Radically Redefining Literacy Instruction: An Immense Opportunity.
by Mike Schmoker
Phi Deltan Kappan, Vol. 88, No. 07 (March 2007): 488-493.


Students in today's English and language arts classes typically are not asked to read, discuss, or write analytically. But by emphasizing such authentic literacy activities, Mr. Schmoker maintains, we could bring about the results that all our reforms seek: higher test scores, intellectual development, and a narrowing of the achievement gap.


AUTHENTIC LITERACY — the ability to read, write, and think effectively — belongs at the very top of the reform agenda. There is every reason to believe that these capacities, if acquired across the disciplines, will change lives by the millions and will redefine the possibilities of public education. Best of all, the most effective ways to impart these vital skills is disarmingly simple.

Mr Vincent Ferrandino and Gerald Tirozzi (the respective presidents of National associations for elementary and secondary principals) stated, "under-developed literacy skills are the number one reason why students are retained, assigned to special education, given long-term remedial services and why they fail to graduate from high school."(1) They conclude that literacy "speaks to the larger societal issues of access and equity. In our society, being literate opens doors — and opens them wide."

If literacy is so important, how difficult would it be to provide excellent literacy instruction across the disciplines? Mike Rose's classic, Lives on the Boundary, gives us a clue. Rose grew up poor in East LA., in a tiny house where he shared a bedroom with his parents. For years, school was a place of boredom and frustration. He assumed he would never attend college or escape the conditions that accounted for the "ravaged hope" felt by the adults he grew up around.(2)

MIKE SCHMOKER is a writer, speaker, and consultant living in Flagstaff, Ariz. His most recent book is Results Now: How We Can Achieve Unprecedented Improvements in Teaching and Learning (ASCD, 2006). He can be reached at schmoker@future-one.com.


Then in the 10th grade, a maverick teacher came to Rose's rescue. Jack MacFarland taught in a fashion radically different from his colleagues. To the near exclusion of all other activities, he had his students read, discuss, and write about record numbers of books and articles in response to questions he prepared for the reading and writing assignments. And the students did this work in class. As Rose puts it, they merely "read and wrote and talked" their way toward an education that few students receive in the K-12 school system. Simple stuff. Any teacher can begin to do these things. Only later did Rose realize that he and

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his fellow members of the "voc ed crowd" had in fact received a "prep-school" curriculum. Rose's personal success — now a professor at UCLA — suggests what could happen for students on a grand scale, across the social spectrum.

But his success shouldn't surprise us. The literature is strewn with evidence that such straightforward literacy instruction would have a monumental impact on students' lives. It all begins with close, careful reading.


"No subject of study," writes Jacques Barzun, "is more important than reading ... all other intellectual powers depend on it."(3) Intellectual power and development flow only and directly from what Richard Vacca calls "strategic reading," what James Popham calls "purposeful reading," and what legendary inner-city principal Deborah Meier calls "deep reading."(4) But this is not the kind of reading most students now do in English and language arts.

There's no mystery here: such reading starts with good questions and prompts. From the earliest grades, students need numerous, daily opportunities to read closely (or read) an article or a chapter in a textbook for meaning: to weigh or evaluate the logic or evidence in a text — or in two or more related texts — in order to find the answer to an arresting or provocative question.(5) We do such reading to test a proposition, such as "Columbus was a great man." We do it to marshal support for an argument or propose a solution to an intriguing social or political problem. From college on, most of us have done such reading with a pen or highlighter in hand so that we can mark key passages or patterns in a text. College students and adult professionals read in this way routinely.

But not so much K-12 students. Imagine what would happen to levels of intellectual attainment if we began to make daily opportunities for this kind of reading? From the earliest grades, students could be given literally hundreds of opportunities to read and discuss the answers to higher-order questions like this one suggested by Richard Allington for first-graders: "Who would make a better friend: spider or turtle?" (The children are reading or listening to the Ashanti story "Hungry Spider and the Turtle."(6) Older students could be asked to read about two successive Presidents, say, Herbert Hoover and FDR, and then asked to evaluate them for their effectiveness. Or students could compare and evaluate the character traits of Old Dan and Little Anne, the hunting dogs in Where the Red Fern Grows.

Many of us have seen how animated and intellectually engaged second-graders become when asked to read stories like "Jack and the Beanstalk" and then asked to consider whether Jack is an admirable hero or an ethically challenged rascal. We've seen how perceptively students read when asked to read a story twice — and with a pen in hand — as they underline, jot marginal notes, or complete a graphic organizer to assemble their thoughts for discussion and writing assignments. Accompanied by a good program of vocabulary instruction, such activities will cause test scores to soar.(7)

This analytical, argumentative approach is exactly what students need to succeed in college. But it is markedly different from what students now receive. Moreover, there is good evidence that this approach would make school eminently more interesting to students who now find it boring and alienating.(8)

At Tempe Preparatory Academy, an open-enrollment charter school in Tempe, Arizona, students' favorite class, year after year, is the daily two-hour "Humane Letters" seminar. Every day, students from seventh through 12th grades read and write and argue the issues they encounter in history and literature. Boring? Repetitious? Hardly. As Tempe"['ep student Eric Dischinger put it, "I love it! The concept of forming ideas and opinions about these texts has been instrumental for me in learning how to think and explore in other areas of academia. I take the thought processes I learned in Humane Letters and apply them in Spanish, chemistry, and math." He tells me, "I have learned how to construct an argument and then defend it."


There is magic in this simple combination of a good text and a provocative question (given before — not after — students have read a text), combined with the chance to argue and support an interpretation from one or more texts.(9) And any teacher can learn to conduct such activities, which exercise students' natural intellectual powers and are the model for the best academic and professional discourse.

It all starts on the playground. As Gerald Graft points out, "kids love to argue," to compare and evaluate the relative merits of their favorite athletes and pop stars. For Graft, there is no substantive difference between academic work and such playground polemics, especially if we furnish texts that give students a basis for analysis, discussion, and writing.

We can do this—while also building reading, writing, and discussion skills on the foundation of the best content standards in every discipline, including such well-known and highly valued literacy standards as discerning fact from opinion; comparing and contrasting themes, characters, and


interpretations; understanding an author's purpose; or recognizing bias. An important recent study affirms that this argumentative approach to learning content, in all subject areas, truly constitutes the "college knowledge" that so few students now acquire in K-12. The recurring theme of this study by David Conley is that college success hinges on students' abilities to analyze texts thoroughly, to critique an author's position, and then to "advance an argument using evidence."(11)

More interesting yet, argueing from close, focused reading has been found to be the best basis for effective student writing, which powerfully extends students' abilities to think and reason across the disciplines.(12) It is time we made the case for requiring preservice teachers to learn to teach writing in this way.

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Close, strategic reading is the first step toward deep understanding. But analytic, persuasive writing about good texts amplifies and refines students' critical reasoning capacities even further. Consider just a sample of what researchers have found about the importance of writing — which is curiously underemphasized in the K-12 curriculum.

For Theodore Sizer, writing is "the litmus paper of thought," so vital to intellectual development that it deserves to occupy "the very center of schooling."(13) As things stand, however, writing barely shows up on the periphery of schooling.(14) We have to stop offering such excuses as "With so many students, there isn't time to grade papers." Many of us have found highly efficient ways to teach writing well without engaging in conventional — and time-consuming and counterproductive — grading practices.(15)

To get a better grasp on the link between writing and reasoning, listen to what Dennis Sparks, executive director of the National Staff Development Council, has to say on the subject. "Writing," he tells us, "enables us to note inconsistencies, logical flaws, and areas that would benefit from additional clarity."(16) Like close reading, writing is thinking— perhaps in its most powerful and intense form. William Zinsser, a highly respected authority on writing, avers that writing is "primarily an exercise in logic," which enables us to "write our way" into an understanding of texts or concepts that previously mystified us. Why make such an effort? Because "meaning is remarkably elusive. . . .
Writing enables us to find out what we know — and what we don't know — about whatever we're trying to learn."(17)

In "The Learning Power of Writing," R. D. Walshe writes that we "shouldn't hesitate to describe writing as incredible or miraculous... a technology which enables thought to operate much more deeply than it normally does during conversation or inward reflection."'8 Indeed, it is only through writing that students can engage the "upper reaches of Bloom's taxonomy."(19) Writing, observes John Franklin, is the "key to student learning; it directly cultivates the most valuable job attribute of all: a mind equipped to think."(20) Or, as Gene Budig recently wrote in these pages, writing is not only critical to the "crafting of a good education," it is also a "fundamental building block for designing and achieving professional success and advancement." According to an extensive survey of human resource directors, employees must now write more than ever. In the fastest-growing industries, those who can't write well are less likely to be hired and far less likely to be promoted.(21)

With all this going for it, shouldn't every aspiring teacher be learning the case for this "miraculous" technology? And shouldn't students be given daily opportunities to respond in writing to good questions about the content they encounter in textbooks, articles, and literature? Shouldn't teacher teams be sharing and developing stimulating questions for everything they teach, in every discipline? These simple, intellectually rich activities (not our ubiquitous worksheets) are what truly engage the "upper reaches of Bloom's taxonomy." And, as Douglas Reeves has found, "nonfiction" writing, in every subject, correlates strongly with achievement gains.(22)

For this reason, the report of the National Commission on Writing calls our attention to the alarming gap between our knowledge of the lifelong importance of writing and the sadly diminished role it plays in most schools.(23)


When John Goodlad and his teams visited thousands of language arts classrooms as part of his large-scale study of instruction, he found most students enduring English classes in which they "rarely read or wrote ... they scarcely even speculated on meanings or discussed alternative interpretations" of what they read.(24) Years later, the authors of The Shopping Mall High School found English classrooms marked by a "wholesale absence of intensity about thinking.(25) My classroom observations and interactions with audiences of educators overwhelmingly confirm this.(26)

Richard Allington uses an ingenious expression that reveals a lot about the current state of literacy instruction:

he refers to the "reading and writing vs. 'stuff ratio.(27) In most classrooms, the majority of instruction consists of "stuff," with little or no connection to literacy skills. In grades 1 through 3, it is not unusual (even in schools with good test scores) to find two-thirds of the reading period being

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spent on "color, cut, and paste activities.(28) In the later grades, students are seldom found discussing or writing in response to good questions about interesting texts. Instead, as Lucy McCormick Calkins and her colleagues have observed, students are "making dioramas, game boards, posters, or mobiles to accompany a book . . . making new books with illustrations ... [or making] murals or other artwork.(29) She has observed classrooms with a 1 to 15 ratio of reading and writing to such "stuff." Calkins laments this situation as the triumph of "literary arts and crafts" over substantive literacy instruction. Sadly, many of us were trained, even encouraged, in these approaches. Such activities— and the culture that tolerates them — may do more to explain the overall achievement gap than any other factor.


There are other insidious, if well-meant, forms of "stuff," all of which reveal the real roots of the achievement gap. In too many classrooms, instead of analyzing and debating the issues in fiction or editorials, students are perennially drilled on such terms as "climax," "setting," or "rising action." Will we ever wake up to how inane and time wasting this is? Or students are asked to identify decon-2; realized statements as either fact or opinion. Such exercises miss the point. But they can produce a short-term boost in test scores.

Then the scores piSiceeu. We have'yet to learn that thoughtful reading, writing, and discussion, in redundant abundance, promote faster, more enduring achievement gains on state assessments than quick-fix approaches.(30) As Michael Pressley recently found, what raises test scores in urban schools is exactly "what works everywhere: intensive instruction more driven by the higher-order than the lower-order skills."(31)

It is time to embrace and act on the evidence that authentic reading, writing, and discussion will promote higher scores, intellectual development, and a substantial narrowing of the achievement gap.


Could begin immediately by providing students with far more in-class opportunities to read interesting and provocative texts purposefully, always guided by good questions that stimulate discussion, debate, and effective writng. Such work will assuredly proceed more successfully if practitioners work collaboratively to continuously share, develop, and refine effective and stimulating questions, writing assignments, lessons, units, and assessments.

In science, social studies, English, and beyond, students should be reading, writing, and discussing their way toward deep understanding as they respond to questions such as these:

• Should we drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? Consider the issue from scientific, economic, and environmental perspectives.

• As we read and study the American Civil War, prepare to make the case for the South. (I learned this question from Theodore Sizer.)

• As you read each chapter in The Catcher in the Rye, look for the answer to this question: What is wrong with Holden Caulfield? (I adapted this question from Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe.)

And we should remember to make adequate room for considering popular topics, among the best ways to promote both real-world and academic intellectual capacities.(32) As I write this, my own daughters have just completed extended argumentative research papers. After carefully reading several books, articles, and statistical tables, one argued that the Beatles edge out the Stones as the greatest rock'n' roll band of all time; my other daughter argued that, historically, Coke's advertising campaigns beat Pepsi's. These are the most polished, passionate, and academically worthy pieces either has produced.

Such simple reading and writing activities cultivate precisely those intellectual capacities most necessary to success in college and careers.(33) For what it's worth, my audiences across North America strongly agree with me that the worksheet curriculum directly prevents us from making this critical transition toward authentic literacy instruction — with its predictably marvelous consequences.

Changing to the pursuit of authentic literacy may be the simplest, most productive, and mosr enjoyable change we could make in our efforts to reduce the achievement gap and prepare students for life and learning. In doing so, we will discover, with Theodore Sizer, that "we don't know the half of what these kids can do." With so much at stake, with the academic success and life chances of tens of millions erf smdents on the line, there is no good reason to delay adopting such practices across the disciplines — starting tomorrow.

1. Vincent L. Ferrandino and Gerald Tirozzi, "Wanted: A Comprehensive Literacy Agenda Pre-K-12," advertorial in Education Week, 5 May 2004,
P. 29.
2. Mike Rose, Li': 'es on the Boundary (New York: Viking Penguin, 1989),
p. 47.
3. Jacques Barzun, "The Centrality of Reading," in Morris Philipson, ed.,
Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), p. 21.
4. Richard Vacca, "From Efficient Decoders to Strategic Readers," Educational Leadership, November 2002, p. 6; W. James Popham, "Curriculum Matters," American School Board journal, November 2004, p. 33; and Jay Mathews, "Seeking Alternatives to Standardized Testing," inter-


view with Deborah Meier, Washington Post, 17 February 2004, pp. 1-10.

5. Grant Wiggins and jay McTighe, Understanding by Design, 2nd ed. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005).

6. Richard L. Allington, What Really Matters for Struggling Readers (New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 2001), p. 8.

7. Ibid.; and Wiggins and McTighe, op. cit.

8.Jacqueline L. Marino, "Between the Lines ofGoodlad, Boyer, and Sizer," English Journal, February 1998, pp. 19-21; and Mike Schmoker, Results Now: How We Can Achieve Unprecedented Improvements in Teaching and Learning (Alexandria Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2006).

9. Gerald Graff, Clueless in Academe (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003); Neil Postman, The End of Education (New York: Knopf, 1995), p. 73; Theodore R. Sizer, Horace's School (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992); and Wiggins and McTighe, op. cit. 10. David T. Conley, College Knowledge (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005), p. 6.

11. Ibid., p. 80.

12. George Hillocks, "Synthesis of Research on Teaching Writing," Educational Leadership, May 1987, pp. 71-82.

13. Quoted in Marino, p. 20.

14. Edward J. Kameenui and Douglas W Carnine, Effective Teaching Strategies That Accommodate Diverse Learners (Upper Saddle River, N.J.:

Merrill, 1998); and National Commission on Writing, TTie Neglected "R": The Need for a Writing Revolution (New York: College Board, April 2003).

15. Readers interested in finding excellent, practical advice on this matter should conduct an Internet search on the phrase "handling the paper load."

16. Dennis Sparks, Leading for Results (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: NSDC/
Corwin, 2005), p. 38.

17. William K. Zinsser, Writing to Learn (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), pp. 14-16.

18. R. D. Walshe, "The Learning Power of Writing," English Journal, October 1987, pp. 22-27.

19. Bonnie L. Kuhrtand Pamela]. Farris, "Empowering Students Through Reading, Writing, and Reasoning," journal of Reading, March 1990, p. 437.

20. National Commission on Writing, p. 11.

21. Gene A. Budig, "Writing: A Necessary Tool," Phi Delta Kappan, May 2006,p.663.

22. Douglas B. Reeves, The Daily Disciplines of Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003).

23. National Commission on Writing, p. 11.

24. Marino, pp. 19-20.

25. Arthur G. Powell, Eleanor Farrar, and David K. Cohcr, ~" "'.opping Mall High School (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1985), p. I 03.

26. Schmoker, op. cit.

27. Allington, p. 27.

28. Michael P. Ford and Michael F. Opitz, "Using Centers to Engage Children During Guided Reading Time: Intensifying Learning Experiences Away from the Teacher," Reading Teacher, May 2002, p. 711.

29. Lucy McCormick Calkins et al., A Teacher's Guide to Standardized Reading Tests: Knowledge Is Power (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1998), p.51.

30. Allington, pp. 8, 25; David Liben and Meredith Liben, "Learning to Read in Order to Learn: Building a Program for Upper-Elementary Students," Phi Delta Kappan, January 2005, pp. 401-6; and Wiggins and McTighe, pp. 302-8.

31. Quoted in Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, "NAEP Results Offer Scant Insight into Best Reading Strategies," Education Week, 11 January 2006, p. 14.

32. Graff, op. cit.

33. Budig, op. cit; and Cc:i'ey, op. cit. At Argosy University, the best teachers never stop learning.

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