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Books in Translation

Reading Across the Content Areas
December 20, 2012 | Volume 8 | Issue 6
Table of Contents 

Apprenticing for Reading Engagement

Gayle Cribb

I am a history teacher, but I only learned to love my field when I landed in college classes where we actually did the work of historians. We learned to take an inquiry stance, read closely, and think deeply about what history means. In these classes, history texts were engaging especially when they were complex. Who wrote this, for whom, and why? What other perspectives coexisted? How did this way of thinking make sense within the context of that time? How do we construct a picture of the past that accounts for all of these sources? How does that understanding inform the present and our sense of what it means to be human?

I wanted my high school students to experience the exhilaration of this kind of historical thinking, but they were very limited in their ability to dig into the reading. My college professors had modeled how to apprentice students to historical thinking, but we college students had managed the reading on our own without explicit reading instruction. My high school students needed more help.

Investigating Apprenticeship

It was about this time when my school decided to tackle reading across the curriculum and became involved in Reading Apprenticeship professional development, which introduced us to the possibility of making our thinking visible to ourselves and our students—and then inviting students to do the same: What connections are you making? What are you visualizing? Where did you get stuck? What's confusing? What questions are coming up? How are you getting that idea? Where's the evidence?

Students took readily to these metacognitive conversations, fascinated with the idea of thinking about their own thinking. Recognizing that they could get inside their own brains, they also became more interested in learning how to control what their brains were doing when the reading got tough. They built reader identities as people who could engage with difficult text and hold onto a personal investment in understanding and interrogating it. They became proud of their developing reading prowess. And, because we were reading history, their historical thinking deepened.

Complex Text, Close Reading, and Engagement

It has been my consistent experience that apprenticing students to their "reading brains" and the disciplinary work of a particular academic community is highly productive for all students. Consider this small example.

One of my regular U.S. history classes included a handful of special education students who had never been mainstreamed before. We were studying industrialization and using a primary source about a sweatshop. I had made copies for students of one paragraph from the text with big margins where they could make their thinking visible by annotating the text with their comments, drawings, and questions.

After they had read and annotated individually, they talked through their annotations with a partner. Then I asked students what problems they still had in understanding the piece. The phrase "a stint of work on the sewing machine" came up for several, so we set out to work on it together. What did "stint" mean, anyhow?

Somebody thought it meant time, because of certain context clues in the previous sentence. Ineko, a Japanese exchange student, looked stint up on her electronic translator, which defined it as a unit of time. Someone else checked the big dictionary and that definition was also about a measurement of time.

Another student said, "Well, I thought it was a pile of clothes." So we talked about that possibility, which also seemed to make sense. And then Harry, a special education student who knows all about 19th century farm machinery and drives a Model T that he rebuilt, asked, "When was that dictionary written?" So we checked the copyright. Harry observed, "That's how we use stint now, but that might not be what it meant in 1900, when this is from. It changes, how people use words over time."

Then small groups talked about which was the best definition of stint in this document, given all of their thinking. It was clear that there were defensible alternatives, so I asked them to write their individual positions. At that point, Austin, a special education student with severe dyslexia, piped up. "A pile of clothes takes time to do the work on, and so actually a pile of clothes is a measurement of time." Admiring murmurs of, "Oh, yeah …," greeted this novel and worthy idea. When students finished their writing, we talked about the significance of this little text in our growing understanding of industrialization. Afterward, I thought to myself, "Wow, a group of graduate students talking about that primary source could have had the same conversation."

My 11th graders had interrogated the document seriously, seeking to wring as much as they possibly could from it. They had generated their own questions. They had demonstrated the stamina to dig into the meaning of a significant work both in its textual and in its historical contexts. They had wondered whether its meaning might have changed over time. They had weighed various possible definitions and understood that their conclusion was tentative—a hypothesis versus the "truth." And they had added this small stint of close reading to their bigger understanding of and engagement with a particular historical period.

Gayle Cribb taught history at Dixon High School, in Dixon, Calif., for 32 years. She is a professional development associate in a federal i3 validation study, Reading Apprenticeship Improving Secondary Education (RAISE), and a contributor to the federally funded project Reading for Understanding Across Grades 6–12: Reading, Evidence, and Argument in Disciplinary Instruction (READI). She works with the Strategic Literacy Initiative at WestEd.


ASCD Express, Vol. 8, No. 6. Copyright 2012 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit

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  • Louise_Robinson-Lay 3 years ago

    Thank you for this article. It is a reminder of how easy it can be to foreground reading and yet how much benefit students can gain from this.