Tag Archives: learning and cognition

Chapter 4 of The Reading Mind, “Words, Words, Words”: Summary, Implications, and Discussion Questions


  • The meaning of a word is very sensitive to the context in which it appears.
  • Researchers model the organization of word knowledge with simple features of meaning that are densely interconnected.
  • If you don’t know the meaning of a word, sometimes (but not always) you can deduce it from the context. But people are not eager to do a lot of this work, because it’s difficult and it interrupts the flow of reading.
  • Words defining other words sound circular. This problem may be partially solved through the use of grounded representations.
  • It’s not only important to know a lot of words (breadth) but for the words you know to have many connections, and for those connections to be strong (depth).
  • New words are used bit by bit, through exposure.


  • Looking words up in a dictionary will be of limited use—not useless, but, but we must acknowledge that it will be just one context in which to understand the word’s meaning, and it’s possible that the student will misunderstand the definition. Explicit instruction of new words is more likely to be successful the way teachers usually implement it, with multiple examples and with the requirement that students use each word in different contexts. There is a good evidence that students do learn vocabulary this way.
  • In addition to consistent vocabulary instruction, teachers can make it more likely that students will learn words they encounter in context. They can give students pointers that will help them use context for figure out an unfamiliar word. For example, students can learn to use the clues in the sentence about the unknown word’s part of speech, to use the setting described in the text to constrain the word’s meaning, and to use the tone of the text to help constrain meaning.
  • Students are also better able to deduce the meaning of unfamiliar words if they have had some instruction in morphology. The definition of a morpheme is a unit of language that is meaningful on its own, and that cannot be further divided. Thus “dog” is a morpheme. The really interesting morphemes are the all-purpose ones that can be added to words—usually as prefixes of suffixes—to change their tense or inflection, or meaning. For example, the prefix “super” means over, the suffix “like” means having the characteristics of, and so on.
  • Though important, direct instruction cannot account for all of children’s vocabulary learning. That’s because someone who stays in school up to age 18 may know as many as 20,000 word families. (Word families meaning that “talk, talks, talked,” and other obvious derivatives count just once.) If children are learning about a thousand words each year and there are about 36 weeks in a typical American school year, students would need to get instruction in about 28 words each week. That seems high, especially given that children in early elementary grades often don’t get explicit vocabulary instruction.
  • Much of the vocabulary that we know is not the product of explicit study, but was learned incidentally, either through conversation or reading. We would expect, however, that reading will be more useful for learning new words than conversation will be, because writers more frequently use unusual words than speakers do.
  • The difference between writing and speaking in terms of the richness of vocabulary it offers becomes really important as vocabulary grows. For the newborn, adult speech offers plenty of novelty, but they will obviously be most likely to learn the words that people around them most frequently use. So one way to boost student vocabulary is to prompt teachers and parents to use more unusual vocabulary words, and some research indicates that helps. But that may be hard to implement for older children who already know quite a few words. For them, moderately challenging reading material will be the main way they will encounter new words. And because a single instance of exposure is not enough to learn a word—learning is, after all, gradual—it would seem that the injunction to students must not just be “Read!” but “Read a lot.”

Discussion Questions

  • I cited studies showing that people are reluctant to read texts that use unfamiliar words. How much do you think it helps to read and electronic text with a feature whereby touching a word brings up a dictionary definition?
  • For older children, what is the responsibility of teachers of subjects other than English Language Arts to provide exposure to new vocabulary? Should it just be vocabulary particular to their subject, or broader? It sounds as though it would be useful for teachers in different subjects to coordinate to be sure that students practice the same words in different subjects, but is that really practical?
  • Teachers can provide varied contexts in which students can encounter the same word, so that the meaning representation will be precise. How can someone trying to improve their vocabulary do that on their own?
  • We might propose that teachers use richer vocabulary with their students. How should this be implemented? Should teachers derive a list of words that they try to use over some period of time (say, a month) to ensure students hear repetition of these words? Or should teachers just make a mental note to use words they know will challenge students, and to provide on-the-fly definitions?
  • Do you think most children have good morphological knowledge? How about adults? How about teachers? If a school or district were to set the goal of improving students’ morphological knowledge, what would be required?

Excerpted from: Willingham, Daniel T. The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2017.

On Leveled Literacy Curricula

“Leveled reading emphasizes students’ current limitations, rather than increasing their possibilities, especially for the least advantaged of our students. We can do better.”

Timothy Shanahan

“Limiting Children to Books They Can Already Read: Why It Reduces Their Opportunity to Learn.”  American Educator 44.2 (Summer 2020): 17. Print.

The Order of Things: Longest Rivers

Here is another lesson from The Order of Things, this one on the longest rivers in the world. You’ll also need the list and comprehension questions that are the work of this lesson.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

Mercedes Schneider: TFA Will Send Green Teachers into the Classroom with No Teaching Experience

[Would you care to guess where these callow but oh-so-filled-with-missionary-zeal “teachers” will end up? In schools attended by the poorest kids (see immediately below) in our society. Those students deserve better than this cohort of non-educators.]

Mercedes Schneider, a veteran high school teacher in Louisiana with a Ph.D. in research and statistics, was stunned to learn that Teach for America …

Mercedes Schneider: TFA Will Send Green Teachers into the Classroom with No Teaching Experience

Review Essay: Poverty, Cognition, and Learning

Because I’ve spent most of my career working with adolescents from the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, I have developed great interest in poverty’s effect on a child’s ability to thrive in general and learn in particular. Elsewhere on this blog, I posted a review of Sendil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir’s first-rate Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much (New York: Picador, 2014). The book, as its title suggests, addresses scarcity in household economies and its direct effect on cognition. Rather than reiterate my review of that book in this post, I seek to open a serious discourse on the challenges poverty erects to success in school for vulnerable children. There really remains no doubt that the economic reality of the students we serve circumscribes their ability to learn. Indeed, poverty may be the salient characteristic of many struggling learners. 

A few years ago, I read The Writing Revolution by Judith C. Hochman and Natalie Wexler. The book rewards a reading with, among other thing, the authors’ acknowledgement of the effect of various forms of stress–including poverty–on children’s development and, therefore, their ability to learn. This took me quite by surprise, because in my experience with the relatively dismal professional development workshops offered by the New York City Department of Education, this is not an issue that is dealt with adequately; in fact, it is all but ignored.

Moreover, over the years I’ve belonged to a variety of teachers’ interest groups on social media (e.g. the Badass Teachers Association–you can find them on Twitter and Facebook) in which I have heard it said again and again that in professional development sessions in their schools, and in discussions with administrators, the attitude toward poverty as a cause of learning problems ranged from willful ignorance to open contempt for the idea that impoverished students struggle as a direct consequence of their economic situation. One needn’t look much further than the “no-excuses” charter schools to see this ideology in action: poverty and its drag on cognition–like the rest of the myriad obstacles in life disadvantaged kids face–is simply not an “excuse” for struggling in school, this argument seems to go.

As teachers, we ignore the issue of poverty at our peril–but more importantly, we ignore it at our students’ peril.

I’ve been struggling with this essay for about eighteen months, but I heard something recently on the local news here in Vermont that animated me to finally sit down, conduct the research, and write this damn piece. Like everywhere in ‘Murica now, Vermonters of a certain socioeconomic class regularly experience food insecurity. Vermont Public Radio interviewed a man in St. Johnsbury, gateway to Vermont’s storied Northeast Kingdom, who suffers a disability and has lost work on account of the COVID19 pandemic. Hearing him describe the amount of strategizing he does to keep he and his mother (did I mention they both contend with diabetes?) fed and sheltered left me exhausted. While I have lived in poverty (I didn’t get my first college degree until I was 35, so I dealt with some very lean times in my twenties, especially in the years I worked in migrant farm labor), I never struggled as these folks do. I always had enough to eat.

If you search ERIC (the Educational Resources Information Center) using the terms “poverty and learning,” and check “peer-reviewed only,” the site yields 1,485 articles. “Poverty and school” brings back 3,875 peer-reviewed articles. Thus, the issue of poverty and learning clearly has been studied: a review of the titles and the articles’ abstracts indicates a consensus of scholarly opinion that poverty attenuates and restricts cognition and learning and that schools must address and seek where possible to mitigate the effects of poverty on students. Why are we still debating the effects of poverty, I wonder? Why have so many people who ought to know better decided to dismiss poverty as an “excuse” when research clearly shows that the struggles of poverty hamper learning?

This essay seeks to review six articles on the subject. I chose them at random from ERIC. Let’s take a look. I’ve uploaded them all to this post as PDFs.

First up is “The Effects of Poverty on Academic Achievement” by Kendra McKenzie from the BU Journal of Graduate Studies in Education (Volume 11, Issue 2, 2019). Like so many the articles on the issue of poverty in learning, including the six sampled for this article, Ms. McKenzie starts with a straightforward assertion: “Academic success can be predicted by socioeconomic status.” This is a refereed article that serves as a review of the current literature on poverty and learning. Therefore, it relays all the things we already know about poverty as a source of stress, alienation, and conflict. This essay emphasizes the biological impediments to learning that poverty engenders; as Ms McKenzie observes, “children raised in poverty are likely to experience cognitive lags due to significant changes in brain structure in areas related to memory and emotion. Poverty may make it difficult for parents to purchase toys and books to promote cognitive stimulation for their children, thereby causing the children to have a lesser vocabulary and a more directed speech.” To put this more concretely, when families don’t have enough to eat, it follows that they don’t have money for Melissa & Doug Toys or Dr. Seuss and Eric Carle books. Moreover, the stress associated with straitened circumstances (this is the main thrust, incidentally, behind the work Mullainathan and Shafir did in preparing Scarcity) can, Ms. McKenzie observes, “…result in shrinking of neurons in the frontal lobes of a child’s brain…”, which is the area of the brain “… responsible for the child’s ability to make judgements, plan, and control impulsivity.” If you know anything about executive function, you understand the problem here.

This second article, “Middle Grades Student Achievement and Poverty Levels: Implications for Teacher Preparation” by Lauren Dotson and Virginia Foley (who are, respectively, at least at the time of this article’s publication in the fall of 2016, an assistant principal of a school in North Carolina and an associate professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at East Tennessee State University) appeared in The Journal of Learning in Higher Education in 2016. Like the rest of the literature reviewed here, this article makes the case that “Correlational studies show a strong relationship between high poverty and low academic performance.” Indeed, where testing is concerned, this essay is a carefully assembled quantitative analysis of standardized testing in our schools. The gist of this essay is that we have contrived schools that are essentially the exact opposite of what children growing up in poverty need. Instead of creating learning environments based on process, we have environments that lurch between testing and punishing students based on a set of inflexible “standards” that often bear little if any resemblance to what teaching and learning are and aim to accomplish. If you are concerned with the number of tests to which we subject students (I am, incidentally), then this quote will help you understand the gravamen of the article as well as the problems practicing educators–i.e. teachers–face in schools where impoverished children are preponderant: “However, as the push for increased accountability gained momentum it left many students falling through the cracks; standardized tests do not take the varying experiences of our students into consideration when it comes to test results, and as a result, achievement gaps became the norm for many subgroups but most noticeably for our economically disadvantaged children.” Enough said here? I think so.

Moving right along to our third article, here’s a piece titled “Poverty and Brain Development in Children: Implications for Learning” by Victor E. Dike from the Asian Journal of Education and Training (Vol. 3 No. 1, 2017). Once more we encounter a familiar thesis: “Research suggests that poverty affects brain development in children and that the implications for learning are more compelling today given the attention the issue has attracted.” In this relatively short (five pages, including the scholarly apparatus) article, Mr. Dike reviews both the biological and cultural influences of poverty in children’s ability to learn; he makes this unsurprising statement–given what the other literature in this post present and analyze on the issue of poverty and stress: “The longer a child is exposed to poverty and stress, the larger the negative impact on the cognition, emotion, and self-regulatory learning skills of the person.” If I ran a school and had anything to say about professional development obligations, I would probably use this article as an overview to open a lengthy inquiry into the research on poverty and learning and its implications for classroom practice.

This fourth article, “Neuroeducation and Early Elementary Teaching: Retrospective Innovation for Promoting Growth with Students Living in Poverty,” by Karyn Allee-Herndon and Sherron Killingsworth Roberts, respectively affiliated with Mercer University and the University of Central Florida, underlines as its purpose an examination of “the salient connections between poverty and brain development.”  It comes from the International Journal of the Whole Child (Vol. 3, No. 2, 2018). As its title indicates, this essay is considerably more technical and focuses on the neuroeducational consequences of poverty, particularly organic delays in the development of self-regulation and executive function. The article either enlightens of reminds its readers, depending on their prior knowledge of these cognitive structures, that “Existing neuroscience research suggests a predictive relationship between executive function and to literacy and numeracy skill development (Shonkoff, 2011). Blair and Raver (2015) provide further evidence linking executive function as a predictive agent for academic achievement associated with socioeconomic status for children of poverty.” After explaining the basic science and the state of research on poverty and developing brain, the authors offer a variety of suggestions for classroom practice when dealing with children living in poverty: language games, storytelling, dramatic or imaginary play, games and puzzles, and gross motor play and music and movement. The final pages of the article list a number of commercially available games, puzzles and books for expanding classroom practice to include the kinds of everyday activities people of all ages do to keep their minds engaged and agile. These are the kinds of things you would find in a home where educational attainment and sufficient disposable income are present. Nota bene that the author’s prescriptions for building responsive and nimble minds include nothing in the way of, say, reciting a litany of decontextualized facts followed by a high-stakes test demanding recall of those facts. Just sayin’.

The fifth article I grabbed from ERIC, “Teachers’ Beliefs About Poverty and the Impact on Learning Disabilities in a Poor, Rural School District” comes to us from The Rural Educator (35 (3) 2014) and its author, Dr. Renee Chandler at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. The first sentence of this essay sounds a familiar theme (and I apologize for belaboring the point): “Socioeconomic status serves as the strongest single indicator of students’ educational outcomes.” As its title suggests, this article deals with rural poverty–something very easy to overlook in our society–and how students are identified with learning disorders in educational settings. Frankly, much of the material about identification made my eyes glaze over, mostly because of my own experience in the process of drafting the individual education plans that govern the education of a child with special needs. In my experience, these documents are drafted mostly in haste not by frontline educators but by careerist bureaucrats who happen to work in schools. Would it surprise you to learn that Dr. Chandler found that many teachers see class structure in the United States through the lens of their own experience? And that these same teachers don’t fully understand, either as a sociological abstraction or a lived experience, what poverty is? As Dr. Chandler puts it, “The teachers’ beliefs about student performance reflected our society’s emphasis on the principle that hard work surmounts all obstacles.” It’s hard to disagree with the next sentence: “The philosophy supports the practice of ‘blaming the victim’: When students in poverty fail, they must not be working hard enough.” That is and has been, in a sufficient number of my experiences in our public schools that I have begun to consider–and regret–it as the norm, the ideological dynamic that governs the consciousness of far too many teachers. In any case, this “…belief that hard work overcomes poverty does not take into account the myriad of circumstances that make hard work in school seem fruitless to many students in poverty.” If you’ve worked with poor kids, you know that a simple elaboration of the Protestant work ethic isn’t likely to motivate them–you’ll need other tools at your disposal to involve impoverished kids in their own educations.

Finally, here is a three-page fact sheet from the National Education Association (NEA–the teachers’ union to which I have most recently belonged), on competent and effective practices for classroom teachers who educate children who have experienced poverty and trauma. There are twelve bullet points here, including “Celebrate assets,” “Create a safe atmosphere for learning,” “Give students a sense of control,” “Teach emotional skills,” and one of my own favorites in the classroom, “Build students’ vocabulary.” Most of this is common-sense stuff which should (I hope) come as no surprise to teachers. This short essay is excerpted from this twenty-one-page booklet from the NEA titled Teaching Children from Poverty and Trauma.

That’s it. As I say, I have struggled since late 2018 to find time and energy to move beyond the first two paragraphs of this essay and get it into the form in front of you now. I think there is the outline of several professional development sessions in these articles. Let me add to this professional development inquiry on executive skills and function I developed in 2016 as part of my own professional development responsibilities at the New York City school in which I served at that time.

As I write this, citizens of good conscience across the globe are taking to the streets in protest of the egregious, sadistic murder of George Floyd and the pattern of extrajudicial murders of Americans of African descent across a period of years in the United States. We live in a moment pregnant with possibility. The very least we educators can do is use this time to advocate for our most vulnerable students–those who through no fault of their own find themselves at an economic, social and sometimes cultural disadvantage in the wealthiest country in the history of the world.

The Order of Things: Rock Sizes

Here is yet another lesson plan from Barbara Ann Kipfer’s book The Order of Things, this one on rock sizes. And here is list and comprehension worksheet that is the work of this lesson.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

Review Essay: An Educational Planning Book for Parents

As the COVID19 pandemic drags on, I’ve followed with great interest the reported experiences of parents as they work at sustaining their children’s educations while simultaneously dealing with the realities this crisis foists upon us. It’s clear that parents–particularly parents who themselves must work from home–have struggled with figuring out how to contrive a home school, as Diane Ravitch has noted here and here (and by the time I publish this, no doubt, elsewhere as well) on her excellent policy blog.

Extensive reporting on the challenges of distance learning, remote learning, or whatever it is we want to call communicating via screen technology over the internet has, in my view, exposed it as a failure. A friend and colleague in New York reports to me that one of his classes meets for two twenty-five-minute (!) periods a week, and that he assigns one piece of work (again: !) for this class. Under these circumstances, there is richly justified concern that students will fall behind. In fact, from what I hear and see, this has already occurred. All of this results from our schools’ fixation on training students to pass tests rather than to learn to think, imagine, and apply knowledge in real situations.

Ideally, learning, becoming educated, is something a person does every day across the span of his or her life. Every time we read instructions, ask a friend of family member for help with or an explanation of something, or–especially–use prior knowledge to understand something new, we are learning. There is in fact a rich literature on the learning we do outside of our educational institutions. My own teaching practice (by which I aim, among other things, to produce disciplined, skilled autodidacts, and thereby render myself superfluous) has been heavily influenced by Ivan Illich’s book Deschooling SocietyWhile some people might object to the obvious influence of Marxism in its pages, I have also found Paulo Freire’s great book Pedagogy of the Oppressed serves as an explanatory manual for the importance of relevance and application when teaching; Freire’s successes in educating illiterate Brazilian peasants is well documented, and he was amply honored for it. The late Theodore “Ted” Sizer had much to say about learning and school–particularly the frequent and tragic disjunction of theory and practice. I highly recommend his Horace trilogy, which brilliantly exposes the way that our schools have essentially subverted authentic learning in favor of a test-and-punish regime.

To no small extent, the problems in our public schools are the problems of commodification of education and, more specifically, the credentials that education produces. I know, as I hope most parents do, that contractual teacher salaries are often based on credentials. That makes a master’s degree a commodity, another thing for sale in the marketplace. David Labaree of Stanford analyzes the commodification of credentials in his book How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997). As the title indicates, this is a book which describes the manner in which the quest for a credential, a marketable commodity, has replaced actual learning–and actual love of learning that compels learners to pursue knowledge for its own sake and for their own edification. The commodification of education and credentials is intimately connected with the adoption of curriculum produced by large corporate publishers. Again, we teach kids to assume possession of a body of bland, decontextualized facts that they must and will repeat on tests–produced by the same corporations–in order to earn their credential. Through all of this, students really don’t learn to think as much as memorize, they don’t learn to analyze and question so much as repeat and parrot. It is an intellectually deadening process. We should not be surprised that students resent and resist teaching and learning as presently constituted, and that we have such shocking dropout rates in our schools.

Despite the constant fascination with gimmicky pedagogy and electronic gadgets in our schools (an example of which I wrote about here and here, which so offended the administrators under whom I served when I wrote it that I think it may have cost me a job), teaching and learning are well-researched, well-understood, and stable procedures. We can start, as we should, with history’s first teacher, Socrates, that master ironist of feigned ignorance. Socrates asked the big conceptual questions, and he remains relevant to teachers today. Put another way, teachers should understand that in terms of the way people learn, and therefore the way people should be taught, they really must understand underlying concepts and big ideas; we know that little has changed in these procedures since Socrates held forth in the Agora.

In fact, a number of studies in the past generation or so have affirmed this. Most important among them is the National Research Council’s magisterial and definitive book How People Learn (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2000). Martha Stone Wiske’s (she edited) Teaching for Understanding (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997) predates the publication of How People Learn but demonstrates its principles in action through the related experiences of classroom teachers. Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins’ book Understanding by Design (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2005) and its ancillary titles (including the excellent Integrating Differentiated Instruction + Understanding by Design by Mr. McTighe and Carol Ann Tomlinson) are the teacher’s user’s manual for applying the principles of teaching and learning outlined in How People Learn. Over the years, I have relied heavily upon Understanding by Design to create and adapt instructional materials for my students. Indeed, my planning book is rife with typescripts of material from these books.

What all these studies and their subsequent books share is one relatively simple certainty: rather than running students through tedious, decontextualized rosters of facts (then supplying anxiety-producing tests to “assess understanding”), we must teach students concepts that enable them to find the connecting tissue between the facts that serve as manifestations of concepts. Put another way, we must help students gain understanding and knowledge that transfers both within domain-specific curricula, but also across the entire common branch curriculum, by moving back and forth between general (conceptual) understanding and specific (factual) knowledge. Put yet another way, rather than teaching students to pass tests, a rather narrow piece of procedural knowledge, we must teach them an understanding of how to use prior knowledge to understand new material; put yet one more, and final, way, our schools must teach kids to learn how to learn.

For parents at home with their children, particularly parents who in some degree now serve as surrogate teachers, the good news is this: teaching and learning in their essence are fairly simple procedures. To learn, one uses prior knowledge to understand something new, which is then integrated in and with prior knowledge. When we talk in casual conversation about the “learning curve,” this is the process we’re discussing. In an effective learning environment, the teacher’s first task is obviously to locate prior knowledge and establish it as the basis for understanding new things. This is where teaching complicates learning: assessing prior knowledge is a subtle exercise. If it is not done accurately or correctly, learning can falter or even fail. There are a number of ways for teachers to pin down and exploit prior knowledge for learning. Good old Socratic questioning is still one of the most effective ways to proceed. The student’s role in this is to both answer the question and (or) ask the teacher to refine or vary the question in a way that will yield potential results. In the ideal classroom, as students receive and consolidate new knowledge, they themselves begin to ask the kinds of Socratic questions that arouse further curiosity, stimulate inquiry, and activate the will to learn and understand. These Socratic questions become teachable moments and vice-versa. This creates a productive cycle of inquiry and understanding. Thing of Socratic questions as productive questions in the sense that they are likely to produce discourses, not pat answers–i.e. the way understanding is arrived at in scholarly communities.

Which is not to say that every learning opportunity, every teachable moment, occurs in the kind of structure a Socratic dialogue prescribes. I very highly recommend this post on the acquisition and cultivation of soft skills from David Berliner and published on Diane Ravitch’s Blog.

How can parents use the procedures in the previous paragraph to engage the young minds at home because of the COVID19 crisis? First, let’s stipulate that everyday life, especially where and when curious young people are present, offers a plethora of teachable moments. Any time a child observes something, there is an opportunity to ask questions about the thing observed–and any time a child asks a question, there is a teachable moment in play. A couple of fairly simple questions, which can then deepen as a discourse ensues, can keep kids thinking, learning, and therefore in the process of acquiring an education. Fortunately, my planning book contains a set of documents that I’ve accumulated over 17 years of planning instruction for struggling learners and teaching them. All of this material is relevant across a range of abilities.

And now that I’ve bloviated beyond the limits of most the reasonable person’s patience, let’s run through the contents of my planning book in an attempt to help you learn what they are and how to use them. With this material I hope to aid you, gentle parent, in keeping your children learning during this crisis. All of this material has been, I think I should mention, previously posted elsewhere (including the top pinned post during the COVID19 pandemic) on Mark’s Text Terminal.

First, here is a list of ten laws of and three keys to simplicity that is actually on the cover of my planning book. I took this from John Maeda’s book The Laws of Simplicity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006). I use these simple rules to remind me that no matter how grand an act of synthetic thinking, learning, and writing I aspire for my students to do, I must keep their needs in mind–and sometimes, for their needs, simpler is better. These 17 Teaching Tips are of a piece, I think, with Mr. Maeda’s imperatives to simplicity of design, so I keep them together to remind me that no matter the complexity of a topic, no matter how much sophisticated the thinking a topic or issue in the curriculum requires, teaching and learning are at bottom fairly simple and straightforward endeavors.

All teaching begins with a question. The type of question one asks tends to be domain specific in some respects, and universal in others. For the latter, here is a taxonomy of questions from Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership (Roland C. Christensen, David A. Garvin, and Ann Sweet, eds., Cambridge: Harvard Business School Press, 1991). Just as the document’s title indicates, it taxonomizes questions and gives examples of how to apply the taxonomy to structure questions. I use this document all the time. To complement this taxonomy, here is a list of question stems for structuring the kinds of questions that stimulate thinking–and therefore learning.

As above, I think the best planning framework out there, and the best explained by its authors, is Understanding by Design. So, here are 16 pages of planning materials to help identify big ideas and essential questions from the pages of Understanding by Design. In the time I worked in classrooms, I compiled this list of essential questions I contrived for my social studies and English language arts classes. Essential questions are Socratic questions, and vice versa.

Now that you have some questions to ask, you might want to know how to structure the kinds of activities that will yield results. I have a couple of things that I grabbed from articles in The Cambridge Companion to the Learning Sciences (R. Keith Sawyer, ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006) that might be helpful here. First is this table of activity structures from Janet L. Kolodner’s article “Cased Based Reasoning” which is apparently one of her areas of expertise. From Allan Collins in the same Cambridge volume, this outline of the principles of cognitive apprenticeship explains how that method of pedagogy operates. Cognitive apprenticeship is just what it sounds like–students are schooled by participating in the kinds of scholarly work professionals in a field do. Put another way, cognitive apprenticeship gives both teachers and students a shortcut to the big concepts that inform and connect knowledge within and across domains.

To pull this all together for the children in front of you on any given day, I find this table of cognitive styles from Daniel Willingham’s book Why Don’t Kids Like School (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009) helps me gain insight and understanding on how kids are thinking, and therefore how I can make learning more accessible to them. Also from Dr. Willingham, from his book The Reading Mind (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2017), is this table of conclusions with practical implications for reading instruction.

Finally, if you have emergent or struggling readers on your hands, you might find this short glossary of linguistic terms from Denise Eide’s excellent Uncovering the Logic of English: A Common-Sense Approach to Reading, Spelling, and Literacy (Minneapolis: Pedia Learning, Inc., 2011) useful when thinking about how to explain the parts of words to kids.

That’s it. Remember: there are a plethora of situations every day that can be turned into teachable moments by dropping a simple but essential (or Socratic, or productive–you choose your modifier) question into it and thereby beginning a discourse.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

The Order of Things: Chemical Elements on Earth

Here is another lesson plan from The Order of Things, this one on the percentages of chemical elements that compose this planet. Here is the list and comprehension questions that constitutes the work of this lesson. If you have any questions about this material, please see the excursus on worksheets from The Order of Things in the About Posts & Texts page, linked to above the banner photograph.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

Chapter 2 of The Reading Mind, “Sound It Out”: Summary, Implications and Discussion Questions


  • To decode text, a reader must (1) distinguish one letter from another, (2) hear individual speech sounds, and (3) know the mapping between letters (and letter groups) and speech sounds.
  • Letters are not designed for the sake of being easily distinguishable, and readers do often confuse the ones that look similar. Still, there aren’t that many to learn, so most children learn them without difficulty.
  • Humans are not born with the ability to hear individual speech sounds. In fact, individual speech sounds are influence by context: they vary in speakers with different regional accents for example, and the same person says the same speech sound differently depending on the other speech sounds in the word, So when we think of the sound associated with a letter, we’re really thinking of an ideal, an abstraction.
  • Being able to hear individual speech sounds in associated with reading success, and when children have trouble learning to read, this process is the most common stumbling block.
  • In contrast to some other languages, English uses a complicated mapping of speech sounds to letters (and letter groups). Still, the mapping is more orderly than you might guess, because the context in which a letter appears may provide information about its sound.
  • The mapping could be simpler. Still, most children learn it.


  • If the hearing of individual speech sounds is usually the trouble spot for children learning to read, that might mean it’s the biggest contributor to diagnosed cases of dyslexia. That seems to be true, but dyslexia is complicated and the extent to which other factors contribute remains actively debated.
  • If the basic components of decoding are hearing sounds, appreciating the differences between letters, and learning the mapping between them, then anything that promotes these abilities ought to help once reading instruction starts. I’ve mentioned phonological awareness is improved by wordplay like rhyme and alliteration. Adults reading aloud with children can also draw their attention to letters by pointing out the very fact that it’s the marks on the page that carry meaning, that some letters look the same, then we start at the left of a line and move to the right when we read, and so on. All these measures (and others are similar in spirit) teach children about letters and print, and give them an edge when reading instruction begins.
  • We might think that, when teaching children letters, we should label them with the sound they make, rather than the commonly used name. For example, when pointing out a “t” we shouldn’t that’s a tee, but instead say this letter says t, approximating as closely as possible the sound t in isolation, rather than saying tuh. This practice sounds logical because we’re implicitly teaching the letter-sound correspondence. Logical, but there’s no evidence that this practice helps, probably because almost all letter names at least contain the right sound.
  • The data shown in figure 2.0 indicate that, even though the letter-sound mapping in English is difficult, children do learn it, and by fourth grade their reading comprehension is comparable to their peers in countries where the letter-sound mapping is easier to learn. We should bear this finding in mind when thinking about reading progress within the US too. I can’t see an advantage to a school starting reading instruction especially early in because of the difficulty of the English mapping, and indeed, research indicates that any advantage to the code is transient. Kids who started later eventually become fluent decoders, and read as well as their early starting peers.

 Discussion Questions

  • If more children came to school with good phonological awareness, more would experience quick success in reading. Some children get incidental practice in phonological awareness (via read-alouds, for example), but many don’t. If you were the head of programming for children’s television for a major network.
  • The text provides an account of how we are able to read letters that look different. It assumes that letters share basic features, irrespective of typeface, size, and so on. That is, a capital “B” always has a vertical line and two semicircles on the right. But how, then, are you able to read print that is upside down?
  • Suppose a child grew up in household with parents who were born in another country and who speak English with heavy accents. Do you think that child would have more difficulty learning the mapping between letters and sounds because the examples used in reading instruction—the word “cat” for example—are pronounced with different speech sounds at home and at school?
  • I noted that learning to distinguish letters usually does not present a big problem for children learning to read. Nevertheless, perhaps it would be worthwhile to change fonts for beginning readers to make confusable letters less confusable, for example, by printing “d” with a dot inside the circle and “b” as it usually appears. As children move on to more advanced reading material, they will of course lose this cue, but by that time they likely won’t need it. Do you think such a measure would prove useful?”

Excerpted from: Willingham, Daniel T. The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2017.

Terms of Art: Tracking, Streaming

“Tracking, Streaming: A widespread practice in American elementary and secondary school systems, tracking attempts to homogenize classrooms by placing students according to a range of criteria which may include pupil’s performances on standardized aptitude tests, classroom performance, perceived personal qualities and aspirations, and social class and ethnic origin. Different tracks typically offer different curricula, types of student-teacher relationship, and educational resources. The higher college tracks have been found to be more intellectually demanding, with better resources, and more favorable teacher expectations of pupils. Studies have highlighted the implications of tracking in terms of its negative psychological consequences for those placed in the lower tracks, reinforcement of ethnic and social class segregation, and perpetuation of inequality in society. The practice, issues, and debates have their British equivalent in the system of so-called streaming.”

Excerpted from: Marshall, Gordon, ed. Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.