Stop #summerslide: Reading Comprehension (Middle School Edition)

The underlying principles for middle schoolers is similar to that of Elementary school students, but I require more frequent and more deep thinking from them (synthesis and making connections).  Here are my summer tips for middle school students (and some high schoolers, too).

Reading Comprehension Tips (Middle Grades)

General Tips/Thoughts

  • some middle school students who have difficulty with reading comprehension benefit from audiobooks, even if their fluency is adequate as this can reduce the cognitive load (“amount of brain” your students require), and it can help increase focus as wellimgres
  • by the middle grades, vocabulary is strongly tied to reading comprehension, so ebooks can be valuable as they allow students to listen to pronunciations and look up definitions of unfamiliar words
  • students may be frustrated by their inability to understand some texts, as by the middle grades, text complexity (how hard a book is) sometimes increases dramatically. You may need to “translate” some texts line by line (the way that “No Fear Shakespeare” translates the original text into more modern English)

Technology Tips

  • Provide as much context as you can for whatever students are reading. Educational videos can be found on, For fiction, look for play or movie versions of a book. For any text, use sparknotes or shmoop before students read a text to help their comprehension as they read, or after they read to double check their understanding
  • be consistent about what students should look for in a text. TWA is a mnemonic to helps students remember to Think before they read, While they read, and After they read (adapted from Mason, Reid, and Hagaman’s book, Building Comprehension in Adolescents). You can use this TWA Google Doc for fiction and non-fiction texts or this Google Form for TWA for non-fiction texts with adolescent readers. Other mnemonics are also available, but the main point is to have students consistently reading actively, and applying their reading strategies across texts and text types.
  • Middle school students and older students may also enjoy making book trailers. More than simply a slideshow of a book, it requires students to synthesize and make recommendations. Book trailer examples can be found on youtube, like this one for The Hunger Games or this one for The Fault in our Stars

Download the Stop #summerslide: Reading Comprehension (Middle Grades) handout and supporting materials here.

Stop #summerslide: Reading Comprehension (Elementary Edition)

As with reading fluency, many of my students who have difficulty with reading comprehension need explicit active reading instruction from a professional, but for all of the other days of summer, I encourage students to read, read, read (with a few stipulations, of course…)

Reading Comprehension Tips (Elementary Edition)

General Tips/Thoughtsgirl reading

  • Silent reading without reflection, conversation, or demonstrable application of active reading comprehension strategies does not help students who have difficulty with reading comprehension
  • Some students have difficulty with focusing on details, with others have more difficulty with the “gist;” similarly, some students have difficulty with literal questions (answering questions that are answered in the text), while others have more trouble with inferential questions (answers you have to infer or guess). Focus on the skills that are most difficult for your child, while also celebrating their strengths
  • use an active reading bookmark to remind them to ask questions, visualize, make predictions, make inferences, make connections, form opinions, and summarize (see example on the right; you can download the Active Reading Bookmark here)Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 5.05.07 PM
  • use post-its to ask and answer questions (ask questions at the end of a chapter – 1 can be a question you can already anScreen Shot 2015-06-08 at 5.05.00 PMswer, but 2 should be genuine questions to guide your reading). To the left is an example from the first chapter of Hoot.

Technology Tips

Support for these Active Reading Comprehension strategies can be found at the Institute of Education Sciences’ report on reading comprehension.


Download the Stop #summerslide: Reading Comprehension (Elementary Edition) handout and supporting documents here.

Stop #summerslide: Reading Fluency (Middle School Edition)

Continuing on my quest to stop #summerslide, below are some resources to share with upper elementary, middle school/middle grades students, and even high schoolers.

Reading Fluency Tips (Middle Grades)


Stack of booksGeneral Tips/Thoughts

  • reading fluency includes rate, accuracy, and intonation of reading. These can be worked on separately, or all together
  • almost all kids are helped by previewing what they need to read and re-reading what they have read. Teachers/parents can also give them pronunciations of words they expect to be tricky in advance (cueing)
  • acting/theater can help reading fluency as it relies on repeated readings and stressed intonation, but there are other ways of working on fluency. Thank you, technology!


Technology Tips

  • use TextHelp’s Fluency Tutor to listen to, record, and measure reading fluency. I’m working on a video to help parents and educators set this up, but in the meantime, play around with it at:
  • use audio books as you read:,, and are both great resources
  • use text-to-speech: most ebook readers come with these (Kindle, etc.), and all operating systems come with these (see how-to here); I particularly like iSpeech for Chrome
  • Podcastomatic turns blogs into podcasts, and then you can listen to them on the go
  • watch youtube with closed captioning turned on (see how-to here)
  • record yourself while reading (this can be done on a voice recorder on a phone, or through audio recording on Quicktime, or through the Chrome extension Screencastify (that records your whole screen, so he could make animations or slideshows to narrate!)
  • write a script, then make podcasts (can be informational or like a play) using podomatic, built-in audio recording devices, or Quicktime audio recording

You can also download a 1-page handout of Reading Fluency (Middle Grades Edition)

Stop #summerslide: Reading Fluency (Elementary Edition)

I have read several excellent articles about how & why summer slide happens, how we can prevent it, and why it is essential that we do. I will be linking to those articles in a new blog post soon.

In the meantime, I wanted to share some tip sheets that I have been providing for parents of students across age groups and disability types. My first is for how to help reading fluency at home, for elementary-aged students. Of course, I encourage making tips more individualized (I often add specific texts and “What to watch out for”‘s for my students).

Reading Fluency Summer Homework & Tips

Girl reading book in library
  1. Practice, practice, practice! Encourage reading aloud at home as much as possible, preferably on texts that are easy for them. Some opportunities include: – reading directions to a homework assignment aloud – reading aloud to a younger sibling – reading anything/anywhere: a cereal box! A sign on the subway! – reading aloud something they have already read (this also encourages multiple readings, which is another fluency-enhancing technique!)
  2. Break down long words into syllables. Students with difficulty with reading fluency also have trouble with “word attack,” which means knowing where to begin when they get to a new word. You can do one of two things:
    1. Read the word aloud, then have your child count how many times their mouth hits their hand (which should be placed under their chin)
    2. Cover all but the first syllable of the word, then have them read that (“sub”), then cover all but the first two syllables (subma), etc.
  3. Discuss words and word parts:
    1. explicitly discuss words/syllables: “‘submarine,’ because ‘sub’ means under… like in “subway,’ can you think of another sub word?”
    2. any connections between word parts and/or word meanings is useful (it doesn’t have to be meaningful word parts. It can be thinking of 3 words that end in “tion”)
  4. Intonation: punctuation is your friend • be explicit about how punctuation helps us read. Point out that we pause at commas and periods, sound excited (get louder) for exclamation marks, and our voice goes up before questions marks • model appropriate intonation 
  5. Pair auditory information with written information
    1. this can be done easily with audiobooks ( has a bunch of free books, has a lot for $14.95/month, and is also a wonderful source of audio books and other resources)
    2. have them follow along as you read aloud



You can also download a 1-page handout of the Reading Fluency Elementary.

Writing Letters to Poem Characters

In Honor of National Poetry Month…


I love to have my students write letters. Most of the time, they’re to real people…like the president…who always writes back! There is nothing more exciting to a child than getting a letter from the president, let me tell you. Letters are great because they make children know they have a voice. In addition to the president, I’ve had my students write to other such important people as their principal, their parents, and their siblings.

Sometimes, however, letter-writing is a means of expression, and as a way of feeling like they’re an authority on something. Ideally, the people they are writing to are real (and maybe anonymous? You could have a class-wide anonymous “Ask a Classmate” session). In lieu of organizing that, there are letters to characters.

As most of my students have difficulty with fluency, I sometimes like to use poetry instead of prose, since they are more willing to read it fluently (and out loud).


  • a compilation of poems (I picked 5 from Shel Silverstein that I really liked and which featured interesting characters, but maybe you want to focus on these “Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls” highlighted by Maria Popova, edited by William Cole, with illustrations by Tomi Ungerer, which includes the poetry of Shel Silverstein, A.A. Milne, Lewis Carroll, and Ted Hughes)
  • a letter writing template (I like the one on the third page of this template from TeacherVisions; in fact this whole activity is pretty cute, or use a Google Form with Awesome Table)
  • optional: envelopes, stamps that they can design (on stickers), a class mailbox


  • Read one of the poems. As you read, model your internal monologue of what you think about the character.
  • If you haven’t already done a letter-writing unit, create a list of possible greetings (to be displayed in the classroom) and a list of potential sign offs (to be displayed in the classroom). Explain that the body of the letter tends to include “ASA”: Ask, Share, Advice (often in that order, though not necessarily).
  • Model writing a letter from start to finish. Post this model for students to access.
  • Provide a packet of poems and letter templates. Have students send their letters through a pretend mailbox, or have them publish it in a class magazine or blog

This entire assignment can be done digitally through Google Apps for Education. I’ll share my example of Letter Writing to a Character using GAfE soon!


Letter to Jimmy Jett in Shel Silverstein's poem (with drawing and "Peace Out" greeting)

Letter to Jimmy Jett in Shel Silverstein’s poem (with drawing and “Peace Out” greeting)

letter to Reginald

Letter to Reginald form Shel Silverstein’s poem. A cute sharing of also being afraid of the dark.


#inthenews March 3

The New York City public schools have lifted the ban on cell phones in schools. While some are focusing on nervous moms, or coddled students, I’m simply excited that cell phones will be able to be used for educational purposes. Stuck? View these resources for tips about how & why to use cell phones in the classroom. More resources to come!

  1. 33 Interesting Ways to Use Cell Phones in the Classroom
  2. Four Smart Ways to Use Cell Phones in Schools from Mind/Shift
  3. How to Use Cell Phones as Learning Tools from Teach/Hub
  4. Have your students think of pros and cons of cell phone use and contribute to the conversation at
  5. The importance of being clear about expectations with students

What are your thoughts about the cell phone ban? How are you as a New York City classroom teacher being trained to keep up? Comment or tweet at me @julesteaches

#inthenews March 1

It was #thedress that broke the internet. What color was that dress, and what did it mean that we couldn’t all agree?


Some said it was a powerful statement about autism since it highlighted visual/sensory processing differences in a very real way, without saying one or the other way was “better.”


It reminded me of the first Brain Games segment in their very first episode. Pair a discussion of perception with that segment (watch it on youtube or Netflix!), and consider doing (and explaining) other illusions with your class.

What color is the top? What color is the bottom? Image Source

What color is the top? What color is the bottom?
Image Source


You can also use Google Forms to survey your class (or your school) about what colors they see, and incorporate it in a unit about statistics or technology. Google Forms are easy to make, and results end up in a Google Sheet (like an Excel document) for easy manipulation.


How are you using the news to teach?

Autism Spectrum Disorders: Supports & Technology Tools

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are surrounded by a lot of questions – from parents and educators alike. I spent several years working with students with a range of skills, but they all progressed, so I know that all kids can. One major obstacle is parents not knowing what information to believe, what to advocate for, and what they can do to help their kids. In response to these concerns, I wrote two #longreads for Noodle. One is about Out-of-School Supports for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, and one is about Technology Tools for kids with ASD. As always, questions & comments welcome!

Strengths of People with Learning Disabilities

I’m so proud of my article on about strengths of people with Learning Disabilities. I had excellent editors, and it’s certainly more comprehensive than the nugget it started from (on this site). Read it, share it, upvote it, comment on it, whatever you do, remember it as you work with students with learning disabilities.

Portrait of a Great Teacher

Great Teacher gets to work a few minutes early so she* can chat with the other Early Birds. Having one-on-one non-academic conversations with each student is crucial. This helps students feel respected, and in turn, it helps them respect you back (which reduces behavioral issues). Great teacher happily discusses her weekend with her students at a level that is appropriate for them, with language that is casual, but not in a way that makes Great Teacher seem dumb or ditzy.

Great Teacher takes attendance in an interesting way – there’s often a question of the day, which helps students show off their interests, skills, and creativity, and helps Great Teacher learn more about her students so that she can gear her instruction towards them better. It also helps her get a sense of their mood that day, see if a student looks particularly blue that day.

Great Teacher’s first period class starts off with some enticement that also activates’ the students’ minds. “Who remembers what we did last class?” Students stare blankly. Great Teacher then writes a fill-in-the-blank sentence on the board. “Whoever knows the answer, grab a whiteboard marker and write it in… and remember, there are at least 3 different answers, so more than one of you can come up.” 5 students run up to the front. There are only 2 markers, and the first student to grab a marker just stands there and reads the question.

“Hey, that’s not fair,” declare the little arbiters of good and evil.

Great Teacher waits for a moment, since she knows the students will not break into a physical altercation, and in fact, it’s healthy and appropriate for them to sort out their tiny disturbances. Indeed, 3 seconds later, another student who has gone up to the board simply requests the whiteboard marker and writes the first answer on the board. Drama averted.

“You took mine,” says another student who’s up at the board.

“Remember, there are two more answers,” reminds Great Teacher.

One more answer gets written on the board and then all the students sit down. But Great Teacher does not tell them the answer. No, Great Teacher does not teach helplessness. Great Teacher says, “You are all responsible for finding the last answer. I want to be able to call on any one of you for the answer. Think of all the resources you have…” Here, Great Teacher pauses while the students think about what resources they have, once again, reinforcing the fact that they all need to be active participants and she will not do all of the thinking for them.

“You can ask someone who knows, you can use your notes from last class, you can look in your workbook, you can use the computer at the back of the class.” By the time Great Teacher finishes this sentence, 4 eager hands have been raised. Great Teacher pauses for longer. All 4 hands are male hands, and she knows that girls often take longer to raise their hands (due to confidence-related issues, not brain functioning, don’t worry). Another 30 seconds and 6 more hands have gone up, 3 of which are female. Great Teacher calls on a student who rarely raises his hand.

Great Teacher makes eye contact, but then buys him some processing time to make sure his phrasing comes out okay by re-reading the sentence on the board and the two correct answers on the board. This also helps other students who prefer to process things auditorily.

Finally, the student answers, but that’s not all. Great Teacher wants to know how he knew the answer. He shares that he looked in his notes, and then also checked with his seatmate to make sure he was right. Great Teacher has not only activated prior knowledge in all of her students’ minds (which will make it easier for them to understand and encode new knowledge), but she has taught them how to learn.

And all this takes less than 3 minutes. Which means that I can’t give you this precise of a play-by-play of the rest of the day, lest I write a whole novel by accident. But I can continue to outline trends I’ve noticed in Great Teacher:

Great Teacher is intentional. Great Teacher is human, so this doesn’t always mean that Great Teacher doesn’t make up something 5 minutes before the class, but Great Teacher has known for 3 days that she has wanted to teach about strategically using subordinating conjunctions, and that incubation period has led to this great discovery of using quotes from the Hunger Games to illustrate how Suzanne Collins’ use of subordinate conjunctions demonstrates the characters’ interconnectedness (at the semi-last minute).

With rare exceptions, though, Great Teacher is prepared. This is part and parcel with intentionality, but more than that, this allows Great Teacher to differentiate. For Great Teacher, there is no other way to teach – it’s not just a buzz word for Great Teacher (and in fact, I’ve rarely heard Great Teacher say “differentiate.” Great Teacher would likely just say “teach”).

Great Teacher reaches all of her students. Sometimes this is possible because Great Teacher has a teaching assistant, other support staff, or a small class size. Even in the absence of these, however, Great Teacher naturally uses technology to individualize learning, uses at least two modalities to teach (often three), and uses her knowledge of her students to strategically call on them to help their strengths shine.

But Great Teacher isn’t just about pats on the back. Great Teacher has honest conversations about failure, about difficulty, about the need to have a Growth Mindset. Great Teacher makes mistakes, and she turns them into such fantastic teaching moments, I daresay some of the mistakes are intentional, too!

Great Teacher assesses constantly. Great Teacher uses every measure of Exit Card imaginable. Great Teacher asks for raised hands, for funny gestures, for “voting with your feet,” for notes on an index cards, for notes on the board, for a keyword as you exit, for a completed Google Form quiz. Great Teacher knows what her students know, and helps students become self-aware of what they know, too. Then, Great Teacher teaches, while consistently reminding students of how they are learning, and encouraging them to assess their learning (directly, or through modeling).

Like everything else Great Teachers uses, Great Teacher uses games and technology meaningfully. Great Teacher views these as tools, not as rewards. Great Teacher knows that games and technology make students engaged, and engagement leads to greater attention, encoding, and recall of information. Great Teacher also knows that some games and technological tools provide additional context that “real life” simply cannot provide.

Great Teacher teaches things that matter. Great Teacher has a curriculum, but Great Teacher also has Essential or Guiding Questions. Great Teacher wants her students to know about the big questions of the world, and she uses her curriculum to teach them just that. How are societies made? What is identity? How did the world develop? What is justice? How and why do animals and humans adapt?

Great Teacher doesn’t provide busywork. Great Teacher does provide homework that is intended to be brief, be independent, and be helpful in consolidating information in a student’s brain.

Great Teacher holds students accountable because Great Teacher holds herself accountable. Great Teacher is mindful of one student’s actions on the group, and she does more complicated statistics and weighing than any computer can do about when and how it is worth it to intervene with one individual (especially when it’s at the expense of a class).

Great Teacher asks, “Why?” all the time, for Great Teacher knows there is a reason when a child misbehaves. There is always a reason, and it’s never because the child is evil or lazy.

Great Teacher is aware of the importance of the environment on her students’ learning. Great Teacher’s classroom is therefore somewhat flexible, and intentionally has space for multiple types of learners and types of learning.

Great Teacher is cognizant of burnout and Great Teacher has hobbies and friends and family that are important to her. But Great Teacher knows the stakes are high, so there’s no slacking for Great Teacher. Great Teacher has developed a routine that works for her so that she can do the most and the most productive work on a regular basis.

And Great Teacher asks for help as Great Teacher knows her limits. Great Teacher knows when a student is not learning, despite trying one, two, three, twenty-five different accommodations (for Great Teacher doesn’t give up easily). Great Teacher speaks honestly with parents. Great Teacher does not deliver bad news. Great Teacher delivers opportunities. Great Teacher invites parents to tell her what they know, and shares what she knows. Great Teacher values her relationships with caregivers.

Great Teacher turns off during breaks. This took Great Teacher a few years to achieve, but now when there is a holiday or summer break, Great Teacher reboots. It is essential for Great Teacher to remain human and to be able to “turn off.” It doesn’t mean that Great Teacher doesn’t think about her students during these times. For one, she can’t help it. More importantly, they bring her joy, so why shouldn’t she think of them?

Great Teacher deals with administration who rambles about test scores, with scheduling changes, with things that are outside of her control. But despite whatever else is going on in her school, at the end of the day, all Great Teacher cares about is what is best for her students. Because that’s what Great Teachers do.

* I am using the pronoun “she” as this portrait is loosely based on a handful of teachers whom I consider to be Great Teachers, most of whom happen to be female. It is not part of a larger commentary on gender & teaching, so please don’t view it as such