Literacy in Secondary Education

The term effective is defined as something that is “producing a decided, decisive, or desired effect” (, 2017, para. 1). For something to be effective, it must be intentional and well thought out based on what outcome the consequences create. To every consequence, there is an antecedent. However, without fully understanding the consequence, the antecedent fails to exist. In knowing that the literacy achievement gap has not narrowed in years and literacy skills in the 21st century are continuing to expand, the consequence may be known, but the deep understandings of it not so much. In order for secondary educators to be effective and intentional when implementing literacy strategies in their classrooms, they must fully understand what effective implementation of literacy strategies are, for what purpose they are being used, and how to use them intentionally in order to find the antecedent of the outcomes and adapt instruction accordingly.

This author will be analyzing research and outlining ways in which secondary schools can be effective in implementing literacy strategies that will assist learners of all instructional levels. They will be discussing the need for professional development amongst educators, instruction and assessments in the classroom, and the importance of empathy in education. These areas will help both secondary educators and learners understand how to be effective in literacy strategies, as well as the effectiveness of utilizing literacy strategies.

Knowledge is not Understanding

Julie S. Vargas states that “the procedures, materials, and interactions within an educational environment determine the kinds of behaviors students will engage in and what they will learn. Whatever you do or fail to do affects student behavior” (2013, p. 17). When looking at what secondary schools need in order to effectively implement literacy strategies in all content areas, the antecedent to ensuring this happens needs to be professional development. In order for educators to be successful in executing literacy strategies and differentiation, and making activities intentional in regards to these areas, they must know what they are, why they are important, and how they can apply them into their classes. Mark W. Conley points out that “without clear understandings of subject-matter knowledge and goals, without learning about the challenges associated with various content area concepts, and without a measure of cognitive and emotional empathy for adolescents, how will prospective secondary teachers ever translate knowledge about strategy instruction into effective practice? The challenge ahead is to consider cognitive strategy instruction for preservice teachers in the context of this question and our own research” (2008, p. 98). Professional development for effective literacy strategy instruction will help give purpose to the implementation of it within classrooms, and the ability to better their differentiated instruction, assessments, and rationale for them.

Within professional development, the literacy strategies should be exemplified for the educators and used throughout with the educators in order to help them fully understand what they look like. This will also allow for them to see how their classrooms could benefit from such strategies. Time must be given for educators to collaborate with their grade levels and departments in order to capture their newfound knowledge and plan how they will use them with their learners. There are a number of factors as to why and how an educator should use specific literacy strategies, and this time to collaborate and plan will reflect that as they think about their learners’ needs. The core of any professional development in education should be how to better support learners. How educators support their learners in the realm of literacy skills is to be explicit in teaching a variety of literacy strategies so that learners will apply the necessary strategies to any text independently. 

Instruction and Assessments

Learning is a skill. It is the ability to gain knowledge and understandings efficiently while continuing to gather layers of more complex knowledge and understandings. New skills and strategies are acquired as they become necessary to the learner’s process of learning and growing. Learning comes from opportunities and experiences to do so, and along the way, learning from successes and failures alike. However, “many teachers confuse standards or curriculum with learning. These tools may help teachers and administrators manage the business of education, but deep learning is rarely standardized" (Lent, 2006, p. 5). Once educators understand their learners and what deep learning is, they can begin to "...practice how to learn, not what to learn” (Lent, 2006, p. 5). This deep learning can only occur if learners know how to learn. The craft of teaching must be present in order to motivate and inspire learners to want to learn how to learn. Simply plateauing may not be sufficient enough anymore for survival or growth, and the learner must now learn how to go further, aware of the challenges that lay ahead with each new layer of knowledge and understandings. Educators must then help learners see new endeavors as a positive event, providing engaging opportunities to do so. This is where instruction and assessment in the classroom begin to find purpose.

Instruction and assessments should be engaging for learners. Allowing their immersion into knowledge and creating opportunities for them to learn helps nurture a culture of exploration and discovery. Taking risks are not so scary anymore. Challenges are not turned down and have been accepted as the learning process. “Without engagement, learning becomes a series of dance steps that never find the rhythm” (Lent, 2006, p. 15). So, how do educators achieve engagement for their learners while being explicit with their teachings of literacy strategies? Now that they have come to know their learners and have cultivated a safe learning environment, relevancy must be present to help answer why learners are learning what they are learning. "Key Point 2: ‘How a person feels about a learning situation determines the amount of attention devoted to it’ (Sousa 2001, p. 43)....Students need to care about what they are reading. They must see the relevance of the assignment. They must have an answer when they ask themselves the question, ‘What’s in it for me?’ As a teacher, I should be prepared for this question” (Gallagher, 2004, pp. 28-29). In order to help learners make relevant, deep connections with texts, educators must show learners how to do that. Otherwise, the educator may suffer receiving superficial responses from learners who are looking to give an answer that will grant them a good grade. As said by Cris Tovani, “It wasn’t their fault that they were making stupid connections. It was mine, because I hadn’t showed them how a meaningful connection could deepen their understanding of the text” (2004, p. 12). Educators must be willing to adapt and evolve in content and instructional practices if they wish to see their learners interact with learning in meaningful ways. Much like showing learners how to interact with texts, Tovani goes on to point out that “strategy instruction is an ongoing process of adapting lessons and activities to the needs of students and the specific content you want them to tackle” (Tovani, 2004, p. 16). Allowing for learners to be exposed to a variety of literacy strategies while reading texts in any content area will help them not only better comprehend what is being read, but become the first step toward relevancy and connections for them. Time and consistency is important when teaching and using literacy strategies. Learners must know how to use and why they are using such strategies, but also when to use these strategies. Only through consistent, explicit expectations of practice and exposure can learners form habits brought to any text.

When planning lessons, units, activities, and assessments, educators must apply what they know about their learners’ abilities and interests and differentiate accordingly. Much like the professional development supplied for educators, they must be looking at ways to best support their learners’ needs to drive their instruction. In order to find out what areas learners need more support in, data from assessments should be used to identify deficits, strengths, and how diverse an educator’s classroom is. Backwards designing (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) lessons and units is essential when looking at ways to create meaningful connections, areas to scaffold, and differentiation opportunities. This allows for educators to see where their learners need to get to, what it will take to get there, and assessing them to see where they will begin and what strategies will be used.

An additional lens can then be applied when attaching deeper understandings and authenticity to lessons and units for learners when practicing literacy strategies being taught to them. To help align standards, teaching, and assessments, applying Norman L. Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK) (1997) to explicitly teaching literacy strategies is beneficial, giving learners the opportunity to go from recalling literal information within a text to extending their thinking when utilizing the strategies. How educators help their learners "Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, and Create" (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2017, p. 132) is through hierarchical levels of objectives educators wish to guide their learners with. Being adaptable with instruction and assessment when knowing their learners, as well as being intentional and meaningful with the strategies themselves, can help create an environment of creativity and innovation where anything truly is possible.

Empathizing Through Opportunities

The heart of being intentional with meaningful instruction, assessment, and differentiation is empathy. Empathy requires an educator to see past standards, textbooks, and grades, and to recognize their learners as human beings, being reflective and mindful of their instruction, content, environment, and relationships. It forces educators to become a part of their learning community, confront the strengths, struggles, and interests around them, and create the necessary opportunities for their diverse learners to be supported and consider the world outside of the classroom walls. This is seen quite authentically through the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) model when understanding that “not all teaching is about techniques in a lesson. SIOP teachers also consider their students’ affective needs, cultural backgrounds, and learning styles. They strive to create a nonthreatening environment where students feel comfortable taking risks with language” (Echevarria, Short, & Vogt, 2017, p. 19). The culture within an educator's classroom can affect the learners within it, from how willing they are to learn and collaborate, to the amount of confidence they exude when taking risks and applying their skills. Effective learning will occur once learners know challenges and struggles are a part of the learning process.

Educators being explicit with their literacy strategy implementation allows for learners to be more reflective. Gallagher states, “When leading students to reflect on the important issues found in and beyond their texts, it can help to think of reflection in terms of layers…. Reflection begins with the self, and this is the level of reflection adolescents are most comfortable with. When students are reading a great book, they naturally ask themselves, ‘What does this text mean to me?’ But we want them to move beyond the self and into deeper levels of reflection” (Gallagher, 2004, p. 156). These opportunities to reflect come from knowing how to get there, and educators can do that through an empathetic culture and providing time to practice strategies with texts in order to find personal relevance and purpose.

In being empathetic toward the instruction of learners, educators must also empathize with the texts being used within the classroom. Accessible texts (Tovani, 2004, p. 39) are essential when allowing learners to find success in reading and explore a variety of different texts. Accessible texts (Tovani, 2004, p. 39) create the opportunity for learners to take texts and apply them to real-world reading and connections. Utilizing text sets, which are multiple texts of various levels on different concepts, is a powerful way educators can help their learners of all reading backgrounds find success and interest in literacy. Text sets in classrooms can only widen learners’ material options and viewpoints, and lets educators empathize with where their learners are at and give purpose and engagement to reading. “If we don’t begin to find accessible text for all adolescent readers, they will continue to fail, only to become someone else’s problem the following year. More students will become turned off to the content we love” (Tovani, 2004, p. 42). In the high school setting, text sets can be empowering to many learners, allowing them to have ownership and choice of the content they are reading about. At the same time, it provides the opportunities for learners to explore a variety of texts that could inspire and motivate them to continue to discover a side of literacy they never thought possible. Through this level of understanding learners and creating experiences for them through diverse textual options, learners are able to practice the multiple literacy strategies taught within texts they enjoy.


Educators have the opportunity to create meanings for their learners. How much educators understand about literacy strategies and why they are used will determine how intentional their implementation of them is in the classroom. Learners need exposure to the multitude of literacy strategies explicitly, while also having the opportunities to practice them on texts of all kinds, so that they are able to understand what is being read and how they can connect with it. Through a diverse variety of strategies and texts to help them find relevance and purpose, learners are able to gain a new way of understanding and empathizing with others. However, this only comes if educators are trained and willing to give their learners abilities that will broaden their horizons from text to text.

Conley, M. W. (2008). Cognitive strategy instruction for adolescents: What we know about the promise, what we don’t know about the potential. Harvard Review, 78 (1), 98.

Echevarria, J., Vogt, M.., & Short, D.J. (2017). Making content comprehensible for English Learners: The SIOP model (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Effective. (2017). In’s online dictionary. Retrieved from

 Gallagher, K. (2004).  Deeper reading: Comprehending challenging texts, 4-12. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

 Lent, R.C. (2006). Engaging adolescent learners: A guide for content-area teachers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Tovani, C. (2004). Do I really have to teach reading? Content comprehension, grades 6-12. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Vargas, J. S. (2013). Behavior analysis for effective teaching. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.