Cultivating Digital Literacy, Citizenship & Leadership

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Whether for good or bad, the Internet and the information revolution have impacted nearly every aspect of society and social organizations, including our schools…and the challenge becomes how to address that impact. Technology and the Web have changed how students learn, study, and research, as well as how they interact with information, teachers and each other.  From Khan Academy to 1:1, it is increasingly clear that this is, “Not your father’s school,” and educational leaders who don’t respond and plan accordingly, will see their students left behind.” Jonathan Martin

As technology changes our society, our schools too must adapt. It is important for educators to understand three elements regarding technology in education: digital literacy, digital citizenship and digital leadership, and then provide instruction in all three so our students develop proficiency.

Instead of banning technology and social media on our campuses, it would better benefit our stakeholders if we taught our students the responsible ways in which to use the tools our society and economy have come to depend on.

Research is clear; our brains are extremely influenced by environment. If we cultivate a literacy and tech-infused environment of innovation, responsibility and critical thinking, then our students will understand how to positively use tech to communicate their ideas and harness the power of it in a productive manner. 

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Don’t get me wrong, as an English and social science teacher, I will be the first to say that technology DOES NOT replace effective teaching.  An ineffective teacher without a device will often be an ineffective teacher with a device, “a fool with a tool is still a fool.”

I advocate first training teachers in best instructional practices that increase student achievement such as: essential questions, writing and communication skills, critical thinking, note-taking, content literacy and engagement strategies.  After teachers have incorporated these effective learning practices, the environment is ripe for the induction of tech tools. 

A balanced tech adoption in which students read, write and create on paper, in addition to reading, writing and creating on their devices, is most advantageous.  Though I still believe in teaching students to read and write in cursive (GASP!), I have come to respect digital devices and witnessed the tremendous opportunity they provide in giving students equitable access to 21st Century methods.

Because technology is not going away, who better than educators, can educate our students to use tech for good, not for evil? 

In order to do this, we first must understand how technology positively and negatively affects our brains.

How Does Technology Impact the Brain?

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Depending on the study referenced, technology can have positive and negative neurological influences.

**Some say technology decreases:

*attention span

*face to face communication skills

*information retention

*complex reading abilities

*writing and grammar skills

*physical activity

*healthy eye development

**Some say that it increases:

*visual and spatial skills

*reaction times

*eye to hand coordination

*cause & effect processing


*skimming and scanning for main ideas

Whether a tech opponent or proponent, both agree that technology has changed our brains.  Just as students need explicit instruction in solving linear equations and annotating complex text, they also benefit from instruction, modeling, and practice in digital literacy, citizenship and leadership.

I do not subscribe to the idea that our students are ‘digital natives’ and therefore are adept in overall tech literacy.  Though they may be skilled in a few areas, most don’t understand how SEOs (search engine optimizers) work, how to skillfully research accurate and relevant information on a topic, or how to project a positive digital footprint that will aid, and not harm them in the future.  For more about this topic, check out the article, "Digital Natives, Yet Strangers to the Web."

Thus, the need for explicit instruction in a few tech areas, is vital to student success.

According to Jess Bolluyt, author of “5 Ways Tech is Disrupting Education,”  tech has positively changed education in these ways, it:

1. Allows for adaptive, personalized learning

2. Encourages collaboration among students and teachers

3. Enables students to learn and consume content in a social manner

4. Provides anytime/anywhere learning

5. Provides formative and summative centralized assessments that provide more data for teachers to use to drive their instruction

Tech is here to stay; consider teaching these components in order to prepare students for the changing tech needs of our society.


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Digital Literacy (DL) is having the ability to:

*analyze and evaluate content for trustworthiness and relevancy

*understand digital platforms and how SEOs operate

*collaborate using tech to create original content

*use fonts, backgrounds & graphics to convey a message

*understand one’s digital tattoo/footprint

*engage in responsible Social Networking

*use a variety of tech tools to produce, communicate & evaluate information

The “How & Why”

We can help students develop this type of literacy by teaching students the “How & Why” of the tools that we use.  For example, when students use Keynote & Prezi to create a presentation, they are utilizing a tool that allows them to visually and linguistically convey a message (what the Common Core State Standards refers to as “create a claim and support it with evidence”).  Or when we use Edmodo or Schoology, we are respectfully sharing, learning and debating ideas related to our class content. Using Scratch or Minecraft allows students to “code” in order to animate learned content or create new content, while fostering cause and effect and decision-making skills.  

Ultimately, we use technology to increase our critical thinking, expedite communication, and expand our repertoire of tools to accomplish tasks. Teaching the “How and Why” of the tech tools we use in class, helps students to understand which tool to choose in order to complete a task.

What?  Everything on the Internet is not True?

Another component of DL is to determine whether Web content is relevant and reliable.  Teachthought, one of my favorite educational sites, compiled a list of valuable e-resources in their article, “100 Search Engines for Academic Research."  These sites have been deemed trustworthy for teacher and student research.

**In addition to using trusted sites, here are a few questions students can use to personally evaluate Internet content:

Is the site reader-friendly (using titles, subheadings, pictures, captions and charts)?

If timeliness of the information is important, is it kept up to date?

Does the author provide contact information if there are questions about the content?

Does the author add in personal commentary and/or use absolutes and superlatives such as “always, never,best, excellent” to describe the information?

Are the sources clearly listed so facts can be verified?

Does the site provide helpful live links to other resources?

Does the author seem to have a personal agenda he/she is trying to push?

Is the author affiliated with an organization?

Is the author trying to sell something?

**A few Digital Literacy sample lessons to consider are:

*Find examples of effective/ineffective company infographics and determine what could make them better? Consider symbols, color, wording, etc.

*Use coding programs such as Scratch to create an animated lesson based on content learned; include music and voice narration.

*Find evidence to support AND refute a topic such as human cloning, global warming or the existence of Big Foot—create a claim and provide evidence to support it.  Then, produce a multi-media presentation and upload it to YouTube.

*“Gamify” a unit.  Develop a game and point structure students can play to earn points when they complete certain assignments.  The more assignments they complete, the more points they earn and the farther they advance in the game. Here are a few resources to gamify your instruction: "Trying out Gamification in the Classroom? These Tools are for You," an article by Katie Lepi, and a YouTube video:"Level Up: Five Steps to Gamify Your Class."

*Utilize Twitter or TodaysMeet during a lesson to post questions and allow for running commentary throughout a lesson to engage all learners.

**Four resources for teaching Digital Literacy & Citizenship are:

Cybraryman Internet Catalogue

CommonSense Media


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Digital Citizenship is primarily concerned with establishing a positive online presence.  According to Microsoft’s 2014 “Safer Online” Report, private citizens spend billions of dollars annually attempting to repair their online damaged reputations and billions of dollars are lost in estimated income due to damaged digital footprints. 

In a nutshell, Digital Citizenship can make or break a person’s personal AND professional life.

A responsible Digital Citizen (DC):

*upholds Acceptable Use Policies

*establishes a positive digital footprint

*demonstrates proper use and care of technology

*skillfully navigates between face to face and digital communication

*participates respectfully in online discussions and demonstrates “Netiquette”

*appropriately evaluates the effects of individual tech use on the greater community

*adheres to guidelines for buying & selling products online

*does not participate in cyberbullying

*uses electronic precautions to protect one’s identity

*establishes healthy limits on tech use

One area that educational institutions sometimes need help with is in the development of “Acceptable Use Policies” for both employees and students.  Edutopia provides guidelines for this task, “How to Create Social Media Guidelines for Your School” in addition to a slew of other Digital Citizenship resources, such as Matt Davis’ article, "Digital Citizenship: 6 Resources for Educators."

Increase Search Visibility & Develop a Positive Digital Footprint

People can increase their Internet search visibility by owning their domain name, blogging, and participating in Social Media Platforms that have strong Search Engine Optimizers such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn and

However, when we engage in Social Media, we should model appropriate behavior and filter what we post. Only post what is truthful, positive, helpful and interesting, and for goodness’ sake, limit the SELFIES!

I once heard, “The Internet doesn’t make us stupid; it just makes one’s stupidity more visible.”  That can certainly be the case when one posts evidence of questionable behavior, endless rants and selfies. As many have learned the hard way in the 21st Century, nothing chases away professional opportunities faster than negative online behavior.  

In summary, when it comes to Digital Citizenship…don’t be stupid online.


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First, when it comes to Digital Leadership, a Digital Leader (DL), doesn’t have to know EVERYTHING about technology.  According to Todd Whitaker, “Though it is beneficial if leaders can model the use of technology, it is more essential that they support the use of technology.”

The benefit in being a Digital Leader is the ability to communicate to ALL stakeholders, the school’s vision, mission, activities and successes, while also promoting a culture focused on continual learning and innovation. In order to do this, a DL can use just a few tech tools well. He/she does not have to use all of them; in fact, I caution against it.

A Tremendous Opportunity

A school or district has an online brand, or presence, whether established by those within the organization, or not.  There is a tremendous (and FREE) opportunity for educators to positively impact how others view education, while demonstrating Digital Leadership, and that is by simply sharing in online communities, all of the great things happening in schools.

I have read many times, the negative, often fictitious, attacks against a school or educator, launched by a disgruntled parent, etc.  Unfortunately, studies show that people believe what they hear most, and if most publicity about an educator or educational organization is negative, then that wll influence the public’s perception.

Here are a few tools Digital Leaders can use to positively communicate a message and demonstrate Digital Leadership:

*Twitter—free 24/7 professional development and connection with other educators

*Remind + Stamps—free and secure texting service to send out reminders to staff, parents and students and allow for a quick response

*Blog—communicate the great successes of your school and provide resources

*Google Drive—create forms, communicate & track data with ease

*Evernote—combine lists, handwritten notes, articles, video, photos, etc., in one spot

In addition to using tech tools, consider these ideas to promote collaboration and learning:

*Host “appy” hour to highlight a few tech tools for educators and parents--provide snacks & music, etc.

*Partner up techies with non-techies to learn and practice 1 tech tool monthly--provide release time each month to accomplish this

*Send educators to tech conferences

*Host a “Tech EdCamp” at your school and bring in local “experts” to share ideas and tools

In closing, there is no doubt that technology has indeed changed our society.  If our goal as educators is to prepare students for the future, then education must include the productive ways in which to use technology.

Focusing on a balanced approach for "Old School" handwritten Literacy and "New School" Critical Thinking, Digital Literacy, Citizenship and Leadership, promotes a culture of learning and creativity that benefits all of our stakeholders and positions our students for 21st Century success.

Julie Adams, Adams Educational Consulting,, September 2014

Fostering a Positive School Culture - 8 Best Practices

May, 2014


There is no reason why schools cannot compete with Disneyland for the title “Happiest Place on Earth.”  Educators play a vital role in developing an environment that is conducive to learning, resulting in students who are competent, confident and compassionate.

In working with many schools, I have noticed several commonalities in those sites that have exceptionally positive and healthy school cultures that foster a love of learning and high levels of student achievement:

1. Caring and friendly staff, united by a common goal...developing relationships.

The most important component of a healthy learning environment is the attitude of the staff and their focus on developing positive relationships with students.  Dr. Rita Pierson shared in her TED Talk, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like, and research supports that sentiment.  From the school secretary, to the custodians, counselors, teachers and the administrative team, the attitude of the WHOLE staff will make or break a school.

Smiling, sharing, teaching, mentoring and patiently coaching students, makes a collection of buildings full of books and desks, a productive and enjoyable setting for learning. In addition, a shared goal of doing what is best for students, focuses the staff on what the real purpose of the organization is…a system designed to meet students’ social, emotional, and academic needs.

2. Teachers study and collaboratively use research-based critical thinking and comprehension strategies and model a continual love of learning.

Schools that have implemented best instructional practices such as essential questions, project-based learning, note-taking, pre/during/post lesson plan design and writing strategies, etc., develop a common vernacular for instruction, resulting in a a collaborative and productive instructional setting.

Best instructional practices also emphasize that teaching information is not the goal, but teaching students how to be independent critical thinkers, is.  Students appreciate the consistency in using common strategies across the content areas and they develop competence and confidence in consistently using the integrated methods.

3. Encourage a "Growth" Mindset Instead of a "Fixed" Mindset

Dr. Carol Dweck wrote the book Mindset; it has become a widely read non-fiction text in middle and high school English classes and for good reason.  She explains how students often develop a “fixed” or “growth” mindset during childhood; one is detrimental to learning and one is necessary.

A “fixed” mindset believes one is only as good as what he is born with~~if a child inherited math skills then he should be a naturally skilled math student.  But what if mathematical, musical, or athletic talents are not in the genes?  Should a person just not pursue excellence in those areas?  Of course not, but the “fixed” mindset believes that idea to be true.

We have all heard our students lament, “I’m just not good at math.” Or, “I’m not a good reader.”  Those are myths that must be debunked.  A “fixed” mindset believes there is no use in working hard to develop what is not inherent and that "fixed" idea shuts down learning.

A “growth” mindset is extremely beneficial to student achievement and it can be developed by modeling and practicing perseverance and hard work and praising effort and actions, not natural talent. When a student states, “I’m just no good at _______,” Dr. Dweck recommends we tell them to add “yet” to that sentence and then we explicitly teach the child the skills he needs to be successful.

This type of thinking focuses on improving our natural skills through grit and practice and it gives the student hope that if he does not first succeed, try, try, again. This "growth" mentality provides a sense of ownership in the learning process as well as hope in the fact that through practice and perseverance, we can increase our success in all areas.

4. Explicitly Teach Neuroscience & Model Healthy Habits

Many children think their environment is out of their control; it sometimes is as many don't have the freedom to make their own choices.  This feeling of helplessness can increase stress and emotional instability.  By teaching students how their brains work and what sleep, nutrition, exercise and stress management needs they have, they can make healthier decisions that will lead to increased success. They will also develop a sense of confidence as they understand they do have control over many aspects of their lives.  As the old adage goes…when we know better, we do better.

5. Implement Positive Behavioral Supports

When students are isolated or suspended, learning stops.  Consistent and appropriate school expectations are vital, and explicitly teaching appropriate behavior and self-regulation, greatly impacts student success.

In addition, frequently providing positive reinforcement, choices and personal connection, reduces discipline issues and recovers instructional time faster than a punitive system. (Sugai)

6. Encourage and Develop Leadership Skills in Teachers and Students

Strong leadership characteristics include: optimism, integrity, perseverance, critical thinking and collaborative problem solving and communication skills; studies show that these traits can be explicitly taught.

Leadership roles for teachers and students can take a variety of forms. For teachers, serving as a resource provider, instructional or curriculum expert, mentor, department chair, staff book club organizer, PD coordinator, tech support, committee member, coach, club coordinator and overall learning facilitator, are excellent ways for educators to flex their leadership skills and share and learn with others.

Student leadership may be fostered by providing leadership opportunities, communication and debate classes, LINK crews, peer mediation training, ambassador programs, campus and community projects and mock trials.

When the administrators are the only “leaders” on campus, a great opportunity is missed to share and expand the wisdom and resources that teachers and students have.

7. Implement the 4 Conditions for Learning

Studies have shown that there are four basic tenets identified in safe and productive learning environments:

1.    Students feel safe, both physically and emotionally.

2.    Students are supported through meaningful connections with adult caregivers on campus, anti-bullying campaigns, conflict management, counseling services and academic support.

3.    Students are challenged and engaged via project-based learning, meaningful assignments with real-world connections, and even opportunities that allow for late assignments and retakes so students can show improvement.  The goal is for student work to be excellent in quality, even if it takes a few times to get it right.

4.    Students are taught to be socially capable by learning about emotional intelligence, persistence, healthy habits, communication, and responsibility and then provided opportunities to showcase their skills at school and in the community.

8. Communicate & Increase Parent & Community Involvement

Schools and districts cannot over communicate their resources, opportunities and great successes.  Emails, banners, updated websites, texts and phone call blasts are effective ways to share what is happening.  

When educators do not communicate, the public fills in the blanks and sometimes the blanks are not positive or even accurate.  Control the message.

There are a variety of ways to tap into a school’s community resources and reach out to parents.  Offering “Parent University” sessions to parents in basic mathematical, writing, note-taking and comprehension strategies, is very beneficial.  Neighborhood and campus beautification days, Job Fairs, local business partnerships and mentoring, chess and art clubs with community members acting as mentors, etc., are all ways to connect the school with the families and community and improve the culture.

As with any “systemic” change, improving a negative school culture can be a daunting task, but it can be done.  Perhaps tackling just one idea at a time makes the challenge manageable. The positive outcome makes the task worthwhile as there is simply far too much at stake to let negativity, politics and personal agendas infect the true “happiest place on earth.”

Julie Adams, Adams Educational Consulting,

What is "Close" Reading?

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Close reading is the idea that students will re-read certain texts in order to develop a deeper understanding of the layers of meaning embedded within. Not all texts should be read in this manner, if a student can read and clearly understand a text during an initial reading, then the text is probably too simplistic to use for a close read.

However, many texts are worthy of close reading, and for these complex and rigorous texts, consider the following three-step process:

1. First, read the text in its entirety to get the feel and sentiment of it.

Ask students to complete a simple re-telling (first-then-finally) after the first reading, to identify their initial impressions of the beginning, middle, and end.

2. Next, read the text again to analyze the author's words and devices to gain deeper understanding. 

Annotate (add comments and questions in the margins) to study the deeper meaning.  The following questions address both literal and inferential meaning as well as the writer’s craft, structure, and integration of ideas; these general questions can guide analysis during the second reading:

*Is the text formal or informal-how do you know?

*What literary devices does the author use?

*What mood does the author create?

*What genre is the text (persuasive, summary, cause & effect, etc.)?

*Why does the author write a six-word sentence next to a twenty-five word sentence?

*Can you define 2-4 of the unfamiliar words?

*Is anything being compared or contrasted?

3. Read the text a third and final time and analyze 2-4 of the following:

*What claim is the author making?

*What evidence does the author provide to prove the claim?

*What is a picture or symbol you could sketch to summarize the main idea?

*How is this text similar or different than others you have read?

*Did the author omit anything that would have helped the reader better understand the text?

Tips to Incorporate Close Reading Across the Content Areas

 *To introduce and model close reading, the teacher may choose to initially read the text aloud to students and then guide students through the process using the different questions for each re-reading.

 *Students can work in pairs or small groups to practice close reading, though the ultimate goal is for students to internalize this skill set and use it independently.

*Keep the texts short, less than one page or so, and utilize both fiction and non-fiction passages. Poems, auto/biographical excerpts, lyrics, primary source documents, novel exerpts and speeches are excellent for close readings.

*Although front-loading is one of the most effective ways to build background knowledge and engage students in a lesson, consider not front-loading the text before this type of reading, as this process is focused on the reader gaining as much knowledge as possible from the re-readings, not from the discussion beforehand. In addition, the goal of this method is to develop independent analysis skills so when students are alone and the text is not front-loaded for them, they have an idea as to how to tackle it.

 *As with any skill development, ongoing practice is vital; though this style of reading does not need to happen daily, consistent practice is important for student mastery.

Is Close Reading a Strategy or Goal?

Close reading is purposefully reading a text while paying attention to the author’s word choice, sentence structure, and devices used to embed layers of meaning within. It involves reading the same text multiple times, each time studying a different aspect to encourage the reader to analyze what and why the author did what he did to communicate the point.

Close reading is considered by some to be a strategy and by others to be an outcome.  Either way, being able to closely read complex fiction and non-fiction and analyze and synthesize it for deeper meaning is a skill worth developing.  Students' critical thinking and independent comprehension increase with this type of structured reading.                       Julie Adams, Adams Educational Consulting,

What do Good Readers do?

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Many struggling students believe that one is either born a good reader or not and there is little one can do to become a more effective reader.  This is a "fixed" mindset myth (Carol Dweck) that educators must debunk immediately as it is detrimental to student competence and confidence. 

The truth is that being a "good" reader requires work; skilled comprehenders often utilize an arsenal of  "soft" skills when they encounter difficulty with comprehension. These strategies don't require a fancy hard-copy graphic organizer, thus the "soft" skills reference. 

Here are 10 of the most effective strategies that proficient readers use to boost comprehension: 


*read slower

*pre-read & predict

*connect to prior knowledge

*guess and check


*question the text/author (what does the author mean when he says this?)

*evaluate (What did I learn? What do I still need to know? What is most important?)

*retell (first, then, finally)

*summarize (who, what, when, where, why, how). 

Explicitly modeling these methods will greatly improve reading comprehension and communicate to students that good readers "work" at being good readers and we can all become more effective readers when we use these strategies.   Julie Adams, Adams Educational Consulting,

Creative Closure-Cementing Information in the "Post" Phase

There are many ways to assess student knowledge in the "post" phase of a lesson and educators who utilize a creative and flexible repertoire outside of scantrons, can increase student engagement and have a better understanding of student mastery.


The 21st Century "Post" critical thinking skills that need to be developed are: retelling, summarizing, identifying causal connections/main idea and supporting a claim with evidence.   


One flexible "post" assessment is the Somebody Wanted But So (SWBS). It is a "scaffolded" summary sentence that helps one determine the perspective, main idea, conflict and resolution of a fiction or non-fiction reading, in addition to developing many of the above mentioned skills.


A fictional example would be from the story Cinderella. Students would identify the SOMEBODY of the story as Cinderella, then identify what she WANTED (main ideas and details), then identify the BUT (the conflict) and finally, formulate the SO part (resolution).


Fiction Example:

SOMEBODY: Cinderella WANTED: to go to the ball to meet the prince BUT: her mean and jealous step-mother and step-sisters treated her unfairly and locked her up so she couldn't attend SO: her fairy godmother gave her everything she needed to look beautiful and attend the ball and Cinderella captured the heart of the prince and they lived happily ever after.


The teacher could assign several "SOMEBODIES" to analyze differing perspectives in the same story, such as: the prince, the fairy godmother, the step-mother, the step-sisters, etc.


This strategy works just as well with non-fiction.  In social science or science, the "Somebody" might be the Federalists or Anti-Federalists, Axis Powers, Allied Forces, Napoleon, Cell Nucleus, Non-Metallic Atoms, Endangered Species, Metallic Atoms, etc.  


Non-Fiction Example:

SOMEBODY: Metallic atoms WANTED: a complete outermost shell BUT: they have too many electrons SO: they give away electrons to non-metallic atoms to form an ionic bond.


Other creative, non-multiple choice "post" strategies include: Claim/Evidence/Summary, 3-2-1, or a Summary of Informational Text Writing Frame. Each strategy is engaging and flexible, and assesses different skills/levels of knowledge at the end of a lesson.


There is a time and place for scantrons but an effective educator is flexible and creative in the multiple types of assessments he implements.  The "post" phase of the lesson is important in cementing essential lesson content so short-term information can be transferred to long-term memory.  The use of these simple yet effective closure strategies such as the ones mentioned, helps information to be "chunked" into small memorable pieces that aid in the retention process.  Julie Adams, Adams Educational Consulting,  


Steps to Increasing Vocabulary Acquisition

“Vocabulary knowledge is the #1 predictor of long-term student achievement.” Louis Terman

“Assumacide” (Kelly Gallagher) is a term used to explain the problem that teachers encounter when we “assume” our students understand a concept; therefore, we don’t explicitly teach it, resulting in BIG comprehension problems for our students. 

During my first few years as a teacher, I was guilty of assumacide regarding my students’ vocabulary acquisition levels.  I was mistakenly under the impression that if my students could correctly “decode” or pronounce a word, they could also define it and use it correctly.  Boy, was I surprised, embarrassed, (and saddened), when I realized what a horrible and faulty assumption that was. 

As a teacher, there is much consternation as to what to teach and when, but time spent explicitly teaching both academic and content specific vocabulary, is time well spent. In my experience, there are a few areas of vocabulary instruction that educators can emphasize to greatly increase student vocabulary knowledge and comprehension.  First, I want to clarify three terms: “content,” “academic,” and “superfluous” vocabulary.

“Content” vocabulary (the Common Core refers to them as 'domain-specific') are terms specific to a content area such as: equation, characterization, musicality, photosynthesis, etc., and they are a foreign language to our students.  The Common Core refers to these words as “Domain-Specific” though some reference them as “Tier 3” or “Brick” terms.  Students only hear these terms during our lessons and do not use or encounter them outside of our class.  This leads to a disconnect in their level of understanding as one only develops proficiency and fluency in what is utilized often, and content vocabulary is often used only by the teacher but rarely by the student.  Essentially, students are “lost” in our content area classes because we are speaking a foreign language.

“Academic” vocabulary are those terms more general, seen across all content areas in both fiction and non-fiction text.  These terms include: analyze, compare, determine, associate, particular, etc., and are sometimes referred to as “High-Utility,” “Tier 2,” or “Mortar” words.   These words, when used in student speech, help to sophisticate their level of conversation. In addition, having knowledge and the ability to use these terms can greatly enhance students’ overall text and testing comprehension.

“Superfluous” words are those that are rare and unique (often adjectives) often encountered in fiction, but can be seen anywhere-words such as: superfluous, loquacious, ubiquitous, etc.  They sometimes carry importance but often are not vital or common enough to warrant extensive instruction in.  These terms also tend to be the focus of many ELA vocabulary programs, though students would benefit more from instruction in content and academic vocabulary.  Keep in mind, just because a word is underlined by the publisher, doesn’t mean it necessitates extensive instruction.

So what can a teacher do to boost student vocabulary knowledge and fiction/non-fiction comprehension? 

Step 1: Develop Academic & Content Word Lists

Identify the essential content and academic terms your students must know for your class each week and try to limit them to 3 (total) per class/content area in the lower grades (K-4) and 12 per class in the upper grades.  This doesn’t mean that you cannot teach more words than that, just be aware that student word acquisition is limited, so emphasize those words that will be utilized often throughout your course. 

Many teachers and PLCs create Content and Academic Word Lists that identify the essential terms for a course; this is helpful for vertical articulation so those who teach the preceding or subsequent courses to your classes are aware of the vocabulary you teach.

When narrowing down your list of essential words to teach, ask yourself these questions; if your answer is “yes” to all three, teach it:

*Is the word essential to understanding the lesson?

*Is this word important to my content area?

*Will students see this word often?

Step 2: Be Consistent & Prepared

Many teachers use a different method to teach each word and this chameleon type of instruction is confusing to students.  Explicitly teach your essential terms using a consistent step-by-step process and have students take notes using some type of Vocabulary Study Chart (there are samples on my site under “Trainings” and then “Workshop Examples”).

Step-by-Step Process to Teach Essential Words:

*Say the word & provide the part of speech (helpful for ELs so they know how to use it) and have students rate their knowledge of the word

*Have students repeat 3-5x (builds pronunciation fluency of multi-syllabic terms)

*Provide kid-friendly definition (avoid dictionary language-keep it simple)

*Provide example sentence and picture/symbol (so students have an accurate reference and visual)

*Ask a checking for understanding question

*After teaching, have students again rate their knowledge of the word


*Jubilant, adj., rate your knowledge of the word on a scale of 1-4

*Repeat after me:  jubilant, jubilant, jubilant

*Jubilant describes one who is really happy or excited.

*I was jubilant after winning the race! :)

*Would you be jubilant if I assigned you a 10-page essay?

*Now re-rate your knowledge of the word, 1-4

Step 3:  Use a Variety of Strategies to Review

Review vocabulary every class session for 5-8 minutes.  Yes, that is correct; I didn’t stutter, 5-8 minutes daily...this can be part of your bell-ringer/frontloading strategy.

Students need multiple opportunities to see, say, and manipulate words to develop acquisition.  Experts consider the following strategies "substantive and robust" in building acquisition skills:

“Clozed” Sentences/Paragraphs (fill-in the blank)--extremely scaffolded activity-best initial review strategy

*Teacher writes a sentence/paragraph using essential word/s, then deletes the vocabulary terms and puts them in a word bank, the students use the word bank to complete the sentences/paragraph using the context clues as a guide.

EX: I was ________________ after winning the race.  jubilant

Yes/No/Why?--less scaffolded

*Teacher provides accurate/inaccurate sentences using the vocabulary terms and the students determine whether the sentence makes sense according to the definition and explains in a complete sentence response.

EX:  I was jubilant when the officer issued me a $300 speeding ticket.

Yes, this sentence makes sense because…

No, this sentence does not make sense because…jubilant means really happy or excited and I would not be happy if I received a $300 ticket.

Independent Clauses --no scaffolding-upper level thinking

*The teacher provides a complete sentence with the vocabulary term in it followed by a semi-colon.  The student then provides another complete sentence after the semi-colon that has a synonym or example of the vocabulary word, demonstrating knowledge of the term.

EX: The student was jubilant; he was thrilled when he earned an A on the midterm exam.

Double Definitions--no scaffolding-upper level thinking

*The student writes a formal definition of a term that may be used to describe a word to the principal and then writes an informal definition of the same term using slang/symbols to describe it to a friend.

Crossword Puzzles, Vocabulary Bingo & Vocabulary Relay—

*Vocabulary acquisition games are an engaging review method that builds acquisition and a productive and fun way to begin or bring closure to a lesson.

Step 4:  Assess Separately

Have you ever given an exam and had a number of students fail?  It is difficult to know whether it was the vocabulary or the concepts themselves that were the proficiency saboteurs. One way to remedy this is to assess your vocabulary separate from the content exam a few days ahead of time.  This will provide you with data to determine whether your students need more instruction in the unit vocabulary before the final exam. 

If they all do well on the vocabulary assessment, then they are more likely to succeed on the content exam; if they mostly fail the vocabulary assessment, (yikes!) spend more time reviewing and practicing the vocabulary so they are better prepared for the content exam. 

Effective vocabulary instruction is key to comprehension and long-term retention of our content.  In a foreign language class, the teacher often spends +70% of the time on vocabulary acquisition just so the students can engage in and comprehend the lesson; however, a content area teacher devotes less than 2% of time to vocabulary instruction (Scott, 2003).

It is difficult for anyone to develop proficiency when instruction and assessment are in a foreign language.  Assumacide is dangerous when it comes to skills instruction-explicitly teaching vocabulary for a few minutes a day is an excellent way to improve content comprehension and foster the 21st Century College/Career Readiness skills our students need. Julie Adams, Adams Educational Consulting,




Just Say "No" to Popcorn Reading

One question often posed to me by teachers is, “How can I engage and break up the monotony of long sections of oral reading in class?”  Great question!  As educators, we know the importance of reading aloud in class; whether a student is in 3rd grade or AP Calculus, hearing someone skillfully read sections of text promotes fluency and comprehension of both fiction and non-fiction.  However, reading aloud can be monotonous if we use the same method or only have one or two readers involved, as it renders most of the students passive.

Popcorn reading (randomly calling on students to read aloud-whether their hand is raised or not) is a common practice, though I recommend the strategy be banned or at least modified in the following way.  Some teachers assign a different section of text to be read by each student, the first student then begins reading and others don’t follow along and comprehend because surprise, they are all reading the section in which they were assigned. If a teacher insists on doing reading like this in class, then please allow students a few minutes to read and rehearse their part before anyone starts reading aloud.  This way, students will not be anxious about reading their section as they have already practiced, and once prepared, they can focus and follow along with the current readers.

Popcorn reading, when used as a classroom management tactic to “catch” those who are not paying attention, in my opinion, should never be used. It increases the "affective filter" or level of discomfort in the classroom as many don't like to be "put on the spot" to read aloud, especially when so many of our students struggle with reading in general.  Reading should never be used as a management tool or punishment.  For more reasons as to why this method is frowned upon, please read Todd Finley's article , "11 Alternatives to Round Robin Reading."  

So what are other ways to read text aloud in class?

I recommend teachers chunk sections (every few paragraphs, use a different method) of oral reading alternating these six methods:

Teacher Reads Aloud-this is perhaps one of the most effective methods for improving student fluency and comprehension, as the teacher is the expert in reading the text and models how a skilled reader reads using appropriate pacing and prosody (inflection).

Echo Reading-teacher reads aloud section then students “echo” back using the same pacing and prosody.  This is a good opportunity for teachers to emphasize certain words and even practice reading a passage using different emotions (angrily, sarcastically, sadly, etc.) to show how meaning can change just by changing one’s tone.  Have students re-read the section quietly to themselves.

Choral Reading-teacher and class reads passage aloud together matching pacing and prosody.

Partner Reading-students can alternate reading sentences from a section to each other or can chorally read a section together.

Oral “Cloze” Reading-the teacher reads aloud a passage and randomly omits words while reading, the class chorally fills in the omitted word.  Have students re-read the section quietly to themselves as some will be distracted by this technique because they are so focused on which words the teacher is omitting.

Silent Reading-students read silently to themselves.

It can be helpful to read one section using one method and then switch to another method for the next section then another and then another.  So I may start a text by chorally reading a section with the class and then the next section only I will read aloud to them, the next section they can read quietly to themselves and the final portion can be done in partners. 

This “chunking” technique engages all of the readers all of the time and controls the pacing of the reading as well.  My slower readers have assistance in that they are not reading a text alone in its entirety and my faster readers have to stay engaged with the class and cannot speed-read through and then doodle the rest of the time.

It is also a great practice to choose a few important sections of text that will be re-read daily.   Every time we re-read, we gain about 15-20% more comprehension, so re-reading is an important “soft” skill (see my blog titled “What Good Readers Do” for more info on “soft” skills) to model and practice.  Let students know that one reading is sometimes/often not sufficient and the best way to increase comprehension is simply to do multiple re-readings.

There is of course a time and place for independent or teacher reading only; however, alternating oral reading methods can increase comprehension and allow for greater discussion of a topic as all students are held accountable for engagement during all phases of a reading.  Julie Adams, Adams Educational Consulting,


Fostering Metacognition in the "During" Phase

"Students come to school to watch their teachers do all of the work."

Dr. Bill Daggett


As mentioned previously, an effective lesson has Pre-During-Post phases, with each phase intended to develop a specific skill-set.  


The sentiment expressed above by Dr. Daggett is particularly true in the "During" phase of a lesson. During this segment, educators often spoon-feed too much information, not allowing students the opportunity to develop or utilize the metacognitive processes needed to analyze the information for themselves.


The "During" phase is designed to develop the following skills: visualizing, questioning, inferring, identifying main ideas, and most importantly, monitoring comprehension. 


The following are effective reading techniques students can employ to increase critical thinking, engagement and comprehension in the "During" phase; these skills are referred to as "Close" reading skills in the Common Core:

  • Read text SLOWLY acting as an investigator, identifying the most important who, what, when, where, why, and how for each sub-heading section 
  • Re-read sections to gain more comprehension-once is often not enough 
  • Retell (first, then, finally) each sub-heading section  
  • Discuss the text with a partner or two, coming to a consensus on the important details
  • Sketch a picture to visualize and foster connections to the text
  • Connect the new knowledge to one idea learned the day before
  • Infer and develop two predictions as to what may happen next based on newly acquired knowledge
  • Write 2 questions that come to mind for each sub-heading section
  • Use graphic organizers such as the Double-Entry Journal, Evidence Guide and Episodic Notes  

These strategies can be used alone or combined as needed to boost critical thinking and hold students accountable for engaging with the text.


Students who struggle with comprehension are often under the false impression that one is just born with those abilities.  It is our responsibility as educators to develop the 21st Century College & Career Readiness skills the new Common Core emphasizes.  When we model and practice the aforementioned methods in the "During" phase of a lesson, text competence, comprehension and confidence increase and students develop the "During" reading skill-set necessary for success. Julie Adams, Adams Educational Consulting,


Essential Questions-Hook & Hold 'Em

 “I like a teacher who gives you something to take home to think about besides homework.” Lily Tomlin

An effective way to increase critical thinking and long-term retention of your lessons is to utilize essential questions.  EQs answer the two essential questions that students have, “What are we doing today?” and “Why do I have to learn that?”

There are three levels of EQs: lesson, unit and course.  An example of a lesson question may be, “What led to the fall of the Roman Empire?” The unit EQ might be, “What factors contributed to the rise AND fall of the Roman Empire?”  An EQ for your course may be, “How can we structure our government and society so we don’t suffer the same failed fate as others?”

Sometimes simply turning your standard or objective into a question can be your EQ; for example, if the lesson standard is solving linear equations, then your EQ may be, “How do I solve linear equations?”  In this case, there is a clear right/wrong answer to the EQ.  Turning your standard into a question instead of leaving it in a declarative form, increases critical thinking because when we are asked to formulate an answer to a question, engagement and focus naturally increase.

However, some say that simply turning one’s standard into a question is too simplistic as an EQ should increase critical thinking and be at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy (analyze, synthesize, evaluate).  In this case, there may not be a clear right or wrong answer when the EQ is provided to increase critical thinking, the weighing of evidence, and debate.  So if the lesson standard is about comma usage, then simply asking, “How do we use commas correctly?” may be too simplistic and lack the oomph (is that a word?) to excite and engage students.  Maybe wording it like this is better, “How can knowing and using proper punctuation make the difference between life or death?”  Then the teacher can share the internet viral example,

“Let’s eat, Grandpa."

“Let’s eat Grandpa.” 

A little comma definitely does make a life-saving difference in this scenario and rephrasing the EQ in this manner elicits interest, retention and a chuckle from students.

*More EQ examples from across the content areas:

How and why do things fly?

What influence has the study of genetics had on society?

How do shapes/colors/mediums influence artistic impression?

What is the role of geometry in advertising and architecture?

How does the selection of genre shape the author’s message?

Why is winter often colder than summer?

What is justice?

How many ways can we use models to determine and compare equivalent fractions?

Why/how is exercise beneficial to your mental & physical health?

How do word parts help us understand meaning?

**Google EQs for more ideas in your content area!**

*Some questions to consider when developing EQs are:

What are the BIG ideas I want students to remember?

Do the EQs expand students’ critical thinking and make connections to larger concepts?

Are they flexible enough so students of differing skill levels can answer them with appropriate depth?

Most importantly, including EQs in your instruction emphasizes that your lesson/unit/course is not about memorizing facts and regurgitating them on a test; your class is valuable because it respects and encourages student inquiry and it increases engagement and critical thinking. Of course, if you start class with an EQ, be sure to end it by answering and discussing the possible answers.  

"There is a BIG difference between information and knowledge, for information to become knowledge, THINKING must occur." Harvey, Goudvis

Julie Adams, Adams Educational Consulting,

Frontloading-Increasing Critical Thinking & Focus

In my post, "What Makes a Teacher Effective?" I shared how and why effective teachers organize their lessons into a pre-during-post format.  The reason for this organizational pattern being that each portion of the lesson is designed to teach a specific skill-set, requiring a certain set of strategies in each phase.  I also emphasized the importance of teaching both content and skills during a lesson, as this is what effective teachers do.  Let's now examine the "pre" (Front-loading) phase and strategies that teach this skill-set to our students.

Front-loading a lesson is perhaps one of the most effective ways to improve student comprehension; this portion of the lesson develops specific skills which allow for greater critical thinking and focus throughout the lesson.

Some teachers make the mistake and think that going over the agenda for the day is "Front-loading."  However, proper Front-loading involves the students accessing prior knowledge about the new content, learning essential vocabulary that will be used throughout the lesson and using their prior knowledge and new vocabulary to develop predictions.  If a teacher does not implement a Front-loading strategy that accesses one or more of these skills, the student is neglected the opportunity to strengthen these "college and career readiness skills" (Common Core Standards) and does not engage from the beginning.

In credentialing programs, the Front-loading phase is referred to as the "Anticipatory Set," designed to hook and engage students in the lesson. However, this definition is too simplistic as it doesn't emphasize the importance of this phase for student understanding. This "pre" portion of the lesson is essential as it allows students to analyze and discuss the topic for a few minutes before just diving right in, an all too common, though detrimental, classroom practice.

The effective teacher understands that the time to prepare students for the lesson is at least as important as the time to assess students at the end of a lesson.  In my own teaching experience and in observing hundreds of effective teachers, student comprehension is higher when the teacher consistently utilizes a minimum of two Front-loading strategies for each lesson, one to connect to prior knowledge and form predictions, the other to pre-teach the essential vocabulary for the lesson.

As Front-loading is perhaps the most vital part of the lesson, it sometimes requires more than the two to five minutes often suggested. For example, if a teacher wants students to connect to prior knowledge, form predictions and acquire essential vocabulary, a "Probable Passage" would be an excellent Front-loading strategy to employ. To provide further instruction of the essential vocabulary, the teacher could then utilize a "Vocabulary Study Chart" and teach each essential term explicitly for higher acquisition and retention. 

 A teacher does not need an exhaustive supply of Front-loading strategies.  I routinely rotate the same five methods, such as the previously mentioned Probable Passage and Vocabulary Study Chart, as well as the Anticipation Guide, Tea Party and the Concept Organizer. 

 If you do not already have a repertoire of Front-loading strategies, I encourage you to try the ones mentioned (available on my website under "Training", then "Workshop Examples") or find others that would work in your classes; use them consistently and witness increased comprehension, engagement and retention of your content. Julie Adams, Adams Educational Consulting,






How and Why do we Pre-read?

Pre-reading can perhaps be one of the most effective front-loading strategies educators can model and teach students, in order to improve reading comprehension and focus. 

Pre-reading involves examining the title, subtitle, subheadings, pictures, vocabulary, graphs/maps/timelines, and if provided, the review questions and summary. 

Previewing and discussing these aspects before reading a text is not cheating-skilled readers do it all the time to gain important information that increases comprehension.

Analyzing these text features provides the reader information that can then be connected to prior knowledge and used to generate a prediction about the topic.  Student focus and comprehension increase when predictions are formulated, as predicting requires the reader to connect to prior knowledge and analyze the content BEFORE reading. 

So model pre-reading and predictions regularly and witness comprehension, text confidence and engagement improve. Julie Adams, Adams Educational Consulting,

Read with Purpose-These Three Strategies Make the Difference

To better prepare youth for the complexities of 21st century literacy, teach students to read with purpose and engage with text by utilizing these three strategies: Retell, Summarize, Sketch.

While reading fiction or non-fiction, pause every few paragraphs and ask students to write a "RETELL" sentence (first, then, finally) and then share it with a partner.  This is a simple skill that is often mastered in the primary grades but it greatly improves comprehension. 

Before reading further, have students also write a SUMMARY sentence (who/what/when/where/why/how); this is a more complex skill that requires even further analysis of the text. 

Finally, after completing the Retell and Summary sentences, have students SKETCH a picture or symbol of the section as a visual (logograph) reminder of the information. I find it even more effective when students sometimes complete this task in pairs. 

Though any one of these three strategies used alone would improve comprehension, the three combined makes a differentiated and strategic tool that vastly improves accountability for learning and retention. Julie Adams, Adams Educational Consulting,

Increase Critical Thinking & Accountability Through Strategic Questioning-In Other Words-"Put Your Hand Down Child!"

To promote critical thinking in your classes, do not ask a question that only one student answers. Hand-raising that leads to only 1-2 students answering a question actually increases the achievement gap in the classroom. 

It is not uncommon for a teacher to ask up to 100 questions during a fifty minute class period.  Half of them will be answered by the teacher, another 1/4 will be answered by the same few students and the last ones will not be answered as they are often rhetorical. 

This rapid-fire oral questioning is an ineffective practice; it establishes the idea that only a few in class will be held accountable for the critical thinking needed to process the answer, thus allowing cognitive coasting to occur among the majority of students. 

In short, don't ask a question unless it is important enough for ALL students to answer.  

But how can a teacher engage all students all the time?  Consider this strategic questioning technique:

*Pause every few minutes and pose a question to your students

*Allow them one minute to think and write a response (provide a sentence starter if needed)

*Give them one minute to turn and share with a partner

*Have them write their partner's answer down

*THEN pull popsicle sticks or ask for a few to volunteer a response 

This process engages students' writing, listening, speaking and critical thinking skills and holds them accountable for engaging in your lesson.

To enhance listening and accountability even more, after writing the first partner's answer down, have students then turn to another partner and share the first partner's response.  This further increases active listening skills by requiring students to share their partner's answer with another, and it also lowers the affective filter (Krashen) as they are not sharing their personal opinion. 

This simple technique resets students' attention span clock and promotes deeper comprehension, retention and accountability for learning throughout your lesson. Julie Adams, Adams Educational Consulting,