Not This or That, but Both/And: Using ALM to Make Other High Quality Instructional Resources Even Better for Students

Schools and districts are so often looking for a silver bullet to improve student outcomes. This isn’t new, we’ve been doing it for years and I’ve yet to find or hear of that ONE SINGLE THING that does it. With a mindset of not this or that, but both/and, teachers can begin to take the best of the resources they have before them to engage students in learning the content.

Written By Jenni Aberli

On February 6, 2023

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Schools and districts are so often looking for a silver bullet to improve student outcomes.  This isn’t new, we’ve been doing it for years and I’ve yet to find or hear of that ONE SINGLE THING that does it. Trends come and go, curricula change, and research evolves to confirm our current understanding about teaching and learning or, perhaps to show us a better way.

A few years ago, I heard a phrase that has had a significant impact on my thinking about teaching and learning – Not this or that, but both/and.  Why such an impact?  Well, it supports the notion that there may not be just one single curriculum, resource, approach, etc. that significantly impacts student learning. But by pairing more than one high-quality, research-based approach with another, we can better teach our students and provide them with what they need and deserve – a quality education.

This is the beauty of CTL’s Adolescent Literacy Model (ALM) cross-disciplinary literacy approach and what I love about it.  Paired with another high-quality resource, it’s the perfect companion to provide better learning experiences and outcomes for students.  Not this or that, but both/and.  Regardless of content, ALM provides teachers with the engaging tools and strategies they can use (with other resources) giving students opportunities to engage more deeply with the content.  Whether students are engaged in reading, writing, speaking, listening, or attending to vocabulary, ALM has what students need.   The model presents the goals to:

  • Provide opportunities for students to engage in reading, writing, speaking, and listening experiences every day.
  • Intentionally choose literacy strategies that make sense in the context of the lesson and classroom and positively impact student learning.
  • Provide explicit strategy instruction, using the gradual-release model, to provide students with the cognitive space to practice and learn the literacy strategies before attempting to apply them to new content.
  • Collaborate with teachers to foster common practices that support student understanding of literacy practices.

Strategies matter.  The implementation of reading strategies isn’t a fad.  They’ve been around for years because they work. In the article, “Closing the Gap,” (Jerald & Haycock, 2002), the authors explore strategies and implications for teachers relative to federal compliance regulations regarding student achievement. They find that struggling learners need more strategies, not fewer.  In addition, they recommend that teachers increase their use of high-level, literacy-based assignments. One of the surest ways to address the content literacy achievement gap between students at grade level and those behind grade level is to help students learn how to learn and how to demonstrate learning. 

Content literacy and the use of literacy strategies paired with a high-quality curriculum and/or resource is a powerful and enduring approach to teaching and closing the achievement gap for diverse populations of students (International Literacy Association, 2017). Jordan and Schoenbach (2003) discuss teachers “bumping up against the literacy ceiling” when students are asked to use text materials they could not understand or access. They maintain that teachers must prepare appropriate strategies to help students truly understand the content they encounter. Not this or that, but both/and. With the use of these strategies to support authentic learning (not just answering questions at the end of a chapter or text) teachers can expect their students to engage meaningfully with the content.  

Regardless of the subject taught, teachers usually have a resource they regularly use to teach the content. It could be a textbook, a curriculum, or another popular online resource, such as ThinkCERCA, NewsELA, Learnzillion, CommonLit, STEMscopedia, NSTA press, etc. (Note: CTL is not endorsing any of these specific resources.) Regardless of where the resource (or combination of resources) comes from, it is what teachers use to teach the content.  Unless it’s a well thought out and designed curriculum with strategies guiding the teacher HOW to teach, the resources are often structured in a way that provide students with text (or content), along with questions (often multiple choice) to check for understanding.  This is an especially common approach to online or digital resources, as scoring and providing instant feedback on student results is computer generated.

Here’s where not this or that, but both/and come in. If students are sitting with a text or resource (especially one on a computer) to read and answer questions to check for understanding, and we’re not engaging them with literacy strategies (ALM), we’re selling them short of the quality experiences they need to learn and engage more deeply with the content.  Students need BOTH.

Here’s what this can look like. Let’s use science as an example, but it could be any content. When teaching a unit around climate change and its impact on natural disasters, the teacher wants to engage students in a relevant text and finds a grade-level article online, accompanied by some multiple choice questions at the end. Rather than just assign the reading and questions for students to work on independently, the teacher decides to take part of the lesson “offline” and engage students with it in a meaningful way that might look like this:

Before Reading:  

Ask students to do a Quick Write (Think-Ink) in response to the following question: What type of natural disasters are common in our area and how have they impacted you personally?

After students have had time to Think-Ink, give them the opportunity to turn to a partner (Pair-Share) and discuss their responses. In the 10 minutes it takes to do a Think-Ink-Pair-Share, the teacher has 1) set the context for reading and learning (natural disasters); 2) given students the opportunity to make personal connections; and 3) engaged students in accessing prior knowledge, writing, speaking, and listening.

During Reading:

Introduce the article and prepare students for reading using an engaging reading comprehension strategy (preferably one that students are already familiar with) such as a Double Entry Organizer (DEO) or Text Codes with Margin Notes (tends to work best with a physical copy of text unless students can annotate online).  Using a strategy actively engages students with the text beyond the simple process of reading the words on the page and/or answering questions at the end.  Strategies that encourage comprehensive interaction with the text helps students attend to the important facts, increases their comprehension, and sets them up for high-quality discussion (Academic Dialogue) after the reading. Regardless of what strategy the teacher chooses to use, it is important that it supports the active student thinking that fosters deeper learning in the discipline.

After Reading:

Engage students in the learning and processing of content through structured student-to-student Academic Dialogue. This is an especially important component for struggling learners such as ELL and Special Education students.  Below are some options:

  • Using their notes from the during reading strategy, students discuss (in pairs or small groups) to answer a compelling question about the reading. 
  • Students use their notes to prepare for the Give One-Get One (GOGO) strategy in which they share their thinking with multiple partners, while also actively listening to the ideas of others.
  • Students engage in Paired Verbal Fluency to better understand what they know, verify their ideas and options, and express their understanding of the content.
  • Students work together (in pairs or small groups) to answer the questions at the end of the chapter/text, providing evidence from the text to support their answers. Consider not providing the multiple choice options, but instead having students go into the text to determine the answer.

Regardless of the approach, engaging students with one another after reading the text is especially important to extend, confirm, and/or correct text comprehension.  This is where students synthesize their learning for long-term memory storage.   

With a mindset of not this or that, but both/and, teachers can begin to take the best of the resources they have before them to engage students in learning the content.  In the example above, the teacher could have assigned the reading and questions at the end of the chapter for students to complete independently, but by using BOTH the resource AND ALM strategies, students interacted with the text and one another for an experience that involved reading, writing, speaking, and listening all in service of student engagement, access, and learning of content.  


International Literacy Association. (2017). Content area and disciplinary literacy: Strategies and frameworks [Literacy leadership brief]. International Literacy Association.

Jerald, C., & Haycock, K. (2002) Closing the gap.  School Administrator, 59(7), 16-21 

Jordan, M., & Schoenbach, R. (2003) Breaking through the literacy ceiling. Leadership, 33(2), 8-12.