Guest Post: EdWeek Classroom Q&A – Ways To Develop Life-Long Readers

Larry Ferlazzo gathers questions from educators and then collects both invited responses from experts in our field and comments from readers. It’s a brilliant form of collaboration through his EdWeek “Classroom Q&A” column.

This week, a college education student asked how to engage early elementary students in reading habits, comprehension, and building their life-long love of reading. My response, along with Donalyn Miller’s and Mark Barnes’ appears this week in the first installment of responses. Now it’s your turn, Larry invites you to leave your own tips or comments at his post, some will be published next week.

image by Larry Ferlazzo for EdWeek Teacher

Thanks for all you do.


Blog-a-thon: Let’s Closely Read the Practice of #CloseReading

In honor of our upcoming book, Falling in Love with Close Reading: Lessons for Analyzing Texts–And LifeKate Roberts (@teachkate) and I invite you to join us for a 7-week blogger community conversation about close reading practices and our classrooms.

Close Reading Blog-a-thon

For the next 7 weeks (Sept 2- Oct 18), every Monday on my blog and every Thursday on Kate’s we will post on topics related to close reading, including:

  • What Close Reading Is Not (Or At Least Shouldn’t Be)
  • The Five Corners of the Text: Personal Experience and Text-Based Close Reading
  • Why Would Anyone Ever Want to Close Read Nonfiction?
  • Writing About Close Reading
  • Close Talking is as Important as Close Reading
  • Close Reading Our Lives: Making Practices Relevant and Real
  • and more!

Join In

We have lots to share, however there is so much to say, think, do, debate, problem solve, question, that we would like to invite you to JOIN our Blog-a-thon with your own posts.

Here’s how it works:

  • Any time over the next 7-weeks write a post (or multiple posts) on the topic of close reading (could be in response to someone else’s post, raise a debate, answer a question, share your own experiences).
  • Each time you post add this button to your page and be sure it links back here (the Contributors’ Page).

close reading button

  • Then comment on any post on my blog or Kate’s with a link to your own post so anyone can click back to it.
  • We will also grab selected posts (URL links) from the comments to add to the Blog Contributors page**
  • If you tweet your post include the hashtag #CloseReading

Violà! One stop shopping for great thinking on close reading!

We are excited to learn along with you!

Chris and Kate

**Disclaimer: All opinions, discussions, debates, posts, videos, and photos will be considered for the “contributor” page pending they are free from offensive language, libel, slander, whose main purpose is to sell a product, is a broken link, or otherwise deemed inappropriate by us or raised as such by members of the community. All decisions for posting these links on the “Contributors” page are made by us and are final, however we accept no responsibility for content or reliability of links that leave our respective blogs. The original poster is owner of their post and solely controls content , including any such content that may infringe upon copyright law.

Middle/High School Teachers Apply for a Book Love Foundation Library

Penny Kittle has been announcing on twitter that applications are now open for her organization, Book Love Foundation‘s classroom library grant.  Applications are due very soon, July 1st!

Open to Middle and High School teachers, it is an amazing opportunity to give access to books to your students and–quite literally–change their lives.

Screen Shot 2013-06-28 at 8.02.51 AM

Access the application (due July 1st!) from the Book Love Foundation website or here.

Give the Gift of Reading

Penny  tells me that soon Book Love Foundation will be accepting donations and fundraising will take place later this year. This way even more classrooms can be supported. Be on the lookout for these updates!

Summer Reading, Writing is a Habit (and No One Likes Habits)

by puuikibeach used under Creative Commons Lic

The end of the school year is fast approaching and as educators our minds turn to the obvious celebration of this glorious time of year, the end of a year of hard work, students growth, and this amazing sunny season: assigning summer homework.


Assigned book lists for the in-coming grade. Essay prompts to write. Sometimes even packets to complete. A lot of which many of us secretly reveal we barely read or do anything with in September.

It’s all well meaning. We know that students over summer can drop reading levels if they don’t read. We know that September can feels like the September of the year before, not the continuation since June if students are not actively thinking. We want our students to carry with them the work of a year so we can hit the ground running. We do this out of love.

What we are really asking students to do is to take on new habits, to make the work of the year part of their daily lives.

Here is the problem. Most of us hate new habits.

New Habits are Horrible

by kevin dooley used under Creative Commons lic

My self-directed summer assignments include: eat better, exercise more. Could you think of anything more terrible? This will, as it always is, be hard to maintain and tough to make time for. Enjoyable and amazing when it goes well and frustrating when I skip the gym for two weeks and just eat everything.

New habits are not made from book lists handed out on the last day of school. New habits do not come from assignments.

New habits come from self-drive and from a community of others. Think how you will use these last weeks of school to continue to build both.

Habits Helpers: Drive and Community

  • Summer reading club or reading partner lists, instead of simply book lists: Have students begin to organize now who they will be reading alongside, who they will talk with about their reading. As simple as phone numbers or email address, as complex as setting up book club meet-up dates.
  • Begin writing for self now, instead of just relying on a prompt: Have students begin exploding with writing, any genre, any purpose, any technology. Then just as with reading clubs, help them think about who they will share writing with. When will they check in?  Or even who could they be writing with? A google docs epic sci-fi adventure written by three classmates could fill an entire summer with writing.
  • Find a writer or reader you want to be: When we want a habit of better health we often look to people we admire: celebrities, family, friends. We learn about their routines and try to emulate them. Have your students write about the readers and writers they plan to admire over the summer. It could be you, classmates, professional writers (You could even draw connections beyond literacy, like in my guest post What the Kardashians Taught Me About Reading Instruction (No, For Real).

Think beyond summer assignments to engaging students in the real, tricky, exciting work of developing new habits.

Happy summer! Happy growing!



Christopher Lehman blog sticker-01Follow Chris on Twitter and his Blog. Learn how to have him work with your school or organization.

#IRA2013 and not-horrible Close Reading

I’m looking forward to attending the International Reading Association Annual Convention this weekend in San Antonio!  Whenever I am feeling overwhelmed, exhausted or blue about the pressures bearing down on our great profession, I find gatherings like these to be uplifting, energizing, and empowering.  It is always a gift to be amongst thoughtful and engaged minds pouring their time and hearts into making the world better for our students.

I plan to tweet my heart out and look forward to following the action of the convention using #ira2013.

Planning and Cloning

I always go into these things with big plans and an overbooked schedule.  Here are a few sessions I want to attend (and full well know most of these all take place at the same time (if anyone has a cloning device please send ASAP):

I miss amazing pre-institutes on Friday (no direct flight #boo! Chicago airport, we will be seeing a lot of each other.)

Saturday (an incomplete list that is nevertheless impossible to get to and yet I will continue to pretend I can get to all of them and more)

  • 10:30AM The IRA Literacy Research Panel: Big Ideas, Literacy Needs, and National Priorities – Chaired by P. David Person
  • 11AM Scaffolding Students’ Independence and Teachers’ Professional Development through Authentic Reading Communities – Teri Lesesne, Donalyn Miller, Terry Thompson
  • 1PM Reading and Writing WORDshop: Academic Vocabulary and Word Choice – Jeff Anderson and Charles Fuhken
  • 2:30 RESEARCH INTO PRACTICE: Meeting the Challenges of the Changing Demographics: Assessment and Instruction That Makes a Positive Difference in ELs’ Success
  • 2:30 – Gay Su Pinnell and Irene Fountas!  As live really real people talking to me… well and everyone else packed into the room!

(3 PM. Ugh. Too much to see!)

  • 3PM Donald Graves and the Revolution in Children’s Writing–Recovered Archival Footage of a Turning Point in Literacy Education – Penny Kittle and Thomas Newkirk
  • 3PM Comprehension at the Core: Enhancing Elementary Literacy Instruction with Technology – Stephanie Harvey, Anne Goudvis, Kati Muhtaris, Kristin Ziemke
  • 3PM Secondary Reading: Teaching the Reading and Composing of Texts to Meet and Exceed the CCSS – Kelly Gallagher, Julie Meltzer, Jeffrey Wilhelm
  • 4:45 – How Do I Fit It All In? The Common Core and Your Literacy Block: Learn a Practical Strategy for Considering the “Big Picture” of Instruction, Considering Balance and the C0mmon Core State Standards – Jan Miller Burkins and Kim Yaris
  • 4:45 – Pages, Pixels, and Promise: Teaching Real Readers With Digital Tools – Sara Kajder

Presenting on Sunday – Close Reading

Sunday at 11AM Kate Roberts (@teachkate) and I will be talking Close Reading (not in the horrible sense, but in the engaging, life affirming, Justin Biebering, teaching towards independence sense) in Lone Star Ballroom A.  Our session “Not Just the Books They Read, But Lives They Lead: Rethink Close Reading as More Than Just Analyzing Words and See it as a Student’s Tool For Leading a More Engaged Life” stems from the research and classroom practice we have been doing while writing our forthcoming Heinemann publication on this topic.

Instead of seeing close reading as a long list of text-dependent, teacher-dependent questions, we find that if you plan with students at the center of your instruction they can take on these challenging skills with power.

Here’s to a great weekend of learning and connecting!

#Educon Session Archive on Close Reading Text, Media, Lives

This past weekend I was lucky enough to attend Educon 2.5 at Science Leadership Academy.

First. Let’s clarify. There are indeed two Chris Lehman(n)s:

On Left – TWO Ns, principal of SLA, great educator, writer, speaker, blogger.

On Right – Me. One N.

In our hands: Pastries. Yummy, yummy pastries.


(It may disturb you too much to know there are many, many more. I’ll keep that a secret.)

It was a great conference.  Even greater, is all the session are archived!  You can watch them all from the Educon 2.5 website.

Here is my session with Kate Roberts (@teachkate, her blog), where we share the hows, whats, whys, and how do we engage students in close reading, from our ongoing research and classroom practice on the subject. 

All of our work is leading to a new book out from Heinemann (expected in summer 2013).

 (Sorry for the trouble seeing the board, it was best with the set-up.)


Happy reading, thinking, teaching, being.

Nerdy Book Club Guest Post: Reading is Dumb. There, I Said It.

Colby Sharp and Cindy Minnich  invited me to guest post on the Nerdy Book Club, one of the web’s go-to communities for all things book love: recommendations, author posts, reader posts, inspiration, even their own awards.

So in honor of the whole Nerdy Crew being in my virtual PLN (and I in theirs), their dedication to books and getting books into kids hands, and their rapidly growing book loving community I thought I’d write them a guest post entitled “Reading is Dumb.  There, I Said It.”

And you are welcome, people.

Photo by shutterhacks. I took some liberties...
Photo by shutterhacks. I took some liberties…

Love books too? Want to guest post with Nerdy?  Just go to their page and click the big-ol-button on their sidebar to share your interest.


#eddies12 Edublog Awards: My Kardashians+Reading Guest Post was Nominated (Because Why Not)

Well that’s a nice surprise.  My guest post on reading guru Donalyn Miller‘s Edweek blog, “The Book Whisperer” was nominated for a 2012 Edublog Awards in the category “Influential Post.”

While I don’t know that Influential Post is true or not, or if the post is more or less influential than any of the others, it still is awfully nice to be nominated.

Being newer to the blog-o-great-learning-o-time-sucking-up-sphere I only just learned about what the Edublog Awards even are, and I am a fan of their mission.  Head on over to them to learn more about the history and mission of the awards.

Get To Know Some Great Posts

Having this and other categories means there are lots of curated posts, twitter handles, and more to explore.  Click here for the list of shortlisted “Influential Post” nominees and read their posts.

My guest post, “What the Kardashians Taught Me About Reading Instruction (No, For Real)” can be be found by clicking the link to Donalyn’s EdWeek blog either on the Edublog list or here.

And you can vote by clicking here or the Voting Open image right over there.

Yay education!

Listen!: My Education Talk Radio Interview

I just finished my appearance on Education Talk Radio with Larry Jacobs which aired live today at 11AM EST on Blog Talk Radio.

I will admit at about 10:48 I was reeeeally nervous. Way more nervous than I am used to. I present frequently and honestly love to talk (as those who know me know all too well). But 12 minutes before the show my stomach was in knots. The first great help was tweets and messages of love and support coming from so many of you. THANK YOU. The other great support was that Larry was a terrific host – funny and thoughtful.

Here is the link to the archived interview:

We talk about my book Energize Research Reading and Writing, why I love Library/Media Specialists, the Chris Lehmann/Chris Lehman confusion (with a shout out to Kate Roberts), seeing the CCSS as habits not check-boxes, with a backdrop of laughter throughout the show.

If you don’t follow Education Talk Radio’s blog, you really should. No really. Larry has AWESOME guests. Wait, that wasn’t big enough…


Here are just a few podcasted shows with people you love:

Thanks for listening! Happy researching!

SmartBlog on Education Guest Post: Bullying Prevention is More About Listening Than Talking

Today’s guest post on SmartBrief’s SmartBlog on Education is a personal one. Full of my own struggles and my deepest hopes.

Find it here.

Then continue the conversation.

Thanks for all you do for children.

Research Instruction: Who Decided It Should Be A Tremendous Bore?

Please transport me back to the exact moment and exact person who thought, “I know, let’s make teaching research skills the most awful experience possible.” I’d like to give that person a piece of my mind.

What are we doing? Research is incredible. Look around yourself right now: every single thing you own, are wearing, are eating, are talking on or tapping on, came from someone or some group of someones researching, studying, communicating new findings with one another, and developing all of it. All. Of. It.

Research is tremendously empowering. Don’t like the price of that used car the salesperson is offering you? Research. Wondering if there are other ways of dealing with a disease? Research! Baby on the way? Research. iPhone-this or Galaxy-that? Research. Where to eat, where to go, how do I unclog this drain, what song is on this commercial, what do mosquitoes do anyway, what good book should I read next, flipped classrooms are what exactly, how do I help my readers,… Research!

So why, then, is the first image that pops into many people’s minds (and I have asked a lot of people): students, or themselves as students, recopying book information onto little cards (e.g. photocopying) and then recopying the information from those little cards onto paper and doing so in the approximate shape of paragraphs (e.g. photocopying), ending in a horrific inferno of last minute final draft making, that–when all is said and done–results in the answer, “I dunno,” to the question, “so what have you learned about this topic?”

We are better than this, people. Rise up teachers. Rise up.

I undertook this mission, to rescue research, and began in an obvious (and Dr. Suess-ian) way: by researching research to rescue research by teaching kids researching in the way we all research. This resulted in my new book: Energize Research Reading and Writing. In researching for, and during the process of, writing the book I came to some new understandings of what we are mostly doing now in the name of research and what changes we can make (or some are making) that can dramatically transform both how we teach and students’ relationship to these skills. I would like to share three essential moves in this post:

1. Stop Handing Out So Much Stuff

The Common Core has devoted an entire strand of the Writing standards to research (7, 8, 9):

© Copyright 2010. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers. All rights reserved.

and the tests that are chugging on down the track toward us aim to make research skills a big portion of how students are assessed (PARCC-one of the three performance tasks and SMARTER Balanced-see page 17-18). Meaning, students will be expected to be independent with these skills, not co-dependent. Not expecting us to dole out each bit.

So one place to start is actually to stop. To stop assigning specific topics or ways those topics should specifically unfold (“on page three describe the state bird and draw a picture of it, on page four write three facts about the state’s agriculture…”). Also, stop handing out the sources students should use. Instead teach them the very habits you use when you think, “We’re having a baby… now what??”:

  • You start broad, let your possible topic guide you to possible sources.
  • Then let those sources guide you to a more specific focus.
  • Repeat as necessary.

The start of research is like dating: you really only know what you are looking for after you have been looking for awhile.

Chapter 2 of my book describes this in way more detail and is a free read here.

2. Take Notes On Your Mind, Not Your Book

We need to cure the I am pretending to take notes but actually I am just copying everything disease or its related strain I am mostly just writing down numbers I come across but I don’t know why virus.

A way to do this is to shift students’ perceptions away from taking notes on books to taking notes on our minds. More specifically:

  • First, read and focus on what you are learning
  • Then, stop and look away from the text
  • Next, take notes on your learning, ideally without looking at the book at all
  • Finally, perhaps, look briefly back to see if there is something really essential you missed such as “domain specific language” you could use in place of other words – a la Common Core.

It takes a bit of practice, even sometimes an overly exaggerated policing-coaching, “nope, nooooo notes now, just read.” or “now before you write any notes, teach me about your topic, tell me what you just learned….. …great! now right that down in the same way.” I call this strategy Read, Cover and Jot, Reread. It’s cousin is Read, Cover and Sketch, Reread for students that just won’t stop copying: if they are reading text, take notes in sketches and labels; if looking at a diagram, take notes in words.

3. Add a New Process Step: Teach-Through-Writing

Lastly, to counteract dry, dull or I didn’t really learn anything even though I wrote 8 pages research writing, I argue that we need to add a new step in the research writing process.

  • What Happens now: students tend to jot notes [from books], then write a draft.
  • Instead: we need to jot notes [from our mind], then experiment with a variety ways of teaching those ideas and facts through writing, ONLY THEN draft–drawing on the best experiments.

One example is you have a fact or few – say “cuttlefish subdue their prey by making their skin flash” – you can experiment with how you will teach that fact:

  • try making surprising comparisons: “If you have ever been around a strobe light, perhaps in a haunted house or at a school dance, you know how they can both mesmerize and disorient you. Cuttlefish use a similar technique to make their prey freeze long enough to be caught. They actually make their skin pulsate a lot like those lights.”
  • try teaching instead by creating a story: “A cuttlefish swims slowly through the ocean, a small crustacean crawls into view. Lunch! The cuttlefish approaches slowly, but cannot let the fast moving crustacean escape. So, he extends two large tentacles and starts flashing. The small prey looks up and is instantly so confused it freezes in place. Just long enough for the cuttlefish to SNAP! Catch it.”

These are just two examples of this type of teaching-through-writing. In working with students, I was amazed at how this shift in the process not only lead to students doing better and more interesting writing, it also helps them continue to learn about their topic because they continue to manipulate it in a variety of ways–all with their readers in mind.

Let’s Talk More About Rescuing Research

On Monday, Oct 1st at 7PM EST I guest moderated #Engchat (YAY!) with the topic “Teach Students to Research, Not Regurgitate.” The archive (and a funny story) is at my post: “I Broke Twitter. And It Was Worth It.”

My book on this topic, Energize Research Reading and Writing, is available at book sellers like Heinemann, Amazon, and Barnes&Noble.

As always, leave comments or tweet me, I’d love to hear ways you are helping students have the excitement and deep learning that real research provides.

The Book Whisperer Guest Post: What The Kardashians Taught Me About Reading Instruction (No, For Real)

Reading guru Donalyn Miller invited me to post anything I’d like to on her fantastic Edweek blog, “The Book Whisperer.” So I wrote about the Kardashians. Well, reading. Reading and the Kardashians.

Read it here.

And if you haven’t already, get a copy of her book by the same name: The Book Whisperer, which I think is one of the best written odes to teaching reading I may have ever read.

…and I’m not just saying that because I put Kardashians on her highly respected blog. I’d mean that sans Kardashians.

The #BookGap

If you are a parent aiming to support your child’s growth in school, an educator rallying students to reach toward and beyond standards, a business owner considering a donation to your local school (and please, we need them, in truckloads). There is no more essential, life-altering, test-score-improving, learning-loving, ultimate-jump-starter, back to school item then: books. Lots of them.


Books matter. A lot.

Look at your classroom and school library, or those of your children’s school, or the ones in the school down the block, and ask yourself if there are enough books to provide enough access to the children in those walls. And if not, there is no more essential back to school supply then filling those shelves.

Consider this:

  • A child’s reading level has a direct correlation to test scores. This chart summarizes several years of data we gathered at the Reading and Writing Project, comparing tens of thousands of students reading levels across years and their 3-8 test scores. These scores prove over and over to be dramatic ceilings for students: If you read on grade level, there is an extremely high percent chance you will score on grade level. Below, good chance you will score below.
  • You get better at reading, by reading. Not listening to adults talk about it. Not thinking about. Not staring out the window. Eyes on print matters. Allignton remarks that the most effective rooms have at least a 50/50 split across the whole school day, 50% real reading and writing, aside from 50% of other “stuff” (his not-so-loving term for anything not real reading and writing). He and others find most schools have, at best, only 10-15 minutes of real reading in an entire day – a 10/90 split!
  • When students don’t read, their reading levels drop – they don’t just remain stagnant. In schools that track reading level development three times during the school year predictable drops occur in student reading levels: during the summer (summer reading loss: google it), during test prep (if students are mostly doing drills and not really reading), and during a nonfiction study (if students are mostly skimming and not really reading). Not reading doesn’t just freeze your development, instead it puts it in reverse course.

To provide this access educators, like you, often create and build classroom library and school library collections. My suggestion is that you do not assemble a library, then step back and say, “phew. done,” and check it off the list. But instead consider if your classroom or school has a book gap that needs to be filled.

And if you are lucky to have an abundant collection, as many do, I think it’s our moral imperative to make sure the school down the block and the one across town has an overflowing collection as well.

Do You Have a Book Gap?

Let’s do a little math.

Take second grade. Average words per minute reading is around 100 (could be bit more or bit less, but let’s stick with a round number). The “on grade level” second grader starts the year reading books of approximately 1000 words (from TCRWP’s research).

100 words per minute, divided by 1000 words = 10 minutes of reading.

Boom. One book. 10 minutes. Done.

The average reading time for most schools providing sustained reading is approximately 30-40 minutes. So that’s 3-4 reads. In one class sitting.

4 books per class, times 5 days in a week, (assuming same books are read home and school) = 20 reads.

Now, many second graders are encouraged to reread titles, so let’s be conservative and say they need 5-8 new books each week, rereading several of them to get up to that 20 reads count.

Multiply a very conservative 6 books, by 35 weeks of school = 210 books per child for the year.

Multiply that by each child in an average 2nd grade, say 28 kids =

5,880 books. (That says thousand). Book available per class of second graders, per year.

A fourth grade works out to between 2,000 books (about 2 books per week, 35 weeks, 35 kids) if you have a class of exactly the same level all on grade level, or more likely also around to 5,000 books considering you probably have a range of readers, range of genres.

On up the grades the numbers may shrink a tad as the size of books and length of time to finish them extends a bit (though, an average eighth grade book should be finished within the week considering the wpm and number of words). However, add in the fact that most 6-12 teachers have multiple classes to sustain and you are still back up around 5,000 books.

Now could my numbers be a bit off? Of course they could. But the point here is that to sustain tons of reading, we need to support our students in having access to tons of books. And as I teach alongside educators in classrooms around the world, it is clear to me that there is a large book gap from classroom to classroom, school library to school library, neighborhood to neighborhood and it needs to be remedied.

The good news is, we can do it:

  • Read this inspiring article (one of the most clicked SmartBrief articles in June) about a teacher taking on a “1,000 books project.”
  • Have a vision, do anything for it. Here is just one portion, of one wall, of a public middle school school classroom, which receives very little funding for books, in which this teacher and her colleagues made it their mission to fill their rooms with books (the main motivator was kids, but it became trying to outdo one another). They went to garage sales, warehouse sales, asked for donations, nearly everything just shy of stealing. In fact, the shelves in this picture are set-up for their historical fiction unit. When that’s done, these books go away and new ones take their place! A vision, with focus, can pull off anything.
  • Donate, donate, donate, donate to your local school. Books, cash, shelves, design tips, anything. If you are lucky and your school has stacks and stacks of books, then check to see that the one down the street does, too. Then the one across town. Then the one two towns over.
  • Have conversations with your (or your child’s school) about the book gap. Send them a link to this post, or perhaps to Scholastic’s classroom library “evaluator.” (Seeing as Scholastic donated a ton of books to kids in that first article in this list, I don’t feel bad about directing you to them. You don’t have to buy books from them.)
  • @thereadingzone, Sarah Mulhern Gross started the “ARC Floats On” initiative at this website. Connecting teachers who need books with reviewers and bloggers looking to clean their shelves of ARCs (advance review copies). Sign-up your classroom there. Amazing work!
  • If you are an educator, I cannot say enough good things about: Join it, ask for books.
  • If you are not an educator, go to and give towards book wishlists.
  • @principaldunlop, Sue Dunlop, principal of a JK-8 school in Ontario, suggests administrators save at least 10% of their budget for books–every year.

Any problem takes two things: recognizing there is a problem and then finding creative solutions to it. I would love to hear your reflections, solutions, and commitments in the comments section — but more importantly, continue this discussion with others in social media and in person.

Turn the conversation into action. Empty wall space into shelves and shelves of books. The #bookgap can be filled.

SmartBlog on Education Guest Post: Standardized Testing the Video Game: Coming to a student near you.

Originally appeared as a guest post for SmartBlog on Education: here.

Place an image in your mind of this: Standardized testing. Depending on where you stand your blood might boil with rage or a sense of accountability may rise up like a patriotic anthem, in either case you most likely picture students in rows, staring at pages of multiple-choice bubbles, attempting to avoid “distractors.” The two groups developing the assessments that align with the Common Core State Standards,SMARTER Balanced and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, aim to dramatically overhaul that vision of testing.

Like all things common core, there are loads of questions swirling around the development of these tests. My aim in this post is specifically to make sure you are aware of what is ahead, and more importantly, to suggest that you help your school keep an eye on what matters most — your students’ learning.  It is a time ripe for jumping headlong into every widget, gadget, and clicker on the market and spending hours upon hours in computer labs, but that would be missing the whole point.

First, let’s begin with that new image of standardized testing.

“Technology-enhanced items,” as the consortia refer to them, are not new. In fact, research in the field of “computer-based assessment” has been going on for years, and a few states have already dabbled in it. Picture a student you know — maybe even your own child — sitting down on the day of the test and instead of holding paper and pencil, they sit in front of acomputer, laptop, or tablet. Next, visit this website, This grid, from the University of Oregon, displays a broad range of types of computer-based assessment prompts and ranks the challenge of each type. Move from more simple tasks at the top and left to more complex ones down and right. Click in any box, and you can interact a bit with how that type of item may work. It’s a far cry from A, B, C or D (I’m particularly intrigued by the spinning controls of 4C “The Wall Shadow” and realize how little Science I have retained with 5D “Protein Table”).

Other examples of computer-based assessments abound:

  • The 2009 NAEP Science assessment included a variety of “interactive computer tasks.”
  • SMARTER Balanced has released examples, though a bit hard to find. Scroll to “Technology Enhanced Item Supporting Materials (ZIP)” on this page to download movie files.
  • The Oregon University grid is referenced here in a much longer and more testing consortia-specific webinar on test development.

The consortia describe the purposes for these technology enhancements with much fanfareand promise. To be frank, if their wishes are delivered upon, they would lead to some improvement, some slight silver lining to our current obsession with testing, namely a more refined view of where students are beyond the mutually obscure “below grade level” or “above grade level.” They highlight the ability to assess students’ use of technology, such as Writing Standard 8’s expectation that students can gather information “from print and digital” and faster turn-around time for reporting, as short as two weeks.

Now, to the more essential point — our students’ learning.

I ended a previous SmartBlog post  with this caution: “Remember that the day of any test, students work alone. Without us. They employ not what we have ‘taught’ but what they have ‘learned.’” In regards to computer-based testing, this is even more true.

Consider one fourth-grade example found in that SMARTER Balanced Zip file. In it a student is asked to read a bit of a story that contains only descriptions with no dialogue. The prompt states: “This is the beginning of a story written by a student who wants to add dialogue. Decide where the three pieces of dialogue should be placed. Click on them and move them into the correct order.” Then, the child must do just that. Instead of simply selecting from four multiple choices, a fourth-grader interacting with that prompt, drags several sentences containing dialogue around and around until they believe they are in the correct order. In another example, listed as eighth grade, a student is presented with a passage, then this prompt: “‘Joy Hakim, the author of this passage, admires Sojourner Truth. How can you tell that the above statement is true? Click on a sentence in the passage that could be used as evidence to support this statement.’”  Then, again, instead of selecting one of four choices, a student could click on any sentence in the entire passage to back up that claim.

Yes, having some familiarity with technology can help. However, in order to answer these questions well, time spent in a computer lab is second to a deep internalization of skills. To answer that first prompt well, a student needs to have gained independence with the many aspects of dialogue — what it is, how it is written, its purposes in a narrative and how it moves plot ahead. A student who has written dialogue, read it in a number of texts, and reflected on its uses will certainly perform better with that prompt. The same holds true for the second, a student who both writes and reads informational texts and is mindful of how details are used to develop point of view will find this an extension of already familiar work. Learning to point and click well is only a small percentage of the rigor of those tasks.

In essence, these tests — whatever your view of them — are attempting to move away from months of mind numbing, isolated, test preparation drills and more to supporting students developing skills, meaning, we must watch that all of our teaching is leading to independence, not co-dependence. Students who read, really read — not just listen to adults talk to them about reading — and students who write, really write, will be strides ahead. As the assessments become more and more technology driven, a smart response should be more and more reading and writing.

Christopher Lehman (@iChrisLehman) is an author, a speaker and a lead staff developer with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. Check out his newest book, “Energize Research Reading and Writing.”