Lisa Baird teaches at Ecole John Wilson Elementary School in Innisfail, Alberta.
Jennifer Jackson teaches High School at Sundre High School in Sundre, Alberta.
Mary-Ann I. Veenstra teaches Grade 2 at Leslieville Elementary School in Leslieville, Alberta.
Teri Sadek teaches Grade 4 at Hugh Sutherland School in Carstairs, Alberta.
Suzanne Thibault teaches at Beacon Hill Elementary in Sylvan Lake, Alberta.
The goal of our research study was to explore the current literacy knowledge and practices of teachers. We gathered data by surveying and interviewing experienced teachers in a graduate-level, University of Alberta Masters of Educational Studies (MES) cohort in central Alberta in July 2016.
Findings suggest that teachers implement a variety of literacy strategies, reading programs, and frameworks with varying degrees of success. Participants reported that a number of assessment tools were used across schools to identify student-learning needs and that teachers recognize the value of these assessments for helping them understand how to use data to inform their instruction. Participants identified a common set of essential literacy skills they believed students required and identified how these skills might be developed through engagement in authentic literacy experiences. However, some participants also noted a lack of confidence in the teaching of literacy skills across all grades and subject areas. Teachers showed interest in improving their knowledge and skills of literacy instruction through professional development and collaborative learning communities.
Effective literacy instruction involves engaging students in authentic literacy experiences to develop essential literacy skills. As noted in our literature review, teacher practice can be improved through professional development, collaboration, and the support of literacy coaches. As well, teachers at all grade levels recognize a responsibility to deliver evidence-based literacy instruction using a variety of frameworks, but some lack the confidence or skills to do so.
Our research asked teachers to review what best practices they were currently implementing, how effective these strategies were, and whether gaps between research and teacher practice existed. We also hoped to identify individual teacher beliefs about the skills students require, how students can attain literacy skills, and the extent to which teachers believed they had a responsibility to incorporate literacy instruction into their practice.
The development of literacy skills in students is fundamental to their learning and ability to become contributing members of society (Alberta Curriculum Branch, 2008). As educators, our responsibility is to maximize each student’s potential. This potential includes areas of literacy, where substantial research supports good literacy practices. Indeed, we believe it is crucial that classroom teachers at all grade levels use evidence-based, high-quality instruction – what we heretofore have referred to as best practice(s). In this literature review, we will share a number of evidence-based practices.
As research is finding (Parsons, 2013), collaborative approaches and a collective responsibility to literacy instruction assist in the development of student literacy and meeting the needs of all learners. Research supports implementing a variety of strategies to ensure success and student growth; for example, one strategy is the employment of literacy coaches to provide expertise and guidance for educators (Bean & Deford, 2012). Allington (2012) suggests six elements of reading instruction, which encompass many best practices that are feasible for all teachers to implement in their classrooms. We will share these six elements later.
Although literacy skill development is crucial at all grade levels, it is particularly important to build foundational knowledge in Kindergarten and Grade 1. Research suggests that literacy skills must be specific to content, especially beginning in upper elementary (Lenski, 2011). In cases where best practices do not meet the needs of individual students, careful consideration must be given to the interventions implemented. The developmental continuum of student literacy skills and the instructional practices of teachers are complex processes that require careful consideration.
The ultimate goal of teaching literacy is that students develop age-appropriate literacy skills by engaging in authentic literacy experiences daily in a regular classroom setting (Allington, 2012; Spencer, 2012). Implementing literacy effectively involves schools having a plan that aligns with curriculum, which is based on research-supported instructional practices (Ferguson, 2014). Furthermore, teachers need to assess each child’s ability and use the subsequent data to create developmentally-appropriate programming they will provide. Because expert instruction is key (Allington, 2011), teachers should incorporate current research that aligns with their own professional development goals (Wesson, 2012). In our experience, teachers do not feel qualified or responsible for identifying or addressing student literacy needs and desire professional development and collaborative experiences to help them implementing best practices in their classrooms.
Our research identified a variety of specific skills students require to move along the continuum of literacy development, as well as strategies for introducing and teaching these skills. These required student skills include: 1) comprehension, 2) word-solving, 3) text structures and features, 4) prediction, 5) thinking aloud, 6) story structure, 7) representations, 8) summarizing, and 9) questioning. Two recommended teaching strategies include guided practice and the gradual release of responsibility model of instruction within a multi-literacy approach (Dewitz, 2009; Fisher & Frey, 2008). Embedding skill instruction and practice within content, rather than teaching skills in isolation, has been shown to impact student improvement (Fisher & Frey, 2008). Concurring with research, we believe 21st century literacy skills such as texting, social media, and email aid student engagement when teachers find ways to apply these literacies into their practices (Hesse, 2009).
We strongly believe parents play a pivotal role in supporting their children’s literacy skill development (Hesse, 2009). For this reason, teachers should provide suggestions that aid students practicing skills at home. We also recognize gender differences in learning styles and developmental stages; and, as such, differentiated instruction is essential. For example, boys are most engaged with literature influenced by their interests (Serafini, 2013). Clearly, a number of identified skills and strategies are effective in developing strong literacy learners and lend to best practice.
Our teaching experience suggests the benefits of the daily implementation of Allington’s (2012) six elements of reading instruction to enhance literacy. These elements involve having every child: 1) read something s/he chooses, 2) read accurately, 3) read something s/he understands, 4) write about something personally meaningful, 5) talk with peers about reading and writing, and 6) listen to a fluent adult read aloud. Students are more engaged when these literacy opportunities are provided. Thus, extensive classroom libraries are fundamental in ensuring students’ access to good-fit books. By replacing worksheets, workbooks, test preparation, and materials, educators have more time to implement these practices and the financial means to invest in classroom libraries (Allington, 2012; Gambrell, 2011). Regardless of grade level or subject area, students benefit from participation in literacy activities based on Allington’s six elements.
Teacher collaboration and co-teaching are effective means of refining literacy instruction (Fenty & McDuffy, 2012). Teachers can help develop high-quality instruction that reaches the needs of all learners by providing struggling readers with literacy support in the classroom and by collaboratively planning lessons. A push-in, team-based approach allows educators to work with small groups of students on specific areas of need in the classroom (Ashby, Burns, & Royle, 2014). Collaboration, co-teaching, and training just one or a small group of teachers in specific instruction are cost-effective strategies that allow teachers to share their expertise (Pinnell, 1990). Staff within a school can then work collaboratively with trained colleagues who guide and support in a side-by-side approach, assisting colleagues when issues arise. Thus, teachers can work effectively together to develop ideas and even lessons that positively impact literacy instruction. As teachers, we have experienced how invaluable collaboration can be and how it can influence our teaching practices for the better. As we draw on the knowledge of others, we build our social and human capital (Hargraves & Fullan, 2012).
The goal of using literacy coaches is to improve teacher instruction and overall student achievement by having these coaches work alongside colleagues, providing guidance and suggesting skills and strategies that can be used in teachers’ instruction (Alberta Education, 2011). Bright and Hensley (2010) found that coaches positively shape a teacher’s education and enhance teacher practice. As literacy experts, coaches are expected to understand how to support the literacy growth of learners (Bean & DeFord, 2012). It is important coaches stay up-to-date on research and engage in on-going professional development offered in all areas of literacy (Ferguson, 2014). Literacy coaches should have the personality and work ethic necessary to guide and support teachers, without using their involvement as a form of evaluation. Although we have had few opportunities to work alongside literacy coaches, our literature review speaks to the benefits of drawing on coaches’ knowledge and expertise.
It is crucial to develop adequate literacy skills in Kindergarten and Grade 1 so students are prepared for the coming grades (Dennis & Horn, 2011). Intensive, structured, whole-class reading instruction plays a key role in the development of student literacy skills (Savage, 2006). Allington (2011) recommends identifying at-risk readers at the beginning of Kindergarten by analyzing students’ letter name knowledge, then providing needy students with timely interventions. Such practices aim to help all students read at grade level starting in the primary grades. However, based on our experience and further research, we do not believe students should be hastily labeled as struggling readers because they often need time to learn at their own pace (Kerins, Trotter, & Schoenbrodt, 2010). We need to patiently trust in the process and be confident that students are receiving adequate literacy instruction in Kindergarten and Grade 1.
It is critical teachers recognize the need for literacy instruction to continue beyond the primary grades. Upper elementary and high school students require continued, content-based literacy strategies to help them understand difficult academic vocabulary (Hesse, 2009). Teachers help students become active, participating members of society by ensuring they are guided and engaged in literacy-focused instruction (Alberta Education, 2011). Research shows many students lack the necessary literacy skills for workplace success. The best way to build literacy skills is to have classroom teachers implement evidence-based strategies, including explicit vocabulary instruction, comprehension strategy instruction, and opportunities to discuss text (Kamil et al., 2008). We recognize that many teachers are unaware how to implement literacy instruction within their practice and often also lack confidence and knowledge. Research confirms the possibility of integrating literacy into all levels of instruction, but teachers do require adequate time, training, and support to achieve best practices.
Despite educators’ efforts to help students develop adequate reading skills, some students continue to struggle. Teachers must recognize children's literacy skills develop at different rates, and single-measure assessments should not be relied upon to determine which additional supports students receive (Lipson & Chomsky-Higgins, 2011). Research is divided on the most effective reading interventions. Allington (2011) and Savage (2006) suggested at-risk readers be identified in Kindergarten and Grade 1 and provided with timely, additional, intensive supports. Conversely, Kerins, Trotter, and Schoenbrodt (2010) and Spencer (2012) suggested struggling students should remain in the classroom where they can receive high-quality, whole-class reading instruction and engage in peer conversations. Ashby, Burns, and Royle (2014) further argue all children have the right to equal opportunities. Therefore, school systems should aim for inclusion whenever possible, even when providing interventions. Supports can be pushed-into class rather than pulling students out of class. As with whole-class instruction, interventions should focus on authentic literacy experiences and peer collaboration (Spencer, 2012).
In each of our schools, struggling readers throughout the grades receive both push-in and pull-out supports. As much as possible, students participate in the regular English Language Arts program and are pulled out of non-core subjects because we recognize the value of authentic classroom experiences. Even after conducting research on the topic, we continue to question the effectiveness and ethical nature of the interventions our students receive. What are the most effective ways to provide intensive instruction to struggling readers? Should students receive pull-out support that addresses their specific literacy deficits; and, if so, what should support look like? Two things we know: 1) students should not be hastily labeled as struggling readers and 2) educational assistants do not effectively provide the reading support struggling students require (Allington, 2011; Savage, 2006; Wesson, 2012). We need to see more research before being confident in the interventions provided.
The purpose of our research was to better understand best practices in literacy instruction through the insight, knowledge, and practices of teachers. To better understand this insight, knowledge, and practice and the strategies and frameworks teachers utilize, we posed a series of interview questions (see Appendix A) and conducted focus group discussions with 13 Kindergarten to Grade 12 teachers to better understand their range of experiences in literacy and literacy instruction. We asked teachers to describe their current best practices, how effective these strategies were, and whether gaps between research and teacher practice existed. We also wanted to identify individual teacher beliefs about the literacy skills students needed, how students could attain these literacy skills, and to what extent teachers believed they had a responsibility to incorporate literacy instruction into their practice.
To collect our research data, we interviewed and surveyed 13 participants enrolled in graduate studies at the University of Alberta during the summer of 2016. Participants included 2 males and 11 females with an average of 12.5 years of teaching years. The range of teaching experience was 2 years to 28 years. Fifty-four per cent (54%) of teachers taught in an elementary school; fifteen per cent (15%) of teachers in a middle school; and, thirty-one per cent (31%) of teachers taught in high school. More than half (62%) the teachers taught in rural areas, and the remaining teachers (38%) taught in urban school settings.
Teaching Environment Demographics
Middle School/Junior High
Teacher Experience Demographics
2 - 28
Data was collected in three stages. First, participants were provided a Google Form link enabling them to provide short-answer information about their experiences with current literacy practices, as well as their demographics. (Appendix B contains a copy of the questions posed.) Second, participants were divided into three focus groups and interviewed by a research lead. The first two groups were purposefully created to include a mixture of elementary, middle school, and high school teachers. The third group consisted of the five research leads. The same questions found in the Google Form were used to provide discussion and opportunity for ideas that may have been missed in the initial survey. Third, participants were sent a link to a Google Form and asked to reflect on what stood out the most to them during the focus group discussion. (Appendix C lists the questions posed.)
Participants reported that they implemented a variety of literacy strategies in their classrooms. Two common reading frameworks identified were (1) The Daily 5 and (2) Richard Allington’s six elements of daily reading instruction. A wide range of reading programs and interventions are used in schools. Early reading programs included: (1) Jolly Phonics, (2) Literacy Links, (3) Precision Reading, (4) Read 180, and (5) Read Naturally. Programs that sought to develop student reading comprehension included (1) Accelerated Reading and (2) Scholastic’s Reading Counts. Reading activities that supplemented teacher instruction included: (1) reading buddies, (2) reading time, (3) summer reading programs, (4) one-on-one reading programs, and (5) read-a-thons. Assessment tools included (1) PM benchmark, (2) Fountas and Pinnell, (3) Jerry Johns, and (4) Burns and Roe. Writing programs used to assist students in developing literacy skills were (1) Lucy Calkin resources and (2) Barbara Mariconda’s Empowering Writers.
Participants indicated a varying degree of effectiveness of the strategies implemented in their schools. The Daily 5 and Richard Allington’s six elements of daily reading instruction were identified as consistently successful frameworks. Although the effectiveness of pull-out programming had mixed reviews among teachers, the majority of participants believed pull-out programs were effective. Participants also believed that an increase in one-on-one literacy support would improve student literacy development.
Assessments were found to be beneficial, if teachers were able to (1) administer the assessments accurately and (2) use the data to develop appropriate programing to meet the specific literacy needs of students.
Participants indicated that they believed literacy was about reading, writing, speaking, viewing, representing, and listening. Participants also believed that literacy focus needs to be placed on building vocabulary and comprehension skills, and elements to ensure student success include classroom leveled libraries, finding good-fit books, and consistent home practice.
Our research findings indicated that students needed to participate in authentic literacy experiences if they were to develop essential literacy skills. These experiences were identified as: (1) Allington’s six elements of reading instruction, (2) communicating and collaborating with other students, (3) explicit literacy-focused instruction, and (4) consistent feedback.
Participants indicated that administration, teachers, educational assistants, and literacy coaches all play important roles in developing students’ literacy skills. They also believed parents were also responsible to help reinforce skill development by providing reading practice opportunities in a home environment.
Professionals can develop the skills they need to improve literacy instruction by engaging in collaborative learning communities. Discussing specific tools and strategies empowers teachers to implement literacy effectively. Participants saw a need to involve literacy coaches, mentors, and English as a Second Language (ESL) experts to help them develop a stronger understanding through purposeful collaboration.
Teachers recognized the skills needed to provide effective literacy instruction and how they can develop these skills; however, they indicated a lack of opportunity to do so. Teachers indicated their desire to pursue (1) reading comprehension skills in students, (2) how to give needed support, (3) how to actually teach, (4) how to implement literacy in upper grades, (5) what literacy interventions were most effective, and (6) how to motivate teachers to collaborate more.
Based on our research, some teachers are implementing evidence-based, high-quality classroom literacy instruction. However, others do not have the necessary skills to implement such practices in their various grade and subject areas. There are agreed upon skills students need to develop; but, again, teachers are unsure how to effectively assist in the development of these skills. Participants indicated an interest and willingness to build upon their skills through professional development, working with literacy coaches, and collaborative learning communities, all of which have been supported by scholarly research. Students require explicit literacy instruction, followed by gradual release of responsibility to develop necessary skills to become proficient with literacy.
As noted, the goal of our research was to explore the knowledge and practices of current teachers. Reflecting upon our research, it is apparent that teachers use a variety of methods to deliver effective literacy instruction. However, teachers report room for improvement if they are to feel confident and be efficacious in all grade levels. There was a surprising consensus among participants that literacy instruction is a responsibility of all teachers. In our experience, this belief is not widely held among other educators. We recognize that our research results might be shaped because our participants are graduate students in a master’s cohort who are keen and dedicated to the betterment of student education and overall school improvement.\
Our findings suggest that professional development and collaborative learning communities are keys to building teacher efficacy. Teachers need explicit, direct instruction in literacy, and opportunities to work collaboratively with peers to implement evidence-based strategies. Although participants indicated they were generally satisfied with those interventions used in their schools, further research that included student assessment data might offer additional insight.
Researchers concur that evidence-based, high-quality classroom instruction is key to helping students develop literacy skills. Students need to master agreed-upon skills and teachers should incorporate successful strategies into their practice. Learning coaches and collaboration help provide teachers with effective skills and strategies to improve their instructional practice across all grades and content areas. Foundational literacy skills are needed to ensure student success begins in the early grades and is maintained on their continuum of literacy development.
Teachers are collectively responsible for the education of all students. Research has been completed on specific interventions struggling readers receive. However, more comparisons are necessary, and we strongly believe a meta-analysis of the research on reading interventions would provide conclusive strategies for implementation. The ultimate goal is to help students become literate, contributing members of society, so it is the responsibility of teachers to ensure all students maximize their potential.
Alberta Curriculum Branch. Literacy first: A plan for action 2010. (2010). Alberta Education, Arts, Communication and Citizenship Branch. Retrieved from https://education.alberta.ca/media/1626397/literacyfirst.pdf
Alberta Curriculum Branch. Supporting the literacy learner: Promising literacy strategies in Alberta. (2008). Alberta Education. Retrieved from http://www.assembly.ab.ca/lao/library/egovdocs/2008/aled/168474.pdf
Allington, R. L. (2011). What at-risk readers need. Educational Leadership, 68(6), 40-45. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/mar11/vol68/num06/What_At-Risk_Readers_Need.aspx
Allington, R., & Gabriel, R. (2012). Every child, every day. Educational Leadership, 69(6), 10-15. Retrieved from http://www.prn.bc.ca/lyrics/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Every-Child-Every-Day.pdf
Ashby, C., Burns, J., & Royle, J. (2014). All kids can be readers: The marriage of reading first and inclusive education. Theory Into Practice, 53(2), 98-105. doi:10.1080/00405841.2014.885809
Bean, R., & Deford, D. (2012). Do's and don'ts for literacy coaches: Advice from the field. Literacy Coaching Clearinghouse. Retrieved from http://www.literacycoachingonline.org/briefs/DosandDontsFinal.pdf
Bright, E., & Hensley, T. (2010). A study of the effectiveness of K–3 literacy coaches. Portsmouth, NH: National Reading Technical Assistance Center. Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/Coaches.pdf
Dennis, L.R., & Horn, E. (2011). Strategies for supporting early literacy development. Young Exception Children, 14(3), 29-40. doi:10.1177/1096250611420553
Dewitz, P., Jones, J., & Leahy, S. (2009). Comprehension strategy instruction in core reading programs. Reading Research Quarterly, 44(2), 102-126. doi:10.1598/RRQ.44.2.1
Gambrell, L. B. (2011). Seven rules of engagement: What's most important to know about motivation to read. The Reading Teacher, 65(3), 172-178. doi:10.1002/TRTR.01024
Ferguson, K. (2014). How three schools view the success of literacy coaching: teachers', principals' and literacy coaches' perceived indicators of success. Readings Horizons, 53(1), 24-48. Retrieved from http://eds.a.ebscohost.com.login.ezproxy.library.ualberta.ca/eds/detail/detail?sid=8de7d89f-f4bd-4619-9427-d724bcbe4d23%40sessionmgr4002&vid=0&hid=4208&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmUmc2NvcGU9c2l0ZQ%3d%3d#db=ehh&AN=100966869
Ferguson, K. (2014). Five practical research-based tips for literacy coaches. The California Reader, 47(3), 27-34. Retrieved from http://eds.a.ebscohost.com.login.ezproxy.library.ualberta.ca/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=030d4dc1-35a6-4d67-aaae-79c5acaddac8%40sessionmgr4005&vid=1&hid=4108
Fenty, N., McDuffie-Landrum, K., & Fisher, G. (2012). Using collaboration, co-teaching, and question answer relationships to enhance content area literacy. Teaching Exceptional Children, 44(6), 28-37.Retrieved from https://dshs-pd.wiki.dublinschools.net/file/view/EJ996829.pdf
Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (2012). Professional capital: Transforming teaching in every school. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Hessee, G. (2009). Best practices in adolescent literacy instruction. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53(1), 89-93. Retrieved from http://eds.b.ebscohost.com.login.ezproxy.library.ualberta.ca/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=37c745b9-6f38-40c3-8367-46dd79d496fb%40sessionmgr101&vid=1&hid=117
Kamil, M. L., Borman, G. D., Dole, J., Kral, C. C., Salinger, T., & Torgesen, J. (2008). Improving adolescent literacy: Effective classroom and intervention practices. IES practice guide. National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED502398.pdf
Kerins, M. R., Trotter, D., & Schoenbrodt, L. (2010). Effects of a Tier 2 intervention on literacy measures: Lessons learned. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 26(3), 287-302. doi:10.1177/0265659009349985
Lenski, S. (2011). What RTI means for content area teachers. Journal Of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 55(4), 276-282. doi:10.1002/JAAL.00034
Lipson, M. Y., Chomsky-Higgins, P., & Kanfer, J. (2011). Diagnosis: The missing ingredient in RTI assessment. Reading Teacher, 65(3), 204-208. doi:10.1002/TRTR.01031
Parsons, J. (2013). Work less: Party more: A review essay about collaborative teacher professional learning, Northwest Journal of Teacher Education, 11(2), 10-19. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/5653066/A_Review_Essay_about_Collaborative_Teacher_Professional_Learning
Savage, R. (2006). Effective early reading instruction and inclusion: Some reflections on mutual dependence. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 10(4-5), 347-361. doi:10.1080/13603110500221495
Serafini, F. (2013). Supporting boys as readers. Reading Teacher, 67(1), 40-42. doi:10.1002/TRTR.1187
Spencer, T. (2012). In defense of today's struggling reader: What policymakers can learn from Beth. Childhood Education, 88(6), 382-387. doi:10.1080/00094056.2012.741484
Wesson, K. (2012, December 26). Reverse direction decoding [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://brainworldmagazine.com/reverse-direction-decoding/
What skills and strategies do teachers need to facilitate the development of literacy skills in all learners?
1. What literacy strategies or frameworks are used in your school?
2. How effective are these strategies or frameworks?
3. What literacy skills do your students need?
4. How can students develop the skills they require?
5. Who is responsible for teaching these skills?
6. What skills do professionals need to improve literacy for all students?
7. How can professionals develop those instructional skills?
8. What would you like to know more about in relation to literacy?
9. What grade level(s) do you teach?
10. What subject area(s) do you teach?
11. What school do you teach at?
12. What school division do you teach in?
1. What literacy strategies or frameworks are used in your school?
2. What literacy strategies or frameworks are used in your school?
3. How effective are these strategies or frameworks?
4. What literacy skills do your students need?
5. How can the students develop the skills they require?
6. Who is responsible for teaching these skills?
7. What skills do professionals need to improve literacy for all students?
8. How can professionals develop those instructional skills?
9. What would you like to know more about in relation to literacy?
10. What grade level(s) do you teach?
11. What subject area(s) do you teach? (check all that apply)
Science French Immersion Inclusion Teacher
Physics Phys. Ed
12. What school do you teach at?
13. What school division do you teach in?
1. What stood out to you the most In our focus group discussion on Literacy?