Before-Reading Preview Response

Much of the writing we assign our students is public writing—writing to communicate with others. Writing-to-learn is personal writing—writing that helps students increase their comprehension of texts in all disciplines. The 2000 report of the National Reading Panel states, "Teaching students to use …writing to organize their ideas about what they are reading is a proven procedure that enhances comprehension of the text." Writing to Read: Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading, a report commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation (2010), listed that the #1 core instructional practice effective in improving student reading is to "have students write about the texts they read." Reader response compels readers to interact with the text and makes visible for readers and their teachers the depth of text comprehension. This is the first in a series of columns on scaffolding writing-to-learn by teaching a variety of reader response strategies before, during, and after reading.

"Open your novels, and start reading chapters 1 and 2."

"Open your textbooks to page 104 and begin reading the chapter."

"Here is an article on deep sea diving. Read it, and then we will discuss."

How many times have students heard these directions, opened their books, and drifted off or read on automatic pilot, surprised when they arrived at the end, or even employed "fake reading"? Or when motivated to actually read, read with little comprehension, word after word, to get to the end. As readers, they employed no background knowledge, no map, and no purpose.

Before-reading (or preview) response is crucial to activate prior knowledge, helping readers to make sense of new information and construct meaning from text. Also, before-reading response prompts readers to set personal purposes for reading. Activating prior knowledge and setting a purpose for reading are considered two of the most valuable reading strategies.

A preview response is a reflection based on previewing or skimming an upcoming text, focusing on text features, such as titles, authors, pictures, illustrations, subtitles, graphics—features that differ based on the text being previewed. Response can be oral or, more effectively, written. In a preview response readers make inferences about, and predictions of, what will be read, and such response can be effectively implemented in all disciplines with all texts.

For example, in English-Language Arts, students are given, or select, a novel. The teacher takes them though preview steps:

1a. Look at the front cover: the title and any subtitles, the author's name, any artwork or pictures.
1b. Write down whatever you are thinking, feeling, predicting, or questioning.
2a. Look at the back cover and any inside flap, and read the excerpt or summary, any reviews.
2b. Continue your response, adding to or revising any previous thoughts.
3a. Read one page, noting author's style, tone, word choice and complexity, reading level.
3b. Add to your response, modifying any speculations.

The class attempts #1 together, orally:

"The Giver. Seems like a person who gives something to someone else or is giving something to a lot of other people. I wonder what he gives."

"I see an old man. Maybe someone is giving something to him."

"Or maybe he is the Giver."

"The man looks like Santa Claus. Maybe this book is about the origin of Santa Claus."

"He doesn't look real happy. He looks kind of worried. And pretty old."

"There is an award. It must be a good book—or well-written."

"The corner looks torn, like we are peeling back and looking in at something."

"Oh, yeah. Is that a sunset or a fire? It's orange and the only color on the cover."

"The author is Lois Lowry. She wrote the novel we read in sixth grade, Number the Stars! Maybe this book is about the Holocaust."

The novel is not about the Holocaust, but that doesn't matter; readers have been activating prior knowledge about the author and her writing style and giving themselves another purpose for reading—to find out if this novel is set during the Holocaust.

Ceire wrote an Anticipation Response to Angela's Ashes, a memoir she selected to read individually:

The picture on the cover looks like a poor little Irish boy, and I don't read many books about Irish people. I'm not sure why since I have a lot of questions about my heritage. I wonder if the author will talk about the potato famine. Or maybe it has something to do with the IRA. I wonder what part of Ireland the author is from, or if he's even from Ireland. I am pretty sure he is; his last name is McCourt. Maybe the book has something to do with the Holocaust. I don't know if the Irish had much to do with the Holocaust but the title makes me think of the gas chambers.

Ceire has activated background knowledge on Ireland, Irish names, the potato famine, IRA, and the Holocaust, and has many questions that facilitate setting multiple purposes for reading. She also attempted to connect the new reading to past classroom readings on The Troubles of Northern Ireland and the Holocaust, an important brain-based learning strategy.

Preview responses can be employed in other disciplines with new material, such as beginning a new textbook chapter or reading an informational article. Students can browse the text features—title, subtitles, pictures, graphics, and any material or terms that stand out—and make inferences, predictions, and connections, activating any prior knowledge and setting purposes to read. Preview response to nonfiction and informational text is valuable in all disciplines.

As an example, for a new textbook chapter students are given preview response directions:

  • Skim (preview) the upcoming chapter, only looking at text features, such as
    — The title and subheadings
    — Photographs, illustrations, and cartoons
    — Charts, graphs, timelines, and maps
    — Any bolded or italicized terms
  • Choose 3–4 items, words, phrases, or graphics that capture your attention
  • Write a 5-minute Preview Response, incorporating any prior or background knowledge you have, or think you have (you may have none), showing what you are thinking, anticipating, inferring, predicting about the topic, asking any questions of the text, and making any connections to previous learning. There are no wrong responses.
  • You may write informally, but legibly; this is not an essay. Use "opinion" words—I am thinking, I predict, possibly, could be…

An example is a response written by an eighth grade science student when previewing a chapter on "Solutions" in the textbook Physical Science. This response focuses on the chapter title, a picture, a diagram, and a subheading from the beginning of the chapter:

When I look at the title "Solutions," I think of a homogeneous mixture because solutions dissolve things like sugar, etc., and have the same composition mixture throughout the whole thing. For example, when I make tea, the sugar molecules mix throughout the water equally. In Section 1 I see a picture of a hummingbird drinking the hummingbird juice. I think of the sugar and the food color combining together and going throughout the water and being equal. That's how I know it's a solution. I notice a diagram of a cube and the words "Calculate surface area," I wonder what that has to do with solutions. I see the subheading "Temperature," and the word reminds me of how temperature affects many things, like things dissolving in solutions, speeding up or slowing down the process of the molecules breaking down in water.

A sixth grade class read news articles about the Civil Rights Movement. They were first asked to scan the title, subtitles, and any photographs and captions of their articles. They were then to choose two or three of these text features and write a response, previewing the article. Jolee wrote a response based on the article title, a picture, and a subtitle.

When reading the title "Martin Luther King Jr.'s Last March," I remember that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Also in the picture, on the signs the people are carrying, it says, "I am a man," and I know that sometimes in the past African-Americans weren't counted as people, so this is a big protest. What was this march about? The subtitle "Black City Workers Suffer Injustice" makes me ask, How were the workers treated with injustice? Were they beat or not paid or was it that they were given too much work and not enough pay? I don't know what this march was about, but I want to find out.

Jolee's teacher can ascertain from her response that she has some prior knowledge about the Civil Rights Movement and the history of black men in America; Jolee's inferences will lead to connections and critical thinking as she reads the article, and her questions will allow her to set a purpose for reading.

In math class students scan the upcoming textbook chapter and predict if they are going to be taking a familiar concept one step further or they are going to learn a new mathematical concept. Students might note new symbols; greater numbers; longer, more complex word problems; the introduction of graphics; or new academic terms in the subheadings. When readers note the familiar, they activate prior knowledge; when they note something new, they have questions and set purposes for reading.

Preview response also facilitates students' anticipation of what they are about to read. One teacher reported that after his sixth grade boys wrote a preview response about the upcoming science chapter, they couldn't wait to start reading to see if they were "right." He heard murmurs of "Yes! I knew that!" as they commenced reading the chapter.

Teaching students to write a before-reading response promotes previewing text to be read and entering the text with more engagement and motivation, leading to increased, and in some cases, deeper comprehension through the curriculum.

Lesley Roessing taught middle school for 20 years before becoming the founding director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and senior lecturer in the College of Education of Armstrong State University in Savannah. Lesley has published four books for educators: The Write to Read: Response Journals that Increase Comprehension, Comma Quest: The Rules They Followed—The Sentences They Saved, No More "Us" and "Them": Classroom Lessons & Activities to Promote Peer Respect, and Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically and Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core.

Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2017.
Author: Lesley Roessing
Number of views (111)/Comments (0)/
Tags: Reading
Using Graphic Novels to Open the Gateway for Struggling Readers

Using Graphic Novels to Open the Gateway for Struggling Readers

The benefits of using graphic novels in the social studies classroom

The standards in current education reform movements stress the importance of strengthening students' content-area literacy skills. This means that social studies teachers must draw on powerful texts. The problem is that many students enter our classrooms lacking an interest in reading. One type of text that social studies teachers can use to engage students is graphic novels.

Literacy Devices within Graphic Novels

Graphic novels can be thought of as a relative to the comic book. Both use words, facial expressions, thought balloons, and imagery to convey content, ideas, and emotions. These literacy devices enable students to construct meaning by using imagery and words, which is particularly beneficial for struggling readers. Also, a chronological narrative is employed in the comic panels. All of these features of graphic novels provide different ways for students to construct meaning. The graphic novel differs from the comic book in that it tends to be longer and address more adult themes (Botzakis, 2015). The content portrayed within the majority of graphic novels is thoroughly researched. In the next sections, three activities with three graphic novels are discussed.

Analyzing the Literacy Devices within Graphic Novels

Just putting a graphic novel in front of students will not guarantee that learning occurs. The teacher cannot assume that students are familiar with graphic novels. Instead, he or she must model how students can work with graphic novels.

Graphic novels allow students to explore the personality of a historical figure in depth. One ideal graphic novel to use is The Red Baron (Vansant, 2014), which focuses on the exploits of Manfred von Richthofen with the German air force during World War I. The teacher may use the first chapter to explore the personality of the Red Baron. In groups, students read this chapter and complete the graphic organizer in Figure 1, which is designed to familiarize students with some of the literacy devices used in a graphic novel.

Figure 1
Personality Questions for the Red Baron

Event on a page How does chapter one capture the personaliity of the Red Baron? What images and words do you have to support your argument? Why do you think that the writer and artist used specific words and images to cature certain aspects about the Red Baron?

After students complete this graphic organizer, the teacher should guide a class debriefing. Supporting questions need to be utilized by the teacher to get students to speculate on the reasons the author and artist portrayed certain aspects of the Red Baron. This activity gives students experience working with the literacy devices within a graphic novel. Students can see how images and words are used to represent certain ideas about a historical figure.

Building Students' Depth of Knowledge with Graphic Novels

Social studies textbooks are notoriously bad for superficially covering a historical event. They provide a brief blurb about one event and jump to the next topic. Students need to be given opportunities to explore historical events in more depth, and graphic novels can help accomplish this goal.

Graphic novels by Nathan Hale are ideal for exploring historical events in depth, especially Alamo All Stars (Hale, 2016). This book examines events leading up to the conflict between the United States and Mexico about Texas, along with events connected to the war for the independence of Texas. Teachers can use this topic to demonstrate how historical events can have ripple effects. One historical event is inevitably intertwined with others, and our classroom instruction should enable students to make these connections.

Throughout the course of several days exploring the conflict between the United States and Mexico over Texas, the students should read different sections of Alamo All Stars. The teacher needs to ask questions that allow students to see how people's actions and events led to conflict. For example, how could the insistence by the Mexican government that Texans convert to Catholicism create conflict? Select sections of this graphic novel may be used to set the stage for the battle at the Alamo. In groups of three, students read pages 100–110 that chronicle this battle and answer the following question: How could the events of the Alamo be used as a rallying cry for the independence of Texas? After students have read and answered this question, the teacher guides a class debriefing.

The students then assume the role of Texans that have just heard about the Alamo and want to rally others to fight for Texas independence. They make a lithograph depicting the events of the battle of the Alamo, similar to the one created by Paul Revere for the Boston Massacre ( Their lithographs need to capture the bravery of Texans fighting for a just cause where they were hopelessly outnumbered. In other words, students create a propaganda piece, much like Revere did for the Boston Massacre, to garner support for Texas independence. They should utilize words and imagery to sway a viewer of the lithograph. This graphic novel helps students to see the interconnectedness of events that led to Texas becoming part of the United States. This activity also enables students to convey through words and imagery how people attempt to influence others' beliefs about an event.

Symbolic Imagery within Graphic Novels

Graphic novels often use symbolic imagery to capture a deeper layer of meaning with the content. Since some students will probably enter our classrooms unable to grasp the hidden meaning in certain images, teachers need to model how to work with this type of imagery.

An ideal trilogy of books to explore symbolic imagery is March. This trilogy chronicles John Lewis' experiences in the Civil Rights Movement and provides an overview of the movement. Students may read and answer questions about the Selma to Montgomery March on pages 191–205 from March: Book Three (Lewis & Aydin, 2016). Questions students may answer in groups are:

  1. What is the message the artist is trying to convey with the imagery on pages 200–205? Please use evidence to support your reasoning.
  2. How did the writer and artist portray police officers on pages 200–201 with the violence at Edmund Pettus Bridge? Please use evidence to support your reasoning.

During the class debriefing, the teacher needs to get students to support their reasoning with evidence from the graphic novel. This discussion enables students to grasp how symbolic imagery is used within a graphic novel.

After this discussion, students in pairs create a storyboard, which is in essence one page from a graphic novel, to summarize the key events of the Selma to Montgomery March. A storyboard uses the same literacy devices of graphic novels. Within their storyboards, students need to use symbolic imagery like that seen in the pages of March: Book Three to convey the big ideas of this pivotal event. The teacher will want to discuss the expectations for students' storyboards. Additionally, the students write a half page to full page "Director's Cut" in which they articulate the reasoning for using images within their storyboards to convey specific ideas about this event. The teacher then brings the class together to share their storyboards and "Director's Cuts." This enables students to articulate their ideas about symbolic imagery while also learning from peers.


The activities in this article allow both the teacher and students to use graphic novels to discuss and explore social studies topics in greater depth. As a struggling reader during childhood, comic books and graphic novels captured my attention and sparked my desire to read. The short amount of text coupled with the images gave me the confidence that I could read. Like many struggling readers, I put roadblocks in my head that prevented me from successfully reading. Graphic novels helped me remove some of these obstacles, and I feel they can have the same benefits for middle school students in our classrooms. Social studies teachers need to put aside reservations about using graphic novels, for they can open learning opportunities for the most timid readers and can be a gateway to creating a lifelong love of reading.

Graphic Novels List

Graphic Novels Referenced

Hale, N. (2016). Alamo all stars. New York, NY: Abrams.

Lewis, J. & Aydin, A. (2016). March: Book three. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions.

Vansant, W. (2014). The Red Baron: The graphic history of Richthofen’' flying circus and the air war in WWI. Minneapolis, MN: Zenith Press.

Additional Graphic Novels to Use in the Social Studies Classroom

  1. The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation by Jonathan Hennessey from Hill and Wang.
  2. Maus: My Father Bleeds by Art Spiegelman from Pantheon.
  3. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi from Pantheon.
  4. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang from Square Fish.
  5. Ronald Reagan: A Graphic Biography by Andrew Helfer from Hill and Wang.
  6. The Hammer and the Anvil: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the end of Slavery in America by James McPherson from Hill and Wang.
  7. Footnotes in Gaza: A Graphic Novel by Joe Sacco from Metropolitan Books.
  8. Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm from Hill and Wang.
  9. The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation by Jonathan Hennessey from William Morrow Paperbacks.
  10. The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation by Sid Jacobson from Hill and Wang.


Botzakis, S. (2015). Graphic novels in education: Comics, comprehension, and the content areas. In D. Wooten & B. Cullinan (Eds.), Children's literature in the reading program: Engaging young readers in the 21st century (96–108). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Jeremiah Clabough, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of social science education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Check out Dr. Clabough's book, When the Lion Roars Everyone Listens: Scary Good Middle School Social Studies, in the AMLE online store.

Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2017.
Author: Jeremiah Clabough
Number of views (304)/Comments (0)/
The News Literacy Project

The News Literacy Project

A tool to help students determine news they can trust

It has been years since we've kept up with the world around us by reading the local paper over breakfast in the morning and watching the national news on television in the evening. The last two decades have seen an explosion of outlets churning out millions of words, pictures, video and audio 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

These unfettered communication platforms present both enormous opportunities and great challenges. Billions of streaming bytes circle the globe, blurring news and opinion, fact and fiction, valuable information and hoaxes. The recent furor over "fake news" and its possible impact on the 2016 presidential election has focused attention on these issues and accelerated the urgency for solutions.

Last May, the News Literacy Project (NLP), a nonpartisan national education nonprofit, introduced its checkology™ virtual classroom — an online platform that is the culmination of its experiences in providing classroom, after-school, and digital news literacy lessons over the last eight years to 25,000 students in middle schools and high schools in New York City, Chicago, Houston, and the Washington, D.C., area.

The virtual classroom—described by the first educator trained on it as "a dream come true for teachers"—enables NLP's news literacy lessons to be taught in any location, in the U.S. and around the world, that has an internet connection. Since its introduction in May 2016, more than 6,000 educators who teach more than 615,000 students throughout the United States and in 44 other countries have registered to use the platform. You can see the worldwide adoption of the platform on this map and see the schools that are using it.

News literacy teaches that all information is not created equal. It helps young people use the aspirational standards of quality journalism to determine what they should trust, share and act on—especially important because many get their news not from traditional outlets, but from social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat. They need to understand these standards because they are increasingly contributing to the wider conversation: In an age of unparalleled access, in which unprecedented amounts and types of information can be shared with one quick click, anyone can be a publisher—and everyone must be an editor. NLP was the antidote to "fake news" long before anyone coined the term.

The virtual classroom's 12 core lessons, which take between 15 and 20 hours to complete, can be incorporated in a variety of areas, including social studies, history, government, English/language arts, and journalism classes. Journalists from BuzzFeed News, Bloomberg, NBC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post are joined by experts on the First Amendment and digital media as virtual teachers.

The platform incorporates many of the best practices in e-learning, including self-pacing, personalization, blended and experiential learning, rich formative assessment, teacher feedback and remediation, points and digital badges, and a class discussion area where students share and comment on work, reflect on key questions and initiate their own conversations about the news and information they encounter in their daily lives.

Maria Tarasuk, the social studies supervisor for the Montgomery County, Maryland, Public Schools, called the virtual classroom "fabulous." She said, "I really like how relevant and current the examples are, as well as the constantly changing [and] engaging formats."

Dee Burek, a journalism teacher at Stone Bridge Middle School in Allentown, New Jersey, was equally effusive. "Adolescents are connected to social media and rarely question the validity of what they read," she said after completing a pilot of the platform in the fall. "They are bombarded with information and have few skills to sift through it all."

"The checkology™ virtual classroom has empowered my students. Their critical-thinking skills have improved. They will leave my class with knowledge that is desperately needed to survive in today's world."

Alan C. Miller is president/CEO of The News Literacy Project: How to Know What to Believe.

Published March 2017.
Author: Alan C. Miller
Number of views (2176)/Comments (0)/
From Reluctant Reader to Ravenous Reader

From Reluctant Reader to Ravenous Reader

How to develop lifelong readers by using choice as a motivator.

I wake up and roll out of bed. What shall I eat? Cereal? Bagel? Breakfast bar? I have choices. No one tells me what to eat; I eat what I want and what I feel I need—limited only by what is available.

I go to my closet. Again, I can wear what I want, limited only by what I own and what I deem appropriate for the day ahead—my purpose, my audience.

I experience the same situation with what I watch on television, the movies I view, and the books I read. I make my own choices, sometimes with the advice of friends or colleagues and sometimes with the guidance of experts in the appropriate field. I experience some failures but a lot of successes along the way. The successes begin outweighing the failures. I have come to know myself as a viewer and reader.

A meta-analysis of 41 studies examined the effect of choice on intrinsic motivation and related outcomes in a variety of settings with both child and adult samples. Results indicated that providing choice enhanced intrinsic motivation, effort, task performance, and perceived competence, among other outcomes.—(U.S. National Library of Medicine)

But as I talk to teachers and visit schools, so many students are being told what to read, when to read, and how to read. I held a literacy workshop and asked educators to free-write about what they read, when they read, where they read, how they read, what they do after they read, and what they do if they are not enjoying what they are reading. I then asked them to contrast what they wrote about their personal reading behaviors with the reading in their classrooms.

The majority looked shocked, chagrined, embarrassed. Many shared that they were told what their students had to read and when. Some even said that all teachers in a grade level needed to be on approximately the same page in the same book at the same time.

Some even admitted that the curriculum content was up to them as long as they covered the standards but that "having students all read the same book at the same time was easier—easier to implement and easier to assess."

What is our aim in including reading and literature in the curriculum? If our aim is to develop lifelong readers, I contend that we are failing.

According to studies, 50% of Americans polled are alliterate, which means 50% of Americans can read but rarely do so. A third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives, and neither do 42% of college graduates. There is a decline in—even a halt to—reading both for pleasure and academics at the middle grades.

Alliteracy occurs when students are capable of reading, but choose not to read. Alliterate students are also referred to as "nonreaders" and "reluctant readers."

The other day, a friend and I were talking about the classics, and I asked her, a former teacher, if she had read a certain novel. She laughed. "Yes, the Cliffs Notes version." That is not an anomaly. When I asked my university Adolescent Literature class how many had ever read SparkNotes or Cliffs Notes instead of a novel or multiple novels, almost 100% raised their hands (even the preservice and inservice English teachers).

There is a reason these companies stay in business. And what's the point? No one said they read the Notes along with the novel because they couldn't understand the novel; they read them instead of the novel because they didn't want to read the novel. If they are reading a synopsis and explanation, why assign the novel? I am not saying that students shouldn't be introduced to all sorts of literature, including the classics. Many, including me, love many of the classics, but I was a reader first.

When I look back to what I read in middle and high school, I remember what I read on my own—not self-selected choice reading for class, but reading outside school, for my own benefit. After all the Nancy Drew mysteries, I read anything about Edgar Cayce and Henry VIII, all the books by Dr. Tom Dooley, any biography by Irving Stone, and Daphne DuMaurier novels. There probably were more. I can't remember anything I read for school. Despite school, I continued reading, but many college students have reported that they stopped reading in middle school—when they were told what to read.

You might have noticed that I have been using the term "students," rather than "readers." That is because we first need to grow readers, students who think of themselves as readers and are on their way to becoming lifelong readers. I had many eighth grade students who admitted they never had previously read an entire book or had read only one or two books in the previous middle school classes or rather fake-read those books. Those same students became readers of 20 to 30 books by the end of that eighth grade year.

How? I would like to take the credit and say it was my amazing choice of whole-class reads and exhilarating discussions of plot, character, setting, and figurative language, and the spell-binding tests I gave. But in honesty, the answer was choice—theirs. Choice was the prime motivator.

When I met him at the end of seventh grade, Dan told me he didn't like to read. On the last day of school, he turned to me and said, "I still don't think I like to read, but I haven't read a book this year that I didn't like." He read at least 25 books that year.

Think about it. There are very few topics, writing styles, or genres that interest everyone. Each year I did choose one such book for our whole-class shared text. I introduced students to reading strategies, literary elements, authors, writing styles, plot variations through reading whole-class short stories, articles, and poetry knowing that readers can't make choices until they know something about themselves as readers, and they can't make text choices until they know something about text.

I then let my students loose on a shared novel that I thought most would like and all could read within the shared experience. For me and most of my classes, that book was The Giver, but there was nothing magical about the novel other than it is well-written, employs many of the terms and concepts we had been learning, has concepts that can lead to deep ethical discussions with students (especially eighth graders who are mature enough to understand them), and touches on many interests.

As Sean later told me, "It was a good choice because it was a type of book most of us would not have chosen on our own, but many of us went on to read the other books in the [at that time] Lowry trilogy."

I don't employ a whole-class text to teach students how to read and what they should read, but to open up the possibilities of how to read and what to note and notice. When readers move on to the self-selected individual reading or group-selected book clubs, I encourage them to read novels, memoirs, and nonfiction in diverse genres, formats, challenge levels, and lengths, and with multicultural characters or by multicultural authors. While I don't require certain quantities, I want them to be aware of their choices and extend them.

I introduce readers, and readers introduce each other, to books through 5-minute book talks, book blogs, book trailers, book passes, and featured books-of-the-week among other strategies.

Reading should be personal. Not every book speaks to every child. However, when a student finds that book, a reader is born. It takes the right book at the right time for the right reader to make the match. The match could be the topic, the issue, a character, the writing, or even the setting.

The most important strategy a teacher can employ is to have books in the classroom—a diverse selection of books. Consider using the chart above when creating your library. I was lucky to be able to build a classroom library over the years and even though we had a wonderful school library and a librarian who gave the best book talks, most of my reluctant readers chose books from our classroom library, which was organized by genre and where an "abandoned book" (one that had been previewed but still not found to be enticing after 2-3 chapters) could be returned and the next book on a personal list could be checked out.

Teachers not only need to provide choice, but to teach students how to make choices and how to work with the choices they have made.

Now, what shall I have for dinner?

Lesley Roessing is director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and a senior lecturer in the College of Education, Armstrong State University, Savannah, Georgia.

Published February 2017.
Author: Lesley Roessing
Number of views (3423)/Comments (0)/
Tags: Reading

Teaching Historical Literacy in the Middle Grades

Research Summary

As students enter the middle grades, they often encounter curricula that grow more challenging each year. This is especially the case in social studies when students experience primary documents and complex texts, sometimes with limited background knowledge. To help them address these challenges, social studies teachers can emphasize "historical literacy," the ability to read, write, and create historical interpretations of primary, secondary, and tertiary sources (Nokes, 2010). Historical literacy is one subcategory of disciplinary literacy—the ways in which a member of a discipline reads, writes, and thinks about texts (Draper, Broomhead, Jensen, Nokes, & Siebert, 2010; Moje, 2008; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008). This idea of teaching discipline-specific practices is not the same thing as content area reading where generic reading comprehension, writing, and vocabulary strategies are infused into content area classrooms. Rather, the purpose of disciplinary literacy pedagogy in history and other content areas is to teach students how to read, write, and navigate across multiple texts of a particular discipline (Moje, 2008; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008). Using disciplinary literacy practices in the middle level classroom empowers students to become active citizens and serves as a motivational tool for learning history (National Council for the Social Studies, 2013). Thus middle level teachers would benefit from implementing a disciplinary literacy and inquiry-based approach within their history instruction (Goldman,, 2016; Spires, Kerkoff, & Graham, 2016).

History of Historical Literacy in the Social Studies Curriculum

Tenets of This We Believe addressed:

  • Curriculum that is challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant
  • Students and teachers are engaged in active, purposeful learning
  • Educators use multiple learning and teaching approaches

The notion of teaching historical literacy skills in the classroom is not a new one. Throughout the history of the field of social studies, educators have debated the purpose of teaching social studies—social education or teaching discipline-specific practices (Evans, 2004). In the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century, the focus was a discipline-specific curriculum and traditional history (Evans, 2004). In the 1920s, educators saw an emergence of progressive education and a curricular focus on social problems and issues, reconstructing social studies. The focus on discipline-specific curriculum reemerged in the 1950s due to the Cold War and a return to emphasis on academic study (Evans, 2004). In the 1960s, Jerome Bruner (1960) and Joseph Schwab (1962) promoted teaching the structures of the discipline—those authentic disciplinary practices used in the real world used by members of the discipline.

In the 1990s, after the release of the Bradley Commission on Historical Literacy (Gagnon & The Bradley Commission, 1989) and the National Commission on Social Studies (1989), educators saw a revival of traditional history (Evans, 2004). In the current high-stakes, accountability-focused environment, this idea of teaching discipline-specific practices in social studies classrooms continues to be prevalent in preparing students to function in the world and be productive, active citizens (Goldberg, 2011). Goudvis and Harvey (2012) noted, "Memorizing facts and birth-date deaths without learning about the time period, the people themselves, and the challenges they faced dumbs down history. It limits young people's understanding of their role as citizens in a democratic society" (p. 52). This overall trend toward using authentic documents to teach social studies makes historical literacy more important than ever.

As students progress from lower elementary (grades K–3) to middle level (grades 4–8), their reading becomes more complex (Allington, 2002; Moje, 2008; Snow & Biancarosa, 2003). In history class, students need to be able to read and understand complex, historical texts, including both primary and secondary sources. The ability to decode and comprehend advanced texts is the first step in historical understanding (VanSledright, 2012). History is interpretative, and students must be able to evaluate the source of the document, examine possible biases and perspectives, and look across texts through corroboration (Gifford, 2011).

On the heels of the Common Core State Standards (NGA Center & CCSSO, 2010), the International Reading Association (2012) released an updated position statement on adolescent literacy, further emphasizing the notion of text complexity, discipline-specific practices, and access to an array of texts, including both print and non-print. The updated principles are:

  1. Adolescents deserve content area teachers who provide instruction in the multiple literacy strategies needed to meet the demands of the specific discipline.
  2. Adolescents deserve a culture of literacy in their schools and a systematic and comprehensive programmatic approach to increasing literacy achievement.
  3. Adolescents deserve access to and instruction with multimodal, multiple texts.
  4. Adolescents deserve differentiated literacy instruction specific to their individual needs.
  5. Adolescents deserve opportunities to participate in oral communication when they engage in literacy activities.
  6. Adolescents deserve opportunities to use literacy in pursuit of civic engagement.
  7. Adolescents deserve assessments that highlight their strengths and challenges.
  8. Adolescents deserve access to a wide variety of print and non-print materials. (p. 5–12)

Thus, as concluded by Marchand-Martella, Martella, Modderman, Petersen, and Pan (2013),"For students to be prepared for twenty-first century higher education and employment opportunities, literacy skills need to be explicitly taught throughout the adolescent years" (p. 162).

History Texts and Critical Thinking

History texts such as primary sources and secondary sources provide a context for students to learn critical reading skills such as comparing, contrasting, and higher order thinking (Bain, 2006; Dunn, 2000). Reading primary source documents can elicit an emotional response from readers (Afflerbach & VanSledright, 2001). Using texts with embedded primary sources in them creates opportunities for development of historical thinking and critical reading. For these experience to be meaningful, teachers must model the process for the students and provide support (Afflerbach & VanSledright, 2001).

In an exploratory, qualitative study, VanSledright and Kelly (1998) examined the implications of using multiple texts in a social studies class with upper elementary students. VanSledright and Kelly spent three days a week observing American history over a six-month period. They took field notes on three different units. They asked the teacher to complete a questionnaire on his view of history, the importance of using alternative texts, and how "students might reconcile differences in accounts they read" (p. 244). Toward the end of the study, they interviewed six students. Based on their data, the authors offered two suggestions to orient students towards using and critiquing multiple sources of information. The first was to teach students strategies historians use when examining text. Their second recommendation was to transform the view of history in the classroom—teaching students that history is interpretive and not objective. To accomplish these recommendations, students must understand that no history account is objective because there is always interpretation. Unlike other subjects, such as science, students cannot go back and observe the historical event again as they could in reproducing a science experiment. The only way to figure out what happened in the past is to interpret multiple sources from the past. Historians and students must rely on the documents provided from various perspectives to form a shared understanding of what occurred. As VanSledright and Kelly (1998) noted:

[We need to view] history as a set of representations of the past authored by persons who are telling stories employing different frameworks, making different assumptions, and relaying varying subtexts" [instead of] "the idea that history can be understood as an objective, fact-based account that mirrors the "real" past. (p. 261)

Strategies for Teaching Historical Thinking Skills

To extend these insights, VanSledright (2002a, 2002b) conducted a researcher-practitioner design experiment where he taught a fifth grade history class for a semester. From his analysis of his extensive lesson plans, videotaped lessons, field notes, and journal, he concluded that class discussion provides a forum for students to share their interpretations and receive feedback from the teacher and peers, similar to what a historian does when composing a manuscript (Dickinson & Lee, 1984; Doppen, 2000; Leinhardt, Stainton, Virji, & Odoroff, 1994). Three activities that help students improve their contextualized thinking were providing background knowledge, asking guiding questions, and teacher modeling of the contextualized thinking process (Reisman & Wineburg, 2008). Along with contextualization, the teacher can instruct students on sourcing and corroboration (Wineburg, 1991a; Wineburg, 1991b).

Strategies for Implementing Primary and Secondary Sources

Students' historical understanding can be improved if they are exposed to a variety of texts (e.g., primary and secondary sources) in the social studies classroom (Afflerbach & VanSledright, 2001; Bain, 2005; VanSledright 1996). However, as found by Stahl, Hynd, Britton, McNish, and Bosquet (1996), in order for students to fully benefit from examining multiple primary source documents, students must be instructed on how to corroborate across sources and how to implement varying perspectives into their writing. In their qualitative study, Stahl et al. (1996) investigated two classes of Advanced Placement United States History. They collected multiple data sources: a background questionnaire, a prior knowledge writing task on students' knowledge of the Vietnam War, a Gulf of Tonkin relationship task, and a variety of texts on the Vietnam War. Stahl et al. (1996) concluded, "The disciplinary knowledge of history, or the ability to think as a historian […] may need to be directly taught" (p. 446). When students move from the textbook to primary and secondary source documents, they confront texts that are more complex. These complex texts require different structures and processes than narrative text (Afflerbach & VanSledright, 2001; Britt, Rouet, Georgi, & Perfetti, 1994). Thus, students must be scaffolded on how to evaluate a source or multiple sources (Bain, 2005; Britt et al.1994; Stahl et al., 1996).

Students should be taught how to source a text (e.g., who wrote the primary source) and examine the author's perspective (Afflerbach & VanSledright, 2001; Lee, 2005). In addition, students need to learn the difference between "record," a source that tells something about an event, process, or state of affairs (e.g., a newspaper clipping) versus a "relic," a source not intended to tell us what happened (e.g., a coin) as well as the difference between intentional and unintentional evidence (Lee, 2005).

Strategies for Historical Writing

Students who learn strategies for historical writing, such as historical reasoning and argumentative writing, demonstrate mastery of the targeted strategies, thus producing more accurate and persuasive essays (De La Paz, 2005; Monte-Sano 2006). These strategies can support the development of complex writing skills (Young & Leinhardt, 1998). Modeled and explicit instruction assist students in writing argumentative essays (De Laz Paz, 2005; Felton & Herko, 2004; Monte-Sano, 2010, 2008a, 2008b, 2006). Students who receive instruction on how to write historically tend to write better argumentative essays than those who do not receive explicit instruction (De La Paz, 2005; Monte-Sano, 2010, 2008a, 2008b, 2006). In addition, students who receive specific feedback on their annotations and historical writing show greater development in their analyses over time (Monte-Sano, 2008a, 2008b, 2006). When given modeled instruction and scaffolding through the inquiry process, students can learn how to think historically, evaluate primary sources, and write historical arguments.


Middle level teachers can engage young adolescents through the use of historical disciplinary strategies while incorporating multiple historical sources. Attention to historical literacy instruction will empower young citizens, especially when teachers systematically assess their students' level of understanding, as well as accurately model and scaffold the development of complex literacy skills that form the basis for critical thinking and argumentative writing/expression. Discipline-specific strategies for critically exploring multiple historical text sources heighten middle level students' ability to participate in a community and culture while providing the students with curriculum that is challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant. Through these multiple learning and teaching approaches, students and teachers are more engaged in active, purposeful learning. In these ways, historical literacy incorporation is essential and necessary to meet the educational needs of the young adolescent.


Afflerbach, P., & VanSledright, B. (2001). Hath! Doth! What? Middle graders reading innovative history text. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 44(8), 696–707.

Allington, R. L. (2002). You can't learn much from books you can't read. Educational Leadership, 60(3), 16–19.

Bain, R. B. (2005). "They thought the world was flat?": Applying the principles of how people learn in teaching high school history. In M. S. Donovan & J. D. Bransford (Eds.) How students learn: History in the classroom (p. 179–212). Washington, DC: National Research Council.

Bain, R. B. (2006). Rounding up the usual subjects: Facing the authority hidden in the history classroom. Teachers College Record, 108(10), 2080–2114.

Britt, M. A., Rouet, J., Georgi, M. C., & Perfetti, C. A. (1994). Learning from history texts: From causal analysis to argument models. In G. Leinhardt, I. L. Beck, & C. Stainton (Eds.), Teaching and learning in history (pp. 47–84). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Bruner, J. (1960). The process of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

De La Paz, S. (2005). Effects of historical reasoning instruction and writing strategy mastery in culturally and academically diverse middle school classrooms. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97(2), 136–156. doi: 10.1037/0022-0663.97.2.139.

Dickinson, A. K., & Lee, P. J. (1984). Making sense of history. In A. K. Dickinson, P. J., Lee, & P. J. Rogers (Eds.), Learning history (pp. 117–153). London, UK: Heinemann Educational Books.

Doppen, F. H. (2000). Teaching and learning multiple perspectives: The atomic bomb. The Social Studies, 91(4), 159–169. doi: 10.1080/0037790009602461.

Draper, R. J., Broomhead, P., Jensen, A. P., Nokes, J. D., & Siebert, D. (2010). (Re)Imagining content-area literacy instruction. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Dunn, M. A. (2000). Closing the book on social studies: Four classroom teachers go beyond the textbook. The Social Studies, 91(3), 132–136.

Evans. R. W. (2004). The social studies wars: What should we teach the children? New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Felton, M. K., & Herko, S. (2004). From dialogue to two-sided argument: Scaffolding adolescents' persuasive writing. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 47(8), 672–683.

Gagnon, P., & The Bradley Commission on History in the Schools. (1989). Historical literacy: The case for history in American education. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Goldberg, S. (2011). The essential role of social studies: Reflections on Arne Duncan's article. Social Education, 75(3), 126–127.

Gifford, D. (2011). Implementing the Common Core Literacy Standards for history/social studies: A presentation by the Kansas State Department of Education. Retrieved from

Goldman, S. R., Britt, M. A., Brown, W., Cribb, G., George, M., Greenleaf, C., Lee, C. D., Shanahan, C., & Project READi. (2016). Disciplinary literacies and learning to read for understanding: A conceptual framework for disciplinary literacy. Educational Psychologist, 51(2), 219–246. doi:10.1080/00461520.2016.1168741

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Lee, P. J. (2005). Putting principles into practice: Understanding history. In M. S. Donovan & J. D. Bransford (Eds.), How students learn: History in the classroom (pp. 31–78). Washington, DC: The National Academy Press.

Leinhardt, G., Stainton, C., Virji, S. M., & Odoroff, E. (1994). Learning to reason in history: Mindlessness to Mindfulness. In M. Carretero & J. F. Voss (Eds.), Cognitive Instructional processes in history and the social sciences (131–158). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Marchand-Martella, N. E., Martella, R. C., Modderman, S. L., Petersen, H. M., & Pan, S. (2013). Key areas of effective adolescent literacy programs. Education and Treatment of Children, 36(1), 161–184.

Moje, E. B. (2008). Foregrounding the disciplines in secondary literacy teaching and learning: A call for change. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 52(2), 96–107. doi: 10.1598/JAAL.52.2.1.

Monte-Sano, C. (2006). Learning to use evidence in historical writing (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Digital Dissertations. (Order Number 3235298).

Monte-Sano, C. (2008a). The intersection of reading, writing, and thinking in a high school history classroom: A case of wise practice. A paper presented to the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New York City, NY, March 25, 2008.

Monte-Sano, C. (2008b). Qualities of historical writing instruction: A comparative case study of two teachers practices. American Educational Research Journal, 45(4), 1045–1079. doi: 10.3102/0002831208319733.

Monte-Sano, C. (2010). Disciplinary literacy in history: An exploration of the historical nature of adolescent's writing. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 19(4), 539–568. doi: 10.1080/10508406.2010.481014.

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Nokes, J. D. (2010). (Re)imagining literacies for history classrooms. In R. J. Draper, P. Broomhead, A. P. Jensen, J. D. Nokes, & D. Siebert (Eds.) (Re)Imaging content-area literacy instruction (pp. 54–68). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Reisman, A., & Wineburg, S. (2008). Teaching the skill of contextualizing in history. The Social Studies, 99(5), 202–207. doi: 10.3200/TSSS.99.5.202–207.

Schwab, J. (1962). The concept of the structure of a discipline. Educational Record, 43, 197–205.

Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content-area literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 40–59.

Snow, C. E., & Biancarosa, G. (2003). Adolescent literacy and the achievement gap: What do we know and where do we go from here? New York, NY: Carnegie Corporation.

Spires, H. A., Kerkhoff, S. N., & Graham, A. C. K. (2016). Disciplinary literacy and inquiry: Teaching for deeper content learning. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 60(2), 151–161. Doi: 10.1002/jaal577

Stahl, S., Hynd, C., Britton, B., McNish, M., & Bosquet, D. (1996). What happens when students read multiple source documents in history? Reading Research Quarterly, 31, 430–456. doi: 10.1598/RRQ.31.4.5.

VanSledright, B. A. (1996). Studying colonization in eighth grade: What can it teach us about the learning context of current reforms? Theory & Research in Social Education, 24(2), 107–145.

VanSledright, B. A. (2002a). In search of America's past: Learning to read history in elementary school. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

VanSledright, B. A. (2002b). Confronting history's interpretive paradox while teaching fifth graders to investigate the past. American Educational Research Journal, 39, 1089–1115. doi: 10.3102/000283120390041089.

VanSledright, B. A. (2012). Learning with texts in history: Protocols for reading and practical strategies (pp. 199–226). In T. L. Jetton & Shanahan, C. (Eds.), Adolescent literacy in the academic disciplines. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

VanSledright, B. A., & Kelly, C. (1998). Reading American history: The influence of multiple sources on six fifth graders. The Elementary School Journal, 98(3), 239–265. doi: 10.1086/461893.

Wineburg, S. S. (1991a). On the reading of historical texts: Notes on the breach between school and academy. American Educational Research Journal, 28(3), 495–519. doi:10.2307/1163146.

Wineburg, S. S. (1991b). Historical problem solving: A study of the cognitive processes used in the evaluation of documentary and pictorial evidence. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83(1), 73–87. doi:10.1037//0022-0663.83.1.73.

Young, K. M., & Leinhardt, G. (1998). Writing from primary source documents: A way of knowing in history. Written Communication, 15(1), 25–68.

Annotated Resources

Goldman, S. R., Britt, M. A., Brown, W., Cribb, G., George, M., Greenleaf, C., Lee, C. D., Shanahan, C., & Project READi. (2016). Disciplinary literacies and learning to read for understanding: A conceptual framework for disciplinary literacy. Educational Psychologist, 51(2), 219–246. doi:10.1080/00461520.2016.1168741

After a meta-analysis on reading and inquiry from disciplinary fields, Goldman and her colleagues offered an explanation of the influences of reading within the discipline and how goals within the discipline are saturated with content literacy components and core constructs of disciplinary reading. Goldman and her colleagues identified the core reading constructs within the disciplinary fields of literature, history, and science. The researchers provided an analysis of how the constructs of reading are built within the disciplines framework and how reading instruction is developed within the learning goals of each discipline. Goldman and her colleagues identified common indicators of reading within the disciplines: interpretation, strategic inquiry, ongoing conceptual knowledge while progressing through the literature, multiple text structures, and a set structure of language. Understanding the common indicators and core constructs of the disciplinary fields can heighten the instructional fortitude of the educators within the discipline.

Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2015). Disciplinary literacy comes to middle school. Voices from the Middle, 22(3), 10–13.

Shanahan and Shanahan offer a practitioner explanation of the purpose and necessity for disciplinary literacy within middle level education with the push for teachers in English and other content areas to teach literacy. The authors give an analysis of disciplinary literacy standards and offer teachers a comparison of content literacy and disciplinary literacy. Shanahan and Shanahan delve even further into providing teacher resources to help teachers continue to read and explore the topic of disciplinary literacy integration in the content areas.

Spires, H. A., Kerkhoff, S. N., & Graham, A. C. K. (2016). Disciplinary literacy and inquiry: Teaching for deeper content learning. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 60(2), 151–161. Doi: 10.1002/jaal577

Spires and colleagues, through a practitioner format, analyze the relationships between project-based inquiry and literacy learning within the primary disciplinary fields of a mathematician, historian, scientist, and literary critic and how these fields are taught within a project-based inquiry setting. Based on comparison, each disciplinary professional asks inquiry-based questions and publishes findings in similar ways; however, each field gathers and analyzes sources, synthesizes their finds, and evaluates and revises using different literacy constructs. These disciplinary specific literacy constructs can be developed within the disciplinary classroom using project-based inquiry, offering students more opportunity to develop their ability to critically think using disciplinary literacy discourse.

VanSledright, B. (2002). Confronting history's interpretive paradox while teaching fifth graders to investigate the past. American Educational Research Journal, 39(4), 1089–1115.

Based on reforms of history standards, VanSledright offers a detailed perspective of teaching historical investigation and thinking using his fifth grade class. The framework of history's "interpretive paradox" opens a new lens of how connections are generated using reality and interpretation of historical events by questioning and analyzing primary and secondary sources. The author offers researchers and practitioners detailed historical literacy strategies and thought processes to question the perspectives of history. VanSledright provides this perspective to assist teachers in understanding the dilemmas with historical interpretation and help defy history's interpretive paradox.

Recommended Resources

1) National History Education Clearinghouse: Historical Thinking

This resource helps teachers better understand historical thinking and the uses of primary resources within instructional practices. Researchers and teachers can access best practices within the discipline and teaching materials to support historical disciplinary literacy integration.

2) Stanford History Education Group website:

This resource provides teachers with another strategy for historical thinking within instructional practices. Access to reading like a historian, assessment resources, lesson plan support, and research publications are provided for further support.


This resource provides teachers with the visual example of how to integrate literacy within the history classroom.

Author Information

Stephanie M. Bennett, PhD, is an assistant professor of content-area and disciplinary literacy education at Mississippi State University. She holds a master's degree in reading education from the University of South Florida and a PhD in curriculum and instruction with a specialization in literacy studies from the University of South Florida. Her specific interests are pre-service and in-service teachers' beliefs about content-area and disciplinary literacy instruction, middle level literacy teacher education, and teacher visioning.

Jennifer Stepp Sanders, EdS, is an instructor of content-area and disciplinary literacy education at Mississippi State University. She is also a sixth grade teacher currently in Rankin County School District in Mississippi. She holds a master's degree in elementary education from Belhaven University, a specialist degree in educational leadership at Mississippi College, and is currently working on a doctoral degree in curriculum and instruction at Mississippi State University. Her specific interests are content-area and disciplinary literacy instruction, technology integration, and middle level teacher education.


Bennett, S. M., & Sanders, J. S. (2016). Research summary: Teaching historical literacy in the middle grades. Retrieved [date] from

Published January 2017.

Author: Stephanie M. Bennett, Jennifer Stepp-Sanders
Number of views (6889)/Comments (1)/
LGBT Literature in the Classroom

LGBT Literature in the Classroom

Future teachers encourage integrating LGBT texts.

Early adolescence has been identified as a time of great change and transition. Visible physical changes occur at disparate rates and cause many young adolescents to feel uncomfortable about their differences. Young adolescents are also exploring self and social boundaries. For gay and lesbian youth, suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. According to the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network's (GLSEN) 2013 national school climate survey, 85% of the surveyed lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth reported verbal harassment at school, and 56% reported feeling unsafe at school. School supports, such as a LGBT inclusive curricula, can help create a safer space for LGBT youth (see http://www. climate-survey).

An issue relatively unique to LGBT youth is the feeling of isolation. Many LGBT youth are fearful of being "outed" and rejected and often must keep their feelings, questions, and fears bottled up inside. For isolated LGBT youth, books mirroring their real-life struggles and challenges are of paramount importance. Middle school teachers, by including LGBT literature in their curriculum, could begin a critical conversation.

AMLE and Otterbein U Talk about LGBT Literature in Middle Grades

One appropriate choice would be the book, So Hard to Say (2004) by Alex Sanchez. The protagonist in the book is Frederick, who is questioning his sexual identity because of his growing attraction to another boy. Two key characters in the book become positive role models for acceptance, as they grapple with what it means to be a true friend to Frederick as he navigates his new feelings. As part of the Collegiate Middle Level Association (CMLA) 2016 spring conference, we were fortunate to have author Alex Sanchez come to our Otterbein University campus to speak, and our CMLA students read So Hard to Say to prepare for his visit.

The purpose of this article is to share our analysis of So Hard to Say; the intriguing aspect is that the analysis was done by college students majoring in middle childhood education who read the book, reflected on their recent middle school experiences, and then projected forward to their future roles as middle school teachers.

Can a Book Make a Difference? Thoughts from Future Middle School Teachers

Friends can push your thinking. One of the authors reflected about her high school experience: I had one friend in high school who came out as gay his senior year. He was so worried about telling me because he was afraid I would not act the same way around him or that my opinion would change about him. At the time, this astonished me and, still today, it makes me angry, but the anger was not directed at my friend, I was angry for him. I did not understand why I would possibly treat him differently because, to me, he was still the same person, my best friend.

As I reflect on all of this today, I realize just how much this says about the society in which I grew up. It has created such a negative stigma around LGBT issues that our youth grow up thinking that even those closest to them will turn against them if they know the truth. That is why I believe novels like Alex Sanchez's So Hard to Say are important and necessary in middle schools. Not only does it help LGBT youth see that there are others who understand what they are experiencing, but it creates a window for others so that an understanding can be created and acceptance can be achieved. The longer we keep these individuals underrepresented in literature, in society, and in schools, the longer we promote the idea that intolerance is okay. Maybe if my friend had novels like Alex Sanchez's in middle school, he would not have been so afraid to be himself in high school.

Learning how to take a stand. Reflecting on his middle school experience, one of the authors wrote: I remember in my middle school how hard it was to be that brave person that would stand up to defend another peer (even a friend) who was being ridiculed. I can identify with Frederick in that way. He was too scared to put a stop to the kids making fun of Iggy even though the whole time he knew it was wrong. I can relate to this feeling. I knew that it was not okay to allow students to bully other peers, but I was always too scared to stand up and say anything. This is where the real problem lies; students at this age are so scared to fall out of social acceptance that they will simply watch something happen that they know is wrong.

Developing empathy. Wondering how she could have been so "oblivious" in middle school, a different author shared: When I read this book I realized how sheltered I was growing up. For some students, this book may act as a mirror, something they can relate to and see within themselves. But for others, like myself, So Hard to Say would have created the necessary window that I so desperately needed to better understand others. A window that could have not only educated me, but given me the tools to truly make a difference in someone's life. If we wish for middle school to be a time when students are able to find out who they truly are, then we need to provide them with the opportunities to do so. Those opportunities can only be given if they are aware of the entire world around them.

Seeking guidance. One author wrote about how the characters in So Hard to Say can provide direction: In my future classroom, I would include books like Alex Sanchez's So Hard to Say because middle school can be a tough time for students and they may need guidance. They are hoping that someone will be there for them and give them the tools to discover who they truly are. Often times, teachers are not fully prepared for those students who are struggling with their gender or sexual identity. They do not know what to say or do if a student opens up to them or tells them that they are curious about exploring these topics. That is why it is important to have these types of novels because those closest to them might not know how to give them guidance, but the characters in So Hard to Say do provide this support.


Literature allows the reader an insider view to a different perspective, a chance to truly "walk a mile" in someone else's shoes. So Hard to Say could start a powerful and transformative conversation in a middle school
classroom. The book could help young adolescents who are struggling with their identity formation; it could provide support and a comforting assurance that they are not alone. Moreover, experiences based on reading the book could spark personal introspection among the middle schoolers that might result in building acceptance for differences.

One powerful scene near the end of the book comes when Iggy—who has been taunted and bullied because of gender nonconformity since elementary school—shares this sentiment: "'Think about it,' Iggy said firmly. 'People have been picking on me ever since grade school— making fun of how I talk or walk—before I even knew what gay meant. I used to come home crying every day because of them. And they have the nerve to tell me I'm bad?'" (p. 199).

It is important to note that LGBT–themed books can impact all students, regardless of their sexual identity. In his keynote address, Alex Sanchez shared this email from a high school girl: "Dear Mr. Sanchez: When I was done with the book I had a whole new outlook on anyone who is gay … So I would like to thank you so much for writing your books. Thank you for giving me a whole new pair of eyes." We implore middle school teachers to read and discuss books such as So Hard to Say with students. Let's start the conversation and work to give young adolescents "a whole new pair of eyes."

Sanchez, A. (2016). So hard to say. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Dee Knoblauch, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Education Department at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio.

Diane Ross , Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Education Department at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio.

Aaron Myers is a seventh grade science teacher in Delaware, Ohio.

Steve Palombo is a junior middle childhood education major at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio and a Collegiate Middle Level Association officer.

Lexi Roberts is a senior middle childhood education major at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio and the co-president of the Collegiate Middle Level Association.

Katie Wolfe is a junior middle childhood education major at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio and the co-president of the Collegiate Middle Level Association.

Published in AMLE Magazine, February 2017.
Author: Dee Knoblauch, Diane Ross, Aaron Myers, Steve Palombo, Lexi Roberts, Katie Wolfe
Number of views (3924)/Comments (0)/
Addressing Writer's Block Through Physical Movement

Addressing Writer's Block Through Physical Movement

Encouraging student thinking and writing with opportunities for movement.

Almost all students will experience writer's block at one time or another. Helping them work through this common experience with the use of physical activity may add success to the writing process for all students. There are several reasons why students encounter writer’s block, and it is important for middle school teachers to recognize the complex nature behind this writing process struggle that even for the most prolific writers experience. The dread behind writing that some students feel starts at varying moments. In general, the adolescent student combats the need to move with the need to be compliant during long periods of seated focused time devoted to writing over a course of multiple periods or days. Additionally, state writing assessments at sixth, seventh, and eighth grade levels often add stress and anxiety, which jumbles the thinking process and sometimes prevents down productivity.

Benefits of Physical Activity in Classroom

The use of physical activity in the classroom can benefit students on multiple levels. During writing instruction, getting students to move may benefit students who are struggling in the writing process, but also students who need to move for physical, emotional, academic, and biological reasons. As Gurian, Stevens, and King state in Strategies for Teaching Boys & Girls, the brains of adolescents, "work better if they move more," improving academic performance.

One of the factors behind writer’s block is the failure to generate plausible ideas during brainstorming or sentence construction. Students who develop the mindset of “I can’t think of anything” will endure several minutes, and potentially hours, of unproductive work. Sitting for prolonged periods of time only exacerbates the situation, creating unhealthy writing habits. Adding physical movement can create a break in this destructive pattern. Getting students to stand and move helps energize the body and mind, promoting cognitive function and increasing the likelihood that students can overcome moments of inactive work.

The inability to think of something to write may also stem from the inability to focus. Students who struggle with focus struggle even more during long periods of time devoted to intense writing composition. Providing opportunities for students to break up long periods of work time can help them regain focus. This reduces behavioral issues and helps student focus on the writing task at hand. If students are moving through the entire writing process, adding movement breaks during each steps helps students regain their composure and mentally prepare for the next step. An increase in focus creates opportunities for greater success leading to work completion and a mental shift toward autonomous writing habits.

Writing Process

The writing process is a cyclical process taking on many forms in the middle school classroom. The process develops as teachers assess the needs and abilities of students. Likewise, the process is refined and becomes more sophisticated as students move from grade-level to grade-level. However, there are some common components of the writing process.

These common components include: prewriting, drafting, peer feedback, revising, editing, and publishing. While some students can move through the process step-by-step, the process is cyclical and some steps may be revisited more frequently than others. Prewriting involves brainstorming topics, generating ideas, considering the audience, and setting writing goals for the process. Drafting entails creating an outline, composing the basic structure of the text, and researching supporting details. Peer feedback includes opportunities for students to share each other’s work, comment or clarify writing, and provide suggestions for improvement. During the revising step, writers consider suggestions of peers and teachers to refine the ideas and style of their text. Editing focuses on conventions and grammatical errors. The final step prepares the draft for publishing to be shared with the instructor, peers, or a greater audience.

Adding Movement to Writing Instruction

Prewriting Activity: Think-Time-Share

There are several ways students brainstorm ideas for writing prompts. In this activity, structured physical movement is added to the process. The instructor creates a series of questions related to the prompt. After the instructor asks a question, he directs students to perform an action, such as marching in place. Students perform the action for 30 seconds to build-in wait time. After the 30 seconds has passed, students share answers with writing partners or groups. Students generate a list for the responses before standing and moving while thinking of a response to the second question.

Drafting and Organization Activity:
Yarn Summary

After using a common article to research a topic, students work in small groups to summarize key facts in the article. Each student uses a piece of string to summarize the facts. While she is speaking, she wraps the string around her thumb and index finger. She must talk until the string is completely wound around the fingers, and she must stop when she has run out of string. The next person picks up where the previous person stops, or he begins summarizing the article again. The point of the activity is to recall key information that students can use in the body paragraphs of an essay. The activity can also be used by students to talk about how they plan to structure their information sequentially.

Peer Response Activity:
Traveling Commentary Analysis

One of the most difficult components of writing body paragraphs is writing a commentary or analysis statement regarding a key point or fact used to support the topic sentence of the paragraph or thesis statement of the essay. This process involves higher-level thinking skills, so getting students up and moving helps break down the steps involved while reducing levels of anxiety and stress. During the modeling phase, facts or key points can be placed around the room. Students work in groups to move from point to point adding commentary and analysis to each one. The activity combines movement and collaboration allowing students to read commentary and analysis statements from each group, so they can understand the process and see various styles of writing and thinking they can model in their own writing.

Revision Process Breakdown:
Writing Concept Hot Potato

Students can become overwhelmed during the revision process. Providing students with a clear focus and protocol helps make the revision process more meaningful and effective. The purpose of this activity is to focus students on a specific writing concept to analyze when revising. In this activity, two students are asked to leave the classroom. One is a participant and the other watches to make sure the participant can neither hear nor see what is happening in the classroom. In the classroom, a word is hidden. The entire class is aware of its location. The class decides on a movement to perform, such as clapping.

The two students in the hall enter the classroom. The class begins clapping slowing and quietly. As the participant ventures closer to the hidden word, the clapping becomes faster and louder. When the word is found, the class discusses the writing concept and what to look for during the revision process. Another word can be hidden to focus students on more than one concept, or students can begin revising and find another hidden word later to break up the monotony of seated work to refocus their energy on a new concept. A variation of this activity would be to focus on key grammar and convention errors during the editing process.

Revision Process Story:
Moving Picture in 5

The revision process can take many forms. An important part of the process involves reflection. In this activity, students work in small groups. Each student reflects on the main arguments in his essay. The student then thinks of five body positions he can create to illustrate these key points.

The instructor asks for the first participant from each group to stand in front of his group and freeze into his first body position. At the teacher’s signal, the student moves into the second body position and freezes, and so on. Group members determine what the key points might be based on the body positions and talk about the effectiveness of the arguments with the writer. The writer can then adjust his points accordingly.

In addition to the frozen body positions, the performer can also say one word per image to emphasize actions or make connections. This activity involves higher-level thinking as it grounds the basis of the writing a student is trying to communicate. The student needs to be aware of why she is making the claims she is, so communication is moving from paper to thinking to acting.


The writing process is intimidating for many middle school students as well as for many middle school teachers! Adding movement to the process may help students work through and resolve the various forms of writer’s block they may encounter. The activities suggested can be modified for any part of the writing process. The key is to break up long stretches of intense thinking while seated at desks.

John Helgeson, Ph.D., has taught middle school students for 17 years. He is currently the secondary English instructional specialist in the Northshore school district in Bothell, Washington.

Published in AMLE Magazine, November 2016.
Author: John Helgeson
Number of views (6569)/Comments (0)/
Joy in Reading: A Middle School Literacy Enrichment Program

Joy in Reading: A Middle School Literacy Enrichment Program

A middle school community intentionally creates opportunities and experiences for all students to develop a love for reading.

Only two remain. The girl and boy glance earnestly about as the votes are cast. One by one, the members present their decision to their leader. Once the elder finalizes the count, the group roars as the victor is named: the girl's beguiling storytelling has enticed the crowd and she is named the champion! What a way to end the school day, with a Book Talk Challenge (March-Madness-style, of course) in a ninth period middle school classroom!

For students to experience joy in reading—that is our goal. We strive to help students want to read, to think about what they are reading, and to share with others what they are reading and their thoughts about the text. As educators, we understand the importance of reading, of encouraging students to read and helping them comprehend what they read. We also know the joy that comes from igniting that undeniable spark in our students, that can't-put-it-down urge, of a pure love for reading. For some students, that spark is there already thanks to their parents, a former teacher, or another reading mentor, and we are the fortunate recipients of this avid reader in our midst. For other students, however, the joy of reading is not yet present. How can we help them bring that to life? How can we guide them to find and develop their passion for reading, and help them discover just the right text that might begin their reading journey?

Our Program

AMLE talks with teachers and administrators at Hudson Middle School about the FOCUS program.

At Hudson Middle School, a team of staff members set out to answer that question. Implementing a dedicated period for intervention for students needing extra support, we knew we needed a meaningful enrichment experience for all our other students as well. After spending a year piloting a rotation of three-week enrichment mini-units, our committee analyzed and reflected on those mini-units that were most engaging for students, those that centered on reading. At the same time, one member had just recently read Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer, and her excitement by the thoughts in the book inspired us all. A literacy enrichment idea was born.

From that moment to present day, all our students participate in a 30-minute period at the end of each day, which allows us to individualize programming for students' unique needs, academically and socially-emotionally. Each Monday, all students are members of an advisory group. These small multi-grade groups are each connected with one advisor, with school-wide lessons inspired by the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens, by Sean Covey. On Tuesday through Friday, students are assigned to a FOCUS class, which is either an intervention class or a literacy enrichment class, and it is fluid throughout the year, depending on each student's individual needs.

During the literacy enrichment FOCUS class, students spend time reading self-selected books. Our program incorporates three fundamental components focused on helping to create readers and to inspire readers: offering choice in reading, modeling a reading culture, and having fun with reading.

Offering Choice in Reading

AMLE talks with students from Hudson Middle School about books they’re reading.

To help students develop as readers, we want them to have a genuine interest in what they read. Choice is key. We offer genre guidelines, based on those in Miller's book, and we encourage students to try texts from each genre throughout the year, but above all else, we want them to read. Once students are reading (at whatever level that may be) and we learn more about them as readers, we can then encourage more sophisticated books, taking them from where they are to where they can be as readers. Penny Kittle (2013), in her book Book Love, holds independent choice as "the center of our work" (p. xv) stating: "I believe in the rigor of independent reading. I believe in the power of guiding student choice to increase engagement, skill, and joy" (p. xiv). For some of our teachers who may not feel as experienced yet in guiding students to books, our media center specialist, other colleagues, and even students, have been incredibly helpful.

Modeling a Reading Culture

Identity development during the adolescent years is complex and crucial in students' determining who they are, who they want to be, and how they view themselves. Identifying oneself as a "reader" is essential, and at Hudson Middle School we work to promote and encourage the development of this identity as a "reader" in all members of our school community. In each literacy enrichment class, the teacher reads alongside the students, modeling reading. Those 30 minutes are not used for grading, organizing, or correspondence. One of our staff members shared his personal "reading evolution" that occurred because of this expectation. As a self-proclaimed "non-reader," he began by asking students what they would recommend, and then he started reading those recommendations. One book led to another and, by the end of that first school year, the number of books this teacher had read was astounding … and, more important, he made numerous connections with students because of these reading encounters. This culture of reading, led by teacher-readers, has enhanced our overall focus on building relationships with students, connecting with them, helping them find their passions, and helping them grow as learners and as people.

Reading Engagement

What makes our literacy enrichment FOCUS classes so positive is the enthusiasm generated by students for the books they read and love. The sparkling eyes, the animated voice—who doesn't love hearing a student share why this magical book is a must-read for someone else? I am grateful for the opportunities that our teachers create for students to not only read, but to think about what they've read, synthesize it, and share it with others. We have utilized professional development time and also created a shared electronic document for staff members to share and inspire new ideas for FOCUS activities that teach, excite, and engage students. Here are just a few:

  • Silent reading: allow students to sit/relax anywhere comfortable in the room
  • Students bring in favorite childhood book to share with class (e.g., book talks, read-aloud, guess who brought which book)
  • Create a group word cloud showcasing favorite book titles
  • Students create individual word clouds with ideas from their book; others then guess the book title
  • Whole class "ideal bookshelf": students write favorite book titles on different colored/sized strips of construction paper and display on classroom wall
  • "Shelfies": students share photos of their ideal bookshelf
  • Students create new title/cover for book using digital tools or paper and art supplies; others guess the real title
  • Play Win Lose or Draw, or charades, using book titles
  • Create a quote wall; students write favorite quote from their reading that day
  • Students write a marketing tweet for the book in 140 characters or less #hashtagswelcome!
  • Create Vine videos (6-seconds) of book commercials
  • Create book spine poetry, stacking titles to create a poem
  • Create whole-class anchor chart to discuss/document how we select books to read
  • Students write a phone message from one character to another
  • Reader's Theater: students act out portions of a book or short story
  • Students create an acrostic summarizing the book through each letter of the title
  • Students select a passage from their book to entice another student to read the book; swap passages with a partner; make predictions about the book based on the passage, then discuss
  • Read a picture book aloud and have students make their own version
  • Bring in a cart of poetry books from the media center, ending with Poetry Slam where students read aloud their favorite
  • Students write a comment or quote (in the form of a speech bubble) about the books they have read, attach them to the spines of the books and stack their books creatively (alternative: take a picture and use Thinglink)
  • Create a digital storytelling presentation (e.g., StoryboardThat, Puppet Pals, Pixton)
  • Create a six-word memoir for a character


In The Book Whisperer, Miller (2009) shares this mission: "I want my students to know that I see each of them as a reader. All students in the class are readers—yes, with varying levels of readiness and interest—but readers nonetheless. I must believe that my students are readers—or will be readers—so that they can believe it. The idea that they can't read or don't like to read is not on the table" (p. 23). This is our role. To help our students grow, to develop this love of reading and stamina for reading that will sustain them through life.

Most of us have heard the compelling research that correlates 20 minutes of reading per day with increased vocabulary, comprehension, and overall academic achievement. What we have also seen at Hudson Middle School, after implementing 30 minutes of reading per day, is that joy in reading has increased. We are creating a culture of readers —lovers of reading—and our students continually amaze us with their passion. Just spend a few minutes talking with any student reader about his/her favorite book, and you will likely feel inspired, too! In fact, I'm reading a book right now that was highly recommended by not one, but seven students at our annual end-of-the-year reading celebration. They were right. I can't put it down.

Kimberly Cockley, Ph.D., is the principal of Hudson Middle School in Hudson, Ohio. She earned a Ph.D. in K-12 Leadership from Kent State University, focusing her research on middle level leadership.

Published in AMLE Magazine, November 2016.
Author: Kimberly Cockley
Number of views (7721)/Comments (1)/
20 Literacy Strategies for Engaging the Middle Level Brain

20 Literacy Strategies for Engaging the Middle Level Brain

Effective ways to enhance reading and writing experiences.

Recently, I was teaching a language arts class in Logan, West Virginia. The objective of the lesson was to analyze the impact of tradition on human behavior using narrative text. Sounds really dull, doesn't it? It could have been, had I not used engaging strategies to facilitate the lesson. The vehicle for accomplishing the objective was The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. If you have not read it, you should!

Even though it was considered a short story, The Lottery contained a great deal of text, so I had to devise ways to help students. I placed students in pairs to facilitate discussion and divided the short story into sections. Before reading each section, I provided discussion questions to give students a purpose for reading the chunk. I read the first section aloud while students tracked the print in their books. Then a whole class discussion ensued that would provide answers for the designated questions.

For the second section, I continued to read aloud but paused periodically so that students could chorally provide the next word in the sentence. Section three needed some movement so we stood and chorally read this section with expression.

Section four involved partner reading where a student could elect to read a page, a paragraph, or pass his or her turn. It was during the reading of this section that many students realized that this lottery was not going to be

a good thing. By the time the lesson was finished, we had purposely used five brain-compatible strategies.

Whether you examine any of the research on how the brain acquires information, you will find there are 20 ways to deliver instruction. These instructional strategies increase academic achievement for all students regardless of grade level or content area, decrease behavior problems and make teaching and learning engaging.

Brainstorming and Discussion

Engaging students in a spirited discussion is a useful way to enhance comprehension. Teachers often ask recitation questions where the answer choice is either right or wrong. Discussion questions, on the other hand, can challenge students' thinking since there can be more than one appropriate response. As a teacher, focus on facilitating discussions between and amongst students.

Drawing and Artwork

Many students have a natural affinity for drawing. Use it! I could have stopped periodically and had students draw a scene from The Lottery. A picture of the box in which the lottery slips were kept would have been a good way to ascertain students' attention to detail.

Field Trips

The brain remembers what it experiences when it travels to places in the real world. Having students make written predictions regarding what they will see on the trip and then write about what was seen are good literary activities to incorporate. Virtual field trips enable students to travel to places that would otherwise be inaccessible or cost prohibitive.


Nothing facilitates a good review better than playing a game. Dividing students into three heterogeneous teams and competing in a spirited game of Jeopardy is a good way to review major concepts prior to a test. Tossing a Nerf ball for students to catch is a great way to call on students to respond.

Graphic Organizers, Semantic Maps, and Word Webs

I would be hard pressed to teach any comprehension skill without the use of graphic organizers. This strategy appeals to both hemispheres of the brain. Create mind maps for teaching main idea and details, sequence of events, cause and effect, compare and contrast, and many other comprehension skills.


The job of the "class clown" is to research an approved joke and tell it at a designated time during the period. This role rotates among all students who choose to fulfill it. Jim Carey related the story of how one of his high school teachers made a deal with him that if he participated in class and completed all homework, he could have the last minute of class to tell a joke. The rest is history.

Manipulatives, Experiments, Labs, and Models

Having students read and follow the directions for an experiment or for building a model is a way to integrate literacy across the curriculum.

Metaphors, Analogies, and Similes

One of the highest level thinking strategies is the use of metaphors. When a student can find ways to compare two or more dissimilar things, they are really using their brains. For example, when teaching main idea and supporting details, I compare it to a table and legs.

Mnemonic Devices

Every content area contains acronyms and acrostics, shortened ways of helping students retain content. While these may not foster higher levels of thought, they go a long way toward increasing the amount of content students can remember.


Movement is my favorite strategy, since anything students learn while in motion has a better chance of being remembered. Having students form a living timeline is an effective way to teach and learn sequence of events.

Music, Rhythm, Rhyme, and Rap

Have students create a song, rhyme, or rap that depicts students' understanding of a concept previously taught. While completing this assignment, they must employ one of the highest levels of thinking—synthesis—or the ability to take information and put it into a different form.

Project-Based and Problem-Based Learning

Take 10 or 15 literary objectives and incorporate them into a real-life project or give them a relevant problem to solve. These objectives will be mastered so much easier if students encounter them within the context of real life.

Reciprocal Teaching and Cooperative Learning

Having students sometimes work in pairs or teams to accomplish curricular objectives is a good way to ensure that they are career and "life" ready since the ability to work together is a major workplace and community competency.

Role Plays, Drama, Pantomimes, and Charades

When students act out the steps in a math word problem, pantomime a content-area vocabulary word as classmates guess it, or dramatize a scene from history, it goes a long way toward enabling them to remember the information prior to and after a test.


While invaluable in social studies, storytelling is a cross curricular strategy. Stories have a beginning, middle, and end and connect content together. These connections facilitate memory. Tell stories as you deliver content and then have students create their own and watch recall improve.


The use of technology is another workplace competency that every student should acquire prior to graduation. It is essential since so much literacy today involves computer literacy. However, I would like to add a word of caution. I have observed students who are so engrossed in technology that they have little time for anything else such as developing the social skills necessary for successful teamwork or the movement so essential for good health and long life.

Visualization and Guided Imagery

When authors do not provide visuals in a story, novel, or textbook, good readers are able to create their own visuals of what they are reading. Many students find this strategy difficult to implement since so many of the technological devices they interface with today have visuals provided. Pausing during read alouds and having students develop pictures in their brains of what they are seeing as they read is a good way is a good way to help them perfect their visualization skills.


We live in an extremely visual world. So visual, in fact, that at least 50% of students who walk into any classroom today will be predominantly visual learners. Comprehension is facilitated when students have visuals (pictures, captions, bold and subheadings, charts, and graphs) to assist them.

Work Study and Apprenticeships

Work study refers to apprenticeships, internships, and externships. In other words, it is on-the-job training. Can you begin to imagine how much informational text reading and comprehension would occur when students are learning to repair an engine, become a dental hygienist, or prepare culinary delights?

Writing and Journals

I have known good readers who were not necessarily good writers, but I have not known the opposite. Those who write well usually have a good command of the language which they use expertly to communicate their message. Even stopping periodically for quick writes facilitates memory and understanding.

The object of a learning experience is not to see how many learning strategies can be incorporated but to determine which ones are best for students and the content being explored.

Marcia L. Tate, Ed.D. is the former executive director of professor development for the DeKalb County school system. She is currently an educational consultant and CEO of Developing Minds Inc.

Published in AMLE Magazine, November 2016.
Author: Marcia L. Tate
Number of views (10439)/Comments (2)/
Making Meaning with Films

Making Meaning with Films

Films can—and should—be more than time-killers in your classroom.

We all know the stereotypical image of the teacher who, tired of direct instruction, dims the lights, turns on the DVD player, and sits quietly while students stare at the screen. The problem here is not that students are watching a film in class—it's that the teacher is not constructing an educational experience around that film.

Incorporated effectively, films can support content and instruction in a brief, clear, and elegant manner, enticing a generation of viewers into a more engaged learning experience.

While we wish that all our students walked into class hungry for traditional texts, this is simply not the case. Jennifer Rowsell and Maureen Kendrick, in their article "Boys' Hidden Literacies: The Critical Need for the Visual," suggest that some learners prefer to read on screens, such as computers and televisions. Consequently, reading on screens may be one possible "in-road" to teaching literacy skills and may even stimulate an interest in print-based text.

Don't Just Sit There

Several years ago, my students were watching clips from the film "The Spiderwick Chronicles." In this movie, one actor plays twin brothers. Toward the end of the third or fourth segment we watched, my students expressed some confusion about whether the actor was playing one character or two.

I was a bit taken aback. I had assumed that the dual role of the actor had been established for them in the first clip we watched. Looking back, I realized that teachers cannot assume that a passive viewing experience will translate into a meaningful cognitive interaction; like all learning, viewing must be discussed, critiqued, analyzed, and scaffolded.

Just as teaching a novel or short story involves ongoing discussions of theme, vocabulary, and structure, instruction with a film must be intentional and include consideration of the elements of what makes the piece work. Reading or viewing without activity and follow-up discussion is simply "flicking the lights off" and hoping that learning takes place.

Learn in Under Five Minutes

Consider the analysis of the hero's journey presented in "Batman Begins," as modelled by the SpringBoard curriculum. Students watch video clip segments, rather than the entirety of the film, and answer questions about the main character's inward and outer journey as a protagonist. Classes can use this multistep analytic process to talk about elements of character development as the main character progresses through the story. What's more, this conversation can happen without spending time watching the entire film.

Students might examine the specific aspects of a scene in a film. Elements like lighting and camera angles can communicate a variety of messages, as can design details like music. Auteur theory in film studies discusses the director of a film as a kind of author and, like all authors, the director chooses what elements to include within a scene. In the same way that an author chooses the words on a page, a director acting as the auteur chooses the elements that viewers see on the screen.

Have students spend less than two minutes viewing the teaser trailer for a Daniel Craig James Bond film, discuss the elements of design, and then spend less than two minutes viewing the teaser trailer for an Adam Sandler film. In less than five minutes of total viewing, this brief activity can provide a meaningful and culturally empowered introduction to a discussion of mood and tone, character development, or theme. Students who are not readers will likely appreciate this visual and engaging introduction to content, which can then be extended to a traditional reading experience.

Consider the "Captain America: Civil War" trailer. YouTube reported that 17,030,584 viewers watched the trailer within 24 hours of its release by Marvel. No doubt, that viewership included many of your students. The "auteurs" behind this audiovisual presentation build suspense through a series of scenes collected from previous films, highlighting the emerging conflict between two primary Marvel Comics characters, and then close the segment by revealing yet another popular protagonist in the film. This use of these design elements capitalizes on suspense and surprise.

Interaction with the elements of film can be discussion-oriented or related to storyboarding activities or higher-level critiques. Moving beyond the surface-level system of critique, which usually consists of "I liked it" or "I didn't like it," students can use literary or content-specific terms in an open-ended critical dialogue about what they are viewing.

Consider these 10 stems as potential discussion starters for viewing experiences:

  1. How did the director communicate to us in this clip?
  2. What was the director trying to get across to us in this clip?
  3. How does the director build suspense, create tension, or surprise us in this segment?
  4. What did you hear in the clip that reminds you of our previous discussion?
  5. How did this clip present information to you in a new way?
  6. How does this clip add to our understanding of this concept?
  7. What did the director include that made this clip helpful or understandable for you?
  8. What visuals did you see that helped you think about our content?
  9. How does the use of music, camera angles, light and shadow, and other design elements help us see what the director wanted us to see, or feel what the director wanted us to feel?
  10. How does this video clip support or refute what we previously learned about this topic?

Screen to Print

Film is part of our students' culture, and we should include film in such a way that, through an analytic and thoughtful process, students who may struggle to read can engage with content in such a way that may encourage them to read!

Jason D. DeHart, an eighth grade English teacher at Ocoee Middle School in Tennessee, is also a student in the Department of Theory and Practice in Teacher Education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2016.
Author: Jason D. DeHart
Number of views (4833)/Comments (0)/

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