Historically, literacy instruction in the United States privileges the privileged. It starts in the earliest grades, when less systematic approaches favored in many early literacy curricula privilege students who arrive at school more comfortable with language and books. Weak or spotty foundational skills instruction during these early grades makes it difficult for many students to attain the reading proficiency they need to read.
And then things get worse.
It is through reading that students most deeply (and efficiently) grow vocabulary and knowledge; reading is the most powerful way to learn about yet-to-be-known words and the world we’ve yet devised as a species. Vocabulary and knowledge grow together with reading comprehension. A deeper trove of words and knowledge opens the door to deeper comprehension. This powerful symbiosis accelerates students’ ability to learn from what they read, but instead of doubling down on this model for students who fall behind, we kick it to the curb, and these students enter a different academic trajectory.
It starts with placing students who are weaker readers in front of easier texts. There, students are unlikely to encounter grade-appropriate reading experiences. What little they read is less rich, with simpler sentences and more concrete, everyday words. The trajectory of learning and academic success for students initially behind is set at a far lower level than their peers who are reading rich, grade level texts all along.
What is to be done?
A problem of this magnitude, duration, and thorniness can’t be addressed piecemeal nor by trying to do a better job of what has always been done. Something entirely different—a radical re-imagining—is needed. It needs to tackle and rebuild the full range of academic, social, and affective experiences for everybody in order to accelerate learning for all students. We need to rebuild the academic day for all students, naming and acknowledging both the needs of the students with unfinished literacy work and students already on grade level through what we know makes for outstanding literacy instruction. The goal is to create what scarcely ever happens during the school day, especially for students who are reading below grade-level: an expansive sense of time and space for the pursuit of learning, coherent and deep attention to topics, time for filling holes in reading skills, and space for the lavishing of adult attention on the adolescents in their charge and for students to have time to engage with each other around learning.
We’re in the process of making a model that would reflect this new reality and we’re seeking thought and reality-check partners to help blueprint, develop, or pilot a multi-period humanities course that would span three periods of the middle school day and provide two teachers to the mixed-ability students. This idea could be readily adapted for ninth grade too, but ideally it would come to be a universal experience for either sixth or eighth graders, depending on need and local sensibilities.
This course would forcefully center on equity, addressing and accelerating the growth of knowledge and vocabulary head-on for everybody along with deepening every student’s ability to read for understanding and nuance. And there would be time. Time to repair holes in foundational skills including fluency for students who need it, time to provide abundant opportunities and support for everybody to engage in deep learning of the topics of the course, time for lots of conversation and social learning, time to pursue research in small groups or solo, and time to gain capacity and confidence in public speaking.
The third period in this three-period model is designed as an elastic personalized learning time, with students working closely with teachers to pursue topics of interest related to the texts and topics in the content blocks, sometimes independently. Here students with foundational skills gaps work with teachers to grow these essential skills. Technology would be used judiciously to create resources: both for practice in reading and to access the volume of reading that would bring the outside world inside the classroom. All this work will be focused on the context of the topics the course is designed around and the topics students chose to pursue, regardless of current reading ability of each student.
Too often, for students who are behind, interventions focus on targeted skills practice, and they’re denied opportunities to actually learn about anything besides reading skills. Coherent course components should work together to prioritize growing students’ knowledge and vocabulary in service of bringing students to grade level reading comprehension and improving their sense of self as readers and learners.
Here’s a quick look at those components:
- Close reading of content-rich, grade-level anchor texts (connected to the topics being studied) done in company with peers regardless of current ability. Why? One thing that distinguishes the most proficient readers is recognition of how much texts have to offer and the value that accrues from making the effort to access them. The support provided by close reading provides all students the opportunity to work with these texts.
- Text sets connected to those same topics, gradated in complexity with light student responses to check comprehension. Why? Lower-level texts “bootstrap” students’ ability to read more complex tests. These sets help provide the volume of reading essential to growing knowledge and vocabulary, as well as increasing all students’ opportunity to work with complex text.
- Intensive vocabulary work that would focus on Tier 2 (academic) words in the texts being read in class. Why? This work would address morphology, as well, and would provide students with frequent and varied opportunities to use the newly learned academic vocabulary in both discussion and writing.
- Tons of social discourse. Why? So students can process learning (and print) with one another to float everyone’s boats rapidly higher.
- Teachers who’ve been taught to provide a variety of well-known and vetted supports for weaker readers and English language learners. Why? Most subject area teachers haven’t been taught how to teach reading, much less how to go about the tricky work of repairing years of damage to psyche and academic skills. Students need teachers who are steeped in this knowledge. Providing this professional learning in an ongoing, collegial way must be part of the course design.
- Active attention to students’ efficacy and self-worth—which is as, or possibly more, important than academic programming. Why? If students feel better about themselves as readers, they will want to read more; conversely, they’ll avoid reading if they associate it with embarrassment and stress. Integrating the class with stronger and weaker readers while addressing the damage weaker readers have suffered from years of unacknowledged segregation immeasurably helps address this.
- The first topic studied will be the psychology of reading. Why? This will be illuminating to everyone, including the teachers. It will provide struggling readers with a clear understanding of what exactly derails reading development, what the course is designed to do about it, and, critically, that problems with reading stem from poorly aligned instruction—not their own innate intelligence. Students need to truly understand where on the trajectory they went adrift, what caused it, why it is not connected to intelligence, and what can be done about it. At this age, students need and deserve both proof of that and a clear understanding.
- Providing two teachers—social studies and English teachers—rather than one so the social studies teacher can support the English teacher in how best to address important content and English teachers can support social studies teachers in how best to address evidence-based writing, doubling time and attention to catch up students. Two sets of eyes on the same students supports student learning and efficacy and develops a sense of community.
- Judicious use of technology to ensure each individual gets the learning opportunities they require along with access to a wide library of resources.
We recognize that this proposal isn’t what a lot of school leaders want to hear. It’s not a quick-fix, and it’s not a magical, heretofore unknown intervention strategy that can easily be slotted into the status quo. But the thing is, it’s actually a simpler solution than it seems: It’s giving students who are behind an equal education to those who aren’t—without segregating those groups in any way. While we fully realize there are unanswered questions and potential obstacles to bringing this idea to fruition, these can’t be addressed without starting the design process. We invite interested teachers, school leaders, publishers, and other potential partners to get in touch to discuss these ideas more.