Essential Structures for Literacy (3 of 4)

In the last blog post, we focused on the essential content for literacy instruction: phonics and phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and high level talk and writing about text. This week, we will discuss structures that support the ongoing teaching of these areas, culturally relevant texts, and family engagement.

Elementary teachers can be quickly overwhelmed by the complexity of literacy, the needs of the individual students in their classroom, and the limited time provided in their literacy blocks. Having systems and routines to engage in literacy learning ensures students’ receive equitable, high quality literacy instruction daily. These systems and routines include read-alouds, independent reading, guided reading and centers, and daily instruction in and opportunities for writing. These systems and routines are supported by access to a wide variety of culturally diverse texts and ongoing engagement with families in promoting literacy. 


Read-alouds allow you as an expert reader to model how a fluent reader reads and engages with a text. Read-alouds can be done with picture books at any grade level, and can also be done with chapter books and informational texts. Research-based benefits of read-alouds include improvements in language development, comprehension, vocabulary, classroom community and culture, and engagement. Read-alouds show similar benefits across all grade levels. Important considerations include having a clear purpose for the read-aloud, careful selection of high-quality, diverse texts, open-ended questions posed by the teacher and students connected to the purpose, and extensions of the read-aloud to independent reading and writing. One of the key benefits of read-alouds is that students can learn from texts that they cannot yet read independently. You act as the scaffold - modeling fluent reading, providing child-friendly explanations of words in the text, and modeling the joy of reading. Read-alouds can be done for a variety of instructional purposes (to develop print concepts, use word recognition strategies, build knowledge of text structure and features, practice comprehension strategies, and build vocabulary). In addition to these instructional purposes, read-alouds are also a powerful way to establish a culture of literacy in your classroom and to help students develop identities as readers and writers. 

In order for read-alouds to become a powerful routine in your literacy classroom, they need to be carefully planned. Consider how you will set the stage for your read-aloud. Many teachers create a sense of community by having a special place in their classroom for their daily read-alouds. This signals that reading is a special time and one of the most important things we do in our class. Minimize distractions by teaching students how and where you want them to sit so they can listen to the story without distracting themselves or others. Choose your read aloud texts carefully and make sure your choice aligns with your purpose. If you want to focus on vocabulary, choose a book with a rich set of words. If you want to focus on phonics, choose a rhyming book so students can pick up on the rhymes. We want students to love the books we share with them. This is also a great opportunity to consider windows (giving students access to diverse books with characters who are different from them), mirrors (giving students opportunities to see themselves and their realities), and sliding doors (giving students the chance to enter into another world or setting). Choose a variety of genres. Teachers typically choose fiction for their read-alouds, but there are also wonderful informational texts that will engage students and build their background knowledge. 

Since we want to model fluent reading for students, practicing the book before you read it is important. We want students to recognize that fluency isn’t just about accuracy and speed, but also about expression and volume, phrasing, smoothness, and pace appropriate for the text. You can make the text come alive for students by changing the tone of your voice for different characters. In addition to practicing the text, planning involves deciding what questions you want to ask students and how you want to engage them during the reading. You might want students to put their finger on their chin when they are wondering about something in the text; they might clap when they hear a sight word. Asking students questions as you read helps them see that this is what good readers do and increases high-level talk about the book. Stopping too often to ask too many questions can distract students from the purpose and interrupt the flow of the reading. Stop strategically and ask questions that align to your purpose. Finally, encourage excitement about books in your room by giving book talks about upcoming read-alouds, sharing other books by the same author, and having a “Please Read” bin where students can add books they would like you to read to them next. For older students, you could also have students add a post-it note to their suggested book telling you why they selected the book. You can see this blog post for more information on read-alouds! 

Independent Reading

Independent reading differs from DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) or silent sustained reading. As a routine in the classroom, independent reading is supported and scaffolded by the teacher and ensures students have daily opportunities to practice strategies (including word recognition, vocabulary, and comprehension) to their independent reading of texts that they choose. Independent reading “develops students’ background knowledge, improves fluency and comprehension, heightens motivation, increases reading achievement, and helps students broaden their vocabulary” (Miller & Moss, 2013, pp. 11-12). 

Key aspects of making independent reading an effective classroom routine include teaching students how to choose books, protecting daily time for students to read independently as part of your literacy block, explicitly teaching reading strategies (both for word recognition and comprehension), observing, assessing, and supporting students during independent reading time, and conferencing with students about their independent reading. Allowing students to choose what they read is vital for motivation and engagement. In fact, when a student experiences a class or even an individual lesson without any choice, intrinsic motivation declines (Guthrie & Wigfield, 2017). Support choice by explicitly teaching students how to choose books. Lessons on finding “just right books” help guide students to make appropriate choices. These lessons are not about Lexile levels, letters, or numbers. “Just right books” are books that students find interesting, they can understand the story, and can read most of the words. You can use a genre wheel to encourage students to select books from different genres. Be explicit about what book shopping time should look like, sound like, and feel like. Observe patterns in student choice and redirect when needed. 

What does independent reading look like as part of a literacy routine? It starts with a focus lesson on an aspect of literacy instruction. Explicitly teach students what good readers do and show them how. Modeling and thinking aloud work well. Then students spend time independently reading and practicing what they just learned. They may be practicing using fix-up strategies or visualizing as they read. During this time, you can listen to different students read, provide coaching and support, and conference with individual students. This is also a great time to observe students during independent reading. Using a checklist like this can help you discover patterns across the class as well as establish learning targets for individual students. At the end of independent reading time, students come back together and share what they learned about themselves as readers. They might read a favorite passage to the class, share a strategy that worked well for them, or ask a question. This routine builds students’ identities as readers, provides opportunities for differentiation, and builds classroom community.

Guided Reading

Researchers who examined schools that were successful in supporting students’ literacy outcomes with high proportions of students living in poverty found patterns in their approach to literacy instruction. “The most effective schools included more small-group instruction, more coaching (i.e., scaffolding) by teachers, phonics instruction with an emphasis on application during real reading, more higher-order questioning, greater outreach to parents, and more independent reading than similar, but less effective schools” (Pressley & Allington, 2015, p. 284). We have seen how independent reading allows for coaching and application of phonics knowledge. Guided reading provides opportunities for coaching students who are struggling with similar aspects of reading in a small group setting. The majority of this guided reading time should be spent actually reading and not in round-robin or popcorn style formats. Instead, students work on fluency through repeated reading, echo reading, paired and partner reading. This allows you to coach students in the act of reading and focus on the goal of making meaning. Small groups also allow students to engage in high-level talk about the text they are reading. Similarly to independent reading, this is a great opportunity to notetake and observe and set new goals for individual students and groups. Small groups should be flexible and change according to the focus of the lesson.

One of the most common questions about small group reading instruction is what are the rest of my students doing? One option is to have the rest of the class engage in independent reading. Literacy centers are also a powerful way to continue to develop and reinforce literacy skills. However, each of these centers should be what Moses (2017) refers to as Purposeful Learning Experiences (PLEs). For each center you develop, ask yourself, “What purpose does this serve in my students’ literacy development?” (p. 7). If the purpose is unclear, inauthentic, or not directly related to further developing students’ literacy, the center should be abandoned. Potential literacy centers could include work with words, writing, independent reading, discussion groups or literature circles, and inquiry projects. 



Daily time for writing instruction and opportunities to write are a critical part of the literacy classroom. In this context, we define writing as the activity of expressing ideas, opinions, and views in print. As writers, we write authentically to communicate or compose. In writing instruction, we want our students to do the same - to write for an authentic audience and purpose. Each authentic literacy activity has a writer and a reader—a writer who is writing to a real reader who wants or needs the information - not just to display -  and a reader who is reading what the writer wrote. The reader reads the written text for its communicative purpose and not solely for evaluation. In teaching writing, explicitly teach students the writing process (planning, drafting, revising, editing, publishing) and strategies for each step of the process. Teach students how different types of texts (informative, narrative, expository) are structured and formed, and teach students conventions of writing including grammatical concepts, spelling, letter formation, and sentence construction. Scaffold students' writing through modeling (both thinking aloud and through mentor texts), guided practice, interactive writing, and shared writing. Writing in strong literacy classrooms is communal and students have many opportunities to work with peers during each step of the writing process. Here is an example of how students can learn to be strong peer editors. Students build their identities as writers by working as apprentices alongside the teacher who is the expert writer. 

In addition to explicit instruction in writing, create opportunities for students to write to think. Students can write as they are reading on post-it notes and capture their reactions to the text. Students can write before entering a discussion about a text so they can get their own ideas down before sharing with others. Teaching students that writers write to think as well as write to publish helps to develop their writing identities. Just as we saw with reading, watching students as they write will give us lots of information about what supports students need and what instructional targets are most appropriate for them. Conferencing with students about their writing process helps them grow stronger as writers. Publishing students’ writing and featuring their writing in classroom libraries helps connect reading and writing, celebrates students’ work, and creates a culture of literacy.


These literacy structures and routines (read-alouds, independent reading, guided reading, and daily writing) are supported by access to a wide range of culturally diverse texts in multiple genres and sustained family engagement. We know from research that children read 50 to 60 percent more in classrooms with libraries than without them (Miller & Moss, 2013, p. 28). We also know the power of representation so that all students have windows, mirrors, and sliding doors through literature.

“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to  walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books” (Sims Bishop, 1990, p. ix).

Some students have more mirrors than others, and we want to ensure that all of our students have the experience of seeing themselves and their experiences reflected in the texts we have in our classrooms. See this site for more suggestions on culturally diverse books. 

Engaging families as critical partners in literacy supports students’ literacy achievement and identities as readers and writers. This is also a central part of our mission as Catholic educators. Parents and families are the primary and principal educators of their children. We deeply value the rich cultural backgrounds of our families and see these as resources for our schools to draw on. The doors of our schools open both ways. They open in to invite students and families into the space of the school. Inside the school, we co-construct powerful literacy knowledge that we then use to go back out to transform our communities. Partner with parents and families through literacy nights, invitations for guest reading (even on zoom!) and volunteering in classrooms. Support literacy at home by giving families ideas such as reading recipes while cooking, reading aloud, reading scripture together, and sharing family oral stories. Help ensure that all families have access to a library card and help enroll younger siblings in programs like Imagination Library. Daily read-alouds, independent reading, guided reading and centers, and daily instruction in and opportunities for writing are powerful routines for teaching essential literacy content, developing strong classroom communities, and establishing a culture of literacy. In our last blog in this series, we will focus on core commitments of literacy educators that cut across all content and structures. 


Guthrie, John T. and Allan Wigfield , "Literacy Engagement and Motivation: Rationale, Research, Teaching, and Assessment" , in Handbook of Research on Teaching the English Language Arts ed. Diane Lapp and Douglas Fisher (Abingdon: Routledge, 01 Nov 2017 ), accessed 08 Feb 2022 , Routledge Handbooks Online.

Miller, D., & Moss, B. (2013). No more independent reading without support. Heinemann.

Moses, L., & Ogden, M. (2017). What are the rest of my kids doing?: Fostering independence in  the K-2 Reading Workshop. Heinemann.

Pressley, M., & Allington, R. L. (2015). Reading instruction that works the case for balanced teaching. The Guilford Press. 

Sims Bishop, R. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 1(3), ix–xi.