Keys to Literacy in High School

Writing is a skill to be used in every role in our students’ futures, even in the jobs we adults can’t yet imagine. Dr. Lonny Rivera, director of innovation at North Point Educational Service Center, spoke of skills in the emerging workplace as he addressed the Ohio ACT Conference in late January. He reminded participants that a significant number of jobs, from webmaster to Uber driver, simply couldn’t have existed ten to fifteen years ago. With the pace of innovation accelerating, educators cannot simply rely on what has been best educational practice in the past, and the markers for good scholarship must change if education is to remain relevant. Our students ask, “Why?” before they begin a task, and writing is no exception. Our answer cannot (only) be, “Peer schools believe this is still an important skill,” or “Colleges might ask you to perform this task in a few years.”  We must connect writing to the real world, and the truth is, in all settings, adults are asked to record a response with sufficient thoroughness and attention to the question to convey important information. Whether it’s a statement for law enforcement, a customer service claim, a thank-you letter following a job interview, a note to a babysitter, or an academic thesis, the same types of skills are involved. Students tend not to see these as the same kind of task, and we harness some of those universal skills to leverage growth in areas where students seem more reluctant.

Across all content areas in the high school, we use the Keys to Literacy routine to develop familiarity with a common writing process.  As students find themselves going through the routine, they automatically move through the steps and don’t lose momentum as they have to mentally shift from technical language in Science to prose in English, for example. A few notable elements of the routine include supported brainstorming time, explicit assistance in developing a sequenced flow to organization, and use of familiar pre-writing tools. The writing process is broken into stages and credit is assigned for completion of each stage.

When students in TASK 2 are asked to Quick Write on a topic, the exercise serves several pedagogical purposes: fluency in brainstorming, activation of memories and thoughts related to a class topic, preview of a new topic, and investment in their own viewpoint. Before sophomores wrote letters in History class, they used top-down webs to organize their content and improve both flow and depth of thought.  As juniors and seniors connected Night to other examples of human rights violations, they used the familiar two-column note device to take in new information. When students answer conclusion questions in Environmental Sustainability class, they look to the prompt for cues as to what required elements must be contained in their answers.  As students write longer pieces in History or English class, they connect to their own understandings to develop a perspective, use the top-down web to organize arguments and proof, and follow the Think-Plan-Write-Revise model to craft (and re-craft) their compositions.


Ruth Rubin
Head of High School