More pre-reading strategies

I’ve blogged previously on pre-reading strategies. Here are some more.

  • Ask students to make predictions about the likely content of a text by examining
    – the title (eg of a newspaper report, magazine article, short story, poem, film)
    – elements of the cover such as font size and style and photographs (eg of a book, magazine or video) You could ask students to explain the reasons for their wide reading choice, based on an examination of the book cover.
    – diagrams and captions (in instructional or informative text selected from a subject area other than English)
    – photographs (accompanying feature articles, news reports, web pages)
    – headlines (of newspaper or magazine articles)
    – headings (in informative or instructional brochures and on web pages)
  • Brainstorm (use an online tool such as what students already know about the topic of, for example, a non-fiction text. As a class, draw up a list of questions that the text might be able to answer, thus providing a focus for their meaning.
  • Ask students to predict likely key terms for an text on a given topic eg an article from a sporting magazine or a website. Discuss the meaning of these terms.
  • Ask students to make hypotheses about the author’s purpose in writing a particular text eg to present information, to entertain, to persuade.
  • Discuss with students the likely audience for a text.  How might a knowledge of that audience influence the content and the language used by the author?
  • Analyse linguistic structures and features of a variety of diagrams, especially those to be found in nonfiction books and online, to ensure students understand the conventions involved in constructing and reading visual representations. (For example, graphs of various kinds, flow charts and infographics.)
  • Discuss the ways in which students will need to approach the reading of a text, depending on the purpose in reading eg
    – read very carefully in order to remember the content for later recall;
    – read for pleasure, not worrying about how much is remembered;
    skim a text in order to gain a general impression of what it is about and to decide whether or not it will be useful for a given purpose eg providing information for a research project
    scan a text in order to find specific information, perhaps in response to comprehension questions

    Encourage students to articulate why they are reading and provide them with opportunities to read for a variety of purposes.



Good blogs and interesting ideas

Each week I read many blogs and tweets in which educators share ideas. Here is a random selection of recent blogs that have given me food for thought.

Top of the list for me is the blog written by American educator, Grant Wiggins. In this particular post, ( Wiggins says that, in their classrooms, teachers can be blind to what is actually happening and more likely to see and hear only what they expect.  In this way they miss the clues that tell them that their students do not understand.  Wiggins doesn’t think that it is an easy thing to pick up on  the clues, but he provides some concrete advice to assist teachers to do so.

Tanya de Hoog blogs as the PiEd PYPer. In some ways the main idea in this post ( is very similar to Wiggin’s idea: it, too, is talking about teacher awareness. Hoeg seeks to remind us that inquiry learning isn’t just about asking and answering questions.  Rather, she argues, it is about an ‘inquiry stance’, and ‘when we limit the inquiry stance to just asking questions, we limit the potential for meaningful and contextualized inquiry stance learning’.  Teachers need to be aware of all the different ways in which students demonstrate the inquiry stance. For me, this idea really opened up the whole notion of inquiry learning.

David Didau blogs as the Learning Spy. For this post he begins with a quote from Dylan Wiliam:

Getting students engaged so that they can be taught something seems much less effective than getting them engaged by teaching them something that engages them.

Once again, this post ( asks teachers to be aware of what is really going on in the classroom.  Just because the students are having fun, does it necessarily mean that they’re learning something?

Which is not to say, of course, that fun has no place in the classroom.  But its place is one that is planned for, purposeful and, most importantly,  inherent to the learning.

Teaching grammar in context – sentence structure

An understanding of sentence structure is both an important aid to comprehension when reading, and vital assistance for students who have been given the instruction: ‘Make your writing interesting!’ (An instruction, by the way, that is of little use unless students are given some clues as to how this might be done.)

So, how can an understanding of sentence structure be taught as part of the reading and writing that is done in the classroom?

  • Interest and style are created by sentence variety. Using only short or long sentences can be equally boring and monotonous for the reader. Demonstrate this to students by showing them a paragraph that is comprised of a series of short sentences, each highlighted in a different colour. Ask students to read the paragraph and to give their opinion of the writing, hoping to elicit from them that it is not very interesting. Encourage them to look at the way the sentences have been highlighted to explain that the lack of interest derives from the monotony of a series of short sentences. Ask students to suggest how it might be improved, or made more ‘interesting’ for the reader.Make the changes to the paragraph as suggested by the students and be explicit about what they have done in order to improve the writing.
  • Depending on their year level and previous experience with metalanguage, you might point out (or get them to identify) how they have changed some simple sentences into compound ones, or how they have created complex sentences by adding adverbial, adjectival or noun clauses. Draw particular attention to those sentences that have been left as simple sentences because you want students to understand that variety in sentence length can make writing more engaging.
  • Students might also suggest changes to the way in which the sentences begin – that is, instead of all beginning with a subject followed by a verb, they might suggest that a sentence should start with an adjective, adverb or phrase. Again, if they make these suggestions, be explicit about what they have done in order to create and emphasise the metalanguage for future use. In particular, ask students what effects are achieved by adding the extra detail.
  • Repeat this activity on another occasion with a paragraph comprised of a series of long sentences. Again, ask students for their opinion of the writing, hoping to elicit from them that it is not easy to read or understand. Encourage them to look at the way in which you have highlighted the sentences to demonstrate that they are all long sentences.  Get students to suggest changes to the paragraph and to discuss those changes as described in the previous activity.
  • Select a short, interesting extract from a novel to read to your students – for example, a description of a person that effectively creates a character in terms of appearance and behaviour; a description of a place that makes it seem particularly attractive, enticing, frightening or disgusting; or a retelling of an event which effectively conveys the pathos, humour or horror of the situation.Discuss their responses to the extract and then explain that you are going to look more closely at how the author has created this piece of writing.Display the extract on an interactive whiteboard so that it can be easily highlighted and marked up. Ask students to identify:
    – the kinds of sentences used by the author (simple, compound, complex, compound-complex).
    – where in the sentences the clauses  have been embedded (at the beginning, in the middle, at the end) or phrases added.  Depending on student experience, you might also ask them to identify the kinds of clauses and phrases.
    – particular words or images that help to create a vivid picture or mood. Again, depending on student experience, you might ask them to identify whether these words are nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs, and whether the images are similes or metaphors.
  • From time to time, when students are providing peer feedback on each other’s writing, identify a specific focus for them to concentrate on. For example, in the context of sentence construction, ask students to concentrate on providing each other with feedback about sentence variety. Ask them to offer explicit advice about where a peer might change a simple sentence to a complex sentence, for instance. Encourage them to use the metalanguage. For example, the peer feedback might be:
    Change this sentence into a complex sentence. You could add an adjectival clause to describe the car.
    Or, where students need a little more help, the feedback might be:
    Add an adjectival clause here to describe the car, such as:The car, which had been sitting out the front of our house for two weeks, seemed to have been abandoned.”’
    When you are providing feedback, be explicit about what you are doing so that you create a model for peer feedback – for example: ‘I’m giving Jay an example of an adjectival clause so that he can use one in his writing.’
  • If you encourage students to use editing and reviewing checklists when they are checking drafts of their writing, add a reference to sentence variety so that students become accustomed to reviewing their writing for more than spelling and punctuation. In writing conferences, encourage students to comment orally on their choice of sentence structure and to evaluate the effectiveness.
  • A short, simple sentence can sometimes be extremely effective; it is not necessarily the case that a long and complex sentence is always best. Demonstrate this for students by focusing on the shorter simple sentences in specific texts. Get them to identify, for example, how these sentences can be used to build tension and assist them to see this by substituting the short sentences for longer ones and examining the effect. Other selected texts might use short, simple sentences to grab attention, especially at the beginning of a text, or to sum up an argument. In a set of instructions, too, simple sentences might be more effective than complex sentences. Ask students to use these texts as models for their own writing, and encourage them to explain their choice of sentence construction, based on the effect they were hoping to achieve.

Teaching grammar in context – Verbs

How can you teach verbs in the context of reading and writing?  Here are some ideas:

  • Explore what happens if you change the modal verbs in a text. Select a persuasive text to share with the students on an interactive whiteboard. First get students to identify each of the modal verbs used, and then to change the verbs of high modality into verbs of low modality and vice versa. Ask students to discuss how the effectiveness of the writing changes.
  • To practise the use of modal verbs, have students write sets of rules relevant to the school context – for example, rules for using the library or for behaviour in the playground. They could write rules for both teachers and students.
  • Select (or write yourself) several very short stories written in the past tense. Cut the texts up into sentences and distribute one or two to each student. Ask students to rewrite their sentence/s in the present tense and then to find other class members whose sentences relate to the same story. (They will need to make use of language clues in order to do this.)When they have found all of the sentences in their story, they sit down together as a group and order the sentences into correct sequence to make the story. The group task is to check the tense of each verb to make sure it is accurate. Students could then underline each of the verbs and share their story with another group as a further check.
  • Ask students to work in groups to create a storybook about verbs. Students could take digital photos or download them from the internet and write three lines of accompanying text. The first line could be written in past tense, the next in present tense and the final line in future tense. In addition, each group could focus on a different kind of verb – action, saying, sensing, relating…
  • Ask students to find verbs in magazines and newspapers to make a verb collage of printed text and pictures. As a variation, different groups could focus on different kinds of verbs. The posters they produce could become teaching resources to display in the classroom.
  • Provide students with a series of letters that could have been written to an advice column in a magazine. Ask them to select one and write a reply. Tell them to be particularly aware of the way in which they use modal verbs. On completion, they could share their responses with peers who could comment on the use of modality, as well as providing feedback on the content of the letter and the effectiveness of the advice.
  • Travel articles often use a lot of modal verbs. Share a travel article with the students and ask them to identify the modals and to say whether they are of high or low modality. Ask them to discuss why the author might have selected one kind of modality rather than the other.
  • Analyse a procedural text to identify the use of action verbs in their imperative form. Use the text as a model for students to write their own procedural text and identify the action verbs they have used.
  • Explore the kinds of verbs used by the writer of a narrative. Encourage students to change the action and sensing verbs to create a different impression of a character.
  • In their own writing, encourage students to explain their choice of verb and the effect that they were hoping to create.
  • Share with the students a piece of writing that you have edited to make the verbs bland and ‘weak’. For each verb, get students to suggest alternative ‘stronger’ and thus more effective verbs. This is a good vocabulary-building exercise. Show them the original text, with the author’s choice of verbs intact, and ask them to discuss their their effectiveness. Perhaps they will decide that some of the verbs they have suggested are even better than the originals.

Why use Peer Feedback, Part 2

Peer feedback is at its most effective in a positive classroom culture where learning is valued and encouraged.

But how to develop such a culture?  Research suggests several ways to do this:

  • Clearly articulate classroom expectations.  This means that students know what kinds of behaviour are appropriate and why, as well as the kinds of behaviour that are not supported by the group.  Such expectations are ideally negotiated by the class as a group and, again ideally, they reflect the ethos of the school.
  • Ensure that students feel comfortable and supported by their peers.  This means that they respect each other’s opinions and feel able to ‘have a go’ rather than sit back, afraid of making a mistake. They know that everyone recognises that learning can come as result of mistakes.
  • Be aware of social and emotional learning strategies and incorporate these into everyday activities to increase empathy and understanding of others’ viewpoints.
  • Encourage risk-taking and intervene when ‘put-downs’ occur. This means that students are offered activities that provide opportunities to take those risks, to hypothesise and test their hypotheses with the help of peer feedback.  It also means that the teacher is alert to the ways in which ‘put-downs’ occur:  a roll of the eyes, a turning away, a sigh – understanding that these subtle put-downs can be just as damaging as the more obvious verbal comment.
  • Provide students with activities that both require and develop cooperation, and explicitly teach strategies to encourage cooperation. For example, teach the language of negotiation and support, including asking clarifying questions, and identify the various roles that group members can play – both positive and negative.
  • Make learning explicit by identifying learning intentions and sharing success criteria.
  • Teach the language of feedback and use role-play to coach students in its use.
  • Consider the physical configuration of the classroom.  Does it foster easy interaction between students? Can the configuration be easily changed to allow for paired and group activities?

Consider using some of these peer feedback techniques:

Two stars and a wish
In this technique student  identifies two things that a peer has done well (stars), in relation to the success criteria, and explains why.  “You engaged your audience well because you made eye contact with a lot of different people and you used hand gestures and facial expressions.”

The student the expresses a wish for what the peer might do next time.  “I wish that next time you might speak a little more slowly because sometimes I couldn’t understand what you were saying.”

The feedback sandwich
In this technique the student ‘sandwiches’ a suggestion for improvement between two positive comments.  For example

Positive comment: “You engaged your audience well because you made eye contact with a lot of different people.”
Suggestion for improvement: “Perhaps next time you could also speak a little more slowly so that we can understand you better.”
Positive comment: “Your use of facial expressions and hand gestures was very good.  You made us laugh.”

Medals and missions
When a student identifies what a peer has done well, he/she is awarding a ‘medal’.
When a student identifies what a peer needs to improve and offers advice about how to do this, he/she is suggesting a ‘mission’. (Geoff Petty)

Plus, minus and what’s next?
This technique can be used with younger students. The student looks at a peer’s work to identify a positive achievement in relation to the success criteria (the plus) and an area for improvement (the minus). He/she then makes a suggestion as to how the peer can improve. (What’s next?)

Traffic lights
Students use a green highlighter in the margin of a draft piece of writing to indicate success criteria achieved, or an orange highlighter to indicate where improvement is needed. The suggestions for improvement are delivered orally.

Feedback using technology
VoiceThread is an example of a software program that can be used to provide peer feedback.  Student upload their completed work (documents or pictures) and others record oral comments.

Googledocs allows students to create a document or a presentation which can then be edited or commented on by their peers.

A class wiki or blog provides a forum where students can publish and comment on each other’s work.

Edmodo is a software program that allows the uploading of documents and the recording of feedback.

Use an ipad to add voice comments.  Although this article is about teacher feedback, the process could easily be adapted for peer feedback.

Teach students a variety of ways to provide feedback and then allow them to negotiate the form they will use.

Why use peer feedback?

Peer feedback is not the same as peer assessment. Peer assessment is in fact an example of summative assessment: it results in a grade. (Peer assessment is not without its problems: it can be perceived by students to lack reliability – “I’d rather have my teacher assess me” – and can cause conflict between students and a sense of injustice when the allotted grade is lower than expected.)

Peer feedback, on the other hand,  is a formative assessment strategy and an important aspect of cooperative learning. To be effective, it needs exactly the same features as teacher feedback: that is, the use of a set of pre-established criteria (success criteria) to identify

  • what the student has done well, and
  • the areas in which the student could improve.

Most importantly, peer feedback, like effective teacher feedback, offers advice about how to improve.

The success criteria are a crucial aspect of peer feedback not only because they provide a focus for the feedback, but also because they focus attention on the completed task, rather than on the student.  And if the students have been involved in creating the success criteria in the first place, then their understanding will be that much better and their engagement that much greater.

Often peer feedback is provided orally, but if ICT is used, it might be oral, written or a combination of both forms.  Teacher modelling of the use of appropriate oral and written language is an important step in ensuring that students use the strategy effectively.

  • Use anonymous work from another class or another year as the example when you are teaching the language of feedback.  Make sure that the success criteria are not too numerous – and that they focus on aspects other than spelling and punctuation. (When students don’t have success criteria to help shape their feedback they often default to looking for ‘mistakes’ to comment on, rather than providing much more useful feedback about a peer’s writing.)
  • Emphasise that it’s not just what you say but the way you say it, as well. Show students how to avoid negative language.  Get them to role-play the rephrasing of a negative comment into one that is more constructively positive.
  • Teach students the use of language constructions that draw attention to the success criteria: “I can see that you have achieved this success criteria, but I’m not sure about this one.  What do you think?”
  • Demonstrate how to ask a question, rather than just make a statement: “Why did you use this word/adjective/adverb/phrase to describe how your character felt?”  When looking at the anonymous work, students might be asked to jot down their initial responses.  They can then work in pairs to shape these into questions.
  • Discourage the use of the word ‘but’.  A compliment followed immediately by ‘but’ serves to devalue the positive and causes the listener to hear only the negative. Instead of saying, “I like the way you’ve described your character, but you need to ‘show’ more and not just ‘tell'”, you might say: “I liked the way you’ve described your character.  She seems to be very strong.  Do you think you could include some dialogue to show this as well?”
  • Encourage students to move beyond general statements such as “I like the way you started your narrative” by always supplying a reason. “I like the way you started your narrative because the words you used made me think that this was going to be a scary story.”
  • Encourage students to use the appropriate metalanguage when provided feedback.  This ensures that the meaning is a shared one. “Do you think you could use a complex sentence here to give the reader more detail about where they are?” (There is room here, ideally, for some peer teaching if the receiver of the feedback does not understand the terminology.)

Why is peer feedback useful? 

For a start, peer feedback has the advantage of being timely: students can get feedback exactly when they need it, rather than wait for their turn with the teacher.

And, more importantly, it fosters self-evaluation and self-monitoring, both of which are vital to successful learning. These skills are further developed if students are asked to consider and evaluate the feedback they received from peers.  They could be encouraged to explain which feedback they acted on and why, and which feedback they rejected, along with their reasons for doing so.  Time spent doing this, far from being time-consuming, will in fact provide you with further useful insights into your students’ thinking. This information can be later used in a formative way.

The act of giving feedback to others also has learning benefits. When giving feedback to peers, students need to read, to analyse, to question, to suggest changes and perhaps also to reflect on how their own work compares. They need to engage with the demands of the task and to understand how the success criteria look in practice. Peer feedback, then, demands the exercise of many other skills additional to those used in the actual completion of the task.

Some research argues that peer feedback is a necessary precursor to self-assessment – the ability to evaluate one’s work and to monitor progress and to proceed to a desirable state of independence as a learner.

Next week’s blog will explore some peer feedback techniques and discuss the kind of classroom culture that facilitates effective peer feedback.

Please post a comment if you have something to share.

What does Assessment for Learning have to do with student wellbeing?

My recent involvement in a project that focuses on student wellbeing has led me to consider the ways in which Assessment for Learning strategies provide structure and support for this important work of schools and teachers.

When at school, students identify primarily as learners, and so their engagement with learning is a key ingredient in the creation of their wellbeing.  Without engagement, students lack motivation; without motivation it is difficult for them to experience success in their learning – and lack of success can lead to issues of self-esteem and to negative behaviour.

There are many positive ways in which schools seek to promote students’ engagement with their learning, and the use of Assessment for Learning strategies by teachers in the classroom is one of them.

The explicit communication of expectations promotes student understanding, so therefore the strategy of sharing learning intentions and success criteria is an important one.  If students know what it is that they are expected to learn, and know also how they to tell whether or not they have been successful in their learning, then they are much more likely to be motivated.  They are much more likely to be motivated than those students who do not have that knowledge and who, as a result, feel that their learning is in the hands of arbitrary teachers who might or might not approve of what they  have done.  They know where to direct their efforts and are far less likely to find that they have been ‘on the wrong track’.

The use of effective teacher feedback provides a positive recognition of what students already know, understand and are able to do, and therefore also helps to promote self-esteem.  The students are able to see that their efforts have ‘paid off’.  That same effective teacher feedback helps students to see where there is a need for improvement and, importantly, offers specific advice about how to achieve that improvement.  The students are supported and scaffolded to the next stage. Effective teacher feedback is an important element in building a positive learning relationship with students.

When conducted in a classroom in which there is a positive collaborative culture, peer feedback further enhances student engagement.  Supported by their peers, students are less fearful of making mistakes, more connected to others, more engaged and more likely to contribute positively themselves.

In its broadest sense, self-assessment helps students to understand themselves as learners, to recognise how they best learn and to analyse their progress and needs as learners. Combined with the encouragement of a growth mindset that appreciates that intelligence is not a fixed commodity but one that develops with effort and ‘exercise’, this Assessment for Learning strategy complements the social and emotional understanding that is necessary to promote wellbeing.

Using these Assessment for Learning strategies in the classroom not only serves to improve student achievement, but also to reinforce all the other practices undertaken as part of the whole-school approach to the creation of student wellbeing.

Toni Glasson is the author of Improving Student Achievement, A Practical Guide to Assessment for Learning, Curriculum Press