Resisting the Frenzy: Staying the Course of Common Sense in Literacy Teaching

3.20.15 Irene Fountas Photo

by Irene Fountas, Author, Professor, and Director of the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative at Lesley University

In the past several decades, there have been a variety of movements that have shifted literacy teaching in our schools. Often the newest trend has meant a total mind-shift of instructional practice for teachers. Certainly something important can be learned from the emphases of each movement, but each swing of the pendulum has also left out some important areas of literacy teaching and learning. One cannot simply make the assumption when there is a new movement in the midst that the worthy new areas of emphasis are not already implemented in schools that are implementing a high quality literacy approach.

When we have articulated our values and beliefs about meaningful, authentic literacy learning in our schools, we can examine the contributions of each new movement in the light of well-grounded principles and stay the course of common sense in our responsibilities to our students, instead of shifting to a new bias that may compromise our commitment.

I will address a few of the key areas we have articulated in our work in supporting high quality literacy approaches that we believe have stayed the course of common sense for almost three decades.

First, every student deserves to have a meaningful and interesting reading life and writing life in school.

This means students read and write for real purposes every day in school and have choice in what they read and write. Choice breeds students’ sense of agency and promotes engagement, and furthers the development of one’s tastes in reading and one’s voice in writing. With the appropriate learning environment and scaffolding, students learn that reading and writing are thinking and that they can think about a variety of topics, authors and genres when they read and mentor with the thinking of the best of writers when they write. They experience some teacher-selected high quality literature and nonfiction, but also a good selection of self-selected material that builds their understanding of their selves and their physical and social world. They learn from their teachers how to make the good choices that offer enjoyment and expand their breadth and depth as readers, writers, and global citizens.

Second, students need a variety of structured opportunities to talk throughout the day.

Talk represents thinking. Students need to think and talk in school. This means pair and triad talk, small group talk, and some whole class discussions that have intent, not just talk for talk’s sake. This includes such instructional contexts as reading or writing conferences, literature discussion groups, guided reading groups, and interactive read aloud lessons that include pair or small group talk. Teachers sometimes don’t realize they are dominating the talk and robbing the students of the process of learning through verbalizing their understandings and building on or challenging each other’s ideas. The one who talks is the one who learns. Teachers play a key role in helping students learn how to use language that promotes conversation and the analysis of texts with others to achieve deeper understandings than any one reader could achieve on his own. When students discuss a variety of fiction texts, nonfiction texts, and poetry in a community of readers and writers, they learn how to use the language and vocabulary of literate people. These rich experiences build their background knowledge and academic vocabulary and put each learner in the role of a literate being.

Third, the text base for learning needs to include a variety of high quality fiction and nonfiction texts, primary and secondary sources, as well as poetry. 

The classroom text base needs to provide access to age appropriate, grade appropriate material that is of high interest and value. Sometimes the texts students are asked to read simply aren’t worth reading or don’t engage their intellectual curiosity. The texts need to be meaningful, relevant, developmentally appropriate and made accessible. Alongside this rich base, students need the opportunity to lift their reading powers with the precision teaching made possible with the teacher’s use of carefully leveled, challenging texts at the student’s instructional level. These texts allow for the differentiated, intentional teaching that each student deserves to develop an effective processing system and move forward as a self-regulating, independent reader.  Photo of Girl Reading

Fourth, students deserve to be acknowledged as unique learners.

Every student and every group of students is different. When teachers learn how to systematically observe the strengths and needs of individuals, the assessments can inform instruction and the teaching can be responsive. No assessment is valuable if it doesn’t result in better teaching. Good assessment gives information on how students process texts and what they understand about words, language, and text qualities. High quality literacy opportunities are built on the strength of the teacher’s expertise in assessing the readers and writers he/she is teaching. Some teachers fall into the trap of teaching students as if they are all the same or focus on teaching the book or program, not the diverse group of students in front of them. Effective teachers assess at intervals to document progress and assess by the minute to fine tune their decisions in the act of teaching.

Staying the Course 

These are some of the mainstays of high quality literacy opportunities for every student. Learning to read and write is complex and will require the complexity of teacher decision-making with sound rationales that are rooted in students’ observable reading, writing and language behaviors. Let’s look to the new movements for what they add to our expertise but keep our good sense about what really matters.

For more information about the Lesley University Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative events and trainings, visit our website at .

15 thoughts on “Resisting the Frenzy: Staying the Course of Common Sense in Literacy Teaching

  1. Thank you again for reiterating these general principles of powerful literacy instruction for all, and why we need to stay the course!


  2. Such sound and sage advice….something every teacher needs to keep in mind all the time, but especially at this time of year when the stress of testing makes even the best teachers question practices.


  3. In this piece you state, ” We can examine the contributions of each new movement in the light of well-grounded principles and stay the course of common sense in our responsibilities to our students.” What about the role of good quality research in helping us avoid fads and ensure good quality effective teaching?

    In the UK the researchED movement is growing at an incredible rate because teachers are crying out for evidence in terms of how and what they should teach. As their website states, “ResearchED is a grass-roots, teacher-led organisation aimed at improving research literacy in the educational communities, dismantling myths in education, getting the best research where it is needed most, and providing a platform for educators, academics, and all other parties to meet and discuss what does and doesn’t work in the great project of raising our children.”

    There are two upcoming events in the UK on Primary Literacy. One in Leeds and the other in London. I would encourage any teacher to attend.

    For those living outside the UK I can assure you researchED is coming. There has already been a conference in Australia and one is coming up in New York.

    If you want to read up a bit on researchED here is a piece written by a Canadian blogger.


  4. This article, and others like it, cause me to have grave concerns for our struggling students. Staying the course has not been beneficial for too many of our children – just look at the statistics. Literacy is this country is abysmal and without taking action on the research of the past 30 years, it isn’t likely to improve.

    To be clear, I am part of the “frenzy” as co-founder of Decoding Dyslexia Pennsylvania, the 2nd state in what has become a national movement (international actually as it has expanded into Canada). When a grassroots movement of parents, looking for change because our sons and daughters are being neglected due to “staying the course”, extends to all 50 states in just over 3 years – something needs to change.

    I have two sons labeled within the educational system as having a Specific Learning Disability, otherwise known as Dyslexia. Just as many other parents have found, our current educational system is not prepared at the university level to teach these children. That needs to change. Parents find that the word “Dyslexia” is rarely used in the educational setting. Since you cannot change what you don’t acknowledge, that needs to change. Since the author of this article’s very own blog states that the program is not for children with Individualized Education Plans, why are schools doing that very thing. That needs to change.

    The heartbreaking reality is that wealthy parents, and a few other lucky ones, can get the needed help for their children outside of the school system because their are methodologies known to work for remediation of dyslexia. We need teachers to be trained in how to effectively teach our children to read and they are practically begging for the means to do so because the want to do right by all kids.

    Parents certainly understand about the pendulum swing since our children have felt the negative effects. We are not asking to throw the good out with the bad, but to understand that our children need to be taught differently than the current educational system provides. With 30 years of research, we know what needs to be done. This is simply a failure to act upon the research.


    • Dear Tina,

      Thank you for your heartfelt comment and your hard work on behalf of successful literacy for all children. Our Center has had a major focus on struggling students for 25 years, so we understand well the urgency to address their needs in schools and support the professional learning of all teachers to assure their success. When I say to stay the course, it was not intended to mean not to implement change that benefits students but to preserve what is effective.

      We are advocates, as I have written, for addressing the unique needs of all children and are dedicated to elevating the expertise of all teachers who are responsible for their success. We argue that children in the classroom who are labeled “dyslexic” need, as do other children, many opportunities to read books that engage them, to talk about books, to read and write daily, and to be recognized as unique learners. This of course includes explicit systematic phonics instruction that enables the students to be able to navigate text and express their thoughts in writing.

      Thank you again for advocating for our children. We wish you the best in your work.



  5. I would love to know your research and current thinking around diversity in books we have for our students. Students are much more engaged in their learning when they see characters who are like them, color/culture/setting, or the authors and illustrators are like them. I feel like that piece is missing from much of the literacy discussions I participate in. It’s important for all children to see kids who are diverse in the classroom books and in the books we use to teach. Personally, I think the #weneeddiversebooks campaign is terrific. I would love to hear and understand Lesley University’s stand on that aspect of literacy/language arts.


  6. I think your first and second key areas (First, every student deserves to have a meaningful and interesting reading life and writing life in school.Second, students need a variety of structured opportunities to talk throughout the day.) are important for educators to follow while planning and teaching. Students learn best when engaged.


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