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Six Guiding Principles to Help Classroom Teachers Boost Student Literacy

How to enliven your classroom and inspire a love of words, reading, and learning.

We recently talked with Dr. Barbara Steckel, Reading Specialist program director and professor in literacy and reading, who shared some ideas on how you can enrich your classroom and motivate your students.

1. Establish a culture that supports literacy.

Get to know your students, including their interests, their home and community, and their social and cultural experiences.

Believe that every student is a reader. Support and celebrate every child’s effort to develop reading muscles and increase reading stamina. Let them know you believe in them.

Show students how valuable books are, sharing ideas and working together to make meaning.

Highlight words, words, words. Make vocabulary learning fun. Feature new words every week and recognize students who use them in new and interesting ways. We can’t teach every word, but we can teach word awareness and the richness of vocabulary. We can pepper our own speech with mature, descriptive, and interesting words.

2. Explicitly teach skills.

Phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency are foundations for proficiency. Older students benefit from learning structural analysis, such as common prefixes and suffixes and rules for dividing longer words into syllables. All these are essential to reading and understanding. 

The endgame is the application of skills to connected text.  Basic skills are the foundation, but they are only pathways to the goal of developing proficiently engaged readers and critical thinkers.

Create small reading groups, organized according to students’ needs, to support the development of skills and strategies to increase student competency. Meet several times a week, using books and materials that are at the students’ instructional level—meaning the text is a bit too difficult for reading independently, but just right with the support of a teacher.

Books in a row

3. Create a compelling classroom library for independent reading.

Collect books and materials that will appeal to the interests and proficiencies of your students. Place the classroom library in full view and within reach of your students.

Allow your readers to choose books they want to read during independent reading time and at home.

Sort books according to genre, interest categories, or authors as a way to help students make good selections based upon their interests. Level books according to difficulty, but don’t restrict students to a level for independent reading. Interest, life experience, and motivation can be strong factors in determining text complexity. Make sure students know how the books are organized.

Teach students how to select books based on personal interests, as well as challenges within the book.  Students can first peruse the front and back book covers. Show them how to scan the overall organization and look at illustrations. Does the book seem reasonably appealing?  If so, the next step is to select a page or two to see if the student can read most of words without assistance. A simple guideline is about 95% accuracy or better for under grade four and 97% accuracy for grades four and older.

4. Confer with students individually during independent reading time.

Listen to the student read a small passage, noticing patterns in word identification and fluency and skills such as breaking words into syllables, phrasing, knowledge of vocabulary, and comprehension.

Coach students according to their individual needs. Encourage talking about the book—the characters, the plot, the vocabulary--what does the student find most compelling about the text?

Use individual reading conferences as a rich source of formative assessment data. Keep track of each student’s development as a reader over time and use this information when planning lessons or selecting materials. It’s also valuable data to share and discuss at parent-teacher-student conferences.

5. Talk about books.

Teacher book talks are an engaging way to motivate readers. A book talk is brief. It’s a way for you to feature a book that you love and that you think your students would love, too. Say just enough to capture interest and pull your students into the plot. Show a great illustration or read a paragraph aloud to demonstrate how the author uses language. Put the book out on your display table and watch it disappear!

Have students talk about books, too. Book clubs can be inspiring. A group of 4-6 students meet several times to discuss a book they are all reading. They share reactions, question one another, and ultimately build deeper comprehension as a result of their  discussions. 

What are you reading and advocating for? Bring your books, magazines, editorials, and journals into class. Share your favorite websites, podcast, and books on tape. Demonstrate that you are a lifelong reader, writer, and listener. Tell students what you like most about what you’re currently reading or listening to. What is your favorite time to read, write, or listen; how does reading and writing help you, relax you, provide enjoyment, and make a positive impact on your life? 

6. Write about books.

Have students write about books in journals. Students can keep a response journal to record their thoughts about the books they read. Response journals can take many forms, but a you could use a simple format with questions that can apply to many different books and at any point in the reading process. Examples of questions or prompts are: what personal connections do you make with the characters or events, what questions would you ask classmates who are reading this book, what did you learn?

Readers theater is an engaging way to develop reading fluency. Students reread and practice their assigned parts in a script to get ready for a fluent and expressive performance. Some students may want to write the simple scripts for their own performances as an extension activity after reading.

Extend comprehension with themes that are relevant to your students. Students can select an important theme or message from a text and work with their classmates to promote, persuade, or advocate for a cause like social or climate justice. Students can use language, artistic expression, and a wide variety of digital tools to become advocates for a cause that began in the virtual or real pages of a text.