Wait, What? You Wanted Me To Do What? The Importance of Visible Thinking Strategies For Student Clarity

By Billy Spicer – guest blogger

I strongly believe that the more transparent and explicit we are in communicating with students in what we view as exemplar work, the more equipped they will be as we apply the gradual release of responsibility. And isn’t that the end goal? To have students independently applying strategies explored in class, synthesizing data and stories, and ultimately creating new meaning? How we say it and what we say will determine the span of our reach, the authenticity of the message we construct and communicate, and eventually the gauge in whether we were successful or not as educators. I continue to be fascinated by the work and research from Harvard’s Project Zero: Visible Thinking Routines.  The work is a product research stretched across years of work concerning children’s thinking and learning, along with a sustained research and development process in classrooms.  Let’s take a look at just one strategy: SEE | THINK | WONDER through the lens of how reading workshop may look in an elementary classroom. Of the many visible thinking routines educators may find applicable to their instruction, this one speaks loud and clear to one aspect we all need to be aware of: close reading!

Billy Spicer Blog

As educators continue to seek out authentic best practices for influencing student learning, close reading is often on the agenda. I’ve often overheard conversations where it is misinterpreted or misunderstood.  But what is it? And what does it look and sound like? Forget all of the Common Core stamped books and resources, because here’s the thing: there is no one-stop shop for teaching students how to think critically of a text.  The real answer lies within a varied approach centered around visible thinking routines.  According to Beth Burke, NBCT, close reading is, “thoughtful, critical analysis of a text that focuses on significant details or patterns in order to develop a deep, precise understanding of the text’s form, craft, meanings, etc.”  When students are engaged in visible thinking routines they are more likely to create meaning in the content while also fostering meaningful connections between school and their own lives.

The routine has its highest impact when a student responds by using the three stems together consecutively, “I see…, I think…, I wonder….” Implementing or launching this routine in a shared reading or in partnerships can also prove to be a worthy venture because students will quickly see how others use it and apply it to their own use. Another implementation idea is to create a class anchor chart that displays the three driving questions students will need while engaged in their book or text passage.

  • What do you see?
  • What do you think about it?
  • What does it make you wonder?

As students enter the intermediate grade levels, the ability for them to use and cite text evidence becomes an important skill. Each of the three question stems can be further supported through text evidence which will result in a deeper understanding of the text.

For teachers that use myON within their literacy instruction, the use of the embedded literacy tools are all students need to apply this visible thinking routine! By color-coding each of the three stems, students can be clear and transparent what they see, think, and wonder. See below for one example taken from a book of a 5th grade student who was reading about states of matter within a physical science unit of study.

Billy Spicer Blog

Billy currently teaches in Lake Zurich Community Unit School District 95 in suburban Chicago. After spending a decade teaching 3rd thru 5th grades, Billy served students and teachers as an instructional coach. He recently spent time in the Bahamas with the Shedd Aquarium where he lived on a research vessel for a week conducting scientific inquiry. Prior to teaching in Lake Zurich he worked at Walt Disney World as a member of the Animal Programs department in entertaining, educating, and inspiring conservation action. He facilitates a passion for literacy, passionate learning, and social media to discover creative ways for students to meet their individual learning needs. Authentic and purposeful technology integration is a non-negotiable aspect in providing students with the tools to be successful. Billy earned his BA in Elementary Education at Illinois State University and a MA in Literacy and Reading from Benedictine University. He also enjoys hot dogs, coffee, and his ever growing collection of records. To learn more about his interests and passions in and out of the classroom, follow him on Twitter-@MrBillySpicer

Billy Spicer

Summer Reading Challenge Winners Announced!

Summer Reading Banner

Our summer reading challenge has ended. Thanks to all who participated!                                                                                                                             Congratulations to our Top Readers!

PK – Grade 5                                                                                                                           Top Reader – Grand Prize Winner receives an iPad Mini                           C.H., Grade 4, Challenger Elem, Broward County School District, FL                                                                                                                                                           Other Top Readers receive $100 Gift Cards                                                        S.L., Grade K, Terra Centre ES, Fairfax County, VA                                         M.N., Grade 5, Guadalupe ES, San Francisco Unified SD, CA                   E.T., Grade 5, Starkey ES, Pinellas County School District, FL                   N.S., Grade 4, Gertrude Edelman/Sabal Palm EL, Miami-Dade         County Public Schools, FL               


Grades 6 and Up                                                                                                                   Top Reader – Grand Prize Winner receives an iPad Mini                          A.H., Grade 7, Walker Magnet Middle School, Hillsborough Cty, FL

Other Top readers receive $100 Gift Cards                                                      N.G., Valor Middle School, Woodburn Public SD 103, OR                          J.I., Grade 8, CE Williams Middle, Charleston County SD, SC                   F.S., Grade 6, Mantua ES, Fairfax County, VA                                                       J.S., Grade 6, Eugenia B. Thomas K-8 Center, Miami-Dade County Public Schools, FL

For more information on this reading campaign or Lights, Camera, Read! back to school reading campaign, click here.







Assessing Reading Fluency – Word Recognition Accuracy

By Dr. Timothy Rasinski – guest bloggerTim Rasinski Image

Reading fluency has been identified by the Common Core Standards as a foundational reading competency.   This means that readers must have a solid foundation in fluency before they are able to move on to deeper and more sophisticated levels of reading (e.g. deep reading).   The Common Core indicate that fluency is made up essentially of three sub-components – word recognition accuracy, word recognition automaticity, and expressive (prosodic) reading that reflects the meaning of the text being read.   In order to determine how well students are doing in their development of fluency, we need ways to assess the various aspects of their fluency.  In this blog entry, I describe a simple way to assess word recognition accuracy, the first component of fluency.

In order to read one needs to be able to accurately recognize (decode or sound out) the words in the text.   Clearly, if a reader is unable sounding out 1 out of every 10 words in a text comprehension will suffer.     How do we assess this ability in our students?  We’ve all heard about the five finger rule – is on a given page of text a reader has trouble with five or more words, then that text is probably too difficult for the reader.    While intuitively appealing, this rule is rather imprecise.   A page of text can have anywhere from 20 to 100 or more words.  Five problematic words can yield a word recognition accuracy level of 75% to 95%.  That’s a wide range that really does not provide good guidance on the appropriateness of a passage.

There is however a more precise way to assess word recognition accuracy.    Here’s how it goes.   Find a passage of text of about 100 words that has a readability (Lexile) level that matches a student’s assigned grade level.   Ask the student to read this passage orally to you.    As the student reads you follow along and mark any word recognition errors that a student makes that goes uncorrected.  A word recognition error is simply when a student gives a pronunciation for word that does not match exactly the word in print. For example, word recognition errors may include a student reading big for bag, dog for dogs, saw for was.     A word recognition error may also include words omitted by the student or words in which you the teacher have to pronounce the word for the student after they have examined or attempted the word unsuccessfully for a count of three.

Once the student has completed the reading you simply determine the percentage of words that were read accurately.    This can be done by dividing the number or words read accurately (total words in the passage minus word recognition errors) by the total number of words in the passage; and then moving the decimal two places to the right.   For example, suppose a third grade student is asked to read a third grade passage that contains 110 words.  She makes 6 word recognition errors that she does not correct.   To determine the percentage of words read accurately, we divide 104 (110 total words minus 6 errors) by 110 total words.   This can be stated as a fraction: 104/110, a decimal: 94.5, or percentage: 94.5 %.

Now you need to interpret this percentage.      Here’s a good guide to use:

91% or below:   Frustration level.   The reader’s word recognition abilities are not sufficient to successfully read passages at the grade level of the passage read.

92-98%:  Instructional level.  The reader’s word recognition abilities are adequate to successfully read passes at the grade level of the passage read with some instructional assistance.

99% and above:  Independent level.  The reader’s word recognition abilities are at a level that will allow the reader to successfully read passages at the grade level of the passage read without assistance.

Let’s return to the student for whom we earlier calculated her word recognition accuracy percentage.  Her score of 94.5% suggests that she is at her instructional level for grade three material.  As a third grade student then, we can assume she is just where she should be — she is able to read third grade material successfully, but may need some assistance and further instruction in word recognition.

A word recognition accuracy score of 99% for a third grader reading third grade material suggests this student has a relatively strong ability to decode words at her assigned grade level.  On the other hand, a third grade student who scores at say 89% word recognition accuracy is likely to have difficulty in word recognition of third grade material (and higher), and this difficulty is likely to cause difficulty in comprehension of third grade material.   Students who score at 91% or below when reading grade level material are likely to be in need of additional instruction and support in learning to recognize or decode words.

This simple protocol for assessing word recognition can easily be modified to gain more precise information.   For example if a student score poorly on a third grade passage, it is reasonable to check the student out on second or even first grade material to determine where the student’s instructional level is at.   Similarly, for the student who decodes well on the third grade passage, you may wish to have the student read even more challenging material to determine her instructional level for word recognition.

Word recognition accuracy is critical for successful reading.   With this simple method for assessing word recognition accuracy you can easily determine which students are doing well in this competency and which students may need additional intervention in this key skill.   In my future blogs I will share simple approaches to assessing those other two foundational competencies – automaticity and prosody.

Dr. Rasinski is a professor of literacy education at Kent State University and director of its award winning reading clinic. He has written over 200 articles and has authored , co-authored or edited over 50 books or curriculum programs on reading education. He is the author of several bestselling books on reading fluency.His research on reading has been cited by the National reading Panel and has been published in many high profile journals.


Inquiry-Driven Student Choice

By Billy Spicer – Guest Blogger

Billy Spicer

Creating a digital classroom is essential to engaging students in learning for today’s YouTube generation.  We all know the “one size fits all” approach does not work. Through the use of authentic tools that bring students personal choice in their reading journey, teachers can leverage technology to create a digital environment that engages students and families collaboratively, fosters personal growth, and provide quality content to frame an environment to build life long readers and learners.

Full disclosure: student choice is messy! But here’s a secret: the messiness is proof you’re getting somewhere! You’re trying! I’m still tinkering, taking risks, and trying new ideas as well. But here’s what I have learned…

In order to support students’ ongoing literacy needs, teachers must provide choice based on the student’s interest, but more importantly, frame it with inquiry-based learning. When students are seeking answers and solutions to questions they pose themselves, true and authentic learning can occur.

When we ask students to seek solutions to problems of their own choosing, we are encouraging them to engage in deep learning through a process of investigation rather that the low-grade clerical work we know has a low effect in improving student outcomes. Meaningful topics that connect with the standards and learning targets within a school can provide opportunities for students to think critically and connect with larger themes.  And isn’t that what we are striving for as advocates for building lifelong readers?  Yes-Thinking critically while engaged in a variety of texts to the student’s interest that promote individual growth!

Students who own their own learning will be positioning themselves for their future, not the one they are often being forced into. Providing students with authentic choice goes beyond simply picking an item out of a menu. In that case it’s still the teacher who is ultimately directing the learning. Instead, seek out opportunities for students to be self-directed in taking charge of their own learning. Whether you are already on board with student choice or looking to get started, consider the following tips as a possible catalyst to dive in.

  • Readers get to select texts that are to their own interest and independant level while following the big themes within a unit of study.
  • Readers pose questions and then seek the answers through diving deep into the topic.
  • Readers leverage literacy tools to curate their own personalized literacy environment: sketchnoting, mind maps, journals, text annotation etc.
  • Readers get to choose when they want to read silently, participate in a shared reading, or listen to the audio version of a book.
  • Readers will decide on an avenue for sharing their findings and answering their own “big question”.

Purposeful and meaningful experiences that integrate technology is at the core of today’s classroom in seeking avenues to improve student learning.  When we provide students with quality resources and tools we are not only empowering them to drive their own learning, but  also maximizing their individual reading growth.  

To learn about some other applications in which I leverage myON in my quest to empower student choice in my reading workshop, please check out the video below!

Transitioning to the Digital Classroom

Billy Spicer teaches in Lake Zurich Community Unit School District 95 in suburban Chicago. As a member of the district’s Demonstration Classroom project, he spends 50% of his time in the classroom, with the other 50% serving as a technology integration specialist. He enjoys facilitating a passion for literacy, passionate learning through student choice, and social media to discover creative ways for students to meet their individual learning needs.

Getting Back to School with English Language Learners

This school year we will be featuring blogs from industry experts who will share thoughts, ideas, and expertise around cross curriculum instruction in the  classroom which will include varied perspectives from teachers, researchers, curriculum specialists and literacy experts.

We will kick off this school year with Steven Rivera-Padilla,  a Bilingual Education Paraprofessional with Hillsborough County Public Schools. He has spent years working with students from various countries and cultural backgrounds to ensure both English language skills and curriculum content is being learned.


End of Summer Blues

By Steven Rivera-Padilla – Guest Blogger

Like many of you, I am gearing up for the start of another amazing school year. With this, a plethora of feelings arise; I like to call this my “end of summer blues”. My emotions range from excited to sad (summer vacation is always difficult to part ways with!) to excited (a fresh start is always a good feeling) and scared (unknown challenges lie ahead tend to play tricks with your mind) to fearlessness (I can overcome any new challenge!). Although my brain entertains all of these emotions these last few days of summer, the one thing I want to ensure is that I start off on the right foot with my special group of students.

Unlike teachers who teach a specialized subject to a specific grade, I have the pleasure of working with ELL (English language learners) students from all three middle school grades. I educate my students throughout their three years of middle school, which allows me to see the growth they make. It is always very gratifying, and it’s also very rewarding to see all they’ve learned over one school year.

Our computer lab is ready to go!
Our computer lab is ready to go!

This group of students has two goals: learn English and learn the curriculum. This isn’t an easy task, folks! Their proficiency in the language directly affects how much of the curriculum they learn, therefore LEARNING English is at the top of the priority list. If we want these students to learn the language as fast as possible, reading is fundamental. We must have them work on gaining vocabulary through reading proficiency.

“If you’re failing to plan, you’re planning to fail.”  -Benjamin Franklin

This is where starting off on the right foot comes to play. By establishing a strong groundwork during pre-planning and the first week of school, I can provide personalized literacy and cross-curricular, individualized instruction through myON! I create a fun myON ELL group that meets three to five days a week. We meet during homeroom, study hall, and sometimes during their lunch time.

The first week of school, students learn how to navigate their dashboard, begin and complete project, and being that they’re ELL students, how to use the program’s dictionary tool to look up English words unknown to them in their native language. (As we like to say in the ESOL world, “vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary!”) I give students the liberty to choose books that interest them when they’re not working on a specific project. Heads up, sixth grade boys are especially attracted to the scary and gross book selections… whatever gets them reading!

I will then adjust the individual Lexile levels, create and look for already created projects that will work for each students’ particular needs, and see how some of these projects will work in other classes—yes, talk to your other subject teachers throughout the school year to see what they’re learning, and assign students a project that correlates. The process will become second nature after the initial week and this will allow you to witness the gains students make. This makes my end of the summer blues last just before the school year begins instead of all year long!

Here’s to a fantastic school year full of amazing growth with all your students!



Summer Reading Banner

Summer is just around the corner and so is your summer reading campaign—Get in the Game, Read! And since it can be a challenge to motivate kids to read during the summer months, myON would like to help.

We’ve got all the bases covered with our turnkey summer reading toolkits–On Your Mark, Get Set, Read! for preK-grade 5 and Get in the Game, Read! for grades 6 and up! Both kits contain time-saving customizable templates for letters to parents and families in English and Spanish, login cards, posters, certificates along with many other themed materials to engage students and families and celebrate summer reading fun.

“We will be sending out the summer reading information to our families as well as share the toolkits with our staff because it’s a great motivator for kids. We really do need tools to help keep our kids engaged over the summer since there is so much loss during this time. I think this is one kids will use.”                                                                                                                    Kim Mott, Assistant Principal                                                                         James A Caywood Elementary, KY

Together we can keep kids engaged this summer to maintain their academic edge and avoid the summer slide. To download the entire toolkit, visit our website.


Take Flight with myON This Spring Reading Contest Winner!



The results are in for the 2016 myON Spring Reading Contest, What a World! Take Flight with myON This Spring! The contest ran from March 14th through April 1st and was based on the most time spent reading during the contest period to encourage students to read over spring break and take advantage of the more than 5,000 books on myON.

We would like to congratulate our winning school:

Westside Elementary School in Polk County School District (GA)

myON wants students to achieve lifelong learning success and reading is the foundation of that learning success.

Thoughts from a student…and a parent.

From time to time,  we receive messages and pictures from students and, occasionally, their parents.  We thought we would share our most recent message with you from 8 year old, 2nd grader, Ava.

Hi, my name is Ava. I like myON because it has lots of fun books for children and adults. It’s also a great learning site. One of my favorite books is Faerieground. It’s an amazing book with two best friends who get in a fight. They get trapped in a magical faerie world and one of them turns out to be a faerie! I hope you download the myON app. Take it from me, it’s awesome!

Jess (Ava’s mom):

myON has made a great impact on my daughter and her love of reading. Having access to such a large variety of books has increased her literary interests exponentially, and her writing is just one reflection of the joy that myON books bring her.

Best practices for 21st-century teaching and learning

Best practices for 21st-century teaching and learning

By Lucas Gillespie, John Prchal, Ruben Alejandro and Lydia Withrow on February 17th, 2016

Early education

Ruben Alejandro

To give our students the best possible chance at success in a changing world, when I became superintendent of schools in the summer of 2012, I put together a team of administrators, parents and teachers to create a vision for the district called “Empowering 21st-Century Learners.”

We are making our vision a reality in two ways. I have a strong focus on early learning, and a big part of that is early literacy. We worked with our digital literacy platform to launch an initiative called “Zero to Three: Weslaco Reads,” so kids who are 0–3 can download books and read them for free.

We also teach robotics and STEAM starting in kindergarten, and are now including 3- and 4-year-olds. With the help of an engineer, our youngest students are building a Mars rover — a modular car that they can put together and drive. The rover will have a handle that controls a claw so students can learn by picking up blocks with numbers and letters on them. We will have mechanical engineers, electrical engineers and systems engineers to help build the rover and take it through an obstacle course. As far as I know, nobody in the world is bringing this level of STEAM and robotics to 3- and 4-year-olds.

To read the entire article, click here.

Ruben Alejandro is the Superintendent of Weslaco Independent School District in Texas, where he launched the “Zero to Three: Weslaco Reads” initiative in collaboration with myON.

It May be a Cliche – But it’s True

by  Dr. Timothy Rasinski

We’ve all heard it before in various forms – “The way to become a better reader is to read a lot,” “The more you read, the better reader you will become.”     While some may think that such expressions are too simple and overused, the fact is they contain much truth.

Reading, like many learned skills, requires practice to be mastered.  Learning to drive a car, perfecting a golf swing, or developing the ability to speak publicly requires the learner to not only to understand the nature of what is to be learned but also to practice it to the point of competency.  A strong body of research supports the notion that the act of reading improves a reader’s competence in reading (e.g. Morgan, Mraz, Padak, & Rasinski, 2008).

One of my favorite studies goes back a few years (Postlethwaite & Ross, 1992).   However, the findings seem to be as applicable today as they did back then.  In this very large scale international study, the researchers attempted to identify factors that were associated with high achievement in reading for students in grades 2 and 8.    Two of the top three factors identified had to do amount of reading done by students – Number 3 was volume of reading done in school; and Number 2 was the volume of reading done at home.   The implication from these findings is clear – if we want to improve students’ reading achievement we need to find ways to increase the amount of reading done by students.   The sad reality, though, is that students, in general do not read much.   In his book on helping struggling readers, Allington (2011) reports that the typical elementary reader spends less than 15 minutes per day reading at home.

How can we nurture more reading among students?  For me, access and interest lead the way.    If we want students to read more they need to have easy access to plenty of reading material on a variety of topics.   Many students who live in poverty   do not have such access.  And, if they find it difficult to get their hands on books and other reading materials, it’s unlikely that they will read.

Besides access, there is also the question of precision.   In addition to having lots of reading materials accessible to students, it’s also important to match those materials to the reading levels and interests of students.    For a student who is reading at a second grade level, having access only to books written for 4th and 5th graders will not be helpful.  Similarly, for a child interested in sports, having access to books that deal with topics other than sports may not spur that particular student to read more.

So the challenge for educators is to increase students’ reading.  However, like an onion, when we peel back one layer, other layers or questions appear.    Certainly, two of those questions are:  How do we improve students’ access to reading materials, and how can we sure that those materials reflect a range of reading levels and interests.


Allington, R. (2011). What Really Matters for Struggling Readers (3rd ed).  New York:  Pearson.

Morgan, D., Mraz, M., Padak, N., & Rasinski, T. (2008).   Independent Reading: Practical Strategies for Grades K-3.  New York: Guilford.

Postlethwaite, T.,N  & Ross, K., N. (1992).  Effective Schools in Reading:  Implications for Educational Planners.  The Hague, Netherlands:  International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.