Every minute in the classroom is an opportunity for literacy

Once you are a reader, it can be easy to forget just how hard it is to learn to read. As adults, we may share some common experiences when it comes to learning to read such as a favorite teacher, a beloved book, even a spelling bee in your journey to increased vocabulary. But there is no one pathway to literacy. Every child has different needs, strengths and paces, and every teacher has to help every child in their classroom.

This leads to much conversation and debate over how to teach literacy and it has gained increased attention in news outlets recently. I’m energized by the interest so many educators, parents and readers have in this dialogue but also hope we use this moment to focus on the nuances of need rather than a debate over what has gone wrong.

In a piece I read by Rachel Gabriel in The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet, she noted, “There is a wide divide between political debates about the teaching of reading and the actual instruction students receive in classrooms.”

I’ve spent time in over 1,000 classrooms across the country, and I continually witness this. I am also seeing a dedication to research-based strategies and a comprehensive approach to literacy. With comprehensive literacy, teachers are looking at every minute that a child spends in a classroom as an opportunity to both grow skills while encouraging a love of reading and writing. It is incredibly challenging in the time and resource constraints felt in many classrooms, but there is room for both.  

When authentic mentor text is used in whole class and for read alouds, children are more engaged. This brings them through to small group instruction. Small group then becomes about the reader and the text meets the reader where they are. Here, there is a focus on the skills inspired by the mentor book whether that be a need for phonics, a decodable text or even advanced reading on the same topic. This is when a teacher can individualize instruction by using research-based, inclusive strategies to support learning. This ultimately sets a student up for success during independent learning time and the transference of skills beyond the classroom. 

Scholastic believes in this approach while recognizing the hard work it takes. Thank you to all the teachers actively supporting their students’ growth by embracing their needs and building upon their strengths.

I recently wrote about the importance of taking literacy walks, and I encourage administrators to do so as they consider how to support these teachers and their students and families in the creation of lasting, literacy-rich environments across classrooms and communities. We look forward to continuing to partner with you and bringing you more resources.

Weaving Social-Emotional Learning and Academics Through Powerful Stories

In this ever-changing world with jobs yet undetermined, a greater urgency exists to integrate social-emotional learning and academics to afford each student the opportunity to build the emotional stability and knowledge necessary to grapple with future experiences. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) identifies the most important skills required for 21st century education as: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. However, let’s also consider the addition of character and citizenship.

Intertwining social and emotional learning and academics advances the ability of our students to adapt to change with the essential skills to effectively manage new challenges. The Aspen Institute’s (2017) recent report states, “Social, emotional and cognitive competencies develop throughout our lives and are essential to success in our schools, workplaces, homes, and communities and allow individuals to contribute meaningfully to society.” Yet, how do educators add another program to their already time-constrained day?

Books, yes authentic literature, can serve as the vehicle to promote the seamless integration of social and emotional learning and academics. Authentic trade books written by masterful writers ultimately reveal universal truths of love, loss, joy, curiosity and celebration. They provide us a model for resilience and a way to talk about and reframe adverse circumstances. They help us understand the importance of a narrative arc—and provide a path for our own new beginnings, middles and ends. Thus, masterful teachers help children develop and deepen the five competencies outlined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL): self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, and responsible decision-making; all students benefit.

Teachers can capitalize on powerful narrative works to promote meaningful classroom conversations analyzing characters’ emotions, their reactions and their growth offering opportunities for students to relate to the many facets the characters present. Asking students questions connected to the emotions a character demonstrates offers structured occasions to discuss feelings in a safe environment. Questions such as “What motivated the character to do what he did?” or “Would you have done the same thing this character did?” or “Share with us your thoughts about the emotions the character displayed” help students understand and process both the character’s feelings as well as their own.  

Stories allow students to see difficult issues unfold in a way that draws them into the experience through the character’s eyes. Encountering life’s challenges through a character’s series of events can foster hope, courage, kindness, confidence, friendship curiosity, and/or belonging; what Pam Allyn has identified as the seven strengths for reading success. Whether we use books as read alouds, in shared reading opportunities, interactive reading, or independent reading; discussions that ensue should combine building skills while helping children understand their emotions in order to build strong relationships. Our goal as educators is to ignite a passion within our students that will last them a lifetime. As Aristotle shared, “Educating the mind without education the heart is no education at all.”

Reading is Like Breathing in; Writing is Like Breathing out

Writing is an essential skill for students of all ages. It allows students to make sense of—and communicate about—what they have read and the world around them. It helps students learn to express opinions, make effective arguments, persuade audiences, synthesize information, and so much more. We spoke with Pam Allyn, Founder of LitWorld, literacy advocate and SVP of Innovation and Development for Scholastic Education, to discuss why teachers and administrators should support the daily instruction and practice of writing skills.

Q: Why is writing such an important skill to develop?

Pam Allyn: From the earliest times, when humans drew pictures on walls, to now, as we text message our beloveds and colleagues, writing is what E. M. Forster meant when he said, “Only connect.” Writing is about the way we find each other in this world, in a universe that can be isolating.

Writing helps us be more understood and helps us to understand others and ourselves.

We see from history that those who get to write it down appear the victors. So writing is not just a matter of connecting, it is also a matter of being, and more, becoming powerful. By committing to every child as a writer, we are saying to each child, “You have a voice. You have power. You can be a citizen, a dreamer, a person whose voice and story will never be forgotten.”

And on a day-to-day basis, writing is putting us in touch with the world. We can apply for a job, send a love letter, tell our story, or express an opinion. From the simplest message to the most complex standardized test, writing gives us authority and power to create our own best outcome.

Q: How does writing help students become better readers?

PA: Writing helps students to practice the language of literacy. Absorbing the nuances and understandings of written language through reading, the literacy learners put it all to use when going to the page or screen. Even the very youngest writer, marking the page with her first approximations of a letter or a word, is practicing what she sees that authors have done. The act of practice makes the reading experience different. The young writer says, “I know what this is. I have tried it myself.”

The literacy learner is constantly engaged with the world of words and stories, trying out genres, craft, conventions, and tone, so that when she goes to the page as a reader, she is not the same. She is part of the community of authorship: She knows what goes into it. Her appreciation for great writing is stronger. Her awareness of language use and precision is deeper. Her knowledge of qualities of genre and craft are more pronounced. She writes, and she becomes a reader.

Q: What can administrators do to encourage more writing in the classroom every day? 

PA: One, educational leaders need to make a big commitment to the teaching of writing as a separate subject area, not as something to do on the side. We need to expect that in every classroom, at every age/grade, there will be at least 30 minutes of writing instruction a day. And that time should feel joyful and purposeful for our students, where they get to write about topics that really matter to them.

Two, the writing instruction should be connected to the reading instruction in terms of genre exposure, craft practice, and the use of literature across both experiences. Administrators need to provide teachers with the kinds of authentic texts that will inspire their kids as readers and writers. These types of texts include graphic novels, magazines, blogs, funny picture books, alphabet books, and nonfiction texts about fun and interesting things. Then kids can write in the same vein because they can really see what’s possible.

And three, educational leaders need to create time for celebrating writing and making it public. Have writing celebrations with families, your school community, and even the community at large to share what kids have written. Celebrate, love, and adore the stories children tell.

Q: How can we encourage writing in the content areas?

PA: We need to make sure we are talking about writing in the content areas and giving kids a chance to write more authentically in those areas—not just to answer a series of teacher-driven questions, but writing about topics they care about.

In science and social studies classes, the writing experiences tend to be mostly about reporting on information. Let’s instead put a mini-writing workshop into every content experience, giving kids a chance to read mentor texts that reflect those rich topics of science and history. Let’s then say, “What topic do you want to explore?” and then give them a chance to write in the spirit of those great authors. Writing workshop is not just for ELA time. It’s for all of us, all day long.


To find more resources to support the instruction of writing, visit www.scholastic.com/education.  

Creating Opportunities to Reach Families

When families attending the 2018 State Fair arrived at the massive 250-acre site, most did not expect to leave with a free book. Nor did they expect to have the chance to read with the Cat in the Hat, or Indianapolis Colts mascot Blue, or Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Jennifer McCormick. The Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) leveraged its presence at the fair to highlight literacy and promote STEM learning through the distribution of 800 Pre-K through-high-school books.

The true reflection of this successful effort seen in the eyes of the children and families visiting IDOE’s interactive booth space during the first and third Saturday’s of the fair. On the first Saturday, Indianapolis Colts mascot Blue and Dr. McCormick read to dozens of children. Afterward, each child was encouraged to take a free Scholastic book. IDOE literacy specialists engaged parents in conversations about appropriate reading levels, the importance of building home libraries, and establishing regular family reading time. According to the Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report™: 6th Edition, the average home with children between ages 0–17 reports having 104 children’s books, but there are large disparities in the number of books for kids in the home when examining kids’ reading frequency—frequent readers report having 141 children’s books in their homes vs. 65 among infrequent readers’ homes.

A memorable book selection was made by a young couple visiting the State Fair from northern Indiana. Expecting their first child within weeks, and IDOE had the pleasure of providing their child’s first book. As the fair was closing for the day, all 400 books designated for the first Saturday had been distributed.

On the second Saturday, another beautiful Indiana August day greeted a huge crowd attending the State Fair. Once again, the centerpiece of IDOE’s booth presence was the literacy tent. Literacy specialists, along with other IDOE staff, greeted families with children as they passed through the booth area, encouraging children to join in story times, and to choose a free book.

As each child approached the two treasure chests of books, many intently reviewed the variety of choices, searching for that “perfect” book.  IDOE’s literacy team gently helped guide that crucial, final choice. “Look mom, this one is about planes,” “dad, this is all about science,” and, “that lady just said I could take this book home, and we don’t have to return it,” were some of the comments shared by children appreciating the unexpected gift from Scholastic. As the fair closed, the last of the 800 books were on their way home with very happy young readers.

The opportunity to underscore the importance of literacy, STEM education, home libraries, and consistent family reading time met the goals of the Indiana Department of Education. This successful partnership will be used as a model as the Indiana Department of Education expands its impact on students across Indiana.

Creating opportunities to reach families and children with important educational messages like those focused through the IDOE presence at the Indiana State Fair is critical in today’s quickly changing public education landscape. Sharing key messages through partnerships, in places where are constituents might not expect us, and being creative in our approach, is necessary to ensure the Indiana Department of Education is continually working together with all our stakeholders for children’s success.

A Superintendent’s Lessons on Literacy and Leadership

Jennings School District is an amazing urban district in Missouri with a 98% African-American student population, 100% of students receiving free meals, and 100% graduation, career and college placement in 2016, 2017, and 2018.  Recently, we received the National School Board Association’s 2018 CUBE Award for student achievement, equity, and board governance.  As leaders striving for educational excellence in every way, we know that the biggest room in our house is the room for continuous improvement, particularly in reading. 

Districtwide Universal Screening

This school year we decided to administer a universal screener in the fall, winter, and spring, in grades K–6 districtwide to identify student risk in reading and math. As superintendent, I set aside time to witness every first- and second-grader screening in reading. The initial focus was to determine if this was a good investment and see if our educators could quickly implement this assessment as well as it’s associated, targeted intervention techniques.  It was my best literacy lesson in a long time.

Strikingly, my team and I saw and heard the literacy gap in ways we had never experienced collectively. Imagine for a moment seeing a first-grade-emerging-reader try to read sight words like “the,” “before,” “and,” “after,” “there,” as well as “nonsense” words like “siv,” “nymu,” “hofk,” and “frin,” using the arm technique (touching the shoulder, then elbow, and wrist) to cover each syllable. We found that for all “words,” many students, with shrugged shoulders, looked at the test administrator in bewilderment and shut down until the time was up.

It was both enlightening and empowering to partake in this process. In the end, our district had identified about 44% of third to sixth grade students on the college pathway with low-to-no risk in reading, 24% on-watch, and about 32% as high-risk. What a serious reality check. 

Still, having this information in August helped everyone—students, staff, parents, stakeholders, and partners—focus on significantly improving our instruction, student exposure to rich literature, and achievement.

District Literacy Plan

We knew we needed to take more action. District leadership decided to send its largest team yet to participate in the Principals of Literacy Institute. Our dynamic team was inspired and developed a framework of the Jennings School District Literacy Plan. Components of the plan consist of identifying a problem of practice and four core areas to develop opportunities for success in literacy—our vision, instructional leadership practices, professional learning, and school climate and culture. Our Curriculum Planning Committee meets monthly to build on the District Literacy Plan and drive the district and each individual pre-K–12 school in increasing student literacy. Teachers and students then receive laser-focused support to meet the targeted needs of students reading below grade level.  

Our literacy partnerships have also increased. Local and national organizations, including Scholastic and KPMG, have donated books and funding for classroom libraries. We also engage with local professionals and celebrities on an ongoing basis, inviting them to spend one hour in our K–3 classrooms reading aloud to the class. At each event, three to four books selected by students and teachers are read aloud, followed by arts and crafts. Afterward, each book is donated to the school library, plus a personal copy of one book can go home with each student.  Such student choice and access increases kids’ overall engagement and empowerment towards literacy.

A Close Look Into One of Our Schools

At Woodland Elementary School, our teachers were disappointed by the data resulting from the early screener, particularly for their second grade readers, so they were moved to do something about it that was tailored to their classrooms. The team of educators knew constant whole group instruction was not working effectively, so they went to a small group instruction model and they brought literacy across content areas. ELA educators are teaching with a focus on social studies and vocabulary while honing in on skills including phonetic sounds, decoding, word chaining, and syllabication. This has been welcomed by all readers, including those who are striving. As a result, students are feeling more confident and are working harder.

This approach is also allowing educators the time and ability to work closely with their tier 2 and 3 students, as identified by the early screener, on phonetics and decoding while keeping the students in the classroom. There is now the flexibility for individualized instruction and a variety of options to best use independent learning time such as students working in centers making words, writing, practicing individual skills, and utilizing technology.

Teachers are already seeing huge gains from this change in targeted instructional delivery.

A Literacy Lesson: Liter or Leader

This literacy lesson challenged my team and our leadership. It moved me past my own lack of knowledge to see the faces, know the names, and engage and empower students directly as well as staff to close achievement gaps.  In doing so, we moved far beyond just weighing the cost and quality of the assessments as if we were buying a liter of soda versus water to quench the thirst of teachers and students, to seeing the literacy gap up-close, choosing to make it personal, and leading to eliminate illiteracy and ignorance in our district. 

I challenge all superintendents to ask themselves a question that I recently asked myself: “Am I a liter or leader?” We must focus on more than data—a unit of measurement such as student performance and programs. Our unit of measurement must demonstrate more than the capacity of some substance, like a liter. As educators and lifelong learners, we work to increase knowledge. As leaders, we tackle tough things like illiteracy. We aim for continuous improvement, keeping our students at the forefront of our minds. Leaders act. Leaders look for the weakest of areas and lean in lovingly to engage and empower others equitably, according to their needs. It is then that our students become leaders and strong readers.

10 Core Beliefs for Student Success

A lifelong love of learning is an invitation to endless possibilities and unlimited potential. In our shared mission of creating lifelong learners, we take great pride in partnering with educators to develop comprehensive literacy plans that support student success in school and in life. As we partner with schools and districts across the country, core beliefs guide our instructional methodology and approach to comprehensive literacy to ensure the greatest student success.

This framework for student success outlines the key features of a comprehensive plan necessary for supporting our shared goals.

1.    The Importance of Authentic Texts

Central to our mission and philosophy is our conviction that every child should have both the access and the expertise to read complex books that can be found in a library or bookstore. If we only provide children with texts designed, written, and encountered exclusively for instruction in school, we risk children internalizing the idea that real, engaging, and authentic books are not for them. The more we can expose students to authentic texts that provide relevant content and reflect who they are, the more we can help them build their identities as confident and capable independent readers, thinkers, and learners.

2.    Choice and Access to Literature

Providing our children with high-quality literature is an issue of equity. Stephen Krashen’s research (2011) has demonstrated that access to books is as strong of a factor in school success as poverty is a detriment. Choice is another key element to fostering a lifelong love of reading and learning. Allowing students to self-select their books results in more engagement and thus more motivation to read (Sewell 2003; Gallager 2009; Pruzinsky 2014). Furthermore, findings from the Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report™: 6th Edition revealed that across gender and age, a majority of kids (89%) agree their favorite books are the ones that they have picked out themselves.

3.    Social-Emotional Learning

Students need to experience and think about stories that reflect real-life experiences in order to develop empathy and expand their capacity to recognize the emotions of both the characters and their peers. Children should be routinely encouraged to connect in deep and personal ways with self-selected books from carefully curated lists of authentic literature designed to foster social-emotional learning.

Social-emotional learning allows our students to “understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions” (CASEL 2008). The ability to process one’s own emotions and acknowledge the emotions of others is crucial to a positive classroom environment. “Because relationships and emotional processes affect how and what we learn, schools and families must effectively address these aspects of the educational process for the benefit of all students” (Elias et al. 1997). With a mutual empathy for and an understanding of their peers, students gain the sense of security needed to express themselves and learn.

4.    Critical Thinking

Often students are asked to write down facts rather than question or reflect on their reading. We promote a different approach by prompting students to be active learners who use their abilities to reason, reflect, and make connections. Through the use of quality, authentic literature children have opportunities to engage in deep, open-ended conversations that stimulate and nurture their ability to think critically.  

5.    Standards-Informed Instruction

Every student should have the opportunity to receive instruction of the highest quality. We equip teachers with a deep conceptual understanding of a number of universal literacy skills, the academic language related to these skills, and the tools necessary to help students meet the nuanced expectations of the standards.

6.    Reading and Writing Connections

Reading and writing are mutually supportive language processes. Writing about reading helps readers frame and focus their understanding while allowing teachers to gauge their students’ comprehension (Serravallo 2012, 2013; Graham and Perin 2007; Graham and Hebert 2010). We develop strong readers, writers, and thinkers when we encourage our students to analyze and evaluate what they have read and then make personal connections to the text through their own writing.

7.    Innovative Digital Learning

Digital learning can be truly transformative for many students. For some, it is a powerful motivational tool. For others, it is a safe place to work on specific skills that they maybe struggling with. We believe in using highly adaptive personalized online resources to engage students in purposeful independent reading and phonics, allowing them to receive a personalized path through implicit vocabulary instruction and the opportunity to be immersed in text. These digital resources equip educators with actionable data to inform instruction in whole-class and small-group lessons while giving students the ability to independently apply what they have learned.

8.    Data to Inform and Differentiate Instruction

Digital tools are not only a strong motivator for students—they also provide educators with detailed insights into how students are progressing. Tracking students’ language and literacy development ensures that they are deepening their understanding of their educational trajectory while their teachers can see where they need to target instruction, and where they can celebrate student success!

9.    Professional Learning

It is critically important that professional learning provides rich opportunities for teachers to develop and enhance their professional knowledge and practice. Onsite workshops and personalized coaching can help educators continue their personal growth. In order for students to master challenging content, problem-solving skills, and effective communication, teachers must employ more sophisticated forms of instruction. Effective professional development is key to teachers learning to teach these skills.

10. Family and Community Engagement

More than 50 years of research proves a simple truth: when families are engaged in their children’s learning, students are more successful. But as districts and schools consider how to engage families, they often struggle to determine what types of family engagement have a positive impact on student learning. According to the Scholastic Teacher & Principal School Report, educators agree that family engagement is important, but three-quarters of educators (74%) also say they need help doing so.

We believe in providing educators with information and strategies to empower parents and caregivers of students at all grade levels to become effective stewards of their children’s education.

In addition to these best practices for student success within the comprehensive literacy framework, your school or district may also benefit from additional supports such as programs for striving readers, summer and extended-day programs, early childhood resources, and more.


To learn more about comprehensive literacy and Scholastic Education’s approach to literacy instruction, visit www.scholatic.com/literacy.

Three ways to encourage voluminous writing

Sara Holbrook and Michael Salinger, with Stephanie Harvey, are co-authors of From Striving to Thriving Writers.

All writing is creative. Any time we put something down on paper, whether that’s an email, work instructions, a contract, a poem, or a short story, we are making something that did not exist before. Informational and aesthetic writing are not as different as many have been led to believe. Both require a writer’s ability to organize their thoughts and a solid understanding of craft.

Strengthening writing proficiency benefits students in ways critical to their long term personal and professional success, helping them to become both thinkers and communicators.

“We must support students with round-the-clock opportunities to practice what they are trying to become, confident, capable readers and writers. Why? Because the best way to learn to read and write is to read and write – a lot, every day, voluminously.” – Stephanie Harvey

But how can we make that happen in a crowded curriculum? Here are three ways:

Embed writing in all content areas: We need writing strategies that don’t displace inquiry or content area learning. In From Striving to Thriving Writers: Strategies That Jump-Start Writing, we provide teachers with simple frameworks to stimulate thinking and writing and show how they can be used across the curriculum. These frameworks naturally differentiate, providing every student with an opportunity for success.

Pre-write to get it right: Our framework process encourages conversation and a strong pre-write, often incorporating a graphic organizer (a GO sheet) to help students organize their research and ideas before writing. Throughout, we maintain a consistent lesson process so that students will later be able to replicate it on their own.

Take it one version at a time: We tell students to title each piece of writing as a version, starting with version 1. This frees up students to take risks and builds in the expectation that writing is an evolutionary process. With each subsequent version, we challenge the writers to incorporate additional details and writing elements, increasing the sophistication incrementally.

Through writing, learners are able to prioritize, synthesize, and communicate ideas. If we incorporate writing as a priority across disciplines, writing becomes an artifact of students’ thinking, informing our instruction and providing quick assessments.

Writing both builds and expresses understanding, connecting students with the greater world, and connecting us to our students.

Living a Priority of Literacy

Priorities.  Every individual and every organization has priorities.  Some priorities can be explicit and intentional while other priorities are never spoken in words but demonstrated in actions.  No matter how many priorities you may have, there can be only one top priority and every priority afterward is subject to either being of greater or lesser value than a competing priority.  To say it simply, when two priorities come into conflict, one always wins.

In our district, we explicitly stated that literacy was going to be our top priority.  While we value and prioritize many things, literacy is our priority that trumps all others.  This is not to say that we sacrifice all other resources allocated towards priorities such as mathematics, safety, and other meaningful and necessary components of a school district.  Rather, by identifying literacy as our top priority, we have dedicated significant and a responsible amount of resources towards enhancing literacy for our students.  As a district, we ensure that time, focus, and engagement with literacy is dominate and noticeable in our words and actions.  We live this priority.

So, in our attempt at providing students with a comprehensive approach to literacy, we wanted to make sure our literacy priority included families.  We knew our literacy efforts could not stop at the school door.  We knew our families loved and cared for their children and were willing to do the best they could.  We knew we needed to support every family in promoting in the joy of all aspects of literacy.

We convened a group of staff members with a simple but powerful problem of practice.  How do we engage more families in literacy and increase the number of books in homes?  We knew it had to start in the classroom.  Our school required current and diverse leveled readers aligned with our units of study.  Furthermore, we recognized that most classroom libraries were antiquated and we had placed teachers in the position of scraping together their own classroom libraries.  We knew we could do better.  Our district aligned dollars with our priority of literacy and purchased leveled readers aligned to units of instruction.  We then did a comprehensive audit of our classroom libraries before engaging teachers in purchasing collections of books for their rooms.  Our teachers worked extensively to purchase, organize, and implement these books.  But we knew we could not stop there.  Our staff recognized that we needed to push books into the homes of our students.  One child carried their dinosaur book with them everywhere he went for days to come.  He took pride in his book and confirmed with our staff the power of getting books into homes.

Through this journey, we learned the power of partnership within our community when we engage in a purposeful and powerful endeavor.  Our public school foundation stepped up to the challenge with dollars and manpower.  They reached out to other community members, agencies, and businesses to not only purchase books for children but to open doors and allow us to reach out and provide over 1,000 books in one summer.  We were in the community and at events, giving books to children and engaging with their families.  We were in businesses such as barber shops and groceries stores, spreading our priority of literacy.  We had teachers and principals who opened up their schools to celebrate literacy.  And in the end, we learned that by sharing and emulating a powerful top priority of literacy, our community rose with us and engaged in ways we never thought possible.  The joyous notion of it all is that this is just the beginning.


Time to check in on your literacy plan implementation

The school year is now a few months in. The initial checklist of how to get teachers, students and families back into the rhythm of learning has been completed and it’s hard not to find yourself already looking towards preparing for the winter break. It’s a challenge to stay in control of the calendar as the many responsibilities of an administrator can be all consuming. But now is an important time to take stock of how your vision for literacy is unfolding within the classroom.

Leaders in districts and schools must actively take literacy walks to observe and model the instructional practices that are essential to ensure successful implementation of a literacy plan and support teachers with effective teaching practices. In the comprehensive literacy culture, you will find an inclusive classroom that goes beyond defining a child by his or her reading level. This classroom will be filled with positive energy focused on addressing the needs of each child through reading, writing, speaking, listening and social emotional learning as students rotate from whole-class instruction, to small-group instruction and independent learning time throughout the week.

  • Whole class instruction is the teacher’s prime opportunity to model essential skills as the first step to deeper learning. By demonstrating content-rich instructional strategies to students through daily routines, students have a chance to listen, observe and discuss ideas and topics. And are the teachers challenging children to ask and investigate their own probing questions about the world? Preparing them for deep exploration in small group and independent learning time? This modeling ultimately leads to transference so that students will be able to apply learning to independent time and experiences beyond the classroom.
  • In small-group instruction, through the use of data and observation, you should see teachers creating flexible groups of students that encourage them to be supportive of each other’s strengths. A thoughtfully formed group of students can bring each other up and allow for more individualized attention from teachers—a resource teacher or additional support can push in and have another small group, allowing striving readers to remain in class. Ask yourself this as well: Is there recognition of the opportunity during small-group instruction to instill social-emotional skills because students are able to discuss authentic texts with each other where they can see themselves (mirrors) and others (windows), share points of view and collaborate? Academic achievement is inseparable from social-emotional wellbeing and this demands a safe, positive learning environment for all children. 
  • The power of independent learning time is incredible. This time is an opportunity for exploration, practicing and demonstrating a transfer of knowledge gained from whole class and small group work. Students must have the opportunity to select books that inspire them and this can be achieved through an accessible classroom library filled with authentic, culturally responsive titles. Independent learning is also a perfect time to incorporate adaptive technology that can provide valuable data to teachers on their students’ progress and interests. Digital resources can help students practice important skills at their own pace—such as phonics and vocabulary—as well as provide greater access to fiction and nonfiction ebooks outside the classroom.
  • As you consider your district’s literacy plan and instructional practices, remember that your teachers need continued opportunities to grow and collaborate with their peers. There is no instruction as productive as that which is fueled by ongoing, embedded professional development. This is the key to ensuring that teachers confidently learn to teach skills, tailor lessons based on students’ needs, and guide students to gain mastery as they become capable learners and readers.
  • Finally, leaders can never underestimate the power of family engagement in a child’s reading life. Check in with your teachers and determine together what the plan is for continued communications with families to ensure that the learning goals for their children are clear and there is a mutual understanding of how families can help at home. For example, simply helping families know the questions to ask children that lead to deeper conversations than the typical “how was your day” can have tremendous results. Encourage them to instead open lines of communication by saying: “Tell me about what you read today in class.” “How did that make you feel?” “Have you read or written a story like that before?” Families are indispensable learning partners that help schools honor the child’s culture and link home language, family stories and ways of learning to the classroom.

Developing a lasting culture of literacy in your schools is, of course, a great deal of work but there is no task of greater importance than helping students become joyful and independent readers, writers and critical thinkers. 

Building Readers, Building Relationships

Melissa Cheesman Smith is co-author of The Megabook of Fluency, a winner of the Learning® Magazine 2019 Teachers’ Choice Award for the Classroom.

As educators, one of the great joys of our profession is building relationships with our students, and encouraging them to build supportive and respectful relationships with one another. We know very well that feeling safe and part of a community within the classroom and the school as a whole is essential for learning to occur and for the emotional health of our children. Building this culture schoolwide can begin in the classroom where students are surrounded by their peers who are accepting and supportive of each other. 

How can we address social-emotional needs through academics? Teachers often rummage to find great resources to teach social-emotional learning in the classroom to support students’ emotional growth.  If fortunate enough, teachers have premade programs containing valuable resources to sort through, but there are everyday practices we may already be doing that help. Choral reading is one example.

In The Megabook of Fluency, we describe how reading is often thought of as a solitary act; however, reading is also a social act. Choral reading, also known as community reading, is the practice of reading a shared text orally. Choral reading is used to increase fluency, but it is also a powerful way to build a sense of community in a classroom as students read together cooperatively for a single purpose. In this scenario, the more fluent readers support the less fluent readers, but the goal is reached together.

Reading as a team builds relationships while building readers.

Repeated reading is at the crux of great fluency practice. When students repeat text through choral reading, they are growing their literacy skills by improving their cognitive focus on the comprehension of the text and building the automaticity to support their reading.

Schools have not only tried this in classrooms, but also across grade levels and even schoolwide.  Students can chorally read well-known songs, poems, or excerpts of speeches, as well as school mottos and mission statements during assemblies to bring about a sense of togetherness and bonding that translates into a more global sense of community within a school.

As students chorally chant, “Four score and seven years ago…” they are cumulatively saying “we are a team and we can work together as readers.” I’ve seen how students who are shy or self-conscious about reading aloud feel supported when their peers are reading right beside them. During choral reading, students are reading in a safe environment where they are supported, cultivating a sense of community, which is so important for all of our learners.

The Megabook of Fluency includes eight variations on choral reading with easy-to-follow visual directions for educators and students, along with appropriate supporting text for each strategy. Sample poems, songs, speeches, and other historical pieces are included to help build cultural literacy and increase vocabulary exposure. While growing our students’ fluency skills, choral reading also helps them build their relationships with one another, and the benefits are limitless.

An example of directions from The Megabook of Fluency:

An example of a choral reading text from The Megabook of Fluency:


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