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Is Cursive Writing Becoming a Lost Art?

When I was an elementary student in the 70s (no comments form the peanut gallery, please!) penmanship was taught and practiced daily. I enjoyed penmanship class and on non-school days, I filled spiral notebooks with cursive writing -- I wrote out the states and capitals, the presidents, long lists of prepositions, the Gettysburg Address -- just because I enjoyed practicing my penmanship! (Yes, I was that student!) 
It's not unusual in today's educational and political climates to hear heated debates about the demise of cursive writing in today’s educational system. Opponents of Common Core lambast the Initiative for omitting cursive writing from its teaching expectations. Some say cursive is obsolete in a digital world. Others argue that the demise of cursive indicates the demise of education in our country. Some argue that students will not be able to read historical documents. Others counter that they will not need to -- they will be able to quickly and easily find the contents of historical manuscripts online.

I once taught in a K-8 school that taught only cursive writing from Kindergarten on. In addition, students were only allowed to write in cursive. None of the students were allowed to write in manuscript at any time -- ever.

I asked many questions about this. I was told to watch toddlers scribble and "write" -- when toddlers scribble, they always use cursive-like loops and connected rounds. Toddlers generally don't scribble in solitary circles and sticks. As far as physical dexterity, cursive is more natural for children to form than manuscript.

Research also shows that cursive writing increases hand-eye coordination and engages creativity in the brain in a way that manuscript does not. In fact, there is an entire movement called "Cursive First" that puts forth research claiming that teaching children to write in cursive before they learn to write in manuscript increases their reading skills later on and decreases dyslexia issues. Regardless of one’s stance on this data, extensive research proves that teaching cursive first definitely eliminates letter reversals.

I asked how students learn to read if they never learn to write in manuscript, as all the books they read are in manuscript. The answer: It just wasn't a problem -- because all the books students read from were in manuscript, they just naturally connected reading to manuscript and writing to cursive.

In that particular school, I never taught penmanship in my sixth grade class. I didn’t need to . . . every student had beautiful, easy-to-read cursive penmanship -- an English teacher's dream! -- but it had been expected of them since Kinder. Every year, every teacher expected legible writing on all assignments and students who wrote illegibly had to re-do the assignment . . . 100% of the time. Because high expectations were consistent and regularly enforced, illegible writing was a non-issue school-wide. (Incidentally, and perhaps irrelevantly, that school has tested in the top 5% of their state at every grade level for 20 years, with zero exceptions.)

Since leaving that school, reading students' writing is often the bane of my day. I still don't teach penmanship -- there's just not enough time in the day. In Middle School, I'm squeezing reading, writing, literature studies, poetry, and spelling into a 50-minute ELA block. I literally don't have a minute to spare for penmanship; therefore, I tell my students to write in whatever their neatest writing is. Today, I don't care if assignments are in cursive, manuscript, or word-processed -- I care whether or not I can read them!
I definitely print in manuscript much more often than I write in cursive because so many of my students -- and their parents! -- claim that they cannot read cursive. In that sense, cursive is definitely becoming a lost art. Only time will tell whether or not this "lost art" has a significant impact on education as a whole.

What are your experiences with cursive writing? Do you feel it should still be mandated in our schools? Why or why not? I look forward to reading your opinions!
Happy Writing!

Use Audiobooks to Build Fluency and Comprehension

Have you discovered audiobooks? Are you using them regularly with your child(ren) and your students? Audiobooks, or recorded books, have exploded in popularity since the days of clunky cassettes and scratchy CDs. Today, you can download audiobooks for your classroom computer, iPod, iPad, Kindle, Nook, or Smartphone . . . meaning almost everyone has an audiobook player in her pocket! 
With engaging narration, background music, and even sound effects, audiobooks have become a staple of “digital entertainment” . . . which is fabulous news for teachers for two reasons:

1 – Audiobooks can hook reluctant readers, helping them fall in love with an author, a series, or a genre! Students who have the misperception that they hate reading quickly change their attitudes when they discover audiobooks! Teachers can harness the power of audiobooks to help students increase their interest and engagement with captivating stories, then use the printed book and the audiobook simultaneously to get students reading! When students are really engaged in a story and they cannot access the audiobook for any length of time, it’s amazing how quickly they want to grab the printed book to pick up where the audio recording left off!

Use audiobooks to help struggling, reluctant, or second-language readers discover books they love, and then give them a hard copy of the book to read while they listen. Soon, your reluctant readers will become motivated readers!

2 – Audiobooks help students build fluency! Fluency is not about being able to read a lot of words accurately and quickly. It is about using our voice to give meaning and feeling to the words. We do this by pausing appropriately at punctuation and –most importantly – making the words on the page come alive!

Fluency is a difficult skill to teach and nearly impossible to teach without modeling, modeling, modeling . . . of course, the problem is teachers do not have time to model every day for each student at his or her reading level and with books (s)he is specifically interested in . . . that is exactly what audiobooks do! They model fluency in a way that teachers just do not have time to do every single day!

If you are working on fluency with your child or your students, audiobooks can be your best friend! However, they must be used in a unique way to build this skill:

Have the student listen to an audiobook they are really interested in while reading the printed book at the same time.

Periodically, have the student rewind the recording and read a section of the book aloud while listening to it. Prompt the student to make his voice match the voice on the audio recording.

Students must be listening to the audiobook, looking at a hard copy of the book, and reading the book aloud all at the same time. Fluency is modeled and students are practicing with a better understanding of what their voices should sound like when they are reading fluently. Ideally, struggling readers will practice fluency skills this way every day. Start with a minute of reading aloud and gradually increase their time to five minutes a day. Students will listen to audiobooks much longer, of course – these few minutes are strictly their time to focus on and practice fluency skills.

Additional Bonuses:

Audiobooks can help students hear the correct pronunciation of words or phrases that are difficult to decode, often providing students with an “a-ha moment!”

Students are absorbing the printed text with a variety of senses and modalities, dramatically increasing their understanding of the text, as well as their ability to remember details of the text for a longer period of time.

Audiobooks can help readers understand and appreciate texts that are above their independent reading level – this is vitally important if you are working with older readers reading at beginner levels.

As fluency and decoding skills increase, comprehension skills naturally increase!

Audiobooks allow teachers to differentiate instruction for several students a day in a way that secondary teachers usually do not have time for.

The use of audiobooks in primary and intermediate grades may be common; unfortunately, it is nearly non-existent in middle school and high school. If you’re not using audiobooks as one tool to help struggling, reluctant, and second-language readers, give them a try . . . they can be one of your most powerful tools in helping adolescent readers become better readers!

Happy Listening!

How Do I Know My Students’ Reading Levels?

Okay . . . so students need to be reading at their Instructional Level in order to learn new skills. How do I know what their Instructional Level is?
Trust me . . . this is not a dumb question! Most primary teachers assess their own students reading levels. Intermediate teachers (say 3rd -5th grade) most likely assess their own students or have a Reading Specialist or a Literacy Coach who helps assess students. Beyond that – in Middle School and High School – the vast majority of teachers probably have no idea about their students’ reading levels. This makes no sense, as those grades are significantly important for increasing reading strategies. If students leave high school with little or no help, they are not likely to get help. Ever. So, once a child hits middle school, we only have a few years to help them put more strategies in their toolbox . . . yet, those are the very years that most teachers don’t know their students’ reading levels and don’t know how to help students who are reading below grade level. Help!?!
I’m going to fill my blog with strategies to increase students reading skills and help . . . but first things first: You have a struggling reader or a resistant reader. How do you assess the student’s Independent, Instructional, and Frustration reading levels so you can help him move forward? Here are a few ideas . . .
1 – Get ahold of the student’s elementary teachers and ask for the most recent reading assessments, including grade levels. Every student should have records somewhere. Depending on the school district, some students may have been assessed as recently as 5th or 6th grade . . . other students may not have had a reading assessment (to determine grade level) since 3rd grade. But track down the most recent records possible. Scour the records for grade-level, reading-level, and the reading strategies the student was most recently working on.
2 – If your district has a Reading Specialist or a Literacy Coach, ask this person to assess your struggling student(s) and give you a copy of the results in writing. Even if the person in this position does not work in your building or with your grade level, (s)he may be willing to help. Approach this from a student-centered perspective: “I have some students who seem to be reading below grade level. I want to help them, but I need to know what level they’re reading at so I know the best way to help. I know you are beyond busy, but this is out of my area of expertise. Can I recruit you to help me assess their reading levels so I can help these students make greater progress this year? I’ll do all the work afterwards . . . I just need to know their current reading levels so I have a place to start.”
Be the squeaky wheel until you get a reply. Of course, it may help to accompany your request with a couple of nice tea bags, a pack of colorful sticky notes, a mini candy bar, or a can of soda. Something that communicates to this teacher, “I know you’re busy and I’m asking you to go out of your way to help me help my students. I really appreciate your willingness to help. Here’s a small token of my appreciation.”
3 – Find a reading tutor who may be willing to volunteer to assess your students and give you the results in writing in exchange for a recommendation letter for his or her tutoring business.
4 – Contact a local college or university and ask if their education students – those who are in a course on literacy or teaching reading -- can come to your class for half a day to help assess your students’ reading levels. Many college professors would jump at the opportunity to give their students such real-world practice.
5 – If all else fails, you can try to on-line assessment available through Reading A-Z, found here:

One thing to keep in mind with on-line assessments or do-it-yourself assessments is that you really need to understand how to complete a Running Reading Record. There is a skill to completing these accurately. The above website has a link to help you review or teach yourself . . . however, if you have not been formally trained in Running Reading Records, your results will not be completely accurate. If you’re in a position in which you really have no other resources, then a close approximation of a student’s reading level is better than no knowledge whatsoever.
Don’t be overwhelmed or intimidated! It takes a bit of time and effort to learn your struggling readers’ instructional reading levels . . . but the payoff is HUGE! Once you have answers, you can meet your student where she is at . . . which means you can help her move forward and actually learn new skills and strategies to increase her reading ability! Nothing is more rewarding for a teacher or more life-changing for a student than that!
Photo used with parental permission

Here's the Deal about Reading . . .

Literacy teachers classify a student’s reading level into three categories:

Independent Level

Instructional Level

Frustration Level

A child’s independent level includes everything (s)he can read accurately and comprehend easily without help, while frustration level includes the texts (s)he struggles to read accurately and comprehend easily. Literacy teachers would classify frustration level as texts a student reads with less than 95% comprehension. Frustration-level reading should be avoided, as it just leads to students attaching negative emotions to reading. You know your student is reading at her frustration level when you start hearing comments such as: “I hate reading!”

If you frequently feel your child or your students are reading books that are too easy, take heart! We should encourage our students to read at their independent level every day, because this is where they build fluency and confidence!

However, to learn new skills and strategies, students must read in that sweet spot – that level that is just above independent, but not quite at frustration. It’s a delicate balance . . . and so often missed in upper grades. Parents want their children reading at grade level, so they give them grade-level books and reading materials. Teachers want them reading at grade level, so they use grade-level materials to try to teach students new skills. But no matter how many books they read and no matter how many times they read the same passage, students who are not reading at grade level are not going to gain new skills by reading numerous grade-level books. If we are going to teach new skills and strategies, we must teach them above a child’s independent reading level and below their frustration level!

So, there’s your insider tip for the day: meet them where they’re at to move them forward! You cannot teach a child to improve his reading skills unless he is working at his instructional reading level. But wait . . . how do you discover a child’s instructional reading level?! If you have tips, please share them in the comments section. Otherwise, stay tuned for the next post . . .

Happy Reading!

About Me

Welcome to my blog! My name is Sherri and my blog comes to you from beautiful Western New York. I have many interests, including photography, theatre, bird-watching, scrapbooking, crafting, reading, journaling, volunteering, fundraising for community non-profits, curriculum writing, and various other curiosities and hobbies . . . but above all, I am an educator who is passionate about literacy!

As an educator, I have quite a diverse experience, teaching grades 3-12 over the past two decades. Most recently, I have enjoyed teaching 7th and 8th grade English Language Arts, integrating Social Studies and Science as frequently as possible. As a teacher, it is my belief that literacy is the foundation of all learning! When students are better readers and writers, they are better able to think and to communicate their thoughts, resulting in increased performance in all subject areas!

Literacy is the most significant skill needed to function effectively in school, in the workplace, and in society. It is vital to a successful education, career, and quality of life. Literacy also enables students to become active and independent thinkers and lifelong learners, which is empowering! When people are able to function at high levels of literacy, doors of opportunity are opened for them that would not be available otherwise. Above all, literacy is FUN! It feels fantastic to finish a good book, to learn something new, to fall in love with a newly-discovered series or author, or to escape the day-to-day stresses of life by jumping into a brilliant novel!

American singer and songwriter Grace Slick said, "Through literacy, you can begin to see the universe." Nothing is more exciting to me than broadening my students' universes by getting them hooked on a fabulous book, a wonderful series, an amazing author, or a notebook full of blank pages just waiting for the student's own writing! So join me on a journey of inspiration, motivation, and affirmation as I strive to help you help your children and your students fall in love with literacy!

Why Blog?

As an educator, I have three college degrees, five areas of certification, and two decades of teaching experience. I have taught in private schools, charter schools, and public schools in four states. I believe one of the dirty little secrets of education is that unless they have a Master’s Degree in Literacy, many teachers do not know how to teach students to be better readers and writers. Some teachers realize this and do whatever it takes to find professional development courses and workshops that will help them learn these skills. Other teachers learn as they go, picking up a few strategies here and there and passing them along to students, never fully mastering the art of teaching literacy skills. Sadly, many teachers read and write with their students every day, muddling through as best they can, but never actually teach reading and writing skills . . . not because they do not want to teach these skills, but because they truly do not know how to teach reading and writing. In my experience, teaching students how to read and write well is simply not taught well in most undergraduate courses and only taught in graduate courses if one’s degree is in some sort of literacy program. There are exceptions, of course, but a good number of teachers are in this predicament -- especially those who do not teach primary grades.
Photo used with parental permission
My teaching experience has been in grades 3-12 and I admit: I did not fully understand how to teach reading until I obtained a Master’s Degree in Literacy – nine years after I started teaching! At that point, I was teaching seventh and eighth grade English Language Arts and the skill of understanding how to teach reading transformed my teaching! I was a good teacher those nine years -- but I was not one of those great teachers who could actually help my middle school students increase their reading skills and progress one or two (or more!) years in their reading abilities. With a degree and certification in Literacy, I had finally acquired a toolbox of tips and strategies to help adolescent students who were struggling readers! My good readers became great readers, my struggling students started making progress by leaps and bounds, and I discovered the joys of teaching students literacy skills that would open a whole new world of opportunities over the course of their lifetimes!
Photo used with parental permission
There is a myth in education that in grades K-3, students learn to read and in grades 4-12, they read to learn. The fact is, most students in grades 4-12 are still learning literacy skills and there are many strategies and concepts we can teach to help secondary students become better readers and writers!

I decided to blog because I believe I have something unique to offer. My blog is not intended to be a journal of day-to-day teaching experiences. Rather, this will be an outlet for me to share ideas, tips, tools, and strategies meant to help you teach your students – or your own children – how to develop and improve their reading and writing skills! I will offer a conglomeration of insider tips and strategies, book reviews, writing prompts, curriculum reviews, and educational ideas and philosophies – a virtual toolbox of teaching tips to help you elevate your teaching of literacy skills to a whole new level! Thanks for joining me on this ride . . . here we go!!!
Photo used with parental permission

Thank You . . . and a Dedication

I’d like to dedicate this blog to my family and friends who have believed in me and supported me on every step of my journey as an educator, a business owner, and now a writer! I am truly grateful for your words of encouragement, inspiration, and affirmation! Few people in this world are as fortunate as I am to be surrounded every day with love and support, and I thank you!
I’d also like to dedicate this blog to the many teachers who care so deeply about their students and work so diligently to set them up for success, now and in the future. As rewarding and fulfilling as it is, teaching is truly one of the most difficult, challenging, and misunderstood jobs a person can have. Absolutely no one can understand all you do and all you deal with unless they have been a classroom teacher themselves. I applaud you, I appreciate you, I honor you, and I dedicate this blog to you. May the ideas, tips, and strategies you find here brighten your day, encourage your heart, and save you a bit of extra time to spend nurturing yourself and your relationships with your own family and friends! Thank you for the countless ways you make our world a better place every day by being a teacher!

I'd also like to thank Teachers Pay Teachers (TpT) for providing me with a top-notch open marketplace where I can make  my Middle School English Language Arts and Classroom Management resources available to other teachers! I'm over-the-moon grateful for the many opportunities being a TpT Seller has brought into my life . . . blogging being one!

So, without further ado . . . here we go!

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