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Leading for Literacy: Creating a Culture of Literacy in Schools

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March 03, 2017 02:30 pm

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The following blog post was written by Ruth Schoenbach and Cynthia Greenleaf, co-directors of the WestEd Strategic Literacy Initiative. The opinions expressed in this blog post are theirs and should not be taken to represent the Alliance for Excellent Education.

The majority of our middle and high school students struggle to read and understand complex texts. This has consequences that reverberate far beyond the classroom. Poor literacy skills not only add to students dropping out of school or graduating from high school unprepared for the demands of college and work, they also diminish the ability of citizens to evaluate information critically, affecting many aspects of civic life including our very democracy.

Twenty-five years ago, we developed a framework called Reading Apprenticeship, which gives teachers in every subject area a powerful tool for boosting adolescent literacy and learning. As we worked with teachers and schools to implement and continuously improve the approach, which we describe more below, we learned two important lessons.

  1. Individual teachers can’t do it alone.
  1. Systemic buy-in to a literacy mindset catalyzes a powerful change to the school culture that lifts the performance and engagement of everyone

Our new book, Leading for Literacy: A Reading Apprenticeship Approach, and an open webinar we are offering on March 8, describe how hundreds of schools, districts, and colleges have been able to create cultures of literacy.

In today’s world, the need is pressing for students to be able to comprehend complex texts, think critically about what they read, and synthesize information from multiple sources not just in English class, but in every subject.

That’s a big challenge for educators. Subject-area teachers have their plates full with the demands of covering and assessing large amounts of subject-matter content and see any request to “teach reading in your subject area” as beyond their responsibility and beyond their ken. To compensate, they teach around the text, lecture, or summarize for students rather than provide them with multiple opportunities to actually engage with texts—to read for understanding—in class.

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. Most importantly, it provides the foundation for apprenticing students to reading, writing, thinking, and speaking in the different disciplines.

In this culture of literacy, the norm is for teachers and students to 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.

This approach of modeling disciplinary-specific literacy skills across the curriculum helps students become more resilient learners, more willing to take academic risks, engage with each other around texts, and build high-level comprehension strategies. It 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.

Leading for Literacy: A Reading Apprenticeship Approach 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.

All schools and open access colleges need to advance better approaches to literacy instruction. Why not aim to ignite a systemic learning culture transformation at the same time?

Ruth Schoenbach and Cynthia Greenleaf are co-directors of the WestEd Strategic Literacy Initiative. Along with Lynn Murphy, they are co-authors of Leading for Literacy: A Reading Apprenticeship Approach (Wiley/Jossey-Bass, December 2016). Greenleaf is also the co-author of Literacy Instruction in the Content Areas: Getting to the Core of Middle and High School Improvement, a 2007 report by the Alliance for Excellent Education.

 

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