Literacy Gatekeeping

Do we provide access or barriers to others for leading literate lives?

I’ve been deeply contemplating lately, how do readers represent literacy? I’m assuming that a majority of people who are drawn to this blog, identify themselves as readers. So I’m speaking to us collectively when I ask-  Have we accidentally or purposely created an elite club where membership involves a narrow definition of texts and reader identity? Are we the gatekeepers, determining who is allowed in based on personal taste, an exclusive literary canon, or the privilege and luck of having had all the ingredients in a recipe for a healthy relationship with literacy?

“EVERYONE has read that.”
“I can’t believe you read that!”
“I can’t believe you haven’t read that!”
“Girls like this book.”
“Boys like this book.”
“That’s not real reading.”
*Insert inside joke about a reader fandom that excludes people in the room

When anyone tells us in big and small ways about what they like to read, don’t like to read, can’t read, don’t understand—-it’s an act of vulnerability. It’s a fragile piece of their reader identity that we must hold gently. How we respond in those moments could impact how someone views themselves as a reader and will certainly determine if you are someone they feel safe with to engage in sincere conversations about readership.

I’ve worked with adolescent readers who struggle for 10 years and those struggles are always different combinations of things: poor self perception as a reader, difficulties decoding, unsure how to connect ideas, etc. But one very common thread among all is that they feel disenfranchised in some way by the system and because of this, there is a lack of motivation to try to plug back into it. If you’ve been told you are below or behind or have a deficit for your entire school career, there’s your self perception. In order to fill gaps, many kids have been through standardized programs with absolutely zero relevancy and respect for a student’s experiences and schema. They’ve been fed a steady diet of watered down texts and five vocabulary words while their peers were learning 20 words and choosing their own young adult literature book from a library. We took them to the drive-thru at McDonalds while their peers were ordering off the menu at The Cheesecake Factory.

It’s the perfect storm for creating victims of the Matthew Effect: In reading, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Psychologist Keith Stanovich was the first to apply this theory specifically to education and reading instruction. A basic synthesis: Kids who start out “behind.” never catch up. Ever. We teach Reading Reasons by Kelly Gallgher and throw out school to prison pipeline statistics and literally PREACH at kids to be readers…they get it, they hear you. But what can they DO about it?

As a student told me once, “Everyone tells me WHY I should read all day long. But um, could someone tell me how?” 

Now these students are all grown up, and here’s what they know: I don’t like to read because I’m not good at it. Even if I want to read, I shouldn’t/can’t because all the adults who have been in charge of my literacy development say I’m behind. They have internalized this narrow definition of literacy and achievement.

We know the truth, though. Truth 1) All readers have reading struggles  Truth 2) All literacy counts Truth 3) Relevancy, Choice, Time, and Access, and Support make ANYONE a reader. 

What is the point? Why do we want to be in a reading club, together, all of us adults? Why do we want teens in the queue to become their own reading club? Why does it matter if all of us are in? Because we are a collective humanity, naturally seeking understanding and empathy and answers. Because we all have different schema, and experiences, and cultures, and traumas and we all have to dump them out on the table and figure out what to do next. Because we will all gravitate to different mediums- stories and news and alamancs and Twitter feeds and statistics and infographics and poems and letters. We need all of us to make this work. “This” meaning this life. We’re in the same river, on different boats, trying to make it to whatever our definition of home happens to be. 

I’m guilty, my friends. I love the inside jokes and the sense of belonging. I’m not one of those multi-talented people. I’m a reader and I can find things that my kids swear are lost. That’s it. Those are my talents. So I’ve bought in before- this is my group, not yours and I feel bad for you if you aren’t in it, but not bad enough to explain to you my joke about White Walkers as explained in Game of Thrones (the book series of course, not the show, *scoff*) 

But the thought that this could at best, turn someone off to reading or at worst, retraumatize someone who has had adverse literacy experiences absolutely breaks my heart. So we have to do better.

As my student pointed out, I’d be remiss if I didn’t suggest the “how”. If you’ve been privileged with book access, supportive family/friends/teachers, natural ability, a functioning school system, a voice that gets heard over others— how do we invite people in who haven’t? 

We greet. 
“I read this book and it reminded me of you because…”
“What’s a way or a thing you read that is most relaxing for you?”
“Can I read you this line? It made me think of something you said the other day.”
Have diverse authors and book formats on shelves where people browse.
Ditch your “I’m reading, leave me alone” shirt for a “Ask me what I’m reading!” shirt

We usher. 
When someone tells you they want to read, but they aren’t sure where to start
“Here are some examples of formats you might like (journal style, vignettes, graphic novels
“What types of stories make you feel the most interested?”
“After you start, can I text you to see how it’s going?”
“If you don’t like this, it’s okay. You have permission to put it down.”
“Can I bring you a book tomorrow? It meets the criteria you mentioned the other day.”

On behalf of all of us, welcome to the nerd club. Everyone belongs here. 
~Amy Adam

Disciplinary Literacy in ELA

Many weeks back, I shared a long narrative about a shift in our secondary intervention structure to add a course focused on disciplinary literacy.  In essence, this course provided units for ELA, social studies, and science guided by strategies, both content literacy strategies (those to address general comprehension supports), disciplinary literacy strategies (those addressing the thinking processes specific to the discipline), and writing processes for summarizing and applying content.  These processes were driven by inquiry within each discipline and supported through close reading protocols.  The inquiry element provided a focus for significant knowledge and skill growth in areas unique to each discipline.  The close reading protocols scaffold a teaching and learning structure based on standards for content and skill development.    These were built for literacy intervention support for secondary ELA, science, and social studies, with the intention to build an avenue of collaboration with Tier 1/core disciplinary classrooms. Through professional learning across the district,  we had opportunities to provide teachers with replicable structures to support authentic literacy in core instruction. 

Sheila Brown and Lee Kappes (2012)
provide a comprehensive description: 

“Close Reading of text involves an investigation of a short piece of text, with multiple readings done over multiple instructional lessons. Through text-based questions and discussion, students are guided to deeply analyze and appreciate various aspects of the text, such as key vocabulary and how its meaning is shaped by context; attention to form, tone, imagery and/or rhetorical devices; the significance of word choice and syntax; and the discovery of different levels of meaning as passages are read multiple times. The teacher’s goal in the use of close reading is to gradually release responsibility to students—moving from an environment where the teacher models for students the strategies to one where students employ the strategies on their own when they read independently.

“Close reading cannot be reserved for students who already are strong readers; it should be a vehicle through which all students grapple with advanced concepts and participate in engaging discussions regardless of their independent reading level” (Brown & Kappes, 2012, p2).

When I began to develop the pacing guide for this course, which you are welcome to if you message me and request access, it seemed important to develop close reading protocols that would support teachers, many who were not reading specialists and who could not be content experts across all disciplines. 

Here I hope to provide a process for close reading we have been vetting in core discipline and intervention classes for grades 6-12 over the last few years that support our students’ needs to shift literacy processing skills across the “core” disciplines” (ELA, SS, SCI, MATH),  At the secondary level, students are asked to engage in a form of “code shifting,” if you will, from discipline-to-discipline.  If we’ve thought it through in the past or not, each discipline, including the arts, technology, health sciences, etc. all have different lenses through which each identifies, analyzes and evaluates disciplinary-specific text in order to construct and apply knowledge authentically in each discipline. 

As you will notice, all the resources mentioned for this protocol are linked here. You are welcome to them after making your own copy for editing.  The purpose of these documents is to support the many teachers who have requested process ideas for scaffolding student reading and writing for the purpose of learning content.  They are fluid, as I will explain further as I provide a brief tour through the links below.

Close Reading Protocol – ELA Teacher Planning 
The link above/image below is a template for teacher planning.  This particular template was developed for our secondary disciplinary literacy intervention courses, as mentioned above, based on areas of need our students most demonstrated.  However, you should adjust the second and third reads based on the standards-based planning for your ELA course. 

Read 1: Content Literacy Skills
This “first read” process is built to help students engage in the three stages of good reading, to improve general comprehension.   This allows students to identify and clarify confusions, make connections to prior knowledge and experiences, and gain a general understanding of the author’s message. This allows students the foundation needed to read and apply disciplinary concepts to the information in the text during the second and third reads.   If you follow this link to our sample student’s guide and make your own copy, you can review the process from a student’s point of view. 

Read 2: Disciplinary Literacy Skills 
The second read is based on the lens through which they should be reading the text for the discipline.  In ELA, that focus is on how the author uses language, makes choices about language and idea development for a variety of purposes. This second read should ask students to take their general understanding from the first read and apply the skills of the discipline to analyze and evaluate the texts.  The intervention students served by the sample student’s guide are evaluating the author’s use of language to express tone and develop the theme. 

Read 3:  Writing about Reading 
As mentioned before, our students engage in a series of close reads as part of an inquiry.  The final step of our close reading is to answer the essential question for the unit inquiry using the evidence from a text.  This is maybe the most rigorous step of the three reads. In our situation, we build writing prompts that ask students to explore a common question used to guide inquiry and apply standards for the unit. 

ELA Interactive Close Reading Protocol Guides for Students  
Interactive Google Slide – available for copying and editing

One of the most crucial elements of engaging in effective close reading that builds content knowledge and literacy skills is knowing how and why you chose a piece of text or a series of texts for close reading. When considering texts for close reading, here are a few resources you may consider:

Turning the Page on Complex Texts: Differentiated Scaffolds for Close Reading Instruction by Diane Lapp, Barbara Moss, Maria C. Grant, & Kelly Johnson (2016)

Rigorous Reading: 5 Access Points For Comprehending Complex Text Douglas Fisher & Nancy Frey (2013) 

Why to Teach Close Reading of a Complex Text Douglas Fisher 

This is Disciplinary Literacy: Reading, Writing, Thinking, and Doing Content Area by Content Area Releah Cossett Lent (2016) 

Implementing the Common Core State Standards: A Primer on Close Reading Text   Shelia Brown & Lee Kappes (October 2012)

Next month we will provide these same resources for social studies/history instruction.

~Tracy Cooper


Help Teens Read is adding a consistent new contributor to our ranks. Amy Adam is an exceptional educator, who like many of us who read this blog, believes in the power of independent reading and the importance of the joy of reading. She is also the most knowledgeable and voracious reader of children’s and adolescent literature I know. Amy has agreed to share her one-of-a-kind reviews of new literature with the Help Teens Read audience on a recurring basis. She will not only offer you excellent “book talk” models, but her suggestions and commentary may also help you match that just-right-book to the students who need to gain their first forays into reading for enjoyment. We know how powerful those experiences have been for our own students. Welcome, Amy. My audible account and my bookshelves are ready to add all of your suggestions.

Here is her first installment…

If you’ve been following young adult literature for a while, you likely remember Laurie Halse Anderson’s best-selling hit, Speak, which was published in 1999. It was made into a pretty good movie with actress Kristen Stewart (pre-Bella Swan era) as the main character, her personality perfect for Melinda. Speak followed Melinda through her freshman year of high school after having experienced a sexual assault at a party the summer before. She endures the isolation from her friends after calling the cops at the party as well as having to walk the same halls as IT, her rapist. Melinda has a dark and witty sense of humor that resonates with her teen readers. The first line of this book is nothing short of iconic:

“It is my first morning of high school. I have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomachache.”

This line foreshadows how FREAKING relatable Melinda is, with her anxiety and fears about starting high school. Her character is so well written and beautifully dynamic as she works through her trauma in both unhealthy (skipping class, avoiding adults, not talking) and healthy (art) ways. LHA makes you feel the honor and privilege of getting to know Melinda throughout the book and bursting with pride when she is finally able to speak.

When the 10th anniversary of Speak happened, LHA published a poem that she composed using the thousands of letters she received from readers about how Speak had impacted them. The poem is heart achingly brilliant and you can read it here:

In 2019, LHA published a companion novel called SHOUT. If I loved Speak, then I had a full emotional awakening reading SHOUT. It’s a searingly beautiful memoir that addresses LHA’s personal experiences with an alcoholic father and distant mother. It also includes reflections and moments of advocacy and support for movements like #metoo and #timesup. It’s written in verse or short poems and continuously takes a little knife to your heart while you scramble to polish, sharpen, and ultimately find a way to sew the pieces back together.

Its hard to pick, but I THINK I can commit to saying that my favorite lines are:

“We should teach our girls that snapping is ok, instead of waiting for someone else to break them.”

“Censorship is the child of fear the father of ignorance and the desperate weapon of fascists everywhere.

“Trying to figure out what you want to do, who you want to be, is messy as hell; the best anyone can hope for is to figure out the next step.”

“I was in a race to see if I would die from the outside in or the inside out.”

In a New York Time’s article titled She Spent 20 Years Teaching Teens About Sexual Assault. Now She’s Sharing Her Own Story by Lucy Feldman, LHA describes writing SHOUT in response to what she was hearing and reading about the #metoo movement. She says,

“This book was written in rage, literally, lines of poetry just started raining in my head… I’m officially at the I don’t give a —- any more age.”

I got to meet LHA at a conference last summer. I would love to tell you that I calmly basked in her presence. Instead, I openly wept while I told her how much her books have impacted me, my friends, and my students. She was just as kind, gracious, smart, and witty as she was in my imagination. She addressed the group (consisting mostly of teachers and librarians) and talked about consent and how she leads discussions about it with teens all over the country. Her consent rules are that it must be verbal, enthusiastic, and ongoing. She also talked openly about her own trauma and the trauma she consistently reads about in fan letters and hears about on school visits. “All of us, we all have broken pieces,” she said. “It’s how we go forth, into healing ourselves and others that really matters.”

We have to learn to Speak. And after we speak, we must SHOUT. For yourselves, for your families, for your friends, for our community, and for all of us as collective humanity…broken pieces and all.

Reread or read Speak. Read SHOUT. Change the world.

Sending love,

The Whees and Woes of Literacy Curriculum Development

Hello Readers, it has been a while.  I have been on an adventure over the last year that took much of my brainpower and energy.  For the last few years, I have been documenting, through this blog, the construction and revision of our secondary literacy intervention initiative in an urban district.  In our sixth year, we began a process of extending our reach, always with the growth of all students in mind. The goal of this blog has been to share the work of proposing, developing, implementing, and adjusting a district literacy intervention.  Below is a review of our curriculum and instructional support development over the past years and an introduction to some significant recent revisions. I will speak from a “we” perspective because although I guide this work, I couldn’t possibly do any of it alone.  This work has provided our team with many challenges and celebrations. We hope others can learn from our efforts and experiences.

What have we done? 
As a review, and as you may already know depending on how much of our work you’ve read about in the past, the curriculum for our initial curriculum resulted from a district decision to excerpt from a proposal I developed for a building secondary literacy plan. Each building was provided with two FTEs (full-time-employees) whose sole job was to contribute to the literacy growth of all students, grades 6-9, eight middle schools and four high schools.  These literacy educators, dubbed Targeted Literacy Instructors (TLIs), provided direct instruction of general literacy strategies, specifically the before, during, and after reading strategies used to make meaning of content in general. We structured the curriculum around the processes of reciprocal teaching and explicit morphology study. In addition, these educators were asked to collaborate, in authentic co-teaching partnerships, to contribute to literacy access within core discipline courses, most specifically English language arts, social studies, and science.  They were also expected to contribute to an intentional building-level literacy plan, initially intended to be developed by a teacher-driven literacy team. 

The expectations beyond the intervention classroom, specifically co-teaching, had a dual purpose. First, co-teaching was intended to support disciplinary teachers and contribute to building their capacity for integrating general literacy skills, specifically the scaffolding needed to help students read and write for learning in any classroom. Although over these years, we were tasked with a more general content literacy focus, we respected that content should inform the process, so we did not advocate for the implementation of across-the-board literacy strategies in every class.  Literacy interventionists were asked to be intentional collaborators, meaning they were expected to plan with disciplinary co-teachers for the integration of content and literacy. This proved to be very difficult, primarily because planning time was not built into schedules. No collaborative planning means no authentic, effective co-teaching. Collaborative instruction was meant to support intentional and explicit literacy development in an authentic context, which is especially essential at the middle level. The second purpose of co-teaching was to provide literacy support for all students, not just those in our intervention course, at each grade level served by literacy interventionists. The obvious hope was to provide a clear transfer of skills gained in intervention courses into students’ other courses while exposing all students to effective literacy for learning.  Prior to this co-teaching work, and even as it was in process, unfortunately, when students were asked, “How are you applying these skills to your other classes?” students would typically state that they weren’t reading much in their other classes.   Our hope was to make an impact on that tendency. Although there was an additional desire on my part to support disciplinary literacy specifically, as I will expand on some here and in more depth in future posts, the district-accepted portions of my original proposal did not provide well for that work.

What did we learn? 
In the winter of 2018,  I started pulling together as much quantitative and quantitative data about implementation and student growth as I could gather for all of the students, teachers, and buildings engaged in this work.  It’s important to know that among “the most fascinating and sometimes frustrating aspects of human data is that people create variables which we sometimes cannot control for or standardized” (Gay, 2019).  So as I began to attempt to isolate human variables for qualitative data and the various data points of assessments for quantitative data, several patterns emerged, but few were definitive. Fortunately, a couple of elements were certain enough for me to enact change.  First, there was still a need for cross-curriculum collaboration between content courses and literacy instructors, but co-teaching in our current system was not likely the answer. Second, generalized strategy instruction alone was not transferring well into the disciplinary courses. Disciplinary teachers did not always accept the validity of generalized strategies, sometimes legitimately.

The co-teaching element, even when done as well as could be expected within our system. Identifiable, measurable impact was only evident in a few classrooms where TLIs collaborated with a content teacher. Overall, on average, there was little evidence of a direct impact on the student data used by the district to determine the initiative’s effectiveness. Yet in classrooms holding fidelity to the instructional elements of the established written course curriculum, including collecting cognitive and noncognitive pre- and post- and continuous assessment data on each student to inform instruction, identifying students’ strengths and needs to set learning goals, and using research-based instructional strategies, most notably workshop model instruction, independent reading with conferring, and reciprocal teaching, these practices did translate into higher rates of growth on standardized assessments and QRIs (Qualitative Reading Inventories). Moving forward, we wanted to maintain elements that were showing impact. Now, my goal here isn’t to provide a research analysis but to clarify why I felt compelled to make some significant changes to the initiative for our 6th year. 

We were still not making a broad enough impact for students through our initiative for many reasons, many of which were completely out of my control and/or the control of the literacy interventionists I coach/support.  The resource was often not taken seriously or supported adequately with building literacy plans and was more than once referred to as a “band-aid” by those who refused to acknowledge the broader intent of the work. Beliefs inform action, and the actions showed that belief in, and even understanding of, literacy for learning was weak. The intention when developing the initial proposal, which was slated as a pilot in a single high school building for freshmen students, was a wide-reaching, tiered structure for all students and teachers. In contrast, it was piecemealed by those who chose to use it to fill literacy gaps for the district improvement plan. Given the opportunity to use new data to motivate adjustments, I knew some potentially impactful actions were within my influence, and could be within the influence of teachers and building instructional coaches/principals if they choose to accept the shifts and implement them with fidelity.  

I always believed we could serve more students, provide students with responsive instruction at all levels, be more intentional about how literacy skills transferred across disciplines, and weave more comprehensive literacy practices through collaborative planning for teaching and learning across the curriculum within a building and across the district.  This sounds big, but the BIG in this vision is that the stakeholders have to buy in and implement with CONSISTENT fidelity. Fidelity is essential for obvious reasons. Without the initial, all-in, fidelity, we can’t collect data that is meaningful. If we have data built on variables held stable across settings, then we can tell what matters and what can be changed or adjusted.  Then, with fidelity, we can use what matters to consistently help students, a lot of students, in ways that matter to their future. What we don’t do, like implementing with careful fidelity, says as much about what we believe about our work and our students as what we do.  To date, much lip service has been paid to the essential nature of literacy,  but what rings louder across my district is what is said simply by what we refuse to do well. 

Academic Thinking is focused on the blend of the metacognitive elements of intermediate literacy and the thinking at the disciplinary literacy level.

How did we adjust?
With a lot of hope and significant belief in students and teachers, I wrote a year-6 follow-up proposal to adjust our secondary district literacy initiative. It was accepted, maybe with little understanding of how one district literacy coach would pull off the changes suggested across 12 buildings with twelve different leadership teams, 24 literacy interventionists, 12 building instructional coaches, and a plethora of content teachers, all of whom need to be on board for this shift if we are going to make it matter for our students- all of our students. With the new proposal in hand, I gained the assistance of a team of diligent, passionate educators who have the knowledge and experience to think critically with me about how to pull the pieces together into a written curriculum. We collaborated to make adjustments to our original content literacy course, Strategic Reading, to add elements of fluency and, as needed, phonemic awareness, phonological awareness, or phonics.  

NOTE: Already some unexpected new barriers have arisen as we begin our second year of implementation. As the impact of those challenges become clearer, I will provide more details. We still believe the elements of our revisions are in line with what students consistently need, so we continue to move forward.

The team’s grandest effort was to then develop and add a course called Academic Thinking with units specifically focused on standards for literacy practices of the core disciplines.  This is not an easy set of tasks. We explored the literacy practices/standards within the national standards for the core contents, specifically English Language Arts, Social Studies and Science.  (We are exploring how to engage in math literacy through Tier 1 and Tier 2 math courses in the context of math courses, including math intervention.) With the help of content specialists, we built units specifically focused on reading, writing and thinking within each discipline through authentic inquiry processes.  (We look forward to sharing this work and gaining your feedback in future blogs).

Some other specific shifts influenced by data include: 

No more-co-teaching.  I believe completely in the deep impact potential of authentic co-teaching.  Why co-teaching is good for students and how I’ve seen it work are whole blog topics of their own. When I was a teacher within this initiative, I co-taught with some amazing content teachers and saw it make a significant impact on students for both content and literacy. It was an authentic transfer of strategies for making meaning of a text while honoring the literacy and content knowledge needs of the discipline. Content informed process (Gillis, 2014) and many students were reading for learning within some core classes for the first time. However, this impact was rare and it wasn’t working in most settings, for a variety of reasons including, how our beliefs manifest in our actions at both the teacher and administrator levels.  Basically, we needed to use teachers’ time in a more effective way.  

Serve all students.   Before my original building initiative was absorbed as a district initiative, it was intended to provide multi-tiered service for students at all levels, with the students just below grade level receiving intentional literacy support within tier one courses. The instructional support for content teachers was to primarily be provided through professional learning opportunities, as well as coaching from and co-teaching with a literacy specialist.  This secondary literacy specialist, which was to be me in the original proposal, would also provide Tier 2 intervention course options that focused on both content literacy (general comprehension) and disciplinary literacy.
Instead, for 5 of the past 6 years, based on district-level decisions, only our “bubble” students (ouch!) were being served through our intervention courses and our students more deeply entrenched in the gap were not receiving any significant literacy support, unless they were in Special Education direct service reading classes or ESL sheltered courses.   Concern for these students was always at the forefront of my team members’ minds. This new proposal gave us an opportunity to use the content literacy curriculum (general comprehension and vocabulary instruction), which we call Strategic Reading, for the higher-need students who were previously unserved, and create the disciplinary literacy-focused course, Academic Thinking,  to serve either as a follow-up to Strategic Reading, or as a support for the students already previously targeted by our district, those scoring 1-3 years below grade level. 

Include all core teachers or as many as possible, in the work.  Serving all students through effective literacy support requires continuity of care across the curriculum from all teachers.  In our case, we chose to focus on all core content teachers, which in and of itself was daunting.  Most disciplinary teachers do not avoid engaging in rigorous discipline-specific literacy practices because they don’t value them; they sidestep them because they don’t understand how to implement them in classes of greatly varied strengths and needs.  Much of what students need includes lots of excellent, relevant, authentic Tier 1 literacy instruction in the context of the learning in which it applied. 

Additionally, it seems worthwhile to build capacity in teachers to serve all students with scaffolded support for reading, writing, and thinking across the disciplines.  We did not want TLIs to function in a bubble. We wanted them to have conversations with content teachers so that intervention courses (Tier 2) would be in line with regular classroom instruction (Tier 1).   Within our new Academic Thinking curriculum, we are on-purpose about using the national standards for each core discipline, specifically those that focus on the literacy of the discipline, to inform our work.  Unless it also synced with the literacy processes used in the core classrooms, and therefore deepen the kind of literacy practice students applied in core classes, our work with students would be futile. Collaboration within core content PLCs was specified as an essential element of the instructional preparation of TLIs.  The hope was similar to that of co-teaching, through the process of collaborative planning, teachers would build their literacy instruction capacity for their discipline and all students would gain from the structures. The challenge of time is still in place, but when a building makes time for this type of collaboration, the learning is more authentic and just makes more sense to students.  (More will be offered in future blogs about some structures/processes we drafted to facilitate PLC collaboration for disciplinary literacy.)

What’s next? 
In pending blogs, we would like to share elements of our new disciplinary literacy curriculum, by disciplinary units, including strategy structures built that place skills within an authentic process versus in isolation. We would also like to share the work teachers are doing and how we have chosen to develop common assessments for each unit.  As we enter our second year of implementation with the recent revisions, we may also try to share our data and get feedback on implications for further adjustments, if we are given the opportunity to continue an eighth year.  

If you are still with me, thank you.  We do not claim to have the answers to raising adolescent literacy rates, but we are basing our curriculum and instructional choices on research regarding effective literacy instruction, as well as our own extensive experience. We realize there are many perspectives and experiences from which we can learn. If you know what it feels like to try to be innovative in a classroom, building, or district to change the literacy lives of teens, please contribute your voice of experience to the conversation. We love the opportunity to learn from others. 

A Few Noteable Resources

Brozo, W.G., Moorman, G., Meyer, C., & Stewart, T. (2013). Content area
reading and disciplinary literacy: A case for the radical center.
Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy.  56(5), pp. 353-357.

Buehl, D. (2017) Developing readers in the academic disciplines
(2nd Ed). Portland, ME; Stenhouse.

Fang, Z. & Coatoam, S. (2013). Disciplinary literacy: What you want to know
about it. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy.  56(8), pp. 627-632.

Gillis, V. (2014). Disciplinary literacy: Adapt not adopt. Journal of Adolescent
& Adult Literacy.  57(8), pp. 614-623.

Hynd-Shanahan, C. (2013). What does it take?: The challenge of disciplinary
literacy. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy.  57(2), pp. 93-98.

Lent, R.C. (2016) This is disciplinary literacy: reading, writing and doing
content area by content area.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Shanahan, C. (2017). Comprehension in the disciplines. In S.E. Israel (Ed.)
Handbook of research of reading comprehension  (2nd Ed.) New York:
NY Guilford.

Effective Interventionists

I have met many women and men who wholeheartedly want to be effective literacy teachers.  They want, as much as anyone can, to impact the lives of adolescent readers. In our district, those teachers accept the belief that an excellent education is built on literacy as a civil right.   When I am asked how to get an effective class or program started for struggling adolescent readers, the inquiry is typically about structure, standards, and resources, understandably. I also acknowledge that even the best research-based structure is subordinate to consistent building-wide and district-wide support for fidelity of that structure.  Beyond that need, the greatest factor for success in the individual classroom is an effective literacy educator that believes in all students, responds to the needs of the whole student, remains knowledgeable on effective literacy practice, and builds a classroom structure that facilitates success for all students.

Although this might be a great place to write a literature review citing sources that validate my choice of essential elements, I will instead share my knowledge and beliefs through the lens of my education and my experience with hundreds of real students and dozens of teachers.  Like many reading this, I have spent years, dedicated my life actually, to the work of helping teens read well, both in private and public contexts. I value data and spend a lot of time attempting to make sense of what the data says about what happens in actual classrooms.  I am genuinely saddened that neither my best intentions nor my best efforts have made a significant impact on the system as a whole. I have seen the impact of my work and the work of my fellow literacy educators at the building level, and most certainly at the individual class/teacher level. Students have experienced long-term benefit in these contexts.  However, even as a coach that supports middle and secondary literacy intervention in a large district, with a literacy model I developed and implemented over that past 5 years, I must admit I have yet to see our literacy work impact the system in a sustainable way. Our work is unique, innovative and research-based, but the moving parts are many and difficult to effectively support. Yet we continue to press forward, with our best resource: effective literacy educators.

In spite of my obvious frustration with system change and the state of affairs of literacy in our nation, I must continue to believe in the power of the individual teacher, site-based management, & effective instructional coaching.  I would argue that one of the reasons systems change is so difficult is individual teachers, and frankly, individual students, are undervalued. Again, a blog for another time. With that said, I have bore witness to excellent practice in many classrooms.  I don’t pop in and out, I sit through classes, typically many times with the same teachers, and I notice some commonalities among our most effective literacy interventionists.

Effective literacy teachers believe In all students.  Above all else, effective teachers function from a belief system that accepts that all students can learn and grow as readers, writers, and thinkers.  This is first on my list and of utmost importance. When a teen has spent years battling against reading challenges, he doesn’t believe in himself anymore. These students also don’t believe that anyone can help them change their reading stars. Frankly, many educators have fallen victim to the belief that some students are just not able to read well.  “The good news is that we now have an essential research base demonstrating that virtually every child could be reading grade level by the end of first grade” (Routman, 2014). In a reality where that is not happening, the individual teacher must believe that the potential to achieve and grow still lives within each adolescent.

Effective literacy teachers employ responsive teaching practices.  Of course, this happens as a result of believing in all students.  It also requires a clear understanding of the strengths and challenges of each student.  This is where gaining and maintaining a strong knowledge of literacy development and pedagogy is important.  At the center of all of this is an awareness of the cultural knowledge, experiences, and beliefs students bring to a learning community.  The curriculum and the accepted methodology for instruction are important, however knowledgeable, reflective, relationship-driven educators can be effective with students through nearly any curriculum and any model of instruction. (This is where you may want to refer to my disclaimer for this blog. This is my strongly-held opinion.)

Effective, Consistent, Safe, Fair Classroom Structure.  The reality of teaching adolescent struggling readers is that they are not all that excited to take another spin at becoming a “proficient reader.”  Depending on the district and the structure of the intervention in that district K-12, they may have experienced a great many instructional attempts to fashion them into grade-level readers.  In some cases, those attempts, according to my discussions with students, made them all the more certain that reading is a boring waste of time. More than that, these students have undoubtedly experienced intervention attempts within classroom structures where the teacher’s credibility and clarity were constantly in question (Fisher, Frey, & Hattie, 2016).  The culture of the classroom, dependent on teacher direction and modeling, must acknowledge mistakes and confusion as part of the path to growth. Creating a safe space for students who have not felt safe enough to take risks, may well be the greatest benefit of thoughtful classroom structures. In safe, consistent, responsive environments students begin to absorb the positive culture of the classroom, respect the teacher’s expertise, and believe that maybe, just maybe change is possible.

Are you seeking to develop a curriculum that changes the literacy stars for your students? A solid data-driven, research-based curriculum is essential, but the impact of an effective educator is paramount. Have I missed some fundamental elements of an effective literacy educator? Share your thoughts? Consider your practice and the practice of those effective, impactful teachers in your sphere. Students deserve dedicated, responsive educators that always seek to improve their practice and who care deeply about each individual student. What does student evidence of impactful instruction look like to you? How are we using the evidence of our students’ success or failure to enhance our practice to serve students better?

Strategy Anticipation Guides

Anticipation guides allow students to contemplate their knowledge, beliefs, and experiences about concepts, skills, or strategy application before a unit begins. Students can open their “prior knowledge” files in order connect new learning to their existing schema. Through instruction, knowledge and skills can be revised, reorganized and enhanced. 

“What students already know about a topic may be jumbled, disorganized, and incomplete — and sometimes it can be plain wrong. Anticipation guides…are designed to determine what students know, and are especially effective when they hone in on common misconceptions” (Fisher, Frey & Hattie, 2016).  It is difficult to determine what students bring to the learning without some sort of intentional evidence gathering. In addition to providing some of this needed evidence, “prediction and anticipation guides provide frontloading in preparation to connect new learning” (Buehl, 2017). “As an added advantage, such activities give students clues about what’s coming next and that helps them set a purpose for learning, an important aspect of motivation” (Lent, 2012).

In Strategic Reading (secondary intervention), our comprehension standards are focused on building metacognitive processes needed to make sense of a text.  Our anticipation guides provide opportunities for students to consider how they think about their thinking and provide teachers with evidence of the students understanding, or lack of understanding, in preparation for strategy instruction.    

Our comprehension standards include:  

Activate prior knowledge specific to the text to determine a purpose for reading. Use text and text features to develop logical predictions. Monitor the accuracy of the predictions, analyze textual evidence to adjust.

Generate implicit and explicit questions for a variety of purposes (predict, clarify, wonder); seek answers to questions to deepen comprehension.

Detect signs of confusion, diagnose causes of the confusion & determine effective reading strategies to resolve confusion and improve comprehension.

Read closely to determine essential details to analyze the author’s important ideas and intended themes; synthesize information in a logical structure that maintains the author’s intended meaning.

Following each unit, we find that revisiting the unit anticipation guides allows students to reflect on their own development as a result of their new learning. Opportunities for students to self-assess and self-reflect are considered highly impactful on student motivation and growth (Fisher, Frey & Hattie, 2016).   

Click on the image to follow the link to the anticipation guides we developed for our Strategic Reading comprehension standards. 

3 Stages of Good Reading

One of the challenges of teaching students to use strategies for making meaning of a text is helping them synthesize a series strategies into a logical process for previewing, making meaning, summarizing and reacting to the author’s message or argument.   We developed this Three Stages of the Good Reading guide as one option to help students practice the steps start-to-finish when they process a new piece of text for general meaning, clarifying confusion, activating schema, identify the author’s main ideas/arguments, etc.

Use of this guide requires some scaffolding through explicit instruction (mini-lessons in a workshop model, for example), but those lessons can follow students’ initial attempts at the process.  Through this, teachers can collect student evidence to inform instruction.  Once students are proficient in the process, and they can apply it to a variety of text types with increasing levels of complexity,  these steps can be applied authentically to text or be more of an internal mental process.  However, as it is initially taught and guided, this is a method intended to provide opportunities for students to make their thinking visible and gain much-needed feedback for growth. 

The Three Stages of Good Reading process is not intended to replace disciplinary reading strategies where “content determines process,” in ELA, science, social studies, math, etc.  This is an initial process to support general understanding of the text and can be used as the first-read in a close reading process in a content area followed by subsequent reading through the lens of the discipline.

(Click the document to follow the link.)

Clarifying Confusion, Part 2

As a follow-up the Clarifying Confusion post from April 2017, I am sharing sample presentations for introducing target clusters in our Clarifying Confusion unit for our intervention for 6th – 9th graders.  See April post for a better description of the standard for this unit and the targets for instruction. 

I see this unit as the heart of our work.  Our standards for this intervention are built around the tenets of reciprocal teaching (Palinscar & Brown, 1984).  When I work with students at the secondary and postsecondary levels, they express that among their greatest frustrations is not knowing what to do when they don’t understand what they’ve read or not realizing they do not understand until the end of the text or during a test.  The purpose of the standard for this unit, as mentioned in a previous post, is to help students develop a mental framework for how to identify confusion and resolve it. 

I initially present the process with an analogy for diagnosing and curing an illness.
I do not think of my students as ill, nor do I teach from a deficit perspective, but developing an analogy helps students consider the whole process, before engaging with the parts of how to repair their own confusion.  

Some teachers encourage students to come up with their own analogy for the process. This may be especially useful for students to record and represent their learning at the end of the unit and solidify the process as they continue to develop their clarifying skills independently beyond the intervention classroom.

So, when I introduce this sequence, I focus on three questions.  How do I know I am
confused? What is causing my confusion? How do I repair my confusion?  Between the explicit instruction for each question,  a great deal of practice and application must happen through authentic reading experiences.  For my students, this typically happens through explicit modeling and guided strategy practice, individual conferring, think alouds, and reciprocal teaching.  

Again, the following presentations merely introduce the concepts and vocabulary needed for metacognitive discussions about monitoring for comprehension and repairing confusion.

If you have questions about any of these resources, please comment or email

References for Further Study: 

Carter, C. (1997). Why reciprocal teaching? Educational leadership. (54)6: 64-68.

Palinscar, A.S., and Brown, A.L. (1984). Reciprocal teaching of comprehension: Fostering and monitoring activities. Cognition and Instruction (1) 2: 111-175.

Tovani, C. (2000). I read it, but I don’t get it. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Literacy Lessons – Predictions

The lesson below explains an instructional strategy that I’ve used with narratives in our first unit for secondary intervention students.  This engages student thinking to make predictions, guide reading, and sustain interest in the story.  This strategy also offers space for front-loading important and unfamiliar vocabulary.  As students read, they gather evidence to make adjustments to their original predictions.  “Fragments from the story, in the form of clue words and phrases (context clues), enable readers to form an overall impression of how the characters and events interact in the story” (Vacca, Vacca, & Mraz). Variations of this strategy can be found in a variety of resources.  Here you can see how it connects to a standard and specific targets (Marzano) in our Strategic Reading curriculum.

Story Impressions



Activate prior knowledge specific to the text to determine the purpose for reading.  Use text and text features to develop logical predictions. Monitor the accuracy of the predictions, analyze textual evidence to adjust.


  • adjust predictions based on textual evidence.  
  • monitor the accuracy of predictions based on textual evidence.
  • use the text features and context clues to develop logical predictions.



Lesson Steps:

  • Students will receive a list of clue words “selected directly from the story and sequenced with arrows or lines to form a descriptive chain”(Vacca, Vacca, & Mraz). These words are chosen from a text that challenges but doesn’t frustrate students. 
  • Engage students in an effective strategy for exploring the unfamiliar vocabulary that is essential to the theme of the story.
  • After unfamiliar words have been explored and the Story Impression process has been modeled (the first time), students will use the clue words to write a story prediction for the short story or chapter they are about to read.  Students must use all of the words in the story chain.  Using all the terms requires students to predict the possible connections between the words and concepts.
  • Students share their ideas in pairs and volunteers share out.  If time allows, the teacher may facilitate quick discussion about how evidence fueled the predictions. 
  • Students will read the text using a process chosen by the teacher.  (Even a version reciprocal teaching could be used here.)  The teacher may identify stopping points for students to discuss adjustments and the evidence that supports them. 
  • During the reading process, the teacher can monitor conversations or conference with students about the applications of the target skills.

Academic Vocabulary:

Prediction, adjust, context, text features, textual evidence 

 Monitoring/ Assessment:  

  • Written story impression using all of the terms/concepts provided. 
  • Exit Slip/Quick Write – How did the story differ from your prediction?  Provide evidence from the text to show the differences.
  • Student-teacher conferencing throughout the process.

Turning Reluctance into Resilience

GUEST POST  by  Dr. Cheryl J. Wright

As effective educators, we strive to meet students where they are. But what if where they are is “I don’t care”? Rather than conceding that students can’t do better, it is important that we

  1. Make connections to build on students’ interests and strengths.
  2. Take time to clearly define crucial teaching content and create achievable goals.
  3. Teach intrapersonal skills and real-life applications of lessons.
  4. Provide effective support while emphasizing student effort and acknowledging progress.

Here are some ways these tenets might play out in the classroom, especially when students struggle to muster their motivation.

Cultivating the Will to Succeed

Taking time to know students and welcome them to the classroom fosters not only a positive culture but a productive one. Students perceive a safe environment where asking questions, sharing ideas, and linking learning to prior knowledge are the norm. When establishing classroom culture, it is beneficial to “focus on what students need to succeed and build it into the learning and social environment every day” (Jensen, 2016, p. 111).

How This Might Look in Practice

  • Inspire hope: Greet with a smile, give high fives, and embed genuine affirmations (e.g., “It’s good to see you.” “Nice job getting here on time.” “Welcome back.” “You nailed it!”). Specify how learning is beneficial in students’ lives and be receptive to their thoughts and feedback. Integrate examples into your teaching of how individuals overcome adversity. Ultimately, interactions with students should serve as stepping-stones for trust and growth.
  • Express enthusiasm: Exhibit a caring disposition for students and excitement about the topics you teach. Convey instruction with positive energy and purpose. Students will be more likely to ask questions and pursue learning.
  • Be approachable: Have clear and consistent expectations for both learning and behavior while also promoting civility, equity, and respect. Nurture students’ curiosity for learning by guiding them to discover their talents and view situations from different perspectives.
  • Embrace teachable moments: Encourage students to reflect on learning experiences and tell them that their voices matter. Analyze what is going well, what adjustments are needed, and how different methods can get better results. Look at drawbacks as opportunities to solve problems creatively and build confidence.

Fostering Essential Connections

How often, despite our best intentions, do we assume we know what motivates learners? Do we take time to genuinely know students or explore their attitudes about school? These questions call to mind a middle school student I once met. He was sometimes sheltered from challenging work out of a misplaced concern that pushing him to think critically would be too frustrating for him. Basic lessons that required mere regurgitation of facts conveyed low expectations and insulted his potential. When I asked him, “What influences you to do well in school?” he said, without hesitation, “When teachers don’t give me the easy stuff!”

Educators who motivate clearly define objectives and provide opportunities for “learning by doing.” Feedback and multiple opportunities for practice help students understand expectations, monitor progress, and foster a can-do attitude.

How This Might Look in Practice

  • Focus on success and set achievable goals.
  • Clearly identify the topic and what students will learn.
  • Use multiple, kid-friendly ways to explain learning goals so that students purposefully engage in the learning process.
  • Connect lessons to what is relevant to students, including real-life examples and analogies to foster deep understanding.
  • Pinpoint crucial information; too much at one time can be overwhelming and confusing.

Not Academics Alone

Competency in our content areas alone does not inspire effort. We must be sensitive to the fact that students may have experienced failure many times before coming to us. Students can be apprehensive that teachers will talk to them in a condescending manner or won’t value them. A savvy teacher knows how to convey instruction in ways that give and garner respect.

How This Might Look in Practice

  • Share a personal experience.
  • Acknowledge when you get it wrong: “Sorry, this is my fault.”
  • Say, “I have no doubt we can get this done.”
  • Encourage self-confidence: “We’ll take it one step at a time.” “You’ve got this!”
  • Invite feedback: “What are your thoughts?” “How might this be done differently?”
  • Follow the 2×10 strategy and “invest 2 uninterrupted, undivided minutes a day for 10 consecutive days with the sole purpose of relationship building” (Mendler, 2000, p. 51).

Making a Difference

Unmotivated students can challenge any teacher. However, consistently framing each day as an opportunity to get stronger, and giving students the supports to do so, can encourage them to persevere. Over time, reluctance shifts to resilience, and students’ excitement for learning reawakens. What could be more rewarding than giving struggling students hope and a chance to hold their heads a little higher?


Jensen, E. (2016). Poor students, rich teaching: Mindsets for change. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Mendler, A. N. (2000). Motivating students who don’t care: Successful techniques for educators. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Cheryl J. Wright is an instructional coach in Kansas City for Kansas Public Schools.

Originally Posted in ASCD Express, Vol. 12, No. 23. Copyright 2017 by ASCD. All rights reserved.  Reposted with permission from the author.