Literacy for everyone: OER Project tools for building reading and writing skills

Literacy for everyone: OER Project tools for building reading and writing skills

By the OER Project Team

In the OER Project courses, students are presented with, and asked to make sense of, a lot of very big ideas. In the process, they’re doing a ton of reading and writing. Students read some pretty challenging texts from contemporary scholars, as well as older primary source material. They’re also asked to write. A lot. For many students, the OER Project courses provide a foundation of the skills they’ll need for the social studies courses they’ll take in subsequent years.

The approach taken by the OER Project to develop student literacy skills is pretty straightforward. We have clear expectations and routines, all of which are introduced early and reinforced often. However, some teachers may find that they prefer using their own approaches. Great! Our aim isn’t to replace a strategy that’s working for you. We want to facilitate a conversation among teachers from around the world about different approaches to teaching literacy skills.

So, let’s dive in to focus on some key ways the OER Project helps students develop literacy skills. We’ll also review the practices embedded in our courses and highlight tools to help you and your students build literacy.


WHP and BHP students are presented with a lot of information during the course in the form of numerous texts (standard articles, primary sources, graphic biographies) and videos. To help you help students get the most out of all that material, we’ve included these strategies and resources:

1. The Three Close Reads approach
It’s as effective as it is simple—we’ve written all of our materials under the assumption that students will read each text multiple times. In the Three Close Reads approach, each of the three readings focuses on a different aspect of the text. The first read is a quick preview to capture the gist of the material. The second read is more factual, focusing on the specific content covered in the reading. The final read is conceptual: We ask students to consider the reading through the lens of the lesson’s big questions. Note that in BHP we call this third read “Thinking Conceptually” and in WHP we call it “Evaluating and Corroborating.” Although the Three Close Reads process can seem tedious at first, the goal is for students to internalize the practice as a lifelong habit. Click here to learn more about this foundational reading practice. Oh, and we love this strategy so much, we decided it’s useful beyond the reading of a standard article. We also use tailored versions of Three Close Reads with graphic biographies, data, and videos (see item 4 of this list, below).

Image preview of Three Close Reads worksheet.2. Leveled readings
Each article in our courses is available at multiple reading levels. We want to ensure that students have access to the readings at a level appropriate for them so they can participate in class, regardless of their reading skills.

3. Audio recordings

Each article has an accompanying audio file. Note that this audio version is based on the highest reading level. Research suggests that listening is the missing part of the literacy puzzle. Audio versions help engage students with the text, but audio doesn’t equate to fully reading the article. You should, therefore, think of the audio files as the first read or skimming-for-gist portion of the Three Close Reads strategy.

Example image from Trade Networks and the Black Death video, highlighting location of audio button at top right.

4. Video as text
OER Project courses include a variety of videos as a means of providing different entry points into the content. However, we’ve found that too often, students are passive rather than active viewers of text when it’s presented in video format. If we consider video as text, the same practice of Three Close Reads proves helpful. We provide annotated transcripts to help provide a preview of the video. We also provide captions as secondary cues, and to help with your students’ factual “read,” we’ve also noted places for you to pause the video and ask your students embedded questions.

Screenshot of example video transcript.

5. Vocabulary activities
Understanding key concepts and terms is a big part of the social studies classroom. To help students learn the vocabulary that is essential to understanding the content, we’ve created a series of repeated activities to engage students in deliberate practice. But learning the key concepts isn’t the only type of vocabulary that students need to pay attention to. Each student is unique in terms of the words they know and understand, which is why we’ve included a Vocab Tracker in the first lesson of each unit or era. The tracker is for students to record words they encounter that are unfamiliar to them, thus creating a personal lexicon based on their own needs. Don’t worry, it’s not all about creating personal dictionaries; we also have fun activities like Word Relay and Word Wheel to help students remember the discipline-specific terms.

Screenshot of Word Relay activity worksheet.


Students do a lot of writing in the OER Project courses. Our approach to helping them develop their writing skills is simple: We use the same rubric throughout the year, which helps students fully understand writing goals and expectations. Throughout the course, we give students numerous opportunities to write both formally and informally. We know—because we’ve seen it in our own research—that with regular feedback on their work, students’ writing will improve. Here are some of the resources and strategies for improving writing skills included in the OER Project:

1. OER Project writing rubrics
You’ll use one writing rubric for BHP and one for WHP. Each is used throughout the entire course. This gives students a simple and consistent approach to thinking about their writing, an approach that builds upon itself over the year. The rubric is introduced early in the year, and students dive into details in the second half of the course. The OER Project writing rubrics are based on the practices identified in the C3 and the CCSS, as well as writing assessments students will see in the future, such as the SAT and AP exams.

Screenshot of Writing Rubric worksheet.

2. Formal writing assessments
The OER Project courses include an essay assignment in every unit or era. In BHP, these are called Investigations, which are modeled on the DBQ (document-based question) assessments you might find in various standardized tests. Each Investigation asks students to review a series of texts, and then compose an evidence-based response. The Investigations are scaffolded, which provides supports early on to help students develop habits for successful writing. In the WHP courses, each unit or era ends with a writing assessment that alternates between long-essay questions (LEQs) and DBQs.

Screenshot from Unit 6 investigation assignment.

3. Classroom writing activities
The course includes a variety of student writing activities, both formal and informal. Repeated activities like the Driving Question
(DQ) Notebook in BHP, and Era and Unit Problem (EP/UP) Notebooks in WHP provide opportunities for students to journal their thinking around the central questions for each unit/era, capturing their assumptions early in the unit/era, based on prior knowledge, and then later on formalizing their understanding with evidence. The course also includes deliberate writing progressions aimed at developing student understanding of the BHP and WHP writing rubrics, and strategies for improving their own writing.

Screenshot from Era 1 Problem Notebook.

4. Student writing growth
Each year, we conduct a study that looks at student writing growth over the duration of the school year. Year over year, our students show significant writing growth. More important, we see students who are the struggling with writing at the start of the year catch up to those students who are higher performing all year. In other words, our writing results show that we are closing the gap between low- and high-performing students. (Note: Because WHP is a new course, we don’t yet have study results for it.)

Image of bar chart from our research on student writing improvement: at the outset of course just 1% of students were found to be "proficient" in writing, compared to 37% by the end of the course.


While most people can agree that having students write more will help them become better writers, one big challenge for teachers is all the grading that comes with all this additional writing. This is why we created Score, a service that provides immediate feedback on student writing for various formal writing assessments in the course. This feedback is NOT intended to replace that of teachers. It is a formative tool that helps students improve the drafts and final submissions you do see. The service has allowed many teachers to spend more time understanding exactly where their students could use instruction to help improve their writing. This service is entirely free. Score uses Revision Assistant, a product from Turnitin. Please see the Score Guide for more information about this service.

Wow! It’s a lot, but we think that literacy deserves the attention. Reach out with questions in the Online Teacher Community, and share tips and tricks for developing literacy skills!

Looking for more? Join us in the OER Project Community today! And if you aren’t registered with us yet, create an account here for free access to the OER Project Community and more.

Cover image: Youth reading, 1625–26. By Reza Abbasi, public domain.

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