How to Shift Your Literacy Program Towards More Rigor, More Meaning

In February 2016, instructional leaders from 20+ charter school networks across 14 states convened in New York City to learn from Arin Lavinia, founder of the Lavinia Group and creator of Success Academy Charter SchoolsTHINK Literacy program, as well as Kimberly Steadman, Co-Director, and Katie Megrian, Network Director of English Language Arts, of Brooke Charter Schools. The topic: how to shift English Language Arts programs to meet the higher bar set by the Common Core standards.

Arin Lavinia and Brooke Charter Schools were each featured because they “did Common Core” long before the standards were implemented and their respective student achievement is among the highest in the nation.

This first-grade classroom shows what is possible when students are asked to wrestle with complex texts and make arguments based on evidence (teacher introduces the video; student discussion begins at 0:52).

1st Grade Book Discussion

While the phrase “Common Core” has become controversial, there is nothing controversial about students making meaning of important texts and reasoning with their peers.

At their core, the new standards ask teachers and students to make three shifts:

  • Read and make meaning of “harder” texts.
  • Use evidence from the text to support arguments and analysis.
  • Build content knowledge by reading more nonfiction.

We will attempt to summarize the key takeaways emerging from the convening.

Job #1: Read for Meaning (or The Intellectual Struggle is Real) 
Literacy is often broken down into dozens of isolated skills and strategies which can overcomplicate instruction and distract from the true end goal — give students the tools to extract meaning and ideas from complex texts.

“[Instruction] needs to start with the main idea,” says Arin. “We need to talk about the purposeful choices authors make to communicate ideas.” Brooke echoes this sentiment, “Effective reading instruction engages students in proving what an author is trying to communicate and analyzing how the author is trying to communicate it.”

Both Arin Lavinia and Brooke Charter Schools also use the word “struggle” when describing what students experience during an exemplary reading lesson. Brooke Charter Schools says, “[The] student should engage in the struggle of logically attacking a new question that requires them to integrate the text and articulate their thinking.”

So what does this “struggle” look like in practice?

In order to drive student understanding of a text’s deeper meaning, Arin suggests the following lesson structure for close reading for meaning in grades 2–5:

Day 1 (40–45 minutes)
The teacher facilitates strong student understanding of the text’s main idea through a fast-paced fluency read together and a 10–12 minute discussion. Students then take 5–7 minutes on their own to respond to a short writing prompt (e.g., “What’s the central message?”). The teacher pulls select student work and leads a group revision. Finally, students revise their own work individually to ensure they are learning something new in the last 5 minutes.

Day 2 (40–45 minutes)
Using the same text, the teacher facilitates deeper analysis around how the author uses craft and structure to illuminate the main idea. Students again respond to a short writing prompt and engage in a group revision led by the teacher before revising their own work individually.

Day 3 (40–45 minutes)
Students independently cycle through the process outlined in Days 1 and 2 using a new text.

Teachers facilitate this intellectual struggle through a series of carefully prepared questions which we will explore further in the next section.

Arin says that students also can use a text’s genre as an entry point to anchor their understanding (something adults already do independently but is a skill which needs to be cultivated in children). Arin gives students “thinking jobs” to help them find meaning in each genre. For example, students should be able to identify quickly whether the text is fiction or biography — and the fact that it is a biography should be an automatic cue to think about the key figure’s main accomplishments and why she is important.

Arin cautions against activities that distract students from the deeper meaning of a text. She notes, “Common Core asks us to understand the whole meaning of a text and apply that to thinking more deeply about that text. When we start with text-dependent questions (TDQs), we go to the narrowest understanding first and miss the deeper meaning. If the students miss the main idea of the story, then it is impossible to do anything else well.”

Unfocused instruction can also reduce the intellectual struggle demanded of students in the classroom. For example, Brooke warns against an “I-we-you” approach to reading instruction because it shifts responsibility for thinking to the teacher and away from students. “To be successful in life, students need to have a point of view — and they need to be able to articulate that point effectively verbally and through writing,” shares Katie. Even as early as kindergarten, Brooke students are asked to explain why an author wrote a text, identify differences between genres, and refer to other relevant texts during read-aloud discussions.

Prepare for Meaning 
To create productive, intellectual struggle in the classroom, teachers need to intellectually prepare for lessons using a process similar to the one they use with students. Arin recommends that:

  1. The teacher reads the text and determines/jots down the main idea.
  2. Then, he identifies key aspects of the text that facilitate his understanding of the meaning.
  3. The teacher then develops the questions that he will ask students to facilitate their understanding of the text and its meaning.

Brooke teachers go through a similar planning process where they outline key questions, anticipate student responses, and script out a flow for the discussion. Brooke coaches teachers that good questions require text evidence to answer and force students to think about the author’s purpose and choices. “How is Elephant’s personality different than Piggie’s?” is a good question. “Why does Lorraine Hansberry choose to include both of these encounters in the same scene of the play?” is a good question. “Who would you most like to be friends with: character A or character B?” is not a good question.

Struggle, in the positive sense, is a critical component of adult learning. Arin states, “You have to embrace struggle for the grown-ups as well. It’s only through struggle that you get to a ‘Eureka’ moment.” Some of the most powerful PD occurs when groups of educators go through the process above where they extract the main idea and develop questions that facilitate student understanding of the text and its meaning. Instructional leaders should have the same expectations for teachers as they do for students to explore and understand the deeper meaning of texts.

Arin trains instructional leaders to give feedback early and often to move teacher practice. She suggests the following cycle of observation, feedback, reflection, and practice as one potential framework (described in more detail in Mission Possible: How the Secrets of the Success Academies Can Work In Any School).

  • Speed-observe six classrooms (instead of one or two) during a 45-minute period. Cutting down the time spent on each classroom allows leaders to collect more data points and hone in on specific levers or instructional strategies.
  • Study student work. What a leader observes across instruction, student work, and student performance data should be consistent. Use student work as a check to confirm that the instruction happening in the classroom is effective and as a leading indicator of what you expect to see in academic data.
  • Provide a high level model of excellence. Teachers need to see what excellence looks like in action. This could include videos, modeling, or examples of student work.
  • Ask teachers to study and invest in intellectual preparation based on this model of excellence and the feedback they have received from your observations.
  • Ask teachers to practice their lesson plan with coaches. Pretend you are the students — what questions might they ask or what misconceptions might they have?
  • Speed-observe again to confirm that you are moving teacher practice — some teachers might need additional coaching. (In fact, at Brooke Charter Schools, new teachers get observed at least 40 times a year.)

Choose Texts Worth Reading
Curating high-quality books is critically important to successful literacy programs. Texts should have a deeper meaning worthy of discussion. And the cumulative set of texts needs to address a variety of genres and content areas.

Brooke urges its educators to find the right level of rigor. Overly advanced texts may require so much scaffolding that students study a simplistic version of a great work. Through struggle, students should be able to fully grasp the meaning of the text. On other hand, books that are too easy provide no opportunity for the intellectual struggle that promotes learning.

Fall in Love With Reading 
Both Arin Lavinia and the leaders at Brooke Charter Schools speak reverently about creating a culture where students fall in love with reading. These are not empty platitudes — students that read voraciously on their own make great academic strides. This means that actual instruction is also designed to promote a love of reading and texts. Literacy instruction should not be a series of unrelated or inauthentic tasks that have no relevance to students in their own private lives as readers.

Kindergartners at Brooke Charter Schools are introduced to amazing books that are repeatedly read to them, creating bonds with favorite texts that are commonly developed in more affluent households. Kimberly also advocates for ample independent reading time built into Brooke’s school day, at least 45 minutes for grades 4–8: “You can’t tell kids to love reading and then not give them an opportunity to explore on their own.”

In classrooms Arin supports, a teacher might gift wrap an entire section of the library to introduce new titles, building anticipation and excitement among students.

Most importantly, teachers must demonstrate a passion for reading in front of students. “Lessons are 40% better when teachers are passionate about the text,” says Arin.

Concluding Thoughts
The takeaways here are not intended to be exhaustive, but they do illustrate how literacy instruction differs in schools led by Arin Lavinia and Brooke Charter Schools.

  • Literacy instruction begins with the search for deeper meaning, contextualized and supported by evidence in the text.
  • A focus on meaning requires major shifts in how teachers intellectually prepare for lessons and how instructional leaders support them.
  • Reading strategies are in service to the ultimate goal of helping students struggle with meaningful questions. They are to be used authentically and are not an end in themselves.
  • Ultimately, educators are trying to nurture a love of reading and everything in the school should be geared towards that goal.

Doug Lemov tackles this topic more exhaustively in his new book, Reading Reconsidered, and shares some similar sentiments.

Historically, reading achievement has been more stubborn to increase than math. But learning from schools like Success Academies and Brooke Charter Schools provides a potential path towards better literacy in your classroom.

Arin Lavinia can be contacted at