Co-teaching for Literacy Access

“…the 21st-century notion of co-teaching places it within the context of some of the most innovative practices in education” (Villa, et al., 2013).


One of the unique elements of the secondary literacy model we currently implement in my district is the co-teaching piece.  We are in year four with an intervention model specifically used for students in grades six through nine. We’ve experienced a great deal of student success.  However, we are still growing, learning, and adjusting.

Over the last three years, many challenges arose in our work, and many of those were addressed by professional learning, collaboration and innovation from literacy teachers in our professional learning community. However, the co-teaching element needs more support and clearer direction over all.  With that in mind, I drafted a set of guidelines and expectations for literacy intervention teachers. This is not only intended to help literacy teachers gain a clearer vision of the plan and purpose of co-teaching, but it is also meant to be an additional data point for conversations with content teachers and building leaders.

Beyond the guidelines, I offer a few other resources to support initial thinking. To connect to our district’s work with Rigorous Unit Planning (Marzano), I developed a scale to help educators think about the progression of learning needed for this process.   I provide Dr. Richard Villa’s definitions and comparisons of four co-teaching approaches.  Lastly, I drafted a few ideas to troubleshoot common concerns.  I don’t presume these will be the solutions to all problems, but it is a place to start.  Additional support will be offered through collaboration, modeling and coaching.

Note: Literacy teachers in our secondary system teach two classes of  reading intervention (intended as a type of case load).  They also co-teach with two content teachers per semester in the same grade level as the students in their interventions classes. The hope is that they will also be an “indispensable resource” in the literacy initiatives of their buildings. We seek to contribute to a positive culture of literacy and to simply help teens read and write for learning.

The hope is always that the administrators and instructional leaders in each secondary building will be intentional about assigning co-teaching relationships with the students literacy development as the foremost priority in mind.   This is two fold.  First, both the content teacher and the literacy interventionist are clear on and committed to the ultimate purpose of providing students with research-based, strategies for processing text across disciplines.  Additionally,  there must be intentional time for planning.  Dr. Villa, among other scholars on this process, would say that where there is no intentional planning there is no effective co-teaching.

I welcome you to read through the attached document and offer feedback.  It is a fluid document meant solely to help teachers and building leaders deepen this valuable piece of our model.

2016-2017 Targeted Literacy Co-teaching Guidelines and Expectations

Engaged Reading in Content Classes

One way a reading or intervention specialist can support a content teacher is to make the process of reading-to-learn more manageable.  I enjoy helping teachers use instructional strategies (or techniques) that engage all students and require all students be accountable for their own reading and learning.  Sometimes the best text to address a difficult concept is lengthy and requires considerable concentration from students. Teachers want ways to help students read AND learn the content.

This semester, I had the privilege of co-teaching in Biology classes. Access teachers (special education, ESL, reading specialists) sometimes feel intimidated by content for which we are definitely not experts. I certainly feel this way in Biology.   However, access teachers have the expertise to accommodate students in processing lengthy texts to learn important new information.  Because Biology is a difficult topic for me, my modeling of meaning-making strategies are genuine and authentic.  I am a reader trying to make meaning of content that doesn’t come naturally to me as a learner. This is just part of the power of the access teacher – content teacher collaboration.

Below is a process I collaboratively implemented in Biology classes in my building.  I realize I am very fortunate to work with content teachers so willing to help students read to access new knowledge.

Collaborative Guided Summary & Jigsaw Groups 


  1. In “expert” groups students all receive the same text.  This can be fourths of a larger text or different texts that address a topic from multiple perspectives, etc. In Biology, we divided a long text about Charles Darwin’s development of the Theory of Evolution into 5 pieces.  Each piece was independently comprehensible. The first section is used to model the entire process (in parts or all at once) and introduce students to the topic.  The four other sections are copied and divided among “expert” groups, meaning all members in the group have the same piece of text about which they will become “experts.” 

2.  The co-teacher and access teacher model all of the steps:

A.  Access teacher reads and highlights important vocabulary. (Model
first couple paragraphs, guide students with the next couple.)
B. Content teacher “retells” using the highlighted vocabulary
(words & phrases)  to relay 
the main idea(s) of the section.
C. Access teacher asks any clarifying questions about the content.  This would include questions about concepts, language, & vocabulary that block understanding of the text.
D. One of the teachers models merging these ideas on the guided summary sheet.  Again, break this process down as works best for your class.

  1. Before reading:  The students begin the process of completing the “Guided Summary” form.  This, too, is modeled by the content teacher.  Before reading, students will identify title, subtitle, and use the text features to identify the topic of the text.  This form is completed by each student so that they will have the accurate information when they switch into a jigsaw groups.
  1. Students complete the reading process adhering to the following ROLES:
    1. Reader reads aloud 1-2 paragraphs at a time. The stop points can be designated on the text by the teachers in advance. 
    2. Reteller (who, like all of the students, has been annotating for essential ideas and vocabulary) retells (summarizes) the section aloud.  Other students offer any adjustments.
    3. Recorder identifies important words and phraseunspecified-33d, especially those repeated frequently, to the vocabulary section of the Guided Summary
    4. Clarifier asks clarifying questions. These should be identified by the students as the reader reads each section.  Additional confusions may arise as the reteller verbalizes the main ideas from the section.  If the retelling is too difficult, confusion is probably present.


  1. The content and access teachers are checking for adherence to process  and understanding of content.  When confusion can’t be clarified within the group, the content teacher can support students by answering questions or guiding students through a process to repair the confusion.  Teachers may also “Catch and Release” by stopping students to address common confusions with completing the process. 
  1. Students repeat the process until the entire passage is read, verbally summarized, and all the essential vocabulary is recorded on the “Guided Summary.”  
  1. Students work together as an expert group to use the  title/subtitle, topic, and vocabulary to develop an overall main idea for the text.  (This is modeled with the initial piece of text prior to the students’ efforts.)  Students then go section-by-section and use their annotation and vocabulary to develop a structured summary that supports the main idea.   This may be the last step in a class period. 
  1.  Potentially in a second class period (we function in 80-minute blocks),         students then shuffle to jigsaw groups.  This is a group that, once  gathered, has one student representing each of all four sections of the text (in this case about Charles Darwin). They share their summaries and ask each other clarifying questions.
  1. Then, as a group, Students read and  answer a few targeted implicit and
    explicit questions prepared by the  content teacher about the article  These questions are developed to  intentionally need the collaboration of all members and use multiple sections  of the text. The students are required to work together to think through  application of the new knowledge.   

Recently, I completed a similar process in an ESL class reading Romeo and Juliet. The content teacher chose four pieces of text about arranged marriages (both pro and con). We co-taught (team teaching model) using this same process, but with four different different texts, different perspectives.  The final questions still required students to pull evidence from more than one of the texts to answer focused questions about the cumulative learning.

This process is a lot more challenging to write about than to demonstrate in person.  If visualizing this process through my writing is challenging, please ask questions.  On the other hand, if it seems to makes sense, consider using it on your own or in a co-teaching setting, and let me know how it goes.

The Adolescent Literacy Rabbit Hole

Credited to @RabbitHoleKC

Credited to @RabbitHoleKC

I started teaching in 1997.   My first teaching position was American History with 8th graders at a so called “suburban” school that had the unusual feel of being both urban and rural. Our district border butted up to the second largest urban district in the state, and at this point in the district’s history, it was experiencing the reality of a forced blending of diversity of culture and socioeconomic statuses for which it was wholly unprepared.   I enjoyed teaching in general, at-risk kids especially, but the challenges I had prepared for in college, mostly management concerns, weren’t the challenges that kept me awake or caused me to spend hours planning to teach.  I was surprised to find that the concerns that most plagued my existence were all connected to literacy. A predominant number of my students, probably about 67%, if it was near the national average,  were non-readers or struggling/striving readers.  Ultimately, what that meant was that they weren’t effectively reading to learn.  When reading a piece of text to glean information and evidence about a topic within my content was the objective, that objective was rarely realized.  From a social studies teacher point of view, and a new social studies teacher at that, it felt like the time spent asking students to read to learn was wasted. I had standards to cover.  I was idealistic; I wanted them to read it, hear it, speak it, write about it, know it, use it.   I wasn’t yet using power points or prezis, flashing historical images from the internet, showing an array of video clips to build background knowledge or encouraging my students to create iMovies or engage in  PBL projects to get them to internalize content.  I could tell a good story, guide a good research project,  and lead a decent discussion or debate.  I could keep my students engaged. I was about collaborative learning before it was cool, but that wasn’t enough.  My students could take notes, have discussions, write mediocre essays without good evidence, and make posters.  Not life skills, necessarily. 

As I looked back on that first year of teaching, I felt a bit confounded about how I would ever help my students “see” and engage in the big picture of this nation’s history without their ability to truly read about it.  I felt that it was essential to be able to read, write about and discuss original documents. I understood the need to bale on the one-size-fits-none textbook and bring in my own sources.  I even wrote or rewrote passages.   No matter how many first-year-level activities I pulled out of my very small bag of tricks, my students needed to be able to read and grapple with difficult texts full of deep and original ideas intended to be grappled with.

I ended that first year of teaching with some successes, but they were mostly relational successes built on my appreciation of teens and my desire to advocate on their behalf.  I doubt one of those students remembers much else about that year.  Those students are in their mid-30’s now.  I still regret what SKILLS they really didn’t develop to help them be the citizens I hoped they would be now.

I spent another year at that school, before leaving to grow child 2 and child 3.  I was granted an English position, which for me meant teaching history through literature.  I was excited for the opportunity to connect literature to time and place and to make connections between the stories that fill our canon and the lives that bore those stories. (My focus quickly shifted from the canon, for those who are worried.) Year one hadn’t killed my idealism.  However, the struggle was real and prevalent no matter what I taught. Adolescents were struggling to make meaning out of all types of text, unless the text was significantly below grade level.  Frankly, many were struggling with texts well below grade level, as well. They had a severe lack of background knowledge and dangerously low vocabularies.   I was not so concerned that they couldn’t understand everything I asked them to read.  I wasn’t even concerned that some read much lower than others or that I would need to take a serious journey into differentiation land. I was concerned that they had no skills in how to GRAPPLE.  They didn’t or couldn’t “struggle with or work hard to deal with or overcome” confusion and challenges as they read.   When asked, they couldn’t tell me what specifically was the problem, why they didn’t understand a sentence, paragraph or passage. Nor did they have any practices of their own to deal with such problems.  More than that,  I was concerned I had no skills to help students, of any discipline, truly use strategies or grow as readers of content text or even as readers in general.  I had taken a “content area reading” class in college like every other education certification seeker.  I even enjoyed it.  However, by my second year of teaching, that felt like an insignificant collection of reading engagement tools that didn’t address the struggle before me.  A list of inquiries began to take hold.  How do I help struggling adolescent readers become better readers of my content, but more importantly, better readers, writers, thinkers in general?   How do I figure out what is tripping students in general and individual students specifically?  What are the processes the brain engages in to learn to read?  What then must the growing, developing brain do to make sense of complex text as it reads to learn?   I was feeling guilty for not having the knowledge or skills to answer these questions.  I once heard someone say, “guilt is the soul’s call to action.”  If that is true, I felt the call.

So that was the challenge before me when my second infant girl took over my world and my brain.   My refusal to leave her and go back to work also produced a hole in my budget.  A friend suggested I take a graduate class, so I could teach something called the Lindamood Reading Process.   By the end of the course, I was hooked.  The instructor of that class invited me to teach for her in a more clinical setting serving children with dyslexia and reading disabilities.  Just as will happen when you give a moose a muffin or a pig a pancake, or in my case, when you give a curious mind a new rabbit hole, a series of events developed before me that changed my life mission. I began an M.Ed program focused on secondary literacy.  Then I returned to teaching in the aforementioned second largest urban district in my state. That turned into a lot of action research and a return visit to a graduate school for my reading specialist. The die was cast, and I was off to change the lives of urban adolescents any way I could manage.

What is your story?  Why do you care so much about the literacy lives of teens?  What are the struggles that absorb your thinking about struggling secondary readers?   I would like to hear about the journeys of other literacy-minded educators.