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Learning That Lasts: Chapter 2: Laying the Foundation for Deeper Learning with Literacy

Why does Deeper Instruction begin with literacy?

Created By

EL Education

Literacy is the bedrock of learning. When students can manipulate information and ideas both accurately and fluently, and when they read not only for knowledge but also for joy and wonder, their capacity to learn and express themselves rests on a stable foundation unlikely to crumble even in a seismic educational or life event. Deeper instructional practices in literacy begin with purposeful lesson planning and curriculum choices that sift standards-based topics of study through relevant, compelling literature and informational text so that students are challenged with work that goes beyond standards. Leading with worthy texts, teachers help students connect what they’re reading to real-world ideas and problems. Deeper instruction gives students the tools to do the hard work of close reading and supports students to write claims grounded in evidence and presented to authentic audiences.

Created By

EL Education

Literacy is the bedrock of learning. When students can manipulate information and ideas both accurately and fluently, and when they read not only for knowledge but also for joy and wonder, their capacity to learn and express themselves rests on a stable foundation unlikely to crumble even in a seismic educational or life event. Deeper instructional practices in literacy begin with purposeful lesson planning and curriculum choices that sift standards-based topics of study through relevant, compelling literature and informational text so that students are challenged with work that goes beyond standards. Leading with worthy texts, teachers help students connect what they’re reading to real-world ideas and problems. Deeper instruction gives students the tools to do the hard work of close reading and supports students to write claims grounded in evidence and presented to authentic audiences.

Preparing students for the realities of what is demanded of them as workers and as citizens is one of the greatest challenges in education today. What students must be preparing for is a new kind of literacy—one that joins higher complexity of thinking and greater problem-solving capability to the character needed to sustain these skills. Scott Hartl, president and CEO of EL Education

Learning Targets

  1. I can describe the components of literacy instruction that challenge students to be critical readers and effective writers.
  2. I can describe instructional practices that engage students to read, think, talk, and write about texts.
  3. I can identify practices that empower students to become powerful writers who contribute to building a better world.

Read: Choosing Challenging and Engaging Texts

Deeper instruction is deeply planned. To plan for deeper literacy instruction, begin by choosing a text that centers on a compelling topic, addresses literacy standards, and holds the promise of building students’ literacy muscles. Choosing a text that is challenging and engaging takes time! Review the following summary from EL Education’s book Learning that Lasts, which describes how to evaluate text that students will want to read and that will boost them up the ladder of complexity. As you read, consider:

  1. Given your students’ grade level and backgrounds, what makes a text compelling for them?
  2. What features of quantitative and qualitative complexity do you want to learn more about?

Choosing Challenging and Engaging Texts

Texts that lead students to deeper learning serve as a second teacher in the lit­eracy classroom. They push students to understand more and differently than the teacher’s voice alone can do. Indeed, The 2006 ACT report “Reading between the Lines” showed that students who suc­ceed in college must do more than be able to apply reading strategies like infer­ring and questioning. They must be able to apply those strategies to dig meaning out of complex text. “What students could read, in terms of its complexity, was at least as important as what they could do with what they read” (from Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards for ELA/literacy, p. 2).

Evaluate how engaging the text is

To ensure that a text is both compelling and challenging, begin by evaluating how relevant and engaging the text is for your students. Supplementing or replacing textbooks with trade books and primary sources is one way to enhance relevance. Letters, historical photographs, documents, data sets, and artifacts are compelling for students because they invite students to inquire about the context of language: who’s speaking, when, and for what purpose. Students want to read these real-world texts because they answer questions they have about the topic and because they are visually exciting or written in words and phrases that humor or inspire them. Sometimes students want to read them because they model how to write in the genre or format of an upcoming assignment.

Evaluate how challenging the text Is

Engaging texts can also be rigorous. A challenging text gets students thinking deeply about text structure, vocabulary, and style. To evaluate how challenging a text is, begin by analyzing it for quantitative complexity, which is based on word and sentence length, as well as syntax. Quantitative complexity can be easily determined by computers that yield Lexile measures or Flesch‐Kin­caid grade levels. Consider whether the complexity of the text based on these measures matches readers’ ability to comprehend complex words and sentences.

Then analyze texts for qualitative complexity, which refers to more subjective criteria, including:

  • Background knowledge. The experience that readers must bring to the text helps them understand its content and language. Sometimes, teachers can provide this background knowledge through initial lessons prior to intro­ducing the text.
  • Language. Is the vocabulary academic or discipline specific? Does the text rely extensively on figurative language or unconventional syntax? Shake­spearean plays, poetry, and scientific journals are good examples of text with language complexity.
  • Meaning. Are there multiple levels of meaning or purpose in the text? Ironic or satirical literature and children’s books with multiple allusions that only adults will “get” (the Pixar film Shrek is a great example) are texts with multiple levels of meaning.
  • Structure. Are the organization, genre, and text features conventional, com­pelling, or innovative? Scientific diagrams, creative nonfiction, and magical realism are just a few examples of texts with complex structures.

With the previous excerpt on choosing challenging texts in mind, watch the video

Curriculum Design: The Four Ts and consider the following questions:

  1. How does grappling with The Four Ts enable teachers to develop a coherent curriculum that invites students to learn deeply?
  2. What challenges do you anticipate as you consider how to use The Four Ts in your own planning or for planning with your team?


Watch: Teaching Texts on Controversial Topics

Sometimes the most relevant and compelling texts are also controversial ones. Teaching students to read for evidence and to support written and verbal arguments with evidence can turn controversy into a powerful tool for learning.

Watch the video Policing in America: Using Powerful Topics and Texts to Challenge, Engage, and Empower Students. As you watch, consider the following questions:

  1. How did the teacher prepare her students to use evidence from the text?
  2. How does reading, thinking, and talking about the text prepare, engage, and empower students?


Read and Watch: The Craft of Teaching Close Reading

Students become critical readers when they learn to read closely and to support their thinking and writing with evidence from the text. Chapter 2 of Learning That Lasts describes how strong close reading lessons are planned around clear learning targets designed to address academic and domain-specific vocabulary. Teachers ask text-dependent questions and push students to investigate the structure of a text.  

Watch the video Reading and Thinking Like Scientists: Day 1 and Day 2 to see how Peter Hill, a science teacher at King Middle school, scaffolds a close reading lesson to support all students in understanding a difficult scientific text. As you watch, ask yourself:

  1. How do the differentiated tasks he provides enable all students to succeed as readers of complex text?
  2. What can you infer about the culture of collaboration in Hill’s classroom? How can you instill the same growth mindset and joy in learning among your own students?

Watch: Read, Think, Talk, Write

Reading, thinking, talking, and writing are all ways of digesting a text and synthesizing it into deep understanding. When students read, think, talk, and write about a topic, capturing their learning along the way, they are better prepared to communicate what they know and can do in real-world contexts like a live debate.

Watch the video Preparing for an Academic Conversation: Day 1--Analyzing a Scientific Argument and Day 2--Constructing Arguments Using Science Notebooks. As you watch, consider the following questions:

  1. What expectations does Mills have to get students “talking like scientists?”
  2. How does Mills close the lesson in order to get students ready for the debate they will engage in on Day 2 of this lesson?
  3. What can you infer about the role of the science notebook in students’ daily learning? How could you incorporate a note-catching tool like the science notebook in your own classroom?

Read and Watch: When Students Become Authors

Reading and writing are two sides of the same literacy coin. When students need to know what’s in the text in order to make a convincing argument, they are more motivated and more effective readers and writers. Chapter 2 of Learning that Lasts includes many examples of writing projects and products that engage students in doing the real-world work of writers who change the hearts and minds of their readers.

Watch how seventh grade students changed their community by writing a book about Peacekeepers in Chicago, and notice how becoming authors empowered them to see the world and themselves differently. As you watch, consider the following questions:

  1. How did these teachers use models to help students develop a clear understanding of quality writing?
  2. What compelled these students to do the hard work of revising and polishing their work?
  3. What next step can you take in your own writing instruction to support students in creating high-quality work?

Dig Deeper

Teaching Academic and Discipline-Specific Vocabulary:  Researchers agree that teaching vocabulary is an important step toward closing the opportunity gap. The more vocabulary a student is exposed to during learning, the more likely it is for that student to become a strong reader.

Four Ways to Motivate Kids to Tackle Complex Text: This article published in MiddleWeb describes key strategies for harnessing the power of “talk” to get students reading, thinking, and writing about challenging texts.

Models of Excellence: Writing: View the Orientation video for writing. Then browse through these high-quality student writing samples for models you can use with your own students.

Speed Dating Protocol:  Notice how this protocol pushes students to give and receive kind, helpful, and specific feedback on their writing—and teaches them that the secret to quality is revision. You can find additional protocols under the Resources section of the EL Education website. 

Descriptive Feedback Helps All Students Meet Proficiency: Watch this video to see how quality feedback from teachers and peers supports students to meet literacy learning targets.


Synthesize/Take Action

For Teachers…

  1. What resources can you explore to find complex texts that are also engaging and relevant for the grade level you teach? A great place to begin is Appendix F in Learning that Lasts, p. 359-364.
  2. How can you revise tomorrow’s lesson so that students read, think, talk, and write about the topic you’re studying? For an innovative idea, see this video of students evaluating texts related to a document-based question.
  3. Which discussion or writing critique protocol will you try next? What materials do you need to prepare to make it successful? Use Appendix B (pp. 345-346) in Learning that Lasts as a checklist to set yourself up for success.

For School Leaders…

  1. How can you support teachers to collaboratively analyze student writing samples, assignments, and rubrics? Conducting a Quality Work Protocol is a great place to start.
  2. What resources can you provide to give teachers access to primary sources and high-quality informational texts?
  3. After reviewing the Who, What, and Why of Deeper Literacy Instruction and the Common Challenges school face implementing these practices on pp. 115-120 in Learning that Lasts, what is your first best step to support teachers in teaching literacy?