Last year, Chemawa Middle School faced a huge literacy need. We are a Title I school in Riverside, Calif., and state assessment data showed that 62 percent of our 907 students did not meet grade-level standards. The NWEA MAP assessments indicated severe readability issues: 19 percent of students scored at a Kindergarten or first-grade Lexile level. The data was overwhelming, as it revealed that many students read at least two or more grade levels beneath grade-level benchmarks.

After analyzing that data, we were determined to personalize reading and writing to meet the needs of our student population, 68 percent of whom are Hispanic and 12 percent of whom are English language learners (ELLs).

Our ultimate goal is to have students produce coherent and substantial argumentative writing, but to achieve this goal we needed to meet students at their reading level before attempting to close the achievement gap. To make our literacy plan coherent across the campus, we established a close-reading protocol and crafted goals for English language arts (ELA), history, and science to explicitly teach writing structure. This school-wide initiative has been beneficial for non-ELA teachers as we embark upon the journey to increase literacy overall.

To improve the quality and clarity of student thinking, we hyper-focused pedagogical practices on the four domains of reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

Reading

To support our objective of implementing the four domains, the district adopted the McGraw Hill curriculum for ELA. We understood the dire need to bring the four domains to all content areas in an effort to close the literacy gap, so we implemented a personalized literacy platform called ThinkCERCA.

The seventh-grade ELA team led the way in addressing the learning gap for ELL students, scaffolding essential skills by providing opportunities for students to collaborate, investigate, and evaluate authors’ claims and supporting evidence while using speaking and writing frames in an effort to assist students in their voyage from critical reading to argumentative writing.

Writing

Using the CERCA Framework, we teach students how to build an argument and develop critical-thinking skills using five steps: Claims, Evidence, Reasoning, Counterarguments, and Audience. The process requires students to examine learning and research carefully as they craft fact-based arguments. Our students’ improvements were reflected in higher writing scores on last year’s Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium tests.

As student writing improved in seventh-grade ELA classes, it was obvious that we needed to extend our initiative to history and science to achieve our goal of increasing literacy through reading and writing.

To evaluate the effectiveness of our school-wide initiative, we now administer quarterly writing assessments for each content area. We analyze student writing samples at the end of each quarter and include norming as a department, using the district writing rubric to determine strengths and areas requiring improvement. For professional development (PD), our seventh-grade ELA teachers shared firsthand accounts of how the new approach worked and showed the impact it had on the quality writing students produced. This year, ongoing PD will maintain our focus on critical reading and argumentative writing.

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Speaking/listening

We have embedded opportunities to promote language acquisition in both oral and written form into lessons. Providing opportunities for students to articulate their thoughts concisely and accurately helps them make meaning as they evaluate multiple sources to make claims and justify thinking.

Our teachers engage students in purposeful, collaborative discussions during lessons and help them explicitly enter discussions by providing sentence templates such as “I agree with what ___ said about ___, but disagree that ___.” We want our students to be open to different ideologies and ideas and be able to debate respectfully. Hence, we engage our students in critical thinking by having them determine what evidence they have (or need to obtain) to best support their claim and/or refute an opposing claim.

Much of what our students learn is told to them, so it is critical that they develop listening comprehension. Teachers provide many listening tasks to students, including auditory and video/electronic presentations on a variety of academic topics. We know that students’ listening comprehension improves when we require them to take notes during presentations. Focused note-taking helps students summarize an oral presentation and answer comprehension questions.

With all of these practices in place, our argumentative writing goal for this school year is an ambitious one, to say the least. We will use the district’s rubric to score students’ writing on a scale from 1 (did not meet grade level standard/not college ready) to 6 (exceeded grade level standard/college ready), and aim to have every student improve their writing by one or more rubric score by the end of the year. We started with a baseline assessment in September and will compare those results to a final writing sample at the end of the year. In addition, we will gather students’ writing samples throughout the year to showcase their progression. I’m excited to see how students improve the quality of their writing from quarter to quarter.

About the Author:

Raúl Ayala is the principal at Chemawa Middle School in Riverside, Calif.