Curriculum Planning

Here’s What the Science of Reading Looks Like in My High School Classroom

Teachers can design lessons around these five components to deepen student understanding of and engagement with reading material.

May 3, 2024
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Middle and high school literacy scores declined on the most recent Nation’s Report Card, showing that too many students are reading below grade level across both age groups. The science of reading, often discussed in the context of elementary ELA curriculum, offers practical, concrete, and proven instructional skills and essential elements—even for older students.

When literacy instruction aligns with reading science, adolescents routinely engage with rich, knowledge-building text sets about compelling topics. Teachers lean into text complexity through modeling and carefully crafted questions, lifting students to the text and guiding them toward deep comprehension. Evidence-based discussions and reasoning create a social, collaborative learning environment. Relevant culminating tasks motivate students to think critically and creatively and invest in discovery.

One common myth is that the science of reading is just about phonics. Decoding is just the beginning. Yes, students need the skills to crack the phonics code to decode words independently and fluently, but the goal of reading is not just developing word recognition. It is comprehension—the ability to read deeply and joyfully and understand what you read. The Reading League defines the science of reading as “a vast, interdisciplinary body of scientifically based research about reading and issues related to reading and writing.”

In my high school English classroom, I ensure that students have direct, explicit instruction related to the language comprehension components needed to become increasingly strategic at comprehending complex texts. These components, based on the science of reading, are not individual strategies designed to be implemented in isolation. Rather, they intertwine and work together for a powerful approach to reading comprehension. They involve building background knowledge, acquiring new vocabulary, understanding language structures, developing verbal reasoning, and gaining literacy knowledge (Scarborough’s Reading Rope).

Embedding the Science of Reading into Daily Instruction

My small school benefits from a diverse population, including a wide range of language diversity. This brings beautiful variety to my classroom! Employing sound, scientific research on how the brain learns to read is essential to teaching my students lifelong literacy skills.

1. Background knowledge. I center my planning around a thought-provoking topic or theme. For example, in 11th grade, we study the Great Migration and explore the power of a single decision to migrate to the North or West. Topic-based units are essential for embedding other language comprehension elements. Think about rich and interesting topics your students will enjoy. When students are captivated by content, motivation and engagement soar.

2. Literacy knowledge. Since my units are centered around a topic and not a single text, this creates amazing opportunities to read and analyze various text types. In our anchor text, The Warmth of Other Suns, we explore three powerful narratives, insightful expository text, and beautiful epigraphs that range from newspaper clips to poems to song lyrics. While all students read this rich, complex text, I differentiate by offering choice in supplemental reading material.

In addition, we study maps of migratory routes, statistics of cities in the North and West, video clips explaining Jim Crow and other push factors from the PBS documentary Slavery by Another Name, Claude McKay and Langston Hughes’ poetry, John Coltrane’s jazz, and Jacob Lawrence’s Great Migration panels.

3. Vocabulary. I mostly rely on students to select words and phrases from our texts. You can try this in your classroom by having students circle new or interesting words and phrases. During our study of the Great Migration, we defined student-selected words like beleaguer, bourgeois, caste, asylum, and indignity.

We once encountered the word lumber. Based on the context, students knew it didn’t mean a piece of wood. After we defined the word, we had some fun acting out labored and slow walking. Another time, students selected the word mercurial. We talked about words that sounded similar, like mercury, which presented a great opportunity to study the etymology of mercurial. Students enjoyed learning the connection to the Roman god Mercury and his moody, unpredictable temperament.

4. Language structures. We engage in close reading of texts from the paragraph level to the sentence, phrase, and word levels to deepen comprehension. We look for “juicy sentences,” which are rich in meaning or craft. One sentence in our anchor text became essential to our understanding of push factors behind migration: “An invisible hand ruled their lives and the lives of all the colored people in Chickasaw County,” wrote Isabel Wilkerson in the book The Warmth of Other Suns. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the phrase “invisible hand” circled and annotated in a student’s book. He was so moved by this imagery that he frequently used this phrase and inspired others with his insight to understand the unseen yet powerful hand of Jim Crow.

5. Verbal reasoning. I like a classroom buzzing with student talk. My students routinely engage in text- and topic-based discussions. Students share powerful text passages, ask questions, posit ideas, and challenge opinions. Background knowledge, vocabulary, and complex texts serve as the foundation for these discussions, which deepen student learning and oral language development.

Routines and protocols are instrumental in supporting student discourse. My students meet in focus groups dedicated to each of the three narratives in our anchor text. These groups are flexible and provide an opportunity for students to discuss developments in each individual’s story, seek clarification from peers, collaboratively determine the meaning of unknown words and phrases, make connections among the three individuals, and analyze the literary beauty of the epigraphs and their relationship to each individual.

You can try having students meet in small groups to share the gist of the reading and discuss a response to a focus question. This supports foundational comprehension. Discussion protocols that deepen comprehension and involve movement are engaging. I like “mix and mingle,” which involves moving around the classroom and exchanging ideas, or using chart paper and markers to capture discussion points.

Literacy skills are the currency of the information age, opening opportunities for life choices, career options, and quality of life. The science of reading is essential to developing skilled readers across grade levels while preparing students for the world beyond the classroom. Both struggling and advanced readers benefit from this approach, since students initially engage with texts at their level of understanding. These interconnected components provide multiple opportunities to deepen comprehension from a variety of angles. Educators can enhance student engagement, discourse, and depth of understanding by strategically embedding these five language comprehension components to move students toward success.

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  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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