How to Bring Instructional Shifts Into Practice – Focus on Complex Text

By Char Shryock   Dir. of Curr. & Instruction  Bay Village City Schools

text_complexity_pyramid.pngAll students need regular access to complex text as a way to build knowledge and grow their vocabulary.
 There are three measures of a complex text: qualitative, quantitative and matching reader to task.  As you read through my reflection on this shift, think about your own classroom, building or district.  What does this shift look like and sound like?  What actionable step might you take that might have a direct impact on student learning? How will you share what you have done with your colleagues?

Literacy Shift 1 : Regular Practice With Complex Text And Its Academic Language.Key resource: Understanding Text Complexity (

Complexity is determined holistically by looking at these three features of the text:

  • Quantitative Measure
    • What is the academic & content vocabulary demand of the text?
  • Qualitative Analysis
    • What is the structure of the text?
    • What is the language demand?
    • What prior knowledge of content or culture does the text demand?
  • Matching Reader and Task
    • How is the text to be used by the reader?
    • What is the purpose for reading/listening to the text?


There are a number of tools that can help you to look at the Quantitative Measure of the texts you are using in your classroom. Teachers who are mindful of vocabulary demand will Close Read texts prior to assigning them to students to look for words that may need to be pre-taught, words that may be used uniquely in the context, or words that are keys to a student’s ability to unlock the content of the text.  Students might use Frayor Models to help construct meaning for key words.  Interactive word walls in the classroom may contain examples of words being used in context, and images that illustrate meaning or usage.

  • Academic Word Finder –    This tool can be used as part of the Close Reading process the teacher utilizes prior to assigning passages to a student.  Look for passages that have a balance of words at, below and above grade level.  Passages with many words above or below grade level may still be appropriate to use with students depending on the purpose for reading the passage and the Qualitative Features of the text.
    • Create a free account on  to use this tool
    • Cut and paste text or type text into the Word Finder.
    • Select a target grade and run the tool
    • The Word Finder tool will highlight in colors words that are below, at, and above grade level within the text passage. Listed below the passage will be possible definitions of the word. The complete passage is visible with words highlighted in context.
  • Lexile Analyzer –  Lexile is one way to look at the Quantitative Measure of a text. Approximate Lexile ranges for each grade level have been included in the literacy standards.   Lexile can be compared to other quantitative measures like AR scores.  
    • You can cut and paste text into the Lexile Analyzer, but it needs to have all formatting removed.  
  •  WordSift looks more closely at academic vocabulary and content vocabulary.
    • Cut and paste or type text into the tool
    • A word cloud will be created, showing the highest frequency words. This is a good way to identify words that may be key to unlocking the content of the text.
    • The word lists tool will highlight in colors words that are specific to science, math, social studies and ELA.
    • A set of related images will appear for each word that is clicked on in the word cloud. You can use these images to add to your word wall or make visual dictionaries for ELL students or at risk readers.
  • Paired Texts by Lexile Range from can be found HERE

Qualitative features of a text can be looked at using a rubric or a checklist.  There are 4 areas to consider.  First, is the text structure simple or more complicated? Remember that text can also be a graphic, so look at the graphic features as well.  Are there text structures that are normally found in a particular content area writing style or in a genre?  When skimming the text on a first Close Reading, is the language more conversational or formal? Are terms contemporary or more unfamiliar? Teachers being mindful of the Qualitative features of the text will also take into consideration the knowledge that a text expects a reader to bring with them into the reading.  This can be cultural or regional experiences, content specific background or individual life experiences.  This particular aspect of text complexity requires the teacher to think carefully about how to scaffold texts for students who may be lacking some or all of the background knowledge a more complex text might require.  Ideally, the text is the expert and students will not need to bring large amounts of prior knowledge into their reading and discussion of the text.

Matching reader to task is often overlooked as the third component of complexity.  A text may be moderately or slightly complex, but be a primary source document that is important to helping a student understand the context of an historical event.  On the other hand, a text that is exceedingly complex may be a scientific paper a student is reading to get background information for a project.  All children should be given the opportunity to read a range of complex texts throughout the year. Texts should be high quality, be worth the instructional time to read them, and help students to build knowledge and vocabulary.   One strategy a teacher might consider when selecting informational and literary texts to use in a classroom would be to build expert text sets.  Students build content vocabulary and knowledge when they have an opportunity to read, listen too, or analyze multiple texts on the same topics.  



How to Develop and Use a Professional Text Set in Five Steps

By Tricia Ebner, M. Ed., NBCT

Summertime for many educators means more time for reading, including professional selections we’ve wanted to tackle all year long but haven’t been able to fit into the nooks and crannies of our school-year lives. For me, the challenge isn’t finding professional literature to read, but rather selecting that which I should read. Crafting my own professional learning text set is just the solution I need. A text set is a collection of articles, videos, books, blogs, and other material that allows students to build their knowledge and vocabulary on a particular topic. In a well-crafted text set, the selections being at the student’s entry point and then build in complexity as the student gains more knowledge, vocabulary, and confidence. It’s a powerful approach that is useful across all content areas. It can be just as powerful for us educators and our professional learning.

Step 1: The first decision is the focus to use for the text set. What is it you really want to learn about this summer? This can sometimes be the hardest decision. If you’re like me, there is so much still to learn about teaching and learning, and is seems like people are always writing more books that will be such excellent choices. The benefit of a text set is that rather than getting a smattering of this or snippet of that, we can develop a deeper understanding of our selected focus. (Suggestion: if you’re struggling to find a focus for your text set, consider checking out Achieve the Core’s Summer Reading Challenge.)

Step 2: Find the Texts: Now that you have a focus in mind, it’s time to start gathering those texts. Remember that the term text doesn’t refer only to the printed word. What about including that podcast you’d heard about a few weeks ago, but never got around to listening to? Does the Teaching Channel have a video on the topic? As for the printed word, books aren’t the only option. Consider blogs. Remember that the goal here is simply gathering the set of texts you will use–you do not have to read the entire work to decide whether or not to include it. Don’t make your text set so large that it is overwhelming. Text sets don’t have to be long. A set of four or five pieces might be just fine.

Step 3: Sequence the Texts: Putting the texts into a sequence is another important step. While you might be excited about reading that article from the professional journal, if your topic is brand-new to you, you might want to start with the video, podcast, or blog post. The goal is building knowledge and vocabulary, so starting with a good entry point will keep the reading interesting and even exciting. Starting at a point that is too difficult could make the text set turn into a chore.

Step 4: READ! Once the focus, texts, and sequence are decided, it’s time to dig into the reading. As you work through your set, be flexible. Maybe you’re ready for that journal article earlier than you thought–read it earlier, then! Or maybe that blog post looked like it was going to be great, but by the second paragraph, it’s clear that it’s not really focused on your topic. In that case, set it aside and move on. It’s your professional learning text set, and it needs to be practical and useful for YOU.

Step 5: Reflect: Just as we want our students to consider what they’ve learned and then apply it in some way, so we need to do the same with our learning. How does what we’ve learned change our perspectives? What changes will we make in what we are doing in our classrooms and roles as educators? Reflect, envision, and plan for how to implement what you’ve learned in the year to come.

If you’re interested in collaborating with others, why not set up a professional text set for a small group study? If you have two or three topics you want to consider this summer, try crafting smaller text sets. Creating and using a professional text set and using it is a great way to deepen your learning and practice the process of developing text sets for students.



Carnival of Evidence – A Different Approach to End of Year Elementary Portfolios

By Char Shryock, Dir. of Curriculum, Bay Village City Schools and Mrs. Lindsey Bragg, Kindergarten Teacher, Normandy Elementary School, Bay Village, Ohio.


It is a Friday near the end of the school year.  For Kindergartners in Mrs. Bragg’s room, it is Carnival Day.  The game centers are ready to go, prizes are arranged on the counter, popcorn is ready to be put into bags, and the camera is ready to capture student reactions as they enter the room.   The Carnival Day is a tradition. It is a chance to celebrate all that the students have learned, and give the students a chance to show what they know to their parents.

Mrs. Bragg feels that the time and effort that goes into planning for this day is well worth it.  “My students love it and remember it, but each year I wonder if I have the energy to do it again. And then, I hear from the students comments like, ‘There’s a lot more than I expected’, and ‘This is so fun’, and  that’s why I will do it again.”

What makes Carnival Day a unique way for students to demonstrate their learning are the games themselves.  All are standards based. All have extension questions or challenges to let students really show a deeper level of mastery.  Mrs. Bragg starts by identifying the central standards for the year in math and literacy.  Once she has mapped out the concepts, she takes a look at what game would best let students show evidence of their learning around each concept.    Seven game centers seems to be the just right number. This allows a class of 22 students to be divided into groups of 2-3. She tries to pair students with others who they will work productively with.  Parents help to facilitate the games and have a chance to watch students work with words and numbers. 

Mrs. Bragg has found that each year she has had to add increasingly more complex enrichment questions to each game.  “My students are able to show much higher levels of mastery than when I first started Carnival Day.  For example,  instead of just reading a word, my students are now reading sentences.”   In the Pick A Duck game, students use a fishing rod to catch a carnival duck from the pond. Each duck has a word written on it. Some students may read the word. As enrichment, students may be prompted to name a rhyming word, identify diagraphs or count syllables.  In the Plinko game, students drop 2 tokens into the Plinko board. They then write number sentences using the 2 numbers that the tokens land on.  Extensions include asking students how many more would they need to add to the answer to make 10, how could they right the number sentence another way, or can you change the number sentence by adding 3 to one of the numbers?  Spin to Win is a chance for students to identify numbers, count on to 20, and identify a number that would be 2 more or bigger or less than.  Face painting is a time for students to demonstrate their speaking and listening skills by talking about what they would like to have  painted on their face, and why.  Students collect tickets as they spend approximately 10 minutes at each game. Tickets can be exchanged for small prizes. The students are proud of the skills they have learned.  Parents have a chance to actually watch and listen as their students demonstrate their Kindergarten skills, rather than look through a traditional portfolio of student work.  Because each game has multiple entry points, all students are able to confidently demonstrate their mastery level, in an environment that is celebrating everyone’s learning.


The Carnival Day is a unique way to think about a summative assessment of student learning and how to communicate learning to parents.  The concept could certainly be applied to other grade level classrooms.  Carnival games could be replaced with game show style games or a set of problem solving challenges.  Not all parents may be able to attend.  Sending home directions for how to do at home games that would allow students to demonstrate the same skills, along with facilitating questions and a set of parent friendly mastery level descriptors could accomplish the same goal.  


The Standards Revision Process: Lessons Learned for the Classroom

Tricia Ebner, Co-Chair of the ELA Advisory Group

Char Shryock, member of the Operational Working Group – Science Revisions

Over the past 18 months, Ohio has been involved in a cycle of standards reviews. Per state law, Ohio’s standards must undergo a revision process every five years. Teams of Ohio teachers, administrators, college professors and content experts have volunteered their time to do this work. In 2016, the math and ELA standards went through this process. During the 2016-17 school year, the science and social studies standards have experienced this same process.  This five year review and revision cycle enables educators and stakeholders to reflect and consider how well the standards are working and what improvements might be necessary.

The process is thoughtful and thorough. The review starts with a period of public comment, where teachers, parents, administrators, college and university faculty, and community members can provide comments, recommend changes, and point to research supporting those comments and changes. Then a revision advisory committee made up of teacher leaders and content experts examines each and every comment, with a goal of coming to consensus on the proposed change.  If the consensus is that the comment is relevant and will potentially clarify or strengthen the standards, it is passed along to the standards operational working group.  This second team of teachers, professors and content experts then work to make the revisions if they agree they are necessary. These revisions are then sent to the public for a second round of feedback, followed by the advisory committee reviewing those comments and sending any standards still needing work back to the working group.

As members of the advisory committee for ELA and the operational working group for science, we have been involved with standards review for the past two years. We’ve gained some insights into Ohio’s standards:

  • The vertical progression is key. As educators, it is critical that we know and understand the vertical progression within the standards. In the work with the ELA standards review, it didn’t take long to see that a change made in sixth grade, for example, would have a ripple effect running towards both kindergarten and grade 12. One important strand in the ELA progression is writing opinions/arguments. Standards help to frame the increasing sophistication of students use of evidence to support their argument. In science, this progression helps to map out how students build an understanding of a concept, like force and motion, starting with simple pushing and pulling in kindergarten and going all the way up to calculating force in physics. As a teacher, It is important to understand the foundation students have as they walk into your classroom.  It’s also important to understand that if that foundation is shaky, intervention needs to happen with an eye toward the requirements of the standard in previous grades. Additionally, knowing the vertical progression  of the knowledge and skills students will be working can help educators make decisions regarding students who have already mastered standards at a particular grade level. In this instance, a teacher can make a decision as to whether to broaden the student’s experiences with the skills in that standard, or accelerate the student into the next grade level’s work on that particular standard.
  • Knowing the vocabulary is also important. As we worked through the standards review process, it became clear that some terms used within the language arts standards, for example, needed a glossary, so that all educators in Ohio can work from the same definition in addressing those standards. As we prepare to transition into the revised standards, it is important to pay attention to the glossary to ensure each standard is clearly understood. These are the definitions the model curriculum writing teams are using in their work, and because the test blueprints will be developed based on these standards, the assessments will address these terms as defined in the glossary. In math and science, content specific vocabulary was also carefully looked at to be sure that correct terms were used consistently throughout the standards.  In science, the operational working group had many discussions over exactly the right word to use within each standard being reviewed. Many laundry lists of terms were replaced with a focus on a few key terms, keeping the standards language based in the building knowledge of science concepts and skills, not just memorizing lists or tables.  Beyond vocabulary for students, essential vocabulary was also clearly defined or explained as a support for the teachers who will be working with the standards.
  • Standards build from grade level to grade level, and they also work in conjunction with other standards at the same grade level.  Part of the work of standards review and revision is to be sure that the standards articulate across grade levels and within grade levels in a way that will make sense to teachers and to students. While we as educators need to break the standards down to understand their component parts, that is not the way we should be teaching our students on a daily basis. The standards aren’t meant to be taught as separate, isolated skills and concepts. While we may need to focus students’ attention on one aspect of a standard to deepen their mastery, it is also critical that we have them then work with the standard as a whole.  One way to look at the Ohio Learning Standards is to think of them as the story of the learning that we would like students to master at each grade level.  Within each story, there are a number of strands. In ELA, these include literature, informational text, writing, foundational reading, language and speaking and listening.  The science standard story begins with the nature of science statements, and weaves in Earth/space, physical and life sciences.  Just like any good story, the standards have connections to each other.  Look closely at the literature and informational text standards for reading, and you will see the writing standards reflected in the wording.  Spend time with the physical science standards and you will see that they can be taught through the lens of life science.  Going even further, it is also possible to teach many of the language arts skills through the context of the science concepts!
  • The standards are the floor, not the ceiling, of what students can and should be doing in Ohio classrooms. The standards don’t limit us to only the skills embodied within them. We can stretch beyond those standards. For example, I’ve heard concerns expressed that letter-writing is not specifically named in Ohio’s ELA standards. There is nothing preventing a teacher from addressing letter-writing skills in his or her classroom.  One creative teacher had students write letters to an author, another had students write letters to a story character, from another character.  In science, the working group worked hard to write standard language that would encourage teachers to let students explore the world around them, use authentic data, and find real world situations to build their understanding of science skills. This allows teachers to find science in their local community or their school yard and set students up to become lifelong scientists.  The science working group spent time revising the nature of science descriptions for grade bands k-2, 3-5, 6-8 and 9-12 to be sure teachers would have the flexibility to let students be actively involved in doing science.  people-woman-coffee-meeting

Perhaps the greatest take-away we have had from the work of directly helping to review and revise Ohio’s Learning Standards is the power of teachers from various grade levels and backgrounds working together to really unpack standard language together.  If time could be spent in teacher based teams, grade level teams, professional learning communities having the same kind of focused dialogue, teachers at all grade levels would grow in their own understanding of the the standards, and begin to share best practices for how to help students to master these standards.  

One Thing

By Tricia Ebner, M.S.Ed., NBCT

Every year friends and family ask me if I’m ready to wind down the school year, and I usually reply, “There is no winding down–we wind up.” There are so many end-of-year activities added into the typical academic day, and squeezing it all in can be challenging.

Yet even in the rush of poetry coffee houses, 20Time presentations, and mock trials, I find my morning and afternoon commutes filled with reflection. What went well this year? What needs work? How could I change what I’m doing to make it better?

Over 20 years ago, Indiana Writing Project leaders encouraged me to focus on changing one thing each year. Trying to change too much is overwhelming and exhausting. Focusing on that one thing gives me permission to devote intense focus to the change I want to make. I’ve been trying to follow that advice ever since.

Last May, the “one thing” was inspired by our technology department. Eighth grade moved into one-to-one technology for the 2016-17 school year, and we had a brand-new LMS to go along with it. My principal asked me to be part of the team rolling it out and supporting our teachers in learning and using it, so my one thing was learning how better to integrate technology into my classroom. Two years ago I spent time analyzing my classroom assessments to ensure they were aligned to our standards. Three years ago it was mapping out a plan for implementing 20Time in my classroom. The “one thing” approach has been an ongoing journey.  

This year, I’m mulling over several options for my “one thing.” There are always lots of possibilities and options: developing a stronger focus on vocabulary, for instance, or continuing to search for fiction and nonfiction texts that will challenge my gifted children while still being appropriate to their social and emotional development. The one that keeps resonating with me, though, is working on narrative writing.

The challenge I have with narrative writing is that I tend to settle it lower on the priority list because it’s not tested on the state assessments.. That’s truly not a good reason; narrative writing is still part of our standards and needs attention, too. It’s also a great entry point into writing and getting to know students; middle school kids love storytelling and sharing their lives. When I don’t provide opportunity for that, I miss out on the chance to build those relationships with my students.

I’ve blogged before about ways of addressing narrative writing, such as this blog about using Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick as a springboard for writing. Earlier this year I asked my students to take a poem by Gary Soto and write the story within the poem as a story, in prose, rather than in poetic form. I know there are other approaches, too. So this summer, I will take some time to investigate ways others are addressing and incorporating narrative writing within their classrooms. I’ll start by looking at some of the mini-tasks and modules on the Literacy Design Collaborative web site, and then I’ll branch out from there. A few hours this summer can result in big payoffs next school year, and it’s an investment well worth making for my students’ learning and my own professional growth.

So let me challenge you. As you drive to and from work in these remaining days of the year, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What worked really well in your classroom this year, and why?
  2. What didn’t work so well and could use some improvement?
  3. How could you change that to make the learning and classroom better?

And most importantly . . .

What is one thing you can change to make learning better in your classroom next year?


Reflecting On Your Assessments – 4 Steps To An Honest Conversation

By Char Shryock  Dir. of Curriculum and Instruction, Bay Village City Schools

When was the last time you had an honest conversation with yourself about your class assessments for reading and writing? Before you hand out your last test of the school year, take a close look at the passages you have chosen.  Are they worth reading? How about the questions? Are they worth answering? What verbs are at the center of the test?  Here is a 4 step process for reflecting on your assessments.

Step 1: Check That It Is A Text Worth Reading

Read the passage(s) you selected as the base for the assessment. Are there sticking points within a passage that will introduce new information, challenge the students’ beliefs or cause them to dig into the text more deeply? You want students to use the text as the expert they can refer to as they build their argument, write their narrative or gather information. For multiple text passages, ask yourself if the content will support questions that can go deeper than asking students to find the similarity between the texts.  Students need to be able to analyze different points of view or synthesize information to support a claim. It is hard to do this if the texts have only a shallow connection to each other or are simplistic or lack text for students to really struggle with.   Read the text again.  Do you see something new you didn’t consider the first time through? What words are key to understanding the passage or supporting the claim? How would your use questions to point students to those words or key information?  Are you able to think of more than one writing task that could grow from the text(s)? That is an indicator of a rich text worth working with.   

Resources for Identifying Texts Worth Reading

Step 2: Do A Question Audit

Above all else, do the questions all relate to the central idea or important details of the text and will they provide you with evidence of student mastery of a standard or set of standards? A well designed test has questions that help the students to build their thinking toward a final writing task. In order to do this effectively, the questions should be text dependent. This means that students should be able to go back to the passage(s) to build an answer.  Questions about each passage should help students focus on what is important in the text. Researchers have shown that items that assess peripheral details actually encourage students to do superficial “skim” reading to quickly find answers for filling in blanks rather than reading deeply to find evidence to support ideas.  Highlight the verbs in your questions. Are you asking students to analyze, integrate, determine, and evaluate or are you asking them to list, define, identify or pick from a list?  Take the time to revise your questions. Questions should be a scaffold that leads to a final task, not a series of gotchas and traps to see if a student has memorized information or can remember isolated details from a text.

Resources for Identifying Questions Worth Asking

Step 3: Questions Should Expect Students To Use Evidence From The Text

An assessment worth giving expects students to demonstrate a command of evidence. How does your assessment consistently require students to use textual evidence  to analyze, evaluate, and make inferences around the use of text structures, author point of view, the central idea or important details? Students who have a command of evidence are adept at selecting details from a text to support their ideas and arguments or write a cohesive informational piece. Ohio’s Learning Standards for ELA/Literacy are meant to help students be college or career ready. The ability to make claims that are developed with appropriate evidence is a college career ready skill.  Not all evidence based questions need to be short answer. It is possible to write evidence based selected response questions. These can be two part multiple choice questions or questions that ask students to select or highlight multiple quotes taken from a passage to support an answer choice.  As you read through your passage and questions, are they written and ordered in a way that supports the use of text based evidence?

Resource That Shows The Use of Evidence

Step 4: Check Alignment To The Standards

It is worth the time to make a blueprint for any summative test or final exam you are going to be using with your class.  A blueprint is a map of the questions that includes for each item on the test, the standard(s) it is meant to collect evidence of learning on, the type of question, the depth of knowledge required by the standard, and how the question connects to the major focus of the unit or class. Just a reminder, all text dependent questions should allow student to use evidence from the text and should be based on appropriately complex text.  Have you allowed for multiple entry points into your test for students who are at varying levels of mastery of the standards?  You can also look at how your are going to provide feedback on this assessment to students. Will you be using points? Partial Points? A rubric? Will there be opportunities for the students to correct or revise answers to receive full credit? Do not rely on the publisher of your book series or program to create standards based questions. Take the time to review those questions too.  Ohio’s State Tests are matched closely to Ohio’s Learning Standards.  There are blueprints for the tests as well as specific test spec documents.  You can also look at the answer documents for the released test items to see the connection to standards, and rationale for the distractor items.

Resources for Checking Alignment To Standards

Five Misconceptions about State Assessments

by Dr. Bryan Drost & Tricia Ebner

As Ohio’s statewide testing window comes to a close, it’s a good time to think about the purposes and uses of Ohio’s assessments. While we realize that there is a ton of frustration regarding testing, we are also aware that there are a number of misconceptions regarding these assessments.  It is our hope that through this entry, you will lower frustration as you will be informed with accurate information regarding our accountability system and will continue to focus on the true purpose of the assessments: documenting students’ learning progress.

State assessments are diagnostic in nature. Honestly, the state assessments are summative. They are assessing students’ skills and understanding of the standards for the school year. This is one of the reasons they are administered in April and May; teachers need as much time as can be reasonably provided to work with their students on the work for the year.

That said, the assessments can certainly be used in a diagnostic way, by next year’s teachers. As a teacher, I use the assessment results in two ways. First, I reflect on my practice over the previous school year and look to see if there are gaps in students’ performance. If those gaps seem widespread, then I know I may need to look at how well I addressed those particular standards. This becomes a revision point for my instruction in the coming school year. Secondly, I look at my incoming students’ results to get a snapshot of their skills and understanding in April and May of the previous school year. I use this as one of many data points to help me determine my starting points with instruction in the coming year. Those are certainly diagnostic uses I have in the fall, looking at the previous spring’s assessments. However, the assessments are summative for the current school year.

 Kids do better on paper-pencil testing.  Over the last year, there has been quite the discussion regarding paper-pencil testing versus electronic testing, and any perceived differences with the format.  Misconception alert: these two studies on Ohio’s testing system (not New York’s, California’s, etc.) have shown that although there are some small differences at various grade levels, overall kids do just as well on paper as they do on the computer.;

In some cases, the reverse has actually been researched to be true: “Mode constants identified in the lower grade math assessments indicated that math tests administered online were somewhat easier than when administered on paper.”

The data collected on students is being sold. The answer to this one is simple: no, it isn’t being sold. It’s against Ohio’s laws to sell information on students. In fact, the Ohio Department of Education doesn’t even see students’ names when testing information is collected. This is why students have to log into the assessment portals with their SSID, a numerical code. Administrators are not permitted to share student names with ODE; this is also a violation of state law. As an example, when I have had data appeals, I am specifically only allowed to share a student’s last name or their SSID, never both in communications.

The test changes significantly when the vendor changes. This misconception was at its height when Ohio moved from the PARCC assessment to the AIR and still seems to be circulating as value added data comes back into play next year with the expiration of Safe Harbor. To see the issue with this misconception, it’s important to understand how an assessment is constructed. A blueprint is developed based on standards and that is given to the assessment vendor. The blueprint specifically identifies the skills and understanding to be assessed in relationship to the standards. This means the vendor used to craft the assessment isn’t going to make a significant difference in the kinds of items, skills, or understanding assessed, unless the standards change. Think of it this way: cities have standards for the type of houses they are allowed to build; when a future homeowner purchases a blueprint from an architect, the blueprint is based on the standard. Change the contractor, and the house is still going to look extremely similar to any other home built using the same blueprint. In other words, if Ohio were to throw out AIR this year, we would still have a similar blueprint as the standards have not changed.

The writing of Ohio’s tests is secret, done by people in back rooms with trenchcoats and fedoras.  Nothing could be farther from the truth!  Each year, ODE in conjunction with AIR assembles a team of teachers, administrators, and other educators who write draft assessment questions.  These questions are then scrutinized many times.  After a decent chunk of questions is approved by the Content Advisory Committee, the questions are sent to the Sensitivity and Fairness group where discussion ensues related to bias, appropriateness for testing, as well as accessibility for all students.  Any questions that do not meet this group’s strict criteria are thrown out.  From here, questions have to be field tested; after data is collected on the questions, the testing groups meet again to ensure that the questions don’t have unintended bias.  Because of all of these steps, it can take upwards of two years for questions to appear on exams.  In other words, the questions that the team is writing this year, won’t appear for at least another two years. All of Ohio’s created questions must conform to high psychometric levels as well as meet Ohio’s guidelines for sensitivity and fairness.   

Sometimes it’s easy to fall into the misconceptions, especially when we are anxiously awaiting this year’s results. It’s important to be mindful of these five critical facts about Ohio’s assessments. This can help us more clearly focus on the real goal of Ohio’s assessment system: documenting our students’ learning progress.

How Writing Can Weave Through A Traditional High School English Class

By Char Shryock,  Dir. of Curriculum and Instruction  Bay Village City Schools

Students need regular practice writing arguments, informational pieces, and narratives. Additionally, it is important that the writing is based on evidence students pull from the texts they are reading, listening to or viewing. The challenge is how to find opportunities for writing within traditional literature driven units.   The idea that reading and listening are the breathing in of information and that writing and speaking are the breathing out of information can help to guide the work of integrating reading and writing.  Just as it is impossible to only breath in, or only breath out, students need to be able to take in information, analyze or synthesize it, then communicate that back to a variety of audiences.  Being ready for college or careers means being able to read/listen to information in many forms, process and reflect on that information, make decisions on the validity of information or evaluate a piece of literature, and then present arguments or research based on evidence from credible texts.

A starting point is to identify the anchor texts that drive your course. What standards are you getting at through these texts?  Next, build mini- text sets that compliment your anchor text.  For example, if you are teaching Of Mice and Men, you might find articles, stories, poems or videos that deal with friendship, broken plans,or migrant farmers during the Great Depression.  There are a number of resources you can use to find existing text sets. is a free website where you can find text sets tied to literature, as well as history and science. is another free, registration required website, where you can find existing paired texts.  Expert Packs, found on the website, include student activities and a mix of print and multi-media text.  Other websites where you can find a wide range of texts on many topics include,, and

Once you have developed text sets around your anchor text,  your team can collaborate to develop text dependent questions and writing prompts.   I like to use the Checklist for Creating Text Dependent Questions and the Checklist for Evaluating Question Quality as my go-to tools for this step.  Remember, the Ohio Learning Standards for English state that students  should write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.  Sometimes it helps to have examples when you start to develop question sets and writing prompts.  I have found the mini- assessments on the website to be useful models.  The released test items from the Ohio State Tests are also helpful.  

The big picture piece is to now take a look at your text sets, questions and prompts to see if your team has provided students frequent opportunities to focus on the following Ohio Learning Standards for ELA – Writing:

  1. Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
  3. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
  4. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
  5. Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.
  6. Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.
  1.  Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused     questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
  1.  Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information, while avoiding plagiarism.
  1. Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and  research.

I have had many conversations over the past 6 years with teachers who are working to shift from grammar and mechanics as the starting point for writing feedback and assessment to the idea that content and structure are the base for evaluating student writing.  It is helpful to spend time looking at authentic student work.  The Vermont Writing Collaborative  In Common Project has annotated samples of student writing based on a single text.  The Ohio State Tests portal has released annotated student responses which are found in the scoring guides on the Ohio State Test Portal.  The Performance Level Descriptors from the Ohio Dept. of Education are also a good resource for this discussion.  They serve as a roadmap for future instruction, intervention or differentiation by describing what students look like and sound like at each level from Basic to Advanced within the Ohio Learning Standards for English.   

Finally,  I have found the vetted, standards based ELA lessons that are available on the website to be useful models of what integrated reading, writing, speaking and listening look like at the high school level.  The embedded text dependent questions, focus on academic and content vocabulary, and culminating writing prompts can be used as is, or as the framework for a team to create similar unit plans.   

What about grammar?

by Tricia Ebner, M.S. Ed. & NBCT

As an undergraduate, I was required to take a course in English grammar. At the time, nearly 30 years ago, it made sense. After all, my middle and high school English classes had grammar as part of our studies. I had spent hours with my Warriner’s textbooks, carefully copying sentences and then dividing them into subjects and verbs, or learning how to diagram prepositional phrases. Grammar is part of English, right?blog post graphic 4.23.17

Well, yes. But let’s be honest: there’s not too many of us that chose to become language arts teachers because we love grammar. I’ll bet that there are far more of us whose passion for English language arts stems from our experiences with reading and writing. Yet the question of where grammar fits into the curriculum comes up fairly often in the work I do with other classroom teachers.

The answer I have for them probably isn’t everyone’s favorite. In fact, if you’re among those amazing few who love analyzing sentence structures and grammatical constructs, I know you’re not going to like this.

The best form of grammar instruction comes in our work with reading and writing.

There’s research to back this up; it’s a subject that enough of us are interested in, that The Atlantic ran this story, “The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar,” in 2014. The article plainly states what I’ve been learning through observation, trial, and error: students gain just as much about grammar through reading and writing as they do through direct grammar instruction. When my eighth graders and I spend a class period looking at the construction of the Declaration of Independence, we’re not just studying parallel structure. We make note of how Jefferson used grammatical structures to emphasize his points. During the past week, I’ve been giving feedback to my sixth graders on drafts of informative consumer guides, and I embed little grammar “micro-lessons” into my comments, pointing out the use of the apostrophe in the contraction for “it is” and how there is no apostrophe in the possessive form of “it.” While my comments may have to be repeated on another writing piece down the road, the fact that I am helping them see the power of semicolons in their own writing makes the punctuation mark more meaningful to them.

I know this particular approach to grammar isn’t neat, clean, and orderly. I am not checking off boxes in front of my standards with this approach. There aren’t folders full of worksheets just waiting to be distributed.

So what does good grammar instruction look like these days?

  1. It’s embedded in the other activities going on within the classroom. When my sixth graders spend a couple of weeks researching the R.M.S. Titanic, for example, they learn that ship names are considered the same as novel titles, and are put into italics. When the seventh graders write narratives based on the illustrations from Chris Van Allsburg’s book The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, we work on proper punctuation around dialogue. In those instances, I may model it using the document camera or my computer and projector, but the real lessons come in the individual feedback, through conferencing or comments on drafts.
  2. It’s timely and tailored. I don’t tend to give a mini-lesson on a grammar issue unless i see the majority of the class needs it. For too many years, I taught about commas and coordinating conjunctions in April, because that’s when we were talking about conjunctions. What works is teaching this to students when they need it.
  3. It’s done with an attitude of caring and improving. When I conference with students or write comments on their drafts, I make it clear that I am doing this because I want their papers to be the best they can be. Pointing out grammatical errors isn’t done in a punitive way, with a tone of, “You should know better.” Instead, it’s done to help and support the learner. I am not simply correcting the errors for the students; they are the writers and need to make those corrections themselves.
  4. It’s done in both reading and writing. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the focus I put on sentence fragments when we read Hatchet in sixth grade. Paulsen uses a good deal of sentence fragments in the novel, especially in the beginning, as main character Brian Robeson finds himself unexpected flying a plane across the Canadian wilderness. Almost every year, someone will ask me, “How come he gets to write sentence fragments, but we’re not allowed to?” I counter the question with one of my own: “Why do you think Paulsen does that? What is his purpose?” The discussion goes far beyond the standard grammatical construction of complete sentences. Students soon realize that those fragment are used a key moments, they reflect the way a person’s brain works when in a stressful situation. A 12-year-old boy having to crash-land a plane in a lake is not going to think in carefully constructed compound-complex sentences. His thoughts are going to come in fragments. By the time we finish our discussion, students understand that fragments have a place in writing and can be very powerful, when the timing and purpose is right.

As professional educators, we need to think carefully about our purposes and priorities. Being able to read, write, listen, and speak effectively is our goal. While grammar certainly has a role in all of those skills, it is a role that is dependent on context. Teaching grammar in isolation doesn’t help us achieve our goals; instead, it throws up barriers and tends to make students dislike our classes. By embedding our grammar instruction in natural ways, through the reading, writing, speaking, and listening we do, we are helping our students gain proficiency in strong speaking and writing skills. This is far more powerful than any subject-verb worksheet will ever be.

What classroom challenge have you faced recently? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.


Discussion: A Powerful Tool in Learning and Life

by Tricia Ebner, NBCT

There is a misconception that Ohio’s speaking and listening standards focus solely upon more formal speeches. However, the very first anchor standard in speaking and listening is: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively. If we think about this from a practical perspective, this standard encompasses much of the speaking and listening student are likely to do not only in their academic lives, but throughout their careers as adults. Work across all kinds of fields in all kinds of contexts requires people to participate in discussions, whether it’s formal meetings or more informal, spur-of-the-moment problem-solving collaborations.

So considering all this, how do we as teachers help our students prepare for these kinds of activities? One of the most direct approaches we can take is a direct one: teach students the skills and strategies they need in group discussions. By taking a few minutes to break down the skills involved, model effective and ineffective behaviors, and then provide specific feedback to students, we can help them grow in their confidence and skills in this form of speaking and listening. Whatever subject area or grade level you teach, if you have your students participating in whole-class or small group discussions, you are helping students learn the skills and strategies they need for effective participation in discussions.

One approach to help students begin to see the behaviors necessary for effective group discussion are fishbowls. A fishbowl is a strategy that takes a single small group and places it in the middle of a larger circle. Those in the outer circle observe the discussion and behaviors of those in the inner circle. To make the expected behaviors really concrete, especially for younger learners, having a group model ineffective discussion behaviors can help them get a concrete picture of what not to do. Following that with a group modeling effective discussion behaviors is a great way of illustrating “Don’t do this; do that.”

Another strategy that helps students and teacher alike is the use of a checklist. A quick internet search will undoubtedly turn up several checklists. A checklist doesn’t have to be huge or elaborate. What are the two or three skills you’d like to see students focus upon in their group discussions? Put those onto a checklist, like this one I’ve used with my sixth graders. As students participate in their discussions, circulate and use the checklist to note what skills are being used effectively, and what might benefit from additional teaching and modeling.

Using checklists to monitor students’ progress in having effective discussions is useful in any content area. By making use of checklists, we can provide students with quick feedback and also make decisions about what to focus upon next. Whatever your content area or age group, consider using a checklist to monitor students’ skills the next time you have students working in a small-group or whole-class discussion.

Do you have a favorite discussion checklist to share? Contact us using the link below.

What classroom challenge have you faced recently? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.