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.
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 www.lesley.edu/crr .