Inferring Vocabulary

Kids can latch on to words in the most incredible ways. And second language learners really keep a teacher thinking.  As an English speaker, I give almost no thought to words and phrases we use every day that have multiple – and often unrelated connections – to meaning.  As a teacher of ELLs, however, that becomes part of the plan for each lesson. And as a teacher of a classroom made up of nearly three-quarters English Language Learners, it is a way of life.

This week, as we explored inferring unfamiliar words, that last point was brought to the fore with the following exchange:

Did China people eat off special plates on the Titanic?

This question did make me stop and wonder for several seconds – what in the world was this kid referring to? We had just finished looking for text clue to help infer the meaning of demitasse found in an article we were exploring from Harvey and GoudvisComprehension Toolkit Source Book entitled  “Titanic’s Legacy“. Where was this question coming from?

As it turns out, the question was not so out-of-left-field as I thought at first. One of the other illustrations found on the page we were studying was of a “China Serving Plate”. Which led us to a whole tangential discussion of the word “china”.

Never underestimate the power of words. Or the challenge of vocabulary.



I used to love the month of January. Not the weather, the concept of the month.

It was a month for new beginnings. For resetting classroom routines. For trying out something new.

Not any more.

Now January is a month of drudgery. Of test. After test. After test.

This week, I mapped out all of the assessments being required of my fourth grade students. It was shocking to write them down in one place: 2 days of ACCESS testing for my ELLs plus 15 minutes per student for the ACCESS Speaking subtests (about another day), Math pre- and post- module tests, Math Benchmark test, Scholastic Reading Inventory, Science District test, Scholastic Math Inventory, and a Writing On Demand test.

That’s 10 mandated tests in 20 days. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

January used to be fun for kids and for teacher. It used to be full of teachable moments. Of going outdoors on a cold day and exploring what happens to bubbles when you expose them to cold. Of celebrating the 100th day of school by pretending it was 100 degrees outdoors.  Not any more.

Now January is a month of tests. I dislike January. A lot.


Text to Self Connection

When I was an undergraduate, practicing piano or flute was a drudgery that I could barely tolerate. I put in what I needed to put in to get through a performance, and, given that I was an adept reader of scores, that was pretty minimal.  I can recall sitting in several Form and Analysis classes and wondering how the heck I could cut it without affecting my grade.

This winter, as I have begun to become reacquainted with my piano, I’ve been mentally revisiting those music analysis classes. And I’ve discovered that while I struggle to activate the muscle memory for reaches on keys that I used to be able to just do, I’ve missed some things. I have been so focused on playing the notes accurately I have missed the nuance.

When I finally reached a level of note-playing that I could pay attention to the meaning of the melodic line, it was very freeing. Suddenly (well that’s not the right word!) I could hear what the piece should sound like. I understood.

And isn’t that exactly what happens with readers and writers. Our struggling readers and writers do their best to decode and mimic the writing elements of a genre. We offer up mentor texts, but unless we can take the time to analyze these texts with depth (and rigor), the students can only uncover the basics.

I think we try to do too much too quickly these days. A mile wide and an inch deep should not be the curriculum model we aspire to. Students need time and guidance to understand and to write agilely.

My connection? Learning to play a piece of music, moving beyond simply playing the score accurately, is very much like reading and writing.

Cooking and the Zen of Teaching

Since it is a vacation week, I find I have time to do a little cooking. Cooking is something I enjoy, but for 10 months of the year (and you can draw your own conclusions about which 10), I have little time to do it well. Hence the lack of posting on my other blog.

One of my less endearing habits is that I tend to latch on to the latest and greatest cooking gadgets. Oh how I love getting a catalog from William Sonoma, Sur la Table or Crate and Barrel.  I could spend significant time (and money) in those stores.

So what does this all have to do with education? Well, as I was chopping up some parsley this evening, I pulled out a kitchen gadget that I haven’t used in years – a parsley chopper.

As I started to roll my rediscovered gadget on a handful of beautifully fresh Italian parsley, the darn thing just would not cut. It mangled, it left cut marks, but it did not do the job anytwotoolswhere near as efficiently or as well as if I had just simply used a knife and chopped by hand; which is exactly what I ended up doing minutes. later.

This seems like a metaphor for the current state of education. Teachers all are given – and forced to use – some new gadgets or tools to improve their “performance”: a data collection program, a new curriculum.

New ideas aren’t all bad, but with increasing frequency it seems that a lot of the new gadgets meant to help educators might just be meant to help some corporation bottom line first. Those are the ideas – and gadgets – we need to be wary of.

This week I heard a fantastic quote by one of my education heroes, Richard Allington. The quote said “if your teachers need a test to tell them how their kids are doing, then you hired the wrong teachers.”

To which I’d like to add and if you need a gadget to teach, then perhaps you’ve hired the wrong teacher as well.