3 components of effective literacy instruction for students struggling with reading skills

by | Nov 5, 2019


The importance of literacy across all school subjects is obvious: If students struggle to read textbooks, novels, worksheets, classroom assignments, and instructional materials, they can find themselves at a huge disadvantage in any classroom. As you teach students experiencing reading difficulties, keep in mind these three components of effective literacy instruction:

  1. Effective literacy instruction teaches essential reading skills and strategies.

Skills — According to findings by the National Reading Panel, essential reading skills students need to learn include:

  • Phonemic awareness
  • Phonics
  • Fluency
  • Oral reading
  • Vocabulary words
  • Comprehension strategies

Strategies — When students come across something new or unexpected in their reading, they need to know and understand specific evidence-based reading strategies to help them through the passage. For example, if they come across a word they’ve never heard or seen before, what should they do? How should they figure out how to pronounce the word, understand its meaning, and use it later in writing or conversation?

  1. Effective literacy instruction uses data-informed differentiated instruction.

When teachers use a strategy of differentiated instruction, they assess each student’s level of knowledge and skills in a particular area and adapt the lesson plan to meet individual learning needs. Differentiated instruction promotes equitable learning by recognizing a one-size-fits-all lesson plan is insufficient to support all students’ needs. Regularly assess your students’ reading skills to inform your lesson planning for students at different levels.

Some differentiated instruction tactics you can use to support literacy include:
  • Using multi-level texts, which allow students to read about the same concepts with texts varied for their individual reading levels.
  • Guided reading, where students are assigned to small groups alongside others reading at a similar level, and the teacher spends time with each group to practice reading skills and strategies with a text.
  • Using assessments to “evaluate student work based more on effort and improvement than simply on achievement status.” In an article for Reading Rockets, researcher Richard Allington points out that the tactic of grading all your students based on correct answers for the same test favors students with higher reading levels. Instead, teachers could track improvements in reading skills and strategies based on a transparent grading rubric.

Data collection about students’ reading levels should continue throughout the school year to track growth and inform any needed adjustments to instruction. TeachHUB offers great suggestions to create a reading assessment strategy for your classroom.

  1. Effective literacy instruction provides explicit, systematic instruction and opportunities to practice applying new skills.

As implied by the term “effective literacy instruction,” teachers must include explicit, systematic, direct instruction in their lesson plans to improve students’ reading. Group and independent practice are only helpful once students clearly understand the expectations and skills needed to complete a unit of study successfully.  Teachers can use the Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR) framework to help students achieve learning goals through three levels of learning:

  • “I do” — The teacher models the concept, skill, or strategy. For example, the teacher demonstrates how to sound out a difficult word.
  • “We do” — The teacher and students practice the concept, skill, or strategy together. For example, students “help” the teacher sounds out the next difficult word in the text. The teacher then re-teaches anything the students have struggled to understand.
  • “You do” — Students work in groups, or independently to practice applying the concept, skill or strategy to their reading and writing.

Instruction should also be systematic, meaning the teacher first covers easier skills and strategies, and builds upon these concepts with more difficult concepts as students become consistently successful in demonstrating skills taught earlier. Students should have plenty of opportunities to practice what they’ve learned, receiving teacher feedback at regular intervals.

What types of reading and writing activities are most effective in strengthening students’ literacy skills?

As we mentioned before, studies indicate that the most impactful activities provide ample opportunity for students to actually apply reading and writing skills. Examples of such activities include:

  • Reading a text related to the lesson plan, which has been self-selected by the student from a group of texts curated by the teacher
  • Complex writing assignments which require at least ten days to complete
  • Reading and writing tasks which integrate content areas from multiple academic subjects, such as history, geography, and/or science
Activities which are less helpful include:
  • Test preparation workbooks
  • Copying vocabulary definitions from a dictionary
  • Too much discussion of background information before reading — It’s helpful to provide students with context and background information about a text they’re reading, but only a couple minutes should be dedicated to discussing this information.
  • Comprehension worksheets after reading

How can our school improve its literacy instruction in a meaningful, sustainable way?

Reading an article of best practices or even completing a workshop is not enough to ensure effective literacy instruction will occur each day at your school. Instructional leaders, such as principals and superintendents, must lead teachers toward a shared vision of equitable literacy instruction for all students, especially for those who are most vulnerable and likely to slip through the cracks.

Let’s distinguish what is meant by equitable access to effective literacy.  Equality means every student will receive the same curriculum resource materials, teaching and learning strategies, and some students will continue to fall through the cracks because a one-size-fits-all approach is not addressing their needs. Some students will need differentiated instruction, intervention supports, enrichment, or acceleration or different curriculum resource materials in order to be successful. 

We would never go to a doctor, and the only thing being prescribed was Tylenol for every patient.  That would not work for patients who may need high blood pressure medication or a cast for a broken leg.  Physicians use data to make all decisions to ensure they diagnose and treat the patient’s problems with the appropriate medications or intervention.  The medical professional approach to healthcare supports the education conversation about what it means to provide an equitable approach to address the needs of our students.  We must use data to identify curriculum resource materials, teaching and learning strategies that will address the unique needs of individual students, small groups of students, and whole group instructional needs.

Effective literacy instruction means we set aside what feels good, looks good, and our personal beliefs to ensure student achievement results are guiding us.  All students can learn to read at proficient and advanced levels when provided with that just-right instruction to meet their academic needs.

Regular professional development and coaching support are needed to transform literacy instruction. Teachers also need a Professional Learning Community, which meets regularly to ensure consistent instruction for all students and to collectively seek solutions to instructional challenges. Schedule a free consultation call with CSAS to learn how we can create customized professional development solutions for your school or district.