What is the key to creating super readers and writers? How do you get every kid excited about opening a book or writing a story? Access to many and varied books and other texts is essential, of course, as is giving your students authentic opportunities to share their thoughts, both orally and through writing. But how can you tweak your strategies to make the biggest impact—while juggling the needs of 20 or more diverse learners?

Enter a super-charged approach called comprehensive literacy, which uses a continuous loop of teaching, learning, and assessing to build students’ reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills. Tools include read-alouds, independent reading, guided reading instruction, and writing workshops. What distinguishes comprehensive literacy from a basal reading approach or from “didactic literacy,” which focuses almost entirely on overt instruction, is that it is a dynamic system that constantly adapts to the needs of individual learners.

“A big piece of comprehensive literacy is the gradual release of responsibility,” says Maria Walther, author of The Ramped-Up Read Aloud and a first-grade teacher in Illinois. “Teachers model reading, writing, listening, and speaking, and then give children a chance to go out and practice those skills with support.” Instead of focusing on deficits, educators emphasize and build upon student strengths.

“If a child ‘reads’ a string of letters he’s written to me, and I notice that each one of those letters represents the beginning of a word, I know that child knows something about letters and their relationships,” says Patricia Scharer, an Ohio State professor of education and human ecology and the author of Responsive Literacy: A Comprehensive Framework. “So I can say, ‘This word cat. I see you wrote a k there. Say the word slowly. What else can you hear?’ Chances are the child will also hear the t, and then add a t.” Comprehensive literacy, Scharer says, is all about providing what each child needs next.

Inspire Discussion With Read-Alouds

“To me, the linchpin of comprehensive literacy is the read-aloud,” Walther says. A book she shares with her class is If You Plant a Seed, by Kadir Nelson. Walther frequently pauses during reading to engage students in conversation.

“I’ll ask open-ended questions like What are the characters saying? How does this help us understand what the author is trying to teach us?” she says, noting that collaborative conversation is an oft-neglected part of literacy instruction. After the discussion, she has students write about the book’s “big idea,” or theme, observing and providing assistance as needed. If she notices kids who are not writing, she pulls them together into an ad hoc group and reviews the book with them. If students continue to struggle with the big idea, Walther will provide additional instruction and support during guided reading lessons later in the day or week.

Family engagement is a crucial part of literacy development as well, especially in the early elementary years. Walther schedules meetings with families in September or October, rather than waiting until parent-teacher conferences in November. “I share what I‘m seeing at school and ask, ‘What do you see at home?’ I tell them, ‘I’m here to support you and your child.’”

When she taught kindergarten through third grade, Yvette Rosario-Perez made a special effort to connect with the families of her ESL students. “The strongest predictor of eventual English literacy is proficiency in their native language, so I told all parents that they should read, write, and speak in their native language at home,” says Rosario-Perez, founder of New York’s Inspire Academy Middle School. “It becomes really exciting for a parent when you tell them that, because, a lot of times, parents who don’t speak English feel like they can’t help their children.”

Read and Write Across the Curriculum

Kendra Cantrell, a third-grade teacher at GEMS World Academy in Chicago, uses mini-lessons and guided and independent practice to strengthen her students’ reading and writing skills. During a history unit on exploration, for example, the class discusses its positive and negative impacts. Then, each student chooses an explorer to research and write about.

“I do a lot of front-loading on how to ask good research questions,” Cantrell says. “I start with a mini-lesson on different types of questions, and then we come up with a list together.” Each student chooses a question to research, and Cantrell shows them how to use their questions to guide their reading. So, for instance, she might show a student who wants to know more about the tools an explorer used how to look for the word tools in a book’s index or table of contents.

Cantrell doesn’t restrict students to books, either; they’re encouraged to learn from online encyclopedias and pre-approved YouTube videos. When the class begins the writing process, Cantrell uses mini-lessons, modeling, and individual attention to support students at every step along the way.

“The first day we start writing, I might introduce how to write a good introduction for a biography and model that, and then let the kids go off and do it,” Cantrell says. “Some kids—my stronger writers—may not have a writing conference with me until they get to the end of their draft. I’ll do three or four conferences with kids who need more support.”

Providing appropriate support is essential for students who are making the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. Bonita White, a Cincinnati-area school media specialist, uses audio books to help struggling readers. “I give kids the print book, and then we listen to the audio as they follow along; that way, they get the content without having to struggle with decoding the words,” she says. “The next time they come in, we might read without listening to the audio.”

Generate Excitement With Independent Reading

“As much as possible, students need to be making choices about what books they’re going to read and what they’re going to write about,” says Nancie Atwell, co-author of The Reading Zone and founder of the Center for Teaching and Learning.

When Atwell taught eighth grade, she began each day’s literacy period by reading aloud a poem. The class would then spend about 10 minutes discussing it. “All the vocabulary of criticism gets introduced in those conversations—point of view, theme, organization, imagery,” she says.

The next 25 minutes were spent on independent reading. As students read, Atwell moved around the classroom and engaged them individually in conversation. “A typical question I would ask is, ‘If you had to rate this book right now on a scale of 1 to 10, what would you give it?’” she explains. “If their answer wasn’t 9 or 10, I’d tell students they probably shouldn’t be reading that book, and I’d help them find something they really love.” Atwell’s students also created and shared “book talks,” approximately two-minute-long “commercials” about books they had read. “It’s much more convincing for kids to hear other kids saying, ‘I couldn’t put this book down.’”

A diverse classroom library is also essential. Don’t have one? Get creative. Atwell often borrowed 100 books at a time from her school library. Whitney Myers, an eighth-grade ELA teacher at Louisiana’s North Vermilion Middle School, borrows 20 to 30 books at a time that she thinks her students will love from the public library. She has them read for around 20 minutes every day. They discuss the books they’re reading with one another, and then write recommendations on Padlet, says Myers, sharing their passion for reading in multiple ways.


Image: Sean McCabe

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