Review of “A Cognitive Strategies Approach to Reading and Writing Instruction for English Language Learners in Secondary School” by Olson, C. & Land, R. (2007)

Abstract: “This study was conducted by members of a site of the California Writing Project in partnership with a large, urban, low-SES school district where 93% of the students speak English as a second language and 69% are designated Limited English Proficient. Over an eight-year period, a relatively stable group of 55 secondary teachers engaged in ongoing professional development implemented a cognitive strategies approach to reading and writing instruction, making visible for approximately 2000 students per year the thinking tools experienced readers and writers access in the process of meaning construction. The purpose of the study was to assess the impact of this approach on the reading and writing abilities of English language learners (ELLs) in all 13 secondary schools in the district. Students receiving cognitive strategies instruction significantly out-gained peers on holistically scored assessments of academic writing for seven consecutive years. Treatment-group students also performed significantly better than control-group students on GPA, standardized tests, and high-stakes writing assessments. Findings reinforce the importance of having high expectations for ELLs; exposing them to a rigorous language arts curriculum; explicitly teaching, modeling and providing guided practice in a variety of strategies to help students read and write about challenging texts; and involving students as partners in a community of learners. What distinguishes the project is its integrity with respect to its fidelity to three core dimensions: Teachers and students were exposed to an extensive set of cognitive strategies and a wide array of curricular approaches to strategy use (comprehensiveness) in a manner designed to cultivate deep knowledge and application of those strategies in reading and writing (density) over an extended period of time (duration). The consistency of positive outcomes on multiple measures strongly points to the efficacy of using this approach with ELLs.”

I already liked the sound of the methodology of this study. I look forward to finding out how teachers “holistically” assessed their writing and what the authors deemed as “high expectations” for ELLs.

Re: Inside Charlie’s Classroom: I love how this is presented! No dry, metalanguage here! The authors immediately introduce us to the cognitive strategies employed in the study in a comprehensive and straight-forward fashion. Then the authors explain that “Many teachers of struggling students and English language learners (ELLs) avoid teaching strategic reading and analytical writing to their secondary students because they feel the skills required (analyzing text and forming interpretations, development of a meaningful thesis, control of organization, effective use of evidence and supporting details, sentence variety, and control of the conventions of written English) are too sophisticated for the population they serve. Yet these are the very abilities assessed on new high-stakes high school exit exams.” On its face, it seems like the age-old question of should we teach to the test, or try to do more? But in this case, teaching and having “high expectations” is “to the test”. It would be nice if assessment and LOs weren’t always at odds, or seemingly so.

I am (pleasantly!) surprised by the demographic shifts happening in California, and likely most of urban America. This article was written 10 years ago, but says… “Of all SAUSD students, 98.5% are from ethnically diverse populations: 88.9% Hispanic, 5.6% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 1.3% Black….Although the general school-age population in the United States is only 12% greater than it was in 1991, the ELL population nationwide has skyrocketed, increasing by 105% (Kindler, 2002).” That last number is 15 years old. Imagine how it is now! The authors go on to adopt a definition of literacy: “As defined by Scarcella (2003), academic literacy not only involves the ability to use academic English, a variety or register of English used in professional books and characterized by the specific linguistic features associated with academic disciplines, but also higher-order thinking, including conceptualizing, inferring, inventing, and testing (pp. 18-19).” The authors end the section explaining that “skill and drill” techniques with little critical thinking has been a “disservice” to ELLs because students, at least in this study, have shown demonstrative and measurable improvement when given the chance.

Re: Conceptual Framework: The authors based their study on the observation that “Experienced readers and writers purposefully select and orchestrate cognitive strategies that are appropriate for the literacy task at hand (Flower & Hayes, 1981a).” As an educated native English speaker, I wish I could say that I were more aware of the strategies I regularly employ to read and comprehend text efficiently, but I am becoming more and more aware due to my current vocation! Indeed, teaching the DRE course refreshed much the metacognitive awareness I had as a student, and now as a teacher-researcher. “In order to help students develop confidence and competence, research suggests that teachers need to provide systematic and explicit instruction in strategies used by mature readers and writers and help students develop declarative, procedural, and conditional knowledge of these cognitive strategies, thereby building students’ metacognitive control of specific strategies (….Pressley, 2000).” Exactly! Students need to be trained to recognize various texts and then choose their approach. I feel like at this point, intimate knowledge and understanding of the L1 would greatly help shift those skills to the L2. Mmm… Maybe worth the look. “Furthermore, research also suggests that when reading and writing are taught together, they engage students in a greater use and variety of cognitive strategies than do reading and writing taught separately (Tierney & Shanahan, 1991).” *sucks teeth* Well, it’s not that I DON’T believe this, but again, it’s the smooth implementation that can trip up an instructor. I am adding to the model texts my composition students see, but I also feel a bit of pressure to just go with the curriculum as is. I know. There’s no one holding a knife to my throat. Anyway, you’ll all be glad to know that I have made a Newsela account for my class, so now we’re going to be doing a lot more reading and discussing and inferring and conceptualizing.

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I should state that it has been a little over a week since I started reading this article. Since then, my students have been reading biographical articles on Newsela (the next writing prompt is to write about a person you know well) and reflecting on them. Also, I have assessed their first essays. Overall, not terrible, but we have a lot to work on in terms of grammar and punctuation. Organization and content are okay, and indeed, those are things that we MUST focus on in this course, and we will and do. However, the class average was lower than I expected. It needs to be a solid B, not a solid C.

I’m going to implement the group grammar tutorials I did last time. This is where students who have the same or similar grammatical problems research to become experts on that grammar issue and then instruct the class in correcting said issue. I will give them authentic ungrammatical sentences from their writings with which to demonstrate. After that, they’ll do some intensive grammar exercises and reflections on any other outstanding grammatical issues I’ve identified. A few of the students are taking grammar, but having placed into this level of writing, they need to up their game dramatically. As I expressed in the previous entry, I don’t want to be THAT teacher — the one who passes on students just so no boats are rocked.

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So that I remain consistent, I’m going to go ahead and post this entry. Stay tuned for the next!

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