Student Well-Being

PD Program Targets Cross-Curricular Reading and Confidence

By Liana Loewus — May 15, 2013 4 min read
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Two topics we’ve been hearing a lot about recently are reading (especially how the common core will change its instruction) and social/emotional learning (which many teachers believe can boost achievement—and which the common core does not touch). At an event in downtown Washington yesterday, panelists discussed a professional development program that attempts to brings the two together and, according to several studies, is having positive effects in both areas.

Sponsored by the Strategic Learning Initiative, part of the San Francisco-based research organization WestEd, the small event offered an overview of and testimonials to Reading Apprenticeship—a framework for teaching reading comprehension in both English and content-area classes. The program, which is used in middle schools, high schools, and community colleges, aims to increase autonomy and build confidence in student readers by enforcing metacognitive—or thinking-about-thinking—skills.

One thing that differentiates Reading Apprenticeship from other PD programs is the wealth of research behind it. Between 2005 and 2010, the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences performed three randomized, controlled studies on the program. These studies had positive results, including finding that students made gains in both reading and content knowledge and became more positive about reading. (However, Ed Week reporter Sarah D. Sparks noted in a 2010 blog post that the academic gains did not last.)

The program, which has been around for nearly two decades and is administered by WestEd, has received two Investing in Innovation grants from the federal government, including a five-year “scale-up” grant that began in 2010. Under that grant, 2,800 English, biology, and U.S. history teachers in five states (California, Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Utah) received training. The second, smaller grant is for developing an online training program specifically for STEM teachers. The Department is conducting research on these i3 programs as well.

As co-founders Ruth Schoenbach and Cynthia Greenleaf explained at the event, Reading Apprenticeship training lasts between three and 10 days and includes periodic follow-up. Teachers spend time figuring out how their own subject-area expertise makes them better readers—in essence developing their own metacognitive skills—so they can then pass those strategies on to students. They also learn how to set up a safe space in which students feel comfortable expressing uncertainty or confusion. (Check out this graphic representation of the PD framework, which includes social, personal, cognitive, and knowledge-building “dimensions.”)

At the event, a panel of two teachers, a principal, and a curriculum supervisor answered questions on how Reading Apprenticeship has changed teaching and learning in their schools. One major change, all agreed, is that teachers are no longer spoon-feeding students answers on complex texts. Melissa Devlin, a teacher and literacy coach in Berks County, Pa., said that, as a result of the program, there’s been a “paradigm shift” in her school. “Students are truly doing the learning, the thinking, the reading. ... It’s about their questions.” In addition, students have learned to recognize not just what they’re struggling with—the language, the content, etc.—but why they’re struggling with that particular piece, she said.

Ericka Senegar-Mitchell, a science teacher at McKinley Technology High School in Washington, spoke about importance of teaching reading strategies that are particular to a content area. Students “want their English strategies to magically transfer to science,” she said, “and sometimes they do.” However, reading an assay protocol necessitates a completely different approach than reading an Ernest Hemingway novel, she explained. And the PD program has helped her realize and explicitly teach the way she approaches a scientific text.

For Harley Ramsey, a high school principal in McKean County, Pa., the fact that the program is backed by extensive research, and continues to prove effective in his school, is the biggest draw. Effective PD, he said, is “research-based, literacy-focused, high-impact, and for all teachers regardless of subject area and all students regardless of academic level.”

“It boils down to evidence, which is why I’m so focused on Reading Apprenticeship as part of my professional development plan for next year,” Ramsey said. “We don’t have the luxury of experimenting.”

Buy-in among teachers for any literacy program, however, can prove a challenge—especially among those who don’t think of themselves as reading teachers. In an interview after the panel discussion, Senegar-Mitchell said there’s been “huge pushback” from content-area teachers in her school who are reluctant to venture into literacy instruction. But once those teachers see the program in action, she said, they are impressed—not just with the content but with the engagement, and consequently behavior management, that comes with it. These teachers see that students who misbehave in their classes tend to be engrossed in her own.

Several speakers mentioned that the program aligns well with the English/language arts Common Core State Standards, which emphasize reading complex texts and non-fiction, and the Next Generation Science Standards. However, as Greenleaf said, encouraging deep thinking and reading “may be a new direction for the country, but [it is] not a new direction for us.”

If you have experience with Reading Apprenticeship (or a PD program you think is similar), feel free to add comments below.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.