The Power of Parallel Reading


This post is written by Charlene Aldrich. For more about Charlene, please visit the bottom of this page. The webinar recording for this material is embedded at the bottom of post.

How do we get students to read at home? We probably have to require it. We know in lower school, students are asked to read 15-20 minutes every evening. Students have free choice; parents monitor the requirement by initialing a document. But how can that requirement morph into a habit that positively affects the student’s academic future?  “Let them choose” becomes the mantra. When given open choices, it’s human nature to struggle. 

BUT when we provide themes, topics, or text sets to choose from, we make a choice manageable. It’s then that students fulfill our targeted purpose for outside reading. It’s then that students look at titles as a way of previewing the content of the text. It’s then that they engage in ‘reading to find out.’ It’s a win-win.

“I don’t have time to hunt down reading selections and/or books!” cry many content-area teachers everywhere.  And maybe teachers won’t have the extra time during their first or second year of teaching. Or the first or second month of the year.  HOWEVER, when teaching and planning become automatic, time becomes available to investigate the themes and text sets curated and available online. Content-area teachers can introduce reading selections of all genres; these support the ELA curriculum and provide background, cultural understanding, or applications of specific content-area curriculum.  This is where the idea of parallel reading emerged – collaborating across the content areas in ways that grow overall literacy proficiency AND reinforce content-area learning.

Parallel – side by side, never touching. Reading – the crosstie that connects content areas. Juxtaposed with another discipline, text is a way to connect things that would otherwise run side by side. Through parallel reading, teachers approach their content from a literacy mindset. Take math, for example.  One might say that reading is not necessary to do the math.  However, knowing ‘pi’ is essential, but where did it come from?  WHO first used it for achieving a measurement?  WHEN did it come about? WHY was it necessary? A planning question becomes, “Who were the movers and shakers beginning at the onset of mathematical thinking and going forward?”

How do you implement your new mindset?

  1. Review the major topics of your curriculum.  OR
  2. Look at the calendar for events or holidays. OR
  3. Look at the school calendar for half-days and identify a theme, especially those that are more social than curriculum related.
  4. Ask students what ideas they would like to explore, then factor their ideas into your curriculum and text set search.
  5. Ask the librarian to identify a wide range of texts and genres that connect to your theme or topic. 
  6. Search in the following text set resources for reading selections connected to the theme or topic.
  7. Construct your curated list for your students to choose an interest to read and share.
  8. Most of all, limit the rabbit holes that you might find yourself in as you realize the plethora of choices that you can provide to your students.  

Arousing curiosity and satisfying it with reading develops a positive attitude toward reading.  It empowers students to read to ‘find out why’. While the answers to those questions are easily found with a Google search, connecting to the culture of the times happens best when biographies or primary sources are available for reading.

Text of all kinds becomes the primary connection between every content area. Students who read first-hand accounts of the Jim Crow era have a deeper understanding of the literature of that time. The struggle of the Indigenous people has a more significant impact when seen through their eyes in diaries, songs, and poetry. Understanding the building process of the pyramids or the Roman aqueducts connects math with sociology or history.

I alluded to curated text sets above and encourage you to investigate some of my favorite resources. NewsELA, ReadWorks, CommonLit are just a few places to find digital text sets created and classified by readability, theme, topic, holiday, and current events. One of my favorite articles is in NewsELA regarding Halloween and how much money is spent: nine billion dollars in 2018! Each of the above resources contains a wide variety of stand-alone reading/writing projects for those short classes on short days where there’s no time for an entire lesson!

Your teaching librarian can also curate book sets that support your curriculum. Other grade-level teachers may welcome the opportunity to collaborate on reading and writing assignments. Making connections across content-areas strengthens learning and increases the likelihood of creating lifelong learners.

Ponder my truisms about lifelong learning:

  • Learning requires reading from diverse perspectives.
  • Linking new learning to prior learning lays a foundation for future application.
  • Social consciousness is developed when empathy is aroused.
  • Citizenship has a whole new meaning when students discover that the ‘yous’ of this world are more important than the “I”. 

Parallel reading projects grow a body of students who will begin thinking outside of their high school, content-area silo. That is certainly how they will live upon graduation. Stereotype book reports don’t have to be the outcome of parallel reading. How would your students like to communicate their reading experience to others? Encourage them to move beyond summaries (which can be found online) to how their perspectives have shifted because of the reading selection.  

Try it. Identifying the selections is half of the fun! What’s the other half? Sharing them with your students.  Through themes and topics, students can connect with text in ways outside of a required curriculum text. They can take ownership of their reading which just might result independent readers and learners.   

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Charlene Aldrich is an instructor in the Office of Professional Development at the College of Charleston. While content-area literacy is her specialty, she also teaches Assessments in Reading, Foundations in Reading, and Instructional Practices as required by South Carolina for recertification. She serves as the Treasurer of LiD 6-12.

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

Misery Loves Company or Better Together?


By: Charlene Aldrich, retired South Carolina Literacy Instructor

In education, there are times when it’s a little bit of both.  I like to believe that Better Together overcomes Misery so that Company discovers possibilities rather than ponders problems.  

Too often educators, unknowingly, develop a silo mindset in their quest to accomplish everything that needs to be done to meet everyone’s needs – the state, the district, the administrators, the students, the parents, and the support staff members.  It’s a gradual process and, unlike the business definition of a silo mindset, is a re-action rather than a pro-action. A silo mindset in business develops when co-workers refuse to work together as a team – hoarding resources and hiding ideas that benefit the whole.  Personal recognition trumps the greater good.  Fear of losing out overshadows building relationships.

Photo by Jari Hytönen on Unsplash

In education, however, silo mindsets develop in response to overwhelming workloads, little downtime, and too much paperwork!  It becomes easy to say, ‘I don’t have time to collaborate,’ and ‘I just want to get home.’  There’s not even time to contemplate the fact that ‘better together’ results in efficient and effective instruction as well as developing a support network. I’d like to suggest three ways to promote collaboration in a school:  grade level, content area, and schoolwide.

Intradisciplinary Collaboration

Intradisciplinary collaboration within a school is big picture collaboration; it involves planning curriculum that has continuity, scope, and sequence from an intro course to the AP offering.  Long-term planning such as this happens outside of the regular school year.  The biology team or the Algebra team or the Honors ELA team meets at least two times a year: one to look back and one to look forward.  Another model is a two-day retreat with the same idea – looking back and looking forward.  Priorities include sequenced content area text resources, scaffolded instruction from course to course, and intentional development of disciplinary literacy practices. Collaboration between teachers who teach the same courses should focus on dissecting the course standards into individual lessons to develop content area knowledge necessary to meet them.  

Grade Level Collaboration

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Grade level collaboration, on the other hand, is an ongoing effort among colleagues to develop ways to build relationships between the content of each other’s courses.  In an effort to provide real world connections and context for learning, teachers work together to plan content overlap that is mutually reinforcing.  Literature pairs well with history; mathematics pairs well with business and economics.  The arts curriculum overlaps with history as artists’ and musicians’ compositions reflect the culture in which they were created. Lyrics in music correlate to poetry in ELA. Sciences and math are mutually reinforcing; construction trades, culinary, and physical education include math calculations, conversions, and statistics.  And every content area has significant people whose lives are told through biographies and autobiographies which are just one of the many categories of literature taught by ELA teachers.  

Collaborating across a grade level doesn’t even have to be synchronous to be effective. Connected content introduced in one discipline becomes background knowledge in preparation for future content of another discipline; it also serves as a source for applying content knowledge to new learning situations. Long term retention is accomplished as connected content surfaces a variety of courses that review, connect, and extend content for deep understanding.

Synchronous School-wide Collaboration

Synchronous school-wide collaboration is possible several times a year in response to awkward calendar planning.  For example, the day of Halloween and the day after Halloween are sometimes void of learning because excitement replaces focus.  Thematic collaboration on these isolated days rescue students and teachers from wasted time and potential behavior management issues.  Two days of hype and sugar-highs are replaced with inquiry and fact-finding: history, cultural celebrations, economic impact, spending statistics, chemistry, nutrition, poetry, drama, short stories, music, art, and even physical education!  All it takes is a little creativity mixed with a lot of enthusiasm to connect content, include a course requirement, and engage students throughout the school around a common theme two or three times a year. I can personally recommend this NewsELA article as a place to begin: (It will ask you to make an account to read the article; the article as well as all of their ‘news’ articles are free.  Other content needs a subscription.  All of their free news articles make great themes for collaboration or connecting to specific lessons in your content area.)

What are the ‘down days’ at your school? There should never be a class day that a student can say, ‘It’s Halloween. The teachers never do anything important on Halloween. I can stay home.’  If you are reading this, then you may be the one who can make collaboration happen in your school!  Find the First Follower in YOUR school and do it! 

About the Author

After 20 years of growing literacy in under-prepared college students, Charlene retired to focus on state-wide literacy initiatives such as LiD, 6-12 and her R2S approved literacy courses at College of Charleston.  She lets her life speak by empowering teachers to have the confidence and competence to implement a literacy model of instruction in any content area and at every grade level. Her best Covid-19 memory is teaching her grandson Algebra 1 via phone calls, Zoom, text messaging, and FaceTime.  It was online instruction at its best – synchronously and interactively.