The Core Commitments of Literacy Educators (4 of 4)
Throughout this series, we have focused on key areas for leading literacy in K-8 Catholic schools. We first explored developing a school-wide vision for literacy instruction. Next we considered essential content for literacy learning. Then we discussed essential structures in literacy classrooms to support mastery of the essential content. In this last post, we focus on the three core commitments of literacy educators: Choice and collaboration, Authenticity, and Responsiveness to culture and need. When we act on each of these commitments, we create literacy engagement and establish a culture of care. (C = choice and collaboration + A = authenticity + R = responsiveness to culture and need = E engagement). We define literacy engagement as “the time, effort, and persistence of literacy behavior” (Guthrie & Wigfield, 2017, p. 59). Engagement is a critical piece of achievement. Just as teachers intentionally teach essential content (phonics and phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and high level talk and writing about text), skillful literacy teachers also explicitly teach literacy motivation (social motivations, self-efficacy, valuing, and intrinsic motivation). These three core commitments activate literacy motivations, which increase literacy engagement. In this post, we will discuss each commitment and what each looks like when enacted in the literacy classroom.
Choice and collaboration
Choice. According to Guthrie and Wigfield (2017), “teachers can and should plan for giving an academic choice every lesson” (p. 70). Providing students with choices increases their motivation and sense of responsibility for their own learning. The choices effective teachers provide are meaningful. For example, a teacher might provide three different texts on the same topic for students to choose from or might provide three different options for responding to the text. All of the choices should be of equal rigor and should help students make decisions that help them master literacy content. The choices effective teachers provide are cumulative. Providing choice in one lesson or once a week is unlikely to increase intrinsic motivation. There are many ways to incorporate meaningful choice into every literacy lesson including choices around who to work with (choosing a partner, small group, or working alone); where to read, write, and think in the classroom; which books to read; what types of writing to engage; which questions to explore, etc. These choices represent controlled choices, i.e. choosing among options the teacher has pre-selected rather than granting complete autonomy.
Teachers also must teach students how to make choices that help them rather than distract them or leave them feeling lost. Teachers can explicitly teach students how to book shop and find “just right” books. Teachers can then observe the choices students make using a chart and coach students who tend to pick books that are too difficult or who only pick books within the same genre or by the same author. As students make more appropriate choices that support their learning at the right level of challenge, these scaffolds can be removed and students can be provided with more options to direct their own learning.
As we defined above, literacy engagement requires students to spend time and energy reading deeply. Choice should support this type of deep reading, increased stamina, and focus and not just be an end in itself. Effective teachers commit time to allowing students to explore books in a literacy rich environment. In the last blog post, we focused on the importance of providing access to a wide range of culturally diverse texts in multiple genres. This access also supports choice. Literature-rich classrooms that have well organized classroom libraries (organized by genre and author rather than lexile level), varied comfortable spaces to read, systems for recommending books and sharing those recommendations (through book talks or recommendation walls), and anchor charts that support skillful and independent reading through reading strategies support choice and increase motivation to read.
Collaboration. Meaningful collaboration with a partner, small group, and/or the teacher develops students’ social motivations for literacy. Effective teachers provide many opportunities for students to collaborate around reading, to respond to reading, and to write. Some examples of collaborative reading include partner reading, echo reading, or choral reading. Teachers also use strategies such as reciprocal teaching where students take on different roles (questioner, clarifier, predictor, summarizer) as they read, and literature circles or book clubs that allow students to engage in high-level discussions with their peers and co-construct meaning from texts. Effective teachers also provide opportunities for dialogic discussions that allow students to talk together and ask authentic questions that have no prescribed answers rather than talk to display what they already know. In these discussions, students build on each other’s ideas (uptake), pose and answer authentic questions, and co-construct new knowledge. In facilitating these discussions, teachers perform high-level evaluation of the discussion honoring the contributions of students and pushing for high-level thinking (Nystrand, 1997). Effective teachers provide space for students to share their writing at all stages, including talking over ideas for writing, exchanging their writing with peers for editing and feedback, and sharing finished products through shared readings and publications.
Establishing key criteria for collaboration ensures that these opportunities for collaboration are reciprocal, purposeful, and equitable. Each individual (whether in pairs or smaller groups) should do equal parts of the work and make meaningful contributions. The contributions of each individual should be honored by being accepted and taken up by the partner or group. Mutual respect is also a necessary condition for effective partner or group work. Again, teachers need to explicitly teach, model, and scaffold these skills for students. For example, before asking students to partner read, the teacher could model with another student what it looks like, sounds like, and feels like to read together. These behaviors can be captured on an anchor chart as a visual reminder as partners read together. The teacher can reinforce these behaviors by coaching and redirecting when students are off task, providing specific positive feedback when partners are working well together, and asking successful partners to model for the class.
Another key consideration for collaboration is interacting with the text. Off task talk about movies, friends, gossip, etc takes students out of the text and reduces literacy engagement. When discussing or reading a text, students should have eyes on print - re-reading certain sections together, sharing page numbers when making a point about the text, talking with pen in hand to annotate the text or revise the draft. When students are engaged in meaningful inquiry, they are often motivated to continue to read, write, and think outside of the class time allotted for collaboration.
Like engagement, many teachers refer to authentic literature or authentic teaching without a precise definition. Duke, et al. (2006) provide a helpful operational definition. Authentic literacy activities “replicate or reflect reading and writing activities that occur in the lives of people outside a learning-to-read-and-write context and purpose. Each authentic literacy activity has a writer and a reader - a writer who is writing to a real reader and a reader who is reading what a writer wrote” (p. 346). For a literacy activity to be truly authentic, it must serve an authentic purpose or function and the text itself should be authentic. Bringing in a real newspaper for students to read would be an example of an authentic text. However, if the purpose is to read the newspaper and answer questions on a worksheet for the teacher to assess, the purpose is not authentic. An example of an authentic literacy activity comes from one of our local Catholic schools where the kindergarten teacher had her class write the petitions for Mass. The students were writing for an authentic communicative purpose and will read their petitions during Mass for the congregation, which is an authentic audience. This is a good example of how we can help students engage in literacy activities that go beyond school-only purposes.
One strategy to create more authentic literacy experiences for students is through hands-on experiences. Bringing in new objects for students to observe sparks questions and curiosity. Examples might include setting up a class aquarium and giving students time to observe the fish, doing book blessings (short book talks) about new books to the classroom library that have just been released by favorite authors and giving students time to explore them, going for a neighborhood walk and talking about what they observe. These activities then bridge to generating authentic questions from students that the teacher can capture on chart paper. Students can then read to answer these questions and decide what to do with the information they have learned. As discussed above with choice, these hands-on experiences should always culminate in spending lots of time reading authentic texts to answer these inquiry questions and lots of time writing about what they have learned for authentic audiences.
Other strategies to foster authentic literacy experiences include responding to community needs and solving problems (Duke, et al., 2006, p. 352). Teachers can help students see what the community (within or beyond the school) needs and respond to that need. For example, a middle school teacher might ask students to think about ways the community could improve the way it lives out Catholic social teachings. Students could research what is happening in their local community and propose solutions. Students could then write persuasive essays to their classmates educating them about the problem and their proposed solution. The class could then vote on which solution to choose and take on that project together. Teachers might pose problems to the class such as the first grade students feeling overwhelmed when they visit the library because there are so many choices. The third grade class might decide to write book reviews of some of their favorite books and give them to the first graders to read to help guide their choices.
Audience. Teachers can be creative in finding authentic audiences for student writing. The key consideration is that the audience reads the text for its communicative purpose, not just to evaluate the writing. Teachers can use their personal connections within the community and beyond to find audiences for their students’ writing. Examples might include follow up with community members after field trips (museum directors, librarians, zookeepers, etc.), colleagues who teach in different states or countries, family members who work in fields students find interesting, finding authors’ contact information and writing to favorite authors. Teachers can also create authentic audiences in their own school communities. Students can write for other grades as noted in the example above and publish their writing in the school library, hallways, or other central spaces. This work should always be read and interacted with, not just displayed. Finally, the class itself can be the audience. Students can write class books that are published and added to their classroom library; they can write book reviews for each other; and they can write information on anchor charts that are displayed throughout the classroom. Regularly incorporating authentic literacy activities helps students demonstrate higher growth in comprehension and writing (Duke et al., 2006, p. 345).
Responsiveness to Culture and Need
Culture. As we noted in the previous blog, exposure to a wide variety of diverse texts and genres is essential for supporting literacy learning and developing students’ identities as readers and writers. Thinking about books as windows and mirrors (Bishop, 1990) helps students see themselves and their experiences reflected in texts they read in school (mirrors) as well as glimpses into the lives and experiences of others (windows). Access to a wide range of diverse texts is also critical to fostering literacy motivation. “Young children develop interests from being immersed in an abundance of stories, colorful books, and soft spaces to share reading” (Guthrie & Wigfield, 2017, p. 64).
A well stocked, organized classroom library is a good beginning; however, teachers also need to deconstruct, construct, and reconstruct (Ladson-Billings, 2008) their curriculum in order to be responsive to their students and the funds of knowledge (Moll et al., 2005) they bring into the classroom. Using a scorecard, teachers can analyze their curricula along the following categories: the diversity of characters, diversity of authors, social justice orientations, and teacher materials. This analysis is an important step; however, “it is never enough to tear down” (Ladson-Billings, 2008, p. 32). Teachers then reconstruct the curriculum based on this analysis and their knowledge of the resources, experiences, networks, and knowledge students bring with them. The curriculum can even be co-constructed along with students “empowering students to design/redesign materials to provide more accurate and complete depictions of content and reflect their own voices” (Hattan & Lupo, 2020, p. S287). Such design work alongside students helps guard against superficial curricular changes (such as changing the names of characters or the settings) rather than centering and valuing the knowledge that students bring that is absent from the current curriculum.
Culturally relevant teachers focus, not just on what they teach - the curriculum they teach and the books in their libraries, but also on how they teach. Ladson-Billings (1995) focuses on three key areas of culturally relevant pedagogy: academic achievement, cultural competence, and sociopolitical consciousness. Teachers maintain high academic expectations for all students. They set short and long term goals with students and use metaphors and images students can relate to in order to help their self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation. Culturally responsive teachers help students “recognize and honor their own cultural beliefs and practices while acquiring access to the wider culture, where they are likely to have a chance at improving their socioeconomic status and making informed decisions about the lives they want to lead” (Ladson-Billings, 2008, p. 36). Teachers often act as the bridge between the lives of their students and the norms and expectations of the school. Culturally responsive teachers are students of the local, national, and global sociopolitical issues their students face and incorporate those issues meaningfully into their teaching. Culturally responsive teachers provide opportunities for students to work together with others of similar backgrounds and with different cultural backgrounds so they can dialogue and work together across differences (Duke, Cervetti, Wise, 2018).
Need. In addition to being responsive to students’ cultures, effective teachers are responsive to students’ needs. These needs are determined using a balanced system of literacy assessments. This system includes screening tools, formal progress monitoring several times a year, classroom summative assessments, and day to day formative assessments such as checklists and observational notes based on observations of students in the act of reading and writing as well as conference notes from individual conferences and small group reading sessions. Effective teachers also assess students’ engagement and motivation (tracking whole class goals such as reading stamina and how many books the class has read in a given period). Rather than celebrating meeting these goals with external rewards such as prizes and pizza parties, the reward is the joy of having read so many great books! Extrinsic rewards have a negative correlation with achievement and focus students’ attention on the reward instead of the text (Guthrie & Wigfield, 2017, p. 77). We want students to continue to read because they love reading and for the excitement of learning something new or getting lost in an engrossing story.
Teachers then use this data to set instructional targets for individual students and to form flexible groups based on strengths, needs, and interests. Effective teachers balance whole and small group reading instruction (Taylor, 2011). Teachers will often start off in a whole group setting to teach a mini-lesson and then transition to small group instruction. The most important consideration is that teachers use the data they collect to inform their instructional and curricular decisions.
Listening to children read is an essential practice for every teacher. As we discussed in the last blog post, having structures such as independent and guided reading times enable teachers to listen to students as they read and write to assess fluency, word recognition, comprehension, and also student thinking - are students using strategies, asking questions, how are they making meaning from the text? The Listening to Reading Watching While Writing Protocol is a helpful tool to capture this data while students are engaged in authentic reading and writing activities. Teachers who have used this tool have found that it provides a more holistic picture of their students as readers and writers than a running record. It also helps teachers target specific areas for growth for students. When teachers are able to communicate to students that they need to work on vocabulary, or using new word recognition strategies, it is more likely that students will see the relationship between their reading progress and their effort rather than attributing their lack of progress to their ability. As teachers, many of us have sadly heard students say, “I’m just a bad reader” or “I’m not good at reading” or “I’m always in the low reading group.” When teachers are able to share their assessment data with students in individual meetings, they can set goals for growth and help students understand what to work on next. Then instead of “I’m not good at reading” students can say “I am working on using fix up strategies while I read.” Teachers can share their data with each other in Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) and faculty meetings to share ideas, identify collective strengths and weaknesses, discuss school-wide literacy needs, and set school-wide literacy goals (Taylor et al., 2000).
Putting it all together
As this series of blog posts indicates, reading and writing instruction are complex! It can be easy to become overwhelmed and wonder where to start. A helpful starting point would be to ask yourself three questions as you plan literacy activities for your students:
- Does the proposed literacy activity provide opportunities for meaningful choice and collaboration?
- Is the proposed literacy activity authentic in task and purpose? Is this something that real writers and readers do?
- Is the proposed literacy activity responsive to the cultures of my students? To other nondominant cultures? Is it responsive to my students’ needs?
Another helpful starting point is Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction. This model aims to increase students’ reading comprehension and their reading engagement. The model also includes time for small-group guided reading, writing, and independent reading, which we focused on in the last blog post. Designed specifically for grades 3-5, this would be a great place to begin to shift your practice towards including the essential literacy content, establishing routines for guided and independent reading and writing, and intentionally teaching and scaffolding strategies for motivation and engagement.
As we end this series, I hope you have found some new ideas and inspiration in leading literacy school-wide as well as leading literacy in your classroom. As we like to say in the We Are All Readers and Writers Series, in our Catholic schools, we do not just teach students how to read and write, but how to become readers and writers. What schools teach, and what kinds of texts teachers share with students, influences what students think is possible and what they can imagine. We hope this series has sparked your imagination and expanded what you think is possible in your literacy instruction. Thank you for all you do to help form the next generation of readers and writers!
Duke, Cervetti, G. N., & Wise, C. N. (2018). Learning From Exemplary Teachers of Literacy. The Reading Teacher, 71(4), 395–400. https://doi.org/10.1002/trtr.1654
Duke, N. K., Purcell-Gates, V., Hall, L. A., & Tower, C. (2006). Authentic literacy activities for developing comprehension and writing. The Reading Teacher, 60(4), 344–355. https://doi.org/10.1598/rt.60.4.4
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.
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Ladson-Billings, G. (2008). “Yes, but how do we do it?”: Practicing culturally relevant pedagogy. City kids, city schools: More reports from the front row, pp. 162-177.
Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. E. (2005). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. In Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classrooms (pp. 71-88). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781410613462
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Sims Bishop, R. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors.Perspectives, 1(3), ix–xi.
Taylor, Pearson, P., Clark, K., & Walpole, S. (2000). Effective Schools and Accomplished Teachers: Lessons about Primary-Grade Reading Instruction in Low-Income Schools. The Elementary School Journal, 101(2), 121-165. https://doi.org/10.1086/499662.
Taylor, B.M. (2011). Catching schools: An action guide to school-wide reading improvement. Heinemann.