CommonLit 360 Secondary How CommonLit 360 Uses Research-Backed Practices to Improve Student Reading Comprehension

A group of students discusses a CommonLit 360 lesson together.

Learn how CommonLit 360 is aligned to the Science of Reading’s best practices for teaching reading comprehension to secondary students.


The Science of Reading is a body of research incorporating psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience to explain how students learn to read.

The Simple View of Reading is a Science of Reading theory that states students’ reading comprehension is the product of their decoding skills and their language comprehension (Gough & Turner, 1986).

Simple View of Reading: 

Language comprehension x word recognition = reading proficiency 

  • Language comprehension: knowledge, vocabulary, sentences, connections, gist

  • Word recognition: sounds, letters, words 

Additionally, the Simple View of Reading can be understood through the lens of Scarborough’s Reading Rope, an infographic showing the variety strands woven into skilled reading. The top strands are linked to Language Comprehension, and the bottom strands are connected to Word Recognition. As stated in the Simple View of Reading, skilled or proficient reading is a product of these two strands (Scarborough, 2001).

In middle and high school, teachers primarily focus on the Language Comprehension strands of Scarborough’s Reading Rope. These strands include background knowledge, vocabulary, language structure, verbal reasoning, and literacy knowledge.

In this blog post, we will highlight how CommonLit 360, our free, comprehensive ELA curriculum, aligns with the Language Comprehension strands of Scarborough’s Reading Rope associated with the Science of Reading.

Activating Background Knowledge

Each CommonLit 360 unit is built around engaging topics and themes designed to build students’ knowledge. Throughout each unit, CommonLit 360 activates background knowledge, which aligns to the Language Comprehension strands of the Reading Rope.

Most CommonLit 360 units include Related Media Explorations, multimedia lessons designed to bolster student understanding of unit-specific topics. In 9th Grade Unit 3, students delve into a novel study on Animal Farm. Students engage in two Related Media Explorations throughout the unit to build background knowledge critical to understanding the novel.

The first multimedia lesson teaches students about economic systems relevant to the text, including capitalism, socialism, communism, and totalitarianism. The second multimedia lesson helps students understand the real-world events that inspired the novel, providing information about the Russian Revolution and leaders of Soviet Russia, including Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Joseph Stalin.

Additionally, each CommonLit 360 unit has about 5 Essential Reading Lessons. These lessons come with editable slide decks that build background knowledge and prepare students for what they are going to learn in the lesson.

For example, in 10th Grade Unit 2: Science Fiction and Social Commentary, students read “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury. Teachers can introduce the lesson with a customizable slide deck that explains the conventions of science fiction, highlights the setting of the story, gives context about what is going to happen, and emphasizes the skills students will focus on as they read.

Finally, each CommonLit 360 unit comes with supplemental texts at a variety of Lexile levels. Teachers can use these texts to support knowledge-building for students at higher and lower Lexile levels to ensure all students can equitably access the unit’s themes and topics.

In 10th Grade Unit 2, teachers can assign seven supplemental texts to help build background knowledge on the genre of science fiction with informational texts, short stories, and poems. These supplemental texts are also available in Spanish, and can be used to help English Language Learners knowledge-build in their dominant language.

Explicit Vocabulary and Grammar Instruction

CommonLit 360 incorporates both the Vocabulary and Language Structure strands of Scarborough’s Reading Rope (2001). Each CommonLit 360 unit includes explicit vocabulary instruction. Units come with one or two vocabulary lists drawn straight from the text. Students engage with five vocabulary activities, which can be flexibly assigned, before taking a vocabulary assessment. When students are going to encounter one of the words in the reading, the lesson calls it out so students can be on the lookout for the word in context.

Aside from explicit vocabulary instruction, each Essential Reading Lesson and library lesson comes with footnotes defining Tier 2 vocabulary to help give students strong context on what they are reading.
Another strand of Scarborough’s Reading Rope is Language Structure, which focuses on syntax and semantics. CommonLit 360 units come with grammar and usage activities as well as quizzes.

In 9th Grade Unit 2: People and the Environment, students will learn about parallel structure, and complete six grammar activities. These activities can be completed as warm-ups, homework, or practice to prepare students for the grammar quiz later in the unit.  Other 9th grade units include lessons on using colons, word endings and patterns, formatting works cited pages and in-text citations, and using appositive phrases.

Implementing Verbal Reasoning into Lessons

Verbal reasoning is the ability to comprehend concepts expressed through language, think constructively, and use logic to solve problems. Readers should be able to think about a text and infer meaning from what is both implicitly and explicitly written. To build verbal reasoning skills, students must engage in metacognitive practices, like inference, engaging in cross-textual analysis, and interpreting abstract language.

CommonLit 360 builds on verbal reasoning throughout our lessons and units. First, complex texts create opportunities for students to practice higher order thinking. As students work through challenging texts, they are able to make inferences, integrate information across texts, and interpret abstract language.

Additionally, CommonLit 360 Assessment Questions are standards-aligned and help students practice inferencing skills. Students are often asked to back up claims with evidence. Literary questions also ask students to interpret figurative language like metaphors, vocabulary, similes, and more.

Collaboration throughout CommonLit 360 also allows students to build on one another’s ideas and deepen their understanding of complex texts. Students engage in Turn and Talks throughout the unit’s lessons. Each CommonLit 360 unit also includes discussion lessons, where students answer key questions and deepen their learning through small and whole group collaboration. This challenges them to continue improving their verbal reasoning skills, a key element of Scarborough's Reading Rope.

In certain units, like our Research Writing Units, the discussion lessons are pivotal to help students prepare for their end of unit research paper.

A screenshot of the Discussion Lesson 2 for this unit.

Building on Literacy Knowledge

The final Language Comprehension strand on Scarborough’s Reading Rope is building on literacy knowledge. Students need to understand the purpose, features, and conventions of texts across genres.

CommonLit 360 exposes students to a variety of genres, from short stories to informational texts to poetry and more. In multi-genre analysis units, students are actually tasked with comparing texts across genres. CommonLit 360 has a variety of texts that are horizontally and vertically aligned. Text selection and sequencing allows students to go deep on a topic.

Additionally, writing instruction can help build on literacy knowledge. Students can write in the same genre as the texts they are reading to help internalize the key elements of different genres. As students move through the units, they practice a variety of writing, including literary analysis, research writing, and argumentative writing. Teachers can also assign optional narrative writing assignments to help students practice this genre as well.

In 10th Grade Unit 1: Coming of Age, teachers can assign a variety of writing tasks to help students build their literacy knowledge. Students can pen personal vignettes, literary analysis essays, argumentative literary analysis essays, and narrative essays throughout the unit.

Next Steps

Interested in learning more about CommonLit 360? Attend one of our webinars.

Want to learn more about implementing CommonLit 360 in your school or district?

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