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?

Gatekeeping:
“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