Creating the Literacy Intensive Classroom: Elements of an Exemplary Middle School Literacy Program

Literacy Intensive Classroom

Addressing the literacy needs of adolescent learners is a monumental task given the wide range of ability levels found in our classrooms. So where to begin? What are the school-based and classroom-based ingredients that are essential to creating and maintaining literacy intensive classrooms? While not exhaustive, we set out to provide a starting point for a collaborative approach to improved literacy at the middle school and classroom level.

School-based Practices

Element 1: Commitment from administrators, teachers, and parents

It takes committed teachers and leaders to ensure change and growth. Developing an effective literacy program requires a school-wide commitment beginning with enthusiastic support from administration. Schools must operate as networks of individual stakeholders working in tandem that include teacher teams, administrators, and families working alongside teachers and administrators, all working toward a shared goal.

Element 2: At least one well-trained, certified literacy specialist

As reflected in the standards of the International Literacy Association, there is even greater emphasis now on the need for middle (and high school) literacy specialists to help teachers implement best practices in all content areas. Effective literacy instruction must be embedded in the regular curriculum to help teachers understand and successfully apply new ways of communicating their content. No longer can we expect to address the varied needs of the adolescent learner with a one-size-fits-all approach.  As we outline in the next section, there are many ways to communicate subject matter to reach all ability levels and learning styles.

Element 3: Continuous, weekly professional development on literacy with in-class follow up

Literacy training must be more than a one-day workshop in the beginning of the school year.  To be effective, it has to be an on-going, weekly commitment from the literacy leaders, administrators and teachers. For example, this may be a 30-45 minute introduction of a vocabulary, reading comprehension, or writing strategy on Monday, led by the literacy specialist as a whole-faculty team leader.  They would then be available to teachers throughout the week to demonstrate, model, design, and assist in implementing the strategy taught across teachers’ classrooms.

Effective literacy instruction must focus on many elements including students’ perceptions of themselves as readers, their degree of motivation, and their background knowledge and interests, to name a few. To this end, multiple forms of texts and sources of information, as well as varied modes of delivery, are essential to meet the needs of individual learners. A qualified literacy specialist can make an enormous difference in assisting teachers with the implementation of the most effective research-based strategies.

Element 4: Systematic, well-planned after-school literacy support for enrichment and remediation

Successful classroom use of a variety of best practices tailored to the individual student is the hallmark of an effective literacy program. Realistically, we can’t make up in one school day or one school year what has taken years to effect so we must find the time elsewhere during the day. Readers and writers who are struggling to keep up with classroom expectations need extra time to practice literacy. This requires trained teachers and tutors (e.g., parents, high school students, eighth graders working with sixth graders) to assist with classwork, homework and to give students extra assistance in reading and writing during the school day and in after-school sessions. As Allington (1997) said nearly two decades ago, students need intervention all day long since they spend the majority of their class time surrounded by texts they are unable to read. This need remains real in today’s classrooms as well.

Classroom-based Best Practices

Element 1: Recognition that there is no perfect method for teaching reading to all children

Many educators, policy makers, and parents want that “save-all” strategy, the commercial program, the book, the method that can be handed to teachers and used to meet the needs of all students, thus magically solving all their literacy problems. Such a program does not exist.  Within each classroom, there are many different learning styles, ability levels, cultures, and languages. Therefore, it is necessary that teachers be aware of the best literacy and pedagogical practices and that they be empowered to make decisions based on these practices as they serve the needs of their classroom.  Teachers, policy makers, researchers, and teacher educators must recognize that the answer is not in the method but in the teacher

There are certain absolutes or research-based truths for which we do have evidence. Some successful practices that enhance content learning and literacy learning include activities such as the use of before, during, and after reading support, graphic organizers for visually displaying concepts, writing tasks that require higher level thinking about content-related ideas, and vocabulary activities that move beyond the definitional level and into meaningful tasks and applications. These instructional tools not only support content learning but also build, extend, and reinforce the literacy abilities of all students—skills that are transferable to all other areas of learning.

Element 2: Monitoring the progress of struggling learners throughout the years

From elementary into middle school, teachers must know who their young adolescent students are before they get into the classroom; we can’t wait until they fail the first three tests in science to conclude they may have a problem. And, we cannot rely on standardized tests to chart progress—we must use more subjective means like class observations, analysis of written/oral performance, and informal assessment data. We must identify struggling students early on then enlist a team of teachers who meet periodically to follow their progress, make instructional recommendations, and determine if they are getting the help needed. This does not involve labeling students prematurely; on the contrary, it means determining the students most in need of additional assistance and providing that help in focused, purposeful ways.   

Element 3: Ample materials in each classroom on varied levels matched to topics across subjects

Studies through the years have revealed that a majority of classroom instruction and homework assignments are based on grade level textbooks.  Given what we know about the number of students who are functioning below their assigned grade level, it is not surprising that many of them are unable to handle the textbooks intended for their classes. Teachers must have ready access to a full range of materials, both digital and printed, that are available on varied levels to meet the needs of all ability learners, from the struggling reader to the most gifted.

Element 4: A commitment to flexible grouping within the classroom

Classroom observational research reveals that the primary method of communicating information in middle and high school classrooms is teacher directed instruction, despite what we know about the ways in which early adolescents best learn. An effective literacy program for middle school (and high school) students utilizes a combination of whole-class, individual, and grouping configurations to maximize learning for all students. Although the research on the effects of grouping practices is extensive, practitioners still question the viability of grouping and may be reluctant to give up whole class instructional formats.  By incorporating flexible grouping, students work in pairs or small groups to reflect, retell or share—or they may be assigned to heterogeneous groups of 4-5 peers to put their heads together in the composition of a communal writing assignment, for example.

Whole class configurations work well for introducing new strategies, providing directions, performing dramatic activities, and sharing prior knowledge about a particular topic, but students also need time to work individually and independently. These activities include reading silently, writing in journals, responding to literature, or conferring with the teacher.

Element 5: Opportunities for daily independent reading

We know that the best way to improve reading performance is to read.  This requires a well-stocked school library and a well-trained media specialist who can assist classroom teachers in keeping dynamic, multilevel classroom libraries. Classroom book selections should coordinate with current adolescent issues of interest and topics studied within the content area, providing students with a range of titles. Unfortunately, as students get older, they generally spend less time reading out of school because of an increase in extracurricular activities, digital games and venues, and other sources of entertainment that catch their attention—they simply don’t choose to read like they did as young children. As a result, we need to create classroom environments that nurture their interest in reading while enhancing skills that will ensure high school success.  A critical foundational component is independent reading, which gives students time to read silently at least two to three times a week for 15 to 20 minutes each session. Regardless of the frequency, it is important to maintain a consistent schedule so that students come to class expecting time to engage in reading independently.

By allotting an elevated status to independent reading, students learn that engagement in voluntary reading is a highly valued and critical aspect of their reading development. To design and maintain an effective independent reading program, students need access to books from a well-stocked classroom library in addition to the school library—both should feature a variety of books on different topics and at different reading levels related to specific subject area topics if relevant.

Element 6: Opportunities for Writing Every Day, Every Class

As with reading, the only way to improve students’ writing performance is to have them write, though writing best improves with clear feedback and opportunities for revision based on that feedback. That is why it is imperative to have students engage in some form of writing and reading in conjunction with each subject area in every classroom every day. This does not mean more and more papers to grade.  On the contrary, much of the initial editing and review could be done by the students themselves within pairs and small groups after training, with teacher feedback reserved for the next step and then not always on each piece produced. Much of the writing could be short responses related to the subject matter and even composed communally by groups of students, as well as the occasional piece written individually for the teacher’s formal evaluation. One source for strategies to incorporate writing in all subject areas is Smuggling Writing: Strategies that get Students to Write Every Day in Every Content Area (Wood, Taylor & Stover, 2015).

The End Goal: Creating Literacy Intensive Classes Across all Subject Areas

The primary goal of content area teachers, of course, is to help students develop a knowledge base in their particular subject area. However, content learning and literacy learning go hand-in-hand with each enhancing and strengthening the other. In fact, we will argue that you cannot develop a strong knowledge base in science, social studies, mathematics, and the cultural arts without reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, and visually representing—the language modes that the International Literacy Association supports in their broad view of literacy.

Acknowledgment of and support for the use of literacy strategies in content area classrooms is especially critical for middle school students whose cognitive processes are transitioning from concrete to more abstract levels of functioning. Furthermore, the curricular demands across subject areas increase substantially as concepts deepen into more complex levels. With this in mind, it is imperative that content area teachers view effective literacy practices as tools to help them effectively teach concepts.

Author’s Note: We deliberately included the term exemplary literacy program in the title because we know there are a host of reasons–socially, academically and economically–that can easily detour the consideration and implementation of these elements. However, improvement and eventually deep change can only occur if we set our goals higher than what we initially think is attainable. Our students’ future successes depend on that.

Dr. Karen D. Wood is Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina Charlotte.  She is the author of over 250 articles, chapters and books related to content area literacy at the upper elementary, middle and secondary levels and  was  the former author and originator of the Out of Research-Into Practice column for the Middle School Journal.  

Dr. Janis M. Harmon is a Professor of Literacy Education at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Her publications reflect her research interests which include children’s and young adult literature and effective middle school and high school literacy programs with a special emphasis on vocabulary acquisition and instruction.

Dr. Jeanneine Jones is a Professor of Middle Grades Education at the University of North Carolina Charlotte and a former eighth grade teacher in an internationally recognized middle school.  She has been a middle grades educator for 45 years and has published and presented her experiences and research frequently during that time. She is a long-standing member of the AMLE Professional Preparation Advisory Committee.