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Winter 2013-14

Spring 2013

MCRR Quarterly Reader, Winter 2013-14

Message from the Directors

Greetings and best wishes for the upcoming new year! This fall has been a busy time at the Minnesota Center for Reading Research, and with this newsletter we hope to share information with you about what has been going on. On September 20, the MCRR convened a statewide engagement event that united researchers, policy makers and educational practitioners to examine the social contexts, family engagement, and organizational structures that interact to impede or support all students in achieving high academic success. Read more about this Achievement Gap Conference below. In this newsletter you will also find a research brief, written by one of the keynote speakers at the conference, Catherine Compton-Lilly, regarding her findings and recommendations based on listening to the voices of students and parents in a high poverty school setting. You can also catch up with many of the major initiatives at the MCRR including our work with the CEHD America Reads project, our expanding work in adolescent literacy, and upcoming events with the Leaders in Reading Network (LiRN).

As the end of the year approaches, we thank you all for the dedication you have shown this year to helping students advance their literacy capabilities and motivation. Let’s all take a minute to rest and rejuvenate over the winter break, so that we can come back at this important work in 2014. Wishing you and your families all the best!

Lori Helman and Matt Burns
MCRR Co-Directors

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Achievement Gap Conference

How can Minnesota ensure that all students have the opportunities to succeed in academic literacy? Despite gains in the National Association for Educational Progress, Minnesota has a deep and persistent achievement discrepancy between white, native-English speaking students and students from other racial and linguistic groups. The Minnesota Center for Reading Research held an engagement event to address the issue. The purpose of the September 20th Achievement Gap Conference was to bring together people concerned with educational outcomes for all students. MCRR invited leading national researchers to speak on issues concerning the achievement gap. The research and expertise of Drs. Catherine Compton-Lily, Pablo Noguera, and Maryanne Wolf preceded school leaders and policymakers as they shared the work being done to close the gap in Minnesota. Subsequent small group discussions fostered conversations that allowed for an exchange of questions, interactions, and the sharing of promising strategies at work in the educational community here in Minnesota.

The conference format allowed for dialogue between school leaders, researchers, interventionists, reading specialists, and graduate students who shared how the achievement gap is evidenced in their respective communities. Beginning with a focus on Families and Communities, Catherine Compton-Lily’s keynote addressed the importance of engagement to recognize the social capital students bring to school (see research brief in this newsletter). Participants offered suggestions as to how to form relationships that affirm families. To address the impact of Social Contexts on the achievement gap, Pedro Noguera spoke to the problem of focusing on the symptoms of disparity, rather than the causes. Changes are possible when we empower and engage communities and work to break the cycle of poverty. Participants shared strategies for having honest conversations regarding the social contexts that affect student achievement. In the Organizational Structures section, Maryanne Wolf enlightened participants on the structures of the reading brain. Participants reflected on pertinent examples of successful organizational planning in schools that bridges the achievement gap and promotes student learning. School calendar year, teacher preparation time, and the need to view student achievement outside the framework of high-stakes assessment were offered as ways to begin bridging the gaps.

This unique opportunity for educators to generate ideas and dialogue about actions that address the achievement gap was a significant component of the conference.  The information, ideas, and strategies discussed at the conference provide insight to schools, communities, and higher education institutions throughout the state as they develop action-oriented plans to address the disparities in student opportunities and achievement.

Special thank you to Elia Dimayuga-Bruggeman: Assistant Commissioner at Minnesota Department of Education, Katy Smith: Parent Educator and Teacher of the Year, Dan Solomon: Education Specialist for Senator Al Franken, Callie Lalugba: Principal of Harvest Network Schools, Matt Grose: Superintendent, Deer River Independent School District, Laura Cavender: Principal, Pillsbury School. In the next few months we will continue to share many of the big ideas that emerged from our discussions with you.

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Research Brief

Bradford Holt and How Money Matters in Learning to Read

Catherine Compton-Lilly, University of Wisconsin Madison, Curriculum and Instruction

Bradford was a student in my first grade class when I taught in a high poverty, inner city community. At the end of a ten-year longitudinal study, his mother, Ms. Holt, blamed teachers and school policies for the difficulties her son faced in school and with literacy learning.

I don't know. They said [that] they had his best interest at heart but I didn't believe that. Because he's been, been in that program No Kids Left Behind. They kept leaving him behind!. . . I never did understand that. I still don't. That No Kid Left Behind. I have no concept of it whatsoever.

  Sociologists and educators (e.g., Bourdieu, 1986; Luke & Carrington, 1997) have used the construct of capital to understand the challenges children from some communities face in school. As Bourdieu (1986) explained, capital makes it “possible to explain the unequal scholastic achievement of children originating from different social classes” (p. 243). Capital identifies factors that extend beyond personal failure or inferiority as the reasons for a person’s success or failure within educational, social, and economic fields.

Drawing on Bourdieu, I define economic literacy capital as including possessions and experiences that require economic investment and are convertible to literacy success. In some cases, accessing these resources is contingent on being able to afford housing in economically healthy communities or attend well-funded schools. Examples of economic literacy capital include computers, electronic educational toys, significant numbers of quality books, and private tutoring.  Social capital, in contrast, provides opportunities for agency and advocacy. It is significant to note that a lack of economic capital did not prevent Ms. Holt from advocating for her children and that social capital, when available, was accessed and valued.

Recommended Strategies and Practices: Rethinking the Classroom and Beyond

While discussions of capital might explain the success of some children, it does not absolve teachers of their responsibilities. Below, I explore the responsibilities teachers have relative to students who bring different cultural and socio-economic experiences to classrooms. Specifically, I highlight strategies for learning about and responding to children from low-income communities.

Recognizing mismatches between teacher and student experiences

When Bradford entered middle school, his mother expressed concern about teachers whose experiences were different from those of their students:

Some of these kids, they come from hard, hard, hard lives. And these teachers aren’t educated to deal with the hard life that this child is going through. . . Because a lot of teachers don’t live around the kids in the inner city so they don’t know, they don’t go through this every day. They don’t. They are there from what 8, 7:30 to 3:30?  They [are] inside the school. They don’t come outside. (Ms. Holt laughs) . . . I’ve never seen a teacher walk to the corner store in the city out of schools in the neighborhood.

Ms. Holt makes a compelling case that teachers need to know more about their students’ lives and experiences. Differences in economic capital result in teachers and their students living in different communities and contribute to a disjuncture between the experiences of children and their teachers.

Find informants in the community 

Among the paraprofessionals who lived in the school community and worked in my school were a dancer, a singer, and several part-time college students. Some staff members also had amazing life stories. Our elderly school crossing guard survived World War II concentration camps, and our school custodian was a Freedom Rider during the Civil Rights Era. These informants brought rich experiences and challenged the assumptions that are often made about paraprofessionals in low-income schools. These individuals brought a wealth of knowledge about their passions and their experiences and about the community surrounding the school.

Visit homes to learn about students

Parents are also important resources. During home visits, Ms. Holt alerted me to Bradford’s love for baseball and current events. She helped me to understand some of the challenges Bradford faced with reading and notified me when I sent home materials that were either too difficult or too easy.

Working with local organizations

Families in high poverty communities face many challenges that are often beyond the experiences of middle class teachers. Local organizations not only provide opportunities for teachers to volunteer in communities, but they can also provide rich knowledge about communities and the challenges families face. Working with organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity, can provide information related to housing while local health organizations can teach us about the health challenges faced by urban residents who are either un- or under-insured. Local cultural organizations are particularly rich resources that can help teachers to understand and appreciate the cultural ways of being that students bring to classrooms.

Engage students as ethnographers exploring their own communities

Finally, and perhaps most exciting, students can be taught basic ethnographic techniques and can enter their local communities to gather information. I had my first grade students interview parents about their reading practices, how they learned to read, their occupations, and the potential roles their family members played in civil rights history. On other occasions, I asked my students to work together to craft surveys related to issues we were studying in class. One particularly effective strategy involved providing students with disposable cameras that they could use to document their favorite things or places. These pictures provided insights into students’ lives that were often invisible to teachers.  

The range of available texts

I tell you what would work with inner city kids, with Black children. Let them read about black people. If they read more about their own culture and things that they’re doing.

As Ms. Holt argues, teachers can strive to find books that are of interest to their students. Touchstones such as culture, pop culture, and sports can engage young readers who struggle with traditional school texts. These books can invite children to engage with literacy activities and to see themselves as readers. Teachers can acquire these books for their classroom libraries, work with librarians to identify texts for the school libraries, and work within their schools to include these texts in curricula.

Inequities in Economic Literacy Capital that Defy Teaching Strategies

            While Ms. Holt clearly holds teachers accountable for fulfilling their obligations, there are other challenges she names that are beyond the control of individual teachers. In these current times of school budget austerity and discourse advocating for the privatization of public services, conversations about school funding have been stymied, while many focus on teacher quality and accountability rather than shared societal obligations to children. Ms. Holt’s voice highlights several economic challenges including equitable school resources, the lack of community resources such as local libraries, the technology gap, and a set of particularly challenging life experiences that are ultimately related to economic capital.
Advocacy and Agency: Highlighting Social Capital

While dominant discourses tend to blame families and teachers for the literacy challenges faced by children in low-income communities, Ms. Holt identifies disadvantages related to a lack of economic literacy capital (e.g., closing libraries, underfunded schools, a technology gap) and suggests that there are responsibilities that extend beyond the control of teachers that affect the literacy learning of students in high poverty communities.  This lack of economic capital resulted in Ms. Holt accessing social capital when needed to help her children. When Bradford was in fourth grade, his mother, with the support of his teacher, confronted the school board to attain special education services for Bradford.  Just as Bradford’s teacher assisted Ms. Holt in getting around the “brick walls” at school, her son’s doctor helped her to access a specialist when Bradford’s older brother was injured.  In these examples, Ms. Holt accessed social capital to achieve her goals. Although financial limits were very real and had real effects, Ms. Holt was savvy and harnessed social resources as needed to address the challenges her family faced.


Although No Child Left Behind made rhetorical promises to students, its accompanying policies and practices related to scientific instruction and test scores generally failed to address the real challenges faced by Bradford. Teachers who are knowledgeable and have a deep understanding of children are essential, but teachers alone will not address economic inequity. We must not forget that societal issues require societal changes in addition to changes within schools.

Over the ten years that I worked with Bradford and his family, his mother repeatedly identified money as a challenge related to schooling and literacy learning. I argue that some of her concerns require and deserve attention from the larger community and are related to the allocation of resources in urban areas, school funding, and social equity. Although teachers can and should play a role in these conversations and their roles can be powerful, solving these problems requires a social commitment from the larger community.


Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. G. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education (pp. 241–258). New York, NY: Greenwood Press.

Carrington, V., & Luke, A. (1997). Literacy and Bourdieu’s sociological theory: A reframing. Language and Education, 11(2), 96–112.

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PRESS Update

In 2011, MCRR partnered with the Target Corporation, Minnesota Reading Corps, Minneapolis Public Schools, and the Harvest Network schools, to form the Path to Reading Excellence in School Sites (PRESS). This collaboration focuses on improving students' early literacy skills through various research-based practices. Now in its third year, PRESS is seeing results from its work with teachers and students. Read more about PRESS in the Fall issue of CEHD Connect and learn more on the MCRR website.

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Leadership in Reading

The Minnesota Center for Reading Research is involved in several exciting partnerships. One of our most popular is the Leaders in Reading Network (LiRN) which provides ongoing professional development for literacy leaders around the state. LiRN is a partnership between MCRR, the Minnesota Department of Education, and the Minnesota Reading Association. This year’s theme is A Focus on Learning: Making Minor Adjustments for Major Impact. With this theme we will focus on the use of formative assessments to inform our instruction so that all students, wherever they are at may make maximum progress. To further support our learning, each LiRN member will receive a copy of Formative assessment in practice: A process of inquiry and action by Margaret Heritage. This year we are using a new structure that provides time at each session for members to discuss and apply the content in job-specific cohorts. Across the past six years, LiRN has offered valuable professional development and support for teachers, specialists, administrators, literacy coaches, and district leaders. Click here for details on the January 8 and March 5 LiRN sessions.

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CEHD America Reads Update

CEHD America Reads had another successful semester hiring, coordinating and training approximately 150 undergraduate students to serve as literacy mentors in the Minneapolis and St. Paul Communities. CEHD America Reads is a work study program dedicated to increasing the literacy skills of Kindergarten – 8th grade students and supporting the educational efforts of our community partners by providing trained literacy mentors.

The hired undergraduate students attend ongoing training designed and facilitated by Eva Boehm, Associate Director of Curriculum.  The trainings are in the form of seminars with printed & online resources, as well as, a special topics one credit course designed for our first year mentors to equip them with basic literacy instructional practices, such as, think alouds, word work, fluency and comprehension strategies.

By the numbers, CEHD America Reads works with twenty community partners and provides mentors to these sites for 24 weeks of literacy mentoring and tutoring each school year.  This equates to approximately 21,600 hours of tutoring time provided to children in our neighboring communities. Please contact Jennifer Kohler, Director of Operations & Minneapolis Site Coordinator should you seek additional information about the CEHD America Reads work-study program. 

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Adolescent Literacy & Learning Update

The Bremmer Foundation has awarded The Minnesota Center for Reading Research, in partnership with the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center of North Minneapolis, a grant to support work involving literacy socialization as a pathway to workforce entry among African American males in North Minneapolis. This program addresses literacy and unemployment in the North Minneapolis neighborhood. This innovative approach promises to transform the lives of men by empowering them to pursue their job and career goals through the development of literacy skills. This innovative program will integrate literacy and job skills training with a highly successful, longstanding program for predominantly African-American young men enrolled in a six-month emotional regulation course at the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center.

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MCRR Quarterly Reader, Spring 2013

Research Brief

From Print to Apps:  Bridging Traditional Literacies with 21st Century Literacies to Support Learning through Teacher Design and Re-design

David O’Brien, Professor of Literacy Education, University of Minnesota

In their relatively brief existence, iPads are increasingly appearing in classrooms, schools, and even entire school districts.  Android and Windows tablet devices will follow.  School administrators, education technology integration specialists, and teachers are optimistic about anticipated improvements in the quality of teaching and learning that the devices will provide.  But before they move textbook funds or other monies toward the purchase of iPads or other tablet devices, or BYOD programs drawing heavily from online tools, and invest time and other resources in teacher development and purchasing apps to install on the devices, educators want assurances that the devices will improve teaching and learning.  Such definitive assurances will not be coming anytime soon.  The reason is that research, at this very early stage of the transition from print to digital literacies, provides few clear answers about the impact of relatively new devices like iPads.

That said, there is a lot of research and a host of validated theoretical frameworks that clearly support moving from print to multimodal environments, providing access to more information presented more dynamically, and supporting more student collaboration through online communities, to mention just a few affordances.  In short, there is clear evidence that moving into the digital realm has huge potential benefits with careful curriculum planning and bridging, rather than abandoning or replacing sound instructional practices and time-tested approaches to engaging students.

Below are tips to keep in mind when making the transition to 21st century digital literacies in support of learning.

For elaborations of these and related topics and specific research, visit, the site my colleague Rick Beach and I constructed. You will also find a link to our new e-book: Using iPad and iPhone Apps for Learning with Literacy Across the Curriculum.      

  1. Textbooks are not universally inferior curriculum materials. iPads and apps must bridge qualities of existing textbooks with the new, dynamic qualities of iBooks and other e-Textbook platforms. Textbooks are an integral part of the existing school curriculum defined by their content, structure, and organization; they are usually designed to promote learning.  Textbooks, although portrayed as inherently outdated, boring, and lacking in interactivity, are backed by about a century of research supporting features like (a) organization of the top-level structure with coherent prose to make ideas accessible; (b) signaling through headings and subheads to cue important ideas; (c) adjunct aids like marginal gloss, vocabulary keys, advance organizers, review tools, and a host of others features that support comprehension.
  2. Adopting digital curricula as a “replacement” for so-called “outdated” texts is shortsighted. As teachers, schools, and districts look at multimodal, multitouch devices as replacements for printed curricula, they need to plan very carefully how to both retain effective components while excluding features that do not promote learning.  Recently, a rush of Apple Author-produced curricula has appeared on iTunes U from K-12 educators who have decided that they can publish curricula that replaces existing materials. But their “curricular design” is often the result of firing before aiming, aided by the ease of design tools that permit cutting and pasting, dragging and dropping media, and moving elements around rather than considering how information needs to be organized, and how specific modalities support certain learning processes.  We elaborate on the needed multimodal affordance designs in the book and will also extend the topic in future blog posts.
  3. Adopting commercially produced digital curricula is not the most effective route. New digital texts are likely to continue the long-held notion that “experts” working for commercial publishers certainly know more about curriculum design and development than teachers; the complementary meme is that teachers cannot produce such materials.  Our caveat from point 2 notwithstanding, neither Apple, nor commercial publishers (who unlike Apple, do have a long history of producing print curriculum materials) are uniquely qualified to produce dynamic, interactive, engaging iBooks that also employ sound principles of instructional and learning design.  Moreover, commercial publishers know nothing about your students in your curriculum against the backdrop of your communities.  That said, with the right expertise and careful design guided by research, publishers have the potential to produce engaging high quality materials. The verdict is still out.
  4. Step by step – bridging of affordances and modalities is a must. We take the position that each app, enhanced textbook, or digital version of a previously print-bound curriculum material will, just like other apps, provide both positive and negative affordances and will retain or exclude some positive features of traditional curricula.  Bridging between traditional print materials and new multimodal media materials must be systematically applied.  For example, in the book we discuss frameworks, planning, and implementation of apps with attention to multimodal affordances against the backdrop of what we know about traditional curriculum, teaching and learning.
  5. Teachers as designers must establish the “value added,” potential of a digital curriculum. Teachers-as-designers, or teachers-as-critics of commercially published materials will need to systematically evaluate all affordances – not just design features but  understand affordances-in-use of apps and, when necessary, re-design the affordances. 


In the next blog post on the site we will start to discuss specific aspects of bridging design and the role of teachers as designers. 

Stay tuned and subscribe to the blog at to get updates and give us and other readers feedback via comments on posts.   

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