Friday, December 6, 2013

Your challenge today: Define "the."

by Derek Spencer

Some of our simplest words turn out to be rather difficult to explain. In this article from The Week, Arika Okrent gets at just why the word "the" resists succinct definition:

Personally, I favor the descriptive approach to English usage over the prescriptive approach, so I quite like this quotation from the article:

"We like to think of words as little containers of meaning that we pack and unpack as we communicate, but they are not containers so much as pointers. They point us toward a body of experience and knowledge, to conversations we have had and things we have read, to places in sentences where we have and haven't seen them. Words get their meanings from what we do with them."

Language is continually evolving. We invent dozens if not hundreds of new words each year to fit our needs in a rapidly changing world. Playing with language is not only an absolute blast, it's a communal process, one in which we all take part.

And that's beautiful.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thank you.


by Derek Spencer

I am thankful for all my teachers, who introduced me to fantastic works of literature, works that I may otherwise have never discovered.

I am thankful for my 9th-grade English teacher, who reminded me that rules of grammar, while important, should be broken if breaking them will help you more clearly convey your message.

I am thankful for my 10th-grade American Lit teacher, who allowed a few classmates and me to make a highly entertaining short video about The Crucible for a class project, and who also greatly expanded my vocabulary through direct vocabulary instruction.

I am thankful for my 11th-grade Brit Lit teacher, who rekindled my love affair with Arthurian legends and introduced me to the great Modernist poets.

I am thankful for my 12th-grade AP English teacher, who asked me to read one of my essays in front of the class, which taught me that creativity and a novel perspective are attributes that other people truly value.

My English teachers nurtured my desire to read wonderful texts that transported me to faraway lands, spoke of impossible futures, and depicted raw human nature at its most terrifying and most inspiring. I and everyone here at Prestwick House thank all those teachers out there who, like my teachers, transfer their electric enthusiasm for the written word to their students and spark an eternal flame in their minds.

Thank you so much. Have a happy, safe Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Instagrammar: Oxford crowns "selfie" word of the year

by Derek Spencer

Oxford Dictionaries has crowned "selfie" the word of the year for 2013, marking the third time since 2004 that the US and UK Word of the Year have been the same. For the full story, head to the Oxford Dictionaries blog:

Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2013: SELFIE

Whether you love or hate the word (not to mention the photograph genre), it's hard to deny selfie's ubiquity in the media this year. Passionate articles attacking the selfie have been written, as well as those in defense of the practice.

What do you think about selfie's coronation? Which words were snubbed? Let us know in the comments.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Happy birthday, Voltaire!

by Derek Spencer

Surprise, old friend!

Oh, of course we couldn't truly surprise you, you're much too perceptive for that . . . You're how old? 319, you say? I wouldn't have guessed — you don't look a day over 316 to me. Speaks to your remarkable vim and vigor, certainly, and your ideas are as fresh today as the day you first laid ink to the page.

. . . Yes, Candide was a challenge, you crafty rogue — a challenge to the established order of thought! Juvenal would have been proud. But perhaps you could have made the ending a bit more incontrovertibly cheerful, eh? . . . No, no, I agree, ending your tale that way was your prerogative; the author knows his own work better than the critic, and I thoroughly enjoyed the piece. After all, I don't want to end up like that joyless wretch of a critic you created, oh, what was his name . . . Pococurante! That's the very devil of which we speak. That poor soul simply forgot to enjoy life somewhere along the line.

Perhaps someday I'll have the opportunity to see a performance of one of your plays. I hadn't realized you had written so many! . . . Yes, I agree that Œdipe would be a fantastic work with which to start; your gentle tweaking of Oedipus Rex might be just the thing to spur a fresh evaluation of the source material.

Okay, I've talked your ear off long enough. By the way, have you had a slice of your birthday cake? The icing's rather bitter — I think you're gonna love it.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Come see us at NCTE 2013

by Derek Spencer

If you're attending NCTE 2013 in Boston this weekend, we'd love to see you there!

Stop by our booth and chat a little bit with us — we want to hear about your struggles, your triumphs, your joyful moments in the classroom. Let us know what you want your students to achieve in their time with you, and tell us what we can do to help.

(Oh, and did I mention we're giving away books?)

Here's everything you need to know to find us:

Prestwick House Booth Numbers
Booths 1613 & 1712 (they're adjacent to one another, promise)

Convention Venue
Hynes Convention Center
900 Boylston St.
Boston, MA 02115
Exhibit Hall Times
Friday: Noon – 6PM
Saturday: 9AM – 5PM
Sunday: 9AM – 1PM

Hope to see you there!

Friday, November 15, 2013

The troubled printing of Moby-Dick: how tech errors affect more than just e-books

by Derek Spencer

Not content with destroying Ahab, the white whale went on to smash his creator's finances.

We don't often think of print books as objects that fall victim to technological problems. When we go out and buy a book, we expect our copy to be of the same quality and contain the same information as every other copy of the same edition of the book in existence.

Of course, we live in a time in which communication across continents is near-instantaneous and huge chunks of information can be sent almost anywhere in the world in seconds. When Herman Melville was writing, however, this was not the case.

This article from The Atlantic tells the sad but true story of how miscommunication, variations in copyright law between nations, and long printing times doomed Moby-Dick to a savage drubbing by critics. The book sold poorly as well, earning Melville merely $556.37 — an estimated $16,812 in 2013 dollars. Melville had financial troubles for the rest of his life.

But while printing errors are usually bad for authors, they can be great for collectors, as this article discussing nine very valuable misprints demonstrates. Apparently, a first edition of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises that contains one error — one error! — might be worth between $40,000 and $60,000. Crazy. So hang onto those printed books, collectors, because you won't be selling your e-books for that sort of cash.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Rare Shakespeare First Folio soon on display in Philadelphia

by Derek Spencer

Photo by Ian's Shutter Habit @, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

Ever wanted to see an original printing of Shakespeare's First Folio in person? If you live in or near Philadelphia, you'll get your chance soon.

As part of the free Shakespeare For All Time exhibition, the Philadelphia Free Library's Rare Book Department will be displaying this incredibly rare tome, along with the Second, Third, and Fourth Folios, from January 27 &ndash May 31, 2014.

The copy of the First Folio on display contains handwritten annotations that are over 300 years old — pretty exciting stuff.

You can find information about the Rare Book Department, including its street address and hours, here:

Friday, November 8, 2013

Etymology + Google Search =

by Derek Spencer

Edublogger extraordinaire Larry Ferlazzo writes that Google has added an etymology feature to its search function. It's easy to use — all you have to do is type "etymology" and then the word you're interested in, and Google will deliver an attractive chart that shows the history of the word.

It's not perfect; some words are missing, and I find myself wanting more information for some entries, but should I be expecting a full, detailed explanation in my search results? There are other resources available should I desire to dig deeper.

Overall, I think this is a nice step forward. It even shows how Latin and Greek prefixes, suffixes, and root words combine to make new words, and we think learning these Latin and Greek roots is a great way to study vocabulary.

Thanks, Google. For this one, you get a big from us!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Conflict and character development are forever conjoined

by Derek Spencer

Author Alan Sitomer is writing blog posts every day in November to help writers participating in NaNoWriMo. Today, he offers some insight into why conflict is central to any novel. Check it out here:

There's some great writing advice in this post, but I want to point out one outstanding paragraph that applies equally to reading and evaluating literature:

Basically all novels are, at the end of the day, about one thing: character and plot. Okay, that’s two things but they are so closely tied together in terms of importance, it’s better to simply view them as one single, two-headed monster. Luckily for us writers, each side of the head thrives on conflict. Plots are driven by it and character is revealed by it.

Plots are driven by conflict, and character is revealed by conflict. The way a character responds to a conflict reveals more information about that character, contributing to character development and potentially setting up future conflicts or character development.

When students recognize how conflict can contribute to character development, they're better equipped to evaluate how well the author handles these elements in a given text. A couple of questions students might want to ask themselves while reading a text:

  • Is a character's reaction to a conflict proportionate to the conflict, given what we know about the character? And if the character reacts in an uncharacteristic way, does the text justify this reaction?
  • Is the character development spurred by a conflict plausible, or does it seem to have been shoehorned in by the author?

Thinking about questions like these and examining why authors make the choices they do is an essential step toward evaluating texts not just as stories but as works of literature.

Friday, November 1, 2013

NaNoWriMo has begun!

by Derek Spencer

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) 2013 is now underway!

For those of you unfamiliar, NaNoWriMo challenges authors to write a 50,000-word novel in one month — from midnight on November 1st to 11:59 PM on November 30th.

It's an incredible challenge that requires some serious dedication, especially if you want to write a novel that actually holds together as opposed to one that's disjointed and bizarre . . . though, of course, that's what editing is for, right?

In order to write 50,000 words in 30 days, you need to write 1,666.67 words per day on average. So, um . . . best get crackin'.

(Perhaps I should take my own advice, as I've managed to bang out a piddling 380 words thus far — and even that took quite an effort. [Yikes.] )

Not in the mood to write yet? Procrastinate (but only a little) with this article, which lists a few works written in a tiny span of time (including Faulkner's As I Lay Dying!):

Are you and/or your students participating in NaNoWriMo this year? Have you participated before? Let us know about your experiences in the comments!

Derek Spencer is a Marketing Communications Associate at Prestwick House.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Thee, Thy, Thou, Thine - Archaic pronouns simplified!

by Derek Spencer

I've spent some time on the internet (some might say too much), and one thing that's stuck with me is how often internet denizens misuse the pronouns "thou," "thee," "thy," and "thine."

I was lucky, I suppose — I learned these archaic words while playing Dragon Warrior, a classic role-playing video game for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Back then, games like Dragon Warrior contained thousands of lines of text, so being a strong reader was essential. Still, I lost the game many times; I became quite familiar with the words "Thou art dead," which the game displayed each time I was defeated by a red slime, scorpion, or other nasty.

But that repetition drilled the proper use of thou, thee, thy, and thine into my young mind, and I thought the words were pretty cool. Many of you probably know how to use these pronouns already, but just in case, here's a quick primer.


"Thou" is a subjective (or nominative) second-person singular pronoun — equivalent to "you" in modern English. So, you can plug "thou" in wherever "you" can serve as the subject of a sentence.
  • Modern: "Could you please deliver this delicious pizza for me?"
  • Old School: "Couldst thou please deliver this delicious pizza for me?"


While "thou" is subjective, "thee" is objective — if a person is being acted upon by the subject of a sentence, you can substitute "thee" for that person's name.
  • Modern: ". . . from hell's heart I stab at you [Moby Dick, you big jerk]"
  • Old School: ". . . from hell's heart I stab at thee" (much more literary, eh?)


Here, I have to admit that I wasn't always entirely sure what the difference between "thy" and "thine" was. They seemed to me to be interchangeable, but this is not the case! As a general rule, both "thy" and "thine" indicate possession, but there are some special rules for these two pronouns.

In predicative constructions, you *must* use "thine" — "thy" simply will not do. So, you could write, "that bag is thine," but not, "that bag is thy." More examples:

  • "Thou art incorrect to attribute the error resulting in this driving accident to me; the fault is thine"
  • "Thou ruffian! Thou hast spilled cranberry juice upon my doublet! Justice shall be mine, ignominy thine!"

When used as part of a genitive construction (in which a noun modifies another noun, often to indicate possession), the rules change a bit. Use "thine" before words beginning with vowels or the letter 'h'; use "thy" in all other cases. A couple examples:

  • "Depart now and seek thine enjoyment of sport elsewhere, thou supporter of my most hated baseball squadron."
  • "Thy words are as empty as thy soul."
  • "I shall strike thee about thine ears should I hear such grotesque slander spout from thy mouth again!"

So, there you have it. Follow those simple rules, and you'll always use these fun archaic pronouns correctly. One way to make learning these words fun for students might be to have them write some example sentences of their own — Twitter would be perfect for this sort of thing.

How do you teach students to navigate these archaic pronouns? We'd love to hear from you!

Derek Spencer is a Marketing Communications Associate at Prestwick House.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Three keys to writing great free-response prompts

by Derek Spencer

Writing great free-response prompts is tough. If they aren't worded just so, you might get some strange, short, or incomplete answers from students — so creating clear, concise, and complete writing prompts is an essential skill. Here are three tips to help you get the most out of your writing prompts.

Monday, October 7, 2013

A look into the past of grammar criticism

by Derek Spencer

Language changes — this is a fact with which we're all acquainted. It seems also that for as long as humans have used language, humans have decried each subsequent generation's mangling of the written word. Some commentators have discussed the "decline" of the English language in strident tones; others have taken a more measured, thoughtful tack.

As for the question of whether Geoffrey Nunberg is in the former or latter camp, well, we'll leave you to decide. In this sweeping article, written nearly thirty years ago, Nunberg discusses the history of grammatical analysis and compares the approaches taken by prescriptivists (those who insist that grammatical rules are hard and fast) and descriptivists (those who hold that rules depend on practical usage by the speaking and writing population). Here's a link to the article:

The history lesson is probably the most fascinating part of the piece, but also of interest are the author's examples of language misuse from his time. Thirty years is a relatively short time, but some of the uses the author identifies as improper are now firmly cemented within standard English.

What do you think? Do you side more with the linguists who believe that language is flexible and that's fine, or do you place your trust in the prescriptive grammarians?

Derek Spencer is a Marketing Communications Associate at Prestwick House.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Review: "Socrates Jones: Pro Philosopher" -- A gem of a critical thinking game

by Derek Spencer

I don't know about you, but I think looking at logical arguments and probing for weaknesses is a pretty good time. It's also the sort of thing that keeps critical thinking skills sharp.

In Socrates Jones: Pro Philosopher, a flash-based game you can play in your web browser, you play as the titular character (who, it turns out, is actually an accountant) as you dissect the arguments of some of history's greatest philosophers in search of the true source of morality.

But you won't go it alone! Socrates' daughter, Ariadne, a philosophy student herself, will be by your side to offer advice and help you focus your inquiries.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Writing good multiple-choice questions

by Derek Spencer

Here's the thing: writing good multiple-choice questions is hard. I'm sure those of you who have spent hours creating your own tests can attest to that.

The following article lays out some good ground rules for writing multiple-choice questions. Check it out at the link below, then come back for a little commentary.

Here are some of my thoughts:

The type of multiple-choice question you'll want to use depends completely upon the learning objective you want to meet. Ms. Bartlett lists four types of questions:
  • Recall information
  • Understand concepts
  • Apply knowledge
  • Analyze information
Before you start to write your questions, think about the objective you want your students to achieve. If your questions are intended primarily as plot review, for example, then you'll write "recall information" questions. These require lower-order thinking skills, as they require students to comprehend what they've read and relay that to you.

If you're asking students to analyze information, however, you're asking them to use higher-order thinking skills. A question that asks students to show how a specific use of a literary device affects the passage is a question that requires this sort of analysis — and it's more challenging. These are the kinds of questions students are going to encounter on AP English exams, and they'll need practice if they're going to succeed.

All the points under the "Answers should be" section are strong. When you're writing the incorrect answers (we like to call them "distractors" here), they must be plausible in context. If you ask students to read a passage and then answer five multiple-choice questions, the distractors for those questions must make sense in the context of that passage. Using information from a different part of the book for a distractor is, in my opinion, unfair — it's sort of like a trick.

Distractors also need to be consistent. If one distractor is significantly different from the others, it will draw students' attention, and they'll be more likely to choose it (provided it's plausible, of course) than the others.

The "Questions about Behavior" section presents some good ideas for using multiple-choice questions as a diagnostic tool to evaluate your own teaching.

How do you use multiple-choice questions in your classroom? Do you find them useful? Let us know in the comments! Have a great weekend, and we'll see you next time.

Derek Spencer is a Marketing Communications Associate at Prestwick House.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Smarter Balanced reveals accommodations guidelines

by Derek Spencer

The Smarter Balanced testing consortium, which is working on standardized tests based on the Common Core State Standards, has released its guidelines on accessibility accommodations.

The consortium will not allow students in grades 3 through 5 to have passages read to them while they are taking their exams.

Education Week writes about the issue here.

Smarter Balanced will restrict these students from using the read-aloud accomodation because the consortium's analysis of the Common Core State Standards indicates that students in grades 3 – 5 are being tested on their text-decoding skills. States may elect to use the read-aloud accommodations anyway, but the test results for those students will be deemed invalid.

Interestingly, older students will be afforded read-aloud accommodations, as Smarter Balanced believes these students are being tested on reading skills other than text-decoding. 

You can read Smarter Balanced's Accommodations Guidelines here. There are some particularly interesting comments on test design at the end of the document.

Derek Spencer is a Marketing Communications Associate at Prestwick House.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Free Vocabulary Power Plus White Paper

by Derek Spencer

Want to know more about the kind of research that informed the creation of our best-selling Vocabulary Power Plus series?

Click this link to download a free white paper that discusses the benefits of direct vocabulary instruction compared against learning new words from context while reading. The latter is serviceable, but the former helps students learn more words in less time.

A sample:

Students must spend a large amount of time reading or listening in order to encounter new words often enough to understand their meanings. In “Teaching Vocabulary to Improve Reading Comprehension,” William Nagy cites a study that finds that uninstructed students have a one-in-twenty chance of incidentally learning a new word only from context (1988). Students reading a ten-page short story that contains twenty new words, therefore, will be fortunate to fully retain one vocabulary word from the text.

You'll also learn how Vocabulary Power Plus uses several instructional techniques that increase the probability your students will truly learn the words in the program — not merely use them to pass a test and forget them soon after. Finally, there's a handy Common Core State Standards alignment guide for your convenience.

If you have any questions about Vocabulary Power Plus, don't hesitate to get in touch! Give us a call Monday – Friday from 8 AM to 6 PM Eastern. Here's our number: (800) 932-4593. Hope to hear from you soon!

Derek Spencer is a Marketing Communications Associate at Prestwick House.

Friday, September 6, 2013

A "Genius Hour" primer: Time for student-directed learning!

by Derek Spencer

© Copyright Roger Morris and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The idea behind the "Genius Hour" (also called "20% Time") is simple: give students one class period per week to work on a project of their choosing.

The argument in favor of the Genius Hour is that if students are allowed to direct their own learning, they'll be more engaged and interested in what they're trying to learn. This reinforces to students that curiosity is a good thing and may spur them to take more of an interest in the rest of their education.

If students are particularly interested in a topic they study in class, they might use their Genius Hour time to delve deeper into that topic — and that would be a big win.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Why rhetoric matters to the modern student

by Derek Spencer

Rhetoric is an ancient art, one whose roots reach farther back in time than the Ancient Greeks, widely considered the culture that codified the techniques that would help a speaker make a clear and powerful argument to his audience.

Good ideas can last for thousands of years — so it is with rhetoric, the study of which can impart some valuable lessons to the modern student.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Welcome back, educators!

by Derek Spencer

Original photo by viviandnguyen_

Many of you have begun the school year already and met your new students, and some of you will start the year shortly after Labor Day. Whether you fall into the former or latter group, we at Prestwick House would like to wish you a happy return to the most important job in the world!

Your job isn't easy. Far from it. You will be challenged — whether by your students, new standards, preparing for standardized tests, or something else altogether — but you're prepared. You've been preparing ever since the previous school year ended. You're serious about ELA education. And we're all better for it.

Thank you for all the work you do every day to help the next generation become more thoughtful, empathetic, discerning, and bright.

If there's anything we can do to help you achieve your goals for this school year, please don't hesitate to get in touch. Leave a comment and we'll have someone on our expert staff contact you. Or if you'd prefer, give us a call at 800-932-4593 and we'll work together to find a solution. We'd love to hear from you.

Thanks for reading, and have a wonderful Labor Day weekend!

Derek Spencer is a Marketing Communications Associate at Prestwick House.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Fascinating words we need in English

by Derek Spencer

English is a dynamic, versatile language, but even so there are some circumstances and emotional states that English lacks the power to succinctly describe.

Sometimes it's fun to look at other languages that do have words that describe these things. Here's a link to an article with 38 foreign-language words for which there are no analogues in English:

One of the most fascinating ways English develops is by borrowing certain words — thereafter called "loanwords" — from other languages. Of course, other languages develop by borrowing words from English as well.

Do you have a favorite loanword? If so, let us know in the comments!

Derek Spencer is a Marketing Communications Associate at Prestwick House.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

5 Words that sound negative . . . but aren't

by Derek Spencer

The sound of a word can conjure all sorts of feelings. Sometimes the sound of a word evokes the emotion its meaning conveys. Other times . . . not so much.

The following words sound like they should be used only to describe terrible things. Luckily, they're not nearly as bad as they sound. Many of them have quite pleasant denotations!


Ugh. Just looking at this word, who could guess that it means "pastoral"? All I can think is "bubonic" and "colic." Sorry for the plague baby imagery.


I first came across this word while reading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. It's a fantastic play with plenty of humor. This word, however, displeases me to say or hear. Maybe it's that second syllable that does it. The meaning's pretty straightforward: "pertaining to the quality of an uncle." Sort of strange, honestly; do uncles have inherent qualities beyond being related to a mother or father?


My personal favorite on this list. Those first two syllables make me cringe, but the word's a synonym for "beautiful." Of course, overuse has stripped beautiful of any power it once had, so why not slot in "pulchritudinous" every once in a while?

Oh, maybe because it sounds awful. Could you imagine telling someone, "Goodness, you're looking rather pulchritudinous today"? I'd be surprised if it weren't taken as an insult.


My, what a lovely way to say "in the beginning stages of development" or "immature." Wait. Not lovely. Hideous. I'd rather use "incipient" or "nascent" — neither of those words sounds quite as harsh.


"Resembling twilight"? Really? I would have supposed that this word meant something else altogether, perhaps something pertaining to a quality possessed by a particularly nasty wound.

What's your favorite word that sounds bad but actually isn't? We'd love to hear from you!

Derek Spencer is a Marketing Communications Associate at Prestwick House.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Better grammar = better business?

by Derek Spencer

Good news for grammar sticklers everywhere: evidence suggests that companies with few grammatical mistakes in their promotional materials make more money than their competitors. If your students question the need to have excellent grammar, the rest of this post and the accompanying article could be an arrow in your quiver.

In this Forbes article, Cheryl Conner explains a recent study in which Grammarly examined posts on LinkedIn by several of the world's most famous brands, including Coca-Cola, Google, and Ford. Grammarly compared the number of errors made per hundred words against common business metrics like market share and revenue. Each time, the company with fewer mistakes came out on top.

We should keep in mind that this study wasn't exactly scientific, so there's not necessarily a correlation between grammar and business success. However, as the article points out, grammatical errors may create in the minds of customers subconscious resistance to a brand's offerings — the exact opposite effect promotional materials should produce!

And if that still isn't enough to convince your students, you might want to send them to this article, which argues that professionals who make fewer grammatical errors attain higher positions and earn more than their peers.

Have a great day, and thanks for reading!

Derek Spencer is a Marketing Communications Associate at Prestwick House.

Friday, August 16, 2013

How to differentiate summary and synthesis

by Derek Spencer

Our friends over at Actively Learn retweeted this link to a blog post written by Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton. It's full of some good resources for showing the differences between summarizing (a lower-order skill) and synthesizing (a higher-order skill).

Reading Strategies: Differences between summarizing and synthesizing

Synthesis essays can be tough for students to write, and they may not realize that synthesis requires the integration of ideas from multiple sources into one cohesive whole. If students explain the information from one source in one section and another source in the next section, they aren't synthesizing — they're summarizing.

The resources in Dr. Eaton's blog post can help you clarify the distinction between summarizing and synthesizing, and one of the documents presents some ideas for activities that will help. Unfortunately, two of the links in the article are now broken. Still, there's enough information here that the article remains helpful.

What are your favorite techniques for teaching higher-order thinking skills like synthesis?

Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend!

(P.S. – If you're looking for teaching guides that help students develop the ability to synthesize information, our Levels of Understanding units might just do the trick.)

Derek Spencer is a Marketing Communications Associate at Prestwick House.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

"Literally" literally has the same meaning as "figuratively" -- according to Google

by Derek Spencer

Citizens of the Internet seem to be up in arms about what happens when you enter "define literally" into Google search. Google's definition for "literally" now encompasses both literal and figurative usage, something that, well, seems ridiculous on its face. Here's a short article:

Though this sounds terrible if you're an English language prescriptivist, literally has apparently been used to mean figuratively for quite a long time — as one of the commenters on the linked article helpfully explains.

In the eyes of Google, "literally" is now an auto-antonym: a word that has two contradictory meanings. The very idea of auto-antonyms (also known as autantonyms, enantiodromes, and/or contronyms) is fascinating, as the meaning of an auto-antonym cannot be known outside its context.

Some other auto-antonyms in English:

  • Ravel - to disentangle OR to tangle
  • Fast - moving quickly OR stuck (as in "held fast")
  • Rent - to lend to OR to borrow from

Language is always changing, so it's no surprise that some are sanctioning this usage of "literally, but it definitely sticks in the craw of some people.

Where do you fall on the spectrum? Are you a strict prescriptivist? Or do you think common usage determines meaning?

Derek Spencer is a Marketing Communications Associate at Prestwick House.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Basic strategies for active reading

by Derek Spencer

The Common Core State Standards emphasize nonfiction texts more heavily than many past standards, and many of the exemplar texts are complex and challenging. So complex and challenging, in fact, that students may need to do more than merely read these texts to truly understand them.

One of the best techniques students can use to understand a text on a deeper level — and retain what they've read — is active reading. Active reading is a reading strategy in which the student writes while they read, notes questions the text raises as well as main ideas and purposes of paragraphs/sections, and explains a text in one's own words.

It's a great strategy for students who notice they tend to read texts without actually absorbing the material.

Here's a link to some basic active reading techniques:

And here's another link that explains the "SQ3R" technique: Survey, Question, Read, Recall, Review:

These strategies can provide a substantial boost to reading comprehension. Share these links with your students; if they make a good-faith effort to implement these techniques, they'll likely benefit.

Do you have any reading techniques you share with your students? We'd love to hear about them in the comments!

Derek Spencer is a Marketing Communications Associate at Prestwick House.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Using idioms to teach figurative language

by Derek Spencer

I've always found idioms fascinating. The idea of a bank of figurative statements that an entire culture (by and large) uses to communicate is almost unbelievable when taken at face value.

. . . After writing that sentence, I realized that I used an idiom without even thinking about it. And you understood what I meant, right? Reading "taken at face value" probably didn't slow you down at all, even though the literal meaning of the phrase makes no sense whatsoever. Such is the power of idioms: unless we're looking for them, they sort of merge with the rest of text — our brains tend to translate their meanings automatically.

Of course, every culture has its own idioms, and most idioms cannot be translated word-for-word and still retain their correct meaning. This can make learning another language challenging, especially if you're trying to have a conversation with someone who speaks that language and frequently uses idioms.

Click the link below to visit a cool website you can use to talk to your students about idioms. There's an illustration for each idiom on the site, so your more visual learners might benefit. You could show your students this site as part of a discussion about figurative language, which could be quite fun. If students have never thought about the idioms they use every day, helping them to become more aware might spur them to use more concrete language in their writing. If students want their writing to be clear and easy to read, they should definitely be aware of how they use idioms.

Have a great weekend, and thanks for reading!

Derek Spencer is a Marketing Communications Associate at Prestwick House.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A new version of "Hamlet" puts you in the director's seat

by Derek Spencer

Ever wanted to "play" Hamlet as if it were a choose-your-own-adventure-style book? Well, Ryan North's new book, To Be Or Not To Be: That Is The Adventure allows you to do just that. North, author of the long-running webcomic Dinosaur Comics, has put together a massive tome (768 pages!) in which seemingly anything can happen, including King Hamlet avenging his own death while he is a ghost.

Clearly, this is not the canonical Hamlet.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Interesting interview with an educational gaming researcher

by Derek Spencer

This is an interesting interview with James Paul Gee, author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Gamification is a hot topic in education circles right now, with some teachers even transforming their classrooms into long-term gaming experiences. Mr. Gee is of the opinion that no matter what technology we adopt to promote learning, the learning comes first and the technology is a tool to support that learning — an attitude we share.

How do you feel about using game design principles to promote learning? Are any of you trying to incorporate these principles into your teaching practice?

Thanks for reading, and have a great day!

Derek Spencer is a Marketing Communications Associate at Prestwick House.

Friday, August 2, 2013

"Ozymandias" as read by Bryan Cranston of "Breaking Bad"

by Derek Spencer

Well, this is pretty cool.

To prime viewers for the final season of TV drama "Breaking Bad," AMC created this little teaser trailer, in which star of the show Bryan Cranston reads Percy Bysshe Shelley's classic sonnet "Ozymandias" in full.

I've never seen the show, but I've heard enough about it that this seems like an apt allusion. From what people have told me, the show appears to be building toward a tragic end, and the main character's hubris will likely bring about his downfall. The use of "Ozymandias" in the teaser trailer just goes to show that the best works of classic literature remain relevant today.

The BBC has more on the story here.

And if you want a great source for "Ozymandias" and other works of the Romantic Era, we might just have the book for you. You can check out sample pages here.

Have a good weekend, and thanks for reading.

Derek Spencer is a Marketing Communications Associate at Prestwick House.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Teaching Advanced Vocabulary from Literature

by Derek Spencer

Last week we asked a question on our Facebook page: what ELA content areas do teachers find most challenging to teach? Today I want to share some ideas about teaching advanced-level vocabulary with literary texts. It's my hope that we can use this as the starting point for a discussion, an exchange of ideas that will help other teachers grappling with the same task. If you want to add to the discussion, please do!

First, let's lay out some of the issues that might make teaching vocabulary with literature difficult.

1. Large word lists.

Some literary texts contain hundreds of AP- and/or SAT-level words, and reducing the number of words to a manageable list is a challenge.

Monday, July 29, 2013

PARCC approves accessibility supports

by Derek Spencer

The supports will include read-aloud accommodations for students with disabilities, which is a point of contention for those who feel that read-aloud support would make the result of a reading comprehension test invalid. Still, this must be welcome news for parents of students with disabilities, as these supports can only benefit their children.

Other accommodations include clarifying test instructions to English-language learners in their native languages and providing American Sign Language translations of assessment text.

How do you feel about read-aloud accommodations on reading comprehension exams? If one student receives support, should that support then be afforded to all students taking the exam to ensure a consistent, normalized testing environment?

Derek Spencer is a Marketing Communications Associate at Prestwick House.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The week's best resources: 7/22 - 7/26

by Derek Spencer

Happy Friday, everyone! I wanted to share with you this list of cool resources I saw this week. Check 'em out!

1. The first chapter of a book on Formative Assessment:

2. A good video on scaffolding. Though the video focuses on history and not ELA, the information it presents on scaffolding is general enough to be applied to any discipline.

Nice short video on scaffolding — via @Larryferlazzo

3. A short presentation on potential applications for Chromebooks in education. There's a substantial amount of buzz surrounding Chromebooks these days, particularly because basic models are relatively inexpensive compared to iPads, other tablets, and PCs and Macs.

4. An infographic on Creative Commons licenses. Useful for any teacher wondering if their use of a particular image, sound file, or bit of text is legal under copyright law. It's a good resource for students as well. The English isn't perfect, but we won't hold that against the creator.

5. Finally, PARCC released its ELA/Literacy Performance Level Descriptors for grades 3 – 11. The Performance Level Descriptors basically explain the grading system behind PARCC examinations. They're worth a look if you're in one of the states that's joined the PARCC consortium.

Have a great weekend, and we'll see you on Monday!

Derek Spencer is a Marketing Communications Associate at Prestwick House.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Khaled Hosseini, reading fiction, and empathy

by Derek Spencer

Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, has just released his third book, And the Mountains Echoed. In this recent interview on the public radio program Here & Now, Hosseini discusses his experience in returning to Afghanistan for the first time in 27 years.

In the interview, Hosseini talks about his reluctance to ask native Afghans about their experiences in the years since he emigrated to the United States. He's reluctant because he doesn't feel that it's his place or his right to ask these strangers about what were likely very painful experiences simply because he and those strangers share a home country. A very thoughtful kind of restraint.

And that made me think about The Kite Runner and its portrayal of everyday Afghans, and how Hosseini has, in the words of the interviewer, "humanize[d] the people who are in the shadows of our headlines here in the United States, make us look closer at their faces, make us wonder what their stories are."

And then that made me think of news items describing recent scientific studies that suggest a link between reading fiction and increased empathy. Here's a link to one:

PLOS ONE: How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy?

A link between reading fiction and increased capacity for empathy makes sense to me. Fiction can help us envision the struggle of the individual against his or her issues, whether physical, emotional, or political. It can help us imagine a character's specific joys, desires, needs, and frustrations. It can help us realize that many experiences are common to us all, whether we're separated by five miles or five thousand. And in realizing that we share these thoughts, motivations, and feelings with peoples of disparate cultures, aren't we then better equipped to identify with these people? To honor their humanity as we would wish ours to be honored?

Derek Spencer is a Marketing Communications Associate at Prestwick House.

Monday, July 22, 2013

PARCC releases Performance Level Descriptors for ELA/Literacy

by Derek Spencer

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) recently released its "Performance Level Descriptors" for ELA/Literacy in grades 3 – 11. Here are the descriptors for grades 9 – 11:

This set of descriptors explains the criteria PARCC will use to score students. It appears that students will be assigned a "performance level" between 2 and 5, with 5 being the highest rating.

PARCC is a consortium of 22 states (plus the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands) working on new assessments that will adhere to Common Core State Standards requirements. These assessments will be delivered via computer but, unlike the assessments delivered by the Smarter Balanced consortium, will not be computer adaptive.

Tests that are computer adaptive deliver different questions to a student based on that student's response to the previous question. If a student answers a question correctly, the next question will be more difficult (and vice-versa). PARCC's computerized assessments will be more traditional; all students will take the same test.

What do you think about computerized testing? Do you think computerized adaptive testing can work in an ELA setting?

Derek Spencer is a Marketing Communications Associate at Prestwick House.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Positive midsummer thoughts

by Derek Spencer

As we approach August, no doubt some of you are thinking about the upcoming year.

Think about a lesson you gave that inspired your students: to think about literature in a new way; to consider a text from the perspective of a different group or culture; to connect the lessons a title has to offer to their own lives.

Think of how teaching that lesson and inspiring those students made you feel. Let that thought sustain you throughout the summer. Let it motivate you to keep striving to improve at least one aspect of your teaching. Because no matter how good we are (in any field), there's always something we can do to make ourselves that little bit better. That little bit stronger.

Maybe you're studying the latest pedagogical techniques. Maybe you're reading the latest and greatest work of literature, one that you're sure is a perfect fit for your classroom. Maybe you're working through a professional development seminar. Maybe you're reflecting mindfully on great successes as well as areas where there's room for growth. The point is, you're improving. You're preparing for the best year of your teaching life.

And while you're doing that, don't forget to take some time for yourself — take some time to rest and recharge, in whatever way works best for you. Give yourself the freedom to relax, because you've earned it.

We hope you're having a great summer. Have fun, be safe, and enjoy life.

Derek Spencer is a Marketing Communications Associate at Prestwick House.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Accolades for Delaware Shakespeare Festival's "The Two Gentlemen of Verona"

by Jason Scott

The titular gentlemen.
Photo by Alexandra Orgera

Prestwick House is fortunate to be in Delaware, the home of the small but feisty Delaware Shakespeare Festival. Their performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona last night was a cool and welcome respite after a long, hot day. Although hysterical local TV weathermen do their best to instill fear at the thought of being outside in mid-July, I managed to avoid spontaneously combusting.

The play will never be mistaken for one of Shakespeare’s best, but the lively Delaware Shakespeare Festival’s version made it one of one of my “best liked” Shakespeare plays. Everything was first rate and the “jazz age” theme played out in the costumes and music really worked for me. In fact, the music, composed by Michael Hahn with musical direction by Johanna Schloss, deserves some kind of award for making the best possible use of an unlikely onstage combo of guitar, clarinet, accordion, and triangle.

Photo by Alexandra Orgera
Adam Darrow as Proteus and Emilie Krause as Silvia gave standout performances on a stage crowded with talent. My one quibble is that the first act ran a touch long in view of the fast-paced and frothy vibe the production was going for.

The Delaware Shakespeare Festival performs under the stars on the grounds of Rockwood Park in Wilmington. Local temps were in the 90s during the day, but by the time the sun passed behind the trees, and play started, it was a comfortable 83 degrees with a light breeze.

Jason Scott is the CEO of Prestwick House.

Monday, July 8, 2013

5 Uncommon Definitions of Common Words

by Derek Spencer

One of the best ways to develop a robust vocabulary is to read, read, read. The more you read, the more likely it is you'll come across words you've never seen — or learn new meanings for words you already know. Here are a few common words that have an uncommon meaning when used in certain contexts. Sharing these with your students might be fun!

1. Depend (v.) — to hang or be suspended from something
Example sentence: "The locket depended from a delicate chain slung 'round the dowager's slim neck."

I was made aware of this meaning of "depend" while reading a William Gibson novel. It stuck with me.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Student Benefits of Informational Text

by Derek Spencer

As you probably already know, the Common Core State Standards require that 70% of student readings across all subject areas must be nonfiction (or, in the parlance of the CCSS, "Informational Text") by the time students reach 12th grade.

Luckily, English teachers don't have to bear that heavy load on their own, as readings in other classes count toward that 70% threshold. And thank goodness for that, because a world in which fiction was eliminated from the ELA curriculum would be rather dull, yes?

Still, it's likely that if you're in a Common Core state, you'll have to teach a little more nonfiction in the future. This may be a big shift for some, but it might be worth the work — studying nonfiction can have big benefits for students. Here are a few reasons informational text matters.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Getting Students to Participate in Class Discussion

by Rachel Carey

Participating in class discussion has never been the easiest thing for me. The ideas are normally there, but sharing them in front of a class full of my peers sometimes proves to be too daunting. I know I’m not the only student like this — the only student that would rather write her thoughts in a research paper than say them aloud to an entire classroom — and I’ve gotten better, which is good because I’ve come to realize how valuable openly discussing literature is, especially in the English classroom. Here are a few notable practices my teachers throughout the years have used that have helped me become more comfortable speaking up:

1. Icebreakers: I know I am more likely to talk when surrounded by people that I feel comfortable around. Even the corniest of icebreakers (as long as they’re not done too repetitively) can help create an environment that better fosters solidarity and individual student participation.

2. Circling up: Really, any redistribution of the desks so that the teacher is no longer in front of the students but among the students makes the setting less intimidating. I like putting the desks in a circle best because then not only is the teacher sitting down but the students are able to look directly at each other too. It makes the discussion feel less like a lecture and more like a casual conversation between friends.

3. Question and Comment Write-Ups before Class: This is a practice that most of the teachers and professors I’ve had have utilized. Instead of relying on a student’s (sometimes) faulty memory, have each student bring a list of questions and comments to class every day about the reading the night before. This worked for me for two reasons: it ensured that I read the material and it made sure I had something to contribute without having to come up with it on the spot (which was always a little nerve-wracking).

4. Group Presentations: Group presentations can be really really good or really really bad — the main reason for the bad being because they can be really distracting. But, putting the negatives aside, dividing a class up into four or five decently-sized groups is a good way in which to take the pressure to talk off of the individual. This practice can familiarize students with each other, and it’s also helpful because the students can discuss the literature and get feedback about their opinions from their peers before presenting their ideas to the class.

5. Unassigned Seats: I know this goes against the grain of a very common and understandable teaching practice — the reason assigning seats is necessary is because it helps decrease how much students talk to each other while the teacher is trying to talk … which makes sense. Take the following with a grain of salt, but I’ve found that I’m more likely to speak up in class discussion when I’m surrounded by the people I know best.

In the best-case scenario (and in the one in my head), every single student in an English class would be best friends and it wouldn’t matter where any of them sat … but in high school, especially for the quieter students among us, assigned seats can feel kind of awkward sometimes; and there is nothing worse than being stuck between a group of people that won’t stop talking when all you’re trying to do is listen.

Hopefully, I’ve been able to shed some light on the student’s side of things for all the readers out there. If you have anything else you’d like to add (or disagree with), feel free to leave your thoughts in a comment!

Thanks for reading!

Rachel Carey is a summer intern at Prestwick House. She is also a senior at the University of Delaware, where she studies English with a concentration in Creative Writing. During the school year, she is an active editor and writer for Caesura and The Main Street Journal, both of which are prominent literary magazines on campus, as well as Vice President of The Blue Pen Society writing club.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Donate Old Watches for a Great Cause!

Thanks to the efforts of Senior Editor Paul Moliken, Prestwick House is partnering with a unique non-profit charity called Kids Time.

The founder of Kids Time, retired physician Murray Moliken, takes donated wall clocks, old watches, and stickers to local elementary schools, Boys and Girls Clubs, and Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops. Here, kids are able to help create fun, interesting clocks for donation to less fortunate, hospital-bound children.

Over 3,500 clocks have already been given to ill children, who light up and smile broadly when they realize that the gift came directly from youngsters their own age. Clocks have been distributed to children's hospitals from Florida to California.

Unfortunately, in recent years wrist watches have become more difficult to come by. Over 40,000 watches have been used so far in the process of creating these clocks, and we need your help to keep the project going!

Almost everyone has broken, old, unwanted, cheap, discarded, unused watches in a drawer somewhere that they’ll never use.

Simply send them to the address listed below to help further a good cause.
Edit: 10/15/15 - Unfortunately Kid's Time is no longer accepting donations at this time.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Why Read the Classics?

by Rachel Carey

Robinson Crusoe and Shakespeare and Beowulf … cue the groans. Getting high school students excited to read the Classics has to be one of the biggest problems facing teachers today. As students, it’s easy to forget — or just ignore — the fact that the Classics actually are important — because, well, often times we feel that these works don’t have anything to do with our lives. But I am here to admit that they do, of course, have much to do with our lives (especially as informed readers) — here’s how:

1. The Classics = The Originals
Most of today’s popular literature deals with the use of themes, devices, and genres that were created by one of the medieval genius authors whose works we all love … or love to hate. Thus, these works should be read and respected for the roads they helped pave for modern literature. Think about where we would be right now if Daniel Defoe never wrote the first realistic fiction novel, Robinson Crusoe, in 1719 or how the modern love story would look if Romeo and Juliet had never graced the Elizabethan stage.

2. The Allusions!
In the same vein as my point above, a lot of really popular pieces of modern literature — even films (think the modern Taming of the Shrew adaptation, 10 Things I Hate About You) — allude back to Classics. In order to fully understand the meaning of these modern pieces, the Classics also need to be understood (and read). Even the title of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is taken from Miranda’s speech in Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world! That has such people in’t!” (Act V, Scene 1), proving that the ideas first seen in classic literature are still viable today.

3. Universal Truths Don’t Have a Historical Time Limit
Art and literature have always been mediums through which humanity expresses their deepest desires and needs. And, while a lot of time has passed since the Classics have been written, the nature of humanity has not really changed much. In fact, connecting with these past characters helps ground the modern reader — recognizing that, while these characters lead lives vastly different from what we’re used to, their struggles come from an inner self that is not much different from their modern counterpart.

A lot has changed, but a lot has also stayed the same, and humanity’s nature — as seen through the character and conflict types we create — is pretty constant. It doesn’t matter whether we are looking at Hamlet or Harry Potter — both characters react to the death of one or both of their parents in very human, very relatable ways, and the works were published nearly 400 years apart.

These are just a few of many reasons why the Classics are so important. Perhaps Italo Calvino voiced the need to read Classics best in his book entitled “Why Read the Classics?” when he said: “A Classic does not necessarily teach us anything we did not know before. In a Classic, we sometimes discover something we have always known (or thought we knew), but without knowing that this author said it first, or at least is associated with it in a special way. And this, too, is a surprise that gives such pleasure, such as we always gain from the discovery of an origin, a relationship, an affinity.” He also said that “a Classic is a term for a book that represents the whole universe,” and I agree.

Thanks for reading!

Rachel Carey is a summer intern at Prestwick House. She is also a senior at the University of Delaware, where she studies English with a concentration in Creative Writing. During the school year, she is an active editor and writer for Caesura and The Main Street Journal, both of which are prominent literary magazines on campus, as well as Vice President of The Blue Pen Society writing club.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Does it Matter Whether You Read Print or Digital?

by Derek Spencer

Last Friday I wrote a little commentary about a Mind/Shift post extolling the virtues of "deep reading" and questioning whether this sort of engagement with text can occur when reading on electronic devices. I quoted this paragraph:
A growing body of evidence suggests that online reading may be less engaging and less satisfying, even for the “digital natives” for whom it is so familiar. Last month, for example, Britain’s National Literacy Trust released the results of a study of 34,910 young people aged eight to sixteen. Researchers reported that 39% of children and teens read daily using electronic devices, but only 28% read printed materials every day. [. . .] The study also found that young people who read daily only onscreen were nearly two times less likely to be above-average readers than those who read daily in print or both in print and onscreen.
. . . and then asked the question that came to mind: What, exactly, were the students in this study reading on their electronic devices? Novels? Tweets? News articles? Facebook posts? YouTube comments?

A recent article in The Atlantic details a study that attempts to determine whether there is a correlation between reading comprehension and the medium on which the words are displayed. Check it out (it's a quick read), then come on back.

. . .

Welcome back! How've you been? Great to see you again.

From reading the article, you now know that the experiment cited in The Atlantic asked 90 college students to read five fiction and five nonfiction passages. All of these passages were at a high school reading level. These passages were displayed on either paper, an e-ink Kindle, or a computer monitor. After reading, students were tested on their ability to "extrapolate and draw conclusions from what they had read." Students, on average, correctly answered 75% of these multiple-choice questions.

The Atlantic article posits that this study implies that the medium doesn't affect comprehension or the ability to draw conclusions from a reading. But (and there's always a 'but', isn't there?) . . .

The study examined only 90 college students, which is a rather small sample. With a sample of that size, the 75% accuracy noted in the study comes with a margin of error of ± 10.33 percentage points. This means that if we extend the results of this study to the entire population of college students, we can be 95% confident the range of student performance will be between 64.67% and 85.33%.

A range of 20.66 percentage points is, well, huge. When I was in high school, a passing grade was anything over 70%, and an 'A' was 93% and above. The range here is wide enough to cover the difference between an 'A' and a 'D' in my high school. It's wide enough to cover the difference between receiving a 'C' and failing.

So yes, while this study does seem to imply that there is little difference between reading texts in print versus on electronic devices, it's not nearly accurate enough to say we can claim (with a high level of confidence) that the medium doesn't affect comprehension. It's going to take a study with a much larger sample size to convince me of that — and I hope one follows, because reading on electronic devices is only going to become more prevalent.

Concerning these findings, however, I would encourage you to season them with a healthy dash of skepticism.

Thanks for reading!

Derek Spencer is a Marketing Communications Associate at Prestwick House. He owns a Kindle (e-ink, not full-color) and has used it to read fiction and nonfiction titles alike into the wee hours of the morning. He hasn't noticed a difference in his ability to comprehend texts, but he also doesn't believe that anecdotal evidence should be used to make statements about entire populations.