Student Engagement

Nine Strategies for Reaching All Learners in English Language Arts

May 22, 2013
Photo Credit: Alyssa Fedele
Edwards Middle School teacher Hassan Mansaray works with one of his students in his English language arts class.

Not satisfied with students' progress on district- and state-mandated tests -- and after careful deliberation by administration and staff -- the Edwards Middle School implemented the Massachusetts Expanded Learning Time (ELT) Initiative in the 2006/07 school year. ELT has since become an integral part of the school day, where students receive an additional 60 minutes of support instruction in some core academic classes like English and math, and 90 minutes of electives in arts, sports and music, and other enrichment activities.

In order to maximize the benefits of ELT for students, I looked for ways to fine tune my approach to teaching individualized learning in my English language arts classroom. One of the instructional models that informs my approach to teaching individualized learning is the Readers and Writers Workshop. This approach proved very helpful in optimizing ELT.

Readers and Writers Workshop: An Instructional Model

The workshop model for English instruction combined with an extended 60 minutes of ELT support for my struggling students provides an excellent springboard to plan and implement individualized instruction in my class. Readers and Writers Workshop is an instructional model that focuses on students as learners, as well as readers and writers in practice. As readers and writers, students are mentored, working in a supportive and collaborative environment with their mentor on touchstone texts. There is an inherent reading-writing connection with this instructional delivery system that includes the following phases:

1. Mini-lesson (10-15 minutes)

This phase involves a teacher modeling a reading or writing strategy for the students to practice. It could also involve a "do now" to tap into students' prior knowledge. Students might build a schema around a specific strategy that the teacher had modeled previously -- or do an activity to see what they retained of the day's lesson. (See a a sample lesson plan (PDF).)

2. Guided or independent student practice (40-45 minutes)

This is a student work time allocated for practicing the modeled strategy. During this phase the teacher circulates the room conferring with individuals and small groups. He takes notes, makes informal assessments, and provides one-on-one support to struggling learners.

3. Reflection (5-10 minutes)

This phase allows the whole class to regroup and review the lesson objectives, share learning, and reflect on what worked or did not work.

The workshop model provides for both independent and collaborative learning, and thus fosters student ownership of the learning process. This approach strongly emphasizes a student-centered approach to learning.

Reaching All Learners in the ELA Classroom

As a middle school ELA teacher, I continue to collaborate with my peers in the building and across the school district. I participate in planning and designing instruction, inquiry-based studies, and collaborative coaching and learning. These activities have provided me with a repertoire of research-based best practices to engage the readers and writers in my ELA classroom. I teach four core ELA classes Monday through Friday, and one support ELA class Monday through Thursday. Two of my core classes are inclusion, with a third of the students in each on individual education plans (IEP). I co-teach with a specialist who supports the students on IEP. The specialist and I also plan instruction to ensure that all students are able to effectively access the curriculum. We provide frequent check-ins and modify instruction to meet everyone's needs. Our instruction is focused on building stamina in reading and writing to produce critical thinkers and life-long learners. We use the following strategies:

1. Encourage independent reading

From the first day of school, we encourage students to choose the books they read. We model how to choose and review a book for reading. We also encourage students to choose books at their independent reading level rather than at their frustration or difficult level. Students read for 30 minutes daily and complete an entry on the reading. (See sample reading questions (PDF).) Students are not only expanding their knowledge as good readers, they are also building reading stamina.

2. Design product-driven reading and writing instruction

Plan units that are product-driven. (See a sample lesson plan template (PDF).) Have a key or an essential question that instruction seeks to address in the unit. It should become the epicenter of instruction, thus allowing for mastery. Students become stakeholders when they know the instructional objectives and learning outcome.

3. Pre-reading and pre-writing strategies

Infuse pre-reading and pre-writing strategies to build schema. "What I know, what I want to know, and what I learned" (KWL), quick-writes, and vocabulary activities before reading and writing are very useful for tapping into students' prior knowledge and making connections in learning. Quick-writes also provide excellent seed ideas for writing. Expand students' word choice by previewing text vocabulary before reading and providing opportunities for students to find at least three synonyms for unfamiliar words.

4. Making meaning

Provide instruction in basic reading strategies using reciprocal teaching practice that includes predicting, visualizing, questioning, clarifying, and summarizing. As students master these strategies, have them read in small groups of three or four, applying the strategies to their readings. Students should be encouraged to rotate roles. As they interact with the text, they are making meaning and comprehending the text.

5. Text annotation

Teach students to mark or highlight text for main ideas and also for answers to specific questions. Text annotation is an excellent method to make meaning and provide evidence to support answers.

6. Ask text-based evidence questions

Challenge students to provide specific evidence to support their answers. Use t-chart graphic organizers to have them identify specific lines from a text and explain their thoughts about the lines.

7. Immerse students in the genre

Provide adequate opportunity -- one to two weeks -- for students to examine text features and structures, and to read and learn from mentor texts and literature before writing.

8. Provide options for writing

As students examine mentor texts in their reading, provide a variety of writing samples for them to learn from. Teach a variety of genres. Encourage learning and practicing the craft of authors through modeling, conferring, and collaboration.

9. Analyze and interpret

Teach strategies that emphasize analysis and interpretation -- examine author styles and use of language through literal and figurative analysis to get meaning from text.

I apply this model to ELT by working with kids twice a day. In the morning class, it is strictly curriculum-driven; students are using the workshop as a means to their own learning. In the afternoon, I guide them to help remediate the skills they need to improve their comprehension.

Have you used this workshop model, and if so, do you have any other techniques for how you've been able to individualize instruction? Please share any questions or experiences in the comments section below.

School Snapshot

Edwards Middle School

Grades 6-8 | Charlestown, MA
534 | Public, Urban
Per Pupil Expenditures
$7651 School$17283 District$13658 State
Free / Reduced Lunch
61% Hispanic
16% Black
14% Asian
8% White

38% English-language learners
24% special needs

Data is from the 2011-12 academic year.

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  • Student Engagement
  • Differentiated Instruction
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School

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