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Strategies for Reading Engagement in Secondary ELA

As a child of two college professors, I had every advantage growing up when it came to reading. For our family, reading was not just an activity; it was a way of life. As much as I loved getting lost in books on my own, that same feeling did not extend to assigned reading, particularly once I left elementary school. As a teenager, I read about 20% of the literature my teachers selected because the book selections did not spark my interest, and I was not mature enough to just do the work I disliked, even with the extrinsic motivator of grades. If an engaged reader like me was put off by school-based reading, imagine how many more roadblocks exist for students who struggle with literacy for a variety of reasons.  How can we equip all children with the necessary tools to become not just proficient readers, but also passionate ones?

Winning the People

I remember when my colleagues stopped teaching To Kill a Mockingbird and replaced it with the graphic novel March: Book Three, which resulted in a noticeable change in reading behavior for students. While Mockingbird has long been considered a curriculum shoo-in, students shared that the book was not one they could read easily or relate to. Arguments about Mockingbird’s status as a classic became less relevant in the face of reality: students might not read this book, but they would read another one. The most obvious step to improving literacy instruction involves the intentional inclusion of appealing texts, ideally with the added element of student choice. In secondary schools, teachers often abandon the practice of regular library visits for a variety of reasons, from pressure surrounding having time to prepare for assessments to the perception that if students want a book, they will go to the library themselves. Creating a regular system that brings students into the presence of multiple texts and providing them with options about selection often leads to an increase in reading engagement, so physically bringing students into a library space during dedicated class time for choice reading is a simple but effective way to increase enthusiasm for reading. Student engagement often rises simply through providing text choice, as researchers Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell note in this article. After all, it is much easier to win students over if we understand what they like to read.

Furthermore, creating consequence-free reading time during the instructional period is key to preventing a gradual slide in reading engagement. As research demonstrates, there is a noticeable drop-off in reading performance as students move from elementary to middle school. It is safe to assume that the intrinsic joy of reading may not be communicated as a priority in the secondary grades, where assigned reading is typically connected to an assessment or other extrinsic motivator. Last year, I gave my eleventh-graders fifteen minutes at the start of class once a week to read a choice text. After a month or two, I asked the class whether we should continue. It should be noted that this class contained several students who were polite but adamant about not enjoying reading, but they unanimously voted to keep going. We went one step further, voting on a class text to read that would have zero graded work. Our only goal was to engage in discourse that connected to our reading, similar to the processes of a book club. While there were no quantitative data-driven measures to support whether this experiment led to higher reading scores, I was buoyed by the qualitative data in the form of positive student voice feedback and clear engagement.

When Students Struggle

What happens when assessments pinpoint specific areas of need, such as understanding contextual vocabulary or identifying a main idea? In addition to the differentiated instruction that teachers implement to reach a wide variety of learning needs, they must also place a specific focus on shoring up reading deficits that are identified in data-driven measures, such as student work or assessment results. Sometimes, letting students choose their texts is not enough to get skills to where they need to be. Engagement is certainly a piece of the puzzle, but so is accurate data. Student reading growth requires continuous formative assessment so that teachers know how to set accurate goals for growth based on what Lexile data indicates. One huge caveat to using Lexile levels to guide reading goals comes with making sure we stretch students rather than limiting them, including students who struggle. Give students texts that go a little beyond Lexile level so that they have opportunities to grow their language. Last year, I taught a literacy course in which several of my ninth-grade students expressed a passion for cars. To engage their interest, I started pulling all kinds of resources, such as state driving requirements. I ran these text selections through a Lexile analysis tool to make sure that students were being challenged, but not frustrated. With the combination of both new and known words, along with their interest in the subject of the text, students showed growth over time.

Another tool for increasing the success of struggling readers surrounds the way we address text-connected concepts. When I lead a discussion on an assigned reading, the conversation begins not with a specific question about the text itself, but about a topic that is connected to the text. For instance, if we are reading Fahrenheit 451, students might answer a question about a time that they experienced censorship. That way, the conversation is accessible to all regardless of who successfully completed the reading, and it also provides an entry point to piquing curiosity about the text. Once that happens, we can apply targeted instructional strategies to meet specific needs.

Popping the Bubble

One year at a school in which I worked, quite a lot of controversy arose with the identified instructional focus, which was for teachers in all content areas to incorporate texts into weekly instruction with designated silent reading time. This directive met with a lot of pushback, particularly from teachers who did not see it as their function to increase literacy. However, for reading instruction to see success, the work of literacy has to sit with the whole school, and not just in English class. The alignment of language skills is guided by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). In elementary schools, team structures support collaborative planning across grade-level teams. However, once students transition to secondary school, the departmentalization of course subjects becomes a barrier to communication among teachers of different contents. It is not unusual for teachers in different departments to interact only intermittently and inconsistently. 

Therefore, the construction of a school instructional goal, the clarity surrounding its purpose, and the transparent execution of the goal as connected to CCSS is a key step in aligning literacy efforts across a school. For instance, suppose that students show potential for growth in determining the meaning of vocabulary words in the context of a sentence, which connects to standard four in CCSS. Teachers in various subjects could support building this skill by practicing with scientific terminology in a biology class, or with words that are universal such as “synthesize” or “elaborate.” When students see words appearing across all their classes, the learning process will not only be richer; it will be aligned and cohesive. Without this holistic process, literacy gains for students will only be visible in pockets rather than across the board.

While reading instruction often takes a regrettable back seat to other school priorities, what leaders often fail to recognize is that literacy can be embedded into all instructional initiatives. By increasing engagement, looking a text selection carefully, collaborating across content areas and showing belief in students as we stretch their skills, we can begin to see the change that is necessary to facilitate meaningful habits for lifelong reading.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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