Cross-Age Teaching: Helping Struggling Readers Become Reflective Learners
When my high school's only reading teacher retired last year, my principal offered me a challenge: to create a Common Core State Standards-based reading class for struggling students. While I wasn't fully prepared for this opportunity, I dove headfirst into the professional literature and supported my students as best as I could.
I was ecstatic this year when my principal connected me with a colleague to work on improving the scaffolding for instruction. My new colleague introduced me to a cross-age teaching program called Teens as Teachers—and it has completely transformed my students. They have grown into confident and reflective readers who learn with a sense of purpose. Here are some ways we've implemented the program and the benefits it has offered our students.
The Basics of Cross-Age Teaching
Teens as Teachers (TATs) is a cross-age program designed to build teens' reading skills and improve their academic literacy through teaching younger students. In TATs, students become actual teachers. Not reading buddies, not tutors—teachers. Teens provide a real academic lesson to students who are at least two to three years younger than them, with the support of a knowledgeable adult.
Every nine weeks, I divide my instruction into two parts. During the first four weeks, I focus on skills that help students succeed in their academic classes, including reading strategies, vocabulary, and research skills. Weeks five to eight are spent on TATs. During the final week of the quarter, in lieu of an exam, my students visit a nearby elementary school and teach their lessons.
- Focus on the standards. First, small groups of students (usually two to three) choose a high-quality children's book. The books available to them are selected based on different language arts standards. We discuss the standards in detail and I explain how students will build lessons around them.
High school students are often overwhelmed by the language of the common standards. But they easily understand these same standards on the K-2 level. When students create their lessons, they are better able to make connections between the K-2 standards and their grade-level standards.
- Create an authentic teaching experience. Next, I model how to read a children's book aloud and have students practice in groups. Over the next few weeks, my colleague and I create and model different examples of reading lessons. We focus on skills like asking guiding questions, engaging students, and making lessons age-appropriate. By the end of the class, students are creating original lessons and activities with very little help from us.
- Provide opportunities for feedback. After students have prepared and practiced their lessons, they videotape themselves mock teaching. As a class, we watch each video and provide verbal and written feedback—what worked, what didn't, and what needs tweaking.
- Encourage self-reflection. Students also critique themselves, reflecting on their teaching style and the effectiveness and appeal of the lesson they've created. The opportunity to receive honest feedback from their peers, as well as to watch themselves teaching, gives them powerful tools for reflection and growth. We also have students write a final reflection after their teaching experience.
This step is particularly important because it gives students a sense of purpose. My classes consist of freshmen English-language learners and 9th graders who scored below the 50th percentile on the state reading test. Most of them are not driven by grades; they are used to doing poorly in their classes and frequently describe themselves as failures or bad readers. However, practicing fluency by teaching a group of 2nd graders greatly diminished their fear, replacing it with motivation and drive.
Here's one example of a lesson. Students selected Gail Gibbons' The Reasons for the Seasons to teach vocabulary and explore how images clarify a text (R.I.2.7). They chose key terms (hibernation, migration) and helped students connect illustrations to specific word meanings. They also created Styrofoam models of the Earth and sun as manipulatives for students to use when studying the book's diagrams.
One drawback is that TATs is very time consuming. Students spend hours preparing their lessons and practicing before they actually teach. However, the TATs model can be used in many different classes because it works with any subject matter. This year, our students created two lessons using ELA standards and one lesson focused on science skills. High-quality children's literature exists for every subject area.
Proximity to elementary or middle schools is also a consideration. Transportation issues can make finding an authentic audience difficult. Fortunately, my high school is located within walking distance of two elementary schools. One solution is using video conferencing software like Skype to connect your students to an elementary class. While finding an authentic audience might be difficult, it's essential for students to practice what they've learned.
Impact On Students
After they finished their first experience with TATs, I asked my students to write about their experiences. One student, Seth, said, "I really want to go back. I know I benefited from it because I read without stuttering because of all the practicing we did. I think the kids really did benefit from it too. They answered the questions without being shy."
One ELL student, Khattab, shared his challenge and how he overcame it: "When I read the book to my friends, some words were hard to pronounce. I overcame this challenge by reading the book a lot." Best of all, many students echoed the sentiment that Brandon wrote about: "I was proud of actually acting like a real teacher."
Much of the growth my students experienced is not measurable by standardized tests or traditional assessments, but it is tangible. During TATs, students gain maturity and come to see themselves as skilled readers who have something to offer younger students.