How to Empower Students in an English Language Arts Classroom

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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Most of what I do for a living is re-imagining curriculum, assessment and instructional designs with educators. Last week, I was working with Grade 9 and 10 English teachers in a public school district in Connecticut.

We continued our discussion around the questions we posed earlier in the school year:

  1. Which books are memorable reads for students?
  2. How does that line up with the texts we assign?

For homework, they asked the students to come up with books they read, either in the English classroom or outside, that were memorable.

What they uncovered:

  • Only a handful of the assigned texts in the English curriculum were impactful
  • Students have choice in what they read is important
  • If the goal is to inspire voracious readers, many students were not inspired … yet.


As we reflected on the student results as well as the reasons we select books on behalf of the students, there was consensus on the significance of broadening their examination of texts that push them to engage in deep reading and expose them to genres not necessarily in their wheelhouse.

I’m reminded of lots of conversations Mike Anderson has around the topic of students doing assigned work from the teacher versus doing their own work.

That was the conundrum we faced: if we are in the teacher-driven world where students read what we assign, how can we inspire ownership in other areas? We started by sketching out sliding scales for a number of categories.

What I read

Teacher-Driven Co-creation Student-Driven
You read what I give Choice within parameters I read what I want

That led to conversations about how to create opportunities in the categories of how I read, demonstration of learning, and why we read.

How I read

Teacher-Driven Co-creation Student-Driven
Leading one chapter at a time Choice within parameters Figure out what works
Strategies of reading lit devices/elements
Strategies for note-taking

Demonstration of reading

Teacher-Driven Co-creation Student-Driven
Teacher provides Choice within parameters Student creates assessment
Prompt and format Graded/ungraded
“show me”

Why we read

Teacher-Driven Co-creation Student-Driven
Teacher identifies why Choice within parameters Student creates goal(s)

All of this led to a rich conversation and agreement that:

  • When teachers assigned a specific read they also will design opportunities for them to make sense of the reading consider the other sliding scales.
  • Teachers are committed to creating a student choice unit but have the creative flexibility in how that might look (e.g., Friday independent reads or a 3-4 week unit)
  • Development of strategies for co-creation and student-driven opportunities so that it is standards-aligned and develops ownership of the reading experience.

Will keep you posted on further developments!

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