Free Understanding Language MOOC

78726889Stanford University Graduate School of Education and University of California Davis are offering a free, new MOOC: “Seven Essential Practices for Developing Academic Oral Language and Literacy in Every Subject” is now open for registration.

“Seven Essential Practices for Developing Academic Oral Language and Literacy in Every Subject” is a collaborative course offered by the Academic Language Development Network (ALDN). It will be co-taught by Language Magazine contributors Susan O’Hara (REEd), Jeff Zwiers (Stanford University), and Robert Pritchard (Sacramento State University).

This course facilitates the practical exploration and expertise-building of seven essential ALD (academic language development) practices that have been identified as being powerful for developing school language and literacy across grade levels and content areas and for supporting the implementation of new standards. The course focuses on three “high-impact” practices: Using complex texts; Fortifying complex output (written and oral); and Fostering academic interactions. These are supported by four essential practices: Clarifying; Modeling; Guiding; and Designing instruction. This course looks closely at the development of “language for content and content for language.” It organizes a massive collaboration of educators who wish to support students, particularly English Language Learners, in developing their abilities to use complex language.

The overall goal is for participating educators to better understand and develop the academic uses of language in school-based learning and apply what they learn in the future. The MOOC will begin on January 14 and end on June 14, and is open to educators in all states of the USA.

Click here for more information

December 22nd, 2014 | Leave your comments

Newspapers, Childhood Reading Key to Strong Vocabulary

178731073Researchers at London’s Institute of Education have found that children who are avid readers reap the rewards well into adulthood. The participants of the study who were avid readers as children scored significantly higher on vocabulary tests as adults.


November 14th, 2014 | Leave your comments

Oklahoma Legislature Votes to Repeal Common Core Standards

Lawmakers in Oklahoma have voted to repeal Common Core Standards for English and Mathematics, despite their introduction in over 40 other states.

The house voted 71-18 on Friday to reject the Common Core standards, replacing them with specific standards developed by the Oklahoma state Board of Education.

The bill was then passed by the Senate at a 31-10 vote and is now awaiting the signature of Gov. Mary Fallin to complete the state’s withdrawal.

Click here for more

May 28th, 2014 | Leave your comments

Cell Phones Promote Literacy in Developing Countries

UNESCO has published a report explaining how mobile technology is used to facilitate reading and improve literacy in developing countries.

The report, Reading in the Mobile Era, highlights that hundreds of thousands of people currently use mobile technology as a portal to text. Findings show that in countries where illiteracy rates are high and physical text is scarce, large numbers of people read full-length books and stories on rudimentary small screen devices.

The report, the first-ever study of mobile readers in developing countries, provides valuable information about how mobile reading is practiced today and by whom.

Worldwide 774 million people, including 123 million youth, cannot read or write and illiteracy can often be traced to the lack of books. Most people in Sub-Saharan Africa do not own a single book, and schools in this region rarely provide textbooks to learners.

Yet the report cites data showing that where books are scarce, mobile technology is increasingly common, even in areas of extreme poverty. The International Telecommunication Union estimates that of the 7 billion people on Earth, 6 billion have access to a working mobile phone.

UNESCO’s study of mobile reading was conducted in seven developing countries, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. Drawing on the analysis of over 4,000 surveys and corresponding qualitative interviews, the study found that:

  • large numbers of people (one third of study participants) read stories to children from mobile phones;
  • females read far more on mobile devices than males (almost six times as much according to the study);
  • both men and women read more cumulatively when they start reading on a mobile device;
  • many neo- and semi-literate people use their mobile phones to search for text that is appropriate to their reading ability.

The study is intended as a roadmap for governments, organizations, and individuals who wish to use mobile technology to help spread reading and literacy. The report recommends improving the diversity of mobile reading content to appeal to specific target groups such as parents and teachers; initiating outreach and trainings to help people transform mobile phones into portals to reading material; and lowering costs and technology barriers to mobile reading.

Download the full report here

May 25th, 2014 | 8 Comments

First Latino Books

BooksFirst Book, a non-profit organization that provides access to new books and educational resources for programs serving children in need, has an expanded selection of Latino interest books on the First Book Marketplace, including a new Latino Culture section.  First Book is offering a limited-time funding opportunity to help schools and community organizations give the gift of reading to the children and families they serve.  Just follow these easy steps:

Step 1:  Click here to sign up with First Book!

Step 2: Visit the First Book Marketplace and fill your shopping cart with $200 worth of your choice of books from the Latino Culture category. This includes the Latino Culture and Heritage Collection for Elementary School (a $200 value for $50 titles).

Step 3: Apply code LCC_WHlibros at checkout. 


This is a first-come, first-serve opportunity that ends on March 15, 2014. 


¡Feliz lectura!  Happy Reading!


Questions? Contact the First Book Help Team by calling (866) READ-NOW or emailing

February 28th, 2014 | Leave your comments

Free Online PD Program Focuses on CCSS & ELLs

“Constructive Classroom Conversations: Mastering the Language of the Common Core State Standards” is the title of the massive online open course (MOOC) which is being produced by Stanford University’s Understanding Language initiative.

Language Magazine contributor and co-director of the initiative, Kenji Hakuta will teach the MOOC with colleagues Jeff Zwiers and Sara Rutherford-Quach who are language experts, from October 21 through December 9.

This short course looks closely at student-to-student discourse and addresses how to facilitate student engagement in the types of interactions required by the new standards. It organizes a massive collaboration of educators who wish to support students, particularly English Language Learners, to co-create and build upon each other’s ideas as they interact with the content. Starting with the notion that in order to improve the quality of student discourse, educators need to listen closely to existing talk, the course asks participants to gather, analyze, and share examples of student conversations from their classrooms. The overall goal is for participating educators to better understand student-student classroom discourse and use what they learn to facilitate higher quality interactions that build disciplinary knowledge and skills.

The four main objectives of this course are for participants to:

1/Develop a practical understanding of academically-engaged classroom discourse, with emphasis on what this looks like in linguistically diverse classrooms that are focused on teaching Common Core State Standards;
2/Listen more carefully to student talk and use a discourse analysis tool to analyze student discourse, focusing on how interactions build disciplinary language, knowledge, and skills;
3/ Learn and practice practical teaching strategies for building students’ abilities to engage in constructive face-to-face interactions;
4/ Collaborate with other educators and build professional relationships that result in an online community focused on improving students’ abilities to engage rich academic discourse across disciplines and grade levels.

Click here For more information and to sign up.

September 17th, 2013 | 3 Comments

New Report on Urban ELLs

The English Language Learners (ELLs) attending schools in the member districts of the Council of the Great City Schools account for nearly one-quarter of all ELLs in the nation. Specifically, in 2007-08, Council-member districts enrolled about 1.2 million ELLs in grades K–12—or 23.8 percent of the 4.7 million estimated ELLs in the nation’s K-12 public schools (using the 2006–2008 U.S. Biennial Report on ELLs).

“English Language Learners in America’s Great City Schools: Demographics, Achievement and Staffing,” a new report by the Council presents the results of a yearlong effort to compile data on ELL enrollment and programs in the Great City School districts. Much of the data were collected from the membership via survey in 2012. Some 70.8 percent of the membership responded (46 of 65 districts who were members at the time the survey was conducted), but not every district responded to every question. In appendix F of this report, we list the specific districts responding to each question. The responses provide a picture of ELL enrollment across the 46 responding districts, including total numbers, percentages, enrollment by school level, languages spoken, and ELLs receiving special education services.

Professor Stephen Krashen notes three of the report’s findings with very short comments on his website:

1. “The results showed wide gaps in reading and mathematics between ELLs and non-ELLs.”

Comment: If the results did not show gaps between ELLs and non-ELLs, the ELLs would not be ELLs.

2. ” ….  trend lines suggest that ELLs have not made meaningful progress academically between 2005 and 2011 …”.

Comment: We would not expect ELLs as a group to “improve”; when ELLs make sufficient progress, they are reclassified as non-ELL. The group average test score thus stays about the same.

3. “The percentage of ELLs scoring at or above proficient in grade 4 reading in large cities remained stagnant from 2005 to 2011, with only about five to six percent scoring at or above proficient” (p. 73).

Comment: This means that five to six percent have been misclassified. A student who scores proficient or above should not be classified as ELL.

Click here to download the full report


July 21st, 2013 | Leave your comments

Cutting to the Common Core: Decoding Complex Text

Rebecca Blum-Martínez offers a strategy to help English learners cope with the more complex language requirements of the Common Core

The adoption of the Common Core Standards (CCSS) by many states has brought the issue of complex texts to the forefront. The questions for teachers, administrators, and teacher educators have become “How does one revise the curriculum so that complex texts are included as a part of everyday school life?” and “How does one teach students to interact with complex texts, particularly those who are struggling readers?” These questions are intensified for English learners (ELs), who now make up 21% or more of the public school population, depending on the region or school district (

For the complete story, click here.

July 11th, 2013 | 3 Comments

Closing the Vocabulary Gap

Alex Rappaport argues that word acquisition may be the easiest way to close the achievement gap

One promise of public education is to level the playing field across the socioeconomic and ethnic spectrum. Unfortunately, the system is not fulfilling that promise. The achievement gap has been an issue for decades, and it’s getting worse.

A recent study released by Stanford University sociologist Sean F. Reardon shows that the gap has widened by 40% since the 1960s. The study looked at the disparity in academic achievement between students in the tenth percentile of family income against students in the ninetieth percentile. Standardized test scores were used as a metric, which is fairly common in achievement gap studies. Other metrics include high school dropout rates and college graduation rates. Unfortunately, the relationship between income and achievement is consistent across all of these metrics. According to Teach for America, only 8% of students growing up in poverty graduate from college by age 24, compared with 80% of students in more affluent areas. In other words, the effects of the gap extend beyond test scores and make a significant impact on achievement throughout a student’s academic career.

Many researchers attribute the lower achievement to “opportunity gaps” such as a lack of educational resources at home, limited access to health-care, and even more subtle factors like test bias, stereotyping, and peer pressure. With so many social and cultural factors at play, the problem can seem insurmountable. What to fix first? And how? Elimination of poverty or improvements to the health care system can’t be achieved from within the classroom walls.

But according to Eric D. Hirsch, a prominent researcher and literary critic, the socioeconomic achievement gap is in part a vocabulary gap. Research suggests that greater vocabulary knowledge leads to higher test scores. This presents an approachable and actionable solution: by investing in more direct vocabulary instruction within academic settings, we can compensate for economic disadvantages and make strides towards closing the gap. Progress can be made if we focus on the vocabulary gap.

The Case for Direct Vocabulary Instruction
Why is the socioeconomic achievement gap in part a vocabulary gap? State reading tests are a key benchmark of success in our education system. These tests primarily measure reading comprehension, and one of the most fundamental aspects of reading comprehension is being able to recognize and infer meaning from vocabulary.

We can now start to make an argument for the direct correlation between vocabulary knowledge and test scores. Dr. Roger Farr, a former president of the International Reading Association and prominent author and researcher, has said that, “reading comprehension is 63% vocabulary.” (Full disclosure: in 2008, Flocabulary hired Dr. Farr’s research firm to design an instructional validation study for our vocabulary program.) Dr. Farr goes so far as to say, “The size of a student’s vocabulary is the single best predictor of success on state tests.”

Here’s the problem. Not all students are getting direct vocabulary instruction in school, and when we rely on the home for vocabulary acquisition, low-income students find themselves at a distinct disadvantage. According to Hirsch, by second grade, a child in the middle of the family income spectrum will know, on average, 6,020 words. A child in the bottom 25% of the income range will know just 4,168 words. This gap is caused in part by a lack of exposure to adult conversation in low-income households. These adults often work two or three jobs, which limits opportunities for reading stories at bedtime or having discussions around the dinner table. A 1995 study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley showed that, in a typical hour, the average child in a welfare home will hear only 616 words. A child in the average professional home will hear 2,153 words. This disparity creates a significant testing disadvantage for the low-income child.

Strategies for Direct Vocabulary Instruction
To make up for this disparity in vocabulary knowledge, we need to invest in more direct vocabulary instruction during school hours. Many academic programs rely solely on conversation and reading to teach vocabulary, but experts like Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown emphasize the importance of explicitly exposing students to vocabulary in a wide range of contexts and settings.

When it comes to exposures, variety and repetition are key. In Flocabulary’s Word Up vocabulary program, we utilize eight varied exposures in our lesson sequence. These include traditional exposures like reading passages and use in a sentence, but what makes Word Up so successful is the use of creative exposures in engaging contexts. Our use of educational rap songs takes advantage of two of the most tried-and-true mnemonic devices in human history: music and rhyme. Some of the best teachers use music and chants to teach new material, and students find this presentation engaging and accessible.

While music and rhyme are excellent, there are other strategies that can be used to teach a new word. Three simple and effective options are pronunciation (saying the word aloud), charades (acting the word out), and writing (using the word in context).

Pronunciation may seem trivial, but it has a positive physical implication; saying a word actually imprints it on the muscles of the ear and jaw. This is known as kinesthetic learning and should not be overlooked. Beyond muscle memory, saying a word in your own voice can be a first step toward making it your own.

Charades is a powerful strategy because it encourages students to think abstractly about a word and its meaning. For example, in the case of the word “vain,” a student would need to think about what a vain person would do in order to act it out. Maybe that means pantomiming a mirror and gazing into it. Charades is a way of learning the word by being the word, and many reading experts agree that dramatic context is one of the best ways to make vocabulary stick.

Last, but possibly most important, is writing. It’s that pedagogical gold standard that has been a central tenet of everything from Bloom’s Taxonomy to the Common Core State Standards. The writing process calls upon higher-order thinking skills and helps a student transition from being a consumer of information to a producer. This is also known as generative processing and is thought to be a key step in the progression toward word ownership and mastery. Unfortunately, many students dislike writing, so using engaging strategies can be very helpful. One approach is to have students write academic rhymes using a targeted word list. This makes the writing fun and incorporates those great mnemonic techniques.

The key to effective vocabulary instruction is to get creative and find ways to bring words to life. The use of interactive mini-games can be used with word lists to do so.

Breaking Vocabulary Down
Beyond teaching with effective strategies, it’s also important that we’re teaching the right words. Once again, we look to guidance from Beck and McKeown, who have grouped vocabulary into three tiers. According to their system, Tier I words are basic scaffolding words that are often learned through conversation and don’t require much explicit instruction. These are common nouns and verbs like chair, boy, and run. Tier II words are interdisciplinary bridge words that appear across the academic curriculum and can show up in many contexts. These are words like subordinate, abundant, and precious. Tier III words are subject-specific terms that are generally used in only one context and have one meaning. Good examples are hypotenuse, amoeba, and isthmus.

Reading passages on state tests are generally populated by Tier II vocabulary, and these are also the words that students are most likely to encounter in reading assignments across the academic curriculum. Teaching Tier II words prepares students for standardized reading tests.
With this in mind, it is important for teachers to generate Tier II word lists to study and also identify Tier II words that are encountered in reading assignments. One criterion for identifying a Tier II word is determining that the word has multiple uses or applications. A word like precious is a perfect example. A precious gem might be studied in geology, while the concept of something precious could be found in a poem or novel. The goal is to isolate these difficult Tier II words and take time to explicitly teach them using a variety of strategies.

As income disparity continues to grow, the socioeconomic achievement gap will continue to be an issue. While changes in social and education policies will help over time, an emphasis on direct vocabulary instruction is something tangible that we can implement right away. The Common Core State Standards, with their deliberate emphasis on vocabulary in varied contexts, are an encouraging step toward acknowledging the value of vocabulary proficiency, and the national discussion around the importance of vocabulary across the curriculum is beginning to feel like a groundswell. This momentum, coupled with an ever-growing body of supporting research, should be more than enough to motivate us to make a greater investment in explicit vocabulary instruction and take an actionable step toward closing the achievement gap.

Reardon, Sean F. “The widening academic achievement gap between the rich and the poor: New evidence and possible explanations” in R. Murnane & G. Duncan (Eds.), Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality and the Uncertain Life Chances of Low-Income Children, New York: Russell Sage Foundation Press, 2011

Beck, McKeown and Kucan, Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, Guilford Press, New York, 2002

Alex Rappaport is the co-founder and CEO of Flocabulary, a web-based learning tool that uses educational hip-hop music to teach students in grades K-12. Learn more at

May 30th, 2013 | 7 Comments

Dept of Ed Partners with NCFL to Encourage Family Involvement

The National Center for Family Literacy (NCFL) and the U.S. Department of Education today announced a partnership to advance family engagement in education across the country.

During the yearlong partnership, the Department and NCFL will jointly develop and implement strategies to raise the awareness and understanding of effective family and community engagement in education, including how teachers and families can better collaborate to improve student engagement and learning. This will include:

  • Convening community discussions on family engagement with educators, families and community leaders across the country.
  • Identifying and compiling promising practices and program examples for effective family engagement in education, so schools can employ leading practices that work.
  • Gathering feedback on family engagement frameworks from educators, parents, advocates, and others in the education community.
  • Developing and disseminating resource materials to support family and community engagement in education. An example includes NCFL’s Wonderopolis, an award-winning online learning community that engages classrooms and families in the wonder of discovery.

The partnership will extend the Department of Education’s efforts on family engagement and NCFL’s track record of more than 20 years of providing tools and resources for educators and parents to create engaging lifelong learning opportunities for the entire family.

“Increasing family engagement is key to improving schools and neighborhoods across the country. Parents who play an active role in their children’s education – at home, at school and in the community – have a tremendous impact on factors like school readiness, motivation to learn, and study skills, as well as on high school graduation rates and college preparedness,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “We hope this partnership with NCFL will provide much needed support for efforts that will increase family and community engagement in local schools and prepare our children for lifelong success.”

“We see too many communities struggling with how to create meaningful and effective family engagement initiatives,” said Sharon Darling, NCFL president & founder. “Children need to learn in ways that are engaging and relevant to real-life situations, but educators and families tell us they need support to make this happen.

“Simultaneously, the nation’s policy-makers are awakening to the potential of learning beyond the school walls. Through years of experience and talking with parents across the country, we have the recipe for successful family engagement.”

Although no specific provisions have been earmarked for families speaking languages other than English, NCFL programs include the Toyota Family Literacy Program which serves English as a Second Language (ESL) families with children in elementary school, and the Family and Child Education program which serves Native American families with children from birth to grade three and is supported by the Bureau of Indian Education.

Recently, Carolyn Blocker, an educator from Long Beach, California with nearly 25 years of experience, received the NCFL’s 2013 Toyota Teacher of the Year award. Blocker has worked for the past seven years to improve the lives of more than 300 families as a parent education teacher at the Long Beach School for Adults. Blocker and her community’s participants boast numerous achievements, including significant parent engagement and a 90 percent retention of families, despite facing hurdles ranging from economic challenges to language barriers.

Mary Ellen Lesniak, an English as a Second Language adult and family coordinator at the Tolton Center in Chicago, was named The Toyota Teacher of the Year runner-up. Lesniak will receive a $2,500 grant, which she plans to use to purchase iPads for her classroom, as well as a scholarship to attend the conference.

May 10th, 2013 | Leave your comments


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