How to Help Every Teacher Build Students’ Language Skills

It used to be that only language arts teachers were expected to help their students learn to read, write, speak and listen. But Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have changed this. Now, all teachers are required to build their students’ literacy skills.

This is good news. It can bring us closer to making sure all students have the reading, writing, speaking and listening skills they need to be successful. But how many teachers actually know how to do this? And what do teachers say can help them? 

I’m fortunate to be at the forefront of an initiative to pilot resources that foster literacy teaching skills in support of CCSS implementation. I lead New Teacher Center’s work with new history, social studies and science teachers in California to increase student achievement and to meet the new CCSS literacy standards. As these new teachers got started in their very first classrooms, they were excited. But many simply didn’t know where to begin. Although new teachers knew about the CCSS, they were unfamiliar with how these new standards would look in the classroom.

Many of the science and social studies teachers were intimidated by the challenge of incorporating literacy skills into their content areas. I focused on strategies to support their use of effective teaching practices, keeping the integration of subject area content and literacy skills at the forefront. These strategies included: engaging teachers in reflective conversations, mentoring to help teachers assess their students’ skills before and after a lesson as a basis for next steps in teaching, and creating opportunities for collaboration with other teachers. Additionally, I guided teachers in using quality materials to support the CCSS – the Literacy Design Collaborative system (PDF) for secondary teachers, and New Teacher Center’s Oral Language Development website for elementary teachers. By leading teachers through a process of analyzing student work, I helped them develop the expertise to assess the literacy skills of their students, and create a series of lessons to support the completion of a task aligned with the CCSS.

The result? Teachers moved student literacy forward while teaching their own specific content. One teacher told me, “Students do not feel as overwhelmed and do not see writing as a ‘daunting task.’” Another said, “I have noticed that students have more writing stamina, can organize their thoughts, and provide more details during the writing process.” Yet another said, “Students are much better at explaining their analytical thought in writing.”

Ask these teachers what allowed them to get these results and they’ll point to mentoring, the opportunity to collaborate with other teachers and learning how to use quality materials that support CCSS.

I’m thrilled to have an opportunity to bring this learning to many more teachers across the country this fall through a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) – a free online course from New Teacher Center available through Coursera. In it, you can learn how to apply some of the tools from the Literacy Design Collaborative to incorporate Common Core literacy strategies into your content area. Learn more about the course,  "Common Core in Action: Literacy Across Content Areas,” and sign up.

Ensuring CCSS deliver the desired results depends on the implementation process and the supports put in place. Districts should take note and support their teachers’ ability to take on this new set of challenges.  We need to avoid a situation where teachers, new and old, are left to figure this out in isolation – to the detriment of student learning.

July 23, 2013