Life Imitates Chart

Hello Again!
This week chartchums has been all over the map, metaphorically and literally. Marjorie attended the annual NCTE conference held in Las Vegas, and chartchums guest posted on the amazing blog: Two Writing Teachers. You can check it out here. We posted some charting thoughts on Non-Fiction writing, which many teachers will be beginning soon. Two Writing Teachers also has a review of Smarter Charts and a Smarter Charts Book giveaway! Check out the blog for tons of useful information about the teaching of writing.

Since we touched base on some of the upcoming literacy work in that guest blog, we decided to dedicate the post this week to other types of classroom charts, and ways they can be used to create an independent, active, and inspiring classroom.

Community Building and Classroom Management

A few weeks ago Kristi posted some charts from her classroom to help with classroom management, most notably the “Glitch-Bummer-Disaster” chart (which was so thoughtfully created and shared by Kat Cazes, another kindergarten teacher at PS 59 in Manhattan). Many teachers asked to see a better picture, so here it is again:

Children come to the area where this chart is posted and decide which kind of problem they have, then select which solution they will try. Underneath the “bummer” ask a teacher is listed as an option of last resort, and one that has not been used lately. There were many class discussions around what constituted a disaster, and there has yet to be (knock on wood) any classroom disasters. In a case of “life imitating chart” a parent told Kristi that when her son and another child from the class were playing over the weekend, they encountered a “glitch” and created a solution center in the corner to talk it out.

In the weeks since the creation and usage of the “Glitch-Bummer-Disaster” chart, one issue has arisen, which is that children are having a hard time communicating how someone’s actions have affected them. Often the talk in the solution center  was a list of what happened and the recurring prompt was, “and how did that make you feel?” To help children gain more language and comfort with expressing their feelings, some of the read alouds in the intervening weeks have been about feelings, and the ways to talk about them. The Pigeon Series and The Elephant and Piggie Series (both by Mo Willems) are classroom favorites, and clear examples of feelings that become too big to handle. The class began to create scales of feelings (for more on this see the post on vocabulary). This was the resulting chart:

The pictures come from the above-mentioned series and go in order of least intense to most intense from left to right. The class started by first trying to use this chart to talk about feelings that resulted from particular actions. Next the class is working on ways to change feelings. On this blog we talk a great deal about helping children feel like active participants in their academic life; the same is also true of their emotional life. It is important to Kristi that her students see that one can change how they feel and name what they need to make that happen. This is the beginning of that chart:

This chart is in the beginning stages. Children are co-creating  signs of things they may need to feel okay. Among the ideas generated by the students are: a hug, you to stop, and a drink of water (the miracle cure!). Currently these two charts are hanging by the rug, where they can be used for role playing and during class community meanings, but soon they will head to the area by the solution center, where they can be used in the context of problem solving. The big idea here, the one we want to stick, is that everyone will have problems, but you have the power to solve them and to make your life and the classroom community a better, happier place.


For the past five years, Kristi has eaten, drank, and dreamed literacy, so it was a bit of shock to be teaching math once again. She was helped along a great deal by the wise folks at Math in The City (a math professional development organization based at the City College of New York) Math in the City adheres to many of the principles of workshop teaching, and focuses on building number sense and problem solving, not just the memorization of algorithms. One way to do this is through meaningful daily routines, especially attendance. This is Kristi’s attendance chart:

It is a laminated piece of posterboard with thirty squares. The squares are in rows of ten, with five red and five white making up the row. This is based on a tool called the rekenrek, which was designed to help children understand the relationship between numbers. Every day children come in and put their first initial in one of the boxes (it is partially erased in this picture) and Kristi asks, “How many friends are here today?” In the beginning children said things like, “64!” But in the last few weeks, these kindergarten children have begun to develop different strategies to help them answer this question more efficiently.

In an attempt to help other children sample these alternate strategies, Kristi charted them. The strategies are named for the children who used them (the chart now has photos of the children next to their names). The first strategy, named by the child who tried it, has a speech bubble saying, “Count by 1’s” and then an illustration of what that looks like. When children use this strategy they say they are using ____’s strategy. The strategies then become more sophisticated, with the next strategy involving jumps of ten, and the final one counting back from 30 (since there are ALWAYS thirty squares, according to the student). Just like literacy strategy charts, we have one big skill: counting the number of students, and several strategies to do it. Just like in writing or reading, children select the one they understand and are ready for, and there is room to add new ones as they develop.

Writing… Because We Could Not Resist

Last, but not least, lets look at a few writing charts. Right now in Kristi’s kindergarten classroom, children are writing for many purposes. The most exciting part of this unit has been the increased independence and reliance on the charts and tools in the classroom.

First up: types of writing. The class went on a walk and took photos of different kinds of writing in the school. Children use this as a constant resource for what they will write.

Types of writing in the school.

A child using the samples to think about what type of writing he will make next

Symbols to make sign making more effective

The most popular of all the types of writing has been signs and charts, so to support students, a chart was created of popular symbols that students could use to help their signs and charts become more effective and readable to the public. This teaching resulted in signs that overran the classroom, home and school:

  • No smoking (now hanging on the school gates)
  • No Moms Allowed (hanging on a child’s bedroom door)
  • No running (hanging in the hallways outside the classroom)

And the ever useful:

  • No kicking in the penis (to hang up during wrestling matches at home)

Since signs have become so very popular, it has been a great opportunity to work on adding letters and sounds into writing, since most signs have pictures AND words. To help children do this, a variety of strategies have been taught and charted:

Just like the math chart above, there is a big skill and a variety of options for children to select from to create powerful writing. As children turn to charts across disciplines, times of the day, and for a variety of purposes, they learn that help is often just a glance away. Now granted, there are always hard days and easy days in any classroom, but bit by bit when we create and use tools that empower children, we help them learn to help themselves. Across reading and writing, across the day, and hopefully in life. And that is one way we want life to imitate charts.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday, safe travels, and of course: Happy Charting!
Kristi Mraz and Marjorie Martinelli

Vocabulary Visuals – Using Charts to Help Make Words Stick

On Friday, Marjorie presented a workshop at Teachers College on vocabulary acquisition with Ken Pransky. Ken is the author of Beneath the Surface: The Hidden Realities of Teaching Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Young Learners K-6 ( ) and My Fantastic Word Book: Young Student Thesaurus. The student thesaurus is a wonderful resource for vocabulary acquisition that uses graphics, font size and pictures (the key elements of any good chart) to illustrate useful vocabulary. The words are clustered by meaning or placed on a continuum to show gradations of intensity. The book is currently only available through the Collaborative for Educational Services (, but will also be available from Amazon soon.

Teaching academic vocabulary, or the vocabulary of school, is something every teacher pays attention to, but is often an area of concern, and even frustration, when students don’t seem to internalize and use the words taught each and every week. While immersion is important, it is not enough because the teacher is doing most of the work. Ken Pransky advises teachers, “Never work harder than your students!” and this could not be more true than when it comes to teaching vocabulary. Just think about how much time you spend choosing words, making worksheets, designing crossword puzzles, and grading spelling tests. What are the kids doing? Often they are the passive receivers of all this information, not active participants or creators.

In Smarter Charts we talk about the power of visuals, or the picture superiority effect, for enhancing recall beyond that of words alone, especially when exposure time is limited (and in schools, time is always limited!). Using limited, but strong graphic elements like bolding, font size, and symbols can also make information compelling and memorable. This is why we are so excited by Ken’s My Fantastic Word Book. It makes use of all of these elements to show children how to expand upon overly used adjectives and verbs.

An example of words that describe from My Fantastic Words Book by Ken Pransky.

We have also talked about making things memorable by using music, chanting, and rhyme (Smarter Charts, p. 47-51) just like advertisers do to make their products stick in your brain. Ken refers to the stuff that makes things stick in your brain as “goop” or the myelin sheath. And it is repetition and practice that helps make things stick. Teaching through songs and jingles is one way to do this, and then pair it up with gestures and hand signals to really reinforce the concept or word. During the vocabulary workshop Ken asked teachers to come up with songs using familiar tunes to teach some key academic vocabulary that we often assume kids understand, when in reality they often do not. Here is a song Kat Yanez shared to the tune of “The Bear Went Over the Mountain.”

Infer, so we can make meaning (repeat x3)

We read between the lines.

 What can we figure out?

What are these words about?

Infer so we can make meaning

We read between the lines.

Charts can support the teaching of vocabulary by making a visual record of what is being taught and learned. Reading aloud picture books and chapter books is a great way to highlight the power of vocabulary to impact readers, whether narrative or informational, and to anticipate what will be needed to strengthen children’s reading and writing. For example, we often find young writers using very passive verbs in their writing, like “I went to the park” or “I was eating pizza.” So teaching vivid verbs might become one possible vocabulary focus when reading aloud. The chart below is the start of a chart showing three verbs the teacher and the students noticed upon a second reading of Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts. They talked about how the words were used and what the words meant. Then the students were asked to be on the lookout for these words across the day – when they saw them or used them when reading, writing, or talking. One thing that ended up being discussed was how certain words showed up more often or were used more often than others. Using the words when talking is extremely important as a precursor to using the words in writing.

This chart captures some verbs the author, Maribeth Boelts, used to make her writing more “vivacious.”

Shared reading is another component of balanced literacy that can be used to highlight vocabulary and show ways to develop word meanings. One thing that Ken Pransky pointed out was that when teaching children to use context clues to figure out a word, the text should be at a just right level. In other words, children should know 18-19 out of 20 words before having them guess meaning from context. Below are some examples from big books where this has been done during shared reading.  The teacher, Kelly Holt, returned to some words that her children did not seem to understand clearly. For example, on the page that said, “You can clean a car.” the children kept saying “wash” instead of “clean.” In this case, it was the syntax, more than the meaning, that seemed to cause some confusion.  The teacher used a wikki stix to highlight the word and point to the clue in the picture to show how to figure out what the author meant.

Using the picture to help understand the use of the word ‘clean’ in this sentence.

On another page, it was the meaning of the word that was unfamiliar.  Most children had never gone snorkeling or if they had ever seen a snorkel, did not know what it was called. In this case, the teacher was teaching the name of something, but it is not a vocabulary word that is high on the list of important nouns to learn.

The red line connects the word ‘snorkel’ with the picture of a snorkel.

In a second grade classroom, shared reading was used to show children how to use a glossary to figure out word meanings, but to add to it using their own words. In the case of the word extinguish, the glossary defined the word as “to put out.” The children used the picture to add to that definition, saying “to blow out.” Using their own words and understandings helps them to take more ownership of the word.

Placing the glossary definition in context with the text, Fire by Luana K. Mitten and Mary M. Wagner

Interactive writing is another component that can help children become more confident vocabulary users. We often find that children may use certain vocabulary in their spoken language, but don’t use the words in their writing. This is often because they are insecure about the spelling and afraid to take risks. Interactive writing provides a nice scaffold and a safe place to try things out in a risk-free environment. Returning to a familiar big book is a nice way to revisit word choice and consider alternatives. In the book, Fire, illustrated above, the class thought about how information book writers often use very specific vocabulary words when teaching about a subject. With this in mind the students decided to revise the heading of the first chapter, changing the word ‘light’ to the word ‘ignite’ which they had come across in other texts about fire. They also changed the word in the text as well, immediately lifting the level of text complexity. The kids also felt rather superior as a result.

Interactive writing was used to capture the vocabulary revisions made by the students.

Lastly, charts can be used to remind children of the many strategies they can call upon when trying to figure out the meaning of unknown words. Remember, these strategies will be most effective when the children are reading books that are within their zone of proximal development.

The chart above was used often as the children came across words they did not know and were asked to share ways they figured out the meaning. Jamie Mendelsohn at PS 59 M came up with the idea of having a “Sticky Note Day” every Friday with her group of second graders. Each child was given a sticky note and told to be on the lookout for a word they thought was particularly important to understanding the book they were reading. Towards the end of reading workshop they would get together with a partner and talk about why they thought the word was important and what they tried to figure it out. Then the whole class would get together and talk more about one or two of these words.

This is the beginning of a chart that shows an example of how an unknown word was chosen and figured out.

Once again, it is the children who are actively figuring out possible meanings of the words, not the teacher or a dictionary. Kids love being word detectives and feeling smarter as they come to own an increasingly larger amount of academic vocabulary.

We hope to see many of you at the upcoming NCTE convention in Las Vegas. We will be signing copies of Smarter Charts at the Heinemann booth at 2 pm on Friday, November 16th.

Until then, happy charting!

Marjorie Martinelli and Kristine Mraz