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Preparing for Success: Helping High Schoolers Become Better Readers and Writers

Posted on 02.17.2017

High School Student

Briefly

  • An independent evaluation found that the college-preparatory Expository Reading and Writing Course (ERWC) had a positive impact on student achievement.
  • The course teaches strategies such as annotation, rereading, and noticing authors’ language and organization choices.
  • Challenges remain in finding the best professional learning approaches to prepare teachers for implementing ERWC effectively.

In California, as in other states, many high school graduates enter college without the skills needed to keep up with demanding reading and writing requirements. They struggle to critically analyze texts and to write using evidence-based arguments. Initially placed in noncredit-bearing remediation courses, many of these students eventually drop out of college.

Since 2004, university and secondary educators have been working to change those patterns. They developed the Expository Reading and Writing Course (ERWC), a full-year college-preparatory English course that gives 12th graders a range of rhetorical strategies to successfully unpack complex texts and write their own.

“As a secondary English teacher, I knew I had kids who struggled and I had no tools to help them,” says Debra Boggs, now Director of Literacy for the Stanislaus County Office of Education. “ERWC gives teachers the means to help students become better readers. Students are exposed to strategies such as annotation, rereading, paying attention to language, and noticing authors’ choices in sentence structure and organization. Students become more savvy readers, gaining skills that they’ll need in college and that can serve them well throughout their lives.”

Lessons from Evaluation

A recent independent evaluation of ERWC affirms Boggs’s impression. Comparing students who enrolled in ERWC with similar students who did not, researchers from WestEd found a positive, statistically significant impact of participation in ERWC on college placement test results. In addition, the evaluation noted that ERWC helped many teachers learn how to reinforce students’ literacy skills and use more engaging and relevant texts to stimulate student thinking and discussions. Teachers reported that they had developed a better understanding of how to deepen students’ learning to prepare them for college and careers.

“I learned that there is inherent value in allowing students to explore their own topics. There’s definitely more of a student buy-in, especially when it comes to writing something as extensive as a research paper,” one teacher said through surveys collected as part of the evaluation.

“I learned how to emphasize skills while covering concepts in teaching a novel,” said another teacher. “This is quite a shift for me.”

More than 13,500 educators have participated in ERWC professional learning since 2004. The ERWC course has been adopted in more than 950 schools throughout California, and elements of the course have spread to Hawaii and Washington State. In recent years, ERWC developers also have expanded the curriculum down through the middle grades, partly reinforced by findings from WestEd’s evaluation work.

“When evaluating the course, we heard many times from teachers that students needed to start learning these skills earlier,” says Tony Fong, Senior Policy Associate with WestEd and the principal investigator of the ERWC evaluation. “Now the ERWC leadership committee is working on bringing the course’s successful strategies to earlier grades. That’s been an important development.”

Building Connections Between High School and College

According to Nancy Brynelson, Co-Director of the California State University (CSU) Center for the Advancement of Reading, one factor behind the success of ERWC was the involvement of both university and secondary educators in the task force that planned the course curriculum and in ongoing professional learning. The original task force included faculty from a range of CSU campuses as well as a high school principal, teachers, and literacy specialists.

That collaboration contributed to identifying and addressing literacy skills that students most need in order to be successful in college, and it helped ensure that the course attended to standards that high school teachers were expected to teach and students were expected to learn. According to Brynelson, involvement with ERWC changed the practice of both university and high school educators, resulting in improved learning, teaching, and partnerships.

“…[I]nvolvement with ERWC changed the practice of both university and high school educators, resulting in improved learning, teaching, and partnerships.”

Boggs says another factor that contributed to ERWC’s success is a statewide effort to assess students in 11th grade to gauge their college readiness prior to 12th grade, as part of CSU’s Early Assessment Program (EAP). Students who score in the range just below the “proficient” benchmark on the EAP measure are able to enter directly into college credit-bearing courses if they take the full-year ERWC and pass with a C or better.

“Having the course be a way to clear that status has really cemented ERWC as part of the landscape now in California schools,” Boggs says.

Yet getting teacher buy-in has not always been easy. Boggs recalls that some teachers have incorrectly feared that following the ERWC modules would mean eliminating their favorite literature studies because of the course’s emphasis on expository (or informational) reading. Some teachers also found that their students were unprepared for the fast pace, high-level vocabulary, and rigorous, writing-intensive coursework.

“It was tough going in the early days,” Boggs acknowledges, “but we kept plugging away. Anybody who used the [ERWC] materials saw that the kids were so engaged and excited, which was a change from teaching Beowulf.

A Coherent Approach to Reading and Writing

ERWC includes a full-year curriculum of 12 modules, and teachers are expected to teach 8 to 10 of the modules during the school year, along with one full-length novel in each semester. Critical literacy skills (such as reading for understanding) and related strategies (such as annotating and questioning the text) are embedded within assignments. Teachers are also shown how to use formative assessment to gauge student progress and how to incorporate activities that support learning rhetoric, grammar, and vocabulary to develop students’ academic English.

Through the modules, students are encouraged to examine and discuss the social, political, and philosophical assumptions underlying the texts and then write for a variety of purposes and audiences. They learn to read texts multiple times through different lenses and to evaluate the credibility and accuracy of each source.

“Most students believe that if it’s written, it must be true,” Brynelson says. “We teach them that you read in different ways and for different purposes. We typically ask students to read ‘with the grain’ initially and then ‘against the grain’ and to look for ways that the authors crafted their arguments. The course helps students strengthen their reading skills by chunking the text and looking at organizational strategy, and then students start to uncover what the writer meant.”

Professional Learning Challenges

Teacher preparation for the ERWC includes 24 hours of professional learning sessions over the course of several months and an online community, which provides a discussion board and additional resources. During the professional learning sessions, teachers receive three binders of the curriculum and other professional books. Teachers and their school districts are encouraged to incorporate ERWC into their existing structures for coaching and professional collaboration.

Although the workshops have been highly valuable, Boggs says, the number of days available for professional learning is insufficient “for transformational change. Teachers have gotten used to covering material and moving through curriculum quickly. So, slowing down and diving deep can be a challenge.”

And WestEd’s evaluation showed that even with the ERWC curriculum, many teachers still found it challenging to expand their instructional practices, as affirmed by CSU’s Brynelson. “One of the big lessons learned is that no matter how well our curriculum is constructed, its implementation depends on instructional quality,” she says. “So we’ve focused more of our professional learning on effective classroom instruction, such as how to conduct an effective discussion, how to choose what should be small- and large-group work, and how to make time for more writing.”

As ERWC expands into other grades and states, WestEd will continue to evaluate the program as its developers seek to scale up its practices. Through a new federal validation grant, the ERWC will add a full-year course in 11th grade as well as expand in the state of Washington.

For information about the ERWC program, contact Nancy Brynelson at nbrynelson@calstate.edu or 916.278.4581. For more information about the independent ERWC evaluation, contact Tony Fong at tfong@WestEd.org or 510.302.4214.