Do English/Language Arts Teachers Have to Cut Back on Literature?

Right from the beginning (2010) teachers have missed the point on this issue! The English/Language Arts (ELA) Standards of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), that pertain also to science, social studies, and technical subjects, ask of teachers—not English teachers, but TEACHERS—that 70% of text should be non-fiction (by 12th grade). That means that teachers of social studies, science, and other technical subjects need to be using reading as a tool in their classrooms to learn subject matter! English teachers may want to add some non-fiction text to their repertoire, but the real thrust was to push other teachers into content-literacy-based instruction — reading for learning in the classroom.

If every middle and high school English teacher continued to do what they have always done, AND other teachers routinely used text, literacy skill development, and cooperative discussion as tools to help students learn, the 70% of non-fiction would be accounted for. The problem is that most subject area teachers are fixated in a culturally normative model of instruction that makes them think they need to TEACH everything to their students who they think cannot read. So they most often these days resort to slide presentations to “cover” the material. They put kids to sleep. The result is that students do not develop the sense that reading to learn is highly effective, and the onus is entirely on the English teachers to develop readers.

Getting subject area teachers to change their methodology is a tough nut to crack. The culturally normative model of teaching by telling is seemingly in the genetic makeup of those in the teaching profession. It is culturally normative because most of us, by the time we have had a masters degree, have sat through about 13,000 hours of it. It is what we know. On the other hand, once subject matter teachers try content-literacy-based instruction (CLBI), they realize how it is so much more powerful than “sit and git” teaching for so many reasons. CLBI allows kids to think. In fact, it is highly motivational because of that fact. Done properly, CLBI sets up students to want to find out about things. It gets them hypothesizing and searching for meaning. It is the way the mind works. Humans are hard-wired to make sense of things. If they cannot do so, they turn off to the topic.

If students were constantly involved in actively processing text to figure out how gravity works in theory and in the landing of a spacecraft on a comet, comparing and contrasting current world problems with the causes of the French Revolution, or wondering in their own minds about the effects of aerobic exercise on their abilities to perform intellectually (for a few examples), and they worked together to process these ideas with a guiding teacher as coach, they could be mastering all of the ELA standards, and they would become college and career ready at the same time.

It is not the ELA teacher who needs to change. Don’t hold your breath though. Subject area teachers teach stuff, and ELA teachers teach reading. At least that is the norm that is so difficult to change. In the meantime, as long as you ELA teachers are the only ones who are held to the CCSS standards, you could have to lessen your use of great fiction.

What if, instead you went across the hall and connected with your colleagues to show them how to use content-literacy-based instruction to help students to process their subject matter. What if, for instance, you took the time to make an anticipation guide about something in their text—something about which the teacher was preparing to make a slide presentation—and you modeled the process of helping students to set purpose for serious reading and higher order thinking about a subject in their curriculum, engage in purposeful silent reading in the classroom, and cooperatively discuss and debate what it meant with their peers.

It was an ELA teacher who helped me convert to CLBI in 1989 when I was teaching 12th grade social studies. Once I saw how students respond to these methods, and how much less work was involved for me, I was sold. Since that time, I have used the methods to teach several different social studies subjects as well as science and mathematics. In fact, over the past 15 years, I have had the opportunity to model CLBI in the classrooms of teachers of just about every subject matter from kindergarten through college. A great many of those teachers were like me in 1989. They changed their methods as a result of what they saw their own students doing as a result.

I am not suggesting that you barge into another teacher’s classroom with a really neat lesson and try to take over. However, you might take the time to convince colleagues, teacher leaders, and curriculum coaches in your school that, if they are interested in closing the achievement gaps that persist among diverse groups of students, they and their students truly would benefit from a curriculum that motivates deeper processing of important ideas while developing college and career readiness skills.

In sum, it is not the ELA teacher who needs to change the amount of fiction and non-fiction they use in their curriculum. All the other teachers in the school would naturally bring the non-fiction numbers to the 70% level by altering their methods. ELA teachers then could continue to turn kids on to great literature and they could help colleagues in science, social studies, and other technical subjects to make the transition to content-literacy-based instruction—reading and writing to learn new subject matter. Thousands of teachers are making the change each year and loving it.

Feel free to comment on this. You may contact me at or through the web page:


2 thoughts on “Do English/Language Arts Teachers Have to Cut Back on Literature?

  1. I DISAGREE with you position that students in EVERY class should be engaged and immersed in reading. A student does not need to sit and read to be challenged to think critically. Nobody does. This is the age of technology and learning has evolved as a result. Reading is key source of information in some fields – government and politics being two key examples – but not all fields.

    Besides a standardized test, most of what we all need to learn is provided via video, podcast, simulation. Most CTE students are tactile, visual and auditory learners and capable of limitless learning and higher order thinking even when a good bit of their learning is by “sit and git” (theory) as well as physical manipulation, trial and error on paper, trial and error with physical parts and tools, etc. And, as a chemistry teacher, and former chemist, I can tell you that too much of what is a critical part of understanding is NOT best accomplished by having students read for understanding. And, a teacher is not just a facilitator, but an instructor. We work very hard to make sure we can make clear the understanding. Your presumptions feed into the idea that any expert in the content can teach and any student can learn without a teacher. That is the mantra of the “education reformers” who seek only to turn public education into a for-profit endeavor and to devalue teachers.

    Additionally, the research you reference is conducted on elementary students and the authors are all a small handful of people whose most recent work is dated 2007. They all just say the same things and reference the same publications, including their own. Not much peer review going on there. Whoever sells the most books and gets into the most graduate programs and/or professional development sessions, becomes the “expert”.

    The world of learning has changed a LOT in 8 years. Your MAX strategies are the same strategies that have been taught FOREVER. Giving it a fancy new name doesn’t make it any different. While I agree there is value in reading for understanding, it is not the most important piece of the puzzle and should not be treated as such in every content area.

  2. Theresa – thank you for your input. Your comments address several issues to which I would like to respond:

    1. Should content-literacy-based instruction (CLBI) be used every day?
    2. What other instructional formats should be used to help students learn?
    3. Is CLBI an instructional format for the upper grades? Or is it best use in the elementary grades? CTE students? Academic students?
    4. Have these classroom activities been around “forever?”
    5. Can any expert in a field be an effective teacher in that field?
    6. How does current research relate to literacy-based instruction?
    7. What is the role of “teacher” in content-literacy-based instruction?
    8. Has learning changed in the past 8 years?

    Reading between the lines of your response, I can infer that you are a strong advocate for students and for student learning. You and I are on the same wavelength in that regard. My teaching experience (begun in 1974) has been with students of all ability levels, and mostly urban, and mostly at the high school level. I taught for 15 years before I knew about the value of CLBI and made the switch. Once I adopted the techniques as the routine in my instruction, the difference was clear right away. Students were more motivated, and did a better job of learning the subject matter. The difference was night and day. And students acquired much more than understandings about my subject matter. They learned how to learn. Two for the price of one!

    Part of the reason why I was able to change my instructional habits was that I was a coach. I recognized that CLBI is a form of coaching learning skills. (Coaches are always looking for better ways to improve their players’ performance. It is the rare coach who is static and unwilling to change.)

    It’s certainly appropriate to be skeptical of innovations that seem to offer a “silver bullet” that will solve the myriad problems we face in the classroom. CLBI does not purport to be that silver bullet. It is a complex set of behaviors, strategies, and classroom activities that, if developed and used properly, allow for the acquisition of important life-long learning skills along with the acquisition of content knowledge.

    One should not critique what one has not actually tried. Some of your critiques do not reflect the reality of CLBI. You suggest, for instance, that the role played by the teacher is non-existent or that students in a content-literacy-based classroom “learn without a teacher.” Nothing could be further from the truth. However, your thinking maybe reflects an important misconception that others may also have about CLBI. Many other teachers may also question, as you do, the idea of routinely having students read for learning because they have not ever been in such a classroom to see how it functions over time.

    The teacher is critical as a coach of the process. It is just that the teacher as coach is doing more than most teachers. The teacher is developing the learning skills of students. The teacher’s role is also to set up the learning opportunities so that students will succeed in the process. The teacher is also one element in the formative assessment/feedback process that facilitates learning.

    Proponents of content-literacy-based instruction (CLBI) do not advocate the sole use of classroom reading as a learning tool. However, they would advocate routine use of reading in many circumstances for many students. There are several reasons, stated in this blog and in my book.

    To do it properly, a teacher needs to take stock of the students’ prior knowledge, build prior knowledge, get students interested in finding out something (setting purpose for learning), and help them to recognize a skillful way to attack the information – all this before they even get into the information, which might be a textbook, a video, a lecture, or even a field trip.
    Writing and interacting with others is important in the process. Formative assessment and feedback are the keys to effective learning, and in this process, the FAFB loops are numerous.

    Recent research suggests that attempting to teach to learning styles has little or no effect on student learning or achievement.

    The need to coach fluent reading beyond the primary grades is paramount. You are correct in suggesting that many of the reading strategies I espouse have been around for decades, but the fact is that very few teachers have ever used them in their classrooms except on a once-in-a-while, or trial basis, often without understanding how to correctly implement them or get the most out of them. In such an environment, they do little for the practicing students.

    The key is that, when done properly, every student has access to most of the significant information related to a topic, has time to make sense of the information in his/her own personal way, has access to others’ interpretations of that information, and has the opportunity to use the information in a problem-solving setting.

    When I recently facilitated a textbook reading in a chemistry class on the topic of electron configurations and chemical reactivity in the Group One Elements of the periodic table, I used a very well-known one-minute you-tube video clip wherein a chemist proceeds down the group dropping small amounts of first lithium, then sodium, then potassium, rubidium, and cesium into large glass containers of water, noting the relatively increasing reactivity of each of the elements with the water, to the point of causing an explosion upon combining cesium with water. The whole video takes about a minute. Before that video, I used a SmartBoard to project some slides I had made to establish the context for both the video and the reading that was to come. One slide was designed to help students conceive of the idea of electron layers, and to make the point about each of the group 1 element’s outer layers containing a single valence electron.

    This all took about three or four minutes before previewing the section of the textbook that students were about to read. So, yes, I used more than just reading. I used SmartBoard and YouTube – two technologies not even in existence when I started using CLBI in my classroom in 1989. (I would have used an overhead transparency back in the day, and maybe a 16mm film if one existed.) I took the time to build the prior knowledge that would facilitate students’ understanding of the text they were about to read. After that, I introduced a comprehension strategy that would facilitate students’ processing of the text, and only then did they read silently, followed by discussion and other extension activities. In other words, I coached the students through the concepts and the skills involved in reading for learning. And, they coached each other in understanding the concepts from the text. That was the other coach—the text.

    Processing text in such a manner leads to deeper understanding of content, an appreciation of the value of text as a learning tool, and complex thinking that results from being able to juggle several ideas at once. Rather than having to remember what a teacher said 20 minutes ago, or yesterday, the thoughts are right there at one’s fingertips. This allows for much more complex discussions. It allows more students to participate in such discussions. It allows for them to defend their thinking by reference to citations that support their thoughts.

    Instead of the typical classroom in which two students engage with the teacher in a conversation that those three people understand because those two students have done the reading to prepare for the class, everyone has access to the same knowledge.

    My own experience as a potential chemistry major might enhance what I am getting at here. In high school, I was completely enamored of chemistry. My teacher made it interesting with great lectures and films. I loved the labs. I earned an A in the course, and I determined that chemistry would be my major in college. The problem was that I was not prepared for college. Like over 40% of students who attend college today, I might have benefited from remedial courses in reading, writing, and mathematics. They were not available back then, and by the end of my first year, I had dropped out. It was during a war, and that is where I ended up.

    You are right that all students are capable of using higher-order thinking skills (HOTS). Use of HOTS requires two main forms of intelligence. The first is fluid intelligence; characterized by the ability to solve novel problems, think on one’s feet, what some would call street smarts. The second is crystallized intelligence, characterized by having a knowledge base from which to address problems. By allowing for all students to have the text in their hands, time to process the text, and an opportunity to interact with peers over what the text says, we take advantage of students’ inherent fluid intelligence while we empower all students to partake in the crystallized intelligence afforded by the text. Not only are we beefing up students’ crystallized intelligence through text, but we are helping them view text as a solution to life’s problems.

    Taking on a different instructional format may seem an overwhelming change, especially if you have only had a few hours of professional development in the techniques. No one expects wholesale changes to occur without the proper support for those changes. However, if we as CTE teachers ignore the importance of problem-oriented thinking, informational text, and communication skills, we are doing a disservice to all CTE students.

    In sum, my responses to your critique follow:

    1. Should content-literacy-based instruction (CLBI) be used every day?

    No, but for many students, it ought to be the routine for many reasons including student development and effectiveness.

    2. What other instructional formats should be used to help students learn?

    Anything and everything that is appropriate, in increments that are appropriate.

    3. Is CLBI an instructional format for the upper grades? Or is it best use in the elementary grades? CTE students? Academic students?

    Coaching literacy skills is something that is seldom accomplished beyond the primary grades, even though research points out that fluent reading is not developed in most people by high school, and most high school students are at or below basic on reading measures in a world in which literacy is increasingly important.

    4. Have these classroom activities been around “forever?”

    Only for a little more than a hundred years (Huey, 1908). In reality, content-literacy-based instructional techniques are a result of advances in learning and cognition from the middle part of the 20th century. Many of the techniques were published in the 1980s, but the vast majority of teachers have never used them, instead adhering to a culturally normative model of curriculum design that is was brought over from Prussia 200 years ago! They have just spruced it up a bit with SmartBoards and PowerPoint.

    5. Can any expert in a field be an effective teacher in that field?

    Absolutely not! In fact, the effect size for “teacher content knowledge” is .09, or virtually non-existent according to the research of John Hattie (2009).

    6. How does current research (post 2007) relate to literacy-based instruction?

    A great deal of current literature on instructional improvement focuses on the need to develop literacy skills, teach metacognitive behavior, and generally prepare students for the information age in which we find ourselves. A brief post-2007 list of readings you might peruse include the following:

    7. What is the role of “teacher” in content-literacy-based instruction?

    The teacher is the coach, modeling how to learn within a field such as chemistry or cosmetology. Thus, she models strategies for processing text and other sources of information as well as how a person thinks and solves problems within that field. She designs lessons to facilitate students’ thinking within that domain, and provides important feedback as students develop.

    8. Has learning changed in the past 8 years?

    Not unless humans have evolved into a new species in the last few years! The important discoveries about how people learn that were made in the 1920s by Lev Vygotsky, in the 1950s by Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues, and by Piaget, Bruner, Ausubel, Zull, and many others have not changed. They are indeed reinforced by the recent research of Marzano, Hattie, and others like them.

    So, no, learning has not changed in eight years, but instructional techniques are slowly, and grudgingly moving in the direction of content-literacy-based instruction. As more teachers and schools adapt to the Common Core State Standards, they will begin to see what many of us have been relishing for decades.

    Below is a selected bibliography of some post-2007 writings that support teacher change and the routine use of CLBI in the classroom:

    Bellanca, J., and Brandt, R. (Eds.). (2010). 21st century skills: rethinking how students learn. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

    Berliner, D. Glass, G. & al. (2014). Myths & lies that threaten America’s public schools: The real crisis in education. New York: Teachers College Press.

    Buehl, D. (2011). Developing readers in the academic disciplines. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

    Calkins, L., Ehrenworth, M. and Lehman, C. (2012). Pathways to the common core: Accelerating achievement. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

    Finn, P. (2009). Literacy with an attitude: Educating working-class children in their own self-interest. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

    Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London and New York: Routledge.

    Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. London and New York: Routledge.

    Hattie, J. (2012). Know thy impact. Educational Leadership, September 2012, Vol. 70, No. 1. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

    Hattie, J. and Yates, G. (2014). Visible learning and the science of how we learn. New York: Routledge.

    Lemov, D., Woolway, E., and Yezzi, K. (2012). Practice perfect: 42 rules for getting better at getting better. New Jersey: Jossey-Bass.

    Martinez, M. (2013). Future bright: A transforming vision of human intelligence. New York: Oxford.

    Mendler, A. (2012). When teaching gets tough: Smart ways to reclaim your game. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

    National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & the Council of Chief State School Officers. (2011). Common Core State Standards: College- and Career-Readiness Standards and K-12 Standards in English Language Arts and Math. Washington, DC: NGA.

    Nation’s Report Card, (2013). National Assessment of Educational Progress. National Center for Educational Statistics.

    Park, T., Santamaria, L., Van der Mandel, L., Keene, B., and Taylor, M. (2010). Authentic literacy in career and technical education: Technical appendices to the spring 2009 pilot study. National Research Center for Career and Technical Education: Louisville, KY.

    Perkins, D. (2014). Future wise: Educating our children for a changing world. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Rapp, K. (2013). Quality feedback: What is it, and how to give it. Educational Leadership. Vol. 54, No. 7, July, 2012. ASCD.

    Roth, M. (2014). Young minds in critical condition. New York Times. The Stone, May 10, 2014.

    Schmoker, M. (2011). Focus: Elevating the essentials to radically improve student learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

    Schmoker, M. (2013). The lost art of teaching soundly structured lessons. Education Week Teacher, June 4, 2013.

    Springer, S., Wilson, T., and Dole, J. (2015). Ready or not: Recognizing and preparing college-ready students. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literature. 58(4). Dec 2014/Jan 2015. (pp. 299-307). Hoboken, NJ: IRA.

    Wagner, T. (2012). Creating innovators: The making of young people who will change the world. New York: Scribner.

    Zull, J. (2011). From brain to mind: Using neuroscience to guide change in education. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

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