There is a literacy crisis unfolding in high school classrooms across the city - too many students, especially our English Language Learners lack basic reading skills. Teachers: we know what this feels likes. We have too many students who enter our rooms lacking fundamental literacy skills. For example, In our 9-10th grade classrooms, 66% of our students scored lower than a second grade reading level. However, we believe that this a crisis not just affecting our students but rather, a problem that is felt across the city.
As teachers, we know that it is our responsibility to continue to teach to the Common Core and expose students to demanding, grade-level content. And we do! In our classrooms, students read Shakespeare, The New Yorker and The New York Times feature articles, and Elie Wiesel’s Night. However, this assumption that our students will learn all the skills they need through osmosis is simply not enough. We also have to fill the gaps our students have in fundamental reading skills in order for our students to be successful in their futures.
What we tried this year was a different, hybrid style of teaching. What if we could fill the gaps our students had in fundamental reading skills, while still teaching demanding, grade-level content? We did this by adapting a small group reading model (more common in elementary schools) to meet the needs of our high school students. In these small groups, we provided targeted, explicit reading instruction to match our students’ needs. For example, we target sight words, automaticity and fluency, phonemic awareness, word parts and word attack strategies, and reading comprehension strategies.
So far, we have seen huge successes. Students have increased awareness of word parts and sight words, fluency scores have jumped, and comprehension has increased. In addition, students are expressing joy and confidence about reading in ways that we had not seen before. Next year, we want to continue to refine what our instruction looks like in these small groups, as well as to rethink our assessment mechanisms.
However, we also believe that our work is just a first step. As a district, we need to have a larger conversation around what literacy instruction means for secondary ELLs. We believe that this must involve a rethinking of what professional development is offered to secondary ESL/SEI teachers, as well as revisiting the nature of instruction (time and structure of classes) that our ELLs receive. There must be a greater sense of urgency that we feel collectively to support the literacy needs of our ELLs.
About the Authors: Nicole Tabolt DaSilva and Caitlin MacLeod Bluver both teach English Language Arts and English as a Second Language at Boston International High School, a Boston Public School in Dorchester, MA. Their students are all recent immigrants to Boston, coming from nearly 15 different countries and speaking over 10 languages. In their classes, they use both fiction and nonfiction to study race and power, oppression and resistance, and membership and communities. They hope to empower their students to use their voices to advocate for justice.
To watch their EdTalk, visit: https://youtu.be/13eM2q_1cFA