Teaching Literacy in Your K-12 Classrooms
Teaching literacy to students means that they are given the ability to communicate clearly and effectively and form the foundation of modern life. Students that can’t read effectively fail to grasp important concepts, score poorly on tests and ultimately, fail to meet educational milestones. Literacy skills allow students to seek out information, explore subjects in-depth and gain a deeper understanding of the world around them. When they can not read well, they become discouraged and frustrated by school, which can result in high school dropouts, poor performance on standardized tests, increased truancy1 and other negative reactions, all of which can have major and long-lasting repercussions.2 By teaching students to communicate effectively, you help create engaged students who learn to love the act of learning. This is why it is so important to think about your strategies for teaching literacy skills in your classroom.
Literacy Belongs in Every Class
Literacy skills may be the focus in language arts classes, but they are equally necessary for math, science, art, music, and any other course work. Students who cannot understand the material in a textbook may fall behind, which is particularly problematic in classes with information-dense textbooks like science. “Meeting the Reading Challenges of Reading Science Textbooks in Primary Grades,” by Nadine Bryce, addresses this specific issue with a variety of instructional methods that incorporate reading for meaning and active literacy strategies. This helps science teachers overcome the hurdle of student achievement when blocked by low literacy levels, disorganized texts, and high-level vocabulary. The ability to absorb and understand the content is an essential skill for every student, in every class. This makes incorporating literacy skills into every classroom necessary.
When answering word problems in math class, encourage students to write long-form answers, not simply jot down a number. Children who excel at reading3 routinely score better on math skills challenges related to problem-solving, estimation, data interpretation, and math concepts. The challenge facing teachers is incorporating literacy skills into every lesson plan in a way that makes sense. For math classes, word problems and practical math applications use literacy skills for problem-solving. In science classes, lab reports should be detail oriented and contain step-by-step processes. With art, a picture can say a thousand words, but make sure students can verbalize or write down their reactions to what they create or see. By bringing literacy into every classroom, students receive added exposure and learn that reading is an essential life skill.
Translating Speech to the Written Word
Writing plays several roles in the classroom. It helps further cement new concepts by allowing students to describe these items in their own words. It encourages logical thinking by forcing students to organize their thoughts. It also helps them learn how to tell a story, communicate ideas and record important moments. The National Writing Project is one of the longest running development programs in the U.S. It offers a variety of literacy workshops designed to help teachers incorporate writing skills in the classroom.
Keep in mind that long form essays are just a single facet of developing writing skills. In the future, students will spend much more time writing brief replies to emails or jotting down to-do lists. Be sure to incorporate those types of tasks in the classroom, so they have experience with both essays and more day-to-day writing skills.
Back to Literacy Basics
When students are engaged in literacy they are engaged in learning, but students are not prepared to dive into the written word and immediately extract all of the valuable content. They need instructional guidance on how to read critically, understand the material and implement what they have learned. As a teacher, you can provide the necessary framework using concepts such as previewing text, reading with a purpose, predicting and making connections and the use of graphic organizers.
In addition to quick literacy assignments in class, students need to develop reading stamina. Give them the practice they need by developing a classroom library.4 Offering well-written texts that are not necessarily related to the class subject can encourage students to read for fun and information. For example, a biology classroom might have texts dealing with animals, but it might also have a few that relate to plants or minerals. While these are not directly related, they do have a place in the scientific nature of the class, and allow students to find information in their areas of interest.
Tips and Tricks to Create a Budding Bibliophile
As a teacher, one of your goals should be to develop a love of literacy in students. Keep in mind that the classroom library can extend to fiction, poetry, fantasy, and many other genres. Don’t limit the selection to education materials. The goal of the library is to get kids reading, not limit their content strictly to material related to the current curriculum. The more reading material available to them, the more likely they are to pick up something for fun. Also, never overlook the value of magazines. Many students may not be willing to pick up a full-length novel, but they might be happy to browse through a magazine article or two.
Making Literacy Skills a Priority
While all aspects of literacy are critical to eventual success, for most students, the process starts with reading skills. These skills form the foundation for all other learning, which is a large part of the reasoning behind the wide adoption of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) curriculum programs.5 These new standards put the responsibility for teaching literacy skills on the backs of all teachers, not just language arts instructors.
To learn more about how to develop literacy skills at any educational level, explore the online master’s degree and graduate certificate in reading education and the reading specialist licensure endorsement offered by the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at the University of Kansas School of Education.