California English Journal


Table of Contents

Summer 1998

Editor's Column
-Carol Jago

Reading Happens in Your Mind, Not Your Mouth 
- Christine Cziko

What Do We Mean When We Say Students Can Read?
- Nancy Lester

Becoming Accomplished Readers in the High School
Classroom With the Help of the Learning Record

- Janet Ghio

We'll Make Readers of 'em Yet
- Andrea Ickes Dunbar

The Librarian's Sense of Snow
- John McGinnis

Secondary Teachers as Literacy Teachers
- Bob Infantino and Mary Williams

Only Readers Need Apply
- Bill Clawson

Laura and Me: In Which I Travel to Renaissance Italy
and Meet Laura Cereta
- Victoria Holmsten


California English - Summer 98


Horace McCoy and Charles Bukowski:
Depression Legacies
- Mark Breiger

Eugene O'Neill
- Janice Albert

Writers on Reading: A Potpourri                         

When "Good Enough" Reading Isn't Good Enough
- Carol Jago


| Top | Editor's Column |  Reading Happens.. | Becoming Accomplished..| Librarians sense...Eugene O'Neill |

Editor's Column
-Carol Jago

Middle and high school teachers are increasingly dismayed by the number of their students who cannot read. How can we teach complex literature when students stumble over common words or find 300 an impossible number of pages to turn? How can we answer our colleagues in social studies and science who insist that the reason students are failing their classes is that they cannot read the texts? This issue of California English offers some promising answers to these questions. The writers here don't pretend they have found a magic bullet, but they do offer classroom strategies that improve students' reading skills.

Two of the articles, Christine Cziko's "Reading Happens in Your Mind, Not in Your Mouth" and Nancy Lester's "What Do We Mean When We Say Students Can Read?" describe programs at Thurgood Marshall High School in San Francisco. Another California program that has demonstrated success raising basic competencies in reading is in place at San Diego's Morse High School. To learn about what they have done, see "A Second Chance to Learn to Read" in the March 1998 issue of Educational Leadership.

With almost half of students entering Cal State campuses lacking the skills they needed to enroll in freshman English, it is clear that secondary instruction in reading must improve. If you have a technique or program that works, please share it. Our students are depending on us.

I want to express sincere thanks to the following California English reviewers for their generous help selecting manuscripts for the journal: Anna Bolling, Dawn Chase, Angus Dunstan, Peggy Dewar, Alfie Encisco, Mae Gundlach, Holly Hagel, Nancy Harray, Patricia Harrelson, Kathryn Hoerner, Cecie Leonard, Olga Kokino, Kathleen Daley Obrist, Pam Orth, Sally Reynolds, Matt Skeahan, Robin Somers, Barbara Stewart, Tere Theodozio, and Gary Thomas. If you are interested in becoming a reviewer, the job is always open. The best way to let me know is at


| Top | Editor's Column |  Reading Happens.. | Becoming Accomplished..| Librarians sense...Eugene O'Neill |

Teaching & Learning "ACADEMIC LITERACY" in an Urban High School
by Christine Cziko

"I am surprised because my whole attitude toward reading has changed since I was in this class and that is the honest to god truth."
--Ninth grade "Academic Literacy" student

Although I have been teaching English for over twenty years in both middle and high school classrooms, I hadn't thought explicitly about teaching reading until 1995 when I became involved in the Strategic Literacy Initiative, a research and professional development effort based in San Francisco. During my teaching career I had become increasingly concerned about getting my students to read, but I was reluctant to look at the problem of reading head on. As a person who loved literature, I held to the belief that there was at least one book for every child, the book that could move him or her in a way which would open up an entire world of reading. With luck, I would help my students find those books.

Over the years there had been students in each of my classes who already thought of themselves as readers before they entered my classroom. But increasingly, the majority of students in my urban classroom were not reading books, either those assigned in class or for their own pleasure. I could not even count on many of my students finishing a short story assigned for homework. As I spoke to my colleagues in other English classes as well as those teaching history and science, the story was much the same. Students were not reading school texts, and even those who insisted that they had "done the reading" could often not explain what they had read.

In an effort to have class discussions on important issues raised in the books which, I realized, many of my students were not reading, I tried to find ways to provide everyone with at least some common experience with the book. I read to students, gave time in class to read, "talked through" the book, and, when desperate, showed the video. It began to dawn on me that I was doing more and more to provide students with the story and meaning of the book, without expecting or helping them to find ways to become independent readers.  I started to feel that I was in a kind of co-dependent relationship with my students- an arrangement that actually enabled them to not read.

"I'm a High School English Teacher--It's Not My Job to Teach Reading"
My first conscious reaction to this dilemma was resistance: "This is high school, teaching reading is not my job!" But since it was clearly the job that had to be done, I couldn't hold onto that attitude for long. I wasn't too concerned about students' ability to read words; most of them could decode reasonably well. Reading short, simple texts with a clear narrative line and lots of action wasn't a problem either. It was the reading of extended and sometimes complex texts--high school texts--that students seemed to have given up on.

My second line of resistance was quick to follow: "But I don't know how to teach reading!" I couldn't remember how I had learned to read demanding texts, and didn't even understand how my own two children had learned. I was stuck.

In 1995, soon after I moved to Northern California from New York (where I'd been a teacher consultant for the New York City Writing Project) I joined the HERALD Project's Strategic Literacy Initiative. The HERALD Project had been working with interdisciplinary teams of high school teachers in the San Francisco Unified School District to improve students' oral and written language skills across the curriculum. After eight years of this work, they had convened a network of English and Social Studies teachers from three of these schools to focus on issues of reading. Their aim was to bring together teachers as research partners in a professional community for the purpose of examining recent research on reading, and jointly experimenting to adapt promising practices for use in secondary content classrooms. In addition, this teacher-researcher collaboration also developed a set of "literacy cases" for other teacher groups to use in the future as a center for professional development and community conversation about teaching reading in secondary content classes.

A Writing Process Teacher Discovers the Reading Process
One of the key activities in the Strategic Literacy Network meetings was reading different types of texts and talking about how we made sense of what we were reading. By forcing ourselves to think explicitly about the strategies we were using, and by sharing these strategies, we became more conscious of the varied and complex reading processes each of us use. We discovered that by making the reading strategies we use explicit to ourselves, we could tap into an extensive knowledge base about reading comprehension that we could share with our students.

I realized that thinking about what I did when I read had strong parallels to the writing process approach that I had been using in my classes for years. It was as if a light had been turned on. I did know what a competent reader had to do in order to make sense of text; I was doing it all the time. Now the challenge was to make the strategies I used explicit, first to myself, and then to my students.

I began to think more about my own reading and to use techniques adapted from my years of experience with the Writing Project to create classroom activities that would help students explore their own reading process. I took the same kind of reflective stance toward my reading that I had taken toward my writing. Through articles and discussions in the Strategic Literacy Network, I began to see the potential for real instructional approaches and strategies that could help students begin to "break it down" as one of our students said, or as literacy scholar Lisa Delpit describes it, to "unlock the power code." The process of looking closely at my own reading enabled me to begin to demystify reading for my students.

A Crisis Creates an Opportunity
As I was rethinking my job as an English teacher, our school faced a crisis. Thurgood Marshall Academic High School is an urban public high school which was created explicitly to provide an academically rigorous education for students who have been historically under-represented in higher education.  Our student population is approximately one-third African-American, one-third Asian-American and one-third Latino. Admission to our school is based on a lottery system. Though most of our students have college aspirations, the majority are underprepared for high school work. In the spring of 1996, 40% of our ninth grade students had only achieved a grade point average of 2.0 or below. A major cause of this failure seemed to be that many students were ill-equipped to read with comprehension the texts required to be successful in their classes. Since our school's mission is to prepare all students for post-secondary education, this high rate of academic failure presented an urgent challenge.

Although most teachers at Marshall had taken a required "Reading in the Secondary School" course as part of their teacher preparation, the pressure to cover the content of the course and, perhaps, an unspoken belief that "teaching reading isn't my job" resulted in our providing little instruction to students in how to make sense of the texts required for their courses.  Because I was excited about some of the ideas we had been discussing in the Strategic Literacy Network, and because teachers throughout the school were talking about the difficulty so many students were having in managing their reading assignments in different disciplines, I saw an opportunity.

After speaking with our principal and the department heads and getting their support, I approached Ruth Schoenbach and Cyndy Greenleaf (the Project Director and Director of Research) of the Strategic Literacy Initiative, and asked if they would be willing to jointly design, help implement and assess a new course which we called "Academic Literacy." This course would be required for all three hundred incoming freshmen beginning in the fall of 1996 and would use some of the most promising strategies we were discussing in the Network. Ruth and Cyndy agreed, and we worked over the summer to outline the curriculum and the key instructional elements we would weave throughout the two semester course. Meanwhile, I found three teachers who were willing to teach the pilot year of Academic Literacy with me. Our team was made up of two English and two history teachers, with teaching experience that ranged from one year to twenty-three years.

The Goals, the Course, an Overview
The Academic Literacy course began as a ten-unit, year-long course for all Thurgood Marshall freshmen in the fall of 1996. Its purpose was to help the incoming students become higher level, strategic readers and to prepare them for the reading tasks they would encounter in high school and beyond. We knew that for students to become active readers, they had to first believe that reading with comprehension was something that could be learned ; that it was not a mystery that you either "get" or "don't get," and that ninth grade was not too late to learn.

We thought that if we could create classrooms in which students could use some of the energy they put into hiding what they donÕt understand into revealing and working to figure out their confusions, we might create a powerful new learning dynamic. We thought about ways to make it "cool" to be able to articulate what in a particular text is confusing and why, and about how to invite the entire class to contribute strategies to unlock difficult text. It was crucial that all ninth grade students took the course, so that strategies used by more successful students could be learned by all. The model would be teachers as "master readers" and students as "apprentice readers". This was not to be a remedial course. Finally, in order to make the course inquiry-based, we decided to create a curriculum in which the reading process itself was a subject of investigation. Using the common adolescent fascination with themselves, we hoped to help students develop metacognitive understandings by inviting them to look closely at their own reading and thinking processes.

We began the course by reading works by authors including Malcolm X, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Frederick Douglass writing about the role of reading in their lives. In this introductory unit, in addition to exploring questions such as: "What roles does reading serve in people's personal and public lives?", we prompted students to think about their own relationships to reading, reflecting on questions such as, "What are my characteristics as a reader? What strategies do I use as I read? What role will reading play in my future educational and career goals? What goals can I set and work  towards to help myself develop as a reader?" Students revisited these questions throughout the course.

In addition to building students' awareness of reading purposes and processes, we also read and discussed articles which provided students with a common conceptual vocabulary for thinking about their own cognitive processes. They learned about schema, metacognition and attention management. The following comment from one of our students a year after she took "Academic Literacy" illustrates how students internalized some of these ideas and strategies.

"In Academic Literacy they taught you about different channels of your brain. Like my teacher would say, 'You have one channel for being with your friends, and one channel for getting dressed, and you have a channel for being in school' And so then we would be supposed to ask ourselves, 'What channel am I on now? Am I on my school channel?'"

Another key elements of our Academic Literacy curriculum, and one of the ways in which students would apply and practice metacognition, was in our modified version of Silent Sustained Reading (SSR). Although books for SSR were self-selected, students were expected to finish a 200-page book each month and to keep a record of both what they were reading and what they were learning about themselves as readers. As the following ninth grader explains,

"They teach you to think about what you think about when you read. Like when we do SSR, and we have to write in our log after, it's not like 'Write about what happened in the book,' it's like, 'Were you looking out the window? How much of the time you were supposed to be reading were you concentrating?'"

We also spent a good deal of time in class with expository texts, modeling "think aloud" protocols--in which we would share our own thinking processes as we read and worked to make sense of these texts. In this way, our model of a "cognitive apprenticeship in reading" was continually reinforced throughout the course.

Students were introduced to and given frequent opportunities to practice a variety of cognitive and "text-wise" strategies, in particular: questioning, clarifying, summarizing, and predicting; use of graphic organizers; and "chunking" or breaking down sentences into manageable parts. As we helped students understand, begin to master, and internalize these strategies, we kept reminding them that these strategies were becoming part of their reader "tool-kit" and that they needed to know how to determine which kind of text problem called for which kind of tool.

Promising Results
To evaluate the impact of the Academic Literacy course on student reading development, we used both quantitative and qualitative measures. We used the Degrees of Reading Power (DRP) test and a student reading survey adapted from Nancie Atwell's book In the Middle as well as student reflections aboout their reading performance.

After seven months of instruction, across all ethnic groups and across all four teachers' classrooms, students on average moved from being able to independently read a text at the level of Charlotte's Web to a text comparable in difficulty to To Kill A Mockingbird. According to the test developers, this is equivalent to almost two year's growth in reading ability, roughly equivalent to a change from early 7th grade level to late 9th grade level.

Responses on their pre- and post- reading surveys also showed significant changes for many students; for example, in the pre-course survey students reported reading an average of six books in the previous year; in the post-course survey students reported reading an average of eleven books during the current year.

In general, students' survey responses, as well as reflective letters they wrote after comparing their own pre- and post- surveys, indicated that they grew more knowledgeable about selecting books to read and about ways to create reading situations that worked for them. These surveys and letters also show that most Academic Literacy students came to value reading in new ways, and that they acquired a greater sense of their own agency, responsibility and control of how they read over the course of the school year, as well as a much more elaborate set of ideas, strategies and resources for doing so. One student explained:

"... I found out what kind of books I like to read and I understand more about reading, like what do you have to do in order to keep up the reading. Also now at least sometimes I enjoy reading....We have been reading for almost a year now.."

A Work-in Progress
While we have been very encouraged by strong gains in DRP scores and the equally promising changes in students' readership habits and self-concepts, there are many problems we still face. We continue to worry about and work on issues of building background knowledge, increasing fluency, vocabulary development, and building students' capacity to monitor and self-manage their motivation--particularly with texts they donÕt choose to read, but are assigned.

While our students have made significant progress in one year through the Academic Literacy Course , they must continue to develop as readers in order to meet the demands for higher level literacy required of college students and professionals. This will only happen if we all take responsibility for teaching our students the discourse - that is, how to read the texts that lie at the heart of each discipline - as well as the content of our subjects.

Although we realize that we are just beginning to figure out how to do this work, one student's comment reflects a common feeling among many of the Academic Literacy students,

"I feel proud of myself as a reader. I really did grow."


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by Janet Ghio

It's Wednesday. During this month, students in my English class will meet every Wednesday in small groups to discuss self-selected literature books. I move about the room with clipboard in hand. On mailing labels I jot down observations. I stop and listen to Amy who is serving as discussion director for today's session. Her group is reading Richard Wright's Black Boy. "I don't get why his grandma is so religious and why Richard doesn't just leave since he's so unhappy. You'd think he'd just get fed up with the mistreatment and leave." Megan suggests that Richard has to stay and help his mother. "He just can't leave her. She's sick and he knows she needs him."

Behind me I hear another group discussing Black Elk Speaks. Jason asks David, "How do you read the book?" I'm curious and wonder why Jason is asking this question. I hear David explain that he skips around or just skims the reading. Patiently, Jason explains, "That just might be why you are confused about the book. I don't think you can skim a book like this." The conversation continues with Jody explaining how her history teacher taught her to skim the textbook prior to reading the assigned section, but "I don't think that works for a piece of literature like this. You have to read all of it or you'll miss important details and get confused about the time frame." I notice David listening to his group members as they discuss the concept of "skimming" versus "reading". One student tells him to read all of the student assigned pages for next weekÕs discussion. They retell various parts that David is confused about, and I make notes of what I have observed.  

As I move through the room, I hear Monique say, "Listen to this." Then she reads a short passage from Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. She explains to her group, "Everything makes her upset; her perception is distorted." This comment gets the group members sharing various parts in the book that illustrate Plath's "distorted perception." In the Woman Warrior group, Thai is sharing her mother's "ghost stories": "My mother tells me these stories to scare me or teach me some lesson. It's just like the stories Maxine's mother tells her."

I observe students using many different reading strategies: clarifying text, questioning, making personal connections, summarizing, rereading, or making predictions. Why do I write these observations down on mailing labels? For one thing it gets me out of the way so students can talk about what they read.  It gives me an opportunity to stand back and observe their talk and their interaction with the text and with others who have read the same student selected literature. More importantly, these observations become part of each student's Learning Record Portfolio. These observations are used as evidence for how well they read and HOW they read. Periodically, students review their portfolios. I move about the room sticking my written notes on a bright pink paper with the words OBSERVATIONAL NOTES printed at the top.  Students read their notes and are given time to reflect on how they read and the kind of reading behaviors they  demonstrate.  

At Lincoln High School, the students keep portfolios which includes a list of "everything" read, not just what students read in English classes. They also keep reflections about specific readings and selected reader response logs. These portfolios not only include reading samples, but also contain examples of student writing for a variety of audiences and purposes. With each writing sample, students include a written reflection about the process and the product, and set new goals for improving their writing. These samples serve as evidence of the student's progress, important information for the student, teacher and parent as it guides the department curriculum, classroom instruction, and student goal setting.

The Learning Record, formerly the California Learning Record, has been the model for the portfolio system Lincoln High School has used for the past eight years. Students use the LR's reading scale to determine where they are as readers and what they must do to grow as readers. Initially our portfolios were merely a collection of student work, but in our search for an authentic assessment that would be meaningful for both students and teachers, we began to incorporate more of the Learning Record ideas. Because we know that language and literacy - reading, writing, talking and listening - are fundamental to all learning, our teachers embraced a system for giving students the tools to understand themselves as readers, writers, talkers and listeners. Providing ongoing classroom opportunities to use these tools is critical for student academic achievement. The LR Reading and Writing Scales are such tools. If students are to truly become accomplished readers so they become life-long learners, then they need to understand what successful learners do.

Reading Scale 3, Grades 9-12: Becoming Accomplished in Reading , provided at the end of this article, serves as a guideline for students and teachers. This performance scale describes the behaviors of readers as they move from "literal" to "exceptionally accomplished" reader with implications for what students need to do and what classroom opportunities the teachers needs to provide to help them do it.

This year our ninth grade English classes were reduced to a twenty-to-one student to teacher ratio. Ninth grade teachers, four of whom are new , have met together for Learning Record staff development days. Each time we meet, teachers bring 5 of their student Learning Records. We began the year conducting student and parent interviews about the student's literacy.  Students completed questionnaires and teachers conferenced with each student to discuss the work in their eighth grade portfolio. We sent letters and questionnaires to parents to find out about the student's experience outside of school and sometimes followed this up with a telephone conversation. We discover how students learn best, their interests, and how the students use language at home. This process sets a tone of collaboration for communication among parents, students and teachers.

Next, we discussed what such information tells us instructionally. We talked about how to use Ken McCrorie's I-Search, a structure where students apply  research techniques as they read and write about something of personal interest. After the teachers read Harvey Daniel's Literature Circles, we implemented literature circles as a means for providing students with more opportunities to self-select books they can read at their independent reading level. Teachers noted how students fuel their weekly discussions by coming with a prepared response for that week's group assigned reading.  Teachers look for evidence in these discussions that students are using what they learn from our classwide reading of core literature, where we teach more explicitly a variety of reading skills for making meaning and thinking critically about text.

We have read and discussed pedagogy about reading and assessment. We have learned how to conduct informal assessments of student's reading so we can understand if a student can actually read or if the student is merely choosing not to read. We are able to see what strategies the student uses to make meaning of text, and this tells us what we must do instructionally to build on what is already known. And, of course, the instruction of writing has also been an important part of our discussion, connecting the writing experience with the student's reading experience. Using both fiction and non-fiction as models for writing, students are doing what we believe improves not only their reading but their writing.

These collegial discussions stemming from the review of actual student work are extremely informative. We have discovered that generally students can read the words; however, their understanding of what they read is often inadequate. We also have recognized that many students do not read because they have not yet discovered what they enjoy reading.

David, the student who told his literature circle group he was skimming the book, provides illustration of these findings. Observational notes in his Learning Record reveal that he can read fluently because he did so during an oral reading from Their Eyes Were Watching God. After he rehearsed with his group, he was able to read the dialect in the text with natural expression and intonation. Notes from earlier in the year indicate that when I asked David to read to me, although his reading seemed deliberate, he was able to retell the story. I know David can read; however, he lacks the experience of reading. He appears to read what is assigned, but his response logs show a literal understanding of the text. He says he has not read much because "most books are boring."

How do I get David to find a book he wants to read cover to cover and enjoy it. After he and I talk about the kinds of stories he enjoys, we search for a book that seems interesting. He chooses Black Elk because "it is different." Later he shows me that he has learned from his literature circle group not to skim this book because I see evidence during discussion that David actually read the assigned pages. He brings a visual with four panels and retells his group what he read. Another observation made during a class discussion describes David challenging the criticism several classmates make about a character in a story we are reading. He reminds the class to examine the period in history when the story took place. He says, "The male/ female roles at the beginning of this century are a lot different from the roles today. You're judging these people from your 1998 point of view." I'm beginning to see David think more critically about the text, placing it in a social and historical context. When David reads this observation, he is not only reinforced but is able to reflect on his understanding.

The Reading Scale is not a secret to our students. David wants to go to college. He wants to be a reader; his mother wants him to be a reader. He uses the reading scale to examine his present strengths as a reader and to set goals for his future. We discuss the behaviors described on the scale and what they mean. What teachers like about the Learning Record assessment is that it is curriculum-imbedded assessment that gives us a fair picture of what the student can do. We have discovered that if students are a 4 or 5 on the Reading Scale, then most likely they can be successful with college level work.

Each year, during the middle of the fourth quarter, students will determine their placement on Reading Scale 3. In a written letter to their parent and teacher, students support and explain, with evidence from their Learning Record, their placement on the Reading Scale. Based on this assessment, students will determine their "next year" goals for reading. At this time, based on evidence the teacher has in the LR, the student placement on the scale might be adjusted. The student will take the portfolio home for parent response and then the portfolio is passed on to the next year's teacher. One of the first things the teacher does in the fall is read the student's "end of the year response"; this becomes a starting point for determining learning goals for the "new school year."

To validate our teacher judgment about student reading progress as well as to assess the effectiveness of class size reduction, each ninth grade teacher will take five Learning Records to a site moderation. This is an opportunity for us, as the originating teachers, to make sure that our interpretations of the Reading Scale are consistent throughout our school. We are also sending records and readers to a regional moderation where our interpretations will be compared with those of other teachers outside our district. With all the conversation about performance standards, we want what we do in the classroom to count as much as a multiple choice test score, and the Learning Record Assessment System is helping us do just that.

Works Cited
Daniels, Harvey. Literature Circles: Voices and Choice in the Student-Centered Classroom, York, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers, 1994.
Krimsly, S. (1996). The Learning Record Assessment System WWW Home Page. Center for Language in Learning,Internet.
Macrorie, Ken. The I-Search Paper. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton Cook Publisher,1988.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR -Janet Ghio is in her twenty-fifth year of teaching at Lincoln High School in Stockton, California, where she is the English Department Chair.

The Learning Record Assessment System

Not Yet Accomplished



Language 1


Language 2


Ready for

Able to derive meaning from a variety of texts. Usually inexperienced in a.) challenging the writer's claims, evidence, or ideas, or b.) critiquing a text for style, logic, organization, etc. Expects texts to yield single interpretations. Sees most text as unrelated to life outside of school. May express frustration with density of course texts. Frequently abandons the reading of books, even those he or she has ostensibly chosen. Strategies include the use of non-print media to collect information and a reliance on others for interpretations of text. Lacks familiarity with common text organizers, e.g., headings, index. May define him or herself as one who does not read.


Can read assigned course texts with preparation and support of visual, kinesthetic and/or auditory supplement, e.g., graphics, enactment, listening to oral readings. Usually reads to fulfill assignments or for purposes outside of school rather than for pleasure. Strategies for getting course information include media other than text, e.g., collaborative groups and film or tapes; collaboration with peers to construct meaning in text; unconscious use of advance organizers and genre schemas. Can apply prior experience to some aspects of stories, biographies and/or current events but may be unable to relate his or her own experience to more abstract ideas in course texts


Has some favorite kinds of reading. With preparation and support, can read aloud expressively from course texts . Knows the characteristics of a few genre. May rely on only a few strategies to construct meaning but shows a willingness to persist with some difficult texts. Makes associations between textual and personal experience. Can explain the way some texts are organized to help the reader derive meaning. Becoming aware, in interpreting texts, of the influence of their contexts, e.g., time period, subject matter, gender/status of author. Learning to share text interpretations with others. Developing skill in using course texts and outside reading as resources in class discussions and assignments.


Acknowledges the potential of texts to provoke multiple valid interpretations. Uses print conventions (punctuation, head-ings, index) to construct meaning in text. Assesses him or herself as an effective reader of particular genres and can provide convincing evidence of same. Has strategies for unlocking difficult text. Able to evaluate information from multiple sources, e.g., texts and personal experiences. Able to acknowledge contradictory interpretations of text and previously held misconceptions about issues raised in class. Brings outside reading to bear on course work. Selects books for pleasure reading and for use in problem solving. Can manage the reading of long texts outside of class.


Reads avidly. Travels back and forth easily across the continuum of reading purposes: from reading for information to reading in order to enhance personal experience. Can discuss text interpretations tentatively, ready to modify and/or deepen initial impressions. Can elaborate on connections he or she is making with text and present convincing reasons as to what the connections add to personal understanding. Is able to weigh and compare relative strength and weakness, style, structure, credibility, or aesthetics of given and self-selected texts. Can explain, orally and/or in writing, the significance of the social, cultural or political history of a text. Reads aloud fluently, with appropriate expression.

Student                                         Placement                                           Date                  

Revised 1997, as a component of The Learning Record Assessment System ( a product of the Center for Language in Learning, 10610 Quail Canyon Road, El Cajon, CA 92021  


| Top | Editor's Column |  Reading Happens.. | Becoming Accomplished..| Librarians sense...Eugene O'Neill |

The Librarian's Sense of Snow
by John McGinnis

Memory is strange. After twelve years of full-time high school English teaching, I bid farewell to my last class in June, 1980. Of the approximately 2,000 students I taught, I still possess a fragment of a memory of a boy who was transferred into one of my junior classes from out of state. He stayed only a few weeks. I could not now identify his face or name if they appeared before me in a yearbook. But he wrote one paper in response to an assignment before he transferred to another school. I have to confess I do not even remember what he wrote. And as far as his oral contributions, they seemed few and only in response to direct questions. But looking back on it, I believe that student planted some of the early seeds of my future decision to leave the teaching of English and become a high school library media teacher.

What I do remember has more to do with me than with him. I remember the pleasure of listening to this student speak articulately, even if uninspired, of reading a five paragraph essay written by a student who appreciated the virtues of good grammar, of complete, coherent sentences, of paragraphs that began with topic sentences and were developed with relevant specific examples, of transitions that eased the passage from one idea to the next, of the deliberate variation of sentence length and structure to add interest to the ideas, even when the ideas were not "deep." And whatever his ideas were, they were not deep. I remember this not because he was my only student who could write well. Others could write well, but they were all in "X" classes, college-bound. This student had been placed by his counselor, based on transcript grades and test scores from his previous schools in Massachusetts, into one of my "Y" classes. "Y" students were not going to college.

For those who never understood the principle of predestination, a semester of teaching in this system would make it clear. In those days we taught a hierarchy of English classes designated by "*", "X", "Y", and "Z". "X" students were going to college. "Y" students were going to work, unless they went to jail. Gifted students, which were designated by an asterisk, which we called a star, were not going to college either. They were going to heaven. Our aspirations for "*" students included heavens like Harvard and Yale. And then the "Z" students. Ah, they were not going to heaven, college or work. They were all going to hell. And we who taught them were going to hell with them. The assignment to teach a "Z" class was simply intended to ease the transition. In the naivetŽ of my first year of teaching in 1968, I assumed "Z" students lacked ability. Some of them did, but many of them were quite intelligent, and some even possessed the ability of "*" students. What a number of them lacked, in the opinions of the teachers who cast them out of their gardens into the wilderness of a "Z" class, were what could euphemistically be called social graces. They lacked them in the extreme. I taught two of these freshmen classes in my first two years of teaching. I remember the draining intensity of the class sessions, my need for late afternoon naps when I got home, and a heightened appreciation of Fellini films.

Within this hierarchy, the Massachusetts student was placed, not at a seraphic level, but at the "Y" level. From what I could discern in his transcripts, he was in the equivalent of "Y" classes in his Massachusetts schools. But we were about to transfer him to the "X" level before he moved on. It is with this student I now associate an early insight into why some students possess a greater facility with language than others. This insight was confirmed by future unscientific, unrandom and unquestionably inadequate sampling of other students who transferred into my classes from some other states.

Over the years, the Massachusetts student was followed by others from northeastern and midwestern states who also generally possessed greater facility with language than their California counterparts. At first I wondered if they had better teachers back there. My own ego resisted the impulse to jump to that conclusion. Nor did I want to believe those states were populated by genetically superior inhabitants. Instead, the meteorology of their origins began to emerge as the dominant commonality. Compare the following lists:



New Hampshire
North Dakota


What distinguishes states in column A from those in column B? Listed side by side, the answer emerges as clearly as if you were looking at a map. The states in column A, the kind of states from which my language-superior students were coming, are all above the 38th parallel, and they pass much of their winters beneath blankets of snow. The states in column B, all below the 38th parallel, rarely see snow and mostly only on mountain tops. So, back in the mid-seventies, based on a snowy insight, I made some changes to the management of class time and eventually became a library media teacher.

Now, many years later, I confess to feeling smugly vindicated by the publication of the fourth grade NAEP reading scores which seem to confirm that earlier insight. If you are an aficionado of those scores, you recognized that column A represents the states with the seven highest 1992 average reading scores. Column B represents the states with the seven lowest average reading scores. And the remarkable thing is that this is generally indicative of the entire NAEP list. There are forty-one states plus the District of Columbia and Guam on the list. Of the highest scoring twenty-six, twenty-five are above the 38th parallel. Of the lowest scoring seventeen, fifteen are below the 38th parallel. I realize some would scoff at the amateurishness of my "research" but teachers must sometimes make decisions based on what they sense. And my sense of snow coincides with some commonsense fundamental principles, as follows:

1. Students read better when they read more.
2. Students read more when they enjoy what they read.

These principles formed the foundation of changes I made to the management of my class time. However, they seem to be wholly ignored in the debate that raged in reaction to California's near last place finish in the NAEP race. Some Californians concluded, erroneously, that the NAEP scores revealed that California students cannot read. Actually, the NAEP scores revealed that virtually all of them can read. They just do not read as well as students in almost every other state on the list. The "not as well as" goes to issues of vocabulary, speed, comprehension, retention, etc. These are the skills which grow with practice, with reading more, and not just with teaching methodologies and pedagogies and all the other "...ogies" that make us educators sound impressive. So, based on an erroneous interpretation, how did we react? Two sides engaged in hostile and recriminatory battles pitting phonics against whole language, each mining the fields of recent brain research to buttress their positions, and each blasting statistics at the other like buckshot.

Meanwhile, two groups of American students spend their winters engaged in different pastimes. One group occupies an hour or more on chilly winter afternoons and evenings reading, for recreation, while another group is skateboarding, surfing or generally hanging out. This observation was acknowledged in a recent editorial in Minnesota Monthly. David Mahoney's December paean to the joys of growing up in a reading environment, "Ring in the Reading Season," concluded with, "So let Californians and Floridians and Arizonans go ahead and gloat all they want about their interminable stretches of sunny days. The way I see it, we've got four or five months of good reading weather ahead of us before we'll be forced outside again." As a native Californian born and raised in Hollywood, I know in my heart he is right. And I did not need the NAEP scores or brain research to convince me. But weather alone does not induce these two different behaviors.

The second fundamental principle also applies. For students to read more, to increase those skills California students are deficient in, students must enjoy reading. To do that they must have enjoyable books and magazines to read. Here in California, we effectively tell students that their prime motivation for learning to read is so they can do their homework. And to do that we give them textbooks, workbooks and assigned novels. Many years ago, shortly after our children started school, one of their neighborhood friends came over to play. We asked her how she was doing in reading. She said, "Good. I can read almost everything I see on television." We had been in her home. Her television screen was one of the few places she would actually see words. For enjoyable reading, the average California school offers little better. California school libraries rank at the bottom in terms of books and magazines for our children to read.

Which states rank at the top? You guessed it - basically the same states that topped the 1992 NAEP scores. In the Fall, 1990, issue of School Library Media Quarterly, Howard D. White reported on his survey of school library collections. He considered several factors including number of books and magazines, new acquisitions, expenditures per pupil, etc. His conclusion: "The top twelve states are all Northern, and eight of them are contiguous across the northern Midwest and Great Plains: Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Montana, and Wyoming." A similar survey by Marilyn Miller and Marilyn Shontz in the October, 1993, issue of School Library Journal reported similar results. Northeastern and northcentral states do better than western states in terms of school library collections.

But back in the seventies, when I was just going with my sense of things, I instituted two changes to my class time. Ten minutes of each class were devoted to free reading, and I tried to allocate about five minutes of teaching time to reading favorite passages aloud. To our advantage, our school had an excellent school library with current, balanced collections of books, magazines, media and technology. And that made these changes easier.

In time, the school library became occupationally seductive. For seven years, as a school library media teacher with a fairly good budget, I selected materials in every area at every ability level. We opened from 7:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. from the first day of school to the last day of final exams. Science classes from the least difficult through physics and chemistry visited every semester. Students discovered dozens of science magazines and books from the popular to the challenging. This was true of every subject area for students of every ability level.

The library was anything but a quiet temple of sacred knowledge. It was more like one of my early "Z" classes, transformed. The library was an untracked, democratic and wild garden to which all types of students were not cast but rather drawn by the attraction of reading materials that uniquely appealed to each of them. I could write another article on the rewards of being a school librarian but here I will recount only one incident. As I hurriedly passed a couple of "Z" kids lingering at the paperback rack, I overheard one say to the other, "Whadaya readin'? Read this?" I almost swung around and said, "Hey, wait a minute. That's my line!" Sure, at early ages, kids need good solid reading instruction. But once they start to learn to read, kids also need a lot of good books and magazines, a good library environment, and time to read. With that, they not only become good readers, they become reading's best advocates.

About the Author:
John McGinnis is director of the library at Cerritos Community College. He is a past president of the California School Library Association and a past member of the California Reading and Literature Project's Statewide Policy Board. He is currently a member of the Education Council for Technology in Learning which oversees Digital High School grants and other technology funds.



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Eugene O’Neill
by Janice Albert

One of the most complete and best preserved literary sites in California is the home of Eugene O’Neill off Highway 680 in the hills above Danville overlooking Mt.  Diablo. O’Neill chose this site to build a shelter from the world, and here he did  some of his best work, including the intensely autobiographical Long Day’s Journey  Into Night.

O’Neill was persuaded to come to California by his wife, Carlotta, who was born in  San Francisco on December 28, 1888, and who grew up in Oakland. The daughter of  Danish and French/Dutch parents, she was christened Hazel Neilson Taasinge. As a  young woman, she traveled to Europe to study theater. Her dark good looks lent themselves to a Spanish persona, so she changed her name to Carlotta Monterey,  returned to New York, and began the round of auditions that would lead to her obtaining a small role in a play by America’s leading playwright of the time, Eugene O’Neill.

Carlotta was to become O’Neill’s faithful nurse, muse, and manager for the remainder of his life. After trying to find the perfect property on the East Coast, she persuaded him to cross the country in 1936 to continue their search while he worked on a projected nine-play cycle of the American experience: A Tale of Possessors, Self-Dispossessed. On November 12, 1936, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the second American to receive this honor and the first American playwright. The award carried a cash prize of $40,000, a small fortune during the Depression. But O’Neill’s health was not good. He was unable to risk the trip to Sweden, and in early 1937 spent ten weeks in Oakland’s Merritt Hospital before resuming his search for a place to live.

O’Neill and Carlotta chose the hillside above Danville because of its seclusion. On their 158 acres, they built a house tailored to a writer’s life.Three doors separate O’Neill’s den from the house itself. Smoky mirrors downstairs create a shadowy light even on the brightest days. In contrast to the homes of California’s great writer-adventurers, Jack London and Joaquin Miller, O’Neill’s house was designed as the perfect environment for introspection and the inner life. He named it Tao House, and incorporated many Chinese features—a front path that makes an indirect route to the front door to ward off evil spirits, a black tile roof and accents of bright red for luck. The property, a national historic site since 1976, now managed by the National Park Service, is made available to the public by calling (510) 838-1249. Park Rangers give first-rate tours, showing their expertise  not only in the surroundings but in O’Neill’s work as well.

Perhaps no environment would have so felicitously permitted O’Neill to mine the depths of a childhood in the markedly dysfunctional family in which he grew up. His father, a son of “potato-famine Irish,” was an actor, and young Eugene spent his childhood in a series of hotels as the family moved from one engagement to another. His parents, both Irish Catholic but from different social classes, always seemed to communicate “in code, never able to find each other’s key” (Gelb, 10). At Tao House, he wrote The Iceman Cometh, A Moon for the Misbegotten, Hughie, A Touch of the Poet, and Long Day’s Journey into Night, the story of the Tyrone family, later brilliantly filmed with Katherine Hepburn, Jason Robards and Ralph Richardson. Long Day’s Journey tells the family story in all its complex irony--the death of the father’s career through the success of a role in which he became trapped, and the mother’s addiction to morphine following the difficult delivery of her second child (Eugene himself). Moved by guilt and recrimination, characters hide from and reveal themselves in a long, drunken night together.

In 1943, at the age of 55, while laboring over his brother Jamie’s story, A Moon for the Misbegotten, O’Neill’s work was increasingly interrupted by a tremor than interfered badly with his handwriting. He became desperate with anxiety when he  realized that writing by hand was a key to his creative process. He and Carlotta tried substituting dictation, tape- recording, and the use of an electric typewriter, to no avail. He believed his thoughts flowed from his brain through his  pencil onto the page; no other method would do. On good days, he was able to control his tremor by writing in minute script. On other days, he could not write at all.

In this same year, O’Neill’s daughter Oona surprised and upset him by marrying the actor Charles Chaplin, a man her father’s age. His health continued to decline. World War II was underway. Tao House, a remote location at the time, became stranded from groceries and household help. The O’Neills decided to sell and move. One of the playwright’s last acts was to destroy he manuscripts of the first two double-length plays of his cycle, preserving his notes and two manuscripts, More Stately Mansions (never completed) and A Touch of the Poet. In 1944, he and Carlotta moved into a suite of rooms in the Huntington Hotel on San Francisco’s Nob Hill.

He lived ten more years. Among his final requests is one that states his preference not to be buried in the family plot in St. Mary’s Cemetery of New London, Connecticut. Many years before he had traded his family’s Catholicism for the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. At the age of forty he wrote to a friend “Zarathustra…has influenced me more than any book I’ve ever read. I ran into it…when I was eighteen and I’ve always possessed a copy since then and every year or so I re-read it and am never disappointed” (121). He is buried, at his request, at Forest Hills Cemetery on the outskirts of Boston.

The Swedish Academy, in awarding the Nobel prize to O’Neill, commended him “for characters marked by virility, honesty and strong emotions as well as for depth of interpretation.” Others have written that “before O’Neill, the United States had theater. After O’Neill it had drama.”

Work Cited:
Arthur and Barbara Gelb. O’Neill, second edition.
New York: Harper & Row, 1973


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