Make four-letter words build literacy skills

Writing skill depends on word-awareness. One simple way I’ve found to build word awareness among students of any age or background is to require students each week to find one four-letter word that can be used as two or more parts of speech, thereby giving the word different meanings.

Presented in grammar-speak it sounds rather complicated, but it’s really simple enough for elementary students and English-language learners to understand. The key to making it work is to have students do the activity every week for at least a half year. Students need at least that much time to develop the habit of paying attention to words they run across outside of books as well as inside them.

This image represents a cart (noun) which is used to cart (verb) groceries.

Essentially what you do is:

  1. Show students one or two examples of common words that have different meanings when used as different parts of speech. (Someone might cart (verb) junk to the landfill in a cart (noun), or bump (verb) her head going over a bump (noun) in the road.)
  2. Require students to turn in each week an example of a four-letter word that has different meanings when used as a different part of speech, showing an example of each of the meanings in a sentence.
  3. Each week, show a few examples turned in that week, being careful to give all students equal opportunity to have their work presented as a good example. (If possible, use this activity to interject a bit of fun between more intellectually demanding activities.)

It’s not necessary for you to teach the grammatical terms for the different parts of speech before you show students what they are to do. You can slip in the terms and their definitions as you show the examples.

Here are some common English words that you might use to show students how a word can be used in different ways with different meanings:

  • cart
  • bump
  • hand
  • spin
  • bank
  • tree
  • make
  • mail

Done regularly, this simple activity can help students learn both vocabulary and basic grammar terms with a minimum of effort on your part.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

A new way to think about literacy

Literacy = reading and writing, right?

Technically, yes.

But suppose we broadened the skills that we include under the literacy umbrella to include speaking, listening, and thinking.

Then we’d have a suite of skills that people use to learn complex material.

Broadening the definition of literacy is where Mark A. Forget begins teaching any subject, from the humanities to vocational courses.

 Red umbrella labeled LITERAACY over 5 gears labeled reading, writing, speaking, listening, thinking

An expanded definition of literacy facilitates teaching in the content areas using both reading and writing.

Skill acquisition during content learning

Forget (pronounced forzháy) stumbled over some good ideas that he later built on, drawing on research into how people learn.

Forget flips the classroom, using the class time for reading text material that typically is assigned for homework and giving as homework activities that encourage higher order thinking about that same content.

Forget uses textbooks the school provides as the reading material. Students acquire reading skills in the process of reading those texts strategically and collaboratively discussing their reading, defending their interpretation of it by reference to specific passages in the text.

Forget teaches strategies that students can use for the rest of their lives.

Forget varies activities to prevent boredom. He  has about two dozen activities that he picks from to accomplish specific objectives, such as learning to preview text, for example. Having those choices lets him insert some variety into the classes without changing his overall procedure.

Forget uses in-class writing every day. Usually the writing is informal (i.e, ungraded), a tool to help students “generate ideas, become engaged through concrete commitment, clarify their own thinking, or otherwise organize ideas in useful and meaningful ways,” Forget says.

MAX teaching strategies

After testing the procedures for years in a variety of school settings and in many different disciplines, Forget wrote Max Teaching with Reading and Writing: Classroom Activities for Helping Students Learn New Subject Matter While Acquiring Literacy Skills¹.  The “MAX” in Max Teaching stands for Motivation, Acquisition (learning that happens without instruction), and eXtension.

Forget does for reading what I attempt to do with writing: Use it as a tool for teaching content and developing the skills Forget includes under the literacy umbrella: reading, writing, speaking, listening, thinking.

What makes Forget’s method brilliant is less his originality than his consistency: He figured out how to teach so that students learn subject matter content and acquire literacy skills—reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking—and he stuck to doing that class after class, week after week.

I don’t recall who recommended the book to me, but I wish I did so I could thank him or her.  If my colleagues in other disciplines used Forget’s methods, teaching writing to their students would be a piece of cake.

I’m sure I’ll be writing more about Forget’s ideas as I work through the rest of the book.

¹ I got my copy of Max Teaching with Reading and Writing through an independent bookseller at

Writing: The fortieth part of literacy?

Drawing of man and student is on cover of Literacy handbook for CTE teachersThe students who filled my English 101 classes over the years have been in the career and technical education arena.

Many of them are very smart folks, but they don’t know how to apply their smarts to writing.

While looking this week for resources for teaching such students, I discovered an teacher handbook called How Do You Expect Me To Teach Reading and Writing? which appears to be prepared for North Carolina CTE teachers.

Of the 82 pages in the handbook, only pages 15 and 16 are devoted exclusively to teaching writing.

Some of the literacy strategies discussed in section 4 of the handbook could be used in teaching topics related to writing; however, I didn’t see any strategies for actually teaching writing.

Is it just me, or does anyone else think it’s off balance to devote just 1/40 of a handbook about teaching reading and writing to teaching writing?

Flip the Bloomin’ straw man

When students write about a novel based on having seen the movie, teachers are dismayed.

AP exam topic work viewed, not read

What about when teachers review a scholarly work based solely on the abstract?

Is it acceptable to write for teachers to write critical analysis based on something they heard about a book?

Would it be legitimate for teachers to pan a work if their information about it were from an education course for which they paid tuition?

These are not hypothetical questions for me. I discovered last week a subcontractor was not reading the documents for which she was writing annotations. She said she didn’t have time to read the sources. I didn’t find that an acceptable excuse. I expect my students and my employees to read the works they critique.

Perhaps my expectations of acceptable educator standards are out of date.  I certainly feel out of step when I read education blogs.

One of the most popular education blog posts in the past couple weeks is Shelley Wright’s blog about flipping Bloom’s Taxonomy.

wrightsroom tweets her blog

Response to the post ranged from favorable to gushing.

post one of best ever

In her post, Wright has this to say:

The presentation of the Taxonomy (in boththe original and revised versions) as a pyramid suggests that one cannot effectively begin to address higher levels of thinking until those below them have been thoroughly addressed. Consequently (at least in the view of many teachers who learned the taxonomy as part of their college training) Blooms becomes a “step pyramid” that one must arduously try to climb with your learners. Only the most academically adept are likely to reach the pinnacle. That’s the way I was taught it. [emphasis added]

Shelley Wright is probably a superb teacher. Her lessons are interesting and engaging. However, what she flips is not the taxonomy, but a straw man.

Wright thinks the taxonomy is wrong because her experience doesn’t square with the way she was taught.  The step pyramid she describes doesn’t square with my experience either. However, I know the step pyramid that Wright flips does not appear anywhere in the taxonomy—not in the original 1956 handbook or the 2001 revision.

I own (and have read more than once) both the 1956 The Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Handbook I Cognitive Domain, edited by Bloom, and the 2001 A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, edited by Anderson and Krathwohl.

To understand either taxonomy, one must understand how the authors define terms,  since a taxonomy is a device for defining characteristics so we can sort items.  The process Wright describes using in her classes does not begin with creativity as the revised taxonomy defines it.

In her example of the advertisement, the class begins roughly at the application level, rearranging given elements in the form of an advertisement. It’s a great lesson, but it’s not one that creates as the revised taxonomy defines that term.  In the revised taxonomy, to create involves producing something that includes more than the materials the student started with.

Run through Wright’s other examples.

None begins with having students create.

Where Wright messed up was in not using primary sources.  The link Wright provides in the segment quoted above, does not go to a primary source. Granted the primary sources are expensive, but David R. Krathwohl’s 2002 article  in Theory into Practice about the revised taxonomy is was free to download online.  Just reading it would have disabused Wright of the idea that the taxonomy is lays out an educational program that must be followed sequentially.

As educators, let’s do what we want our students to do: Read the primary documents.

[Krathwohl’s article, which was available for download when this post was written, is no longer available. Link deleted 04-02-2014]



Questions for Curiosity Development

Curious kitten
Curiosity energizes the cat.

Questions are at the heart of education. The public in general tends to see public education in terms of teaching students to answer questions. That’s one reason standardized tests have so much public support.

However, when I say questions are at the heart of education, I’m not thinking of test questions.

Nor am I thinking of the questions teachers ask, those discussion questions that typically produce no discussion, no thought, and no learning. (I speak as a teacher who “led discussions.”)

The questions I’m thinking about are the  people  ask when they really want to know. Call them curiosity questions. They are questions that lead people to think, explore, and make connections. Curiosity questions are the marks of a learner.  Finding ways to develop the type of curiosity that produces learning is the job of educators.

The job has two parts. One part is getting people to ask questions. I do that in the context of teaching students to develop research paper topics. Teachers may need to give students a formula for generating questions and force them to use it until students find a use for one of their questions. Once some dumb thing the teacher makes them do actually proves useful, it ceases to be a dumb thing for students.

The second part of the educator’s job is getting learners  to ask useful questions.  That’s a far more difficult task.  It involves precise use of language, particularly if the question is to be presented in written format where the opportunities to clarify and add detail are limited.  However, that’s not all that is involved.

Asking a useful question requires the ability to look at the situation from the perspective of the person you are asking for the information.  In some situations, the questioner might be given aids that spell out what kinds of information to supply in order to get a timely and useful response.  In such cases, the questioner is expected to read the directions.  That implies, of course, that educators must teach students not only how to read directions but also  to read directions.  The how is part is much easier to teach and learn than the habit.

Reading directions is a good first step, but seeing the situation from the perspective of the person who think has the information requires learners to to use their imaginations.  Forget “what would I do if I were in the Hunger Games?” In real life situations, learners need to  be able to put themselves in the place of people who have answers to their questions and then supply the information that person needs in order to answer the question.

The learner has to ask questions such as:

  • What information about the student would I need to explain to that student how to use Edmodo?
  • What information would I need to know to tell someone how to use an Excel spreadsheet?
  • If I were the boss at Big Burger, what information would I need to decide if someone is worth interviewing  to work at Big Burger this summer?
  • What  information about a taxpayer would I need to know to advise someone what federal income tax form to use?
  • If I had to help someone find scholarships available to them, what information would I need to know?

Answering those questions requires the kinds of applied imagination and creativity students will need to use in their everyday lives.  People who can shift perspective to see a situation from another point of view are truly creative thinkers.

In the process of figuring out what kinds of information a person needs to answer a question, the learner often finds out the answer to the question. That, I suspect, is one reason that one sees so few well-written questions in public question forums like Yahoo! Answers: People who did the spade work got the answer without having to ask the question.


Photo credit: “Little cute cat photo 3” uploaded by aljabak

[Broken link removed 04-02-2014]

Fiction as a perceptional lens

Library seen from outside in the dark
Books are windows, too.

Reading vintage fiction is a hobby and a compulsion for me. I not only enjoy old books, but also find looking at contemporary life through the lens of another era makes patterns easier to spot.

This week I reread A. M. E. Hutchinson’s If Winter Comes. First published in August 1921, it became a bestseller, going through 34 reprints by April 1923. If you aren’t fortunate enough to pick a copy for a quarter at a library book sale, as I did, you can read a digital version from Project Gutenberg.

The story is about Mark Sabre, a young man who was called “Puzzlehead” at school because of his extraordinary habit of being able to see anything from the other guy’s side. Mark has principles that he believes are absolutely true, but he doesn’t always find it easy to know how to apply those principles. Mark’s world is complicated, full of subtleties.

Mark’s ability to see how things might appear to someone else is in singular contrast to folks around him. From his wife to his boss, they are what Marks calls people of Conviction, with a capital C.

People of Conviction have rods and cones, but their brains perceive only black and white.  They absolutely believe that their beliefs are true, and they cannot imagine that any other belief could be held by anyone who isn’t at best a moron, at worst an immoral moron.

People of Conviction are righteous bullies.

Looking at contemporary life with Hutchinson’s novel fresh in my mind, appears that people of Conviction still hold the whip hand.  Puzzleheads are scarce, even in arenas where puzzleheaded people are most needed: politics and education.

Getting rid of the people of Conviction is impossible. Shooting them’s not legal, and, as Mark says, they mean well and they are often right.

Converting them may be impossible, too. They do not listen to anything with which they know they don’t agree.

Perhaps the only solution is to give them novels that let them a look at life through a different lens.

Photo credit: Windows and Books uploaded by sphaera

In praise of print

In “Across the digital divide,”  Seanan McGuire writes a passionate and intelligent piece about why we need books and libraries in the age of e-readers.

McGuire says:

…every time a discussion of ebooks turns, seemingly inevitably, to “Print is dead, traditional publishing is dead, all smart authors should be bailing to the brave new electronic frontier,” what I hear, however unintentionally, is “Poor people don’t deserve to read.”

McGuire puts a human face on a big problem for American education and the American economy. I haven’t run across McGuire’s fiction, (I rarely read fiction less than 25 years old; You can’t tell if a novel will last until it’s 25.) but having read her nonfiction, I’m going to look for her fiction.

Reading key to achievement for neurosurgeon Ben Carson

Earlier this week I watched Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story based on the memoirs of neurosurgeon Ben Carson.  The 90-minute video is inspirational and instructive viewing for students, parents, and teachers.

Excerpts from the drama are available on YouTube.   The full version is available on DVD  from NetFlix, and is on

Carson was a black kid from Detroit with a violent temper and the conviction that he was dumb. His  mother realized part of Ben’s problem was that he couldn’t see well enough to make out the letters. The school hadn’t figured that out.

When Ben got failing grades, she refused to let him and his  brother watch TV until their homework was done. She insisted her sons read two library books a week and write a report on them for her, though she herself could barely read.

Curious about a rock he’d found, Carson read a book about rocks. When he shared his knowledge in science class, he astounded his teacher. More important, Carson realized he wasn’t dumb.

He graduated high school, attended Yale, went on to medical school, and became top pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins.

Carson’s memoir is available in paperback,  ISBN 0310546516, at many online and storefront retailers.

Watching the video got me thinking about how it could be used as a jumping off place for writing.  (I’m working on a collection of nonfiction writing prompts on topics from the ELA curriculum, so almost everything suggests a writing prompt to me.) Here’s one of the writing prompts I came up with:

Ben Carson’s behavior was determined in a large part by the way he viewed himself. When he stopped believing he was stupid and helpless to learn, he began to learn and to be smarter. The idea that self-perception influences behavior is a well-accepted tenet of psychology.

Write an essay in which you discuss how self-perception impacts behavior. In your response, include one example from your personal experience or personal observation, and examples from any two of the following:

  • A fictional literary character
  • An historical figure
  • A sports figure
  • A scientist or doctor
  • An explorer
  • An artist or musician

You’ll find a biography of Carson on the website, where you can hear a podcast by him, see or watch interviews with him, and find lesson plans that pick up on themes from his life.
[Deleted broken links 2014-11-29/]

645 meanings of the verb run

Let me run this by you.

Simon Winchester says in an op-od piece in today’s New York Times  that, according to Oxford English Dictionary lexicographer Peter Gilliver, the word run has 645 meanings in the verb-form alone.

If you teach literacy, reading comprehension, or English (including all its initialized formats: ELA, ELL, EFL, ESL), that fact should make you blink. Run is, after all, one of the most common words in our language. It is among the words students learn in their first encounters with reading and writing.

If there are 645 meanings of the verb to run, what does that say about the difficulty of learning vocabulary in context? And what are the implications of a 645-definition word for writing teachers?

Those are not trivial questions.

According to US census data a fifth of the population over age 5 speaks a language other than English at home. Of those, only 56.2 percent say they speak English “very well.” When you look at the ages of the people who do not speak English in their homes, you’ll see in every language group the largest segment of non-English speakers is school age.

Census data assumes that speaking only English at home means proficiency in oral English. I think most teachers would question that assumption.

However, even if it were true, the number of people who are fluent in oral English is higher than the number who are skilled at reading and writing English, even among people whose primary language is English.

For me as a teacher, these data mean I do not have the luxury of spending time on topics just because they are fun or just because students are interested in them. I have to choose teaching topics because they help me accomplish my learning objectives. Then I have to find ways to make the topics fun or relate them to something that already interests the students.

What significance do you find in the 645 meanings of the verb run?