Dr. Barbara J. Ehren is Professor and Director of a University of Central Florida doctoral program which focuses on language and literacy for learners who struggle. Dr. Ehren is also a member of IRA’s RTI Task Force. Dr. Ehren has a special interest in assisting school systems to build capacity at the school level for more effective literacy programs for diverse learners. A recurrent theme of her work is shared responsibility for literacy acquisition.
Barbara Marinak: Tell us a little about your work in secondary schools.
Barbara Ehren: My message is that shared responsibility for literacy across the school is required to meet the needs of diverse learners. I approach my work through a language inquiry lens, helping secondary educators to understand the underlying language requirements of curriculum. I encourage partnerships among the language-focused professionals—reading specialists, speech-language pathologists, and ELL teachers—to help others recognize and address the language needs of students across all modalities—listening, speaking, reading, and writing. How would describe the literacy needs of today’s adolescents in light of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)? The literacy needs of today’s adolescents are increasingly complex for a number of reasons. Most importantly we must prepare students to compete in a global marketplace using communication across all language processes for the purpose of comprehending and creating a wide variety of texts. In analyzing the standards it is easy to see that our work with adolescents will require a greater focus on the integration of complex language and literacy skills and strategies within each discipline.
BM: What do you see as the needs of struggling adolescent readers?
BE: Given the demands for complex literacy skills and strategies within each content discipline, there is a need to help all readers become proficient in the discourses present across the secondary curricula. However, we need to be aware that many adolescents who struggle with literacy and content mastery have foundational language issues. The contribution of language to achievement with adolescents is not widely acknowledged at the secondary level. As a result there is often a mismatch between the student and instruction with the missing piece being critical aspects of language.
BM: What impact do you see the CCSS having on secondary intervention?
BE: I think the CCSS provide a ruler. In other words, knowing that the standards reflect what students should know and be able to do in college and/or careers, we need to identify the needs of adolescents who struggle in light of the CCSS. We need ask, “What is keeping the student from meeting the standards?” Then we need to engineer interventions that address those underlying problems. A challenge that secondary schools face is structuring intervention to be truly responsive to students’ specific needs. It is a tall order within the master schedule with semester courses. One step that secondary schools can take is to build a flex period into their master schedule to permit movement across targeted learning experiences so that students receive the instruction/intervention they need for as long as they it in the amount that they need it. This is the goal of RTI.
BM: If secondary teachers and/or reading specialists are going to begin implementing the CCSS in their intervention practices, what would you recommend?
BE: Collaboration with disciplinary teachers is critical. As I mentioned previously, reading specialists, speech and language pathologists and ELL teachers, as languagefocused professionals, are key players in this collaboration process. Work groups that include these individuals should be discussing the language “culprits” that are underlying students’ difficulties in meeting standards. In addition, content teachers need to come to the table with an open mind. This is not a competition between language/literacy learning and content learning. It is about recognizing that domain learning and literacy learning are integrally bound. Without content teachers and support professionals collaborating, students will not be prepared to deal with the discourse requirements in the content domains. We must use the CCSS and RTI processes as the context to renew our critical conversations about the role of language and literacy in domain learning.
Dr. Barbara Marinak is associate professor of education at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland. She is also the co-chair of the RTI Task Force of IRA, firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is reprinted from the April/May 2012 issue of Reading Today, the International Reading Association's bimonthly member magazine. Members: click here to read the issue. Nonmembers: join now!