The Five Essential Components of Reading

Reading is an astoundingly complex cognitive process. While we often think of reading as one singular act, our brains are actually engaging in a number of tasks simultaneously each time we sit down with a book. There are five aspects to the process of reading: phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, reading comprehension and fluency. These five aspects work together to create the reading experience. As children learn to read they must develop skills in all five of these areas in order to become successful readers.

Phonics is the connection between sounds and letter symbols. It is also the combination of these sound-symbol connections to create words. Without phonics, words are simply a bunch of squiggles and lines on a page. If you think about it, letters are arbitrary. There is nothing innately bed-like about the written word “bed”. It is simply the collection of letters and corresponding sounds that we agree constitute the word “bed”. Learning to make that connection between the individual sounds that each letter represents and then putting those together is essential to understanding what that funny squiggle means.

There are a number of ways that phonics can be taught because there is a variety of ways to apply this aspect when reading. Each approach allows the reader to use phonics to read and learn new words in a different way. Synthetic phonics builds words from the ground up. In this approach readers are taught to first connect letters to their corresponding phonemes (sound units) and then to blend those together to create a word. Analytic phonics, on the other hand, approaches words from the top down. A word is identified as a whole unit and then its letter-sound connections are parsed out. Analogy phonics uses familiar parts of words to discover new words. Finally, phonics through spelling focuses on connecting sounds with letters in writing. All of these approaches can be taught and used independently or in combination to help young readers learn to identify new words.

Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is closely related to phonics because both involve the connection between sounds and words. While phonics is the connection between sounds and letters, phonemic awareness is the understanding that words are created from phonemes (small units of sound in language). These may seem like the same thing, but there is a subtle difference in the two. Phonics is used only in written language because it involves letters. Phonemes are sounds only. While they can be represented using letters, they can also be simply the auditory sounds of words. Phonemes are most often learned before a child begins to read because they are centered on the sounds of language rather than written words.

Just like phonics, phonemic awareness can be taught and used in a number of ways. Phoneme isolation involves the reader parsing out the individual sounds in a word in order to determine its meaning. Similarly, phoneme segmentation asks the reader to break words into their corresponding phonemes (which may involve one or more individual sounds) to figure out the new word. Both of these approaches are very similar to synthetic phonics. Phoneme identification relies on the reader’s general knowledge of phonemes (usually developed through speaking) to identify sound patterns in words. For example a reader would identify the phoneme /d/ he knows from the words “dog” and “dad” to help him learn how to read a new word “doctor”. Finally, phoneme blending requires the reader to connect a series of phonemes together to create a word. This strategy is always used in conjunction with one of the others.


In order to read words we must first know them. Imagine how frustrating and fruitless it would be to read this article if all of the words were unfamiliar to you. As children become stronger, more advanced readers they not only learn to connect their oral vocabularies (the words we know when they are spoken) to their reading vocabularies (the words we know when they are used in print) they also strengthen each of these areas by adding new words to their repertoires. Vocabulary development is an ongoing process that continues throughout one’s “reading life”.

There are two primary ways of teaching and learning new vocabulary words. The first is explicit instruction. This involves someone telling you how a word is pronounced and what its meaning is. That “someone” might be a teacher, a dictionary, a vocabulary guide or any other resource offering definitions and pronunciations. Context clues provide another method for discovering new words. Context clues are the “hints” contained in a text that help a reader figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word. They include other words in a sentence or paragraph, text features (ie. bold print, italics), illustrations, graphs and charts. Context clues are basically any item in the text that points to the definition of a new word.


Fluency is a reader’s ability to read with speed, accuracy and expression. Thus it requires him to combine and use multiple reading skills at the same time. While fluency is most often measured through oral readings, good readers also exhibit this skill when they are reading silently. Think about the way a book “sounds” in your mind when you are reading silently. You “hear” the characters “speak” with expression. Even passages that are not written in dialogue “sound” as if the words fit the meaning. A particularly suspenseful action sequence moves quickly through your mind creating a palpable sense of tension. Your ability to move through a piece of text at a fluid pace while evoking the meaning and feeling of it demonstrates your fluency.

Fluency is intimately tied to comprehension. A reader must be able to move quickly enough through a text to develop meaning. If he is bogged down reading each individual word, he is not able to create an overall picture in his mind of what the text is saying. Even if the reader is able to move rapidly through a text, if she cannot master the expression associated with the words, the meaning of it will be lost.

Reading Comprehension (view articles about Reading Comprehension)

Comprehension is what most people think reading is. This is because comprehension is the main reason why we read. It is the aspect of reading that all of the others serve to create. Reading comprehension is understanding what a text is all about. It is more than just understanding words in isolation. It is putting them together and using prior knowledge to develop meaning.

Reading comprehension is the most complex aspect of reading. It not only involves all of the other four aspects of reading, it also requires the reader to draw upon general thinking skills. When a reader is actively engaged with a text, she is asking and answering questions about the story and summarizing what she has read. Like vocabulary, reading comprehension skills develop and improve over time through instruction and practice.

Fostering Reading Comprehension

One of the most complex mental activities we can engage in is reading. When you look at brain scans taken while the subjects are reading you see many of the areas of the brain lit up with activity. As we read we are simultaneously using our knowledge of sound segments (phonemes)  and the connection between sound and letters (phonics) to make meaning of the text (reading comprehension). This last element is the most important and most challenging to develop. Parents and teachers need to explicitly teach reading comprehension skills while at the same time encouraging young readers to keep practicing and honing their skills.

Explicit and Varied Teaching

Because reading comprehension is challenging and multifaceted it must be explicitly taught. Most readers do not infer how to make meaning of texts. They need to be instructed in a variety of strategies for understanding what they are reading. In addition, young readers need to be taught and given opportunities to practice reading comprehension using a variety of texts in a variety of different settings. This is one of the reasons why the partnership between parents and teachers is so important. In the classroom, teachers should work with children as a whole class, in guided reading groups and one-on-one to foster reading comprehension skills. At home, parents can help reinforce and strengthen what their children are learning at school by modeling “real-life” reading (newspapers, Internet, reading books for pleasure) as well as reading with and to their children.

Reading Comprehension Strategies

In order to foster a child’s comprehension of the many types of texts she will encounter, parents and teachers need to equip her with a whole “toolbox” of reading strategies to draw from as needed. While there is an almost infinite number of strategies that we employ as adult readers a core set of reading comprehension strategies provides the foundation for all readers. These are the strategies that adults should explicitly teach young readers to help promote their reading comprehension abilities.


Whether we realize it or not we are constantly asking and answering questions as we read. To foster this behavior in young readers, parents and teachers should model good questioning by asking guiding questions before, during and after children read a text. Before reading questions parents and teachers can ask children to make predictions or activate prior knowledge that will help them comprehend the text. While the child is reading, adults should ask questions to check comprehension as well as to guide understanding. After the child has completed the text we should again ask questions to check for comprehension and to clear up misunderstandings. Adults can foster deeper comprehension and retention by following up basic comprehension “check” questions with those aimed at having children make personal connections with texts as well as analyzing events and characters in the story. Children should also be encouraged to generate and answer their own questions about texts to develop independent questioning skills.

Vocabulary Instruction

Understanding the vocabulary used in a piece of writing is essential to reading comprehension. There are a number of strategies that parents and teachers can teach young readers to help them comprehend new vocabulary. Unfamiliar words can be taught prior to reading the text. This can be formal (a lesson on the definitions of words) or informal (a parent mentioning a new word and its meaning before the child reads). Vocabulary can also be taught as it is encountered in the text. When a child comes to a word that he seems to be struggling with the adult working with him can provide the meaning. This practice works best when working one-on-one with a child. Beyond this, adults can help children develop skills for “conquering” new words independently as they are reading. Teaching children to use context clues (hints about the meaning of an unfamiliar word provided in the sentence or paragraph where it is used) is one of the best ways to help foster independent vocabulary discovery. Also, children can be taught common roots, prefixes and suffixes that they can use to help understand new vocabulary used in a text.


Good readers constantly monitor their comprehension. They check to make sure they are understanding what they are reading and if they do not, they adjust their approach to the text to ensure comprehension. Young readers often do not realize that they need to regularly “check in” with themselves while they are reading. Therefore, it is incumbent upon adults to help them develop these important self-monitoring skills. Prior to reading, parents and teachers should help children activate prior knowledge about the story’s content, choose appropriate reading strategies and understand the reading task. While the child is reading, we can help her reading comprehension by checking for understanding through questioning and encouraging her to use text structure and other strategies to understand the text. Over time children will internalize these monitoring strategies and will be able to practice them independently.


When we read we rarely sit down and formally create a summary of what we’ve read. Still, our minds store a synopsis of the key ideas in a text. Young readers need to be taught how to summarize what they have read to encourage their comprehension and retention. When a reader is able to restate what he has read in his own words he has truly understood it. Parents and teachers can foster this practice by asking children to summarize what they have read during and after they have read a particular text.

Focus and Attention

Reading comprehension cannot occur when the “flow” of reading is repeatedly interrupted. Think about how difficult it is to remember what you have read when sights and sounds prevent you from focusing your attention on a text. Young readers rarely realize the importance of focus and attention in reading. Parents and teachers can help foster good focus and attention by teaching children to eliminate distractions while they are reading. One way to do this is to encourage them to use an index card or a finger to track the words on the page as they are reading. Also, adults can teach children to take periodic breaks from reading to summarize what they have read.

The Role of Motivation in Fostering Reading Comprehension

While building a full “toolkit” of reading strategies is an important element in fostering a reader’s comprehension and retention, it is not the only factor influencing reading development. As with almost any task the learner must be motivated in order to be successful. Parents and teachers can help foster reading comprehension by encouraging their children’s motivation to read. The easiest way to do this is to model enthusiasm for reading. If the adults around them are excited about their own reading as well as the child’s, she is more likely to also become enthusiastic about reading. In addition, adults can talk with children about the importance of reading highlighting what reading has to offer them (i.e. pleasure, information). Beyond this, adults can motivate young readers by helping them pick texts that “speak” to them. Tapping into a child’s personal interests or encouraging them to continue exploring books by a particular author can help sustain a young person’s interest in reading. Along with this, adults should help children pick texts that are “doable”. The reading level of a new story or book should be at or slightly above the child’s independent reading level. When children experience success at reading, they are more likely to continue reading. And when they continue reading their reading comprehension skills will become stronger and stronger.

The Relationship Between Reading and Writing

For many years reading and writing were (and sometimes still are) taught separately. Though the two have almost always been taught by the same person (the English/Language Arts teacher) during the Language Arts period or block, educators rarely made explicit connections between the two for their students. Over the last ten years research has shown that reading and writing are more interdependent than we thought. The relationship between reading and writing is a bit like that of the chicken and egg. Which came first is not as important as the fact that without one the other cannot exist. A child’s literacy development is dependent on this interconnection between reading and writing.

Basically put: reading affects writing and writing affects reading. According to recommendations from the major English/Language Arts professional organizations, reading instruction is most effective when intertwined with writing instruction and vice versa. Research has found that when children read extensively they become better writers. Reading a variety of genres helps children learn text structures and language that they can then transfer to their own writing. In addition, reading provides young people with prior knowledge that they can use in their stories. One of the primary reasons that we read is to learn. Especially while we are still in school, a major portion of what we know comes from the texts we read. Since writing is the act of transmitting knowledge in print, we must have information to share before we can write it. Therefore reading plays a major role in writing.

At the same time practice in writing helps children build their reading skills. This is especially true for younger children who are working to develop phonemic awareness and phonics skills. Phonemic awareness (the understanding that words are developed from sound “chunks”) develops as children read and write new words. Similarly, phonics skills or the ability to link sounds together to construct words are reinforced when children read and write the same words. For older children practice in the process of writing their own texts helps them analyze the pieces that they read. They can apply their knowledge about the ways that they chose to use particular language, text structure or content to better understand a professional author’s construction of his or her texts.

Harnessing the Reading-Writing Relationship to Help Children Learn

Simply knowing that reading and writing are intimately connected processes isn’t enough. In order to help children develop these two essential skills, parents and teachers need to apply this knowledge when working with them. Here are a few strategies for using reading and writing to reinforce development of literacy skills.

Genre Study

One of the most effective ways to use the relationship between reading and writing to foster literacy development is by immersing children in a specific genre. Parents and teachers should identify a genre that is essential to a grade level’s curriculum or is of particular interest to a child or group of children. They should then study this genre with the child(ren) from the reading and writing perspectives. Children should read and discuss with adults high quality examples of works written in the genre focusing on its structure and language as well as other basic reading skills including phonics and comprehension. Once children have studied the genre to identify its essential elements, they should be given opportunities to write in the genre. As they are writing, adults should help them apply what they have learned from reading genre specific texts to guide their composition. This process should be recursive to allow children to repeatedly move between reading and writing in the genre. In the end children will not only have a solid and rich knowledge of the genre, but will also have strengthened their general reading and writing skills.

Reading to Develop Specific Writing Skills

Parents and teachers do not have to engage in an extensive genre study to foster their children’s reading and writing abilities. Texts can be used on limited basis to help children learn and strengthen specific writing skills. Parents and teachers should first identify writing skills that a particular child or group of children need support in developing. For example, many students in a seventh grade class might have difficulty writing attention getting introductions in their essays. One of the most effective ways to help children build specific writing skills is to show and discuss with them models that successfully demonstrate the skill. Adults should select a number of texts where the authors “nail” the area that they want to help their children grow in. For our sample seventh graders we’d want to find several pieces of writing with strong, engaging introductions and read and analyze these with the students. Once children have explored effective models of the skill, they should be given opportunities to practice it. They can either write new pieces or revise previous pieces of writing emulating the authors’ techniques.

Integrating “Sound” Instruction in Reading and Writing

Phonemic awareness and phonics are two of the pillars of reading. Without understanding the connection between sounds and letters, a person cannot read. The connection between reading and writing can help solidify these skills in young readers. Parents and teachers should help children “sound out” words in both their reading and writing. When a child comes to a word in their reading that is unfamiliar, the adult(s) working with her can model or guide her in sounding out the word using knowledge of phonemes (sound “chunks”). Similarly, if a child wants to write a new word the adult(s) can use the same technique to help her choose which letters to write. If the child is younger, accurate spelling is not as important as an understanding of the connection between particular sounds and letters. Therefore helping the child pick letters that approximate the spelling is more appropriate than providing him with the actual spelling. If the child is older and has an understanding of some of the unique variations in the English language (such as silent “e”), the parent or teacher should encourage him to use that knowledge to come up with the spelling of the word.

Choice in Reading and Writing

Another effective method for using the relationship between reading and writing to foster literacy development is simply giving children the choice in their reading and writing experiences. We learn best when we are motivated. If children are always told exactly what to read and what to write, they will eventually either come to see reading and writing as impersonal events or will “shut down”. Often in classrooms, teachers allow children to select their own books to read during independent reading time, but they rarely give them the opportunity to pick their own writing topics. In order to encourage ownership over their reading and writing, children should be given chances to read and write what is interesting and important to them.

Talk About It!

While it may seem like common sense to adults that reading and writing have a lot to do with each other, the connection is not always as apparent to young people. Parents and teachers should explain how the two skills reinforce and strengthen each other. Young people (especially adolescents) often ask their parents and teachers, “Why do I have to learn this?” Here is a perfect opportunity to show the relationship between two essential academic and life skills.

Course planning4


*Gathering feedback from your students using an online, free and customizable survey tool

We know that it is a best practice in higher education to gather feedback from students about their insights into their learning during the semester. The standard course evaluation form does not do this because it comes too late and assesses other things. I recommend registering and using the Student Assessment of their Learning Goals, a free, online survey tool. The site has a standard survey that asks about knowledge, understanding, integration, skills and personal data and a list of many other surveys used by other instructors to give you some ideas. You can also customize the standard survey or create new ones. The results are collated for you and then store the data and your history of use. The url is Using this tool should jump start everyone finding ways to improve their teaching and gathering evidence about how effective they are.


*Summarizing and using feedback on your courses

As the semester winds to an end and you hand in your grades, take time to reflect on how the course went. Read over the feedback you get from the student courses evaluation forms, and comments students, peers, your chairs, etc. made to you during the semester. Think about ways you can improve your course. Not all feedback makes sense and some you cannot act upon.

You might make a 1 page summary of the feedback and your analysis for each course by constructing a table with 4 columns at the top of the page and leaving some room at the bottom of the page. The first column might have different headings such as topic covered, activities and assessments, or what ever you want to comment on. The final part of the sheet should summarize your action plan. Then place this summary on the top of your file or save it along with your ANGEL materials for each course.

Summary of Feedback of Course _________ Semester ______ Year ____

topic Number of students who felt positive about this topic Number of students who felt negative about this topic Comments for improvement

Action plan: How I will improve the course the next time I teach it.

*Get more meaningful feedback from student course evaluations

Nationally faculty are reporting that online course evaluation forms results in fewer students completing the forms. The up side to the online course evaluations forms is that sometimes students write more or better quality comments online than on paper.

If you want to get more students to complete the form for your class and if you want comments, you might send the students a message or tell them in person how important the course evaluation forms are for you. You can appeal to them on the basis of needing complete information to improve the course. If you are especially interested in feedback on one aspect of the course you could communicate this to the students. While we use a standard course evaluation form, you certainly can develop your own brief form and ask students to complete it online.

*Organizers to help students learn the material and see the big picture

Novices think, read and study differently than experts in your field. Our job as teachers is to help students acquire the thought processes to help them become more like experts in the discipline. There are lots of ways of doing this. One effective technique involves the use of organizing schemes. All disciplines have schemes or major themes that integrate most of the content in the discipline. Teachers need to make these organizing schemes explicit to the students on our syllabi, through assignments and learning activities. When you give out the syllabus, begin the discussion of this your course around organizing schemes. Point out how the activities and assignments or assessment relate to the organizing schemes. You can do the same with the textbook or required readings. You can ask the students to show in a diagram or concept map how the materials relates to the organizing schemes.

*Getting some feedback on how well the course is going

About the half-way point in the semester it is a good idea to gather some feedback on how well the course is going. The cardinal rule about getting feedback include: be judicious in what you ask (keep it simple and easy to complete), do not ask for information you cannot change (such as departmental policy that you are enforcing), and ask students to comment on specific aspects of the course so that you can make some mid-course corrections.

If some continuing aspect of the course is not going as well as you like, such as class participation, you might want to get the students’ ideas on how you can change the course so that the students will contribute more to class discussions. You could ask them if giving them a study guide or questions in advance would help, or if they pair and share and then report would get them to engage more with the questions in advance would help, or if they pair and share and then report would get them to engage more with the questions. Do they want to be called on randomly, such as giving each students a playing card and then pulling cards from the deck, let students call on other students or asking the dominating ones to say less? In addition to specific ideas, please ask the students for their ideas in an open-ended question as they will come up with ideas you never thought of.

Once you get this feedback, either discuss how you will use it or make obvious changes and tell the students that you changed as a result of their feedback. This completes the loop.

*Getting feedback from your students using an online, free and customizable survey tool

We know that it is a best practice in higher education to gather feedback from students about their insights into their learning during the semester. The standard course evaluation form does not do this because it comes too late and assesses other things. I recommend registering and using the Student Assessment of their Learning Goals, a free online survey tool. The site has a standard survey that asks about knowledge, understanding, integration, skills and personal data and a list of many other surveys used by other instructors to give you some ideas. You can also customize the standard survey or create new ones. The results are collated for you and they store the data and your history of use. The url is Using this tool should jump start everyone finding ways to improve their teaching and gathering evidence about how effective they are.

*Making sure your students understand what is expected of them in your course

About the second or third week of the semester, find out if your students have any questions about your course. You could also ask the students to re-read the syllabus and other handouts such as descriptions of assignments and projects before you ask students to respond to you.

You might create a discussion board on Angel and let the students ask questions about the course, and let them answer each others’ questions. You might respond if they have the wrong idea or if only you would know the answer to the questions.

You could also ask students to email you such questions or spend the last few minutes of the next class asking students to write their questions. Then either go over the questions in class or develop a comprehensive answer sheet.

Doing this activity is especially important if students came into your class and after the first day or if you are doing non-traditional activities or assessments in the course.

*Doing teaching completely and fully

Lee Shulman, the recently retired president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and someone who has greatly shaped my thinking says that the full act of teaching includes vision, design, enactment, outcomes and analysis.

It is important that we focus on all of these aspects throughout our teaching. It is easy to forget one or more aspects and concentrate on just the enactment while we are engaged in day to day aspects of teaching. Teaching lacks a purpose of focus without a vision. Design requires that we look at how well the pieces fit together so that the entire course is integrated. Enactment is the actual interaction with students, or implementing the plans. Outcomes relate to student learning, change in attitude or values or perceptions. Teaching remains incomplete without analysis. It is only with analysis of what we have done that we can see if we achieved our vision, if the design was appropriate, if we need to change how we teach and if the students reached the outcomes we wanted them to reach.

*Allowing students to have one mishap per course and be forgiven

At the beginning of the semester hand each student a small colored card with the words printed on it, “Stuff Happens”) a line to fill in the date, assignment/activity and student name. Each students can use it only once for whatever fairly minor bad stuff that happens such as missing a required class, asking for a short extension on an assignment, coming without the necessary equipment, etc. Students do not get a second one and cannot give them away. If no bad stuff happens, then they can trade in their card for a small bonus, such as a few points on the final exam.

*Helping students do well in courses that require judgment

I read an interesting article published in AMSTAT news from September 2008 that called, “Match is Music, Statistics is Literature” given to me by the statistics folks here. It pointed out why students have difficulty learning and doing well in statistics. I started thinking what many other faculty on other disciplines can learn from how to teach statistics. Many of our students have trouble with courses that require more than just memorizing or plugging in formulas. If we want our students to employ good judgment, we must help them to know how to challenge the creditability of data and they must be encouraged to look for bias in information or reading. We need to give students a model or models of how to do the above things and we especially need to give them practice actually doing them prior to testing them on their mastery of these skills.

*Helping students overcome misconceptions that interfere with accurate understanding

Students, and people in general, have misconceptions about the disciplines we expect them to learn. These misconceptions must be overcome for students to achieve true understanding of the discipline. These misconceptions must be overcome for students to achieve true understanding of the discipline. Just talking about misconceptions or even providing correct information will not be enough to overcome firmly held misconceptions. To help students overcome their misconceptions or even providing correct information will not be enough to overcome firmly held misconceptions. To help students overcome their misconceptions, student need to confront their misconceptions, and compare them to the correct information. They need to think about the content in a different way. Students need to see why the correction information is more plausible. Annette Kujawski Taylor of the University of San Diego proposes that we develop or find refutational texts that the students should read and discuss. Standard textbooks are not refutational. Refutational texts directly address misconceptions by comparing it with correct information and most important its supporting evidence. If you would like examples of refutational texts and of common misconceptions I can send you a copy of the presentation, complete with many references, from her Lilly-East presentation in June 2010 in College Park.

*Making your syllabi more encouraging and inviting for students

As you may know, I did a student our syllabi. As a rule, they appear very negative and punitive. There are often lists of requirements that talk about consequences for not meeting them, many negative statements and a rather harsh tone. This may give the impression that we do not want our students to succeed, that we do not care, or that we control everything. The consequences is that students do not think they have control over their education. This also leads to the students becoming strategic learners (doing what is necessary to pass the course or get a good grade, without caring about learning). Instead we should strive for deep learning or learning with meaning and full engagement of the students. As you construct your syllabi, try to be as positive as possible. Instead of demands, you might invite students to participate in a most worthwhile educational journey with significant learning opportunities along the way. Describe the content and what they will be doing with enthusiasm. Allow the students t make some decisions over how the course will be run (such as when a paper is due, either at the beginning or end of a week). Describe the advantages of coming to class having already read the material.

The gist of these ideas come from Ken Bain’s 2004 book, What the Best College Teachers Do.

*Helping students use textbooks more effectively

Students and faculty tend to view textbooks differently. Students see textbooks as the ultimate truth and the compendium of all knowledge. They do not realize that textbooks can be outdated with new information, and they can have a bias. As a faculty member you may not agree with how material is discussed. It is your role to help students to see textbooks as reference material and just one of many sources of information. You need to point out where the textbook is not accurate or where there are controversial material.

Of course all of this applies in an even bigger way to what they find on the web. The beginning of a semester is a good time to discuss how to read and view the textbook.

*Connecting with your students 1:1 as human beings

Research has shown that students do better in higher education when they personally connect with others, especially their faculty. In addition, in civility markedly decreases when students know their faculty more as human beings.

Here are a few approaches to help you and your students connect.

  1. Post on your Angel website or describe on the first day of class some personal things about yourself that you might be willing to share. This could include your hobbies, an interesting vacation you took, your roles within the university outside of this class, etc.
  2. Regardless of the size of your class, ask your students to develop a personal ad about them and submit it to you alone. This ad should include personal likes, dislikes, interesting things about themselves, hobbies, goals for the class, strengths and weaknesses as a student and learner. You could also include more specific questions that you want them to answer.
  3. If your class is small ask each student to schedule an 8 minute appointment with you during the first few weeks of the semester (and strictly enforce the schedule ) by handing out an appointment sheet that has 10 minute intervals. Send the appointment sheet out several times so students can confirm or change their appointments.
  4. If your class is larger and will be working in groups, try to set up group appointments in the same way. You might need slightly more time for group appointments.
  5. During these appointments, provide a relaxed atmosphere and tell the students this is an opportunity to get to know each other as human beings and to help students to feel comfortable talking to you. Review the personal ads and share common interests. Concentrate on learning the students names in these appointments. Ask the students if they have any questions about the course.
  6. If this is an online class, you can meet with each student virtually.

I was reminded of these ideas by Christy Hawkins at Thomas Nelson Community College.

Best wishes with the beginning of the semester. Setting the right tone early pays dividends throughout the semester.

Course planning3

*Planning your course to help students acquire the thinking skills of the discipline

The nature of the discipline, the process of critical thinking in a discipline is just as important as the material and concepts in your discipline. However, we often tend to give these skills and processes less emphasis in our day to day teaching. So now that you are planning or revising your courses, plan time within the schedule to go over how you think in this discipline. Role model what you do by thinking out loud as you solve problems. Students don’t get the thinking process naturally if they just hear about the content or see experts solving problems easily; however, once they understand the thinking process within the discipline, the content will come much easier to them. This emphasis on role modeling critical thinking skills applies at all levels of courses as the critical thinking skills required varies with the complexity of the material.

*Alignment of Skill Requirement.ppt

Best educational practice models say that students learn more when a course is aligned. Alignment means that the objectives, teaching-learning methods and assessment methods are consistent and coherent. Roger Ideishi developed a beautiful series of graphics to show when a course is aligned and when it is not aligned. He is using these slides in conjunction with the workshops on general education. However, they apply to all courses and not just those with skills. His slides are attached.

*Beginning to do scholarship on your teaching

If you have innovated or find a part of your teaching interesting, you can begin to do some scholarship on your teaching. Start with a question you would like to find the answer to, or think of a way to show that the improvements you make in your courses have been worth making . Then gather data on it.

*Making your course more aligned and more explicit to your students

As you finish off the semester, review your course to make sure that your objectives, teaching/learning activities, and assessments are consistent. Alignment means that if you have evaluation or problem solving as a goal for the course, you give students opportunities to practice these skills and that you assess the students on these skills. A lack of alignment would be is the assessments did not match the level of the goals. At the end of the course review what actually happened compared to what you hoped would happen. Note where you need to make further alignment. Perhaps you need to change how you assess the students toward more projects using authentic assessment (mimics what practitioners do).

Then the next time you teach this course discuss on the first day how your course is aligned. You might want to show your students that the course is aligned in the syllabus. Students will accept why you are asking them to do something if they see is as congruent with the goals of the course.

Aligned courses lead to more learning.

*Teaching models to revise as you plan for next time you teach

Many faculty use a hub and spoke model of course management without even thinking of it. The instructor is the hub because students look to the instructor guidance, feedback, information, assessment. They even answer questions just directed to you and make presentations to you. When you plan your course the next time try not to use the hub and spoke model. Instead diffuse the center by having students look to each for information, for assessment, feedback. Discussions need not be directed by you. As you plan your course, ask yourself, would a hub and spoke diagram work for what I am doing or asking students to do.

*Essential aspects of course planning

When you are planning your course, think of the most important aspects/concepts/values of what you want to cover in the course. One way to do this is to think what you would cover, do or ask the students to do if they only had 3 hours to devote to this topic. This usually gives you the real essential aspects. Then plan your course around this theme.

*Making the implied more visible and constant in your syllabus and first day of class

When we develop our syllabi and our grading policies they make sense to us and often follow from what we believe to be the correct way to teach this course. However, we may not make our logic clear to the students. We might need to elaborate on the implications of our policies. For example:

  • If a professor’s grading policy puts a heavy emphasis on class participation, group work, or written assignments, then that professor probably wants students to be creative, to engage in dialogue, and to interpret texts freely Students may not realize this unless you tell them. However, some times we can give the wrong message by our grading policies. for example.
  • If the grading system is simply an average of two of three test scores, with no emphasis on participation or interactivity, then some students might assume that the professor would almost rather the students not show up for class and get the notes from a friend. So we need to be sure we are being consistent with our messages and our goals. 

*Getting students to understand the relationships among concepts

While experts often see relationships among objects, novices often fail to see these relationships. One reason why novices do not see these relationships is they do not know what should be compared. We often summarize relationships into compare and contrast type tables. In order for students to understand what we mean by compare and contrast, we need to explicitly explain what we mean. We need to help students to understand what are the appropriate criteria that they can use for valid comparison and help students see the big picture.

Some of these ideas come from Virginia Anderson of Townsend University.

*Getting course-specific evaluation information from your students

If you are interested in learning about how your students felt about course-specific activities, such as a unique assignment or a different method of assessment, ask your students to complete a brief survey on these points. This semester you will have to ask your students to complete this survey separate from the university wide course evaluation form. We will be using online, standard course evaluation forms this semester and you will not be able to ask additional questions on these forms this semester (we hope to be able to do so in the future).

Also you might remind your students to complete the online course evaluation form since it will not be given out in class.

*On the first day of class help your students to see the overall consistency in your course

When you plan your course you want to align your objectives with the teaching/learning activities and with what and how you assess your students. This is considered a best practice in education because it leads to increased learning. While you may align your course or make it internally consistent, students may not see this overall integration or alignment. Therefore, you want to make this alignment explicit to the students. You should explain how the course is aligned to the students on the first day and describe it in the syllabus. You might put a table in to show your alignment of objectives, teaching/learning activities and assessment.

*Do your students understand your syllabus and know what will be expected of them?

After the first class or first few classes, you might want to be sure your students have read and understand the syllabus for your course. You might want to do a syllabus check as an online quiz or a short assignment. This assessment can count a little toward their participation grade.

*Getting students’ ideas on how you can improve your course and how they learned.

Toward the end of the semester, ask students to reflect on your course. You might ask them to describe how they learned in this course. What they found confusing, what worked well or suggestions for improvement for the next time you teach this course.

Read over the suggestions and before the last class, thank the students for their feedback and tell them some of the changes you are considering as a result of their feedback. This is also a time to check on the accuracy of your perceptions of what they said. Completing this feedback loop is a models good communication and shows them that you took their comments seriously.

*An activity for the first day of class to find out what concerns the students about your class

Students may have heard rumors about you or your class. They want to hear the truth, but do not have the nerve to ask you directly. Here is a brief activity to answer their concerns.

Ask each student to write their concerns, questions about the course or about you on a piece of paper. Then ask the class to stand up and quickly introduce themselves (name only) to six other people as they exchange papers. After six switches, no one will know who wrote what on the paper. Then ask the students to form small groups of about 5 students each and to pick the questions or concerns that they also want to know about from the papers they are holding. You can address their fears without knowing who expressed them

Good luck getting ready for the semester to start.

*Should you provide students with complete lecture notes? No

Research shows that students learn more when they do not receive complete lecture notes. The process of taking notes in their own words helps students to learn. If you want to help students to learn give them a partial set of notes with major title or headings or an outline where the students have to fill in more details.

Reference: Cornelius & Owen-DeSchryver (2008) Differential effects of full or partial notes on learning outcomes and attendance. Teaching of Psychology, 35 (1), 6-12

*Trying innovations, get feedback and make corrections

If you are trying something new in your courses. Assess how well it is going by determining if the students are learning from it, and if they like it. Once you have the feedback, you can make mid-course corrections, if necessary. If the innovation is a complete failure, abandon it and tell the students why you are not continuing its use. Usually you can find ways to improve it and not abandon it.

*Helping students find what you posted on Angel

Students think differently than we do and navigate Angel sites differently. When students do not find what they are looking for they either get frustrated or contact you right away. If you are adding content, either as attachments, or as links to your material on Angel, please post it several places or at least make reference to it in several places. You might put in under the lesson and the communication tabs.

This tip comes from Jeff Swain, of Penn State University who gave a day long presentation on using Angel more effectively. The plenary part of his presentation is is available on this link.

*Making sure your students understand what is expected of them in your course

About the second or third week of the semester, find out if your students have any questions about your course. You could also ask the students to re-read the syllabus and other handouts such as descriptions of assignments and projects before you ask students to respond to you.

You might create a discussion board on Angel and let the students ask questions about the course, and let them answer each others questions. You might respond if they have the wrong idea or if only you would know the answer to the question.

You could also ask students to email you such questions or spend the last few minutes of the next class asking students to write their questions. Then either go over the questions in class or develop a comprehensive answer sheet.

Doing this activity is especially important if students come into your class after the first day or if you are doing non-traditional activities or assessments in the course.

Course planning2

*Getting students to read and have ownership over the syllabus

I have often heard faculty complain that students do not read their syllabi and they ask questions that are contained in the document. To get the students to read and take ownership over the syllabus hand out a draft syllabus with certain points left for the students to decide. Students can have a say over deadlines for projects, dates for tests within a few days, or even how much weight, within a range, specific assessments will count. Students can be asked to modify or add policies, but you still get the final veto. Class time during the first class can be devoted to discussing some of these points and the discussion can be continued after the class period ends. If you are using Blackboard, students can have a discussion between the first and second class of the decision they have to make. Without an electronic discussion system that all can read, they can communicate with you by email. Before the second class you should determine the consensus. You can also give a bonus point or 2 if the students correct mistakes in the document, or if they identify areas that need further clarification.

*Helping to balance the power in your classes

To achieve learning-centered teaching the instructor needs to look at the balance of power between themselves and the students. Some possible ways to do is to consider:

Faculty can share power with students to determine how individual classes are conducted, how material is learned (not what material is learned).
What opinions are expressed, etc. Yet we cannot give up power as to how an entire course is run.
Faculty power comes from the authority our university has given us as the instructor.
We can share power but we can never share authority.

The idea of the distinction between power and authority comes from D. Fink’s book, Teaching with your mouth shut, 2000 Heinemann Publishers.

*Getting mid-course feedback on your class

About half way through the semester it is a good idea to get a read on what the students think of your course. Ask your students to write their answers to a few questions on topics that you can change or make mid-course corrections. You might consider asking about how fair (in terms of aligned with objectives or what you say will be on the test is on the test) your tests are (not how difficult are your tests), your pacing in your classes, clarification of difficulty concepts, availability to answer questions, etc. Once you get their feedback address their concerns in class or on Blackboard and indicate if you will be making any changes as a result of what they told you. Some things you may not be able to change or want to change, but it still worth letting your students know you recognize their concerns. Students will appreciate you more as a teacher and value your class more because you showed them you care about them.

*Does the amount of content taught influence how well students understand the material

Thirty years of research strongly indicates that the more content taught in a course, the more students rely on memorization and the less they learn with understanding or acquire deep learning in the discipline. Decide what is the essential content that you need for the students to learn, and cut the rest out of your course. Then work with students to learn to use the content and not for you to cover the content.

*How to plan time allotment for a course

Most of us plan courses in terms of how many hours the students spend in class. However, the unit that we should be using is learning time, not class time. The general wisdom is that for every hour spent in class students in undergraduate courses are supposed to spend 3 hours out of class and perhaps more for graduate classes. Therefore, for a three hour per week of classroom time, the students really should have 9 hours of learning time per week for that class. Now divide the 9 hours into what students can do on their own (often learned material), what should be done with others (such as discussions), what a teacher is needed for (such as answering questions or doing demonstrations or modeling problem solving or learning to learn in the discipline). Plan your weekly schedule based upon the total learning time and the type of activities needed to learn the course objectives and where they should be done. This might lead you to plan class time very differently. Students should be made aware of this change in thinking and oriented to the concept of learning time. This might help them to spend more time on your course outside of class.

Chris Knapper of the UK and now in Canada introduced me to the concept of learning time.

*Being supportive of our students in their differences in the time they need to master skills

If you are assessing students on their skills, give the students several opportunities during the semester to demonstrate these skills, provided they are independent skills and not ones that build on each other. Some students take longer than others to learn skills and others may not more than one attempt to demonstrate mastery.

This tip come from Margie Roos in PT and was mentioned at the last TableTalk on being supportive of our students. Many other good ideas also come out, so attend the next discussion on Tuesday, January 18th.

*Using a bingo card concept to increase student interaction with the content and decrease procrastination

This is a more complex tip than usual, but I think it is worth trying.

Create a bingo card with cells giving the types of additional activities you want the student to do to help them engage in the regular and consistent interaction with the content necessary to really retain it. Examples for the cells might include:

  • you might ask the students to create a 20 item crossword puzzle, with the answer provided, on the terms used in a chapter
  • ask five intelligent questions pertaining to the class material during a class
  • have > 95% class attendance
  • find a website that is accurate about a concept discussed in the textbook etc.

Distribute the bingo card at the beginning of the semester and let the students know that this is an optional assignment.

When a student shows proof that he completed the activity the instructor marks the box. Prizes are given when people complete a line or several lines. Prizes can be to drop the lowest quiz grade, can bring a study sheet with information to the final exam or adding 5 points to the final exam score. The irony is that students who get the most lines probably will not need the prizes because the extra work they did helped them to master the material. However, the motivation to earn the prize may have helped them to engage in the content more and to decrease their procrastination.

This tip was adapted from Amy Jo Sutterluety, Bingo Games Decreases Procrastination, Increase Interaction with Content. The Teaching Professor, Nov. 2002: 16 (9) 5-6.

*Maximizing student learning

As you are preparing or revising syllabi, prioritize what you do, what you ask students to do and especially what you do while with the students (i.e., in the classroom) to maximize student learning. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Information can be disseminated many ways beside through a lecture, consider posting material to read, giving students access to websites or course auxiliary materials to illustrate concepts
  • While students are in the classroom, have them engage in the material by solving problems, asking you questions, or answering questions. You can use the time to check on their mastery of the material, to help them to learn better or clarify misconceptions
  • Ask students to check each other’s homework, discuss their differences and then have an opportunity to redo their improved/corrected solutions (have them hand in both versions). This might be done out of class.
  • Use blackboard to give self-assessment quizzes with the answers explained after the deadline for doing it
  • Give students assignments that prepare them to come to class ready to engage in the material. Use class to reinforce or apply content not to go over what was covered in the assignment
  • Give students explicit criteria on how you will grade papers, projects, etc. in advance of when they complete the assignment.
  • Give students opportunities to give each other formative feedback either prior to or instead of you reviewing every product (especially homework problems).
  • Allow students to give feedback using your criteria on drafts and then you will receive better papers

If you incorporate some of these ideas, you might need to adjust the balance in your syllabus or consider the total picture of what you are doing in the course.

*Reviewing how the courses went as you finish the semester

As you hand in grades, take a little time to review how your courses went and write some notes to yourself. Try to analyze where the students had difficulty-identify the concepts they had trouble learning, the assignments or activities they seemed to have a hard time understanding or doing, etc. Look at the directions you gave students for exams or assignments and check that they were clear. Finally record what went especially well. As you revise your courses for the next time you offer these courses, these notes will help jog your memory.

*Developing prerequisite courses that meet the expectations of the instructors of advanced courses

If you are teaching a course that is a prerequisite for more advanced courses, talk to the instructors of these courses. Find out the essential knowledge (topics or concepts), skills and attitudes that they want your students to acquire in your course. You might find that you are covering material that they do not care about or some topics might need further emphasis. Then plan your course to be a good match with what they want without and what you think should be covered.

*Making sense of students’ complaints that the instructor or the course was unfair

Research shows that students complain that a course or an instructor was unfair when there is a disconnect among the goals or objectives of the class, such as how the students were taught, what the students were expected to do and how they were assessed. Courses that are aligned or consistent in all of these areas are more likely to be perceived as fair. Students might think they they are too difficult or too challenging, but fair if they are aligned.

*Getting meaningful feedback from your students that is separate from course evaluations

If you want to gather some individualized feedback at the end of a course, ask the students to complete a couple of questions that you would like to know more about.

Leslie Bowman suggests the following questions:

  • What did you find most useful in the course?
  • What is the most valuable lesson or content you learned from this course?
  • Is there something that the instructor should be informed about concerning his/her teaching style?

Keep these questions separate from the course evaluation forms that students need to complete. This should be formative feedback just for you.