Students CAN Meet Demanding Literacy Standards in the Disciplines

Smiling students in classroom setting

This post was written by Cynthia Greenleaf, Co-Director of the Strategic Literacy Initiative at WestEd, and Co-Principal Investigator on Project READI, a Reading for Understanding Initiative grant.

My colleagues from the Strategic Literacy Initiative and I will participate in an event this week that brings together a large group of literacy professionals who are concluding a five-year R&D initiative dedicated to improving the state of reading comprehension in the United States.

The National Symposium on Reading for Understanding will take place Wednesday through Friday, May 18-20, at the Hilton Alexandria Mark Center in Alexandria, VA.

I’m going to cut to the chase and share the findings from the work our team did during the initiative:

  • Students can meet the high literacy standards that the nation has set
  • Giving students these skills will require a deep and ongoing investment in building teacher capacity
  • Authentic science and history texts sequenced to support learning of key ideas and inquiry practices in the disciplines are uncommon and badly needed in secondary classrooms

Background on the Initiative

The Reading for Understanding (RfU) Initiative was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), and included participation from leading education institutions around the country.

When the Initiative was launched in 2010, IES staff referred to it as a “moon shot” because of the ambitious agenda it set: To carry out a new generation of studies that would redefine reading comprehension and contribute to much-needed improvement in student learning.

The initiative included five cross-disciplinary teams, each of which included literacy specialists and educators from around the country. Each team carried out studies, intervention designs, and efficacy trials to measure changes in reading proficiency.

The READI Team

Our team, headed by Susan Goldman at the University of Illinois, Chicago, focused on Reading, Evidence, and Argumentation in Disciplinary Instruction (READI) in middle and high school. The Project READI research team defines “reading for understanding” as the capacity to engage in evidence-based argumentation that draws on multiple text sources within a discipline. It involves complex critical analysis processes and close attention to text. The disciplines we addressed were History, Science and Literature for middle and high school.

Together with educators and academics from other institutions, our job was to work out the basic science of reading for understanding in the disciplines, then build interventions that address malleable factors that contribute to students’ reading comprehension proficiency. Our interventions needed to be designed to promote student engagement with texts that supported subject area learning.

What we encountered prior to designing our intervention confirmed that very little reading was taking place in secondary subject area classrooms.

In fact, we did an analysis of teacher approaches to teaching the disciplines, and found that students with teachers who explicitly called out the main ideas of texts engaged in fundamentally different learning than students whose teachers supported them to do the sense-making required when reading complex materials.

This Deeper Learning article, published just last Thursday (May 12), describes this phenomenon in more detail.

In the process of implementing interventions to promote more in-class reading for disciplinary learning, we saw that secondary teachers were unsure how to get the students to do the intellectual work themselves rather than “doing it for them.”

Our analysis made it clear that we needed to 1) help teachers understand how to teach discipline-specific content, and 2) build their pedagogical capacity to support students’ intellectual work with texts.

Our approach therefore addressed both curriculum and instruction. We designed and developed a number of history and science modules that deeply embed the types of texts students need to understand history and science, and helped teachers with their pedagogies. And, we developed approaches to professional learning that enabled teachers to rethink their instruction, more deeply understand their disciplines, and adopt and adapt the new pedagogies to support their students.

Our multi-institution science team ran a professional development efficacy trial in Chicago that included a very diverse student population, and we’re just getting the findings back now.

The good news? Students in READI Biology classes outperformed controls on sophisticated science literacy tasks.

We will be publishing the detailed results of this study in the coming year.

Opportunities to Learn More

There will be a live broadcast at the end of the Reading for Understanding Symposium on Friday, May 20. Our team (Project READI) will present the challenges, findings, and implications of our work from 9:40-10am EDT.

I hope you will join us.

Learn more about the READI project.

Learn about the overall Reading for Understanding Research Initiative

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