Sharpening the Literacy Focus in All Our Classrooms

Cathy GassenheimerAnother great issue of Educational Leadership – a magazine published ten times annually by ASCD – arrived last week, and as usual the articles were timely and practical. The writers for the February 2017 edition explore the many aspects and implications of “Literacy in Every Classroom” and it’s well worth your reading time.

While I hope you’ll read the issue cover to cover, I’ve selected three articles that I found to be particularly compelling (two are “unlocked” online but the article by Bambrick-Santoyo & Chiger requires an ASCD membership – a smart $39 investment that will pay off all year long).

Doug Lemov: How knowledge powers reading

When teaching a novel or nonfiction reading, should teachers ask reflection questions or fact-based questions? Doug Lemov of Uncommon Schools believes the answer is “both.”

Suggesting that knowledge in reading is both “the chicken and the egg,” Lemov believes that students benefit when given greater background knowledge about whatever topic they are reading. Helping students understand more about the context and facts of fiction and nonfiction improves their absorption rate, which is the rate at which they add to their background knowledge.

When it comes to fiction, according to Lemov, one way to add to students’ background is to include a technique he calls embedded nonfiction, where students read nonfiction articles about important aspects of a short story or novel they are studying. When they understand more about what they are reading, they become more engaged readers.

As an example Lemov turns to Lily’s Crossing, a book set in New York during World War II. The book centers around Lily whose father is fighting in Europe during the war. Back home, Lily and other Americans are faced with rationing types of food and other materials.

Because current warfare rarely requires the type of daily sacrifices made by the general public in World War II, contemporary students need embedded nonfiction to help them better understand and commit to reading the novel.

Lemov describes how a fifth grade teacher introduces a nonfiction article to help her students understand the concept of rationing – not being able to buy “on demand” many staples of life we take for granted today.

Lemov’s “embedded” backgrounders have the potential to enrich reading in many situations. But, as our next EL authors make clear, literacy doesn’t start and stop with reading. Writing well is also critical to success.

Bambrick-Santoyo & Chiger: Until I Write It Down

“Until we see what students can articulate in writing, we don’t know what they comprehend—and on some level, neither do they. To strengthen our students as readers, the place to start is with their writing.”

I’ve always understood that the key to successful writing was immersive reading; the more one read, the better one could write.

The authors of “Until I Write It Down” seemed to be turning my understanding on its head…and they used three of my favorite writers – Flannery O’Connor, E.M. Forster, and Joan Didion – to do it.

Things came back into perspective once I read the entire article. Paul Bambrick-Santoyo and Stephen Chiger weren’t arguing against the primacy of reading, they were suggesting that writing ought to occur more frequently before discussion.

To illustrate their point, Bambrick-Santoyo and Chiger turn to a tragic episode in Alabama’s history. They describe a particularly riveting classroom discussion about “Birmingham Sunday,” a song written by Richard Farina and sung by Joan Baez about the bombing of the 16th Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Even though the discussion was on target and engaging, the authors point out:

“By its design, this lesson placed the greatest amount of cognitive work not on the students as a whole, but on two or three students who happen to be both excellent readers and bold speakers. The other students didn’t have to articulate their own interpretations of the text until they’d already heard someone else do it.”

The rest of the article provides suggestions about how to use writing to strengthen both thinking and reading and to increase opportunities for all students in a class to deepen their understanding through individual effort.

Kelly Gallagher: Making writing a district priority

In his EL article, teacher-author Kelly Gallagher bemoans the current status of writing in the classroom and provides an encouraging example of a school district that has made writing a priority.

Gallagher turns to the Education Trust to share the dismal facts about middle school students and writing.

Fortunately, Gallagher’s California school system is swimming against the tide. The Anaheim Union High School District, serving 30,000+ students in grades 7-12, created a writing across the curriculum initiative they titled “The Writing Journey.”

In the article, Gallagher, who teaches at Magnolia HS, one of the schools in that district, describes the “why,” “what,” and “how” of the initiative.

Beginning with the “why” of learning, teachers explored five important reasons for student writing:

✻ Deeper thinking

✻ Career readiness

✻ College readiness

✻ Writing is now being assessed

✻ Writing should be a life-long habit

Teachers then responded to two essential questions, which guided their study:

✻ What kind of writing will help students get smarter in your class?

✻ When and where should that writing occur?

After focusing on the why and the what, teachers then turned their attention to the how. Gallagher and his colleagues identified three important types of writing to tackle: argumentative writing, informational/explanatory writing, and narrative writing.

This type of initiative can put a dent into the depressing statistics Gallagher shared from the Education Trust. To find more about how to infuse writing into your school or district’s curricula, read the entire article here.

Focusing on literacy across the curriculum

These three articles – and many others found in February’s Educational Leadership – serve to underscore the importance of promoting reading, writing and content literacy across the entire curriculum and not pass all of the responsibility to literacy and language arts teachers.

As Anthony Rebora, EL‘s new editor in chief, writes in this month’s introductory essay:


Traditionally, schools have tended to segment literacy instruction into the domain of language arts and reading teachers, with the implication being that educators in other subjects need not get overly involved. But that dynamic appears to be changing. Concepts like “writing across the curriculum” and “content-area literacy” have gained prominence in K–12 education. Textual analysis, or close reading, is now commonly talked about outside of English classes.

A major reason for this shift, of course, is the Common Core’s emphasis on informational texts and helping student use language more effectively across content areas. Then, too, there’s the recognition that many students need more literacy training than they can get in language arts classes alone. But I also suspect that…more educators are simply discovering—or rediscovering—that explicit literacy-based strategies can deepen students’ understanding of content-area subjects.

Simply stated, more attention to close reading and substantive writing in every subject will produce more student success. So how do schools make that happen? It’s an important question for teachers, coaches and instructional partners to reflect upon together.

What are you doing in your school to broaden the literacy focus? Please share in the comments!