Don't be a technology hater," our students cry when we grumble at the mention of texting, Twitter, and online book summaries. "The world operates because of technology whether you're on board or not."
They're right on both counts: Technology has fundamentally changed our teaching jobs, and this change does at times make teachers grumble. Because students now communicate regularly without using complete words, without reciprocal dialogue, and without interpreting complex ideas, they define and approach texts differently.
This shift greatly affects what we do in the classroom. One of us (Kim) is a secondary English teacher who not only battles for relevance when she teaches classic literature, but also must show students how to approach and comprehend substantive books. The other (Joanne) is a reading specialist who faces similar challenges.
Research supports our observations. According to a 2010 report by ACT, "Only 31 percent of students are performing at a college-and-career reading level with respect to successfully understanding complex text" (p. 5).1
This statistic demonstrates what educators know: Middle and high school students face numerous challenges in reading, understanding, connecting to, and remembering information in textbooks and literature. Content-area teachers need a toolbox of strategies to support them.
ACT researchers recommend that schools strengthen the reading instruction capacity of content-area specialists. But in a world of high-stakes testing, grade-level expectations, and district scope and sequence, how can classroom teachers add reading instruction to their responsibilities? In our district, secondary teachers haven't had to face this question alone.
Creating a Cadre
In 2010, our district, which is in St. Louis, Missouri, received a grant to create a "best-practices reading cadre." Twenty-eight 6th through 12th grade teachers—representing five content areas—met as a professional learning community throughout the 2010–11 school year and supported one another in implementing reading strategies in their classrooms. Kim was one of this cadre, and Joanne recruited teachers for the group and advised the group along the way.
We focused on six strategies designed to strengthen vocabulary development, deepen reading comprehension, and increase students' memory of what they read: (1) direct, explicit instruction in vocabulary; (2) note taking; (3) interactive lecture techniques; (4) compare and contrast methods; (5) formative and summative assessments; and (6) inductive reasoning and inferential skills.
Teachers coordinated these literacy strategies with their classroom content. After trying each strategy, we collected data to determine how successful we'd been in giving students tools to help them access complex texts.
Most of us were not trained reading teachers. We began with a shared sense of urgency to coordinate our efforts to help our students improve in reading. At a two-day workshop held in the summer, trained instructors modeled lessons on the six strategies. Teachers of the same subjects met to plan which strategies best coordinated with the texts and units they planned to use throughout the year and to align essential concepts and skills across grade levels.
The group created a time line for implementing each strategy at the same time within our classrooms, switching to a different strategy every six weeks. This plan enabled us to coordinate data collection on the effectiveness of each practice and to periodically report back to the group. Let's examine how our cadre tried three practices: vocabulary instruction, note taking, and inductive reasoning.
Vocabulary: Asking Questions Together
The meetings were the most essential part of our work. We've learned from Rick DuFour2
and others that teachers are stronger when they collaborate. We used the DuFours' number-one question—What do we want students to know and be able to do?—as our starting point and quickly realized that we needed our multitasking students to better read texts for both meaning and memory.
Vocabulary instruction was a sensible starting point for building these skills because it was familiar to all of us. We launched the implementation of each strategy by asking, What would we like to find out, see, know, and change? This approach enabled teachers to create their own driving questions. For the vocabulary unit, teachers asked,
- How can I improve vocabulary instruction?
- What have past data shown me about students' vocabulary needs?
- Which content could benefit from explicit vocabulary instruction?
- Which words must students understand in order to comprehend a text?
- How do we evaluate the effect of our strategies?
This last question proved challenging for teachers unaccustomed to isolating a particular strategy and measuring its success. Forming questions in small groups, however, empowered us to pursue what we believed to be crucial about vocabulary study, which demystified data collection.
For example, one health teacher wanted students to use unit vocabulary words in discussion and writing to demonstrate their ownership of the words. One of her classes received direct instruction and memory strategies on chosen words, whereas another did not. The teacher noted that students who received the instruction averaged 90 percent correct on a quiz, compared with 80 percent for the noninstructed group. In addition, these students nearly doubled their use of targeted words in comments and questions during a Socratic seminar.
Our questions required us to reflect on the relationship between vocabulary and reading comprehension, a crucial connection if assessment were to be meaningful. One teacher linked vocabulary retention with visual, analytical, and kinesthetic learning styles, hoping to enhance the depth of students' content knowledge. She began each day teaching three new vocabulary words by either showing memorable pictures of key words from a text, having students write paragraphs using the new words, or asking students to act out the words. She kept track of students' results on quizzes and tests and how often students used the words in their answers to constructed-response questions.
Finding ways to measure the effect of strategies turned out to be one of the biggest rewards of this initial foray. Rather than worrying about "hard" versus "soft" data or the statistical significance of data, we discovered we had the power to ask a focus question and brainstorm ways of evaluating the answer to that question as a team—an important discovery early on. Other measures we identified included observations of student responses and performances; quality of written samples (length of sentences and use of vocabulary words); number of students completing homework or reading assignments; number of questions asked per class period; meaningful anecdotes; and student self-reflections.
One student reported, "Knowing the words better makes the homework readings easier to understand. I don't have to stop my reading to figure out what they're trying to say as often." More explicit instruction let this learner grasp the connection between word meaning and reading comprehension—and also learn new words.
Note Taking: Weaving Strategies into Established Curriculum
One key to the success of our cadre's work was helping teachers incorporate these literacy skills into the established expectations of their courses, rather than add something new to their already dense curriculums. Teachers initially hesitated to try the note-taking strategy because they couldn't see "where it best fit." But when they taught this strategy in conjunction with course content, students accessed course material more efficiently and effectively than in years past.
One English teacher taught note taking during an independent novel unit for an advanced freshman class. She had joined the cadre to help her struggling readers, but she quickly learned how much her advanced students also benefited from expanding their literacy tools.
"I saw so many students writing page after page of notes as they read, layering piles of sticky notes in their books, and being ineffective organizers of content to prepare for assessments," she said. Her driving question became, How can I better teach students to identify key ideas and organize them in a meaningful way?
The teacher suggested that students direct all their energy to noting textual details that addressed three focus questions she gave them. Before each quiz, she also asked students to condense their notes to fit onto one-fourth of a page, which made students critically assess what information was most essential. Students compared these reduced notes with those of their classmates and reflected on how and why they each saw different moments in the text as most essential in answering the focus questions.
Students also reformatted their notes periodically, following direct instruction and teacher modeling of note-taking options. This strategy enabled students to practice several note-taking methods and to discover which ones suited their learning styles and were most effective in helping them deeply process what they'd read.
At the end of this unit, this teacher asked students to reflect on how they better understood the texts and themselves because of their note taking, which note-taking strategies worked best for them and why, and how they could apply these methods in other classes. One student responded, "I don't hope, I know this unit made me a better note-taker. It helped me in both history and biology."
Inductive Reasoning: Teaching Inference—and Depth
We made a powerful discovery when our cadre focused on teaching inference, a strategy that explicitly asks students to break down a text and show their thinking as they read. In teaching this strategy, teachers integrated their course content with the skill of using textual evidence to draw conclusions. Overall, teachers were surprised to see how much they'd taken for granted in the past. Students struggled with making their interpretations of a text explicit, and their struggles revealed gaps in their understanding.
By showing students how to read and reflect on a text in smaller chunks and measure the effect of tone, diction, and other literary devices, teachers helped students learn to interpret what an author is implying. Slowing down to teach the essential skills students need to process texts, we determined, would have longer-lasting effects on their college and life readiness than covering a certain amount of content. One teacher observed, "The best practices are all about depth … slowing down, reteaching, assessing, and adjusting next steps."
Our best-practices cadre learned many things—for one, that directly instructing students in reading strategies within content courses doesn't detract from curriculum when done strategically. Learning literacy practices actually enhanced students' access to course content. Our work taught us to apply familiar strategies, like vocabulary instruction, in new ways. This helped us make homework more meaningful, assessments more skill based, and cross-curricular application more natural.
Our group no longer meets formally, but many of us continue to incorporate these literacy practices into our curriculums. Although these strategies provided a starting point and guidance, the work that will truly move us toward better teaching came from learning to measure our effectiveness. Brainstorming data-collection methods refocused teachers' efforts on looking for meaningful student work. It forced us to examine how to proceed with reading skills instruction within each content area by using student performance as a guideline.
Many teachers in our cadre found that their attachment to their content and their resistance to "teach something else on top of it" faded once they saw the rewards of using direct reading instruction to teach skills. Teaching reading can open the door to any curriculum—the door that many outside forces want to shut. Although we can't control that outside world and the reading habits that develop because of it, as content-area teachers we can accept our responsibility to move our students forward—rather than grumble ahead without them.
ACT. (2010) A first look at the common core and college and career readiness. Iowa City, IA: Author. Retrieved from
DuFour, R., & Eaker, R. (1998). Professional learning communities at work: Best practices for enhancing student achievement. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
Kim Gutchewsky teaches English and Joanne Curran is a reading specialist at Ladue Horton Watkins High School in Saint Louis, Missouri.
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