Category Archives: Disciplinary Literacy

Measures of Effective Listening

Thirty-two years ago, Donald E. Powers wrote Considerations for Developing Measures of Speaking & Listening. It was published by the College Board, which expresses how important these measures are to a student’s academic success, particularly in their Advanced Placement programs, yet has not validated any standardized tests to measure these skills. This synthesis on some of the research on listening offers advice to teachers enrolled in our MOOC Teaching Speaking & Listening Skills

Research shows that students can listen 2-3 grade levels above what they can read. Listening while reading helps people have successful reading events, where they read with enjoyment and accuracy. Listening while reading has been shown to help with decoding, a fundamental part of reading. The average person talks at a rate of about 125 to 175 words per minute, while we listen and comprehend up to 450 words per minute (Carver, Johnson, & Friedman, 1970).

Listening has been identified as one of the top skills employers seek in entry-level employees as well as those being promoted. Even though most of us spend the majority of our day listening, it is the communication activity that receives the least instruction in school (Coakley & Wolvin, 1997). On average, viewers who just watched and listened to the evening news can only recall 17.2% of the content.

Listening is critical to academic success. Conaway (1982) examined an entire freshman class of over 400 students. They were given a listening test at the beginning of their first semester. After their first year of college, 49% of students scoring low on the listening test were on academic probation, while only 4.42% of those scoring high on the listening test were on academic probation. On the other hand, 68.5% of those scoring high on the listening test were considered Honors Students after the first year, while only 4.17% of those scoring low attained the same success.

Students do not have a clear concept of listening as an active process that they can control. Students find it easier to criticize the speaker as opposed to the speaker’s message (Imhof, 1998). Students report greater listening comprehension when they use the metacognitive strategies of asking pre-questions, interest management, and elaboration strategies (Imhof, 2001). Listening and nonverbal communication training significantly influences multicultural sensitivity (Timm & Schroeder, 2000).

Understanding is the goal of listening. Our friend Erik Palmer suggests before students engage in purposeful listening, their teachers should tell them what to attend to. We need to teach students what to respond to, how to respond, and when to respond. For example, today we are going to listen to five speeches. For each speech, we are only listening for LIFE. After each speaker finishes, clap, then take a minute to evaluate the level of passion they put into their speech. After that write down three suggestions on how they could improve the LIFE in their speech (i.e., instead of emphasizing: you stole my red hat, try stressing, you stole my red hat).

A classroom teacher who reads Powers (1984) College Board study will understand that speaking, listening, reading and writing are all tightly correlated. Empirically measuring oral communication skills requires many hours of assessment on small, controlled populations. It is the opposite of what we experience in public schools where it is not feasible for us to precisely measure each skill. The important takeaway here is that teachers need to prepare their students to actively listen, avoid distractions, and teach listening and speaking with core academic content by training students to evaluate how well various speaking functions are accomplished by their classmates. While there are reliability issues with classroom peer review models, the benefits of “learning by evaluation” far outweigh the negatives.


Getting Students To Ask Questions


Researchers understand that student questions can improve instruction and increase achievement, however, students rarely ask their own questions in school. When they do, they ask more memory questions involving knowledge recall than all other question types combined. Asking open-ended questions and research questions can be difficult for students because they don’t always have a large enough knowledge base on a subject to see relationships and big picture issues. My classroom experience has shown that if I use small groups to get students to generate their own questions about a topic, many groups rely on one or two participants and the other students are content to be passive observers. Similarly, when I try to have whole-class, student-led discussions only 38% to 60% of my students participate. This year, I have used Zaption so students view a short, instructional video and then are asked questions that demonstrate their understanding of the content. Zaption Tours are also helpful for helping students develop their own questions, driving independent research projects, and tapping into student motivation. Further, Zaption presents this data in tables or discussion board threads for easy teacher analysis. Discussion data also be download into Excel spreadsheets for further analysis.


Prior to beginning this unit on the WWII, I asked students two open-ended questions: What do you already know about the Holocaust? What do you want to know about the Holocaust? The Zaption Tour was viewed 287 times and 107 students replied to the question. To make it an easier reading experience, I edited spelling mistakes and typos, but did not edit the “heart” of the student question. I tried to eliminate similar questions.  My next steps will be grouping the questions into themes for additional reflection and analysis. At the very least, these questions indicate that students have thought deeply about the Holocaust and are eager to learn more about it.

  1. I want to know if the Holocaust was necessary and if it was good for the people back then.
  2. I would just like to be more knowledgeable about the Holocaust.
  3. What I’d like to know about the Holocaust was?  Who came up with idea?  What kind of movies there are to watch about the Holocaust?
  4. I want to learn if any groups or people tried to rebel over this power and try to support and help Jews.
  5. I would like to know why Jews didn’t fight back or resist because it seem as if the Germans just killed the Jews with ease.
  6. What I want to know is who put a stop to all Hitler’s terror and how did people just let him do that?
  7. What I would like to know is where did Hitler get all his ideas about a master race?
  8. The thing that I want to know about the Holocaust is why did Hitler believe that Germans were superior than any other race?
  9. I would want to learn how did Hitler persuade Germany’s citizens to use the Jews as scapegoats for their country problems?
  10. I think what I want to know about the Holocaust is why Hitler hated the Jews in the first place?
  11. I would like to know why the Nazis targeted the Jews first? Also what made the Nazis hate the Jews so much and how did they make all of Germany hate them as well?
  12. I would like to know how Hitler convinced Germans to let this happen and why the US didn’t intervene earlier?
  13. I want to know what Hitler thought he was going to get out of this genocide?  I want to know why the people in Germany were following Hitler even though they knew it was wrong?
  14. I want to know why Hitler thought he was going to get away with it?
  15. Why did Hitler feel the need to exterminate the Jews when his own mother was Jewish and he wasn’t an Aryan himself?
  16. Hitler hated the Jews… but why?
  17. I want to know why the US didn’t help.
  18. I would like to know who else was involved with the Holocaust other than Adolf Hitler.
  19. I would like to know why the other countries let this happen to innocent Jewish and other people.
  20. What I would like to learn about the Holocaust is how the public felt about it and how Americans reacted to it?
  21. I want to learn what the Jews did and how they acted in the camps.
  22. I would like to know more about what caused the Holocaust to start.
  23. I would like to know more in depth stories of some of the Jews who survived the Holocaust.
  24. I would like to learn about conspiracy theories and the psychology of why Hitler wanted to kill these people. Was it a mental illness, or was he simply racist?
  25. I would like to learn what went on inside the concentration camps.
  26. I want to know the stories about the Holocaust.
  27. Something I would really like to know about the holocaust is why Hitler wanted to get rid of an entire race, I understand that he detested Jews but why would he go for something like this?
  28. I’d like to know the in-depth stories of the Jews who survived the concentration camps.
  29. I know about the beginning, middle, and D-Day. I want to know about the ending of the war.
  30. I would want to know about how the German people reacted to the concentration camps.
  31. I would like to know why Hitler wanted more land
  32. What I want to know is how it really started and how it ended.
  33. What I want to know is how many survivors were there in total?
  34. I would like to know why Hitler hated them so much and how were people able to survive and I want to learn how it affected others besides the Jewish race.
  35. I would like to know why this event in history happened and why no one took any act on it.
  36. I want to learn more about what really caused everything, how it happened, during the process, just everything, people’s feelings, and etc. Even if it takes 15 video lectures and big projects. 🙂
  37. I’d like to know why kill the Jews if they did nothing to you?
  38. I really want to know why Hitler did it? Why does he hate Jews so much and why were people going along with it?
  39. I want to know why Hitler killed this many Jews and what did he accomplish in killing them?
  40. I want to know how some people around the camps felt, if they felt bad or not about the situation, I don’t know. I heard that some Jews would fight back like setting buildings on fire. I’d like to know more stuff like that.
  41. What I would want to know about the Holocaust is how close does the movie “The Boy In The Stripped Pajamas” come to teaching us the truth about the Holocaust?
  42. I would like to know what had started the hatred. Was it an experience Hitler had or what?
  43. I’d like to know more about peoples’ personal experiences and obviously I’d like to know more and more about this topic. This is a topic that I could love to learn a lot about.
  44. I would like to see inside the mind of the man who ran the terrible atrocity of human action, the Holocaust.
  45. What caused Hitler to decide to kill and torture Jewish people?
  46. I know that a lot of people died I want to know who started it and why
  47. What I’d like to know is why many states or countries tried nothing what so ever to help and why they just let 6 million lives be lost?
  48. I would like to know what would go on with the Germans who disagreed with the Nazis? Were there rebellions and anti-Nazi campaigns?
  49. Was the U.S using spies and if yes what would they do and what were some major accomplishments for them.
  50. I would like to learn new things like how did Hitler die, or why would other countries ignore something so important?
  51. I want to know what Hitler thought he was going to get out of this when it was all over. I want to know why he did it. I want to know way beyond what the book says.
  52. I would like to learn more about things that people or students hardly know. That would be helpful.
  53. What I would like to know about the Holocaust is more about people’s reactions to life in the concentration camps and how people managed to get out. Did they recover and have good times later in life?

#TeachWriting Coaching Student Writers

Corbin Moore and I taught an online class called Improving Historical Reading and Writing over the summer. We learned that one of the major barriers to non-ELA teachers assigning writing in their classes is simply that they don’t feel comfortable providing feedback on that writing. They are also concerned about increasing their workload. Our experiences as classroom teachers have led us to include more writing in our daily practices. We hope this chat encourages other teachers to do the same.

Q1 With the recent emphasis on increasing writing in all subjects, how has your job as a teacher changed?
Goal-setting strategies are terrific. Here is a longer paper Scott wrote about using goal-setting strategies as formative assessment.
Shorter, more frequent, focused skill-building writing tasks show great promise in increasing positive attitudes toward writing. They can be graded quickly or used for peer review.
Q2 What is your definition of effective feedback?
This John Hattie article demonstrates that feedback has a strong effect on student learning. Unfortunately, this is not always positive.
Turnitin has done some extensive research on feedback and discovered a gap between teacher and student perceptions about what constitutes effective feedback.
Q3 What strategies/tools have you found valuable in providing feedback and/or peer review?
Google Docs
Rubrics/Criteria Charts
Q4 How is coaching student writers different from teaching writing? What are the advantages to coaching versus teaching writing?
Q5  What are the best writing tools, strategies, and frameworks for teaching writing and coaching students through the writing process?
Q6 What would happen if you stopped evaluating writing and switched to coaching?
Q7 How can teaching speaking and listening skills help improve student writing?
Extra Credit

Make Writing

Inspired by Angela Stockman’s new book Make Writing, today my students brainstormed ways they could demonstrate their knowledge of the historical novel The Plot Against America without writing to a prompt that I created for them.

2015-11-09 09.09.00     2015-11-09 14.35.37

Pictures are posted below and my review on Angela’s new book will be published in a couple of days.

2015-11-09 10.06.10

Angela’s book turns conventional writing strategies and teaching upside down. She spills you out of your chair, shreds your lined paper, and launches you and your writers workshop into the maker space! Who even knew this was possible?

2015-11-09 10.06.17

Stockman provides five right-now writing strategies that reinvent instruction and inspire both young and adult writers to express ideas with tools and in ways that have rarely, if ever, been considered.

2015-11-09 13.45.26

Many schools are converting classrooms to maker spaces–vibrant places where students demonstrate learning by constructing things, using newly-acquired skills and applying newly-learned concepts.

2015-11-09 13.45.18

With inspired creativity and ingenuity, Stockman shows you how to bring modern maker moves into your writers workshop, giving birth to new environment  that rockets writers to places that were previously unimaginable.

2015-11-09 14.35.48

We will see how well my students’ projects on the Philip Roth novel turn out.

2015-11-09 09.09.10

History Book vs Video Lecture

I operate flipped classroom where students watch video lectures with Zaption questions embedded in them for homework, then we read, practice writing and note-taking drills and complete projects in class. After three years of this work I developed two hypotheses: 1) Students with higher reading scores prefer reading the book to viewing the video lectures; and 2) Students with lower reading scores prefer viewing the video lectures to reading the book.

This week, I asked two samples of students to describe which learning format they preferred. The results soundly debunked my assumptions. While both groups of students preferred the video lectures to the textbook, 36% of students with lower reading levels preferred taking notes from the book rather than viewing video lectures.

Book v VL

Students who favored the video lecture to the book made comments like:

  • I think I am learning more from the videos because they give off more information, they clarify what the topic is about, and I can rewind the video in case I didn’t get that last piece of information.
  • Personally, the video lectures help a lot more than taking notes on the book. I can spend more time on the video, the book is more flat. In the video, main points are emphasized. It’s slightly harder to pick out key points from the book. My brain works better when it comes to listening because when it comes to reading, my eyes tend to skim and I can miss key information.
  • I like the video lecture better because it tells us what to write. You can take your time and you can rewind the video. In the book, it takes a long time looking for what information you are going to write in your notes. When I open the book it’s just like no and it’s not interesting. The book doesn’t capture my attention.

Students who preferred the book to the video lectures made comments like:

  • I think the book helps me better because you can go back and easily find something you missed, you can easily flip through pages to find something, and it is less distracting.
  • Taking notes from the book helps you go at your own pace. You can read as fast or as slow as you want. The book is easier to go back to a sentence or paragraph than the video. The book makes it more simple because you can study and annotate in a way that you will understand.
  • I work better with books, they have less complications. I am a hands-on learner, books get to the point. Video-lectures can have complications. WiFi can go down, you run out of data, problems can happen. Books are always there to be picked up and read.

These results seem to validate the flipped classroom approach. When students view video lectures which preview vocabulary terms, names and events first, they are building background knowledge. Then, when students encounter these terms, names, and events in their reading, they have familiarity with them and it is easier for the new knowledge to “stick.” Regardless of which learning method students prefer when these two methods are paired, the video acts as an anticipation guide priming the pump in a student’s memory and reinforcing the stickiness of the information in the reading. My big takeaway? Remember to listen to your students. It turns out they also are your customers.

Writing Instruction Research

Instructional research in writing is not as robust as the body of research that has examined reading.

Gary TrioaGary A. Trioa contributed a 42 page chapter: Research in Writing Instruction: What We Know and What We Need to Know to the book Shaping Literacy Achievement. Trioa organized contemporary research into four categories: (1) characteristics of struggling writers’ products and processes, (2) essential instructional content and processes, (3) assessment, and (4) teachers’ practices and professional development.

Juzwik et al. (2005) found writing research has historically been (a) comparably underfunded, (b) mostly descriptive rather than experimental in nature, and (c) typically conducted in post-secondary education settings. Further investment in writing instruction is necessary for the field to flourish and draw the attention it deserves from various stakeholders.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 70 percent of teachers indicated they use process instruction to teach composition, yet less than a third of those same teachers spent 90 minutes or more per week teaching writing (1999). Research has shown that 90 minutes per week is a bare minimum when using a process approach to teaching writing (Graves, 1983).

In a number of studies, not all students who are taught a strategy actually use it after treatment (instruction) is discontinued. Changes in writing behaviors and performance can be maintained for a month or so, but mainly disappear after that.

Researchers need to investigate why strategy interventions are not more successful in helping struggling writers. Future studies should examine the effectiveness of combinations of writing strategy instruction and components of strong writing programs. How can writing strategies and increased performance can be maintained over time? What techniques for producing high-quality writing assignments can be generalized across subjects and text types?.

Shaping Lit AchPlanning strategies are rarely examined in conjunction with revision or editing strategies to determine their impact on writing behavior and performance. This should be done both separately and in combination.

Revising is an essential part of advanced writing instruction and less time needs to be devoted to planning instruction. The relationships between these two aspects of the writing process are highly variable across tasks and deserve more empirical scrutiny.

Embedding strategy training in meaningful writing activities may produce more positive outcomes in the fidelity, maintenance, and transfer of writing skills across subjects. More sophisticated research designs may be beneficial in increasing theoretical advances in this area.

Researchers need to develop integrated writing assessment systems that provide immediate, instructionally relevant data to teachers so that they are better equipped for pinpointing writing problems and responding accordingly. Identifying instructional adaptations that are valid and readily integrated into practice will help teachers maximize the writing potential of all students.

Dr. Trioa’s work suggests that sophisticated, large-scale research into the relationships between the components of writing programs, strategy interventions, and editing/revision processes could reveal new insights for the field. Peer review, automated essay scoring systems, and revision assistants offer students immediate feedback and produce large data sets for analysis. With the emergence of MOOCs, online education, and social media, these studies appear to be less burdensome for researchers to conduct.


Trioa, G. A., (2007) Research in Writing Instruction: What We Know and What We Need to Know. In M. Pressley, A. Billman, K. Perry, K. Refitt, & J. M. Reynolds (Eds.), Shaping literacy achievement: Research we have, research we need. New York: Guilford Press.