Considering Rigor in a Collaborative Classroom

By Kristy Rauch | Categories: Reading, Writing

As teachers and students around the country ease their way back into the start of another school year, many will be embarking on a reading and writing journey guided by Collaborative Literacy programs: Making Meaning, Being a Reader, and Being a Writer. Teachers will consider how to create a classroom that is characterized by social and emotional awareness as well as high expectations and academic rigor. In this blog, we suggest how rigor is established in a Collaborative Classroom through read-alouds, students’ deep thinking, and teacher’s facilitation.

What is the definition of rigor?

Many people in a variety of educational circles are talking more about rigor for students. However, it can be challenging to join that conversation when there are so many different understandings of what is meant by this term. Suggested conventional meanings from a dictionary or a thesaurus (e.g., inflexibility, severity, strictness, or suffering) have led to a more top-down, pile-on approach to creating rigor for students. In order to offer a more child-centered, generative description, it might be helpful to first consider a few ideas about what rigor is not.

  • Rigor is not about hardness. Asking a student to read a text two or three levels above their capability makes it more difficult, not more rigorous.
  • Rigor is not about amount. Requiring students to repeat an academic task more frequently increases the quantity of work, but does not increase its quality or its rigor.
  • Rigor is not about learning the process of higher-order thinking. Expecting students to think more deeply about a topic of little significance, relevance or interest to them is a bit like squeezing blood from a turnip; you can get from students only what they are willing or able to give.

So how could we characterize rigor? Using Strong, Silver, and Perini’s (2001) four-concept description, rigor in text might demonstrate one or more of these characteristics:

  • It would be complex: made up of intricate and interrelated ideas;
  • It would be ambiguous: rich in symbols, images and multiple meanings;
  • It would be provocative: challenging the natural ways of thinking and believing;
  • It would be emotionally challenging: evoking or arousing strong or unfamiliar feelings

It would mean that students would confront ideas and problems that are meaningful to them. It would inspire in the students a desire to know more, a desire to share their thinking with others and listen to ideas of others. “Rigor is the result of work that challenges students’ thinking in new and interesting ways. It occurs when they are encouraged toward a sophisticated understanding of fundamental ideas and are driven by curiosity to discover what they don’t know” (Sztabnik, 2015).

How will I know if a text is rigorous enough for students?

A measure of rigor is inherently connected to the learner. The level of rigor in a text will vary between learners. Consider the questions below to discern the level of rigor for a student in a text or lesson:

  • Complex: To what extent is this text organized around complex, interrelated concepts?
  • Ambiguous: To what extent does the text incorporate symbols and images with multiple meanings?
  • Provocative: To what extent does the text challenge a student’s previous concepts?
  • Emotionally Challenging: To what extent does the text arouse strong or unfamiliar feelings for the student?

Where are there examples of rigor in Collaborative Literacy?

Below are ways in which these four elements of rigor appear in Collaborative Literacy.


Becoming a writer involves a gradual exposure to and mastery of specific processes that define great writing. In Being a Writer, students are introduced to increasingly complex elements of the craft as they progress through the grades, thereby building on the foundational aspects of writing introduced earlier. Cultivating creativity and revising writing based on partner feedback are two examples of more complex skills students acquire.

Another aspect of complexity that is a part of rigor is an ability to synthesize intricate and interrelated ideas, a hallmark of Making Meaning. With literary texts, students are responsible for identifying key details, analyzing and discussing narrative text structures, and citing evidence from a text to support their thinking. In Grade 5, as students read the novel Tuck Everlasting, they have opportunities to discuss, analyze and write about the intricate and interrelated elements of fiction: character, setting, plot, conflict, climax, and theme.


A poem from a 6th grade Making Meaning lesson illustrates another element of rigor frequently found in Collaborative Literacy: an ambiguousness that is rich in symbols, images, and multiple meanings. The poem, A Tea, requires students to decipher clues provided about an ambiguous narrator, make inferences using the poem’s symbols and images, and keep an open mind as they are exposed to multiple interpretations of meaning based on conversations with partners and whole class discussion.


In Being a Writer, students are often challenged to question their assumptions through exposure to mentor texts. For example, 4th grade students read persuasive essays in the Opinion Writing unit that describe two points of view on an issue: whether to help other countries by sending them money, or to limit donations solely to causes in the United States. By considering ideas that might be at odds with their own, students learn to refine and solidify their own thinking as they write a persuasive essay that articulates their own stance on an issue.

Emotional Challenge

Sometimes, the best way to engage students in the rigor of learning is to evoke a strong feeling. Given the social and emotional learning supports that are incorporated into every Collaborative Literacy lesson, students in even the youngest grades can be exposed to ideas that elicit an emotional response. For example, in the small group reading of Set 8 in Being a Reader, students read Ruby Bridges Goes to School, a memoir of the first black child in an all-white school in the 1960s. Reading about the harms of segregation can be an emotional trigger that causes students to employ the reading comprehension strategy of wondering-perhaps about history, human behavior, or the accomplishments of civil rights. At the same time, students are developing the SEL skills of empathy and perspective taking as they read Ruby’s story.

How can a text be rigorous if I’m reading to them?

Rigor in a text is not dependent upon the reading level of the text or if someone other than the student is reading the text. In Text Complexity: Raising Rigor in Reading, Doug Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Diane Lapp illustrate the way a text can be rigorous without being difficult to read. They use an example of 6th graders reading the text, Faithful Elephants: The True Story of Animals, People, and War, by Yikio Tsuchiya. It is a provocative story, presenting the reader with a troubling dilemma that is faced by a country at war:

“What would happen if bombs hit the zoo? If the cages were broken and dangerous animals escaped to run wild through the city, it would be terrible!  Therefore, by command of the Army, all of the lions, tigers, leopards, bears, and big snakes were poisoned to death.” (p. 9)

The authors elaborate, “The words may not be that hard to read, but the ideas in the content can be complex, tragic, tough, hard to explain, present moral and ethical dilemmas. Through conversation, students struggle to understand a text written at a different time for a different audience. Yet, through that struggle, they come to an understanding.” (Fisher, Frey, & Lapp, 2012, pp. 11-12)

The level of questioning seems the same across grade levels. How does this demonstrate rigor?

Collaborative Literacy supports teachers in using a variety of different questioning techniques, each of which is intended to facilitate rigor in a developmentally appropriate way across grade levels.

  1. Asking open-ended questions and using wait time. With open-ended questions, the teacher conveys that there is not a single word or “correct” answer and invites many students to respond. Students must generate their own independent thinking, which is a more rigorous learning experience than attempting to “guess” the answer a teacher might be looking for. Using at least 5 or 10 seconds of wait time further confirms a teacher’s expectation that students think and reflect before responding, leading to more thoughtful and less superficial responses.
  2. Asking questions once and using wait time. This technique, not introduced until a bit later in the fall, builds student responsibility for focusing on the discussion, helps develop the habit of listening, and promotes rigor by creating an environment in which students are accountable for their own learning because they don’t rely on the teacher to repeat a question multiple times.
  3. Asking facilitative questions. Teachers are encouraged to prompt students to respond to one another, rather than directing their questions, comments, or insights to the teacher. By posing questions such as, “What questions can we ask _______ about what she just said?” or “Why does what _______ said make sense?” the teacher helps create a dynamic discourse among students, teaching them that their comments contribute to class discussion and that, in order to have a rigorous conversation, they must listen to and respond to one another.

What opportunities are there for differentiation within the curriculum?

In Being a Writer, teachers can assign “Writing About Reading” supplemental activities either as additional practice for struggling students, or to challenge advanced students. The Skill Practice Teaching Guide contains mini-lessons aligned with the CCSS for language; teachers can use the diagnostic language skills tasks to identify students who are struggling with specific skills and may benefit from additional instruction, practice, or review in small groups.

In Being a Reader, students are assessed prior to placement in small group reading, ensuring that they receive differentiated instructional support at their point of need. Instruction for emerging readers is focused on concepts of print, phonological awareness, phonics and decoding, high-frequency words, and comprehension, whereas instruction for developing readers focuses on fluency, word analysis, self-correcting and self-monitoring, comprehension, and developing independent thinking.

In Making Meaning, Individualized Daily Reading provides an opportunity for students to read at their independent level. As teachers confer with students one-on-one, they provide differentiated support by helping them identify books that are right for them, monitoring their comprehension and application of strategies, and encouraging them to select increasingly complex texts over the course of the year. In addition, extension activities provide students with opportunities to delve deeper into their learning, by reading other books by the author of that week’s read-aloud, engaging in an author study, or researching a topic of interest from a particular book. Technology extensions encourage the use of digital resources as another way to differentiate learning opportunities for students.


Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Lapp, D. (2012).  Text complexity: raising rigor in reading. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

“rigor.” 2015. (2 May 2016).

Strong, R.W., Silver, H.F. & Perini, M.J. (2001). Teaching what matters most: Standards and strategies for raising student achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Sztabnik, B. (May 7, 2015). A new definition of rigor.  Retrieved from

Tsuchiya, Y. (1997). Faithful elephants: The true story of animals, people, and war. New York: HMH Books for Young Readers.

Co-authored with Wendy Seger