Promoting Literacy with Grammarly

There are many ideas not worth promoting; however, there is just as many worth promoting.  One of these ideas that is worth promoting is literacy.

Grammarly, a blog, has a Promote Literacy Program.  They want bloggers to help spread literacy.  So, let’s spread it:

  • Low literacy affects more people that you think. About 22 percent of American adults have minimal literacy skills, which prevents them from effectively communicating. (National Center for Educational Statistics)
  • Low literacy is correlated with chronic unemployment. 50 percent of the chronically unemployed are not functionally literate, which prevents them from maintaining jobs. (Ohio Literary Resource Center)
  • Low literacy is correlated with imprisonment. 65 percent of prison inmates (or one million Americans) have low literacy. (Literacy Partners)
  • Low literacy is correlated with poverty.  43 percent of Americans with low literacy are impoverished, lacking basic reading and writing skills to help them overcome their situations. (Literacy Partners)
  • Low literacy affects the American economy. Experts estimate that low literacy costs the American economy $225 billion a year in lost productivity. Improved workplace literacy can increase employees’ efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity on the job. (Reach Higher, America)

Being able to read and write, in other words, being literate, will affect you paycheck.  Yes, good grammar will get you promoted.

So this next school year, pay attention to your English teachers—they want you to earn a higher paycheck in the future!


Father Arrested After Speaking Out at School Board Meeting: Rights Violated?

Headline: Watch What Happens When One Parent Speaks Out at a School Board Meeting About a Controversial Book Assigned to His Daughter

Reaction: Are you angry?  How dare they arrest someone for exercising his right to free speech!  I mean, if a parent isn’t going to stand up for his child’s education, then who will?  Come on, the book describes a sexual encounter so graphic it’s going to make 14-years blush!  And what’s worse, the parents were not asked to sign a consent form!  Who does that?  Bad districts!  Bad teachers!  That’s who!  And you know who else is to blame?  That crazy cop who just is a monkey of the common-core Kool-aid drinking school board!

Did you see what just happened there?  A tirade of unsubstantiated blame, accusations, and name-calling that argues nothing.  You took a headline, the length of a tweet, made assumptions based upon it and were ready to give the public a piece of your mind in the comments section.  But you haven’t even read the article or seen the video.

Actual Story: A father went to a school board meeting to express his anger that a he did not provide informed-consent for his teenage daughter to read a required reading book that contained explicit sexual material.  He spoke for his two minutes during open comment and when his two minutes were up, he sat down.  Later, while seated and during another person’s two-minute time, this father interrupted the speaker.  He then attempted to engage the board verbally, but was asked to quiet down.  He did not.  A police officer asked him to leave.  He refused.  The father continued to be disorderly.  He was escorted out of the meeting and arrested for disorderly conduct.

From Conduct: Conduct likely to lead to a disturbance of the public peace or that offends public decency. It has been held to include the use of obscene language in public, fighting in a public place, blocking public ways, and making threats. Statutes against disorderly conduct must identify the specific acts that constitute it. The offense usually carries minor penalties.”

Was the father disturbing the public peace?  Was he offending anyone?  Was he fighting in public?  Yes.  He was verbally fighting in which some people were offended and the meeting was halted (the speaker was unable to continue until the father was escorted out).  This is considered disorderly conduct.

Soapbox: Part of an education is learning when to exercise restraint and to use official channels to argue a point and not belligerently talk over someone simply because you are angry.  In the age of 5 second sound bites and 140 character headlines, people are fueled with anger before learning all the facts.  True, the school was in the wrong regarding the forgotten notices and, possibly, in even teaching 19 Minutes by Jodi Picoult; however, the school board was doing their due diligence in holding a meeting to obtain the true opinions of the parents and not listening solely to hearsay. Imagine if they had just banned the teaching of the book outright without giving parents and teachers a forum to speak?  So before you get angry that the father was being arrested for speaking out at the school board meeting, watch the video of him in the meeting and decide if you agree that is “disorderly conduct”.



Digital Literacy: Could e-books be a detriment to reading fluency?

Digital books have been around for a while now.  I’ve read a handful of books on my low-cost model Kindle and a couple on the Kindle app on my iPad.  I like having the flexibility to use digital books.  However, there just is something about a physical book that is special.  I definitely would know; I have lots of them.

While digital books are great green space-savers, could they actually be hindering reading proficiency?  At first, that concept seems silly: the built-in dictionaries can give instant access to unknown words, the read-aloud functions can help pronounce words or even pages, and the font size can adjust for eye problems.  But let’s look closer at those.

If you aren’t careful, those “helpful extras” can quickly and easily turn into “distracting extras”.  Videos that pop up in text books that enhance learning?  Sounds great: but now the student has to stop reading, focus on the new content, and then return to the reading content trying to remember what was being said before the video.

Annie Murphy Paul reported, for the New York Times, on a recently presented study by Heather Ruetschlin Schugar and Jordan T. Schugar from West Chester University.  The researchers found that among middle and high school students, “reading comprehension…was higher when they read conventional books” versus digital books on iPads.

Paul, summarizing information presented by the Shugars, states succinctly:

Parents and teachers to look for e-books that enhance and extend interactions with the text, rather than those that offer only distractions; that promote interactions that are relatively brief rather than time-consuming; that provide supports for making text-based inferences or understanding difficult vocabulary; and that locate interactions on the same page as the text display, rather than on a separate screen.

In addition, Paul states:

Adults should ensure that children are not overusing e-book features like the electronic dictionary or the “read-to-me” option. Young readers can often benefit from looking up the definition of a word with a click, but doing it too often will disrupt reading fluidity and comprehension. Even without connecting to the dictionary, children are able to glean the meaning of many words from context. Likewise, the read-to-me feature can be useful in decoding a difficult word, but when used too often it discourages children from sounding out words on their own.

So are digital books going to kill literacy rates?  Probably not.  However, if you don’t apply the same methods to learning how to read when using digital books as was done with physical books, we may have fewer and fewer people willing to read 500+ page books.

Summer Reading

Summer reading was never a difficult task for me.  In fact, I looked forward to summer vacation because it meant I finally had time to read the books I liked at my own pace.  However, I know not everyone is like me and it may be a struggle to get students to read during “vacation”.  But summer reading really isn’t optional.

Research shows that summer vacation often has a significant negative effect on student learning. Providing opportunities for students to read regularly during the summer can prevent documented reading achievement losses. The bottom line is that students who read during the summer do better in the fall. (

The best way to encourage students to read over the summer is to make them want to read by making reading fun. Summer vacation is the perfect time to explore interests without the confines of a curriculum.  During the school year, education is regimented and, essentially, forced upon students.  Many students rebel and say they “hate” school, learning, and/or reading because they just do not like to be told what to do.  By framing summer reading in a context that feels student-chosen rather than force-upon, many struggles will dissipate.

Firstly, we need to answer the question: what is reading?  Is it only a book?  Summer reading can encompass magazines, blogs, comic books, manuals/directions, or anything with words.

Second, we need to establish sources of reading.  Students can read paper copies or digital copies on computers or mobile devices.  Students can borrow materials or purchase them.

Third, we need to consider content.  Summer reading should have no content restrictions, unless it is not age-appropriate.  Students should be allowed to read about cars, princesses, singing, sports, medicine, dancing, grilling, or whatever activity students find fun.  It is also a good time to disregard reading-level and let students read books below (and above) their reading level if they want.  (Remember: the goal is to encourage the student to want to read and to read!)

In English class, students have mostly read “literature”—books that are not popular fiction and rarely connect with students.  Students read for an academic purpose during the school year.  For summer reading, students should read for an enjoyment purpose.  Parents should not give their students quizzes or ask the student to write a paper after reading.  Instead, informal, old-fashioned conversation will yield the same outcome and increase confidence.  A good example of discussion is this: Ask why the student thought the main character was “stupid” instead of telling the student not to use that word.  Most likely, the student has a great explanation, but is just not using academic language.

So how can teachers and parents find the best summer reading for students?

Popular Recommendations—There are hundreds of summer reading lists available through Google searches.  The local librarian, an employee at the local bookstore, or the Top Books in for iBooks/Kindle/Nook will yield an even larger selection.  A popular TV show or movie “based on” or “inspired by” a book?  Pick up one of the books!  I found I loved reading Kathy Reichs’ books because my favorite TV show is Bones, which is inspired by her books.

Student/Friend Recommendations—Prior to the end school, students can write down what their favorite reading selections are.  The teacher can then compile the information into a list.  Students may be more apt to read a book a classmate thought was really good.

Form a Book Club—Perhaps reading a book as a group is best  because some students need the encouragement of others for the initial push into summer reading.  Friends from school, neighborhood kids, or a group at the library will work out well.  Groups can be of varying ages and give perspectives that students may not see otherwise.

Model Reading—Don’t just tell students to read this summer, show them!  Teachers should show students the reading that they have done for enjoyment.  Parents should read as well during the summer.  It might be worthwhile for a parent and student to read the same thing so they can discuss it together.  (Side Note—My mom did this with my brother and I when the first Harry Potter book was published.  It was so much more fun to be able to talk about the book with my mom and my brother.)

Reading Goals/Rewards—Some students need a little…motivation.  While the Six Flags® Read to Succeed Program® is closed for this summer, the idea remains the same.  Parents or teachers can create a set list of criteria that the reader must accomplish in order to obtain the goal.  Each level should be even more desirous than the previous.  The student can either “cash in” at a specific goal level and start over, or keep building until the ultimate prize.  For the Six Flags® program, it’s free tickets to ride the coasters for a day.  You could use gift cards, concert tickets, or whatever that “it” thing is that the reader wants at the moment.  For the Scholastic Summer Challenge 2013, it’s contributing the “World Record” of minutes read to try to reach the Moon.

Do Something—Don’t just read the book, do something with it.  Create something from the book, see a play, watch the movie (afterwards!), visit a museum with artifacts mentioned in the book, encourage someone else to read the book, etc.  The list is endless.

No matter how you approach summer reading, remember to keep track of the reading progress.  You can find printable summer reading logs through a Google search or by using a site like

For more information and ideas for summer reading programs, books, and project ideas, see 5 Ways to Promote Summer Reading by TeachHub, Celebrate the first day of summer with summer reading by ReadWriteThink, and Summer Reading and Learning by National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Broadening Reading Horizons

I have a young tutoring student this summer who devours books above her reading level at speeds even I struggle to maintain.  It was quickly apparent that one of our goals, a reading workbook, was far too easy, despite it being for the grade she will be in this fall.

I realized I needed to approach reading exploration from another angle.  I did not want to give her long books in tiny print that may be at her reading level but have content that may not be suited for an elementary mind.

I came up with a project that I titled “Broaden Your Horizons” that still allowed her choose books that interested her, pulled in some interests of the Common Core standards, challenged her a bit, and were appropriate for her age.  I wrote a list of criteria that any book choice needs to adhere to one or more of the criteria.  Here’s the list:

  • 2 general fiction novels
  • 1 graphic novel
  • 2 non-fiction books — 1 biography & 1 true story (“based on a true story” ok)
  • 1 anthology
  • 1 book you think might be a little too hard
  • 1 book from the Choose Your Own Adventure series
  • 1 book from the Best American Series (any year, any type—short stories, essays, science and nature writing, nonrequired reading, sports writing, magazine writing, science writing, mystery stories, travel writing, etc.)
  • 1 book from the Myth-O-Mania series
  • 1 book from the Dear America series
  • 1 book you don’t think you’d like but seems like a book you might like
  • 1 book where there is a movie version—must watch the movie after reading the book and write 2-3 paragraphs about the similarities and differences between the two.

I had no problem explaining what an “anthology” was or why I picked these criteria.  We discussed the list to make sure she was comfortable with the list.  I told her books could count in more than one category, so for instance one of the books in a series could be a book she doesn’t think she’d like but it seems like she might.  I also gave her a list of questions to pick from and write a couple of sentences each day she reads in a reading journal.  I want her to think about the text, but not write a paper.

Here’s the part that stunned me: she had never heard of Choose Your Own Adventure books.  I only had 2 left from childhood because I had so many of them my mom said, “choose two to keep and the rest we’ll donate to other kids to read”.  My tutoring student loves playing Minecraft and other non-linear video games and had no idea that there was a book, let alone a series, that functioned in a non-linear form.  I had Hyperspace and Journey to the Year 3000 that I told her she could borrow.  She asked if she could practice reading aloud and start reading in tutoring instead of waiting until later.  Of course I said yes!

I specifically chose the Choose Your Own Adventure series to have her read a non-linear book.  I was taken aback by her excitement for the non-linear format.  She was able to interact with a book…something she knew to be linear and unchanging.  It was just like a video game…with words.

The entire point of my project idea was to show her different formats for content: a diary format, a non-linear format, and graphic novel format (which are different from comic books), as well as broaden her reading horizons to realize there are other types of books besides textbooks and fiction/”chapter books”.  I succeeded on my first day of the project and I cannot wait to see her broaden her reading horizons.

Which series was your favorite as a child?

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“Are we creating scavengers or readers?”

Truth be told, I’ve never been a fan of questions at the end of the chapter or even a worksheet of questions to answer as you read the selection. From a student’s perspective, they love them because they think–“Jackpot! I don’t have to read, I just have to answer the questions.” So they scan. They find the answer to the question. And even then, if they cannot find it within a couple minutes or it’s not blatantly obvious because it’s not bolded–they give up and claim, “it’s not in the book” or “I couldn’t find it in the book so I skipped it.”

I’m not sure at what point in a person’s education that the the desire to do as little as possible came to be. Perhaps, it is because schooling is legally mandated until the age of 16 (at least in the USA). Students view their education as something forced upon them rather than something they chose to do. Days, months, and even years of a student’s life is consumed with studying and memorizing information through classes upon classes that do not interest them, seem to have no connection to the real world (or more importantly, their real world) or because they are told they “have to” learn it. And when people are confronted with something they do not want to do, they will take the path of least resistance around it.

Perhaps the path of least resistance developed out of necessity. Students are overwhelmed with academic pressures, societal pressures, family obligations, and personal desires. Prioritizing is the only way students are able to (somewhat) handle all these pressures. Some people choose academics. Some choose family. Some choose society. Some choose personal desires. Once a priority ranking is established, students then try to cope with “getting through” the other pressures, rather than try to balance them. Skimming text is one such technique. And while skimming has it’s uses, students have abandoned reading for understanding in favor of skimming. They find the answer, but have no idea what’s going on.

Fred Ende recently published an article on SmartBlogs (SmartBlog on Education) titled, “Are we creating scavengers or readers?” He makes several good points about the scavenging method of reading versus reading for comprehension.

Brief Intermission: For those of you unfamiliar with the “scavenger” method of “reading,” it basically works like this:

  1. Read questions given to be answered.
  2. Seek location in informational text or literature where this answer might be located.
  3. Find keywords and/or “giveaways” in text material.
  4. Write answer down without reading for context or deeper understanding.

Notice that this approach doesn’t actually involve any “reading.” For lack of a better characterization, it’s not good.

Ende also points out that one of the Common Core’s goals is to remedy the issue of skimming versus reading for understanding by requiring students “supply evidence” from the text. However, Ende makes clear that “supplying evidence” doesn’t always yield in complete comprehension.

Seemingly, the Common Core State Standards (or Common Core Learning Standards here in New York) should address these concerns. And maybe, on some level, they do. However, when students are asked to “supply evidence from the text” on an assessment, it doesn’t necessarily mean that students will understand, or even consider, what was read. “Supplying” something is much less intensive than “explaining,” and much, much less intensive than “creating.” Yet, much of the sample and real questions I’ve seen ask students to respond to a prompt by supplying (or “using;” whatever that means) evidence from the text. Even local assessments that our districts are creating appeal to students to “find” evidence, without necessarily encouraging them to “think” about it.

“Scavenging” for information has several good uses. It is beneficial when trying to review a large amount of text to determine if it warrants further, more in-depth reading/analysis. Unfortunately, the skill of scavenging has been taught and reinforced year after year under the guise of “understanding”.

I do not know if Common Core will be the push to separate scavenging for answers and reading for comprehension. But I do know this: I will be the push to separate the two in my classroom. It may take me a few tries to word the questions correctly and to teach the difference. I will provide opportunities for students to hone both skills. I will not “produce” scavenger-only type readers. Why? Because that is the change I can make.

What is Literacy?

What is literacy?

I have noticed that word “literacy” recently has become a buzzword to mean “to be fluent in” or “to be well-versed in”.  The buzzword “literacy” has been so overused that society is now misusing the word.

The dictionary definition of the word “literate” (at least the first entry still) is “able to read and write” (  The second entry is “having or showing knowledge of literature, writing, etc.; literary; well-read.”  As a noun, the definition is “a person who can read and write” or “a learned person”.  So how have we made the jump to the fourth entry definition, “having knowledge or skill in a specified field: literate in computer usage“?

In in my education class tonight my professor brought up the topic of literacy.  She briefly explained the main “types” of literacy and “degrees” of literacy with words like “cultural literacy”, “functionally literacy” and “computer literacy”.  I have heard these terms thrown around the last few years and probably have even used them myself.  But during this classroom discussion I began to analyze the term “literacy” more deeply and found many of these terms to be oxymorons.

My professor used the following example to describe “cultural literacy”.  An American, who only speaks English, travels to Japan.  During one meal, soup is served and the American does not slurp the soup because that behavior is rude in the US.  However, in Japan, slurping one’s soup is a compliment to the chef and indicates that the one slurping the soup likes it.  This American is culturally illiterate because s/he does not know the customs of Japan.

I wouldn’t use the term “culturally illiterate” here, as slurping soup (customs) have nothing to do with reading or writing.  I think the correct terminology would be “not well-versed” in Japanese culture or “culturally unaware”.  I could even see the word “not fluent” as in “not fluent in Japanese culture” being acceptable because fluent does not just mean the level of speech ability, but it describes a level of proficiency in a subject matter or language.  But “culturally illiterate”?  No, I don’t see that term as being the best word choice or the most accurate choice of words.  Using words correctly will ensure your message will be communicated effectively with the lowest error rate.

Has the definition of “literate” changed to mean “an understanding of something”?  My professor cited an article that stated Patrick Dempsey (Grey’s Anatomy, or for you 80s movie buffs, Can’t Buy Me Love) was “functionally illiterate”.  He could not read–he memorized his lines by having someone read them to him and he eventually memorized them.  Another article cited that Tom Cruise (I’m sure you know who he is), called himself a “functional illiterate” when he was younger.  One student brought up the fact that Fantasia (winner of Season 3 of American Idol) was illiterate.  In doing a quick Google search just now to look for famous illiterate people I came across the term “economic illiterates”.  What does that really mean?  What does it mean to be illiterate in the 21st century?

Austin Buffman, Mike Mattos, and Chris Webber state in their article in Educational Leadership that “…the definition of illiterate in the 21st century will not be ‘Can a person read and write?’ but rather ‘Can a person learn, unlearn, and relearn?’” (14).  Do you agree?

So…has the definition of literacy changed or has society turned the word into the latest buzzword to mean a whole laundry list of concepts that really have nothing to do with reading and writing?



Buffman, Austin, Mike Mattos, and Chris Webber. “The Why Behind RTI.” Educational Leadership 68.2 (2010): 10-16. Print.

“Literate”. 28 Feb 2012. Web.