Teachers at all levels and in all content areas are faced with the challenge of supporting students with reading challenges and raising test scores. Every classroom can have students on three or more different reading levels exploring the same concept at the same time.
All teachers are teachers of literacy, but many content area teachers are caught in the chasm between knowing what they need to do and making literacy part of their instructional practice. At our suburban Denver grades 7–8 middle school, we are guiding teachers to use leveled text across the curriculum to teach literacy in the classroom.
As our team teachers, literacy and learning specialists, and counselors pored over student data and anecdotal experiences during weekly Response to Intervention meetings, it became clear that teachers across content areas needed more guidance on how to implement literacy throughout their instruction. In addition, our administrators recognized the need to improve reading scores schoolwide. We chose leveled literacy as our vehicle to begin this journey.
First, content area teachers needed to see how leveled literacy could work in their classrooms. The literacy specialist (Jeanne) brought together a team of educators who could demonstrate to their colleagues how leveled literacy strategies could work in their classrooms. A social studies teacher (Barb), agreed to try the new technique. The teacher librarian (Holly) spearheaded the acquisition of leveled text. The instructional coach worked with the teacher to hone her unit and cement her essential questions. The multimedia teacher and his students committed to filming the lessons. Interventionists acted as consultants regarding specific student needs.
Responsive teaching is akin to juggling. Figuring out what actually needed to be juggled allowed us to create a process that could transfer across content areas.
It is imperative to start with a solid essential question. Once that was established, we defined the “balls” to juggle as: finding leveled text, creating student groupings, implementing instructional strategies, and creating specific interventions, accommodations, and assessment variations.
Finding (or Creating) Leveled Text. We wanted all of our students to be able to improve their literacy skills as well as grapple with the essential questions. By providing them with text at appropriate reading levels, we could achieve both objectives. A content area teacher may be tempted to abandon the literacy objective, but that would be to the detriment of the learner. Providing high-quality content text leveled to meet the needs of each student is certainly worth the extra effort.
New sources of leveled articles appear every day, as if the world’s educational publishers have finally heard the call. Between sources such as Newsela (www.newsela.com) and Smithsonian TweenTribune (www.tweentribune.com), teachers can find articles at several different Lexile® levels on topics from fashion to science to world news.
Databases offer search capability by reading level and Lexile level, although users must bear in mind that the same article is not always available at different levels. Some publishers, for example, offer science and social studies textbooks on several middle school topics at four levels, but oftentimes the levels are too high or too low to meet the needs of an entire class. We assessed the reading level of some of our textbook materials and found that they were at a higher reading level than we expected.
To identify the levels of text necessary to meet the needs of the classes, we needed to do a preliminary assessment of student reading levels. Working with the language arts teachers and literacy specialist, or interventionists, we identified the needs by reviewing student data from various sources such as statewide testing data, national computer-based reading assessments, oral reading assessments, and cloze reading passages.
Sometimes the key is to select an article (or part of it), a section of a textbook, or key paragraphs and rewrite them to meet the needs of your students. This does not need to be overly time consuming. After choosing the most succinct text, the process of modifying the text is relatively simple with the help of apps available online.
Traditional word-processing programs offer tools to assess text readability, specifically the Flesh-Kincaid. Through an iterative process of rewriting and reassessing readability, it’s feasible to rewrite text to meet the reading levels of your groupings. Lexile Analyzer (https://lexile.com/analyzer) allows users to upload text files to determine Lexile reading level.
You might try an app such as Rewordify (www.rewordify.com), which”rewords” the most complex vocabulary in a passage of text. Since new apps seem to be coming out of the woodwork, it’s worth an Internet search to see what’s out there.
Creating Student Groupings. Deciding how to group the students is critical to the effectiveness of the lesson. Groupings allow the students working at or above grade level the freedom to work at their level with the help of their peers. Teachers then can focus on small groups of students who really need guidance.
Data-based groupings are best at the beginning of the school year, before teachers know their students well. We used data to assess the students’ reading levels from multiple reading assessments, standardized tests, and classroom assessments. Later in the school year, content area teachers are better able to group and level their students from their experience in the classroom.
Flexible groups can be homogeneous or heterogeneous. If you use homogeneous groupings, it is important to minimize differences in the appearance of the text so students are not aware of who is getting which text. Heterogeneous groupings work well to encourage positive interdependence among students.
We assessed student learning based on the essential question with short constructed responses, debates, main idea graphic organizers, and exit tickets.
Creating Accommodations. If the text has already been retyped into a word processing program, it
is easy to put it into a more readable font for students with dyslexia. Open dyslexic font is available to download for free (www.opendyslexic.org or www.dafont.com). We also provided the text read aloud to students using VoiceThread (https://voicethread.com). The images of pages of text were accompanied by the audio. In heterogeneous groupings, students can read the text aloud to their small group as well, using a paired reading strategy.
Putting It All Together
Remember: Teachers need to “see” what this leveled lesson can look like. Since our multimedia students are always looking for authentic filming opportunities, it was easy to convince them and their teacher to film a lesson in action for viewing during a staff meeting. That way teachers could see what leveled literacy instruction looks like in a classroom setting.
Throughout the school year, we worked with science and social studies teachers in seventh and eighth grade and have set our sights on working with our wellness (health and PE) teachers as well.
Schoolwide, we celebrate our success—reading is no longer one of our school improvement plan goals. We’ve seen high percentages of students catching up; reading and writing are going on in most content-area classes consistently; and we are able to reach even reluctant teachers (with patience and persistence).
Holly Noel Wagner is the teacher librarian at Cresthill Middle School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. She previously taught sixth grade language arts and social studies. email@example.com
Jeanne Bonds is the literacy and learning specialist at Cresthill Middle School. She has worked as a special education and literacy teacher and para-educator. firstname.lastname@example.org
Barb Superka is a social studies teacher at Cresthill Middle School. email@example.com