Engaging in ELA

“Learning is a partnership: Good teachers find out what students do and do not understand, and then they do something about it. Good students tell and show what they understand and ask questions when they don’t understand” (Gutzmer & Wilder, 2012, p. 38).

If this post and my grade weren’t dependent upon a word count that quote would be enough to explain how we should design and respond to the disciplinary literacy needs of our students. Across disciplines there are various approaches to designing content that reaches the needs of all students. Despite a need for various design and response approaches there is one approach that has proven interdisciplinary. Relationship building. Gutzmer and Wilder (2012) calls it a partnership, others call it a relationship. Regardless of the term, in order to help our students become successful there must be a willingness to connect from both parties. The late Rita Pierson said, “Every child needs a champion” (2013) and this can only happen once we get to know every child in our classrooms.

The late Rita Pierson explains the importance of relationship building in the classroom. I dare you to watch this and not have some sort of emotional response.

It is much easier to teach complex concepts when you know the strengths, weaknesses, interests, etc. of your students. If you’re lucky you’ll teach homogenous classes where everyone likes and dislikes the same things and struggle with the same content areas. Wake up! This will not be your reality. Be prepared to teach one lesson in one classroom in a million different ways. Our students all need something different and variety is key.

The best way to learn your students, I think, is to make the first two weeks of a new school year a pre-assessment. Use this time to discover student’s abilities while also discovering who they are as people. Middle schoolers are people, too (sometimes). As an ELA teacher I need to know my students reading and writing abilities day one. Yes, I’ll have some test scores, but that can only quantify them as a person. A simple introductory assignment that allows students to introduce themselves through any medium of their choice, to me, is a better indicator of their strengths and weaknesses. Once I know them as a person and some of their academic capabilities and shortcomings, I can tailor class for their literacy needs.

Now I’m sure there are some who are like “Great, your kids see you care, but that can’t prove successful on an actual assessment.” For that person I would say, your students are going to hate you. Good luck! While creating a supportive environment may not measure testing success, it can foster an environment that motivates students to learn. The student that knows you care is more likely to try harder, if only to make you, the teacher, happy. Kids don’t want to disappoint the teacher(s) they like.

Establishing this rapport allows me to begin to introduce more concrete subject matter. ELA is the cornerstone of every other discipline. The student who struggles with basic ELA concepts may struggle with math, social studies, science, etc. It’s more than vocabulary, punctuation, grammar, and reading. It’s seeing beyond the page. It’s interpretation. It’s learning the difference between implicit and explicit information. We know this can be nearly impossible for middle school students based off Piaget’s work regarding concrete and abstract thinking.

My disciplinary literacy design can best be explain using building blocks. First students have to learn how to examine texts. Shanahan (2015) suggests four disciplinary practices: read different interpretations of the same text, learn the structure of argument, learn the language of literary criticism, and learn how to recognize themes. Once students have developed understanding, and eventually mastered these practices then we can examine specific texts. This can also help prepare students for standardized testing. These practices are abstract in nature, but once students understand them they can use the practices concretely on exams. McTighe, Seif, and Wiggins (2004) posit “teachers can best raise test scores over the long haul by teaching the key ideas and processes contained in content standards (p. 27).

Traditionally, texts meant novels, but today we have learned the importance and convenience of text variety. Novels are great, they are also time consuming, complex, and can easily overwhelm students. Teachers have begun integrating short stories, novellas, and even song lyrics to examine the same themes and ideas presented in novels. This not only helps teachers get through content and check off standards, but it also makes reading more enjoyable and less taxing, especially for struggling readers. The four literacy practices provided by Shanahan (2015) can be used to examine and understand the aforementioned types of literature.

Designing and responding to our student’s literacy needs is not a one size fits all concept. We will fail more times than we can count, but if we keep the goal in mind: Educating our students, we will take the necessary steps toward creating lessons that meet the needs of every child.


Gutzmer, C. & Wilder, P. (2012). Writing so people can hear me: Responsive teaching in a middle school poetry unit. Voices from the Middle, 19(3), 37–44.

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

Pierson, R. (2013, May). Every kid needs a champion [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/rita_pierson_every_kid_needs_a_champion

Shanahan, C. (2015). Disciplinary literacy strategies in content area classes. International Literacy Association, 1–18. DOI:10.1598/e-ssentials.8069

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