Leading for Literacy
By Ruth Schoenbach and Cynthia Greenleaf
Every day, middle and high school teachers ask their students to read and understand complex texts in disciplines such as history, literature, biology, or economics. Such reading is foundational to student success in school, the workplace, and in civic life. Yet, national tests results and our own eyes tell us that the majority of high school students aren’t getting it.
How can teachers and administrators create classrooms where students routinely engage with challenging material, think critically about texts, synthesize information from multiple sources, and effectively communicate what they have learned? And how can we spread and sustain innovative practices beyond a few classrooms?
Tackling adolescent literacy challenges is no easy lift for schools. For one thing, subject-area teachers have their plates full with the demands of covering and assessing large amounts of subject-matter content. Many teachers see any request to “teach reading in your subject area” as beyond their responsibility—and skill set. That’s understandable given how little time there is for teacher collaboration and learning.
But hundreds of middle and high schools, districts, and colleges (especially open-admissions institutions) have taken up the challenge—and have been able to create cultures of literacy. They have classrooms where teachers and students work together to identify comprehension problems, tap and elicit critical dispositions known to support learning (like curiosity, courage, stamina, and persistence), and use an array of evidence-based instructional approaches and discourse routines to collaboratively make sense of complex disciplinary texts.
Our new book, Leading for Literacy: A Reading Apprenticeship Approach, and an open webinar we are offering on March 8, show how they’ve done it. The book is based on what we’ve learned from 25 years of implementing Reading Apprenticeship, a framework for helping schools and districts transform how literacy is taught.
The Reading Apprenticeship framework builds on teachers’ existing knowledge and expertise and provides structured opportunities for them to explore their own reading and comprehension processes as they, themselves, struggle with challenging texts. The insights they gain—through training and participating in ongoing learning communities—broadens their mindsets about what students are capable of doing and provides the foundation for apprenticing students to reading, writing, thinking, and speaking in the different disciplines.
Teachers build a culture of inquiry in their classrooms by teaching students how to work individually and as a group to conduct metacognitive conversations that help them take on rigorous texts, regardless of the subject matter. The goal is to have students learn to take control of their learning.
This approach is effective at the school and college classroom levels and as scaled across institutions and systems. The evidence of federally funded randomized controlled studies, shows positive, statistically significant effects for students whose teachers participated in Reading Apprenticeship professional development.
Ultimately, the success of the program depends on leadership from teachers, principals, and advocates for students, for whom creating a culture of literacy requires:
- political cover on the part of site and district administrators to protect teams and their time from external challenges;
- new structures, such as dedicated literacy teams and communities of practice;
- dedicated time—and more of it—to engage in high-quality professional learning, professional collaboration, and problem solving with colleagues;
- a focus on inquiry, which encourages and supports sharing and exploring questions and observations as a group;
- community partnerships, to build support for more time spent on reading and literacy development in the schools; and
- teacher-led advocacy that is strength based and solution driven.
Leading for Literacy presents portraits, case studies, research findings, and key insights from scores of practitioners, and details how to get started, build momentum, assess progress, generate partnerships, and sustain networks across schools, districts, college campuses, and regions. It is more important than ever for schools to advance better approaches to literacy instruction. Why not rewrite the script at your school?
Ruth Schoenbach and Cynthia Greenleaf are co-directors of the WestEd Strategic Literacy Initiative, and, Lynn Murphy, co-authors of Leading for Literacy: A Reading Apprenticeship Approach (Wiley/Jossey-Bass, December 2016).