In a recent Education Week post, Mike Schmoker described three key elements for teachers to use to impart core literacy skills to their students: purposeful reading, discussion, and writing. He advocated for 90-120 minutes engagement each day, spread throughout the curriculum. To understand just what this means for classroom instruction, let’s examine the three skills, which all require sufficient amounts of explicit (or “scaffolded) instruction.
When introducing a text, it’s important to realize that students will enjoy it and obtain far more meaning from it if you start by providing some background about it to establish relevance, preferably with some degree of enthusiasm.
Next, provide simple but direct definitions for any unfamiliar words in the text. According to Marzano (1999), this boosts comprehension for struggling readers by about three grade levels.
Third, write an arresting question or prompt on the board to give students a reason to read. If the text is nonfiction, pose questions that require them to compare, analyze, or evaluate as they read. For literature, rely on character analysis: Is Jack of “Jack and the Beanstalk” a hero or a jerk? Is “The Great Gatsby” a ne’er do well or a lovesick victim of the hedonistic 1920s? These types of questions are a great starting point for discussions on theme and meaning and provide insight into the characters and the story being told.
Analytic reading is also an indispensable tool that can be upgraded as students move to higher grade levels. Show them how to underline, annotate, and take notes to improve understanding and highlight what they don’t know. Employed along with scaffolded instruction, checks for understanding, and re-teaching, they can help students take command of their reading.
And finally, don’t stop reading out loud to your students, and have them read along with you. Material read with the proper expression helps promote fluency, comprehension, and literary appreciation.
Now, students are ready to discuss what they’ve read and absorbed. Discussion, like reading, needs to be taught explicitly. Students should be audible, speak clearly, and speak with civility to their classmates. Have them address the prompt on the board to start, weaving in the themes with details (or even larger ideas) of what they weren’t able to parse. There’s no such thing as a stupid question, only a question to which you don’t know the answer. You’ll find students will be more willing to speak up when you take what they have to say seriously.
Intersperse reading with short periods of writing to generate and clarify thoughts before the full class discussion. According to Schmoker, analyzing then arguing the issues in a text may have the greatest amount of impact on student motivation and writing quality.
Students also need explicit and structured instruction on writing basics, which you can embellish upon as they advance in grade. Use whole-class modeling, monitoring, and re-teaching to explain the purpose and importance of the introduction, how to create an outline to organize thoughts, and how to integrate quotes from the text (or paraphrase the material) to support their ideas and conclusions.
None of these strategies is difficult to implement, and once integrated across the curriculum, it can produce stunning results. Schmoker points to a number of school systems that made meteoric gains in academic achievement once these evidence-based approaches were applied in the classroom.
As an example, he cites a Tucson-based school district in the 1990s, where a team of middle school English and social studies teachers rebuilt their curriculum exclusively around systematic instruction in reading, discussion, and weekly argumentative writing assignments. In a single year, their academic scores rose from “average” to the highest in their area.
Will such an implementation solve all our academic problems? Of course not. But it’s a good start, and one that can change the path of innumerable students’ lives.
 Schmoker, Mike. (June 17, 2022). “A Simple Formula to Improve Reading and Writing Skills: Teachers should recommit to traditional core literacy skills.” Education Week. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/opinion-a-simple-formula-to-improve-reading-and-writing-skills/2022/06.