Helping 6-12 Students Investigate Non-Fiction Texts

Screenshot of the hmh FYI website

The Gist

While we aren’t all English teachers, it’s unlikely to find a teacher whose students wouldn’t perform better if they had more tools for reading content across all disciplines. The FYI website not only provides curated current articles aligned with standards and other English curriculum resources, it provides clear tips for helping students access, analyze, and apply information within authentic non-fiction texts. These articles and tips can be accessed in a moment’s notice to ask students to find a piece of interesting and relevant content for evaluation.

The Whole Story

Somewhere between the middle child or second cousin of HMH’s Collections curricular resources is their FYI website, a curated collection of current event articles aligned with the topics and content students explore as they move through units of study in SVVSD’s secondary English classes. The content is pulled from CNN to Science Daily, from the White House to The Columbus Dispatch.

Teachers helping students learn content and skills from any discipline would be hard-pressed to go poking around FYI and not find something relevant to their classrooms. And while timely content is already a plus for secondary schools, it’s the help in improving reading skills teachers outside English classrooms might find most helpful.

FYI’s “Reading Tips” tab includes a sidebar with help in navigating “Key Ideas and Details”, Craft and Structure”, “Integration of Knowledge and Ideas”, and “Research” – each with its own subsections.

A science teacher hoping to help students access the latest climate change study from Nature could draft some quick questions for investigation and point students to the relevant pages for tips on making sure their answers hit the mark.

History teachers helping their students understand political systems in post-colonial countries around the world could help students draft a list of questions they’re curious about and then help them review the relevant reading tips to help make sure their answers are top-notch.

Algebra teachers looking to help students pull out the most pressing details from a complicated word problem might ask students to take 10 minutes to find a reading strategy that could best help them unlock a barrier to understanding.

How are you helping students access materials to unpack non-fiction texts? Leave some examples in the comments.

Family & Community Literacy: Family Reading Talks


The Gist

In the car, at the dinner table or in any other family space, take turns talking about what you’ve been reading – books, magazines, newspapers, content for work. If it’s your turn to share, talk about whether you like or dislike what you’re reading and explain why. Once sharers have finished, ask follow-up questions and make comments that offer connections between what they’ve read and other texts.

The Whole Story

It’s easy to think of reading and writing with your child as the only components of helping them become better readers and writers. While these are both tremendously powerful tools for helping them develop key skills and identities, they aren’t the only tools. By making time to talk about what you and your child are reading, and modeling what it sounds like for engaged readers to express their ideas, you’re adding another layer to family literacy.

When thinking about where these conversations might be helpful, consider one of the historically-dreaded conversations between families and their school-going students:

Family: How was school?

Child: Good.

F: What did you do?

C: Nothing.

(Family member makes frustrated face.)

[The End]

The goal with family reading conversations is to avoid the headache above, get to know what your child is doing in school, and help them learn to talk about their learning in productive ways.

Suggested Strategies

  • Model. Expecting your child to know how to talk about their thoughts and feelings about a text they’re reading without having any model to base it off of is dooming the conversation from the start. Consider the following steps:
    • State a specific fact or opinion about something/anything you’ve read.
    • Follow up with some piece of evidence or a memorable quotation from the reading to illustrate your point.
    • Ask what your child thinks about the idea or opinion.
  • Ask a specific question. Your child’s day likely includes no fewer than lessons on 5 separate subjects, all of them asking for retention of new material. Asking, “What did you do/learn about?” can very well bring back a flood of ideas that might be overwhelming to attempt to recount all at once. Thus, “Nothing.” Asking, “What is something you read today?” and then following up with, “What did you think about it?” or “Who was a character you liked/hated?” gives a more pointed line of thinking and can help your child organize their thinking for expression.
  • Share. If you read a news article that’s particularly interesting, share it with your child. If they have a text they’ve read they enjoyed, ask to borrow it. By showing interest and treating reading as peer activity, you’re inviting your child to be part of a community of readers.

Other Resources

If you’re worried your child will have trouble remembering what they’ve read, send a quick note to their teacher asking questions like, “What are you reading in class right now?” “What’s it about?” “Who are some main characters or what are some big ideas we could talk about at home?” These details can jump start conversation and show your child you’re willing to invest time in their learning too.

New Shortened Links to Navigating to District Sites

A Note from the Fine People at DTS
We now have short links for all the main digital curriculum sites that utilize single sign on so that teachers and students have an easy way to get to their curriculum if the portal is ever unavailable or if they simply prefer to type in a URL. These new links are below. Note that you still can’t bookmark these on iPads – they’re simply easier to remember and type in than some of the super-long links.
We didn’t create new links for Schoology or Discovery Ed, since these URLs are already short and memorable.

All Clever applications (i-Ready, myON, Lexia,Reading Plus, Think Through Math, VitalSource Bookshelf, VHL, and SpringBoard):

HMH (Collections and A-G-A):
Pearson (ReadyGen and digits):
McGraw-Hill ConnectED (Asi se Dice and high school geography):

Family Community Literacy: Making the Most of Conferences


The Gist:

With school conferences in progress, families across the school district are getting a chance to meet their children’s teachers face-to-face. Asking questions about what you can do to help your kids prepare for the learning that will be happening between now and the next few months is a great way to find out how to build connections between home and school.

The Whole Story

It’s easy to sit down at a parent teacher conference and be drawn in by grades and progress reports. And those are certainly important pieces for understanding how your child is progressing in their classes. If you leave the room only with an understanding of grades and how they got that way, you’re leaving some important information out. To get more out of parent teacher conferences, consider shifting your thinking from that of a meeting between a service provider and a client to that of a team meeting. When you think about it, other than your child, their teachers and you – their family – are the key players in making sure learning is happening and supported across home and school.

So, other than questions about grades, missing assignments and attendance, how can you get the information you need to make the most of your parent teacher conference?

  • Ask about readingAsk your child’s teachers what is being read in class, what they’d recommend your kid reads at home, and what you might consider reading as a parent. Ask for specific titles, authors, and topic areas.
  • Ask what you should be asking. We know the trope of asking a student what they did at school only to hear, “Nothing” in response. A conference is a great place to get material for specific questions:
    • What are the names of some key characters they’re encountering in literature?
    • What are some key words I could use when asking them about school work, no matter the content area?
    • What’s something you’ve seen my student get very interested in that I should bring up to help them see school as a positive experience?
  • Ask how you can help pave the way. Parent conferences are often about the past. By asking what you can be doing, viewing, talking, and thinking about at home around the dinner table or during family time, you can make sure your child has experiences with key ideas, books, etc. so they feel on top of things when they come up in class.
  • Ask about drive time. Time in the car – heading home, to practices, to rehearsals, to dentist appointments – can be time spent making connections to what students are learning. Ask your child’s teacher if they have suggestions for conversation topics, skill practice games, podcasts to listen to or any other content you might bring up during car rides.

More Resources:

Family Community Literacy: Modeling with Read Alouds


The Gist:

Take time, no matter the grade level of your child to read aloud or have them read aloud to you. This can be in the car, waiting in line, before bed, or anywhere a book will travel. Read alouds help build your student’s ability to pronounce new words and models the habits of a good reader. Pausing every once in a while to ask what they thought of what they heard or asking for a summary can strengthen the experience.

The Whole Story:

This one may seem simple at the face of it. Reading aloud to children is a frequent occurrence in many homes right before bedtime. Unfortunately, the bulk of parents cease the tradition before their children have finished developing as readers. Reading aloud to your child need not be relegated to the hour immediately before bed, either.

Here are some quick, easy ideas on how and when to bring read alouds into broader family time.

  • Keep a book with you at all times. Whether waiting in line, at a restaurant for a meal, or in a doctor’s waiting room, take those extra minutes to fit in some family reading time (instead of texting time).
  • Use time in the car as a chance for your child to show off their reading skills. For older students who may be able to read aloud, switch the roles of a read aloud and ask them to read to you while you drive. If your child can’t read on their own yet, check your local or school library for an audio copy of whatever book your reading and have your child follow along.
  • Similar to the above, use moments at home when you might be busy – preparing a meal, loading the washing machine, etc. – to ask your child to read aloud to you to pass the time and get in some practice.
  •  Pull in other family members. Read alouds can be about helping your students learn to read, by including other family members as readers or other listeners, you can help your child see good models of listening and engaging in conversations about reading as well.

Making the Most of Read Alouds:

  • Question. This can either be to ask questions to check to see if your child is comprehending, find out what they think/feel about events in a book, or ask them what questions they have about what’s happening.
  • Model. Especially for readers in elementary and middle school, you can be a great model of reading by thinking aloud as you read or are being read to. Thoughts like, “That’s a difficult word, let me try saying it one piece at a time,” or “That character is similar to another character in the last book we read,” help your child to hear how readers experience texts.
  • Take turns. Whether it’s selecting the next book, reading the next paragraph or deciding when to pause to talk about what you’ve read, take turns with your child so that they can own the reading process as well. If you’re going to model as suggested above, this is a great way to help your child get practice thinking, speaking, and acting like the reader you want them to be.
  • Balance your reading diet. While books of all types are important for your child to investigate, think about many different types of materials to include. If you find an interesting story in a newspaper or online, practice reading aloud with that. Let your child see the variety of reading opportunities available to them.

Family and Community Literacy: Write Letters


The Gist:

Writing summaries has been shown to improve memory, comprehension and reading in general. Writing letters, postcards, emails with your child can be a great way to help them write with a real audience in mind while also practicing their summarization skills.

The Whole Story:

Few experiences hold the same joy as going to the mailbox to find a letter, note, or postcard waiting for you. From a literacy standpoint, few practices bring the same kind of comprehension and retention as writing summaries. With these two ideas in mind, this week’s family literacy recommendation is to sit with your child and write letters on a regular basis.

By asking your child to write a letter to a friend or family member about their day, their week, or an important event in their life, you’re asking them to practice the skill of summarizing – a skill research has repeatedly show to aid in comprehension and memory.

Possible Approaches:

  • Brainstorm with your child a list of possible letter recipients. These could be friends or family (near or far). As you’re brainstorming, think about prioritizing those recipients who are most likely to reply to your child’s letter. Part of the fun of sending mail is the prospect of receiving mail in return.
  • Build a tradition of letter writing into family trips and events. If you head to the park to play, discuss the trip with your child on the way home and write a letter together describing the trip to friends or family. Keep up the same thing for major school events, family vacations, etc.
  • Write to your child if you’re traveling for work or even having a good day, writing a letter to your child can help to model the practice and shows them you were thinking of them.
  • Make it hyper-local. Set up your own inside mailbox in your home. Make a habit of writing letters to other immediate family members. Ask your child if they’ll design family stamps, decorate family envelopes. Especially in busy households, an in-house mailbox can be a way to keep people connected.
  • Go electronic. While handwritten letters are enjoyable, typing emails to friends and family can be a way for your child to communicate with many recipients in a short period of time. For younger writers, ask who they’d like to email and then help them to find the appropriate keys or offer to type for them as they dictate. As you type, put down their thoughts verbatim and then read what they’ve said back to your child, asking them if there are things they notice and would like to change.

More Resources:

  • For those working with older students, researcher Robert Marzano has this helpful article about approaching the task of summary writing.
  • The Real Life at Home blog has this thoughtful post about the importance of summarizing and how parents of younger readers and writers can build the practice into family routines.
  • For more research on the importance and approach of summarizing, see this article from Valerie Anderson and Suzanne Hidi.

Collections Update: New Feedback Studio Interface Streamlines Your Experience

Key Things to Know

  • Turnitin is now known as Turnitin Feedback Studio.
  • Your default view has changed to the new Feedback Studio interface.
  • You may revert back to the “Turnitin Classic” view at any time.
  • Your data will remain intact when switching between interfaces.
  • Read our Feature Release Guide or watch this brief video for additional help.

Feature Release Guide ►

We are pleased to announce that Turnitin®, now known as Turnitin Feedback Studio, has a redesigned user interface within the myWriteSmart tool in Holt McDougal Online ( The new Feedback Studio provides a more streamlined user experience and allows quicker access to key features, modes, and panels.

After logging in, you will receive a brief, guided tour of the new layout. Should you wish to access the old view, now known as “Turnitin Classic”, you may revert to it at any time by clicking “Return to Turnitin Classic” at the bottom of your Feedback Studio screen. To return to Feedback Studio, simply click on “Try the new Feedback Studio” at the top of the Turnitin Classic screen. Rest assured that your comments and class data remain intact and no work will be lost when switching between views.

To better assist you, our Feature Release Guide contains visual aids to show the differences between the two interfaces and how to switch between views. In addition, this brief, helpful video explains the key differences between Turnitin Classic and Feedback Studio, as well as how to navigate the new interface.

Please note that the new Feedback Studio interface will become the standard display in the summer of 2017. As a valued Collections customer, we are providing you with advance access so you may familiarize yourself with the layout and functionality over the next year.

Our Technical Support Group will be happy to assist you with any questions you may have regarding the new Turnitin Feedback Studio. Please do not hesitate to contact them at, 800.323.9239, (+1) 973.368.0392, or through our online service request system.

Thank you for choosing Houghton Mifflin Harcourt as your partner in education.


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Digital Customer Experience

Family and Community Literacy: Comprehension Conversations


The Gist

Ask your child what their vocabulary words are and what they mean. Then, attempt to use those words appropriately in a sentence. Ask your student to tell you whether you’ve used them correctly or incorrectly and how you might improve your usage.

The Whole Story

Similar to last week’s suggestion of Quick Writes, this week, we’re looking at how family literacy practice can put school vocabulary into practical use. This week, we’re considering how families can help students think about what it means and sounds like to use new vocabulary in spoken conversation. How can you structure these conversations?

  1. Ask your child to share an individual vocabulary word with you and share what it means in their own words.
  2. Follow up by asking questions for clarification such as, “What’s another word that has a similar meaning?” “Who might use this word?” “What kind of things would I read to see this word?”
  3. When your child thinks you’ve got a good grasp on the word, ask if you can try to use it in a sentence to see if you’ve got it right.
  4. Speak the word in a sentence and ask if you’ve used the word correctly.
  5. Either way, ask your child to explain why they think you used the word correctly or incorrectly.
  6. Try to see how many sentences you can each say using the word in new and appropriate ways.

A word of caution not to bombard your child with all of their vocabulary words in one sitting. For one, this will make otherwise fun, playful conversations feel like a learning trap. For another, the goal here is high-quality conversation and use of words, not zipping through all of them.

While Quick Writes and Word Walls can necessitate fixed locations or stable writing surfaces, these Comprehension Conversations can be had while waiting in line, riding in the car, or anywhere you can hear one another talk.

The final added benefit is the reversal of roles. When having Comprehension Conversations with your child, work to be the student and allow them to be the teacher. If they send you in a direction or offer a meaning you don’t think is exactly correct, model what you’d hope they’d do when they have a question – ask if you can look it up and see how the answers compare. The goal is conversation and learning together.

For more on the importance of children hearing vocabulary in the home, you might check out this article from Linguist William O’Grady.

Where’d My Spelling Lists Go?

Emily's meant to be doing her homework!

If you are like me (and I’ve spoken with enough people about this topic to guess that you are), you remember your spelling lists from school. Starting sometime in elementary school and lasting through high school, they were a weekly occurrence. If memory serves, they started with about 5 words apiece, then 10, then 20 words per week.

The quizzes were simple – lined paper, teacher reading the words two times each, asking if we needed repeats, and passing the papers forward. Those words were never explicitly heard from or about again. I’ve been trying to think of the words I was taught as part of spelling instruction. For all of the what must have been hundreds of words, only one – ennui – is still in my head. The reason? Spelling lists were how I was taught to spell, but they were not how I learned to spell. Instead, I learned to spell by reading, writing and discussing words in context. Any word I know how to spell now or use correctly grammatically is a result of the need to learn that word as a reader and writer.

So, when thinking about the shift St. Vrain elementary teachers are making in their literacy practices, it makes sense that we would move to support our students by giving them learning experiences rather than “being-taught” experiences. Isolated spelling tests show limited-to-no transfer of skills. Students can ace a spelling quiz and then immediately misspell any of that same list of words on a piece of writing for class (Loeffer, 2005).

While we may remember with fondness (or at least sentimentality) our experiences with Friday spelling tests, quite frankly, we can do better for our kids by giving them the tools they need to study, decode, analyze, and determine the meaning and spelling of the words they encounter and want to use.

We Can’t Catch All Words “If schools started with five [rare vocabulary] words for every school day in kindergarten, students would be 100 years old before all of the words had been covered,” write Elfrieda H. Hiebert of TextProject and University of California, Santa Cruz and P. David Pearson of the University of California, Berkeley (generative, 2016). There are simply more rare words out there than our teachers could ever hope to include on weekly spelling lists. Additionally, attempting to anticipate which words individual students will need is a Sisyphean task.

Students Need Vocabulary Tools. Recognizing the lack of evidence that isolated spelling instruction improves students’ phonemic awareness, St. Vrain teachers are utilizing a number of instructional practices to help students decode and analyze words, their meanings, and their possible uses. All of this is part of a comprehensive approach to vocabulary instruction. This includes helping students understand word families, developing key phonemic awareness, investigating root words, and examining word structures. These approaches to learning and teaching vocabulary have proven to be effective (Wallace, 2006) at not only helping students learn the words in front of them, but helping them be better prepared to learn words they will encounter when they leave the classroom and are reading on their own.

Where’s the Spelling? If we are thinking about vocabulary instruction, what happens to the spelling lists I mentioned above and we all likely remember from our childhoods? To be frank, spelling lists and spelling in isolation are instructional practices of the past. A 2014 analysis of studies of spelling instruction (Graham, 2014) found that such practices had little or no effect on students actually learning to spell. This doesn’t mean spelling is irrelevant. In fact, it means quite the opposite: helping students to think about how words are spelled and asking them to explain what they notice about the spelling of words they are learning is a component of improving students’ vocabularies.

Where Do We Go, What Do We Do? Teachers across St. Vrain Valley Schools are shifting and building upon existing practices to help students think about the many tools they can use to analyze and find meaning from the words they encounter and use as writers. A key piece with the addition of the new ReadyGen curricular resources to existing vocabulary resources is putting multiple tools in the hands of our teachers to help create personalized pathways to improved vocabulary. But teachers are only one component of students’ literacy. What can families do to support their children’s learning?

  • Throughout the year, the language arts office will publish a Wednesday blog post with a weekly strategy for building family literacy practices. You can subscribe to those posts or follow them here.
  • Talk to your school’s literacy and classroom teachers about what vocabulary words and strategies they are using to support your child’s learning, and ask how you can support those strategies at home.
  • Visit your local public or school library with your child, let them choose books that look interesting, and read. Across the board, studies have shown families that read together produce children who have much better literacy skills than their peers who had little-to-no experience with family reading. Better yet, as you are reading, have your child point out words they think are new and interesting. Then, have conversations about what those words might mean.

Committing to Text-Based, Meaningful Experiences. While it’s tempting for me to say our students should experience spelling lists and tests because it’s the way I (and likely you) remember school, the fact is we know more than my and your teachers knew or understood about language instruction when we were growing up. Because of that, we owe it to our children to give them the contextualized, meaningful experiences and tools we know help them to learn and be more successful as readers, writers, and thinkers. Besides, all those lists ever brought me was ennui.


Loeffler, Kelly A. “No more Friday spelling tests? An alternative spelling assessment for students with learning disabilities.” Teaching exceptional children 37.4 (2005): 24.

“generative vocabulary instruction – TextProject.” 2014. 25 Aug. 2016 <>

Wallace, Randall R. “Characteristics of effective spelling instruction.” Reading Horizons 46.4 (2006): 267.

Graham, S. “Does spelling instruction make students better spellers, readers, and …” 2014. <>

Conference Opportunity: Colorado Language Arts Society Regional Conference

The following is a guest post from Mead High School Teacher and Colorado Language Arts Society President Jamie Hedlun.

Poster for Registration for conference featuring quotes from key speakers.

October 15, veteran, mid-career, and novice teachers alike will be attending the Colorado Language Arts Society’s Regional Conference. This is a conference known to have a tradition of excellence with a focus on teacher engagement. Our theme is “For the Love of Teaching: Reclaiming the Classroom”.

Past speakers have included as Penny Kittle, Carol Jago, and even Patricia McCormick. Presenters have included teachers, professors, cherished authors, representatives from NCTE as well. Session topics include technology integration, how to teach fiction, how to teach informational texts, implementing the Common Core and more.

We are excited to announce that we have Taylor Mali, a poet and teacher, Jimmy Santiago Baca, a popular poet and speaker, as well as Sarah Brown Wessling, the 2010 Teacher of the Year.

Teachers who attend will have a variety of professional development options with titles including “Mixing Pop Culture and the Classics –  The Sweet and Bitter using Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’”, “Stop Grading: Alternatives to Traditional Grading to Reclaim Your Classroom as Space for Your Students as Learners Instead of Point Collectors”, and “What’s New in YA?” Teachers from all levels will be sharing their expertise with attendees.

As SVVSD teachers, we value standards based teaching. We also understand, in order to reach our students, we must use new strategies and evidence-based research to improve our teaching practices. The 2016 CLAS conference is for us to accomplish this, while providing choice and differentiation for the teacher.

Every professional has differing needs; one of the neat features about our conference is that your needs will be met whether you need rejuvenation, new ideas, or time to share and learn with teachers outside of your department, school, and even district.

Registration is open and includes membership of the Colorado Language Arts Society for one year. Lunch will be included and there will be book giveaways, time to mingle with our keynote speakers, as well as an ice cream social at the end giving participants time to debrief and discuss the day’s events. I am eager to attend this year’s conference and spend time with other dedicated professionals who want to improve their teaching as well.

Know of a similar professional learning opportunity for English Language Arts teachers? Send and email to to share.