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Silent Signals: Cups

As a literacy teacher, I work really hard to teach my students that when their reading does not make sense – when the meaning breaks down -- they cannot just keep going. They have to stop and repair the meaning, which means going back to where the reading last made sense and starting from there, using strategies to ‘fix the meaning’ as they move forward.

One difficulty reading teachers face on a daily basis is finding the time to assess students’ thinking and understanding. We do not know what students are thinking unless they tell us – so we don’t always know when the meaning has broken down for students -- and many students will not verbalize their confusion or lack of understanding. The older students get, the less likely they are to help us know when they are confused and need support. In fact, many students would rather appear belligerent than appear confused . . . which often leads to behavior problems. Students act out as a strategy to mask their difficulty grasping academic content.

One resolution to this dilemma is providing students with silent signals they can use to communicate that they need help. Just as many of you already do with behavior management, using silent signals is a fabulously effective strategy to use with literacy! Silent signals allow you to monitor many students at once. They also provide a safe and non-threatening way for students to communicate with you without the risk of drawing too much unwanted attention from their peers.

Silent signals also help students be more engaged in their reading and teach them to use metacognitive skills (thinking about their thinking) more effectively.

One silent signal you can use effectively with literacy is to provide each student, table, or group with a set of red, yellow, and green cups. Students move the cups to indicate their understanding of the passage being read.

Green = I understand this well.
Yellow = I’m starting to get confused. Can we talk about this?
Red = I’m totally lost and I need help. Can we stop and back up?

Providing students with silent signals helps them assess their own thinking and understanding and it helps you assess several students at once so you have a better understanding of when to keep going and when to stop and provide your students with help and support!

Happy Reading!


  1. Dear Sherri,
    This is such a great idea! I sure wish I would have had such a system in place in some of my high school classes, especially algebra and geometry. I was so confused and lost but didn't want to raise my hand. I was embarrassed that I didn't understand. Your students are sure lucky to have you! You are so considerate of them and want them to feel that their classroom is a safe environment. They need to feel safe from embarrassment and loss of self esteem. I think this is an awesome idea. I am thinking about trying it with my firsties as well!

    1. This really is a gem . . . such a small thing, yet it empowers students to communicate when they would typically try to hide their confusion. I'd love to know how it goes with your firsties . . . I LOVE that you are constantly thinking of how to adapt ideas and activities for them! If I had a first-grader, I'd definitely want him or her in your class!!

  2. Love this idea!! Thanks so much for sharing it, Sherri. It is such a simple and clear signal. This can be used in so many grade levels! :)

  3. I love this system, and it works so well with kids! It does remind me of a funny story though! I taught a technology camp for teachers a few summers ago, and one teacher in my class was very technology timid, and very attention needy. She used the cups appropriately the first day, but for the rest of the time, she attached the red one to her head! Even she had to admit that it was pretty silly and "over the top"!


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