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A Picture of Adolescent Literacy Intervention: Becoming Better Readers, Writers, and Thinkers

Take a peek inside teacher Gretchen Schule’s eighth grade reading intervention class at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Virginia. In this dedicated class, students are improving their literacy skills — and their desire to read.


Narrator: Here at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Virginia, these eighth graders pass through the school library on their way to an unusual reading intervention class.

Ms. Gretchen Schule: Hi, Herbert.

Narrator: Teacher Gretchen Schule works with them every day for 90 minutes. In the past, reading has not been easy for kids like Isaac and Skarleth.

Skarleth: Right now I’m reading “New Moon” and one that is called “10 Dates.” It’s really good.

Isaac: I’ve been reading “When Stars Have Been Scattered.” It’s very good. I enjoy it a lot, but a book I read a lot are a lot of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”s.

Narrator: The fact that they’re reading books for fun now is a testament to Ms. Schule’s approach.

Isaac: She does a lot of games and that kind of makes me in want to be in the class.

Narrator: While it may feel like games to Isaac, here students build their reading skills in a differentiated and engaging way,

Ms. Gretchen Schule: I think the first way my intervention is different than other classrooms is I’m constantly trying to give them variety and give them choice and differentiate. It’s very rare that the whole group is doing the same thing.

What are you reading, Henry?

Narrator: And this work is critical. 30% of eighth graders across the U.S. are still working to meet basic reading standards. While there’s a lot schools can do to help these students, few things are more powerful than daily time with a knowledgeable reading teacher. Here’s Dr. Carrie Simkin of the University of Virginia.

Dr. Carrie Simkin: Having an intervention class is, frankly, I think the ideal because it is a dedicated time for kids to receive extra support. It’s part of the schedule. It’s not going to get written off when other things come into play. It’s 60, 90 minutes and you can really do a lot with that time and get to that kind of intensive level of intervention.

Narrator: Ms. Schule’s class always begins with independent reading.

Isaac: I like how we get to just have some reading time to read our own books and what we want to read without the teacher picking it.

Narrator: After that, it’s time for their rotations.

Ms. Gretchen Schule: So we’re going to go through three rotations today.

Narrator: Ms. Schule is having the students focus on word study, vocabulary, and reading fluency. They’ll cycle through each rotation in small groups.

Ms. Gretchen Schule: There’s very little whole class lecturing. It’s easier to tune out when you’re expected to sit and focus on one person talking at you.

Do you remember what these “c”s and “v”s stand for?

Narrator: Ms. Schule’s word study group often includes explicit instruction to make sure her students understand the skill they’re working on. She’s starting today with Skarleth and Christian.

Ms. Gretchen Schule: Step one is that I assess them, figure out what they know, what they need to work on, and how I can put them in different groups to differentiate so they’re not bored either. That if I meet them where they are, they’re also going to be more engaged because it’s what they need. It’s where they are.

We have “day,” “trade,” “nail,” and “glass.” What do you think those four words have in common? Take a look at the vowel. Yeah, yeah. What vow is it?

Skarleth: “A.”

Ms. Gretchen Schule: “A.” In the word “glass” what vowel sound do you hear?

Skarleth and Christian: /ă/.

Ms. Gretchen Schule: You hear short “a,” right?

The word study piece is always unique to what that student needs. I ask different questions depending on who I’m sitting with.

Does it sound like an “a”? If you don’t look at the word. If I just say “they”?

Christian: It does.

Ms. Gretchen Schule: It does.

Christian: But it doesn’t, like, you can tell it doesn’t fit there, so it would be an oddball.

Ms. Gretchen Schule: Okay. I agree.

They do enjoy the word sort. When I came to middle school, I thought there’s, there’s no way they’re going to buy into this. Moving words around. That, come on. And they do.

You’re going to open up the Flipgrid app on your iPad.

Narrator: During the second rotation, students work on their oral reading fluency. They’ll record themselves reading a short passage on their iPa. Before sending the students off, though, Ms. Schule helps them understand the purpose of the activity.

Ms. Gretchen Schule: Why are we practicing being fluent readers? Why is that important, Isaac?

Isaac: Because when you read fluently, you can understand the story better.

Ms. Gretchen Schule: Right. It’s showing that your brain is understanding what’s happening in the story. Henry, you want to add on?

Henry: If they have an exclamation mark, you could show that emotion or something.

Ms. Gretchen Schule: Yeah, show that you’re excited, and if you’re reading it like that, then you understand what’s happening in the story. Good. It’s important when working with adolescent readers to explain the “why” we’re doing something. They’re old enough to understand, and I find that they’re more engaged if they know why we’re doing it. So this says, “read aloud the following paragraph in the voice of a person complaining.” What does it sound like when you’re complaining? How would you describe that, Juan? What does complaining mean sound like to you?

Juan: Like whining.

Ms. Gretchen Schule: Whining.

Narrator: Juan quickly has his turn to demonstrate his complaining skills using the iPad.

Juan: “Unfortunately, you sent me the wrong game. Can you believe it?”

Narrator: After recording the passage, Juan listens back.

Juan (via recording): “Unfortunately, you sent me the wrong game. Can you believe it?”

Narrator: And then he takes notes on where he thinks he could make some improvements.

Ms. Gretchen Schule: And I’d like Fabiola, Henry, Juan, and Camilla at the table to play the vocab bingo game.

Narrator: The third rotation is a chance for students to work together on vocabulary. It’s a review for their science test at the end of the week.

Ms. Gretchen Schule: Vocabulary is an important part of intervention, especially at this level because the vocabulary only continues to get more challenging, especially when you don’t have the background knowledge. And there’s a lot of content vocabulary, specifically in science and social studies. So I work with the science and social studies teachers to try to curate a list of top vocabulary words. Obviously, I can’t teach it all. So you’re going to pull a word out, for example, “law,” and you’re going to find the definition for “law” on your bingo card. This gives them a space where everybody needs to work on it, everybody needs to practice it, and that extra reinforcement helps them feel more successful in science class or social studies class, as well as improve their vocabulary.

Overlapping student voices: Observation. Observation questions Uses your five senses.

Henry: What do you say when you get bingo? Five senses. You say bingo, right?

Dr. Carrie Simkin: It’s possible to make intervention fun and engaging with adolescent learners. Particularly, we’re looking at, not just getting them past the test. I know they’ve got to pass those tests in school. I get it. But we’re looking at that long-term, lifelong learners, readers, writers. You know, sending them off into the world.

Narrator: These kids are old enough to understand the stakes.

Skarleth: I want to be a lawyer so I can help people like my family. The lawyer that my mom has right now has helped us a lot getting papers and everything.

Isaac: You need reading. It’s, like, a big life skill. I know when I was younger, I would always think of reading. I would be like, I’m not going to need it. I have everyone else to read for me, but now I’m like, yeah, I kind of need reading.

Ms. Gretchen Schule: All right, so I want you to take a minute to think of one good thing that happened today and one maybe not so great thing.

Dr. Carrie Simkin: When I’m asked what’s the most important thing in reading intervention? And my answer has been, forever, a knowledgeable teacher. It’s not a program. Intervention isn’t found in a box. It’s found in classrooms with kids. I really encourage teachers to take a breath and think about those small tweaks they can make because these small tweaks can really have huge impacts.

Ms. Gretchen Schule: The part that I keep coming back to for how to make it run smoothly in your classroom is relationships. If they buy in to what you’re selling, then they’ll move mountains for you. And it’s not always smooth. There are bad days, there are hard days. There are outbursts. There are other things that are going on in their lives, but we come back and tomorrow’s a new day and we’ll start again. Because we have taken the time to build trust and they know it’s a safe space. They’re willing to take chances, and that’s important. I just need them to try. If they can try, then we’ll, we’ll make progress.

I’m proud of you guys. Kiss your brain. Kiss the brains. Come on. They deserve. They deserve some love.

Narrator: This video was made possible by a partnership between the National Education Association and WETA. For more information about reading interventions for middle schoolers, please visit