Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Leading for Literacy: A Reading Apprenticeship Approach (Book Review)

Drawing from years of research applied to adolescent literacy, Ruth Schoenbach, Cynthia Greenleaf, and Lynn Murphy have recently distilled their experimental results and methodology into a practical resource. Published in December 2016, LEADING FOR LITERACY: A READING APPRENTICESHIP APPROACH is designed for teachers and students in secondary and tertiary school. The authors describe an approach that facilitates an understanding of complex texts in varied disciplines: history, science, math, literature, etc. They begin with the proposition that disciplinary reading is an essential skill.

From the book:

"DISCIPLINARY READING: The reading that middle school, high school, and college teachers assign day after day in class after class—is foundational to students’ success. For anyone in doubt, new academic standards and workforce expectations make the demand for academic literacy emphatically clear. What is less clear is how to support students to achieve that literacy‐based, future‐oriented success. 
For many if not most administrators, teachers, students, and parents, these new expectations may require a paradigm shift in understanding how learning happens best. This shift includes new ways of thinking about the relationship of literacy to subject area content, students’ and teachers’ roles in learning, and, most important, students’ potential for critical thinking and disciplinary reasoning. Change of this depth cannot spread beyond a few classrooms and is not sustainable without system‐level support. 
The Reading Apprenticeship Framework, developed to promote students’ engaged academic literacy, has a solid history of catalyzing this kind of transformative change—for individuals and within institutions."

A note from Emily Wagner at WestEd's Strategic Literacy Institute: 
Low levels of literacy and the inability of students to read complex texts cause millions of middle and high school students to drop out of school or graduate from high school unprepared for the demands of college and work. The recently released Leading for Literacy, written by Ruth Schoenbach, Cynthia Greenleaf, and Lynn Murphy from WestEd’s Strategic Literacy Initiative, is designed to guide superintendents, principals, teacher leaders, and advocates through every step of organizing and promoting a culture of literacy throughout a school or district. 

Leading for Literacy is based on the Reading Apprenticeship approach to learning that broadens teachers’ mindsets about what students are capable of doing, and provides the foundation for apprenticing students to reading, writing, thinking, and speaking in the different disciplines.
 The book features the diverse voices of change agents, including superintendents, principals and teacher leaders. The authors draw upon hundreds of examples and insights, and provide evidence of the applicability of this approach. Along with 42 case study “Close-Ups”—and 43 Team Tools for use in professional development settings, the book offers a rich mix of exposition, rationale, theory, tools, and practice. A companion to the authors’ bestselling Reading for Comprehension (1999, 2012), Leading for Literacy dissects the problems and difficulties as well as presenting successes from different kinds of environments—urban to rural, middle school to college. 

To learn more and dialogue with authors Schoenbach and Greenleaf, register for the webinar Leading for Literacy, March 8th 1:00-2:00 p.m. EST at http://bit.ly/SLI-03-08-17


My own thoughts:
Having reviewed the book, this method makes sense to me, primarily because it is text-based. Hoorah for that! Students read and discuss the actual text, rather than circumventing the textbook  because it is too complex, too boring, too lengthy, too technical, etc. Rather than merely reading summaries and/or taking notes from a teacher, they read the text. They are taught how to contend with complicated text. This is key. Students and teachers reflect on how they read the text (fluency adjusted for complexity), how they grapple with the vocabulary (including roots and affixes) and how they follow the concepts (comprehension). 

Metacognition is central to this approach, as students reflect on their understanding of the text and on the varied reading processes they used. The metacognitive methods employed in this book encourage students to mark up the margins as they read and to reflect on their understanding, both independently and in groups. They learn to flexibly adjust to the varied texts and writing styles used in different disciplines. Motivation is also integral to this method, including self-efficacy and even interest, to some extent, as a situational interest is sometimes incited by collaborative discussion. Motivation is critical, especially for adolescents struggling to comprehend obscure language and complex concepts. Motivational processes and metacognitive processes are, in some respects, inseparable, as noted in this approach.

In addition, the program makes no pie-in-the-sky promises. In contrast, the authors make it clear that developing literacy across the disciplines will take time (months, even years) and hard work, with a good deal of pre-planning, professional development, and teacher collaboration. This includes vocabulary analysis. This image is from the book Leading for Literacy, page 111. Click the image to enlarge it. This Team Tool is used with teachers in a professional development setting and when they are engaged in lesson design. This tool helps teachers identify obscure vocabulary and plan strategies to promote word learning.

So, I generally like the looks of this book and its Reading Apprenticeship approach. As some of you know, I have taught intervention reading to middle school students and served as a strategic literacy coach to literacy teachers in middle and high school. I found that it was generally easier to teach adolescents how to decode multisyllabic words than it was to teach text-based understanding. It took much longer — and required a very different approach — to develop vocabulary knowledge and to promote comprehension. I was challenged by the enormous task, yet I strove to help students gain the confidence and competence to skillfully use the tools and strategies needed for close reading. I would have been eager to try a program like this one. Once basic decoding / phonics patterns are understood reasonably well, this approach is a logical next step. 

Plus, happily enough, the Reading Apprenticeship method does consistently encourage students to approach new vocabulary through roots and affixes. While the word morphemes is not used in the book, the method clearly encourages students to utilize knowledge of morphemes and innate morphological processing to understand words they encounter while reading. Through this method, I would expect students to deepen their morphological awareness even as they learn to grapple with complex texts. The screenshot from the book, shown below, is only a slice of the student-learning goals the authors developed for each discipline. This screenshot is excerpted from the history goals, but a similar word-analysis goal is seen across disciplines:

This method should augment and consolidate a prior or ongoing supplemental focus on morphology. This apprenticeship method should be effective, especially if students recognize basic decoding patterns, including common phonograms, and have already studied, or are currently learning, the more frequently encountered Greek and Latin roots and affixes. 

I'd give it a go, especially if I had the support of the colleagues in my professional community.

Best regards,
Susan Ebbers

See another post on Disciplinary Literacy by Dr. Zygouris-Coe.


  1. I'm chuffed about this post. Good stuff.

    1. Thanks, Gwen! It does look promising.


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