Volume II, Issue VIII

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Heather Clayton, the author of Making the Standards Come Alive!, is the principal of Mendon Center Elementary School in Pittsford Central School District, New York. She is also a co-author of Creating a Culture for Learning published by Just ASK.



Building a Solid Foundation: Providing Quality Core Reading Instruction for All Learners


“A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation
with the bricks others have thrown at him.”

– David Brinkley

As we discussed in Making the Common Core Come Alive!, Response to Intervention (RtI) is the practice of providing high quality, effective instruction to all students and preventing gaps in achievement for students who are struggling to learn. When focused on prevention, early intervention, and the careful monitoring of student performance, RtI has the potential to boost achievement for all students, including English Language Learners, students with disabilities, and students at risk. However, in conjunction with solid core instruction in English Language Arts, districts are challenged by the need to provide and balance interventions for struggling readers at all levels. Intervention plans for these students need to address students’ proximal needs in the current curriculum, along with their distal needs, or what is necessary to close learning gaps and skill deficits.

The Common Core provides a clear roadmap of the skills necessary to meet the benchmarks established at each grade level. Each standard in the Common Core for English Language Arts is written at an increasing level of complexity. In addition to this staircase of complexity, these standards are written to be relevant in a variety of subject areas. In fact, for grades 6-12, the standards are divided between English Language Arts and history/social studies, science, and technical subjects.

Common Denominators for Quality Reading Instruction at All Levels
As we know from the Common Core anchor standards, to build a foundation for college and career readiness specifically in reading, students must read a range of high-quality, increasingly challenging texts, both literary and informational, print and digital, read texts in a variety of disciplines to build knowledge, and acquire the habits of reading independently and closely. In order to meet these rigorous standards, students need valuable reading instruction delivered consistently across all grade levels.

To use the analogy of learning a sport, there needs to be a balance of time spent learning the fundamentals, strategies, and skills necessary to be successful, as well as time spent practicing, applying, and integrating the discrete skills that were taught. Imagine if learning a sport consisted of lectures from an instructor, the use of randomly assigned equipment, little time to play, and minimal feedback on actual performance. Would aspiring athletes be motivated, engaged, and performing their best?

Those teaching reading need to think like athletic coaches, and prioritize the practices that will have relevance, impact, and potential for the readers in their care. These practices should drive students’ daily reading experiences, no matter the students’ learning profile, school setting, or prior knowledge.

It is important to give students actual time to read meaningful texts. Richard Allington, in his extensive research of effective reading instruction, found that in less effective classrooms across the country, students were reading for less than ten percent of the day. When you multiply that across years, it is no surprise we have students struggling to read. In order to develop reading proficiency, students need to read extensively and practice skills that have been taught. This can happen in any number of constructs, including small group reading, independent reading, and subjects beyond English Language Arts. It is essential that students have accessible texts in hand and opportunities to “give it a go” with guidance and feedback as well as read independently.

A person who WON’T read has no advantage over one who CAN’T read.

– Mark Twain

When students can choose what they are reading, there is greater engagement, motivation, and long term investment. Students will read and understand more if they can self-select high-quality texts that are of interest to them. Extensive classroom libraries that contain ample selections in a variety of levels and genres are the ideal for our students, but not always easy to accomplish due to cost limitations and space restrictions. However, these challenges do not mean that we cannot provide inspiring and appropriate choices for our students.

When gathering a collection of texts for students, it is important to think not only of ways to acquire, organize, and store books, but of types of texts as well. Technology affords us great opportunities, with high-quality eBooks, software, and web-based programs that offer engaging texts in a variety of levels, often with supplemental resources such as videos and live streaming, to increase comprehension. There are also many periodicals that contain short texts in a variety of genres that appeal to wide audiences. In addition, newspaper articles, primary source documents, graphic texts, poetry, and functional texts such as manuals, directions, and recipe books are excellent resources.

Just like we need a balance of food groups to satisfy our palette and keep our bodies functioning at the optimal level, readers need a balanced diet of texts to keep their minds engaged, invested, and growing.

One way to achieve this is through a balance of texts that can be read independently with strong comprehension, and more challenging texts that require the reader to apply strategies learned. If readers are always gravitating towards texts that are too familiar, they will not build stamina and efficiency in applying strategies. However, if readers choose texts that are out of reach, they are likely to become frustrated or discouraged.

Reading at ninety-eight percent or higher accuracy is essential for reading acceleration.

– Richard Allington

As Allington writes, “the intensity and volume of high success reading determines a students’ progress in learning to read.” He further stresses the importance of students reading texts with accuracy and understanding, saying, “reading at ninety-eight percent or higher accuracy is essential for reading acceleration.” Ideally, students need to strike this balance between reading texts that build stamina, provide enjoyment, and boost confidence, as well as texts that enable them to “swim in the deep end,” with the support of teachers and peers.

Reading should also represent a balance in the genre and topics of texts. As the Common Core State Standards illustrate, the demands of literature and informational texts are quite diverse; to truly be college and career ready, our students need to be able to understand meaningful texts in a range of subjects for a variety of purposes. Students’ understanding of genres will expand over time as they increase their experiences with a variety of texts. The themes of texts will become more complex, so the more diverse and vast the readers’ experiences, the better they will be able to consider global perspectives and cultural connections. Students will possess more background knowledge on which to attach new content if they are well versed in a variety of topics.

In lieu of worksheets, when students are given the opportunity to talk, reflect, and write about their reading, comprehension is improved.

When students are given the opportunity to talk, reflect, and write about their reading, comprehension is improved. The purpose of response is not to simply recall events or summarize learning, but to mold and extend a students’ thinking about the reading. As the Common Core expects, students at all ages need to substantiate their claims using evidence from texts they have read. One way to support readers in reaching this standard is daily response to reading. In lieu of extra skills practice in the form of worksheets, research tells us that students who are regularly engaged in conversations and writing about their reading are more likely to make gains in their achievement.

The primary goal of reading is understanding. When students are passive readers and do not attend to the places in the text where meaning is breaking down, comprehension is lost. The key to improving reading achievement is giving students an opportunity to practice reading and re-reading actual texts, while paying attention to their thinking about the reading. It serves all readers well to provide them with strategies for metacognition, or ways to “think about their thinking.” The way to do this is through modeling and guided practice in the context of learning and reading authentic texts. Students can be explicitly taught to reflect on how their brain is interacting with the words on the page, and use that information to grow their understanding.

Even though readers at different ages have distinguishing traits that make them unique, these practices ensure relevance, impact, and potential for readers at all levels. These priorities should drive students’ daily reading experiences, no matter the students’ learning profile, school setting, or prior experiences.

Prompts to Get Students Talking and Writing in Response to Their Reading


  • I was surprised by…
  • A thought provoking quote/section in the text was… It inspired my thinking because…
  • It made sense that…
  • The author’s purpose was… I know this because…
  • My thinking was shaped by…
  • I agree with… I disagree with…
  • The character ____________ can be described as _____________ because…
  • Powerful language used by the author was…

Prompts to Boost Students’ Metacognitive Skills


  • I’m noticing that…
  • I’m wondering why…
  • I didn’t understand…
  • The word that challenged me was…
  • The reading confused me when…
  • I’m thinking…
  • I’m picturing…
  • I’m remembering…
  • I’m guessing that…
  • My hunch is…
  • This reminds me of…

Sharpening the Focus on Elementary Reading

Early intervention is the main focus of RtI in the primary grades, and necessary if students are to meet the demands that arise by the time they leave third grade. When struggling readers are caught early, it is much easier to close learning gaps in a timely way. To build success with our earliest readers, students should be:

Listening to the Reading of Fluent Adults
Students can increase their fluency and comprehension skills by listening to an adult reading aloud for just a few minutes a day. When being read to, students are provided with a model for fluent reading and as a result their listening comprehension and accuracy rate grows. For students who have significant deficits in their reading, it provides accessibility to more complex texts and gives students the experience of engaging in thought-provoking discussions about reading.

Participating in Flexible Groups
Readers should be grouped for instruction for a variety of purposes. For instance, readers can be brought together for instruction in a specific genre, at a certain level, or to target a specific concept, skill, or strategy. One way to keep groups flexible is to use shorter texts and match those texts to readers for very intentional reasons. The mixing of groups gives students opportunities to interact with a variety of peers, benefit from a variety of perspectives, and to not stigmatize those readers who are struggling to achieve.

The age-old practice of round robin reading, where small groups of children take turns reading portions of a text aloud, has many disadvantages

Reading Silently with Feedback from an Expert Instructor
The age-old practice of round robin reading, where small groups of children take turns reading portions of a text aloud, has many disadvantages. Research shows that students who participate in round robin reading only read an average of six minutes per day. The student reading aloud has the highest level of engagement, and other students can find it boring. Transitioning from reader to reader can interrupt the flow of the text and impact meaning; students’ reading is often inhibited when they are required to “read” at a certain pace by following along word by word with the student reading aloud. Finally, oral reading tends to be slower than silent reading, and not only is the student reading out loud potentially providing a poor example of fluent reading, but her reading can substantially slow down the rate of the other readers.

Therefore, instead of round robin reading, students should be given rich introductions to texts, time to silently read and “give it a go” with the support of the teacher, and a chance to discuss and revisit what has been read. While students are reading silently, the teacher provides timely feedback and makes relevant teaching points that readers can apply in different texts.


Benefitting from Explicit Instruction

Students should experience active instruction where there is modeling and demonstration of foundational reading skills and strategies used by proficient readers. This can be done through:

  • mini-lessons
  • think alouds
  • small group reading lessons
  • conferences
  • interactive class read alouds

Instruction should help students:

  • learn about concepts of print
  • solve words
  • self-correct errors
  • summarize
  • read fluently
  • adjust their rate
  • comprehend what they have read
  • draw conclusions about ideas that weren’t explicitly stated in the text
  • evaluate a variety of texts

Sharpening the Focus on Secondary Reading

As students get older, the possibility of significant gaps in their reading achievement increases. For students with such gaps, the way to accelerate reading growth is through high quality literacy instruction across all curriculum areas each and every day. When the focus is on innovation, consistency, and access to learning experiences that are engaging and authentic, secondary readers not only accelerate their reading growth, but also are better able to demonstrate content mastery and learn to see themselves as capable learners with valuable contributions to make to the learning community and beyond.

Provide Access to Challenging Texts while Also Providing Parallel Texts
All secondary students need access to challenging texts that they can participate in and contribute to rich discussions while gaining global perspectives on issues, forming viable arguments, and supporting claims with relevant evidence. To support struggling readers, we need to provide opportunities for them to listen to text using technology, have them read excerpts with the support of an expert instructor, and provide access to alternate texts with similar themes and ideas, but written at a more accessible reading level.

Argument includes a student’s ability to analyze information, evaluate evidence, support conclusions, and defend interpretations.

Argument not only makes the subject matter more interesting; it dramatically increases our ability to retain, retreive, apply, and synthesize knowledge.

– Mike Schmoker

Providing Authentic Literacy Experiences
To acquire new knowledge and build on existing knowledge, students need to consistently be engaged in careful reading, annotating texts, discussing and writing about them, and applying their learning from the close reading and discussion. Giving students ample opportunities to read, discuss, and write about relevant world issues, trends, and innovations, and to construct arguments based on text-based evidence. When subjects are motivating, audiences are real, and their writing has the potential to make a difference, adolescent students are much more invested in the work.

Mike Schmoker makes this point in his Education Week Commentary, “More Argument, Fewer Standards,” when he states that he is encouraged by the Common Core State Standards, which endorse argument as the primary mode for reading, talking, and writing about complex texts. Argument includes a student’s ability to analyze information, evaluate evidence, support conclusions, and defend interpretations. He shares that “Argument not only makes subject matter more interesting; it dramatically increases our ability to retain, retrieve, apply, and synthesize knowledge.”

Involving Students in Setting Goals and Tracking Progress
Adolescent learners should have a clear picture of the goals of their instructional program and a role in setting benchmarks and measuring their performance. Giving students responsibility for tracking their progress and monitoring their learning is a 21st century skill and boosts student investment and engagement in the learning process.



Learners used color-coded sticky notes to record and synthesize content and ideas from two different articles. The result of the discussion was a list of “key take-aways” that would be used to develop and defend an argument.


 Allocating Resources Where Needed
Secondary schools should consider allocating funding for high quality professional development and resources designed to improve core literacy instruction in all content areas for all students. In order to avoid excessive absenteeism, social difficulties, and poor motivation, schools should focus on providing instruction that meets the needs of diverse learners through authentic and engaging experiences that also provide important readiness skills. Teachers should be trained in powerful ways to integrate literacy across the curriculum and to provide explicit instruction in areas of reading, writing, listening, speaking, and language skills.

The next issue of Making the Common Core Come Alive! will look at how literacy integration across all disciplines improves students’ language skills, expands their academic vocabulary, and clarifies the meaning of grade-appropriate words.

The planning and delivering of valuable reading instruction designed to reach all learners relies on a deep knowledge of the literacy standards and an understanding of how students develop in the area of literacy. Our students will be prepared to climb the “staircase of complexity” when they have the necessary prerequisite strategies and skills to navigate increasingly complex texts.

In closing, the way we provide secondary readers with the mileage they need to show stamina, perseverance and understanding in their reading is through a collective responsibility for the delivery of literacy instruction that promotes content mastery.


Resources and References

Allington, Richard L. What Really Matters in Response to Intervention: Research-Based Designs. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2008.

Allington, Richard L. and Rachael E. Gabriel. “Every Child, Every Day.” Educational Leadership. Volume 69, Number 6. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, March 2012.

Best Practices in Adolescent Literacy. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research. Accessed at: www.learningpt.org/expertise/literacy/bestpractices/adolescentInstruction.php.

Bomer, Randy. Time for Meaning: Crafting Literate Lives in Middle and High School. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1995.

Burns, Matthew K., Rebecca Sarlo, and Hollie Pettersson. Response to Intervention for Literacy in Secondary Schools. Washington, DC: RTI Action Network. Accessed at: www.rtinetwork.org/learn/rti-in-secondary-schools/rti-literacy-secondary-schools.

Rutherford, Paula. Meeting the Needs of Diverse Learners. Alexandria, VA: Just ASK Publications, 2010.

Schmoker, Mike and Gerald Graff. “More Argument, Fewer Standards.” Education Week, April 20, 2011.


Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only.

Please include the following citation on all copies:
Clayton, Heather. “Building a Solid Foundation: Providing Quality Core Reading Instruction for All Learners.” Making the Common Core Come Alive! Volume II, Issue VIII, 2013. Available at www.justaskpublications.com. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). ©2013 by Just ASK. All rights reserved.