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

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

The CommonLit 360 curriculum is research-backed and evidence-based in supporting reading growth across middle and high school students. Additionally, CommonLit 360 for middle school received all-green ratings from EdReports in 2024. In this blog post, we'll share more about how the CommonLit 360 curriculum aligns to the Science of Reading.


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 of 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).

Graphic modeled after the illustration from the Handbook of Early Literacy Research, by Susan B. Neuman and David K. Dickinson (2001) who re-envisioned researcher and author Hollis Scarborough’s visual metaphor of the Reading Rope. Ⓒ 2020 Brainspring Publications.

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 aligns with the Language Comprehension strands of Scarborough’s Reading Rope associated with the Science of Reading.

Building Knowledge

Each CommonLit 360 unit is designed to build students’ knowledge around engaging topics and themes.  Students engage with these topics through carefully cultivated text sets and multimedia sources.  This design addresses the background knowledge strand of the Reading Rope. 

Across the curriculum, students study topics such as how the oceans are changing, the risks of contact sports, the fashion industry’s past and present, community and belonging, and the science of branding, among many others.

All CommonLit 360 units include Related Media Explorations, multimedia lessons designed to bolster student understanding of these unit-specific topics. For example, 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 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.

Lesson on The Russian Revolution with video of soldiers

Lesson on Leaders of the Russian Revolution with video of Vladimir Lenin

Each grade also has at least one research-focused unit.  In 6th Grade Unit 4: Our Changing Oceans, students research how changes in the world's oceans are affecting people and animals.  They collect information on the problem and potential solutions across texts as they prepare to share their findings in the unit’s Culminating Task.

Student graphic organizer for notes

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 texts.  These words are selected because they are critical for understanding the texts and topics of the unit and are likely to be found in other readings and contexts.

Students engage with five vocabulary activities and an assessment, which can be flexibly assigned.  These activities prompt the students to not only learn the definition of the words, but also to understand how the words are used in context.  When students are going to encounter one of the words in a reading lesson, the lesson calls it out so students can be on the lookout for the word in the text.

Student worksheet

Vocabulary worksheet

Vocabulary quiz

In 9th Grade Unit 2, students engage with two vocabulary lists. The lists come with activities and vocabulary quizzes.

In addition to 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.

Grammar and usage worksheet

Parallel Structure worksheet

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.

Short story reading lesson with girl seated at an easel

Short story reading lesson with girl seated at an easel

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.

List of unit writing options

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?