Using Student Engagement to Improve
This article is from Using Student Engagement to Improve Adolescent Literacy (Quick
Key 10 Action Guide). Copyright © 2005 Learning Point Associates. Reprinted with
Adolescent Literacy Challenges
Literacy instruction does not end with reading success in early grades. As students
move to middle and high school, new challenges emerge that can affect literacy achievement.
Even for students who achieve early reading and writing success, the literacy demands
of middle and high school can pose substantial challenges. Older students must be
able to comprehend more complex texts; determine the meaning of obscure, unfamiliar,
and technical vocabulary; use higher-order thinking skills to analyze a wide variety
of literacy and expository texts and media; and develop skills for expressing their
ideas by writing informative, persuasive, and creative texts. For students who enter
middle and high school with compromised reading and writing skills, these challenges
are even more daunting.
In 2002, the reading and writing assessments of the National Assessment of Educational
Progress (NAEP) were administered to the nation's students in Grades 8 and 12. NAEP
used the following achievement-level definitions (National Center for Education
Statistics, 2003a, 2003b):
- Below Basic--Achievement that is less than partial mastery.
- Basic--Partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are
fundamental for proficient work at each grade.
- Proficient--Solid academic performance for each grade assessed. Students
reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter,
including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world
situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.
- Advanced--Superior performance.
Figures 1 and 2 show the results.
As you can see, the 2002 NAEP data provide some provoking information about the
challenges facing our students and teachers in middle and high schools:
- Approximately 68 percent of Grade 8 students and 64 percent of Grade
12 students are reading below the proficient level.
- Approximately 69 percent of Grade 8 students and 77 percent of Grade
12 students are writing below the proficient level.
- Less than 6 percent of students in Grades 8 and 12 performed at the
advanced level in reading.
- Approximately 2 percent of students in Grades 8 and 12 performed at
the advanced level in writing.
Given that colleges and workplaces both seek youth who are skilled readers and writers,
these data do not bode well for the future success of the vast majority of our high
Data are not the only source of information about the literacy challenges in our
nation's schools. Interviews with educators and parents point to two factors affecting
literacy achievement: student skills and student engagement. The two factors are
fundamentally linked: Educators must work to build engagement levels if they hope
to support students in meeting higher standards.
Why Focus on Student Engagement?
Middle and high school educators need both the skills required to teach adolescent
literacy and the knowledge of the elements of student engagement. Educators who
teach reading and writing skills without addressing student engagement are unlikely
to yield substantial improvements. As anyone who has spent time with middle and
high school students can attest, attempting to build the skills of disengaged adolescents
is a futile enterprise. Whether expressed as defiant noncompliance or passive "checking
out," the student who refuses to learn will succeed in that effort.
Students who are motivated to learn, on the other hand, can succeed even in less-than-optimal
environments. Students who are engaged in learning are actively seeking meaningful
information that makes sense in their lives--often because they see an immediate
connection to real-life experiences. As defined by Blachowicz and Ogle (2001), engagement
has multiple facets including motivation and purpose.
Student engagement and the literacy practices of adults can make a difference, as
shown in recent research:
- Studies show that academic achievement is associated with engagement
in reading and classroom-related activities. This association is found for various
racial/ethnic groups (Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, African Americans, non-Hispanic
whites) and both gender groups alike (Finn, 1993).
- A recent international study of reading performance concluded that
"15-year-olds whose parents have the lowest occupational status but who are highly
engaged in reading achieve better reading scores than students whose parents have
high or medium occupational status but who are poorly engaged in reading" (Kirsch,
de Jong, LaFontaine, McQueen, Mendelovits, & Monseur, 2002, p. 106).
While educators might wish for classrooms full of students who arrive already motivated,
there is in fact much that educators can do to help create student motivation and
engagement. To make literacy instruction effective in the language arts classroom
and across the curriculum, efforts must be made to engage adolescent learners.
What Are the Key Elements of Student Engagement?
The words "student engagement" might conjure up images of teachers using hip hop
to deliver lessons on Shakespeare. The reality is less colorful and more difficult.
Following are four key elements of student engagement:
- Student confidence. Students with high self-efficacy--the belief
that they can influence their own behavior--are more likely to engage in school-related
reading than those with low self-efficacy (Alvermann, 2003). While this is true
of many kinds of learners, it is especially important at the adolescent developmental
stage, characterized as it is with a strong desire to avoid public failures and
be seen as competent.
- Teacher involvement. High school teachers contribute to adolescent
self-confidence when they care about them as individuals and encourage them to learn
(Dillon, 1989; Dillon & Moje, 1998). The caring teacher who believes that students
can succeed can have a positive Pygmalion effect--whereby believing in potential
creates potential--on adolescents.
- Relevant and interesting texts. Relevance of curricular materials
and topics is essential to student success, requiring teachers to know about their
students' interests. While adolescents are developing the adult capacity to be motivated
by extrinsic interests such as keeping a job, most require significant intrinsic
interest in materials in order to persist in difficult tasks. In addition, developing
literacy strategies and skills that are typically not of themselves interesting
is made easier when students have a meaningful goal that requires those skills (Greenleaf,
Jimenez, & Roller, 2002). For example, students may be highly motivated to learn
about the characteristics of persuasive writing when engaged in an attempt to persuade
school officials to relax a dress code. This type of connecting information is often
not provided in classroom instruction but can make a world of difference in student
- Choices of literacy activities. Adolescent learners sometimes
experience a world of rules and regulations imposed on them by adults who seem to
not understand their world. The physical and emotional changes they experience are
a further source of feelings that they have no control over in their lives. Teachers
who create opportunities for students to choose among assignments and texts will
find students less resistant to completing their work (Wigfield, 2004, p. 67). Students
who also understand the goal of their chosen assignments and feel a sense of control
over how they achieve that goal are more likely to work hard even in the face of
difficulties. Teachers need to be skilled at developing a choice of assignments
that balance student interests with effective research-based strategies for developing
reading and writing skills.
Figure 3 illustrates the relationship among the key elements of student engagement.
What Can Schools and Districts Do to Improve Student Engagement?
For adolescent learners, the continuous development of literacy skills depends on
factors that go beyond school texts and the traditional model of teachers as the
sole disseminators of knowledge. Teachers need to be able to create an engaging
learning environment, implement research-based instructional strategies, augment
students' motivation to learn, and offer opportunities to use literacy skills across
the curriculum (Meltzer, Smith, & Clark, 2001). Administrators and policymakers
from schools, districts, and states need to deliver the resources and support to
teachers in the following areas:
- Professional development
Each of these areas is covered in more detail below:
School Action Option
- Use interdisciplinary project-based curricula to support literacy
learning. Projects engage adolescent learners in group-based inquiry about questions
or problems of interest to them. Typical features of project-based curricula include
questions anchored in real-world problems; investigations and artifact creation;
collaboration among students, teachers, and community members; and the use of technological
tools (Krajcik, Blumenfeld, Marx, Bass, Fredricks, & Soloway, 1998).
District Action Options
- Coordinate efforts to align reading and writing instruction across
the curricula to create a coherent experience for students. Teachers in content
areas other than English may not see themselves as teachers of reading and writing--and
may not have the skills and knowledge needed to do so effectively. Buy-in can be
created through the modeling of comprehension-building activities, which lead to
increased student achievement as measured on standardized assessments. Districts
need to develop both coordinated approaches to reading and writing instruction and
professional development plans to build skills across the faculty so that student
reading and writing in the mathematics classroom is held to standards as high as
those used in the English classroom.
- Leverage funding sources to augment school libraries and connect to
neighborhood libraries. Facilitate the purchase of a variety of curricular materials
that are relevant for adolescent learners. Use resources supported by NCLB, such
as the Improving Literacy Through School Libraries initiative.
Fenway High School in Boston seeks to organize curriculum in all grades around
central themes with support of literacy instruction and engaging activities. All
ninth graders take a reading and writing assessment at the beginning of their freshman
year and participate in a required reading and writing workshop. Foundations of
literacy courses support students' development as independent readers and writers
as well as foster a community of learners. Fenway's science curriculum aims at engaging
students with activities that they can relate to real-life experiences. This school,
with 65 percent of its 270 students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, was
named a Breakthrough High School by the National Association of Secondary School
Principals (2005) because of its compelling outcomes: 91 percent student attendance
rate, 90 percent annual graduation rate, and 90 percent college admission rate.
School Action Options
- Address student reading interests. Rich literacy environments encourage
student engagement. Educators can help students develop their reading interests
by providing multiple types of texts, such as biographies, autobiographies, digital
media, and a wide variety of both narrative and expository texts. Teachers can help
to direct students and build upon their existing knowledge base through the use
of interest surveys and classroom dialogue. Teachers can also encourage practices
of wide reading and accessibility to information at all instructional levels to
increase background knowledge, including high-interest, low-readability materials
such as The Why Files (whyfiles.org). Teachers can model engagement by making their
own reading and writing practices evident to students. Teachers should be sure to
carry books and other reading materials with them, talk about written pieces they
are working on or struggling with, and be open to media that students may find more
intriguing such as digital texts.
- Get students involved in their own learning by:
- Showing care and concern for students as individuals. That, combined
with showing that teachers are invested in student reading progress, can make a
difference in student achievement (Dillon, 1989; Dillon & Moje, 1998).
- Helping students to set goals for reading and plans for achievement.
Research shows that students with reading difficulties use more comprehension strategies
when clear goals for a comprehension task and feedback on the progress are offered
(Schunk & Rice, 1993).
- Teach reading strategies that are engaging and motivational, including:
- Graphic organizers as visual tools. These tools help students recognize
different organizational patterns of text across subject areas and enable them to
collect, interpret, and remember information. For example, timelines help sequence
events in history lessons: cause-effect charts help explain relationships in science
- Techniques like underlining key terms and ideas, making connections,
and reciprocal teaching that entails the teacher and students taking turns assuming
the role of teacher. These techniques help to keep students focused on content and
- Classroom documents created by and available to students. These documents
also can engage students and promote skill building. Activities might include composing
summaries for single texts and creating synthesis statements for multiple texts
on specific content areas. These approaches help to ensure in-depth learning and
- Engage adolescent students in using literacy skills through a variety
- Cooperative learning approaches that include time for student sharing
and discussion of what they have read, listened to, and viewed engage students in
their own work and build upon previous knowledge and expertise.
- Effective before-reading strategies help promote active reading. Such
strategies include clarifying the purpose for reading, making predictions about
text, activating prior knowledge, and articulating questions about content.
- Teacher modeling and strategies of applying prior knowledge, self-monitoring
for breaks in comprehension, and analyzing new vocabulary can positively affect
- The use of multiple texts--especially texts with conflicting points
of view--can help students become more responsible for clarifying meanings, understanding
and debating opinions, and making informed judgments.
District Action Options
- Integrate technology by setting up infrastructure and hardware to
make computer-assisted learning possible. Building upon existing digital literacy
skills helps to engage students. Organize programs to challenge and encourage teacher
and student efforts to integrate technology as a tool in learning. A Learning Point
Associates study on high-poverty, high-technology, and high-achieving schools found
that these schools strongly emphasize technology use within the core curriculum,
explicitly teach technology content, and are concerned with improving students'
computer skills (Sweet, Rasher, Abromitis, & Johnson, 2004).
- Use technology to enhance student participation and collaboration
by doing the following:
- Engage students in actual literacy activities like reading and writing
with computers, which has been proven effective (Kamil, Intrator, & Kim, 2000).
- Promote student collaboration through the use of e-mails and instant
messages for content-area projects.
- Allow more student-centered learning by using interactive Web sites
in science lessons.
Memphis City School District in Tennessee has set up an office of instructional
technology to work collaboratively with all schools in the district to provide training
and professional development on district standard instructional software applications
and technology. The Memphis Teaching and Learning Academy provides staff development
for teachers and the integration of technology into the curriculum. Teachers are
trained to use content standards as guidelines for planning technology-based activities.
School Action Options
- Reshape the learning context by encouraging student participation
in the creation of assessments and design of rubrics. The more engaged students
are in the assessment and evaluation process, the more they are able to understand
the concepts upon which they are being judged. Thoughtful use of students as peer
reviewers can significantly enhance student internalization of standards.
- Reshape the teaching context by providing time for teachers to meet
for a review of lessons and the student work that results.
- Focus on comprehension to improve student reading skills by providing
professional development for teachers of all subject areas. Student comprehension
of text is one of the keys to improving student test scores and achieving yearly
District Action Options
- Provide expert teachers or reading specialists who can train teachers
across subject areas, help them to identify student reading difficulties, assist
individual struggling readers, and offer early intervention programs.
- Develop districtwide anchor assessments that teachers can use to align
classroom assessments to district expectations. If district assessments also are
linked to state performance expectations, they can provide the needed link between
classroom work and state measures of yearly adequate progress.
Fayette County Public School District in Kentucky placed a reading specialist
in all of its 11 middle schools and five high schools to help students with reading
skills and to help teachers address reading needs. It saw increasing student scores
on both the statewide test and other standardized tests administered by the district
School Action Option
- Allot time and resources to support teacher participation in professional
development that supports the change process. Professional development that is built
into the school calendar and school day provides time for sustained learning and
practice of new strategies. Other ways to build upon professional practices that
recognize the stress of teacher workloads include using building-based permanent
substitute teachers, thoughtfully reframing teaching schedules, and paying teachers
for professional development programs held in the evenings or during the summer.
District Action Option
- Provide comprehensive training for all teachers, especially content-area
teachers, to learn effective, research-based instructional strategies and literacy
activities. This training should be followed up with peer mentoring and coaching
to address unique classroom situations and ensure the change of teacher practices.
Taylor High School in Taylor, Texas, provides time in the regular school
day for departmental and grade-level meetings. Departmental meetings include staff
development time at the end of each six-week interval on scheduled early dismissal
Boston Public School teachers have ongoing and intensive professional development
programs provided through the Collaborative Coaching and Learning initiative that
aims at increasing teachers' instructional capacity on literacy strategies (Boston
Plan for Excellence, 2002, 2004). In each eight-week cycle, a small group of teachers
in the same school studies together a strategy from readers' or writers' workshops,
observes the content coach demonstrate the strategy in the classroom, takes turns
with colleagues teaching the strategy, and participates in preconference and debriefing
meetings for each demonstration.
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