Teaching Literacy Skills VirtuallyDuring this unprecedented 2020 to 2021 school year educators, students and parents across the country are struggling to adjust to ever-changing instructional models that combine in-person teaching, virtual online instruction, and asynchronous online learning. The numbers of students prior to the pandemic who had difficulty developing grade-level reading and writing skills was already too high, and the disruption to teaching and learning will only make things worse. Reading and writing skills are the foundation of all learning, so we must do the best we can to teach students of all grades the literacy skills they will need to be able to access the content in all subjects that they are missing because of the Covid-19 pandemic. I have met and heard about so many dedicated literacy educators and organizations who are meeting the challenge by developing resources to teach literacy skills virtually. This month's post will focus on resources for teaching reading and writing virtually.
Syntactic Awareness: Teaching Sentence Structure Part 2I posted part 1 of Syntactic Awareness on June 2. As noted in that post, the ability to understand at the sentence level is in many ways the foundation for being able to comprehend text. The ways in which authors express their ideas through sentences greatly affects a reader’s ability to access and identify those ideas. Sentences that are complex, contain a large number of ideas (also called propositions), or have unusual word order will make it difficulty for students to comprehend what they are reading, especially students who enter school with limited oral language exposure or for whom English is a second language. Developing sentence skills is also essential to becoming a good writer.
Literacy and Equity in EducationHaving solid reading and writing skills is at the heart of student achievement and therefore must be part of the solution to achieving greater equity in the United States. As Suzanne Carreker points out, "With literacy comes academic success, informed decision-making, improved self-esteem, personal empowerment, greater economic opportunities, and active participation in local and global social communities. Ultimately, it is the gateway to lifelong learning... Without equity in literacy education, achievement gaps will persist and too many students will not reap literacy's innumerable benefits." Unfortunately, too many students do not have access to quality literacy instruction. As the recent publication of the AFT's American Educator devoted to reading instruction notes, "Today, about 20 percent of elementary students across the country struggle with learning to read, and another 20 percent are not meeting grade-level expectations in reading. But these nationwide averages mask a tragedy: among students growing up in under-resourced communities -- mainly African American and Hispanic students and students whose home language is not English -- about 60 to 70 percent have weak reading skills." (p. 3)
The Role of Orthographic Mapping in Learning to ReadEvery word has three forms – its sounds (phonemes), its orthography (spelling), and its meaning. Orthographic mapping is the process that all successful readers use to become fluent readers. Through orthographic mapping, students use the oral language processing part of their brain to map (connect) the sounds of words they already know (the phonemes) to the letters in a word (the spellings). They then permanently store the connected sounds and letters of words (along with their meaning) as instantly recognizable words, described as “sight vocabulary” or “sight words”.
Levels of Language & LiteracyQuestion: What role does knowledge of language play in reading and writing? Answer: A huge role! Teachers tend to focus on the “five components of reading” when thinking about what’s needed to teach students to be good readers (i.e., phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension). But there is another model that should be considered: the seven levels of language.
We Need a “Writing Rope”!The literature and discourse related to literacy instruction tends to focus on reading, even though writing is just as important for student literacy achievement. In addition, significant attention is paid to the multi component nature of skilled reading, while writing tends to be referred to as a single, monolithic skill. With a nod towards Hollis Scarborough’s “Reading Rope”, in 2019 I developed a model that identifies the multiple components that are necessary for skilled writing: The Writing Rope: The Strands That Are Woven Into Skilled Writing. In 2001, Scarborough published a graphic that depicts multiple components of language comprehension (i.e., background knowledge, vocabulary, language structures, verbal reasoning, literacy knowledge) and word recognition (i.e., phonological awareness, decoding, sight recognition) as strands in a rope. As students develop skills in these components they become increasingly strategic and automatic in their application, leading to fluent reading comprehension.
Previewing Vocabulary Before ReadingExisting background knowledge is a critical component for comprehension, and word meanings are part of larger knowledge structures about a topic. Knowing the vocabulary words associated with a given topic enables students to connect their background knowledge to what they are reading. What if students aren't unfamiliar with some of the vocabulary in the text? Many studies have shown that previewing unfamiliar words before students read improves comprehension.
We Need to Pay Attention to the Science of Reading!
The scientific evidence base on how we learn to read and how to best teach reading has been growing and converging over 40 years. This includes brain imaging studies that show how our brains learn to read and underlying causes of why some students have difficulty learning read.
Sadly, teachers often do not have access to this evidence base. Many teachers report that their preservice education in college did little to prepare them for teaching reading. Many veteran teachers report a lack of quality professional development once hired that could help them improve their reading instruction. And for too long, the reading wars have confused teachers and administrators. These wars started in the 1990's when whole language advocates succeeded in convincing too many schools that learning to read comes naturally without the need for explicit instruction in decoding skills. Even today, there are many reading "experts" that say they promote a "balanced" approach to beginning instruction, but what that actually represents is a little bit of incidental phonics thrown in on top of the same approaches to reading instruction that have not worked for the past 25 years. The latest scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the nation's report card, were just released—and things aren't looking good for the country's young readers.