Azuela Elementary history teacher Jodi Hoard is helping develop literacy education strategies as part of Project READI, a federally funded study of “reading for understanding.” [Photo by Marc Monaghan] Credit: Photo by Marc Monaghan

Sixth-grade students stand outside history teacher Jodi Hoard’s room at Azuela Elementary, waiting to file in. Their small bodies sag under the weight of foot-high piles of textbooks.

Once inside the classroom, the textbooks become irrelevant—a sign that Hoard’s lesson is going to be different from the norm.

“I’d like you to please take out one sheet of loose-leaf paper. Put everything else under the table,” Hoard says.
Hoard gives her students a series of claims—some turned in by students, others written by Hoard herself—to critique. The lesson will focus on discussion and analysis of claims about ancient Mesopotamia, based on artifacts students have viewed online. 

The first claim they will critique reads: “So this is what I’m thinking, that my claim for the science and inventions is that they invented the plow.”

“They shouldn’t put ‘I think,’” a girl says. “They should put, ‘My claim is.’”

Hoard stops her, hearkening back to the claims students previously read that were written by historians. Do they start their essays with that phrase? No, Hoard points out. She re-models the claim, making it broader and more direct: “Mesopotamians were responsible for some important inventions.”

After the discussion about historical claims, Hoard hands out a document and gives her 6th-graders one minute to “source” it, an essential skill in history classes.

“We are not really reading the words yet,” she reminds them.

The strategies Hoard uses might seem simple enough, but they are not typical in CPS.  Researcher Cynthia Shanahan of the University of Illinois at Chicago notes that middle and high school students typically do not take reading classes, and even if students get some reading instruction in English, it doesn’t help them understand how to read effectively in other subjects. When students struggle to read, teachers find it difficult to have them do so—and turn to other strategies to teach content.

But Hoard’s tactics are elements of an emerging instructional model called disciplinary literacy that researchers hope will spark improvement in adolescent literacy. Research on how expert readers tackle text points to the need for a different approach—and the academic stakes are becoming higher.

Despite one strategy after another—from intensive one-time courses to incorporating reading and writing across every subject area—reading test scores have barely moved for 8th-graders moving to high school, and for high school students heading for college.

Even double periods of freshman English classes did not make much difference. A study by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research found that a policy requiring double periods of English for students whose reading scores fell in the bottom half nationally yielded “almost no discernible benefits.” The exception: a slight improvement in scores for the lowest-level students.

“If you look at any program on adolescent literacy, it’s very hard to find anything that has any kind of sizable impact,” says Elaine Allensworth, a researcher at the Consortium.

Once students graduate from CPS, a substantial number cannot read college-level material and need remedial courses—especially students who land at City Colleges, a major destination for many graduates. Research has shown that students who must take non-credit remedial classes in college are less likely to eventually earn a degree.

In coming years, the new Common Core standards will present another challenge and require students to read and analyze more advanced material than is now the norm. Multi-state tests for the Common Core are under development by PARCC, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. The new tests will debut in the 2014-2015 school year.

The stable of strategies the district has tried over the years to improve teen literacy didn’t have an impact, experts say, because they were not focused on teaching the high-level analytical skills that students need to understand complex non-fiction, especially in science and social studies.

“We assume students who reach 4th grade and can read 4th-grade material OK can read anything, forever,” says Shanahan, associate dean for academic affairs at UIC’s College of Education and a professor in the university’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction. “[But] if you read something unfamiliar and even more complex, even good readers are going to struggle. Students aren’t taught ways to handle the material and they don’t get better at it. And if a student takes a general approach to reading comprehension across all kinds of texts, they aren’t going to do as well as if they know the kinds of things they should be looking for when reading history versus science.”

A lack of teachers and training has made it harder to address the problem. Just 41 percent of CPS high schools have teachers with literacy or reading credentials, according to state data, and literacy is not part of the usual program of study for upper-grades teachers.

“Teachers in our middle schools and high schools don’t take literacy classes.  Or if they do, they’ll have taken one,” says Julie Price Daly, who coaches teachers for the University of Chicago’s Network for College Success, a high school improvement program run by the university’s School of Social Service Administration. 

Even so, a background in teaching reading doesn’t necessarily prepare teachers to deal with the unique literacy demands of adolescents. In fact, the Consortium theorized that double periods of English likely didn’t help because teachers did not have the right training in how to make the best use of the extra time. 

Hoard says that before she became involved with Project READI—a federal research project that is developing strategies to help teachers incorporate what is called disciplinary literacy—her background was mainly in teaching language arts. She knew how to help students develop general reading skills, but not how to teach them to analyze and understand history as a subject.

As a result, many of her lessons relied on using historical fiction.

“I basically took what I knew about how to support students as readers and applied that to a context in which we were only reading about history,” she says. “I primarily thought of the history learning goals as content goals, while I thought of skills and strategies separately as literacy goals.”

Now, instead of teaching students to be “good readers,” Hoard concentrates on strategies that show students how to understand history, how to make their own claims about historical facts, and how to back up those claims with evidence. Students need to learn who created documents, why they created them and when they were published, as well as the difference between primary and secondary sources, and tertiary sources like textbooks.
“Literacy is more a means to an end than it is the end in itself,” Hoard says.

Hoard is helping to design the curriculum for Project READI, a U.S. Department of Education-funded five-year, $19 million project that includes three universities, 38 schools in Chicago and the suburbs, plus 19 schools in California.

READI is an acronym for Reading for Understanding Across Grades 6 through 12: Evidence-based Argumentation for Disciplinary Instruction. The initiative focuses on reading literature, history and science. (Download a list of participating schools.)

The goal of the project is to develop curriculum in each subject that will help students to understand the different genres of texts, types of claims and evidence, and writing conventions in the different subject areas.

Susan Goldman, co-director of the Learning Sciences Research Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a faculty member in several departments, says the skills needed to read for understanding are different in each subject. General reading skills taught in English class don’t prepare them to interpret literature, understand historians’ arguments or evaluate scientific information.

“Even if I’m a really good reader of narrative, that does not mean I’m going to be a good reader of a science text. There are specific things scientists read for, and if you don’t make it explicit for kids, they read it like a narrative—and that doesn’t work,” Goldman says.

In history, for instance, “we are trying to get them beyond just learning the ‘facts’ that are known about a particular society,” Goldman says. Instead, the goal is to give students “some frameworks, some schemas, some worldviews that will allow them to tackle new topics in that discipline.”

Another skill students need to gain is perseverance, which can be helped by “social structures that support problem-solving” like small group and class discussions to piece together an article’s meaning and discover that others struggled with it too.

“Kids find that, ‘I’m not the only one who doesn’t get this. Maybe there’s a reason I don’t get it that doesn’t have to do with my [reading] skill,’” Goldman says. “Social supports are very important for kids beginning to develop the stamina to do this—and not just with others, but on their own as well.”

Project READI’s strategies will be piloted by a handful of teacher-researchers in the 2013-14 school year.  A larger-scale study with a fresh crop of teachers is slated to begin in fall 2014.

If it’s successful, researchers will be able to bring home the first solid evidence of a program that works to help adolescent readers deal with complex academic material. That could set the stage for the universities and nonprofits involved in the curriculum’s development to disseminate it more widely.

Here in Chicago, though, the program has hit a bump in the road. Three of the 28 CPS schools involved in the project are among more than 50 that will close this fall. Researchers hope to continue the project at receiving schools.

In Hoard’s class, students say the strategies—in particular, the emphasis on annotation, note-taking and flagging trouble spots in text—have begun to pay off.

“Before this year, I was behind a level,” says Brenda Lechuga, an 11-year-old student who says she earned mostly C’s in 5th grade and now earns mostly B’s. “Since Ms. Hoard taught us to annotate our thinking, I kind of understand what I’m reading.”

Evan Doyle, who is 12, says the strategies ensure that every student understands all the phrases in a text, and adds that Hoard teaches at a pace that allows every student to keep up.

In Hoard’s class, the discussion of sources is part of a strategy known by the acronym SOAPSTone, which stands for Speaker (who is narrating the document), Occasion, Audience, Purpose, Subject and Tone.

Hoard has the class guess, based on clues in the piece, where it came from. “I have a question. Do you think this text is from a textbook? Give me a thumbs-up if you think it’s from a textbook, and a thumbs-down if you don’t think it’s a textbook.”

Most of the students correctly guess that the excerpt is from a textbook, based on its writing style, purpose and tone.

Next, the class evaluates the author, Kevin Reilly. “Does anyone know Kevin Reilly?” Hoard asks. “When you read a source, you want to know who that person is and whether or not they know what they’re talking about.”

She pulls up online information about Reilly, a respected historian. “I’m going to ask you a question and you’re going to give me a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. Now that you’ve seen it, do you think this source is more reliable or less reliable?”

Since they know the author is a historian, as Hoard has planned, the class gives him more credence.

Now, Hoard’s class reads the excerpt. On an overhead screen showing the text, Hoard uses the first sentence to demonstrate how students should approach it. She writes synonyms next to big words, notes questions, and flags sections that need more clarification.

In one section the author writes that experts disagree on which civilization is older—Mesopotamia or Egypt—but says that Mesopotamia influenced Egypt. So Hoard writes: “Maybe Mesopotamia is older than Egypt?”

When the class reaches a section noting that “both had evolved distinct civilizations by 3000 B.C.,” Hoard refers the class to a timeline and asks them to evaluate the statement based on whether the timeline corroborates it.

Later, she guides the class to analyze the author’s purpose.

“Just in this first section, what is the claim the author is making? What am I looking for here?”

“The main idea?” a boy asks.

“It’s a lot like the main idea,” Hoard replies. “Who thinks they have a really solid claim they think the author is making?”

“He thinks both civilizations were around at the same time, but Mesopotamia might be older,” another boy says.
“It’s a confusing way the author is wording his claim,” Hoard adds. “He hints at some evidence, but he doesn’t give it.”

By the end of the discussion, Hoard has guided the class to the section of the text where the author gives his thesis statement on similarities and differences between the two cultures.

“It’s OK if this is a little challenging,” Hoard says. “I found it challenging, too.”

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