On the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly known as the nation’s report card, 8th grade reading scores dropped in 31 states, in comparison with the previous administration of NAEP. Such results highlight an urgent need for improving how secondary schools support students’ development of literacy skills.

Many of the most current academic standards emphasize the role of reading and writing throughout the curriculum, making the recent drops in reading scores especially concerning, with reading increasingly recognized as being fundamental to learning in all subject matters. Accordingly, many states are focusing on how to shape instruction to better help secondary students meet the new, more demanding literacy and content standards.

One such state is Maryland. More than two years ago, Cecilia Roe, Director of Instructional Assessment, Professional Learning, and English/Language Arts for the Maryland State Department of Education and formerly an English teacher, began noting the urgency of this issue as middle and high school students were struggling with literacy in science, social studies, and other subjects. When Maryland received a Striving Readers grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 2017, Roe proposed a large-scale implementation of Reading Apprenticeship — a professional learning model and instructional approach to literacy across the curriculum. Maryland began offering summer and fall Reading Apprenticeship institutes for educators in all of its districts in 2018.

Initially developed more than 20 years ago by WestEd and continuously refined since, the Reading Apprenticeship framework has four “dimensions.” The first is social, which involves having peers interact with each other in relation to the texts they are reading. The second is personal, in which students learn about themselves as readers and gradually gain confidence. A cognitive dimension focuses on how students develop comprehension and problem-solving skills. And a knowledge-building dimension involves combining those skills with one’s own background knowledge of a topic to build new knowledge. All the dimensions are woven together through metacognitive conversation, essentially talk that builds understanding and awareness of one’s own thinking.

Teachers learn to explicitly recognize these dimensions in their classrooms to ensure that students — in addition to learning the content of science or history or whatever the subject — are also learning how to read in that subject area. Teachers help make the reading process transparent so students become apprentices learning from an experienced and skilled reader. For example, teachers share what they do when they see a word they don’t recognize or they stumble in trying to understand a passage. Teachers trained in Reading Apprenticeship also demonstrate and then have students use strategies such as “talking to the text,” which involves making notes, underlining phrases or words, and asking questions about what they don’t understand. “Think aloud” is another routine in which students verbally share with classmates the clues they are picking up in the text, why they are highlighting a phrase, and background knowledge that may help — or hinder — their efforts to understand a passage.

A matter of urgency

Interest in Reading Apprenticeship in middle and high schools has grown with the most current academic standards’ increasing demands on students to read and comprehend more advanced texts in nearly all subjects.

“It’s a matter of urgency at the secondary school level,” which requires helping educators prepare students to meet these standards, says Sharon Sáez, a partnership development director with WestEd’s Strategic Literacy Initiative who has been working with Maryland and districts throughout the state implementing the model. As a new round of states are now receiving Striving Readers grants, Sáez notes it will be important for state and local leaders to have examples of how the Reading Apprenticeship model can be most effective.

One approach is the way leaders are phasing in the model in Washington County Public Schools (WCPS), in the western part of Maryland. Administrators, teachers, and counselors at South Hagerstown High identified incoming 9th graders who were reading below grade level and, in addition to engaging teachers in professional learning, the school set up a 9th grade intervention course called Reading Apprenticeship Academic Literacy (RAAL).

One recent lesson in RAAL involved using the “roadblocks” strategy to discuss words or terms that might stand in the way of comprehending a passage. For the word “oiled,” teacher Kat Kenderdine asked the group, “What do you know about oiling something?”

“I guess it like, makes it like, work better,” one student responded, in a questioning tone of voice.

“You’re absolutely correct,” the teacher said, adding that it’s okay for them to “leave a roadblock behind” if they feel they grasp the overall meaning or action in the text.

Another student circled the word “harness” and drew a line to the definition: “used for dogs and horses.” A circle around “bucksaw” connected to “used to cut wood.”

Creating coherence

Jodi Smith — now the district’s secondary literacy achievement coordinator — previously worked in one of South Hagerstown’s feeder middle schools and so was familiar with many of the students assigned to the intervention class. Having noticed that some students Smith never would have expected to participate actively were actually volunteering to help others and telling them how to do things, Smith comments, “For the first time some of those kids felt a sense of accomplishment — maybe even felt smart.”

In addition to having an intervention class focused on academic literacy, these students have had science, English, and social studies classes led by teachers trained in Reading Apprenticeship, providing additional reinforcement of routines and strategies that support comprehension and clarify how texts and evidence differ by subject area. The teachers also participate in a monthly professional learning session to reflect on and share ideas for lessons and reading strategies.

According to the results of a reading comprehension assessment, 87 percent of the students in the Reading Apprenticeship intervention class showed growth over the school year. Some gained as much as three grade levels’ worth of skills. Smith is also seeing growth among teachers. During a follow-up institute, a veteran teacher with 22 years of experience told Smith of having been “transformed” by Reading Apprenticeship and, instead of always having to be the one leading instruction, has learned how to “step back and let the kids do the work.”

“…87 percent of the students in the Reading Apprenticeship intervention class showed growth over the school year. Some gained as much as three grade levels’ worth of skills.”

While Reading Apprenticeship might not be the only reason for the growth, the WCPS district is moving ahead with expanding the targeted model to four additional schools — Williamsport High and three middle schools. Kathleen Maher-Baker, the state’s acting English language arts coordinator, notes that moving gradually from one school to four allows interest and willingness among teachers to grow.

In addition to county-level implementation, there are individual teachers in schools across the state implementing Reading Apprenticeship. While it is more challenging to be the only teacher in a school using new strategies, rather than having an interdisciplinary team of teachers working together, Maher-Baker encourages such educators to introduce Reading Apprenticeship materials to their colleagues, perhaps as part of a professional learning community or book study, or invite them to the next Reading Apprenticeship institute.

Improving literacy across subject areas

Roe points to initial signs of progress in the state, including an increase on the Maryland Comprehensive Assessment Program in ELA proficiency in the past year, which Roe attributes at least in part to Reading Apprenticeship. And a solid evidence base from previous large-scale research indicating the effectiveness of Reading Apprenticeship is part of what led Roe and others to take up Reading Apprenticeship in the first place. Over the past 20 years, multiple rigorous studies have demonstrated that students whose teachers are trained in Reading Apprenticeship gain more knowledge and score higher in areas such as comprehension than students in control groups. Evaluations conducted in 274 schools and over 630,000 students, for example, have shown positive impacts on students’ literacy skills in science classes and on teachers’ confidence in providing literacy instruction. With these results, Reading Apprenticeship is rated strong in the federal Every Student Succeeds Act’s evidence rating system and meets What Works Clearinghouse standards.

Nonetheless, as with most professional learning related to shifts in instruction, the demands on teachers’ time and the competition from other priorities are among the biggest challenges for teachers trying to implement Reading Apprenticeship. Because Maryland districts have local control, state officials don’t prescribe how districts should move forward after a Reading Apprenticeship institute. But the districts that implement Reading Apprenticeship “know they are investing in their students and teachers, and time is an important issue,” says Maher-Baker. Like WCPS, many have scheduled weekly or bi-monthly planning sessions to provide extra support for teachers.

For Mary Stump, Associate Director of the Strategic Literacy Initiative, the takeaways from Maryland so far reinforce experiences of Reading Apprenticeship implementation in other sites across the country. When teachers fully engage in implementing Reading Apprenticeship and have support from school leaders, Stump says, “We see teachers lecture less and students’ collaboration and confidence increase, and studies have shown that the test scores tend to follow, especially when districts support this work over time and across subject areas. Facilitating text-based knowledge-making and dialogue in every discipline is tough.”