The Literacy Looking Glass

Adrienne Chasteen Snow
CARR Secondary Reading Chair, Secondary Reading Department Chair, Enfield Public Schools, Adjunct Instructor, CCSU Reading and Language Arts Department, and Adjunct Instructor, Asnuntuck CC, English Department

“Take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves.” – Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass

If only reading were truly that easy for our students! We could spend our Reading Intervention students’ time (a mere three-quarters of an hour for my students) working on the “sense”: metacognition, vocabulary, and the process of creating meaning as readers make their way through a text. Knowing, meanwhile, that the “sounds”: the word analysis, the automaticity, and the prosody would just naturally happen. Such a lovely fantasy; but we know that “literacy” doesn’t quite work that way.

Indeed, my secondary level Reading Intervention students come with a variety of issues, from lack of schema to difficulty inferring. And it is rare that a student needs only a “quick fix”. Instead, it is the Interventionist’s job to accelerate learning; to use data and progress monitoring in conjunction with a knowledge base from years of study in the field of Reading to help each student be a competent reader. I like to think of my end goal as one of ensuring that my students will be, as the RAND study described, (Snow, 2002) skillful adult readers. They will have the skills necessary to read a great mix of materials for a variety of purposes with adequate to good comprehension. Probably the most talked about hot topic goal is to make the student, as the Common Core State Standards (C.C.S.S., 2010) put it, college and career ready. Quite the task, yet I feel it is one we can face with confidence and strength knowing we have the skills, strategies, and tools, to push forward.

The ideas presented in Mesmer, Cunningham, & Heibert’s (2012) work challenge me to think about a model of text complexity for the upper grades. In the essay, the authors search for a framework to support the heavy emphasis on text complexity brought on by CCSS. How would a secondary level model differ from the model for the early grades? The model used by the researchers, developed by the RAND Reading Study Group (Snow, 2002), is most intriguing in that it combines four variables: the reader, the activity, and the text, surrounded by the sociocultural context. I can see this applying to the middle and high school struggling readers that I work with and am curious how the pieces of the components of the individual text might differ. Word, Syntax, and Discourse Structures are the breakdown of individual text in this model, all of which apply beyond the initial phase of learning to read and thus secondary reading. I see the need for more emphasis to be put on vocabulary development (the syntax of this model) and explicit understandings about text (the discourse structures) might need to be weighted heavier than the word component if we were apply this model to our secondary students.

The CCSS brings with it two key focus areas for Reading Teachers, Language Arts Consultants, Literacy Coaches, and other educational specialists whose responsibilities lie primarily in the area of preparing students to be the most literate individuals possible: close reading of text and text-dependent questions. I have spent the past few years trying to implement S.R.B.I. with fidelity and diagnosing the specifics of a student’s reading abilities; then using that diagnosis to identify strengths and weaknesses that I will use to plan intervention.

From the outside close reading of text and text-dependent questions seem like such higher order tasks and thus so far above my instruction. Yet, I realize that I do use the text as the center of instruction and questioning, either my own or those developed by the students. I feel that by using a collection of strategies I have found to be especially successful with secondary level students, my students are tiptoeing towards close reading of text.

A discovery as I worked on some Units of Study for my school district this Summer, was that my units for Reading Intervention are meant to repeat and be delivered in a student-based level of depth, differing from the Language Arts exemplars put out by the state that are structured to be delivered in 20-30 days. By examining the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium’s English Language Arts Item and Task Specifications, we can see that students are asked to go beyond multiple choice questions to include constructed response and performance tasks that measure critical thinking and problem solving. We see a leveling of the types of thinking that students will be asked to do on the Cognitive Rigor Matrix, a correlation between Webb’s Depth of Thinking and Bloom’s Type of Thinking.

The pressure is on those of us who work with secondary level students. With college and career readiness a tangible goal, we must plan, develop, and work with intent and purpose (just as we teach our students to). The following strategies will be ones that I will continue to implement in an effort to make my past practice match up with the more rigorous standards of the Common Core. I am careful to choose strategies that can be used across content areas and become a repertoire that can be applied in many reading contexts, not just my Reading class. It is not meant to be an exhaustive list, rather one that I will refer to as the school year progresses and to which I can look for research-based methods to reach my students. As always, the Gradual Release of Responsibility model is the framework on which I tack my instruction. I scaffold using Think Alouds as I move through the strategy itself, guide students in activating their schemas, and set an authentic purpose for reading. To illustrate I will use “Crime and Punishment” (Smith, 2012), an article about the recent action of the Supreme Court that struck down mandatory life without parole for juveniles.


This strategy helps and challenges students prepare to read an instructional level text by sorting and categorizing words and terms they will read about before they engage with the text (Readence, Moore, & Rickelman, 2000).

For example, if I am going to have my students read “Crime and Punishment”, I would give them the words parole, mandatory, rehabilitation, culpability, capacity, horrific, heinous, susceptible, and ebb and ask them to sort them into at least 2 categories. We would discuss their ideas and brainstorm what our reading for the day would be about. By activating their background knowledge in this way, they are preparing to set a purpose for their reading and read actively.

Anticipation Guide:

Encourages active reading, the Anticipation Guide (Herber & Herber,1993) consistently works with my secondary students who love to share their ideas and opinions. I use statements from or related to the content of the text with which students can agree or disagree and state their reasoning both before and after reading.

For example, with the article “Crime and Punishment” I would use the statements:

  • There are some truly horrible crimes committed by 17-year olds, and those crimes deserve life without parole.
  • Young people are more susceptible to peer pressure than adults and their personalities are not fully formed, making them less morally culpable and more capable of change.
  • To make a decision to lock up a person for the rest of his life on the basis of something he has done when he’s 13 just doesn’t make sense.

Text Coding

A way to mark one’s metacognition based on Chris Tovani’s (2000) work, Text Coding helps students to keep track of their own thinking during reading. Students mark the text and record what they are thinking either in the margins (if it is their copy) or on post-it notes (if I need it back). Some codes I use are:

Visualize or make a picture in my head
Text-to-text connection
Text-to-world connection
Question: I wonder; I don’t understand; or Puzzles me
New information (clarify)
I disagree


Using Context Clues

I will often use a Think Aloud to model this strategy for my students. Using explicit instruction, students learn to use signal words in conjunction with a variety of context clues to find the meaning of Tier 2 words and/or Academic Vocabulary that can be used in multiple content areas. We tend to encounter mostly the Example-Illustration type and the Logic/Inference type of
context clues (Vacca, 2002) in our secondary-level readings.

For example, for the article “Crime and Punishment” I would use a Think Aloud to model my thought process as I figure out the word “ebb” using the Synonym type of Context Clue with the sentences, “Nearly as suddenly, violent crime began to ebb across the country. The reasons for the drop-off are debated.” I would explain that drop-off is used as a synonym to ebb and that by recognizing the difficult word ebb and then paying special attention to the text immediately after it, I could find a word that means about the same thing.

QAR (Question Answer Relationships)

By identifying the type of questions they are being asked, Taffy Raphael’s strategy (Raphael, 1982) helps students have a better idea of what their answers might be. We talk about Right There, Think and Search, Author and Me and On My Own as the types of questions and that the answers come from the reader “In my head”, the text “In the book”, or a combination of the reader
and the text (Inference).]

The article “Crime and Punishment” could lead to questions such as:

Right There: What are the two harshest sentences that the Supreme Court has whittled away over the past decade?
Think and Search: How does the issue of human rights affect adolescent criminals?
Author and Me: Use the text and your life experiences to agree or disagree with professor William Otis who says there is little doubt that one reason for the decline in violent crime is that “the people who have been committing these crimes are now in jail”.
On My Own: Rebecca Falcon faults her choice of friends as a key component in making one of the worst decisions of her life. How important are friends in your decision making process?


SQUARE (Herczog & Porter, 2010) is an acronym that I like to use with nonfiction articles. I let students choose four out of the six letters to complete in partnerships or triads. I find it encourages higher-order thinking and problem solving.

Summarize– Identify and paraphrase the most important points in the text.
Question– Ask clarifying questions about the text to uncover points that are unclear.
Use– Use the information in a meaningful way by providing an example.
Apply– Use the concept in a new situation; make a connection to a current event.
Review– Reflect on your new interpretation by reviewing information from the text.
Express– Demonstrate your understanding in a creative way.

For example, with “Crime and Punishment”, students might act out the opinions of some of the Supreme Court justices that are highlighted in the article as the “Express”. They might research the case of one of the nine prisoners in Connecticut serving life without parole for crimes they committed when they were 17 or younger as the “Use”.

Use Graphic Organizers with Informational Text

Recognizing text structure is a powerful a key to comprehension; an especially important step in understanding the process of writing an effective summary (Armbruster, Anderson, & Ostertag, 1987). Use graphic organizers to plot and organize:

Chronological Order
Main Idea and Details

The article “Crime and Punishment” follows the Main Idea and Details text structure and I would ask students to identify which text structure it best fits into and then plot the Main Idea and Details into either a web or a triangle shaped template to demonstrate understanding.

Comprehension Strategies

Because my end goal is for my students not to need me, I use the Reciprocal Teaching (Brown & Palinscar, 1987) model as the underpinnings of my comprehension strategy instruction. I analyze the reading material and consider the learner(s) in order to plan an explicit focus on one or more of the following:

Analyzing/Evaluating/Making Connections

With the article “Crime and Punishment”, Visualizing would be a very effective strategy to focus on. Asking students to make a mental image of a mistake they have made going incredibly wrong and imaging the most serious consequences being applied to such, would help students to be able to Infer how Rebecca Falcon feels and Analyze, Evaluate, and Make Connections to the situation for over 2,000 people whose dire mistake when they were the same age led to life without parole.

RAT (Read Around the Text)

RAT is a strategy that encourages students to examine the whole text before just jumping in and reading. It is a series of six prompts that guides the reader to really notice those text features that will allow students to activate their background knowledge, make predictions, and set a purpose for reading. The steps are:

  1. Look at the pictures. What ideas are being presented?
  2. Look at the captions and read them.
  3. Look at the maps, charts, and graphs. Discuss what information they present.
  4. Look at the titles and headings. What is the big idea?
  5. Read the first and last lines of each paragraph for more information.
  6. Ask questions. Give yourself a reason to read.

DRTA (The Directed Reading Thinking Activity)

The steps developed by Russell Stauffer (1969) of activating schema, finding connections to what they know, making predictions, and setting purposes for reading are all a build up to my focus this year- using information in the text to form ideas and make arguments. Writing responses will be an extra step that I will incorporate to help them meet the more rigorous reading standards set by the CCSS.

With “Crime and Punishment” I would use List, Group, Label to activate schema, Visualizing to find connections to what they know, and the RAT strategy to guide students in making predictions and setting purposes for reading.


Armbruster, B.B., Anderson, T.H., & Ostertag. J. (1987). “Does text structure/summarization instruction facilitate learning from expository text?” Reading Research Quarterly, 22, 331–346.

Brown, A.L. & Palincsar, A.S. (1987). Reciprocal teaching of comprehension strategies: A natural history of one program for enhancing learning. In J. Day & J. Borkowski (Eds.), Intelligence and exceptionality: New directions in theory, assessment and instructional practices (pp. 81-132). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Carroll, L. (1865). Alice’s adventures in wonderland. New York: MacMillan.

Common Core State Standards Initative. (2010). Common core state standards for Engish language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Washington, DC: National Governor’s Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Herber, H.L. & Herber, J.N. (1993). Teaching in content areas with reading, writing and reasoning. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Herczog, M.M. & Porter, P. (2010). Strategies for struggling readers: A teacher resource guide. In We the people: The citizen and the constitution, Level 2. Center for Civic Education.
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Mesmer, H.A., Cunningham, J.W., & Hiebert, E.H. (2012). Toward a theoretical model of text complexity for the early grades: Learning from the past, anticipating the future. Reading Research Quarterly, 47(3), 235-258.

Raphael, T.E. (1982). Questioning-answering strategies for children. The Reading Teacher, 34, 186-190.

Readance, J.D., Moore, D., Rickelman, R. (2000). Prereading activities for content area reading and learning. Newark: DE: International Reading Association.

Smith, P. (2012). Crime and punishment. The New York Times Upfront 145(2), 8-11.

Snow, C. (Ed.). (2002). Reading for understanding: Toward an R & D program in reading comprehension. Santa Monica, CA: Rand.

Stauffer, R.G. (1969). Directing reading maturity as a cognitive process. New York: Harper & Row.

Tovani, C. (2000). I read it, but I don’t get it: Comprehension strategies for adolescent readers. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Vacca, R.T. (2002). Making a difference in adolescents’ school lives: Visible and invisible aspects of content area reading. In A.E. Farstrup & S.J. Samuels (Eds.). What Research Has To Say About Reading Instruction (3rd ed., pp. 184–204). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.