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.

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