Developing Literacy

Submitted by:  Jimmie Jo Fitzwater

From Chapter 12:  Language and Literacy



Our text defines literacy as “the ability to communicate in printed language through reading and writing, particularly in school settings” (Bergin and Bergin, 2012).  Literacy is communication in all forms.  It includes listening, speaking, reading, and writing.  Literacy is always evolving.  It begins at birth with the interactions with others and the environment in which a child lives.  As we read in our text, the process of developing literacy begins even before a child enters school.  A child’s experiences early in life set the stage for development.  Learning to read and write is important to a child’s success in school and later in life.  It is the foundation for almost all areas of a child’s development.  Reading and writing skills develop concurrently.

Why do some children become more literate than others?  One factor is verbal ability.  “Children with good verbal ability learn to read more easily than their peers.  Good verbal ability includes a large vocabulary, ability to retell a story coherently, and both phonological and morphological awareness” (Bergin and Bergin, 2012).  A second factor is brain development.  Children may inherit their ability to read and write.  The experiences a child has also helps his/her brain to develop.  A third reason is cognitive development.  “Reading requires general cognitive abilities, like working memory, knowledge, reasoning, and cognitive abilities” (Bergin and Bergin, 2012).  A fourth factor includes a positive emotional attachment.  Secure children develop better literacy skills and attitudes towards reading.  Finally, developing literacy has many social factors.  Parents who read and talk to children about books are helping their child to develop literacy.  Playing can also help to develop literacy.  Parents who play and use complex words with their children can greatly increase their child’s vocabulary development.

A child’s home environment greatly impacts his/her ability to develop fluent communication skills.  So the question remains:  What can I do as a classroom teacher to help to increase and improve literacy skills in the classroom?  As I researched this question I began to see the similarities between researchers of literacy instruction for elementary students, secondary students, adolescents, and boys.  I compiled the information to the following suggestions:

  • Make the Time:  In his article, Richard Allington wrote about reading and writing vs. all of the other “stuff.”  He warned that elementary teachers should be spending a large amount of time allowing children to practice reading.  Less time should be spent on activities that do not significantly increase a child’s reading abilities (such as worksheets).  Allington wrote, “Extensive practice provides the opportunity for students to consolidate the skills and strategies teachers often work so hard to develop” (2002).
  • Classroom Resources:  Teachers should have a well-stocked classroom.  Books should be fiction and nonfiction representing varied formats and genres.  Books that are easy to read build fluency and provide enjoyment.  Success in reading is closely associated with engagement and the motivation to read.
  • Teach with a Purpose:  Teachers need to provide direct and explicit instruction of comprehension strategies.  According to the What Works Clearinghouse, “Direct and explicit teaching involves a teacher modeling and providing explanations of the specific strategies students are learning, giving guided practice and feedback on the use of the strategies, and promoting independent practice to apply the strategies” (2008).
  • Encourage Talk:  Teachers should encourage and support purposeful talk throughout the day.  Students should be allowed to discuss with one another and with the teacher as well.  Talking appears to be especially important for boys.  “Some boys need to talk through their ideas before they are sure they understand what they have read and before they can commit their ideas to paper effectively” (Ontario Education, 2004).
  • Authentic Reading Tasks:  Complex tasks that increase student motivation and engagement should be planned rather than low level worksheets.  Teachers should plan real world, authentic tasks that provide students with some choices.  “Students will learn to process text more deeply if their reading is relevant to their lives and they are pursuing meaningful learning goals in an atmosphere that supports their initiative and personal choice” (Center on Instruction, 2007).  Teachers should have high expectations for these tasks.


Allington, Richard. (2002). “The Six Ts of Effective Elementary Literacy Instruction.” Reading Rockets. Retrieved November, 2013 from

Bergin, C. C., & Bergin, D. A. (2012). Child and Adolescent Development in your Classroom. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning.

“Improving Adolescent Literacy:  Effective Classroom and Intervention Practices.” U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, What Works Clearinghouse. Retrieved November, 2013 from

“Me Read?  No Way!” (2004) Ontario Education.  Retrieved November, 2013 from

Torgensen, Houston, Rissman. (2007) “Improving Literacy Instruction in Middle and High Schools:  A Guide for Principals.”  Florida Center for Reading Research.  Retrieved November, 2013 from

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What activity do you do in your classroom that you feel helps to increase your student’s motivation to read?
  2.  Do you follow a Reader’s Workshop approach or does your district use a basal series?  What are the benefits and negative aspects of the program that you use?
  3. How has implementing the Common Core Standards changed the development of literacy in your classroom?
  4. What is a writing activity that your students seem to enjoy doing year after year?


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26 Responses to Developing Literacy

  1. Michelle Peterson says:

    Question 2: Do you follow a Reader’s Workshop model or does your district use a basal series?

    I am using the Reader’s Workshop model. This has actually been a topic I have been discussing a lot lately. My principal and director of special education want me to implement the workshop model, however my special education colleagues say that my students will not reach maximum benefit from it, since they are cognitively low. I feel stuck. However, my approach has been to continue the workshop model with modifications. I use the lesson format of the model but I tech IEP goals (which are now being directly tied to the Common Core standards. I am excited to get better at teaching the workshop model! I believe it can be effectively used in a special education classroom as long as the teacher uses the goals as the objectives of the lesson.

  2. Jimmie Jo says:

    This is is also my first year implementing the Reader’s Workshop model. I love doing read alouds and using those for my comprehension lessons. I feel like I can get them to a deeper level of understanding using literature that may be above their reading level (I teach 1st grade). I can also address the standards which were not included in the basal series we were using. I also have my students reading at their “just right’ reading level to practice the skills at their own level. I think it would work GREAT for Spec. Ed.!

  3. Leslie says:

    What activity do you do in your classroom that you feel helps to increase your student’s motivation to read?

    In my 2nd grade classroom, we perform Reader’s Theater plays. My students love it! I assign them parts and they have a full week to practice at home and at school. Some weeks the plays have 2 parts and some weeks there are 10 parts. It is nice to use a variety of plays. My students use props and really get into their plays. Some students memorize their part while others use the script. Each week, I video tape the plays and let the students watch them to self reflect. I also post them on my classrooms website. Parents love it too! My students are very excited to see what their new part is each week. In my class, we also do book clubs, become reading detectives and share poetry.
    Every Friday, I have a parent, member of the community or school member come in to our class to be a ‘Mystery Reader’. I give the students clues to who is coming and they ponder about who it could be. This is so great because when they reader comes, they share one of their favorite books. Earlier this year, the art teacher came in and read some poetry books. The next week at library, I noticed several of my students checking out poetry books! It is great because they are inspired by the readers that come in. This year, we have had a police officer, the superintendent, the art teacher, a grandma (who writes her own published children’s books), my sister, our A+ tutor, and another grandma who read a book about how pumpkins grow and then gave each student a small pumpkin. I know that students really look forward to finding out who the ‘Mystery Reader’ is each Friday.

    • Jimmie Jo says:

      Where do you find your Reader’s Theater plays? Do you write them yourself or do you have a resource that you would share? How much time at school does it take you to practice them?

      • Nicole Gaffney says:

        I would like to know the answer to this question too! I just started to do them this year with my class. The years past I couldn’t manage them with my groups.

  4. anonymous50 says:

    finding new books that might interest them.

    • anonymous50 says:

      Let’s try that again:
      1. What activity do you do in your classroom that you feel helps to increase your student’s motivation to read?

      Fortunately, motivating my students to read has not been a problem, as they come to me in the middle school G/T language arts program already confirmed book lovers. The problem I run into is finding age-appropriate reading material commensurate with their abilities. While there exists a plethora of YA literature, by 7th grade the majority of my students have devoured much of it, and the content of much of the adult literature is either inappropriate or uninteresting for these adolescents. Occasionally, a series such as Harry Potter or Aragon arises, but then the students begin reading these offerings at younger and younger grade levels until they once again come to me seeking new material in middle school. I attempt to keep current and golden standards stocked in my classroom library, based on my own reading and recommendations from students and families, but it is sometimes difficult to vet a great number of books each year. Being a constructivist at heart, I suppose, I turned this dilemma back around to the students by creating my “WE LOVE READING” board. Students use the board as a resource for finding new books that might interest them, reading reviews and recommendations from their peers. I provide a basket of basic die cut shapes, as well as some squares of construction paper for them to create their own, and students use these to write the author, book title, short review (genre, why the recommend the book or not, etc.) and their own name, which they then staple to the board. The only “incentive” I use beyond their own curiosity and established love of reading is to reward the person with the most posts with a certificate for a new book of his or her choice at the end of each semester. (At the end of the year, I also offer up the option of accompanying me to the bookstore to pick out the book, and I have enjoyed the company of many students as a result.) I allow time daily, during bell work, while waiting for classmates to finish, and during a 30-minute SSR (Silent Sustained Reading) mid-week for students to read whatever book they are currently enjoying for a review. In addition, when a student finishes a book and posts a review, they are invited to talk about the book with me, if they desire; if I’ve read it, we talk about our favorite parts, if I have not, then they usually try to convince me why I should. At first, I was afraid that adolescents would find this ongoing activity silly, but without fail, as each year progresses, the board fills up with bright shapes and colorfully worded reviews (necessitating the fresh start at semester), and students have another, perhaps more relevant, resource for exploring literature

      • Jimmie Jo says:

        My daughter would definitely accompany you to the book store! I love that as a 7th grader that my daughter and I can read the same books! Do you have any recommendations for us? I still have “Allegiant” on my Kindle waiting to be read. She got me “into” the post-apocalyptic genre with the pre-reading of “Hunger Games” to make sure it would be appropriate for her. I think it is a great incentive to read and talk about the books with your students.

      • Jimmie Jo says:

        Thank you! I will definitely look into them!

  5. Andrea says:

    What is a writing activity that your students seem to enjoy doing year after year?

    A writing activity that I have had my students do year after year is one about the water cycle. I teach 7th grade science, so when we teach the water cycle it is generally review. The students learn a song about the water cycle and we discuss the processes of evaporation, condensation, precipitation and transpiration. After students have reviewed the material they think about what life would be like as a water droplet. There are several stations (ex. cloud, ocean, river, household, etc ) around the room that have a scenarios written on them to tell the student what is happening to them as a water droplet (ex. fell as rain from cloud, animal drank you up from a stream, etc). Once the students have gone to ten stations, then they begin writing a story about where they went as a water droplet. The students get a choice to write the story in an essay format or as a comic strip with captions.

    • Jimmie Jo says:

      That sounds like a fun activity! I like that there are choices!

      • anonymous50 says:

        If you’re still wanting book recommendations for your daughter, my ‘young friends’ are currently enjoying several, all of which are on my Christmas break reading list, but none of which I have read myself as of yet.

        Keeping with the dystopian theme, The Darkest Minds is popular right now, and apparently Shadow and Bone is a favorite among the fantasy readers. For contemporary lit, a lot of girls are reading the Rainbow Rowell books, (Eleanor and Park; Fangirl).

        I hope one of these (or all) will work for you!

  6. Nicole Gaffney says:

    1. What activity do you do in your classroom that you feel helps to increase your student’s motivation to read?

    I just read an amazing article online about student engagement and motivating children to read. It was such a great a read and allowed me to reflect on the things that I am doing in my classroom to help engage my young readers. It talked about how there are “Seven Rules of Engagement” (Gambrell, 2011):
    1. The reading tasks and activities are relevant to their lives.
    2. They have a wide range of reading materials.
    3. They have ample opportunities to engage in sustained reading time.
    4. They make choices about what they read.
    5. They have opportunities to socially interact with others about books.
    6. They have opportunities to be successful with challenging texts.
    7. When classroom incentives reflect the value and importance of reading.

    In my classroom, I implement all of these “rules”, yet some are more prominent than others. Since I follow the Workshop Model (particularly the units of Lucy Calkins), I am using all of these in my classroom. I find that they all are important, none more than others. In my classroom however, my children enjoy the wide range of reading materials (both fiction and non-fiction), their ability to make a choice about the books they are reading and a mixture between partner talk and sustained reading time. With a balanced literacy program along with these guidelines, my students seem to enjoy reading and writing every single day.

    Check it out!
    Gambrell, Linda B.(2011). The Seven Rules of Engagement: What’s Most Important to Know About Motivation to Read. Reading Teacher, 65(3), 172-178, 7.

    • Jimmie Jo says:

      Are you using Calkins’ units of Writing or Reading? We are looking for a new series (I don’t want one!) and I noticed that she had writing units for primary, but only had units of Reading for 3-5. Do you think they are aligned to the common core?

      Thank you article! It goes along very well with everything I read on the subject.

      • Nicole Gaffney says:

        Yes, we are using Lucy Calkins’ Units of Writing and Reading. I am using her older Reading Units for Kindergarten ( I got them from a colleague, let me know if you want more information on how to find them) and a mixture of her older Writing Units (2008 I believe) and her newer ones. I love them! I found they are aligned to the CC in ways, however they do not cover everything.

    • Amanda Morris says:

      I also like the article. Thanks for sharing!
      We use Lucy’s workshop approach as well. I use the 3-5 Reading, and then we have the grade specific for Writing which has changed from the past where it was generic over several grades. I wonder if Lucy will be coming out with a grade specific for reading!
      I agree that the program does encourage all of those rules of engagement, which are so important.
      Specifically, right now, I have been utilizing the different non-fiction articles available on the CD-ROM and my students are LOVING them because they are short reads that they can use and interact with a partner. Then, we get to share a fact from our reading. These are quick reads so they aren’t “stuck” with a topic they don’t enjoy, or can realize they want to learn more on the topic! Availability of non-fiction is a huge factor in my students interest and motivation to read.

      • Jimmie Jo says:

        She does have grade specific for 3-5.

        We are looking at getting a new reading series. I am currently doing Reader’s Workshop and do NOT want a basal, but some other teachers like the guidance that a basal provides. I looked at these because this might be a good compromise.

        I am glad to have so many people enjoying using her units for writing. I am having samples sent to my school so my principal can look at them. It is time to move forward and do some new things at my school!

      • Jimmie Jo says:

        OOOPs…now that I looked at what you wrote again the link to the Calkin’s product may be what you already use!

    • Brooke says:

      Awesome article! I teach 7th grade ELA and I went to the New York Teacher’s College workshop two summers ago. Our school is loosely following the Lucy Calkin’s Reading Workshop model and I LOVE it! I can’t wait to share this article with my co-workers : )

  7. Janet says:

    4.What is a writing activity that your students seem to enjoy doing year after year?

    In my special education role, I do mostly performance based activities, but I have observed a writing activity all of the students at the middle school seem to enjoy. The writing assignment is an autobiography and each chapter has specific requirements for them to investigate regarding their own story in life. They have to interview family members, research their family tree, and write about thoughts and feelings they may not have explored before. The entire writing project takes 4-5 weeks with many days scheduled in the computer lab. In the past, the writing projects have also been sent to a company to create books with hardcovers. The students cherish their books and have it for a keepsake. I hear students that have graduated talking about the book they created when they were in middle school and I believe that makes it a successful writing project!

  8. Autumn says:

    What is a writing activity that your students seem to enjoy doing year after year?

    My preferred writing activities are ones that require the children to reflect upon something that they have either seen, heard, or read. One of my favorite themes within this realm involves writing as propaganda, as it supplies authentic opportunities for student engagement and forces one to analyze topics in new ways. I generally commence this exercise with the showing of carefully-screened propaganda posters from WWI and WWII. As a class, we collectively scrutinize every element of the poster (details, object of one’s gaze, subject, nuance, purpose, etc.) and evaluate its overall effectiveness within a given historical context. Next, we step back and use our panoptic lens to assess whether the intent has been achieved. The children then record their observations and ideas. Many students quickly observe that, although grains of truth are embedded in the details, there is something quite off about the overall message being communicated, once the poster is viewed in its entirety. This ignites interesting discussions, which include techniques for distorting reality, bias, and how writing/media shapes perspective. I conclude the activity by having the students draft their own propaganda pieces.

  9. Brooke says:

    What is a writing activity that your students seem to enjoy doing year after year?

    One of my favorite writing activities year after year is a persuasive writing unit and coincidentally it is usually my students as well. I love the unit because I love to argue and debate and I have found that 7th graders do as well : ) Usually by middle school, students have come to me with a laundry list of things that they find unfair or questionable about their world. If they do not have anything they are passionate about, we read a bunch of non-fiction current event articles until we find something. Not only do I get them to write argumentative writing, but they also have hands on practice finding key ideas and supporting details for their arguments. A lot of time the writing we do in classrooms doesn’t seem to be relative to every students, but the persuasive writing usually becomes personal. I love this type of writing because the students typically break out of their shells and start to have mature or higher level thoughts.

  10. Drew Ibendahl says:

    What activity do you do in your classroom that you feel helps to increase your student’s motivation to read?
    I enjoy reading aloud to my students more than anything else during the day. Showing my personal excitement and dedication to reading serves as a great model for my students. Although I need to include more nonfiction into my read-alouds for those students who are not always interested in fiction (and because a majority of the reading we need to do in school and as adults is nonfiction), I really enjoy reading aloud fiction, getting into character, pausing at just the right moments in the story to create the suspense that will, hopefully, excite students to hear more, and help students create the picture in their minds that they, all too often, get from the TV and movies. I often use my read-alouds as mini lessons, focusing on different reading strategies, literary techniques, or author/character studies. Too often, I feel, students struggle through their independent reading, struggle to comprehend, and struggle to critically discuss their reading. Reading aloud takes away some of the pressures of students having to read through difficult texts on their own and can allow for better understanding and, hopefully, deeper conversations about the text. Although I have certain books I like to use for read-aloud, I bring students into the decision-making, often allowing them to choose the author, subject, or specific book. The read-alouds are great to tie into content areas, especially social studies. Because of the complexity and advanced reading levels of most textbooks, reading aloud picture books, nonfiction books, and novels to accompany the textbook, many students develop stronger background knowledge, often making the textbook easier to comprehend and more engaging.

  11. Pingback: Entering the Non-Fiction Genre | sebgwrites

  12. Katie Williams says:

    What activity do you do in your classroom that you feel helps to increase your student’s motivation to read?
    I think reading aloud provides students with a great model and can show them how fun reading it. This is where I like to start at the beginning of the school year. I also tune into what my students are interested in. I try to use those books whenever possible. For instance, one of my studnets is really into reading the Little Critter books by Mercer Mayer, so I made sure I used one of those books during read aloud recently. This was a great motivator as well as a way of letting him know that I cared enoug to know what he liked to read. Another big motivational tool is allowing students to talk about what they have read. Talking extends comprehension. My students come up with ideas during book discussions that I would have never thought of myself. I think book discussions fits right in with the Speaking and Listening standards that come with Common Core.

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