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.