The Reading and Writing Lab for International Students at Carroll University

Dolores Greenawalt, Carroll University, dogreenie @

International students face a difficult transition as they move to the United States for school. In addition to the typical adjustments they make as first-year college students, they also adjust to speaking in American Standard English (ASE), which, at the very least, is their second language (even their third or fourth). Therefore, their college English class is imperative to helping them succeed and build confidence in their speaking and writing. Often, those less confident in their English skills need additional help understanding facets like sentence structure, use of articles, style and diction. For many international and non-native English speaking students, ASE is not taught in enough detail in an average three-credit English class. Attending an additional English Reading and Writing Lab can also increase their skills and encourage active learning that connects the classroom to their life outside the classroom.

I facilitate the Reading and Writing Lab offered at Carroll University, a small private university in Waukesha, Wisconsin. This lab provides a space for students to work on assignments together or to practice specific writing and reading skills with me, an expert equipped to tutor on issues that many student volunteer services cannot. They often come in pairs or small groups and tackle issues together, which ensures their effectively integrating into the campus and expanding their resources. They can begin at a level they choose and work independently through their homework or complete mini-lessons on the formalities of academic writing.

Designing and facilitating such a lab ultimately accommodates non-native English speakers who are often the linguistic minority. According to the Institute of International Education (IIE) (2018), the percentage of international students in American higher education has risen from 3.8% in 2006/07 to 5.3% in 2017/18. In SY 16/17, the IIE’s Open Doors report found that one-third of all international students matriculate from China. Among the colleges and universities educating these students, 83.3% report their largest concern for this population as their English preparedness. Additionally, 76% worried about engaging them in the classroom, and 71.9% worried about integrating them on campus (Baer, 2017). The results are a reminder of the difficulties that all international students may face regardless of country of origin.

To put these percentages in perspective, at Carroll, that number averages only one to two international students in any given class. Thus, rather than enrolling them in an ASE English class where they may be the only international student, we enroll them in a class where ASE is not the native tongue. I have found that my own inclusive class of non-native English speaking students who need extra help with ASE to feel more confident because they are surrounded by similar people. This inclusive class was also encouraged to participate in a Reading and Writing Lab facilitated by an active professor (me). In this environment, they are more open to learning the basic tenets of English because they do not feel isolated, which can occur in other, more inclusive classrooms.

We found that creating a class specifically for non-native English speakers–both first- or second-generation American students and international students–encouraged relationship building and confidence among them in both the classroom and on campus. This type of connection encourages active learning, deeper learning, and extensive discussions that may otherwise not have occurred in an English class where everyone’s skills are more varied. The rate of increased confidence can rise faster when a group of students can work on their struggles with other classmates without fear of isolation.

The weaknesses in ASE among the class and their want for further understanding was the common denominator that brought them together during lab time, which centers around activities that allow them to put the information they are learning into action. Writing in different styles can help them acquire a larger vocabulary and practice different uses of language. Experimenting with writing styles also helps them explore and determine how to convey information to readers, and it provides the opportunity to decipher which techniques best illustrate their point. Creating scenes where they are film critics, source analysts, or angry constituents can provide situational assignments that will both test them and invoke a deeper thinking process extending as the entire class works together. Allowing a mixture of techniques that crosses the boundaries of different writing styles creates writers willing to go outside of established conventions to create more depth in their work.

Sometimes, the students feel that limited lab time is insufficient for them to work on all of their skills, so having a lab connected to a class is a good way for them to transition the information from the classroom to other avenues. The lab is also a bridge to other campus services, and it helps lessen their trepidation when seeking extra help. The connections a Reading and Writing Lab provides helps expand their usage of these services by providing opportunities to connect with other coordinators and volunteers.

At Carroll, on average, those who visit the Learning Commons throughout the semester raise their grade by an entire letter. Additionally, through data collection such as card swipes, Carroll has seen a rise in international student visits to the Learning Commons after they visit the Reading and Writing Lab. They also feel more comfortable with asking for different services that will increase their understanding of class material.

Different versions of Reading and Writing Labs are popular across the country. A quick glance at Wisconsin shows that most colleges and universities have a version of writing lab or center. However, a lab designated to help first-year students who are non-native English speakers, run by a faculty member, can increase the amount and type of help students can receive.

With the increasing presence of non-native English speakers in the United States, it’s imperative that universities make clear connections with international and non-native English speaking students. By pairing inclusive classrooms and a Reading and Writing Lab as a method for students to improve familiarity with ASE, students will increase their confidence and understanding of English, become familiar with campus resources, and form connections and relationships with faculty and other campus staff. This higher increase in participation will create a more positive and effective experience for both international and non-native English speaking students.

Baer, J. (2017). Fall 2017 international student enrollment hot topics survey. Washington, DC: Institute of International Education.

Institute of International Education (2017). Open Doors report on international educational exchange. Retrieved from:

Institute of International Education (2018). 2018 fast facts. Retrieved from:

Review: Lightning Paths: 75 Poetry Writing Exercises by Kyle Vaughn (NCTE, 2018, 121 pp.)

Paul Wiegel, Ripon High School/Lumen Charter High School,
wiegelp @

Lightning Paths: 75 Poetry Exercises is Vaughn’s second book, and his first focused specifically on the teaching of poetry. Vaughn’s other book, A New Light in Kalighat,  is co-authored with Breana Reynolds and seeks to shed light on the plight of women and children in Kalighat, India. Vaughn’s other publications include a handful of essays on teaching, some of which were published in The English Journal. His poems have also appeared in numerous poetry journals.  Vaughn’s career as an educator spans twenty years and includes stints at both the secondary and post secondary level. He also holds some international qualifications, having participated in a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar—Muslim Culture and the Arts (NEH and City Lore), and he has presented at the Penn Graduate School of Education and Asia Society’s 2015 Global Education Forum.

Vaughn’s book is a series of poetry lessons and examples that can be adapted to a variety of classrooms.These middle chapters are bookended by commentary from Vaughn on the purpose of poetry and some commentary on how teachers should approach some of the book’s thoughts. He categorizes his ideas into three discrete sections: Image, Idea, and Form. Throughout the book, his vision for poetry lessons is rooted in the idea that the instructor’s task is to provide an idea–that lightning path–and that the writer will see it through to the end. In this way, the book’s lessons are not entire prescriptions to complete a poem, they are more like starter ideas that will allow students or writers to make connections on their own.

In the book’s first section on image, Vaughn provides lessons that seek to push writers toward finding images that are the primary focus of the poem rather than treat them as enhanced lines that are part of the larger poem. Once an image is discovered, suggests Vaughn, the writer can play with language to make it larger than the original idea—“A poet presents an image or images but must arrange them, give them context and relationship to other images or to ideas, and must give them a space to exist in our inner lives, whether that be our emotional lives or our philosophical/spiritual lives. The image is the building block, but the image alone does not make the poem—otherwise, a mere list of objects would count as a poem” (5). Vaughn’s activities in this section take much inspiration from the five senses. However, rather than using sensory input as details to enhance the feel or flow of the poem, in this section, he pushes the activity toward using the senses themselves as the focus. For example, one activity is called “Imagery of Sound (I Heard Inside).” Here, the focus is on sounds that the author would imagine coming from inside of a chosen object, and the suggested focuses include “volume, pitch, timbre, direction, and duration; the social-emotional properties…” These are sound images that Vaughn suggests can represent something. The challenge here is for the author to then stretch the poem and decide on a list of sounds and then determine what the sounds represent. He provides the start of the idea and an example to round out the end goal, but leaves the rest to the author.

The second section is focused on idea. Based on Vaughn’s discussion and examples, this section outlines new directions and suggestions for picking a topic. Where the first section of the book places the focus on images and sensory details, this section has more of a practical “What should I write about?” feel to it. The appeal in this section is the randomness of the activities. Vaughn suggests cartoons, games, and trinkets as places to begin a poem, but he also tackles the ideas of personal loss and grief (admitting these are difficult ideas to write about). As with the other sections of the book, Vaughn’s activities provide a basic outline for an activity and leave room for the teacher and student to go in many directions. The overall message here seems to be that inspiration can be found in the mundane—all the writer needs is a little prompting and to trust their imagination. Vaughn writes, “Our imagination, language, the images we carry, the visions we dream all reside somewhere almost intangible until we perform the act necessary to make them presentable to an audience” (40). Some of the more accessible concepts deal with games. There are a number of suggestions based on memories or associations with card games and childhood games like hide and seek. Here the commonly repeated phrase of “write what you know” takes on a bit more focus as Vaughn provides a little more context for this time-honored piece of advice.

The final section focuses on form. Here, Vaughn has listed some of the familiar forms (odes, haiku, ghazal), but also discusses some different ideas about fitting a poem into a pattern. For example, he provides a fresh take on lists, found poems, and imitation. This section deviates a little from the “poem starter” feel of the previous two sections to provide more of a complete idea. The lessons and examples in this section give more of a script to take a poem from start to finish with only a few options for the author to smooth the lines and subject together. One such example is called “Line By Line.” This poem offers up eighteen lines of separate questions and ideas that end up framing an outline for a poem. Once this “raw material” is set down, the crafting of the poem becomes more of a lesson in editing to provide focus and flow. While the ideas in this section would fit in any creative writing class, the restrictions here may actually be helpful for less experienced poets. Vaughn works in enough room for the creative process, but also choses forms that would encourage novice poets simply because of the “rules” required to fill in each line.

In all, the variety of activities offered up in Lightning Paths will allow anyone who teaches poetry to find something to add to their arsenal of ideas. Some will likely ring true to any brand of pedagogy or taste in poetry. The provided student examples for each one also give a little more context to the vision of each activity. A classroom of aspiring poets would be encouraged by seeing the final result that can come from working through the process, and a teacher will find Vaughn’s take on poetry a delightful little journey through the possibilities and potential of the variety of things that can spark an idea.

Review: The Adventure of English (500 AD to 2,000): The Biography of a Language by Melvin Bragg (Spectre, 2003, 317 pp.)

Thomas Hansen, past Illinois State Supervisor for K-12 Foreign Language Programs, Illinois State Board of Education

This book represents a fantastically interesting way to look at the history of our language from the very beginnings to the most recent computer jargon. It covers the history, complete with myriad connections to the original Germanic dialects.

This book represents a fantastically interesting way to look at the history of our language from the very beginnings to the most recent computer jargon. It covers the history, complete with myriad connections to the original Germanic dialects.

Bragg approaches the entire history by using the idea that English is a living thing, not just a handy form of communication. He thinks of English as being a sort of adventurous survivor, taking on all manner of foes from the very start, when its first few days were already being threatened by those darn Danes setting up camp not too far away.

Bragg shows how there is something innately strong and heroic about a language that can keep going despite threats from within and from without. He reminds us that English has always been under siege and has always defeated its competition (though sometimes things looked rather glum). Bragg goes to great lengths to show us the strong capacity English has not only for survival but for conquering other languages threatening to wipe out our language entirely.

His personification of l’anglais as spoken by the masses is the key to his arguments: English is a being, not just a system for communication. Despite his romantic approach, he makes use of entirely sound scientific, historical and linguistic references to the great changes English underwent from its very beginnings. In contact with various Germanic and Scandinavian dialects and languages from the start, English has nonetheless won its struggle to remain the strong force for communicating in England and later nearby and even far away. His strong understanding of the linguistic mutations and blossoming are clear throughout.

The grammatical and pronunciation aspects of the story are correct and suitable for all serious students of the language, for historians interested in that island called “Albion” that would eventually be called “England,” and for writers and teachers connected to the tongue.

Bragg does something that has not been done before: He talks about English as a fit, mutating, tolerant being, able to both hold its own and steal, adapt, and rob other languages of their concepts. The nuances capable of a language having several terms for the same exact object or phenomenon are great indeed. Bragg argues that no other language has been able to accomplish what English has managed to do. The language has fought hard! The language still survives despite many scrapes, wars, decrees, invasions, battles, and revolutions!

I recommend this book to all writers, students of English, and persons with an interest in interdisciplinary connections among language, history, political science, and other related fields. It is not only a great example of looking at a topic a new way, it is also an example of excellent writing and successful use of research to prove a thesis.

Review: But How Do You Teach Writing? A Simple Guide for All Teachers by Barry Lane (Scholastic, 2008, 200 pp.)

Thomas Hansen, past Illinois State Supervisor for K-12 Foreign Language Programs, Illinois State Board of Education

This is an older book written by a very popular professional development expert with a great sense of humor and dynamite ideas for teaching writing. Lane has written a dozen other books both alone and with other experts on the teaching of writing. Although the book is not new, it does contain lots of goodies.

This is an older book written by a very popular professional development expert with a great sense of humor and dynamite ideas for teaching writing. Lane has written a dozen other books both alone and with other experts on the teaching of writing. Although the book is not new, it does contain lots of goodies.

I often grab professional development books from the boxes at thrift shops and dig through those volumes to see if there is something interesting. I think Lane’s work is very interesting because for one thing: he understands the writing process very well. I enjoyed his approach found in this particular book. I will not give away all the content here.

Lane also understands teachers, the demands placed upon them, the external obsession with forms of assessment that do not necessarily correlate with high-quality teaching methods and the daily grind of trying to help students write (and learn) better. Lane has experience in the classroom and has served as mentor, visiting writing consultant, and educator. He has great ideas and a great sense of humor.

His jokes and his wit combine to make a very entertaining read here. He has also an incredibly highly tuned sense of outrage about irony. Teachers who “know better” and who have “been through the mill” will enjoy how he attacks some of the most ironic nonsense involved in trying to teach students.

Lane also understands students, including young ones. While most of what he says is best for elementary school levels, there is also information suitable for high school, college, adult ed, and community writing programs. His candor and experience help him deal with the personalities of emerging writers and with students “groaning” about assignments.

I recommend the book for your library, whether you are a classroom teacher, a teacher who deals with writing instruction specifically, a teacher educator in writing and language arts, or just somebody interested in improving how you teach and/or write. There are lots of darn good ideas here, in a straightforward, accessible, and down-to-earth package.

I Stopped Grading Papers—And You Can, Too

Elizabeth Jorgensen, Arrowhead High School, jorgensene @

Practice as Performance
Junior and senior students enrolled in my Creative Writing course expect to churn out a paper (the night before it’s due), receive a circled rubric (letter grade attached), and never discuss the assignment again. My classroom shakes not only their expectations but also their work ethic.

Each day, my students write. And each day, they receive feedback on that writing. When they are shocked they have to write every day, I say, “This is a performance class. Much like physical education or choir, you will come in every day and practice. And then, you will receive feedback in order to improve.” I tell them we are a team working together to create the best possible piece of art. Like a choir teacher, I want their performance to well tears in parents’ eyes, to wow and entertain an audience. And like a physical education teacher, I don’t demand Olympic quality work from beginning efforts.

A focus on learning and growing—rather than grading—makes my job more enjoyable. I come in to my classroom each day looking forward to reading what my students wrote. I look forward to assessing what they composed, not for a grade, but for its emotional impact, its beauty, its originality.

Writing is a vulnerable, intimidating task even for the most acclaimed. For the juniors and seniors, a B or a C can inhibit creativity, risk-taking and personal expression. It can diminish effort, confidence and achievement. Rubrics encourage students to search for a minimum, a pathway to a grade defined by vague requirements. It reminds me of what author, edublogger, and teacher Ferriter (2017) says: “The truth is that the things that are the most meaningful are also the hardest to measure.”

For at least a decade, my grading system relied on standards, learning targets and points to earn. But assigning a B+ instead of a B- felt arbitrary and often tied to my mood or personal preference. Unsatisfied, I took a year to research grading practices. I attended assessment conferences and spoke with colleagues. I found teachers going gradeless, ungrading, and using contract grading, conference grading, and self-assessments. I was reminded that “teachers accept they have to grade, students accept they have to be graded, students are made to feel like they should care a great deal about grades, and teachers are told they shouldn’t spend much time thinking about the why, when, and whether of grades” (Stommel, 2018). But I couldn’t stop thinking or researching.

At the end of my inquiry year, I implemented process-based assessment. To introduce this to students, I present a letter that outlines the course and expectations (see Appendix). Students respond to me in a similar format, and the letter goes home to a parent or guardian.

Daily, students receive one point (reflecting the student’s ability to address my feedback and elevate language choices, the plot or writing quality). Like other performance classes, I meet students in real time as they work and remind them of what I value: learning, growing, getting better.

Assessment in Creative Writing reflects the work students do to update their drafts and make intentional and purposeful choices. Each assignment, task or draft is worth one process point. I remind students—through words, practice and assessment—that each part of the writing process has equal importance. I want them to shift away from thinking about the grade and toward embracing editing and writing as a challenge or opportunity.

England (1986), the Director of the Louisiana State University Writing Project, wrote, “My teachers, and maybe yours, too, usually told me what I did wrong after I ‘finished’ the paper, gave me a grade, then had me write again—usually on a different topic. It was hard to improve that way” (para. 2). By focusing on the process, students receive feedback along the way rather than just at the end of a piece. They are given the opportunity and tools to improve.

As a writer, I know that brainstorming, writing and editing never end. There are always mistakes to be found, language to be elevated, sentences to be tweaked. My classroom assessment follows suit. Over the course of each assignment, students complete at least three drafts. After each draft, I provide feedback, suggestions and corrections. I use the “suggesting mode” on Google Docs. In providing feedback, I am consistent with what Thomas (2016), Professor of Education at Furman University, recommends:

Teacher feedback must be rich, detailed, and targeted to support revision. The most powerful feedback includes identifying key strengths in a students work (“Do this more often!”) and questions that help guide students toward revision (“Why are you omitting the actual names of your family members in your personal narrative?”).

As a teacher, I shift my mindset from grader to coach. I focus on building confidence through affirmation and skill development. Mini-lessons encourage students to implement stylistic devices or action verbs or varied sentence structures. Peer editing provides an additional resource. Because my students are juniors and seniors, I encourage them to assume ownership of their writing.

This process-based approach leads to thinking and understanding both of self and world. Online educator Gibbs (n.d.) recommends making students responsible by removing stress to “allow students to pursue their own learning paths and set their own goals.” In using process-based assessment, I rely not on one moment or standard that will not apply to everyone at the same time. Instead, I work as a facilitator. Zach, in his class exit survey, wrote, “I expected it to be like many of the other English classes I’ve taken. You get a prompt, write about it, edit once or twice, and submit it to the teacher for a grade. The system used in Creative Writing is drastically different and engaging. Having your constant feedback throughout the whole writing process is helpful, led me to start thinking outside the box, and caused me to start catching errors myself.”

Progress Is Perfection
Department members have asked, “How do you know what to say?”—“How do you get students to draft multiple times without gripes and eye rolls?”—“How do you have enough time to provide that much feedback?”

I remind myself—and my students and colleagues—that writing is an art. And what is the point of art? To evoke emotion, to make the reader think or feel, to connect with an audience, to live beyond the span of a lifetime. To enjoy it. Because of this, I’m honest with my students and candid in my reactions. Because of this, reading papers isn’t a chore, but an absorption of their art.

In my feedback, I start by providing an emotional reaction to each student’s poem, prose or essay:

  1. This gave me goosebumps.
  2. This makes me so sad for you (or the character).
  3. This reminds me of when my dad broke his arm, the garage door crashing and Mom screaming.

As author, thought leader, and philanthropist Tan (2012) writes, “when a person is given person praise, it reinforces a ‘fixed mind-set,’ or the belief that our success is due to fixed traits that are a given.” However, when giving feedback, “it’s better to praise people for working hard than for being smart” (p. 85). Keeping this in mind, my feedback focuses on effort and a growth mindset:

  1. It looks like you’re trying to use a stylistic device here. Are there other places where you can use a different stylistic devices?
  2. I see you gave a lot of effort implementing action verbs in this stanza. Can you try to do the same in the next stanza?
  3. You’ve worked hard on telling a story in the present tense that uses dialogue. This allows me to visualize the scene.

Students who enjoy writing are more likely to return to it. One former student, Jacob, said, “I learned how to become more patient and understand that not everything is going to be perfect the first time around.” If I’m doing nothing else in my classroom, I want to encourage lifelong writers, people who want to express and create—and who find joy in practicing the craft. I also know that because enjoyment leads to practice, it will likely lead to progress. Former student Cole said, “I now have a lot more courage to just write what I’m thinking, because I know that I can change it if I want or keep it if I like it.”

Established Curriculum/Fresh Approach
When I taught English 9 (a remedial summer school course), I applied process-based assessment. This course focused on grammar, writing and mechanics, but also on reading, research and speech. Whether students gave a speech, read a novel or completed research, I coached them through the process. While the daily point held them accountable and kept them on track to pass, I focused on using feedback to help each student improve.

Process-based assessment can be modified to correlate with your school’s policies and grading procedures. A colleague at my school, who wanted to keep traditional assessments but also implement a daily point system, converted assignments to decimals. Assessments (like 100-point, multiple-choice tests) were scored as .87/1. If using a daily point or process-based system isn’t possible in your district or department, consider making changes that will encourage students to focus on the process rather than the outcome. This may be done by increasing positive comments on student work, providing students with feedback prior to assessments, or individualizing and personalizing instruction.

Formatting your gradebook to favor formative assessments may also provide students with opportunities for growth and learning. If using weighted categories in your gradebook, consider 90% formative and 10% summative. In Mindful Assessment, cowritten with Andrew Churches, Watanabe-Crockett (2019) suggests that formative assessment allows students to “engage with feedback and make corrections as learning progresses.”

Before making curriculum or grading practice changes, speak with your administration; be open and honest with department members, students and parents; invite colleagues to learn and grow with you; and provide research and a thoughtful action plan.

Time Constraints
There is never enough time, and there never will be. Providing individual feedback to 180 students each semester remains a struggle. In early attempts at process-based assessment and daily feedback, I commented on everything. This often resulted in students shutting down (“Everything sucks!” “I have to start over!” “I’m a horrible writer!”) and an unmanageable workload for me. I now limit my comments and focus on one or two criteria (language choices, punctuation, or emotional impact). I also narrow my course to three guiding principles: story, structure and stylistic devices. This makes providing feedback more manageable and creates resolve. When students see a few comments to address, and more compliments than corrections, their attitudes improve: “I know what I can do to make this section better.” “This is my best paragraph.” “I’m on the right track.”

During class, lunch and prep periods, and before and after school, I read student work and provide feedback. It’s a never-ending, uphill battle and I regularly feel behind. To alleviate some stress, I put students in control. I say, “Please let me know what I can do to help, where you need assistance or what you’re struggling with.” This allows me to provide useful feedback and narrow my responses.

Rapport and Relationships
It is a delicate balance, providing constructive feedback while including positive reinforcement. How students respond is intensified by hormones, breakups, rumors, and social media. If I add stress, I prevent students from reaching their potential. To encourage them to be creative, play with language and enjoy the writing process, I am mindful of my tone. Much of my feedback happens electronically, so students may misread honesty for brutality. One way to combat misperception is to focus on effort-based feedback or empathy.

As English teachers, we know that expectations are different for writing and speaking. Those who speak have so much more to work with: tone, body language, facial expressions, context. In providing electronic feedback, I have only my words, my capitalization choices and my punctuation. To avoid a misconstrued tone, I often flip my feedback to the students:

  1. How do you feel about the progress you’re making?
  2. Where are you unhappy (or most pleased) with your language choices?
  3. What can I do to assist?
  4. What emotions did you intend to evoke in the reader here?
  5. What did you want the reader to learn or take away from this piece?

I remind myself of what I like about my job: the ability to be creative, to take risks, to try something, to get better each day. I feel safe at work; I want my students to feel safe in my classroom. I like my colleagues and I want them to like me; I like my students and I want them to like me. To create this kind of positive environment, I give students what my administration has given me: a safe place to grow, experience, learn, thrive, and positively influence others. I give them affirmation, praise and my honest opinion.

During the interview for my English teacher position, the principal asked, “Do you think it’s more important for students to respect you or like you?” I replied that I work harder, better, smarter, for people I like. Of course, those I like I inherently respect as well, so I know if my students like me they are quite likely to respect me, too. I began to envision a classroom where we all liked each other—and it was a place I wanted to return to. It was a place I aimed to create. In giving feedback, I refer to this vision often.

I also assume that students have given me their full effort (at least until they prove otherwise). I look at failures or mistakes as opportunities to improve. Although it’s easier (and often the default) to focus on errors, this will shut students down and prevent them from enjoying writing. I keep in mind the following: “Barbara Fredrickson, noted pioneer in positive psychology, found that it takes three positive experiences to overcome a negative one, a 3:1 ratio. In general, each negative feeling is three times as powerful as a positive one” (Tan, 2012, p. 154). When providing feedback, I aim to provide three positive comments for each correction, edit or negative. Focusing on my emotional reaction or asking students questions helps me achieve this ratio.

Knowing when to push students and when to build them up changes as they experience stress, AP exams, heartbreak, state championships, “promposals,” and spring breaks. I aim to find the “flow [that] occurs when the task at hand matches the skill level of the practitioner, such that it is difficult enough to provide a challenge but not so difficult that it overwhelms the practitioner” (Tan, 2012, p. 135). This means knowing each student.

For years I’ve trained with Ryan Bloor, my fitness trainer, to perfect my push-up form. He started with modified push-ups and progressed to regular push-ups. When my form failed, he cued me to “squeeze glutes.” He also reminded me of what I did well: “elbows are tucked.” When I continued to struggle, he added cues: “create as much tension as you can throughout your whole body.” After weeks of practice, he added another: “Squeeze back your shoulder blades.” For whatever reason, the combination of cues on that day worked. From then on, my push-ups progressed and I’m now doing power push-ups and weighted push-ups.

Like him, I try different cues for different students. I also use cues both simultaneously and at different times, reminding students of what they are doing well.

But, this is not a utopian classroom. Sometimes students refuse to do daily work and fail to earn the daily point; in these instances, an email to a parent is one of my first go-tos. If students continue to resist daily work or refuse to perform, I respond with encouragement and—more times than not—they turn things around:

  1. I read in the newspaper about your success at the conference wrestling meet. Congrats! Maybe you’ll be able to use your experience on the mat in this essay?
  2. You wrote one sentence, and this sentence is great; it included an action verb and a sensory detail. Can you continue in this direction, adding more about what the scene smelled, felt, sounded like?

I’ve had some students say, “I don’t want you to look at this until it’s finished” or “I don’t want you looking over my shoulder.” These meet responses like:

  1. I’m here to help.
  2. Can you just see me as here to assist you, every step of the way?
  3. Writing is never done and it’s never going to be perfect. I am here to make sure you’re on the right track.

Each day, I view reading student work as my opportunity to assist. It’s not a burden, but providing what’s best to help them learn and improve. My sister is a professional athlete, and she often says that she doesn’t make sacrifices to meet her goal. Instead, she makes investments. This growth mindset helps me give each student appropriate feedback. My former student, Jared, got it when he said,

I think one of the most helpful things about this class was your feedback. You always told me exactly what I did wrong on my pieces and gave me enough feedback to allow me to fix my mistakes and learn from them. However, it’s not like you just flat out edited my piece and changed it yourself. I felt like you never just gave me what I was supposed to change, you would instead suggest a different direction. This is perfect for my learning because I feel like some teachers don’t give you enough information to learn from your mistakes and just expect you to somehow know what you did wrong.

And to Jared, I said: “I’m so happy you’re enjoying writing. I hope you continue to write. Keep practicing and you’ll only get better—and you’ll only find more joy in the process.”

Why Assess the Process?

  1. You can teach writing and focus on growing skills.
  2. You can coach students to create quality writing.
  3. You can use writing as a strategy (writing to learn in addition to learning to write).
  4. Writing is never finished; there is no end (no final draft); it is never perfect.
  5. Student learning happens when students modify and edit (not when they are graded).
  6. Students will use your feedback to elevate their writing, not to assess quality.
  7. Students will see you as a partner; you will work with students to help them excel, grow, and produce quality writing that resonates with readers.
  8. You will empower writers to make intentional choices.

What Do Students Think?

The emphasis on progress and development greatly appeals to me because it contrasts with what teachers focused on in the past. Instead of trying to improve the writers themselves, previous teachers placed all importance on the finished product. While this has improved my grades, my writing itself has not improved.

As I grew up, teachers had very strict guidelines that I had to follow and I stopped enjoying writing as much as I had before. In this class, I have much more flexibility with writing than I have in the past and I am excited about that.

It is refreshing to see a class focused more on improvement and growth than numbers and scores. It is much easier to flourish in an environment that encourages errors than one where you are too scared to attempt new challenges.

England, D. A. (1986). Teaching writing processes and determining grades.” Quarterly, 8(3). Retrieved from

Ferriter, B. (2017, September 15). Meaningful ain’t always measurable. The Tempered Radical.

Gibbs, L. (n.d.). Grading without fear. Anatomy of an Online Course.

Stommel, J. (2018, March 18). How to ungrade. Jesse Stommel. https://www.

Tan, C-M. (2012). Search inside yourself: The unexpected path to achieving success, happiness (and world peace). HarperOne.

Thomas, P. L. (2016, May 6). Not how to enjoy grading but why to stop grading. Radical Eyes for Equity.

Watanabe-Crockett, L. (2019, August 13). Formative vs. summative assessment: Which is better? Wabisabi Learning.

Decoding at the Secondary Level

Lisa Hollihan Allen, West De Pere School District, lhollihan-allen @

Decoding, or word identification, is the ability to decipher a particular word out of a string of letters. According to the National Institute for Literacy, approximately 10% of all adolescents struggle with word identification skills, an estimate likely higher if you look at only struggling adolescent readers (National Institute for Literacy, 2007). Imagine that you have 100 students in your classroom every day, at least 10 of them could be struggling with a word level deficit. If they’re struggling with the words, there could also be deficits in comprehension, vocabulary and fluency. Sometimes even if they know the word in conversation and were paying attention in class (their listening vocabulary), they are unable to decode it in print. Photosynthesis starts with a ‘p’? (Just tell them, “Yep, just like phone.”)

I started my career teaching middle school English and literature. I earned my master’s degree in reading in order to be a better English teacher, not to be a reading specialist. Eventually (a long story that involves kids, daycare and a surprise twist) I transitioned into a K-12 district reading specialist, which evolved into teaching 6-12 literacy intervention in West De Pere, Wisconsin, a rapidly growing district in suburban Green Bay. We have approximately 3400 students, are bursting at the seams, and are about to break ground to build an intermediate school. Our administration is supportive of literacy and we are constantly striving to do what is best for our students.

When I started the transition from English teacher to reading specialist, the learning curve was high. I had been using my master’s knowledge for comprehension only. I probably passed tests about fluency and decoding, but I confess it never occurred to me to integrate that into my classes. I joke about how I want to call my former students to see if they’ll come to my house on Saturday mornings because “I know what to do now!” Decoding is a critical part of comprehension and many of our students struggle with it.

The Two Parts of Decoding

Letter-Sound Relationship
The letter-sound relationship is knowledge of the letters or groups of letters which represent the individual speech sounds in language.

  1. Alphabetic principle is the understanding that letters represent sounds which form words and the knowledge of predictable relationships between written letters and spoken sounds.
  2. Phonemic awareness is the understanding that spoken words are made up of individual units of sound, called “phonemes.”

The majority of adolescent students will not need remediation at this level, but for those who do, this section will provide strategies that will support them in decoding new words and syllables in a text.

Readers who are phonemically aware understand that three phonemes, /b/, /a/, /t/, form the word ‘bat’ and that the word ‘bath’ also has three phonemes because /th/ is one sound. Readers who are phonemically aware are also able to identify and manipulate sounds. They can replace the initial sound /b/ in “bat” with a /p/ to make a new word, “pat.” They can replace the medial sound /a/ in “pat” with an /i/ to make “pit”. They can make the word “pin” by replacing the final sound /t/ in “pit” with an /n/.

These skills are typically acquired in kindergarten and first grade. If older students did not fully develop their phonemic awareness as young children, they can experience difficulty with decoding when they encounter unfamiliar words. This weakness becomes especially apparent as they encounter new, multisyllabic words. Shaywitz (2003) asserted that students unsuccessful in reading words unfamiliar to them might also struggle with poor phonemic awareness skills. This is especially complicated for older readers with dyslexia. Students with significant gaps may require a systematic intervention taught with fidelity by a trained reading specialist using the following strategies and activities to break the letter-sound code:

Tapping sounds. I learned about tapping sounds when I was trained in the Wilson Language System. Students use their fingers to tap out the sounds in a word or syllable. For example, for the word “bat,” tap a different finger for each sound in the word: three taps for three sounds. The kinesthetic aspect of tapping provides an additional sensory input to simply hearing the sounds. An example of a script for tapping sounds is as follows:

Teacher: Say “blast.”
Student: “Blast.”
Teacher: Tap the sounds in “blast.”
Student: (touching pointer finger to thumb) /b/, (middle finger to thumb)
/l/, (ring finger to thumb) /a/, (pinkie finger to thumb) /s/, (pointer finger
to thumb, again) /t/.
Teacher: Now put it all together.
Student: (running thumb along tips of fingers) “Blast.”

When I started teaching Wilson at the high school level, I wasn’t sure how open the students would be to doing this. Would they think it was babyish? Maybe they did (they probably did), but they also knew they needed help and that I rarely saw a reluctant attitude (although I could tell you stories about “reluctant attitudes”). Teachers in the building would even tell me that they noticed my students putting their hands under the desk and tapping a word or a syllable when they needed to.

Manipulatives: Letter tiles and magnetic letters. Make or buy letter tiles or magnetic letters, using one color for consonants and another (preferably red) for vowels. Identifying consonants and vowels by color helps students with the concept that we read by syllables and that every syllable has a vowel sound.

Students make words using Wilson Language System tiles, magnetic letters, cut out letters and an overhead projector.

Word ladders (aka laddergrams, word-links, word golf, doubles). This game requires players to get from the predetermined first word to the predetermined final word by guessing hints and changing one letter. For example:

Turn CAT into DOG:
_ _ _ (hint: a small bed)
_ _ _ (hint: a round mark)

Besides being (English teacher) fun, word ladders facilitate students’ understanding of common letter patterns that make up words. They can be played individually or in teams.

Cunningham’s (2000) book Systematic Sequential Phonics They Use introduces another type of word ladder she calls “Making Words”. In this version, students read or listen to clues and use the provided letters to form the answer word. This book includes activities appealing to kindergarten students as well as older struggling readers and second-language learners.

In the following example inspired by Cunningham’s model (McKnight and Allen, 2018), students use six letters to build ten words. Notice that each hint is followed by an example of the target word used in a sentence. Through following the series of instructions, the word making progresses from at to paint:

Letters: a i t s p n
1. Take 2 letters and makethe word at. (Practice is at 4:00.)
2. Change one letter and make the word it. (It is important to be on time.)
Add one letter and make the word pit. (Get there early to help with the high jump pit.)
3. Change one letter and make the word pat. (The recipe in F.A.C.E. called for one pat of butter.)
4. Add one letter and make the word spat. (Usually they’re best friends, but they’re having a little spat right now.)
5. Change one letter and make the word span. (The Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has an arm span of 6′ 7″.)
6. Take out one letter and make the word pan. (If you all pass the test, I will bring a pan of chocolate brownies.)
7. Change one letter and make the word pin. (Bring in a baby picture and we will pin them all on the wall.)
8. Add one letter and make the word pain. (Her injury is causing a lot of pain.)
9. Add one letter and make the word paint. (We get to paint in art class today.)

Word Analysis
Adolescents who struggle with reading typically do not struggle at the phonetic level but with the more complex task of word analysis. If they cannot read 70 percent of the words on standardized lists, some weakness in word recognition or identification is suggested. Caldwell and Leslie (2009) use this approach to identify older students who need reading intervention.

Allington (2012) claims in his most recent edition of What Really Matters for Struggling Readers that students need to accurately read 98 percent of the words on each page in order to be considered independent readers of that text. His earlier studies indicated a slightly lower threshold of 95 percent. It is critical for readers to develop word recognition competency.

Sight/high frequency words. These are words students need to be able to recognize “by sight.” This is especially important as many sight words do not follow the phonics rules. For example, why isn’t would spelled wud and why isn’t of spelled uv? The ability to decode these words automatically helps build fluency and increases the level of engagement in a text to deepen comprehension. They shouldn’t have to slow down and use cognitive energy to decide if the word is where or were.

In the 1950s (updated in the 1980s), Edward Fry developed a list of the most common words to appear in reading materials in grades 3-9. He advocated that learning all 1,000 words would equip these students to read about 90% of the words in a typical book or newspaper. This link to the Fry List will take you to a website with the lists, lessons, flashcards and games.

Word families. Word families/phonograms/rimes/chunks share a pattern of letters. The “chunk” begins from the vowel and goes to the end of the word or syllable. A simple word family is –at. Words like bat, cat, and mat belong in the –at word family. These are simple words, but once a student is familiar with the 30 or so most common word families, they can use them to help decode many words. Word families work in syllables, too. The word family –at can help students decode words like batten, battery, category, patronize and attentively. If they recognize the /at/ together as one unit instead of /a/ and then /t/, it will be easier to decode higher level words with greater fluency.

Word Family Examples (McKnight and Allen, 2018):
ack: pack, attack
all: hall, install
ain: rain, complain
ake: cake, awake
ate: gate, debate

The 37 most common word families in English (Wylie & Durrell, 1970):
ack, ain, ake, ale, all, ame,
an, ank, ap, ash, at, ate,
aw, ay, eat, ell, est, ice,
ick, ide, ight, ill, in, ine,
ing, ink, ip, it, ock, oke,
op, ore, ot, uck ,ug, ump, unk

Prefixes and suffixes. Another word analysis tool is to look for affixes, letter(s) added to a word that changes the meaning. Prefixes are found at the beginning of a word and suffixes are found at the end of a word. The most common prefix is un– which means not or opposite of. When you add the prefix un– to the word constitutional, you have a new word, unconstitutional—not or the opposite of constitutional.

If we teach our students the meaning of common prefixes, we can help them understand the meaning of words:

Suffixes are added at the end of words. There are noun suffixes (runner), adjective suffixes (wonderful), adverb suffixes (happily) and verb suffixes (writing). Adding a suffix sometimes changes spelling: consonant doubling–run, runner; change y to i—carry, carried and deleting the silent e–write, writing.

Like prefixes, a suffix can help students understand the meaning of words:

Root words. Noticing root words can help students decode. A root is the basis of a word that holds meaning, but isn’t usually a word by itself. The root word sist means to make firm, to stay, but there is no such word as sist—you have to add prefixes and suffixes as in insist, persisted, desist, When we teach our students to recognize root words (which are short) and to recognize prefixes and suffixes (which are short and relatively easy), they will be able to decode a long word like inconsistently as sist with prefixes and suffixes.

The meaning of the root can help students solve words:
struct– build—construct, deconstruct, deconstruction
rupt– break—erupt, disrupt, disruption, interrupt
flex—bend—flexible, inflexible, flexibility
sect– cut—section, disect, bisect, sector, intersection
scrib-write—scribble, script, inscription,
pend-hang—pendulum, pending, suspenders

Word map with root “spec”
I Have, Who Has with root words

Six syllable types. “Secondary students encounter 10,000 or more new words per year in their content area texts”—most are multisyllable (Hougen, 2015). If they have not internalized the information that every syllable has a vowel sound and that we read words by syllable, they need explicit instruction regarding the six syllable types and the vowel sounds. When they see the word “accomplishment,” they might just see a long string of letters and either take a guess or go ahead and skip it. I had a sophomore who could shoot out four or five long words that started with the same letter as the word he was trying to decode. His first word analysis strategy was rapid-fire guessing—and he knew a lot of big words; he just couldn’t read them. If we can prompt students by saying, “All the syllables are closed,” they can start at the beginning of the word and read across it, knowing all the vowels will be short.

Syllable Types: The Clover Model
Closed            got
Le               goo-gle
Open             go
double Vowel      goat
v-E               globe
R-controlled       glory

My colleague, Missy Hagel, made a ThingLink Clover Six Syllable Types that explains the six syllable types.

“Secondary students with reading difficulties commonly have difficulties with decoding and fluency, which results in poor comprehension” (Hougen, 2015). Reading involves a complex combination of word analysis and comprehension strategies. Core teachers can use explicit instruction in word recognition and vocabulary (decoding). We can assist our students with word analysis by breaking down content words and drawing attention to suffixes, prefixes, root words and syllables. We can’t pretend we don’t know that many struggle at this level. Reading instruction needs to continue into middle and high school in order for them to meet the rigorous challenges they face in school and eventually allows them to meet the increasing demands for literacy in the workforce. It is our responsibility.

Allington, R. L. (2012). What really matters for struggling readers: Designing research-based programs (3rd edition). Allyn and Bacon.

Caldwell, J., & Leslie, L. (2009). Intervention strategies to follow informal reading inventory assessment: So what do I do now? Pearson.

Cunningham, P. M. (2000). Systematic sequential phonics they use: For beginning readers of any age. Carson-Dellosa.

Hougen, M. (2015). Evidence-based reading instruction for adolescents grades 6-12. CEEDAR Center.

McKnight, K. S. and Allen, L. H. (2018). Strategies to support struggling adolescent readers, grades 6-12. Rowman & Littlefield.

National Institute for Literacy. (2007). Key literacy component: Decoding. Retrieved January 30, 2020, from

Shaywitz, S. E. (2003). Overcoming dyslexia: A new and complete science-based program for reading problems at any level. A.A. Knopf.

Wylie, R. E., and Durrell, D. D. (1970), Teaching vowels through phonograms. Elementary English, 47, 787-91. Retrieved from the Education Source database. (Accession No. 519615081)

Making Inclusion a Reality in ELA Classrooms: Four Practical Ideas

Nina F. Weisling, Assistant Professor of Education, Carthage College, nweisling @

Amy L-M Toson, Assistant Professor of Special Education, Carroll University, atoson @

Roughly 63% of students with /dis/abilies spend a majority of their school day in the general education classroom (National Center for Education Statistics, 2018) engaging in a practice known as inclusion. These students may be included for any and all subjects, including English Language Arts (ELA). Therefore, it is likely that the majority of ELA teachers have taught, or will be teaching, students with and without /dis/abilities inclusively in one classroom. Inclusion as a philosophy and practice formally entered the educational landscape in the 1970s and 1980s (Osgood, 2005; Teacher Education Division, Council for Exceptional Children, 1987). With nearly 50 years of discussion, legislation, and implementation, it may be tempting to think that the challenges associated with inclusion have been remedied. However, the how-to of inclusion is still very much a work-in-progress.

Research suggests that both general education and special education teachers charged with educating students with /dis/abilities feel unprepared (Kloo & Zigmond, 2008; Rea & Connell, 2005) and lacking in the skills they need (Grant & Gillette, 2006; Little & Theiker, 2009) to effectively implement inclusive practices. In addition, there is no universally agreed upon and understood definition for what inclusion is or how to do it, though most inclusive classrooms are built on time, energy, and effort from both a general and a special educator. Inclusive schools also utilize the expertise of additional adults, such as reading interventionists and paraprofessionals, working collaboratively to serve all students.

Understanding what inclusion is and how to put it into action effectively is especially important for ELA educators, as it is often in literacy-heavy classrooms where the true scope and diversity of student learning needs come to light. According to the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), as many as 32% of 4th graders, 24% of 8th graders, and 28% of 12th graders performed at below basic in reading, with another significant percentage reading at basic (31% , 40%, and 35% respectively).  This national data on reading performance suggests that both students with and without /dis/abilities would benefit from having two (or more) certified educators working together to use a range of inclusive and evidenced-based practices. This would likely maximize and diversify the types and amounts of learning opportunities and strategies available for all students.

The purpose of this article is to outline key ideas and specific strategies thatELA educators can implement across PK-12 to improve their inclusive practices and effectively serve all learners.

Key Idea 1: Inclusion Does NOT Equal Co-Teaching.
Often, educators and school administrators use the term inclusion interchangeably with co-teaching. Therefore, when special education or ELA educators hear that they will be working in an inclusive model, they often assume they will be co-teaching. While both practices typically involve both special education and ELA educators, inclusion and co-teaching are actually distinctive concepts that require different systems and supports in order to be implemented successfully.

Inclusion as a philosophy holds that all learners–those with and without /dis/abilities, English learners, students experiencing poverty or trauma–are fully valued and included meaningfully in all school environments. To do this, all adults work collaboratively, inside and out of classroom spaces (Lipsky & Gartner, 2008).

Inclusionas a practice refers to two qualified educators, most often in special education and general education, with their own training, specializations, strengths, areas of expertise, and experiences, collaborating to develop and implement specially designed instruction that meets the needs of all students, including those with special education needs. The goal is for both educators to share intentionally the responsibility of teaching and learning for all students across environments. While inclusion as a practicecan, and arguably should, include models of co-teaching, co-teaching is just one of many tools from which effective inclusive models candraw. Inclusive education is bigger than co-teaching. It includes a wide range of practices, including Universal Design for Learning, augmentative and alternative communication, and assistive technology, each of which is explored in-depth below.

Unfortunately, when schools and classrooms are structured with a philosophy of inclusion without sufficient attention to the technical and logistical needs of the practices of inclusion, there is a mismatch in expectations and reality. This is especially true when co-teaching is the expectation, but has not been planned for sufficiently. The schedules, systems, teaching practices, and supports required for each are markedly different. Imagine heading into a couple’s ice skating competition only to find that the competition is designed for single skaters. While there is significant overlap between the two skating populations, they are distinctive, and the couple will not be successful when judged based on singles expectations. In the case of co-teaching in an inclusive school, this can lead to frustration and disillusionment for both the ELA and special education educators alike (Toson & Weisling, 2020).

What can I do? The most important thing any inclusive educator can do is to talk candidly with both the building administration and the peer(s) with whom they will be enacting inclusion. Be clear about the expectations for supporting students with /dis/abilities in the classroom. Build relationships with and challenge common misconceptions about “my” and “your” students and classroom.

Key Idea 2: Space Matters
Walk into the majority of schools and you will see that special education and general education (including ELA) are siloed. If not, special education tends to “roam” in and out of other (mostly general education) teachers’ classrooms. The status quo is that it is the general educator’s room, desk, name on the door, name on the letters home to families, name in the record books, and presence at conference time.  

Too often teachers’ roles in shared classrooms are similarly divided. In the case of inclusive ELA classrooms, it is the ELA educators who lead instruction, confer with “their” students during independent reading, and facilitate and evaluate whole group discussion. Special educators are relegated to the role of assistant when in the room or, conversely, opt to pull “their” students out for small group or 1:1 teaching (Toson & Weisling, 2020). This separation of space and roles communicates a clear message to both educators, their students, and to families: the general educator is the teacher, the special educator is the support. These silos also represent missed opportunities for students.

The reality is, both educators come to their roles with unique, specialized, and valuable skills. In the case of ELA educators, especially those who exclusively teach ELA courses, their pre-service training likely focused on content and pedagogy specific to ELA, giving them expertise in designing and implementing lessons specific to reading and writing. This is markedly different from the training most special educators receive, which tends toward understanding learner diversity and how to differentiate and adjust pedagogical decisions to meet individual student needs. Giving educators the opportunity to combine their expertise through inclusive teaching can enhance the learning experience of students with and without /dis/abilities.

What can I do? Schools, administrators, and teachers must collectively, intentionally, and actively shift away from siloing both the physical designation of “ELA educators” and “special education” classroom or office, and the delegation of roles and responsibilities from ELA educators as lead, and special educator as support. Instead, classroom spaces and responsibilities should be shared equitably and responsively based on teachers’ expertise and students’ needs.

For example, instead of viewing special educators as teachers who go in to the ELA educator’s classroom or work in their own space, both ELA educators and special educators must be seen as equally qualified, specialist educators, as demonstrated by sharing the physical space and the roles and responsibilities of the classroom.

ELA educators can help by:

  • Insisting that both names go on both the door and on all communications home;
  • Always saying “us”/ “we”/ “our” (if even the special educator isn’t in the room);
  • Creating a shared professional space (e.g., desks together, spaces for personal belongings) for both educators;
  • Soliciting advice and ideas from the special educator, particularly around Universal Design for Learning, differentiation, and academic and behavioral scaffolds;
  • Sharing in the planning (or at least the plans);
  • Taking the initiative to organize the time and structures for planning and implementation of procedures, behavioral expectations, and lessons to include the special educator(s) as active participants and equals;
  • Co-selecting time for the special educators to lead instruction based on their expertise and student needs, including read alouds, shared reading, discussions, and centers.

Special educators can help by:

  • “Owning” their role as equal educator, even though their daily role may look very different, and they may feel uncomfortable or even unqualified to do so (Toson & Weisling, 2020);
  • Offering ideas and suggestions, and being willing to take the lead on planning, instructing, and/or assessing (again, even if they feel uncomfortable/unqualified to do so);
  • Assessing and evaluating student assessments and work samples to shed light on possible reading-related challenges;
  • Supporting and/or leading efforts for differentiation and designing lessons using UDL (see Key Idea 4);
  • Challenging their own internal beliefs and use of “my students” language.

Key Idea 3: Try Out Models of Co-Teaching

Teaching students to be readers, researchers, writers, presenters and thinkers is complex and requires that both ELA educators and special educators have an extensive knowledge base and robust range of pedagogical tools. Learning to read and write are similarly complex processes, and the ways in which students can struggle to learn or demonstrate their learning are as variable as the students themselves. When ELA educators and special educators come together to share and build upon one another’s expertise by designing, implementing, and assessing ELA instruction, the potential benefits to students are immense and varied across academic, behavioral/social, and professional domains (Ballard & Dymond, 2017; Cole et al., 2019; Conderman et al., 2013; DeSimone et al., 2013). Co-teaching, as mentioned above, is one potential model of inclusive teaching.

Co-teaching happens when two (or more) professionals jointly plan and deliver substantive and specially designed instruction to a diverse, blended group of students in a single physical space with parity, or equal status (Friend & Pope, 2005; Murawski & Dieker, 2004; Spencer, 2005). It is highly recommended that this includes co-planning; co-facilitating instruction in flexible models; and sharing responsibility for materials preparation, assessment, and subsequent planning. While co-teaching most often refers to special and general educators, it can refer to any partnerships of adults (e.g., reading interventionists, two general education, paraprofessionals) who work collaboratively to serve all students.

At the core, co-teaching requires shared time, space, sense of accountability, and ownership in order to fully leverage the presence of two qualified adults to effectively guide students learning. Carving out that time, space, and sense of collaboration with parity can be challenging for a range of reasons.

For example, special educators’ daily responsibilities are dictated by the goals and supplementary aides and services outlined in students’ Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). With diverse roles and expectations, inclusion may be one of several responsibilities they have in a given day, or it may be the only one.  It is possible that students’ IEPs will require special educators to divide time between multiple learning spaces. Even if all services are to be delivered in the general education classroom, with caseloads ranging from 5 to more than 25 students, it is not uncommon for special educators to work across multiple general education classrooms, content areas, and/or grades. These challenges are further compounded when school-wide systems and structures such as master scheduling, strategic co-teacher partnering, and expectations for co-teaching are unclear or unsupported, making shared planning time nearly impossible.

In addition to logistical challenges, co-teaching is commonly compared to a marriage, and for good reason: it requires trust, relationship, and time! Bringing two individuals together, with distinctive ideas about what a well-run and engaging classroom looks like, is hard work! Personality clashes and different preferences, beliefs, and practices, coupled with a lack of time to genuinely collaborate and build relationships, create barriers to effective co-teaching and inclusion. Compounding this, most special educators are not “monogamous” with a singular ELA partner. Instead, they typically have multiple classrooms in which they are responsible for offering specialized support.

Despite these challenges, and in addition to benefits described above, co-teaching allows teachers to share the workload, utilizes educators’ different expertises, reduces the student-to-adult ratio, and differentiates the instructional models and pedagogical tools.

What Can I Do? The most important thing educators can do is try! Given the challenges described above, particularly school-level scheduling and special educators’ other responsibilities, this may require intentional commitment and effort from both parties and an agreed-upon flexibility and grace between both individuals.

Five commonly used and recommended models (Friend & Cook, 2016) and how they might look in an ELA classroom are described in detail below. Wherever classroom-based examples are provided, the roles of special educators and ELA educators can and should be used interchangeably.

One lead/one support. In this model, one person takes lead on instruction while the other supports with managing materials, maintaining a positive learning climate, trouble-shooting (e.g., if technology is being used), collecting targeted data, and generally being available to step in as needed. Either educator can and should step into either role! The pair may even choose to alternate throughout the lesson.

In an ELA classroom:
a. the special educator leads a lesson on locating evidence in the text to support a claim while the ELA educator circulates to monitor students’ practice attempts, taking note of who is on track to master the objective and who might benefit from remediation in a small group during independent reading;

b. the ELA educator periodically interjects a quick clarifying question or example during a special education-led lesson;

c. the ELA educator leads a small group discussion of a complex text, while the special educator supports students’ behavior as they try newly taught social skills.

Team teaching is a co-teaching model during which both teachers are equally responsible for planning and instructing all students. Both teachers are at the front of or circulating around the room taking turns leading instruction, discussing key concepts, modeling, using question-and-answer with one another to illustrate main ideas, managing materials, and supporting students’ academic and behavioral needs.

In an ELA classroom:
a. each instructor takes turns reading different characters in a story, poem, or script;

b. one educator reads a story while the other pauses to get metacognitive and model their thinking;

c. both educators model appropriate language stems for debating a topic; and

d. much, much more

While all models have seemingly endless applications, team teaching is perhaps the most fun, versatile, impactful, and relationship-intensive model of co-teaching.

Parallel teaching takes place when both teachers divide the class equally and teach the same lesson content simultaneously, though the instructional methods and/or materials used by each may differ. This division of labor can reduce the workload for each teacher and increase the amount and type of support and attention available for students by lowering the student-to-adult ratio.

Nearly any content in an ELA classroom is conducive to parallel teaching, which requires some shared planning of the lessons’ broad strokes, but it also has built-in flexibility for both educators to work independently on their own version of the lesson.

In an ELA classroom, each instructor:
a. covers the same learning objective, such as grounding conclusions in evidence from the text, but through different text levels or formats (e.g., text vs. audio);

b. reduces the teacher-to-student ratio on a particularly nuanced learning goal such as analyzing a Civil War primary source, in which language usage and vocabulary may be unfamiliar;

divides the class into different application activity groups. For example, the special educator may lead a Reader’s Theatre group of students who need additional fluency support while the general education teacher leads a group working on comprehension through an arts-integrated diorama project.

Alternative teaching. At this time, two or more educators divide the class into different-sized groups. One group is taught the lesson of the day and the other is provided an alternate lesson, often remediation or enrichment. Like all models of co-teaching, adults should divide responsibility for the groups based on their expertise as well as their students’ specific needs. The benefits of alternative teaching are similar to parallel teaching.

In an ELA classroom, alternative teaching may be necessary for various reasons:
a. At the end of a lesson, 80% of students scored lower than 50% on the exit slip, while 20% did not miss any questions. Together, both instructors together may determine that, in the next lesson, the special educator should re-teach the lesson to the 80% who struggled while the ELA educator pulls the other 20% for enrichment;

b. While team teaching a lesson on how particular lines of dialogue in a play propel the action by using close reading, the general educator and special educator analyze student work samples and find that 10 of 24 students are struggling. They decide to divide the class during independent work, with the ELA educator re-teaching content to the 10 students who struggled while the special educator works with the remaining 14 for enrichment;

c. After analyzing first drafts of essays, the instructors find that one sub-group of students needs targeted support to organize main ideas around a thesis, while the rest of the class is ready to continue with the follow-up lesson on expanding and extending their arguments. They decide that one educator will teach the planned lesson, while the other delivers an alternate lesson on how to develop and organize a thesis paper to a small group.

Centers/stations teaching takes place whenboth teachers lead the planning and implementation of different learning stations connected to the same content.Students rotate through each station, working with both educators.

In an ELA classroom:
a. one teacher leads guided reading groups, another facilitates word study, and a third (or more) facilitates an independent center for students to rotate through;

b. one teacher leads core reading groups, a reading interventionist delivers tier 2 or tier 3 interventions, one educator or paraprofessional delivers specially designed instruction, and at least one other facilitates independent centers.

There are seemingly endless ways each model of co-teaching can be used. To help both educators get started with co-teaching, it can be helpful to:

a. Pick one model to try out. Plan to use it regularly (2-3 times per week) for a month;
b. Invest time to clarify roles and responsibilities, given the choice of model;
c. Shake up the roles played by each educator: perhaps some days the special educator leads and the ELA educator supports, and perhaps some days the special educator takes the group working on the daily lesson while the ELA educator works with the remediation group;
d. Use students’ needs and adults’ expertise to guide decision-making;
e. Add another model–and use multiple models within a singular lesson–when ready!

Additional information and examples of models of co-teaching can be found through the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education.

Key Idea 4: Use Universal Design
Among the many strategies that either ELA or special educators can use to effectively support all learners are Universal Design for Learning, Assistive Technology, and Augmentative and Alternative Communication. When ELA and special educators use these practices, they:

select and use augmentative and alternative communication devices and assistive and instructional technology products to promote student learning and independence … [and] use the universal design for learning framework to select, design, implement, and evaluate important student outcomes.” (McLeskey et al., 2017, p. 22)

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework for guiding teachers’ decision-making related to instructional practice, materials, and curricula to meet the needs of all learners (Gorden, Meyer, & Rose, 2016). This flexibility is key given the variability of learners in our classrooms (Meyer et al., 2014). In fact, advances in neuroscience have shown that learners approach, engage with, and express learning in different ways, even those who appear to have similar characteristics and abilities (Hartmann, 2015).

The UDL framework (Gorden, Meyer, & Rose, 2016) lays out the following three principles (further explored at CAST) providing students with multiple means of:

  1. representation: the “what” of learning, how new information is presented;
  2. action and expression: the “how” of learning, the ways in which students practice with and show their understanding of their learning;
  3. engagement: the “why” of learning, how teachers help students prioritize and make space for learning new content.

While planning, ELA and special educators can combine their knowledge of students, content, and pedagogy to present information, let students practice and show mastery, and capture students’ attention to the content in a variety of ways, responding to students’ diverse needs. In ELA classrooms, some of the most common practices include audio text, peer reading, and dictating or providing oral responses (such as through role playing or acting). A wonderful, self-guided resource that teachers can access to learn more about UDL comes from the IRIS Center at Vanderbilt University.

Assistive Technology (AT). According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (2004), assistive technology is any “piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of a child with a disability.” While originally conceptualized as a special education support, Assistive Technology is a scientifically sound and effective education tool that can enable ELA and special educators to serve all students.

Assistive Technology strategies can be low or high tech. In an ELA classroom, low tech can be as simple as putting Post-it Notes of key vocabulary words on a student’s desk, or highlighting specific passages for a reader to focus on. Higher tech ELA practices include using an advanced e-reader, a digital note taking pen, or tablets with customizable screens for pictures, words, or passages. In today’s digital world, the available options are limitless and can be quite cost effective. Additional information and examples can be found at the IRIS Center.

Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing-Association (n.d.), AAC is “all of the ways that we share our ideas and feelings without talking.” AAC includes three formats, each of which has specific applications to ELA classrooms: unaided, basic, and high tech. Unaided AAC involves only one’s own body, such as for sign language, gestures and other non-verbal forms of communication; basic can include pointing to words on paper, in a text, or on a screen; and high-tech includes systems that require the use of a tool or device, such as speaking computers.

As an evidence-based practice, AAC has shown to have a positive effect on the social, language and communication capabilities for students with autism, intellectual disabilities and complex communication needs (Barbosa et al., 2018; Morin et al. 2018) and to reduce challenging behavior for students with disabilities within inclusive settings (Walker et al., 2018).

What Can I Do? Collaborate with your colleagues to implement a UDL framework with both AT and AAC at the onset of lesson planning and throughout the teaching and learning cycle. See Flanagan, Liebling, and Meltzer (2013) for a detailed example of applying UDL, AT and ACC.


Inclusion as a philosophy and as a practice is daunting, nuanced, and specialized work! Research demonstrates that inclusion can have many positive benefits for students with and without /dis/abilities, as well as for the educators who serve them. Students with /dis/abilities see more satisfying and diverse friendships and improved communication (Ballard & Dymond; 2017; DeSimone, Maldonado, & Rodriguez, 2013), better post-high school outcomes (Wagner et al., 2006) and, for students with /dis/abilities who spend their entire day in general education classrooms, “significantly better [outcomes] in both reading and math assessments than their peers … in separate special education classrooms” (Cole et al. 2019, p.2). For inclusive educators, engaging in the practice of inclusion is linked to higher rates of professional growth (Conderman et al., 2013). And for students without /dis/abilities, inclusion results in greater gains in mathematics and reading, reduced fear of differences, and increased empathy, self-concept, social cognition, and ethical principles (A.B. 1914, 2020).

While effective, many educators feel unprepared and ineffective, and it can be tempting to give up on inclusion (Toson & Weisling, 2020). However, inclusion, co-teaching, Universal Design for Learning, Assistive Technology, and Augmentative and Alternative Communication are all worthwhile endeavors that can ultimately lighten the load for educators, allowing them to learn from one another; reduce teacher-to-student ratios; provide students with diverse teaching styles and strategies; and result in a wide range of measurable, positive outcomes. While challenging, inclusion is not only very much worth doing, but also achievable in every ELA classroom.

A.B. 1914, 2019-2020 Reg. Sess. (CA, 2020). Retrieved from

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (n.d.). Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC).

Ballard, S. L., & Dymond, S. K. (2017). Addressing the general education curriculum in general education settings with students with severe disabilities. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 42(3), 155-170. 

Barbosa, R. T. A., Oliveira, A. S. B., Lima Antão, J. Y. F., Crocetta, T. B., Guarnieri, R., Antunes, T. P. C., Arab, C., Massetti, T., Bezerra, I. M. P., Monteiro, C. B. M. & Abreu, L. C. (2018). Augmentative and alternative communication in children with Down’s syndrome: A systematic review. BMC Pediatrics, 18(160), 1-16.

Cole, S., Murphy, H., Frisby, M., Grossi, T., & Bolte, H. (2019). A longitudinal study to determine the impact of inclusion on student academic outcomes: Executive summary report. Indiana University Center on Education and Lifelong Learning.

Conderman, G., Johnston-Rodriguez, S., Hartman, P., & Kemp, D. (2013). Preparing preservice secondary special educators. Preventing School Failure, 57(4), 196-205.

DeSimone, J.R., Maldonado, N.S., & Rodriguez, M.V. (2013). Attitudes about inclusion: Through the lens of practitioners and novices. Journal of Special Education Apprenticeship, 2(1), 1-16. Retrieved from the ERIC database. (Accession No. EJ1127787)

Flanagan, B., Liebling, C., & Meltzer, J. (2013). Universal design for learning and the common core ELA standards: Rigorous reading and writing instruction for all. Public Consulting Group, Inc.

Friend, M., & Cook, L. (2016). Interactions: Collaboration skills for school professionals. (8th ed). Merrill.

Friend, M. & Pope, K. L. (2005). Creating schools in which all students can succeed. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 41(2), 56-61. Retrieved from the ERIC database. (Accession No. EJ683473)

Gorden, D., Meyer, A., & Rose, d. (2016). Universal design for learning. CAST.

Grant, C. A. & Gillette, M. (2006). A candid talk to teacher educators about effectively preparing teachers who can teach everyone’s children. Journal of Teacher Education, 57(3), 292-299. 

Hartmann, E. (2015). Universal design for learning (UDL) and learners with severe support needs. International Journal of Whole Schooling, 11(1), 54-67. Retrieved from the ERIC database. (Accession No. EJ1061020)

Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, Publ. L. No. 108-446, 118 Stat. 2647 (2004).

Kloo, A., & Zigmond, N. (2008). Co-teaching revisited: Redrawing the blueprint. Preventing School Failure, 52(2), 12-20.

Lipsky, D. K., & Gartner, A. G. (2008). Inclusion: A service, not a place–a whole school approach. Dude Publishing.

Little, M., E., Theiker, L. (2009). Co-teaching: Two are better than one. Principal Leadership, 9(8), 42-46.

McLeskey, J., Barringer, M-D., Billingsley, B., Brownell, M., Jackson, D., Kennedy, M., Lewis, T., Maheady, L., Rodriguez, J., Scheeler, M. C., Winn, J., & Ziegler, D. (2017). High-leverage practices in special education. Council for Exceptional Children & CEEDAR Center.

Meyer, A., Rose, D. H., & Gordon, D. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and Practice. CAST.

Morin, K. L., Ganz, J. B., Gregori, E. V., Foster, M. J., Gerow, S. L., Genç-Tosun, D., & Hong, E. R. (2018). A systematic quality review of high-tech AAC interventions as an evidence-based practice. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 34(2), 104–117.

Murawski, W. W. & Dieker, L. (2004). Tips and strategies for co-teaching at the secondary level. Teaching Exceptional Children, 36(5), 52-58.

National Assessment of Educational Progress. How did U.S. students perform on the most recent assessments?

National Center for Education Statistics. (2018). The condition of education.

Osgood, R. L. (2005). The history of inclusion in the United States. Gallaudet University Press.

Rea, P. J., & Connell, J. (2005). Minding the fine points of co-teaching. Education Digest, 71(1), 29-35. Retrieved from the MasterFILE Complete database. (Accession No. 18260417)

Spencer, S. A. (2005). Lynne Cook and June Downing: The practicalities of collaboration in special education service delivery. Intervention in School and Clinic, 40(5), 296-300. Retrieved from the Academic Search Complete database. (Accession No. 16800958)

Teacher Education Division, Council for Exceptional Children. (1987). The regular education initiative. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 20(5), 289–293.

Toson, A. L., & Weisling, N. F. (2020). Inclusive education: What every educator and school leader must know and do. In P. Keough (Ed.), Overcoming current challenges in the P-12 teaching profession (pp. 24-50). IGI Global.

Wagner, M., Newman, L., Cameto, R., and Levine, P. (2006). The academic achievement and functional performance of youth with disabilities: A report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2). SRI International.

Walker, V. L., Lyon, K. J., Loman, S. L., & Sennott, S. (2018). A systematic review of Functional Communication Training (FCT) interventions involving augmentative and alternative communication in school settings. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 34(2), 118–129.

Reigniting the Love of Reading With Penny Kittle

Emily M VanDyne, Union Grove High School, emilymvandyne @

For the first time in my career, I looked out at my class and wasn’t excited. In fact, I was the opposite of excited – I dreaded coming to work. Thirty senior students sat in my brightly decorated classroom with glazed looks in their eyes, brains on autopilot. Some were staring blankly at their open books, some were smirking at their phones not so conspicuously hidden within the folds of the pages, and some weren’t even bothering to hide that they weren’t paying attention. The lights were off, the audiobook was on, and no one cared.

I took in the indifference and lethargy and thought, I hate this. This wasn’t a management issue; it was an engagement issue, and it had been going on for quite some time. I had used every weapon in my arsenal. High interest and topically relevant books? Check. Fun and diversified discussion formats? You got it. Rearranging the room? Done. Groups, partners, individuals, YouTube, surprises and prizes, strict and lenient … I had tried it all. I got the same apathetic attitudes no matter what I did, and the kicker was I knew they still weren’t reading the books. Hence the annoying audio that now blared in my classroom. I guess I was hoping they could absorb the content through osmosis. There was no getting around it: I felt like a failure. I was supposed to be teaching everyone to read and appreciate literature, but it seemed like I was causing them to actively hate it. They were miserable; I was miserable. I just didn’t know how to fix it.

My parents say I came out of the womb with a book in my hand. I grew up in the age of Harry Potter and Twilight and I loved every magical minute of it. You would never find me without a book. My teachers would often half-heartedly scold me for reading instead of completing my algorithms, but even I—the enthusiastic reader—occasionally faltered in English class. There were assigned books that I didn’t read. I pretended to read them, but I didn’t. Why would I follow the predictable tragedy of King Lear when the last battle of Hogwarts was unfolding? Why would I spend hours on the Mississippi River with Huck when I could be in Forks, running with werewolves and vampires? How could I possibly surrender time to a book I found vaguely interesting (at best) when there were wars to be won and loves to be found in my other books? If I—a self-identifying bibliophile—didn’t have an urgency to read all the books the curriculum demanded, how could I expect someone who didn’t love books to do it?

Yet, that was exactly what I was doing in my classroom. I chose the books that they read because I had a degree and I knew better than they did. As a teacher, I was doing precisely what I hadn’t liked as a student. Ever the realist, I told myself that I was being presented with two choices: evolve or repeat. Continuing down this road was not an option for me. I refused to go one more semester with classes who fake-read books and hated English. I didn’t know what the change would be, but I knew there had to be something better than what I was doing.

My Background
I am a 28-year-old English teacher who graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 2013 with a double major in English Education and Spanish Education and I have a Master of Science degree in Educational Leadership from Carroll University. For the last six years, I have been working at Union Grove High School in Union Grove, Wisconsin, population 4,000, nestled outside of Racine between sprawling corn fields and newly minted industrial complexes like Amazon and FoxConn. The union district high school has between 800 and 1,000 students any given year, most of whom live in and around the rural town, but about 20% are open enrolled from Racine. Of our graduating seniors, about 71% go on to four year universities, 11% enroll in technical schools, and 18% have found their calling in the military or workforce. Union Grove High School runs on a traditional block schedule. Classes meet every day for one semester and are 83 minutes long.

Finding Penny Kittle
My frustrations with the curriculum, it just so happened, came to a peak while I was going through my master’s program. It was while I was chatting with a few of my cohorts that one of them mentioned Penny Kittle, an English teacher from Maine who had a successful formula for not only getting adolescents to grow as readers, but also for getting them to authentically enjoy reading. Immediately on returning from class, I ordered and read her Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers (2013), since I was most interested in changing the way reading was done in my classroom. The first sentence of the synopsis had me nodding: “Penny Kittle wants us to face the hard truths every English teacher fears: too many kids don’t read the assigned texts, and some even manage to slip by without having ever read a single book by the time they graduate.” Through reading, it became clear that Kittle takes a progressive approach that might be daunting to some teachers. She asserted that students weren’t reading because they simply weren’t interested in our books. If we help them choose the right book, though, and give them time everyday to read, think, create, and reflect, we could craft a powerful love of reading and grow their skills simultaneously.

I know that her assertions throughout Book Love weren’t meant to make me feel like a failure, but they did anyway. I had always prided myself on teaching beautiful, classic literature in a challenging environment. “A book,” Kittle countered, “isn’t rigorous if students aren’t reading it” (p. xvi). I had also prided myself on giving engaging lectures and holding thought provoking class discussions. Kittle parried, “Students need to be reading and writing more than they need to be listening to me talking” (p. 57). Reading Book Love was a reckoning that made me reevaluate what I had been doing for the last five years, but I found myself agreeing with every statement she made, particularly about how standardized testing plays into education. Kittle argues that while districts (and politicians and community members) can become obsessed with test data, educators need to remember what’s important: “None of our local or national tests measure the joy students take in reading or their stamina for it. None measure our ability to create lifelong readers in thirteen years of schooling. Those are critical, haunting omissions” (p.137).

Kittle believes that English curricula should focus on growing reading stamina, reading fluency, and nurturing a love for reading. She lays out her philosophies in practical and applicable ways, even going so far as to include sample lesson plans and dialogues of her conversations with students. So many educational books are grounded in brilliant ideas, but they leave the reader wondering where to start and how. Not this book. I had a wealth of resources at my fingertips, a map of where to go, and a reignited passion to get me there. As I finished Book Love and prepared for the quickly approaching new semester, I was excited, but so overwhelmed. Overhauling my curriculum for just one class would take time I didn’t have, patience I could hardly spare, and a recognition that this semester would be based on trial and error. Going back to an apathetic classroom, though, wasn’t an option when I had a chance to create a joyful classroom. I sat at the coffee house each weekend crafting new curricula and ransacked used book stores for new additions to my classroom bookshelf. The question that Kittle implies repeatedly throughout Book Love became my motto: If not you, who?

With more enthusiasm than I’d felt in awhile, I looked up my classes for the next semester. I had two sections of Senior English and they would make the perfect pilot group. A quick look at the data showed me the following:

I had 55 total students, split between two sections

55% were male, 45% were female

Average GPA was 3.3

Four had failed a previous high school English course

I had taught 11 in previous courses

I approached my principal to share my ideas for implementing a curriculum change and was fortunate to have the immediate support to roll out a Kittle-inspired curriculum. Getting our students to love reading? He was on board. Later, when I would explain this conversation to colleagues from other districts, I received some shocked looks. In their districts, they explained, they would never tell their principal that they thought their curriculum was not working and would never be allowed to try this new idea without tying it to every standard. I feel fortunate that I work in a district that encourages risk-taking and recognizes that the standards do not cover every skill we want to teach. Never have I felt nervous to try something new for fear of reprimand or judgment. I’ve always been given unconditional support for any new endeavors or curriculum. Teaching is not a stagnant profession and new ideas should be welcomed, celebrated, and explored. Failure might be a part of the exploration process, but that’s okay. It is the same message about failure and change that we teach every day. Perhaps we should practice what we preach. My principal was as eager about this new venture as I was and he left me with just one command: “Let me know what I can do to help you.”

The Standards and Data
When talking with fellow educators about this new curriculum, I would receive the same question: How is this linked to the state standards? I knew this question was inevitable. We live in a strict testing culture where every lesson must be tied to a standard. I value the skills that the standards are trying to address, and while I understand the desire to prove the validity of a curriculum by showing precisely what skills are being addressed, I think we are overlooking one major flaw: Reading skills cannot be developed if no one is reading. And no one is reading.

The standards do not cover the joy of reading and they do not mention stamina, both integral components of successful students (and happy adults, in my opinion). If we are serious about creating a generation of independent thinkers who are motivated, empathetic, and patient, these must come first. When I notice a certain skill is lacking, I make a mini lesson and work with that student during individual conferences. But tying this curriculum to the current standards is not my priority. Reading skills work in concert with each other and can absolutely be taught through this curriculum because my students are finally reading in a meaningful way (and enjoying it!). Skill development and growth is always a priority, but again, these skills will not develop or grow if no one is reading. That has to be the first priority. My goal is not to make sure my students can do well on a standardized test that does not accurately measure their abilities anyways. My goal is to nurture a love of reading, help them increase their stamina, deepen their thought process, and grow their fluency over time.

Daily Elements
As I read through Book Love, I picked out the major elements that would work for my classroom. Knowing there was no way I could implement every idea, I decided to build up the new curriculum over time, step by step. A routine was established immediately, clung to ferociously, and credited much of the success to the habits formed because of it. Each day began with three activities, without exception: current events, quick writes, and reading.

Five-to-ten-minute current event discussions fostered a familiarity with politics, economics, and human rights issues, while helping these young citizens learn how to discuss controversial topics in a respectful manner. It was also an opportunity to teach the skills of bias detection and other components of journalism.

Daily book talks helped students think about what they might want to read next. After current events, they pulled out their notebooks and flipped to their Next List, the list they kept of all the books they might want to read next. On the first day of class, I introduced eight books of varying complexity and genre via book talks, quick and simple and always using the same formula: start with the basics, give them a summary, read a passage, and pass it around. I started off by revealing the title, the author, other works by the author, and if I had read the book and liked it or not. Next, I tried to pique their interest with the summary, to give them an idea for the complexity and writing style with the passage, and to get the book in their hands so they could look at the length, page through it, and read some passages. After the first week, I only introduced three books a day, and after the second or third week, I was down to one a day. I also invited students to do book talks, and many took me up on the offer, whether they were currently in my class or not. The books I chose came from my classroom library, but I also frequently asked the librarian to borrow copies that I didn’t own. I took my students to our school library at least twice a semester, when our librarian kindly organized books into themes and helped even the most reluctant readers find something to read. Often, this is the first time they check a book out from the school library. At the start of the semester, I reserved 15-20 minutes for daily book talks, but this quickly dwindled to 5 minutes as the semester went on.

Quick writes helped them find their writer’s voice and be comfortable writing daily in a reflective and creative manner. I wrote right along with them as we answered questions, wrote about moral dilemmas, or engaged with mentor texts. I often shared my own writing and editing process before asking them to share their work. It fostered an environment of trust and constant improvement. Depending on the the type of writing we did, this took 10-20 minutes.

After writing came everyone’s favorite part: reading time. At the beginning of the semester, we spent a few days just finding books that interested each individual student. The key to making this process work is finding the right books for the right readers. By the start of the week, everyone had chosen a different book. To start reading time, I might introduce a few new books that they may choose to add to their active Next List. Finally, we would read. Everyone would take out a choice book (myself included) and have silent, uninterrupted reading for at least twenty minutes every day. I would quietly conference with each student every few days, helping them through challenging parts, listening as they explained what had transpired since our last conference, and guiding them through choosing their next books. In the beginning, reading for twenty uninterrupted minutes was a challenge for most. By the end of the class, all of my students could easily read for upwards of fifty minutes and still want more time.

Class always began with this routine. From there, the day would be broken into one of two categories: writing workshop or podcast listening. When we were working on a writing project, I would create mini-lessons based on what I saw them struggling with or on a skill we were working on. We did fun, creative writing and worked up to argumentative, research-based writing in a multi-genre narrative. In all, everyone completed seven pieces of writing, ranging from narrative poems to research. We would practice a skill and then practice using that new skill. We would imitate forms and study beautiful words. Alternatively, when we were listening to a podcast, we would practice active listening skills and comprehension activities. I found that everyone adored the podcasts Serial and Criminal; many have told me that they are now active podcast listeners. Over the course of the semester, we did only two traditional whole class reads: Macbeth and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Because my goal was to improve reading stamina and fluency, I chose to follow Kittle’s advice for homework. Students were expected to read for two hours outside of class each week. When I explained this, they were confused. They asked how many pages were required in the two hours. That depends, I told them, on what book you are reading. I gave them this example: When I read Harry Potter, I can get through half of the book in two hours. When I read Wuthering Heights, though, I might only get through forty pages in two hours. It all depends on the kind and level of book, and since we are all reading different books, it doesn’t seem fair to assign a page requirement. I saw some of my slower readers’ faces absolutely light up at the possibility of not falling behind immediately. I walked them through Kittle’s simple process for determining their reading rate and explained they had to redo this process for each new book they started.

Within the first few days of class, I gave my seniors a survey with questions about their habits and their thoughts on reading and writing. After asking about their lives, their jobs, their hobbies, and their dreams, I asked them about their past English classes.
vandyne table 1

Clearly, I had my work cut out for me; yet, I didn’t feel like this was an inaccurate representation of a typical English class.

Undoubtedly, it was the best semester of my teaching career. Not only did my students read more than ever before, but I remembered why I became an English teacher in the first place: the magic of books! Everyone read every day, which I couldn’t say before. They wanted book suggestions and begged for more reading time in class. They read challenging books and wanted to have analytical discussions. Their stamina and fluency increased, along with their appreciation for a gripping narrative. Their writing improved, and they became engaged world citizens. I watched them become calmer. I watched them choose to read rather than play on their phones. I watched them smile and laugh and share their books with their peers. I watched them fall in love with reading. I could give you anecdotal evidence all day long, but the results of the final survey speak for themselves.

vandyne table 2

Some teachers argue that when students get the chance to choose what they read, they will pick easy books that they can get through quickly and with little challenge. I did not find this to be the case. In fact, some of the most chosen books were The Catcher in the Rye, Pride and Prejudice, The Handmaid’s Tale, and A Game of Thrones. They gravitated toward these difficult books and would often stop in before class to ask rather analytical questions. It was rewarding and relieving that the classic books I adored weren’t being left to collect dust on the bookshelf.

Ultimately, my students read and enjoyed a high volume of books. Between January 15 and May 25, they read an average of 12.6 books. I hesitate to give this quantitative data because it does not accurately represent their reading journey, as it does not take into account the length of the book. For instance, one read two books over the course of these months. That seems like an underachievement until you consider that one of those books was the Bible. Another read Yancey’s 5th Wave trilogy over the course of these months. Again, this seems underwhelming until you consider that it was the first time he had completed a book in his high school career. I was continually impressed and humbled by how they challenged themselves without my prodding.

Seeing my students reading and enjoying their books, watching them grow as writers and being excited about creating and sharing … I’m not sure how to go back to a traditional English curriculum. I loved teaching that class, and I’m not willing to give up that feeling.

After piloting this class and sharing the results with colleagues, some members of my department initiated a book study on Gallagher and Kittle’s 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents (2018). It has been an eye opening and, at times, challenging course. The plan moving forward is implementing the Kittle theory in all of my classes. This will be a process and it will take time. For now, I am focusing on bringing Kittle’s philosophies into the Sophomore English curriculum, which demonstrates to both students and colleagues that fear of a strict testing culture should not deter our efforts to educate the next generation in the best way we know. Being open to change, after all, reflects a higher nature of the human condition.

Gallagher, K., & Kittle, P. (2018). 180 days: Two teachers and the quest to engage and empower adolescents. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Kittle, P. (2013). Book love: Developing depth, stamina, and passion in adolescent readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.