National Writing Project

Cognitive Skills Development: An ELL Success Story Gets NCTE Award

By: Art Peterson
Date: December 2, 2009

Summary: Site directors Carol Booth Olson and Robert Land received NCTE's 2009 Richard A. Meade Award for Research for an article they wrote detailing how ELL students out-gained peers on academic performance measures when they were exposed to an extensive set of cognitive strategies that they applied to reading and writing.


Carol Booth Olson and Robert Land receive the 2009 Richard A. Meade Award for Research in English Education.

"There is no one way to teach writing."

Carol Booth Olson, director of the UC Irvine Writing Project (UCIWP), remembers hearing that pronouncement from National Writing Project founder Jim Gray 32 years ago.

Olson held on to Gray's words when she went on to found the writing project site at Irvine in 1978—the thirteenth site in the national network. It was his emphasis on putting to work teaching strategies appropriate to a particular time, place, and student population that served Olson as a springboard for her Pathway Project—a project that introduces teachers and students to an extensive set of cognitive strategies to cultivate deep knowledge in reading and writing.

Now Olson is being celebrated for her work. Along with coauthor Robert Land, director of the Los Angeles Writing Project at California State University, Los Angeles, she received the 2009 Richard A. Meade Award for Research in English Education, sponsored by the Conference on English Education of the National Council of Teachers of English.

Land and Olson's article, "A Cognitive Strategies Approach to Reading and Writing Instruction for English Language Learners in Secondary School," was published in the February 2007 issue of Research in the Teaching of English.

The Pathway Project evolved out of UCIWP's long-time involvement with the Santa Ana School District, where 93 percent of the students speak English as a second language and 69 percent are designated as limited English proficient.

The district's challenges have been similar to those of other school communities with large second-language populations: a high drop-out rate, disproportional failure on the high school exit exams, and few students prepared to enter the local community college.

The Search for What Works

Summoning Gray's admonition to examine options, Olson started with an understanding of what didn't work.

"We knew that the kind of reading-writing activities going on in many ELL classes weren't leading students toward higher-level thinking skills," she explains.

Reading-writing activities going on in many ELL classes weren't leading students toward higher-level thinking skills

Typically, students would read a selection and then respond by answering recall questions, an exercise that would provide them practice in none of the analytical and interpretive skills they would they need to prosper in higher education and in the world.

Conversely, Olson had doubts about the workshop model that prevailed in the progressive classrooms of teachers lucky enough to "work in school environments where they could do whatever they wanted."

Understanding which strategies didn't work, Olson conceived of what would become Pathway.

She writes, "The vision underlying the project was that if ELLs are treated from the early grades as if they are college bound, if they receive exemplary curriculum and instruction in explicit strategies and if there are consistent, coherent, and progressively rigorous expectations among the teachers from grades 6 through 12, students will attain the necessary literacy skills to succeed in college and their college-acceptance rates will be substantially improved."

With this mission in mind, The Pathway Project embarked in 1996 on an eight-year experiment involving a relatively stable group of 55 teachers and approximately 2000 students per year in all 13 secondary schools in the Santa Ana School District.

Pathway teachers underwent extensive and ongoing professional development. The students experienced yearly literacy instruction from teachers who shared goals and methods but were in no way committed to a lock-step curriculum.

"Our goal," says Olson, "has been not to build a curriculum, but rather to encourage a curricular approach. We want both students and teachers to internalize cognitive strategies that they can apply on their own."

Here are a few of these strategies:

Sentence Starters

A goal of the Pathway Project is to move ELL students beyond the limitations of a plot-summary response to reading. So Olson and her colleagues help students generate the kind of questions and leading statements that promote the analysis and interpretation that come as second nature to successful readers and writers.

From the sixth grade, when students first experience the program, Pathway teachers push them toward higher levels of cognition with "sentence starters" that encourage, for instance, clarification ("Something that is still not clear to me is _____"), revising meaning ("At first I thought _____, but now I _____") and reflection ("So, the big idea is _____") as well as other cognitive skills.


Olson and her Pathway colleagues believe that ELL students can acquire the higher-level thinking skills required for college-level reading and writing if these skills are packaged in accessible lessons.

Early in one school year, when students were asked to analyze the famous scene from Great Expectations in which Pip encounters Miss Havisham, students at all grade levels (6–12) demonstrated they understood what was literally happening in the excerpt.

However, writes Olson, "They could not grasp the symbolism inherent in the objects [in the room] and they had difficulty analyzing, interpreting, and commenting upon the relationship of setting to characters."

Confronted with this not-surprising student limitation, Pathway teachers knew to back up. One Pathway teacher, Charlie AuBuchon, viewed with her students an episode of the television show Frasier and asked students to focus on the things in Frasier's apartment. What, AuBuchon wanted to know, does Frasier's apartment tell us about him?

They noted, for instance, the piano, not just any piano but a grand piano, and the art on the walls. "Fancy paintings. Not like the kind those guys sell when you're crossing the border, but paintings like an art museum."

After a minilesson on symbolism, AuBuchon asked students to bring to class items they thought symbolized something about their personality or character. She herself brought a "stuffed bulldog sporting a British flag to signify both her British heritage and her stubborn and tenacious personality," said Olson. Before sharing this information with students, AuBuchon asked them to put their own interpretive skills to work connecting the teacher and her bulldog.

After these and other scaffolding activities, students returned to Pip and Miss Havisham and were much better equipped to bring to the piece the analytical and interpretive response that the prompt had asked for.

Color Coding

In working with students, Olson and her Pathway colleagues refer to a writer's "tool kit," which they see as analogous to a craftsman's tool kit. Just as an accomplished worker needs to know when to use a hammer and when to use a screw driver, a skilled reader and writer needs to both understand and manipulate features of analytical writing such as plot summary, commentary, and supporting detail.

Pathway teachers have found a way to make these tools and their appropriate uses vivid. When students examine a response of a former Pathway student to a literary work, they'll decide which elements of the piece are plot summary, which are commentary that goes beneath the surface of the piece, and which are details that glue these other elements together.

They identify these elements using colored markers—yellow for plot, blue for commentary, and green for detail. Over time students come to understand that the strongest analysis—their own and others'—provides a mix of these colors and that the weakest interpretations are those that rely heavily on the yellow-coded statements.

Olson is clear that she is not propounding a formula here; she does not want to create a mindset that has students robotically tallying up their blue and green sentences. Further, as those familiar with Olson's excellent text The Reading /Writing Connection: Strategies for Teaching and Learning in the Secondary Classroom know, she encourages students to write in every genre and form.

In her Pathway work, however, she says she is "responding to what these students in the district need right now" if they are going on to higher education.

And what they need is structured and scaffolded experience with the interpretive writing and thinking that college (and life) demands.

The Results

Is the Pathway approach working? That's where Olson's coauthor Robert Land comes in. Land has designed a number of qualitative and quantitative instruments to measure how Pathway students stack up against a control group, as well as against other students in the school district and in the state.

The Pathway achievement is significant and impressive. For instance, in 2004, 39 percent of ELL students in California passed the English portion of the High School Exit Exam, while 93 percent of Pathway students passed. Also in 2004, 13 percent of control group students entering Santa Ana College achieved writing scores that placed them in higher-level composition classes—those where students are more likely to attain an AA degree and transfer to a four-year institution. Twenty-five percent of Pathway students achieved scores that qualified them for placement in these classes.

But Olson insists that Pathway isn't primarily about racking up good numbers on a score sheet. It's about "a concrete attempt to level the playing field for specific ELL students in a large urban district."

For eight years Olson and her colleagues have worked to create long-term, positive professional relationships among teachers, researchers, and school administrators while respecting teacher knowledge and building strategies and attitudes that cultivate competence and confidence in students as readers, writers, and independent learners.

These elements, Olson and Land postulate, are the seeds that will germinate necessary, successful, and long-term school reform.

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