Literacy for all

Grab your pencil or pen. Students at any grade level can benefit from reading both at an instructional reading level, and even at a “frustration” reading level; especially when reading closely; when reading for a purpose; when reading with the teacher.

Many folks think because students lack the foundational reading skills, they cannot gain in reading comprehension especially when reading complex texts.

Many folks believe students can’t gain in reading comprehension when reading at “frustration” levels (Lexile levels above their independent or instructional reading level).

Researchers like James Popham, an Emeritus Professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, and Timothy Shanahan, a professor at the University of Illinois, would disagree. They and many other researchers, would argue students must be given multiple, daily opportunities to read and reread for higher-order purposes. As a language arts teacher for 10 years in Chicago, I can testify that students (even students lacking foundational reading skills) can make significant gains in reading comprehension in one year. My students made such gains in their reading comprehension through daily opportunities to actively and purposefully read difficult text with the support of their teacher, me. While there are many research based reading strategies, I stand strong with close reading. It is one of the most effective and manageable ways to read and comprehend difficult text.

In the 21st century, students need to be literate not only in all content areas but also in “real life.” The Common Core reignites the need to infuse literacy – reading and writing – in all content areas so that all students can read independently and proficiently at, at least, their grade level text complexity span by time they graduate from high school. To remain competitive in their global word, students will need to also be masterful in their communication (reading, writing, listening and speaking) skills.

So as educators and leaders of K – 12 schools, I ask, how do we enhance the effectiveness of our current literacy programs and systematically expand content area reading and writing opportunities for our students?

I propose this theory of action: If students had a chance to practice purposeful reading through complex text daily with their teacher through high yielding instructional reading practices (effect size of .4 or higher), such as close reading, then all students can make visible learning/literacy gains of one year’s growth or more in their school year.

An effect size of .4 refers to John Hattie’s hinge point for visible learning. John Hattie is a professor of Education and Director Melborne Education Research Institute at the University Of Melbourne, Australia. He has spent the past 15 years studying the most effective instructional practices. He has over 1200 meta-analyses that include millions of students, and over 100 successful case study schools.

Students reading comprehension can be leveled, analyzed, and monitored through reading comprehension tests such as Star Renaissance and/or CAASPP interim block assessments. Reading comprehension can also be monitored through a written response by students. (A standardized rubric should be used)

This gets into tying reading comprehension to the instruction of writing. In the same way that we underutilize close reading, we also tend to underuse writing as a key strategy to develop intellectual knowledge. Writing, combined with close reading, can be among one of the most valuable elements of schools. As Schmoker writes, “Reading, writing and discussion – these three- are the foundation for a well-equipped mind; the key to equity, access, and economic opportunity. (2006, p. 72)

Before we further explore the writing component option of a literacy plan, let’s continue with how schools might put the reading comprehension theory into action, mentioned above, into action.


As principal of North Tahoe School, a school with over 65% of the student population below the standards on the state wide language arts standards as indicated on the new smarter balance, I sensed the urgency to make literacy a school wide focus. North Tahoe is a school located in North Lake Tahoe and has a student population of over 50% students as low socio-economic status and over 30% of the student population as English as a second language.


The goal was to raise the students’ reading comprehension levels. We already had a block of time built into master schedule– 30 minutes a day – for response to learning (rtl) devoted to intervention and/or to acceleration. We were all in the era of the common core standards, understanding literacy – reading, writing, listening and speaking – shifted to the responsibility of all content teachers. The common core standards and 21st century also made a call for more instruction by all teachers to include a deeper learning of complex information text by students.

We used some of our weekly collaboration times to prepare staff for a successful school wide literacy plan. At one collaboration (a 2.5 hour block of time), the instructional coach and I provided some professional development on close reading. Each teacher received a packet of information and instructional reading/writing tools to support the instruction of close reading to increase grade level (and beyond) comprehension through informational text. Some of these materials included reading passages, close reading sample lesson, an annotation document, informational outlines, and their student roster with reading levels. Part of this collaboration was devoted to staff, independently, in pairs and/or in small teams, having time to digest the information and how they may best organize this information for daily close reading lessons.

Prior to the two to three collaboration days to prepare for the first literacy deployment, students had been organized into leveled class rosters of under 20 based on their StarRenaissance reading level (cross referenced with past CST and SBAC language arts scores and teacher recommendation as well). Teachers were assigned a student roster.

As the instructional leader, I opened the initial collaboration (before the professional development) sharing why we needed a school wide literacy plan. Click here to see the utube video and powerpoint slides that taps into the emotion and rational for why, as well as provides detail to the rollout of a literacy deployment:

Having some school data on the reading levels of students adds to the sense of urgency and staff buy-in. Rallying your leadership team around the “why, what and how” of a literacy plan is a necessary step to make a schoolwide literacy plan stick.

North Tahoe School agreed to use 3 weeks of an RTL daily block to deploy students for this sacred school wide literacy time. Every student and every teacher were involved in the instruction and learning of reading comprehension 30 minutes a day for 3 weeks; one time in the fall semester and again in the winter semester.

For the next collaboration, one week later, the coach, myself and a few teacher-leaders, offered various workshops for staff to attend based on their need and desire to feel prepared for first day of the literacy deployment. Some of the workshops were as follows; more on the instruction of close reading, moving from close reading, asking varying depth of knowledge comprehension questions into a written response; collaboration time with a language arts teacher to plan the mini daily reading lessons, quiet time to plan the mini daily reading lessons.

During this span of two weeks in which teachers used the weekly collaboration time to plan and prepare, teachers spent some time in their classrooms or homerooms to share the rationale for this literacy plan with their students. I, too, during this timeframe communicated the details and rationale for this school wide literacy plan with parents. An important piece for the success of any school wide initiative is the partnership with the students and the parents; even if nothing more than informing the parents. Just for the record, not one parent argued with this school wide literacy plan. (And yes parents would let me know if there was discontent).

A few students, mostly the ones already at grade-level and beyond, were disgruntled as to why they needed to be a part of this daily reading instruction. Teachers analyzed their reading diagnostic reports prior to this literacy deployment. Teachers had their rationale ready along with their daily lessons on how to challenge the students and how to offer these students additional targeted reading instruction.  Here is an example of what is now expected out of our students to be ready for college, the workforce, and/or productive life in a technological society. According to the common core language arts initiative, students need the ability to gather, comprehend, evaluate, synthesize, and report on information and ideas, to conduct original research in order to answer questions or solve problems, and to analyze and create a high volume and extensive range of print and nonprint texts in media forms old and new. (2011 page 4) If you are reading this and wondering what exactly that all means, my point exactly.

Back to having all stakeholders being on board with the school wide literacy plan. Simply having an entire school devoting 30 minutes a day to reading facilitated buy-in from all stakeholders.

There were benefits for students and teachers beyond the purpose of the school wide literacy deployment. Students now had an effective strategy on how to access and understand the content knowledge through the necessary reading of their other content areas. Teachers now had an effective instructional strategy to support students in accessing the content knowledge through complex reading.

You also may be wondering the impact of this literacy initiative on state testing. One and one half years later, and three literacy deployments later, this school had significant gains in their state testing in both language arts and in math; with each grade level making gains of 3% or more.  The translation in effect size was .2 and .3 throughout the different grade levels. We are approaching the hinge point of .4 collectively.  This school is on the “right” track. Reach out to their new principal and/or teachers for more information.

In addition to the growth in state testing, there were the StarRenaissance scores to track student growth, and there was a post literacy deployment reading and writing assessment per literacy deployment to track growth in both reading and in writing.

Let’s now further explore the writing component of a literacy deployment. One claim in the language arts state testing is the writing.  Remember Schmoker (along with other researchers like Doug Fisher, recent author of Visible Learning for Literacy, and Doug Lemov, author of Teach like a Champion) references the importance of reading, writing and discussion. North Tahoe did indeed include both reading and a writing component. Students were still leveled based on their reading comprehension levels. Teachers during the daily 30-minute literacy deployment over a course of 3 weeks, moved from close reading to writing. Writing was taught and evaluated based on the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) rubric for informational writing. We used writing tools and strategies from the StepUpToWriting program. Some of the collaboration workshops and preparation time were devoted to the instruction and planning of writing.

If your school has a fair number of students below grade level in their reading comprehension or lacking in their writing abilities, you too sense that urgency. The common core standards era gives us permission to share in the responsibility of teaching reading and reading comprehension to all our students. The benefits and data gives this school and other schools the permission to continue with some sort of school wideliteracy initiative. North Tahoe’s Literacy deployment, three years running now, and briefly described in this article, is just one of the many ways your school can move one step closer to a systemic and effective literacy program. And one way for all your students to be grade level, and beyond, literate!  Get your literacy on!


Popham, James, America’s Failing Schools, New York, New York, 2004

Timothy Shanahan, Timothy, “ Learning from Challenging Text.” <>. March 11, 2011

Schmoker, Mike, Results Now, Alexandria, Virginia, 2006


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