Weaving the Threads of Literacy

How a concerted district approach with coherent strategies can strengthen adolescent readers by Karen Tankersley

We can see the holes that exist in the fabric of our schools whether we are looking at test scores, dropout rates or the eyes of a teenager who pretends not to care anymore. That student’s apparent lack of interest in school often is communicating a continuing struggle to learn.

All of these signs are tied to reading, whether we note specific problems in math, science, social studies, English or other subjects.

Clearly, having adolescent students who are not successful readers is not a new problem, but being accountable for the performance of these students is a relatively new pressure that school districts and schools face. In this time of high accountability and sanctions from the No Child Left Behind legislation, educational leaders face questions about how to help the significant population of struggling readers in middle and high school classrooms. In communities large and small, educators are seeking resources, materials and instructional practices that can turn struggling adolescent readers into successful and well-performing students.

As a district leader, you may be asking: If these students haven’t caught on by now, how can we help them catch up? The answer is with targeted attention using appropriate strategies in all their content classes and in pullout reading programs. The next question: How can district leaders make that happen beyond isolated classrooms? The answer again is with targeted, appropriate attention, but this time we are talking about district leaders and teachers coming together to recognize the problems, share solutions, agree on a plan of attack and work together to meet the needs of these struggling students.

Setting the Stage
The first step district leaders must take to improve their students’ reading performance is to establish shared beliefs about best practices for supporting readers in each content area. Teams of educators must consider the characteristics of students attending the district’s schools, their current academic performance and the unique needs of this specific student population.

An example of a district that has successfully undertaken this process is the Park Hill School District in Kansas City, Mo. Park Hill leaders began their reading improvement process by selecting several informative books on the teaching of reading. Staff members read the books in jigsaw style, sharing information about their book with others who read different books. District officials felt that this step was important to help everyone begin with a common language for building a customized, comprehensive reading program.

As the information gathering progressed, the staff identified beliefs and practices for each state reading standard that would meet the needs of their student population. From this research, staff members identified the core of their reading instruction philosophy. The core components focused on reading selection, word development, independent reading, writing and reading aloud to students.

Using that foundation, staff members developed a literacy instruction framework that identified the appropriate strategies for each grade level, broken down into the five instructional categories. This framework, tied directly to state standards, specified the amount of time teachers should be devoting to the various components and provided specific guidance on the skills and strategies that should be used to meet the goals of each standard.

Continuing Support
Once district philosophies and performance standards have been established, as in Park Hill, it is important that the district provide ongoing support and focused training that teachers can immediately transfer back to content instruction. Such strong district support and focused, job-embedded professional development is essential to school and district academic performance.

In the past, reading professional development often was organized around one-shot workshops or daylong in-service presentations on specific topics such as vocabulary strategies or reading comprehension techniques. Teachers attended the workshop and received information, but there was little accountability for actually implementing any strategies or techniques when they returned to their classrooms.

A greater emphasis on individual as well as collective accountability for student performance is now recognized as a more lasting form of professional development. The National Staff Development Council in Oxford, Ohio, has identified effective professional development as being system-focused, results-driven and job-embedded. In their book A New Vision for Staff Development, Dennis Sparks and Stephanie Hirsh describe this movement as a shift from a fragmented emphasis on the development of the individual to a clear, coherent district plan based on student needs and learning outcomes. Sparks and Hirsh, executives at the National Staff Development Council, say training conducted away from the classroom should shift to multiple forms of job-embedded learning.

District leaders can approach that job-embedded learning by emphasizing the strategies that have proven effective with students. An analysis of the research literature by a subgroup of the National Reading Panel, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, in 2000 observed that students in grades 7-12 can greatly benefit from teaching students to use effective reading strategies with their content area textbooks. Some strategies that experts advocate teaching directly to students are rehearsing (underlining and taking notes); elaborating (taking notes by paraphrasing text, forming a visual mental image, creating an analogy and summarizing material); organizing (outlining and mapping concepts); and comprehension skills (monitoring meaning, self-questioning and connecting background knowledge).

To provide teacher training and job-embedded learning, Park Hill district leaders identified a literacy cadre, which was made up of outstanding teachers who received intensive instruction in the key reading focus areas. Cadre teachers shared effective techniques and practices with their peers during summer reading academies, led teacher book groups and provided intensive continuing support and site-based training in their home schools. Teachers in all grades also received their own personal copies of the key instructional strategy books. District leaders and cadre members wanted teachers to have their own copies of the books so they could write in them and take notes as they learned.

Gina Chambers, Park Hill’s assistant superintendent of academic services, said early measures of student performance indicate the changes are paying off for the district. She also noted that district middle and high schools have requested that a content reading framework be developed for them that will complement what the elementary schools have begun. The district will soon be repeating the process to identify best practices and develop a literacy framework for grades 6 to 12.

Carrying the best practices of teaching reading across the content areas can be a challenge. Middle and high school teachers often express frustration at having to learn to teach reading to students on top of their other content responsibilities. With the proper training, they will understand that teaching students how to read, process and organize their thoughts is not so much about teaching students how to read but more about providing students with the appropriate strategies to read the content information and learn it. We must help all content teachers understand how to foster these qualities in their students and clarify their own role in the process.

Preparing teachers over time to use techniques for before, during and after reading in content-area classrooms can greatly improve student performance in middle and high schools. Of course, if district leaders are going to promote these effective reading strategies, they need to know what to look for in the classroom.

Thinking Ahead
Before content teachers ask students to read textbook materials, they should help students think about what they are going to read and activate their background knowledge relative to the topic. These techniques help get students ready to read and help them understand such concepts as: Why am I reading this? How will the information be used? Will I be expected to take a test, write a report or compare this information to other information? How do I read to prepare for this purpose? How is the text organized? What do I already know (or think I know) about the topic? What do I predict I might learn from this text?

One before-reading strategy, the anticipation guide, has been around for a long time in reading circles, but it is still a new concept for content-area teachers. Anticipation guides ask students prior to reading to predict whether 10 to 15 given statements on a topic are true or false. After reading, students compare their predictions with facts found in the text.

Some examples of before-reading stimulators include graphic organizers such as Venn diagrams, compare-contrast charts, semantic feature charts or KWL charts, which ask what students already know, want to know and have learned (after reading). Study guides that ask students to fill in the blanks as they read also can be helpful in identifying key information.

The possibilities of how these prereading techniques and others can be used in content classrooms are endless. Helping teachers identify and actively use strong prereading strategies appropriate to the content area can greatly enhance student interest as well as build solid reading comprehension and performance.

Deeper Understanding
Making meaning is what reading is all about. Content-area teachers need to help students learn to monitor their own comprehension while reading. Teachers can model for students how to ask questions by demonstrating with a short passage on the overhead and simultaneously verbalizing their own thinking. For example, teachers might ask: Did what I just read make sense? Do I need to reread that paragraph to better understand that idea? Does that seem right? Does that match with what I already know or have already read?

Another strategy for helping students increase their comprehension during reading is by providing sticky notes that students place at important or confusing points in the text while reading. At a signal from the teacher, small groups of students discuss their questions and clarify their thoughts.

Providing consistent note-taking procedures for students in a school also can enhance student comprehension during reading. Although there are many acceptable formats for note taking, it is helpful if the entire staff can agree on one method that will be used across all classes in the school.

Thinking Back
According to research, one of the strongest ways to ensure that students thoroughly understand text is by asking them to summarize what they have read. Unfortunately, most teachers seldom use this strategy. Completing graphic organizers or some type of visual display is also a strong technique for students to demonstrate what they have learned.

Effective teachers also ask students to use the information in more complex ways, such as by developing projects, creating plays or otherwise using the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy to display what they have learned. To ensure students have grasped the passage’s main ideas, teachers can ask them to talk through the key ideas and demonstrate their understanding of the information.

This focus on higher-level learning can show tangible results, because most state assessments require students to analyze or interpret aspects of a specific text. Therefore, classroom instruction should consistently emphasize the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, which are application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation, rather than the lower levels, which are knowledge and comprehension. When instruction regularly focuses on the higher levels, students are more comfortable answering similar questions on state constructed-response test items.

Improving adolescent reading performance from a teacher’s perspective is about helping students learn to glean meaning from content texts, organize their thinking, ask questions and share their thoughts with others. It is about creating lessons that maximize what students already bring to the classroom and about helping them find relevance and meaning that can connect to their own lives.

Improving reading performance from a district leader’s perspective is not about finding the right program but about helping teachers approach instruction in ways that build content reading comprehension and share those strategies with their colleagues. When the responsibility for fostering strong reading instruction is shared across all content areas of the school and across the district, it can truly make a difference for students. If we combine all the threads of instruction so that they support deeper understanding, then the resulting fabric of learning can stand the test of time for our students.

Karen Tankersley is a consultant and reading specialist and the author of Literacy Strategies for Grades 4-12: Reinforcing the Threads of Reading. She can be reached at P.O. Box 6994, Glendale, AZ 85312. E-mail: Karen@threadsofreading.com