Reader Response in All Disciplines

Reader Response in All Disciplines

Scaffolding writing-to-learn by teaching reader response strategies before, during, and after reading

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 third in a series of columns on scaffolding writing-to-learn by teaching a variety of reader response strategies before, during, and after reading.

During Reading Response: Using Marginal Notes

During-reading response is defined as response students write while they are reading a text. Effective responses should demonstrate that readers are exploring, questioning, and challenging text; visualizing; and making connections, inferences, and predictions to construct meaning from text. However, response should not disrupt or sabotage the reading. Therefore, marginal notes work well for all students, especially reluctant writers, and takes little time away from the reading and discussion of a text. Marginal notes work especially well with informational texts of all types in all disciplines.

The reasons to employ reader response are twofold: for teachers to be able to see what and how students are reading and to guide readers to interact with text and, in that way, increase their comprehension. When readers are trained to mark marginal notes as they read, it fulfills both purposes.

When students read informational text, reading is most interactive and effective when readers consider the facts or statements they are reading:

I knew this (activating prior knowledge)
This is a new idea or a surprising fact (noting something new or novel to consider)
This is shocking (an idea that might go against what would normally be believed or accepted)
I have a question about this or this is confusing to me (noting where additional information or clarification is wanted or needed)
This may be important (noting details that seem important or appear that they may become important to understanding the text as a whole)
I agree with this (noting when something makes sense or fits what is already known)
I disagree with this (possibly based on something previously learned or read through other venues)
I want to know more about this (a topic for further research or reading)
I can make a connection (between the text and experiences the reader has had; between the text and another print, literary, audial, or visual text; or between the text and something going on in the world)

The teacher, or the class together, can assign logos—simple, easy-to-draw, and easy to remember symbols—to each statement, such as

As students read an informational text, they highlight or underline a fact or detail and note a logo in the margin.

Introducing Marginal Notes

It is most effective to introduce readers to the concept of marginal notes by introducing and employing three logos with a text, such as an article, and when the students are familiar with those three, adding two more and then two more, until they are employing all logos as marginal notes to show their thinking. To begin, the easiest logos as marginal notes are

To introduce the concept, the teacher should share an article she has read, highlighting certain statements. The teacher demonstrates what she is thinking when she reads the statement or fact and chooses what logo she is placing in the margin.

The teacher then can progress to a Guided Practice; the students read an article and stop at the same place, underlining the statement, and placing the appropriate logo in the margin. For example, the teacher projected an article from Scholastic magazine. The article began with a statement that the teacher highlighted, "You have probably heard—or even sung—America's national anthem at a baseball game." The teacher stated that she would mark the logo that showed her thinking and the students were to highlight that same statement in their copies of the article and each write the logo that showed their thinking.

The teacher explained that she knows that the national anthem is played at baseball games so she placed a √ in the margin. Some students who did not play or watch baseball wrote down an ! because, to them, this was a new fact. One student said he knew the anthem was played on televised games but wondered if it was played at all games; he wrote down a ?. Another student wondered if the national anthem was always sung or sometimes just the music was played, and therefore, he wrote down a ? also.

As an independent practice, an article was distributed and students were asked to read the article; highlight 10 facts, details, or statements; and mark the logos that show their thinking in the margins. Teachers may ask students to highlight one fact or statement per paragraph or three from the first third of the text, three from the second third, and three from the last third to be certain that students read the entire article. The number of facts can be altered for different students for differentiation.

A seventh grade science class read an article on climate change:

An eighth grade ELA class reading the novel Of Mice and Men also read an article about "Growing Up on the Steinbeck and Hamilton Ranches in the 1920s and 1930s." Three of the six students marked the last sentence as * to show a detail they each thought to be important.

In response to facts in an article about Kristallnacht in a social studies class, the students who marked the most statements as "√ I knew that," explained that they had read novels on the Holocaust in ELA classes or on their own.

Marginal Notes as Formative Assessment

While the students are reading and making their marginal notes, the teacher can walk around and quickly glance at the margins of papers, getting a feeling about how well the students know the material— if most of the material is already known, if all the material is new, or if they are questioning the material or are confused by it. The logos should be written in the margins (hence, "marginal" notes) so the teacher can walk around and see what types of reactions students are having to the articles and to what areas in the article they are reacting, and also so the students can quickly find them for discussion purposes.

This is a quick formative assessment allowing the teacher to note if he needs to provide more background knowledge before the text is discussed, or, on the other hand, if most students are jotting down many checkmarks, the teacher may inquire why so many students know about the subject and might find that they studied this topic in another grade or read a novel about this topic in the former grade. The teacher can then adjust his teaching. If there are a lot of questions, this text might lead to additional reading.

Using Marginal Notes to Generate Class Discussions

After students have independently read the text and marked notes in the margins, they first go back and cross out any question marks for questions that were answered by the end of the text. They can then be instructed to move into small groups and discuss what they knew, what they each learned, and what questions they still have as a group; groups can analyze if they had more questions or more new information or more "already-knowns." They use their marginal notes as a basis for their discussion and to build and extend their conversations, discussions that can go in multiple, diverse directions.

It is much easier to generate a discussion when students have their notes in front of them and, looking at the logos, they can remember where they had questions and what facts were new to them. They can explain why they placed a check near a fact. Their notes give them something concrete to discuss. If students have questions in common that the text didn't answer, they can form inquiry groups based on their questions and collaboratively conduct an inquiry.

After small-group discussion, students can individually choose one underlined fact and copy it in their journals and explain and expand their thinking about that fact.

Teachers have found classes to be more engaged with reading informative texts and deeper, more expansive discussions to be generated with more student participation when using the marked-up texts. Students enjoy comparing what they thought while they were reading with others. In this way, marginal notes lead to increased comprehension of text.

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 professional books for educators and is editor of Connections, the journal of the Georgia Council of Teachers of English. The ideas in this column were based on The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension (Corwin Press, 2009).

Published in AMLE Magazine, February 2018.

Author: Lesley Roessing
Number of views (876)/Comments (0)/
Duct Tape and Pom-Poms

Duct Tape and Pom-Poms

Engaging middle school learners in metaphoric thinking through self-expressive prompts

Everyday Leadership Object Prompt A
Please take a few minutes to think about characteristics of leaders you know and respect. Then choose an object from the table that represents a quality or characteristic you value in a leader. Be prepared to explain to classmates why you chose the object and how it represents a leadership quality you value.

"I chose the duct tape because it reminds me of someone who is willing to solve problems. It might not always look pretty, but if it works, then who cares? Usually, duct tape is something you have around, so it doesn't cost a lot of extra money to solve the problem at least temporarily. You can buy time to look at other ways to solve the problem more permanently. I admire leaders who problem solve, not just spend all their time talking about the problem. My grampy is like that, he's a fixer, and I think he's a great leader in our family."
—Josiah, a 7th grade student

"Pom-poms. Pom-poms, because I think a leader needs to be like a cheerleader. They need to cheer others on and encourage them to get involved. Our cheering coach tells us that our role is to get as many people in the stands involved in the game as possible. I think that's what good leaders do. They want as many people to be involved as they can get. Plus, good leaders are positive and encouraging."
—Emma, a 7th grade student

Every time I engage middle school learners in a symbolic representation activity such as the one briefly described above, I am wowed by their insightful answers, especially compared to the answers I typically get if I alternatively word the prompt like this:

Everyday Leadership Prompt B
Please list qualities or characteristics you value in a leader. Be prepared to explain to classmates one of the leadership qualities you value.

Purposefully Planning Questions/Prompts

Planning a few well-designed questions or prompts (such as prompt A) to elicit higher-order thinking as well as to promote varied skills of the middle school learner has the potential to vastly improve student learning. I first learned of questioning in style through the work of Silver, Strong, and Perini and their application of Carl Jung's work. They introduced the idea of mastery, interpersonal, understanding, and self-expressive learners and asserted the need to pose questions, prompts, and learning tasks from the various quadrants. I since have come to see the work not so much from a learning style perspective but from that of different thinking skills. Dr. Robert Marzano and Dr. John Hattie's work on high-impact teaching and learning strategies has provoked me to re-examine the quadrants from a thinking and doing perspective. Figure 1 depicts the types of thinking learners are asked to do in each of the quadrants, the kinds of questions posed, and the high-impact strategies associated with each (as represented by the effect sizes from Marzano and Hattie's research). Note that typically, the larger the decimal, the greater the impact on student learning.

Figure 1. Different Types of Prompts

Purposefully planning prompts that engage learners in different types of thinking improves engagement by a wider majority of young adolescents. In addition, purposefully posing questions or prompts to all students in the various quadrants encourages all learners to develop thinking and processing skills across the styles.

Analyzing My Questions, Prompts, and Learning Tasks

When I first learned of the application of Carl Jung's work to questioning and prompts, I decided to analyze my units of study and associated tasks and questions through this lens. I was startled to discover that I did not provide many, or often any, opportunities for self-expressive thinking within my integrative units. I asked lots of "what," "why," "how come," and "so what" questions but rarely asked "what if" questions. Rarely, if at all, did I think to pose questions that asked students to think metaphorically or to consider "what if" possibilities or to express their knowledge using alternate analogies or modes of articulating their thinking. Sure, I encouraged learners to demonstrate their understanding through a variety of creative means, such as multi-media presentations, written papers, songs, oral presentations, and drawings, but I did not weave ongoing opportunities for them to practice thinking metaphorically during the learning. I clearly missed opportunities for my self-expressive learners to share their unique ways of thinking about and linking concepts and ideas, and just as important, I missed ongoing opportunities to help all students develop their metaphoric thinking skills across varied content and curricula.

As a result of new knowledge and an analysis of my own teaching practices, I began a mission to provide more opportunities for my learners to develop skills around metaphoric and divergent thinking.

Developing Metaphoric Thinking

Like any other worthy learning task, modeling and scaffolding are requirements for success. I often begin a symbolic or metaphoric thinking prompt with a sentence starter for those who need it.

________ (object) reminds me of _______ (quality or characteristic)

because __________.

Learners share their thinking with a partner and, whenever possible, do a "whip" around the room, where they share with the larger community of learners. This activity allows some of my learners who may not be engaged with other types of prompts to shine. The whip around also provides multiple models of metaphoric and divergent thinking for all learners.

In addition to scaffolding, modeling, and interpersonal engagement, symbolic/object representation activities such as the one I have described provide a tangible object for those who need to interact with something in a tactile way.

In order to encourage metaphoric thinking beyond the object prompt, I regularly provide self-expressive exit tickets or reflection prompt choices. Other times, learners are invited to explore "what if" questions or to provide an alternate way of thinking about the topic.

Self-Expressive Reflection Example
Was today's work session more like a soccer match, watching a beautiful sunset, riding a bike, writing a poem, climbing a mountain, or playing a video game? Please explain your thinking.

Benefits and Results

Without exception, every time I have engaged learners in this type of thinking task, an emotional reaction occurs in the learning environment. "Oh, that's so clever." "I never would have made that connection." Those engaged in the metaphoric activity recognize that this is different thinking and are impressed by the connections their peers make. The connections made are most often ones that the learners would have never thought about if they had not engaged in the learning task.

The more learners practice metaphoric thinking through the use of objects and symbols, the more common it becomes for them to engage in this type of thinking without objects being present. Examples in classroom discussions and in writing change. Learners begin to use analogies to explain relationships, connections, and abstract ideas. Language becomes more colorful, more vivid, and more engaging.

I encourage learners to listen and watch for examples of metaphoric thinking in the books they read, the movies they watch, the music they listen to, and the conversations they hear. One middle school colleague I am privileged to know has her students tweet examples; for those who do not tweet, she has a Twitter bulletin board where examples get posted.

This is not merely a literacy exercise in rich word choice, although I will be the first to acknowledge that the metaphors are often poetic and artistic in delivery and composition. This is divergent thinking coupled with comparative thinking—a sophisticated and challenging way of thinking about how unlikely items or ideas are similar. Comparative thinking is often a precursor to evaluative thinking and decision-making. Self-expressive questions and tasks push learners into deeper thinking beyond surface recall or surface level analysis, asking them to imagine or create something new.

Middle Level Educators and Symbolic Representation Activities

After having spent a decade in the middle school classroom, I had the privilege of becoming a middle school administrator and now a faculty member in an educational leadership program at a university. I carry two baskets of varied objects with me everywhere I go so I can engage educators in symbolic representation activities to promote metaphoric thinking. Their responses are stunning and insightful. They articulate how "hard" the task is and how it stretches their thinking. They are delighted by their peers' responses. They inevitably try the task with their own learners and come back to meetings or classes excited to share their experiences with young learners engaging in this type of thinking.

So, go ahead. Grab a basket or a recyclable shopping bag and begin filling it with an eclectic assortment of items or photos. Present it to your learners with an invitation for them to think metaphorically. Be prepared to be awed by their insightful responses.

Anita Stewart McCafferty, Ed.D. is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Southern Maine and co-director of the Southern Maine Partnership.

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2017.
Author: Anita Stewart McCafferty
Number of views (4804)/Comments (0)/
Authentic Audience, Wonderful Writing

Authentic Audience, Wonderful Writing

A teacher's guide to planning a high-interest, engaging writing project

Three years ago an eighth grade class of mine had a blog project called "Dear Terrorist" where students researched their topics and wrote letters to anyone considering (or participating in) a decision that could harm themselves or others. One girl wrote an open letter to anyone seriously considering suicide. A month later I got an email from a suicidal teen who claimed my student's letter had got her thinking and stopped her from killing herself! The message brought me to tears and made me think: This is about as authentic and meaningful as writing can get! I often use this example at the beginning of a writing project when I know the culminating goal is to produce a published work for an authentic audience. Though this life and death anecdote is exceptional, my experience in teaching writing through publishing has helped me develop some useful tent poles in leading students to create powerful writing.

Motivation First

Whether it's a persuasive letter, essay, memoir, or short story, I emphasize to students that their writing will be published (online and in print) with thousands of potential readers. Perhaps skeptical at first, they believe me when they see prior examples of writing and video projects. Blogs don't excite them all that much, but knowing that a book will be for sale on usually does. Realizing that they'll have a printed book and a "real" audience initially sparks their attention, yet students still require a deeper sense of purpose to truly motivate the substance of their writing. Typically, this means the writing topic should both pique their interest and somehow connect to the real world and to the interests of their intended audience whether fiction or non-fiction. For example, my most recent writing project with eighth graders was called The Letter Project. The purpose was to write a persuasive, essay-style letter to someone famous or influential who the student felt could affect positive change if nudged in the right direction. The idea was that if Donald Trump or Miley Cyrus didn't actually read their letters, then at least an online audience would get the message. Framing the project this way also allowed for considerable student choice and voice as they could pick any figure (from a celebrity icon to the Korean Minister of Education!) and discover their own persuasive style along the way.

Part of what helps motivate or inspire my students is that as their teacher, I too am writing for an audience. This can be replicated by other teachers and done on various levels. By doing the assignment yourself—a common and recommended practice—teachers can better understand the obstacles and pitfalls of the work and use it as a model (ideally open for critique and feedback as well). Thus, the teacher's audience becomes the student's and perhaps colleague's. I usually do this step, and it tends to pay dividends in student learning by showing students that writing is a process and needs continual refinement and by giving students a strong exemplar to work from. I must also admit another advantage that I personally have in the classroom: I have published a young adult novel that my students are familiar with (through me, not any bestseller lists!). Perhaps it helps motivate them if they view me as an authentic writer, but my author aura (if any ever existed) likely fades within the first week of class. In the long run, it's not my published work but the intrinsic motivating factors that move students forward with enthusiasm for the project.

It Starts with Reading

The best writers seem to agree: Good writing starts with good reading. Thus, in my class, a writing project begins with reading great models in the same genre. If we're writing short stories, we'll read and analyze Hemingway, Chekov, and Shirley Jackson; if memoirs, we look at excerpts of Stephen King, Maya Angelou, Malala, and Malcolm X. I also bring out former student work and something I've written for the students to critique and practice giving feedback. This portion of the prewriting process could last a few days or a few weeks. During this time, we ask questions about story elements, the author's voice, intention, audience, theme, characters, organization—all of the Common Core reading standards can be covered. Of course, all language arts teachers hit these standards throughout the year, but the difference is that the students are engaging these standards with a greater sense of purpose within the larger publishing project. They begin to ask: How will reading this make my writing better? Which author will I use as a model for my writing? What will my voice, theme, and organization be? How will it come across to the audience? These questions are not posted on my classroom wall. They emerge organically because all of the students know that their stories will be in a printed book that's sold on Amazon. It becomes a big deal, and some students even begin to see stars and dream of dollar signs! In most cases, the letter grade (extrinsic motivation) becomes secondary, and their pride in publishing a quality story (intrinsic) becomes the primary goal.

Bad First Drafts and Good Feedback

It's difficult to write and perhaps even harder to share your writing with a group of peers. So there has to be a protocol for giving feedback. I recommend dedicating a full class period to discussing bad first drafts. I begin with a warm up asking "What is difficult about writing?" After "pair-sharing," or however you prefer to spark discussion, we read and discuss Anne Lamott's Shitty First Drafts. If you teach young or sheltered kids, this brief excerpt can be photocopied and censored, but it usually initiates great conversations and reinforces the idea that good writing is crafted through revision and editing, not some mysterious inherent talent. Lamott's mindset gives students the courage to write and the idea that their first drafts will improve; they just need to stop thinking about it and write!

After students have had time to write their first draft, the writing workshops begin. Based on a common workshop seating arrangement, we move the desks into a large circle so all the students are facing each other. To relieve any tension or stress that students may have in sharing their work, I make anonymity an option, where I (or other volunteers) can read the work of other students. But before anyone starts sharing, I try to establish what Ron Berger calls the "Culture of Critique." I explain that writers don't want just any feedback; they want specific, quality feedback. While I encourage starting off with a positive comment, I clarify that saying "Good story, I liked it" might momentarily boost the writer's ego, but is not very helpful. On the other hand, commenting that a writing piece was "boring" or "sucked" isn't a critique; it's rude and hurtful. The emphasis is on giving helpful and specific feedback, which is what all writers want and need to improve. Then the class watches six minutes of video that has become akin to the Gospel in my classroom: "Critique and Feedback, The Story of Austin's Butterfly." Something about watching adorable second graders give quality feedback and commentary on student work gets middle and high schoolers to buy into the value of this critique method. It doesn't hurt that Austin's final draft turns out so remarkable! Ultimately, students see the value of quality feedback and are ready to critique knowing that the end goal is to create excellent, publishable writing. Student participation in the workshop increases not only because of authentic interest in the project, but also because they are familiar with the oral language and presentation strands of the Common Core standards and know that everything we do in class addresses these. Whole-class peer critique goes from being a dreaded and uncomfortable idea to a purposeful and valued part of the process.

The Peer Editing Funnel

Early in my teaching career, my mentor English teacher once told me that he never read a student's first draft. Flat out refused. I laughed, but he wasn't joking. He explained the funnel: workshop editing, peer editing, and gallery editing. The whole-class workshop editing helps get the big picture kinks out by sparking reflective questions that apply to all writers: Is the piece clear? Does it make sense? What is the theme? The intention? Is it effective? What's it missing? What needs to be cut? It might take two full class periods to get through every student, but keeping it down to five pieces of feedback per story and having students share only their first page makes it manageable and time efficient. The second round should be familiar to all English and humanities teachers: peer editing and revision. Students are given partners and they must closely check their peer's writing with a checklist and give detailed feedback. The last round of group editing is the gallery walk. Students print out their writing and post it on the wall. The class is instructed to pick a story to scan for final edits and quick fixes, then they rotate when cued. During the entire filtering process, I make sure to check in with each student individually or through commenting or suggesting changes on their shared Google doc. By the end of it all, students are usually impressed with how much their writing has improved through revision and editing—and most of it they've done through effective peer collaboration.

Early Finishers = Publishing Team

All teachers appreciate their self-starting, over-achieving students, but what do you do with them when they've finished light years ahead of everyone else? In this kind of writing project, they are assigned a leadership role in the publishing process. As part of the publishing team, they can become the chief editor, an editing team member, formatter, or cover designer. Perhaps they can even take on the role of event manager or lead marketer for a school library unveiling, book sharing event, or student exhibition. Once roles are allocated, I make sure that a few essentials are understood. First, a master Google Doc must be created for all the students to paste their final written work and for the editing team to scan as copy editors. Google Docs is an excellent tool for this task. Second, students in charge of design and formatting must acquaint themselves with the chosen online publishing platform like CreateSpace, Lulu, or Blurb, and watch related tutorials. Third, if students are keen on getting their books some real exposure, marketing teams can be formed to research and make a social media plan or plan local promotional events. By this phase, there is typically such a sense of purpose and an "authentic job" for each student that the project runs itself, and I can troubleshoot and help the struggling students with greater ease as we wrap it all up.


Aside from being authentic, this kind of writing project hits almost all the other education field buzzwords—differentiated instruction, peer collaboration, inquiry-based learning, project-based learning—while covering nearly all of the Common Core standards.

Students seem to genuinely enjoy collaborating and come to understand the value of editing. I won't pretend that every student ends up loving the writing process, but they definitely walk away respecting it, and have learned new strategies along the way. Lastly, I have described some of my favorite writing project plans, but there are many different options and websites that feature a long list of teachers' favorite authentic writing projects. It's amazing how much intrinsic motivation and inspiration comes to students who know that their work will be published online, printed, and ultimately reach an audience outside their school.


4 of the Best Online Print-on-Demand Book Publishers

How to Use Social Media to Market Your Book

Dominic Carrillo is an English language arts teacher at the Anglo-American School in Sofia, Bulgaria. He's the author of the YA novel The Improbable Rise of Paco Jones.

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2017.
Author: Dominic Carrillo
Number of views (3877)/Comments (1)/
Be Radical: Reimagining the 8th Grade Literary Canon

Be Radical: Reimagining the 8th Grade Literary Canon

Offering diverse texts as well as justice-focused critiques of traditional literature

On the first day of school in Chicago, I encountered a room full of Iraqi, Nepalese, and West African refugee students. Timid, cautious, and nervous, they sat in Room 34 with visible trepidation. Someone with an equal level of trepidation? Me. I was a first year, white, male teacher. What was I going to teach these students? How was I an authority on anything as it relates to their experiences? Who was I to instruct these students on the human condition, challenges, and struggles, when, in reality, the biggest challenge I had had up to that point was moving from Seattle to the Midwest? Hardly an authoritative voice.

Two weeks prior to that first day, I had received the curriculum map for the Grade 8/9 English class, took a glance, and was unsurprised to find a white-centered, euro-centric literature curriculum: Of Mice and Men, Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, Little Women, Jane Eyre. The souls of these dead white authors leapt off the page. On several accounts, these are amazing pieces of classic literature that have shaped and molded our universal intellectual thought. Yet, they are not representative of the group of students that was to appear in front of me days later. Where were their stories? Where was the mirror in which they could see themselves? Where was the window in which they could experience other voices, stories, and experiences?

I should have done this with a little more tact, in hindsight. I marched down to my principal, curriculum map in hand, slammed it on her desk and said, "We have a problem here." I argued that if we truly wanted to be a school that created a safe learning environment for all students, we would need to alter our curriculum. We would have to diversify our literary voices and authors, and open ourselves up to criticizing a white-centered curriculum.

I still look back on that first year as one of the most formative in terms of how I develop my curriculum and create a justice-focused learning environment. When I introduced a more diverse set of novels as well as opened up our classic novels to justice-focused critiques, students reported feeling more engaged, more interested, and felt that the curriculum was more relevant to their lives. That, to me, was success.

The theory is simple. Research indicates that when students can "see" themselves in literature and in curriculum across disciplines, they are more likely to be engaged. In fact, behavior issues even diminish. Most importantly, though, students who are traditionally disenfranchised from the literary canon are witness to their value. Every student deserves to see themselves in what they read. When teachers ignore topics of difference, race, and equity, we contribute to unsafe environments by showing our students that these voices and issues don't matter.

I will admit, this is a personal endeavor for me. As a young gay student, growing up I often felt unsafe. I often felt like my voice didn't matter. It was made even more difficult with the deafening silence I encountered throughout my entire K–12 public school experience. That silence spoke volumes. Never once did I witness an LGBT character in a novel, in a history book, or in a conversation or class discussion. The only time it was mentioned was in the context of a negative. The result was a feeling of isolation, loneliness, and fear. It was not until college—college!—that I finally was able to see people like me in what I read. For once, I felt like I had a place in the classroom. I was more motivated, more engaged, and increasingly excited about reading complex texts through the lens of my own identity. I was validated.

Our middle school students deserve the same, and, as teachers, we are morally obligated to help guide them towards discovering and exploring their own identity. Literature is just that powerful. Imagine if we could actually reduce prejudice by exposing our students to diverse characters. Or could we actually increase self-esteem by showing our students that they aren't alone? I think, and my experience dictates, that this has profound impacts on the culture of a classroom and school.

Over the years I have developed a literature curriculum that takes into account two aspects of social justice education. The first, and arguably the most important, is introducing texts that provide a window and a mirror into the lives of people of color, the disabled, LGBT people, and others. It is, on all accounts, literature that exposes my students to diverse perspectives. I try to ensure that the literature is more than a single story. While the story of war-torn Africa is important, it's not the only story from the continent.

A social justice literature curriculum relies on introducing these different types of texts that expose young readers to the experiences of the disenfranchised. It also challenges the Western literary canon and approaches classic texts with a high level of scrutiny and inquiry.

This latter requirement is sometimes referred to as the decentering of classic literature. Yes, classic literature has done wonders for our intellectual and literary worlds, but it's also problematic and not emblematic of the world we live in today. That, in and of itself, is an important opening into literary critique.

For example, after a media literacy unit analyzing how men and women are represented in popular media, my eighth graders read the classic, Lord of the Flies. Now, don't get me wrong, I love Lord of the Flies. I think it speaks volumes about the human condition, leadership, and the role of power in the development of identity. It's also homophobic, presents us with the emasculation of young men, and has hints of racist rhetoric.

In presenting Lord of the Flies to my students, my goal is two-fold. Students analyze the text as we would any novel—theme, message, language, etc.—but I also push them in a direction of more profound social critique, or what I call a "justice critique." By having contextualized the novel with a media literacy unit beforehand, students have some prior knowledge on the ways in which young men are presented to readers. Students are vicious in their justice critiques. Why are men always forced to be hyper masculine? Why are there no women in this story? In what ways does this book re-enforce our stereotypes of women? Why is this novel considered a classic when it negates a section of the population? What are the implications of reading this book in today's world? Now, of course, we put these books in historic perspective and analyze them in tandem with cultural and social beliefs at the time. However, there is fantastic power in allowing students to analyze a novel on a level that seems "scandalous" and, at times, dangerous and radical to a 13-year-old. As teachers, we often select novels that are deemed classics because, well, they're classics. We expect students to accept them for their literary value without ever opening up the opportunity to critique the novel that, yes, may suggest it is not as valuable as once thought.

Another novel we read together is Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples. It is a fantastic young adult novel that provides a window into the life of a young Pakistani woman. On all accounts, it is a coming of age novel that places a female character at the center. We spend weeks talking about gender equality, the wage gap in the United States, and other issues like access to women's healthcare and even how young women are treated at our school (the dress code becomes a heated topic of conversation!). We also discuss how the novel is problematic. We decenter it. The novel is written by Staples, a white woman from Pennsylvania. When students discover this, there is a mixed response. On one hand, students argue that the female voice is universal despite racial and ethnic identity. Others argue, however, that a white woman does not have the authority to speak on behalf of a fictional, Pakistani female character. The question that I pose is one of neutrality: What role does the author's identity play in the construction of a narrative? The responses are anything but neutral and the level of critique and analysis is astounding. I align this with actual Pakistani voices through video, short stories, and nonfiction narratives. We compare and contrast the authority of voice, and students draw some conclusions, even if sometimes there aren't any decisive decisions.

Another novel that is often used in eighth grade is To Kill a Mockingbird. There is no other novel in American history that has captured the intrigue of our curriculum maps for so long; it is a spectacular novel, and I try to read it once a year. Like most classics, it's a complicated text with some problematic characters (made more problematic by the recent release of Go Set a Watchman). I like to read this book with eighth graders in tandem with diving into the implications of the very public shootings of young black men in recent years. The parallels are overwhelming, unfortunately. We discuss media bias, privilege, and the concept of the American dream as it exists today. We make sure to set it in historical context, but ask essential questions that decenter our previously held notions of the literary "saviour."

This decentering of classic literature is, I'll admit, uncomfortable at times. It is inherently radical and that can be uncomfortable. There have been several instances when I have had to have very pointed conversations with both administrators and parents about the goal of my literature class. I argue that I have an obligation to expose my students not only to diverse texts from around the world, but to simultaneously push them towards deeper criticism of traditional curriculum. Isn't it the goal of educators to push students to think more critically, dig deeper, and question preconceived ideas? To ask questions? To second-guess what we have already learned? To ask questions that sometimes only lead to more questions? I want my middle school students to feel a sense of ownership over the curriculum. I want them to feel invested in the things they read. I want them to know that they have a space in the curriculum and that their value is something I take seriously.

Alex Lacasse is an eighth grade literature teacher at St. Joseph School in Seattle, Washington. Before his time in Seattle, Alex was the manager of a youth program for a community-based organization in New York City and worked with NYC public schools to create safer school climates for all students.

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2017.
Author: Alex Lacasse
Number of views (4294)/Comments (1)/

Reader Response in All Disciplines

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 second in a series of columns on scaffolding writing-to-learn by teaching a variety of reader response strategies before, during, and after reading.

What Is During-Reading Response?

During-reading response is response students write while they are reading a text. Effective written responses should be meaningful and compel readers to explore, question, and challenge text and make connections and inferences so they can construct meaning and learn from text. There are many formats for during-reading response [see future issues of AMLE Magazine], and it is best to scaffold these during the year so that students can employ different response types to different texts and then make conscious decisions (critical thinking) about what type of response best fits the texts they are reading, their purposes, and their reflection "personalities." Responses should be short, informal, spontaneous, and, most importantly, ungraded, although points can be awarded for the act of thoughtfully responding; one reader's response should not be more valued (or correct) than another reader's as response should be unique and personal; the purpose of response is to compel readers to interact with the text, the goal being increased comprehension.

Response should not disrupt or sabotage the reading. If the teacher makes response onerous or formulaic ("one paragraph of at least five full sentences, correctly punctuated and spellchecked, covering…"), students will either focus on the response rather than the reading—thus decreasing comprehension, elect not to write a response at all, or stop reading so they do not have to respond. Students should be reading at least 80% of the time and responding no more than 20% of the time. For example, if students are reading in ELA Reading Workshop or during a disciplinary class or as homework for 25 minutes, they should be expected to write a 5-minute response. This expectation is true differentiation as all students' 5-minute response will look different, may be of different lengths, and will illustrate divergent thinking and critical thinking skills.

Beginning During-Reading Response

Teachers should begin with whole-class response to passages, which may be less threatening and illustrate to readers that there is not one expected response and that no response is "wrong." The teacher can ask students to read an especially provocative or interesting short passage from a novel or news article (reading the first few paragraphs of a text works well) and ask students to respond orally to the class or to a partner or by jotting on paper:

  • A question I have about the text (what the author wrote or how the author wrote it)
  • A prediction I have based on what I read (what the passage will be about or what will happen)
  • Something I noticed (about what the author wrote or how the author wrote it)
  • This makes me think of… (something that happened to me, something that I read, a movie I saw)
  • I don't understand…(something that the author wrote or something about how the author wrote it)

When reading an informational text, the teacher can add or substitute a prompt about prior knowledge:

  • I already knew/I didn't know…
  • I agree with/This challenges what I thought I knew

These "prompts" need to be designed so that everyone can have a different answer and there is no "correct" answer; all students' responses are acceptable other than a response based on a miscue. If the teacher is concerned that some students may misread the text presented for this introduction to response, the teacher can read the text aloud and then have the students re-read to respond. The point of the activity is to introduce during-reading response in general; cause the students to interact with a text for meaning, rather than decoding; and to orchestrate a successful experience with response. If the text is provocative, everyone should be able to generate a question, a prediction, and something to notice.

Reading the first part of the November 9, 2004 LiveScience article "Nature Hates a Fraud: Cheating Wasps Get Beat Up" by Robert Roy Britt, a few students responded to the second and third paragraphs:

Blue-collar wasps made up to look like CEOs get beat up by their superiors and peers. In a new study, spots typical for top-dog female wasps were painted on the faces of their subordinates. The phonies got harassed more often and for longer periods than other wasps when paired up in the equivalent of a wasp-world boxing ring.

Sarah asked, "A question I have is what about male wasps? Do they act the same? Did they just study female wasps?"

Ralph also had a question: "This article was written in 2004. Is this still true or have they conducted more recent studies?"

Greg added, "Something I noticed was that the author used hyphenated adjectives like we just learned about in Language Arts class."

Jennifer added, "This makes me think of middle school where there seems to be a hierarchy, and you are bullied if you try to act higher than you are."

John said, "I didn't know that wasps interacted like that."

A lot of thinking and interacting with the text was happening at a variety of levels of thinking, but all students were compelled to read critically in order to have a response.

From this activity teachers can collect information about how and what, and even if students are reading and what they find interesting (which provides a purpose for reading on), but they also can assess if students are misreading or require more background knowledge for a text. If a student had said, "I didn't know there were wasps with blue collars. I thought they were all yellow and black," the teacher knows that the reader either misread the term or is unfamiliar with the term. Given questions at the end of the text, such as Who got harassed more often and for longer periods of time?, it has been proven that many students can answer the questions with no comprehension of the text.

Using Response Starters

Even after working through this activity, the greatest challenge when asking readers of any age or level to respond to text that they are reading independently or individually is that they tend to re-tell or summarize the text. A solution is employing response starters. The teacher can turn the responses practiced above, as well as other types of personal reflections, into response sentence starters that encourage and provide a framework for readers to interact with text and share their unique impressions.

Teachers can make a classroom chart or individual handout with such response starters as the following:

I noticed... I predict... I can infer that ... because I already knew...
A question I have is... I don't understand... This makes me think of... I didn't know that...
I wonder why/how... I can picture... This reminds me of... I think that the author...
I was surprised by... I want to know... I had thought ... but now... I am guessing that...
What I found most interesting... I think ... is an important detail because... What I think will happen is... My favorite part (fact, character, event) is...

Any response starter that allows for individual response and independent critical thinking would apply. Teachers can distribute the chart, discussing the type of information or thinking a starter (or "thinking words") could elicit and encourage students to suggest others. The teacher should decide whether to introduce response starters with only one or two choices for the first times, next adding practice with other starters, or to display the chart and ask readers to choose one response starter and begin their 5-minute response. Usually once responders begin their response with at least one response starter, they do not shift to summarizing, and soon they only need to glance at the chart to channel reflective thinking and writing practices. The purpose of introducing readers to response starters is not to control what they say but to demonstrate how to interact with text and reflect on reading.

Teachers should model first, reading a part of a text or responding to a text that the students have already read, and writing a response. For example, reading the first part of the Scholastic Science World, January 2, 2012 edition, science article "Guardians of the Grizzly," the teacher wrote, "What I found interesting is that, as a child, the scientist Chris Filardi "imagined being among the bears in the wild places where they live" even though he only saw bears in the American Museum of Natural History. That reminds me of my daughter who, as a child, loved to hike and camp and play outdoors and now works for the U.S. Forest Service."

The students finished reading the first section and read the second section of the article and were asked to choose 1-2 response starters and write a short response. Sam wrote, "I think that 'cutting-edge science' means it is the newest science, and I wonder how this fits in with studying bears. Are they tracking them with the newest technology or using technology in a new way, both of which could be cutting edge? I don't understand if they are using new science to study bears or to protect them?" After reading the third section, Sam found his answer. His first question had caused him to reflect, leading to more questions, and giving him a purpose for reading the rest of the article. His reading became inquiry.

Reading Chapter 8 of the biography Who Was Neil Armstrong? (Edwards, 2008) in social studies class, a student stopped four times during reading to write his 5-minute response. He first responded, "When I read that Charles Lindbergh came to wish them [the astronauts] good luck, I began to think how Lindbergh was the first person to make a transatlantic flight when he flew nonstop across the Atlantic in 1927, and I inferred that he came for dinner because these astronauts were going to be the first people to go to the moon, breaking barriers like he did." A few minutes later John added, "Reading that Saturn V was a three-stage rocket engine, I am guessing that all three engines don't come back to earth with the astronauts." He continued reading the chapter and wrote, "I wonder how Michael Collins felt when the Eagle separated from the Columbia and he was left behind. I began to think he would be upset that he did the same training and didn't get to walk on the moon. I think he was just as much a hero because he helped it happen." And finishing the chapter, "What I found interesting was that Armstrong found a safe place to land with "less than a minute's worth of fuel left." That is very dramatic—like the ending of a movie. It makes me wonder if it is completely true." His responses showed his teacher that he was reading, how he was reading, the level of his thinking about the text, and his personal interactions with the text.

It appears that many students miss questions on math tests, especially standardized tests, because, even though they can do the math, they can't read, they misread, or they didn't slow down to comprehend the question. Students were instructed to read through a math word problem and respond with their thoughts.

Nina went to a pizza place with 2 friends. They ordered a large mushroom pizza for $23.55 and a garden salad for $3.60. They also got 2 sodas for $1.00 each. The tax came to $1.50. How much change should they have received from $35.00?

Students were given directions: Jot what you are thinking. Start with one of these Response Starters:

  • "I noticed…"
  • "When I read…, I began to think…. "
  • "I am guessing that (I infer)…because…"

A sample response employed all three suggested response starters. Of course, the teacher could have given different or more examples. The point was to compel the readers to interact with the text, not only the numbers. Sometimes students jump in and start manipulating numbers without comprehending what the question is asking.

When I read "with 2 friends," I began to think that it was going to be a division question, and I would divide my answer by 3, but then I noticed that it didn't matter how many people were buying the food because the question asked "How much change should they have received," so I knew to ignore the number 3. I am guessing that the answer is less than $35.00 because it asks "How much change … from $35.00," and "change" means they are getting money back.

During-reading response addresses readers' needs to increase comprehension or, for more proficient readers, to read more thoughtfully and critically for increased or deeper comprehension of text. During-reading response addresses the teacher's need of "seeing" readers' thinking to assess if they have read, what they understood, what they did not understand (or how they read), what they are noticing and noting and for formative assessment to know what to teach and what to re-teach. Response starters help readers discern the difference between summary and response to text so that teachers can accomplish this type of formative assessment of comprehension but also evaluate their learning from a text.


It is most effective for students to keep a response journal such as a 2-pocket Duo-tang folder. As students read through a text—an article, a story, a poem, a series of math problems—or conduct reading in a textbook or novel, they can submit their journal page(s) for the teacher to read, observe what students have written about, and discern what reading strategies and content needs to be taught. The response starters and choice of response starters illustrate what students are thinking as they read.

For grading purposes teachers can assign points per reading for thoughtful responses. If there is something particular the teacher wishes students to include in their responses, possibly based on a focus lesson for that day or an important point in a textbook reading, they can include that in the response directions, and the points can be adjusted for inclusion and deducted for exclusion. For example, if the teacher presented a lesson on character traits, they might direct, "In one of your responses, make sure you reflect on any traits the main character exhibited. You may begin that response with 'I think that the character is … because I noticed she always….'" If a student submits a 5-minute response for the day's reading and includes a response about traits, she earns 25 points; if a student submits a five minute response for the day's reading and neglects to include a response about character traits, she earns only 20 points. However, points are generally given for response not for particular responses so that response can be unique and demonstrate what and how the student comprehends.

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, October 2017.
Author: Lesley Roessing
Number of views (1804)/Comments (0)/

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 (3349)/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 (5437)/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 (4820)/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 (7282)/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

Goudvis, A., & Harvey, S. (2012). Teaching for historical literacy. Educational Leadership (Special Edition: Reading: The Core Skill), 69(6), 52–57.

International Reading Association. (2012). Adolescent literacy (Position statement, Rev. 2012 ed.). Newark, DE: Author.

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.

National Commission on Social Studies. (1989). Charting a course: Social studies for the 21st century. A report of the curriculum task force of the National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools. Washington, DC: Author.

National Council for the Social Studies. (2013). The college, career, and civic life (C3) framework for social studies state standards: Guidance for enhancing the rigor of K–12 civics, economics, geography, and history. Silver Spring, MD: Author.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common core state standards in English/language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Washington, DC: Author.

National Middle School Association. (2010). This we believe: Keys to educating young adolescents. Westerville, OH: Author.

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 (19838)/Comments (1)/

Related Resources

Topic Matter Experts

Bring professional learning to your school. More info...