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Shanker Blog: A Recipe for Successful Literacy Instruction

As a former high school English teacher of nine years, I know how daunting it can be to tackle literacy instruction. You stress over the lack of resources. You crave more professional development. You worry about your assessment choices. You question your administrator’s support. On any given day, you have a stream of worries and concerns running through your mind. While many districts rely solely on the ever-changing state and federal literacy mandates to inform their instruction, there are many adjustments and services districts can provide within their own schools and classrooms to support students and teachers.

The infrastructure of school systems contributes heavily to literacy instruction and achievement (Gabriel & Woulfin, 2022). One effective way to support system-level literacy is through a district literacy plan. These plans serve as a way to bring together various stakeholders to form a committee intent on better supporting students and improving literacy practices. When preparing a district literacy plan, stakeholders must use a combination of ALL the following ingredients to create a recipe for successful literacy instruction that promotes student learning.

Vision Statement: A district literacy plan should open with and be centered around a vision statement for learning. The Glossary of Education Reform defines a vision statement as “a declaration that schools or other educational organizations use to describe their high-level goals for the future and what it hopes students will learn” (The Glossary of Education Reform, 2015). Essentially, a vision statement encompasses a district’s belief system about literacy and serves as a guide for their work.

Goals and Objectives: Next, the plan needs to include a set of goals and objectives for literacy achievement. The goals should be specific, measurable, and actionable. Stanford University notes that goals should focus on the important concepts and skills, as well as the ways in which educators can help students build mastery in literacy (Stanford University, 2021).

Definitions and Descriptions: Another key component of an effective literacy plan is the definitions and descriptions section. The language and acronyms in literacy instruction are plentiful and ever-changing, so a definitions section will keep stakeholders informed and concordant. This section should be concise, contain user-friendly definitions, and be translated into the various languages spoken within the district (Zalaznick, 2020).

Data Driven: Data often forms the basis for major decisions in education, and a district literacy plan is no different. Stakeholders should utilize student data, educator data, and system data when making decisions about district literacy. Additionally, it is important that educators know how to use literacy data to inform instruction. Data collection, analysis, and utilization supports a system of sustained momentum and continuous improvement (INcompassing Education, 2020).

Comprehensive K-12 Instruction: Often, K-3 literacy is the primary focus for district literacy plans. However, The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) understands the importance of a comprehensive K-12 literacy education for students. NASSP notes that a high-quality, literacy-rich environment is necessary for all students, especially secondary students as structural complexity increases and reading texts and assignments are longer and vary significantly across academic content (NAASP, 2020). From my experience as a high school teacher, I know many students will walk through the door without basic reading and writing skills and understand the importance of prioritizing literacy at the secondary level.

Professional Development (PD): All district literacy plans must have a detailed proposal for PD. According to the 2020 International Literacy Association (ILA) survey for literacy educators, PD was identified as a top priority for improving instruction. Teachers want effective literacy PD and need districts to provide it. When selecting PD options, it is important that it is based on current research, interactive, and ongoing. Additionally, teachers have expressed that they get the most out of PD when it is done within cohorts and colleagues share their experiences and provide demonstrations (Reist, 2022).

Curriculum: When developing a literacy curriculum for a district, it is important that it is founded on research. Teaching reading is an established science with clear, specific, practical instructional strategies that all teachers should be taught and supported using in their classrooms. Louisa C. Moats, a recognized authority on reading education, describes applying research-based practices in literacy instruction as “raising awareness and proficiency through every layer of language organization, including sounds, syllables, meaningful parts (morphemes), phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and various genres of text” (Moats, 2020).

Assessment: Districts must utilize assessments to monitor students’ progress and achievement. Assessments can come in many different forms and should involve both formal and informal methods. It is important to use assessments before teaching, during teaching, and after teaching to target, monitor, and assess teaching practices as well as student learning. (The Literacy Bug, 2014). While we often correlate assessment with standardization, this does not have to be the case. When I was in the classroom, I used quick assessment methods such as exit tickets and discussion boards to gather data on student learning and to guide my instruction.

Resources: Adequate literacy resources are essential to student success, but they do not have to be an expensive investment. While many districts have allocated their funds to scripted reading programs, these programs have shifted the focus to reading for skill and away from enjoying books. The key to reading achievement is real interactions with books, thus districts must prioritize time, choice, access to libraries, and a nurturing culture and community as the necessary resources for a successful literacy plan. (Gonzalez, 2017). I was able to grow my own classroom library by asking for donated books from colleagues, families, and libraries. The support of the local community allowed me to create an environment where students could nurture a love of reading through interest and choice.

Interventions: A proposal for creating and implementing interventions is a necessary component of any literacy plan. Interventions to help struggling readers are extremely important as research finds that “problems in reading can affect performance across several academic content areas, occupational endeavors, and other functional skills that are used in everyday life activities” (Joseph, 2002). Implementing literacy interventions for students should be a collaborative effort among families, teachers, and specialists to determine collective beliefs as well as to develop solutions based on systematic data collection.

School Leadership: Research points to the importance of administrators as key leaders of instructional improvement, second only to classroom teachers in their impact on student learning. Thus, district literacy plans need to have a section devoted to the roles and responsibilities of school leaders. The International Literacy Association proposes that school administrators should support literacy by (1) being clear and consistent with communication and expectations; (2) understanding the latest research on literacy learning; (3) developing a climate of collaboration with educators and families; (4) providing time and resources to educators; and (5) maintaining a strong focus on literacy instruction by frequently visiting classrooms and meeting with educators (Bean, R. & Ippolito, J., 2018).

Evaluation: Evaluating a district literacy plan is crucial to its success. Stakeholders must monitor the plan using a predetermined set of criteria centered around a specific set of questions and a timeline with the vision and goals in mind. Additionally, it is important to determine who will be involved in the evaluation process and how they will be unbiased in their approach. The North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, a not-for-profit funded by the U.S. Department of Education, recommends that school leaders and other literacy committee members are responsible for evaluating the plan and creating set methods for collecting, organizing, and analyzing data (Johnson, 2000).

Equity: Districts must identify ways to make their literacy plans equitable. The International Literacy Association created the “Children’s Rights to Read” to highlight the crucial elements of an equitable literacy program, and it goes far beyond just giving students access to books. Through an equity lens, literacy instruction needs to include opportunities for children to read books that mirror their experiences and those of others, providing insight into the lives of a diversity of young people with the support of knowledgeable literacy advocates (International Literacy Association, 2019).

Family Engagement: Finally, no district literacy plan is complete without acknowledging the importance of family involvement. It is widely accepted that family involvement is crucial to student success, including literacy instruction. Researchers have shown that students whose families remain involved in their learning have been shown to maintain higher levels of academic achievement and develop more realistic plans for the future. Opening lines of communication with parents and families while supporting their role in learning is critical for increasing at-home literacy involvement. Aside from garnering parent and family support with literacy, teachers can also utilize community support to promote literacy instruction through volunteer activities and after- school programs (McGraw Hill, 2019). During my time as a teacher, I created a weekly newsletter that I shared with families via Google Docs. I ended each update with a few book recommendations for students to read at home. Many families loved this extra addition because they were unaware of the book options available to their children.

Overall, creating a district literacy plan with ALL of the above components will help schools better utilize the infrastructure that is already available to them. It also recognizes and prioritizes the many factors that go into literacy instruction and provides tangible ways to support teachers and their work. Finally, district literacy plans help parents and families understand and stay informed about what the district is doing to expand their child’s literacy achievement, as well as ways in which they can help at home. While creating a district literacy plan may seem like the ultimate challenge, the combination of all these ingredients is the winning recipe for successful literacy instruction.

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The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Kayla Reist

Kayla Reist is a fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute in Washington, D.C. She is currently completing her master’s degree program in Educational Transformation ...