone. The home plays a significant role in a child's beliefs about others that are different than themselves. We have had students in the past whose parents do not share a view of acceptance of others that are different from them. So how do you, as a classroom teacher, handle a student that believes others are inferior to their race or culture? First, you have to develop a classroom community from day one and make it apparent that all students are equal and will be treated that way. A great way to do this is to have daily morning meetings with the class where students get to greet each other. They also get a chance to share about their lives and this is a great time for students to find connections with each other. Another aspect is to do cooperative games where your students have to work together.

Second, we do an activity called "My World" where students draw a circle with their name in big bold letters inside. Then, inside the circle they write/draw everything that is important to them. Many include family, pets, activities, and things that make them happy. On the outside of the circle they write down things that they don't want in their lives. Here is where topics such as bullying, discrimination, and prejudice come up. We discuss these negative things and how they have an impact on students' lives. Then we display these in the classroom on a bulletin board and leave them up for the year.

Third, we encourage students to work together in all subject areas. We use think-pair-share as a teaching strategy in which students discuss their thoughts/answers with one another before sharing whole group. We also use Math Talk as a means to communicate in math class. Students get a chance to listen to each other's ideas on how to solve problems and critically think and problem-solve together. In social studies, we do many cooperative group projects that lend to working together.

Fourth, we communicate frequently with parents regarding what is happening in the classroom. We want to keep the lines of communication open with families and use a weekly newsletter, notes in assignment notebooks and phone calls home to do this. We also try to send a positive letter home through the mail to each student at least once a year as well. The parents have to know that we are their for their children and that we will stand up for each and every one of them!

Fifth, we do a fun activity with students where they partner up and trace each other's hands on blank white paper. Then they ask five questions about each other (favorite food, color...) and write each response on one of the fingers. Then they color and decorate their partner's hand. We then display them in the classroom. It is fun to watch this process because students have great conversations with each other and also bond with their partner.

Acceptance is something that needs to be taught and we are hopeful that you can use some of the activities outlined above in your classroom.