English Language Arts Practices

How do we determine that students are increasing their literacy skills as they progress across grade levels?

In twenty years as a classroom teacher, instructional coach, and now building administrator, I am always looking for ways to support teachers with college- and career-ready standards. The Mathematical Practices have been a great resource for educators helping students engage with mathematics and build their mathematical thinking skills across grades. These same educators have often commented in person and on social media about the need for ELA practices. While the Common Core State Standards do offer descriptions of the qualities possessed by students who are college- and career- ready in ELA, the reader must interpret what that looks like for a kindergartener or 12th grader.

These discussions have led me to attempt to tease out some possible practices to support educators on their quest to support all students with meeting the standards. These practices are meant as a starting point, a place to generate discussions, a place from which to build.

These following ELA practices are modeled on the Mathematical Practices as well as the introduction to the standards themselves and, for lack of a better term, identify students who are proficient in literacy, meaning they possess the ability to read deeply, create their own works, and listen and speak to a broad range of ideas.

Make sense of text and persevere to understand it.

The standards describe students who are college- and career-ready as being able to demonstrate independence, comprehend as well as critique, and value evidence. To meet this goal, students must first be able to make sense of text and persevere in understanding the text. What does this mean? Firstly, it means that students are able to determine the author’s purpose through multiple readings and analyze the text to determine not only the basic meaning of the text, but also underlying themes and biases.

Students should also learn to connect ideas across a variety of media. They should monitor their understanding and recognize when they must make adjustments to their own ideas when presented with additional information. For younger students, they are developing strong listening and speaking skills when discussing a read-aloud or watching a video. Older students are able to engage in multiple readings on their own and explain their thinking in written form, making needed edits based on new information gained.

Proficient students understand text can have multiple themes and an author’s word choice, syntax, and text structure can affect the reader’s understanding. Younger students may discuss why an author chooses a certain word or phrase to create mood in a poem. Older students should be able to identify when an author creates a dominant theme but also uses other underlying themes as part of their work. Students should constantly ask themselves, “Does this make sense?” This builds their own independence to understand a text based on comprehension and evidence.

Construct viable arguments and critique the arguments of others.

Proficient students can not only comprehend but also form smart, evidence-based critiques. They understand and use arguments grounded in textual evidence, and are able to question an author’s or speaker’s claims, recognizing potential biases.

Younger students are able to construct arguments around a text preference or personal preference. These arguments are general and may be limited to which one they prefer based on textual evidence. As students become older, their arguments and critiques should become more sophisticated. Older students strengthen arguments and critiques by using multiple examples from a text, identifying counter-arguments, and using evidence to build their case. Students should also learn to understand different perspectives and recognize a diverse range of ideas and arguments beyond their own.

Understand and use a variety of media.

To be proficient in literacy, today’s students must not only be able to determine meaning from a variety of media, but also use multiple forms of media to express ideas. Younger students understand why a book and a video on the same topic may have different effects on a reader/viewer, and begin to develop an understanding of the strengths and limits of each form of media. Older students are able to identify why a speaker may include a video during a presentation to support and argument, or why an author may add a link to an article as part of a blog post. Understanding which form of media to use to best suit their purpose is a valuable skill for students to develop. Students should be able to construct with traditional media, but also able take those same ideas and create in ways that support 21st century learning

Look for and make use of literary features.

Students proficient in literacy make use of the building blocks of literacy, such as vocabulary, phonemic awareness, and fluency skills, to help them convey meaning themselves. For younger readers, this means developing the letter sound correspondence and then reading at a fluency rate appropriate for their grade level. Older students understand and can adjust reading rates depending on the text and their audience. Students expand their vocabularies to include a variety of vocabulary and are able to determine meaning of new words through contextual clues and their own prior knowledge. They can analyze an author’s use of syntax and word choice to support their understanding of a text and determine an author’s meaning. As they move along a continuum of proficiency, students begin to see why authors use different words or sentence structures depending on their rhetorical goal, and understand the structure and purpose behind different media.

These four practices are by no means complete or all-encompassing but are a starting point for discussions among educators. Hopefully we can work toward developing a common understanding of what abilities students must gradually build so as to improve their literacy throughout their education.

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About the Author: Ben Dickson has served for twenty years in the Washoe County School District teaching kindergarten through sixth grade, an instructional coach at multiple schools, district professional development provider and is currently an Assistant Principal at Alice Maxwell Elementary. He co-founded @TeachNVACS and the #teachNVchat in 2014 with the goal of connecting Nevada educators across the state with other educators across the world through social media. He is also a Core Advocate and facilitated ELA sessions at the Leading the Core conveying in 2015 He can be found tweeting from @teachNVACS & @bdicksonNV