Facilitating Discourse for English Learners

Discourse, the language teachers and students use to communicate, might appear new due to its rise in popularity in professional developments, the Common Core State Standards pertaining Listening and Speaking, as well as their inclusion in quality reviews (in NYC, it is Quality Review indicator 1.2b and c)

However, discourse has been studied since before the 1930s and there are several key points to consider when facilitating discourse for all students, especially for students who are acquiring a new language alongside learning new content, such as English Learners.

Discourse Student or Teacher?

Discourse not only involves the questions that teachers ask, but also our students’ response. By limiting discourse to input, which is characterized by student listening, we are not leveraging the power of conversations as informal word learning opportunities (Blachowicz and Fisher, 2006).

Unfortunately, studies, such as the 2003 National Center For Education Statistics study on classroom talk, showed that most of the talking is done by teachers.

This example shows limited discourse.

Initiation Teacher initiates talk
Response ONE student responds
Evaluation Teacher evaluates the response

Clearly, most of the thinking is done by teachers. So, here are a couple of ideas to scaffold discourse.

Simultaneity: Everyone participates. When learning new words or directions, leverage the power of simultaneity. Simultaneity is simple and engaging and it simply means that every student is involved in repeating directions, new words, or sharing new ideas. When I use simultaneity, students are eager to add their voice to the collective sound. I share simple rules: 1. We all talk. 2. We stop when I clap. 3. We are quiet because it makes us sound in tune, like when yelling at a pep rally and taking turns yelling part of a chant.

Procedures: You have probably heard of the 10:2 rule, that for every 10 minutes of teacher talk, students should talk for at least 2 minutes. I actually believe that we can increase student talk beyond that ration. When I go over a procedure chart, such as how to pick a right book, I have students TELL me their ideas. I still want to guide them to what I believe is the most beneficial response, so I have students share their ideas to each in pairs and then select their best collective idea and share it with the class. This simple task involves evaluative thinking, students have to judge their own ideas (metacognition). Once we created our chart, we take turns teaching each other.

The University of Montreal (2015)  recently added more research verifying this language learning strategy: repeating to others boosts our verbal memory when done in the context of a conversation. So when we have class rules and procedures, have students take turns teaching those rules to each other. When the class is becoming rowdy, have students create an anchor chart in groups that reviews the rules and then invite them to teach the class. This strategy can be done with content as well.

Pronunciation: As an English Learner myself, I had to often take time to listen intently to others pronounce words so I could try to emulate their speech. I had to do this even in high school. In m Advanced Placement English class, I had to pay meticulous attention as to how to pronounce our vocabulary word ‘macabre’. This was before I could go to dictionary.com and listen to its pronounciation.

Our students need a safe zone to mispronounce words, to learn that mistakes are part of the learning process. This helps build their growth mindset. When teaching my students my last name, Mrs. Perot, I often use simultaneity by having them pronounce my name in unison. I often hear students pronounce “Perot” as “Peru”. Before having them talk to each other in a conversation while using my name to boost verbal memory, I have them practice saying “Perot” a couple of times together, giving them anonymity within the whole classrooms’ simultaneous pronunciation. This technique helps the shyest student practice in the anonymity of whole class instruction before small group discourse groups.

Sentence Frames and Sentence Starters help students learn and internalize syntax. Sentence frame provide more syntactic support as opposed to sentence starters, offering us, teachers the opportunity to differentiate our instruction to our English Learners, who are a heterogenous group of students.

I recommend starting the year with sentence frames and sentence starters for almost all classroom discourse, including how to ask to go to the restroom. This approach helps us treat all students as scholars and set our expectation of using complete sentence when speaking, such as: Mrs. _____ may I please go to the _____. Before setting the expectation of speaking in full sentences, I used to have students say: “I need to go” or “restroom”.

Entering/ Beginning English Learners

Provide more syntactic support to ensure accurate response and so students acquire sentence structure.

Example: Sentence Response Frame with options

 My best friend __verb +s  ______ to school _____how often?________.

                       walks                    every morning

                       rides her bike         sometimes

                       gets a ride          on Fridays

Intermediate/Advanced English Learners

build foundation for various types of writing:

    • personal narrative (I remember…)
    • fictional narrative (I imagine…)
    • informational writing (I observe…)
    • questioning (I wonder…)


Blachowicz., C. and P.J. Fisher. 2006. Teaching vocabulary in all classrooms. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

National Center for Educational Statistics. 2003. Highlights from the TIMSS 1999 video study of eighth-grade mathematics teaching. Retrieved March 26, 2006, from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2003/timssvideo/2.asp

University of Montreal. (2015, October 6). Repeating aloud to another person boosts recall. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 8, 2015 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/10/151006142422.htm

— Ilce Perot

Questions/Comments? Email: Ilce.LitLife@gmail.com

First Reading and Writing Units (with a special invitation inside..)

For many school districts, the beginning of September brings many challenges such as classroom setup, learning new students, and the inevitablethe truncated first few weeks.

There a few basic things all teachers want to accomplish like setting up routines, but most struggle with what topics or content should come first. If teachers are hesitant of starting a full unit because of holidays and schedules, providing an opportunity to teach students independence and how to make good book choices is a viable option.

Based on work from Pam Allyn and Jaime Margolies, here some ways to bridge writing and reading during the first month of school.


As we thinking about investing students in independent reading, we can begin the process by showcasing stories that emote feelings like happiness or bringing people together. After a read aloud, model where you keep your books and how you protect and care for the book. You can begin teaching of routines through whole class, independent, and partner reading. Depending on the age group and experience of students, you can track and monitor the amount of independent reading timepossibly increasing independent reading by increments of 5 or 10 every few days. A great investment strategy is invite guests from the community to talk about how books have influenced their goals or careers. Next, teach students the importance of quiet voicesmodel a read aloud using a one-inch voices.

During this time, students would practice sharing with a partner how words or phrases make them feel, begin touring the classroom library, and creating goals sheets on ways they would like to expand as readers.

As students begin to read more independently, model active reading strategies like how to sharing ideas with partners, rereading, and annotating. Other skills that can be taught are what to do when you finish a book and turn and talk.

Ultimately, we want to celebrate and knowledge the achievements of our students as often as we can. Provide dedicated time for students to reflect on their reading goals  and shout out students for their reading achievements or growth.

Reading Unit Goals:

  • Works well with partner to share reading
  • Identifies reading goals
  • Makes reading selection on their own


Have student generate a combination of webbing or life maps think about their lives and topics that interest them. Use these lists to show the  connection between your students lives and popular central ideas in literacy. Building this connection will excite and help clarify why their stories and lives are important. At this time, let students free-write based on what they have learned about central idea. Students should be exposed to different types of writing that shows how writers write about their unique passions. These should be used a mentor texts for students as they begin to develop writing folders.

Decide on which text type you would like your students to begin their writinginformational, narrative, or argument. If narrative is chosen, lessons about sequencing (exposition, setting, rising action, climax, resolution) are key to ensure the stories are developed.

We recommend showing the purpose for writing folders through examples of drafts ad finished pieces. Select a small writing task that will serve as a baseline for the beginning-of-the-year sample. Routines around partner talk will be reinforced in writing and teachers can start to modeling procedures for student-peer revising.

Similar to the reading section, you want to save time for students to be able to showcase their work either through gallery walks or students who select to read their writing samples. Another consideration is to break the class into small reading circles and trade stories to share.
Writing Unit Goals:

  • Writes for sustained periods of time
  • Generates ideas and topics independently
  • Understands how to manage writing folder

Taking the time at the beginning of the year to build community and investment in reading and writing will prove to have positive benefits in your classroom.

If you’d like more information on best practices in teaching reading and writing, or want to collaborate with other literacy professionals, attend the Rockland Literacy Professional Conference on October 24th! It’s sure to be an informative, productive and inspiring day.

Questions/Comments? Email Brian.LitLife@gmail.com

Determining Text Complexity

You’ve combed through your library. You’ve done your research. Finally, you have texts that will help push forward your unit concepts and be of high-interest to your students.

Now what?

Determining how to break open the wonderful world contained in a book can be a daunting task. Your book is full of many great lessons, literary features and ideas that you want to expose to your students. This easy-to-follow guide will give you several ways to break down a text so you can deliver the most meaningful instruction possible to your students.

There are three main ways of looking at text complexity. The quantitative, qualitative and reader and task considerations all determine how useful and appropriate a book or text is for your unit objectives. This post will focus on qualitative measures, as these seemingly ambiguous factors are often the most useful in determining what aspects of the text to teach and how.

There are four aspects that make up the qualitative measures of text complexity. Meaning and Purpose, Structure, Language and Knowledge Demands all must be considered when determining what parts of the text to teach to students and how to break down your lessons to ensure a full understanding of the book or text at hand.

  1.          Meaning/Purpose

The first thing to consider when determining how to access and teach a book is the layers of meaning present in a fiction text, or the author’s purpose in a non-fiction text. Determining if the author’s message is straightforward or obscured is the first consideration, as otherwise students wouldn’t access the essence of the text. If meaning or purpose might hold students back, consider delivering a few lessons around breaking down hints at the author’s meaning throughout the text so students can fully access the rich ideas found within the text.

  1.            Structure

                    Structure refers to the author’s craft moves of layout, timeline and information. If a story follows a straightforward, chronological order there wouldn’t be a need to have a teaching point or lesson around the structure. However, if a story jumps forward and backward in time, this structure would typically need to be previewed for readers. Similarly, if a non-fiction text has simple headings and subheadings that are easy to follow, your readers can likely access the text. However, if the non-fiction text has many footnotes or diagrams that contain information not found in the main text, you would likely direct your readers attention to these differences in structure.

  1.            Language

Determining vocabulary words and accessibility can sometimes feel overwhelming. How to choose from all the awesome, rigorous words in your properly-leveled text? Pay attention here to language that impedes meaning as well as Tier 2 vocabulary words. If a reader can figure out a complex word based on context clues, allow the reader to do this. If there is a complex word that isn’t easily defined by context clues, but also isn’t a useful word for students to know, consider defining it in the moment. The remaining meaty words are the words to choose from for vocabulary activities and lessons.

  1.            Knowledge Demands

Knowledge demands refer to the prior knowledge a reader would need to access the text. Sometimes, the inclination is to give background information on all aspects of the text. However, you must ask yourself: can my students glean this information without my telling them or setting them up? If the book provides enough details about the culture or topic that it’s about, or the information isn’t essential to the central idea of the text, there isn’t a need to conduct lessons around that topic. However, if there are cultural elements in a fiction text or content specific concepts in a non-fiction text that the text does not explain, consider devising a lesson or two around the knowledge demands of the text.

In the era of the Common Core, we are choosing rigorous, meaty texts for our students to dive into. This breakdown of text complexity will help ensure that our students are getting the most out of each text they encounter, and that we are teaching with purpose and meaning in mind. The below question bank is taken from our curriculum guide, Be Core Ready by Pam Allyn. It details questions you can ask yourself to determine the measures of text complexity. 


Contact: Talia.LitLife@gmail.com – I will always get back to you!

– – Talia Kovacs

Levels of Meaning / Author’s Purpose


  • What are the levels of meaning in this story?
  • What themes or lessons exist in this story?
  • Are the levels of meaning simple, or do they require some deeper analysis to access?


  • What is the purpose of this piece?
  • Is the purpose obvious to the reader or is it hard to figure out why it was written?
  • Who is the intended audience for this piece?



  • What is the structure of the story?
  • Is the story told in a simple, chronological format?
  • Does this story use a more complex structure such as non sequential storytelling or take liberties with manipulating time?


  • Is the information presented simply, without regard to specific formats unique to certain disciplines?
  • Is the information presented according to the complex structures of specific disciplines?
  • Is the structure common to the subgenre of informational text it represents?
  • Are multiple structures included?
  • Are the graphics easy to access or do they require more complex knowledge?

Language Conventions and Clarity

  • Is the language in the piece casual and easy to understand?
  • Is the language in the piece more academic or professional in nature?
  • Is the vocabulary in the piece complex or simple?
  • Is the language in the piece more literal, or are there heavy doses of figurative language?
  • Is the language in the piece modern or archaic?

Knowledge Demands

  • What tasks are required for interacting with and fully comprehending the text? Are they straightforward or do they require more analytical thinking?
  • Does the text assume a high level of cultural knowledge?
  • Does the text assume a high level of literary knowledge?
  • Does the text assume a high level of content knowledge?
  • Is the text rooted in common, everyday experience or does it rely on fantasy or imagination?

Three Strategies to Increase Engagement

Student engagement is a key indicator of the planning and thoughtfulness a teacher puts into the classroom. With the demands of teaching, it can be difficult to reflect and change our practices to increase student engagement and participation. Focusing on engagement gives students more opportunities to express their academic opinions and ideas. Once we have the attention of students, we can truly execute great lessons in a warm and positive environment.

According to research from Yazzie-Mintz, two out of three high school students report boredom at least every day in a class; only 2% are never bored in class. These numbers aren’t shocking, but provide an opportunity for teachers to actively plan out engagement in their classrooms.

We have provided three strategies that teachers should use as they revise or create lesson plans. These skills can be used throughout the lesson and are great practices from all ages of students.

Three Strategies for Engagement
1. Cold Call

Arguably, one of the oldest techniques and most commonly known, but the “cold call” is often used incorrectly. In order to effectively use cold calling, students must have your trust. Additionally, it can not be used as a classroom management technique. Students who are off-task should not be called on to respond to text or questions. This creates a message that sharing or speaking is punitive. Instead, use it to increase anticipation by pausing after posing a question. The opposite of cold call is pre-call where students alerted that they are going to be called on next or have time to gather their answer. Often used for differentiation or students with delayed processing issues.

2. Right is Right

This strategy is about pushing students towards the complete answer. As teachers, we often respond to partially correct answers from students and we add details to make it completely correct. In holding out for accurate answers, we set high academic parameters. A simple way to execute this is by asking students to repeat an answer with the appropriate academic language which expands comfort and vocabulary.

Phrases to use:

“I like the majority of that…”  

“Expand on that thought…”

“Chris, you’re 90% correct. Can you make your answer 100%?”

“That’s a great answer, but I want to know the next step.”

3. Call and Response

Call and Response is an efficient way to make sure students participate and recall key information in class. There are several variations that can help students achieve. Student are more likely to remember when an answer is repeated. If an individual child gives an answer, it is a good practice for the whole-class to repeat it. Call and Response can be great for review as well.  For instance, “Who is the main character in Diary of a Wimpy Kid? Call it out on three. One..two…three…” This practice is great after independent practice as well. Read out questions or problems from the in-class assignment and have the whole class answer. “The main idea in the short story is…All together on two.”

A combination of these strategies will definitely help increase retention and behavioral control in your classroom. Remember, these strategies can often be pre-planned in your lessons!

What are some strategies you use to ensure student engagement?

Questions/Comments? Write below or email Brian.LitLife@gmail.com. We will always get back to you within a week.

Classroom Engagement Techniques for the Beginning of the Year

Your classroom is finally set up. Desks are placed with room for collaboration and direct instruction, the walls are filled with inspiring quotes and informational posters. Pencils are sharp and erasers are whole. You have your yearly plan mapped out, your first few units sketched together and some great read-alouds in your back pocket.

At LitLife, we want to support you to deliver fantastic instruction to your students. However, even the best and most engaging instruction will only be effective if your students are invested in your classroom community and ready to learn.

These 5 quick tips will ensure that your students get every ounce of instruction you give.

  1.       Create Buy-In

Every person, no matter their age, works better with others when they are happy and feel that their needs are being met. Giving kids something to say ‘yes’ to makes your life as a teacher easier, as your students are already poised to learn and buy in to what you are saying. Your students should feel like they are an integral part of the classroom community.

Some concrete tips:
 Proactively explain to students that our classroom is a place for learning, where wrong answers happen and are encouraged because that’s what promotes learning.
Find out your students’ interests and connect learning to their lives

  1.      Monitor Tone

Often as teachers, we get caught up with our teacher voice and worrying about how we’re perceived to kids. Instead of putting on a cookie-cutter commanding voice, imagine you are talking to a peer in a formal setting. This will ensure that your voice is not coming off as too loud to too strict.  Students and colleagues alike appreciate when you are your authentic self.  No one wants to be talked down to, so ensure that your students feel cared for and respected by using a respectful tone of voice.

Some concrete tips:
Practice your formal, teacher tone in front of a mirror.
Tape record yourself and imagine you were talking to a colleague or giving a presentation to adults – would you want to be spoken to this way?

  1.       Positive Framing

People of all ages are more likely to comply with your directions and strive for greatness when they feel like they are already successful. There will be times at the beginning of the school year where your class is perhaps not listening to every word you say or you simply feel that things on the whole are not going very well. When these moments happen, it is very important to ensure that you are positively framing the situation, allowing kids to feel successful and also helping you to see the good.

Some concrete tips:
Rephrase your directions without the word “don’t.” For example: “don’t talk” can be rephrased as “remain silent.
If you feel kids aren’t listening to you, talk about the ones who are. For example: “I’m waiting for 10 of you to fold your hands” can be rephrased as “I see 5 kids already folded their hands and are ready to learn.”

  1.       Do Not Talk Over

The most important tool in your teacher toolkit is your voice. It is through your voice that kids will learn, will receive directions about working with each other and will respond calmly in an emergency. Therefore, it is imperative that your students understand that when you are speaking, your words are important and everyone is listening. The main way to get kids of all ages ingrained in this habit is through a teaching technique that’s at its core, something not to do instead of something to do. Do Not Talk Over. Simply put, if you hear a whisper or think it’s possible your class isn’t fully listening to you, stop talking. Talking over other voices leads to the impression that that is allowed in the classroom and also has the undesirable effect of making your voice get louder, diminishing your authority.

Some concrete tips:
If you hear a whisper while you’re speaking, interrupt yourself. Cutting yourself off mid-sentence is a powerful way of sending the message that your words are important.
Use quiet power. Instead of getting louder with your class, getting quieter and lowering your voice forces students to slightly strain to listen, often causing your class to get quieter as well.

  1.       Break the Plane

As teachers, we are performers. We must convey that we are running the show, that students can trust us with their learning. A great way to convey ownership over the classroom, especially at the beginning of the year before your community is fully built, is to break the plane and use proximity. Breaking the plane simply means that you don’t only stand at the front of your classroom while teaching. Moving around between rows, from the front to the back and teaching from the sidelines conveys leadership and warmth. This allows students to feel that they are taken care of and can trust that you will lead them down a path of learning all year.

Some concrete tips:
Teach from the back of the room. Having students turn to look at you creates visual compliance, allowing you to see that all students are following you.
Walk around the room as you speak, giving high-fives or stars on students papers. Getting immediate feedback and contact with teachers allows students to feel successful and remain on-task for longer.

Questions/Comments? Contact: Talia.LitLife@gmail.com – I will always get back to you within a week.

— Talia Kovacs

Creating Your Classroom Reading Collection (Classroom Library)

The beginning of the year is a great time to ensure that you and your students have adequate reading material for the year. In the past, you may have put in an order to your local bookstore or done a donorschoose. Now, with the abundance of reading material readily available to even the smallest readers, we at LitLife and Be Core Ready prefer to call the wealth of reading material a “Classroom Reading Collection.” Having a Classroom Reading Collection (CRC) allows you as the teacher to think of reading material not only as books, but as articles, online books, online blogs and other authentic reading experiences that we as adults take for granted. The more authentic and engaging, the more your students will feel invested in their reading experiences.

Your classroom reading collection is the most important collection of materials you will use all year for reading and writing lessons. It should support your teaching by providing high-quality examples of the types of texts you will highlight in your lessons, and it should mirror the Common Core Standards for your grade level. Most importantly, your classroom reading collection should be inviting and exciting for your students, providing them with rich and rewarding choices for their daily reading practice. As you organize your classroom collection, consider the following suggestions for groupings of texts:

Literary Text:

  • Historical Fiction
  • Realistic Fiction
  • Science Fiction
  • Fairy Tales
  • Myths
  • Mysteries
  • Adventures
  • Fantasy
  • Tall Tales
  • Fables
  • Legends
  • Animal Stories
  • Literary Magazines
  • Poetry Collections
  • Book Series
  • Author Collections

Informational Text

  • Informational Books and Articles
  • Human Interest Biographies
  • Autobiographies
  • Infographs
  • Blogs
  • Informational Magazines

Argument Text

  • Book, Movie or Product Reviews
  • Persuasive Articles
  • Social Media Posts
  • Editorials
  • Op/Ed articles
  • Letters to the Editor

Topics of Interest to Class:

  • Little Bill Books (or any series)
  • Books We’ve Read Aloud
  • Beverly Cleary Books (or any author)
  • Space (or any other topic)
  • Amazing Animals
  • Award Winners
  • American Heroes
  • Books about Amazing Girls
  • Famous African Americans
  • Books about Amazing Boys
  • Around the World
  • Crawly Creatures
  • Books that Have Movies
  • Books about Overcoming Obstacles
  • Funny Books
  • Last Year’s Class Recommendations
  • What We are Learning About Now
  • Recommended by a Classmate
  • Teacher’s Picks
  • Principal’s Picks
  • Star of the Week’s Picks
  • Books to Read When You are Sad
  • New on the Scene

Websites to Bookmark:

These are, of course, just examples. Your best bet is to know your students and your curriculum thoroughly enough to build a collection that matches both as well as it can!

Questions? Comments?

Comment Below or Email: Talia.LitLife@gmail.com – we will always get back to you within a week!

For further explanation, watch this informative video found on our Pearson Core Ready PD Toolkit:


Using Text Types for Unit Planning

As the school year comes to a close, it’s time to plan, reflect, and revise what our students are reading and writing. Planning a well-balanced scope and sequence can leave teachers feeling frustrated and concerned about the variety of text selection per unit or in a yearly calendar. In general, there are three text types that should be integrated throughout the year in all grades: informational, narrative, and argumentative. Ideally, each unit of study should include examples of each as we devise our themes or units.

Why is it important?

We want students to be able to see different types of texts are in service of themes. The other benefits of incorporating various texts includes increased engagement for students, exposure of more topics, and routinizing how all pieces of writing have a purpose—either to persuade, entertain, or inform. For teachers who have struggled with integrating nonfiction into their curriculum, this is a perfect opportunity to ensure a more balanced, real-world approach to literacy.

Let’s take a close look at these examples:


Elementary school units provide an ideal opportunity to use different types of text in unit planning. Primarily, lower grade units are thematic based using real objects, multiple modalities, and disciplines. For example, a 1st grade unit on underwater life. Begin with a read aloud of the nonfiction book, Do Animals Take Baths? As an all-about book, student begin forming questions around how animals live in the water. Following the all-about book, the teacher does a guided reading with a narrative book like Meet the Octopus by Sylvia James. Students are then asked to respond to an opinion prompt about  which underwater creature is their favorite.

Middle Example

A popular central idea in middle schools is coming-of-age. Students are able to use text-to-real world connections and generally, have opinions about self and maturity.  The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton represents realistic fiction as the narrative and contains strong examples of teenage problems. A potential essential idea could be if peer pressure can negatively affect how someone acts in public. To expose students to informational texts, an article from NPR entitled “Elephant Emotions” is presented as a close reading lesson. The article details how elephants can influence the behavior of other in their parade or herd. The argumentative text was a New York Times editorial, “Peer Pressure Can Be a Lifesaver”.

High School Example

One of the classic books taught in high school is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald . Over the years, it has remained a hallmark for its analysis of identity. The theme considered could be if it is possible to reinvent or escape your past. For argument, students could evaluate and state a claim about “6 Steps To Managing Your Online Reputation” by Forbes magazine. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, students read and response to an authentic New York Tribune from the 1920s. The informational text provides key facts about the lives, wages, and political climate during the period of The Great Gatsby.

The Common Core highly encourages that students have varying and diverse formats in their reading and writing. We suggest making this a part of your regular routine to keep rigor and investment high in your classrooms. Not only does this provide rich experiences and exposure for students, it will help you grow as a teacher as you navigate several texts based on similar themes and ideas.

– Brian Johnson