Creating a Literate Environment By Pamela Willoughby
Getting to Know My Students There are many ways to get to know the students that one teaches. One way to get to know students is cognitively, learning their strengths, weaknesses, and the strategies they use when reading, and non-cognitively or how they feel about reading, motivation, interests, and attitudes. Finding out how my students learn, and how they feel about learning gives me a place to begin planning meaningful instruction.
According to Dr. Dorothy Strickland (Laureate, 2011c), literacy learning starts very early in life. Since students come to school with such a vast array of experiences it is important to find out as much as possible about the influences in their lives that have shaped them as learners.
One way to assess reading motivation is by giving the Elementary Reading Attitude Survey (McKenna & Kear, 1990) which measures how students feel about reading and books in general. In doing so, teachers are able to assess if students like reading and measures how much they enjoy it.
To increase motivation, I also like to survey parents to find out what interests their children have so that I can choose books that have high interest value. “Students place great value on being allowed to choose interesting books and other reading materials” (Tompkins, 2010, p. 279). To assess cognitive development, there are many assessments that can be given. According to Afflerbach (2007), there are five target areas that should be assessed. These are phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Teachers can use a variety of assessments to include DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (Kaminski & Good, 1996), IRAS or independent reading assessments, and QRI’s (qualitative reading inventories) or any number of other assessments based on print awareness, letter and sound recognition, comprehension and fluency. My school currently uses DIBELS to assess young learners. Researchers tell us that “a system of frequent assessment, coupled with strong content standards and effective reading instruction, helps ensure that teachers’ … approaches are appropriate to each student’s needs” (Kame’enui, Simmons, & Cornachione, 2000, p. 1).
Choosing Text Selecting the appropriate text is an important part of creating a literate environment. If the text is too hard, students will become frustrated. If the text is too easy, students will not grow. When selecting text for students, teachers need to keep in mind what we want students to learn. According to the Framework for Literacy Instruction (Laureate, 2011d), teachers should select text that attends to learning how to read, learning how to think, judge, and evaluate, and also allows students to connect on an emotional level. Many teachers are told what texts we must use to teach but as Almasi (Laureate, 2011a) points out, the “most important goal is fidelity to students.”
Keep in mind that text isn’t just about story books anymore! It is important to introduce students to all kind of text – narrative as well as informational, and that text can be viewed now as well as read! There are many on-line reading sites that are fun, informational, and interactive and offers students choice. Students can explore stories on the web, become authors on the web, collaborate with other students on-line, and even become web authors (Castek, Bevans-Mangelson, Goldstone, 2006)! A favorite site of my students is tumblebooks.com which is an on-line story site that allows students to read along with the narrator!
Vocabulary plays an important role in child’s literacy development. According to Tompkins (2010), “vocabulary knowledge and reading achievement are closely related” (p.227). To give students experience with a broader vocabulary base, it is important to include informational text in classrooms (Stephens, 2008).
Vocabulary can also be emphasized by word walls, word posters and maps, thematic units and lots of discussion. A grasp of vocabulary aids in comprehension also! We can’t expect students to understand what they are reading if they don’t know what the words mean! Research shows that activating prior knowledge and discussing any possible unknown words before reading is important to a literate environment, especially for those from different cultural backgrounds (Laureate, 2011c).
Other ways to promote vocabulary development include book talks, KWL charts, anticipation guides, and various graphic organizers. One of my favorites is to have students write the word, illustrate it, and then try and use it throughout the day!
Interactive Perspective of the Literacy Framework The interactive perspective of the literate environment involves teaching children how to read and write – accurately, with fluency, and with comprehension. To address this perspective it is important to meet students where they are. Assessments play a key role in the interactive area of the literate environment and differentiation is key.
Knowing where students are in their reading and writing development allows the teacher to create small instructional groups based on need.
According to Almasi (Laureate, 2011b), the “ultimate goal of the interactive perspective is to teach children how to be literate learners who can navigate the textual world independently.”
Critical Perspective “The increasing social and cultural diversity in American society adds urgency to resolving inequities and injustices” (Tompkins, 2010, p. 10). Teaching students to think critically about what they read is teaching students how to deal with the issues facing them in today’s world.
Teachers can help students learn to think critically, evaluate, and judge by selecting texts that provide these types of opportunities for students. Looking at text from a variety of perspectives helps students understand others thinking and helps foster empathy and understanding. Children need to be given the opportunity to think critically from a young age. Teachers can promote this type of thinking by asking questions related to text such as author’s perspective, questions related to gender, race and social status, and giving opportunities for sharing and discussion. “Using critical literacy helps pull the power away from the author and makes it an equal relationship between the author and the reader by allowing us to see the texts from all angles, not just believing what is written down” (Molden, p.50). Teaching students to read critically will carry over into their writing, helping them to write from a variety of perspectives and clarify their thinking as they write. Vacca (Laureate, 2011d) states that writing helps students construct new knowledge and lead to new discoveries, which is an important aspect of the critical perspective.
While studying bees, I read my kindergarteners a book written from the perspective of a bumblebee entitled Are You a Bee? by Judy Allen (2000). It was fun to have the kindergarteners think and discuss why the author might have written it from this perspective and how the story might be different if she had written it in other ways. Having them carry this over into their writing was almost seamless. Each student had to write about another insect or animal from their perspective. Very entertaining!
Response Perspective Reading changes lives and words can transform. Books have the power to change us. Readers need to be given the chance to respond to text on a personal and emotional level. This is where the response perspective of the literate environment comes in. “When children understand how to connect the texts they read to their lives, they begin to make connections between what they read and the larger world” (Harvey & Goudvis, 2000, p. 68).
Whether through journals, conversation, or simply quiet moments that allow students time to think, students need to reflect on the meaning of text and how it relates to their lives. By knowing her students, teachers can aid in this process by selecting texts that students are able to connect with on a personal level. Having a variety of literature in the classroom allows students to choose text that they can relate to. This past year while teaching kindergarten I had a little boy who always seemed to get in trouble. His favorite story was No David! by David Shannon (1998). He asked me to read it every day and would talk about how those things happened to him too!
Tying It All Together In order for students to be well-rounded individuals, it is important to incorporate all aspects into the literate environment – interactive, critical, and response. Explicit instruction needs to be balanced with authentic application (Tompkins, 2010) and students need to be exposed to a variety of texts, ideas, and ways of thinking.
References Afflerbach, P. (2007). Understanding and using reading assessment, K-12. Newark, DE: International Reading Association. Allen, J. (2000). Are you a bee? Boston, MA: Kingfisher Publications Castek, J., Bevans-Mangelson, J., & Goldstone, B. (2006). Reading adventures online: Five ways to introduce the new literacies of the Internet through children’s literature. Reading Teacher, 59(7), 714–728. Harvey, S. & Goudvis, A. (2000). Strategies that work: Teaching comprehension to enhance understanding. York, ME: Stenhouse. Kaminski, R.A., & Good, R.H., III. (1996). Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS). Eugene: University of Oregon Center on Teaching and Learning. Kame’enui, E., Simmons, D., & Cornachione, C. (2000). A practical guide to reading assessments. Newark, DE: International Reading Association. Laureate Education Inc. (Executive producer). (2011). Changes in literacy education. [DVD]. Baltimore, MD: Author. Laureate Education Inc. (Executive producer). (2011). Interactive perspective: Strategic process. [DVD]. Baltimore, MD: Author. Laureate Education Inc. (Executive producer). (2011). Perspectives on early literacy. [DVD]. Baltimore, MD: Author. Laureate Education Inc. (Executive producer). (2011). Perspectives on literacy learners. [DVD]. Baltimore, MD: Author. McKenna, M. C., & Kear, D.J. (1990). Measuring attitudes toward reading: A new tool for teachers. The Reading Teacher, 43, 626-639. Molden, K. (2007). Critical literacy, the right answer for the reading classroom: Strategies to move beyond comprehension for reading improvement. Reading Improvement, 44(1), 50–56. Shannon, D. (1998). No David! New York, NY: Blue Sky Press. Stephens, K. E. (2008). A quick guide to selecting great informational books for young children. Reading Teacher, 61(6), 488–490. Tompkins, G. (2010). Literacy for the 21st Century: A balanced approach (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.