2 ways to encourage older readers during COVID-19

2020 pulled us into uncharted educational territory, bringing a host of unique challenges for educators to contend with, including how best to serve students’ literacy needs in a way that promotes reading academic achievement. To address this challenge, NWEA conducted research in the fall of 2020 to determine students’ achievement and growth in reading and math. Our research indicated that students’ growth in grades 3–8 is better in reading than in math—and while those findings are promising for reading, educators are encouraged to interpret them with a critical lens, especially when making instructional decisions.  

Why? Some students did not take MAP® Growth™, the assessment that was the basis of the study last fall, so they are disproportionally missing from the research. These students are primarily of ethnic or racial minorities, students with lower achievement in the fall of 2019, students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and students in grades 9–12. 

Knowing that there are limitations to the research, what can teachers do to ensure all students in grades 3 and above deepen in their reading skills this year? You can continue to deliver robust, rigorous, and high-quality literacy instruction to your students—including doubling down on best practices in reading, writing, speaking, listening, and assessment.

Focus on (good) text first

Good text inspires, engages, delights, and challenges. And even the most reluctant reader will often respond to the right text when it’s accompanied by interesting questions and engaging discussions.

You can continue to deliver robust, rigorous, and high-quality literacy instruction to your students—including doubling down on best practices in reading, writing, speaking, listening, and assessment.

When I was a middle school teacher, I taught eighth grade honors and inclusion. Each October, we actively struggled through “The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe. Sometimes my students began as middle-schoolers often begin texts, with a disaffected and disinterested eyeroll. The vocabulary was often a turnoff, as most of my students didn’t walk in the door knowing words like “sagacious,” “lofty,” or “phantasm.” 

But one of the ways I made this complex text accessible and engaging was by asking students what they did understand after the first read, drawing threads of comprehension out of them bit by bit. (I’d learned a long time ago not to ask students what they don’t understand; often they struggle with identifying and articulating points of confusion, plus it can bring down the excitement and interest to start on a negative note). As a whole class, we’d stitch together an understanding, thread by thread, until I was satisfied with an accurate, if not wholly robust, retelling. Then we would read the text again, filling in blank spots—Who is the masked man? Why are the rooms different colors? What is “illimitable dominion?”—all while deepening understanding, building vocabulary, and conducting more complex analyses with each read. 

Focusing in on what students know first is one way to spark academic engagement. Because all students will get something from a text, even the tiniest detail, encouraging their knowledge will inspire them to contribute and continue.

You can also keep engagement high by providing ample opportunities for students to build knowledge through a robust and diverse body of texts, including fiction and nonfiction, prose, poetry, articles, journals, podcasts, and videos. The more knowledge students have about a topic, the more easily they can read more complex texts on that topic.

The month we read “The Masque of the Red Death,” the social studies and science teams would do a joint unit on the Black Death. Before long, students would come excitedly into English, talking about what they had learned in social studies and applying that to their understanding of Poe. Students reading this Poe story now, in which the protagonist tries to avoid a plague, would likely find it extra relevant as we all struggle to make sense of coronavirus.

Centering text like this is a way to reach all students. Use high-quality curriculum that attunes to text complexity and presents rigorous and academically engaging texts appropriate to the grade. Create the conditions for students to advance in their literacy development, and consider text complexity as a critical element when choosing anchor texts that are layered and rich in meaning. Pairing anchor texts with other texts, like context and texture texts, is a great way to build knowledge and keep students engaged. 

Good text inspires, engages, delights, and challenges. And even the most reluctant reader will often respond to the right text when it’s accompanied by interesting questions and engaging discussions.

Context texts, typically more easily accessible, short, and immediately engaging, create context for the reader. These texts deal with similar themes or topics as the anchor text, that is, the primary text you’re teaching. If I were teaching “The Masque of the Red Death” now, I might also teach “Because I could not stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson or suggest Scythe by Neal Shusterman to build around the theme of the inevitability of fate.

Texture texts add texture to the topic or theme under study. These texts may be more complex, informational, academic, or technical. The social studies teachers at my school used the History Channel to show videos on the Black Death, and the science teachers used texts like those found in National Geographic to build students’ scientific literacy of plagues. In English, we would sometimes read eyewitness accounts or newspaper articles about modern or past plagues. Texture texts may contradict the ideas in the anchor text or take a deeper dive into an aspect of the anchor text, so they are great for diversifying perspectives and creating conditions for rich discussion.

Assess, assess, assess… Then assess again 

Two of the best questions one of my mentors asked me about student learning when I was a reading specialist observing classrooms were “What are students learning?” and “How do you know?” Those questions caused me to provide evidence that students were learning, real time, in the classroom.

I quickly figured out the best way to know what students understood and how deeply they understood it was by either having them tell me verbally or write something. With some students likely missing from the MAP Growth fall 2020 data set, teachers should conduct their own standards-based, high-quality formative assessments of students’ skills and development on a frequent and ongoing basis.

Ongoing formative assessment is key to tracking students’ literacy development. Following a formative assessment process that is both planned and ongoing will help track students’ development and influence the instructional roadmap for next steps. Planning for formative assessment requires determining how and where students are going to demonstrate learning before instruction. 

When I was a classroom teacher, I would determine how to assess student understanding before we began. Prior to reading “The Masque of the Red Death,” I knew students were going to demonstrate their understanding of the text by writing a text-driven literary analysis. I would often have two or three prompts, and I would share them with students while we were engaged with the text. I worked with my teacher team on creating the prompts, and having multiple eyes provide feedback on the tasks strengthened their quality and clarity.

But I didn’t only assess students’ understanding after we’d finished the text. I conducted ongoing formative assessment during learning, too. One of my favorite ways to assess student understanding during learning was through Socratic seminar. In each seminar, every student would speak at least once, and I could hear their interpretations, misinterpretations, analyses, evaluations, and justifications. During each seminar, I didn’t talk, but I did take extensive notes on what students said, gathering data that I used to shape the next instructional session.

One of the best ways I’ve seen teachers conduct formative assessments during learning is through metacognitive conversations. Engaging in these conversations with students during formative assessment (I’d ask them questions like, “Why do you think the character acts like he acts?” “How did you determine the meaning of the word?” “How do you know you are right in your analysis?”) can yield important insight on how deeply students are thinking, what they are understanding, and where they are experiencing gaps or misinterpretations of the text.

Focusing in on what students know first is one way to spark academic engagement.

Finally, writing is an important way for students to show both content knowledge and structural writing skill. Provide lots of opportunities, formal and informal, for students to demonstrate their understanding of a text. Students should have opportunities to write arguments, narratives, and expository pieces that articulate their understanding of a text or topic under study while attuning to task, purpose, and audience. Students should justify their perspectives by using evidence from texts as support. A written piece can yield important data about what students are learning and their ability to relate their knowledge to an audience.

Your students deserve this

Knowing that some highest-needs students are not strongly represented in our fall 2020 research should inspire us to look for other authentic ways to evaluate students’ literacy development, especially in these unorthodox times. This understanding should inspire robust and contextualized discussions in each district and school, including not generalizing the findings to all students and using other hefty formative data sources to make instructional decisions. And an analysis should lead back to active academic engagement through rich text and robust discussion as one way to keep all students growing in their reading development.

Reading loss for students in grades 3–8 does not appear to be as devastating as many thought it would be when COVID-19 closed brick-and-mortar school doors around the country. However, a closer inspection of the data—specifically, who is represented and who is not—warrants a cautious and conscientious interpretation as a matter of equity for our most academically vulnerable students. We must continue to pay close and careful attention to students, provide ongoing opportunities for them to demonstrate what they know and explain their thinking about text, and assess their understanding of text in a planned, systematic, and ongoing fashion.


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