A look at high-leverage areas for student engagement in reading and writing.
Excerpted from Centering Students for Literacy Engagement: Voice, Choice & Identity, A Review of Literature for Behind the Book, conducted by the Center for Professional Education of Teachers at Teachers College, Columbia University.
When it comes to compliance vs. engagement, we can generally agree that compliance is about conforming, yielding, adhering to cultural norms, and cooperating or obeying. Compliance is focused on a mindset of teachers (or adults) having power over students, rather than empowering them. Whether we’ve recognized it or not, many schools are dominated by compliance-oriented structures which often mimic the behaviors of engagement. When schools structure how students enter, exit, move throughout the building, where they sit, how they sit, when they can go to the bathroom or eat food, the learning environment is dominated by a power-over culture which has an impact on authentic student engagement.
Engagement, on the other hand, is more difficult to define. Research on engagement and theories of engagement date back over 50 years and come primarily from perspectives in the fields of psychology and sociology. Each field has contributed theoretical frameworks designed to articulate what engagement is, how it works, how engagement breaks down, and how to generate it.
We may understand the theories behind engagement, but can we articulate what engagement looks like for students in school, with respect to literacy through reading and writing specifically? A focus on literacy engagement is critical because without a personal and intrinsic motivation to read or write, school becomes a space that stifles student growth and prioritizes compliance over engagement. When students can develop a personal, authentic engagement in reading (taking in information and ideas) and writing (expressing information and ideas), students can develop sustainably positive experiences in school that develop their self-efficacy and self-confidence.
Essential factors in engagement
In a research review on literacy engagement, produced by The Center for Professional Education of Teachers (CPET) in collaboration with Behind the Book, we analyzed previously published reviews of literature and research studies on literacy engagement. Throughout the literature, student voice, agency, and confidence emerged as essential factors that lead to increased literacy engagement over time. While many attributes contributed to increasing student voice, choice, and agency, six high leverage areas surfaced: student voice, student agency, student confidence, teacher autonomy, learning environment, and relationship-building. Refer to our companion article: Centering Students for Literacy Engagement: Teacher as Interdependent Curator & Bridge-Builder to read more about teacher autonomy, learning environment, and relationship building.
How do you incorporate these in your practice?
What support might you need to deepen your understanding and implementation of these attributes?
Student voice can be cultivated through classroom culture, through reading, and through writing. Classroom culture accumulates the small, large, formal, and informal ways that students interact with one another and their teachers. Here, when their voice is either heard or silenced, it has an impact on how the student engages in classroom activities and tasks.
Educators find ways to elicit student voice intentionally by creating windows and mirrors. Windows are opportunities for students to see themselves in the literature they’re reading. When teachers design prompts that help students make connections, find commonalities, or empathize with characters or situations they’re reading, they create a metaphorical window for students to see how they connect with a text. Alternatively, teachers can also prompt students with entry points to reading and writing that act as mirrors for students to see their thoughts and feelings emerge on the page as they write or draw. Mirrors reflect our identity, and mirroring tasks and texts give students an opportunity to see themselves as valid, legitimate, and important enough to write about.
Through publication projects, drawing, drama, and the wide variety of activities teachers can plan, centering student voice is a key factor in reading and writing engagement. For example, when educators place students in the driver’s seat of the drafting, revising, editing, and publishing process, student publication projects support students to both find their voices and to broadcast them.
Teachers can invite all student voices by creating classroom spaces with a mix of culturally responsive teaching characteristics such as communicating high expectations for all students, expressing positive perspectives on parents and families, practicing student-centered instruction, and reshaping curriculum to meet all student learning needs.
What makes some students more readily able to access and raise their voices is influenced by how the teacher designs a classroom space where students feel free to use their voices.
Cultivating in-school literacy experiences that highlight student voice, agency, and influence is in sharp contrast to the drill and kill test prep approach that many teachers feel is necessary to get students to pass the test at the end of the school year. But this is precisely where students need to have their identity, voice, and influence emphasized.
Student engagement increases when educators deliberately create a culture that does the following: expects students will give feedback to their teachers about their experiences in class; expects students will share what they want to learn; and expects students will share how they want to learn. The student engagement from this culture occurs when teachers respond to those suggestions by making visible changes to instruction. Specific practices include students performing their writing, conducting research with adult allies, and having forums where student voices, ideas, and lived experiences are prioritized.
Authentic or real-world reading and writing tasks increase student engagement. When the audience for writing widens to include people in addition to one teacher, such as letter writing to local politicians, posting poems on classroom walls and stories in school hallways or publishing a class book in which each student authors a piece and reads it aloud during a celebration and book signing ceremony, students experience an increased sense of agency and engagement in the writing process. Student authors connect their writing to a larger purpose, and writing for an authentic audience allows students to gain skills and perspectives that will serve them beyond the classroom.
Dynamic and long-lasting engagement comes from the combination of student agency (how do students use their voice to influence their education?), community (how do the people surrounding students influence their perception of school?), and the organizing structures of school (how does student voice influence the structure and organization of the school?).
When students choose for themselves, they exercise their own agency, which can increase the strength they feel when attempting to express and act upon their own goals and values.
Confidence is often seen as something that someone either has, or doesn’t have, as if the belief in oneself was a static perception that was either present or not present at birth. However, we know from Carol Dwek’s work on the Growth Mindset that our intelligence and our sense of self evolve over time, and that our self-perception is never at a fixed point. Respected and caring adults in students’ lives have the amazing power to influence students’ perceptions of themselves and others.
There are varied ways to build student confidence, including consistent use of authentic writing tasks, reading choice, and repeated reading practices. Increasing student confidence is complex, requiring innovation and persistence from students as they move toward their educational goals, as well as from teachers on behalf of their students.
Educators can make choices to provide an array of differentiated reading and writing tasks, integrating student voice and choice into the mix and building their confidence with each new learning opportunity.
Required readings, assignments, and projects can be shared at the start of a school year, semester, or unit and teachers can then support students in finding their unique and desired ways to process and express their connections to the reading and writing
Valuing a student’s home language and utilizing it as a linguistic tool to problem solve, communicate, and access materials develop students’ literacy skills and self‐confidence. Even in situations where younger students are learning English as a Dual Language, their ability to negotiate the language will have a major impact on their motivation to read and write, or to not read and write. The same can apply to older students who are learning English as a New Language. Whatever the age or nuanced way of referring to learning a new language, when language creates a barrier to entry, students are more likely to give up than they are to keep trying.
When students new to learning English can talk with their classmates in their home language, think through complex ideas in their home language, write out their notes in their home language — they’ll have increased confidence in their understanding of the concepts and can, as a separate task, get to work on translating their ideas into English.
Success cycles are built when educators better understand how to design their instructional tasks to incorporate opportunities for student voice, agency and confidence.
Download the white paper: Centering Students for Literacy Engagement: Voice, Choice & Identity, A Review of Literature for Behind the Book, conducted by the Center for Professional Education of Teachers at Teachers College, Columbia University.
About Behind the Book
Behind the Book was founded with an instinctive sense that getting kids excited about reading could have a significant impact on their academic (and nonacademic) careers, encouraging depth and freedom of thought, a hunger for knowledge and an understanding and appreciation for worlds beyond the one they know. In the years since Behind the Book began scheduling author visits, programming has expanded and evolved to include art projects, field trips, dramatic activities, the publication of student anthologies and more.
About the Center for Professional Education of Teachers (CPET)
Sponsored by Teachers College, Columbia University, internationally renowned research university, CPET is a non-profit organization that is committed to making excellent and equitable education accessible worldwide. CPET unites theory and practice to promote transformational change. We design innovative projects, cultivate sustainable partnerships, and conduct research through direct and online services to youth and educators. Grounded in adult learning theories, our six core principles structure our customized approach and expand the capacities of educators around the world.