iOS App Recommendations for Literacy

Many fun party conversations have started by whipping out a smartphone and sharing the latest and coolest apps.  However, in educational settings we continually need to refocus the discussion around choosing apps to meet our instructional objectives rather than the other way around.

About a year ago, I published a list of all the apps I installed on our school’s iPads.  I still like that list, however, there are a number of drill-and-kill type apps that see occasional use in  my classroom as well as those that require higher-level thinking and student creation which I use more often.  I wanted to give our teachers options so I gave them tons of apps.  However, my personal toolkit is much smaller.  Here are my recommendations based around instructional needs in the area of literacy.  The specific apps I recommend don’t matter so much as how we they are used in the classroom:


Any voice recorder from the free and simple, Audio Memos to the pricier and more advanced, Garageband, can be used to have students record themselves reading.  Data from Escondido Unified which used iPods and Voice Recorders with English Language Learners (back before iPhones and iPads existed) consistently shows that students showed growth.  The key is having students record and then listen to themselves reading so that they hear the mistakes they don’t hear when they’re focused on decoding.

I’ve used Reader’s Theater in my own classroom (find free printable reader’s theater here or see our class reader’s theater movie, The City Mouse and the Country Mouse).  However, you can also use any passages that might target certain spelling patterns or sounds students are working on.


I like simple.  StoryKit is a free iPhone app that works on the iPad and allows students to write, record their voice, add a photo, or draw on a page resembling kindergarten writing paper.  If you want to publish a whole book from the iPad, the $5 Book Creator is a great option.  Apple’s free desktop app, iBooks Author is even better but it requires both an iPad and an updated Mac desktop or laptop.  With iBooks Author you create the book on your computer and preview it on the iPad.  You can easily import Keynote and Pages files into your final product.   When you’re ready for multimedia, iMovie is a great way to engage even the most unmotivated writers in writing something that will include audio, visuals and an audience.

Apps like Toontastic and PuppetPals are also fun.  However, be careful, Toontastic teaches story crafting via a beginning, middle, and end structure.  If you’re a fan of Lucy Caulkins writer’s workshop and the notion of expanding a single moment with details to make it something bigger rather than structuring a bare bones story sequentially, you will might not be happy with an app that would set you back to an outdated way of teaching writing even if it’s more fun.

Learning Letter Sounds

Apps like the above mentioned Storykit can be used to have students make a book of letter sounds by taking pictures of things that begin with the sound /p/ for example.  Student Tommy would end up with a page with photos of pencils, pictures, paint, and paintbrushes and then record his voice making the sound /p/ on the page.   I know that you can find apps that give students the letter sounds while students passively listen but I’m much more in favor of having students create their own books with the sound in it.  I suspect the learning is more internalized.

What other areas of student early literacy need do you notice?




How to Reduce the Amount of Teacher Talk

Pair Share

Pair Sharing: A Best Practice

Pair Sharing is generally acknowledged as a best practice in education. In classrooms I visit, however, I rarely see it used, let alone integrated into lessons as a regular practice. Reducing the amount of teacher talk and getting students to talk to each other is one of the cheapest and easiest education reforms anyone can implement. The structure of schooling must change to become more child-centered or it risks becoming irrelevant. Teachers need to get off the stage a little bit and here’s a way to do it without giving up complete control.


I was lucky enough to be trained in the GLAD strategies early in my teaching career and their philosophy of 10-2 greatly influenced my thinking about pair sharing.  Their idea is that for every ten minutes of teacher talk, there should be two minutes of student talk.  This means that you do not have to necessarily have students answer a question when they are talking with each other, they can and should sometimes simply summarize what you’ve been talking about.  While students share with each other—and this is the most important part— teachers circulate around the room and listen in.

Having student summarize what you’ve been teaching helps students to:

  • Transition information into long-term memory through talking and not just listening.
  • Release energy that’s been bottled up for the previous ten minutes.
  • Refocus if they’ve been tuned out while you were talking.

Having students summarize what you’ve been teaching helps teachers to:

  • Assess whether students understand what you’re talking about.  You’d never know whether they understand if you don’t take the two minutes to get that feedback.
  • Increase accountability for what’s discussed by requiring students to talk about it in pairs and then whole group.
  • Listen to students.  They feel like they’re not listened to and, generally speaking, they’re right.
  • Encourage students who are normally shy but have great ideas to share their ideas with the whole class.

Classroom Management

Before starting pair sharing you need to teach students how to do it.  Choose a volunteer from the classroom and Model:

  • How to find a partner (they should be close by)
  • What to do if there are no partners (a group of thee is fine if that’s all you can find)
  • Body language for listening (look at your partner, sit still)
  • Appropriate volume (everyone practice saying “I like pizza in a quiet voice)
  • Signals for getting the class back together as a whole.

The first time you try this, it might go badly.  Please expect that and don’t give up.

Other Uses for Pair Sharing

In addition to summarizing, students can solve problems, answer questions, or share a personal experience when talking with partners.

Pair sharing can and should be a part of every single lesson every single day or else I’d say the teacher is likely hogging the stage and students may or may not be retaining what’s being said.

How do you get students talking in your classroom?

Mythbusters: Education Edition

Here are two must-see items for teachers before going in to your next staff meeting.

The first is an article from researcher, Will Thalheimer, that suggests that the pyramid that claims we remember 90% of what we teach others and only 10% of what we read is fabricated.  Yes, we are more likely to remember information if we have a chance to apply it than if we simply read it in a book or hear someone tell it to us.  However, ascribing percentages to the amount of material we retain based on how we receive the information has been made up.  If you attend any professional development over the next year, be prepared to hear it repeated.









Next, is a video from Professor and Psychologist, Daniel T Willingham at the University of Virginia who says that Learning Styles don’t exist.  Yes, students do tend to have preferences such as preferring information visually to orally.  However, there are certain subjects that lend themselves to auditory instruction and others that require visual information.

The  takeaways.  1) Educational research is silly.  2) Even though these bogus myths have been perpetuated and are widely believed—and come from a sincere desire to improve education, neither has done much to change teaching practice.  Most teachers are still teaching as if everyone’s an auditory learner who gets their information from books.  There’s less planning and less work involved in teaching that way.

Reading Intervention Resources

I’m halfway through my second year of providing intervention services on a pullout basis to struggling readers.  I thought I would share the materials I’m using with my students to increase comprehension in the hopes that this might help someone else and that you might have additional resources you might recommend.

About My Intervention

As my students are scoring below basic and far below basic on California CST (standardized tests in our state) and are scoring intensive on state-written Open Court assessments, I use only supplementary materials with them i.e. not their core language arts program, Open Court.  This is considered Tier Two Intervention in the Response to Intervention model.

I see groups of 2-12 students for periods of 20-60 minutes.


To address fluency needs there are tons of programs I have found useful.  I use a combination of Explode the Code, Phonics for Reading, and Rewards for students depending on their grade level.


I have tried reading authentic literature with struggling students and practicing using reading strategies.  I think I helped students gain confidence in reading and develop oral comprehension ability.  However, for the most part what they gained did not translate to increased test scores.

Many of my students are able to answer oral questions about text they read and yet will answer every question wrong on a multiple choice test.  I’m trying a mix of high and low level thinking.  My students need practice reading questions and choosing the best answer but they also need to be able to think outside of the box and being to problem solve.

I had been using the Steck-Vaughn Reading Comprehension Skills Series and really appreciated that the stories were engaging and that the accompanying questions not only addressed simple recall but also got to higher level thinking like inference and drawing conclusions.  Unfortunately, in the limited time I have with students I am finding that it’s a bit unruly to work through this series and manage all the paperwork and correcting necessary.  Each story, including questions, take up about five or six pages.

So…plan b.  I’m now using free printable comprehension passages from English for These are just one page and come with answer sheet.  And did I mention they’re free?  These do not get to higher level thinking but they do get to higher level test taking with several options of “all of the above” or “both a & c” that force students to read carefully.  I do one page with students and then have them do one page without me that we then correct.

For higher level thinking I’m using Mind Benders which are logic puzzles that get progressively harder.  You have to start with the lowest level even if you have upper grades students and then work  your way up.  Most students are not used to thinking in this way but once they start to grasp deductive reasoning I am hoping this increases their ability to infer and teachers them to think more critically about what they’re reading and remember to clarify misunderstandings.  (See some examples of logic puzzles here and a harder one here).

So there you have it, my mix of higher and lower level thinking.  I’ll let you know how it’s going a month from now.  Please let me know how you’re increasing comprehension in your classrooms in the comments below.

Addressing Comprehension Errors

In order to further fine-tune students’ reading comprehension, it may be helpful to do an error analysis…looking at where students are making errors and the nature of those errors.  Error analysis can be done by analyzing student test answers on standardized tests (boring—but sometimes necessary) or through listening to student conversations in literature circles.

In my experience, I see frequent errors of both higher and lower level thinking.

Higher Level Thinking


Students are programmed to look for the “right answer” in the text.  This works often but it doesn’t work when the author gives us clues and doesn’t tell us directly.  It also doesn’t work when there is subtext.  A character might say, “I’m have a great day.” But the character is really having a lousy day.  Students can’t always take a character at their word.

Lack of Vocabulary Strategies

After students have taken a test, I always go over the test.  Rather than giving students definitions of words, we talk about how you could kinda-sorta figure out the meaning of unfamiliar words when you’re left out there on your own and in the middle of taking a test.

For example, if you didn’t know what paralyzed meant, you’d be given a clue from a following paragraph which talks about the guy being in a wheelchair.  If you didn’t know what granite was, you could kinda figure it was some kind of rock because the passage said the mountain was made of granite.  Students need a set of vocabulary strategies at their disposal.

Errors of reasoning

Here’s a fantastic list of 15 Reasoning Errors by Mark Pennington.  Mark lists things like omission errors, when students leave out words when they’re reading that change the entire meaning.

Low Level Thinking

These do not require great thinking and yet about half of the errors I see are due to these problems.

Pronoun confusion

Students get questions wrong simply because they don’t know who “he” or “she” refers to.  In addition to summarizing, when you’re doing guided reading, it’s a good idea to stop now and then and ask who is “he” or who are “they”?  Make sure students are able to identify the person the pronoun refers to.


Even fluent readers I work with get confused between Mr. and Mrs.  It makes a big difference in who we’re reading about.  Students read don’t as do or skip the word entirely and it changes the meaning of the sentence.

Are there any other comprehension errors you see your students making?

Literature Circle Table Tents

Using literature circles is another way to increase student comprehension.  Even teachers of prescribed reading series should incorporate additional authentic literature in their teaching.  This literature may be related to curricular units and must be high interest and at an appropriate reading level of students.

I adapted my reading comprehension posters into Literature Circle Table Tents (print and fold each in half after laminating) which I use to assign each student a job.

The jobs are:  The Predictor, Maker of Connections, Great Summarizer, Curious Clarifier, Word Wizard, and the Very Good Visualizer.  Of course, when reading in the real world each person must do each of the jobs.  However, in literature circles each person specializes on a particular job each day (we switch jobs daily).  This gives students additional practice using the strategies and ensures that they know what each of the strategies is.  Each card includes a definition.

For additional information on literature circles, I recommend the following:

In the Middle by Nancy Atwell
This is more about Reader’s Workshop than about literature circles but it does give you fantastic ideas about how to develop reading comprehension and interest in literature.  I highly recommend it. gives some additional information about how to set up literature circles.

Somehow the Literature Circle name intimidates some teachers.  I like to think of them as Oprah’s Book Club for kids.  It’s really just about enjoying literature with peers while the teacher helps facilitate some discussion surrounding the book.

Have any literature circle tips to share?

Update:  Adding Edutopia Article on Literature Circle Discussions

Spanish Reading Comprehension Resources

Thanks to web site visitors, Luz Arriaga and Dora Antillon, my Reading Comprehension Posters and Bookmarks arenow also available in Spanish.

Reading Comprehension Posters (English)
Reading Comprehension Poster (Spanish)

Reading Comprehension Bookmark (English)
Reading Comprehension Bookmark (Spanish)

Larger versions of the Reading Comprehension Bookmarks (not yet translated) are also available here.

How to Improve Comprehension Scores

Our district requires us to administer comprehension assessments at six weeks intervals to all grades K-5.  Here are my ideas on what to do to improve students’ performance on these assessments.

Students will need both Test Taking Strategies as well as Real World Comprehension Skills.

Test Taking Strategies

  1. Review the assessment.
    This need not be done in one sitting.
    However, students should have an opportunity to see where their mistakes were.
  2. Teach students to read question first.
    It’s very difficult to keep all the text in one’s head while you attempt to answer questions about it.  It is often easier to read the question first and then read to find an answer.
  3. Teach students to eliminate “silly” or obviously wrong answers.
    Multiple choice tests will include two answer choices that are totally wrong, sometimes even ridiculous.  The sooner students learn to game the tests, the better they’ll do.
  4. Teach a QAR (Question-Answer Relationship) Strategy
    Some answers are “right there” whereas other answers require the reader to “think and search” or use only their own head.  (worksheet available here)

Real World Comprehension

  1. Explicitly Teach Reading Strategies
    Many teachers use the language of the reading strategies (predicting, making connections, summarizing, etc.) but how many students can explain what each of the strategies are or why you would use a particular strategy?  Recommit to teaching the strategies, not just as incidental to reading but as the objective of lessons.  (for help with reading strategies, including printable posters, see here)
  2. Promote Student Discussion
    Through handing-off (student-led discussions) or some other means, allow students to discuss literature on their own terms with the teacher acting as the facilitator.
  3. Allow Practice with “Real” Books
    Your basal reader is not enough.  Students will be bored with reading and not develop their strategy use unless they have opportunities to read additional high interest literature in addition to anthology stories.  Whole class readings, small group literature circles, or independent reading workshop, can give students that practice.

How do you improve comprehension?

RTI (Response to Intervention) A Complete Apple Workflow

Thank you to those of you who attended my workshop, “RTI:  A Complete Apple Workflow” at the CUE conference this weekend.   I spoke about using Apple Software to address your Response to Intervention program.  This post contains the links, resources, and ideas that I shared.  Rather than simply posting the keynote file (which is much easier) I prefer to recap and flush out some of the ideas so that it’s beneficial even to those who weren’t there.

What is RTI?

As I define it, rather than simply teaching everyone the same thing and assuming that if someone doesn’t “get it” that there’s something wrong with them, RTI assumes that there will be students who do not master a concept after whole group instruction and will need additional time and intensity (interventions) to master concepts.  This, of course, is very similar to the idea of Independent Work Time.

Alice Mercer, in her CUE presentation, also addressed RTI and went into additional detail in defining it.

Part One:  Dealing with Data

It’s very important to collect and analyze data in order to target interventions to specific student need.  “Fluency” is to vague to be an intervention.  Focusing on short vowels, long vowels, or digraphs is a better intervention because it targets a specific student need.  Using Apple’s iWork (Pages and Numbers) or even Microsoft Word’s (Office and Excel) can help you to organize data by creating a spreadsheet, graphing data, and using the word processor’s mail merge functions to create parent reports about student data.  I much prefer iWork to Office because of its ease of use and the ability to create better looking documents.

Here’s additional information on graphing in Numbers and how to use the mail merge function.  I taught both these things in the workshop.

Part Two:  Prescriptions for Success ways of using Apple technology to address student needs




While behavior tracking software is popular among schools with large behavior problems.  I saw office referrals eliminated in my classroom simply through working on these movie projects.  I gave the example of Joseph, a student who I knew would not be quiet if I was to call “Quiet on the Set.”  Instead of playing through that scenario and getting annoyed at Joseph ruining other students’ projects, I decided to make Joseph the engineer.  He called out “Quiet on the Set!” and he pushed the red Garageband button.  The rest of the class was dead quiet and Joseph experienced being a successful and productive member of our class rather than being the one who wrecked everything.  This is a behavioral intervention…intervening to improve student behavior rather than punishing students for bad behavior.


Here are two slides that show some evidence that these techniques are producing gains although I am the first to admit that we need to continue collecting data on the subject.

In my classroom, I saw an 18% increase in the number of students reading at benchmark 12 weeks after working on the Reader’s Theater script, The City Mouse and the Country Mouse:

In Escondido Unified, they saw average gains of about 40 words per minute after six weeks of reading with iPods whereas normal gains are about 10 words per minute:


Here are some incidental things I mentioned in my presentation.

HandBrake for ripping movies from commercial DVDs  you own for storing on iPod.

PWN Youtube and other ways of downloading Youtube movies.


Down and Dirty Data Analysis

Green is good.  Red is bad.

Here’s what they taught me in “coaching college” about how to read data.

Reading vertically indicates the teacher’s problem.  Reading horizontally indicates a student’s problem.

So, Harpo needs some additional help in all language arts areas.  However, in the vocabulary category, it appears that the teacher needs to examine his/her own instruction as its not succeeding for most of the students.  There’s all kinds of reasons why the teacher could say the students aren’t succeeding and there is validity to all of them…no help at home, trouble learning the language, poorly designed tests, a bad day in class.  This class in particular I hear is a bunch of class clowns.  However, the fact remains that the teacher’s vocabulary instruction with this group of students is not working and if he/she wants better results he/she must try something different.