What makes one school’s reading/writing program more successful than another school? What makes the difference? Researchers at the National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement (CELA) examine student achievement in reading, writing, and other important literacy skills in classrooms across the country. One of the studies has been looking at English programs in two sets of middle and high schools with similar student populations. Most of the schools in the study serve students from high poverty, big city neighborhoods. One set of schools “beat the odds” and outperformed their peers on high stakes, standardized tests, and the other set of schools performed more typically.
Based on their findings, the group came up with six features of instruction that make a difference in student performance. These six features are interrelated and supportive of one another. The higher performing schools exhibit all six characteristics. They caution that although addressing one feature may bring about improved student performance, it is the integration of all the features that will effect the most improvement.
Finding 1: Students learn skills and knowledge in multiple lesson types
What does that mean?
Teachers use a variety of different teaching approaches based on student need. If students need to learn a particular skill, item, or rule, for example, the teacher might choose to step away from the curriculum in a separated activity in order to introduce the information as an independent lesson, exercise or drill. (e.g., they might be asked to copy definitions of literary terms into their notebooks and to memorize them)
To give students practice, teachers prepare a simulated activity that asks students to apply concepts and rules within a targeted unit of reading, writing, or oral language. They learn their skill at their instructional level so that the focus is on learning the skill without the possible hindrance of the content of the material. (For example, students can identify examples of literary devices within a particular selection, or write their own examples of these devices.)
To help students bring together their skills and knowledge within the context of a purposeful activity, teachers use integrated activities. These require students to use their skills or knowledge to complete a task or project that has meaning for them. (For example, in discussing a work of literature, students might be asked to consider how a writer’s use of literary devices affects a reader’s response to the piece).
All three approaches, separated, simulated and integrated, should be used or teachers are missing opportunities to strengthen instruction and to integrate it across lessons throughout the year.
Some activities that work:
- offering separated and simulated activities to individuals, groups, or the entire class as needed
- providing overt, targeted instruction and review as models for peer and self-evaluation
- teaching skills, mechanics, or vocabulary that can be used during integrated activities such as literature discussions
- using all three kinds of instruction to scaffold ways to think and discuss (e.g. summarizing, justifying answers, and making connections)
What doesn’t work:
- reliance on any one approach to the exclusion of the other two
- focus on separated and/or simulated activities with no integration with the larger goals of the curriculum
At Reuben Dario Middle School in Florida, Gail Slatko uses all three approaches to empower her students to be better readers, writers, and editors. She teaches vocabulary skills within the context of literature and writing, but she also asks students to complete practice workbook exercises designed to inrease their vocabularies. They also create “living dictionaries” by collecting new words as they come across them in books, magazines, and newspapers.