Designing and responding to the disciplinary literacy needs of adolescents

Literacy Needs of Students

In any given classroom, there may upwards of 30 students who are all individual people. They may differ in preferred learning style, intrinsic interest in the subject, age, culture, socioeconomic background, and in many other areas. Teaching a class is not going to be the same every year because of the mix of students. We, as teachers, need to listen to our students literacy needs and respond in the best fitting way possible. In this writing, I have outlined several aspects that are critical to successfully designing for and responding to the many different literacy needs of adolescents in the classroom. These aspects are: designing lessons and teaching in a transparent and responsive way, leading units with inquiry, and teaching with purpose. Taking into account these aspects will help address the needs of students.

Responsive Design and Teaching

Dwight D. Eisenhower once said “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”. To me, this directly related to the lesson planning of understanding by design, where the first step is to think about the end goal of the unit: what do we want our students to learn? Once we know where we want to be, we can begin designing individual lessons to guide our students there. However, lessons will not always go as planned and students will not always understand every concept you attempt to teach. Because of this, it is important to be transparent with your students and see what they need. Gutzmer and Wilder (2012) said “Instead of assuming what our students knew and needed, we wanted to show them that we were listening to their voices and then using that information to make daily instructional decisions…., we wrote “Learning is a partnership: Good teachers find out what students do and do not understand, and then they do something about it.”” (p. 38) Thus, teacher will likely have to adapt how and what they are teaching. It is also true that teachers may incorrectly

gauge students abilities (either expect too much or too little) when making a unit plan. Therefore teachers must be okay with changing and adapting different sections of their lesson plans as well. Being responsive in the lesson plans themselves and the teaching of the content is an important skill to have to be able to help promote adolescent literacy.

Leading with Inquiry

In order to engage students throughout an entire unit, teachers can begin with inquiry. This involves posing questions to the students that are interesting, relevant, and hard to answer. Each lesson in the unit can then be used to tackle these questions. McTighe et. al said “Students are more likely to make meaning and gain understanding when they link new information to prior knowledge, relate facts to “big ideas,” explore essential questions, and apply their learning in new contexts.” (p. 26). By leading with these essential questions, students will be more engaged and have a reason for wanting to understand the materials.

Teaching with Purpose

Teaching in the form of only lecturing to students in a ‘banking model’ is ineffective for many ways. To effectively engage students, we must not give out answers, but encourage and persuade them that there is a good reason to learn for themselves. This is where teaching with purpose comes into play. Fisher and Frey (2010) said “When teachers guide students, they strategically balance between prompts and cues, only reverting to direct explanations when the student continues to misunderstand. This is motivating as students experience productive success.” (p. 35). Once students are engaged in an inquiry, teaching with purpose becomes much easier. One of the simplest ways to do this is by reminding students that they will need to understand the lessons to be able to apply it to their performance project that aims to tackle the inquiry. In the example unit plan that the science group presented at the end of class, there was a main project that they were working towards. Each lesson could then be framed as giving the students the tools they need to complete to activity.

Each class you teach will differ in engagement and the pace at which students understand material, being flexible and transparent in the planning and execution of lesions is key to the literacy needs of students.


Frey, N., and Fisher, D. 2010. Motivation requires a meaningful task. English Journal, 100(1), 30–36

Gutzmer, C., and Wilder, P., 2012. “Writing so people can hear me” responsive teaching in a middle school unit. Voices from the Middle, 19(3), 37–44.

Mcdaniel, R. (1970, June 10). Understanding by Design. Retrieved June 22, 2017, from

McTighe, J., Sief, E., and Wiggins, G. 2004. You can teach for meaning. Educational Leadership, 62(1), 26–31.

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