On Teaching Literacy

A parent of a student recently sent me this survey as part of her masters’ program, and asked for my input.  Following up on my last post (and trying to make up for the deficit of education-related posts this summer), I thought I’d share some of my meager thoughts here.  Perhaps they’ll be of interest to someone.  My replies to the questions are in italics.


Upper Elementary through Middle School and High School


What grade do you currently teach? 10th–Sophomores

What grade have you taught? All grades 6-12 (and college)

What subjects have you taught? English I-IV, English R/W I-II, Composition, Forensics, American Literature Honors, Modern Literature (college: English 101 and 102, World Literature)


1. What aspects of literacy do you hope that your students have been exposed to prior to your level? These could include activities, state objectives, or materials (pieces of literature). By high school, the most important aspects of literacy would be reading fluency, genre awareness, basic literary terms (setting, plot, figures of speech, etc.), and, ideally, some memorization of literature.


2. What Reading deficits and disabilities do you encounter most? Comprehension, fluency, willingness to engage difficult material.

A. What are your most used remedial tactics for these problems? Reading aloud to them is the best overall intervention, as well as guided practice using strategies like making predictions, evaluating an author’s methods of narration, and identifying themes and encouraging students to analyze and apply them.


4. In regards to phonetic awareness skills, what theories of practice do you support and/or not support?

C. Do you see phonics facts like Math teachers see addition/subtraction/multiplication/ division facts; that if a student does not master these early, he or she will continue to have difficulties? Yes; for example, early training in Latin and Greek word roots is essential to development of advanced vocabulary.

B. How do students at your level need to use their phonics skills? Primarily for decoding difficult new vocabulary; at another level, for tracking complex sentence structures in difficult texts.

C. Do you see any outside influences that detract from phonics skills; such as popular language among peers or media influences? TEXT MESSAGING!


5. What are you feelings about parental involvement in Literacy? Describe your ideal situation. I’m unsure about this: we might be able to instruct students without parental help, but certainly not against parental illiteracy. Have you read Freakonomics? The best statistical predictor of student acquisition of literacy is a language-rich home environment, established by the parents’ own habits. As such, if schools are going to advocate for improving their communities, I sometimes wonder what we could do to “reach out” to parents better; offer more classes and activities that involve them in reading with their families, perhaps (maybe sponsoring family/community book clubs?).


6. What are your personal theories on literacy instruction; its practices and goals for you level?

A. What reading programs have worked best for you? Describe what element(s) of the program were the most beneficial.

B. How do you approach multi level reading groups? At the high school level, this is difficult. For independent reading projects (which I try to do quarterly), I encourage individual students in the library to select books of an appropriate difficulty level; I’ve even offered different reading lists to different groups of students based on their ability.

C. What are your best/ favorite reading comprehension instruction techniques? See my answer to 2A.

D. What are your major checkpoints/milestones throughout the year, and how often do assess; such as beginning, mid-year, and end of year? For literacy, I would my “major checkpoints” would be the tests I give on each our quarterly in-class novels(Huck Finn, Ender’s Game, etc.), which focus on comprehension of major aspects of writing (plot, character, style, etc.); and, for their independently-chosen novels, a report that focuses on summarizing those things, and responding to the text in various ways, including evaluating it and illustrating scenes from it. So, each quarter should have at least these two differing major assessments of their literacy, as demonstrated by how they’ve interacted with two differing texts.


7. What proportion should be given to literal questions vs. high order thinking questions? This might sound like a cop-out, but I say “lots of both.” Heavy doses of questions and activities that hit all six areas of Bloom’s taxonomy offer the best means of making the most of a text. I’ve found that if I offer “question starters” to students based on all six levels and have them finish the questions with material from their reading, then trade papers and answer each other’s questions, they usually impress me.


8. What proportions should be given to reading materials such as short story, novels, and nonfiction? Before the 20th century, fiction was often seen as little more than a toy, but I would argue that it should predominate in our humanities studies. Reading fiction invites students to track character and plot development over time, as well to grapple with understanding narrative devices such as metaphor, theme, and satire, which are more rarely used in fairly direct non-fiction works. In addition, literate fiction can convey much the same factual information that non-fiction can, but with a greater artistic care and narrative craftsmanship that helps improve student interest.


9. List which written works you would consider classic, whether they are novels, short stories, novellas, or an author in general, for your grade level. Contemporary “young adult” literature is often touted as increasing student interest; my experience does not bear that out. Besides that, I’m an inveterate classicist, and prefer assisting students in studying the Western canon as much as possible. That being said, I also think it’s worthwhile to introduce students to superior, worthy materials in the world of current literary criticism, such as Harold Bloom. These two approaches reinforce each other quite well.


10. How much time do you devote to independent reading in your planning? How much would you with complete freedom? As implied in my answer to 6D, I use both assigned class readings as well independently-chosen works. However, the essays, stories, and novels used for class are obviously covered in greater depth. The “outside” readings are mostly offered to help spur lifelong reading interests. To that end, (I should append this to my answer to 6B), when I give lists of titles to be used as a guide for independent reading, I try to mediate small “book club” discussions in class based on groups arranged as per same/similar titles/authors/subjects. This works quite well. “Complete freedom” in a classroom only results in anarchy—titles for independent reading must always be approved by me before they begin. If a title is inappropriate or below their level, I try to redirect them to options that are more suitable.


11. Summarize the reading skills necessary for a student to be fully ready to pass your grade level. For the sake of space, I might refer you back to my answer to 6D.


12. How would you describe a student that is a fluent reader of any age? “Rare.” Ha! Sorry. Seriously, such a student can identify favorite genres, even specific titles and authors that interest him/her. He or she would likely have a library card. He or she would also likely be able to give examples of books that he/she “liked more than the movie version.”


13. How do you avoid being in a vacuum in your field? Um, I suppose by not getting inside a vacuum. Sorry, but I don’t know what you’re driving at here.


14. Do you have any comments or input that you think are necessary for Reading teachers of levels beyond yours are important to know about the students’ prior training, skills, or anything else? One important thing I can think of that hasn’t been covered yet is this: promoting lifelong reading interest is important and worthy, but not something that we can ultimately control. As such, expending too much energy on stimulating student interest is unproductive. We might want students to love reading as much as we do, but if there doesn’t seem to be much hope for individual students, or even whole classes, to attain that characteristic, we shouldn’t let it be a barrier for us. We need to be able to continue immersing them in the literary canon and reading skills that form the core of our civilization without feeling that we must “convert” students to our love of the subject.



One comment on “On Teaching Literacy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s