Schmoker: Focus and teaching English Language Arts


Mike Schmoker’s new text Focus (2011) offers a passionate, persuasive call for a return to some old-school methods of teaching, especially with regard to the teaching of English. As a teacher at a school that is moving (finally) to a 1:1 computer environment, the risk is that we could forego much of the reading and writing we do in favour of more ‘creative projects’. What Schmoker calls for is simple: plenty of reading. He suggests that in each English course, students should read 15-20 books, multiple poems, and 20-40 magazine articles (p. 116). Moreover, he suggests that almost all of this reading should be done in class (p. 123), with the teacher “guiding the entire class through each text by alternating reading out loud to them, discussing and explaining the text where he sees fit, and then having students read independently and interpretively” (p. 123).  This would be, for many schools, a radical shift (my classroom included). Currently, much of the reading is done outside of class. Schmoker quotes Esquith (2003) who says that “telling students to ‘go home and read this chapter’ won’t cut it” (p. 123) Currently I use reading quizzes as a way to ensure that students are accountable for their reading, after modeling in class, too. This allows me to use some class time to focus on the discussions that Schmoker notes are “a critical companion to reading” (p. 117).

To writing Schmoker brings very similar clarity: schools should “establish clear, quantitative agreements about the minimum number of writing assignments all students will complete” in a course, regardless of teacher (p. 118). These assessments, for which there must be exemplar papers, should be the basis for brief “data based conversation the team has with an administrator or teacher leader” each quarter (p. 119).  Students learn to write, Schmoker says, not from the comments we give on papers, but “from carefully carafted lessons built around exemplars and rubrics” (p. 121). To minimize grading, the author quotes Stiggins (1994) who suggests that on any given writing assignment, assignments which should usually be argumentative in nature, we should “evaluate for only one area of our scoring guide at a time” (p. 120). He also recommends a text They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing which I currently use, to varying levels of depth, from grade 9 to grade 12.

Language Arts standards, Schmoker argues, especially state standards have become unwieldy. He suggests that using something as simple as David Conley’s advice (2005) that the focus for reading and writing and speaking include only four: 1) argument, 2) drawing inferences and conclusions, 3) resolving conflicting views and documents, 4) problem solving (p. 112). Such standards are simple, applicable to the real world, and the prerequisites for success at university.

I strongly concur with Schmoker that reading must be taught, and continue to be explicitly taught in the high school grades; we must model for students how we approach difficult texts and show them how to annotate. Recently a student borrowed my copy of the novel we were reading because he had forgotten his: He exclaimed over the sheer amount of marginalia he encountered in my text. Such was a powerful example of how we need to actively read. To achieve all of the reading Schmoker suggests, I believe some reading will have to occur outside of class. This semester we read 7 texts in Grade 12 Honours, but with texts such as Mrs Dalloway or Heart of Darkness, I do not believe that we could accomplish all of that reading without some reading at home. Again, that we model for students how to read is imperative as we start each new text. Some reading, I believe, must happen at home, and quizzes can be used for accountability, or reaction papers closely tied to the text that quote the reading extensively. Discussion in class, or outside via wikis or other net-based platforms are essential to understanding the texts and connecting them to our lives. The Economist notes in “Teaching Methods: An Alternative Vote” (May14, 2011) that in deliberate practice, in contradistinction to lecture, class time is spent on “problem-solving, discussion and group work” (p. 80). In the study of 850 undergraduate engineering students, who were given lecture instruction for 11 weeks, and the control group for the twelfth, while the other had “deliberate practice”, the experimental group achieved 74% on an exam, while the traditionally taught group achieved an average of 41%, even though the experimental group did not cover all of the material. The article authors note that such deliberate practice is “more effective even than personal one-to-one tution” (p. 80).



Conley, D. (2005). College Knowledge: What it really takes for students to succeed

            and what we can do to get them ready. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.



Esquith, R. (2003). There are no shortcuts. New York: Random House


Schmoker, M. (2011). Focus: Elevating the essentials to radically improve student

            learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


“Teaching methods: An alternative vote.” (2011) The Economist, May 14, 2011.

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