Reading & Literacy

A Primary Subject Goes Secondary

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — April 18, 2001 8 min read
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After nearly three decades as a chemistry teacher, Jeffrey Rogers felt he had mastered his subject and knew best how to teach it. So when a colleague in the language arts department at Hialeah-Miami Lakes High School suggested that he incorporate reading strategies into his lessons to help students tackle the complex text and vocabulary of his course, Mr. Rogers responded bluntly, “I’m not a reading teacher.”

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A workshop that demonstrated how strategies to improve comprehension could be incorporated into the curriculum changed his mind. Now, reading instruction is an integral part of his daily lessons here at the school in the Miami-Dade County district.

“I started to realize that a student may be having a problem in my class not because they don’t have the aptitude [for chemistry], but because they don’t have the reading skills,” Mr. Rogers said. “Before, my class required strict memorization and regurgitation. Now, students can see the relationship between one concept and another.”

Over the past several years, many states and school districts have committed vast resources to K-3 efforts to build the early-literacy skills that are the key to academic success. But as educators try to teach students to higher standards in core subjects, as the definition of literacy broadens, and as test scores reveal the large numbers of students unprepared to do grade-level work, recognition is growing that schools must extend the focus on reading and writing to the middle and high school years if students are to achieve success in high school and beyond.

“Increasingly, there has been more and more attention on young children,” said Elizabeth G. Sturtevant, a professor of education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. “That’s good, but sometimes people forget that adolescent readers still have needs. Even students who are good academically need strategies to cope with more difficult materials.”

‘Nurtured All the Way’

Contrary to popular perception, experts say, students who have mastered early-reading skills—such as recognizing letters and sounding out words—and learned to read storybooks and basic texts proficiently are not necessarily equipped to undertake the increasingly complex reading tasks they encounter after the 4th grade.

Often, textbooks in math, science, social studies, and other subjects have unfamiliar and challenging features, even for proficient readers, according to David W. Moore, a professor of education at Arizona State University West in Phoenix. Textbooks’ organizational patterns, for example, vary depending on whether the texts are informational, narrative, or explanatory. They often include photos and graphics that provide additional information, and they are filled with complex, subject-specific vocabulary.

In many places, despite those challenges, adolescent literacy gets little of the attention or financial support that has been targeted toward younger readers.

“The biggest challenge is getting people to take to heart the reading challenges that secondary students have,” said Mr. Moore, who co- chairs the International Reading Association’s adolescent-literacy committee with Ms. Sturtevant. “There is a common mind-set that you learn to read in the first three grades. But there is a clear, ongoing development process that has to be nurtured all the way.”

Yet traditionally, students have been trained to reread and memorize information in textbooks in order to help them understand the information, and little emphasis has been placed on comprehension or critical-thinking skills.

Florida’s Miami-Dade school district, the nation’s fourth-largest, with 361,000 students, has been a leader in that regard, Mr. Moore says. It is one of three districts—joined by Stafford County, Va., about 40 miles south of Washington, and Stone Mountain, Ga., outside Atlanta— identified by the IRA committee as having model adolescent-literacy programs.

The district’s 3-year-old comprehensive reading plan calls for middle and high school teachers in the various subjects to teach reading comprehension as part of the curriculum. Teachers, on a rotating basis, are also required to set aside 30 minutes a day for free reading, and students are asked to read an additional 30 minutes a day after school.

“It’s been an evolutionary process,” said Kit Granate, the coordinator of the district’s reading plan. “When you say things like, ‘Every teacher is a reading teacher,’ most content-area teachers don’t want to hear that. We’re not asking them to add something to the curriculum; we’re asking them to look at new ways to deliver instruction.”

Focusing on Adolescents

The $15 million reading plan provides professional development for teachers throughout the system, as well as 15 reading specialists who work with middle and high school teachers in the classroom to build reading skills into their daily lessons.

Even Miami-Dade’s program, though, is focused primarily on the early grades. Ms. Granate is helping to rewrite the plan to place a greater emphasis on middle and high school instruction.

Like Hialeah-Miami Lakes High, many of the district’s middle and high schools have adopted Project CRISS as a means to do that. CRISS, which stands for Creating Independence through Student-owned Strategies, was created by the IRA’s past president, Carol Santa, a language arts coordinator for the Kalispel, Mont., schools.

The project promotes ways to help students of all achievement levels engage in the technical vocabulary, complex information, and unfamiliar concepts for each subject.

It also incorporates the elements that researchers have identified as fundamental to improving language arts instruction. In a five-year study, Judith A. Langer, the director of the National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement at the State University of New York at Albany, compared language arts instruction in 25 successful schools against a control group in which the approach to teaching was considered typical. Ms. Langer and her colleagues found six common features in the most successful schools:

• Teachers used several different types of lessons to teach skills and academic content.

• Test preparation was integrated into instruction. Rather than spend weeks leading up to state tests teaching students how to write a persuasive essay, for example, teachers might help them from the start to understand the purpose of writing and to tailor their work accordingly.

• Teachers made connections across instruction, curriculum, grades, and students’ lives outside the classroom.

• Students learned strategies for thinking about their work as well as doing it. In typical classrooms, in contrast, teachers tend to focus on the right answer rather than the process for coming up with it.

• Teachers required students to take what they had learned and probe deeper to generate new knowledge.

• Pupils were engaged in thoughtful conversation with one another.

Demographic Shift

In the Miami-Dade schools, addressing student literacy is seen as critical to raising achievement among the district’s large population of students who are struggling to learn English. Often, those students aren’t proficient at reading or writing in their own language either.

“We’ve had a demographic shift over the last 15 years, and ... we started noticing that we had many more struggling readers,” said Nancy Welday, a language arts teacher who directs the reading effort for Hialeah-Miami Lake’s 3,200 students.

That shift, from a predominantly non- Hispanic white, middle-class enrollment to one that is about 75 percent Hispanic, has been difficult for many veteran teachers, she said.

“There has been real frustration among longtime teachers that things had to change,” Ms. Welday said. “But we had to change the way teachers deliver instruction.”

Beginning this school year, 9th graders have been trained automatically to use reading-comprehension strategies in all their classes. Some 90 percent of the school’s 157 teachers have been trained in CRISS, which calls on students to highlight key words in written passages, to use Venn Diagrams—which use overlapping circles to show the relationships among concepts— and two-column charts to compare and contrast vocabulary and concepts, to categorize and summarize blocks of text, to make mental pictures as they read, and to take effective notes.

Students are also taught to use a strategy called KWL, in which they call on what they already “Know” about a topic, record what they “Want” to know, and then list what they’ve “Learned” from the reading.

The program has led to dramatic changes in instruction at Hialeah- Miami Lakes. Students use the approaches in courses that many teachers thought were unlikely to benefit from reading instruction. Mathematics teachers at the school, for example, say they have seen dramatic improvement in students’ understanding of algebra problems, and foreign-language teachers report that the techniques are equally effective in deepening understanding of their subjects.

All the strategies are intended to elevate student achievement, particularly on the state assessment. That goal is especially critical at Hialeah-Miami Lakes, which has been rated a D on an A-to-F scale by the state as a result of low test scores.

Desiree Holquin had marginal grades in middle school and worried she would have trouble staying afloat academically once she got to high school. Her concerns eased when she learned strategies for tackling the subject matter. As a result, she said, the state test she took last month was not as intimidating as she had expected. And her classroom performance this year has improved significantly.

“I was never very good in language arts, and science has never been my subject,” she said. “But this year, I have B’s.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2001 edition of Education Week as A Primary Subject Goes Secondary


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