California Department of Education
Taking Center Stage – Act II

English-language arts instruction

As noted in Recommendation 1—Rigor, academic literacy includes vocabulary development, comprehension activities, writing, listening, and speaking. Since academic literacy strategies are necessary for all subjects in the middle grades, members of the English language arts department often play a lead role in helping members of their grade-level team teach academic literacy within their content areas.

English-language arts change dramatically in the middle grades, causing some educators to say that in elementary school, children learn to read, but by middle school children need to read to learn. In elementary school, the English language arts content standards emphasize development of phonemic awareness, decoding, basic comprehension, and writing conventions (such as sentence and paragraph structure). The middle grades content standards build on these skills but emphasize expository writing, word analysis, and the reading of informational materials.

The U.S. Department of Education has expanded its Doing What Works (DWW) Web site to include new materials designed to help educators improve adolescent literacy (Outside Source) at the middle and high school levels.

Four major learning modules comprise the adolescent literacy section:

  1. Vocabulary Instruction
  2. Comprehension Strategies
  3. Engaging Text Discussions
  4. Intensive Intervention

DWW organizes content for each practice into four areas:

  1. The Practice Summary provides an overview of a practice and the issues it addresses.
  2. The Learn What Works section provides information from experts through video interviews—a way to understand the research behind the practice.
  3. The See How It Works section offers access to examples of schools engaged in these practices through both video and audio presentations.
  4. The Do What Works section provides tools such as classroom observation templates, workshop overviews, and self-assessments to help one improve his/her own practice.

The site also includes:

  • Overview Media and Materials providing a visual overview of the four recommended practices and an expert interview.
  • State/District Policy and Planning materials which include three planning templates to help districts and schools support teachers working with struggling readers.
  • Related Links providing access to a variety of Web sites that focus on literacy.

The DWW modules on adolescent literacy complement several features on TCSII that also support literacy development as it relates to a number of the Recommendations for Middle Grades Success.

The English-Language Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools Kindergarten Through Grade Twelve (2007) (PDF; 548KB; 92pp.) define what each student should know by grade level. The Reading/Language Arts Framework for California Public Schools Kindergarten through Grade Twelve (2007) (PDF; 6.06MB; 386pp.)1 provides a design for organizing instruction so that every student meets or exceeds the language arts content standards. Both the standards and framework focus on the three pillars of “authentic literacy” advocated by Schmoker (reading, writing, and talking) while adding an emphasis on listening.2

The Reading/Language Arts Framework for California Public Schools Kindergarten through Grade Twelve and standards are divided into four domains: reading, writing, written and oral conventions, listening and speaking. The framework specifies the design of K-8 instructional materials, curriculum, instruction, and professional development for K-12. The Reading/Language Arts Framework includes research-based approaches for instruction that ensure optimal benefits for all students, including those with special learning needs (e.g., English learners, students who use African American vernacular, students with learning and reading difficulties, and advanced learners).

The listening and speaking standards are not among those that are assessed by the California Standards Tests. However, the testing considerations should not preclude teachers from incorporating reading, writing, comprehension, and listening activities into each subject.

The Reading/Language Arts Framework for California Public Schools Kindergarten through Grade Twelve (2007) uses ten guiding principles to direct the purpose, design, delivery, and evaluation of instruction (refer to pages 4-6). The first principle is that the framework and instruction are based on the content standards. The English-language arts standards are categorized by domain: reading, writing, written and oral English-language conventions, and listening and speaking. Within each domain, standards are grouped in strands and substrands. The strands called Reading Comprehension, Literary Response and Analysis, Writing Applications, and Listening and Speaking Strategies require students to develop critical thinking and application skills. For example, the framework says,

A comprehensive program ensures that students learn to read and write, comprehend and compose, appreciate and analyze, and perform and enjoy the language arts. They should spend time immersed in high-quality literature and work with expository text, learn foundational skills in the alphabetic writing system, and study real books. A comprehensive program ensures that students master foundational skills as a gateway to using all forms of language as tools for thinking, learning, and communicating.3

Appendix A of the framework provides an overview of the domain, strands, and substrands by grade level.

According to a report from the National Reading Panel, eight kinds of instruction appear to be effective and most promising for teaching comprehension:

  1. Comprehension monitoring teaches the reader how to focus on his or her understanding during reading and how to deal with problems in understanding as they arise.
  2. Cooperative learning helps readers work together to learn strategies in the context of reading.
  3. Graphic and semantic organizers help readers to represent graphically (write or draw) the meanings and relationships of the ideas that underlie the words in the text.
  4. Story structures help the reader learn to ask and answer who, what, where, when, and why questions about the plot and, in some cases, map out the timeline, characters, and events in stories.
  5. Question-answering skills help the reader to answer questions posed by the teacher and to receive feedback.
  6. Question generation teaches readers to ask what, when, where, why, what will happen, how, and who questions.
  7. Summarization helps the reader identify and write the main or most important ideas and tie the text into a coherent whole.
  8. Multiple-strategy teaching engages readers in interaction with the teacher over the text.4

In the Spotlight

A. C. Stelle Middle School, Las Virgenes Unified School District
Upon opening in September 2003, A.C. Stelle’s English/language arts (ELA) department consisted of three seasoned middle school teachers and three teachers new to the profession. To form a dynamic team, the department analyzed its strengths and weaknesses and developed a long-range plan to create a community of readers and writers. Using textbooks, the department initially implemented a structured standards-driven program. Within one year, most students read without enjoyment, and student writing was formulaic and lacked critical thinking.

To bring back a love of reading and authentic writing, teachers implemented the six-trait model within the writing process. After reviewing the research of Nancie Atwell and others, teachers adopted a reading and writing workshop philosophy to enhance the writing process. Several teachers interned with Nancie Atwell in a week-long reading and writing workshop.

Using strategies learned as Atwell interns, teachers revamped the curriculum to focus on student-choice book selections. To ensure active reading, teachers implemented book chats where students tell about the books they are reading and keep a someday list of books they want to read based on classmate recommendations.

Additionally, Stelle’s librarian has become an integral part in the ELA program providing book chats, multimedia presentations, and author/book events such as a Twilight party for the seventh and eighth graders who have or are enjoying the Stephenie Meyers series.

For more information about how teachers at A. C. Stelle Middle School enhance their writing instructional techniques, please refer to the In the Spotlight box on the page titled Professional learning from content experts in Recommendation 10—Professional Learning, TCSII.

Contemporary adolescent literature offers a rich variety of stories to use as a springboard for engaging students as lifelong readers. Many of the new adolescent novels explore highly charged topics that ignite discussion about morals, ethics, and relationships.

Technology applications for English language arts. Teachers can use online scoring of essays, plagiarism checkers, podcasts, videos, streaming (online) video, student broadcasting, library/media centers, and publication/presentation of student work followed by peer critique. In addition, students can learn more about novelists, writing, and other language arts themes through online research. Technology standards are embedded in the English-Language Arts Content Standards for California Schools Kindergarten Through Grade Twelve (PDF; 548KB; 92pp.) and in the California Career Technical Education Model Curriculum Standards for Grades Seven through Twelve (PDF; 2.13MB; 441pp.) (2005).

Jerome Burg’s Google Lit Trips (Outside Source) offer tech-savvy students a different way to read and understand great literature. Using Google Earth (Outside Source) (a free software program), students discover where in the world the greatest road trip stories of all time took place. Some of the teacher-created Lit Trips include PowerPoints and Podcasts. The site’s Downloads section offers teachers pedagogical discussion options, Lit Trips step guides, suggestions for integration, and additional resources.

Related Links


Instructional content areas

Teaching Writing

1Reading/Language Arts Framework for California Public Schools Kindergarten through Grade Twelve (PDF; 6.06MB; 386pp.). Sacramento: California Department of Education, 2007.
2Mike Schmoker, Results Now: How We Can Achieve Unprecedented Improvements In Teaching and Learning, Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2006, 58-60.
3Reading/Language Arts Framework for California Public Schools Kindergarten through Grade Twelve. (PDF; 6.06MB; 386pp.) Sacramento: California Department of Education, 2007, 5.
4Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction; Reports of the Subgroups (PDF; Outside Source). Rockville, Md.: National Reading Panel, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000, 4-6.

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