Colleges and universities have long bemoaned the amount of remediation required by students. They frequently point to the struggles in the range and volume of reading inherent in collegiate coursework, and the apparent inability of students to write unless it's reflecting on their personal opinions or experiences.
College and career readiness demands that scholars read more, read many different types of text (multiple literary genres, informational texts from multiple domains, film, speeches, etc), write about those texts, defend positions using textual evidence, and speak fluently about their reading and writing.
We at BVP have recognized, and are embracing, several critical shifts in the national approach to reading instruction:
- Rich, rigorous text is the centerpiece. Our scholars can and should be presented with meaningful texts, and we must build our instructional time around scholars engaging with those texts in sophisticated, analytical manners. We spend the majority of the time modeling advanced analysis and allowing scholars to interact with text. To this end, the emphasis is around depth of text rather than breadth. It is not uncommon for scholars to read the same text (or passage from a text) multiple times and for varied purposes.
- Instructional texts must be highly demanding. Research does not support the widely-held belief that scholars can only achieve when presented with texts at their levels; in fact, the research suggests quite the opposite. This focuses us to break away from our long-standing desires to match scholars with texts perfectly aligned to their instructional and independent levels, as well as reimagining the texts we select at each grade.
- Questioning is critical. Rather than asking scholars general questions to gauge comprehension, our questions focus on analysis. At every grade level, our thinking shifts to important text-dependent and evidence-based questions that drive at the central messages, evaluate key ideas and details, examine the craft and structure, and integrate knowledge and meaning. In essence, these are questions worth asking, not simply those that provide basic evidence of comprehension.
- Language analysis and instruction is embedded. Outstanding pieces of literary and informational texts shine because authors manipulate language in creative ways, and pushing scholars to explore those manipulations is key to analyzing text. In keeping the text the centerpiece, we must allow scholars to uncover meaning and defend that analysis through close reading rather than teacher-directed definition. Explicit instruction around Greek and Latin roots and affixes, and other meaningful academic vocabulary, still has a home in English Language Arts instruction, although it is separate from the text-specific analyses of language.
We believe that all scholars must be equipped with world-class composition skills in order to graduate from BVP. To that end, writing instruction at BVP centers on several principles:
- Rich, rigorous texts as guides. As scholars deeply engage with texts, they are doing so for multiple purposes. First, scholars are analyzing and grappling with text-dependent and evidence-based questions to glean meaning, and writing from those sources. Second, they are evaluating the author’s craft and assessing the methodologies the author uses. Through our writing instruction, scholars will utilize these rich, rigorous texts to guide their craft. This shift does not encourage replication; in fact, scholars are pushed to develop their own writing style based on their thorough consideration of author’s craft.
- Prompts must be highly demanding. In many grades, scholars are no longer writing solely from the perspective of “I,” where they are repeatedly asked to recount their experiences, preferences, or imaginative stories. Through intensive encounters with text and topics, writing is increasingly sophisticated and wholly evidence-based. Free-writing and journaling still have a home in English Language Arts instruction, although it is not the core and should be used sparingly.
- The writer’s craft is a muscle that requires regular exercise. Writing is not a mechanical process existing of an equation of thesis statements, supporting statements, and conclusion statements. Writing requires protected time where scholars develop comfort with struggling to find the right words and ideas. Certain writing applications will require extensive drafting and revision, although many require on-demand generation.
- The writer’s craft is the sum of its parts, though some parts are more important than others. The heart of effective writing is getting smart ideas on paper in a compelling way, and that is the heart of BVP’s approach to writing. This does not exclude effective use of conventions--spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.--but it does elevate the ideas, organization, and development. Through this lens, writing instruction prioritizes the practice of writing over explicit grammar rules, instead opting to foster those skills through targeted mini-lessons and small group conferences during the editing and revision processes.
The next segment of this series focuses on time at BVP. We hope you will continue following! Engage with us through comments, questions, and shares, and please take this opportunity to shout out topics you’d like to see highlighted in future blog series.
 “Letting the Text Take Center Stage” by Timothy Shanahan. American Educator, Fall 2013.
By Kate Crowe and Drew Madden