Reading for Engagement: How an emphasis on literacy can motivate students and transform school culture—and results



One of the most comedic depictions of disengaged high school students is also one of the most telling. In the 1986 movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, an economics teacher played by Ben Stein drones on about the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act and its impact on the Depression-era economy. His efforts to engage students through questioning—“anyone? anyone?!”—utterly fail to engender eye contact, much less attention. While hyperbolic, Stein’s portrayal nonetheless reflects an enduring focus on lecturing and note-taking at the expense of exploring rich, engaging materials in every subject area and the boredom these approaches often engender.


When we look at most middle and high school classrooms, it turns out that the problems students face in reading for understanding are not driven by any innate inability to learn on their part but by teaching in ways that do not foster critical thinking, reading and writing as central to subject-area learning. We expect students to think critically, work in teams, navigate complex materials and make connections between far-reaching concepts. But too much classroom time is spent with the teacher doing this work for students, “getting through the text”—or even teaching around it—in order to fulfill the considerable demands of the curriculum in the limited time they have available.

It is understandable that many teachers opt to “give students the content,” rather than support their development as more independent readers and thinkers given the reality that many students struggle with reading for deeper meaning.

Two-thirds of U.S. high school students currently are unable to read and comprehend complex academic materials, think critically about texts, synthesize information from multiple sources or effectively communicate what they have learned.

For these students, it is difficult to make meaning from unfamiliar and challenging content, such as a 19th century political cartoon for a history class, or conceptual diagrams and technical language in a scientific paper for chemistry.

But the unspoken truth is that helping students navigate diverse complex texts in the classroom also can be challenging for many teachers. Few have received the support or training to develop students’ literacy skills within their subject areas. Fewer still have had the experience of surfacing their own internal reading processes while they struggle to make sense of the diction of a Shakespearian sonnet or the wording of a Supreme Court ruling. Too often, the opportunity for students and teachers to work together and think through these kinds of complex texts is missed, resulting in a less engaging classroom experience—and lost opportunities for deeper learning.


For the past 25 years, we have helped middle, high school and postsecondary educators address these challenges by implementing a research-based framework focused on subject-area literacy. The Reading Apprenticeship framework focuses on fostering metacognitive conversation—making thinking visible—as a way for teachers and students alike to acknowledge the challenges of reading complex academic texts in their subject areas and work together toward a deeper understanding of the material. We estimate nearly two million secondary students have benefited from the Reading Apprenticeship approach, as have their counterparts on more than 230 college campuses.

In Reading Apprenticeship classrooms, you will see teachers and students engaged with rich resources and texts—and, as a result of the ongoing conversations about the materials they are reading, with one another.

These conversations ultimately foster stronger student writing, thinking and speaking about the subjects they are taking but they also do more. When “it’s cool to be confused,” as teachers say in Reading Apprenticeship classrooms, students become more willing to take academic risks and become more resilient—traits that will serve them well into college, careers and productive lives.

And by becoming engaged in learning themselves and with peers and acknowledging the difficulties they face when reading complex texts, teachers’ own perceptions change. They become less likely to make judgments about their students’ abilities and effort, instead leading classrooms where everyone works together to answer difficult questions and solve problems.

We hear from educators that these approaches also can make up for lost time. “Kids had lost interest in reading going back to second, third and fourth grade because they lost access to high-interest materials,” says Scott Casebolt, principal of Edsel Ford High School in Dearborn, Michigan. “They lost the enjoyment piece, and we brought it back… It’s carried over to the academic piece.”

Federally funded randomized controlled studies have shown positive, statistically significant effects for students whose teachers participated in Reading Apprenticeship professional development and follow-up support. We have found that the Reading Apprenticeship model works best when teachers in various subjects use common techniques to engage students in different classes throughout the day. We have become increasingly excited about what happens when the approach is brought to scale throughout a school or district—and literacy and inquiry become part of the culture.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina offers a glimpse of the potential. As district leaders have invited teams of teachers and administrators to engage with Reading Apprenticeship across all of their 75 middle and high schools, the district’s graduation rate has risen by nearly 20 percent over five years gains attributed in large part by district leaders to implementation of the literacy initiatives in middle and high school.


Strategies to scale the Reading Apprenticeship approach from individual classrooms to schools and even entire districts are the emphasis of our most recent book, Leading for Literacy: A Reading Apprenticeship Approach(Wiley/Jossey-Bass, 2016). We have learned that bringing academic literacy to scale requires more than committed teachers and the resources needed to support them. School and district leaders, teachers, parents, and community leaders all have roles to play in creating a culture that promotes inquiry and engagement beyond the classroom.

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Successful leaders:

  1. Focus on inquiry in school-based activities and decision-making. Leaders can model this by inviting questioning and problem-solving in discussions and decisions as appropriate and by supporting an inquiry stance for teachers working on changing their classroom cultures.
  2. Find, fund and protect dedicated time for teachers to engage in high quality professional learning, collaboration and problem solving with colleagues.
  3. Re-focus existing meeting structuresor create new structures as needed to support teachers’ work to implement sophisticated literacy strategies, including dedicated literacy teams or communities of practice and opportunities for cross-classroom observations.
  4. Support teachers’ work touse andadapt field-tested tools and protocolsthat provide structure and focus to the time they have carved out for this work.
  5. Build teacher leadership by creating formal and informal opportunities for teachers to take ownership of changing practice and assume leadership roles in supporting peers.
  6. Provide political cover to protect teams and time. Leaders must be thoughtful about defending school-based changes against central office pressure, as well against parent concerns about changes in the classroom.
  7. Foster community partnerships that provide support for literacy efforts in schools.

While these strategies often represent new roles for leaders, they are necessary to support the equally dramatic shifts within the classroom that allow students and teachers to work more closely together toward a deeper understanding of what they are learning. The reward for the leaders who undertake these challenges are engaged, hands-on classrooms—and permanently changed perceptions about what the students in them are capable of accomplishing.

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