Your Students as Learners Lisa
first year teacher, I'd sometimes feel like my words were sailing
past my students, hitting the back wall of the classroom and falling
to the floor. I would try to explain a concept or a task, only to
find that the students had no idea what I was talking about. Sometimes
I wasn't expressing myself in a "kid-friendly" way, and sometimes
I was assuming prior experiences that my students didn't have. For
example, imagine trying to do a lesson about prime numbers, if your
students have never heard of factors!
One of the most important things you can do in your first year of
teaching is to find out where your kids are coming from academically.
Not only will this help you plan lessons that are focused and effective,
but it will also help you with classroom management: if assignments
are too easy or too difficult, students often respond by misbehaving.
Obviously, you want to assess your students' skill levels and background
knowledge in the subjects you teach. However, all teachers, not
just reading and English teachers, should also consider their students'
reading levels. No matter what subject you teach, your students
need to read. It's important for you to have an idea of your students'
reading ability so that you give them appropriate material. As a
middle school teacher, I've seen many social studies and science
teachers floundering because they were using textbooks well above
the reading level of their students. These teachers didn't need
to abandon the textbook entirely, but they needed to provide their
students with additional support in order for them to be successful.
Even math teachers find that their students' reading ability affects
their performance on word problems.
to assessing my students' academic skills, I find it useful to find
out about their previous experiences in school. It helps me to know
how students feel about the subjects I teach. For example, if kids
hate reading, I will focus on making their first experiences in
my English class as relaxing and fun as possible. If they love to
read, I will probably focus more on challenging them and exposing
them to different genres.
like to know what kinds of instruction my students' teachers have
used in the past. For example, if kids have never done group work,
I would spend time teaching them how to work together before jumping
into a group research project. On the other hand, if kids have participated
in many group projects, I would ask their former teachers how they
organized their groups. I might organize my project in a similar
way; or if I decided to do things differently, I would draw the
kids' attention to how my expectations were different from what
they had done in the past.
are some ideas for getting to know your students as learners:
Informal reading inventories: If you teach reading or English,
you may be asked to administer formal assessments to all of your
students. However, it makes sense for all teachers to assess their
students' reading in some way. This assessment can be as simple
as stopping by a student's desk, asking him or her to read something
to you (anything from a math problem to a textbook passage to a
page from a novel, depending on what you teach), and briefly discussing
the meaning. (It's important to discuss the meaning because some
kids are able to pronounce all of the words on the page without
actually comprehending anything.) Although this process is time-consuming,
if you hear just one student a day, you will be able to assess all
of your students in a month or two. If even this sounds daunting
to you, at least try assessing the reading of students with obvious
Surveys: Surveys are a good way to get information about
students' attitudes and prior experiences in your subject areas.
For a sample of a reading and writing survey I used with junior
high school students, click
here. This survey can easily be adapted for other grade
levels, or you can create your own.
evaluations: Usually, I begin the year by asking students about
their best and worst experiences in whatever subject I'm teaching.
This question gives me an idea of what their prior instruction has
been like. This question also helps me understand what sorts of
activities they like and what their learning styles might be. At
the conclusion of a unit or the end of a quarter, I ask students
to evaluate what they learned, as well as which activities they
liked and which they would like to change. This helps me to plan
more activities the students will enjoy.
Baseline assessments: At the beginning of the year, you will
want to assess your students' skill level in your particular subject.
Depending on what you teach, you might want to get writing samples,
give pretests, or simply ask students what they know about a particular
Although all of these techniques take valuable classroom time, you
will find it easier to plan lessons if you have an idea of what
your students have been taught in the past. Taking the time to ask
kids about their ideas, feelings, and knowledge can help start you
on the road to success.